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23 October 2016

Book Review - The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona ClubThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Yes. Murder is "unpleasant."

But when Lord Peter is on the case, reading about the unpleasantness is extraordinarily pleasant.

So pleasant, in fact, that I forgot to pay enough attention to be able to pen a thoughtful review.

The mystery is simple, then complicated, then simple, then complicated, then simple. Lord Peter is delightfully whimsical. Parker is doggedly solid. A lovely female sculptress character named Marjorie Phelps make me think of Roderick Allyn and Agatha Troy and even though I know the outline of Lord Peter's love life, I still found myself wishing there could be a dalliance between the two; their conversations were delightful.

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Book Reivew - Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Whimsey, #3)Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Working my way through these old paperbacks I've had on my shelves for years. And more years than I originally would have guessed, as evidenced by the ad in the back of the book that says, "By the year 2000, 2 out of 3 Americans could be illiterate."

Also, the binding fell apart while I was reading. But I'll tape it together. Because I love the cover art on these old things. I have often wandered through a used book store, wanting to complete my collection (I am missing at least four Lord Peter mysteries) but I will not buy them unless they are this particular edition. Certainly Lord Peter would think me a buffoon too place such import on the covers and not the content.

I clearly remember liking Sayers when I read these the first time, in the first blush of my 20s and the first blush of my marriage. But I also remember also thinking I was SUPPOSED to like them; realizing that to be an educated sophisticate, one must, of course, be engaged by the high-brow antics and the lettered references. So I pretended, not really understanding what drove these people who were engulfed in the blase, devil-may-care indifference of middle-age. Now I understand. All too well.

So diving in them again has been the best kind of mid-life crisis. And this time I like them for realz, as the kids say, with not even one thought to whatever classification liking these books puts me in as a supposed intellectual.

There are still references that I do not understand...many, MANY references I do not understand. But in my 20s, I understood even fewer and confess that I found these books almost impenetrable then. They are not so now.

Lord Peter is a joy.

"I haven't come to sell you soap or gramophones, or to borrow money or enroll you in the Ancient Froth-blowers or anything charitable. I really am Lord Peter Wimsey--I mean, that really is my title, don't you know, not a Christian name, like Sanger's Circus or Earl Derr Biggers."

And Miss Climpson? God love her and her all-caps and her italics in her letters to Lord Peter as she, in his employ, pursues the mystery with old-maidenly zeal.

"In enclose a careful statement of my expenses up-to-date. you will excuse the mention of underwear, which is, I fear, a somewhat large item! but wool is so expensive nowadays, and it is necessary that every detail of my equipment should be suitable to my (supposed!) position in life. I have been careful to wash the garments through, so that they do not look too new, as this might have a suspicious appearance!"

And London?

"Where no one knows his neighbour. Where shops do not know their customers. Where physicians are suddenly called to unknown patients whom they never see again. Where you may lie dead in your house for months together unmissed and unnoticed till the gas inspector comes to look at the meter. Where strangers are friendly and friends are casual. London, whose rather untidy and grubby bosom in the repository of so many odd secrets. Discreet, incurious and all-enfolding London."

And then there's Inspector Parker, in whose thoughts the above paragraph seems to be put, until Sayers sets us straight.

"Not that Parker put it that way to himself. He merely thought, 'Ten to one she'd try London. They mostly think they're safer there.'"

One must choose to forgive the dated references to other races, as Sayers was a product of her time. But I look at it as a welcome example of how far our society has come, which is particularly welcome in an election year when mostly I think about how far we still have to go.

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08 October 2016

Book Review - Lord Peter

Lord Peter: A Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey StoriesLord Peter: A Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey Stories by Dorothy L. Sayers

I was first introduced to Dorothy Sayers in the mid-90s when my intellectual uncle recommended her mysteries.

But I haven't read her since.

