Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Gut: The Inside Story Of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ
© 2015 Giulia Enders
271 pages

Through the teeth, past the gums, look out stomach, here we come! Gut is a tour of your innards, of the surprisingly clean but bustling twists and turns of the digestive system. "Wait a second," say you, "I've had this tour before. Mary Roach did it in Gulp!". Well, yes, and she did take you the entire way -- from the mouth right out the other end, none the worse for the wear. Gut is different, however. The author is a touch more serious, for one thing; while never lacking in humor, she doesn't provide a constant effusion of fart and poop jokes. Enders provides more of a thoughtful study of how the gut impacts us, particularly in our microbiome. This is a mix of Roach's Gulp and I Contain Multitudes: a study of our intestinal habitat and the fauna thereof. I bought this primarily because I was interested in the ways our gut can influence our psychology. I've heard reports of there being neural cells active within the gut, and while there is a chapter on the "vagus nerve", it wasn't as extensive as I hoped. The author conveys the impression that the nerve collects and conveys feelings of general un-ease and distress within the body, providing the brain with its first reports of problems within. More extensive are the chapters on the bacteria within us -- how they change depending on our diet, how they can contribute to our health or diminish it , that sort of thing. This ground was covered more extensively in 10% Human and I Contain Multitudes, but a review of this subject is perfect in a book on the gut: 90% of our bacteria live there, after all.

If you're interested in the digestive system -- and who isn't, really? -- Gut is a quick, fun read that takes its reader more seriously than Gulp, and includes more concrete information from an actual M.D.

10% Human 
I Contain Multitudes 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged
© 1957 Ayn Rand
1168 pages

Sometimes the chains that bind us are made by our own hands.   Dagny Taggart knew as a young girl that she wanted to grow up to be the master of her family’s railroad system. She began working for it in her youth, and so poured her heart and soul into it that the transcontinental system was an extension of her own self. Regardless of what problems she faced – from suppliers, with labor, or  bungling rules from above --  she was determined keep the trains moving so long as there were trains to move. The rails were her pride and joy, and she could keep them alive no matter who tried to strangle them – even if her enemies were getting more use out of the rails than she was.  Atlas Shrugged  chronicles her fighting defeat as her peers resolve to go on strike – to  let a society  which hisses in contempt for them even as it enjoys the comforts they created – go to ruin.

Atlas Shrugged has achieved notoriety in the decades since its release;  people loved to hate Rand, even those who sympathize with her ideas. I was certainly no fan of her when I decided to try Anthem for its dystopian theme, and then The Fountainhead so I could experience her ideas first-hand  --   the latter novel made me realize Rand’s thinking was more interesting than my prejudices. It was my prejudices, however, that led me to Atlas Shrugged in great excitement. I loved the idea of triumphing over the state through civil resistance, loved the idea of characters telling the establishment what it could do with itself.    So, even though  Atlas Shrugged  had some of the same creative problems as Fountainhead, and I don’t regard Rand’s philosophy of life as attractive in full, I had a terrific time reading it.

A book review of Atlas Shrugged is not the place for an essay on Objectivism’s virtues and flaws, although given how philosophical this novel is, that’s an easy way to drift off course. The Fountanhead focused on egoism and integrity;  Atlas Shrugged is more expansive, and much of the content is characters debating one another. It’s less a novel than a philosophical argument in novel form,  something like Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, but with Rand’s  ideological enemies playing the part of Simplicio, the slobbering troll.  Throughout the book, Rand and her characters defend the primacy of reason,   the all-importance of the individual, and the real value of money.   Linking them all is the human mind, which alone creates value and determines truth;  for Rand, it is impossible that material things can corrupt a man. Only a man’s mind can corrupt  him,  and only in making choices can he be flawed or perfect.  (“Perfection” for Rand is not arriving at some ideal state, but never failing to act or decide on the best  discernible choice.) For Rand, material things have no inherent value: a rail system is only as good as the people who created it, as the people who sustain its operations  through their ideas and energy.   Rand’s philosophy covers metaphysics, aesthetics, economics, politics,, apparently.  What surprised me is Rand’s idealism: although an atheist, she regards the modern academy with the same contempt as she does traditional beliefs. She despises those who say that humans are only animate goo, that nothing we do matters -- that nothing we think is real, because logic and reason are an illusion, that everything is relative. This entire book is pregnant with arguments over the Meaning of Life, and the glory of being a thinking being in it.

As a novel, Atlas Shrugged has its problems. The characters aren’t as off as they were in The Fountainhead, but I suspect that’s me getting used to her style. The villains all carry their cards, and unless one is in a vicious mood -- a mood delighted in politicians being berated --  the way they’re depicted scuttling about,  alternatively whining and scheming, might grow tiresome.  I was delighted by the plot, however -- intrigued by the pirate, curious about Who Is John Galt.  I liked the building tension as the beating heart of the American economy slows, as the lights wink out by one, as Dagny’s  rivals, suppliers, and buyers keep ominously disappearing.  Perhaps the best part is the slow torture of Dagny and her supplier-friend, Hank Rearden: both  are sympathetic but reluctant about the strike.   Dagny loves her rails more than principle, and Hank is saddled with those "family" people who keep him from  being a solitary uberman against the world. They both have their moments of realization, but the moments have to build and build on one another before they snap into place and reveal the futility of running in place. While the United States has not (and may never, I hope) succumbed to all of the legislation here, I am not surprised Rand has remained popular in the decades that followed. Who could not think of Atlas when Nixon began playing with wage and price controls?  Not to mention the TARP deal, in which bankers and auto manufacturers survived  not by producing value, but by exercising “pull”.   Throughout Atlas Shrugged, we see the laws of economics corrupted and dominated by politics, so that those who succeed are the ones who play with the political machine.  Rather reminds one of how the same banks funded Obama and Romney -- maintaining their pull no matter who won.

