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Killers of the Flower Moon – The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

By David Grann

Reviewed by craigo – 2/1/24

This book read like an old-fashioned, fast-paced “whodunit?”, even though the events described are wholly factual.

And what depressing and depraved events they are.

The book tells the story of the Osage Tribe, or, more specifically, one family within the Osage Tribe. As the U.S. territory expanded westward through the 1800’s, the Osage (like so many other native peoples) were pushed around and displaced by white settlers. But in one of US history’s great ironies, the Osage eventually got pushed to what was thought to be rocky, worthless land….until a massive deposit of oil was discovered.

There was so much oil, in fact, that at the time, the Osage actually became the richest people per capita in the U.S.

That stirred much resentment, of course, the sight of Native American people being chauffeured around town in fancy cars. So laws were eventually passed preventing these “depraved” people from spending more than a few thousand dollars a year, and there was also setup a system of “guardians”, who were white people of course, appointed to make sure the Osage people spent their money “appropriately”.

Much of the book largely follows one particular Osage woman, named Mollie Burkhart, who in the opening chapters loses several members of her close personal family to suspicious deaths of various means (including blowing up an entire house). Since this is a whodunit, I won’t spoil too much here, but it eventually turns out there’s a much larger conspiracy afoot to rob these murdered individuals of their rights to that land (and, subsequently, the oil and wealth).

While focusing on those events specifically, this book also tells a fascinating side story about how the solving of those murders propelled the career of a then-unknown man named J. Edgar Hoover, and how he was transforming the young Bureau of Investigation into the modern day FBI that we know today. In telling this story, the author really brings to life how lawless the young United States was back then. As the author succinctly puts it, “For years after the American Revolution, the public opposed the creation of police departments, fearing that they would become forces of repression. Instead, citizens responded to a hue and cry by chasing after suspects.”

In the book’s closing chapters, we jump ahead to modern day, where the author himself continues to delve into Osage deaths that never were investigated at the level of those we read about in the earlier chapters of the book. He talks to family members and pieces together what may have happened to their loved ones so many decades ago. It’s a somber and morose close to a fast-paced book, as we learn that what happened to Mollie Burkhart’s family also happened to so many other Osage families, whose stories likely will never be told.

These closing chapters also offer a tacit and poignant reminder of how much US history impacts us today. We so often talk and think about “history” like it was forever ago and unattached to today, but as the author interviews the adult grandchildren of people who were gruesomely and systematically murdered back in the Wild West days, that is vivid, recent history for that person that must hurt even today.

This is a grim, sad look back at a dark point in US history, but don’t let that stop you. The book is as engaging as it is informative. It’s hard to use adjectives like “fast paced” and “fun” about a book that is so sad and based on true events, but that’s what we have here. A great read all around.

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Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By Jared Diamond

Reviewed by craigo – 1/13/24

Back when I was a younger man, I got high as a kite with some buddies and we watched Darren Aronofsky’s classic film Requiem for a Dream.

And it scared us shitless.

That movie is a total mind-fuck, and anyone who watches it has an immediate reckoning with the foreign substances they put in their body. Full panic mode.

This book Collapse had basically the same effect. It is downright sobering, making it difficult to do something as mundane as flushing the toilet without inducing a panic attack about how imminent our demise is.

The book introduces us to a handful of societies (some long ago, some not so long ago) that have failed and/or disappeared, and really digs into why they failed. Deforestation is a fairly common element in the collapse of these societies, and a rhetorical question the author poses early in the book is “what did that person feel as he or she was cutting down the last standing tree?” It’s incredibly dystopian, and yet it’s been real life for so many human beings in the past (and, sadly, even in the present).

The notion of “churning through our resources” continues to be something that many tough-guy, red-meat-Republican types scoff at as a laughable worry, the concern of mere sissies and effeminate liberal types. But when you read this book and get slapped in the face with how seemingly simple it was for different populations to drive themselves extinct, it boggles the mind how fucking easy we have it today, how comfortable we live and how much excess we throw away and how ignorant we are of where the things we take for granted come from. We buy more and we expect more and we gauge “manliness” by the volume of a revved engine, and we don’t ever abstain from anything that is convenient. Ever.

As the author notes wryly, ““All of us moderns—house-owners, investors, politicians, university administrators, and others—can get away with a lot of waste when the economy is good.”

There are several recurring themes in the collapse of past societies that don’t bode well for us nowadays, but two in particular stand out. The first is the overt displays of opulence by the wealthy and powerful segments of society. From Maya kings and their elaborate temples to Easter Island tribes and their bigger and bigger statues, these societies burned through their natural resources not just to eat and/or survive, but to cater to the egocentrism of a handful of powerful kings and chiefs. This, the author states, is “reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs”. Anyone with eyes can see how unsustainable this is, both in terms of the natural resources used and the sheer discontent of the underclasses, where a relatively few, extremely wealthy folks fly wherever and whenever they want on private jets and live in humongous mansions with sprawling lawns that get over-seeded twice a year and eat whatever their heart desires, no matter the cost to the environment. Meanwhile, the rest of us live much simpler lives involving much less consumption of finite resources, well, because that’s the lot we’ve been relegated to.

The second would be a stubborn insistence on using cows as a primary food source. This pops up again and again throughout the book, as slowly disintegrating populations hasten their demise by devoting ever and ever more precious resources to their cows. Sounds awfully familiar to us here in 21st century America, doesn’t it? Would you like 2 all-beef patties on that Big Mac, or 3?

And this latter problem isn’t even just a stubborn insistence on one type of protein over another, but as the author points out, it’s actually been more about retaining culture and religion, at any cost. A prime example he used is the early settlers on Greenland, who identified proudly as European and Christian, and they tried in vain to maintain that identity through their dairy farming and architecture. Meanwhile, the other inhabitants of that area, the Inuit, lived much simpler and common-sensical lives given the geography, eating seafood and using seal-blubber as fuel. The author posits how the former group would’ve been hesitant to adopt any of the Inuit practices, no matter how much more practical they were, because by God, they were European Christians and not savages. They would never stoop so low, even as they died out.

Even countries like Japan, who are champions of their environment and maintain dense, well-run cities so that they can leave huge swaths of their land forested and un-touched, aren’t spared. Japanese affinity for wooden design and architecture doesn’t get curtailed simply because they treasure their unblemished forests. No, the wood just gets imported, instead. So the deforestation is happening somewhere, just not there.

This “have your cake and eat it, too” mentality that the modern-day First World fosters is what gets discussed in the book’s closing chapters. First World living standards have always—and continue to be—dependent on the depletion of some Third World country’s finite resources (else just shipping our garbage there). But as those Third World countries watch TV and movies and browse the internet and become exposed to First World living standards, their expectations gradually begin to rise. They, too, want beef at every meal and personal combustible engines and paved roads and flushing toilets and Alexa-powered homes. Why would they continue to deplete their own resources for someone else’s benefit?

The resultant unraveling is what we’re starting to see a lot in today’s world, and it’s not unlike what other past societies went through before their collapse. They so often devolved into warring factions who don’t trust anymore that the centralized authority figures have their best interests in mind (or can do anything about it, even if they did). The author resides in Los Angeles, and he compares what is happening globally to the L.A. riots of 1992. Large swaths of people get super fed up, and the result is not pretty.

The book is grim, but it ends on a hopeful note as we hear why the author himself is not completely pessimistic. In his travels he has seen communities and societies that have come together to successfully identify and solve problems before they become much bigger problems. He even gives props to some modern-day oil behemoths who, from what he’s witnessed, follow incredibly strict and self-imposed environmental standards because the cost of being clean and efficient to begin with is much, much cheaper than the cost of a massive cleanup after something goes wrong.

This book is essential reading. Put it on your to-read list.

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The Rise of the New Normal Reich

By C.J. Hopkins

Reviewed by craigo – 12/7/23

About a year ago, I went with some friends to the Tempe Improv to catch a true genius, the comedian Kevin Nealon. During his routine, which was hilarious, Nealon deadpanned, “So what’s up with Covid? Are you guys for it or against it?”

We all laughed maniacally at that, because by then we had emerged from the restrictive phases of the pandemic and were all getting back to normal, so it was good (great, even) to have a collective laugh at the ordeal we had all lived through.

We also laughed heartily because, to a person, everyone in that audience undoubtedly knew somebody who was very much “for” or “against” Covid, as preposterous as that sounds. The people who were “for” it (to name a few) were the busy bodies, the holier-than-thou’s who never miss a chance to prove that they are the best compliers. Also in the “for” camp were the hypochondriacs, those who are obsessed with germs and diseases to begin with, as well as those who were clinging desperately to the hope that Covid would finally be the death-knell for the reign of Donald Trump.

Meantime, the “against” camp was basically full of folks like the author of this book, C.J. Hopkins.

I was already under the impression—and even more so after reading this book—that those in the “against” camp weren’t really “against Covid”, as Kevin Nealon so humorously put it. No, they were much more driven to anger by the folks in the “for” camp, and vice versa. It wasn’t so much about Covid, but that Covid presented something so juicy and divisive to argue about.

But before I get into that, let’s unpack some of the points that Hopkins made in this book that are very good points, despite his overall pissy attitude about everything else.

I’ll start with the vaccine mandates. I’m not one of those who considers “vaccine” to be a four-letter word, but at the same time, I wasn’t at the front of the line to get the Covid vaccine, either. I did eventually take it, largely because a couple of coworkers had extensive hospitalizations due to Covid, and their weeks-long absence was a constant reminder that it can fuck a person up pretty bad. But by the time I got vaccinated, it was already becoming clear that the vaccine was no panacea. Hospitals were still filling up with Covid patients, both vaccinated and unvaccinated. While it was believed originally that taking the vaccine was an altruistic measure, something that would “stop the spread”, it soon became clear that it was more akin to a motorcycle helmet, offering an additional layer of personal protection, but little else.

Thus, Covid vaccine mandates didn’t make a ton of sense in many places where they existed, and so were understandably divisive. My good bud Jalipaz, the venerable studio engineer, and I discussed this extensively my first time in his studio after he opened back up. That dude is virulently opposed to the vaccine on personal grounds, and admitted to me that he had lost friends over the issue. He told me this through a mask, long after general society had put the things away. He takes Covid that seriously and still finds personal comfort behind a mask, but nonetheless subscribes to a theory that vaccines aren’t the best form of personal protection. And for some reason, that viewpoint cost him friends. I recall debating the same point with other friends, life-long self-avowed Liberals who would hear about common folks losing their 30-year jobs (and pensions) because they wouldn’t adhere to a vaccine mandate, and just shrugging about it. “That’s their choice!” went the refrain. It was a sad state of affairs, and lays bare why the Democratic Party has completely lost blue-collar labor as a constituency.

The general issue of “control” is another area where Hopkins makes some salient points. Governments and systems that are able to assert complete control and regulate all aspects of people’s lives is something that should make us all shudder. Reasonable minds can disagree all day long about how governments the world over responded to this particular pandemic, but coupled with that should be a robust conversation about government’s ability to respond at all. What legislative powers give it that right, and in what circumstances? That’s not just populist rambling to ask questions like that. Indeed, the March 28th 2020 edition of The Economist (hardly a populist rag) is titled “Everything’s under control – Big government, liberty and the virus”. That issue was two weeks into the pandemic. Those conversations should be had, and in cases where a government does feel compelled to act in such a strong-armed fashion (as they did during Covid), we should be earnestly analyzing and debating that. You may agree with the government’s actions during Covid, but next time the government dictates your day-to-day life, you may not agree with its reasons. What then?

Aside from those couple of points, Hopkins really lost me with the rest of his ramblings. The man is a staunch anti-capitalist, which he and I have in common, so this should have been a book where I was continually nodding my head in agreement. Yet he turns capitalism into the “ubiquitous they”, as I like to call it: a never-fully-defined boogeyman who is capable and culpable of every wrong imaginable. I get so tired of hearing people complain that “they” are doing this and “they” are doing that, yet the “they” never gets defined (which would be the first step toward offering solutions rather than just being a complainer).

Hopkins at least uses another word than “they”, as his preferred term is GloboCap (short for Global Capitalism). But the result is the same. In his telling, GloboCap concocted Covid from thin air as punishment for the populist rabble voting in Brexit and Donald Trump. The pesky kids (the populists) misbehaved, so the parents (GloboCap) would now mete out punishment via stricter and stricter Covid protocols.

No joke, that is the Cliff’s Notes version of this entire book.

Now, I can give you a list a mile long of all the wrongs global capitalism has wrought on this planet. But Covid? Really? Canada and Australia are two of the countries that went the most stringent, and neither of those populations even voted for Trump or Brexit. And the gold medal for most totalitarian would go to China, which is avowedly communist. If the target was to punish populists in capitalist societies for voting “yes” on Brexit and Trump, GloboCap apparently has super bad aim.

Too much of the rest of the book is willfully lacking in nuance to be taken seriously at all. For example, Hopkins takes a scalpel to Covid death statistics, casting doubt on the amount of deaths attributed solely to Covid when many other, and possibly worse, co-morbidities are at play. And that’s perfectly fine. Three cheers for that nuance. Yet later in the book he cites two pages worth of deaths in elderly and nursing homes that “mysteriously” happened right after the old folks received the Covid vaccine, and he fails to apply any of that same nuance. It’s just a nakedly partisan implication that the vaccines are killing people in hordes, when he goes to great lengths to chastise the mainstream media for doing the same thing about Covid itself. I myself view vaccines similarly to the police: on a collective scale, they keep a lot of people safe. But drill down to the individual level, and you’ll inevitably find people who get fucked over by adverse side effects. Hopkins has a perfect opportunity to delve into that nuance here, but he instead goes full-bore the other way. He doesn’t just elect not to take the vaccine, he demeans those who do take it, and swears up and down they’re all going to suffer heart attacks or turn gay or whatever the conspiracy of the day is.

Protests are another area where Hopkins sees exactly what he wants to see when he wants to see it, but goes willfully blind when it doesn’t serve his purpose. At the anti-lockdown protests that Hopkins personally attended, he finds only like-minded, blue-collar folks who show up individually impassioned against over-arching government controls, and any time any of those protests devolved into chaos, it was only because GloboCap had given assembly permits to known neo-Nazis who they knew would cause trouble so that the mainstream media would call it a “nazi” or “far right” protest from afar. Yet of the George Floyd protests that occurred far and wide around the same time, Hopkins castigates them all as violent and destructive and fueled by gullible white folks who live in gated communities and got worked into a frenzy by a sensationalist media.

It’s the same theme over and over again: People are only capable of gullibility when Hopkins disagrees with them. Discernment is exclusive to those who share his views.

On a final note, I’d be remiss not to mention the controversy surrounding this book, which sadly is so often the case of how I hear about a book to begin with. Hopkins is an American, but he resides in Germany, and the German government has apparently charged him with a crime for his use of the swastika on the cover of the book. I don’t live in Germany and have never been there, but I of course recognize the sordid history that symbol has and I’ll leave it to that country’s citizens to decide how they want to legislate its use. But I can say as an American, criminal charges for the author seems pretty fucking ridiculous. The use of the imagery is distasteful to say the least, and that’s not even to mention the infinitely-times-more distasteful Nazi comparisons Hopkins repeatedly makes throughout. Anyone and everyone who wore a mask during the Covid pandemic is a mindless sheep, according to Hopkins, equivalent to the German citizens who said nothing and did nothing while the Jews were being loaded onto trains. Millions of people were gassed during the Holocaust, and Hopkins several times paints himself as an equal victim of a compliant German citizenry because he was forced to put a mask on when he entered a German supermarket. The parallels are pathetic and stupid.

By way of comparison, it is expected of me to this day to remove my hat when I’m at a family gathering and someone is about to give the pre-meal prayer (the same happens in public venues before the singing of the National Anthem). When that happens, I have a choice to make. I can keep my hat on and sneer at them all and call them Nazis and begin ranting about how meaningless a gesture it is to remove a piece of cloth from my head. Or, I can politely remove my hat until the prayer is over and allow the family gathering to go on unabated by my being a self-absorbed dick.

In the spirit of co-existing, I typically choose the latter. Hopkins, in his infinite wisdom, opts for the self-absorbed dick path (and would probably call me a pussy for being so weak-kneed and respectful at my family gatherings). His approach is distasteful and off-putting as all get out, but is it criminal? No, that is absurd.

The Covid pandemic will go down in history as one of the stranger times in our lives. Governments the world over scrambled (or didn’t) to react in whatever ways they thought best, and some went way overboard and turned it into a power-grab. The science community itself has much egg on its face, whether it’s Anthony Fauci flip-flopping on masks to “control the narrative”, or prominent scientists saying and admitting one thing privately while they say the exact opposite publicly because they didn’t want to rile up the MAGA crowd. Shit went down, and we need good thinkers to poke and prod and unearth the wrongs and write books about it so that next time around, our collective response won’t be so flat-footed.

I get the impression that Hopkins could be one of those thinkers, if he really wanted to be. But for fuck’s sake, this is not one of those books.

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Biological Exuberance – Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity

By Bruce Bagemihl, Ph.D

Reviewed by craigo – 11/19/23

This was such an awesome and enlightening book. Bruce Bagemihl did a really, really valuable service to human beings by penning this thing.

To my continued disbelief, Bagemihl published this tome back in the late 90’s, when I was a fierce, teen-aged advocate for gay rights. If I’m honest with myself now, the roots of that advocacy were 100% about pissing off my Mormon parents, and 0% about justice or standing up for marginalized peoples or anything like that. But whatever the (faux) cause, I met some dear friends along the way, and it eventually blossomed into a genuine movement for me, even as a straight dude with nothing to benefit from it personally. Even armed with that idealism though, I never knew anything about this book, nonetheless read it. It boggles my mind that it just now happened, in my mid-40s, when “gay rights” has become the quaint issue of yesteryear and many of the evangelical culture warriors have moved on to dehumanizing their newest bogeyman: trans people.

