Saturday, November 25, 2023

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn

This "concise" history is a 16 hour audiobook. It isn't exactly "concise", but is a good length for what it covers. The book doesn't try to discuss the early history of Israel, instead focussing on modern Israel and the background that caused it to arise. 

A century ago, Jews were facing escalating persecution. A dedicated homeland seemed the ideal solution. There were still debates as to whether it should be a Jewish state, or a Jewish population in an existing state. The location was also up for grabs. Argentina and the historic Israel (which was part of the of the Ottoman empire) were the leaders. Theodor Herzl was an intellectual leader of Zionism. 

Jewish immigration started to take place under the Ottomans and later the British mandates. However, even these groups were limited. Many immigrant ships were turned away during the rise of fascism in Europe. Jews fleeing persecution were turned away from both American and Middle Eastern locations. This further demonstrated the need for a Jewish homeland. (Israel would later adopt a policy that any Jew could freely settle in Israel - and they used the same "blood" test that the Nazi's used for identifying Jews.)

Israel had a diverse population of Jews from all over the world. The European Jews has thought of themselves as superior. However, Jews from everywhere were permitted. This policy encouraged many of the most persecuted or least well to do Jews to immigrate. Often, even the well-to-do immigrants would have difficulty coming in with their assets. This did result in some issues as some non-European Jews felt like they were second class citizens. The most significant Jewish group that is missing is American Jews - they tend to be most comfortable staying in the US.

 Israel took some time to adopt an identity. Many initial immigrants were "back to the earth" communal farmers. Later immigrants changed the character. The boundaries, population and even religious character of the country were continually evolving. Politically, there are many parties and a degree of coalition building is required. The policies have changed as different leaders assumed the mantle. There was significant criticism when Israel accepted German reparations. (Though these reparations arrived at a time of great need for Isreal.)

Israel had conflicts from the get-go. The Arab community didn't like the idea of Israel's existence. There were divisions in Jewish leadership as to whether freedom should be gained on the battlefield or diplomacy. The battlefield hand was forced. Israel had some unexpected success in repelling the initial Arab attacks. This led to some cockiness that nearly led to the defeat in the Yom Kippur war.

Jews have a significant degree of self reflection. They analyze the mistakes and attempt to grown from them.  The Palestinian situation is difficult. As a democracy, Israel wants to make sure there are not too many Arabs to outvote the Jewish population. The status of Arabs are accidents of the past. A family may be split between Israeli Arabs and Palestinian refugees. Many Arab countries in the region would like to have Israel out of the picture. However, they don't want to take responsibility for Palestine and the refugees. They find it more valuable to use Palestinians as propaganda tools than to actually try to improve the condition of the Palestinians. Anti-semitism can easily be disguised as "Palestinian rights".  

The author notes that Israel is the one place where people speak the same language and practice the same location that they did 3000 years ago. It is a significant "restoration". Israel has grown and had a great success. However, there remains significant danger and volatility.  This book is a good history of the the last century from a moderate pro-Israel perspective. 

Rise of the Titans (Pegasus Book 5)

New deities come on to the scene in the 5th Pegasus book. Even after Emily promises to take her battle elsewhere, we still get a battle between Olympians and Titans right over Hawaii. (They manage to show up just at the "wrong" time.) This books gets a little more confusing and contrived. Pegasus is flying around the world to eventually get to Hawaii. There the fallen shard is protected by a Hawaiian god. However, there is another girl that shares the power with Emily and her "head-mate".  This girl is a spoiled brat that wants everything. They eventually are able to defeat her and then join with her. The "super beings" also show up and banish the Olympians and Titans for misbehaving. Things get confusing, with some leaps in logic. But there are also some fun random moments with various gods exercising their personalities.

A History of the Jews

Paul Johnson's History of the Jews is hampered by a less-than ideal narration of the audiobook. It is a long history, covering the entire history of the Jews, from the biblical times to modern Israel. However, the coverage is more focussed on modern times (as more data is available.) The Jews have held together after significant times. Christianity sprung out of Judaism. Islam was also had Jewish ties. (The author proposes that there was an attempt to bring a monotheistic religion to the Arabs. The difference ended up being too great to be supported by the Jews, and thus a new religion was needed.) There have been additional modern variation of Judaism, yet they have not separated out into different religions.

