Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park

Posted by nliakos on September 2, 2020

by Marie Winn (Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc. 1998)

In the 1990s, or maybe in the 1980s, a distinctive-looking young male red-tailed hawk was seen by birdwatchers in New York’s Central Park. Although too young to breed, he wooed and won a female. They built a nest and tried to raise a family, but were unsuccessful. Then both hawks were injured, and as a consequence the male (nicknamed Pale Male because of his subdued coloring) was without a mate. The following year, he returned with a new mate. Breeding failed again. Finally, the third year, with a little help from the birdwatchers, Pale Male and his mate succeeded in raising three healthy chicks; then tragedy strikes when the female is killed by a car. Pale Male finds another mate. . . . or wait a minute–can it be? His First Love come back to him? Sadly, this mate too dies when she ingests a poisoned pigeon. Undaunted, Pale Male takes up with a third female, “Blue”. That’s as far as the book goes, but his serial relationships over many years are documented in this Wikipedia article.

Marie Winn is one of those Central Park birdwatchers, as well as a writer. She tells the story of the hawks, the other birds and wildlife in the Park, and the people who make it their business to observe, advocate for, feed, and protect them. It’s an enchanting story, complete with hawk romance, loss, and parenting, as well as vignettes of the brother-and-sisterhood of bird lovers that forms around the hawks. These human park visitors take care of one another and learn from one another. To read this book was like breathing fresh air after being down in a coal mine reading about Donald Trump, racism, and artificial intelligence making human beings obsolete. If those hawks could raise a family in the middle of New York City, perhaps we can take our country back from the clutches of this president and his goon squad.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, Non-fiction, Pandemic Lockdown | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2020

by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper Collins 2016)

Although he insists that his vision of the future is only “possibilities”, rather than predictions, Yuval Noah Harari’s ideas of the future of the Earth and its species are pretty bleak, and I found this book really depressing and hard to get through. Harari is essentially saying that my humanist values will become extinct, along with my species, as the world becomes a giant data processor. While I am not likely to live to see this dystopian world, it is frightening to think of my daughter, my nieces and nephews, and their children having to live in it. And a mere four years after Harari published Homo Deus, some of those possibilities seem to be on the verge of becoming probabilities… or realities.

Chapter 1, “The New Human Agenda” serves as an introduction to the book. Briefly, the agenda is (1) immortality (overcoming aging, disease, death); (2) bliss (the pursuit of happiness); and (3) divinity (reimagining Homo Sapiens as godlike cyber-beings with special powers. (We already have powers that eclipse those of the gods of the ancient world: think of advancements in medicine, transportation, and communication for starters.)

Part One: Homo Sapiens Conquers the World

Chapter 2, “The Anthropocene” describes how our species has conquered all other species (BUT mosquitoes? rats? viruses? bacteria?) and changed the planet’s ecology. We are as gods relative to other species with whom we “share” the planet. First, there was animism, the idea that all things are imbued with a spirit of their own and are in that sense equal to each other. (I like to think I am an animist by nature.) The humans of that time, hunter-gatherers, were just another species among many, and all were holy and had value. Animism was succeeded by the theist religions which developed after the Agricultural Revolution; they taught that human beings are unique in the world and deserving of special treatment; the needs and feelings of other species were deemed unworthy of consideration. Only man was “sanctified”, and a farm was the model for new societies, complete with masters, inferior races to exploit, wild animals to exterminate, and God to sanction everything.

It is in this chapter that Harari defines an algorithm as “a methodical set of steps. . . used to make calculations, resolve problems, and reach decisions.” Examples are math problems, recipes, and beverage vending machines, and include sensations, emotions, and desires. He will later claim that we are in the process of reducing everything in the world to algorithms–including life and human experience; it is a critical concept.