Make no mistake – this book is huge. It rings in at nearly 700 pages, but combined with the various appendices and indexes, it pushes 800. It is bulky and thick and my hand would get sore while holding it up when I read it in long stretches. But it’s broken up into two distinct parts – the 1st half being the actual “book”, while the 2nd half contains hundreds of detailed profiles of all types of land and sea creatures. This 2nd half is not meant to be read cover to cover, so feel free to pick the book up and read it without being intimidated by the size. You can safely read to page ~350 and call it quits. (I read the whole thing partly because I’m stubborn, but also because, not gonna lie, it was so damn funny reading about male monkeys hanging one-armed in a tree and mutually jerking each other off until they both cum that I didn’t want to skip a single page.)

It is clear from the start that one of the primary motives of the author is to dispel entirely of the bullshit notion of the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. Countless human lives have been cast to the margins by laws penned by self-righteous politicians who believe that homosexual behavior is somehow an affront to the natural order of things. This book exhaustively and comprehensively shows how that is not the case. (And the aforementioned monkeys jerking each other off probably wouldn’t disagree.)

However, Bagemihl cautions those who agree with him here not to take the argument to its logical extreme, either. In this same book we also read several accounts of animal rape, baby killing, and all manner of incest. The basic premise being, we can talk about what’s “natural” vs. “unnatural”, but in any event, “animals do it, too” is a shaky foundation for justifying human behavior.

The subtitle of the book is Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, and it’s important not to put too much emphasis on the former at the expense of the latter. Bagemihl doesn’t just focus on gay animals here. He delves into all manner of non-procreative sexual gratification. There’s a default human assumption that animals exist in a robotic state, mindlessly pursuing food and procreation and nothing else. But that is simply not the case, and this book shows that over and over and over again. In many species, females form “vaginal/copulatory plugs”, allowing them to mate over and over again despite already having conceived (or not wanting to conceive). Both sexes of many species masturbate, sometimes deploying tools to do so (I’d be remiss not to mention the male Orang who “ingeniously fashioned an implement by pushing a hole through a leaf with his finger. He inserted his erect penis into the ‘orifice’, then rubbed the leaf up and down the shaft to stimulate himself.”).

As fun as it is to read about all the animals in this book, it is equally entertaining when the silly humans pop up. The author includes one funny anecdote about the late Senator Jesse Helms, who in 1995 had his staff briefed on the value of saving the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The presentation “stressed the supposed ‘family values’ of the species, referring to the birds’ monogamous and relatively long-lasting heterosexual pair-bonds.” To which Bagemihl quips, “In other words, the right of this species to exist…was predicated not on its intrinsic value, but on how closely it’s behavior could be made to resemble what is currently considered acceptable conduct for humans.”

And then there’s animal researcher W.J. Tennent, who published a 1987 article titled “A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standard in the Lepidoptera” after he observed homosexual behavior in Mazarine Blue butterflies in Morocco.

This is all good for a laugh, of course, but unfortunately this goes to a larger and darker point stressed in this book about how so much of the information provided in the book isn’t even “new”, it’s actually based on observations going all the way back to the 1800’s. Those observations have just been suppressed and/or explained away by a scientific community who didn’t want people thinking they were gay themselves, or otherwise didn’t fit the orthodoxy of the time. As Bagemihl concedes, “Scientists are human beings with human flaws, living in a particular culture at a particular time.”

All in all, this is a superb and highly recommendable book that truly shows how animals aren’t as different as we tend to think and believe they are. Exuberance abounds. But sadly, the author at one point also highlights the distinct way animals DO differ from humans: “Almost without exception, animals with ‘different’ sexualities and/or genders are completely integrated into the social fabric of the species, eliciting little of the attention, hostility, segregation, or secrecy that we are accustomed to associating with homosexuality in our society.”

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Hope On A Tightrope

By Cornel West

Reviewed by craigo – 10/2/23

I’ve been seeing Cornel West’s name a lot lately as he mulls a Presidential run in 2024, and every time I see the name I think to myself, “Gee, I still haven’t ever read him yet.” So, it was finally time to right that ship.

And a big tsk tsk to me here, right off the bat. I didn’t really have a single book in mind so much as an over-arching desire to “read Cornel West”, so I went online and somewhat randomly picked this book. And the joke was on me, because this was a tiny little square coffee-table style book with a bunch of hella cheesy pictures of West posing in front of a chalkboard, and it was more a collection of quotes than it was an actual book to read. So shame on me, this is the exact reason I should buy my books at the local Changing Hands, rather than online. Lesson learned.

But all’s well that ends well. Despite the cheesy nature and diminutive stature of the book, it was still an enjoyable read and an insightful look into West’s philosophy.

First and foremost, West is a Christian, and his views on Christianity are delightful to read. He talks at-length about the “funk” of Jesus, this quote being a perfect example of what is found throughout the book: “He had some funky working-class parents sometimes dealing with unemployment and underemployment. He walked on some funky and dusty roads, didn’t he? He brought together 12 funky folk. He didn’t go out 100 miles to the vanilla suburbs, did he? He picked them right from around where he came from. It’s so easy to forget the funk in Jesus’s life because our churches can become so easily deodorized.”

Unlike most contemporary churches, West continually reminds us that Jesus’s message was one of bottom-up empowerment. It was emphatically directed to the downtrodden. The meek. The “last” who would eventually become “first”.

And it’s this, really, that drives most of West’s views and opinions on virtually everything else. His is a movement for “normal” people. Folks who work for a paycheck and struggle to pay the bills in a society that relentlessly pursues more and more profit. I can’t state it more eloquently than West himself: “I’m talking about love, care, service to others, sacrifice, risk, community, struggles for justice, and solidarity. All of these non-marketplace values struggle against a market-driven culture.”

My favorite part of the book was when West published a letter he had received from an individual in prison. The inmate had recently been in a fight with another inmate, and the argument that had led to the fisticuffs was whether or not Cornel West was married to a white woman. The letter was petty, simple, salt of the earth—and absolutely beautiful in its honesty and sincerity. The letter-writer even admitted to the pettiness of it, but he just had to know if Cornel West was actually married to a white woman, so he up and sent a letter to the dude to ask him himself.

West also published his response to the inmate, and this too was an elegant read (which I won’t divulge anything about, as a teaser to go read it yourself).

While West passionately emphasizes things like sacrifice and struggle, his is also a consistent message of joy. He laces his prose with reminders to be grateful for the simple beauty of things. “We must keep smiling,” he exhorts us.

It’s a message this world is in desperate need of right now.

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Poverty, by America

By Matthew Desmond

Reviewed by craigo – 9/14/23

This book was as enlightening as it was depressing.

Matthew Desmond takes us on a hand-held tour of what poverty actually looks like and feels like. Poverty is so much more than just a lack of money (even though it is first and foremost that). It’s a lack of comfort when you can’t get that a/c or that bum hip fixed. It’s a lack of voice when you feel like (and actually don’t) have any say in the forces that control your life. It’s a lack of peace and quiet when you live in neighborhoods with sirens blaring all day and night. And after a length of time, it even becomes a physical malady, as the author explains, “The chronic stress that accompanies poverty can be detected at the cellular level.”

And then he turns his microscope on the reasons why it is this way, as well as why it remains this way. There’s more here than the typical culprits (wealth inequality and the systemic erosion of labor protections). As Desmond details in expansive detail, it’s the $61 million in fees collected daily primarily from poor people in the form of overdraft fees, check cashing fees, and payday loan fees. Access to credit is virtually non-existent for poor people, yet it’s a necessity for them just like it is for the middle- and upper-classes so they resort to the least-worst options available to them.

And then Desmond rubs our faces in it, laying bare some of the super easy and practical ways things could be different right now, but they simply aren’t because too many of us—even those of who are aware of the problem—benefit too much from it. That’s the ghastly beauty of this capitalistic system we live in, where those fortunate enough to thrive or even just break even do so at the expense of everyone else who doesn’t quite make it there. As the author chastises, “Most social problems are complicated, of course, but a retreat into complexity is more often a reflection of our social standing than evidence of critical intelligence. Hungry people want bread. The rich convene a panel of experts. Complexity is the refuge of the powerful.”

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Team Human

By Douglas Rushkoff

Reviewed by craigo – 9/2/23

The main thing I can say about this book right off the bat was how immensely quotable it is. This is my first time reading Douglas Rushkoff, and he writes with such a declarative and straight-forward style but is still wry and (close enough to being) funny that it doesn’t seem like a major chore to read. It’s one of the harder reviews I’ve had to write because trying put the stuff that Rushkoff said into my own words seems awfully pointless after having read him state everything so explicitly and so splendidly.

The author is anti-car, which alone endeared him to me. He at one point skewers our car culture thusly: “Most Americans accept the premise that they need a car to get to work. And a better car leads to a more pleasant commute. But that’s only because we forgot that our pedestrian and streetcar commutes were forcibly dismantled by the automobile industry.”

And then later he doubles down. After breaking down some of the ways our cities of modern day are being transformed in order to be in compliance with self-driving cars and other autonomous technologies, Rushkoff muses, “This isn’t so bad in itself, but if history is any guide, remaking the physical world to accommodate a new technology—such as the automobile—favors the companies selling the technologies more than the people living alongside them.”

He skewers meme culture: “The more we experience people as dehumanized replicators of memes, the more likely we are to treat one another as machines to be operated rather than as peers with whom to collaborate.”

He skewers those who profit at the Earth’s expense: “We are part of a complex system of feedback loops and inter-connections, and must learn to approach our world with greater sophistication, empathy, and vision—not as short-sighted profiteers but as humans with legacies. The earth doesn’t have to reject us as if we were an invading pathogen.”

Shit, he even skewers punk rockers: “When punk rockers reduce their understanding of their movement to the right to wear Mohawks or pierce their faces, it’s easy for them to lose touch with the more significant anti-authoritarian ideology of DIY, direct action, and never selling out.”

There’s a lot of skewering, but it’s all so wholesome and encouraging! It’s not “fuck you” skewering, it’s “we can do better” skewering. Rushkoff just explains away failure of ours after failure, stating plainly what went wrong, and how things could be better. Bigger isn’t always better. Things in nature don’t continue to try and grow and grow and grow. They get as big as they need to, and stop. They are content at that size. There’s a lesson for us there.

Sometimes human imperfections—especially in art—are a thing to marvel at. But modern technology seeks to beat-map and auto-tune it all out of existence. As Rushkoff puts it, ”our mechanomporphic culture is embracing a digital aesthetic that irons out anything uniquely human.”

The closing chapters of the book are especially uplifting. It’s not all gloom-and-doom and “shit’s fucked”. Rushkoff saves some of his best writing in these closing chapters, imploring us to do better and nudging us in the right directions.

I’d be remiss not to end with a quote: “Human beings can intervene in the machine. That’s not a refusal to accept progress. It’s simply a refusal to accept any particular outcome as inevitable.”

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This Is Your Brain On Music – The Science of a Human Obsession

By Daniel J. Levitin

Reviewed by craigo – 8/15/23

I’ve been a musician just about my entire life. I started cello in 4th grade, and I’ve been playing (and learning) music regularly ever since. In my early 20’s I began writing and recording music, both of which elevated my understanding of music exponentially.

So by now, this aging and graying punk rocker considers myself somewhat of an “expert” on the subject. But holy shit! This book was such an eye-opener on so many levels!

As the title suggests, the book delves into the science behind music. Why do we like what we like? Why does some music sound so “normal” while other music sounds so “foreign”? What happens to our brains when we listen to music? And what if it’s music we really, really love (or don’t)?

These are all the types of questions this book attempts to answer, and it’s a fascinating read.

One of my favorite parts of the book was when the author, Daniel Levitin, delves into the science behind why some people are such talented—and seemingly natural—musicians, while others never seem to be able to progress through the clumsy and awkward stage with any instrument they attempt. The big surprise here being: there really isn’t any science behind it at all. It’s 10,000 hours, plain and simple. It’s those grueling hours spent alone, practicing behind a closed door, that get the talented musicians out of the clumsy phase. There aren’t any genetic predispositions at play here. If it seems like a natural thing that the children of musicians become much more adept musicians themselves, that’s not due to those children’s genes, but due to the constant encouragement and skillful teaching and hours of practice they got, not just because they were offspring of someone talented themselves. (The author does make allowance for obvious physical traits here, like someone with large hands not really able to master the violin, even with the requisite hours of practice.)

Agree with that or not, Levitin makes a pretty solid case for his point-of-view.

Another part I really enjoyed was reading about the impacts of music on babies, especially in the womb. This is something I’ve seen first-hand. I had my first child at all of 19 (oops…), and I remember playing NOFX’s Scavenger Type over and over and over on an old cassette recorder right next to the belly for my soon-to-be son to hear. And years later after he was born, I swear he would go into a trance anytime I played that song on my acoustic guitar (and Finnegan remains a big NOFX fan to this day, even though you’re not supposed to like the same music as your parents). It was really neat to read the science behind why all of that is the way it is.

Levitin even delves so far into the science that in one chapter he breaks down the evolutionary reasons why rock stars have such better sex lives than the average person (no spoilers here, you’ll have to read the book to find out). Good stuff.

All in all, this was a great read, and highly recommendable for anyone who loves music, whether you’re a musician or not.

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The Message – The Bible in Contemporary Language

By Eugene Peterson

Reviewed by craigo – 7/1/23

I don’t normally read just the last quarter of a book, especially when I’m planning on writing a review of the book afterward. But since this book is the Bible, and since the Old and New Testaments are such completely different tomes, in this instance it seemed just fine to skip the first 1,328 pages and start reading at the latter Testament.

The Message was written (or should I say, translated) by Eugene Peterson, who painstakingly re-wrote the entire bible in modern-day language, leaving out all the boring old thou’s and thee’s and therefore’s. I’m guessing that, to stodgy old religious farts, this was a somewhat controversial endeavor, but I think the end result is pretty cool, and it definitely makes the Bible come alive more than the stuffier old King James does.

Unlike the Old Testament, which is comprised of Jewish laws and customs and prophecy (and which I skipped entirely), the New Testament is solely about Jesus. The first four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) tell mostly similar stories about Jesus’s life and eventual death at the hands of the government. The oldest of these four books is Mark, and the original manuscript of Mark didn’t even include some of the more famous stories, like the virgin birth and the posthumous visits Jesus made to his disciples. It was just a straight-forward account of the life and death of the man Jesus, up to when they discovered his empty tomb. Several additional details and embellishments were added as each subsequent book was written, culminating in John (which alone includes oft-cited stories like the woman at the well and the raising of Lazarus).

If you put aside all preconceived notions and any judgements you’ve made about Jesus Christ or Christianity in the past, I personally find these stories about Jesus to be pretty cool. Here’s this dude, a simple carpenter, going around town telling people that the religious system they’ve been living under is now moot, that they’re all loved and valued, no matter their lineage or status or individual acts. Just because they were people, that was the only qualification. The religious leaders of the time, those rat bastards who hoarded literacy and used orthodoxy like a bludgeon against the simple masses, of course hated Jesus and everything he stood for and everything he was making the people believe. And their hatred was palpable, since as we all know they wound up nailing the guy to a plank and bleeding him out, slowly, over several hours, right in front of his mother and family and friends. He directly challenged their systems of control, and won over a lot of people doing it. And they killed him for it.

Modern-day Christians of course fuck all of this up royally, with their steadfast maintenance of the patriarchy and hyper focus on homosexuality, basically finding any and every way they can to make themselves feel better by reducing other living, breathing human beings to “the enemy”. They act that way, aside from that fact that Jesus never actually said jack shit about homosexuality, or any other issue that the people who invoke his name the most get their panties in such a bunch over. All Jesus did was travel around from place to place and spread the empowering message that the so-called authorities were all stuck-up assholes, and people didn’t need to live the way they were living, under the thumbs of false preachers and all their rules and compelled piety.

After Jesus was killed, the push began immediately to mold and grow the religion that became his namesake, Christianity. And that’s basically what the rest of the New Testament is, letters among–and to—the burgeoning Christian churches of the day with suggestions and admonitions for what “Christianity” was supposed to look like. As it turns out, convincing entire societies and cultures that they all the sudden don’t need to follow the rules that had dictated their lives prior can produce some undesirable results. Freedom is messy like that, as are people in general. These letters that make up the rest of the New Testament are an attempt to maintain that freedom while still living lives that other people would observe from afar and wonder, “Gee, what’s their motivation for being so decent all the time?”

This seems like a noble enough cause, but….there’s Paul.

Paul is the author of most of these letters, and it’s hard to take him seriously at times, especially when reading his letters laid bare in modern-day language (I’ve been hoodwinked by religious do-gooders and church authorities many times in my past, so call me jaded). Even the way Paul bursts into the story is sketchy as hell.

Immediately following Jesus’s death, his surviving 11 apostles (the traitor Judas had by now committed suicide) decided they needed to add a new 12th guy to keep the team whole. They had two really good candidates for the one position, so to divine God’s will about which man was the right choice, Jesus’s apostles studiously left it to a game of chance (Acts 1:23-26). A guy named Matthias won, and once again, they were 12. Now at full strength, the 12 ventured out and preached the word high and low, but they met much resistance everywhere they went. One of their chief antagonists was a Pharisee named Saul, who took delight in beating up Christians and hauling them before the authorities. One day, Saul was strolling along the road when he had a “vision” that compelled him to do one of history’s great 180°s and convert to Christianity. From thence on, Saul becomes Paul (with no segue or explanation given), and anoints himself a fully authorized Apostle, no games of chance necessary.

With his dues apparently paid, Paul becomes a revered leader, and most of the letters that make up the New Testaments are missives he wrote to churches he had planted, only to see those churches later devolve into petty infighting and selfishness and immorality. There were huge disagreements between these new Christians about things like circumcision and consumption of “unclean” foods, and Paul attempts again and again to referee these fights.

The problem is, in doing so, he asserts a lot of things that he doesn’t really have the authority to assert. He plainly admits that there are areas where “we have no explicit command from the master” (1 Corinthians 7:12-14), but then a mere seven chapters later, Paul states bluntly that women need to shut the fuck up in church (“Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking”) and maintains that’s exactly what the Master wants (“If you won’t play by these rules, God can’t use you. Sorry.”) (1 Corinthians 14:34-38)

Really, Paul? When the hell did Jesus ever say anything remotely close to that?

