Sunday, July 30, 2017


© 2007 Christopher Buckley
336 pages

By day, Cass Devine is a public relations specialist who labors to ensure her clients' sh-tuff doesn't stink. By night, she's a  tax revolutionary, stirring the pot -- blogging furiously and urging young people to take to the streets and protest against the social security crisis. In only a couple of years, Social Security will be bankrupt -- despite DC's usual solution of raising taxes on under-thirties even more. Cassandra's national movement lands her in jail, and turns on senator into a presidential candidate who turns to her as his on-the-lam adviser.  They have an idea:  do that thing in Soylent Green where older citizens voluntarily  have themselves euthanized, but instead of being turned into snacks for the younger generation, the aged are rewarded with generous benefits and tax breaks in the years before their "Voluntary Transition".    Like They Eat Puppies, Don't They,  Boomsday is sadly comic, though its characters are not quite as reprehensible on average.The social security problem is one the American public heard a lot about during the Bush years, but oddly has slipped under the radar, at least as a television talking point.

This one is mildly funny, mildly vulgar,  and mildly forgettable.  I liked it more than  They Eat Puppies, but less than Thank You For Smoking.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Mexican Frontier

The Mexican Frontier 1821 - 1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico
©  1982 David Weber (University of New Mexico Press)
440 pages

In 1821, the people of Mexico declared their independence from Spain, recognizing that its Napoleonic straits meant that the mother empire had little future left, either at home or abroad.  Once the bid for independence had achieved its aims, the 'Mexican empire' spanned everything from Oregon down to South America.  Within thirty years, however, the United States had invaded Mexico, seized its capital, and forced the purchase of nearly forty percent of  its northern land.  Sneaky Americanses!  Wicked! Tricksy! False!

Well, not really.  It wasn't David Weber's intention, but having read this history of the Mexican frontier I'm considerably less condemnatory about the treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo. Not about the war, of course,  but the treaty itself seems to have only hastened the inevitable break-off of the great northern expanses from Mexico proper. Weber's history begins with  Mexican independence, then details the decline of institutions in the north as the contest for power in central Mexico continued; with a consequentially distinct frontier culture emerging, one that would constantly struggle for its own autonomy. Central to this history is understanding that young Mexico went through several constitutions in those early years,  constantly struggling to find its way. The breaking-away of the north from central Mexico was partially grounded in dispute over which constitution was legitimate: the more republican 1824 constitution, or the more authoritarian 1832 constitution imposed by the ilk of Santa Ana.

The fractures were only made possible by the precipitous decline of institutions in the north that would have tied states and territories like Texas, New Mexico, and the Californias more firmly to the government in Mexico City. The Franciscan missions, for instance, vanished with the Spanish -- in part because they were supported primarily by Spain, in part because many monks were Spaniards more faithful to their patria than their parish,  and in part because  Mexico wanted them out of the way. The missions had all the best land and labor, and if they could be dispatched with, then settlers could move in and hire the newly-emancipated Indians as workers.   Although Mexico officially secularized the clergy -- replaced the Franciscans with state-paid priests --  it did this so slowly that  the Church effectively disappeared in the frontier, and with it marriages and schools and other civil functions that the state was slow in restoring.

Another primary institutional failure was that of the military; because central Mexico's government was so unstable, its  army stayed close to home, either to stave off further intrigues or participate in some. The array of presidios that once guarded the northern frontier, with its independent attachments of cavalry,  was poorly maintained; the soldiers were so scantily paid and armed that not only did civilians have to raise their own militias to defend themselves against Apache raids, but when the militias were on the attack, the presidio cavalry sometimes raided the homes they were supposedly protecting.   In addition, the Mexican government's economic policies -- forcing trade goods in and out of the interior to circulate first through far-distant Vera Cruz -- made supplies rare and expensive. The sheer distances between the frontier and Mexico city added to the eroding attachments between a place like California and Mexico;  the ruling city seemed to be as far away and imperious as Spain. Little wonder that in the 1830s, Texas declared and fought for its independence;  California declared independence but accepted a compromise that allowed it more autonomy; and New Mexico rolled with rebellion several times.

Because of Mexico's instability,  the failure of institutional ties to form or hold, and the sheer distance between cities like  Santa Fe and Mexico City,  the northern expanse of Mexico was increasingly oriented along another axis: it looked east, to America, for cheap, ready, supplies, and  eager settlers and tradesmen. That commercial and cultural Americanization of Mexico's north made it increasingly America's west -- hence why I suspect now that the treaty which ended the United States' unjust invasion of Mexico only hastened the inevitable.  At the risk of condoning Polk, the American federal system finally allowed for the 'home rule' that the restive north fought for in the 1830s.  Had Mexico not struggled so much to create  a stable government early on, it might have held on to much of what the treaty lost -- but it is a difficult thing to create civil society from scratch, let alone when a nation is being constantly invaded by invading Comanche.

