“The Book of Dust” is a surreal story told by a master narrator. Pullman combines magical fantasy with speculative science. The drama of Pullman’s story captures your attention with a story about a boy and girl struggling with maturity in a world turned upside down by a disastrous flood. Phillip Pullman’s extraordinary imagination is amplified by Michael Sheen’s oral presentation.
Human nature is on display. People are not always what they seem. Every person has an image of themselves and others that is revealed by what they do; not by how they look, or what they think. Pullman implies there is a presence in each of us that is illustrated by an individualized demon.
In Pullman’s imagination that demon is attached to our being and cannot be separated except by death or extraordinary circumstance.
The demon is like a talking spirit that changes form in ways that reinforce feelings and thoughts of its companion. It advises, directs, and illustrates contradictions and affirmations in its companion’s life.
Volume 1 of Pullman’s trilogy sets the table for an ongoing story with three principal characters. Lyra is a baby in Volume 1 but seems destined to be the main character that carries secrets and mysteries to be revealed in future volumes.
Lyra holds a mysterious power as an offspring of an estranged husband and wife who are on opposite sides of a political divide. One side appears to be autocratic: the other loosely democratic.
Volume 1’s hero is an eleven-year-old boy named Malcolm. Alice is Malcolm’s fierce companion in a dangerous escape from a mad scientist, a horrendous flood, and an autocratic government agency. The two young protagonists struggle in their relationship with each other. They have a pact to protect Lyra. Both are pursued by the mad scientist who is determined to murder Malcolm, ravage Alice, and either kidnap or kill the baby.
Pullman’s appeal is partly in the adventure but also in the sprinkling of “dust” that seems to have something to do with quantum unpredictability.
Both threads of Pullman’s story appeal to a reader/listener’s fascination with the adventure and puzzles of magic, religion, and science. A third interest comes from those who just enjoy well told fictional stories.
The first volume will lure many into the second and third of Pullman’s trilogy.
Narrated by Norbert Leo Butz, Heather Lind, Vincent Piazza
Jennifer Egan (American novelist)
“Manhattan Beach” is a mystery. Egan tells the fictional story of Anna, raised in an Irish family, among New York Italian mobsters during WWII. The story unfolds with revelations about its characters. “Manhattan Beach” reveals the contradictions of human life. It exposes the good and bad of every human life, whether male or female, law abiding, or criminal.
Manhattan Beach in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Anna grows to adulthood from a childhood interrupted by her father’s disappearance. She is 14 years old when he disappears. Her father left some money to the family, but without a word about where he went or what had happened. Egan adds to the mystery with Anna’s father’s meeting with an Italian mobster, two years before her father’s disappearance. Anna is at the meeting. She is 12 years old.
Anna’s father has an eidetic memory. That skill leads him to be hired by the mobster. The mobster uses Anna’s father’s detailed memory to keep tabs on employees and operations of a nation-wide gambling syndicate.
The mobster is the biggest financial contributor to the boss of the syndicate. Anna’s father’s eidetic memory helps the mobster, but it also creates a potential risk to the syndicate. It could be used to reveal the details of its criminal activity.
Later, Anna meets the mobster her father worked for, but she is now in her early twenties. She chooses not to reveal her real name. She thinks she might find some clue about what happened to her father. She and the mobster begin an affair. She reveals her real name, and the mystery begins to unfold.
A listener wonders is her father dead or alive? The mobster believes he is dead, but Egan reveals the father’s life as an officer in the merchant marines, after his disappearance. A listener now begins to understand what might have happened. One becomes interested in how the story ends. That is what makes Egan’s story interesting and worth completing.
This is not the greatest story ever told but it is entertaining. It illustrates how similar and equal men and women are–both in good, bad, and ethical qualities.
Thomas Sowell (Author, Economist, Political Pundit)
Thomas Sowell offers a scholarly and cogent history of discrimination, and slavery, but like all who report facts of the past, Sowell’s book narrows the complete story.
Thomas Sowell seems to have agreed to a book title to create sales; not promote an insightful analysis of discrimination. He fails to convince one of an inheritable “Redneck/Liberal” meme that permeates the American South to perpetuate human discrimination.
Sowell’s argument is a Redneck culture and White Liberals explain the plight of Black Americans. It is a false theory because of his selective collection and use of facts. Unequal treatment and opportunity are based on difference, a much broader human label than redneck, liberal, or conservative.
The color of one’s skin is such an obvious difference; it magnifies discrimination.
This is not to say, as Sowell notes, that history shows Blacks did not victimize their own people. It is that color of one’s skin entails a host of false assumptions about people of color, particularly by those in positions of power.
Sowell is certainly correct about culture as an identifiable difference that causes discrimination, but skin color magnifies difference, particularly when those in power are white. Putting aside that disagreement, Sowell’s book is a first-rate history of what has happened to minorities who are different from those in power.
“Rednecks” and “White Liberals” are only a minority in political twitter. Any human being might be classified as “Redneck” or “White Liberal”. There is no categorization that fully describes “Redneck” or “White Liberal” in Thomas Sowell’s book.
