Sunday, 14 September 2014

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

book coverAmerican Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
Colin Woodard
Viking Penguin, 2011, 322 pp plus backmatter

In 1991 Joel Garreau, then national news editor for the Washington Post, wrote The Nine Nations of North America. He was attempting to create a system that would help organize the efforts of his reporters when he realized that the news could not be organized geographically along state lines. Instead he defined areas of common social values and trends, only one of which (Quebec) actually followed political boundaries. Colin Woodard saw the organization of North America through a very similar lens, but did not want to create only a snapshot of the current social reality as Garreau had done. Woodard describes the beginnings of each of his eleven “nations”, the personalities and politics that controlled their early days, and the migrations from each.

Woodard’s map has some surprises, he calls New England “Yankeedom” and shows it covering not only the states we normally describe with that term, but also Canada’s Maritime provinces as well as much of Minnesota, all of Wisconsin and Michigan, not to mention Chicago. The Hispanic-influenced region he calls “El Norte” includes Southern California and large parts of Texas but also all or most of several states in northern Mexico which he suggests would be eager to leave Mexico to join an independent nation based on his lines on the map. Like Garreau, Woodard considers Miami to be the capital of a nation that includes all of the Caribbean islands along with most of Central America and the northern coast of South America. Sadly, because this nation is mostly outside of the US he identifies it and then chooses not to cover it.

“Tidewater” is his name for coastal Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, the original home of a number of America’s leading thinkers in the early days. In contrast to that, he asserts that those who formed the basis of the “Deep South” came not from Europe like the other settlers but from the plantations of the Caribbean, and that the social structure, most particularly relating to slavery, was entirely different from that of Tidewater. “Greater Appalachia” was formed later in the western parts of Tidewater states, largely by those who had come “from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain” who sparsely settled an inland area with fiercely-loyal clans and no government.

Woodard speaks with great admiration for what he calls “New Netherlands”, the smallest of his defined areas comprising metropolitan New York City. He discusses the anti-feudal politics of the Netherlands that he says grew out of the reality of individual land owners recovering land from the sea, and that a small polity like the Netherlands had become an aggressive international trade center and the needs of serving an international market had cured it of all the religious and nationalist biases that were so strong in every other area he discusses. Last week we celebrated the 350th anniversary of New York City, starting with the point at which the British Navy occupied New Amsterdam. Rather than attempt a military resistance, the Dutch burghers quickly sought a peaceable surrender. The British recognized the economic value of the community and though they insisted on naming it after the Duke of York they allowed the unique freedoms of the city to be maintained. New York City clearly maintains much of this character to this day, despite the fact that descendents of those burghers no longer represent a significant part of the populace.

By contrast, the nation he calls “Yankeedom” was not oriented towards freedom of the individual, but was committed to communities of like-minded, and like-worshiping, persons. Woodard shows that much of this character is preserved in communities as far west as North Dakota, although the Western areas populated by Yankee migration do seem to have lost all of early Boston’s religious intolerance.

By a delightful fluke it happened that I was reading American Nations at the same time I read James MacGregor Burns’ Fire and Light, a history of the Enlightenment. As much of the political and social development of the original colonies was a reflection of intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, some of the parallels enlightened me more than perhaps reading either alone would have. I’ll cover that title in a few days.

I greatly enjoyed reading The Nine Nations several years ago and was delighted to see the same concept developed further by Woodard. Although the boundaries defined in the two books are different in detail, that largely reflects the time frames dealt with. Garreau was focused on newsworthy activities during the ’80s and ’90s rather than the origins of regional differences, Woodard’s historical approach naturally led him to focus on the original areas of influence. I don’t think you need to have read The Nine Nations to appreciate the eleven nations, although I certainly commend both titles.

American politics is currently facing significant demographic changes, as old white people like me are dying off, the young continue to insist on thinking differently than their parents and grandparents, and immigrants from Asia and Latin America continue to bring different values along with their exciting culinary contributions. The immediate changes we are facing on this front, potentially delayed one or more presidential election cycles due to low participation on the part of some of the most rapidly growing cohorts, is largely unrelated to the sectional histories Woodard provides, but the processes of change that he limns here provide valuable background to anyone trying to make sense of America’s direction at the start of the third millennium.

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative LifeTibetan Peach Pie cover
Tom Robbins
Harper Collins, 27 May 2014, 363pp

Right on the back cover it says, “this is not an autobiography”. Robbins goes on to claim that the book is not a memoir either. This is either total nonsense or irrelevant, the compelling text takes us from Robbins youth in Appalachian North Carolina, where his mother dubbed him Tommy Rotten, through 41 vignettes leading to his current comfortable life at La Conner, Washington at the ripe old age of 82. He doesn’t actually describe his life as comfortable, I infer this from a recent New York Times story about his residential compound (the link to which I can’t currently find).