The Spanish Frontier in North America, David Weber

Monday, July 24, 2017

Top Ten Things You Won't Find in Today's Local Newspaper

Working in local history, I spend a lot of face to face time with our microfilm machine. We have reels for papers as far back as the mid-1800s, and there's no decade in the 20th century I haven't spent weeks in, looking for obituaries and specific articles.  This is an absorbing experience, one which makes the past more personable:  my mind is taking in the same material as readers decades before me, though in a different form.   While the basic experience doesn't change, the kinds of things newspapers report on has.

1. Society gossip

In contemporary papers, social reporting is limited to wedding announcements -- but in older papers, even tea parties register entries.

2.  Serial Stories

Readers may be aware that a lot of "novels" were originally published as newspaper  or magazine serials. A lot of authors like Dickens and Asimov got their starts writing serialized novels or short stories for literary magazines.

3. Train and Ship schedules

I don't know if cities in Europe with train service still carry timetables, or if the internet has taken over the role. These are a treasure for realizing how dominant trains once were, though. (Steam boats were still offering twice-weekly passage from Selma in 1906:  the Nettie Quill upriver to Montgomery and the Queen Mary  downriver to Mobile.)

Care for a tren ride down to old Mexico?

4, Radio logs

When I first started visiting radio websites in the early 2000s, I thought finding lists of the music played during a given hour was an innovation. Nope -- that was  being done in the 1930s, by my local paper.

5. World News

When I first began looking through the local newspapers of 1906, attempting to establish when my hometown trolley system ended service (1926),  I discovered that local news was buried within the pages, with national and global news taking priority. This continued at least through the 1970s. There are even weekly quizzes to see how many news stories from around the world the reader recognizes -- as he ought, if he is a daily reader of the paper. Today, national news rarely appears, except in the case of disasters and presidential elections;  radio, television, and the internet  provide all of the general news, and the newspaper is left to fill a local niche. Opinion pieces on the news still provide a glimpse of what's going on outside, however.

6. Discretion

Take a look at this political cartoon of FDR. By 1940 it was known that Roosevelt was partially paralyzed, but the cartoonist doesn't dwell on it. These days, every detail about people's personal lives becomes a national obsession if they become newsworthy.

7. Girls Only

Look at that, ladies, your very own page!

8.  Personal Ads

I'd give her a call, but she probably found a beau by now. I don't know if I'm cut out to be a step-great-great-grandfather. 

9. Yesterday's News

Perhaps the oddest consistency in the papers I've surveyed is that until the 1970s or so, they feature -- on a daily basis -- tidbits from the news thirty years ago. (Except the one I discovered below, which was thirty-one years ago.)

10. The use of "solons" to refer to legislators

Solon derives from an ancient Greek lawgiver who is remembered for beginning democratic reform in Athens.  Ah, for the days of literacy, when casual references like this were normal. (I've seen this use as far as the 1970s.)

I hope you enjoyed these little looks back in time -- and here's a few extras. 

Giant airships! deposits? Sure, why not?

Where's Hoffa nowadays? Nobody knows...

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Crime, private and public sector

Let's start the week off with two birds and one stone!    

Earlier in the week I was finally able to get access to No Place to Hide, by Glenn Greenwald, on his encounter with Edward Snowden and the stories that led to.  For those hiding under rocks,  Edward Snowden was a civilian contractor working for the NSA until he exposed part of their globe-spanning surveillance apparatus in 2013/2014. While employed by the CIA and NSA, Snowden became increasingly concerned with the scope, ambition, and dubious legality of his employers' programs, and decided to begin documenting what he was seeing.  After methodically collecting reports for months on end, throughout several assignments, Snowden contacted a reporter with an established reputation for criticizing both the government and a complicit media.    Greenwald, after  recounting his first contact with Snowden,  then shares information from the stories he filed with The Guardian before switching into an argument against the surveillance state, and a condemnation of the establishment media, particularly the Washington Post and the New York Times.

I daresay no one will be surprised to learn that I'm far more a supporter of Snowden than the NSA -- not because I believe the NSA is  part of some evil conspiracy, but because I have certain strongly-held believes on the nature and consequences of power, and know that the construction of an inescapable surveillance apparatus is Bad News. When Greenwald says global, he means global;   the book mentions numerous programs, not just the email-tapping ones, and between them they cover pretty much everyone but the crew of the International Space Station.   It can't all be to fight terrorism: what do terrorists have to do with Brazilian gas companies, and why is NSA surveillance being shared with US agricultural departments?   Those who believe that the NSA are swell chaps who wouldn't countenance abuse of their data may sleep soundly, but what happens when someone with less scruples is in charge?  As the current administration demonstrates, we no longer require even the pretense of civility from those those who want to operate the beastly machine that is DC.