One might agree with Sowell that both Blacks and whites can be “Rednecks” but there is no “Redneck” culture. There are rich who live in fine houses. There are poor who are homeless. There are unemployed looking for work. There are unemployed not looking for work. There are able-bodied and disabled; some of which work, some not. Any of them can be “Rednecks”, “Liberals”, or “Conservatives”. Many came from Europe, England, South American, Africa, and Asia to settle in America. There cultures, and indigenous Indians evolved in America from what they were in the countries in which they were born. The circumstances of America changed them. What did not change is human nature’s habit of discrimination based on difference.
Sowell suggests that “Redneck” culture originated in parts of England. He characterizes the culture as uneducated, mean-spirited, and violent. In the dictionary the definition of “Redneck” is defined as “a working-class white person, especially a politically reactionary one from a rural area”.
Sowell suggests poor education, meanness, and violence are inherited by the American south’s settlement by English immigrants. This is a distortion of the South’s history, England’s lower economic class, and the south’s environment.
Many abolitionist thinkers and doers in the world came from the American South. Some were white. Robert Carter III, the grandson of a Virginia land baron manumitted 500 slaves in the 1700s, Robert Purvis born in Charleston, South Carolina helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, the Grimke sisters deplored slavery in the south and limitations on the rights of women, Francis White founded the Nashoba Commune in Tennessee that was formed to prepare slaves for emancipation, John Brown led the insurrection at Harpers Ferry Virginia because he believed “moral suasion is hopeless” in abolishing slavery.
Some were black. Martin Delany, born in Virginia, insisted on Negroes controlling their destiny, James Bradley from Kentucky, who was a transported slave from Africa. He purchased his freedom and became an anti-slavery advocate in the Arkansas Territory.
Sowell is on firmer ground when writing about the middlemen merchant class. The middleman and woman are between producer and consumer that rise from an industrialized and now technocratic society. This middleman is the manufacturing and distributing class. These middlemen and women are workers, and intermediaries who package, deliver, and sell product. They are a cohort that includes “Rednecks”, “Liberals”, and “Conservatives”.
Middlemen and women are not the superrich, but they grow into cultural groups that wield power. They create different cultures that clash with each other because they can be identified as different.
They are different because of their religion, their wealth, their profession, their use of language, their ethnicity, or their skin color. It is those differences that create an opportunity to act against, or in support of those in power. It is difference, not exclusively one thing but anything that sets a minority apart from the majority.
Sowell enlightens listeners with information about the history of slavery, the details of difference among populations in countries where Jews, Armenians, Africans, Pakistanis, Indians, and many more ethnic groups were tortured, enslaved, raped, and murdered.
Today, it is Blacks in America, Uighurs in China, castes in India, Armenians in Eastern Europe, Christians in Turkey, Palestinians in Israel, Chechens in Russia, and so on, and so on. Not because they were “Redneck”, “Liberal”, or “Conservative” but because they were different, clannish, and semi-independent.
“Suppression of equal opportunity” is another name for slavery. What is galling about Sowell’s selection of facts is the idea that slavery has always existed in the world. That is true but how does that justify today’s slavery by another name.
Sowell goes on to suggest “Brown vs. Board of Education” ruined high achieving schools for Black Americans by destroying neighborhood schools.
Some would argue America’s public school system is simply getting what it pays for.
Without contesting Sowell’s research on Black schools that deteriorated because of the “Brown” decision, he chooses to ignore what improvement there may have been for Black students that went to public schools that were largely white.
Good teachers are underpaid and often leave teaching because they can find better paying jobs in other professions. America’s public school system is becoming more of a child care system than a teaching institution.
Integration is meant to ameliorate inequality. Sowell’s research is more a criticism of the quality of public schools than the goal of ameliorating inequality
A conclusion one draws from Sowell’s history is the human need of tolerance for difference. Not everyone wants the same thing out of life. Not everyone lives life in the same way. The Wall Street Journal editorializes on October 10, 2020 that tolerance is the bane of the 21st century. It argues that tolerance allows equal rights for gays, lesbians, and transsexuals’ as though they are something less than human beings. This is conservatism at its worst. Lack of tolerance is the sine non quo of slavery and discrimination.
Ann Petry (1908-1997, American author and journalist.)
This was Ann Petry’s first novel. It was published in 1946. It was renewed in 1947, republished in 1958, 1988, 1985–now rendered by Audiobooks in 2013. Petry became the first African-American woman to sell more than 1,000,000 copies. Petry offers a vivid picture of a Black woman’s experience in America.
Petry pictures Harlem as a poor family’s neighborhood where a rich white man dominates lives of a largely Black American ghetto. This is not today’s Harlem, but it is a precursor to what plagues 21st century America.
East Harlem in the 1940 s.
Petry’s story is of a young, extraordinarily beautiful, Black woman driven to live in a Harlem tenement.
Lutie Johnson is separated from her husband and compelled by poverty to rent a squalid room on the top floor of an apartment building. She has a high school education and a minimum wage job that barely supports herself and her young son, Bub. The tenement is owned by a white man who owns the building and a nearby casino.
A Black Madam works for the owner and pimps young women to make a living that enriches the owner of the building while creating income for herself. The tenement has a Black superintendent who lives in the basement and manages the building for the white owner.
Petry tells a story that explains how a decent woman can be driven to commit murder, abandon her child, and perpetuate a family’s poverty.
Petry explains how the roots of a family decay and how that decay fertilizes future generations of poverty-stricken families.