Having now read both of Ayn Rand's epic novels, my opinion of her has improved from the initial revulsion of hearing her praise selfishness on the radio.  I realized in The Fountainhead that her use of the word was misleading. Her characters are not decadent playboys;  they're workaholics who enjoy functional luxuries, like a fast car and a warm coat, but for them the goal of life is to do, to create,  to produce -- not to  consume, to spend.  I think most people ultimately find more value and meaning in their connections with one another, and I'm not particularly surprised that none of Rand's main characters, nor she herself, had children.  When objectivist sex is a philosophical drive and not a biological one, it's only natural that the only thing born are ideas to debate.  However Rand misjudged the character of man in society,  in general I found her ideas  about individual integrity bracing. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Silent Intelligence

The Silent Intelligence: The Internet of Things
© 2013 Daniel Kellmereit, Daniel Obodovski
166 pages

A couple of years ago I created a Digital World label in recognition of the fact that the Internet was no longer a discrete service that one could engage in or detach from - -that it had become instead part of the infrastructure of everyday life.  The Silent Intelligence is a technological/business briefing that expands on that,  documenting  “Machine to Machine” networking  that will allow the tools and infrastructure we use to coordinate with one another automatically – so that the lights in our house, for instance, can be informed by an app tracking our phone that we pulling in the driveway.    This is rapidly aging news now, of course,  given that there are now competing systems for managing home electronics.   After explaining the technological breakthroughs that are making this trend possible, the authors then examine challenges facing the field, and discuss possible areas where it might find the most immediate use, like hospitals and homes.  Imagine if a nurse in a large hospital,  in search of a piece of needed equipment could consult an app on her phone, which would direct her to the closest available piece.   In this  this case each instance of the equipment would be tagged,  almost like Zipcars are now.  Some of the predictions have already come to pass, like Redbox movie rental kiosks that can monitor their inventory and report when they need to be serviced,  and there’s no shortage for opportunities here.   The Patient Will See You Now expanded on this kind of technology in the medical field.    Last year I acquired another book (Smart Cities) whose premise was also introduced here - -the idea that cities would become more “alive” than ever, as  apps and infrastructure talked to each other and allowed for real-time monitoring of pollution, traffic, etc.    Technologically, the 21st century will be a very exciting place to live

The Silent Intelligence is not leisure reading unless someone likes to read about the nuts and bolts of an emerging industry’s technical problems, but it’s one of the first books about the “internet of things” I was able to find. I’m sure more will follow as the built environment is reprogrammed along these lines.

Resistance is futile. Your home will be adapted to serve the Internet of Things

Friday, February 23, 2018

Quick note

I am deep in the country house/dog sitting for some friends, armed only with my kindle and a few books.  One of these days I'll get a laptop, but until Monday evening I am PC less. Typing is laborious on a little tablet pad! Alexa refuses to take dictation...what a disgrace she is to helpful AIs everywhere. I have been reading, and am 700 pages in to a novel that is 1000+ pages. Two reviews are ready to roll on Monday. Until then, happy reading..!

Monday, February 19, 2018

9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America

9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her
©  2016 Brion McClanahan
354 pages

It is my dearest hope that by the time Donald Trump leaves the West Wing, the office of the presidency will have been so discredited that no one will take it seriously anymore.   Congress will take serious measures to counter executive overreach, and the American people will somberly reflect that it was a bad idea to allow so much responsibility, expectation, and power to rest on the shoulders of one man. My second dearest hope is that pigs will fly.   Brion McClanahan does what he can to take the American monarchy down a few pegs, though, by devoting half his book to exposing the greatness of a few titans as irresponsible hubris, and hailing a few forgotten men for their diligent work thwarting or ameliorating  the excesses of others.

McClanahan scrutinizes each president based on how effectively they fulfilled their  oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.   Because Article II of the Constitution, which creates the office of President, does not include a full job description,  McClanahan relies on debates from the Constitutional convention and the States’ ratification proceedings to determine what was expected of the president.  This figure was not to be a king in democratic clothing, but a guardian of the rule of law: his primary job was to keep  Congress, the only legislative body,  in check – the job that George III failed to do when he allowed Parliament to tyrannize the colonies.   Those who maintain a zealous watch are praised here; the rest, like those who invent new powers for themselves, or accept new powers from Congress through legislative fiat instead of constitutional amendment, or presume on the states or other branches' prerogatives, or allow the other branches to presume on the same, are condemned.    In general: 19th century presidents were largely faithful to the job, and 20th/21st century presidents sought to re-invent and magnify the office, and did so to the point that the old republic is now ruled by Jabba the State. (I borrow that, with gratitude and a bellylaugh, from Anthony Esolen.)

McClanahan’s critique is thus very strict, and he does not pardon men for doing pursuing good ends through improper means: that is not how the rule of law works. The Constitution is not a dead decree, a sacred writ that forces us to live in perpetuity by an 18th century society’s rules, but neither is it a piece of clay to be molded in any way. Those who wish to change the structure of US Government must do so through amendment, or  – as the North threatened to do, as the South attempted to do – remove themselves and try again.   McClanahan’s strict adherence to the original intent of the Constitution, and the observance of the rule of law, will no doubt earn the most criticism from those who read this, who believe that the government should periodically assume new powers as it “needs” them, without respecting the appropriate procedures.  But those procedures, the rule of law, protect us from merely being controlled by the whims of men.

So, who are the nine?

  • Andrew Jackson, who terminated the Second Bank of the United States through extralegal means, promoted a dubious tariff that picked sectional favorites, and threatened to order the militia into South Carolina to prevent it from seceding in response to said tariffs;
  • Abraham Lincoln, who failed to recognize the legal separation of the southern States from the Union, illegally made use of State militias to invade a foreign power,   presumptuously revoked habeus corpus, instituted a draft, instituted the income tax,  and helped devalue the currency for starters;
  • Theodore Roosevelt, who made the president a celebrity and  inserted himself into the legislative process, assuming powers not granted to him by the Constitution, including to make presidential proclamations.
  • Woodrow Wilson,  who drove legislation, attempted to institute tariffs that picked sectional favorites,  persecuted and jailed Americans for exercising the first amendment, instituted the Federal Reserve, and created powerfully intrusive regulatory bodies with no constitutional sanction;
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created the American conservative movement by violating so much precedent and expanding the power of his office so quickly that critics didn’t even know where to begin countering his illegal intrusions into lives of people and the economy;
  • Harry S. Truman, who turned America into the guardian of the world and helped establish the military-industrial complex’s power over the American future;
  • Lyndon B. Johnson , who continued overreach in both domestic and foreign policy; like FDR before him and Nixon after him, he created agencies that combined  legislative, judicial, and judicial functions, ignoring the wisdom of checks and balances; 
  • Richard Nixon, who continued the same sorry trend  and pawed at the economy as well, and began the steady erosion of the dollar as a unit of real value; and
  • Barack Obama, who greatly expanded Bush’s illegal wire-tapping, droning, and pushed through the Affordable Care Act, which made the sorry debacle of US healthcare even more onerous .

