Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Odd Egg Editor

Odd-Egg Editor
© 1990 Kathryn Tucker Windham
170 pages

Anyone who grew up in Selma, Alabama, prior to 2011 had heard of Kathryn Tucker Windham, and odds were they cherished her.  A master storyteller, she inspired an annual Tale-Tellin' Festival that survives today.  Odd-Egg Editor is a brief memoir of her newspaper days, before she became a local legend.  Beginning with the Montgomery Advertiser in the 1940s,  covering the police beat,  Tucker expanded her career to land a position in Birmingham and later settled in her hometown of Selma just as the civil rights movement was warming up in the 1960s.   This memoir has a lot of little stories, with colorful characters -- a playful judge who once busied himself creating spitballs during testimony,  an inveterate escapee named Billie Jean who counted herself a friend of the cops and her regular judge-- as well as a few sadder stories.  The title of the book comes from Tucker being assigned all the odd stories at the Montgomery Advertiser, and is itself a colorful collection. One could easily read it as two decades of journalism from  mid-20th century Alabama , but I was drawn to it for the author's voice. Although she was too advanced in age to do a lot of storytelling during my youth, I heard her a time or two at Cahaba Day festivals. Even in her last years she was a volunteer at the Selma-Dallas County Library,  firmly ensconced in the town she loved and which loved her back.  I enjoyed this account of her getting started -- of overcoming prejudice against her as a young woman invading male spaces like  the cop beat and the governor's hunting camp -- very well.

Kathryn Tucker Windham, from the second-floor balcony of the Selma-Dallas County Library


Our Time Has Come

Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World 
©  2018 Alyssa Ayres
360 pages

The India of the 21st century is more than  the word's back office;  by some measures, it has already overtaken Japan as the world's third largest economy,  and as the world's second largest country,  its expansion has only begun, with millions more Indians waiting to rise from poverty.   Our Time Has Come is written not by an Indian national, but by an American student who first visited the world's largest democracy in the early nineties, and saw India's transformation as it moved away from the failures of socialism and embraced both greater freedom for its citizens, and the technologies of the future.  Now a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ayres reviews the way that India has established a growing role for itself as a world power, and makes recommendations for US policy.

India is less a new power than an old power made new again, Ayres points out in an introductory chapter which reviews the former economic weight of India some two thousand years ago.  India, like China, has a long memory --   and as a postcolonial nation, India's pride in its own heritage is made stronger by determination not to enveloped by another power once more.   Although Ayres has a section on India's growing economic importance in the world,  I found India's strategic and diplomatic expansion far more interesting.    India sees itself as reclaiming its former role as a world leader, and is careful to protect its independence.  It has an especially interesting role at the United Nation, where it's quite supportive of peacekeeping missions and democracy-building....but reliably refrains from voting for measures which single out one nation or another for abuse, viewing such measures was non-constructive.  India also refrains from taking up joint efforts with other nations on a private basis -- preferring missions under the UN flag. (Speaking of which, India is stretching its legs militarily, and intends to establish itself as the predominant power in the Indian Ocean.) Ayers stresses that DC should approach India as a partner, not an ally who will necessarily support DC's every move:   India and DC's interests will align more often than not, but respecting India's need for independence is crucial to building a healthy relationship.    Related is the recommendation that DC adopt the practice of consulting India on a habitual basis when working in the region  -- both for its intelligence resources and to build a relationship of mutual trust that makes diplomacy between the two more reflexive and open than occasional and formal.  More controversially,  Ayers recommends that instead of trying to balance focus on Pakistan and India that DC double down on India.  Pakistan is an unreliable partner in the best of times, and now that the Afghan war appears to be winding down (knock on wood), it may be possible to take this advice.  One disconcerting tidbit in this book is China's chilly regard towards India; while India is eager to move forward in trade and cooperation, China is far less amicable.

Although I found this book quite interesting,  I'm an admitted foreign policy wonk. It's quite readable, but it goes into a lot of details that might put readers with just a vague curiosity about India off.

"Pakistan sees any sign of Indian involvement with Afghanistan as a threat to its own interests, and as a result has refused to allow India transit access to Afghanistan and beyond—even though connecting Afghans to the region’s largest market would help stabilize Afghanistan’s economy and bring much-needed economic security to the entire region."

"When the Bush Administration made its breakthrough with India in 2005–2006, some in the Administration and many beyond hoped that India might become effectively allied with the U.S. in its foreign and defense policy. That was an illusion. We can now see clearly that India, a great civilization with thousands of years of history and the self-confidence that comes with it, will pursue its own interests as a 21st century great power. We will not become formal treaty allies. We’ll align on many issues, but we will not be 'aligned.'"