Before Harlem, Lutie works as a maid for a rich white family outside the city. The work pays relatively well but it separates Lutie from her husband because of the growing demands of the white family. Lutie stays at their house for longer periods of time.
Lutie and her husband’s love wither when he cannot find a job. Her husband feels diminished by his inability to support the family. The husband’s idle time leads to an affair that breaks his bond with Lutie and their young son. Lutie leaves, with her son, to start a new life in Harlem.
Lutie does not divorce her husband because of its legal cost. She wonders if she is not the reason for their break-up. It relegates her to legal single-hood if she wishes to marry in the future. She realizes the circumstance of poverty had more to do with there break-up then any other single cause. Her husband’s lack of job prospects, and their separation irreparably damaged their affection for each other.
Petry notes how Lutie grows to despise white people because of presumptions white people make of non-white people. Lutie naturally resents men’s presumption that she is willing to have sex with any white man that asks. Petry notes Lutie’s domestic employer’s condescension when other white people are nearby.
Petry offers a side story of a white teacher in Harlem who treats her students poorly. She has a fear of non-white students.
The students, in turn, ridicule the white teacher for her attitude toward them. It is a mutual distrust based on the color of one’s skin, not the content of their character.
As Lutie reviews her new circumstance, the only job she can find offers barely enough income to afford rent, utilities, and food for the two of them. To compound Lutie’s trouble she is subjected to the leering interests of the building superintendent and the white owner of the building. She refuses their advances but is drawn into a crisis, a crises manufactured by the sexually aroused superintendent.
After unsuccessfully trying to rape Lutie, the superintendent concocts a plan to get back at her by getting her son arrested. Her son is recruited by the superintendent to steal mail from adjacent tenements. He convinces the young boy that the police want his help to find a criminal in the neighborhood. The boy is caught by post office authorities and taken into custody.
Lutie knows nothing about the super’s lie and is faced with the belief that she needs a lawyer to get her son out of juvenile detention. There appears to be no effort by the police to investigate beyond the arrest of Lutie’s son.
Lutie does not have the $200 needed to hire a lawyer. She turns to a Black employee of the white owner. The employee explains that if she is “nice” to the white man (implying she would have sex with the owner) she can get the $200 she needs. She refuses.
The employee, having failed to convince Lutie to be “nice” to his employer, decides and tries to rape her. She murders him out of defense and rage. Lutie has reached her breaking point. She buys a ticket to Chicago, leaving her young son with the State.
“The Street” is a Black woman’s story of the 1940 s, but it is every woman’s story in a culture that discounts equality of opportunity and often treats women as property.
“The Street” shows being a woman diminishes opportunity in America. Ann Petry shows being black in America magnifies that inequality.
George Magnus (Author, UBS Economist, International Banker, Globalist.)
As a former UBS economist and Associate at the China Centre at Oxford University, Magnus studied economic progress in China. He has acted as an adviser to asset management companies that dealt directly with China.
George Magnus develops a cogent argument that illustrates differences between American and Chinese economic strengths and weaknesses.
Magnus develops his analysis by recalling the history of China. He recounts a country ruled by authoritarian Emperors, a nationalist dictator (Chiang Kai-shek) and communist revolutionaries (Mao and Deng Xiaoping). He then offers an analysis of the revisionist leader, President Xi Jinping.
After Mao’s death Deng Xiaoping chose to expand; some would say re-envision, Mao’s version of communism.
Deng continued centralized party control but recognized the value of private enterprise in meeting GNP goals. Deng’s theory of communism is exemplified by his comment that “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; as long as it catches mice, its a good cat.”
Deng still believed in a controlled or “planned economy” but opened the door to private enterprise. The results speak for themselves.
However, Magnus notes that Xi is returning to a more ideological form of communism. The cat has to be more of one color. Xi re-emphasizes party’ planned control of the economy. Magnus suggests this is a red flag portending economic trouble.
Magnus explains the growing importance of State Owned Enterprises (aka SOE’s) is raising China’s debt. Magnus argues Xi’s focused attention on increasing GNP is a red flag because of its negative economic impact on a burgeoning middle class. The middle class is earning less even though GNP continues to rise.
Magnus explains China’s middle class is not proportionately benefited by an increasing GNP.
This disproportionality exists in the United States as well as most post-industrial nations. The gap between rich and poor in America is well documented in Piketty’s book about “Capital in the Twenty First Century”.
However, America is acknowledged by the world as a capitalist country that encourages and multiplies innovation. Even Putin, in a “60 Minutes” interview, applauded America’s innovation. Putin expressed a wish for the same level of innovation in his own country. Controlled economies limit innovation to a few controllers. Capitalist economies expand innovation based on a multitudinous and diverse citizenry.
Here is a major difference between America’s and China’s economies. Innovation is a fundamental value of capitalism, noted by Adam Smith in the “The Wealth of Nations (published in the 18th century).
Magnus implies another distinction between America and China.
Magnus notes that a misstep by a President in China has a wider affect on the local economy than a misstep by an American President.
Magnus notes China can more quickly respond to an economic crises. America is more deliberative. The chance of being correct or wrong when taking action is quickly implemented in China. Quickness is both a danger and a benefit. It is a danger when the decision is wrong; a benefit when it is right. (One would be hard-put to suggest China did not respond more correctly and quickly to the Covid19 pandemic than the United States.)