Jews have historically been very literate and have significant impact in urban areas and learned careers. They have often been discriminated against, but still tolerated out of need. (Interpretations of prohibitions of usury had led to Jews being the money lenders.) Despite (and perhaps because of) the significant role of Jews in society, they have been forced out to ghettos and even exterminated. Yet, they have continued to be resilient. Jews were drawn to Marxism. When they were prohibited from integrating with Russian Marxists, they did it on their own (and thus became key Zionists) In Germany, Jews were among the chief intellectuals and scientists. Germany was one of the most educated society, yet still became prejudiced towards Jews and spawned the haulacost. 

The end of World War II was one of the few points that a Jewish could be supported by European powers. There was guilt from the treatment during the war and  policy hadn't turned fully towards local determination. The state of Israel was created. The state of Palestine was refused. Israel settled Jewish refugees. The Arab countries never settled the Palestinian refugees, and they remain multi-generational refugees.

At times, Jews have been the vanguard of humanity. At other times, they have appeared to be backwards traditionalists. They have survived and played a significant role in society despite their small numbers.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality

Parfit is a well written biography that does a great job painting the life of Derek Parfit. He was somewhat of a child prodigy. Born in China of British parents engaging in missionary-related work, he had a somewhat privileged upbringing. He did well in school and had his share of youthful craziness. He went through some academic processes. (The details would have been clearer to those familiar with the British school system.) He was able to study in America and eventually switched to philosophy. He had characteristics of those on the autism spectrum (aspergers)  He would be a perfectionist in his writing, even complaining about font spacing. He also took time to comment on others work. 

The book complains that he was an important moral philosopher, however, it was rather short on details. I did not get a strong picture of why. There were a few examples of philosophy, but the book seems to be geared towards a popular audience that already thinks of him as an important philosopher.

Origins of Olympus (Pegasus Book 4)

After going through many extreme stakes involving the destruction of worlds what's next? Time travel! On an architectural dig, a stone is found that causes Olympians to get sick and age. They need to go back in time to find it and restore peace. There is an CRU member that goes with them (and renounces the CRU.) Traveling on the solar stream also occurs. They need to prevent the Titans from destroying the Greek gods. They also need to make sure the gods are not youth, but. the proper age that they are remembered in history.  Everything works out, but it is somewhat sad that the shared experiences are now missing from others. 

The New Olympians (Pegasus Book 3)

New conflict arises in the third Pegasus book. The CRU has cloned a bunch of the Olympians. When they see their clones, they just want to destroy them. The Olympians decide they want to destroy the earth.  Emily is able to (too easily) talk them out of it. The most interesting part is the battle royale that takes place in Vegas, destroying a big chunk of downtown. Oops!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Olympus at War (Pegasus Book 2)

In the second Pegasus book, it is discovered that the bad guys from the previous book (Nirads) are not actually that bad. They are "goons for hire" who the Gogons are using to help conquer Olympus. And just to keep it fun, the other government agency bad guys are still in the way. Cupid is able to use his charm to help "defeat" the humans. However, the Gorgon's are a greater challenge that requires some alliances.

I Survived the Attacks of September 11th, 2001 (I Survived #6)

The I Survved books are a series of fictional stories of people that experience some calamatis events in history. In this one, they witness the planes crashing into the twin towers in New York City. The kid has family in the fire department and gets a front door view of the terrorist act as well as the response.

Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth

Israel is an interesting, misunderstood location. It is not a purely Jewish state, though it is overwhelmingly Jewish. There are people practicing different religions freely in the country. There are also Arabs and other ethnicities living there with full rights.

The region that Israel occupied had been claimed as a Jewish homeland a few thousand years ago. However, for the past few millennia it had been been a backwater province of various empires. The land was less than ideal and was occupied by various people that had primary affinity to their local group. There was no state in the region and almost no regional identity. In the early 1900s, Zionism took root. Jews fled persecution in Europe and moved to the region.  They bought land from the local residents and some set up communal living situations. (They had adopted many of the Russian communist beliefs.)