This summer I moved overseas and could only take 350 pounds of stuff with me. Knowing there would be no English-language book source in Northern Africa, I put a lot of effort into which books I would bring. Many of my small trade paperbacks made the cut, including my Dorothy Sayers books.

Now, sitting in my apartment in Casablanca, I'm reading my way through them again, starting with this collection of Lord Peter short stories.

I didn't know I missed Lord Peter until he found his way into my life again. The mysteries in these short stories are thin but I don't read these mysteries for the mysteries; I read them for the characters and for the sense of place. The world they depict, so different from the world in which I live. And for the wonderful style of Sayers' writing; her facility with the language and her rapier wit.

As a character, Lord Peter rarely disappoints. In the short story that takes place the night his first child is born, the reader finds this exchange between Peter and his wife, Harriet Vane, as they gaze upon their newborn son.

"'Good lord!' said his lordship. 'Did I do that?'
'All evidence points that way,' replied his wife.
'Then I can only say I never knew so convincing a body of evidence produce such an inadequate result.'

Today I realized I don't have all the Sayers mysteries in my collection. Thinking of buying a plane ticket to London or New York and remedying that pronto.

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30 May 2016

Book Review: Islam Explained

Islam ExplainedIslam Explained by Tahar Ben Jelloun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read other reviews that say this book over-simplifies everything.

It probably does. But that's why I needed it. I can't jump right into in-depth without having some passing knowledge. This book gives passing knowledge.

Some of the things I learned:

The Koran begins with a short sura called the Fatiha; each prayer celebrates and glorifies not only the prophet Muhammad, but also the other prophets: Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (in Arabic, Ibrahim, Moussa, and Issa.)

After Muhammad's death, there was a schism. The Sunnis began as followers of Abou Bakr, the prophet's friend and companion. The Shiites followed Muhammad's cousin, Ali. Only 10% of the world's Muslims are Shiites.

The Arabs originally translated the works of the Greek philosophers. These works may not have been preserved if Arabs had not possessed a love and respect for learning and for other cultures. "...Arabs understood that to advance, to enrich yourself, you should not close up your house, but open the doors and the barriers, go out toward others, take an interest in what they have written and in what they have built. The Arabs wanted to advance, and for that they needed to learn what the ancients of other countries had already done. The intelligence of the Arabs lay in being modest and accepting the fact that the scholar is someone who begins by saying, 'I know nothing.'"

The oldest known hospital was built by Harun al-Rashid around 800. Avicenna, an Arab scientist, wrote Canon of Medicine; it was translated into Latin in the 12th century and dominated the teaching of medicine in Europe to the end of the 17th century. "Medicine is the science that studies the human body, either healthy or ill, for the purpose of preserving health when that already exists and reestablishing it when it is lacking."

The word assassin comes from hashashins, marginalized Muslim followers of the Shiite Hassan al-Sabbah. Hachiche means "grass" or, more generally, "drug" in Arabic. This sect was filled with users of marijuana who took off on puntitive expeditions to punish those they labeled as non-believers, as well as rulers they deemed cruel and unfair.

There is no clergy in Islam. There are imams who preside at prayer and deliver sermons; these individuals have moral authority do not serve as intermediaries between God and humankind.

Muslim mystics are called "Sufis."

"Cultures travel: they move around and get into homes without even being invited. The only dominant culture is that of intelligence, knowledge, and sharing. In this way, culture does not dominate but opens doors to those seeking to learn and to know what is going on outside their own tribe."

"Struggle against ignorance. That is what makes people fanatical and intolerant. Nothing is more dangerous than someone who knows nothing and thinks he knows everything."

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10 May 2016

Book Review: We Are All Stardust

We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our ExistenceWe Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence by Stefan Klein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often wish that the "Talk" interviews in the New York Times Magazine were longer. Particularly when the subject is someone who might have something of substance to say. But they are short form and because I usually want more when I'm done reading them, I have mostly stopped reading them.

The German newspaper Die Ziet also has a magazine supplement. And, in it, Stefan Klein publishes interviews with scientists. This book is made up of those interviews.