More recently I read through Kevin Mitnick's The Art of Intrusion.  Mitnick was partially featured in Cyberpunks, a teenage telephone 'phreaker' turned pioneering computer hacker. Since his release from prison Mitnick has used his reputation and experience in intrusion to sell himself as a cybersecurity consultant. The Art of Intrusion collects 'true crime' stories of computer-based or related intrusions;   ranging from illicit exploration to digital skulduggery.   A lot of data is omitted for the protection of the persons and companies mentioned, but a lot of the stories seem dated, for the book's publication year, and others are so technical I am not sure who would be reading them. I did find quite a bit of interest, however, in the chapters on penetration testing and social engineering. I still do not like Mitnick's term for an art he and his friends practiced, and one which remains a security threat:  obtaining information and access through human, instead of technological, means. Mitnick shares the stories of  analysists, who -- performing audits on companies, and attempting to breach their security -- were able  access highly sensitive areas within buildings simply by chatting up coworkers and 'acting' like they belonged there.  This also involved technical assistance, like a fake id that security guards didn't vet too closely.    Mitnick claimed in his trial that he relied on social engineering, not computer programs, to access as much as he did, and he has previously authored a book called The Art of Deception that documents the psychological strategies used in this kind of 'engineering'.  As someone with a work-related interest in security,  I may look around for a copy.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Midnight's Furies

Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition
© 2015 Nisid Hajari
352 pages

Although greater India has rarely remained united in its long history, there was every reason to hope that it would emerge from the centuries of British dominion in one piece. Instead, the people of India erupted as two -- then three -- nations,  with armed borders and bloodbaths between them.   Midnight's Furies is a history of how the Partition happened, and a full account of the massacres on every side until the United Nations was able to meditate a cease-fire.  Although its pages are bloodsoaked, no less  than a history of the fighting and civilian slaughters between Hitler and Stalin's empires in WW2,  it does deliver a sad understanding of why tensions between India and Pakistan continue to haunt the region and the world.

The two most prominent personalities of this tale are Jawaharlal Nehru, a key figure in both the independence movement and India's Congress Party, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah,  also a leading voice in the movement but one who relied on Muslim support.  Although both Nehru and Jinnah supported a future for India as a secular state,  the long road to independence and personal quarreling made them feuding allies at best, and rivals at worse.  Gandhi gave the Indian independence movement a strong populist flavor; his supporters were not middle-class Indians, but India's poor masses, and the Mahatma and his followers channeled their desires and energy through Hindu religion. This was exceptionally  off-putting to Jinnah, who not only feared Hindu nationalism given his Muslim background, but had a marked distaste for the underclass, reluctant even to shake hands with his followers. As the movement grew larger and more populist, Jinnah was marginalized and found relevance only by doubling-down on his Muslim background and becoming an stubborn voice for a Muslim state that would protect its citizens' wishes against the Hindu majority.

Although Nehru comes off much better here (confronting the leaders of mass violence, dreaming of a united India)  Hajari does delve into his culpability. As the day of withdrawal grew closer and Indian leadership became a fact, not a proposal,  Nehru targeted his critical energies against Jinnah's partisanship with the same zeal he'd once thrown at the British.  In treating Jinnah  and his followers like the enemy, he aided the two countries' downward spiral of accusation, attack, and counterattack.  The bloodbath that overtook the country  when the Partition came into effect -- as majorities tried to push minorities out -- was not exactly their 'fault', but their inability to work with one another set the stage. (Jinnah's call for "Direct Action" to effect Pakistani independence from India kicked off the blood feud, however, so he seems more culpable than Nehru.)  The violence was not a simply Hindu v Muslim feud;  in the Punjab, where the new state line split the militant Sikh community in two,  it involved Sikhs and Muslims.   The ever-present spiral of violence is obvious here: one community attacks the other ,who attacks the first in self-defense, who attacks the other in reprisal, etc.  The aggression and violence simply keep ratcheting up, until the streets are literally filled with broken bodies, including children, and air is filled with the smell of  blood and the cry of wounded and raped victims.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, though it's not as gruesome as The Rape of Nanking.  Although ending in 1947,  the spasm of brutality documented here continues to effect Indian and Pakistani relations, and particularly Pakistan's foreign-policy worldview. For it, India remains the existential threat and the priority -- not cold wars or terrorism.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas
© 2012 John Scalzi
320 pages
Audible presentation read by Wil Wheaton, runtime 7 hrs 41 minutes.

"I'm not even supposed to be here! I'm just Crewman #6. I'm the guy in the episode who dies to prove the situation is serious!" ("Guy", GalaxyQuest)

Redshirts is not what you think it is.

To be sure, it's mostly what you think it is, what you've heard it is; a spoof of Star Trek that mixes it in with concepts from The Truman Show and Stranger than Fiction, and comes within a few words of quoting that other great Star Trek spoof, GalaxyQuest. As far as spoofs go, it lives up to its reputation for being hilarious and meta. We have self-aware redshirts who avoid interactions with the bridge crew of a Federation , having realized that those guys go on away missions with crewmen and come back with bodybags. One member of the crew believes that the good ship Intrepid is in fact a TV show, and that when strange things happen, that's the Narrative at work. A lot of the silliness of shows like Star Trek is played with, particularly plot implausibilities, and the ability of battered characters to heal overnight, like the much-abused Miles Edward O'Brien. After a couple of ensigns begin to that they're living in a conspiracy, they go on a mission to put things to rights, and it involves time-travel, doppelgangers, and other such hijinks. If that were everything, I'd put this book up on the shelf having gotten my laugh, and think of it fondly from time to time as I do Night of the Living Trekkies. But that's not the entirety of Redshirts. Buried at the end are three codas, titled "First Person", "Second Person", and "Third Person" respectively. These three codas transform an amusing novel into one which is profoundly moving. I can't say if the conclusion's effect on me is merely a consequence of the author's writing, or if it was Wil Wheaton's delivery. Suffice it to say, I never thought Wil Wheaton could move me, but he did.