Chapter 3, “The Human Spark” asks whether Homo Sapiens is unique or not. Are we superior to other life forms? Monotheistic religions all claim that human beings have an immortal soul in addition to our temporary physical form, yet science cannot show the existence of the soul. Even the mind (“a flow of subjective experiences. . . made of interlinked sensations, emotions, and thoughts, which flash for a brief moment, and immediately disappear”) cannot to proven to exist in a physical sense. Consciousness arises from the mind; they are distinct from the physical brain and neural network. Is the mind created by electrochemical reactions in the brain? (If so, we don’t know how.) We cannot deny our subjective experiences, e.g., pain, yet sciences has been unable to show that human consciousness rises above that of other animals. We are able to control other species because we have the ability to collaborate flexibly in large communities, using shared stories (e.g., holy scriptures) to create a community of strangers. Intersubjective entities are human constructs such as money, nations, gods, and laws, in which people believe. . . until they don’t. “Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination.”

Part Two: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Chapter 4, “The Story Tellers” focuses on the Cognitive Revolution, when humans developed language to give voice to their thoughts, which strengthened the intersubjective networks of the human brain, enabling such activities as collecting taxes and organizing complex bureaucracies. The powerful forced their fictions such as money and holy writings on others. These stories are tools in the quest for power over reality.

Chapter 5, “The Odd Couple” refers to science, which seeks power, and religion, which seeks order. Science can change reality, and religion can confer legitimacy on human laws, norms, values, and social structures. All human societies believe in some system of moral law not invented by people, and followers of each religion believe theirs to be the only true religion. Religion is different from spirituality, and the quest for truth is a spiritual journey. Science needs religion to create institutions. (“God hides in the fine print of factual statements.”) Humanism is also a religion in which humans are the beings that are worshipped.

Chapter 6, “The Modern Covenant” turns its attention to modern societies, which have relinquished the meaning conferred on the world by theism in order to acquire power. Here society is fueled by scientific progress and economic growth, which is seen as the answer to everything. We believe that when we produce more, we can consume more, and consumption leads to happiness. Also, when populations increase, we must produce more just to stay the same. Lack of growth leads to redistribution of wealth (terrible!), so everything else can be sacrificed for growth. But infinite growth requires infinite resources, leading to an impossible situation: ecological collapse. For example, the only way to stop climate change is to cease growth, but this is not in human nature, which is greedy, always wanting more stuff. Free market capitalism has brought us many positive outcomes (it has to a large extent overcome famine, plague, and war), but we have paid for these gains with a loss of meaning.

Chapter 7, “The Humanist Revolution” discusses this new religion which attempts to create meaning in a world devoid of meaning. The highest authority is no longer God, but our free will. That which causes suffering is bad. Life is seen as a gradual process of inner change; life experiences lead us from ignorance to enlightenment. Science’s yang (power, reason, laboratories, factories) contrasts with humanism’s yin (ethics, emotion, museums and supermarkets), and we believe that we should follow our feelings and do what feels good. Orthodox humanism (liberalism) is contrasted with socialist humanism (communism) and evolutionary humanism (fascism, Nazism).

Part Three: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Chapter 8, “The Time Bomb in the Laboratory” concerns scientific advancements which establish the lack of an immortal soul or even a stable self. We are just a collection of electrical impulses, with no power over our own thoughts.

Chapter 9, “The Great Decoupling” of intelligence from consciousness will (or might) bring about the end of the liberal philosophy. Humans will no longer be relevant or required to make the economy run or win wars; value will be in the collective but not in individuals; valued individuals will belong to a new class of superhumans. Non-conscious intelligence (i.e., AI) uses algorithms to recognize patterns in everything, enabling it to outperform humans in many areas, leading to a loss of jobs for working people. Jobs already in danger include stockbrokers, truck drivers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and pharmacists. People will become unemployable and irrelevant. (The Republican lack of concern for working people’s access to healthcare, adequate housing, and a living wage perhaps stems from their view of people as dispensable and disposable.) Favorite quote: “In the Twenty-first Century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”

Chapter 10, “The Ocean of Consciousness” considers “techno-humanism”, a new religion that sees humans as the apex of everything (Homo Deus). Humanism commands us to know ourselves and to follow our dreams, and techno-humanism provides the chemical (pharmaceutical) tools to do that.