Magnus relates an example of the value of China’s economic strength in its avoidance of much of the 2008 financial crises.
At the same time, Magnus notes the red flag of too much control by a top down manager can be catastrophic. The Chinese famine during and after the cultural revolution illustrates the danger of being wrong in a top-down management system.
Xi’s emphasis on party ideology and a controlled economy has the potential for another disastrous cultural revolution.
A singular focus on one leader is a red flag for China as is evidenced by Mao’s initial economic improvements in China that deteriorated with the advance of the “Gang of Four” during the cultural revolution.
America’s system of decision making, though slower, has made it the wealthiest country in the world. America managed to implement an economic policy that revived the economy in the face of a near financial collapse in 2008.
Judgement is premature today, but America’s response to Covid19 has been both right and wrong; in part because of poor leadership from the top, but also because of a failure of America’s checks and balances to mitigate the pandemic’s effects.
Magnus combines China’s history with its demographic and political changes. In building his argument, Magnus explains China carries an economic risk if it fails to adjust economic goal setting for more domestic goals.
President Xi’s Road and Belt Plan: Magnus suggests President Xi is focusing too much attention on GNP growth with R.B.P. It comes at the expense of living standards for a rising middle class. The inference is that political unrest in China will increase.
Magnus sees population ageing as another red flag.
Fewer Chinese children are being born to bare the burden of a disproportionally aging demographic. This is true in many nations; particularly nations that unduly restrict or over-regulate immigration.
Though Magnus’s book is published before Chinese demonstrations in Hong Kong, his prescient understanding of Chinese culture reveals a number of serious stresses.
Cultural suppression and “re-education” camps in Xinjiang damage China’s national and international reputation. There are an estimated eleven million Uighurs living in the middle of China.
Magnus illustrates this unrest comes from a conflict between communist ideology, and cultural difference. The unrest is amplified by Deng’s opening of a door to private enterprise.
America is obviously not immune to political unrest but, unlike China, a supreme leader’s power is offset by a constitutional government of checks and balances.
Magnus notes the history of China as one of strong leaders unburdened by institutional checks and balances. President Xi’s move to increase his control of China is a contrast to an electoral process in the United States that restricts Presidents to two four year terms, or one four year term if the public is dissatisfied.
And finally, Magnus points to Trump’s foolish dismissal of a trade treaty with China.
On the one hand, it is necessary for America to fight unfair trade practices. On the other hand, a broad trade war with a giant consuming and manufacturing country is a meat cleaver approach to what should be a surgeon’s scalpel.
Magnus suggests abandoning the Chinese trade agreement because of a trade imbalance is a red herring. Trade imbalances are a natural consequence of competition.
If one company can build something faster and cheaper, the money saved by a consuming country can be used to innovate.
With free enterprise, one beats the competition by changing product or streamlining production to reduce costs. This is a harsh reality for workers in particular industries but as Schopenhauer suggests it is a matter of creative destruction.
America became the richest country in the world because of its ability to change, to innovate, to adjust to the demands of the market. The Trump administration looks to the past rather than the future.
Magnus strongly suggests China is at risk of economic failure if it chooses not to reduce its focus on GNP as a measure of success. Magnus argues more attention must be paid to domesticate needs and consumption. The Road and Belt initiative has potential for Chinese growth but it should not be emphasized at the expense of domestic need.
Magnus implies China’s ecological environment is on a knife’s edge. One side chooses growth at any cost. The other side moderates growth based on cleaning the environment for future generations.
Having traveled to China, one can see polluted rivers, and congested cityscapes in the midst of beautiful boulevards, spectacular monuments, and businesses filled with local and foreign visitors.
China and the world must recognize the importance of the health and welfare of its citizens. Magnus suggests China is at a crossroad. They can continue to grow GNP at the expense of its citizens or re-direct their economy to address the needs of a rising middle class. It does not mean they have to adopt a different form of government but they need to revise their goals.
One may conclude from Magnus’s book, there will always remain the potential for economic calamity with top down management. Magnus reflects on the history of China and infers it is unlikely to change.
Xi’s interference in free markets is troubling. China’s growth and prosperity depends on a continuation of philosopher kings which have not sustained any country in the modern age. The next king may not be as far sighted or wise as the current king.
President Xi cracks down on Hong Kong’s independence and stops the IPO scheduled for the ANTGROUP in China.
Top down management may have worked in ancient times, but world interconnectedness and interdependence require cooperation and competition for independent countries to grow and prosper.
Ward Farnsworth (Author, Dean of the University of Texas School of Law)
No one is a stoic. At best, Ward Farnsworth argues one can only be a “practicing” stoic.
Who among us is a stoic? Who is free from passion, and unmoved by joy or grief? Possibly a psychopath. Who can supersede natural laws? No one. To live as a sentient being entails passion, joy, grief, and experience of things beyond our control.
Only a computer can be passionless, relentlessly reasonable, and programmed to acknowledge things beyond its control. In theory, a computer may be programmed to be a stoic. Farnsworth explains–a human will only be able to “practice” stoicism. Farnsworth notes no human is preternaturally capable of being a stoic.