There were a few familiar names in the table of contents--Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DaVinci--but mostly Klein talks with scientists I have not heard of. Scientists who study things I probably could not understand, no matter how hard I tried. The kinds of people I would never find myself at a cocktail party with.

And it was fascinating. And the format made it digestible. And Klein's interviews, focused, as they were, on the weekly newspaper-reading audience, were completely accessible to my mind, a mind that so wants to be able to contemplate the larger issues of science but does not have the tools to do so.

I was pleasantly surprised at how often the conversations bent toward the philosophical. The cultural. The realm of thoughtful questioning without ways of finding real answers. And if I learned anything from this book is that scientists DO think like I do; in a random cacophony of ideas. They just sometimes do something different with those ideas.

All science is dedicated to understanding our world. And our world is populated with our people, so one might be surprised how often these eminent scientists consider theological and philosophical subjects, as related to their specialties.

For example;

Martin Rees, a cosmologist, had this to say about the dangers of the internet--"It not only expands peoples' horizons but also is capable of strongly reinforcing prejudices. Small groups with extreme views can now find like-minded people all over the world, organize themselves, and easily access technical knowledge. And because the mass media exponentially increase the psychological impact of any confused action, a handful of people can now exercise enormous power."

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, on the concept of equitable fairness and the concept of niceness--"We don't like feeling that somebody else is getting away with something. In a country like Britain, where people pretty much will pay their taxes, I don't mind paying taxes. But if I lived in a country where just about everybody gets away with not paying their taxes, I would then feel very resentful of paying my taxes. And so, I think it's difficult to foster super-niceness. You can only foster a kind of slightly limited grudging niceness, because most people would be happy to be nice as long as they feel that not too many other people are exploiting it."

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran on the nature of truth-"Our brain seems to function so smoothly. But in reality we're hallucinating all the time. What do you see? [makes a cross with his index fingers] Two fingers crossed. Exactly. Yet your retina received only the image of a finger and two finger halves behind it. Your brain supplied the notion that it's two whole fingers. We know much less than we think. More than 90 percent of what we believe we are perceiving we're only assuming. These assumptions are part of our worldview, which our brains construct and palm off on us as reality."

Ramachandran on death--"There's a single divine light that shines through each of us, but individuals are only the windows through which it shines. When someone dies, his window is closed. But the light keeps shining through all the other windows."

Chemist and poet Roald Hoffman on beauty--"Our mind is programmed to look for patterns. It favors simplicity. We feel at ease when we immediately understand something--whether it's a painting, a building, or a molecule. But then the thing quickly becomes boring. We need something more to keep our interest. Beauty comes from tension: between order and disorder, simplicity and complexity."

Neurobiologist Hannah Moyer on fate--"There's this wonderful Greek depiction of Kairos, the god of opportunity. He's bald except for a lock of hair on his forehead. You have to grasp him by it, or else he'll pass you by. We believe that we're in control of our lives. But in reality we can only seize opportunities."

Neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese on the power of face-to-face connection--"We communicate more and more by telephone and computer; communities in which people encounter one another in person are increasingly dissolving. But we know from our experiments that it's not without consequences for our capacity for empathy whether we see another person only on a screen or face-to-face. That's why a theater experience is more powerful than going to the movies. And if you communicate with your conversation partners only by e-mail or, like many young people, in electronic chat rooms, your image of them dissolves completely. And that must have profound effects on our social and cognitive abilities. We just don't know yet what they are. In any case, our social skills evolved for direct encounters, not virtual ones."

Economist Ernst Fehr on revenge--"The most unbearable feeling is that someone else got ahead by cheating us. To punish a presumed cheater people will even incur disadvantages to themselves. Here's a thought experiment: everyone can put money in a pot to stick it to those top managers who led their companies to near ruin while enriching themselves. For every euro you invest, ten euros are taken from the managers and then burned." Stefan Klein replies, "Probably a sizeable fund would be collected. But that would be more an expression of revenge than of fairness." Fehr continues, "Revenge is nothing but the dark side of the sense of fairness. It's a defense against the freeloaders in the community."