In the late Britain abandoned the region and the UN proposed two states - one for Jews and one for the others in the region. The Jews agreed to their state. The nearby Arab countries would have nothing of that and refused to accept the Jewish state. They also proceeded to immediately attack to the new country of Israel. The Arabs lost. Much of that land still remains in a state of limbo. It has been controlled by various parties in the region, but has for the most part remained stateless.

Pakistan is an interesting parallel to Israel. It was formed around the same time as Israel. After the formation, there was a significant exodus of non-Muslim residents from their native land. The Hindu population went from well over 13% of the population to just over 0% of the population. Laws have significantly impact on human rights. In Israel, a quarter of the population is non-Jewish, with more human rights.

There remain many groups that seek the annihilation of Jews and Israel. Often these operate under the auspices of "Palestinian rights". They have been able to influence youth to adopt their cause in the name of "human rights" (Even though the endgame would result in loss of rights for many.) They have criticized "apartheid regimes" in the West Bank and refused to allow investment in the region. This has hurt the economy and occupants of those occupied territories, but not impacted Israel. 

The UN has supported multigenerational refugees. Palestinian rulers have been unwilling to follow through on steps for peace. Leaders have often become rich while collecting aid money. Gaza has adopted a form of fundamentalist Sharia law. Neither Egypt nor Israel wants Gaza. However, the area has not done well on self rule. It is still heavily reliant on aid.

The author of this book advocates a liberal pro-Zionism viewpoint. Jews were being attacked. They returned to their homeland and built up a successful state. Would there be such conflict if it were a backwater orthodox theocracy?  Israel has made plenty of mistakes, but it has also been highly successful on the world stage. The country is secular, with respect for different religions.  Orthodox Judaism is actual a challenge in the region. The Orthodox are exempt from military service, rely heavily on welfare and have huge families. Will they dominate the country?  Most of the Jews and Arabs in the region have no problems with each other. However, the extremist, especially those supported by outsiders have created many problems.

The 39 Clues, Book 1: The Maze of Bones

A brother and sister's parents have been dead. They have been living with various caretakers, but have been most close to one relative, Grace Cahill. After she dies, she promises her relatives either a million dollars or a chance to search for an answer through 39 clues. The children opt for the clues, even though it can lead to death. They enlist a babysitter to help them on the travels. Their "evil" relatives are also on the quest and manage to show up just as they discover something. There are many narrow escapes from death. They also discover that the are related to just about every important historical character. In this book, the focus is on Ben Franklin and a conclusion in the Paris catacombs. The book is nice and short and loaded with action.

Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever

I remember watching the movie review shows in the 1980s. It was interesting to watch clips and criticism of movies - even ones that I never intended to watch. While I typically read the Tribune newspaper, I most actively followed Ebert's reviews. I've read many reviews of movies that I have not seen. The quality of the prose made it worth reading even outside the actual movie. I also loved to see what he thought of the movies that I did enjoy.

The book focuses primarily on the Siskel and Ebert show (through its various. names.) There is enough biography and historical background to create a coherent story, but the focus is the show and it's legacy. It started out as a low-key PBS show that somehow took off. It later went into syndication via a local Chicago station and then was owned by Disney. The show continued after Siskel died, but it was fading significantly. The new show didn't have the conflict of the early show. It was also easy to see clips and details about movies. (When they show started in the 1970s, there was no YouTube. They would manually extract clips from the source film.) 

The legacy of Siskel and Ebert is vast. The "two opposing heads" has become the common format of many political shows. Movies criticism is respected and common in pop culture. is still going strong. Two Thumbs Up has also entered the lexicon. (Somewhat ironically, this was only a later incantation of the ranking scheme.) Ebert and Siskel were hugely competitive. They took a long time to build up their respect for each other. They had vastly different values in what makes a quality movie and argue vehemently. Even if they both liked a movie, they would argue about why they liked it. Art is subjective and they made it clear that no two people would appreciate something for the same reason.