Consent of the Networked

Consent of the Networked; The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom
© 2012 Rebeca MacKinnon
352 pages

A couple of weeks ago I read Who Controls the Internet, which covered in part nation-states’ role in reasserting national boundaries in cyberspace. Consent of the Networked  examines threats to the open internet, both from states and corporations.  The threats are not always overt, like the Chinese state apparatus that keeps the Chinese internet connected to the global net only through a half-dozen filtered gateways, or the common suppression of social networks in times of social unrest, as we witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt during their respective revolutions, and in Iran during the controversial reelection of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   The author also examines more indirect threats to an open internet; the  irresponsible privacy policies at Facebook, for instance, which  issue updates that change privacy settings without giving appropriate forewarning. In some countries, a policy update that exposes bloggers, tweeters, etc’s real identities can lead to imprisonment or worse.  Other threats include the end of Net Neutrality,  an end which might channel people into using particular social networks. If those networks are as cavalier about user info as places like Yahoo and Facebook have been,  activists and others could be compromised all too easily. MacKinnon also sees overly-aggressive attempts by companies to protect their intellectual property as a threat to free expression.

Intriguingly, MacKannon does not demonize solely the private sector or the public; both have compromised people, and the free democracies have few bragging rights: just recently, the United States and United Kingdom were both named as ‘enemies of the Internet’ for their intensive surveillance.   (Sometimes public and private work together, as when Cisco became a partner to China in its firewall enterprise, and Yahoo thoughtlessly handed over user info when requested…again, by China.) MacKinnon isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the United Nations, either, but  holds that international agreements are a necessary road forward given the internet’s global nature.  While the only surprise here for me was the degree of European governments' internet surveillance and strictures. Given their constant run-ins with Google over privacy, I'd had the impression they were better about safeguarding private internet security than the U.S.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Unsettled America

Last week I read Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, on the subject of agriculture and culture. Its title is apt, because Berry believes that the triumph of industrialism -- as it has turned farms into agribusinesses, and America from an agrarian republic into an industrialized, centralized, state --has put on us an unsustainable trajectory. Berry's writings are of interest to me not because I believe in an agrarian revival, or pine for a lost utopia, but because his insights go deeper than the simple defense of family farms.  He views man not as a creature walking across the Earth, but one who has a role in it -- as a steward, a husband.   The care of Earth in Berry's view is not maintaining it in perpetual stasis, but working it as a co-creator, healing the land and aiding in its increase.  This role, destroyed when man simply uses, plunders, or conquers Earth, is to the ruin of man as well.   To abandon creation, to become mere consumers, is to die a slow death.   I've  ruminated over Berry's view in much of his nonfiction, and so would like to leave one of the most provoking passages of the book, one that reminds me of the anomie predicted in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano.

"The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals – or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts...

The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties...

It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be… He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim. If he lives by the competence of so many other people, then he lives also by their indulgence; his own will and his own reasons to live are made subordinate to the mere tolerance of everybody else. He has one chance to live what he conceives to be his life: his own small specialty within a delicate, tense, everywhere-strained system of specialties.”

Monday, July 17, 2017

Yokohama Print from Cultural History of Japan

In my "On the Horizon" post, I mentioned a print reproduced in  an art history of Japan which depicted a woman in traditional dress riding a bicycle. The book mentions it only as a Yokohama print, with Fuji in the background.

Source: The Cultural History of Japan, Henri Stierlin.  Printed by Aurum Press in London, 1983.  All photographs and prints were attributed to Stierlin.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Job

The Job: True Tales from a New York City Cop
© 2015 Steve Osborn
272 pages

Steve Osborn grew up by his father's side in a bar, standing on boxes to play pinball and idolizing the men his father hung out with. They were all cops, and their lurid stories of policing the City's streets captivated him. He knew that's what he wanted to do -- and at some point in the early eighties, he became a patrolman in New York City, and started collecting stories of his own. The Job shares some twenty-odd tales of life on the beat, starting from his first rookie patrol to his last takedown.  Although these stories are shared for their entertainment value, they're not uniformly comic;  instead, we see a young adrenaline junkie maturing into a tough beat cop, whose emotional walls are sometimes broken by events like 9/11,

The Osborn evidenced here is a natural beat cop; he has no desire to be a detective, rise as an administrator, or work for something like the FBI;  his happy place is the city street,  where he can mingle with people and watch them, and 'collar' the ones that prey on their fellow New Yorkers.  I referred to Osborn as adrenaline junkie before, because he loves chasing down suspects, and his enthusiasm is such that in his early years they led him to doing really dumb things, like following a robber into the subway tunnels.  When he'd gotten far enough in be stuck, and felt a train approaching from behind him, he could only think that this was a stupid, stupid way to die and that from now on, he'd be the morbid example used in Track Safety classes.  Osborn's passion for the job, and for his home city in particular, allowed him to flourish as an officer and truly connect with his partners,  some perpetrators, and citizens themselves.

