The dudes in the band are voracious readers, and most Upsuck songs are written shortly after wrapping up a hella good book.  Check out some of the shit we’ve been reading below, and we’ll have these and other titles available free at our merch table at our shows.

“If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”  –John Waters

 

 

 

Deaths of Despair – And the Future of Capitalism

By Anne Case & Angus Deaton

Reviewed by craigo – 9/19/20

This is not the book for you if you’re looking for an uplifting read.  As the title suggests, the book takes a deep dive into “deaths of despair”, defined by these authors as collective American deaths by suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose.  And it’s not just a deep dive we take…it’s a fucking plunge.

The authors are both economists, and reiterate several times throughout the book that they are also unapologetic believers in capitalism.  However, unlike most avowed capitalists (and economists, for that matter), the authors aren’t too cultish to concede that there are some common-sense areas of life where a profit-motive does not best serve the interests of most people, and healthcare is one of those areas.

Let’s start with the obvious – opioids.  Opioids are legal heroin, and the people that manufacture and sell them – drug dealers, by any other name—have gotten filthy rich.  The book details some of the most egregious cases (for example, “In one two-year period, nine million pills were shipped to a pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia, population 406”), but the overriding point is that these drugs are everywhere, and folks have gotten desperately hooked on them, and eventually seek stronger or cheaper ways to stay high, a cycle which has led to a depressing number of deaths from overdose.  The numbers make you just want to shake your head and cry.

Aside from the opioids, the book details so many other areas where America’s profit-driven healthcare system fails to serve an overwhelming number of people.  Even people with “good” insurance benefits often times forego healthcare (that sore back, that troublesome knee), waiting instead for a year when they are forced by an emergency into obtaining healthcare, at which point their deductible is met, making it a good financial time to finally get all the other care they’ve been putting off.

The other deaths of despair aside from ODs – suicides and alcoholism – are attributed by the authors to a collective and overwhelming decline in standards of living for a huge swath of working class Americans.  The good old days where you’d hear these rags-to-riches, feel good stories about a young kid getting hired on as a janitor and working his way up to be the CEO are long gone, namely because there aren’t any companies who even employ their own janitors anymore.  Virtually every low-level position in any big company is outsourced now—the janitors, the security guards, the plant waterers, etc.—all of those folks used to be proud employees of the company but now they’re not-so-proud employees of contracting firms that pay the lowest wages possible and offer zero benefits.  At the same time, union membership has shrunk astronomically, another disappearing source of good benefits and social camaraderie.  As the authors put it, the invite list to the company Christmas party keeps getting shorter and shorter.

This slow and steady degradation of the institutions folks used to feel proud about and make them feel part of something larger than themselves has had the long term effect of making people feel just goddamned hopeless.  To this day I hear rankled conservative dudes talk about economic inequality as a “bogeyman”, yet there’s so many hardworking Americans out there who’ve only seen dwindling opportunities for their entire life while the upper echelons keep hogging more and more.  Goddamned right we should be scared of that bogeyman.

The most depressing part of the book, though, is as it relates to race.  Basically, the way this country is shitting all over its white working class in present times is exactly how it has been shitting all over the black population forever.  There are countless charts throughout the book that illustrate decades of consistent decline in various qualities of life for middle-aged white adults without a college degree, meanwhile the line on the same chart representing black folks has been pretty much a straight line.

This is the late stages of capitalism that authors like Chris Hedges have talked about, where capitalism, in its inexorable quest for ever-more growth, basically begins to consume itself.  The American middle- and upper-classes have always been perfectly fine with the status quo, because it’s someone else (generally meaning minorities and/or immigrants) who bear the brunt of the economic hardships.  But now the capitalist machine is starting to gobble up the lower rungs of the white uneducated classes, and folks are scared and desperate and the feelings of hopelessness are palpable.  In their isolation and despair, many turn to hard drinking, if not suicide by quicker means.

The culprit in all this is clear, as it has been for decades now.  And the authors say it best on the last page of their book:  “We believe that capitalism is an immensely powerful force for progress and for good, but it needs to serve people and not have people serve it.”

 

 

 

The Emerald Mile – The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

By Kevin Fedarko

Reviewed by craigo – 8/21/20

This was the most exhilarating non-fiction book I’ve ever read, bar none.  Kevin Fadarko wrote this thing so beautifully and suspenseful that it reads like a regular old whodunit, despite being a historical account of real events, as well as just a highly informative book overall.

The constant focus throughout is, as the title suggests, the fastest river run ever made through the entire length of the Grand Canyon, all 277 miles.  A trio of river rats, led by a dude named Kenton Grua, accomplished the end-to-end feat in just under 37 hours, which shattered the previous record (which Grua also held) by a full 10 hours.

This new record was possible due a perfect combination of an extremely wet and long winter of 1982/83, followed abruptly by a scorcher of a spring of ‘83.  The rapid change led to more runoff than a beleaguered Glen Canyon Dam had ever seen before, and it forced engineers to scramble to release the overflow at an astounding 90,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).

This story alone, the 3-day race to literally save Glen Canyon Dam from being fully consumed by Lake Powell, was absolutely riveting stuff.  But at the very same time that engineers were scrambling for those 3 days to save the dam, Grua and his crew were scrambling as well.  They knew full well what an unprecedented flow of 90,000 cfs would mean downriver and through the Canyon.

What followed was a death-defying (and highly illegal) run, an incredible feat of endurance and grit, and it was virtually impossible to stop reading about it.  The day before the trio’s record breaking run, a tourist had actually died on a guided tour while trying to navigate the intense rapids, so there was already a heightened sense of danger and many park rangers and stranded tourists all along the Colorado, with rescue helicopters hovering overhead.  And right through the middle of all that comes blasting The Emerald Mile (which was the name of the wooden dory the trio made the historic run in) provoking equal parts rage and envy and bewilderment in every person they passed.  It was truly amazing, and the book was written so well you felt like you were right down there in the canyon witnessing it unfold.

While setting the table for that miraculous and record-breaking run, Fadarko blends in throughout the book the full, fascinating history of how the Grand Canyon came to be mapped and explored, as well as the political fights that have ensued to keep it fascinating.  After the Canyon had been dammed in two places (Glen Canyon and Hoover), there had actually be plans drawn up to build several more dams, virtually turning the entire Grand Canyon into a bunch of artificial lakes which would generate a lot of electricity (and money).  The early fights against these dams were where and how the Sierra Club cut its teeth, so there’s a lot of cool history there, too.

My absolute favorite part of the book, and the one that sent shivers down my spine, was the story of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed civil war veteran who assembled a crew to map and explore the vast unknown area of the southwestern US that we now know of as the Grand Canyon (he’s also the namesake of present-day Lake Powell).  His crew set off literally into “the great unknown”, and this quip from the book says it all:

What loomed most disturbingly in the back of everyone’s mind was a question that arose from one of the few hard facts available to them.  Their point of departure sat at 6,115 feet above sea level, and the elevation at the mouth of the Virgin River, about thirty miles east of present-day Las Vegas, was at roughly 800 feet, so they knew that the river would be descending slightly more than one vertical mile.  The question was how that drop was apportioned, and whether any of it might involve waterfalls.