Brave New World: India, China, and the United States, Anja Manuel. Another foreign policy guide, but this one appraises both India and China's merits and weaknesses, and stresses that DC need to tread carefully in not favoring one over the other. I really need to properly review this one this year, because it was a favorite.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Recent Additions to my To-Read List

Today the Artsy Reader Girl is hosting top ten lists on recent additions to TBR piles. These are books which are either on my to-read Goodreads list,  are Amazon bookmarks, or were books I took a photo of in the bookstore so I could look for reviews later.

Them: Why We Hate Each Other -- and How To Heal, Ben Sasse

Sadly relevant and badly needed, going by the premise. I looked inside while shopping and it had chapter on the decline of civic culture and institutions, meaning it doesn't just blame social media. (That's part of the problem, but I'm eager to see what Sasse says. )

How the Canyon Became Grand and In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians
Spotted at the Grand Canyon Visitor's Center. I'd arrived early to watch the sun rise over the Canyon (an experience I recommend, but DRESS WARMLY!), and was waiting for my helicopter flight over the canyon.(Also an experience I recommend. It's absolutely unforgettable.)

The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life,  Carlo & Ratti

Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy
Although facebook has its uses, it and social media make stable democracy and accurate-enough-to-be-useful news extremely  difficult.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith
...I've given embarrassingly little thought to octupi.  Usually when animal intelligence comes up, it's always dolphins and chimpanzees.

Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralist Future, Kirkpatrick Sale
The original Human Scale was one of my favorite books of 2014, and I look forward to seeing its updated edition.

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution
One of my favorite segments of Planet Earth II was the episode on animal life within major cities, and this seems to be devoted to that topic.

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
I probably don't need to read this given that it will just validate something I already believe (that power is unfailingly corruptive), but it may have new angles beyond the usual ones.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World in Search of the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty
A thoughtful reflection on global traditions about death and dying, I think. I was very much impressed by Doughty's memoir of how she overcame her own fear of death by working in the funeral service.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Whale

The Whale, or, Moby-Dick
© 1851 Herman Melville
630 pages

The Whale, alternatively called Moby-Dick,  is a comprehensive  19th century guide to whaling and whales from a novelist who decided to take a hand at writing nonfiction. Such a thing was not unusual in those days, as many people were amateur naturalists -- Darwin, for instance, originally intended to be a country parson who dabbled in geology.  Melville used his prior whaling experience and considerable passion for the subject as the basis of his research, though -- novelist as he was -- he could  not help but insert a splash of narrative into the  scientific survey.   It's an interesting distraction, of course, but even the spectre of an obsessed captain with a pegleg in search of revenge doesn't cover over the fact that Melville, for all his interest in the subject, is He insists that whales are fish, for instance.   The fictional element is quite interesting in its own right, of course,   featuring an young chap with a hunger for adventure befriending a strange man from the far corners of the world, and then being thrown into the rough and tumble world of whaling while the ship sails towards its doom, badgering every other ship it meets with queries on whether they've seen The Whale or not.  This fictional aspect has a mythic quality about it, especially given the origins of the name Ahab -- a king who angered God by turning to idolatry and who was later destroyed and his body tossed to the dogs in judgment.  Returning, however, to the main course -- whales, their behavior,  the hunting of them --  I wish Melville had imposed more organization.  While there's  a great deal of information here, I don't quite understand why it's still regarded as a classic of scientific literature, alongside The Origin of Species and On the Motions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Please note that the above paragraph is a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek ribbing of Moby-Dick, a book that would be as short as The Old Man and the Sea if the voluminous content about whales, whaling, whale-boats, and Wales were removed and the story left alone  I enjoyed this book and this review for all the wrong reasons!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Reading Freely

The start of a new year seems as appropriate a time as ever to launch into something I've been mulling over since 2016: a re-branding that invigorates this blog with purpose, and takes me a baby step away from the Googloplex.  Twelve years ago, when this blog began with my taking literal weekly visits to the library and reporting on what I found there, I was also maintaining a "philosophy/humanities" blog, which started as my attempt to sort out the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Once I'd figured that out (it's coffee and books),  my activity there ebbed away as I focused my literary explorations instead.  I had an idea for reviving it, by focusing it on the pursuit of the flourishing life,  possibly using the Latin understanding of humanitas as a keystone,  but I kept thinking I could do that through the book blog, instead.  Reading Freely is my attempt to combine both my literary wanderings and the pursuit of the flourishing -- and meaningful -- life.  Although it will be rooted in the western tradition,   my ideas for orienting content mean that it will continue to encompass study of the entire world.  There won't be any drastic changes in content, beyond an uptick in quality-of-life books (a rough description encompassing everything from Stoic literature to modern works on maintaining healthy relationships amid digital distraction), and the possible publication of thoughts inspired by especially insightful books, beyond a review of the same. 

