Sunday, March 31, 2019

Den of Thieves

In the 1980s, corporate takovers and buyouts were all the rage. Wall Street could get filthy rich at the expense of actual companies. They also found ways to further enrich their wealth by illegally trading on advance private information. Den of Thieves covers the stories of some of this trading among the people that were actually caught. White collar criminals ended up serving time in prison and paying multi-million dollar fines. Long-lived brokerage houses that were caught up in the scandal vanished. And in the end, you are wondering how many other guilty parties escaped unscathed. The book makes insider trading appear similar to speeding on highways. It is illegal, but so rampant that nobody expects to get caught. Traders could employ all sorts of other schemes (of various legality) to manufacture money, much to the chagrin of taxpayers and shareholders. Have times really changed since then? 30 years later, wall street has changed, but still suffers from the greed complex outlined in the book.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Self Driven Child

In listening to Self Driven Child, two thoughts went through my mind: 1. This is the parenting style that I aspire too, and 2. The school district has tried to pick and choose some of these principles, leaving education as a muddled mess.
One of the authors comes from a test-prep background. Thus, a lot of the examples are of "highly achieving" students that are stressed beyond belief trying to get into dream schools. Thus time is spent emphasizing that parents should not force children into these routes. The child that has their parents manage all the details needed to get into the good college often ends up partying hard and then dropping out. Instead, children should be given more autonomy to make their choices. Advanced schooling may not be for everyone. (One chapter in the book is even devoted to anecdotes from people who have gone down non-standard paths.)
Successful parenting (and leadership in general) involves helping people to make good choices and carry them out effectively. If we force people to do something, they do not develop the skills to make the choices in the future. They may also build up resentment and fight against what we are doing. Instead, a parent should often be more like a consultant. They are there to help the child in the process, but not dictate every detail. (However, there still are general rules and regulations that must be put in place.)
Schools also have a knack for doing many things that are not in the best interest of students. The emphasis on testing leads to students being good test takers, not good learners. External rewards motivate initial compliance, but internal reward systems are needed for long term success. Too much homework often leads to tired students rather than more learning - especially when it is of the busy-work variety.
We want children to be productive, self-driven members of society. We need to treat them appropriately. Even those with learning disabilities and special needs can be self-motivated. It just requires different behaviors.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Faulkner Audio Collection

This Faulkner audio collection includes a selection of short stories read by various narrators as well as some excerpts and a Nobel Acceptance speech read by Faulkner himself. The stories are told with a bit of a southern twang and are understandable. Faulkner's bits, however, might as well be in a different language. The thick, soft-spoken southern accent strains the ear to hear. The stories themselves typically spend a long time with people in a southern culture and then have a gothic twist (often at the ending.) For example, in "Rose for Emily", Emily is a recluse that has recently passed away. Only at the end of the story do we discover the dead body that was stored in a room. It is interesting to ponder that at the time of the writing of some stories that the Civil War was more recent than the Korean War is to us today.

Stories included are:
Rose for Emily
The Evening Sun
Spotted Horses
Barn Burning

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation

This new philosophical transaltion of Dao De Jing gives us a lot of commentary. Perhaps way too much commentary. The introduction greatly overshadows the actual content of the book. And the content of the book contains more commentary than actual text. Common themes emphasized are the power of the week over the mighty, pacifism, and importance of the role of women, anti-materialism and the importanace of ones place. These seem like very modern norms. Is this just a modern reading of Daoism, or is this an accurate judgement? I'm interested in exploring some of the original text in more detail - though without the weight of pre-built interpretations.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Luzhin Defense

The Luzhin Defense is one of Nabakov's earlier novels, originally published in Russian in 1930 and not translated into English until 1964. The title character, Luzhin is an awkward, likely autistic man who is an excellent chess player. As a youth, he does not have friends, but develops a passion for chess after he has been introduced. He reaches grandmaster level and becomes engaged to a girl (much to her parent's chagrin.) However, during a high level tournament, he has a nervous breakdown. Chess appears to be the cause of his problems, and he must ween himself from it to be healthy again. He does, and soon makes a recovery. However, he later encounters people and events from his past, eventually having his mental health fade again.
In the introduction, Nabakov claims he structured the novel like a chess match, complete with surprises and rapid turns. It does have a focus on chess, yet understanding of the game is not required to understand the novel. Nabokov does seem to enjoy picking something external (like a chess game or literary criticism) as a vehicle for structuring novels. In the Luzhin defense he is successful in creating an accessible story out of a chess match.