The two most controversial names on the list are Lincoln and Obama; Lincoln,  because most people will refuse to consider that the constitution of the United States – the little c –constitution – was much different in 1860 than in 2018,  that people did consider themselves members of the State of Maryland or the State of Vermont, and that the Union was a debatable issue;  and Obama,  because he was merely burning down a house that had already had its doors and windows pried off  and its interior walls  torn down  by previous presidents.  Oddly, even though McClanahan refers to Obama as the ‘worst’,   the chapter on said president is rather short. Frankly, I think ranking a then-sitting president was a mistake.

There are some general lessons to be learned. In the 20th century, the easiest way to gain enormous power was  through war -- either real war, or by couching social programs in the language of war.  Two, the most common violation is the president assuming responsibilities -- lawmaking and warmaking -- that are Congress's alone.  The president is not granted the authority to summon militias; only  Congress may do that, and they require a state governors' request. It doesn't matter if Congresses passes a law giving itself power to do this or that  --  that's not how the rule of law works. If they could empower themselves, they should just dispense with the formalities and issue straightforward dicta like honest oligarchs.

Following the rogues' gallery,  McClanahan then devotes the second half of his book to praising  Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler,  Grover Cleveland, and  Calvin Coolidge.  Jefferson is no surprise,  rejecting anything that smacked of monarchy in presidential treatment and , ending as he did the illegal Alien and Sedition acts.  Tyler will be unknown to most Americans; he was the first vice president to assume the office of president after Zachary Taylor died, and he spent most of his time in office vetoing Congressional actions that had no warrant in the Constitution. He was so consistent at it that both parties grew to hate him. Good on ya, Johnny!   Cleveland  was also solid on reining in Congress, and if nothing else he deserves a standing ovation for doing his best to prevent the United States from enveloping Hawaii. Coolidge, of course, has a deserved reputation for being a calm and steady hand on the rudder, intent on reversing growth as best he could within constitutional limits. The sad truth of political economy is that a bad president can increase his powers in violation of the law through his own will, while a good president's own scruples forbid him from violating the law to reverse course.

The book ends with a series of suggested amendments which would in theory curtail the power of el presidente, though given how much bureaucratic power is now vested in the sprawl of executive departments, said amendments only only be a start.  These amendments include limiting the president to one term and sharply enforcing Congress's sole responsibility as a warmaking body.

When I began reading this, I was a little worried about McClananhan's style, which -- when he is lecturing  -- can grow abrasive. It's not a style fit for communicating with people who disagree with you, and I'm happy to report that he largely reins himself in here, though his language grows a little less formal as he comes nearer to the 20th century.  I think he manages to be approachable to those who disagree with him, but very few people care more about rule of law than doing what they think should be done now, and to the devil with the consequences.  That, combined with the fact that human beings frequently revert to some tribal desire for a strong leader who can take charge and restore confidence in the future -- whether he's killing the old shaman for not pleasing the gods, or forcing everyone to buy health insurance to "fix" the cost of insurance -- makes me think all human political experiments beyond a certain scale are doomed to failure.

Happy president's day...

Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland. A very similar but more thorough review of each president based on their contribution to liberty, peace, and rule of law.
The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy.  The story of how quiet servants like Tyler and Cleveland were supplanted by celebrities with delusions of grandeur .
The Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy. A masterful review of how the American monarch is hindered by the sheer expanse of his office

Saturday, February 17, 2018

House of Rain

House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest
© 2007 Craig Childs
482 pages

Throughout the southwest United States and northern Mexico there are ruins from a people long gone, people remembered as the Anasazi. The name is not theirs; it was applied by the Apache later on, and has a mocking connotation - -the old ones, the rotten ones, the defunct ones. The ruins of cliffside dwellings, abandoned signal towers, and brightly colored ceramics reveal a technically accomplished people, one whose lore contained information gleaned from hundreds of years of close observations: their sites often incorporate features which mark astronomical events, events that no doubt played a part in their mythos. Who were these people, and why did they leave?

Well, they didn’t, says Craig Childs. Or at least, it’s inaccurate to say they planted their flag in New Mexico and Arizona and such places, and then for some reason decided to abandon their ancestral homes. In search of answers, Craig Child hiked and drove throughout the Southwest, venturing far off the beaten track by himself or with archaeology students, to study the land, the light, and these spaces which remain to absorb what understanding can be had. Many of the people he walked with were specialists in the region -- archaeoastronomers, say, or those who can identify the region that preserved wood or pottery came from by their chemistry,

Findings from archaeological digs indicate that this was a fluid population, one that frequently moved in response to environmental stresses. The rivers of this region are fickle, alternatively flooding and vanishing The transient ancients were following the water, and an interior nether-world of gods – a place beneath the soil where water was plentiful but released slowly in mountain streams or sudden springs -- appears to have been on their mind. Ritual appears to have had a role in their leaving, as well: some sites are thought to have been torched deliberately, by the inhabitants, rather than destroyed in war. Some of their locations appear to have been settled communities, while others were mere migrant camps that could not have supported a large population, but were used as a short-term residence. Eventually these people dispersed in their travels to become the various pueblo peoples, like the Hopi.