Although throughout the book Osborn established himself as a world-weary cop,  forever scanning and processing the people and places around him for trouble,  using dark humor to cope with the horror and uncertainty that his occupation makes him face every day,  a few stories show another side.  Early on, for instance, he's assigned to investigate a foul odor in an apartment -- but runs into a problem when he learns that that the foul odor is most definitely a body, and the deceased's parents are waiting outside the apartment demanding to see their child one last time.    The young lady has at this point been dead for days,  and decaying in a stifling-hot July apartment.  Knowing he could not allow the woman's mother to see the ghastly remains, the putrefied blob of something that was human,  Osborn finds some source of inner strength that allows him to take a knee and convince the sobbing, desperate woman that she doesn't want to see her daughter this way.   It's one of the first times Osborn realizes his job was about taking care of people, not just chasing bad guys.     Another break in the tough-guy wall comes shortly after 9/11, when -- scarfing down McDonalds during a multiday shift pulling out bodies from the rubble --  Osborn discovers a card made of construction paper tucked into the bag. Somehow, schools across the country had gotten their kids to make "thinking of you" cards for fire&police officers, and place them in the meals being given out to first responders. The realization that New York is not alone, that people across the nation are thinking and standing with them, almost makes the grizzled lieutenant cry in public.

Page for page, 400 Things Cops Know* is more informative about the way police officers notice and interpret the world, but The Job humanizes an occupation and an institution (the NYPD) that is  being increasingly villanized.   While Osborn doesn't comment on this directly, he does include stories of being attacked by mobs just for making arrests on the streets, and presumably his sympathies are with the officers.

*I read 400 Things last year, but did so over the course of several months, reading a few chapters at a time when visiting a local Books a Million and drinking coffee. Because I kept skipping around, I'm not sure I read it in its entirety.

American Independence Wrapup & On the Horizon

Well, gentle readers,  July's halfway marks the conclusion of my American Independence series, at least for another year. What ground did I cover this year?

  • Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis;  a history of the summer of 1776,  in which the States declared their independence, and the British fleet arrived to squash the rebellion.
  • Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet, Bill Kauffman;  a biography of Luther Martin which is principally about the Constitutional debates. Martin was the most prominent republican ('anti-federalist") in attendance
  • The Lost Continent:  Bill Bryson travels the United States to revisit childhood trips through small-town America, regaling the reader with memories and reflections. Though Bryson pines for an image of small-town America, whenever he arrives in a small town he complains about the lack of restaurants and the presence of locals.
  • A Place in Time, Wendell Berry. Stories about the Port William membership, a ready remembrance of the America that was.
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck; a family epic set in the Salinas Valley of California that revisits the story of Cain and Abel.
  • Passionate Sage, Joseph Ellis; on the character and beliefs of John Adams.
  • Unsettled America, Wendell Berry.  Berry's first and most famous defense of agrarian America, doubling as a condemnation of the thing that replaced it.

I'd also been reading Founding Federalist, on the life of Oliver Ellsworth, but halfway in realized I am very tired of reading about the Constitutional convention.  It's time to move along, and resume this year's study series: the Discovery of Asia. I've eased myself back into the waters with Japan: A Cultural History, which is presumably dated given its early-1980s publication,but contains some outstanding photography.  The author takes readers briefly through a sketch of Japanese history that mostly serves to provide context for the art that is commented on;  the era of the pre-Shogunate civil wars is covered in the chapter on castles, for instance.  Architecture is the chief focus here, but there are also sections on laquerware and prints.  A favorite of mine features two Japanese women and a bicycle.

This isn't the print...I am still scouring the web for any digital reproduction of the one I saw.

Earlier in the week I also finished India: A New History, so the Discovery is on the move!

Friday, July 14, 2017


© 2014 Robin Cook
416 pages

The future of medicine is here, in the form of a smartphone that can function as a medical diagnostic tool, complete with a machine-learning program called "iDoc" which monitors patients' diets and vitals,  chatting with them about their health and prescribing advice or pills as appropriate.  iDoc is poised to revolutionize medicine,  reducing costs and focusing on long-term preventive care rather than crisis response. Why then,  does a small but chronic percentage of  its beta test group keep dying?

The premise is the most interesting part of Cell, and once it's absorbed early on everything else is downhill. The main character is a radiologist trying to cope with the sudden death of his fiance, and perhaps his grief keeps him distracted: as a main character goes, he's not particularly savvy.  He's kind of dumb, in fact; at one point he's being transparently probed for info by a woman in a bar and is completely oblivious, despite the fact that he didn't seem all that interested in her to begin with. (Why is he even dating a couple of months after the love of his life died?  Plot demands, I suppose.)