In another example of Paul being loose with his facts, he upholds the Old Testament’s Abraham as a pillar of “trusting God”, writing, “Abraham didn’t focus on his own impotence and say, ‘It’s hopeless. This hundred-year-old body could never father a child.’ Nor did he survey Sarah’s decades of infertility and give up.” (Romans 4:19-20) Once again…really, Paul? This is the same Abraham who was so desperate to conceive that he had sex with one of his slaves—a ploy that worked! His slave bore him a son, but then shortly thereafter his wife Sarah (whose fertility stolid old Abraham never doubted for a second) also became pregnant. At that point, the bastard son Abraham had fathered with the slave (who was Abraham’s true, first-born son) was unnecessary, so both the infant and his mother were thrown out with the bathwater.

Paul was a Pharisee. He would’ve known all this. Why the fabrication here?

There are other times where Paul fiercely defends himself from the insinuation that he is a freeloader (1 Corinthians 9), but the reader never gets to know what transpired that caused those insinuations to be made. We just have to take Paul’s word for it. And then there’s the very memorable moment where Paul writes to a friend of his that he could very well “command” him to an action, but since he’s a cool dude, Paul’s just going to ask him as a favor instead (Philemon, 1:8-9). Modest, much?

Again, I’m not doubting Paul’s sincerity here in most of these letters, or questioning that he had a hell of a hard task on his hands to convince a rabble who is now free to live decent lives. My problem is just that those letters he wrote, however well-meaning, became canonical gospel on level with the words of Jesus himself. Those letters that Paul appropriated the authority to write had a very specific audience in mind, yet they are still now, 2,000 years later, being used by ardent believers everywhere to justify super shitty beliefs and attitudes, while the actual words that Jesus spoke are disregarded.

All in all, Paul’s whole conversion story and ascent to the pinnacle of Christianity just sounds too eerily familiar for me (to reiterate…I’m jaded). The first 18 years of my life were spent in Mormonism, a religion founded by a guy who built his entire religious empire and justified his prophetic authority on a singular “vision” he had alone, out in the woods. A vision that could never be verified by anybody, ever.

That’s a lot to take on faith alone. It’s a leap I couldn’t make for ole Joe Smith back in my childhood, and I’m not sure I can do it for Paul here. Just because Paul’s vision preceded Joe Smith’s by roughly 1,800 years doesn’t make it any more plausible. To anyone skeptical of visionary prophecy, both accounts are rather shaky foundations.

Rest assured, though. Despite Paul’s efforts, The Message ends strong, with (spoiler alert) Revelations. In the plain language, Revelations is an entirely different book than what you may have read as a kid in seminary, and worth sticking with it all the way through to the end!

Coming from the guy who only read the last quarter of the book…

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The Shallows – What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

By Nicholas Carr

Reviewed by craigo – 5/7/23

I felt validated as I read this book, as I’m sure anyone who picks up a physical copy and holds it in their hands while they read it would. A constant theme throughout the tome is disdain at the seemingly inevitable demise of physical books themselves (not to mention our species’ ability to concentrate long enough to read the damn things). So I felt kinda like a hero as I held this book in my hands and read it cover to cover. It was truly a formidable feat.

I jest, of course, but that is indeed the overall tenor of this fascinating book.

Nicholas Carr takes us on a journey here through all the information advancements leading up to where we’re at nowadays, with our smartphones and the “internet of things” and so forth. After all, the printing press itself, when it first came about, received much of the same criticism that the internet receives nowadays: it would cause information overload, it’s too easy to spread bad ideas, etc.

But what makes the introduction of the internet so much different than the introduction of other ways of disseminating information is the physical toll it is taking on humans, the literal transformation that it is causing in our brains. The author ventures pretty deep into science here, tackling “neuroplasticity” from all angles. He tells fascinating stories about studies done that prove how adaptable and changeable the brain is, including one study where scientists severed the sensory nerve of a monkey’s hand and observed how confused the brain signals were when they poked the monkey’s fingertips shortly thereafter. The monkey could not discern where the sensation was coming from. But when the scientists conducted the same test a few months later, the monkey’s brain had “reorganized” itself, and it again knew exactly where the stimulation was coming from. (This is similar to phantom limb sensations in human amputees.)

From there, the author takes us on a brief history of physical books (which originated as wax tablets lashed together with leather, with no punctuation or spaces between the words). As the ease of making these rudimentary things became simpler and simpler, books “quickly became the format of choice for publishing bibles and other controversial works”. This marked the advent of ‘private reading’, something which individuals began to do with gusto. And as the author notes, “Such fluency had to be learned. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain.”

With that in mind, it doesn’t take a genius to see where the internet is taking us. There’s a collective regression that is happening, and it is responsible for what the author calls our “gullibility crisis”. As Carr quips metaphorically: “When a ditch digger trades his shovel for a backhoe, his arm muscles weaken even as his efficiency increases. A similar trade-off may well take place as we automate the work of the mind.”

And sadly, as our collective ability to read and process information subsides, the quality of the works themselves will begin to suffer, as well. Carr is quite quotable here, warning us, “Writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style.” Even the concept of ‘finishing’ a work will change, he cautions: “The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even an anxiety, to perfect the works they produce—to write with an eye and ear toward eternity.”

Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom, as Carr does acknowledge many of the awesome advantages the internet provides. He doesn’t propose we should all take a giant leap backward 20 years and start living like luddites. Far from it, he even admits what a technology junkie he himself is, and has been his whole life. All he’s doing with this book is making an impassioned case for using the internet wisely, with full regard for its benefits and pitfalls. As the author explains, “There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden.” And he cautions, our failure to do that poses a “mortal threat to the pastoral ideal of meditative thought”.

Pretty grim stuff, and a clarion call to action: it’s time to wake up people. Read a book. Turn off your ‘feeds’, and choose long form journalism. Put down your fucking phone once in a while. Write things down (in cursive, even).

Don’t let the internet ruin your brain.

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Cars and Jails – Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality

By Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross

Reviewed by craigo – 4/5/23

When you ask avid cyclists why they eschew automobiles, you’re likely to get a few different reasons: environmental, personal health, economical. And those are great reasons to ride a bike vs. driving a car, make no mistake there. They’re reasons I myself cite to this day. But if I’m being completely honest, there’s another component that’s just as compelling, if not more so. I got pulled over back in 2009, which led to the officer finding a small amount of pot in my car and I wound up getting arrested. I make no excuses here—I had the pot on me, I was “guilty”—but that notwithstanding, seeing two officers rummage through my shit on the side of a cold highway pissed me off really fucking bad. I felt like my car and my belongings were public property, which essentially they were at that point for the two cops involved.

Counter that experience to the numerous times I’ve had police encounters while riding my bicycle, where I can politely but adamantly tell them “no” when they ask to see my ID, and eventually I’m on my way, unencumbered. I’m of course not implying here that one is completely lawless on their bicycle, but what I am absolutely saying is that even for someone who knows full well what all of their rights are, when you are behind the wheel of a car during a police encounter, there are infinitely more reasons the officer has to justify an intrusive search or escalation of the situation. Knowing your rights is huge in both cases, certainly, but there is simply a freedom that comes when you are not in a car. I LOVE that freedom when I’m on my bike, and the exact opposite lack of freedom while in a car is basically what this entire book is about.

Early in the book, the authors set the table thusly: “In the early twentieth century, automobile boosters fought a bitter war with pedestrians to win the ‘right of way’. Yet their success was offset by calls for traffic enforcement in the name of public safety. The outcome was the invention of modern policing—a mobile street apparatus embroiled from the outset in legal conflict over the constitutionality of warrantless searches of vehicles.”

And from there we get an exhaustive look at just how leviathan that “mobile street apparatus” has become. A staggering 50,000 people are pulled over every day according to the book, and while some of those may “get off easy”, for most of them that begins a chain of events that is not just expensive, it can be confusing (seemingly intentionally so), which causes many to fall of track and miss boxes they were supposed to check, deepening their involvement with the courts and law enforcement. It all begins over something so trivial, and ends up at a point where the entire budgets of cities and towns become dependent on the “revenue” brought in from traffic violations and the ensuing bounty. Ferguson, MO was a really good example of this.

This is the depressing reality the authors reveal. Traffic enforcement started out as a true public safety endeavor, but has morphed into something else entirely, something that actually has little to do with public safety. They point out that in some European and Latin American countries, traffic fines are “sliding-scale”, and give a couple outlandish examples like one rich dude who got a $103,600 ticket for driving a bit over the speed limit. That sounds crazy to Americans, but if you truly stop and think about it, what incentive does a rich person have to drive safer if the traffic ticket is “just” a couple hundred bucks? Make the penalties sliding-scale, though, and the incentives for safe driving become equal.

If that weren’t all bad enough, it’s not just the law enforcement angle that makes cars such a bummer. The dirty and often-times predatory lending involved in car ownership is off the charts, and that’s not even including all the gimmicks and scams that come along with insurance, repair, modifications, etc. Because our cities are so built around personal car ownership and lack meaningful mass transit options, driving is viewed as “essential” by most folks, so even those who can’t afford it wind up spending a huge chunk of their income on mobility, getting trapped in the debt cycle that is car ownership. As the authors note depressingly, “Surely this is the mark of our perverse civilization when food, medical care, and housing have to take a back seat to our need to keep the wheels on the road.”

The authors have written a great book here, and it is a service to the public. People should read this thing.

And yet…I began this particular book review by fawning over the almighty bicycle. I did that intentionally, because if I have a single complaint about this book, it is that the authors failed completely to do so, even a single time.

Near the end of the book, they offered up a splendidly worded sentence that I really love: “We are demanding a future where mass transit is as status-rich and pleasurable as the bullet train.”

The authors’ use of the word “status-rich” is huge there. It means they are acknowledging that there is more that needs to change here than just politics and urban design and automobile finance. Preconceived notions need to change, too. A city can have a super easy and convenient mass transit system, but if the riders of that transit system are collectively perceived to be “dirty” or “sketchy” or “ghetto”, then it won’t become a widely-used transit system.

The exact same thing can be said about using a bicycle as a viable means of transportation, but the authors regrettably fail to acknowledge this. In fact, the couple of times they do make reference to bicycles, it’s when they’re lamenting a recent parolee having to ride a bike to work in the cold winter weather on a rickety ten speed.

Does riding a bike in severe weather suck? Yes! Trust me, I know, I ride in the Phoenix summer all the time. But I do it because driving a car sucks even more, for bigger and worse reasons than my personal discomfort. The bicycle could do just as much as mass transit to free people—and communities—from their reliance on automobiles, and it just would’ve been nice to hear the authors acknowledge that in such an otherwise-spot-on book.

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Leave It As It Is – A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness

By David Gessner

Reviewed by craigo – 3/8/23

This book is on one side a biography of former President Teddy Roosevelt, while on the other side an autobiographical journal of the author’s own travels through much of America’s wildlands.

The Teddy Roosevelt stuff was cool. I myself haven’t read a proper biography about Roosevelt before, so there was much here that was new to me and it was interesting to read about what a multi-faceted man he was and how modern-day folks on both sides of the political aisle cite him as a model to be emulated. The sheer amount of land that Roosevelt set aside and declared “public”, most of which remains so to this day, is simply staggering and that alone has made him an iconic figure to modern-day environmentalists and land-lovers. He was also an avid outdoorsmen himself, frequently venturing into the wilderness with nothing but his backpack on, including one well-documented trip with the author John Muir that was quite snowy. I could see myself delving into a full Teddy Roosevelt biography in the future, just based on the teasers from this book.

The rest of the book was also really good, so credit to the author, David Gessner there. He writes passionately about the beautiful land he visits throughout, and is frank and honest about the limits of his activism and what it means to actually be a “preserver of the land”. But there are already a lot of other books in this space, so if you’ve already read any of them, Gessner’s book doesn’t add much to the overall body of knowledge.

For example, I read Christopher Ketcham’s This Land some time ago, and that book runs the exact same themes, just minus all the Teddy Roosevelt stuff. The difference though is that Ketcham got out and backpacked the land, spending days upon days in the solitary wilderness, literally slipping in all of the cow shit that he complained about incessantly throughout his book. Gessner, on the other hand, car camps his way through rural America, at one point even complaining about all the cars in Yellowstone, which spoiled the view from his own car. Ketcham made radical proposals like outright bans on mechanized travel in wild lands, and that’s kinda where I lean, too. Leave it for the true nature lovers like backpackers (and even mule riders), and let the people in love with gas-powered toys go recreate somewhere else. But if that were the policy, one gets the feeling that Gessner never would’ve been able to pen his book at all.

But still, this was a good read, and like I said, if it’s your entry point into the topic, you could do worse.

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Listen, Liberal – Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

By Thomas Frank

Reviewed by craigo – 2/15/22

This book was called the “most prescient” book of 2016.

And how.

The book was released in early 2016, months before that year’s Presidential election, and it’s written with the air of inevitability that Hilary Clinton would win. It isn’t that the author, Thomas Frank, necessarily wanted Clinton to win, it’s just that we all thought she was going to win that election. Despite all the spot-on criticisms of the Democratic Party expressed in this book, Frank (as well as most Americans) still thought Hilary would beat whomever the Republicans ran against her. Donald Trump isn’t even mentioned in the book (until the Afterward, which was written in 2017 and appended to later editions), so this by no means is a book full of post-Trump I-told-you-so’s. No, these seething criticisms are all pre-Trump and, indeed, are precisely why we ever wound up with Trump at all.

Frank sums it up thusly: “The Democrats posture as the “party of the people” even as they dedicate themselves ever more resolutely to serving and glorifying the professional class. Worse: they combine self-righteousness and class privilege in a way that Americans find stomach-turning. And every two years, they simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard.”

As we all know now, that didn’t happen in 2016. The American people did not sufficiently rally around the Democrats, as was assumed. Instead, they abandoned the Democrats for a self-serving asshole born with a silver spoon up his ass. That’s how far the Democrats fell astray from being the party of the people.

Frank begins his analysis of that descent in the 90’s, during Bill Clinton’s Presidency. This was when a Democrat signed NAFTA, passed 3-strikes legislation which ruined countless lives, and oversaw financial deregulation that ultimately led directly to the financial crash of 2008, ruining countless more lives. Frank here even predicts a Democratic rebuttal that the 2008 crash happened during a Republican’s watch, wryly stating, “When a Rhodes scholar was the one deregulating and cutting taxes, why, those were good times; when some idiot from Texas tried his hand at it, the world crashed and burned.”

From the Clinton years Frank turns his magnifying glass to the Obama years, which is when Democrats officially pivoted away from being a blue-collar, union-oriented worker’s party to being the party of the “professional class”. Now Democrats fancied themselves the Innovative Party, the Educated Party, the Creative Party, the Cool Party. And it isn’t necessarily that innovation or creativity are bad things and not to be embraced, but the general attitude of the Democratic Party became that anyone who wasn’t a part of these hip new clubs was absent because they’re too stupid, too dumb to further educate themselves and keep up with the times.

As technology pushed us inexorably into the future, it left millions and millions of blue-collar workers out in the cold. Democrats used to be staunch advocates for social safety nets that would’ve helped those people through, but now they basically were saying you’re having those hard times because you deserve it due to your lack of education or creativity or whatever. Why the hell didn’t you just take out a huge loan and go to college like the rest of us, is the tacit question that gets asked. There were a lot of the same themes here as in another book I read recently, Winners Take All, where we read about all these liberal-minded tech investors out to change the world, all while dodging unions and themselves contributing to the single biggest issue in America today: wealth inequality.

To emphasize this point, Frank devotes an entire chapter to the city of Boston, which is a liberal bastion and the home base of a lot of today’s innovative leaders. And yet, there’s this: “Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation.”

It’s a damn shame more self-righteous Democrats didn’t read this book prior to the 2016 election.

And it’s a damner shame that they’re still not reading it today.

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Hebrews to Negroes – Wake Up Black America

By Ronald Dalton Jr.

Reviewed by craigo – 1/30/23

On Nov. 3, 2022, the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets announced that they were suspending one of their star players, Kyrie Irving, for “at least 5 games” (his suspension would ultimately last 8). The reason for the suspension was because Kyrie had briefly promoted this book on his social media.

Now, this is the same Kyrie Irving who once claimed (without jest) that Earth is actually flat, so he’s not exactly the type of deep thinker that compels me to rush out and buy a book he promotes.

No, what prompted me to buy the book was because the Brooklyn Nets had deemed it so “deeply disturbing” and “anti-Semitic”. And it wasn’t just the Brooklyn Nets. Rolling Stone, a magazine I take and enjoy, also called it “venomously anti-Semitic”, as did various other outlets. So, I wanted to find out for myself what all the fuss was about.

A brief, personal note on anti-Semitism before I dive in here. To me, the word “Jew” denotes one of two things: an ethnicity or a religion. This means that there can be folks who are ethnically Jewish but not religiously Jewish (my favorite songwriter Fat Mike of NOFX would fit into this category), and there can be folks who are religiously Jewish without being ethnically Jewish (a convert, in other words, like the fictional Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski fame). This ambiguity between ethnicity and religion means that the concept of “anti-Semitism” can be murky and unevenly applied. Even in politics, for example, you can’t take a strong stance on how the state of Israel should coexist with their Palestinian neighbors without someone who disagrees with you labelling you “anti-Semitic” because you’ve taken anything less than the fully pro-Israeli view.

So yes, anti-Semitism is definitely a thing, and it is abhorrent indeed (think Nazi scum). But I also believe the term can be used overly-broadly by certain folks who are simply trying to avoid a deeper debate on politics or religion. One man’s humble opinion.