House of Rain is neither a travel guide nor a comprehensive history, but rather an attempt to make sense of one through the other. The full story will never be known, though parts can be garnered by studying what was left behind and other pieces are locked away in the lore of native peoples who (for good reasons) do not wish to share their oral histories with outsiders – even outsiders as serious and respectful as Childs. Childs is a native son of the southwest who traveled extensively within it before writing this book, and the amount of contacts he nursed before engaging in this project reveals his sincere interest in the subject. House of Rain isn’t a novelty travel guide – “Ghost Towns of the Ancient West!” – but the chronicle of one man pursuing his passion, to learn as much as he could about those who lived in and loved the same landscape he did. Those who find the mountains and vistas of the Four Corners enchanting will appreciate this tour of a civilization that was.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Overclocked: More Stories of the Future Present
© 2016 Cory Doctorow
388 pages

I’d never heard of Cory Doctorow before  this week, but I encountered his name on a list of promising SF authors and looked him up. Amazon obliged my curiosity with a flash sale on one of his collections of short stories, and so I  began reading Overclocked. A collection of short pieces ranging from stories to novellas, Overclocked  has some fun with SF classics and exploring concepts like intellectual property, 3D printing,  robotics, and artificial intelligence.   AI is particularly important, with several stories using characters who have duplicated their consciousness and downloaded it into other carriers so they could achieve multiple goals simultaneously.  Doctorow freely borrows titles and concepts from other SF works, which is not surprising given that he believes strict legal protections of intellectual property smothers creativity and innovation; this belief finds expression in several stories here, particularly "After the Siege".  I took an immediate liking to these stories, aided in part by the fact that his best-known novel, Little Brother,  is a YA man-vs-state scenario.

The stories:
"I, Robot" has the most fun with SF classics, throwing both Asimov and Orwell in a blender and creating a world where Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia and both have partially roboticized societies....but the societies in question are very different.   It features robots, transferable consciousnesses, and a little futuristic law-enforcement.

"When Sys Admins Ruled the Earth".   A bioweapon has been released across the northern hemisphere and the world seems to be ending...but a handful of server admins are keeping the Internet up and the hope of recovery alive -- at least as long as the power generators hold out.

"Anda's Game" : a young teenager who finds meaning by playing in an elite women-only gaming clan is faced with a dilemma when she discovers a community of young Mexican girls online who are forced to play the game all day doing minor tasks to generate in-game gold, which is then sold for real money online.  Taking their plight seriously might mean abandoning her friends...

"After the Siege" is easily the longest and darkest, detailing the life of a young woman who is orphaned while her city is besieged by outside powers in retaliation for its open-culture philosophy,The story features an outsider who calls himself a wizard and who -- as the fearful and naive girl is turned by the war into a wary, cynical young woman --  seems ever more suspicious. This story has the same premise as the short piece which opens the collection, "Printcrime", but is enormously expanded. In that one, the police destroy and imprison a man who was using a 3D printer to reproduce copyright-protected goods.

"The Man Who Sold the Moon" is a nod to Heinlein, at least in its title. A man forced to look Death in the face encounters a friend who will change his life by dragging him to a Burning Man event, and  is enlisted  in a project to create a unique robot. When the friend has his own encounter with Death, however, a crowdfunded attempt to realize one of the stricken man's dreams takes readers to the moon.   The technical accomplishment  drives the story, but a lot of its heart is the three main characters' attempts to find meaning in an all-too mortal life now overshadowed by the threat of cancer.

"I, Rowboat".   The most speculative of the stories,  this features a sentient rowboat programmed with Asimov's Laws of Robotics attempting to protect some human shells (rented out to human consciousnesses who like to relive the days of having flesh and such) from a sentient coral reef.  There are plentiful Asimov references here, including a robot religion called Asimovism, and a rogue personality which refers to itself as R. Daneel Olivaw. The amount of consciousnesses being uploaded and downloaded from host to host  -- at one point the boat downloads himself into a human shell -- can get confusing, especially when a consciousness  has been temporarily cloned. (At one point the rowboat downloads himself into a human shell to  effect a rescue, and has a conversation with his rowboat self.)

All in all, I most definitely got my .99 cents worth and hope to try Little Brother at some point.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Everyday Life of the North American Indians

Everyday Life of the North American Indian
© 1979 Jon White
256 pages

Everyday Life of the North American Indian is a dated but informative survey of the customs and lifestyles of native peoples across the continent. Most of the content is organized in chapters like "Warrior" and "Artist", which include areas of life connected to warmaking or artistanship; for instance, the chapter on Shamans encompasses religion, spirituality, and mythology in addition to its particular interest on the role of shamans or similar figures. Because the varied peoples of an entire content are being considered, each hailing from radically different landscapes, each has to be addressed in the most general of terms, and the people of Mexico are largely ignored except as they influence various tribes living throughout the southeast and southwest. Although agriculture was practiced in some regions, hunting and foraging remained crucial -- and because local stocks of game could be exhausted, many population employed a strategy of tethered mobility, moving from place to place within a certain region. Religion's core was nature (gods of sun and corn, that sort of thing), not a philosophy of life, and roles for men and women had both fixed and fluid elements: men did the hunting and women did most of the work around the settlement, but both were artisans and both were particiopants in their political systems. As in other pre-industrial societies, children were introduced to their responsibilities fairly early, helping gather resources as tots, watching their younger siblings, and assuming the full mantle of adulthood by their teen years. The kind of massed warfare popular to depict in Hollywood movies was an anomaly: while native peoples were not pacific, they preferred quick raids to settle scores, at least until their societies were disrupted by guns and horses. However, some populations like the Iroquois, were notoriously severe in war: one of the reasons they joined together in a confederacy was to stem their neighborly bloodletting.

Although this is very general, and hasn't aged well in parts, the damage is mostly contained by language. As far as I know, the theory that native Americans first arrived in the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge is still the mainstay, though now it's suggested and understood that the 'bridge' was a more substantial landmass that people lived on, not merely transited through. Some of the author's generalizations were reaching a bit, like suggesting that natives didn't like to disrupt the land too much: I take it the Moundville culture is an exception, since building enormous soil pyramids from Mobile to Illinois would definitely count as disruptive. The author doesn't promote any view of native peoples as gentle nature-loving hippies wearing eagle feathers, though. They are in their own turns aggressive and clement, and those who lived closed to the bone were judicious about their use of resources, while those who lived in abundance were more profligate. Charles C. Mann's more current research into native America demonstrated ably that some native societies altered the landscape to a wide degree.