Fortunately for him, the 'bad guys' aren't really bad guys, they're just managing a problem and at the end of the day, everyone goes home happy despite deaths, car chases, kidnappings, and burglary; the main character's faint worries are taken care of by dropping a letter to a friend with the message "If anything happens to me, read this and do what you will" attached to a longer report.   At the heart of the story Cook is embedded a serious question about medical ethics, one iDoc ignores with HAL-9000esque execution.  Robin Cook seems to be a very popular author, so I may give him another try, focusing on his earlier work in which the medical thrills were more important than the author's brand name.

As thrillers go, this was an excellent premise that unfortunately flatlines once the stage is set.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A New History of India

A New History of India
© 2000, sixth edition Stanley Wolpert
471 pages

India isn't an easy place to keep running. Stanley Wolpert's A New History of India gives a chiefly-political, mostly-modern history of one of the world's most ancient civilizations, a land whose soaring mountains and depth of peoples have frustrated long-term attempts at centralized control.  Beyond a geographic introduction,  and some early  content on  Indian religion, culture, and literature,  A New History largely delivers a story of rulers and killings.    The Indian subcontinent seems to have been riven in war for most of its history,  with occasional figures like Ashoka and Akbar rising to reign over largish- and stable-ish parts of the north.   This pattern of central authority giving way to chaos, then back to authority again, has a heart-like rhythm about it.  British India  receives the lion's share of attention (both the accretion of British authority, and the Quit India campaign)  and as the book draws closer to the 'modern' period, the author gets saucier.  In the section on WW2, for instance,  he refers to the Japanese catching the British at Singapore with their gin-and-tonics half-down.   This particular edition covers India (and Pakistan) up to the year 1999, but later editions cover India until until 2008.  Frankly, I found the running commentary on India in Nehru's Glimpses of World History  far more useful as far as pre-modern history goes.   This reminded me a bit of The Persians: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Iran  in its near-solitary fixation on rulers, deaths, and successions.

I think I may follow this with  Nehru's own The Discovery of India, the name of which I am borrowing for this Discovery of Asia inquiry into Indian and Chinese history.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Passionate Sage

Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams
© 1993 Joseph Ellis
288 pages

G.K. Chesteron once wrote that the Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. I don't know that the Church has a monopoly on timelessness, but some historic personalities have  a sense of integrity that bids me think they would remain who they were if they were plucked up bodily and thrown into another age. Robert Ingersoll is one such man; John Adams is another.    This sense of integrity isn't magically imbued;  it requires a certain force of mind, and the decision to root one's self in deeper principles.  Passionate Sage is a rare treatment of John Adams which focuses on him not as an architect of the revolution, or as an executive officer, but as a retired statesman coming to terms with what he and others had wrought --  satisfied with what he'd done, even if he was regarded as an anachronism. He had followed his own convictions, and that was enough.

Ellis' treatment of Adams make me suspect that Adams would be his own man in any time because while classical allusions were rife in the founding era,   Adams' very soul was grounded in the classical tradition. Some revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson believed that the Revolution had made all things new again, that institutions like monarchy which prevented people from fulfilling an innately good nature had been escaped from.  Adams held to an older view, however, that man was flawed and would constantly struggle with his inner demons -- that virtue and vice hold us in a perpetual tug of war. Our greatest flaw, Adams believed, was pride and vanity; these would drive men to compete ferociously with one another even if they were economic equals.  For Adams, the great problem of politics was how to build a productive government that took human frailty in mind. He was a grim realist in an age of idealism.   This led him to promoting unpopular ideas -- for instance, that the presidency should be invested with a certain sense of awe, not to honor the person but for the office and for the law's sake. If people do not believe in the law, have a certain respect for it, it loses its persuasive power.  If awe does not work, people resort to brute force -- and things go to pieces. His pragmatism also led him taking a high and lonely road during his administration, when he doggedly pursued a course of non-interference during the Franco-English spats of the time. Federalists looked to trade and defense deals with England,  and Republicans looked to France. Adams defied them both,  following his studies of philosophy that indicated one must do the right thing even if it was unpopular. Adams hoped that history would vindicate him, and on that matter it has. (Ellis notes that Adams often chose the course of action that would alienate the most people, being suspicious of popularity even as he desired it.)

Although Ellis focuses on Adams' thinking and writing, even still we get glimpses of Adams the man -- reading ferociously, for instance. Adams  not only challenged Jefferson in terms of the piles of books they both read, but filled his books with notes arguing and debating the authors. Adams loved a good intellectual bout, though his approach was more a pugnacious boxer's than an exercise in rapier wit.  In his exchange of letters to Thomas Jefferson, for instance, he fired off as twice as many letters as he received.  Although  often bombastic in his criticisms (especially where the "bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar", Alexander Hamilton, was concerned),   Adams' delight in conversation meant that he'd mend bridges with people like Jefferson or Mary Otis Warren just so he could  lock horns with them again. Although by the time he died Adams was regarded as highly as Jefferson, throughout the 19th century his reputation was steadily surpassed by his old friend, who sometimes seemed to be shadowing Washington.   Ellis attributes this to the triumph of Jacksonian democracy, which had and less use for Adams' caution, and still  less for his philosophic intransigence.

