Wednesday, October 8, 2014

LOSING OUR WAY by Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert is a former New York Times columnist and think tank fellow with a new book praised by Bill Moyers titled LOSING OUR WAY, An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. It’s all here, both fact and opinion on fact: the disparity of income between the wildly rich (who, if white, hide their wealth or, if black, flaunt it,) and kids of all races who want to go to school mainly because there’s something to eat there. Except school programs are being cut while infrastructure in America collapses, (even as the NFL builds stadiums and we divert more money to the military than the next twenty top countries combined.) Herbert interviews ordinary people who are struggling to find jobs while the middle class is facing extinction, thanks to policies that favor the so-called “winners:” those who were born into the right families, on the right side of the tracks. Sure, the opportunities in America are still present in today’s society, but Herbert seems to be saying that our culture has ironically embraced luck as the means to success, since working hard no longer guarantees one can feed their family, while the rich (instead of helping by hiring) make it more difficult to do so daily, many hiding their wealth in offshore accounts. (Ask the super rich the best way to get richer, and they will say “through legislation”…by buying the right politicians.) So the game is now rigged from top to bottom, while we are spied on to maintain control, and to steer opinion with subtle indoctrination, (with Coca-Cola telling us to “open happiness,” the truth being that soda aids cancer, and the cost of cancer drugs is now the #1 cause of nest egg bankruptcy.) No happy pill can save us from ourselves, Herbert reminds us, if we don’t do an about-face and reject the flag-waving ignorance that has us fighting endless wars which only result in more dead and disabled young men, who may return as “heroes,” but may also commit suicide due to the madness of our delusions. This is an audiobook, read by the author, which will make listeners see America’s Got Talent in a whole new way: do you “succeed” in America by winning a talent competition, spinning plates made in China, and judged by people who make twenty times what the ultimate (and single) winner does? The flags waved on game show stages (and in Congress, as politicians play Solitaire while waiting to raise the debt ceiling,) hide a bitter truth that doesn’t make Yahoo Trends: we have largely become pawns or knights of kingpins who see the world as a stage to boost their profits and egos via gamesmanship, and are unwilling to let us have back the reins until we have all sacrificed ourselves in their service. AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

WAKING UP by Sam Harris

Prominent atheist Sam Harris is making headlines from his debate with Ben Affleck over Islam on the Bill Maher show. To hear his latest audiobook WAKING UP, and audio samples of his other books, click on the title. It's read by the author. 