Today is the first step, as I christen the blog with a new name,  and dust off the twitter account I reserved two years ago.  Although I've purchased a new domain name (, I haven't yet jumped over to it  because I'm concerned about disrupting old links at places like the Classics Club and people's blogrolls.  I think blogrolls would be safe, but I wanted to announce well before I made the jump so regular readers wouldn't be caught off guard in the event the old address didn't forward correctly.  At least now you'll have an idea of what to type if worse comes to worse.  

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Heavens on Earth

Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia
pub. 2018 Michael Shermer
320 pages

Alone among the animals, human beings live in the knowing shadow of our own mortality.  It is rarely a specter which is embraced,  and escaping death has attracted more than its share of brainpower and creative force. In Heavens on Earth, Michael Shermer appraises religious, scientific, and somewhere-in-between attempts to deny the boatman his due.  Although winsomely varied and compassionately delivered,  Shermer's latest could have delivered more.

Although Heavens on Earth opens with a chapter on religious views of the afterlife,   the real heart of this book is what lays beyond. Obviously, the founder of Skeptic magazine won't be embracing ideas of heaven and hell, or reincarnation for that matter.  What attracted me to this book was the fact that Shermer also addresses scientific and political attempts to dodge mortality --  scientific, in the form of cyrogenics and transhumanism, and political in the form of creating utopias.  Although many people have had themselves frozen in time, in the hopes that one day a way to restore them to life without destroying their tissues will be invented,  that hasn't surfaced yet.   Anti-aging cures, too, are not just around the corner. Aging, like cancer, doesn't have one cause:  it's a collective name given to several things happening at once. Shermer doesn't believe human life can be extended realistically beyond 125-150 years.  (Not mentioned is the fact that even if we replace most of our innards with synthetic organs, we still can't stop our minds from going.)  Also covered in the scientific section are attempts to copy the mind digitally, and then recreate it -- but even we had the capacity to copy a mind in full (and the psychologist Shermer does not believe we do, given the sheer complexity of neural networks),  re-creating an active intelligence from that copy wouldn't preserve the original life.  It would create a new one, effectively.

The last section addresses utopias, and it is here that Shermer misses a step by only examining one family of utopian experiences in full, those associated with neo-tribal Nazism.   Guessing the reason why isn't difficult, as Shermer alludes to an uptick in neo-tribalism in the present day,  and covers the alt-right by name.  Connecting utopias to immortality is a bit of a stretch, but if one buys into a tribal or group identity strongly enough, then its story envelops one's own, and individual mortality is forgotten. It's well and good to point to the dangers of national socialism, but communism should have been included as well: it is equally utopian, and far more murderous historically speaking.  He may have also been influenced by a quoted review from George Orwell, who spoke to the lure of Nazism: while other worldviews promised comfort and hedonic pleasures, Nazism offered the invigoration of 'struggle, danger, and death'.  The human need for challenge is one Shermer revisits.

Ultimately, Shermer concludes, the only real answer to defeating the fear of death is to embrace life, and to make the most of what which we have. If you've ever taken to Star Trek, what Shermer suggests won't be surprising -- a life emphasizing connections to family, friends, and a political community, with individual goal, a little room for contemplation, and a decided place for awe of the cosmos.

Someone please do this to Congress

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Short rounds and the week ahead

On Saturday the library was partially evacuated owing to a tornado warning, and today Father Winter has well and truly hit the town.  I'm currently reading a scrutiny of political utopias, transhumanism, and religious-spiritual ideas about life beyond death (from heaven to ghosts), as well as listening to an audiobook based on a long-favorite podcast of mine, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. The latter is 15 hours, so it will be a good while before I finish it.   But what about books I have finished? Well, recently, that makes two: The Long Game,  on Obama's foreign policy, and View from the Ground, an anthology of historical articles based on the primary-source materials of solders embroiled in the war between the states.

First up, The Long Game, which argues that President Obama entered office with a distinct foreign policy and that more often than not, he was able to apply it to the problems he encountered, if with mixed results.Chollet describes Obama's approach as the 'long game',  and identifies eight various elements of it.  Summarized: while the United States is in a unique position to effect change globally, it also can't do everything it wants or even needs to do, necessarily. Careful thought should be given to balance the nation's attention and resources between domestic and foreign priorities. Actions taken should be both sustainable in themselves, and lead to stable results. Small moves are best.   Although approaches can be tailored on the fly to adjust to changing circumstances on the ground, or tangible proof that a given policy is not working, patience is also vital. When something has failed, the best thing to do is figure out what to learn from from the experience and move forward, not sink new resources into the mistake.  Chollet then reviews some of the foreign policy stories of the Obama administration,   examining Obama's careful attempts to work with Russia and reluctance to engage with Libya or Syria (pre-2014).  Discussion of North Korea is noticeably absent from The Long Game,  but it's a refreshing reminder of a president who challenged DC in a constructive way.