Think about that for a moment…you’re a young kid looking for adventure, so you join this crew who’s about to hop on boats and begin a very one-way journey down a fast-flowing river for several weeks, and oh yeah, there might be giant waterfalls, we’re not sure.  What would they have done if they were in a narrow part of the canyon with no pull-outs and all the sudden the water began gushing and there right around the bend was a huge waterfall?  Oh my god that must have been crazy to set off on that trip and not know those things!

And between that crazy-ass trip by John Wesley Powell and his crew all the way through Kenton Grua’s historic run in 1983, there are several other stories that Fadarko spins into his book as well, and it all culminated into one gnarly book.  Highly, highly recommendable, read this now!

 

 

The Room Where It Happened

By John Bolton

Reviewed by craigo – 8/1/20

Ohhhhhhhh good lord, I’m just not even sure where to start with this one.

I guess I should state the obvious right off the bat:  I didn’t read this because I give two shits about anything John Bolton has ever had to say.  Dude’s been a constant advocate for American imperialism in every Republican administration of my entire life, and is basically the conductor of the “America! Fuck the Rest” train.  But with that said, Bolton’s also a principled Republican, which makes him quite an anomaly nowadays.  Pretty much every other Republican lives in a perpetual state of fear, not wanting to draw the wrath of Donald Trump and his Twitter finger.  Free trade?  Fuck it.  State’s rights?  Fuck it.  Family values and basic decency?  Fuck it.  What we thought were Republican articles of faith turned out to be completely and utterly disposable, fully at the whim of Bunker Don.  He says jump, and they say how high.

But not John Bolton.  No, this mustachioed menace is exactly the same as he’s always been, and the incompetence and brown-nosing and sheer duplicity he found upon joining the Trump administration were bound to make quite a compelling tell-all.

And how.

In case after case that Bolton details (regime change in Venezuela, retaliation against Iran for provocative acts, sanctions imposed against {insert country name here}) we see the same thing:  plans meticulously drawn up, everyone on board, and then at the last minute Trump hoards his power over everybody and changes the plans.  After a while, you start to comprehend fully that Trump doesn’t even give a shit what the plans were, about anything, he just loves to have so many people vying for his attention and lobbying him privately and then being the one who gets to make all the decisions and put people in their place.  It’s gross, and at multiple points throughout I got an icky feeling, like I wanted to shower off, it was that disgusting.  When I was in high school I remember the head cheerleader chick, the most popular girl in school, she would have members of her entourage tie her shoes for her when they came untied.  My fellow nobodies and I saw this happen multiple times, and we all laughed about it with each other, how pathetic it was that those poor girls were trying so hard to fit into a clique that they would (literally) stoop so low and tie her shoes on command.  That memory is all I could think of when reading Bolton’s account of Trump’s orbit.  The fealty to the Dear Leader is off the charts.

The funny thing was, it wasn’t lost on me whilst reading this book that if John Bolton doesn’t get his way, that’s usually a good thing, so there are some instances where Trump actually comes off as the good guy.  A good example was when Iran downed a U.S. drone, Bolton and his crew drew up some options for retaliation, and eventually they and Trump settled on some targets.  The morning that the strike was supposed to occur, Trump was told there could be up to 150 Iranian casualties, and he made the sole decision to call it off.  Bolton of course was furious, and he claims the “150 fatalities” figure came from lawyers who didn’t know any better.  But Bolton quotes Trump as saying “too many body bags”, and that a response like that to the downing of an unmanned aircraft was “not proportionate”.  It may just be a case of a broken clock being right twice a day, but credit to Trump there for taking that approach and overriding Bolton’s impulses to ready, fire, aim.

Political junkies will enjoy this book because Bolton does give an exhaustive account of what day-to-day life is like inside the White House, especially one as chaotic as Trump’s.  But anyone who reads this book just to get dirt on Trump won’t find much new.  The one thing I will say though is that even if you already know Trump is a liar, when you read this book it will really sink in that Trump is a fucking liar.  I mean, hella.  Bolton gives all these different accounts where Trump is prepping for a meeting with world leaders or whoever, and whenever thorny subjects come up and how Trump might handle them in the meeting, it’s always some form of, “I’ll just say you guys did that and I didn’t know” or “that never made it to my desk”.  Sometimes, there isn’t even an attempt at nuance at all, he just tells bald-faced lies right to their face.  One reads account after account after account like this, and my god it just tickles the puzzler how anyone anywhere still believes anything this guy has to say.  His M.O. is feeding people bullshit, plain and simple, and people lap it up like it’s a chocolate fountain.  Unbelievable.

The quote of the book came in the Epilogue, when Bolton discusses the “pre-clearance review” process that his original manuscript went through, and how basically it opened his book up to all types of censorship by the Trump administration.  He notes that several commentators before him have been critical of that review process, and concludes:  “You can add my name to the list of critics, especially when the process is in the hands of a President so averse to criticism that the idea of banning books comes to him naturally and serenely.”

Well said, John.

But in the end, Bolton’s still the same old war-hawk douche he’s always been, and I think the Vandals said it best in their 1995 album Live Fast, Diarrhea:  “Never trust a man with a butt-broom on his face!”

 

 

 

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman

Reviewed by craigo – 7/6/20

This is one of those books that in simpler times I probably would’ve got hooked and tore through in a weekend.  But the News right now is like a bad car wreck that you can’t turn away from, and I consume so much of it and later wonder why I bothered when there are so many good books to read.

And this was one of those good books.

The overall gist of the book is that we have two actors controlling our brain, which Kahneman refers to throughout as System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is what we do most of our functioning with, it basically compares everything going on to what it understands to be “normal”, and has a quick answer for virtually everything.  Once in a while, we engage our System 2 (some more often than others), which is prone to actually thinking things through and can help keep a trigger-happy System 1 in check.  Those who rely overly on System 1 are said to have a “lazy” System 2, meaning System 2 doesn’t get engaged very often and thus isn’t quick to jump up and volunteer any longer.

Kahneman uses countless anecdotes throughout the book, and indeed, these are the most entertaining.  It made the book interactive and fun to read.  Here’s a good example:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

If you’re like most people, your System 1 answered this question for you quickly and without fuss: the ball costs 10¢.  Easy, right?

Kahneman continues:  “The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong.  Do the math, and you will see.  If the ball costs 10¢, then the total cost will be $1.20 (10¢ for the ball and $1.10 for the bat), not $1.10.  The correct answer is 5¢.”

I chuckled at myself after reading that and having come up with the wrong answer myself, yet according to the book, more than half of students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton also gave “the intuitive—incorrect—answer.”

Much of the book proceeds like this, and it was highly enjoyable, although the last quarter(ish) of the book gets tedious as the author dives way into the weeds about “choice theory” and how we subconsciously calculate gain/loss risks in various aspects of our lives.  Here he exhaustively explains several different theories with only minute differences between them, and the anecdotes start to feel just a little bit tiresome and repetitive as a result.  It was insightful, to be sure, especially how Kahneman ties much of it into Economics, but yeah, everyone knows that Economics is a tried and true sedative.