In the early chapters he does a good job of showing us that he earned that sobriquet. For example, at seven Tommy and a friend named Johnny robbed a bank. Armed with cap pistols the two marched into the Northwestern State Bank in Blowing Rock, and demanded “a lot of money”. A quick thinking bank employee hurled several contact-sensitive firecrackers against a wall and the two boys, thinking they were under fire from bank guards, fled the scene. No charges were filed, the town was amused — excepting only the boys’ parents.

Robbins details the range of events he was part of, the places he lived and traveled, and the women he shared his life with. I’m sure there were numerous dark and hard times, but we are spared those. What he gives us is a collection of the stories he has told to those women, which he claims they insisted he should publish. The women had good sense on this point, through all these unpredictable events we share a reflection of the author’s embarrassment, as he generously chose to include anecdotes that don’t necessarily reflect well on his judgment and life skills.

The stories feel real. I could relate to quite a few of them myself. The text is witty and literate, the reader is amused but not left rolling on the floor gasping for breath. The only downside for the reader is if that reader is also a writer — the mastery of storytelling demonstrated is bound to lead to envy. Where I might struggle to craft an apt and surprising metaphor every week, and then cherish and overuse it, Robbins thinks nothing of piling on with multiple displays of superior wordcraft in a single paragraph.

In most autobiographies and memoirs there really isn’t any point other than making the reader feel good about the author, and perhaps to understand the forces that propelled him through life. Tibetan Peach Pie may or may not help us understand Tom Robbins, but you can’t help feeling good after reading it. I can’t call this book important but it was certainly enjoyable and I think I can recommend it to anyone. With the possible exception of the very young who might be inspired to emulate the antics of “Tommy Rotten”.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Everything Bad Is Good For You

Cover imageEverything Bad Is Good For You
Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2005, 238pp

Having misread a blurb regarding this book, I was hoping to gain support for my idea that the nutritional benefits of, say, butter and rice cakes are actually proportional to their levels of flavor. Sadly, I received no such reinforcement but I’ll stick with that belief anyway. What Johnson does advance in this book is the surprising concept that television, video games, and the Internet are actually making all of us smarter. As far-fetched as that might sound, he makes strong case.

He starts with games. As a boy Johnson deeply explored fantasy baseball games at a time when these were strictly on paper. He enjoyed analyzing the many factors that went into success of a player and a team, and the differences between various tools involved in his exploration. Touching on significant research he examines modern video games, the fact that they’ve forced the player to spend hours of time that isn’t particularly enjoyable simply learning the rules needed to complete the game. Johnson marvels at the growing complexity of video games from the likes of Pac-Man, for which a single page describing patterns to watch for was all the documentation extant, to Grand Theft Auto III, for which a 53,000 word “walk-through” exists that many find essential to playing the game. Where the cynic expected games to offer the path of least resistance to players, in truth they have become impressive challenges, much like the efforts he put into hypothetical baseball. Johnson applauds the devotion of what others see as slackers to learning and mastering the complexity of these games.

He then moves on to broadcast television. He recalls how Newton Minow, an FCC Commissioner, declared TV to be a “vast wasteland” in 1961. He looks closely at the growing complexity of prime time shows. He takes the police procedural genre for one set of examples, noting the absolute consistency and linearity of Dragnet (1951-1959), relating that Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) introduced a second subplot, normally comic, to start and end each show while the bulk of the time was still spent on a purely linear story. Years later, in 1981, came Hill Street Blues, a program that routinely had six or eight simultaneous plots developing, some of which had started in previous episodes and some extending into future ones. This development was followed by other programs until the Sopranos routinely involved a dozen distinct threads with 20 or more recurring characters. (He doesn’t mention them, but two of the procedurals from Don Johnson that were followed in the royal rec room, Miami Vice and Nash Bridges, reinforce the idea.) In other words, during several decades broadcast television was changing from the most simple of entertainments to dramas nearly as complex as a novel.

Johnson sees the internet in the same light. Not only does it provide resources for enhancing other parts of life, including access to helpful information about video games and staggering amounts of discussion about television (look for the extensive analyses of both the drama and the medicine in House, M.D. that can be found on-line), but it has pushed us into a new way of learning. He quotes Steve Jobs as positing that the difference between television and the internet is the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. But the whole book points out that we have been moving from the former to the latter in other pursuits.