More controversy regarding the Catholic church can be found in another book... One amazing fact about the novel The DaVinci Code is that it was so controversial that there were classes on the controversy at churches around the world, and at colleges, and dozens of books were written about the controversy afterward. Why is this amazing? Because it was a novel, a work of fiction. Dan Brown was silent during the controversy, avoiding interviews, allowing sales to accumulate to such a degree that the novel eventually sold more copies than any in history. Did Brown make the story up? Yes. He based it on arcane facts, but also on fabrication and poetic license. It shows that if you challenge religious history, and add a dimension of drama and originality of expression, everyone wants in on it. Now comes a new book, one which claims not to be fiction, but a biography of Jesus. Its author is not in hiding, as Brown was. And it is even more controversial. How so? Because in ZEALOT--The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, author Reza Aslan has offered both contextual and historical evidence that both the Catholic and Protestant faiths are in error regarding Jesus. He shows that Catholic insistence on Peter as champion of Christianity after Jesus died rests solely on one verse, while arcane historical records and over a dozen verses show that James (the brother of Christ) was designated the true leader of the faith. "On this rock I will build my church" referred not to all of Christianity in Peter's case, but merely to one church. Likewise, the letters of Paul, adopted by Protestants to establish the alternative to Catholic doctrine, were denounced by James and other apostles, who chastised Paul for trying to hijack the faith. Paul was called "the enemy," and bitterly fought to pull the reins away from James (and into his own control.) There's more. According to Aslan, Jesus was but one of many would-be messiahs who claimed divinity and authority over corrupt and bloody practices, and were then crucified for challenging Roman rule. What Jesus had, he says, was the best story, later tweaked by followers plugging all the holes in it (and writing decades after the disputed facts.) What does it mean that Peter and Paul are here discounted in favor of James? It means that all those robed priests and prosperity gospel televangelists out there are wrong. (Read James 1:11 to see why.) It also means that Aslan's book is far more controversial than The DaVinci Code had ever hoped to be. As narrated by the author, this book should incite strong emotions from all sides, especially since the author is a religious historian who has meticulously researched the subject for twenty years (and is a professor of Islamic studies to boot!) I use the phrase "should incite" for many reasons. In our own cultural context, of course, we are more intrigued by drama, conspiracy, and special effects. We dispute all dry facts as relative and unknowable, including global warming and the age of the Earth. Foundational religious history is obscure to us, lost in time and interpretation. All we have left is faith, dependent on emotions. So it's not likely that any book without the dimension of sensational Hollywood fiction will go viral. Although maybe it should. To wit, it's not just a story and its controversy that matters, but how it is told...and by whom. In the age of commercial spin where we live, and where corporate CEOs control us instead of Emperors, manufactured perception is reality, and style wins over content every time.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris has a hilarious and original audiobook out titled CHOOSE YOUR OWN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, which he reads himself on audio. A special PDF included has recipes and a crossword puzzle. That's a first. He's pulled off the ultimate Selfie: not only is it about him, but it's about you becoming him. The adaptation of the print book by Harris is read by, well, Barney Stinson and Doogie Howser (along with other alter egos,) and is naturally the best way to “read” an audiobook because you get to enjoy his comedic timing while imagining those skills to be your own as you travel on his yellow brick road to fame…or infamy. He also gets help with these egos from award-winning English actor/narrator Simon Prebble, who lends ironic dignity to the otherwise "always on" hyperbole. So it's a traditional biography, but on steroids. Or pixie dust. He describes riding in Rolls with Elton John in France, hosting multiple awards shows, being in dozens of made-for-TV movies, along with other movies from Starship Troopers to Harold & Kumar to The Next Best Thing (with Madonna) to Broadway shows. He also has a spot in Gone Girl, and is next slated to star in a Pixar feature The Good Dinosaur in 2015. My question is, where does he find the time to write books, amid all his other projects? Next, after hearing Ronald Kessler’s audiobook FIRST FAMILY DETAIL, I’m wondering if they shouldn’t call it The WHITEWASH House. Kessler updates information previously covered in “In the President’s Secret Service” and “Inside the White House” with new revelations. The information comes from present and former Secret Service agents, some of whom were told not to cooperate with the journalist when it was learned he was writing this book. Was Richard Nixon a sociopath? All the traits were there: charming, ruthless, opportunistic, and dismissive of critics and dying soldiers. Johnson was even more of a klutz than Ford (who was cheap and a bad tipper, while pocketing mini bottles from parties.) Clinton was (and still is?) a horn dog, with multiple mistresses, and always on the prowl. Hillary? She always knew, didn’t care, and didn’t want to hear more and have to face questions. Bill’s presidency was called by agents as “one long pizza party,” in which anyone would show up at any time to throw ideas around, regardless of how it inconvenienced agent planning. Reagan, Bush 41 and George W, (and their wives) were loved by agents for being on time and respectful, while the Clintons were never on time and dismissive. Jenna Bush (codenamed “Twinkle”), though, despised being watched by agents, and snuck out whenever she wanted with her sister. (Remember the movie First Daughter starring Katie Holmes?) Vice presidents and their relationships with agents is even more interesting. Joe Biden is described as wasting taxpayer funds by taking over 200 costly trips on jets like Air Force 2 mainly to play golf while “putting America at risk” by not giving the Service sufficient notice of his plans (or being out of contact with nuclear codes.) Al Gore disliked agents too, and he “farted in the limo, and didn’t care.” Agnew was a moral majority icon without morals or ethics himself, willing to take bribes and denigrate those opposing Vietnam as “unAmerican.” Dick Cheney was more of an enigma, but was liked by agents since he was professional and “businesslike.” (Perhaps like at Halliburton?) Regarding Romney’s clash with agents over his protection, and Obama himself, there’s not much until the last hour. And you’ll have to hear that for yourself. All in all, another interesting book by an author interviewed at this site, with lots of information about how the Secret Service operates. Bear in mind that this book mostly takes various agent’s views of who they guard, and doesn’t go much into their policies or the effects of their policies on history and on the future. The Secret Service itself comes into the crosshairs too, in places, as its failures and inefficiency are noted in passing. Recommend the book STREET SMARTS by Quantum Fund founder Jim Rogers, too. This Wall Street commodities legend talks about how the real world works, and why people should switch away from stocks and bonds and into consumables. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