In the end, this is definitely a recommendable read, and much thanks to the illustrious Professor Garrett (who does not wear loafers without socks) for turning me onto it.

 

 

 

Parley P. Pratt – The Apostle Paul of Mormonism

By Terryl L. Givens & Matthew J. Grow

Reviewed by craigo – 4/26/20

So, shameless name-drop right off the bat here…I’m a direct descendant of the namesake of this book, good ole’ Parley P.  He is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.  And since the dude was quite a prolific polygamist, it bears noting that I descended from Wife #5 (shout out to great-great-great-great-great Grandma!).  Also notable, former Presidential candidate and current U.S. Senator Mitt Romney descended from Wife #3, so I guess that makes the Senator and I really weird half-brother-ish cousins-several-times-removed, or something like that.  Isn’t polygamy fun!?  {sigh}

Anyway, Parley P. Pratt was the first man admitted into the early church’s leadership who wasn’t directly related to Joseph Smith’s family.  They called Parley the “Apostle Paul of Mormonism” because, like Saint Paul (who’s many letters and missives would eventually form much of the New Testament), Parley was a prodigious writer and promoter of the early Mormon religion.  The official Mormon scriptures (namely, the Book of Mormon) is esoteric to say the least, especially for lay people in mid-1800’s America, so Parley’s extensive writing and pamphleteering helped make the burgeoning and mystical young religion much more accessible.  He was also key within early Mormonism for promoting the use of the printing presses not just to proselytize, but to defend the faith against its many mainline-Christian detractors in newspapers and periodicals.

Probably his most famous work, Voice of Warning, was quite effective at endearing young Saints to their newfound religion.  As the authors note, “…but for a narrative exposition, one that aspired to lay out in readable format the essence of Mormonism for member and non-Mormon alike, Voice of Warning had no peer and, for many decades, little competition.”

Other well-known works of Parley’s were a fierce, ad hominem renunciation of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, a disaffected ex-Mormon who attempted to discredit Joseph Smith by pressing “the Spaulding theory”, claiming that the Book of Mormon was a manuscript written by a man named Solomon Spaulding and then peddled to early church insiders and surreptitiously provided to Joseph Smith.  Parley’s personal autobiography also gave birth to the epic and revered Mormon tale whereby the Prophet Joseph Smith famously rebuked the prison guards watching over Smith and his fellow imprisoned Mormons.  This is the passage from Parley’s autobiography, as quoted in the book:

 On a sudden he arose to his feet, and spoke in a voice of thunder, or as the roaring lion, uttering, as near as I can recollect, the following words:

“SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit.  In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and bear such language.  Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!”

He ceased to speak.  He stood erect in terrible majesty.  Chained, and without a weapon; calm, unruffled and dignified as an angel, he looked upon the quailing guards, whose weapons were lowered or dropped to the ground; whose knees smote together, and who, shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet till a change of guards.

 Whether you’re interested in Parley P. Pratt or not, this book is a must read for anyone who loves history.  I think that was my favorite part, just learning so much about America’s young history, and how these polygamous, rewrite-the-bible “Christians” violently got chased out of town after town, state after state, persecuted for their beliefs.

This, the proud religion that I myself fled fast and hard from as a youth.

The thorniest part of the book for me to read was when Joseph Smith originally conjured up the idea of multiple marriages, he then had to convince the other leaders of the church that this “prophecy” he’d had was totally legitimate.  In most cases, that convincing was simple:  old Joe just told them that they, too, would get to take multiple wives, and the other elders were on board with the plan, just like that.  A principled bunch, indeed.

But there were a few holdouts, my (5x great) gramps being one of them.  Parley was appalled over the thing, and true to his spirit, wrote publicly about it.  But eventually, they wore him down, and to read Parley’s writings on the subject, the philosophical gymnastics he went through to try and justify his slide from rejection to acceptance, it was pretty sad.  As the authors of the book put it, “Once persuaded that the principle was from God, Parley switched from incredulous resistance to anxious haste.”

Yup.

Parley would eventually meet his demise when he converted, and then married, a woman named Eleanor Jane McComb (his 12th, and final, wife).  Eleanor’s actual husband at the time didn’t take too kindly to that (the conversion or the marriage), and hunted Parley down and shot him.  I’ve known those simple facts for most my adult life, but the way these authors build up Parley’s final days and hours were quite thrilling and suspenseful.  That chapter alone makes the book highly recommendable (teaser…there’s a dramatic horse chase).

One other fun fact about Parley you learn in this book is that not only did he write words, he wrote lyrics, too.  Indeed, page 1 of the present-day Mormon Hymnal is a hymn called “The Morning Breaks”, penned by Parley P. Pratt.  And to this day, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir signs off with “As the Dew from Heaven”, also written by Parley:

As the dew from heav’n distilling Gently on the grass descends

And revives it, thus fulfilling What thy providence intends,

I, Parley’s direct descendant, wrote the “STANK Anthem” 150 years later.  Can’t you see the resemblance?

 

 

 

Legendary Locals of Tempe

By Stephanie R. DeLuse, PhD

Reviewed by craigo – 3/31/20

This was a fun little book, more of a coffee table book really, but fun to read nonetheless.  As a long-time Tempe resident, it was cool how many of the names in this book were already familiar to me, especially as it regards local streets and who they’re named after.  A prime example is Canadian transplant James T. Priest, who emigrated to Tempe in 1875 and would eventually be one of the five men who planned Roosevelt Dam, and now has Priest Dr. (which I live just off of) named after him.

In fact, I didn’t even get past the author’s Acknowledgements page before running into a familiar name:   Wendy Reeck, who is the principal of Carminati Elementary, where my son Zeke goes.  (I actually had a funny conversation with Principal Reeck about this…when I told her I saw her name in a book called “Legendary Locals of Tempe”, she blushed and got all flustered, at which point I had to explain her name was just in the Acknowledgments, not one of the “legendary” people actually profiled.)

Strangely, Upsuck did NOT get a mention in the book, though our good buddy Hans Olson got a real nice profile, and deservedly so.  Other notable and obvious figures mentioned were Walt Richardson, and as you can see on the cover, Pat Tillman was also profiled, as he remains the baddest-ass mofo who ever graced our fine city.  There was also a great photo and profile of 1949 Junior Rodeo Queen Nita Craddock, who went on to open a bar many punk rockers will fondly remember, Nita’s Hideaway.

There were a couple of cool individuals whose stories I wasn’t familiar with, as well.  Accomplished cellist Takayori Atsumi, who helped form the American Cello Council, was a cello professor at ASU for 36 years and frequent performer at Gammage Auditorium over the years.  And I really enjoyed reading about Nakatsu’s Ranch Market, which started out as a dirt-floored vegetable hut on University Drive and eventually blossomed into a full store before closing in 1982.  The Nakatsu’s youngest daughter Alice would later be co-owner of the Oxbow Tavern, which still stands, but is now known as Tempe Tavern, where Upsuck played our very first show (outside of Shaneo’s backyard).