Fehr on happiness and justice--"Happiness is a private good, justice a public good. Because you as an individual can do something for your well-being, the subject is ill-suited for revolutions. For justice, on the other had, you have to fight together with others."

Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik on Feminism--"Feminism has two sides: Along with the struggle against oppression, it's also always been about taking female experiences seriously. After all, women haven't been twiddling their thumbs for the last ten thousand years; they have been raising the entire population of the earth."

And finally, this;
According to an estimate by the United Nations, an additional thirteen billion dollars a year would be enough to establish basic health care for everyone in the world. That's about what Europeans spend on ice cream every year. Encouraging because it shows how much we could accomplish without giving up that much of our own entitlement. Discouraging, as philosopher Peter Singer says, "Because it shows that our declared belief that every life is of equal value is only a theoretical belief. It's not a practical matter--It doesn't influence our actions very much. Psychologists call it the diffusion of responsibility. Because we know that every other passerby could help, and that some are even better off than us, we feel it's not up to us. In the end no one feels responsible. We hide in the crowd. People would rather give money for medical treatment that would save the life of a single child than for treatment costing the same amount that would save eight children. You know that there is one child in need an that you can save this child, and so you feel good that you can make a difference and solve a problem. But if you tell people that for the same amount of money they could save a larger number of children but that there are more children in need--that there are one hundred people in need and you could save twenty of them--fewer people would save twenty than would save the one. Any economist would say that's crazy. You obviously get better value for your money if you save twenty children than if you save one. But at twenty out of one hundred, a lot of people just see the fact that they can't really make a difference, so it's not worth it to bother."

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02 May 2016

Book Review: Pacific

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's SuperpowersPacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers by Simon Winchester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love well-researched but readable and accessible histories. This is one of them.

Broken up into long-article length chapters (Winchester says this "structural vade mecum" was inspired by a book by Stefan Zweig, most recently translated with the title Shooting Stars. A "slender collection of ten ruminative essays...about what Zweig considered to be seminal moments in the tide of human experience."

Pacific is not slender but it is ruminative and I would agree that most of the 10 incidents Winchester chose could be considered seminal.

I learned how carbon dating works.

I learned that the bikini is called the bikini not because natives wore something similar on the Bikini Atoll, as I had always assumed, but because of the nuclear testing there; "Like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating."

I learned that the Japanese concept of mentsu probably had a role in limiting scientific progress. "The socially lethal consequences of losing face (mentsu) or, more dangerously, of causing others to lose it, may well have inhibited certain kinds of scientific progress, in large part because such consequences militate against experimentation, which invariably embraces failure, even public failure. Picking oneself up and beginning again, making the experiment subtly different, and performing many experiments until one finally works--such is the essence of scientific advance. And this was not always an easy concept for Asian scientists to accept."

I learned that the founder of Patagonia might be considered the founder of flex time. "Let my people go surfing. None of us ever dreamed of working in a normal business environment, so we hired self-motivated and independent folks; surfers and climbers. We leave them to decide when and how to do their jobs. So far it has worked out very well."

I learned some of the vagaries and odditites of the colonial ideal in the Pacific islands; near the end WWII, a British commander in Vietnam, commanding an infantry of kukri-wielding Gurkah battalions from Nepal, armed imprisoned Japanese soldiers and compelled them to fight the Viet Minh nationalists who were actually rebelling against French colonial rule. "The notion that Japanese troops would be armed by those who had recently vanquished them and that they would then be compelled to fight under a British flag alongside Nepalese soldiers for a French colonial ideal against a Vietnamese force that was demanding its own people's independence is well-nigh incomprehensible."