Next up, View from the Ground,  which I read because a transplanted northern friend of mine was insistent that I read it.  I'd assumed it was just soldiers' recollections of various battles, which I wasn't too much interested in, but after I took a look at it I realized it was far more varied than that. The book is an anthology of different pieces,  examining this or that aspect of life on the ground -- from religious soldiers' attempts to reconcile piety with burning and killing,  to exploring the "abolitionizing" effect the war had on Union soldiers, who began fighting to protect the Union and only later were convinced of the necessity for ending slavery, which in their view  had undermined the south both economically and morally.   There are strictly military-related pieces, too, towards the end.  Given that in college I  used the songs of Civil War soldiers to explore their lives, motives, and view of the conflict as it developed, I largely enjoyed this.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Limits of Partnership

The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the 21st Century
© 2014 Angela Stent
384 pages

The Limits of Partnership examines the Russo-American relationship through four presidential administrations,  reviewing what progress was made  or conflicts each American executive had with his Russian counterpart. Stent offers that the main problems between the United States and Russia have been fairly consistent from Clinton onwards,  and that part of the problem is that each power ultimately wants different things out of the relationship.   While the United States wants Russia to mostly confirm to the ideal of western democracy, Russia wants to reclaim its prestige as a great power

The Limits of Partnership begins on a high note, as the Soviet Union disappears overnight during the tenure of a very seasoned foreign policy executive: George H.W. Bush.  The elder Bush knew that at this extraordinary moment, when the decades-old adversary had suddenly collapsed into  smaller states very unsure of themselves, that care had to be taken not to humiliate Russia's new leadership, but rather encourage them.  Most of Russia's weak transition years unfolded during the administration of Bill Clinton, however, and there some issues that would dog the relationship for decades appeared. The most pervasive source of conflict was colliding interests in the "new independent states" of the former Soviet Union.  The United States was keenly interest in welcoming post-Soviet states into the community of liberal democracies, and sometimes stepped on Russia's toes as both competed for influence in the "new Europe".    Russia, of course, resented the sudden insertion of their old rivals into what used to be part of the Union,  an area they still referred to as "the near abroad" to differentiate it from actual foreign countries.  This was especially so during the Kosovo crisis, when Russian troops on he ground were nearly attacked by NATO forces attempting to secure an airport; only alleged insubordination kept the attack order from becoming reality and initiation a full-scale conflict.

Although the Bush administration initially hit it off with Putin, and were encouraged by the Russian president's early and fulsome vow of support in the 9/11 aftermath,  Bush's "Freedom Agenda combined with Russia's desire to maintain influence in the old Soviet Union put the two nations again and again at loggerheads. At this time, Putin was also becoming....well, Putin, consolidating his power, getting the state into position to better profit from mineral resources, and making the Russian Federation a distinctly more top-down government.  Although Putin had facilitate the creation of US bases in  central Asia to allow for the US invasion of Afghanistan,  the subsequent invasion of Iraq  derailed every attempt of progress; Putin joined the leaders of Germany and France in not only not supporting the toppling of Hussein, but working within the UN to officially chide the US. The arrival of Barack Obama saw a more cautious approach to Russia; Obama was a critic of the Iraq war himself, and wasn't trying to rid the world of evil by making everyone democratic.  At the beginning, Obama was even able to enlist Russian support in moving troops in and out of the area -- but quickly enough, the initial warm period would give way to constant problems, again relating to Russia's desire to control its immediate neighborhood  -- only, during the Obama administration,  Putin's efforts had manifested themselves in actual military interventions in its neighbors,  one which set alarm bells ringing from the Caspian sea all the way to DC.