Shalimar the Clown

Shalimar the Clown starts out as boring romance, but gradually works its way into a well written story. The namesake Shalimar is a Kashmiri circus performer who see his livelihood fade away with the coming of television. To make matters worse, his fiance decides to go off to perform in the city. There she has an affair with an American diplomat and bears a child. He vows revenge, and seeks to destroy the fiance, the American and their illegitimate child. He is caught after murdering the diplomat, but escapes the prison using his tightrope walking skills and later tries to kill the daughter. The novel ends with the attempt (though it strongly implies that he is the one that dies.)
Most of the novel is spent in flashbacks developing the history of the characters. The American diplomat was a European Jew who had a daring escape from Nazi controlled France. He had a history of difficulty controlling his amorous passions. He later immigrated to the United States and became a minor celebrity before rising up the diplomatic ranks to became ambassador and counter-terrorism specialist. Shalimar's fiance was a dancer. She was disowned by her community after the affair, but gradually started to work her way back into their graces. Her daughter was taken by the ambassador's wife. She was not a great parent, and the daughter lived a troubled youth, only really developing skills at fighting. The flashbacks help to build the characters but leave the story moving along at a plodding pace. At times it feels like it is just a contrast between Nazi Europe and modern separatist fighting in Kashmir. However, it later becomes clear that these are just the backdrop of a story of love, lust and revenge.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A New History of Christianity

A New History of Christianity
By Vivian Green, 1996-1998

(read in 2002)

This very densely written overview of the Christianity covers nearly 2000 years in 400 pages. However, nearly half of the book covers the period from 1800-1998. Thus, though it is intrinsically written as a historical overview, in the end it takes a more theological focus. However, it does steer clear of a heavy doctrinal bias in order to present an objective overview of the many different Christian sects. Unfortunately, there are insufficient details concerning the historical basis for the launching of the various sects. It also was incredibly lacking in the history of the very early Christian church. (What had been happening in the three hundred years leading up to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity? How did the hierarchy evolve in that time?) The coverage of the medieval church also lacks detail. This is arguably the time in which the church had the most profound influence across Europe, yet there is very little space devoted to this period. (There is only a quick glossing over the crusades.) The book also suffers from an English focus, with an undo amount of space devoted to the British church, and very little devoted to Eastern churches.

Monday, March 11, 2019


Hercules is one of those characters from Greek mythology that I have heard of frequently, but don't seem to know his history. Thus this Full Cast Audio production was a great treat. Hercules had the connection to the gods, but was raised as a mortal. He had strong morals and discovered his strength. Alas, when he would violate his own code, the results would be disastrous. In one case, he caved to drinking a toast with wine. This, alas, led him to cause great destruction. He tried to do what is best, but would often fall victim to the designs of those around him.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

The Story of Stuff

The author of "Story of Stuff" grew up in Seattle, worked at Greenpeace and now lives in Berkeley. That should quickly give you a feel for the political angle. She is, however, quick to criticize the single mindedness of many NGOS that are so focused on their single issue that they miss the systemic problems. She also criticizes the narrow focus of consumers. Americans consume a huge amount of "stuff". They think they are helping the environment by recycling, but they would help much more by not consuming so much in the first place. Spending more hours to buy more stuff does not make one happier.
In understanding the story of stuff, she attempts to trace all the inputs needed for various "things". Something as simple as a T-shirt has a wide supply chain. The people stitching and shipping the final product our obvious. However, there are also those involved in growing fibers, producing chemicals and tools, manufacturing tools, and many other areas. Electronic devices have so many different parts coming through different layers under a shroud of secrecy that it becomes almost impossible to know where they came from.
She devotes considerable time to attacking trash incineration (even talking about the odyssey of Philadelphia's ashes.) She also has no kind words for PVC (not just pipes - the nasty stuff is pretty much anything that has the nasty odor when you get it.) She sees significant problems in our system which lets corporations externalize many costs (especially with regards to the environment.) Producers should bear the burden of taken care of the waste that they have "given" to consumers. (However, for climate change initiatives, she advocates making the emissions count against the conumer's "quota", rather than the producer.)
In all the book is half "call to arms" for political activism and half an odyssey into exploring how we get our stuff. Both point to the fact that we have a lot of stuff in America while supporting an endless supply chain for better or worse.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Player of Games

Player of Games follows the story of a game player from a "culture" who goes off to an empire. He is "tricked" by a drone into cheating at a game. The drone uses that as blackmail to entice him to help him as he goes to the empire. The culture wants him to go to the empire where a game is of prime importance. The emperor and high ranking officials are chosen based on how they play the game. He goes there as an alien and does well at the game. Others in the society try to convince him that he should leave rather than continue playing. However, he continues and eventually sees the downfall of the empire.
The story is an interesting concept. It is also intriguing what they other sees as "good" and "bad". The "good" culture is one in which people live for long times and there is minimal crime and punishment. They also are free to exercise whatever sexual desire they have, including freely going back and forth from gender to gender. The "bad" culture is the one where the game is important. They have many rules which the elite enjoy flaunting. They have three genders and a distinct gender hierarchy. The elite also privately enjoy forced violence and sexual activity. Alas, his utopia would probably crash and burn just as the "dystopia" did.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

I Sing the Body Electric! And Other Stories

Narration of audiobooks is an art. A high quality narration can make the book so much better. The voice and tone of the narrator can change the feeling of the book. For "I Sing the Body Electric", the narration is grandfatherly. I found it hard to appreciate the stories. They focus on human conditions, occasionally with a science fiction hook. One story is about a highway bypassing a small town. Another (also in an edition of Martian Chronicles) deals with the last man on mars suffering from his own practical telephone jokes from a few decades earlier. There are also depression-era travelers who stay in a hotel with chickens that lay special eggs. There are some interesting explorations of the human condition, but it is hard to maintain interest.