As would be expected, there were also some very cool photographs in the book, but my two favs far and away were of a young Hans Olson wearing his famous eye patch back in the day, as well as a super old photograph on the very last page of the book of a home built in 1910 on the corner of Ninth and Ash.  In the photograph, the house is standing alone in a field surround by trees and brush with a wooden post fence around it, but the structure itself looks exactly the same as it does today, now operating as Casey Moore’s.

 

 

 

Usual Cruelty – The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System

By Alec Karakatsanis

Reviewed by craigo – 2/3/20

Liv and I went to see the movie Just Mercy with Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan recently, and I felt like it was the perfect primer to this book.  Just Mercy was about famed civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson and his work to free a guy from death row who was wrongly convicted, and Michael B. Jordan’s performance as a young, ambitious Bryan Stevenson was hugely inspirational to say the least.

Likewise with this book by Alec Karakatsanis, who himself was an ambitious young lawyer but quickly became disgusted with the complicity of his fellow attorneys in what is a pretty fucked up and rigged system.  The author puts it thusly:  “It is a considerable bureaucratic achievement to accomplish the transfer of thirteen million bodies each year from their homes and families and schools and communities into government boxes of concrete and metal. It is also a failure of the legal profession.”

The complicity the author decries here is not necessarily an individual complicity, where each lawyer is personally a soulless prick (although I maintain there are plenty of those).  Karakatsanis views it as more of an institutional complicity, with all these robotic lawyers going through all these robotic motions, meanwhile real, actual human beings are confined to cages waiting for decisions to be cast down from on high.  The target audience of the book is definitely that ambitious young law student, or maybe the lawyer who’s been out of law school for a while now and has lost the zeal.  Karakatsanis wrote a lot of the book in vignette style, short literary portraits of what a young law school graduate may be thinking and feeling, and trying to open their eyes to the wider injustices and never again become dull to them.

And while I’m not personally an ambitious young law student, this book still proved a worthwhile read.  I think my favorite part was when Karakatsanis talked about a District Court in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood.  In the arraignment room in the Roxbury District Court, there’s a large plexiglass cage, and they pile everyone who has a hearing that morning into this cage.  When their hearing time comes up, they fumble over each other, “pressing their faces to its glass walls in a futile effort to hear—much less understand—a snippet of the legal code words being thrown around about their lives.”  It is noted that nobody ever asks about the cage, whether or not it’s necessary or dignified or even safe.  It’s just like two different worlds for two different sets of people—those inside the cage, those outside of it.

But he contrasts this with the morning after the Red Sox had won the World Series.  That morning, the cage looked much different, full of wealthy, white, college kids, guilty of nothing more than drunken reveling after a huge win.  But Karakatsanis describes the courtroom staff that morning, stifling smiles, pointing and laughing, because now it was all of the sudden obvious how fucking absurd the glass box was.  How outright silly.

Why isn’t that the case when the cage is full of poor, black dudes?  Karakatsanis contends it’s because the lawyers are too complicit to notice the double-standard.

 

 

 

Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony – How Culture Made the Human Mind

By Kevin N. Laland

Reviewed by craigo – 1/17/20

This book was a Christmas gift from my best bud and bandmate, Shaneo.  And with stimulating gifts like this, it’s easy for one to see where Upsuck gets the inspiration for the thoughtful and philosophical tunes we churn out (namely, Spandex Warrior).

To put it simply, this book was rad.  I couldn’t put it down.  The author’s focus was, as the title suggests, to pick up where Darwin’s theories of evolution left off.  We have a general understanding now of the theory of evolution and natural selection and how they made human beings distinct physically, but there really hasn’t been a dominant theory put forth for exactly how Homo sapiens became so much more complex than other animals regarding our language and intellect.  How do we –and we alone–have freeways and the internet and governments and symphonies?

To lay the groundwork, Laland uses the first few chapters to exhaustively establish how and why “copying” occurs in the animal world.  I say “exhaustively” because the author has spent his entire career in academia overseeing countless animal studies, so he has a plethora of data to share.  It was really enjoyable to read about the many quirks of various animals, and how they “strategically copy” each other.

It actually brought to mind the “five monkeys” anecdote I’ve been hearing my whole life as an IT Analyst.  (For the uninitiated, it goes something like this:  You put five monkeys in a cage with a banana at the top of a rope, and anytime any of the monkeys climbs the rope to get to the banana, it gets squirted with water.  Soon, none of those five monkeys will attempt to climb the rope anymore, because they all know they’ll get squirted with water if they try.  Now you start switching out those five monkeys, one at a time, and early on you may occasionally see a newly placed monkey attempt to climb the rope and consequently get squirted with water, but if you do this long enough, you’ll eventually have five monkeys in the cage and none of them will attempt to get the banana, even though none of them really knows why.)

This is why in the IT world, when we find something not working correctly and we ask each other “how did this erroneous code go unnoticed for so long?” everyone just shrugs and says “five monkeys”.

The point is, no matter who you are or what you do for work, you don’t approach every problem with a reinvent-the-wheel mindset.  You rely on precedent, on the trial-and-error of many who’ve come before you, and you apply an accrued wisdom.  True, there are times when you have to roll your sleeves up and take a trial-and-error approach, but those cases are surprisingly rare for most of us in our day to day.

So, too, for non-domesticated animals.  In fact, that is their whole existence, endlessly engaged in “strategic copying”, just to stay alive and reproduce.

What really began to set Homo sapiens apart, the author contends, and what caused our intelligence to evolve so much more than other species, is culture.  Customs, institutions, beliefs…these things accrue and can be not only handed down, but expanded on.  “Cumulative culture” is the term used throughout the book, and it bore much more fruit for our species than mere copying.

Laland’s belief is this began early in the agricultural revolution.  Creating tools and the accrual of know-how both would have required early forms of teaching, and this is actually one of the most unique things about our species:  the willingness to teach.  Other than the care for immediate offspring, animals are seldom altruistic.  They look out for their own interests, and concepts like cooperation or sharing are fairly rare.

With the introduction of agriculture, however, humans were now distinct among animals for their cooperation, and a byproduct of that cooperation was teaching (which the author suggests in the early days was simply doing repetitive movements with repetitive grunts or sounds, the precursor to common teaching phrases such as “watch me” or “like this”).  Once that early language and culture were established and becoming widely recognized, it is not difficult to comprehend how that would have snowballed at an incredible rate, with each generation expanding on what the previous generation had done, and that’s basically what the rest of the book delves into.  How from the early days of human language and culture, we’ve now evolved (literally) into a species capable of creating and enjoying art and music and dance and film.

I read and reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens not too long ago, and if you’re looking for a more approachable book on some of these same themes, I think I’d recommend that one.  That one’s a little less academic in nature, and tells some of the same story from a higher view point.  But if you’ve already read that, and/or want more of the nuts and bolts on the topic, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony is highly recommendable.

 

 

 

The 5 Love Languages – The Secret to Love That Lasts

By Gary Chapman

Reviewed by craigo – 1/4/20

This will come as a surprise to a lot of folks, but I read this one at the insistence of my wife.  It’s actually been on my to-read pile for quite some time, but I’ll be perfectly honest and admit I kicked the can down the road as I assumed it was just another Christian author peddling age-old Christian clichés and trying to pass them off as unique or profound insights.