In connection with the "near abroad" problem were those created by the the emergence of the United States as a solitary superpower. In the Clinton years, the state department made subtle organizations that effectively demoted Russia's importance: instead of having its own department, it merely had a section within a larger Eurasian one. The US also ended its involvement in several treaties that were deemed to be no longer necessary,   which was regarded by Russia's own government as a sign that the United States didn't take it seriously as power.  Resentment over this loss of status was made far worse after the unilateral invasion of Iraq, which -- like increasingly many affairs in central Asia -- was done without Russian consent.  The United States' increasing involvement in the mideast, and its concerns over regional powers like Iran,  also saw the growth of military bases and missile installations -- and  much worse, for Russia, NATO invitations to its neighbors. What had NATO been formed for,  other than as a counter to Russia?   Although early on independent Russia had sought engagement with NATO,  and there had been an idea that it could even join that defensive alliance,  increasingly  Putin  -- strengthened by rising oil prices,  supported by Russians who regarded him as a return to glory-  sought an independent course for Russia, one in which it did not move closer to the west as was hoped, but rather followed its own path.

The Limits of Partnership is a very helpful history of relationships until late 2013, although there were substantial developments in the years that followed -- the debacles of Syria and ISIS, for instance, the midnight expulsion of Russian diplomats during Obama's administration, and the revelation that entities within Russia had been manipulating social media chatter to stir up trouble.   It seems more unlikely than ever that America and Russia will establish a fruitful working relationship, but given how personality-fixed Putin's Russia is, once he retires, things may change, and the growing  global influence of India and China may change that entirely. It may be that instead of Russia brooding over the loss of a bipolar world, it has to learn to adjust to an entirely different one. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

How the Internet Happened

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone
© 2018 Brian McCullough
400 pages

Who's ready for a little nostalgia? Brian McCullough, host of the Internet History podcast,  here turns his research and many interviews in a compact history of how the tool of  research scientists became the petri dish of 21st century life.  This isn't a technical history of APRANET slowly maturing; rather, it's a popular history of how the Internet as most experienced it 'happened' -- how it emerged, how it took fire, how different products and services saw it rapidly grow in new ways and transform society as a whole. McCullough uses a series of products and events to tell the story of the digital world, from the first graphical browser that made the network user-friendly, to the arrival of smartphones.  If you were alive and aware in the nineties, and especially if you were growing up with the internet as many readers and quite a few tech billionaires these days did, it's a nostalgia trip in addition to a fun history.

McCullough begins with the Mosaic browser, which later became Netscape, the first browser to bring a Mac-like graphic interface to the browsing experience.  The unusual popularity of Mosaic hinted at the potential popularity of the internet, though the tech giants of the day were slow to catch on.  Microsoft was entirely focused on Windows 95, and while it was thinking about an information highway, it imagined this future revolution would take place via television and cable connections, not low-bandwidth telephone lines.  Once Bill Gates and Microsoft realized they'd made the wrong call, they used all their resources to make good the mistake -- immediately releasing an OS that advertised its web-friendliness, and developing Internet Explorer and the MSN Network,  as well as working with America Online.   America Online was quick to grasp that the internet was fundamentally social, and that they could expand their influence enormously if they promoted chatting, message boards, and the like. (I wasn't even an AOL subscriber, and I used and loved its AIM client.)

The astonishing success of Netscape and AOL meant that New York's financial elite -- and the whole of baby boomer and investment-curious America --  saw it as an avenue for wealth, and  the latter part of the nineties would be marked by a dot-come bubble that crashed in 2000.  An astonishing array of companies sprang into being, promising to sell everything from dog food to cars online, and despite never showing the first sign of profit investors leapt on them. Some -- a few, like Amazon -- had staying power, but most were pipe dreams.  While the resulting crash would dampen enthuasism in the early 2000s, McCullough holds that the bubble played an important role in driving the expansion of the internet's infrastructure, paving the way for affordable broadband just as railway bubbles in England had paved it over in rails despite leaving many people destitute.  In the meantime, more companies were developing that would capitalize on the web's unique nature, like Google and facebook.    All of the companies that McCullough chronicles bring something new to the table: eBay's reputation mechanism, for instance -- or allow users to revolutionize their own experience. Napster, for instance, gave people the strong taste of instant gratification,  and the ability to remix content easily, and Facebook destroyed the wall between reality and the internet world.

The book culminates in the last chapter, amusing titled "One More Thing", covering first the Blackberry, and then of course the iPhone.  This chapter is strangely short, but perhaps that owes to the smartphone being a device still in the process of changing everything.  Smartphone sales are just now reaching their estimated peak, and while a book will certainly be written in the future on how ubiquitous mobile computing has transformed 21st century society, perhaps we're not outside the transformation enough to look back at it.

I for one thoroughly enjoyed How the Internet Happened, in part for nostalgia. I can remember the dot-com bubble commercials, the banner ads, how revolutionary Firefox's  tabbed browsing was,  how spectacularly fun AIM was, etc, and it's nice to see all of this laid out in a history. Despite experiencing it first-hand, I also learned quite a bit, like the origins of Hotmail. (I still type "" when I want to login to Microsoft services, and didn't realize Hotmail began as an independent project before Microsoft bought them to get into the web mail area.)