The question is why would anyone want to practice stoicism? Farnsworth infers the practice of stoicism offers potential for living a good and fulfilling life.
Farnsworth explains one becomes a “practicing” stoic in the realization that death comes to all human beings.
However in being a practicing stoic, Farnsworth notes–humans can only strive to be morally good. Why does a stoic strive to be morally good? Farnsworth explains in being morally good, one gains peace of mind. Peace of mind offers happiness or what the classical Greeks called eudaimonia. In a practicing stoic’s view of living, it matters not whether one is rich or poor.
Here is where capitalists gag, the homeless scowl, and the poor spit. Having peace of mind is easier when one is rich. As Farnsworth notes, one might agree but he notes many who are rich are not happy.
One asks oneself, how happy can the homeless and abject poor be? Farnsworth suggests the rich never think they are rich enough. Fair enough, but the rain, cold, and desert sun have little affect on the rich.
Farnsworth explains the stoic argues “what we think” is key, whether rich or poor. The practicing stoic believes wealth, poverty, and life are ephemeral. Farnsworth implies knowledge of life’s temporality sets one free. Free to what? Reject the cold or heat of the sun when you are homeless? It is difficult to see how the homeless and poor can achieve peace of mind by changing “what they think” about the cold and heat or a hard bench in the park.
Farnsworth’s rejoinder might be that a practicing stoic would only be concerned about what they can control, not what they cannot.
That seems disingenuous because weather is an example of a life circumstance that is out of one’s control. Nature detrimentally affects the homeless and poor, regardless of how they think about it.
There is also the question of free will. Humans choose a path when opportunity knocks. Some choose to take opportunity; others pass. The stoic answers yes, we choose but the result is either/or–happiness or trial (e.g. Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy).
One either seeks happiness or trial based on their choice. Farnsworth explains the stoic returns to the goal of happiness based on thinking and acting morally. If all humans were practicing stoics, one might argue there would be no homelessness or poverty. World history shows no culture exhibits that characteristic. It begs the question of “thinking differently” offering “peace of mind” when it is zero or one hundred ten degrees outside.
Does recognition of ephemerality achieve happiness? Farnsworth says not in and of itself because recognizing ephemerality of life and circumstance requires moral thought and action.
Reality is that thought and action require a minimal level of human economic security. Economic security is talked about by governments but rarely implemented.
Farnsworth notes many contradictions in the history of stoicism. He notes how a leading proponent of stoicism, Seneca the Younger, is incredibly rich when stoics abjure wealth. Seneca consulted Nero who was one of the most corrupt leaders of Rome. Seneca talked the talk of a classical practicing stoic, but did he live it? How can Seneca be an exemplar of stoicism when he counseled a brutal dictator, owned slaves, and lived in luxury?
Farnsworth suggests the history of Seneca is too unclear to offer an answer. Seneca may have been a moderating influence on Nero. He may have counseled Nero to act morally without success. He may have used his wealth to benefit society. This is not a very defensible argument, but it is consistent with a belief that one can, at best, only be a practicing Stoic.
Farnsworth offers a good understanding of the history of stoicism and the stoic philosophy in “The Practicing Stoic” but it seems more attuned to those who have than those who have-not. Interestingly, Farnsworth teaches law which gives some understanding of how and why a lawyer should represent the guilty as well as the innocent. It is a matter of practicing stoicism.
The best one may gather from Farnworth’s history of the stoics is that those who-have may realize how important it is to be more helpful to those who have-not. When homelessness and poverty are eliminated, a stoic philosophy offers great appeal.
Narrated by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk, Rutina Wesley
Jesmyn Ward (American Author, associate Professor of English at Tulane University)
Songs about poverty are hard to listen to. Like Whitehead’s story about “The Underground Railroad”, one wonders “Is this America”? It is and it is not.
Jesmyn Ward’s song is about an American family. In one sense, the story is unrelatable because most American families escape dire poverty. But Ward’s depicted family is poor with the added burden of being a minority of a minority.
Though every family’s story is unique, there are familial lessons to be learned from Ward’s story. On many levels, the story is about troubles of every poor American family.
Poverty amplifies good, bad, and indifference in all families.
Ward introduces a black family headed by a patriarchal grandfather, a wise and wizened grandmother, a grown daughter, and two grandchildren living under the same roof. The daughter is in a committed relationship to a young white man who is about to be released from prison. He is the father of the two grandchildren.
The boy grandchild adores his grandfather. The girl grandchild adores her brother. Both children are ambivalent about their mother because of her self-absorption and inability to comfort either of them. As her grandmother explains, it is not that her daughter does not love her children. She just does not know how to express her love.
The grandmother is nearing death with regrets about her daughter’s inability to comfort her children and raise them with the values she and the grandfather live by.
The grief of her daughter when her mother dies is palpable. It is a grief borne of self-pity but also of deep love for what her mother knew and tried to teach her.
Life seems bleak. The only ray of light comes from the grandson who copes with the indifference of his mother, and fear of a father he barely knows. This ray of light comes from stories told, and examples set by his black grandfather.
This grim story describes a poverty trap made in America. The father who is being released from jail is estranged from his family because of his relationship with a black family. He is damaged by his experience in jail and the irony of being the son of a bigot.