ZERO TO ONE by Peter Thiel

ZERO TO ONE by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters explores the seven questions which start-ups should be asking prior to launch, and how the future may be revolutionized by innovation. No one knows what the future may hold, and many people fear the future while believing that most of the secrets once sought by explorers have already been discovered. With this fallacy firmly assumed by most peers and MBA professors, the goal has become to add small increments of efficiency to already established models or products. But competition in this way is for long-term losers, says Thiel. Even talent shows like AGT or The Voice reward those who sing well-known songs just a bit better or with more feeling or with a personal twist. Yet try an original song that is unfamiliar, and your job may become harder, (with a second barrier to success added), but the rewards are exponentially greater. Going from zero to one means to create something new out of nothing, not merely to improve on what already exists in competing for market share. It requires courage and vision to think outside the box or bun, but Thiel argues that this is the kind of thinking the world needs most in order to survive the future, and so it is progressive thinking which business start-ups should be doing in making their first critical decisions, (including staffing.) Since only progress is sustainable. He gives examples of companies which chose right or wrong at the beginning, and how Hewlett Packard lost by losing focus. Intriguing and insightful, this audiobook should be required listening for those going into the Shark Tank and wondering if their product or service will fail or blossom. Narrated by Blake Masters, it is a motivating conversation with innovation that can shape your destiny by changing the very world where your customers live.
Dov Seidman, in his updated book HOW: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything, argues that it is by cooperation within groups which determines success. He says that people should be more conscious of how they do things rather than just what they are doing. Yet Seidman is suing a yogurt company for their use of the word "how," although they deny knowing him. This, together with his overuse of the words "I" and "we" (meaning his group) claiming ownership of concepts and ideas adopted (or not) by others, may explain his overuse of sports metaphors in getting his points across. While he makes many valid arguments in favor of ethics, his own "how" is in question, and others believe it is a fallacy to equate achievements in sports like football with the kind of "success" related to real progress. (Read The Beginning of Infinity or Antifragile.) These authors argue that it is the individual with a vision, not any group or "human wave" of rule followers focused on team leadership, which has achieved the most vertical progress in science (and therefore in changing the world.) What do you think? For more on this subject, and a review of PILLAR TO THE SKY go here.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

STATION ELEVEN by Emily Mandel is not your typical dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel. There were no zombies, no Hunger Games, no alien invaders. Instead, an irresistible strain of swine flu arises in Georgia (Russia) and quickly sweeps across the world, landing in Toronto, and killing most of the world's population. The novel follows five people among those left, who were in isolated areas, including at an airport where the survivors of a last flight find themselves. The lights go out after news networks sign off for the last time, and leave these pockets of humanity who escaped the riots and roving bands of killers (one called The Prophet is like a pied piper for jaded misfits.) Minstrels and actors travel too, performing as a means to retain their sanity and earn their living in a world gone dark. The comic book one character writes forms the title to the book, as she tries to retain and connect with her childhood. The novel is lyrical and poetic, and is read with consistent engagement and charm by Kirsten Potter. AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH. What follows is my recent interview with Emily:

Audiobooks Today) You have a character with a tattoo about survival not being enough, who says they’d debated it all their lives. I thought this was interesting as I’ve had the ironic thought or idea, “he lives in a world without people” repeated when I see another person contemplating a crowd of strangers passing. Our culture seems to be about survival, the “us against the world” theme, and with this new millennium so many people have become obsessed by apocalyptic or end times stories, some of them unfortunately cliche and ridiculous, like the zombie books…which many of the authors probably didn’t mean to be allegorical. Were you influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” in any way?

Emily Mandel) I was influenced by The Road, both positively and negatively; positively in the sense that it gave me the idea that it was possible to write a literary novel set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, negatively in the sense that when I started writing Station Eleven, it was very important to me to not write The Road, so I consciously avoided much of the territory that McCarthy covered. I wasn't particularly interested in writing about the horror and mayhem that I imagine would follow in the immediate wake of a societal collapse. McCarthy and others have covered that very well. I was much more interested in writing about what comes after that—and I assume that something would come after that, because mayhem isn't particularly sustainable as a way of life for decades on end. I was more interested in writing about the role that art might play twenty years after a collapse, the kind of culture that might begin to emerge, etc.