The Flame of Olympus (Pegasus Book 1)

A daughter of a police officer and a boy from foster care find a flying horse. There is also a teenager that managed to survive after seemingly being pushed off a tall building. An "evil" Central Research Unit is trying to interrogate all of these people to try to find out more. After testing, they think the teen must be an alien. However, the kids have found out the truth. They are all Greek deities from Olympus. There has been a big battle and things are dire. However, if they find the special girl that Vestus has invested with the fire of Olympus they should be able to defeat the demons that have invaded. The girl ends up discovering that she is the special girl. She willingly sacrifices herself, but then discovers that rather than being killed, she has been made whole. All seems to be doing well. The book contains various life or death scenarios with people killed - yet the stakes never feel very high. It is also fairly easy to guess what will happen, but this probably works well for the target audience.

Monday, November 20, 2023

77 Questions for Skillful Living: A New Path to Extraordinary Health

Many of our chronic medical conditions are managed rather than cured. The treatment often involves consuming drugs to treat the symptoms, with the expectation that this will just need to be continued in perpetuity. This book advocates making the general changes to health to solve the chronic problems. This involves doing basic things like eating whole foods, exercising, having good relationships with others and the like. These are the things that cannot easily be sold or marketed and require work. The medical profession rarely suggests these long term fixes.

I like the approach advocated by the book. I do find it hard to find a doctor that tells me what I need to do to stay healthy long term. There is a propensity to prescribe medicine. I have to ask if this will actually help me long term or if it is just to mask symptoms.

This book is not against modern medicine. However, it does acknowledge the reductionist nature.  There are parts of modern medicine that have been very helpful. However, the reductionism has also encouraged a general attitude of miracle cures that is not helpful.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Sunlit Man: A Cosmere Novel (Secret Projects Book 4)

The Sunlit Man is one of Brandon Sanderson's Kickstarter books. I couldn't help but think of some 1950s science fiction movie with red-tinted colors set on a sand planet. That doesn't have much to do with the book, but I couldn't help thinking that. The book seemed to have big people fight, with one weighing down another. There are powers to take in sun and do things. It ties in with the Cosmere universe. 

Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices

Under Ottoman rule, Islam had spread through the Middle East, but there was significant poverty. The Muslim Brotherhood arose as a social organization to benefit Arabs and help encourage improved religious experience. The British control and then the state of Israel significantly upended life in Palestine. Many people lived was refugees, hoping to some day return or be compensated for their land. Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. It advocated a more conservative religious practice and grew to encourage violent resistance to Israel.

The author of this book was the son of one of the founders of Hamas. He had great respect for the Islamic ideals of his father. However, he became deeply disturbed as the group began to advocate violence. He had gone to a Christian school and gradually began to adopt Christianity. He and his family had been targeted by Israel numerous times. At one time, they proposed he be a secret agent for Israel. He had imagined being a double agent, but gradually warmed towards working with the Israelis. He served as a spy in order to help prevent violence. However, he eventually soured of it. He didn't like causing the deaths of others (even if the others were planning to be suicide bombers.) He also felt he could not live normally. Eventually, he left to the United States.

The middle east conflict is complicated. There are some perverse incentives involved. Palestinian leaders can benefit from international aid and prestige by not accepting peace. Hardliners would rather keep things in the current state than give up anything for peace. The war is fought as much in the realm of public opinion as on the battlefield. The leaders of Hamas were willing to let civilians die just to make it appear "bad" in the media. (He even documents some "staged" attacks.)  Jews were persecuted in Europe. Now they are persecuting in the Middle East. Palestinians have been persecuted by the Israelis. However, when given some autonomy, they fight amongst themselves. There are internal challenges among the people that must be addressed for true peace.  

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James gave a series of lectures in Scotland about the various ways that people experienced religion. The focus is on the individual experience, rather than religious ritual. These experiences were further narrowed to those that more "novel" in nature. This often involves people that would go on to found religious movements. (George Fox and St Teresa seem to get the most coverage.) However, the experiences of regular people are also explored. These can often be as significant as the religious founders, though narrowed to an individual life.