Or in the New Hebrides, there were two bureaucracies; one French and one British. "Since 1906, these islands had been run for complicated reasons by a condominium of two uninvited European powers, the British and the French...the French official in charge of drains in Port-Vila, for example, had a British counterpart who was charged with exactly the same task. The language of New Hebridean administration had to be translated twice, Canadian style, and sometime thrice, since the doubly colonized citizens actually spoke a third, Creole tongue called Bislama...Two police forces, their officers wearing different uniforms, did their best to keep civil order in turns, performing their respective duties on every other day...National holidays were so numerous and so keenly celebrated in the perpetually torrid climate that little work was performed anyway--and in time, the whole unholy and intractable mess of governance exhausted everyone, collapsed internally, and was finally called to a halt in 1980..."

Or the surreal reality of the Korean DMZ. "At the time of the signing of the 1953 armistice, a group of supposedly neutral countries agreed to monitor the cease-fire. The North had nominated as its two countries Poland and Czechoslovakia; the South had selected Sweden and Switzerland." But in recent times, the monitoring system had become "comically absurd...Absurd mainly because of what had happened since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the abandonment of communism by the North's two chosen neutral nations, Poland and Czechoslovakia (and the division of the latter into two brand-new and entirely capitalist countries). North Korea had responded to the apostates by kicking their observers out of the country, leaving only the Swiss and the Swedes to maintain the monitoring. Except that the Poles kept on trying to send at least one delegate to maintain the fiction that the commission still existed...each Tuesday the countries' representatives meet in formal session--about thirty-five hundred meetings have taken place since the cease fire in 1953--and discuss and take notes of all the various alleged breaches of the cease-fire and other such matters (tunnel diggings heard, snips in the barbed wire noticed), and write a report. They place these written reports in a mailbox marked KPA, for Korean People's Army. But since 1995 no North Korean has ever picked up the mail, and so every six months an official from the commission empties the overflowing mailbox and puts all the reports into a file cabinet, just in case Pyongyang ever demands to see them. As it happens, the door of the commission's hut opens directly into North Korean territory, and for a while the Swiss general would unlock it and wave the latest report at the soldiers a few yards away. They turned their backs and ignored him, never came to collect the document, and later complained that the waving constituted an offensive gesture."

I learned, or re-learned, that "...if the Pacific Ocean is the principal generator of the world's wather, then the ultimate source of all the Pacific's extreme meteorological behavior is the initial presence of its massive aggregation of solar-generated heat. This changes the long-term phenomenon we know as the climate. The climate in turn brings about the short-term phenomena we know as weather." Winchester is not a denier of environmental and climate change but he's not an alarmist, either; "Locally, there will be mayhem. Globally, less so. The planet, perhaps, will manage to heal itself. The world and its creatures will survive, and all will eventually allow itself to come back into balance, just as the geologic record shows that it survived and returned to balance after any number of previous cycles of excess and danger. And once that happens, the Pacific Ocean will be seen, uniquely, for what many climatologists are coming to believe it to be: a gigantic safety valve, essential to the future of the planet."

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18 April 2016

Book Review; Let the People Rule

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential PrimaryLet the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey  Cowan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This could have been such an interesting book; the cast of characters, the soap-opera story-line, the era...

As it is, it is an informative, if repetitive book. I did not come out of it feeling like I knew more about the people OR the process, which is a shame after reading 300 pages.

I did come out of it realizing that for all our gnashing of teeth in this current election cycle that the world has gone to hell, the world has gone to hell before. And will go to hell again.

Consider this description of Roosevelt as he was considering launching his campaign; "To the group's amazement, he [Roosevelt] could not explain how is proposed recall of judicial decisions would work in practice. Much as he was enthralled by his personality, Arthur Hill, Roosevelt's prospective young lieutenant, was stunned by the new candidate's intellectual incoherence; 'He is entirely incoherent in his thought and that is one reason why he is such an excellent representative of American feeling,' Hill told his mother in one of a series of insightful and self-deprecating letters. 'We ought to be led by an enthusiast and a man of vigor, and Roosevelt is all of that. But as for his thought, I do not think it is worth thinking about except as far as it reveals his personality. The best he does is to read good books and imperfectly understand their contents.'"