To wit, I myself was raised staunchly Mormon, and had several people throughout my youth tell me that I was part of a cult, that I was brainwashed, etc. Those people were not racists or bigots or fundamentally opposed in any way to my existence. They were simply telling me, “Bro, that religion you are a part of is total bullshit!” Had those same people said things like, “You fucking Mormons, I hate all of you!”, now they’re venturing into “bigot” territory. But having fundamental disagreements with the tenants of modern-day organized religions—and verbalizing them—is not in and of itself bigoted.

With all that said, and after having read all 700+ pages of this book cover to cover, I would not agree with the Brooklyn Nets or Rolling Stone that the book is “venomously anti-Semitic”. The author, Ronald Dalton Jr., states early in the book, “The race of anybody practicing Judaism varies by country. Therefore the Jews are just a religious group, not a race.” He then uses that stance to justify quite a bit of fear-mongering about historical conspiracies perpetrated by “the Jews”, but this gargantuan book is deeply, deeply biblical and the author is an overt Christian, so ultimately what you have here is just a big squabble over organized religion. Dalton Jr. is telling Jewish folks, “Bro, that religion you are a part of is total bullshit!” and Jewish people shouldn’t be so wounded or offended when hearing that any more than I was as a Mormon kid. We live in a big world with lots of different people who believe lots of different things, and whether you yourself ascribe to any particular religion or not, it’s perfectly fine to scan the menu of available religions out there and deem them “bullshit”. Religious Jews don’t get to absolve themselves of that criticism, or write off their critics as mere bigots, any more than any other religions do.

So with the table set thusly, what is the crux of Dalton Jr.’s book? To sum it up briefly:

All the stories as told in the bible (Adam & Eve, Noah and the Arc, Jesus dying on the cross, etc.) are 100% true, with one big qualifier: everyone was Black. So it is actually modern-day Black folks who are the true Hebrews, the 12 tribes sold into slavery and expelled from their homeland and scattered throughout the globe, awaiting the second coming of Christ when they will all be reassembled. And the only reason we think today that fair-skinned European Jews are the “real” Jews is because our history books have been hijacked and altered over the centuries by the Rothschild family and a veritable array of other occult secret Jewish societies that to this day control our monetary supply and pull all of Hollywood’s and the media’s strings.

That really is it in a nutshell. That’s the whole book. It’s a lot to unpack, but here goes.

First off, the complexion claims. Going back again to my Mormon childhood, I remember being taken to the Temple and being shown these huge, beautiful paintings of Adam & Eve , both of them lily-white and blue-eyed, strolling hand in hand through the Garden of Eden. And there were of course several depictions of Jesus, himself a handsome, Caucasian, blue-eyed man. As an undiscerning kid this of course all made perfect sense: they look like me! But as one gets older, it’s hard not to laugh about it. Anyone with any basic knowledge of history and geography knows for sure as shit that Jesus wasn’t a fucking white dude. That is just absurd and a total concoction of Western Christianity.

So the claims Dalton Jr. makes about the complexion of biblical characters aren’t incredibly wild-eyed, or even novel. But make no mistake, he spends damned near 500 pages ramming the point home. He quotes bible verse after bible verse about “wooly hair” and “thick lips” to show that black people were common-place back in the day. He goes into the science of melanin and talks about the ancient hieroglyphs showing all the people with their shirts off under the sun which proves that they couldn’t have been fair-skinned. He explains how a dark-skinned couple can produce a lighter-skinned child, but not the other way around. There’s a lot thrown at the reader here, to the point of beating a dead horse.

To anyone who is an ardent believer and reads the bible literally, I would challenge them to read these pages, because the biblical citations that Dalton Jr. provides seem well-researched and exhaustive. Biblical scholars should pore through these pages to see if they can disprove Dalton Jr.’s extensive claims. I would buy and read it if some Christian apologist out there did just that and wrote a book about it.

But here’s the rub…to a casual observer, someone who is religion-neutral or a complete non-believer even, to that person these 500+ pages of intense and passionate argument fall on completely deaf ears. If you’re not one who accepts the presupposition that the bible is literally true, it’s hard to really take any of this serious. If you believe that global pigmentation differences are determined at least in part by things like evolution and continental drift, this book has nothing to offer. To that reader, the author may well as be saying, “We all know Rudolph the Reindeer was real and could fly, but all along we’ve been lied to and his nose is actually BLUE.”

While the bulk of the book focused on the skin complexion of biblical characters, there were other parts of the book that actually have some merit, and I’d be remiss not to give the author credit for that. It’s not exaggeration to say that the non-religious parts of this book read like a spot-on populist manifesto, and it does lend the author a lot of credibility even where some of the other parts of the book are so “out there” (if not outright comical, more on this below). Incarceration rates, the public-school-to-jail pipeline for young black males, the lingering effects of slavery on descendants even to this day, the lack of clean water and fresh organic foods in black communities, the lack of black-owned businesses even in pre-dominantly black neighborhoods…these are all topics the author speaks forcefully and eloquently to. I just recently read The Lords of Easy Money by Christopher Leonard, and it’s clear to me that Dalton Jr. has probably read that book as well. His understanding of the how the Federal Reserve works and how our monetary system is based on loaning out money to create more “fake” money (basically, a big Ponzi scheme) gives him credibility that jars with some of his other statements throughout the book.

But even after giving credit where it’s due, this book is just too full of religious fantasy and bat shit craziness to be taken seriously. I don’t want to descend into horse-flogging myself here, but I feel compelled to offer exhibits A, B, C, & D, because they bear disclosure.

First off, the author is virulently homophobic. He of course offers up all the tired old religious hyperbole (“abominations”, and all that), but he doesn’t stop there. He claims that homosexuality is being hoisted on Black males by Hollywood and the Media in a calculated effort to effeminize them en masse, and to Black females to decrease birth rates and control the Black population. He even calls for boycotts and protests in the public square anywhere being gay is tolerated as “normal”.

He promulgates the conspiracy that the government is using chem trails to poison us and induce mind control.

He is off-the-rails paranoid about the occult and sees the hand of secret societies and symbolism everywhere. Take this verbatim example (the bold font is the author’s): “Pope Benedict XVI officially steps down on February 28th, 2013. 13 days later Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope is elected on 3/13/2013 or March 13th, 2013. So 3+1+3+2+0+1+3=13! That day the Sistine Chapel chimney black smoke turned white at 7:06pm signaling the selection of a new pope in Vatican City (Note: 7+6=13 and 7:06 is like saying 66 min past 6 = 666). Remember, Satan and the occult world likes to use numerology.”

He denies that a plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11, citing as proof the lack of any video on the internet. (This one is especially fun for me, since like many folks I didn’t even own a cell phone yet in 2001, nonetheless a smartphone with an embedded video camera. I’d also point out the absurdity of a hyper-faithful bible thumper using “video on the internet” as a metric for his belief in a historical event, but I digress….)

His zest for conspiracy runs so deep that at points he sloppily tosses together a hodge-podge of different names and events from completely different timelines, I guess counting on his readers to be so similarly absorbed in conspiratorial thought that they wouldn’t notice. My favorite example being this line:

“Charles Darwin and others have studied that when we repetitively watch things on TV we tend to emulate these things.”

The fact that Darwin died some 50 years before the advent of the television was apparently missed by his (one-man) fact-checking team.

And of course there was this gem, from one of his chapters where he details all the ways that prominent Jews of today control our minds through the media and Hollywood:

“The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know.” –Ashkenazi Jew Noam Chomsky

Yup, that’s right. Even Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential voices in the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements throughout my lifetime, is apparently part of the grand conspiracy to keep Black folks down, simply because he’s of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Truly no stretch is too far for a dedicated conspiracy theorist.

All in all, I give this book a big thumbs down. There are too many other good books out there to waste your time. But with that said, it’s clear as day to me that not one person on the staff of the Brooklyn Nets actually read the book before meting out Kyrie Irving’s suspension. The Nets didn’t let Kyrie play again until they had extracted from him an apology to the Jewish community, but had any of those dipshits actually read the book they were punishing him for promoting, the list of apologies they would have extracted from him would’ve been much longer. I’m no fan of extracted apologies anyway, but if you’re going down that path, you have to be comprehensive. Because they weren’t, now it just looks like the Brooklyn Nets draw the line at anti-Semitism, but their players can promote homophobia all they want. I’m not sure that gets them anywhere closer to where they want to be.

And it’s yet another good reason that people need to stop freaking the fuck out every time some dude writes a sloppy book full of conspiratorial nonsense.

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Animal Farm

By George Orwell

Reviewed by craigo – 11/30/22

I don’t read a ton of nonfiction anymore, but Thanksgiving weekend is always a nice time to curl up by the fire and delve into a good novel. I read Orwell’s two most popular classics, Animal Farm and 1984, back in my early 20’s, and while I’ve read the latter a couple of times since then, this is my first time back to Animal Farm.

Sadly, it’s still just as pertinent today.

It’s rather amusing to me nowadays how Orwell’s books have become fodder for virtually anyone of any political stripe. You read the pages of Animal Farm and it basically just personifies your own worst nightmare. Your political enemy, no matter who they are or what politics they represent, is always going to be Napoleon, the lead pig from the story. The tactics Napoleon uses are exactly what you fear most in your real-life political boogeymen. We love stories like this because we assume Orwell shared our exact politics when he wrote the story, so everything seems so relatable and so damn spot-on.

This has never been more apparent to me then recently, when on multiple occasions I’ve seen out-and-proud Trumpers wearing 1984 t-shirts emblazoned with Orwell’s name. Never mind that 1984 was set in the fictional future, meanwhile in the actual year 1984 the President was a film-actor (define “irony”) who those same Trumpers enthusiastically voted for and under whom U.S. conservatives saw their network of model-legislation orgs and alternate-reality “news” networks increase exponentially.

But yeah dudes, rock your 1984 shirts, because you alone know “newspeak” when you hear it.

Anyway…

When I read Animal Farm today, I guess that’s what makes me shake my head in disgust the most, is that everyone who reads it will try and pigeon-hole it into their personal partisan politics, and I think “partisan politics” in general is what the book warns against. The gradual changing of norms and customs as it becomes politically expedient, the justification of hoarding resources at the top, the endless delay of pensions and retirements, the persistent calls for the peons to work harder and harder, and for less in return.

This sounds like basically my entire real-life experience! And I’ve lived through multiple presidents from both political parties!

So perhaps that was Orwell’s point all along, not to expose one particular boogeyman, but just to show us the roadmap for how it happens. And it doesn’t happen just because of Napoleon. While Napoleon is the central character/villain, his rise and ultimate transformation into the thing he despises the most necessitates the sheep, the hens, the ducks, the cows, the geese…all unnamed, all just illiterate enough not to be able to remember history, all buying the complete bullshit they get fed by the elites at the top.

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The Lords of Easy Money – How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy

By Christopher Leonard

Reviewed by craigo – 11/22/22

I learned about this book from the journalist Matt Taibi, he sung it’s praises as a plain-spoken expose into the esoteric world of the Federal Reserve. “Fedspeak” is even discussed throughout the book, described by the author, Christopher Leonard, as “language so studded with jargon and with so many concepts nested within one another” that it’s almost possible to follow for anyone not within the bubble.

And here I would whole-heartedly agree with Matt Taibi: this was a super accessible and easy-to-follow book! Even when it ventures into murky financial concepts and jargon, Christopher Leonard splendidly uses metaphor to let his reader know exactly what he’s talking about.

The book explains how the Fed uses interest rates and other financial complexities to do things like prevent inflation and keep employment levels consistent. The basic theory is that when interest rates are high, it encourages savings, while when interest rates are low, everyone gets more speculative, trying to find a higher return on their money than when it’s just sitting in the bank.

Leonard also gives a history of the Fed, from its founding all the way to present day, but with an emphasis on the latter since, up until 2008, the Fed’s role was rather mundane. This quote from the book basically sums it up: “Between 1913 and 2008, the Fed gradually increased the money supply from about $5 billion to $847 billion. This increase in the monetary base happened slowly, in a gently uprising slope. Then, between late 2008 and early 2010, the Fed printed $1.2 trillion. It printed a hundred years’ worth of money, in other words, in little over a year.”

And that was way back in good old 2008! This is the crux of the book really, that beginning in 2008, when the Fed turned the printing presses on (which in Fedspeak is called quantitative easing, or QE) the money supply began increasing exponentially. But then no one ever turned the spigot off.

2008 of course was when the whole economic system collapsed, so it stands to reason that there would have been some drastic measures taken at that time. Leonard acknowledges this, but then as he goes on and on about the Fed’s actions post-2008, it gets more and more head-scratching as they create bubbles over here and then do the same thing over there. And on and on it goes.

My favorite part about this book is how it makes a scalpel-like incision between monetary policies and plain, old politics. All of the Fed’s decisions are made by un-elected bureaucrats, yet the public largely argues about politics and attempts feebly to assign blame there.

This is largely what defined Barack Obama’s presidency and the “Tea Party” resistance he faced. While the monetary supply doubled in the early years of Obama’s presidency as a result of decisions made entirely by the Fed and un-voted on by any political body, these angry folks were all howling about a bunch of stupid shit that didn’t really matter. Exhibit A in this was the Tea Party’s megaphone, Glenn Beck. The author acknowledges that Beck did occasionally rant about the Fed, and gives him his due credit there. But then in a quip that made me red-faced on old Glenn’s behalf, the author goes on to say, “His understanding of the Federal Reserve was like that of a very high drug user who had sat in a motel room, trying to eavesdrop through the wall as people in the next room talked about central banking. He sometimes said things that resembled the truth, but he ultimately left his viewers far less informed about the Fed than when he began talking.”

And then along came Donald Trump. Trump of course had no more bearing on the Fed’s actions than Obama did, but the author points out how Trump was the first President who began regularly opining about that realm, making public proclamations about it and veiled threats to the Fed’s members. As Leonard comically quips, “The president began to wade into monetary affairs in the typical Trumpian way, by drawing wide attention to the matter and then getting people arguing about exactly the wrong thing.”

It was at this point in the book that I felt a bit of pride and personal vindication. I can recall clearly the period in 2019 when everyone was raving about the “booming Trump economy” and how great everything was. This was pre-Covid, when life was grand and everyone’s 401k was sky-rocketing and Trump was claiming credit for it all. I remember reading at the time that the Fed had made a pretty steep rate-cut, down to 2.25%, but at the time I admittedly didn’t know the full reasoning for why the Fed had done it (after reading this book, I now know it was to bailout the highly esoteric “repo” market, which was on the precipice. This was all explained in a chapter coincidentally called “The Invisible Bailout”). But even without that knowledge, it didn’t take a lot of research to know that rate cuts like that usually occur in BAD times, not “booming Trump economies”.

This is a verbatim letter-to-the-editor I wrote on September 24, 2019 to my hometown newspaper, the Arizona Republic. The letter went unpublished (have they no shame!?), but I sure hope those editors who passed on it have since read Christopher Leonard’s book as well. It’s not often I look back on my old writings and find much to be smug about, but come on, I was pretty on-point here:

“A few weeks back, the Fed cut the interest rate to 2.25%, despite what Donald Trump keeps claiming is a booming economy. Trump branded the rate-cut “timid” and continues to suggest the Fed should have cut it further.

Consider that the last two times the Fed cut the rate to 2.25% were November 2001 (9/11 attacks, ramp-up to war) and March 2008 (Bear Stearns bailout, worst recession ever).

Do we have any so-called Populists out there who care to explain Trump’s logic?

I’ll give you a hint: it has diddly-squat to do with helping common folks.”

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The Language of God

By Francis S. Collins

Reviewed by craigo – 11/5/22

Dr. Francis S. Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project, and if you’re not familiar with that, you should head over to Wikipedia and start there. His contributions to science are indisputable, which makes this book, and his views and thoughts on God, all the more fascinating.

To be clear, Collins is in no way attempting with this book to convert anyone to any particular religion. His goal is to simply bridge the divide between Science and God. In the entire book, he devoted all of two pages to talking about Christ and Christianity and the Bible, and even that came with a disclaimer that he was talking “personally” for a moment. Throughout the book, he tacitly acknowledges that belief in God is and can be a unifying subject, while human-derived religion (and all its certainty) can be awfully divisive. So he forgoes the latter, which is refreshing.

Collins is very plain-spoken and matter-of-factual, which is a pleasant surprise for both a scientist and a religious person. For example, he makes simple statements which you wouldn’t expect from a self-ascribed Christian, like “Evolution, as a mechanism, can and must be true.” Yet he also peppers his book throughout with questions for the science community, namely about morals and where they’re derived from. And he remains “unpreachy” the whole time, he just makes good points and asks good questions.

Even though the book is specifically about God, some of my favorite parts are just when Collins recounts his past. For example, while he and his team were in the arduous process of mapping the human genome, a private company called Cenera was undergoing the same project, but their aim was to patent it and profit off it. It was pretty cool to hear the passion with which Collins argued that should be open and public information. Good for him, and indeed, his team did win the race.

He also opens up on various subjects late in the book, like the morals of some science and medicine, and because he managed to be such a reasoned voice throughout the rest of the book, it lends his opinions on bioethics and things like cloning humans an extra aura of credibility.

This was a good, thought-provoking book. Highly recommendable.

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If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal – What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity

By Justin Gregg

Reviewed by craigo – 10/12/22

“What if we acknowledge that sometimes our so-called human achievements are actually rather shitty solutions evolutionarily speaking?”

That quote from the author in the early-goings of the book basically sum everything up.

The book begins with a brief history of the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, and I learned quite a bit here that I didn’t know heretofore, namely that after Nietzsche’s death, his sister Elizabeth took control of his writings and repurposed much of them to philosophically justify Nazism. Because Nazism would go on to be such a cancer in the world, the author ruminates, “If Nietzsche’s mind had been more narwhal-like—had he not been intelligent enough to ruminate on his impending death—his madness might have been less potent if not entirely absent.”

And that’s all in just the first few pages!

From there, Justin Gregg dives into a fascinating account of animal intelligence, relying heavily on animal behavioral research, and that’s always fun to read about how different creatures go about their daily lives and how much more meaningful certain things they do become when viewed from a microscope. And then you compare that to human pursuits, and the results can be pretty embarrassing.