That’s why I was surprised to learn just after I dove into this book that a friend of ours, who is a self-avowed Wiccan, is also really into this book and the whole concept of Love Languages.  And now that I’ve read it myself, I can attest that it’s a totally non-religious approach, and Gary Chapman has really written a fine piece of work here that was way less cheesy than I thought it would be going in.  (I mean, just look at the cover.  I know one’s never supposed to judge a book just by that, but good god that cover looks about as cheesy as you can get.)

Anyhoo, the whole premise is that each of us has a different primary Love Language (some folks have multiple Love Languages, which Chapman refers to as being “bilingual”).  He has categorized the 5 distinct languages thusly:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Quality Time
  • Physical Touch

Now, speaking specifically to the fellas here, you read that list and chuckled and probably put yourself firmly in the Physical Touch column.  But the author makes a distinction here, basically viewing sex as a natural result of a happy couple.  Thereby, Physical Touch refers more to a tender massage, running a hand through your partner’s hair, holding hands, etc.

And even if you still include sex within that Physical Touch bucket, the author makes a further distinction, here talking to a dude who assumed his primary love language was Physical Touch:  “Sexual intercourse is extremely important to you and to your sense of intimacy, but her words of affirmation are more important to you emotionally.  If she were, in fact, verbally critical of you all the time and put you down in front of other people, the time may come when you would no longer desire to have sex with her because she would be a source of deep pain.”

I myself would have originally picked Physical Touch from that list of 5, but after reading the book, I would now say my primary Love Language is definitely Words of Affirmation.  The bulk of my life is spent working super hard for other people.  The vast majority of the money I make gets spent on my dependents rather than on myself.  My daily habits and routines are largely dictated by the needs of other people, those who depend on me.  Given all of this, it’s pretty fucking rad to me when someone notices!  It’s amazing what a simple little compliment like “I know you really wanted to do so-and-so, but thank you so much for how much you love this family and doing so-and-so instead” can mean, how much love can be conveyed in that seemingly simple remark.

When discussing the book with my friend Kathleen, the aforementioned Wiccan, she said her primary love language was Acts of Service.  She’s a very non-materialistic person and scoffed at the notion of someone giving her a gift to express love.  It’s most likely just going to be garbage later.  But step up and take out the trash or wash the dishes without being asked or compelled to do so, and all of the sudden she feels like someone actually gives two shits about her.

Yet there’s countless other women who would be swept off their feet if their husband showed up once in a while with roses or a special gift “just because”.  That’s the whole point of the book, is there’s no right or wrong Love Language, it’s just a matter of finding which one is your primary Love Language (and, just as  importantly, which is your partner’s primary Love Language).

I definitely recommend this book to anyone in a relationship who would say something along the lines of “before we were married, everything was so great, but soon after the wedding, the fire just seemed to die”.  The author has heard this over and over and over in his life as a counselor, and maintains simply that before the wedding, both parties were eager to seek out the other’s primary Love Language, and then exploit the hell out of it.  But after the wedding, with the big catch made, it’s easy to drift into our separate lives and focus more on what we’re not getting instead of what we’re no longer giving.  That is, we stop catering to our partner’s primary Love Language, often times catering instead to our own preferred Love Language and then growing frustrated that our partner doesn’t appreciate it the same way we would if they did the exact same thing for us.

 

 

 

“Here, the People Rule” – A Constitutional Populist Manifesto

By Richard D. Parker

Reviewed by craigo – 12/31/19

According to the introduction, this book actually originated as a speech and was only later revised into book form.  But while short and to the point, it was jam-packed with a lot of really thought-provoking material.

Most of the book uses another literary work – Thomas Mann’s novella Mario and the Magician – to make its finer points, and in fact, the reader is invited to stop reading shortly after the book begins and go fetch a copy of Mario and the Magician and read it before continuing on.

So, I did.  Mario and the Magician is a about a well-to-do family who holidays to a quaint town in Italy.  The narrator of the story is the father of the family, and he spends a good chunk of the story complaining about the overly-nationalistic locals and recounting a handful of unpleasant episodes his family experiences at the beach and at their hotel.  The novella ends when the family attends a show featuring a magician named Cipolla.  Cipolla is a silver-tongued hypnotist, and indeed, he puts numerous members of the audience into spells and embarrasses them throughout the show.  This culminates when Cipolla hypnotizes a local waiter named Mario, and impels Mario to kiss him on the mouth.  Mario awakens from his trance, realizes what he’s just done, and in turn shoots Cipolla dead.  The narrator ends the story by labeling this assassination not a murder, but a “liberation”.

Mann was a German author, and he wrote this novella in 1929.  The magician Cipolla is apparently analogous to the fascist dictators beginning to make headway in Europe at the time, easily hypnotizing folks and bending them to their will, which makes the “liberation” at the end seem fitting.

Flipping back to “Here, the People Rule”, however, the author Richard D. Parker turns the tables and actually makes the condescending narrator the object of ridicule.  This is not to say Parker endorses the magician Cipolla or how easily the “simpletons” of the town fell under his spell, but Parker is critical of the narrator’s complicity in the whole affair.  Incident after incident finds the narrator complaining incessantly about the locals, but he never acts.  He never leaves.  He even took his family willingly to Cipolla’s show, and despite multiple renunciations of what was occurring at the show, as well as multiple references to how late it was getting for his kids, he never makes the personal decision to just up and get his family the fuck out of there.  Why not?

Here’s Parker nailing it on the head:  “What has happened – the story makes clear – is a failure of will.  The narrator canvasses a potpourri of rationalizations for it—dignity, curiosity, stoicism, and even indolence.  But the critical point is that here the story shows that it does not take a hypnotist—or fascist leader—to induce a failure of will.  What is more, the failure of will established here at the center of the story is not that of ignorant, ordinary people.  It is that of one who thinks himself their superior—who mocks their energy; who fears and loathes involvement in any hot, messy, risky political contest; whose own energy is primly embalmed in a refined and elevated dependence upon “rationality” and privacy and peace.”

Having set the table thusly, Parker wraps up the book basically extolling the virtues of “normal” and “ordinary” people, which are like 98% of the folks actually impacted by everyday politics anyway.  Politics is going to be messy, but it’s overall better for “normal” people if decisions are made on the ground, rather than in “higher” institutions by folks who fancy themselves so refined that they are completely out of touch.

I want to (and mostly do) whole-heartedly agree with Parker on these points, but as I read the book, a couple of nagging thoughts kept jumping out at me.

One is obviously the age-old concept of “tyranny by majority”.  Parker certainly doesn’t overlook this, proffering this on the subject:  “The belief is that the majority, if given free reign, is prejudiced, intolerant and tyrannical.  The belief, further, is that majority power most threatens the most vulnerable of us—nonconformist individuals; racial, religious and other minorities; indeed, any and all “victimized,” “disadvantaged,” or “unpopular” persons and groups.  That this is so is taken to have been demonstrated conclusively, time and again.  [But] to attribute much past or present oppression to “majorities” is, first of all, a ridiculous exaggeration.  Majorities rarely rule at all.  Certainly, they almost never rule directly.  When believers in “majority tyranny” imagine their worst fear, they aren’t thinking of a New England town meeting.  What they probably have in mind is a mob.  But why equate a mob with the majority?  Some ordinary people may be in it.  In any actual situation, however, many more are not.  Indeed, when it comes to engagement in political action, the one thing you can count on a numerical majority to do—for better or for worse—is:  almost nothing.  Most oppression, then, is the work of minorities.  And much of it is the work of elite minorities—refined, well-educated—whose hands tend, in real life, to clutch the immediate levers of power.  Might it not follow that, in order to counter the minorities that oppress vulnerable persons and groups, we should foster—rather than fear—the political energy of a force which might manage to check them:  the majority of ordinary people?”