For my own part, I have found Adams endearing and redoubtable ever since discovering him via 1776 and David McCullough.  Although self-conscious about his frailties, particularly his vanity and temper, that never stopped him from charging ahead in a roar, with a mouth firing off fusillades.  He had a rare energy that left him only when the grave took him.

John Adams, David McCullough. Selected  Adams quotations from the same.
First Family: John and Abigail Adams, Joseph Ellis

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Contra Mundum

"And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is the one thing which by inspection destroys such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it, and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If that glory can be killed, we are lost."

John Steinbeck, East of Eden.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

East of Eden

East of Eden
© 1952 John Steinbeck
580 pages

Why did Cain kill Abel?  East of Eden explores that question via a family saga, one that stretches across North America, spanning the continent as well as the generations;  a story that begins at the end of the Civil War ends only at the end of the Great War.  It's the story of two families and one individual, a woman who bares more resemblance to the apocryphal Lilith than to Eve. When I approached East of Eden, I did so only as a story about brothers; I had no idea that Steinbeck mixed in his own family history, let alone that he regarded the book as his magnum opus. Only time can tell if I will remember this story as vividly as I do that of the Joads ,in The Grapes of Wrath...but I wouldn't bet against it.

Readers who retain a familiarity with the Hebrew bible will remember that Genesis is essentially a family epic, particularly following the line of Abraham: he has a son, Isaac, who has two boys, who fight, and the victor thereof (Jacob) creates an entire litter of boys with more fighting ensuing, taking the family story to Egypt and back, until the family has become a nation.  East of Eden begins with a man and his two sons, who fight, and their story will take one brother not to Egypt but to the Salinas valley of California.  That brother, Adam Trask, wants to build a life and farm for himself in the west, but his ideals and dreams are shot when he himself is shot by a woman he shrouded with lies and hope: his wife.  Adam's sons grow up, bearing the names Aaron and Caleb,  and their own dram

East of Eden leaves a great deal to mull over.  There is a very obvious aspect of siblings vying for their father's affection;   Adam and Charles do this with their father, Cyrus, and  Adam's sons Aaron and Caleb echo it with him.  The homage to Genesis is deliberate, as several characters frequently ruminate over the meaning of the story in Genesis in which Cain grows distressed after his sacrifice to God is snubbed in favor of his brother's; that distress takes the form of murderous jealousy sentences later when Cain kills his brother and becomes an outcast, sojourning east of Eden.   Of particular interest is the fact that God "marked" Cain so that others would see him and not slay him-- saving judgment for God's own hand.  Several characters in East of Eden are 'marked', not through liver spots or birthmarks, but scarred through their own actions. These characters struggle with darkness; one is saturated by it, possessed by it -- and others  live in fear of themselves, wondering if they are doomed to persist in their vices. That question is the great theme of the book, the question of destiny: is our fate in our hands?  For the characters it all comes down to a single word, a word that fixates rabbis and Chinese wisemen and frustrated farmers alike.

What I appreciated most about East of Eden,  is that every character save the sociopath was conflicted. The "good", doted-on brothers frequently made mistakes, and their failures provoke the plot as much as the failures of the ''Cains'. Of course, this is a character-driven drama;  relationships here are all-important.  This was definitely a novel to savor..

Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner. Another family epic set in the West..

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Medical tricorders, dirty old men, and controlling the internet

Before we head further into July, here are a few 'missed' reviews..

First up, The Patient Will See You Now. This book was part of the "Rebuilding Towards the Future" series, in which I read books about ways that ideas and work of regular people, as well as technology, are allowing us to make a better life for one another.  This particular book argues that smartphones and big data will (1) give control of their medical data to people by making them the originators of it, and (2) use that data in conjunction with everyone else's  to fight big diseases like cancer.  He documents the incredible functionality of apps and sensors that can turn smartphones into diagnostic scanners taking all measure of readings.  I was suitable awed, but so poorly-read in the area of medical technology that I can't comment too much. I was introduced to this book by EconTalk, as Russ Roberts interviewed its author back in May 2015.

Next:  Edward Abbey's Black Sun.  Abbey opens with a character very much like himself, a disgusted ex-professor who has found solace in the wilderness. For half the year,  Will Gatlin lives by himself in the southwest wilderness, manning a fire tower.  His chief human contact is the radio, and a friend of his who  writes letters entreating him to come to town and chase skirts like a normal human being.  A girl shows up, and seduction follows; he is seduced by her despite having twenty years on her, and she is seduced by the wilderness. In terms of content it's much like Hayduke Lives! -- nature writing mixed with  utter randiness. Unlike Hayduke, I finished this one, as it was rather short.