Chapter 11, “The Data Religion” is probably the scariest chapter. Dataism is the name Harari gives to the belief that the universe consists of data flows. The life sciences’ biochemical algorithms and computer science’s electronic algorithms combine to turn everything into data, and all systems into data processing systems. These can be distributed (capitalism) or centralized (communism). This Technical Revolution moves faster than political processes. Favorite quote: “The government tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare. It is overwhelmed by data.” Everyone is overwhelmed by data, and power belongs to anyone or anything that can handle it. Governments become mere managers of nations. No one knows where the power has gone. The rich can make more profits for themselves, but they can’t stop climate change or eliminate inequality. In the short run, dataism can help (some?) people acquire health, happiness, and power, but in the long run it can make us obsolete.

Three key questions:

(1) Are organism really just algorithms? Is life really just data processing?

(2) Which is more valuable: intelligence or consciousness?

(3) What will happen when nonconscious algorithms know us better than we know ourselves (which is sort of true already)?

It all reminds me of the possibly apocryphal Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Pandemic Lockdown, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Angry Tide: A Novel of Cornwall, 1798 – 1799 (Poldark series #7)

Posted by nliakos on August 10, 2020

By Winston Graham (Macmillan 1978)

The saga continues! Ross and Demelza struggle to regain their mutual trust and comfort in each other’s company after the death of Hugh Armitage; they travel together to London, where Ross’s jealousy and Demelza’s natural innocence lead to an illegal duel between Ross and the odious Monk Adderley (a very Dickensian name: Adderley is very much like a snake.) in which Ross is injured and Adderley killed.

Drake Carne plans to wed Rosina Hoblyn, on the advice of Demelza and Sam, but as soon as he learns of the untimely death of the Rev. Osborne Whitworth, he breaks off the relationship the day before the wedding, causing much ill feeling in the community. Still, it takes the traumatized Morwenna a long time to liberate herself from the Whitworth household; even when she eventually leaves her son in the care of her horrible mother-in-law, she carries with her a revulsion with the touch of any man, even Drake, who promises to forego sex if she will only consent to marry him, which she finally does. The TV series suggests that Morwenna longed for her son, but in the book, she doesn’t appear to suffer from the separation and even says that she suspects he will grow up to be like his father, implying that she doesn’t even like him very much.

Dwight and Caroline’s little daughter dies in infancy, as Dwight had predicted, and Caroline runs away to London to escape her grief, she serves as Demelza’s confidante while she is in London with Ross. They return to Cornwall with each other’s spouses; Demelza with Dwight, followed by Ross with Caroline, who admit being attracted to each other but are careful not to act on the attraction.

George Warleggan contrives to ruin the honest banker, Harris Pascoe; Demelza, and then Ross do everything in their power to save his good name, and in the end, both Pascoe and Ross end up on the board of another bank still competing against the Warleggans’ bank.

I still don’t understand the workings of the English Parliament, which seems totally corrupt and completely undemocratic. I confess I did not pay very careful attention to the passages describing its business.

Posted in Fiction, History, Pandemic Lockdown | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Posted by nliakos on August 1, 2020

by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press 2018)

Robin DiAngelo works to help white Americans understand their inevitable racism. Racism is inevitable because we have been raised in a racist society, but we are taught not to talk about it, and we learn to ignore it. Black people can’t ignore racism; their very survival depends on their ability to read us. But we have decided that being racist makes us bad people, and since we don’t see ourselves as bad, we must not be racists. DiAngelo says it is normal for humans to have prejudice. Despite our best intentions, there will be times when we discriminate against or stereotype people. She urges us to struggle against this learned racism, to seek out and not be offended by honest feedback. We can use our white privilege to fight institutional racism in ways that people of color cannot. But we should not expect them to do our work for us. It is up to us to educate ourselves about the problem. Once we have a better understanding of how racism weighs unfairly on people of color in our society, it is our responsibility to change it. We need to be willing to feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to accept some things, but our inability to see ourselves clearly is what makes us “fragile” and causes us to avoid discussions about race and to deny that we have benefited from racism.