The One Device: A Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant

Sunday, January 13, 2019


I do a lot of window shopping for books, taking photos of new ones that have my interest so I can check on reviews, prices, etc. later on when I don't have a hot coffee in hand.   I noticed just recently that I have ten recent photos, which is juuuuust right for a list!

If I had to pick three most-likely candidates from this list, they would be Shotguns and Stagecoaches,   Ticker,  and Plight of the Living Dead.

..whoops. Ten pictures, eleven books. 

Invisible Man and Everybody Lies

This week I've finished two books of interest, the first being a classics club entry (Invisible Man), and the other a book on big data and statistics.  Everybody Lies  played true to its title, opening with ways that analysis of data gleaned from Google searches and such shows that people lie to both one another and ourselves  (claiming one thing in surveys and demonstrating quite another in what we search for) before shifting to  the uses of 'big data' in general. Very amusing and interesting at first, but after it shifted I wasn't quite as enthused.

Invisible Man marked my first classic for the year, and follows an un-named narrator as he  moves from a southern college for promising young black students to 1950s Harlem. He is effectively forced out of college after giving a college trustee an inexplicable tour of local areas that the school administration would prefer weren't so close to the college, and becomes an activist in a generic movement in Harlem,  which fights for the mob's attention against a black nationalist group.  The narrator is constantly being manipulated by those he interacts with, and power, or influence, drives everyone. There's a fair bit of absurdism here, so much so that many of the characters seemed insane at times.  What stood out most was the tortured relationships between blacks and whites, laden as they were with conceits and psychological games.  For instance, one character urges the narrator that lies are always the best way to handle 'white folk' -- tell them what they want to hear.  It's not difficult to imagine circumstances where whites then regard blacks as inherently treacherous and use that to justify further marginalization. It's all incredibly unhealthy.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019


LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media
© 2018 P.W. Singer & Emerson T. Brooking
412 pages

The digital world is not simply one in which people can tweet restaurant reviews from the very table at which they're ignoring their dinner date.  It is a world which has made the border between peace and war practically nonexistent, and allowed virality to become the shaper of reality.  LikeWar introduces us to urban gangs who war not over territory, but their online reps -- to states quickly creating different ways of manipulate both their and others' populaces, and to modern celebrities who have built colossal followings and become world leaders on nothing but theater.  The image created here is frightening, a proposed future where unreality is king.  That's not to say we're abandoned to despair, because the social media platforms themselves are facing increasing pressure to police  the activity they effectively promote, and in the last year have in fact began banning various personalities. That in itself is potentially problematic, carrying a strong odor of partisanship,  and is only the first move in what will presumably be a very long cat and mouse game.

Singer and Brooking begin with a quick history of the internet and of the predominant platforms, chiefly  Google, Facebook, and Twitter.  This is not simply background, because these three dominate social media,  and their success at becoming the primary carriers means the platforms are easy to weaponize; once something ignites there, it can take over.  The algorithms that push rising content accelerate  it all the more, as does negative attention when people comment their boos and hisses.  Politicians, recognizing the power of virality, are following its siren call to become ever more extreme and nonsensical. Other algorithims, helpfully promoting related content to what users are already viewing,  can be used to railroad users into viewing ever more extreme content  -- unless they themselves backtrack. In a such  a way vapid morons become millionaires, and ISIS turns Google into its brand promoter.

If  promoting hate and ignorance were not bad enough,   the railroading takes users deep into a filter bubble,  with the effect that people are now beginning to live in different realities from one another.  There is so much content out there that people can experience an apparent variety of thought which is  in actuality fairly constrained compared to what's outside the bubble.  It is incredibly easy for people to listen to perspectives from their own side, appreciate their apparent rationality, and scratch their heads in wonder that other people don't see this.  But the divergent realities can also be a tool of those who wish to manipulate us; famously, in 2016,  the State of Russia promoted fractiousness within the US by employing social media warriors to create divisive content from different ideologies; others pushed the same content forward by commenting and promoting it.  These were not small scale maneuvers, either; some  were quoted and retweeted by prominent personalities, and would be shared over a hundred million times before they were caught and deleted.  Even worse, some states like that of China's are starting to use people's social media against them directly, by turning it into the basis of "social credit rating" that will help or hinder them in society based on how faithful to the Party they are. 