One of the terms Gregg introduces in the book is “Prognostic Myopia”, which he explains thusly: “Like all animals, our biology compels us to deal with the here and now, but unlike other animals, our decisions can generate technologies that will have harmful impacts on the world for generations to come.” He then proceeds to give several examples, and this gets hard to read at times because a lot of it’s so obvious and embarrassing, yet even still today we find ourselves tied to these technologies that if you took a broader view, they’re just totally destructive (here’s looking at you, combustible engines).

Yep, animals don’t do that. Only humans do.

One of the primary attributes of humans the author harps in the book is our ability to “bullshit”, which to my delight has become such a scientific term found in so many different books. Here the author goes into great detail about how certain animals and species use deception as a survival tactic, but then lays bare the differences between “deception” and “bullshitting”, the latter of which humans—and only humans—do with such precision.

All in all, this was a fun read, and even if you’re not into hardcore philosophy, the animal research and studies Gregg cites throughout the book are enlightening and fun and make it worth the read all on their own (for example, did you know pigeons are capable of detecting breast cancer!?).

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Corporations Are Not People – Reclaiming Democracy from Big Money and Global Corporations

By Jeffrey D. Clements

Reviewed by craigo – 9/20/22

If someone wrote a book called “You Need Air to Breath,” that would probably be one I’d pass on. Why read a book written by Captain Obvious, right?

But sadly, we live in a political society where corporations being people is somehow, some way a debatable topic, so books like this are quite necessary despite the obviousness of the title.

Quite some time ago I read a book by Kevin D. Williamson, the National Review writer. In his book, Williamson outright mocks those who would question the personhood of a corporation, explaining oh-so-matter-of-factly that corporations of course have to be considered people, otherwise “a corporation could not, among other things, be taxed or sued or regulated, because there would be no legal entity to tax or to sue or to regulate.”

Now, I appreciate Kevin D. Williamson as a writer and a thinker, but that is precisely the type of word-laden bullshit that Jeffrey D. Clements tackles in this book.

In Clements view, saying a corporation has to be a person in order to tax it would be akin to saying a dog has to be a person in order to statutorily prohibit someone from being cruel to animals. That’s the thing about us pesky humans, we can think and read and pen laws. So if we want to write a law against animal cruelty, we just write a law that prohibits animal cruelty. It’s pretty easy, actually, and requires no anthropomorphism allowances written into the statutes.

Likewise, if you want to tax corporations, you simply write a law dictating how corporations are to be taxed. I continue to struggle with why anything above and beyond that is needed, and this book agrees fully. Corporations are legal constructs who were endowed by their creators with no inalienable rights whatsoever. Those were reserved for human beings, last time I checked.

Clements doesn’t just tackle the low-hanging fruit, either. He takes a deep dive into some of the foulest aspects of the Corporations-are-People canard, namely (and most nausea-inducing) how corporations are most definitely not treated like people when it comes to crime & punishment.

It’s kind of hard to incarcerate an inanimate object, isn’t it?

These are the types of absurdities that get exposed in the book. If you’re a long-time Ralph Nader reader, you might pass on this one, as it probably won’t be anything too new for you. But pick it up and give it a read otherwise, you’ll be glad you did.

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The Right – The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism

By Matthew Continetti

Reviewed by craigo – 9/4/22

I have to admit I had a smirk on my face when I started this book. Even though I was assured by the Economist’s Culture section that this tome was “serious work”, I couldn’t help but dive into it with the sinking suspicion that it was just going to be another feeble attempt to noblify the steaming pile of shit that is the modern-day Republican party, sitting so obediently at the end of Donald Trump’s leash and awaiting his next command.

So I’ll clarify right off the bat that this book was, indeed, serious. Continetti is a good and thoroughly-researched writer, and he’s put together an objective and engaging history here. I was surprised, and am man enough to admit I was wrong.

But with that said, the modern-day Republican Party is still a steaming pile of shit nonetheless, and this book attempts to break down how we got here.

As I read the book I got the distinct impression that Continetti was at pains to reinforce that what’s happening with the conservative movement currently—its metastasization under Trump, in other words—is not actually anything new. We’ve been here before, he reminds the reader. The most obvious example is Joe McCarthy, about whom Continetti quips, “His Republican colleagues disliked him personally but were happy to indulge his destructive fantasies so long as Democrats were the target.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

And this does play out again and again through Continetti’s book, where little intra-party fights break out within the conservative movement. Conservativism is not a monolith and never has been, is the claim Continetti keeps going back to. Consider this quote from conservative icon Barry Goldwater: “I would rather see the Republicans lose in 1960 fighting for principle than I would care to see us win standing on grounds we know are wrong and on which we will ultimately destroy ourselves.”

The problem is, as Continetti’s historical perspective ends and he gets us caught up into modern days, good luck finding a self-ascribed conservative who would say something like that nowadays. It’s been nearly a decade since Trump descended on his golden escalator and somehow managed to get once-proud conservatives to do all his bidding for him, and in that time you can count on one hand the prominent Republicans who have spoken up and called him out as the grifter he so obviously is (and look what’s happened to them and their careers).

There is of course one huge difference that exists today that wasn’t an issue heretofore, and Continetti astutely points this out. That would be social media. In the pre-internet age, the conservative rank-and-file were already a bunch who willingly turned their thinking over to loud-mouth personalities, who proudly bore the title “dittohead” (I still to this day cannot comprehend that one). And now we’ve introduced to that sycophantic crowd social media and “news feeds”. As Continetti states, “Social media tore down the walls that separated the credentialed from the fringe. The very terms ‘credentialed’ and ‘fringe’ became fraught in a world where opinions were accessed directly and where there was no third-party validation.”

This is where Continetti’s book ends, and in his optimism I think he’d have you believe that Trumpism is just another phase within the larger Republican tent, just one more dirty family feud that conservatives will work through and come out stronger on the other side for.

But I have my doubts. Throughout Continetti’s telling, there were always countering voices. Principled people who stood up and said “no”, or even “hell, no”. But where are they today? Who are going to be the modern-day Joseph N Welch’s who demand, “have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last!?”

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Louis D. Brandeis – American Prophet

By Jeffrey Rosen

Reviewed by craigo – 8/13/22

I’ve had it on my to-do list for quite some time to read a book about Louis Brandeis, so it was nice to finally cross this one off the list. Over the years I’ve heard the venerable consumer advocate Ralph Nader make multiple references to Brandeis, which originally sparked my interest. But I also just finished Amy Gadja’s Seek and Hide, which quoted Brandeis and his decisions extensively throughout, further fueling my desire to read more about the former Supreme Court Justice.

And the first thing that jumps out is, indeed, how supremely quotable Brandeis is. I suppose the same could be said for virtually all Supreme Court Justices, who’s Decisions are meant to be guiding lodestars for our democracy, but Louis Brandeis especially had a passion and a flare in his writing that makes every mundane thing he says have biblical proportions. When preparing my notes for this book review, I’m finding it awfully hard not to simply list quote after quote of his.

One of Brandeis’s guiding principles was what he called a “curse of bigness”, and this permeated virtually all of his decisions on any/all topics. And his aversion to bigness was not partisan. In basically all walks of life, Brandeis viewed bigness suspiciously and as something to be tamed, regardless of where it left him on any partisan scale. As the author perfectly illustrates, “The foe of excessive capitalism was also a foe of excessive government regulation and above all relied on elevating the educational standard of workers to allow them time to think for themselves”. Life isn’t binary, and Brandeis understood this well.

Brandeis is also credited as being the first to refer to states as “laboratories for democracy”, and again, this was driven by his general stance of anti-bigness. 50 different local governments are much more adept at governing their people than one huge, federal government is. That was the long and short of it. The book even cites a couple of instances where Brandeis votes against his own conscience because his idealization of state’s rights was bigger and more important to him than the individual topic at hand.

One thing that Brandeis harped on a lot throughout his life that especially endeared me to him was the importance of leisure to the worker. While he was an advocate for a government that worked for the people, he definitely did not believe that government would always have the answers or the capability of fixing everything. Thus, he was a tireless advocate for education and self-betterment and personal health so that workers could individually and collectively advocate for their own best interests, and time spent in leisure and enjoyment and community was something he viewed as paramount to those ends. Three cheers for that.

The closing chapters of the book detail Brandeis’s delving (or shall I say ‘descending’?) into full-on Zionism. This is a bit hard to comprehend from someone who was just shown throughout the rest of the book to be such a wise and prophetic man, but admittedly, I am judging him by the tenets of Zionism here in the year 2022. Perhaps back in Brandeis’s day Zionism wasn’t as synonymous to colonialism and racism as it is today? Who knows, but until I do, I guess I’ll just remain ambivalent here.

But let’s not sour the book by ending on that note. Instead, I’ll leave here with a quote from Senator Thomas J. Walsh, during debate at Brandeis’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1916: “The real crime of which this man is guilty is that he has exposed the iniquities of men in high places in our financial system. He has not stood in awe of the majesty of wealth.

Fuckin’ a, and it’s too damn bad that’s not something that can be said of very many modern-day politicians, from either party.

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Seek and Hide – The Tangled History of the Right to Privacy

By Amy Gadja

Reviewed by craigo – 7/28/22

This was such a fun and engrossing book!

As the title suggests, this book is about the long and ever-evolving history of the “right to privacy”. I think most people when they hear that phrase—right to privacy—it seems like a total no-brainer. Of course we all have a right to privacy, right? Duh!

But as the author, Amy Gajda, states in the early going, “Privacy can protect those who wish to bare their live bodies to a selective few, but it can also shield those with dead bodies to hide.” And with that in mind, things get awfully complicated.

Gajda takes us from one extreme to the other throughout her book, from scandals involving people in the highest offices, to totally normal, run-of-the-mill folks who get in a bad car accident and their rescue ends up on a sensationalist TV broadcast without their knowledge. In the former case, with a high-ranking official or politician, the general public has an expectation that they have a right to know what goes on, but that that right comes at the expense of the right to privacy that the politician expects to enjoy as a citizen of the same system. And likewise in the latter case, if camera crews are forbidden from filming things that happen on public streets to protect a non-famous person’s privacy, what implications does that have for people filming police encounters? It’s a constant tug of war between an individual’s right to privacy and, as the author states, the “counterbalance to truth and press and speech freedoms and the right to know”.

The book is heavy on history and case law, starting around 1890 when attornies Sam Warren and Louis Brandies (the latter would eventually be a Supreme Court Justice) penned a law review article titled The Right to Privacy. The document was groundbreaking and became an oft-quoted legal argument, but interestingly, Sam Warren himself had much to hide within his own family at the time he wrote the article, leaving many to wonder how self-serving his stance was. And this is a constant theme throughout the book, as those who have publicly pushed the issue of privacy the most always seem to have a lot to hide. As Gadja bluntly states, “when we laud the The Right to Privacy as a groundbreaking work that moved us forward on a path to privacy and protection from others, we laud language influenced at the very least indirectly by a man—men, really—with much to hide.”

What’s so great about the book is that Gadja gives both sides—privacy vs the right to know—such consideration that in the end, as you close the book, you can’t really pick a side. And that’s the tacit message of this book overall, is that there is no right answer! As with so much else in this crazy and complex world we live in, you can’t just say “I’m on this side” or “I’m on that side” (well, you can, but you sound like a goddamn fool when you do). You need to ponder the facts, mull them over, and in the end, you probably won’t be firmly on one side in every case. There’s this little thing called ‘nuance’, and this book is heavy on it. Go read it now.

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20 Bad Dates in LA – A Memoir

By Karen Knighton

Reviewed by craigo – 7/4/22

Karen and I have been good buddies for a long time.  Back in the pre-legalization days, when there was still a thriving underground stoner subculture, Karen lived in LA and I lived here in Tempe and any time either of us were in each other’s town, we’d hit each other up for some good local ganja.  I’ve hung out and gotten high with Karen countless times, so when I heard she’d written a book, I of course had to read it.

And while this genre of book isn’t my typical fare, it was surprisingly entertaining!  Each chapter in the book represents a squeamish and awkward date, told in Karen’s hilarious prose, and I found myself getting red-faced on behalf of some of the self-absorbed douchebags she lambastes throughout.  It is all pretty funny and embarrassing. 

I don’t know if she did it intentionally or not, but for the first seven chapters/bad dates, Karen is primarily a wine drinker, and I found myself thinking “Is she actually going to write this whole book without admitting she’s a pothead!?”  It also wasn’t lost on me that perhaps these dates all went so bad because she wasn’t high…?

But that notion is dismissed by Chapter 8, which was about a guy who shipped weed surreptitiously by canning it and making it look like soup.  And from thence on, the Karen in the book was the Karen Knighton I have known all my life, merrily hitting her bong while her amateur dates are puking their guts after doing the same.

The other thing I really enjoyed about this book is that, like me, Karen was brought up as a Mormon, and her quips about her former religion throughout the book are pretty fun.  I’ve read many an entreaty from well-adjusted former Mormons, but admittedly none of those authors were female, so Karen’s insights here were unique and engaging.  If she wrote a whole other book specifically about this, I would scoop it up in a heartbeat.

One of my earliest memories of Karen is being at a prudish Mormon youth dance, where the stated rule is that you should be able to fit a “quad” (a massive 4-in-1 book containing all of the Mormon scriptures) between the two people dancing.  Out of nowhere, Karen and a South American foreign-exchange student began dirty dancing right in the middle of everybody, and were quickly scolded by the horrified chaperones present. 

Sounds about right for the future author of this sentence (from chapter 17):  “His version of comedy was killing my lady boner.”

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Jesus and John Wayne – How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

By Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Reviewed by craigo – 6/8/22

The last book I read and reviewed, Dominion, was a comprehensive global history of Christianity, and this book here could well have been that book’s final, sorry chapter.  Kristin Kobes Du Mez has written a splendid piece of work here detailing exactly how the never-ending evangelical quest to define “masculinity” made it no small wonder that some self-serving ass-wipe like Donald Trump could be elected president.  As the author (perfectly) states, “By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates ‘the least of these’ for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses.”

The book begins in the 1940s, and from all the way back then into modern days, the author exhaustively explains how the evangelical publishing and retail machine has cranked out tome after tome about how to “be a man”, using film heroes portrayed by the likes of John Wayne (and, more recently, Mel Gibson) to emphasize their points.  And to be sure, there is no shortage of authors in that space who have the next big thing that you definitely need to hear.  And that’s one of the saddest parts of this book, is not just how gullible large swaths of folks can be, but how there’s this whole ecosystem of hucksters fixing to cash in on that echo chamber.  This book exposes some of the biggest and slimiest of those characters, like Jerry Falwell and Mark Driscoll, but the author makes clear that “…dozens of other evangelical men (and they were overwhelmingly men) continued to churn out large quantities of indisputably middlebrow literature on Christian masculinity.”

As if to rub salt in the wounds, the closing chapters detail in pretty lewd fashion the seemingly endless list of “family values” figureheads who literally got caught with their pants down, their hypocrisy on full display.  This is all good for a laugh of course, these self-righteous pricks getting caught red-handed, but there’s an endless tally of pain and trauma and ruin lives caused solely by bible thumping legalists who can’t control their sexual urges when they think no one is watching, so these last few pages were just plain depressing.

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Dominion – How the Christian Revolution Remade the World

By Tom Holland

Reviewed by craigo – 5/10/22

This book was definitely one you’d be sorely mistaken to judge it by its cover.  I ain’t gonna lie that the cover and title combined make this tome seem a pretty drab undertaking, but I can’t stress enough that it is a history book first and foremost, and a damn fun one at that.  And the author writes about Christian history so objectively that you find yourself wondering throughout whether or not he is even a believer (spoiler alert:  he makes clear in the book’s final pages that he is not).  He simply takes a matter-of-fact viewpoint that love it or hate it, much of our world’s customs (and even the calendar we live by) were influenced heavily by this loosely-defined thing called “Christianity”.  And as Holland quips in the opening chapter, “Two thousand years on from the birth of Christ, it does not require a belief that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable—indeed the inescapable—influence of Christianity.”

From that opening salvo, this book begins around ~400 BC, touches briefly on the fulcrum that was the actual life of Jesus, and then largely centers on the aftermath of Jesus’s death, and how even today his various adherents struggle to understand what his life and death meant.

Indeed, it is not always a “wholesome” read, and one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much is because it often times reads like Howard Zinn.  This is Christian history, warts and all.  In the wake of Jesus’s death and the subsequent rise of his followers, various political leaders struggled with how best to manage this burgeoning movement, with people like Charlemagne going full bore with “baptism or death” decrees.

However, along the way, there was much dissent among self-proclaimed “followers of Christ” about what constituted a true “Christian” way of living.  And from those debates came things that we take for granted in our present day, like wide-spread literacy and consent-based marriage.

One of the most fascinating chapters was about Charles Darwin.  Himself a Christian, his findings on evolution and a “survival of the fittest” made Darwin deeply uneasy as they countered his deeply held beliefs that humans should care for and help “the least of these”.  Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book:  “As a young man, he had sailed the seas of the world, and he had noted how, ‘where the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal’.  His feelings of compassion for native peoples, and his matching distaste for white settlers, had not prevented him from arriving at a stark conclusion:  that there had come to exist over the course of human existence a natural hierarchy of races.”

To reiterate, the author makes no claim that Christianity is to be blamed or upheld or applauded for any or all of what transpires in the book.  Things like racism or literacy would quite well have developed even if a belief system other than Christianity had taken root.  This book is just a fascinating account of what did actually happen, and how and why it happened the way it did, and where it’s left us today.  It was a great read.

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Our Band Could Be Your Life – Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991

By Michael Azerrad

Reviewed by craigo – 4/12/2022

This was a super rad book, highly recommendable to any music fan.  The author takes you on a fantastic trip down memory lane from the period 1981-1991, and each of the 13 band profiles he does are all absolute page turners.