The downward spiral of this father’s life and his companion appear set in motion. The mother of his children loves and depends on him, but their destiny is bleak. Ward ends her story with the grandmother’s death, and the parents leaving the children with their black grandfather.
One presumes the boy will grow to manhood with the moral compass of his black grandfather, but the fate of the daughter seems as bleak as her parents. Without the guidance of a loving mother or grandmother, it seems the daughter is destined to remain in poverty.
Being black is a struggle not understood by white America. Even with a powerfully good moral compass, a young black boy-man or girl-woman bares the burden of being black in a world of white authority.
This is a beautifully written book of a tragedy, made and remade in America.
Shoshana Zuboff (American author, former Harvard Professor of Business Administration).
Shoshana Zuboff analyzes the evolution of power wielded and enabled by Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other media giant’s that invade personal privacy.
In the October 17-18, 2020 WSJ, the headline is Mark Zuckerberg is “Washington’s New Power Broker”. Reporters Deepa Seetharaman and Emily Glazer note that “…Mark Zuckerberg now takes an active role in the platform’s policy decisions–and checks in regularly with officials like Jared Kushner”.
Zuboff’s scholarly examination of American internet mavens concludes “…Surveillance Capitalism” will lead to Orwell’s “1984” or B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”.
Orwell notes in “1984” that invasion of privacy is a way of conditioning human beings to believe in “truths” manufactured by whoever leads. In contrast, B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” argues behavioral observation and reward is a tool for making people live morally “good” and peaceful lives.
The words “truths” and “good” are in quotes because they are determined by what Zuboff calls “the big other”. “The big other” is a knowledge leviathan that knows everything about everyone.
In Orwell’s world, humans will be managed by a totalitarian government. The government monitors all private and public actions of its citizens. These governments have a set of propagandized “truths” that demand and compel obedience. Orwell’s world relies on knowledge of every detail of its citizen’s life. When a citizen’s actions do not conform to government rules, they are psychologically bombarded, and re-programmed to believe.
In Skinner’s world, individual citizens will act as they think they want, as though they have free will. However, operant conditioners (“the big other”) will reward citizens for fulfilling desires of respective employers, vendors, and governments which are holders of private information. These operant conditioners will use personal and private data to offer rewards for “good” behavior. (Zuboff calls these holders of private information “the big other”.)
Orwell and Skinner offer views of a future where privacy no longer exists. Orwell’s view is obviously dystopian. Skinner’s view is utopian, hiding in the skin of dystopia. Zuboff explains how either future is conceivable in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. Her conclusion finds both futures reprehensible and possibly inevitable.
“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” exposes America and the world to the greatest economic and social change since the industrial revolution. In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” every human action is catalogued, distributed, and utilized by entities interested in influencing human’ thought and action.
“The big other” is enabled by media giants to seduce the public into buying technical products that are connected to the world wide web. Products, like Nest, Google Search, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Quick Books, etc. record everything humans do and see, with extraordinary insight into what they think. That data base becomes a tool for modifying behavior without conscious knowledge of its users.
Is the government’s suit against Google important? Shoshanna Zuboff implies it is monumentally important.
In Skinner’s view, freedom and dignity are a fiction. To Skinner, only behavior is currency for future peace and prosperity. That behavior can be conditioned by “the big other” in Skinner’s world.
In one sense, Skinner’s recognition of positive reinforcement’s value to society is exemplified by moguls like Henry Ford. Ford’s recognition of the value of raising wages for his workers (an operant conditioning reward) increases production and lowers product price.
Zuboff systematically builds her argument with the history of industrialization and the dramatic change it brought to society. Ford grew his fortune by positive reinforcement of worker’s higher wages and the public’s consumption of a lower cost product that revolutionized travel.
The credibility and threat of Zuboff’s argument is reinforced by George Bush’s accelerated invasion of privacy after 9/11, and Barack Obama’s use of technology from Google’s Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO, at the time) in his run for election.
One might also argue the rise of Donald Trump is a harbinger of the threat of “…Surveillance Capitalism”. Evidence suggests Trump’s election campaign drew on Russian surveillance of Hillary Clinton and political research from Cambridge Analytica to win election.
Cambridge Analytica provided detailed information on voters who agreed with the anti-science convictions of Donald Trump. They voted, and Trump won the election.
(As noted in Wikipedia.org–Analytica is a visual software package developed by Lumina Decision Systems for creating, analyzing and communicating quantitative decision models.)
Zuboff argues the principle of positive reinforcement takes a giant leap forward with the technology of “Capitalist Surveillance. Henry Ford’s personal insight is replaced by “the big other”. Potentially, every capitalist or government entity now has access to the details of everyone’s lives.
In a capitalist country, there is no singular controller but a multitude of public and private entities that manipulate human life like Skinner’s pigeons in a cage.
In a communist or fascist country personal surveillance easily slips into Orwell’s “1984”. Zuboff offers the example of the social categorization of Chinese residents by President Xi’s government. Assigning a number to a Chinese citizen capsulizes their support or opposition to communism. That number influences every aspect of that citizen’s success or failure in China.
Zuboff warns that tools for predicting future behavior are in the hands of “the big other”. Zuboff speaks from her personal experience with Skinner. Skinner was one of Zuboff’s professors during her college days. She infers today’s surveillance economies bend toward totalitarianism borne by behavioral reinforcement.