This is a daunting book, but one those living in the 21st century need to read -- not only so they can understand what they're seeing in society, to appreciate why things have developed they way they have, but so readers can evalute ourselves. No one is immune from this; we all go for narrative, we all follow familiar scents and find our internet bubbles cozy.  No one can keep us off the railroad but ourselves. Actively disengaging,  actively scrutinizing what we see, and actively pursuing other tracks are our only hope for not becoming part of the problem.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

She Has Her Mother's Laugh

She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
© 2018 Carl Zimmer
672 pages

Overhearing discussion of heredity a few hundred years ago would have meant only one thing:  being in the presence of noblemen, who stood to inherit their fathers' titles, lands, rights, and responsibilities.  Heredity quickly became a scientific concept,  and is now more commonly associated with biology than law, but genes aren't all we inherit. She Has Her Mother's Laugh is a meaty exploration of the history and present tracking of inheritance, genetic and otherwise.

Much of the book is a history of attempts to figure out heridity, beginning with mental impairment and the suspicion that it was something which could be passed down from generation to generation. This came of age when interest in biological inheritance was white-hot: Darwin and Huxley were at work, and various animal fanciers were creating ever-more elaborate breeds of pigeons and the like by monitoring traits from generation to generation and promoting the birth of different  variants.  It wasn't at all difficult for people to decide that imbecility was a distinct trait which could be controlled against, if all its present carriers were prevented from reproducing. This 'effort' was initially conceived as sterilization, but in the 1940s those efforts took on ghastly and murderous proportions Hitler's regime.

Aside from the outstandingly massive moral problems of controlling other people, including their ability to beget life,  there's also the scientific problem that "imbecility" is not one thing, created  by one trait. Mental impairments are diverse, and stem from all manner of biological hiccoughs. Many people in the Victorian age who were 'imbeciles' merely suffered from a metabolic disruption: they were unable to process a substance common in foodstuffs, and ingesting it slowly poisoned them, giving their skin an odd hue and eroding their mental faculties.  Children who were diagnosed early with this syndrome could be put on an appropriate diet, and be perfectly healthy members of society. Biology is chemistry in action, but the genes aren't the only chemicals in the solutions: they're constantly interacting with the substances of their mother's body, or the outside environment. Even if eugenicists had won, we would still have sick and infirm people, because there are so many variables. 

Other 'inheritance' issues are similarly problematic.  Take race, for instance; the human eye might look at a Norwegian, a Nigerian, and a Chinese citizen and declare them to be three obviously different kinds of people, but if that same eye were to look at their genes it would be unable to tell much of a difference beyond ordinary individual distinctions. Humans, for all our passionate in-grouping and out-grouping,  are far more alike than we are different -- biologically.  That doesn't mean our in-grouping and out-going is irrelevant; it  probably won't ever go away, because crucial to understanding human inheritance is realizing we are fundamentally cultural creatures. We don't come out of the womb sniffing wine and venturing opinions about the ballet, but we're as hungry for teaching as we are for food. When compared to chimpanzee juveniles, human youths are far more imitative.   Heredity cannot only apply to genes, or even biology (we also inherit bacteria from our parents):  it has to apply to culture, as well,

Zimmer also includes a chapter on CRISPR, and the admittedly scary potential that puts in our hands. Yes, we can eradicate genetic disease. We  can also turn our children into gross experiments, tinkering with their bodies to produce barbies or ubermensch. Society needs to think long and hard about the implications.

She Has Her Mother's Laugh is a steak of a book, of obvious interest to anyone with an appetite for human biology.

Some of my highlights:
"In Morgan’s own research on flies, he had learned to respect the power of the environment. His students discovered one strain of flies that developed normally if they were born in the summer but tended to sprout extra legs if they were born in the winter. It turned out that the researchers could get the same outcomes in their lab simply by changing the temperature in which they reared the fly eggs. It was thus meaningless to talk about the effect of their mutation without taking into account their environment."

“It was my child who taught me to understand so clearly all people are equal in their humanity and that all have the same human rights,” Pearl [Buck] wrote. “Though the mind has gone away, though he cannot speak or communicate with anyone, the human stuff is there, and he belongs to the human family.”

"To eliminate imperfection would demand eliminating humanity itself."

"We were three people of African, Asian, and European descent from three corners of the world. Three races, some might say. And yet we shared far more than what set us apart."

"Textbooks say that the human body has about two hundred cell types, but recent studies have rendered that figure a laughable understatement. No one can say how many cell types there are, because the more scientists examine cells the more they break down into more typed. Immune cells may all carry out the same mission to save us from pathogens and cancer, but they are an army with hundreds of divisions. All our cell types are seperate branches on the body's genealogical tree, like rival dynasties descended from a first monarch."