My good buddy Gene gave me this book because one of the bands profiled is the Minutemen, one of my all-time favs.  And this profile all by itself would’ve made the book such a great read.  Azerrad brings the legendary San Pedro trio to life so vividly, it’s like you’re right back in the 1980s, and it brings tears when the author writes about D. Boon’s tragic and premature death in a car accident.  The little anecdotes about the Minutemen throughout the book as well are hilarious and insightful (for example, in Black Flag’s profile, we see a super pissed off Henry Rollins complaining that Mike Watt talks way too much).

Which doesn’t seem to me like it would be a problem, since the highly-quotable Mike Watt always has such cool things to say!  Indeed, my favorite line in the entire book is when Watt is asked why the Minutemen went out on their own tour instead of touring with the much more popular Black Flag a second time.  Watt replies, “We liked them very much, but no man’s a hero to his valet.”  Fuckin a.

Other bands profiled in the book that I already had an affinity for are Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Dinosaur Jr.  But this book also dove deep into bands I’ve only kinda gotten into heretofore, like Husker Du and the Replacements.  And there were also a couple bands I got introduced to that were completely foreign to me prior, like Mission of Burma and Big Black (I’ve always known Steve Albini to be a great and sought-after Producer, so this was news to me that he was in a band back in the day and touring with the SST crowd).

Azerrad really did music fans a solid when he wrote this thing.  He apparently has another book that chronicles the story of Nirvana, and I can see myself picking that one up in the near future.

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Dark Money – The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

By Jane Mayer

Reviewed by craigo – 3/17/2022

In this book’s opening pages, Jane Mayer includes a quite prescient quote from the former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis:  “We must make our choice.  We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

And in all of the pages that follow, she proceeds to show just how goddamn prophetic Louis Brandeis was.

I’m a bit late to the party with this one, as it was published 8+ years ago, just prior to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (and in political terms, that seems like forever ago).  So the book is heavy on Obama-era politics, and as insightful as it was, it was also just an overall fun trip down memory lane.

With that said, in the first couple of chapters alone, the author throws out some nauseating and not-fun-at-all numbers showing just how far our politics is already gone.  A good example is that during Nixon’s presidency, a $2 million dollar gift to Nixon’s campaign from W. Clement Stone caused public outrage and was seen as abjectly corrupt.  Adjusted for inflation, that $2 million would be about ~$11 million today, yet in 2016 there was $889 million spent in the election by just a small handful of people, namely Charles and David Koch.

The Koch’s are obvious villains throughout, as it’s their money and influence that largely prevailed during Obama’s presidency and in the immediate post-Citizen’s United world overall.  In one of the bigger understatements of the book, Mayer deadpans:  “It’s difficult to disentangle Charles’s philosophical opposition to regulations from his financial interest in avoiding them.”

A common scheme we hear about throughout the book are private philanthropic foundations, which we learn came to fruition largely as a tax ploy for the uber-rich to avoid paying inheritance taxes.  They basically donate inherited money to charity for 20 years rather than paying taxes on it, but the catch is they pay to these “charities” that they themselves have setup and which propagate political ideas and influence that they exert complete control over.

One of the best (or, uh, worst) examples of these “philanthropic foundations” and how they operate is FreedomWorks.  As the author explains, “The tax-exempt organization quietly cemented a deal with Glenn Beck, the incendiary right-wing Fox News television host who at the time was a Tea Party superstar.  For an annual payment that eventually topped $11 million, Beck read “embedded content” written by the FreedomWorks staff.  They told him what to say on air, and he blended the promotional material seamlessly into his monologue, making it sounds as if it were his own opinion.  The arrangement was described on FreedomWorks’ tax disclosures as ‘advertising services.’”

Within this sordid world of staggering amounts of money and right-wing politics, we go on to meet several other sleaze balls, ranging from high-roller bigwigs like Randy Kendrick (crazed Obamacare doomsayer and the wife of the owner of my hometown Arizona Diamondbacks) all the way down to mere “policy entrepreneurs”, like Frank Luntz (who’s literal job description is to “popularize the agenda of wealthy backers by “framing” their issues in more broadly appealing language”).

The saddest parts of the book are when the author begins to quantify the damage of all of this, with one of the biggest victims (so far at least) being the Climate Change movement.  Case in point could be “cap and trade”, which per the author, “was a market-based solution, originally backed by Republicans, requiring permits for carbon emissions.  The theory was that it would give the industry a financial incentive to stop polluting.”

But of course, the biggest losers in a cap and trade scheme would be people like Charles and David Koch, so they used their hundreds of millions of dollars to campaign hard against it and paint it as a “government takeover”, and it worked.  So well, in fact that the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, had stated in his own 2010 book No Apology, that climate change is occurring, and that human activity is a factor.  Yet by late 2011, on the campaign trail and largely funded (directly and indirectly) by the Kochs, he’d changed his tune and was now a skeptic.

Sadly, the whole book reads like this, just one head shaker after another, all the way to the bitter end, when the author I’m sure suppressed a smile as she wrote, “Despite their predictions that Obama would prove catastrophic to the American economy, Charles’s and David’s personal fortunes had nearly tripled during his presidency, from $14 billion apiece in March 2009 to $41.6 billion each in March 2015, according to Forbes.”

Just a couple more average Joes, just like you and me, trying to do their best despite an overbearing government.

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Winners Take All – The Elite Charade of Changing the World

By Anand Giridharadas

Reviewed by craigo – 2/17/2022

This book is an expansive view into “MarketWorld”, which is, in the author’s words, “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo”.  He goes on, “MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also a culture and state of mind”.

In the book, the author basically hangs out with a lot of MarketWorld types, in their element, getting them to open up and expand on and justify all their do-gooder ways.  A constant theme that emanates from these conversations are “Win-Win Solutions”, by which these rich and powerful figures find entrepreneurial and profitable ways to make themselves feel good without conceding, ever, that they may actually be a part of any of the underlying societal problems.

A classic example provided is a startup company called TechnoServe, a self-proclaimed “leader in harnessing the power of the private sector to help people lift themselves out of poverty”, and who declares, “By linking people to information, capital and markets, we have helped millions to create lasting prosperity for their families and communities.”  To which the author muses, “It is possible to read into this that people are poor because of the absence of these linkages, not because of caste, race, land, hoarding, wages, labor conditions, and plunder; not because of anything anyone did—or is doing—to anyone else; not because of reversible decisions societies have taken.”

And this is a theme harped on over and over again throughout the book.  Several venture-capitalist-turned-motivational-speakers are profiled, all of whom in their talks avoid the same general taboos:  “Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem.”

One of the speakers who gets profiled was Amy Cuddy, who coined the idea of “Power Poses”, which was comical to me because I fondly remember my good bud and bandmate Shaneo stopping by after work one day and showing me all the new Power Poses he had been practicing after he himself had heard Cuddy on a TED Talk.  Cuddy’s Power Poses were originally designed to help women feel more assertive in spaces they would normally be reluctant to speak up in, but she was classic fodder for MarketWorld types, who are very heavy on “empowerment” themes (as opposed to other themes like, perhaps, “accountability”).  (This was in no way a harp on Cuddy herself, who the author reveals as a personal friend.)

My favorite part of the book took place at one of these MarketWorld conventions called Summit at Sea, and none other than Edward Snowden was the guest speaker (via video from Russia).  Snowden was talking about esoteric concepts like “tokenizing identity”, allowing people to be more anonymous online, when he was asked by a moderator if he was planning on monetizing any of his ideas, because if not, there were plenty of investors present in the room.  Snowden replied:  “I do have a number of projects that are actively in motion.  But I take a little bit of a different view from a lot of people who need venture capital, who are trying to get investors.  I don’t like to promote things.  I don’t like to say I’m working on this particular system to solve this particular problem.  I would rather simply do it, at the minimum expenditure of resources, and then be judged on the basis of results.”

The author here giddily summarizes, “It was a kindly rebuke to MarketWorld’s way of life.  Here was a man who didn’t like to promote himself, who didn’t crave money, who was actually fighting the system, and willing to lose for the greater good to win.”

(My 2nd favorite part of the book is when the author spends ample time skewering one of the biggest MarketWorld sellouts of all time, former President Bill Clinton.)

Overall, I enjoyed this book, although by the end I have to admit it seemed like we were beating a dead horse just a bit.  You can only profile so many egotistical dickwads in one book before eventually the reader starts thinking “Ok, ok, I get it.”  So a bit shorter would’ve been nice, but it’s definitely not a reason to skip the thing altogether.

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Banking on the People – Democratizing Money in the Digital Age

By Ellen Brown

Reviewed by craigo – 1/23/2022

This was a super informative and eye-opening book, even as it veered at times into the esoteric.  The author, Ellen Brown, assumes her readers already have a pretty good familiarity with finance and economics, so needless to say, I was having to stop and look up a lot of the terminology she used throughout.  But it wasn’t excruciating to keep up, and as the concepts and ideas she delves into were quite interesting and revealing to me, reading the book still didn’t come off as pure “work” (like reading a text book would be).

One thing I will add right up front though, is that while Brown is a good writer and makes thing as easy as they can be to understand (relatively speaking), she sacrifices humor I think for 100% political objectivity.  Political objectivity is of course admirable, but goddamn Ellen, you can’t crack a single fucking joke in 350 pages!?  I’ve always found levity to be a good way to get through the slog, but the author here clearly does not subscribe to that philosophy.  Different strokes for different folks.

It’s hard to state just what this book is “about”, since the author really throws the whole enchilada at you.  So I’ll just tick off some of my favorite parts.

She delves pretty deep into the world of bitcoin and other cryptocurrency, and whether or not she foresees those as being a viable thing going forward.  I learned quite a bit here, having only had a surface-level understanding of bitcoin prior to reading this book.  She explains in depth how it works, the block chain and the financially-incentivized miners that validate everything, as well as the pros and cons (for example, she reports the average time to confirm a bitcoin transaction is 78 minutes, so it’s probably not going to replace cash anytime soon when buying a cup of coffee).

Another of the more fascinating concepts Brown introduces (to me, at least) are Postal Banks.  Here’s the author:  “Public postal banks are profitable because their market is large and their costs are low.  The infrastructure is already built and available, advertising costs are minimal, and government-owned banks do not reward their management with extravagant bonuses or commissions that drain profits away.”

Brown waxes sentimental when she writes about how postal banking used to be popular in the U.S. in the late 19th century, thanks to the Postal Savings Bank Act of 1910.  Again, I’ll just quote the author here: “The US Postal Savings System was set up to get money out of hiding, attract the savings of immigrants, provide safe depositories for people who had lost confidence in private banks, and furnish depositories with longer hours that were convenient for working people.  The postal system paid two percent interest on deposits annually.”

Of course, postal banking would come under “continual assault from the private banking establishment” and slowly get chipped away, and even today, calls for the dismantling and/or privatization of the Post Office remain ubiquitous.

Brown also tackles the subjects of FTT’s, which are basically a tax on the sales of stocks, bonds, etc.  These currently are not taxed at all, but the author spends a couple of pages showing how in 2015 there were a grand total of $5,034 trillion in trades, harshly concluding:  “The bulk of these payments are not for goods and services.  They are for financial speculation—money transferred from one pocket to another without adding real value to the economy…(A) tax of a mere 1/10th of 1 percent imposed on all trades would generate enough money to cover not only the existing federal budget but free health care for all, free higher education for all, and an unconditional basic income for all.”

Damn.

This brings us to a sad (pathetic, really) theme that resonates throughout the book, which is that a lot of the solutions that are right there for the taking, that would benefit millions and millions of people, are discarded wholesale by half the population for the mere reason that they are “socialist”.  No thought required beyond that, just call it “socialist” and chuckle and move on.  In one of the more memorable lines of the book (and the closest she comes to actually cracking a joke), Brown is discussing the concept of a universal basic income and quips, “Other 20th-century thought leaders who advocated a universal basic income included Nobel Prize-winning American economists Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek.  These men were not “socialists.””

In case after case throughout this book, Brown documents instances where the US government bailed out banks with taxpayer money, “nullifying the capitalist model by socializing the banks’ losses while privatizing their profits”, and yet here we are in 2022, still refusing solutions outright because they sound or feel (or we’ve been conditioned by moneyed interests to accept them as) “socialist”.

It’s a damn shame, and it’ll continue to be until authors like Ellen Brown are required reading.

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The Constitution of Knowledge – A Defense of Truth

By Jonathan Rauch

Reviewed by craigo – 11/30/21

Jonathan Rauch has written a really timely and important book here.  He takes a super deep dive into the history of collective knowledge, from the ancient philosophers to the advent of the printing press and on into our modern, digital age (and all its pitfalls).  The last book I reviewed was called Calling Bullshit, and while I didn’t read the two back-to-back with any intention, they do indeed make excellent companion books to each other.

The best part about the book is that the author goes to great lengths to ensure his isn’t just another partisan “the other side is the problem” rant.  He takes aim at both “troll culture” and “cancel culture”, the former primarily being a problem on the right and the latter a problem on the left (with some obvious spill-over, of course….here’s to you, Liz Cheney).  But whether it’s right-wing agitators trolling the internet with completely made-up bullshit or left-wing agitators trying to cancel anyone who believes that a dick makes you male and a vagina makes you female, the end result is basically, and sadly, the same.  As the author puts it:  “What troll culture and cancel culture have in common is that they are techniques of what propaganda experts often call information warfare.  Rather than using rational persuasion to seek truth, they manipulate the social and media environments for political advantage.”

But with that said, the author pulls no punches when skewering our former President, Donald Trump, for the damage he has wreaked to the Constitution of Knowledge.  Again, this wasn’t a clarion call for Progressivism and/or against Conservatism, the author simply calls a spade a spade.  Donald Trump is a self-serving grifter whose name is his brand, for god’s sake.  It’s not even like he’s being tacit with his egotism or objectives.  Yet millions of once-proud conservatives hang on his every utterance, making his grievances their own, and basically lining up to fellate the dude.  Trump is troll-culture personified, and the damage he has done (abetted by all those poor folks looking for convenient answers to their problems) is immense.

On the overall issue of troll culture, Rauch harkens back to simpler times when tabloids were just that—tabloids.  The goofy magazines you’d see when checking out at the grocery store.  Bat Boy and all that.  But with the advent of the internet, tabloids more and more are becoming the official policy guide for the right-wing fringe, and the ability to discern reality from the wild-eyed shit they’re being fed is almost non-existent.  Here the author quotes Steve Bannon, who in 2018 admitted that his sole intention was to “flood the zone with shit”.

Rauch then compares that to what’s left of “real” journalism, in what was one of the sadder quotes of the book:  “Just one investigative reporting project or academic study requires work by multiple full-time professionals and budgets into the tens of thousands and often much, much more.  Whereas making stuff up is cheap.”

On the other side, regarding cancel culture, Rauch comes down pretty hard on weak-kneed liberals, even using the term “snowflake”, which was pretty good.  He takes particular aim at the concept of “emotional safetyism”, which is gaining more and more ground on college campuses, depriving those fragile little college kids of basically any opposing viewpoints on any subject at all.  By this point in the book, Rauch has revealed himself multiple times to be an openly gay man, and in one of his more memorable quips from the book, he says frankly:  ““If someone calls me a ‘fucking faggot’, I interpret her as telling me that she needs counseling, not that I am a fucking faggot.”  In other words, Rauch didn’t earn the right to marry whom he chooses by trying shut down opposing—and even bigoted—voices.  He engaged them, he showed them the error of their ways, and hearts and minds eventually changed.

This book should really be required reading in every American high school and college, but sadly, as is too often the case, the folks who need to read it the most are the ones who won’t ever touch it with a ten foot pole.  Truth hurts, so why bother?  It’s a lot easier to stay in the cocoon, where Donald Trump isn’t a silk-suited self-enricher but a blue-collar champion, and hey, he really did win that last election.

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Calling Bullshit – The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World

By Carl T. Bergstrom & Jevin D. West

Reviewed by craigo – 10/29/21

This book was equal parts entertaining and informative.  The authors pay homage very early on to the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt and his witty treatise On Bullshit, and the “bullshit” they refer to throughout is of the same fecal matter that Frankfurt wrote.  (If you’ve never read On Bullshit, now would be a good time to do so.  Its super short, so it won’t take you long.  Do it now.)

I could go on and on about my favorite parts of this book, and how the authors ruthlessly and comically pick apart and “call bullshit” on the various, shoddy methods that hucksters use to con people.  But in the interest of time, I’ll offer up just a couple of excellent examples.

On the issue of causality (or cause and effect), the authors showed a graph that had been published which mapped the incidence rate of thyroid cancer from 1990 through 2010, as well as the usage of Roundup within the same time frame.  The lines on the chart rise sharply at exactly the same time, suggesting that the increased use of Roundup over those two decades caused the corresponding rise in thyroid cancer.

But just for shits and gigs, the authors then showed the same graph, but with a third line added.  This third line charted Cell Phone Usage within the same timeframe (1990 – 2010).  This line eerily matched the previous two almost perfectly, to which the authors quip, “If we are to believe the logic of the original argument, perhaps we should be worried that cell phones are causing thyroid cancer—or even that Roundup is causing cell phones.”

The authors by no means were claiming that Roundup does not cause cancer here, they were simply hammering home the point that if you’re going to claim that it does, you need more than a bullshit graph to do it.  Point taken.

For the data-phobes, there’s a couple of chapters in this book dedicated to Big Data and some of the shortcomings of A.I., and some concepts I hadn’t really thought about before, like algorithmic accountability and transparency.  If someone is adversely affected by a private company’s algorithm, does that person have a right to know?  Or is the algorithm a protected trade secret?  Interesting stuff.

My favorite part, though, was the last couple chapters, which were dedicated to the susceptibility of science.

We live in a time when a lot of bullshitters blurt out the phrase “I follow the science”, as if that’s some magical wand that makes them right about whatever subject they’re bullshitting about.  So I was glad that the authors devoted the time they did to this subject, and some of the things they reveal here were pretty enlightening.