All things considered, though, Everyday Life of the North American Indian is helpful. It's replete with photographs, to boot.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: Eleven Campus Stories
© 1951 Max Shulman
223 pages

Imagine if PG Wodehouse wrote stories about a girl-crazy freshman at the University of Minnesota, circa late 1940s. That's kind of what reader will find in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. I first read this book in 2003; it was a going-away gift from my high school librarian, who had to discard it but thought I would like it. She was right -- I loved it. I loved the silly humor, the archaic slang ("Wow-dow", "he fractures me", etc), the presence of this world that was so obviously different from mine. The eleven stories are not sequential, or  integrated; unlike I Was a Teenage Dwarf, the Dobie here is not a fixed character. In one story he may be serious and cunning, and in another he's apparently been given a dose of ecstasy, nibbling on girls' fingers and jumping about "like a goat". He studies, variously, mechanical engineering, law, chemistry, journalism, and Egyptology. Every story pivots on Dobie's relationship with a girl, and more often than not he's the one being led around by the ear, a bobby-soxed captain at the helm. Other times his desire to impress or woo a woman lead him astray. These stories are FUNNY -- funny for the silly language, for the absurd scenarios, for the tongue in cheek narration. There's also a lot of physical humor, something that's hard to pull off in a literary medium. No wonder I took to Wodehouse so strongly when I first read him: he reminded me of this first brush with Shulman, who for me, never lived up to this book , no matter what else I read by him. (A lot of the other stuff was more bawdy than absurd.)

Read The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. It'll fracture ya. 


  • The closest Shulman ever came to matching this book for me was Barefoot Boy with Cheek, another campus-life satire.
  • "Love is a Fallacy". One of the stories is available online.  This is sort of a Frankenstein story in which budding law student Dobie tries teach logic to a girl he'd like to marry...only to have the tables turned on him. 


I have finally broken ground on this year's study series with Everyday Life of North American Indians (© 1979), but before I start posting reviews and such I'd like to share some photos from a day trip I took with some friends three years ago. Our destination was Moundville, Alabama, site of the Moundville Archaelogical Park.

The park is the site of an ancient and abandoned city associated with the Mississippian culture. Several sites like these exist in the eastern United States: the largest place is Cahokia, in western Illinois (very near St. Louis, Missouri).  I've heard of another mound near Mobile, but it is not accessible by road. "Moundville" was abandoned prior to the arrival of Europeans, much like the city-sites of the Anasazi.  At its height, it may have had a thousand people. As with the Anasazi, it is believed that the inhabitants of this place merged or became the tribes which later lived in the region -- in this case, tribes like the Chickasaw.   The park now contains 21 mounds, but early reports refer to 30.

After entering the park at the visitor's center in the left background of this photo, visitors will see them a wide field  dotted with grassy mounds, with a circular road connecting them. This photo is taken atop the largest mound, considered to be the chief's by virtue of its size.

There are about 77 steps -- I've never counted myself, but before I took this shot back in May 2015, a young boy and his father were descending, and the boy counted nosily. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt!

At the far end of the circle is an air-conditioned museum, which houses artifacts and the expected information about the park, and the possibly political or religious uses of the mounds. 

One of the exhibits.

Behind the museum are a few smaller mounds, plus ponds formed from the depressions left from excavating the dirt to build the original mounds.

Another area of the park houses three artificial huts built in the style of residences, and each contain half-melted plastic figures which once resembled humans doing the sort of things one expects museum exhibits to do -- burying people, marrying, that sort of thing.  In their melted state they're rather gruesome.  Enjoy another shot of the placid fields instead!

The Black Warrior River, which the city overlooked and which was its lifeblood, I'm sure. As I stood here I could almost imagine seeing hostile war-boats rounding the curve of the river.  Unlike the Alabama river, the Black Warrior River remains navigable to heavy industrial and commercial traffic. (The Alabama river is so constricted by dams and such that it's mostly used for pleasure craft and fishing these days.) 

Moundville is intriguing for its mysteries: why did people build it, remain a few hundred years, and then melt away into the forest? Cahokia had a similar fate.  There are just so many stories which have played out across familiar landscapes that have escaped the record completely. All we can do is stare, wonder, and probe the ground for answers.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
© 2008 Ian Mortimer
342 pages

Within minutes of being transported to the time of King Arthur,  Mark Twain's fictional Yankee found himself arrested and facing death.  If only he'd had a copy of Ian Mortimer's Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England,  he could have avoided such peril.  Mortimer's guide is a winsome social history of the 14th century,  which covers every thing from social structure to city smells to table manners. Herein we are told what to see, what to wear, where to eat, what to do (and more importantly, what not to do -- like enjoying a bit of mutton on Fridays).  Now, it's rather improbable that you or I or anyone else will ever actually have the chance to visit the 14th century, unless we're doing it at the side of Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales But this book's real service to the modern reader is to bring the past alive, to guide readers through a remembrance of old England-- down its crowded, jostling, feces-strewn streets, through alleys of barking vendors, past parades of solemn clergymen, into hovels and palaces and across plains where knights joust and yeomen farm -- to encounter the very real and varied stories which memory has forgotten or abused.  What a delight!

Ian Mortimer is an nigh-unparalleled host to the past, filling a wide table with a treasure of information. What aspect of life are you curious about from the medieval epoch? You will find it here. Clothing? You're covered, literally, from head to foot, from young boys to old women. (Middle-aged men are not covered too well, wearing alarmingly short doublets that show off their expansive hosiery and ridiculously pointed shoes.)   Are you interested in justice, or the miscarriage thereof? Mortimer reviews the structure of law and order, from the neighborhood tithing-man up to the king's courts.  Or perhaps you'd like to poke into medieval medicine? ...well, you can, but you shouldn't. It involves treatments of boiled puppies. One of the more interesting and unexpected chapters was on the medieval character.  Medieval men and women lived much more closer to death than we did, but this manifest itself in different ways: a macabre sense of humor, a love for fleeting beauty, and a ready tolerance of heads on pikes outside the public gates.  There are some curious omissions, like religion:   the Church's social structure appears again and again, of course, from church courts to travelers' inns runs by monks, and  the bits on custom can't avoid religious discussion, whether we're eating fish during Lent or  going to court because it's always held on this-or-that holiday. The ways people worshiped, however, are not addressed.  Obviously Mortimer couldn't cover everything, and so much is tackled that it's a minor fault -- but considering how strongly interconnected religion is with everything else, it's a curious thing to not mention.