Johnson asserts an underlying change that he calls the “Sleeper Curve”, an increase in societal mental acuity that is quietly enhancing the intelligence of just about everybody that participates in our increasingly-complex society. Where George Will sees “an increasingly infantilized society”, Johnson sees “a kind of positive brainwashing” in the same media that Will, and many other observers, deride.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Despite watching this happen, I didn’t see what it really meant. Before getting too excited about your kids’ media habits, consider Johnson’s view and look closely at what is actually being watched. Odds are good that they are stimulating young minds rather than creating the zombies that so many parents fear are sitting on their sofas, when parents prefer more identifiable homework.

Alas, I’m not sure this helps me personally. I rarely watch broadcast television and the only game I seem to play is Freecell, which can be mastered in thirty seconds and I mostly use to let my brain wander without doing much of anything. Did you think that video games were just modern pacifiers? In most cases, as Johnson points out, the answer would be no, but in my case it’s true. I do think the internet has had a positive impact on my intellect, but I’m completely missing the benefits of games and TV.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Why We Make Things

why-we-make-thingsWhy We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman
Peter Korn
David R. Godine, Publisher, 2013, 167pp plus backmatter

Many artists struggle for recognition, particularly those who work in media other than painting and sculpture. For artists like the Empress Larkin whose work in fiber can be seen as making stuff, and certainly for potters, the battle rages to be seen as an artist rather than “doing crafts”. Sadly, this struggle can be seen not only with the public but also with the artists’ families. I doubt that I will have much luck getting those who fail to see the art, and only see the craft, to read Why We Make Things And Why It Matters, but it would certainly help.

The book is basically a memoir from the time author Peter Korn abandoned his college work through the current day, with the author being the founder and executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship at Rockport, Maine. As with many artists who have worked with things that might be dismissed as craft, he found little understanding when he chose to pursue crafting with wood, first as a carpenter and later as a furniture maker. He quotes his father as saying, “You’ll regret doing work that doesn’t challenge your mind.”. Through a long series of towns, relationships, Hodgkin’s disease (twice), and at least two dogs, Korn discovers that life in craft is anything but a life that fails to challenge the mind. In fact, he asserts that working with wood, at least, involves intense mental activity on several levels.

Intellectuals like myself tend to see thinking as strictly a mental activity, but Korn makes the point that a combination of heart, head, and hand takes one to an additional level. “I found that even so simple an operation as cutting a mortise harmonizes intellect, manual skill, and character in a way that underscores the artificiality of the Cartesian divide between mind and body. When you add the creative component of design, craft becomes a fully integrated application of one’s capacities.”

I have, in the distant past, sometimes had the space for a table saw, drill press, and other “shop tools”, even if I didn’t pursue any craft to the level that Korn has. I feel some sense of loss as a result of using my hands only for typing.

Reading Korn’s book will not immediately provide the space and budget to pursue such things anytime soon, but it planted the seed. If you pursue any of the paths that turn ideas into physical objects, or think perhaps you should, this book will clarify many things.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

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Sunday, 20 July 2014

No Place to Hide

No-place-to-hideNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Glenn Greenwald
Metropolitan Books (a Henry Holt imprint), 2014, 253pp, backmatter online

Opinions regarding Edward Snowden tend to be neatly divided, some see him as a hero, the rest see him as a traitor. I fear that only the former group is likely to read No Place To Hide, I might as well admit at the outset that I am in this group. I feel we owe a great deal to Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning as well, and reading this book convinces me that I need to add Glenn Greenwald to the list, considering the significant risks he took in bringing Snowden’s revelations to light.

The book is surprisingly evenhanded while discussing the incredible details of the NSA’s invasion of our privacy, because of his involvement with Snowden and the timeliness of the story the book largely focuses on this matter but without attempting to demonize America compared to other surveillance states. He could easily have been much harsher, for example his quote of Sen. Joe Biden from 2006 excoriating the metadata collection of the NSA under President Bush is mentioned, the hypocrisy noted, and then Greenwald moves on.

Still, after delineating the extent of the NSA’s surveillance and the cooperation of the other four members of the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand) we are left knowing that no surveillance state in history has matched the current levels.

I didn’t grow up under the Stasi like Angela Merkel did, but I was raised in a surveillance state. No, not some reprehensible communist regime, but rather the warm and comforting environment of small town America in the ’60s. My parents were prominent members of the community and any wayward act I might have committed was very likely to be relayed to them by those who happened to see it. Somehow, I came away from that with a warm regard for the safety fostered by that natural watchfulness. As Greenwald clearly points out, governments rely on the expectation that their watchfulness is only a risk to malefactors, that those of us who go about our business responsibly have nothing to fear and in fact benefit from it. Of course he also points out that the division between those we think should be watched for our safety and those who should be left alone tends to change with the times. Ten years ago it was Democrats decrying the ominous intent of the NSA programs we knew so little about at the time, while today most Democrats defend the White House policies and it is the Republicans who are more likely to cry foul. The Panopticon is real, if there is one chapter in Greenwald’s book that is important, it is the one that documents the general dangers of government having the kinds of information that the NSA is currently collecting.