This is a compelling argument, but I’m not ready to tear down our whole judicial system in lieu of complete majority rule just yet.  Granted, that is not at all what Parker suggests in the book, his is a clarion call merely for a paradigm shift, and on that I think I can more or less agree with him.

My other nagging concern is that Parker penned this book in 1994, and at the time, he simply could not have conceived of a world where every partisan faction could create their own information feeds and live entirely within an online echo chamber of their choosing.  That is where the internet is taking us, and it wasn’t a consideration back in the early ‘90s.  If we continue on this trajectory, it seems it won’t be long until people stop talking about issues entirely.  Everyone will just head to their preferred information sources and stock up on talking points, and eventually, no one will remember a time when it was different.

What if that becomes the new “normal”?  Is there not a case then for “higher” or “more refined” bodies to remain above the fray?

It seems a slippery slope either way, doesn’t it?

 

 

 

The Conservative Heart – How To Build A Fairer, Happier, And More Prosperous America

By Arthur Brooks

Reviewed by craigo – 12/2/19

Talk about your bad timing…

Arthur Brooks wrote this book in 2015, near the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and when the Tea Party was in full, foaming-at-the-mouth display.  I think he wrote it to try and round off the jagged edges of the conservative movement and blunt the less desirable aspects of what the mouth-breathing Tea Party was offering up in response to our first black President, and if so, well….mission un-accomplished.

Reading this book made me feel kind of like having a conversation with a gay dude who still attempts to practice his childhood religion like Mormonism or Catholicism.  You hear their desperate appeals for why there is something worth saving within the religion, how despite a few rough ideological patches, the larger religion is still pure and true.  You listen to the plea, and even if you have a bit of empathy for the argument, all you find yourself thinking is, “Dude, just fucking leave!  Sever all ties and bail on that shitty cult that wants nothing to do with you!”

That’s how Brooks’ tome comes off.  He makes all these passionate appeals about what conservatism could be and should aspire to be, but as you read you just wonder if he’s got a blindfold and earplugs on because he seems to sorely miss what conservatism actually is.  At some point, you have to wonder why Brooks doesn’t ditch the word “conservative” altogether, and just be an independent thinker with some good ideas.

Case in point, the word “guns” was used one, solitary time in the book (and that was merely to quote Obama’s derided “cling to their guns and religion” line).  So yeah, I guess it’s easy to write a book called The Conservative Heart when you wholesale leave out the most heartless aspects of conservatism.

I don’t know a single, solitary person who wants to “infringe” anyone’s right to “keep and bear arms”.  You want a hunting rifle?  You want a Glock?  Fuckin a, who gives a shit?  But I know a lot of folks who, after seeing school after school shot up, after seeing a classroom full of bullet-riddled 6-year-olds, start thinking that weapons of war should not be readily available to any 18-year-old moron who has no training (or, dare I say, is not part of a “well-regulated militia”).  They start thinking background checks are perhaps a good idea.  They start thinking that maybe waiting periods (which are required for abortions) might be a good idea.

But oh the horror if you express that sentiment to a conservative, who hold The Turner Diaries in higher regard than the actual 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Any single, minute step to make a country full of legal guns safer is considered treasonous, and the instant a bullet pierces the skin of a child sitting at his or her desk, the conservative’s immediate thought is not one of sympathy (or even empathy), it’s about the spin they’ll need to apply to this latest episode to limit the political damage, how best to tweet out their thoughts and prayers without backing themselves into a political corner on the issue.  Shit, here in Arizona, the homage runs so deep that there are no laws whatsoever against burning the flag, the U.S. Constitution, the bible, or images of Jesus or Buddha or Allah, but any local police department who confiscates a firearm that was being used in a crime is legally restricted from destroying that gun.  They must instead ensure the firearm gets sold at an auction.

This is the Conservative Heart….the gun adulation, the incessant rollback of common sense safeguards, the family Christmas cards where even the toddlers are packing heat.  Brooks conveniently skips this topic entirely.

In another part of the book, Brooks tells the story of Jestina, a refugee from Sierra Leone who settled in Utah and tried to start a hair-braiding business only to be shut down by regulatory agencies.  Here he makes some genuinely good points about government overreach and over-zealous government agencies that can –and do—hurt small business owners, but the timing couldn’t be worse for Brooks to have made these points.  A year after his book was published, conservatism elected Donald Trump President, and what followed was Muslim travel bans, limits on refugee and asylum applications, calls for huge reductions to legal immigration, and public taunts of “go back where you came from”.  I’ll concede Brooks made some good points about Jestina’s plight, but he ignores the glaring irony that unchecked conservatism would have precluded Jestina from ever making it to America as a refugee in the first place.  This is the Conservative Heart.

Climate change denialism?  White nationalism?  Alternative facts?  Cop cars with Punisher stickers on them?  These are all things that are defining features of the modern conservative movement, and Brooks conveniently omits them all.

What does get talked about—a lot—is Economics, I guess because Brooks thought that is where conservatives actually have some “heart” to show.  Despite my immense criticisms of this book, I will admit that I admire a lot of what Brooks has to say here.  He makes the case that hard work engenders dignity and fulfills the human spirt much more so than charity, and I agree.  He makes the case that there are no “dead end jobs”, that any job is a stepping stone to a better one, and I agree.  He makes the case that incentivizing earned income is a smarter approach then handing out “free money”, and I agree.

Where I disagree with Brooks is that these are distinctly “conservative” ideas.  Have you ever been with a group of people from any political stripe who all agreed that being unemployed and on welfare and food stamps is the best approach to life?  No, that is fucking silly.  Everyone wants a good job and to work as able for what they have.  This is true for conservatives and liberals and everyone in between.

What really drives the disagreement is the definition of a “good job”.  There are multiple points in the book where Brooks describes “income inequality” as a liberal “bogeyman”, and this is where I fundamentally disagree with him.  If we are going to live in a society where there are truly no dead-end jobs, that means you simply can’t have situations where people are flipping burgers or mopping floors or fetching coffee for the boss for a meager wage their whole lives, while the companies that they are doing those jobs for are producing millionaires and billionaires at the top.

Everyone agrees that having a job engenders dignity, but it is a distinctly conservative trait that finds dignity in scrubbing the palace floors at Mar-A-Lago.

I would love to meet Brooks in the middle here: let’s encourage hard work, but let’s do it by ensuring that said hard work will be rewarded with an adequately-sized slice of the pie.  Human beings are not “a workforce” for the rich.  There is no dignity in that.  Brooks makes a passionate appeal for hard work, but his wholesale dismissal of income inequality as an issue just makes him come off like every other conservative who wants the rich to get richer and the rest of us to settle into our lives as contented masses.