AT) The traveling symphony and group of actors playing King Lear, along with the library, reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, where people learn and repeat books in order to save them for posterity. Is this partly why the groups travel in your novel? And why King Lear? Lear gave away his fortune to his daughters. You have a character paying a student loan debt, which is one of the humorous moments.

EM) I’m sorry to say that I haven't yet read Fahrenheit 451. The Traveling Symphony in my novel travels for strictly practical reasons: what they want to do is perform Shakespeare and music, and that's something that they wouldn't necessarily be able to do if they stayed in one place. If they were to settle, almost all of their time would be taken up by the tasks of survival—hunting, fishing, hauling water and firewood, etc. If they travel from town to town, there's a novelty factor every time they arrive in a new place, after an absence of a year or two; it means that their offerings are rare and precious to the residents of these places, and it means the residents are willing to trade food and goods in exchange for their performances.

I chose King Lear for a couple of reasons. The title role is one of those parts that actors look forward to playing all their lives. It was a good climax to the life of the somewhat vain fifty-something actor in the pre-collapse sections of the book, Arthur Leander. More importantly, Lear is on one level a play about losing absolutely everything. Lear loses his kingdom, his dignity, his family, his sanity, and ultimately his life. In the timeline of the book, the play is set just as a pandemic is about to hit; the people watching it in the theatre are about to lose absolutely everything, and most of them will not survive, but on the last normal evening of their lives they're together in a theatre, watching a play. It struck me as a good play for the moment.

AT) Indeed. About the usual choices made for novels on this theme, today people riot and steal when some outrage occurs or the lights go out, and presumably they’d do the same if the economy collapsed or a pandemic broke out. One survivalist bunker show I saw had a demonstration of a man going through an escape tunnel away from his bunker far enough that he could pop up and shoot his neighbors trying to break in. You chose an airport as refuge, since it was the source of the virus going everywhere, and is a familiar setting for tragedy or various forms of theater. Stephen King once chose an airport, and also a grocery store for a horror setting. In writing a literary novel on how people react, were there more sensational, cliche elements you discarded after first considering them?

EM) There were certainly more horrific elements that I considered. For several drafts, the airport in the book had concourses that could be separated from one another by sliding glass walls. In that version, a sick passenger staggers up a jetbridge in Concourse A and collapses by the ticket counter, which triggers an emergency quarantine protocol, Concourse A is sealed off, and everyone trapped in the concourse dies of flu. It was completely gratuitous. I felt I could achieve the same effect in a far more subtle way with the quarantined Air Gradia jet.

AT) Thanks for going against the usual. It worked. You know, after hearing your novel, I thought of Bill Gates for some reason, whose early life comprised a race for domination and money, and whose later life now is about helping others less fortunate. He seems more peaceful now, almost as though he’s had an epiphany about the meaning of his life. I believe readers will take away something like that after listening to your novel, too.


How We Learn by Benedict Carey

Steve Kramer reads HOW WE LEARN by Benedict Carey, which bears the subtitle “The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens.” One of the surprises is that the traditional method of cramming for tests is not effective in many cases. Science has shown that the brain has many complex ways to arrange perception, memory and retrieval, and sleep patterns figure into this. Oddly, we learn different things in different ways, and what you’re learning determines whether you should stay up late or go to bed early prior to being tested. Also, the usual method of finding a quiet place to study isn’t as effective as learning in the same setting as you’ll be tested. Instead of being a distraction, music or sounds can aid learning, especially if those same sounds are repeated during the exam. The science behind how learning is best achieved is examined here, Carey being a medical and science reporter for the New York Times. The audiobook will help students, musicians, and anyone else struggling with memorizing or just trying to get through college with less stress. And if you want to learn things unrelated to passing a test or getting a job, try WHAT IF? by Randall Munroe, which is subtitled "Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions." Best of all it's read by Wil Wheaton, formerly of Star Trek, and now with his own cable show on all things geekdom.