He also does a fair job of demolishing the idea that such surveillance will actually make us safer. He makes it clear what a tiny part of the government’s use of this data has had anything to do with terrorism and how the use of that scary word is a flatly fraudulent excuse for assaults on our rights. Investigating the Brazilian oil company Petrobras or listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls obviously have nothing to do with terrorism, and breaking into Chinese telecom equipment manufacturers systems is all about maintaining the NSA’s ability to “collect it all” rather than any defense against future terrorist acts. He points out that in order to justify the incredible expense of the NSA’s operation, compared to our investment in normal police activities, they would have to stop over three hundred realistic attacks a year when they have, in fact, stopped none at all.Maigret’s Night at the Crossroads film download

As Greenwald released the first of Snowden’s cache of documents, he was attacked not only by the governments eagerly participating in the surveillance be revealed, but also by journalists, many of whom were quick to define him as an activist or a blogger rather than being one of their august company. I won’t expand on that here, suffice it to say that the chapter covering the foolishness and bad taste of much of the journalistic community is choice reading.

The most devastating effect of reading this book is the awareness that those we see as “the good guys” are, when they are in power, just as likely to pursue these reprehensible activities. Looking back over history it seems to me that even the power of surveillance that J Edgar Hoover had when he so eagerly dug into the background of Martin Luther King, Jr was probably excessive, and I would very much like to see us roll back the federal capabilities in this area at least a half century. If I Were King, I’d like to think that I would dismantle all of it. Alas, this book leads me to wonder if I could do that once I was on the other side. But it should be dismantled, this level of surveillance is damaging to our society and provides little or no safety at huge expense.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The God Argument

The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism
A. C. Grayling
Bloomsbury USA, 2013, 258 pp plus backmatter

god-argument-graylingThe God Argument, as the subtitle suggests, has two parts. The first delineates most of the religious arguments in favor of religion, and refutes each in its turn. The second lays out the case for humanism, establishing it as a rational basis for moral and ethical behavior, expanding on an earlier argument that a peaceful and productive community is not based on, and does not require, a set of rules laid down by a religion, or the presence and action of a higher being. Despite a careful academic approach to these points, Grayling’s text is reasonably easy to follow.

As I find myself drifting from a traditional Western Catholic view of creation and life, toward perhaps my own modified deism, and at times finding myself all the way in the atheist camp, I found The God Argument to be reassuring. As Grayling points out, one of the essential elements of most religions is that the doctrine is presented to children by those who have a natural authority and credibility. The survival of the species does, after all, depend on children learning certain facts about the world and their place therein, our genes give children a bias towards accepting instruction from their parents and other trusted members of the community. This point by Grayling was not really a surprise to me, nor were the others. But as a “public intellectual” and prolific writer he has spent significant organized time addressing each of the arguments. It turns out to be a significant comfort, for one abandoning such long held beliefs, to see the logical work of refutation presented with very little effort on my part.

If your faith, regardless of the religion, is strong and you are comfortable in this position, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Grayling approaches each of the various arguments very calmly, with little or no rancor towards any of them, but perhaps not with the strength and energy required to convert a devout follower to become a humanist. Even if I thought this book could bring about conversion in the devout, I really don’t find that an appealing or pressing need. If your faith suits you, and brings you comfort and moral clarity without demanding the privilege of judging the lives and actions of those around you, I’m completely happy for you to keep it. On the other hand, if you are among the baby boomers who, on the downhill side of life, finds the faith you formed early in life no longer as rewarding, no longer a source of certainty, then Grayling’s calm presentation is very likely to help you get the rest of the way out of the superstitions you grew up with and make you more comfortable with the decision that you have already been coming to.

The chapter “A Humanist on Love, Sex and Drugs” could well stand alone as a guide to how we address those issues, possibly as individuals and certainly as matters of law. I found this quote to be particularly apt, “Nature has made sex pleasurable not just to ensure reproduction but, in some of the higher mammals at least, to create bonds. The narrow views of the ancient Jews and the modern Catholics, that sex must always have pregnancy as a possible outcome, miss a very important point here.”.