An example of how our world view is fundamentally racist is the popular film The Blind Side. This film plays constantly on one of our local channels; I have seen it, or parts of it, numerous times. It tells the story of professional football player Michael Oher, who was taken in and eventually adopted by a wealthy white family in Tennessee. It’s a “feel-good” movie (for me). The characters are likable, and there’s a happy ending. I did realize that the movie seems to be more about Leigh Anne Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, than it is about Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aron; Leigh Anne is Michael’s rescuer in many ways. But DiAngelo made me see how the movie feeds into many white stereotypes about black people: that they are either childlike and not very smart, or dangerous criminals. Michael succeeds only because he is rescued from poverty and homelessness by the Tuohys. Even the youngest Tuohy, little SJ, understands football better than Michael does. Thanks to this book, I will never see The Blind Side in quite the same way again.

DiAngelo writes, We can interrupt our white fragility and build our capacity to sustain cross-racial honesty. . . . We can challenge our own racial reality. . . . We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction . . . . We can take action to address . . . racism. . . .We can educate ourselves about the history of race relations in our country. We can follow the leadership on antiracism from people of color. . . . We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. And most important, we must break the silence about race and racism with other white people. It’s a lot to ask. But how can we refuse? We have benefited from racism for too long.

Posted in Non-fiction, Pandemic Lockdown, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump–and Democrats from Themselves

Posted by nliakos on July 14, 2020

by Rick Wilson (Crown Forum/Random House 2020)

In this book, Wilson tells the Democratic Party and its as-yet-unknown nominee how to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020. The two most salient takeaways:

  1. Make the election a referendum about Trump. Period.
  2. Put all your money and effort into 15 Electoral College swing states.

In addition, don’t scare off unhappy Trump voters and independents with a too-progressive agenda. Recognize that middle America is not New York or Boston or San Francisco.

What’s eerily interesting is that when Wilson was writing the book, there was no pandemic; there was no economic shutdown; there was no presumptive Democratic nominee. He assumed that Trump would be running on a strong economy. But sometimes he seems prescient (“the sweeping crisis… or financial meltdown…”).

I hope those in charge of directing Biden’s campaign have read Wilson’s book and are paying attention to it, even if they don’t follow his advice to the letter. He’s like the spy come in from the cold, and we had better take advantage of what he knows.

Contents:

  1. Part I: The Case Against Trump, or Four More Years in Hell
    1. Four More Years in Hell (Make this election a referendum on Trump.)
    2. American Swamp (A look at the “lavish and obvious” corruption of this man and this administration. And if you think the last four years were bad, the next four will be exponentially worse.)
    3. The Crazy Racist Uncle Act…Isn’t an Act (Yes, he really is as bad as he seems. And aging is not improving him.)
    4. Cruelty as Statecraft (This administration’s cruelty to immigrant children can be used against it.)
    5. Trump’s Economic Bullshit Machine (Trump lied to middle-class voters with his Tax Scam.)
    6. Generalissimo Trump and Pillow Fortress America (How Trump’s America is at a disadvantage in the world.)
    7. All Rise: President McConnell’s Courts (How McConnell has taken advantage of Harry Reid’s undoing of the judicial filibuster to pack the federal courts with young conservative judges “who will have a profound effect on the legal landscape of this country”)
    8. The Environment (Expect the worst if Trump wins in 2020.)
    9. Imperial Trumps (After the Donald, The Large Adult Sons, “creepy automaton Jared Kushner” and Ivanka)
    10. Our National Soul (The next generation will emulate Trump, devoid of compassion, ready to mock others; they will think it’s OK bully, lie, and cheat. “Trump is a complete package of the Founders’ greatest fears…”)
    11. The Mission (Defeat Trump, in spite of yourselves.)
  2. Part 2: The Myths of 2020
    1. It’s a National Election (Keep your eyes on the prize: the Electoral College. A major theme.)
    2. The Policy Delusion (Democrats are addicted to policy, but average voters make choices based on emotions, language, presentation, charisma. The Democratic base “will crawl over broken glass to vote against him.” Target the rest: make the election about Trump.)
    3. America Is So Woke (Social-media Dems vs. actual Dems. Candidates should not get too far out in front of the voters. The Hidden Tribes’ five categories of Dem voters. Basically: not as woke as we Progressive Activists think.)
    4. Kumbaya (Wilson’s plea that the Democratics winnow the field and get down to the business of running against Trump)
    5. You’ll Get Obama’s Minority Turnout (Don’t assume anything. Enlist the wildly popular Obamas to turn them out.)
    6. Muh Youth Vote (Don’t count on young voters to turn out in their masses to defeat him. “Old people vote…. [and] in the swing states… really old people.”)
  3. Part 3: Army of Darkness: Trump’s War Machine
    1. The Trump 2020 War Machine (the GOP, Fox News, “earned media propelled by social media”, Data Propria [fka Cambridge Analytica], paid TV ads, mammoth fundraising, field organizing, opposition research, Russian help)
    2. Never Underestimate Incumbency (presidential whims, unilateral actions, surprises…)
    3. Trump’s Messages and Strategies (“grievance culture”, Trump as hero, instill fear in voters)
    4. No Heroes in the GOP (Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Congressional Republicans terrified of Trump’s anger and his “mob”)
    5. His Fucking Twitter Feed, Fakebook, and Fox Agitporn (Fox News is “an unmatched weapon in Trump’s arsenal”; “[Trump’s] Twitter feed is the very maw of hell.” Fact-checking is useless and makes the base believe the lies all the more.
    6. The Mainstream Media (They can’t stop reporting on Trump’s antics. Democrats must attack; they must push out their own messages, not just push back on Trump’s lies.)
    7. Deepfake Nation (Doctored video clips pushing out lies: “an existential threat to the Democratic nominee”)
    8. You Have No Secrets (You can’t hide, so assume every secret will out; think how it can be turned into an attack; the best way to counter attacks is “an endless, chainsaw offense.”)
    9. The Death of Truth (You can’t persuade Trump voters with facts. Instead, discredit the liar.)
  4. Part 4: How to Lose
    1. Flying by the Seat of Your Pants (Democrats are terrible at politics.)
    2. Playing the Campaign, Losing the Reality Show (Use TV to your advantage; debates are crucial; attack Trump’s ego and story.)
    3. Asking the Wrong Polling Questions (Beware the Socially Desirable Response; court shy Trump voters, shy Democrats, and Never Trump Republicans.)
    4. Magical Thinking (Democrats want to believe the best of people. It won’t work. Don’t believe national polls; they tell you about the popular vote only. Don’t depend on voters¬† to think through complicated policies. The base is not enough. Organize, plan, be disciplined, depend on data, metrics, and accountability.)
    5. The Culture War: Where Democrats Go to Die (“Democrats who get lured into playing the Social Justice Olympics of Political Correctness are going to lose forty-plus states.” E.g., (3rd trimester) abortion, which more voters oppose than progressives suppose.)
    6. Reviving the Clintons (Keep them out of it.)
    7. The Danger of Democratic Trumps (Ambitious Democrats looking beyond 2020)
    8. Taking the Infrastructure Week Bait (You can’t make a deal with Trump, so stop trying.)
    9. Externalities Are a Bitch (October surprises can be engineered or “external”. Our external events are the novel coronavirus and the economic collapse, but Wilson could not have predicted those specifically; he says only, “the sweeping crisis, international incident, or financial meltdown that no one plans for….” And of course, they didn’t come in October, so maybe we will confront still more weirdnesses before the election. In 2016, it was Comey and the renewed review of Clinton’s emails. Anyway, expect a load of lies. Be prepared to respond, and laugh down the accuser.)
  5. Part 5: How to Win
    1. Only Fight the Electoral College Map (You will never make a dent in deep-red states; the deep-blue ones take care of themselves. “The election is already over in roughly thirty-five states.”) Based on a Cook Partisan Voting Index of fewer than 10 points either way, the battleground states are Florida (29 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Georgia (16), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Arizona (11), Minnesota (10), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), Maine (4), and New Hampshire (4). Wilson devotes a paragraph to each.)
    2. Speaking American (How to communicate with the masses: different words for different folks. Specific examples are given. “I’m teaching you to lie.” Tell voters they matter.)
    3. The First Rule of Trump Fight Club (“Once you attack, you must press on.” “Decency is your enemy.” Attack Trump personally, in ways that will upset him most.)
    4. Start Early (Obvious)
    5. Start Advertising. Now. (Same)
    6. No More Potemkin Campaigns (An empirical campaign, driven by data. Forget ideology. Hire the right people, not your friends or also-rans. Register new voters. Capitalize early voting, mail-in ballots [Yes! He says this.], and field operations.)
    7. Make the Worst of Trump’s Base His Running Mate (Bannon, Gorka, Stephen Miller, Richard Spencer, David Duke, etc. Make Trump own them.)
    8. Reaching Trump Voters, If You Must–and Sadly, You Must (Find a way to accepting disillusioned Trump supporters into the fold. “Turn regret and remorse into votes….” Trump’s Republican support is high because many Republicans don’t identify as Republicans in polls. J. D. Vance notwithstanding, “The tribal nature of Trumpism is seated in a host of racial and ethnic hatreds.”¬† Ignore the evangelicals; they are a lost cause.)
    9. Be the Party of Markets, Families, and Security (Democrats have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take over traditionally Republican brands which have been abandoned by Trump. Focus on the pre-existing conditions issue in healthcare.)
    10. Third Parties and Spoilers (Did you know Republicans are responsible for many of the third-party candidates that have split the Democratic vote in past elections? Wilson recommends Democrats turn the tables and use this same tactic. Get billionaire Democratic donors to support “real and fake third-party options” like the Libertarian Party [but he predicts the national and state GOP will fight hard to discourage challengers–which they did.] And winnow down your field quickly. Well, we are past that, and it kind of worked out that way–thanks to the pandemic.)
    11. Investigate + Interrogate > Impeach (Wilson warns against impeachment unless removal follows. “Trump cannot be shamed. Ever.”)
    12. The Target List (Attack Trump enablers and consultants, like those with scam PACs, David Bossie, Corey Lewandowski, Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone (too late!)
  6. Part 6: Epilogue
    1. Election Night, November 3, 2020 (Fantasizing how it might go if Democrats follow Wilson’s advice)