Scientific journals are a topic that really gets delved into here, and this was by far the most enlightening part of the book for me personally.  The authors explained that when someone wants to run a clinical trial involving human subjects, they are required by law to register the trial with the FDA, and also report the results of the trial to the FDA upon completion.  They are not required, however, to publish the results in a journal, so you end up with a lot of published and unpublished trials.  This presents a problem, and I’ll just quote the authors here:  “Turner compiled a list of 74 clinical trials aimed at assessing the effectiveness of 12 different antidepressant medications.  Results from 51 of these trials were published, 48 with positive results (the drug is effective) and 3 with negative results.  Looking at the published literature, a researcher would conclude that these antidepressant drugs tend to work.  But with access to the experiments as initially registered, the FDA sees a very different picture.  They see 74 trials of which 38 yield positive results, 12 yield questionable results, and 24 yield negative results.  From those numbers one would reach a more pessimistic conclusion.”

That’s a lot to chew on there, especially for those prone to constant skepticism about the FDA’s decisions.  The FDA certainly isn’t infallible, but they may be privy to a lot more information than what the average layperson is dealing with.

The authors also talk a lot about “predatory journals” in these latter chapters, which especially thickened the fog.  The physical act of publishing, which was expensive and required editorial review, used to act as a natural barrier that kept a lot of bullshit out of scientific journals.  But now that physical publishing is basically obsolete, those days are long gone.  As the authors put it, in what was easily the most depressing line of the book:  “Today, a rudimentary understanding of Web design and a willingness to defraud people is all it takes to become a predatory publisher.”  And of course, any bullshitter with a crackpot idea to sell just needs to get himself published in one of these “journals”, and now his idea is “peer-reviewed” and part of the scientific record.

This is heavy stuff, and I’m admittedly conflicted by it.

On the one hand, I’m a punk rocker, and this is exactly what punk rock did to the music industry back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  The barrier to a record deal at the time was a suit-wearing chode who never learned a single chord on the guitar, so punk rockers said “fuck it” and recorded their own music and created their own record labels and published their own shit and they ended up changing everything.

So trust me, I love that spirit of rising up and breaking down barriers and getting voices heard and fucking the system.

But on the other hand, when I take my car to the mechanic because the brakes are squeaky, I’m not going to cry “conspiracy” when the mechanic tells me I need new brakes.  I wouldn’t tell him to fuck off and go open up my own garage with the express purpose of giving people more favorable diagnoses.  That’s just not how it works.  There are some areas where it definitely behooves us to “listen to the experts”.

It’s for all of these reasons that I really dig that the authors used the word “Art” in the title of their book.  Skepticism is an art.  Being skeptical doesn’t mean being a chest-thumping naysayer who sees conspiracy in every mundane little thing.  It’s good to be skeptical, but you also have to be discerning.

Reading books like this is a good start.  I hope more people do.

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In Defense of Ska

By Aaron Carnes

Reviewed by craigo – 8/29/21

Wow, this book brought the 90’s right back!  What a fun, nostalgic look back at one of the greatest periods of live music ever, the early 90’s ska/punk scene.

The author, Aaron Carnes, cautions in the intro that his book is in no way comprehensive—how could it be!?—but what he’s written here is damn near as close as one could come to covering the entire genre of “ska” from start to finish.  That’s an evolution several decades in the making now, but the “third wave” that produced all the great bands in early- to mid-90s receives much of the attention here (especially since the author himself was in a ska band during that period).

Most of the bands Carnes documents were already pretty well known to me, but his brief pieces on the history of these various bands prompted me in many cases to head over to Discogs and backfill of a lot of their albums that I didn’t already have in my collection.  But even more fun is some of the obscure gems he introduced me to and who I’ve since ran out and picked up their records (my personal favs so far being Gangster Fun and Bim Skala Bim).

The author interviews several people from the bands throughout, and gets them to open up about stories from their time touring and all the shenanigans they got involved in.  Between that and how he intertwines some of his own band’s stories (he drummed for Flat Planet), it all comes together for a super fun trip down memory lane.

One of the really entertaining parts of the book for me personally are the several pages devoted to my all-time favorite band Propagandhi, and their regrettable, tongue-in-cheek classic “Ska Sucks”, which appeared on their album How to Clean Everything.  Prop themselves have attested to not liking this song and being embarrassed by it, and they never play it live anymore, but at the time it was released it rubbed a lot of ska bands the wrong way, and Carnes certainly gives it it’s due here in his book.  Great stuff.

As fun and recommendable as this book was though, there are a couple of parts that I wasn’t too keen on.

One was the fucking bullshit cheap shot Carnes takes at The Interrupters lead singer Aimee Interrupter, who Carnes describes as “thinking it’s a good idea to appear on Infowars”.  Knowing now what we all know about Alex Jones, this comment blatantly drags Aimee through the mud, implying as it does that she’s a regular on the show or some garbage like that.  For the record, it was many, many years ago when Aimee appeared on that show, and at the time Alex Jones wasn’t the ultra-fringe, Trump-thumper he has since become.  He was very much against the Bush/Cheney Wars, which aligned him with a lot of punkers at the time (even my best bud and fellow Upsucker Shaneo will attest to listening to his show back in the day).  I will in no way defend Jones’s more recent stances, like asserting that the Sandy Hook massacre was all a hoax, but Aimee would tell you herself that that is complete bullshit and she would never go on his show again since he’s begun spewing that nonsense.  Carnes didn’t need to put this shitty remark about Aimee in his book and smear her reputation like that.  Quite unfortunate.

In another part of the book, while discussing the band Fishbone, Carnes wrote:  “They’re amazing.  They covered “Date Rape” in 2006 and managed to turn that piece of shit into a killer song.”

This is an outright laughable comment considering the source.  Say what you want about Bradley Nowell and Sublime and the whole “frat boy” party scene they became affixed to, but if we’re talking specifically about ska here (and being in defense of ska, no less), Date Rape is one of the catchiest, wittiest, fucking coolest ska songs ever written.  Hands down, bar none.  It’s one of the best come-uppance stories ever put to song form, and it’s even got a moral to the story explicitly stated at the end of the song.  Yet legions of people over time can’t get past what they think they know about Sublime, and just assume it’s a crass song that perpetuates date rape and frat-boy culture.  Given how spirited Carnes defends ska throughout the rest of the book, it’s just jaw-dropping that he would engage in the very same belittling bullshit he attempts to defend against throughout the rest of his own book.  Again, quite unfortunate.

But anyway, don’t let those two gripes stop you from going out and picking up this book.  It’s a lot of fun, and it will be enjoyed.

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Jesus and the Disinherited

By Howard Thurman

Reviewed by craigo – 8/7/21

I’ll be the first to admit that books about Jesus are a hard sell nowadays.  It seems that those who invoke the name of Jesus the most lately are the very ones scaling the walls of the U.S. Capitol in feasance to their real messiah, Donald J. Trump, so it’s easy enough to just give the whole genre a mocking laugh and a yawn and a simple “no thanks”.  (And if you don’t believe me, I’ll just point out that here in Arizona currently we have ongoing a farcical “audit” of the 2020 election being led by those who claim that Trump actually won, and on the “Arizona Audit Live Feeds” site, one of the key operators goes by the handle “Eyes on Jesus Always”.  I wish I was making this up, but sadly, I shit you not.)

This book has a couple of things going for it nonetheless.

For starters, it was originally published in 1949.  So even though an honest appraisal of modern-day evangelicalism finds little but a weak-minded bunch living vicariously through the excesses of a Manhattan playboy born with a silver spoon in his hand, this book pre-dates all that.  So, heavy sigh of relief there.

Secondly, the author, Howard Thurman, was born in 1899.  Here’s a guy who’s maternal grandmother was a slave, and he himself lived through withering racism most his life, yet still went on to become a respected philosopher and civil rights leader.  If this guy professes a faith and claims Jesus as motivation, I’m willing to give him a read to find out why.  (I’ll also pause to point out the obvious here that MLK himself did all the awesome work he did with a bible tucked firmly under his arm.  Yours or my personal opinion of biblical religion notwithstanding, this here punker still deals in basic facts.)

Thurman had me hooked with this sentence 3 pages in:  “I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man who stands with his back against the wall.”

This sentiment is very relatable for me.  I was raised staunchly Mormon, but in my adult life have attended various churches of all denominations, and I as well can count on one hand the times that I’ve heard a sermon where I didn’t wonder afterwards how that sermon would’ve sounded to a roomful of convicted felons or despondent mothers or homeless folks.  It seems easy to preach afterlife security and everlasting joy to a congregation of cute families who all make >$65k a year, but what do the messages of redemption and salvation and last-will-be-first mean to someone going through unbearable suffering?  With no end in sight?

Thurman’s book is written for them, and I think the back cover says it way better than I could:  “Challenging our submersion into individual and social isolation, Thurman suggests a reading of the Gospel that recovers a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised.”

In his eloquent prose, Thurman parallels the travails a modern-day disinherited person would be going through with what Jesus himself went through.  And to be clear, the author reveals Jesus as the historical person he actually was, rather than the white-skinned, blue-eyed, never-let-slip-a-single-fart mystique that many religions have turned him into.

The most perfect example of this happens to be my favorite part of the book.  Thurman relays the story in which a Canaanite woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus responds “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”  The lady then responds, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  And then Jesus, impressed by her response, agrees to heal her daughter.

In my time, I’ve heard many ridiculously white-washed excuses for Jesus’s blunt response to this woman.  This one from the Apologetics Study Bible is a classic:  “Jesus was not being unnecessarily harsh with the woman but rather eliciting her faith.  Though we cannot know with what tone of voice or body language Jesus responded to the woman, His language points to a gentler and more provocative response than is often supposed at first reading.”

Thurman, however, takes a different view.  He at this point in the book has exhaustively detailed the social hierarchy of the Roman state under which Jesus lived, at one point putting it bluntly: “If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch.”  And this woman who approached Jesus was even lower on the social rungs (Thurman himself can probably relate to how low on the ladder she was).

With that deep understanding of the situation, Thurman interprets the scene thusly:

“Jesus said to her, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.’ This was more a probing query than an affirmation.  It had in it all the deep frustration which he had experienced, and there flashed through it generations of religious exclusiveness to which he was heir.  ‘What right has this woman of another race to make a claim upon me? What mockery is there here? Am I not humiliated enough in being misunderstood by my own kind?  And here this woman dares to demand that which, in the very nature of the case, she cannot claim as her due?’”

This is fascinating stuff!  Thurman presents a borderline-racist response from Jesus, at least initially, but then as is his wont, Jesus uses the occasion to transcend and instead exemplify love.  Here’s a Jesus capable of having a bad day, and struggling to rise above it.  That’s one of the more “human” portrayals of Jesus I’ve ever read (and it’s certainly not anything I was introduced to in Mormonism).

Even with all that said, you may still just be saying to yourself, “yeah, but….Jesus.”  It’s just not your thing.  And if that’s you, then yeah, this book probably isn’t for you.  But if you’re even mildly curious or open to a different perspective, I think this was a great read, and as far as it being a “manual of resistance”, it is still relevant today despite being over 70+ years old.

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Authentic – A Memoir by the Founder of Vans

By Paul Van Doren

Reviewed by craigo – 7/28/21

I took my kids back-to-school shopping the other day, which of course entailed a visit to the Vans store for new kicks.  At the checkout, Vans had a small display featuring this book, and I gladly scooped it up.  I’ve been a loyal Vans wearer most my life (and obviously it’s a tradition being passed onto my kids), so I was excited when I learned this book existed to get a deeper look into the history of a company I’ve always liked and supported.

Paul Van Doren got his start as a teenager at a shoe company called Randy’s in Massachusetts shortly after WWII.  After learning the ropes and working his way into management over the course of a decade or so, Randy’s shipped Van Doren out west, to Southern California, to open up and oversee a new Randy’s operation there.  This move and family transition was fun to read about, as his reminiscing about California in the mid-60’s wistfully captured the spirit and optimism of the times.

Things eventually went south for Van Doren at Randy’s, so he quit, and not really knowing anything other than shoe-making, he went solo by forming the Van Doren Rubber Company.  Forming this new company was quite the family affair, with his wife and young children all pitching in with the painting and moving furniture, and it was pretty rad to read how small and meager they started out.

One of the things that made Vans stand out and grab a foothold early on was that they did customs, which incorporated an element of style that didn’t exist prior.  That naturally attracted counter-culture types, and it was Van Doren’s youngest son, Stevie, who would befriend early skateboarding pioneers like Tony Alva and Steve Caballero and get them on board with the Vans brand.  That relationship would then blossom into other indie sports, like surfing and BMX (and, years later, snowboarding).  Stevie Van Doren remains an integral part of the Vans company and its identity to this day.

By far my favorite part of the book was near the end, when Vans would pair up with music promoter Steve Lyman to create the Vans Warped Tour.  The behind the scenes look at those first couple Warped Tours was so nostalgic for me, what with my personal conversion to punk rock occurring at the 1997 Warped Tour at Lake Tahoe.  It was at that Warped Tour that I was introduced to some of the bands that became my favorites and remain so to this day, and this book brought it all back like it was yesterday.  Very cool.

My least favorite part of the book was also near the end, when Paul Van Doren decided to officially retire and sold his baby to an investment company, who in quick order closed down the California factories and moved all Production overseas.  While Van Doren was at the reins, he prided himself on adding the “Made in USA” label to all Vans shoes, but those days are of course long gone now.

So that’s a bummer, but all in all, this was a really fun read, and highly recommendable for anyone who shares my affinity for the OG skate shoe.

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Irreversible Damage – The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters

By Abigail Shrier

Reviewed by craigo – 7/15/21

I first became familiar with this book when I read about it in the Economist. That rag had written an article about it because several libraries and book stores around America were pulling it from their shelves.  So I did exactly what I do every time I hear about a book getting banned:  I rushed out and secured myself a copy.

(And indeed, even as I write this review, the American Booksellers Association has just released a statement apologizing for including this “anti-trans” book in their July mailing to members.  The apology called it a “serious, violent incident” that was “inexcusable” and the ABA vowed to engage in “critical dialogue needed to inform concrete steps to address the harm we caused”.)

I myself did not find the book to be “violent”.  The author interviewed several prominent trans influencers, and not once did I feel like she distorted what they had to say or cast them as some type of demons.  To the contrary, she admitted that she found most of them quite agreeable and wise beyond their years, and gave them their full, unadulterated say.

I think what Shrier did best in her book was to simply differentiate between full-grown adults and not-full-grown children.  There is of course nothing wrong–whatsoever–with a person (a minor or an adult) identifying as trans, and the author makes that clear several times throughout.  I didn’t personally find her to be “anti-trans”, but what she was quite opposed to  was young children making grown-adult decisions about their bodies (namely, testosterone treatments and puberty blockers) which can have permanent and irreversible effects.  And in this I would say I agree with her.

To wit, a few years back I was appointed to serve on the Foster Care Review Board, a department run by the Arizona Supreme Court that creates citizen boards who meet monthly and review foster care Case Plans and make recommendations based on their findings.  The board I was on consisted of this aging punk rocker and three awesome, kind-hearted ladies, and to make a long story short, pretty much 95% of the cases we reviewed we were all unanimous in our findings that services were sorely lacking.  The child wasn’t getting adequate medical care or educational opportunities, the foster parent wasn’t getting funds or other support and services they were entitled to, the birth parent wasn’t getting needed psychiatric treatment or even regular check-ins from the case manager, etc.  It went on and on like this, case after case, where we just felt like the child or family wasn’t getting the services and care and love they deserved.

And then one month we got a case for a 16-year-old girl who had recently came out as trans and was identifying as a male.  The case paperwork had all been updated with his new name and preferred male pronouns, which no one had any problem with.  The case manager for the child was super diligent, and the list of services she had arranged was extensive and impressive.  We all admired her hard work and dedication to the child and held her up as an example of what basically every other case manager should look like.

But then we got to the most recent updates, where the case manager stated that the child had expressed interest in testosterone (“T”) treatments and possible “top surgery”, so the case manager was going to begin pursuing those avenues.  We were all a bit dumbfounded at that, what with this child still being a child and all, and I couldn’t help but pose the rhetorical question to my fellow board members:  “If this 16-year-old wanted a permanent face tattoo, would we acquiesce?”

Again, that day on the board happened several years before I read Shrier’s book, so perhaps that’s why I was able to immerse myself in her tome, in its entirety, and appreciate the differentiations she was making without immediately doing the knee-jerk, pissed-off-liberal thing and making clarion calls for the book’s forced removal from the public square.

The last book I just read and reviewed was Sapolsky’s Behave, and that book was a tour de force when it comes to detailing the developing brain.  The conclusion Sapolsky kept coming back to is a simple one:  childhood matters.  Children’s brains are not fully developed, and they will inevitably make stupid decisions.  And that simple truth has drastic ramifications for how we as a society should administer things like welfare or criminal justice.  For all those exact same reasons, we should think long and hard about allowing whimsical 16-year-olds to just one day elect to get a double mastectomy.  That is a child with a still-developing brain making permanent, life-changing decisions about her physical body.  Let’s follow the science here, people.

Now, with all of that said, let me make one last point perfectly loud and clear.  A lot of the reason there was so much knee-jerk howling from progressives about this book is because the back cover is chalk full of ass-wipe partisans like Dennis Praeger and Ben “I’m More Famous Than You” Shapiro singing the book’s praises.  Praeger, of course, has long been adamant that the legalization of gay marriage will doom society, and Shapiro is on record as saying that homosexuality should never have been removed from the list of psychiatric “conditions”.

Now counter the enlightened views of those two fuck-wads with this splendidly worded quote from Shrier’s book (italics are the author’s):

“It’s worth noting how different this is from being the parent of a gay adolescent.  An adolescent who comes out as gay asks her parents to accept her for what she is.  An adolescent who is transgender-identified asks to be accepted for what she is not.”

So here again is that infuriating trait seemingly distinct to the American conservative:  they blather on and on with these completely bullshit stances, for years, ruining countless lives along the way.  And then when time and common sense completely pass them by, they just move the goddamned goal posts.  For decades it was “society is doomed if we normalize these fags and their behavior”, but now that the culture war has moved on from homosexuality to trans-rights, the tune magically gets changed to “Oh yeah, gay folks are perfectly natural, it’s the trannies who will doom society.”  Just move along, nothing to see here, and no reason to ever hold us accountable for what we used to say.