I think I’ve beaten a dead horse enough here, but I’d be remiss not to end with a couple more quips about just how awful the author’s timing and foresight were when he penned this thing.

In one memorable passage, in a chapter titled “The Conservative Social Justice Agenda”, he makes a plea to his fellow conservatives not to cede this issue to progressives, that conservatives should be “warriors for real fairness”.  Near the end of the chapter he quips, “For too long, we have ceded the notion of compassion and fairness to progressives.  But now, we see more and more authentically conservative leaders like Congressman Paul Ryan, Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, former governor Jeb Bush, and many others stepping forward to lead the fight for conservative social justice.”

This must have felt so satisfying for Brooks to write at the time, but then came the election of Donald Trump, and all those “authentically conservative leaders” that he named by name there were laughed out of the Republican Primaries in a barrage of belittling nicknames, jokes about penis size, and tweets making fun of how ugly their spouses are.  This, again, is the Conservative Heart.

Brooks truly saved the best for last, though.  Near the end of the book, he implores conservatives to “get happy”, in sum suggesting that conservatives talk more about what they are for instead of always railing against what they are against.  This idea is in and of itself laughable, or course, but not as laughable as the anecdote he chose to illustrate.  His Exhibit A was NFL quarterback Andrew Luck, who, “…has become known for more than the cannon attached to his shoulder.  According to the Wall Street Journal, ‘Luck has become famous for congratulating – sincerely and enthusiastically – any player to hit him hard.’ The Journal contacted a dozen players who recently had hit or sacked Luck, and they all told the same story.  ‘Any sack is met with a hearty congratulations, such as ‘great job’ or ‘what a hit!’ He yells it after hard hits that don’t result in sacks, too.  It is, players say, just about the weirdest thing any quarterback does in the NFL.’”

This was how Brooks chose to end his book, urging conservatives to be just like Andrew Luck, always congratulatory after a hard hit.

Of course, Andrew Luck wound up abruptly retiring prior to the 2019 season, 29 years old and in his prime.  He cited extensive and persistent injuries sustained during his brief NFL career for his decision, and the dude was booed loudly as he left his hometown turf for the final time.

Brooks could not have picked a better icon for “happy” conservatives to emulate.

 

 

Chokehold – Policing Black Men

By Paul Butler

Reviewed by craigo – 11/20/19

Paul Butler has written a tremendous piece of work here.

Butler was for a long time a Federal prosecutor, and as a black dude himself, this presented a dichotomy:  “As an African American man, I’m not only the target of the Chokehold.  I’ve also been one of its perpetrators.  I’ve done so officially – as a prosecutor who sent a lot of black men to prison.  I represented the government in criminal court and defended cops who had racially profiled or used excessive force.”

Butler then reveals what caused him to lose his zeal for prosecutorial work:  he himself was arrested by some full-of-shit cop for a crime he didn’t commit.  He was eventually exonerated in court, but that whole experience completely shredded his desire to put another soul in jail, ever.  And with that established, he then proceeds to comprehensively tear this fucked up system a new one, and reveal just how color-blind it isn’t.

Have you heard the one where some “cool kid’s philosopher” gets on TV and challenges anyone to show him proof of “institutional racism”?  Well, here’s Exhibit A, fuckwad.

(Actually, Michelle Alexander’s 2012 The New Jim Crow would be Exhibit A, so I guess that makes Chokehold Exhibit B.  But they’re both very worthy reads.  If you haven’t already, definitely read The New Jim Crow before you dive into Chokehold.)

The part of the book that makes my skin crawl the most is the stop-and-frisk statistics.  Now, first of all, can you just imagine if some cop approached you on the street for no reason, told you to spread ‘em, and then proceeded to pat you down, including all up in your junk?  I would be indignant.  I would be absolutely furious, and I would protest and state my non-consent over and over and over again.  But this is a perfectly legal tactic in a lot of places, and the statistics are plain nauseating:

Chicago – 32% black population, 72% of those stopped and frisked are black

Boston – 24% black population, 63% of those stopped and frisked are black

Newark – 52% black population, 54% of those stopped and frisked are black

Philadelphia – 43% black population, 71% of those stopped and frisked are black

Some folks may read that and grumble “well that’s cuz the blacks commit more crimes”, but give me a fucking break if you honestly believe that if cops stopped-and-frisked young white kids at the same percentage they do young black kids, there’s wouldn’t be just as much lawlessness found.  I was a young white kid once, so trust me, I know.  (Another great point the author makes on this point is how folks living in stop-and-frisk communities are just supposed to act like it’s the cost of safety, yet compare that to the indignant reaction of mostly white people when the TSA implemented pat-downs at the airport in 2010.)

Another infuriating tidbit Butler exposes is that the Supreme Court has set an IQ of 70 as the baseline of someone who can be executed, yet in some places the court finds it perfectly acceptable for prosecutors to “ethnically adjust” the IQ scores of black folks up to 15 points, just to make them more executable!  If it seems too ridiculous to be true, read the book and get yourself educated.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed this book because of Butler’s writing style.  He’s clearly a really smart dude, but he maintains a really down-to-earth prose and injects levity right where it’s needed.  It’s the same type of style that’s always endeared me to bands like Propagandhi, basically getting educated and entertained at the same time.

Highly recommendable, you should read this book right now.

 

 

 

Triggered – How The Left Thrives On Hate And Wants To Silence Us

By Donald Trump Jr.

Hahahaha, just joshin, no one in the band read this rich-kid horseshit.

 

 

 

Rockonomics – A Backstage Tour Of What The Music Industry Can Teach Us About Economics And Life

By Alan B. Krueger

Reviewed by craigo – 11/10/19

I was at a party a while back and a bunch of us were sitting by the fire pit playing that obnoxious game “Would You Rather”.  Now, at a drunken party, that game inevitably devolves into questions like “Would you rather go down on your mom,  or get head from your dad?”, but when it became my turn, I posed a bit more tame inquiry:  “Would you rather listen to shitty music for the rest of your life, or no music at all for the rest of your life?”

The answer was universally “shitty music”, because not one of us could imagine a world without any music at all.  I shudder at the thought.  Even now, as I write this, I have music playing softly in the background (the Urban Cowboy soundtrack on 2xLP, fuckin’ A).

Little did I know that the question I posed at that drunken party would be a perfect primer for my reading of Rockonomics.  The book starts out by establishing that we all listen to music—all of the time—even when we don’t personally turn it on or listen to it consciously.  It’s in movies.  It’s in commercials.  It’s on the P.A. at grocery stores and restaurants and bars and coffee shops.  The book expands further:  “Music is present at almost every major milestone in our lives:  high school proms, weddings, funerals, birthdays, parades, sporting events, college reunions, and presidential inaugurations.”

So music’s a constant in our lives, but for all the benefits and pure joy that we derive from it, the author notes bluntly: “Americans spend less money on recorded music in a typical year than they do on potato chips.”