 

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Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever

Posted by nliakos on July 3, 2020

by Rick Wilson (Simon and Schuster 2018)

Rick Wilson, one of the founders of The Lincoln Project, is a staunch Never-Trumper. I think this is his first book about Trump; the second is Running Against the Devil, which I have begun but not yet finished. I read a review of ETTD in which the reviewer wonders who the target audience is; I was wondering the same thing, because Trump supporters won’t read it, and Democrats and others opposed to Trump already know pretty much everything he writes. I was not surprised by his claims, but I was sometimes put off by the vehement, nasty tone–it seems Wilson almost never has anything good to say about anybody, and uses lots of obscenity, just to make sure the reader knows how he feels. For example, in Chapter 1, he addresses Trump supporters, defining a word he assumes they won’t know and adding nastily, “I know you’re in an oxy stupor much of the time, so I’ll try to move slowly and not use big words.” Wilson has seen the light and recognized Donald Trump for what he is, and he has no patience for anyone who hasn’t. (Well, me too.)

Wilson also has advice for us Democrats (which he will no doubt expand upon in Running Against the Devil): like don’t insist on a set of national standards because regions are different. For example, we should not insist on our candidates’ supporting reproductive rights. Similarly, Democrats’ position on gun control turns off “almost every white male in the country over the age of 35.” (The same could be said for Republicans. How well do they tolerate pro-choice and pro-gun-control candidates?)

Wilson acknowledges that today’s Republicans have ceded the high ground on fiscal discipline, so he suggests that Democrats could make this issue their own (not likely).”The reality of the Trump-Ryan tax cut,” he writes, “is that it is a spectacular, budget-busting payday for Wall Street. Full stop.” He denies sounding like a Democrat; instead, he claims to be “a fiscal conservative who believes in a tax system that is broad and simple and treats every American equally.” But when fighting the Tax Scam, as we called it, we said the same thing, and have been criticizing it ever since.

He notes that most Americans do not trust the federal government (no surprise there, and thanks to the Republicans!). Trumpism, Wilson writes, is fundamentally pessimistic; “a central tenet of Trumpism is to run down the people of this country and describe a nation so weak and lost it requires an authoritarian strongman.” (True: remember “American carnage” at his inauguration?)