On the whole, I was enormously  pleased with this book.  Blame it on watching Men in Tights  as a lad or playing too much Age of Empires, but the medieval epoch is one that has fascinated me  for most of my life.  I used to have a dim view of it, but was cured by encountering Frances and Joseph Gies' medieval history works, books like Life in a Medieval City and Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel  The Gies and Mortimer's works are obviously close kin, considering how much they intersect, but the Gies wrote several social histories of that sort and weren't as pressed for space as Mortimer. He delivers an amazing amount of material in just a few hundred pages, but the strength of  this book is not merely its content. Mortimer brings alive the intimate human experiences of the medeval epoch -- the despair of  parents losing their families during the Great Plague, the  passion and tenderness of poets and courtesans, and the inescapable sense of Belonging, as peoples' social ties were everything. Mortimer is also upfront about his sources, whether they're inklings from the Canterbury Tales, or art, or formal histories, court records, that sort of thing.

I look forward to reading the rest of the books in this series, possibly in April given the English connection.

The works of Frances and Joseph Gies, especially:
Life in a Medieval City, Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval Village,  Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, and The Knight in History.
The Other Side of Western Civilization. Articles on various workaday aspects of the ancient and medieval world.
The Age of Faith, Will Durant

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fool's Errand

Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan
© 2017 Scott Horton
318 pages

Incredible as it sounds, it is nearly possible for a child conceived in the first week of the US invasion of Afghanistan to have come of age and deploy there himself. He's out there now, a sixteen  or seventeen- year old waiting for the day when he can fight in his father's war. The Afghanistan war is an odd one -- the United States' longest war, yes,  but one of its least-cared about:  not popular yet not  protested.  Americans just don't seem to care about the trillions of dollars burned under the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains, the thousands of American soldiers killed, or the hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians killed in attempts to destroy the nebulous enemy.  Fool's Errand is a case not just against the war, but against apathy.  This war was badly conceived, badly executed, and maintained as a litany of errors, one feeding the fire that the initial invasion intended to squelch. The United States will leave Afghanistan eventually, and the area will collapse into civil war eventually. The only question is how many more lives will be ruined and how many more enemies DC will create in its belabored efforts to fight a hangover by hailing the hair of the dog.

They hate us for our freedoms,  the president said as  American troops marched into Afghanistan, and the wound of 9/11 was still too raw for anyone to question the claim.   9/11 was barbaric and unconscionable and to posit that it was done as a reaction to DCs own policy in the middle east would have seemed like an insult to the innocent slain – even though bin laden and al-Queda’s hatred for the American troops parked in Arab countries, used as bases to constantly bomb Arab citizens, was well documented. Even as the United States moved toward Afghanistan with an objective of overthrowing  the Taliban that had given bin Laden shelter,  the war was not inevitable:  the rulers of Afghanistan then were willing to give bin Laden up,   given to a US ally, but the administration in its heated desire for revenge had no interest in doing anything deliberately.  Instead, American men and material were thrown into the same grave that claimed the armies of Alexander, the Brits, and the Russians.  Homo sapiens is a misnomer.

From there the misery continues: having destroyed the old order, as disagreeable as it was, DC fumbled repeatedly in attempts to create a new one.  It created an effective civil war in the country in its use of one pliable-but-despised tribe to do the governing, and through the breakdown of social order rose the criminal chaos that the Taliban had largely arrested by imposing its own illiberal order.  Oddly, people object to being invaded and bombed, and a relatively small number of scattered al-Queda fighters grew into a native resistance -- and the more bombs that fell, the more lives destroyed in an attempt to get the bad guys, the more enraged and distressed men picked up guns and started fighting.  Money gone to train Afghanis to defend their "country" disappeared with the trained troops, who had little real interest in fighting their neighbor insurgents.  The chaos spread across the region as DC tried to intervene in other regimes, and the "war on terror" became a sustained nightmare of bombs for those on the ground, creating new lifetimes of American enemies in the middle east. Osama bin Laden, hiding comfortably, could bask behind his own MISSION ACCMPLISHED banner:  he wanted to draw the Americans into an unwinnable war, and they drove straight into the minefield. (And he's not the only enemy DC effectively helped:  the Islamic Republic of Iran was once surrounded by armed Sunni states; now those rivals are ruined and Iran has much more influence over the region, to the despair of DC's partners in crime, the House of Saud.)

Depressing and infuriating, Fool's Errand tells a full story. There's the military history of the invasion and growing insurgency, followed by futile attempts to squelch it,  but Horton also dips into the politics of the region and of DC, showing how  the anti-war aims of Obama were frustrated by inertia and the fact that the DC establishment --  the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, and the defense and intelligence contractors who are guaranteed work --  has no interest in bowing to history just yet. They'll keep sending other people's children to die and burning other people's money.

The author's podcast, featuring over four thousand interviews with foreign policy analysts, dating to 2003.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Top Ten Books To Be Read....Someday?

This week the Broke and the Bookish- well, now Jana from That Artsy Reader Girl -- are discussing books that  have been on  our to-be-read lists for the longest time. Here are the top ten oldest books on my 'to-read-eventually' list, based on my Amazon wishlist and my Goodreads to-read shelf.

1. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

One of the first books I ever added to my Amazon wishlist in 2005,  it has not gone under $25-$19 in thirteen years.  I will keep waiting. There are many books and I am a patient miser.

2. Greek Ways: How the Greeks Invented Western Civilization, Bruce Thornton

I keep not bothering with this one because I figure Who Killed Homer?  and The Echo of Greece have covered the area fairly well in my head.