Lastly, this past week I read Who Controls the Internet, an interesting mix of internet history and law. The author begins by reminding readers of  a time when cyberspace was a discrete thing, not part of our everyday life, and as an imagined world, people hoped the usual rules would not apply. They imagined a border-less new world, where people could be who they wanted, without regard to culture or the states in power. The book then goes on to explain and document how borders re-asserted themselves.  Because the internet originated as a military research project, the US did not want to lose control of it, and other governments have no interest in losing control of their people. China, for instance, aggressively pursues internet connectivity in order to propel itself forward economically, but also works with manufacturers of internet hardware like Cisco to block 'undesirable information' from entering the Chinese web.   Much of the borderization was driven on by people themselves, however:  as more 'common' people started using the internet, they began congregating with like-minded people (fellow Chinese speakers, for instance) and when they began using the internet for goods and services, businesses like Yahoo found that having region- or language-specific portals a necessity.

As Tuesday is the Fourth of July, expect some American lit and a dash of American history or biography this week.  More internet books to come as the summer progresses, too!

A Place in Time

A Place in Time
© 2013 Wendell Berry
256 pages

Come again to Port William (and vicinity), a community -- a membership -- on the banks of the river.  A Place in Time collects twenty stories of the community, all  of varying lengths, moving from the 1860s to 2013. The stories are often told in the first person, moving from person to person within the community as the years progress.    A quotation from Jayber Crow applies with force here, as to any book in the series:"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."   The Port William novels, are not discrete stories by themselves, though some (Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter) have the outline of distinction.   Instead, the stories --- be they a few pages or a few hundred -- are part of a greater story, one that Berry describes (through his characters) as the conversation the town has about itself.   Every story is a different view of the river;  sometimes tales repeat from the same angle.   What happens to one life is remembered in another.

Remembrance is especially important to A Place in Time,  both because it takes place over a hundred and fifty years, and the characters grow through their losses.  Every generation does; first our grandparents leave us, then our parents, then our peers. But some of Port William's losses were particular tragedies,  forced upon the community by war.  That includes the greatest lost, Port William itself -- its agricultural rhythms forever marred by the industrial-technological complex that invaded farms after World War 2. But  despite the losses, the people of Port William remember what has gone on before, and it provokes them to act in ways that seem futile, because it's the only thing they can do.

If all this seems very general to the series itself, that's true enough. Berry here has created twenty tales of tenderness, loss, warmth, friendship, pride, weakness -- all knit together. Two stories might recount the same event from different perspectives; the events of one tale will be mentioned in another.  A reader who has read Port Williams books before will find it a reunion of old companions; someone new to the series might feel as though they had sat down in the middle of a conversation. But I think that's true with any Port William book; although my introduction to the series was through Jayber Crow,  and aided by a narrator who came to the town as a stranger and had to learn about it himself, even then I was aware that there was more to the town's story, that it had been going on before Jayber arrived. For me, this was just another visit with friends.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
© 1984 Steven Levy
458 pages

How did computers cease to be the playthings of secretive governments, universities, and multinational corporations and become instead fixtures in 80-90% of all American homes?   Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is a history of that transformation, driven by young men who could not be satisfied with the status quo. Stealing into locked rooms, or spending night after night learning the best tricks to convert typed words into real-world action, their persistent  curiosity edged technology forward.  Their obsession with mastering computers, with pushing them to their limits and fiddling with them to get more out of them, not only influenced the development of the machines themselves, but created new industries.

Nowadays we think of a hacker as a force for ill, someone who invades others' computers and systems and wreacks havoc or steal things.  That negative baggage was acquired only in the mid-1980s, however, when a few young people made headlines through their network intrusions.  Before that, the term referred to ..tweakers, if  you will, to those who fiddled with  electrical and computer systems to learn their ways and to see what they could do with them -- often improving them along the way.  Hackers fills itself with the stories of young, awkward men (and one woman) who forced innovation by refusing to stop their incessant modding. Through these restless lives we see a progression of computers, increasingly accessible and increasingly more agile. This was not the area of "plug and play":  some users were operating in basic assembly language,  compared to which FORTRAN and company were user-friendly.  The computers were often put to unorthodox uses, programmed as calculators or even games (Spacewar). As interested in them grew,  companies arose to put computing hardware into the hands  of technically-savvy consumers.  This was not the era of the Apple II, though -- not yet. The first 'hardware kits' produced a machine whose 'output' was blinking lights.  Hackers is not all technical, however; some people who are drawn to computers have grand ideas for their use, as a portal to human awakening. Some of the pioneers here weren't pushing hardware so much as they were access - like a computer 'collective' on the west coast that sought to establish a public-access mainframe in Berkeley, with a communal directory of information.

Hackers is thus a personal history of the computing revolution,  driven on by curious enthusiasts whose fascination with the potentials of these devices bordered on obsessive.  In a day where "nerd" and "geek" have achieved a kind of faux-chic,   Hackers provides a memory of the genuine article.