A fundamental question is: Do we have free will? Or as Skinner and Alex Pentland suggest are we just vessels for behavioral modification?
The other side of “Surveillance Capitalism” is the benefit offered to the general public by data compilation. There is a leveling of cost for consumer items because of pricing and consumer criticism gathered and distributed to the general public when buying a product or service. There is a value in being able to arrive at a destination on time without worrying about getting lost in the country or city. There is the ability to control utility use, and guard one’s house by using tech products like Google’s Nest. There is the potential of producing more product at cheaper price because of “Surveillance Capitalism”. The idea is similar to the way Ford grew his automobile company by rewarding employee behavior and producing lower priced product.
The question remains—what price are humans willing to pay for convenience?
The industrial revolution just as the technological revolution changed society. It seems fair to say the American standard of living has increased as a result of industrialization. Is there reason to believe the same may be true with a technological revolution that makes life easier but less private?
Zuboff questions the trade off but so did the Luddites when they destroyed machines that replaced craftsman. One cannot take Zuboff’s scholarly study lightly, but the genies of the tech revolution are out of the bottle.
If there is a such thing as free will, there seems no harm or foul. However, manipulating human behavior belies Google’s founder’s unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil”. (Interestingly, in April or May of 2018, Google abandoned the slogan.)
Walter Isaacson (Author, Biographer, Former Chair of Broadcasting Board of Governors)
This is the storied life of a self-educated savant. Walter Isaacson scrupulously details a genius’s life and notes how curiosity and focus inform his intellect. Leonardo da Vinci is an illegitimate child raised by an extended family that includes his educated wayward father and unlettered mother. Born in Florence, da Vinci grows to manhood and follows a path festooned with powerful Italian and French rulers.
Self portraits of Leonardo belie Isaacson’s characterization of him as handsome. However, Isaacson’s supposition is drawn from other people’s perception of him rather than Leonardo’s perception of himself.
Leonardo da Vinci self portrait as an old man
Parenthetically, Isaacson notes that Leonardo is gay and finds the idea of heterosexual acts as volitionally repugnant.
Isaacson suggests every person can reach higher levels of understanding by being acutely observant and curious. He suggests these two characteristics have a yin and yang, a good and bad consequence.
The good comes from a restless desire to understand what one sees. The bad comes from distraction that causes a brilliant mind to wander and fail to complete an idea or finish a project.
Isaacson infers Leonardo’s innate intelligence magnifies his ability to pattern what he observes into insights that are hundreds of years ahead of future discoveries. From observations of nature, the human body, and expressed human emotion da Vinci refines the art of painting.
However, Isaacson notes Leonardo is so much more than an artist. Leonardo is a polymath. Leonardo acquires understanding of cosmic phenomena, the dynamics of water and air movement, the physical expression of human emotion, and the general science of earth’s structure, and substance.
At the same time, Isaacson notes that Leonardo often fails to publish, or diseminate his findings. Leonardo becomes distracted by new observations that lead to incomplete works of art, science, and engineering. Isaacson explains that some of the incompleteness is a consequence of finding a new discovery that causes Leonardo to rethink how a painting or project is to be completed.
Isaacson notes many paintings were carried with him to his death. Some were never finished. Leonardo continually refines his paintings with new understanding of light and shadow, muscle and bone.
In some cases, painting’ modifications were made years after their initiation because of a muscle, tendon, or ligament discovery from Leonardo’s many human dissections.
Leonardo revised “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” years after he started it because of research on neck muscles from his numerous dissections of the human body.
Leonardo lived in a time of powerful Italian and French leaders. He serves men of power like Cesare Borgia, Francis I, and Pope Leo X (the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici).
Leonardo serves Cesare Borgia for 8 years as an engineer and artist. He creates the model for a massive horse (a larger mold than had ever been created would be required). It is to be a tribute to Cesare Borgia but it is never cast because of the circumstance of war.
By historical account, Cesare Borgia is ambitious and arrogant. Cesare is alleged to have murdered his brother to assume control of a Papal State. He is alleged to have been responsible for several political assassinations. Leonardo seems to have had no compunction for serving Borgia and appears to have been a confident of the brutal dictator.
Two interesting reveals by Isaacson is Leonardo’s willingness to serve whoever would sponsor his work regardless of their good or bad actions, and his role as a scene creator for theatrical productions. Isaacson’s explanation of Leonardo’s scene creations for plays is revelatory because of the many mechanical inventions drawn by this master of innovation.
One can imagine how thrilled an audience would be at a theatre production that showed Leonardo’s skill as an animator of mechanical wonders. It seems a perfect venue for Leonardo’s inventive mind.
Leonardo becomes friends with luminaries like Niccolo Machiavelli and Luca Pacioli (an Italian mathematician).
Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, died at age 58. Cesare Borgia is said to have been the model for “The Prince”.
Most, but not all, of Leonardo’s patrons and customers were men or women of great power and wealth. Some, like Borgia had little or no moral conscience. Some with great wealth who requested commissions were ignored by Leonardo.
A younger contemporary of Leonardo is Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Michelangelo is a competitor for Art commissions who disdains Leonardo.
Detail of Michelanglo’s “Doubting Thomas”.