Wilson places much of the blame for Trump’s excesses on Fox News, which “actively elected to elide Trump’s endless catalogue of ideological sins, thinly veiled racism, moral shortcomings, mob ties, Russian money men, personal weirdness, endemic cheating, trophy wives, serial bankruptcies, persistent tax shenanigans, low-grade intellect, conspiracy email-forwarding kooky grandpa affect and disregard for American values and standards.” I don’t think he misses much. And we’ve certainly heard it before from our side. Of Fox, he writes that it presents “counterfactual conspiracy nonsense, yahooism, . . . jingoism, deep and overt bias. . . , and out-of-context smears.” He is horrified by Trump’s ” war on the press.” So yes, he does kind of sound like a Democrat sometimes!

Wilson claims not to like us Democrats, despite agreeing with us on a lot of issues, and he doesn’t have any faith that we can beat Trump in the coming election. In Running Against the Devil, he will attempt to explain to us how to do it. In the Epilogue, he writes, “Everything about Donald Trump’s presidency is a disaster for America. The victories Republicans think they have achieved are transitory and ephemeral and come at the cost of their principles and, probably, their immortal souls. He is a stain on the party, on conservatism, and on this country that won’t easily wash out.”

What he said. But I’m still not sure who the audience is supposed to be, because I already knew that.

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Animals as Teachers and Healers: True Stories and Reflections

Posted by nliakos on July 2, 2020

by Susan Chernak McElroy (New Sage Press 1996)

The author collected stories of amazing animal behavior and shared them in this book. Cats and dogs show special empathy for their human companions. A therapy dog succeeds reaches a reserved girl in the hospital for cancer treatment. An abused horse gives her owner the courage to leave an abusive relationship. A woman comes to term with childhood incest by swimming with dolphins. A skunk magically appears to help a woman see her ex-boyfriend clearly. The author explores our fascination with and hatred for wolves. Why do we hate them so much that we attribute to them every evil desire and habit, when we are by far the worst predators? Lots more. Do you have a story of a special relationship you had with an animal?

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One Man’s Owl

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2020

by Bernd Heinrich (Princeton University Press 1987)

I picked this up at Wonder Book in Rockville because it reminded me of Wesley the Owl, which I loved. One Man’s Owl is more academic than Wesley; Heinrich is a zoologist at the University of Vermont. But the relationship between Heinrich and “his” owl Bubo is not terribly different from the relationship of Wesley and his “girl”, except that in that case, the owl clearly came to see his rescuer as his mate, whereas that is not clear in the case of Heinrich and Bubo (whom Heinrich never definitively sexes despite his use of masculine pronouns).

Heinrich is pretty obsessive about recording all the birds, insects, small mammals and other tidbits he finds dead on the road, killed by his wife’s cat, or captures alive and offers to Bubo. A Great Horned Owl is a master predator and a carnivore, so if you are raising an owl, you have to keep it fed. Still, I could have done without the details of furry little mammals and songbirds eaten by Bubo.

Heinrich illustrated the book himself with really beautiful pen-and-ink drawings of amazing detail, of Bubo and of other species.

Both books make clear that living with an owl is all-consuming. Not a part-time occupation!

Posted in Biology and environmental science, Memoir, Non-fiction, Pandemic Lockdown, Science | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Tevye’s Daughters: Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2020

Translated by Frances Butwin; illustrated by Ben Shahn (Crown Publishers 1949)

Who hasn’t seen Fiddler on the Roof, the Broadway musical (later made into a movie musical) based on stories about Tevye the Dairyman by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, aka Sholom Aleichem? Friends recently gave me the DVD, and we watched it again, which inspired me to read the stories in this 1949 edition, which may have been my mother’s, but then again, it may have been my uncle George’s, or my aunt Sonya’s. In any case, there it was, so I read it.