So yes, I get it.  I get the seething anger when a book like this comes out, with douchebags like that on the back cover touting Shrier’s “courage” for writing it.  I totally get it.

But all I’ll say is, just try reading the book instead of banning it.  You might not agree with it, you might even be detested by it.  But you’ll be informed, and more understanding of the arguments the “other side” is making.

We’re not so far gone that that’s a bad thing, are we?

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Behave – The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

By Robert M. Sapolsky

Reviewed by craigo – 6/10/21

This book here was a monumental piece of work.

My good bud Professor Garrett recommended this to me at the same time he gave me Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  He basically recommended the two books as companions to each other, and even though I read them about six months apart, the professor was absolutely spot on that they are very complementary.

Sapolsky wrote this book to explain human behavior, and provide a detailed look at why we humans do the things (both glorious and grotesque) that we do.  The author is by trade a “combination neurobiologist—someone who studies the brain—and primatologist—someone who studies monkeys and apes”, which gives him extraordinary insight into both the biology and neuroscience of behavior.  And he explains in the Introduction that he intends to avoid a common pitfall others who’ve broached the subject have fallen into, which is to break things down into their own little buckets.  For example, he posits that if you ask a simple question about a random behavior, a psychoneuroendocrinologist would answer differently than a bioengineer, who would answer differently than an evolutionary biologist, and so on.  All would lean heavily on their individual specialties to explain the behavior, Sapolsky warns, so he approaches the whole damn thing expansively and completely, taking it all into account (which is why this tome ran damn near 700 pages).

He begins the book with a fabulously entertaining and hypothetical scene:  imagine you’ve burst into Adolf Hitler’s bunker, and just as the ruthless dictator attempts to swallow down his cyanide pill, you knock it out of his hands, wrestle him to the ground, and handcuff him.  Alive.

Now what?  This is where Sapolsky delves into a deliciously violent fantasy where he does unspeakably nasty things to Hitler:  “…puncture his ear eardrums, rip out his tongue, keep him alive, tube-fed, on a respirator…”  You get the idea.  He entertains these thoughts for a bit, but then ultimately and sheepishly admits that he’s a completely non-violent person, and doesn’t think he’d have the nerve to actually do any of it.  Even to person as despicable as Adolf Hitler.

From there, it’s a full-on locomotive of info coming at you about exactly why some folks are capable of violence while others aren’t, and that whichever camp you fall into would largely depend on the situation at hand.  Would you push one person in front of a runaway train if it would save five people on board?  What if you knew the one person personally, but didn’t know any of the five on board?  Or vice versa?

Sapolsky tackles questions like this throughout, cleverly organizing the chapters in the book from “seconds to minutes before” the behavior, “hours before” the behavior, “days before” the behavior, and so on.  The approach is exhaustive, and in a few places he even invites you to stop reading and instead head to the appendices to delve further into subjects like neuroscience and endocrinology, lest the uninitiated don’t fully understand the points he’s making.

The long and short of it is (and Sapolsky repeats this exact phrase throughout the book):  childhood matters.  The joys and traumas and fears and uncertainties experienced during childhood 100% dictate how we behave as we get older, consciously or not.  He really hammers this point home in one chapter, referencing a state-by-state analysis on the liberalization of abortion laws in the early 1970s, and the subsequent drop in crime in the 1990s.  As the author bluntly states:  “What majorly predicts a life of crime?  Being born to a mother who, if she could, would have chosen that you not be.  What’s the most basic thing provided by a mother?  Knowing that she is happy that you exist.”

The last few chapters were definitely my favorite, as the author pivots from the hard-core science of it all to a more open discussion about how everything he’d written heretofore influences (or could/should influence) public policy.  I could try and summarize his points here, but I think the titles of the last three chapters alone suffice in conveying the intrigue:

15) Metaphors We Kill By

16) Biology, The Criminal Justice System, and Free Will

17) War and Peace

Overall, this book was definitely some heavy-lifting, so probably not fodder for a summer vacation at the beach.  But highly recommendable nonetheless to anyone who wants to understand contextually just how and why this world and it’s human inhabitants can be so beautiful at times and so fucked up at other times.

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Our Noise – The Story of Merge Records

By John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

Reviewed by craigo – 12/14/20

I’ve become a pretty big fan of Katie Crutchfield over the past year or so, her early punk band P.S. Elliot (which she co-formed with her twin sister Allison) was pretty rad, as is her current solo project Waxahatchee.  She’s just a super badass songwriter, and her discography has been fun to track down and immerse myself in.

Waxahatchee’s first couple of albums were put out by Don Giovanni Records, which makes sense because that’s a pretty punk-ish label that would’ve been familiar with Katie from her P.S. Elliot days.  But the latter three Waxahatchee albums (and namely her newest, Saint Cloud, which is one of the most beautiful records from start to finish that I’ve ever heard) were released by North Carolina-based Merge Records, and since I wasn’t all too familiar with Merge, I started poking around the interwebs for more info.  It didn’t take much poking to learn that there’s actually a book out, co-written by the founders of the label no less, so I thought that’d be a good place to start and I ordered myself a copy.

And as I got through the book, all I could think was how the HELL did I not know about Merge Records already!?

I’ll just get the obvious out of the way first – both On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel’s famed (and only) albums, were released by Merge (in 1996 and 1998, respectively).  This alone proves my apostasy in not being familiar with Merge heretofore, as both those records have been on my shelf for years, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea especially has been a hugely influential record for me.  How/Why I never looked more into Merge’s catalogue based on that alone is a mystery.

But here we are, and now I know.  (Conor Oberst and Richard Buckner are other artists I admire a lot who have releases on Merge, but big thanks to Waxahatchee for finally helping me make the connection.)

The story of Merge Records begins with the band Superchunk, the early 90’s indie band out of Chapel Hill who’s singer Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Balance would eventually form the label.  Superchunk is just one of the many indie bands I read about it in this book that I was either vaguely familiar with or not familiar with at all that I will be checking out in short order (others include Pavement, Lambchop, East River Pipe, Matt Suggs, and Arcade Fire – the latter of which is Merge’s most commercially successful band).

The real joy of this book, though, is simply reliving that late 80’s/early 90’s DIY music scene.  I was personally more immersed in the punk rock world than the indie world at the time, but much of the same spirit and ethics prevailed.  Those were the glory days of homemade show posters and $3 covers and fake IDs and lost shoes in mosh pits and ringing in your ears all night after the show.  Good times, and this book brings it all back.

It was also quite enjoyable to read in the early days how Mac and Laura navigated being in a relationship, a band, and a business partnership all at the same time.  They are now both married to different people, but learning of their early relationship and very public breakup and how they kept the band and the label going through it all was both insightful and entertaining.

All in all, this was a great book, and in an ideal world, the author John Cook would just go around and co-write a similar book with the founder of every indie label around.  A guy can dream, right?

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The Smallest Minority – Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics

By Kevin D. Williamson

Reviewed by craigo – 12/6/20

This was a timely and good book.

Kevin D. Williamson is a scribbler for the conservative National Review, yet he manages to be both funny and insightful, which certainly sets him apart from most his colleagues over at that rag.  And as if to assure the reader right off the bat that he is not your stale, echo-chamber-quoting, bug-up-his-ass conservative, Williamson uses the word “fuck” in the book’s opening paragraph, as well as quoting the erudite punk rockers Bad Religion shortly into his tome (a quote which, coincidentally, also contained the word “fuck”).  So yeah, not your typical conservative fare here.

The primary reason Williamson stands out to me as a writer is namely because he is of the rare breed of self-ascribed conservative who is willing to call out Donald J. Trump for being the phony-ass piece of shit that he actually is.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the true Trump – a self-serving grifter who uses people to get what he needs and then disposes of them like fucking trash when he’s milked all the usefulness he can out of them – yet for some reason, once-proud conservatives nationwide think he’s some kind of savior and swoon every time the fuck-stick tweets (indeed, even as I write this, his sycophants are still out in the streets chanting “Stop The Steal”, over a month after the election that he lost badly).  But not Williamson, who unlike 98% of conservatives managed to ride out the Trump Train with his asshole unpenetrated and his dignity still intact.

The main focus of the book, as the title suggests, is mob politics in our current political climate, or “ochlocracy”, and Williamson tackles the issue bluntly and unapologetically.  The author was once a writer for the The Atlantic, but was eventually fired after a row over his views on abortion, and that event is the undercurrent for much of the “cancel culture” he rails against.  Now, I’m not too keen to spend a lot of time listening to yet another conservative complain about censorship after he posted some way out-of-touch bullshit on social media and then suffers some ramifications for it, but Williamson’s book here is much more than that.  “Free speech” has become such a trite phrase in our politics, but it is a founding principle of our system and Williamson fiercely defends it, even when the speech in question is absurd or offensive (or both).

I was at a Rancid show not too long ago, and during the set Lars made an impassioned plea to the audience to defend free speech, claiming that without it, Rancid (and punk rock in general) would never have been able to flower like it did in the 1980’s & 90’s.  And Lars was right…groups like the PMRC would’ve been more than happy to ban much of the music coming out at the time, but they couldn’t because, yep – free speech.  Williamson in this book makes the same point that Lars made on stage that night, that even when the speech in question is distasteful, the principle that it’s “free” is of the utmost importance because once we lose that, well, then we’re all fucked.

Williamson also points out in this book that “fascism”, despite our knee-jerk tendency to associate it specifically with Hitler and the Nazis, is actually a method, not an ideology.  And to this point, he gets some smug satisfaction in pointing out the absurdity of people who fancy themselves “anti-fascists” using fireworks and other rudimentary weapons to prevent people like Anne Coulter from speaking at liberal universities.

On those larger issues, this book is spot on, and for that alone I would recommend it.  There’s also plenty within to challenge either the conservative- or progressive-minded, and challenging our pre-conceived notions is always a good idea once in a while.  But with that said, I’d be remiss not to unload a couple of criticisms here.

For starters, while I read this book cover to cover, I feel like I only read 60% of it because Williamson relies heavily on footnotes (and he ain’t into the whole brevity thing, either), which stylistically I’m just not a big fan of so I simply stopped reading them after the first few pages.  What you end up with is a book full of needlessly provocative remarks that aren’t actually that provocative, you were just supposed to read the footnote where the author laboriously explains himself.  A classic example is when Williamson used the line “you talk like a fag”, and only upon reading the footnote does he explain that he’s using a well-placed quote from Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.  Of course, if you’re not familiar with Idiocracy and didn’t bother to read that footnote, you’d be left with the impression that Williamson is just another conservative who refers to people as “fags”, which is the type of transparent and lame tactic conservatives resort to in order to generate “outcries” by indignant and gullible progressives and in the process further their anti-PC bona fides.  I can quote Bad Religion, too:  “It’s such a sad state of affairs….”

Williamson is also super obsessed with Antifa, which I suppose is to be expected from a conservative in this day and age, but the author makes so many good points throughout the book about taking a step back and not getting caught up in the groupthink that it really boggles the mind that he’s so bought into this Antifa-as-Satan canard.  He’s a pretty equal-opportunity-offender throughout the book, and certainly doesn’t speak fondly of the Tiki-torch wielding mob that marched in Charlottesville, but that group of KKK-wannabe douchebags earned just a couple of passing remarks, meanwhile “Antifa goons” are harped on ad nauseum throughout.  It’s pretty lame and counter-intuitive to the larger points he’s making in the book.

The saddest part of the book, though, is when Williamson broaches the subject of “corporate personhood”, that bold hill that no conservative ever has passed up the opportunity to die on.  Here’s the author:  “That the idea of a corporation as a ‘legal person’ should be considered controversial in 2018 is another piece of evidence, as though one were needed, of the failure of our educational system.  Without the legal construct of ‘corporate personhood’, a corporation could not, among other things, be taxed or sued or regulated, because there would be no legal entity to tax or to sue or to regulate.”

While you let that sink in, here’s another quote to chew on, this time being the author’s expanded views on the abortion row that led to his firing from The Atlantic:  “…eventually succeeded in bullying Goldberg into firing me, notionally over my views on abortion—i.e., that it is premeditated homicide and should be treated as such under the criminal code.  My views are indeed controversial, even among my fellow pro-lifers, who take the generally patronizing and pusillanimous position that young women in difficult circumstances are basically indistinguishable from thumb-sucking preschoolers who cannot be treated as whole and competent human beings morally accountable for their actions.”

There’s a lot to unpack there in those two statements, but as best as I can tell, the author’s view on “life” meanders somewhere along the lines of:  If you terminate an unborn baby or a corporation, you are a murderer who should go to prison because in both cases you’ve killed off a future tax payer.  Oh yeah, and of course this is the way it is, and if you didn’t already think that way, it’s proof that you went to a hella shitty high school.

Or something like that…?

It’s farcical at times, yes, but don’t let the book’s worst parts turn you off.  Overall, I think it’s an important contribution to this current mess we call life, and we’d be well-served if more people on both sides of the aisle read it.

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All Excess – Occupation: Concert Promoter

By Danny Zelisko

Reviewed by craigo – 11/19/20

This wasn’t a book you actually “read” so much as just flip through and enjoy all the artifacts.  The music history that is captured in the pictures throughout are priceless, and even without any words, would’ve made for a great coffee table book.

But Danny Zelisko does also spin a few good tales throughout, and his combination of music history and Arizona roots sure did make for a fun read.  Chief among those fun stories was the time James Brown came to Phoenix for a night to perform, and then him and his entourage stayed at the Scottsdale Princess for a further week and expected Zelisko to pick up the tab when they checked out.  “James, you better get your apron on, because you’re gonna have to start washing some dishes…” is how Zelisko remembers responding.

Other fun tidbits from the book were reading about some of the various “riders” Zelisko has had to arrange over the years (for the uninitiated, a rider is basically all the demands a band or artist makes in the agreement to come to town, and it’s the promoter’s job to make sure the terms in the rider get met).  The most common riders are for booze and drugs, but apparently some rock stars had some pretty funny ones.  Muddy Waters for example came to Phoenix looking for the “hoochie cooch”—and not even for him, but because smoking pot made Mrs. Waters horny.  And Van Halen apparently wanted a bowl of M&M’s backstage with all the brown M&M’s removed (Zelisko suspects this was simply an easy way for the band to know right away how closely the promoter actually read the rider).

Another fun fact I learned is that Danny Zelisko helped name the Lollapalooza music festival created by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell.  According to Zelisko in the book, he and Farrell were hanging out at the Pointe Resort in Phoenix after a show in the late 80s brainstorming for a name for the new festival.  Farrell was leaning toward “Jamboree”, which Zelisko shot down immediately, and then they both at the same time randomly uttered the word “Lollapalooza” and it stuck.  Who knew?

The coolest part to me though, is that Danny Zelisko sat down and wrote this thing himself.  No co-writers or ghost writers or anything like that, he just typed up his memories and made it a book.  It definitely shows in the cosmetics – there are a couple of typos throughout and the format of the book feels more like a refrigerator manual than an actual book – but somehow that all adds to the charm.  Even though Zelisko became this big time concert promoter, it gives you just a taste of the DIY ethic he’s been operating with his entire life.

Overall this was a fun little book, and since Christmas is around the corner and we’re all on COVID quarantine not going to any real concerts anyway, I’d be remiss not to recommend this as a gift idea for anyone in your circle who enjoys live music.

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No Logo

By Naomi Klein

Reviewed by craigo – 11/11/20

Yeah, I’m like 20 years late to the party here.  This book has literally been on my to-read shelf for a dozen years, and even back then I was already remiss in not having read it.  And it’s just as essential reading now as it was back at the turn of the century when it came out originally.
This actually would’ve been a good primer to the last book I reviewed, Deaths of Despair.  The authors of that book chronicled the downsizing/outsourcing of America’s corporations, and how that has left so many less folks invited to the proverbial company Christmas Party (as well as led to an ever-burgeoning demand for cheap foreign labor).  In No Logo, Naomi Klein chronicles how and why all of that downsizing/outsourcing began – namely because corporations morphed from “companies that proudly built and sold things” to, simply, “brands”.

Nike and Levi’s are primary example used throughout the book.  They used to be companies who designed innovative products, and then made and sold them.  But now they are simply brands, and no one—and I mean, no one, not the company or the consumer or the retailer or fucking anybody—gives  two shits about where the products were made or who made them or how many factories got closed or how many workers left out in the cold.

Klein also addresses corporate consolidation and control of certain messages/markets, and it’s true that, by now, many of the “villains” portrayed by Klein are no longer such.  For example, Blockbuster was a huge brand back in the 90’s, and if you wanted to rent a video, chances were quite good you would do it from them.  Thus, Blockbuster had a lot of control over what movies folks rented and watched, and if they didn’t like a particular message in a particular movie, they didn’t have to carry it.  Of course, then the internet came along and completely nuked Blockbuster’s business model, so they now have no control whatsoever over anything anyone does.  But the principles Klein discuss in the book are as true now as they were back then, and apply equally to the companies that have replaced Blockbuster in the new digital age.

The internet itself is actually one of the subjects of this book that was the most depressing.  Klein references the budding cyberspace a handful of times throughout the book, referring to it (archaically by today’s standards) as “the Net”, and she does so in such optimistic tones that it brings a tear to the eye to read it now.  For example, the internet is referred to at one point as “the most potent weapon in the toolbox of resistance”, and Klein goes on:  “..the Net is more than an organizing tool – it has become an organizing model, a blueprint for decentralized but cooperative decision making.  It facilitates the process of information sharing to such a degree that many groups can work in concert with one another without the need to achieve monolithic consensus.”

As we all know, of course, “monolithic consensus” is about the only thing the internet is good for these days.  Klein waxes poetic about the potential of the internet throughout the book, not realizing that its main achievement would be the dawning of “alternative facts” and the stupefaction of people to such a degree that Mike Judge’s Idiocracy has basically come true.

{Sigh}

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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.”

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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!

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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!”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!