From that opening salvo, Krueger dives headfirst into the craziness that is the music industry, expanding on the economic principles at play in each area.  Copyright law, record label contracts, live entertainment, manager and crew remuneration, streaming, even how a band divvies up their profits amongst each other….all of these things seem mundane, but combined they make being a paid performer an outright shit show of how to make money, how to divide money evenly and fairly, and all with a keen sense to price-gouging that would be a huge turnoff to fans.

I think my favorite part was that the author laid bare exactly who and what “rent-seekers” are.  In his words, “…rent-seekers expend resources to obtain a larger slice of the pie, while doing nothing to increase the size of the pie.”  His first example was the owners of valuable copyrights, who lobby incessantly to extend the terms of the copyrights, which provides nothing new in value, but just keeps costs higher for everybody else downstream.  Another example is radio stations, who “pay out only 4.6% of their operating budget for music, although music makes up two-thirds of their on-air content.  And radio station owners….have successfully lobbied to avoid paying performance royalties for decades.”  (Craziness…did you know that Iran and North Korea are the only other countries other than America that do not require the payment of performance rights to artists when songs are played on the radio?  I didn’t either, until I read this book.)

I learned a ton from this book, it was very entertaining and informative, and I highly recommend it to any music fan, or anyone even mildly interested in economics for that matter.  In fact, the author himself clarifies that he’s more of the latter than the former:  “Throughout my career, I have followed U3 (the official unemployment rate) much more closely than U2 (the Irish rock band).”

Rock on.

 

 

This Land – How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West

By Christopher Ketcham

Reviewed by craigo – 10/28/19

As a native Arizonan, I don’t generally care for East Coast intellectuals penning tomes about how stupid we are out West.  I get it, I get it….we live in a red state and there are gun-totin’, nativist yokels everywhere, I get it.  But having lived here virtually my entire life – and been an avid hiker and backpacker and camper to boot – I can attest that there is something magical that exists here in the wide open West, despite the tendencies of some of our stupidest citizens.

Christopher Ketcham captures that beauty splendidly in this book, while also serving out some well-deserved criticisms of said stupidest citizens.  And again, lest you’re quick to write him off as an urban elitist painting everybody with the same broad brush from afar, note that he interviewed Cliven Bundy in Bundy’s own living room while researching this book.  The dude got some serious access, and he writes about it beautifully and humorously and holy cow does he skewer some folks along the way!

Ketcham establishes himself right up front as a true outdoorsmen with the early admission that he likes to backpack to the remotest of locations and then hike around and explore bare-ass naked.  This is something I myself have an affinity for doing, so right from the outset I felt like I had a deeper understanding of whence the author came.

He then spends the bulk of the book expanding on something that I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t really think about or realize heretofore, which is just how fucking invasive cows are to the Southwest.  And basically everything shitty that happens within the federal agencies tasked with overseeing the public lands and their relationship with the citizens (mostly cowboys and/or Mormons) who live in those areas is a result of that livestock being raised in an absolutely absurd location.

I could try to summarize how ridiculous it all is for you, but I think this paragraph from the book says it best:

“What’s the major cause of desertification in the West?  Of biodiversity loss?  What is tearing at the skin of the aridlands, the cryptobiotic soil?  From what cause do noxious weeds like cheatgrass spread?  What insatiable force strips the sagebrush sea of cover for the broods of sage grouse?  Why are the riparian areas transformed to shit and mud, the grasses shorn, the wildflower gone?  Why are gray wolves in the Northern Rockies persecuted?  And Mexican wolves in Arizona?  Why is Wildlife Services out in every corner of the landscape slaughtering and poisoning?  Why have tens of millions of coyotes been killed?  Why have prairie dogs nearly disappeared, and with them the black-footed ferrets that depended on the prairie dogs as prey?  Why are bison—the bison which is called our national mammal, this gorgeous pygmy remnant of the megafauna—held captive in Yellowstone National Park, rounded up and periodically culled for slaughter?  What is the industry that more than any other dewaters the rivers and streams in the eleven Western states for the growing of feed?  Why are wetlands so grazed and compacted they look like golf courses?  Why is the majority of all forage on public lands not allocated to native wildlife?

It’s the goddman cows.”

Ketcham’s ultimate point in the book is that untouched, unblemished, natural land is beautiful and valuable and worth preserving, even at the expense of human profits and/or recreation.  We don’t need to gauge everything’s value by what we can “get out of it”.  Some things are simply best left the fuck alone.  On this message I am fully on board, and because of this I loved the book.

He did lose me just a little bit near the end of the book, where he rails pretty hard against “sell-out” environmentalists and greens.  I didn’t mind the criticism whatsoever, much of it was pretty spot-on, but here was the one place I would accuse him of maybe painting folks a little bit broadly.  Case in point, he rails at times about “Keen sandal wearers” and urban greens who “pat each other on the back for riding their bike to work”, both of which I am, and I don’t necessarily think that’s bad or makes me part of the problem.  Maybe the author does…?  If so, it worked, because it all came off just a wee bit sanctimonious.

But hey, next time I’m hiking bare ass naked in a slot canyon and I run into him, I’m sure we’ll chat about it.

 

 

Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

Reviewed by craigo – 9/30/19

This book was super rad, I loved it.  As the title suggests, it is a brief overview of humans over the past 2.5 million years.  The whole book from cover to cover was surprisingly easy to read, it never dipped so far into the esoteric weeds that the casual reader would feel overwhelmed.

Some of the more insightful moments I thought were the author’s reflections on the Agricultural Revolution, and whether or not that was actually a “good deal” for humans.  For millions of years humans were simple people, hunters and gatherers who subsisted on what nature provided.  But then everything started to change, and all of the sudden humans were spending countless laborious hours “manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species”.  Tilling earth, weeding, moving rock, watering, harvesting – this is now how human beings spent their time once the Agricultural Revolution sunk in.  And not only that, it was Agriculture that necessitated other institutions to begin to form, like “private property” and “money” and “laws”.  The author of course is not advocating a full retreat back to the hunter and gatherer days, he simply lays out the arc of human history, and we start to see that in many cases, humans – without the benefit of hindsight – chased what seemed at the time like great and intuitive ideas, but now centuries later it is clear that not all the results of that “progress” are good.

I also appreciated the fact that the author viewed history through non-human eyes, as well.  The so-called “progress” of humans has impacted all other species, and rarely for the better.  As the author states, “Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived.”  For example, “The dairy industry…to continue a supply of animal milk, a farmer needs to have calves, kids or lambs for suckling, but must prevent them from monopolizing the milk.  One common method throughout history was to simply slaughter the calves and kids shortly after birth, milk the mother for all she was worth, and then get her pregnant again.”  In other words, if there is any “monopolizing” going on, it will be done by the humans, thank you very much.

I think my favorite part of the book, though, as well as the most eye-opening, is right out of the gates when the author details how Homo Sapiens use to walk the earth alongside other species — which were all human!  Homo Rudolfensis, Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalensis….they were inhabiting their various parts of the earth just like Homo Sapiens were, yet only the Sapiens survive today.  This book refers to this as one of the “great what-ifs”:

“Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo Sapiens.  What kind of cultures, societies, and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted?  How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded?  Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species?”

Fascinating stuff!