There are twenty-seven stories in all, six featuring Tevye: “Modern Children”, “Hodel”, “Chava”, “Schprintze”, “Tevye Goes to Palestine”, and “Get Thee Out.” These are all narrated by Tevye, the dairyman from the village of Kasrilevka (not Anatevka!), and addressed to Sholom Aleichem; most concern the marriages of his daughters: Tzeitl, the eldest, who loves Motel the tailor (who is from Anatevka, as is Lazer-Wolf the butcher, who would also like to marry Tzeitl); Hodel, who loves a revolutionary and follows him into exile; Chava, who marries a Russian Christian, prompting Tevye to consider her as dead; Schprintze, who falls in love with Aaronchik, a rich idle young man who allows his mother and uncle to spirit him away without so much as a goodbye, leaving Schprintze to waste away and finally take her own life; and Beilke, the youngest, who marries a rich but quite contemptible man. Only Teibel, for some reason, does not have a story. Fiddler on the Roof, of course, is based on the stories of the three eldest; but it also borrows from “Get Thee Out”, the story of how the Jews were forced to leave their ancestral villages and move to the towns. Many, Tevye among them, chose to emigrate instead. Tevye is a memorable character, soft-hearted and more flexible than he would like to be (except in the case of Chava; he really struggles to forgive her for marrying a Christian). The translator writes in her Introduction: “Tevye is unique among Sholom Aleichem’s characters. No other character displays his peculiar blend of innocence and shrewdness, kindliness and iron, weakness and toughness.”

The other stories are mostly about (or are narrated by) the Jews of Kasrilevka, Anatevka, Yehupetz and other villages in the vicinity. They are interspersed among the Tevye stories, just as they were originally published. In “The Man from Buenos Aires”, for instance, the narrator recounts a train trip where he makes a new friend, a mysterious rich man who claims to have made his fortune in Argentina. The narrator is suspicious because the man refuses to divulge what exactly it is that he sells. The story ends inconclusively, with the man saying only what he does not deal in (prayer books), leaving the actual product to the imagine of the narrator and the reader both. In “An Easy Fast”, poor Chaim Chaikin starves himself to death rather than see his children go hungry. And in “Gy-Ma-Na-Si-A”, the narrator’s wife becomes obsessed with sending their son to high school, no matter his questionable academic credentials, the high cost of the school, and the discrimination he faces because he is Jewish. The family impoverishes itself to send the boy to high school, only to have him join a student strike.

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Blanche on the Lam (Blanche White Series #1)

Posted by nliakos on May 20, 2020

by Barbara Neely (narrated by Lisa Marie Pitts) (originally published by St. Martin’s, 1992)

I used to love mysteries and detective novels, but I’ve kind of gotten away from those genres in the past few years. Life is beginning to look too short to read about people killing one another. But I was intrigued by the Blanche White series, as the sleuth is a “traditionally built” African American woman who works as a domestic–an ideal position for observing one’s employers’ behavior. I put a hold on the first in the series on Libby, and only later realized that I had inadvertently reserved an audiobook. So Blanche on the Lam was my first experience with an audiobook from Libby. I was pleasantly surprised. The technology was seamless and intuitive. The book sync’ed accurately between my tablet and my phone, so it didn’t matter which I listened to it on. If I didn’t hear something or my mind wandered, I could rewind a little bit with a simple left-to-right swipe on the “cover” and listen again. If I was listening to the book in bed, I could set it to turn itself off in 30 minutes. If I had wanted to, I could have speeded up the narration up to twice as fast (but I didn’t want to). My only complaint is that “View Title Details” did not yield pub date or publisher; I had to google those, and I still don’t know who published the narrated version.

The story is set in small town North Carolina, where Blanche is from, where her mother still lives, and where Blanche has brought her sister’s children after the death of her sister. She is free-lancing as a domestic worker but finds herself in court on a charge of bouncing checks. She is shocked when the judge sentences her to time in jail and takes advantage of an escape opportunity, then takes a job with a rich white family to lie low until she can leave the state. Her employers include Miz Grace, Grace’s husband Everett, her aunt Emmeline, and her cousin Mumsfield, who has Down’s Syndrome. Except for Mumsfield, nobody is quite what they seem; three people die in suspicious circumstances, and Blanche finds herself being pursued by a homicidal maniac. But all’s well that ends well (except for the ones who got murdered).

I enjoyed Blanche’s perspective for a change and appreciated her musings on white and black people. And I liked her earthiness. I’m not sure if I will seek out the three sequels (life being as short as it is), but in case I decide to, they are: #2: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth; 3: Blanche Cleans Up; and #4: Blanche Passes Go.

Favorite quotation: She tugged her panties into a more comfortable relationship with her crotch. (Now who among us hasn’t had to do that on occasion?)

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