Sunday, January 6, 2019

In the Plex

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
pub. 2011 Steven Levy
437 pages

Full disclosure: I was a passionate Googler ten years ago, an early adopter of anything that the Mountain Brook, CA firm produced -- even programs like GoogleDesktop, which I never even used. It was when Google devoured YouTube and started making its mark on there that the plucky upstart of the internet started looking a little more dangerous -- and with every passing year I've become a little more concerned about the amount of internet traffic Google controls.   Regardless of whether one trusts or fears Google, however, it is an incredible company with extraordinary influence on the web. In the Plex is a fanboyish history of how it came to be, from its early origins in a dorm room to its present goliath state, with various aspects of Google's culture and various products being examined in turn.

Those of us logged into the English-speaking net scarcely need to know what Google began as:  Google's initial product was so successful that it's wormed its way into our language. What is most remarkable about Google is how it changed the internet, and changed expectations.  That story really begins with Gmail -- a product which was produced by a Google employee on the side, then officially sanctioned once the triumvirate in charge of Google had experienced it.  Gmail's enormous free storage option -- an entire gigabyte of storage, an amount that flabbergasted Bill Gates when he heard of it --  allowed people the luxury of never having to delete their mail. That didn't just mean they no longer had to save everything to their computers; it meant they could keep every little thing from conversations to emailed receipts online, and considering how much use emails get by other websites, that could mean a sizable amount of their lives would now be shared with Google.  Prior to Google and facebook, privacy was a web hallmark;  unless you were a network engineer monitoring ISP traffic, people couldn't tell who you were unless you told them -- and I was encouraged to not tell or trust anyone. It took years of conversation between close AIM friends before I'd consent to voice chat, let alone sending picture.

Gmail changed that, and it wouldn't be the last time Google changed our expectations about what normal online. Now instead of seeing ads that were  static billboards, erected on websites in the hopes of catching some eyes,  the web would be increasingly filled with very personal ads -- solicitations to buy a book we'd just been looking at online,  ads in Spanish after using DuoLingo or watching Butterfly Spanish on Youtube,  announcements of Caribbean cruises after GoogleMaps is used to look at the Mexican coast.  GoogleMaps' associated project, Latitudes, even tracked users locations --  if they wanted. And when Google ventured into the smartphone market and purchased Android,  location tracking became the norm....and even if user try to opt out, on some level it still occurs because the phone has to communicate with cell towers and satellites.   Other projects were even more controversial, like Google's desire to start scanning the world's books and provide them for free, online.

Google is an unusual company in that it started with the ambition of a nonprofit: to make the world a better place. Levy believes this philosophy is real and still guides Googled despite their incredible wealth and influence on the web.  And there's no denying that Google's products have transformed the internet in a positive way;  GoogleMaps alone is an incredible tool, offering not only maps but information layered within the maps -- reviews of restaurants, the ability to see the street's landmarks, to browse through user-submitted photos.  YouTube, too, isn't just a place for funny clips: it holds hour upon hours of educational content, and allows people to pursue their interests and passions.  Between Google Search, Maps, and YouTube,  we  have the computer databanks of the Enterprise-D at our command.

I thoroughly enjoyed this history of Google  and its facets, but  keep in mind it's written by an ardent admirer, whose love for "cool" firms like Google and Apple manifest itself in a nasty contempt for others, like Microsoft.. He refers to Microsoft employees as "Gates' minions", which makes Levy sound like less a serious author and more like a blogger with an axe to grind.  Levy's admiration for Google also means he doesn't fully examine the  potentials for abuse inherent in one company running so much internet traffic. Chrome, for instance, has virtually taken over, and Microsoft is building a new Edge browser around its source code Chromium. What will it mean when 80% of web traffic is Chrome-based?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Classics Club Schedule, 2019

I have 21 months left to finish my Classics Club list, with 22 books remaining. I'm not sure what happens if one fails to complete the list -- perhaps it involves being attacked by moody English teachers, I'm not sure.   Anxious to avoid such a fate, I plan to make classics my priority this year, and have developed a tentative schedule for this year that will make 2020's classic requirements relatively light.  Most of the sets (save January's) have a paired connection, like Rome, travel,  and so on.  If I actually get this done, I'll  reward myself with a little bottle of scotch.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

The Aeneid, Virgil
The Conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1,  Edward Gibbon
The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith

Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain
The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss

A Farewell to Arms,  Ernest Hemingway
Catch-22, Joseph Heller

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

The Education of Henry Adams,  Henry Adams
The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas

The Histories, Herodotus

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

War and Peace, Tolstoy

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoeyesky

This leaves The Federalist Papers as the odd man out for 2020.   I wanted to make it the September read (September 17 is Constitution Day, a date presumably unremarked on by anyone other than con-law professors), but The Histories seems formidable.  We'll see what happens!