3. Skylab: America's Space Station, David Shayler
"I want to read something about Skylab again", I apparently said at one point in 2006.  I've read a lot of human spaceflight books since then, but not this one.

4. How to be a Gentleman, John Bridges

I used to be obsessed with manners  in high school, something that came in handy when I graduated uni and started getting invited to dinner parties.   This did make me painfully formal for most of my teens and twenties, but now that I'm trekking into my thirties I have decided that I'd rather be a cowboy, instead. 

5. ST Voyager Spirit Walk, Book One: Old Wounds


Added this one back when I experienced Star Trek through its books, not re-watching the television episodes. It's the first attempt at a Voyager relaunch, but it's practically never mentioned favorably at TrekBBS.

6. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Annotated and Explained

Added December 2008, which was right about when I was starting to learn about Stoicism.  This one that would be read if there wasn't so much competition.

7. The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi

Added early 2010, when I was intently getting into reading Buddha and Gandhi.

8. Anarchism and Other Essays, Emma Goldman
Added Sept 2010.  I'd already read Red Emma Speaks in February of that year.

9.Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris

One of the first books added to my TBR shelf on Goodreads when I joined it, based on their  reccomendation. This one that has a better-than-even chance of making it into the "read" pile some day, given that it's a history of science.

10. The Moral Animal: Why We Are  The Way We Are, Robert Wright

This is one I almost-buy twice a year.

Of this list, the last two have the most chance of actually being read, and a few others have a shot if they're cheap and I'm in the mood.

Books from a time capsule of sorts

Around Christmas, the technical expertise and beneficence of a friend allowed me to recover the data from a computer of mine from 2004-2008, one that has been offline since that spring when either its power supply or motherboard gave up the ghost.  The machine spanned a transitional point in my life,  from the high watermark of youth, to the beginnings of my adulthood. There are all sorts of artifacts from my life-that-was: saved chats,  scores of MS Works documents, and...Livejournal posts, and I thought it would make an interesting exercise to look through them and see what books I was mentioning in conversation back then.

1. The Paragon, John Knowles

I apparently picked this up in 2005,  following up on my interest in A Separate Peace.  If I ever finished it, I don't recall a blessed thing about it.

2. Short stories by James Turber

Thurber was mentioned in a psychology text, used in a class that  I hated going to -- not for lack of interest in the subject, but because the teacher was new, obnoxious, and dull despite his background as a saxophonist from Las Vegas. I used to sit in the back and read during the lectures. I mention that I went to the library looking for a collection of Thurber's works, so evidently the text caught my attention better than the teacher.

3. Balance of Power, James Huston

I actually remember this one! Very vaguely. It's a political-action thriller in which there's some naval terrorist action, and the President won't act so the Congress decides to dust off the Constitution and use that clause that allows them to issue "Letters of Marque", or...engage mercenaries for bounty-hunting.  This was one of the books I was reading in psychology class.  My questionable verdict: "That is one good book".

4. Ratpack Confidential, Shawn Levy

"It was the ultimate spasm of traditional showbiz--both the last and most of its kind. It was the high point of their lives and a midlife crisis. It was the acme of the American Century and a venal, rancid, ugly sham. It was the Rat Pack. It was beautiful."

Just one of the many Ratpack and Sinatra-related books I was reading in 2005, along with The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'.   I was utterly obsessed with Sinatra, listening to the same two CDs over and over again. ("Sinatra Reprise: The Best is Yet to Come", and "Classic Sinatra").

5. Submarine!   I can't find this book on amazon, but I seem to have purchased it at a mall in Montgomery, Alabama, and described it as a WW2 submariner's memoirs. I went into the bookstore looking for a book on "zoology", and mention browsing the gangster nonfiction a bit, including the memoir of Henry Hill.

6. Man of Honor and Bound by Honor, by Joseph and Bill Bonanno -- the memoirs of a father and son who were part of the New York mafia. I was a bit obsessed with la cosa nostra in 2004 and 2005.  Both were borrowed from my history professor, whose office I haunted regularly.

7. That Was Then, Then is Now, S.E. Hinton.  I used carry this one in my jacket and read from it whenever I was waiting on something, and I mentioned it  incessantly.  No wonder my copy of the book is so beaten up!

8. Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck. I revisited this one in 2010, but I don't know how my take on it drifted in the five years that passed. (When I mentioned the book the first time, it was quickly overshadowed by chatter about a girl...)

9. British History for Dummies and Shakespeare for Dummies. Both read in  late spring 2005,  in part for leisure and in part to help with a paper on Othello. I used to have a sizable collection of for Dummies and Complete Idiot's Guide to... books,  as they were cheaper surveys of various historical subjects.

10. The Broker, John Grisham. Another book I read during Psychology after receiving it for my birthday early 2005.

Also mentioned, but never elaborated on, were "a book of sketches from the Larry King Live show",  and "Men's Relational Toolbox".  I assume the latter was self-help about relationships.

Although I wasn't listing my books back then -- and even when I started writing about books on purpose, instead of mentioning them in online journals and in AIM conversations --  I seem to have been a fairly active reader despite the pressures of writing constant papers and struggling with literature like Phaedra.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume III

Archipeleg GULag / The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Volume III (of III)
© 1973, 1974 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
576 pages

Throughout The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has taken readers on a tour of the Soviet concentration camps,  where human beings were tortured, manipulated, and exploited to the hilt.  Now, in volume three, the journey has come to an end.  The bulk of volume three, “Katorga”,  focuses on the Siberian work camps that the Soviets resurrected to punish “Nazi collaborators”, a term loose enough to include anyone who remained in western Russia during the Nazi occupation.    Some two-thirds in,  the monstrous Stalin finally succumbs to the fate he’d inflicted on millions of others, but little changes in the gulag system. Solzhenitsyn then reviews his own release into “exile”, and finally his return to Soviet society.