Sound familiar?

The history of presidential nominations can be divided into four distinct periods; King Caucus - nomination of candidates by members of Congress (1792-1828), Pure Convention System (1832-1908), Mixed System (created by the rise of the primaries) (1912-1968), Dominant Primary System (1972-present)

The primary system that began in 1912 was driven by that hero of the people, Theodore Roosevelt. He had already been president once. He hand-picked his successor, Taft. But then grew disillusioned with how Taft was running the country and decided to throw his "hat in the ring" and try to wrest the Republican nomination from Taft through grassroots populism; "Let the People Rule."

But as much as one would like to think the primaries actually give the people the right to rule, they don't. Nor did Roosevelt, who used the system, really believe that the people should have the right to rule. He didn't. But his grassroots popularity made a primary system the best way for him to become a contender. So he fought for it, not because he believed in it but because it believed in him. Cowan writes, "The man who embraced democracy as his core campaign theme and had done so much to open up the political system, had been a skeptic if not an opponent of presidential primaries and suffrage for women only weeks before he embraced them; and he had pleaded for the support of southern blacks in the Republican party only weeks before he excluded them from his own new party. Looking at the way he conducted his campaign led me to wonder what, if anything, TR would not have done--and what any serious candidate today would not do--in order to be elected president."

Roosevelt knew how to game the system. Consider this; "Taft had made some good arguments and delivered some good lines, but fundamentally he had the temperament of a judge, not a fighter. Roosevelt was a warrior dressed for battle. He did not need to answer arguments directly; his strategy was to hit and hit hard; to regain the initiative. He created a level of political frenzy that subsumed the issues. And people believed what they wanted to believe."

Roosevelt was a politican, it the purest form of the word. Back before Taft was his mortal enemy in the 1912 primaries, Roosevelt had helped get Taft elected; "[Roosevelt] warned Taft not to be photographed playing golf. he did not want Taft to look too elite, too far removed from the lives of people he hoped to lead. 'It's true that I myself play tennis,' he told journalist Mark Sullivan, his chosen messenger. 'But you never saw a photograph of me playing tennis. I'm careful about that. Photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal."

But this man of the people was far from that in actuality. His letters reflect the class and race-based views prominent in his time. "Every real proponent of democracy, Roosevelt said, 'acts and always must act on the perfectly sound (although unacknowledged, and often hotly contested) belief that only certain people are fit for democracy.'"

Only certain people are fit for democracy. In California, the Chinese and the Japanese are not fit. In the south, the Blacks aren't fit.

Except he needed the black vote in the south during the Republican primary. Because they would vote for him. So he fought for their seat at the table. But, then, when he failed in his bid for the Republican nomination and started his own party, he needed the white establishment. So the very men he had fought for were now excluded.

But "Political Expediency!" doesn't make for a good campaign slogan.

But Roosevelt could talk a good talk. Consider this excerpt from the speech he made when finally announcing his candidacy; "It would be well if our people would study the history of a sister republic. All the woes of France for a century and a quarter have been due to the folly of her people in splitting into the two camps of unreasonable conservatism and unreasonable radicalism...may we profit by the experiences of our brother republicans across the water, and go forward steadily, avoiding all wild extremes."

But reasonable doesn't usually win votes. Roosevelt switched timbre from reasonable to riled depending on his audience. He knew how to fire the people way up. But Taft did things like this; "When someone in the crowd shouted that 'Roosevelt is a liar,' Taft stopped him. 'That isn't in my vocabulary,' he said. 'My experience on the bench has taught me the value of words and one of the most unsafe things to do is to go further than the facts.'"

Reasonableness doesn't rile the people. Reactiveness does.

So the problem with democracy is people? Maybe...

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