Isaacson notes that Leonardo is no less disdainful of Michelangelo but much less confrontational when asked for opinions about his competitor’s work.
Isaacson wrote a biography of Stephen Jobs and often refers to Jobs’ driven personality.
His biography of Leonardo shows a commonality between these two geniuses. They both looked for perfection in their work.
From a painting of the Last Supper, to the image of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, to the Mona Lisa, Isaacson shows Leonardo to be among the most creative artist of all time. Leonardo’s understanding of light and shadow, human vision, physiology, and facial expression contribute to art what E=MC squared contributed to physics.
(Sadly, Isaacson notes much of “The Last Supper” shows little of Leonardo’s original work because of cleanings and restorations over the centuries.)
Isaacson shows Leonardo is much more than an artist. From the idea of creating power from water movement to the planning of cities for Kings, Leonardo da Vinci is shown to be an insightful civil engineer. In sum, Isaacson implies Leonardo’s insights rival all the savants of history. Leonardo da Vinci is an artist and scientist ahead of his time.
Bill Bryson’s skill as a researcher and writer pleases the mind but as John Milton noted, “the mind…can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven”.
Bryson published “The Body” in 2019, months before Covid19 became known to the world. Bryson’s greatest fear, gleaned from his research, is the potential of a world-wide infection from a flu-like virus. Bryson’s comment about the body’s greatest 21st century risk is prescient. Bryson suggests the United States, and most nations, have not prepared well for national medical crises.
National and international medical crises reach back to antiquity. Among many of Bill Bryson’s insights in “The Body” is his history of medical crises in the world.
Bryson recalls the Bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, influenza, Polio, and Ebola and other outbreaks as examples of national unpreparedness. With failure to prepare, nation-state’ responses have ranged from careful, reasonable, and effective, to careless, illogical, and ineffective.
America’s response to Covid19 shows America’s lack of preparation. America’s national response speaks for itself.
This is only a small part of Bryson’s enlightening research on “The Body”. He recounts many incredible medical discoveries made by science. As with all disciplines, some discoveries are made by chance; some by the exigency of illness or medical emergency, others by curiosity, and yes, some by diligent scientific research and experiment.
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955, credited for discovering penicillin.)
A green mold forms on a mistakenly, un-discarded petri dish used to study bacteria.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by chance while growing bacteria for research. One of many petri dishes had been accidently contaminated. When Fleming returns to his lab, a mold appears to be killing the bacteria on the dish. Bryson explains the serendipity of the discovery while reflecting on lesser known information about Fleming’s life.
Bryson gives a similar description of the discovery of blood transfusion by Dr. James Blundell in 1818. The first transfusion is a success. However, the success is as much from luck as misfortune because the importance of blood typing was unknown in 1818. The first transfusion was luckily from a donor (Dr. Blundell himself) and patient with type 0 blood.
Karl Lansteiner (1968-1943, Austrian biologist, physician, and immunologist, discovers and names blood types in 1900.
Bryson recounts Samuel Pepys diary and his harrowing experience in having a gall stone removed from his bladder in 1658. With no anesthetic, a gall stone the size of a tennis ball was removed. Pepys keeps the gall stone in a glass jar to show others while telling his story. He describes the hellish pain as the scalpel pierces his abdomen.
Not until 1882 does Carl Langenbuch remove the first gall bladder. Langenbuch studied 17th century records of dogs that exhibited gall bladder problems. Langnbush’s experiment on a human body comes from that research. His medical judgment leads to a pragmatically successful surgical treatment.
Mukherjee offers a grim history on the evolution of cancer treatments. Mukherjee details, and Bryson confirms, many errors made by physicians who presume more surgery, more chemotherapy, or more radiation will cure, rather than kill, the patient. Experience shows that presumption incorrect.
William Lane (1856-1943, British surgeon and physician killed many patients with what was called colonic innertia by removing large sections of intestine in the early 1900s.)
With improved knowledge, intestine removal became limited with better recovery statistics for patients.
Bryson notes many medical experiments offered no cure and killed patients in the process. Physicians sometimes ignored their failures and skewed results to reinforce their poor medical decisions. Some patients who did not die, were irreparably harmed by medical practitioners who believed they were right. Practitioners ignored failures and continued to treat patients with medications and treatments that offered no cure but death or disfigurement.
One of many insights Bryson notes is that approximately 50 percent of the cause for premature death in humans is self-inflicted. Poor diet, tobacco use, and lack of exercise are principle causes.
Other chapters cover longevity, predictions of life span, medical symptoms of old age, and the story of telomeres’ role in cell death. Bryson notes some scientists believe scientific research will lead to extended life well beyond current life spans.
One of the most disconcerting observations made by Bryson is that Americans, who pay most in the world for medical service, fall (at best) into the middle of industrialized countries for general public health.
Who should America turn to in the 2020 election?
Bryson infers sociological difference between the United States and other industrialized countries affect the health and longevity of America’s population. The specifics of sociological differences are left unwritten. Having a national health system in those countries with better health care statistics is undoubtedly one of the sociological reasons.
Bryson’s book is an enlightening journey into the mysteries of “The Body”. Bryson gives a good account of the methodologies and myths of the body’s history and its discoveries. There are many discoveries yet to be made that will tell us more about physical existence and our body’s possible future.