Attempts have often been made to explain religion in the terms of science. Miracles are explained in terms of scientific concepts. However, this belittles some of the true benefits of religious experience. Fatih, mystical activity and other religious experiences have tangible benefits that cannot be easily explained otherwise. Religion also encourages efforts towards an external good rather than a personal desire. This can be taken to different levels (such as monks that shun all worldly comforts.) Religious experiences can be best explored when they are legitimately respected.

Monday, November 06, 2023

Stranger Among Us

This was an awful movie. It is some interesting subject matter, but the execution fell flat on it's face. The lead was supposed to be a "tough girl cop". However, she came across as a dumb blonde that was playing cop. She goes undercover within a Hasidic Jewish diamond cutting community to locate a missing man and missing diamonds. She discovers he has been killed and then sets up a sting for some Italian thugs. She ends up shooting one. This was the second time in the movie where some bad guy had got the best of her and she ended up killing him. Is this a real cop?

The more interesting part is the way that this orthodox community is portrayed. They are treated with respect. Their beliefs are out of touch with modern society. However, in watching you get a strong respect for their society, and feel that it is society that is more out of touch. The "touch girl cop" tries to convince them of the joys of carnal modern life, but they will have nothing of it. The son of the religious leader is happy to marry the girl that his father found for him. Ms. Tough Girl Cop just can't see how somebody can do that. He sees no problem with it. After all, he has rejected a few others. After writing to his fiance for some time, he is convinced that she is the one true person for her.

Then the plot holes come up. The engaged guy appears along with Tough Cop. (A no-no according to one of the commandments.) They even kiss. Yet, he still goes to meet his fiance with no issue. Later he pinpoints the true perpetrator of the murder. (What use was the cop here?) She does have the bright idea to give him the gun when they approach the murderer (a girl that had ingratiate herself in the Jewish community.) The cop gets knocked out, but the Jewish man shoots the bad girl. Then next thing you know it, he is meeting his fiance and the wedding occurs. Wait! He shot (and likely killed) a member of the community. He was alone with another woman (again!) And yet, the marriage just goes along as before. Wouldn't there be some concern and trauma here?

As if the plot holes were bad enough, the lead "tough dumb blonde cop" is often smoking and swearing. Is that supposed to make her tough? Alas, it just makes her even more fake. It was nice to see a movie where somebody goes into an utlra-orthodox community and comes away respecting it rather than pulling somebody away. Alas, the rest of the movie was just plain bad. 

Saturday, November 04, 2023

Shipwrecked!: Diving for Hidden Time Capsules on the Ocean Floor

Ship wrecks tend to be very inaccessible, thus making them a rich store of archaeological information. While catastrophes on land are likely to be built over (or destroyed by elements), those at sea tend to stay there. They are much more difficult to access. Recent technology has enabled greater exploration of ship wrecks. It has enabled us to find out more about ancient civilizations and technology. (For instance, a Greek wreck had a millennias old computer.)

Even with new technology, some wrecks remain difficult to access (such as those in the Arctic.) It can often take considerable effort to find wrecks in order to explore them. Once found, the wrecks can help provide insight, but still require work to answer questions. (What caused an early submarine to sink, killing all the crew?) There are problem many other interesting discoveries can be made exploring shipwrecks.

Yumi and the Nightmare Painter: A Cosmere Novel (Secret Projects Book 3)

this is another Sanderson "secret project" with audiobook available at the library, but not Audible. In this one, two people from different worlds. They are shocked to experience the other's world. One is more technologically advanced, while the other is more conservative. The values differ in each world. Even the understanding of art and science differ. The two people come together and come to a greater understanding, experiencing worlds through a different experience. It does suffer from the "length" problem of fantasy books. I got lost at times, but was able to keep going.

The Royal Ranger: Arazan's Wolves: Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger, Book 6

The Ranger's Apprentice takes a turn towards fantasy in this sixth Royal Ranger book. Rangers are asked to go to Celtica to investigate the appearance of a mystical wolf. The rangers believe that 99% of things can be explained through standard means, but leave 1% for the supernatural. That comes in handy here. Somebody is trying to summon a demon to go together with the wolves and other creatures in order to dominate. Will and Maddie use their mortal talents as well as some knowledge they have learned about the supernatural to defeat the enemy. The local people are shown as being much more attached to the supernatural than the more "enlightened" rangers. It continues the series mix of "historical" settings with modern world views. 