If I Were King there would be no state church, nor any state objections to the churches supported by my subjects. Religion often offers benefits to the believer which I would certainly not wish to deprive anyone of. Many churches, despite being based on revealed wisdom and superstition, are positive influences in our communities, although certainly not a net benefit when balanced against the great evils that have been committed in the name of one deity or another at various times. But it’s up to each person, and if you are in a transition in this regard, this book will be a helpful read.

Redskins name change

Last week the US Patent and Trademark office stripped the Washington Redskins of registered trademark status for six of their trademarks, on the grounds that the name was “disparaging to native Americans”. Really? Apparently there are a number of dictionaries that have declared it to be  “usually offensive”, “disparaging”, “insulting”, and “taboo” (see Wikipedia entry footnotes for which dictionary makes which claims). I flatly don’t believe this. To start with, the name is so rarely used in reference to actual aboriginal tribe members that I suspect any disparaging meaning of the name is actually referring to the football team. (See “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder” by Dave McKenna of the Washington City Paper.) I suspect that if you’ve heard the term used to refer to actual Native Americans, you were watching a very old western.

According to a Washington Post article by Johathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, the only actual poll of Native Americans found 90% weren’t bothered by the name. The National Congress of Native American Indians adopted a resolution in 1993 denouncing the name, but the fact that tribes that are members of that group represent 30% of all Native Americans doesn’t mean that anything like 30% of the individual members were offended.

And at least one Indian, Don Wetzel of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, sincerely likes the name and the logo, his father (obviously also a Native American) designed it, making specific efforts to render the logo in ways that related to actual Indian tradition rather than Hollywood depictions. See this article in the Great Falls Tribune.

I think that if we’re going to start stripping teams of their names we should start with all the allegedly aggressive carnivorous creatures. I much prefer the names of the teams from my daughter’s schools: The Wombats of John Woolman School and The Geoducks of Evergreen State College. Note that wombats are not only cute and fuzzy, they’re herbivorous. Geoducks are, of course, really big ugly clams. Both species are primarily subterranean, so aren’t likely to bother anyone that doesn’t go trying to dig them up.

If I Were King I might be tempted to ban trademarks that offend me. For example, I think that “realtor” should never have been made a trademark because it was already a word (British English), and based on comments from people that have had real estate deals turn out less advantageous than they hoped, you could probably come up with quite a few people that thought that term was disparaging. But it’s just plain silly for a government to get involved at all. If the business wants to use the mark, perhaps risking offending paying customers, let them.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty:
Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About
Dave Barry
Putnam Adult, 2014, 224 pp (no backmatter)

YOU_CAN_DATE_jacket_imageWhen the Empress Larkin and I are both home at the end of the evening, I join her in the bedroom and we share a few light moments. Specifically, she reads for ten or fifteen minutes, normally something light from Erma Bombeck, Tom Bodett, Pat McManus, or with the most titles on our shelves, Dave Barry. This isn’t any intellectual exercise, it’s just fun – it gives us a few minutes afterward to connect at the end of the day.

Here’s the heart of my review: If you like Dave Barry, you’ll enjoy this book. If you don’t, it’s hard to predict.

FACT: If you see a paragraph in this book that starts like this one, you can depend on only one thing: not much of it is true. On the other hand, anything followed by “I am not making this up” is probably verifiably true, although there is a good chance he’s moved it way out of context for humorous effect.

For example, “How to Become a Professional Author” is riddled with paragraphs like these:

FACT: The Hunger Games, as originally conceived by the author, was supposed to be a three-book series on the historical impact of salad dressing.”

FACT: The average children’s book author works two hour per year.”

Somehow, you always come away from a Dave Barry essay with something worth keeping in mind. In this volume, “Seeking Wifi in the Holy Land” relates an eleven-day tour of Israel. Barry is not a believer but his wife, Miami Herald sports writer Michelle Kaufman, is a member of Temple Judea of Coral Gables which is a reformed congregation so open-minded they don’t mind taking the occasional atheist into their bosom. The result is both occasionally hilarious (a visit to the Dead Sea – “my butt still stings”) and touching (after an evening in the home of a local couple, the husband says of his wife who has been holding court while he served endless food, “I do not agree with her. <pause> About anything.”).

It’s unlikely that Sophie is dungeoned up to the extent the book’s title suggests, although Barry’s comments on the subject will resonate with any man who ever raised a daughter. But he’s braver than I am: He actually took his daughter Sophie, as in bought tickets and went inside with her and one of her girlfriends, to a Justin Bieber concert. That may not be the equivalent of raising the flag at Iwo Jima, but I’m impressed.

If I Were King, those who bring this kind of positive energy to the kingdom would be knighted, mostly because the honoree would be required to spend a little time with the monarch, and I wouldn’t want to miss that chance.