The second volume of Gulag Archipelago is a prolonged review of the architecture of brutality , both physical and political,  used by the Soviet camps. Reading it was to see a human thrown on the rack and tortured, slowly, and only Solzhenitsyn’s  constant mocking of the authorities, and his stubborn efforts to look for the flickers of hope and grace in his fellow prisoners,  made the spectacle bearable.  In “Katorga”, Solzhenitsyn  also explores another avenue of relief: the constant attempts by prisoners to escape.  Although Siberian camps didn’t have as much physical infrastructure inhibiting escapes (sometimes as little as a wire fence),   their location – in sparsely populated wildernesses without reliable sources of food or fresh water  --  made a flight back to civilization nearly impossible.   Although Solzhenitsyn details many escape attempts, almost all of them end in a bitter return to the camp.  Typically, the escapees’ desperate attempts to obtain water or food create an increasingly chaotic trail of mistakes as they encounter more and more people. (Those who help escaped prisoners were threatened with 25 year gulag terms themselves, so only those with a bitter resentment of the government were willing to take the risk of trusting hungry strangers.)

In the final part of this third volume, Solzhenitsyn details the Soviet use of exile, which was a weapon used against  ordinary civilians as well as those accused of crimes: at the Soviet bureaucracy’s whim, whole populations might be ordered to desert their homes and move across the continent to settle an area that the bureaucracy deemed in need of warm bodies.  Many “exiles” were people who had been targeted for  their  skills or stature in smaller communities, like blacksmiths and millers – condemned as a classes for the abuses of a few. Although the shakeup after Stalin’s demise resulted in a few pardons, the Gulag system remained in place –- and books like Fear no Evil by Natan Sharansky fulfill Solzhenitsyn’s hope that future generations would continue  to expose the continuing system of  injustice that the Soviet state embodied, but which was expressed most transparently in its work camps.    Solzhenitsyn ends with an apology that the book is not edited or expanded more properly:  he was forced to rush it  out of his apartment after the government caught wind that he was writing something subversive. Considering the outstanding quality of the  text as-is, particularly given that it is a work in translation,  one wonders what the finished product might have looked like had Solzhenitsyn had the time he desired. (If he was like some authors, we’d never see it,  the desire for perfection forever pushing off the publication date.)

The Gulag Archipelago is a  warning for the ages about the horrors a government with the best of intentions can inflict on its own people, and a reminder that human beings are not fit to hold power over one another.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Poetry Night at the Ballpark

Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from an Alternative America
© 2015 Bill Kauffman
442 pages

 “Lift up your hearts, friends – America ain’t dead yet.”  For thirty years, Bill Kauffman has been blowing raspberries at or haranguing the politics of empire – mocking and condemning all things swollen and centralized, and cheering on the local and small.  This interestingly-titled volume collects a diverse amount of Kauffman’s writings, from  biographical sketches of eccentric American figures to literary reviews, with all manner of opinion pieces in between. It is an anthology that celebrates the little America outside of New York and Los Angeles, the America that breathes when the television is turned off.  If you have read any Kauffman before, or even read a review of Kauffman – or for that matter, the first two sentences of this review –  the general temper won’t  be a surprise. But Poetry Night at the Ballpark, while consistent with Kauffman’s usual spirit,  collects so many different kinds of writing that even his fans will find surprises here, and delivered with his usual fondness for amusing or provocative titles. Some of the sectional collections are definitely unexpected, like a series written about holidays (in which he champions Arbor Day over Earth Day, for instance)  and…some space-themed writing.   The sections called “Pols”, “Home Sweet Home”, and “The America That Lost” are more of his usual fare.  I’ve been reading Kauffman’s columns at the Front Porch Republic and other sources to have seen  and remembered a few of these – a favorite is 2012’s “Who Needs a President?” in which he revisits the antifederalist arguments against an executive office.

In Poetry Night at the Ballpark, Kuaffman introduces a multitude of forgotten individuals, all with their quirks, and recounts stories from American history which have been largely forgotten.  Take those arrogant Roosevelts – T.R.  tried to inflict a new kind of spelling on the entire nation, in one of the first examples of the Oval Office obviously unhinging whoever sat in it.  (Actually, considering the west wing was constructed during Teddyboy’s reign, maybe he was already unhinged and imbued it with his spirit.)    Franklin Roosevelt also moved Thanksgiving hither and yon hoping to create more shopping days for Christmas,  beginning the occasion’s slow  but total conquest by Christmas.  As varied as the essays are, they’re reliably grounded in Kauffman’s love for the small, local, and particular, be it movies or baseball. He begins  in and titles his  book   at the local ballpark , cheering on his hometown’s boys,  but has no use whatsoever for the major leagues, whose local connections are abstract, and who are oriented  towards money than  love of the game;   sports and home intersect in  his section on movies, where he calls for films that tell local stories with a local flavor, and comments at length on Hoosiers as a small-town classic.

I make no secret of liking Kauffman, and for me this book was like encountering him  at a bar and sticking around to  hear some salty stories of odd characters and fun stories, as well as some good old-fashioned belly-aching about the soulless suits in power.  It’s not as focused as his other work, so it’s best read by people who have already encountered Kauffman before – unless a first-timer opens the book in the store, finds themselves drawn in by his playful pen, and has to sit down to experience a bit more.

If you'd like a taste of Kauffman, one of my favorite speeches by him is called "Love is the Answer to Empire" That title links to a written version.

" [Walt Whitman] understood that any healthy political or social movement has to begin, has to have its heart and soul, at the grass roots. In Kansas, not on K Street.

"And it has to be based in love. Love not of some remote abstraction, some phantasm that exists only on the television screen—Ford Truck commercials and Lee Greenwood songs—but love of near things, things you can really know and experience. The love of a place and its people: their food, their games, their literature, their music, their smiles.

"I am a localist, a regionalist. To me, the glory of America comes not from its weaponry or wars or a mass culture that is equal parts stupidity, vulgarity, and cynical cupidity—one part 'The View,' one part Miley Cyrus, and a dollop of Rush Limbaugh—rather, it is in the flowering of our regions, our local  cultures. Our vitality is in the little places—city neighborhoods, town squares—the places that mean nothing to those who run this country but that give us our pith, our meaning."