Friday, November 03, 2023

The Last 8

It begins with a trigger warning of suicidal thoughts, PTSD and depression. However, the book also includes the almost all humans being turned to dust and the elimination of a few species. That didn't deserve a warning. Neither did language, drinking or sexual harassment. I guess it is just the mental that needs warning. In the book, aliens have come down to earth and wiped out almost all humanity. There are 8 people left and they have made it to Area 51. They discover that 6 of them are specially engineered "super-human" warriors and one is an alien. The one human had helped study the aliens when they first came. They aliens that had destroyed humanity were attempting to find a species of pacifist super-intelligent aliens. One of the remaining human girls is one of the pacifists. They manage to go and destroy the "hive" invaders through a suicide that gave the good alien special powers. Then they go off into space. I guess it is good for them. But with only one human and one good alien left, the chance of carrying on are next to nothing. Maybe the hybrid warriors (who have a little good alien and bad alien DNA mixed in) can reproduce? Or maybe humanity is just toast. 

From the World of Percy Jackson: Sun and the Star: A Nico di Angelo Adventure

A good audiobook narration can help bring you into the book. A bad narration can put you to sleep. Alas, The Sun and the Star fit into the latter. It also didn't help that the story was always breaking for the boys to express their love for each other. Did they forget that they were in the middle of a life and death battle? They do go down to the underworld and try to do something. Some monsters and a cat are with them. They are also in love. Maybe it should be billed as a romance rather than a fantasy adventure?

Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning

How does language work? Does the human brain always produce a real-world representation of what is being discussed? There are a few theories that have been used. They all seem to have their good and bad points. It is also interesting how our mind feels in details that are not present in the actual words. We are able to construct a more full understanding from a small number of words.

The mind is good at simulating activity. Athletes can "practice" just by envisioning in their mind what they need to do. (Though they need to do it right - if they practice striking out, it will just help them striking out.) The brain can do just about everything in "dry run" mode before hitting the actual movement.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

The Royal Ranger: Escape from Falaise: Ranger's Apprentice, Book 5

An attempt to rescue a prince has left Will and Maddie in jail. They have learned some more about the conniving going on in that kingdom. Maddie ends up challenging someone to combat - and winning. However, they are threatened with execution. Luckily, a knight and ranger decided to backstop them. They escape, and get the prince (who can often be dead weight.) They return him and uncover more palace intrigue in that land, and decide to get out of there as quick as they can. The book is a typical Ranger's Apprentice book with the Rangers eventually being rewarded for treating others well. 

The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England (Secret Projects 2)

(Audiobook on Google Play) - Brandon Sanderson is not making his audiobooks available on Audible. I typically use Amazon for my links, but listen via the local library. I'd much rather have the audiobook available for listening at the library even if it means not being able to link to the Amazon version. It is nice to get some push on limiting the Audible exclusives.

As for the book, this one looked like it was a lot of fun to write, even if there are no talking bananas. The book centers around a person that does not know where he is or why he was there. However, he does have a handbook. He gradually remembers more about himself and works through his adventure.

He is in an "alternate time path". It is very similar to time travel, except it isn't really time travel. Companies sell the opportunity to travel to alternate dimensions that are similar to past periods of earth. This company focuses on sending people to places like Medieval England where people speak a language similar to modern English. The book contains many vary humorous bits of promotional materials and other guide information from this company.

As the man slowly learns more about himself, he is able to complete his journey and avoid catastrophe. He also discovers some of the challenges of living as a "modern person" in the a place like the past. He thought it be able to display the "magic" of modern science. Alas, without the internet, he is not able to demonstrate the details of modern science. However, when he draws an accurate drawing a person's face, the people are wowed. This perspective drawing is magical to them. (Writing is a different story, with some real magic implied.)

Brandon Sanderson says that he came up with the title first, and then wrote the book. He probably had a lot of fun doing it. The book was a lot of fun to listen to.