ABOUT THE BRAIN

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

By: Lisa Feldman Barrett

Narrated by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Lisa Feldman Barrett (Author, Ph.D, Research in psychology and neuroscience.)

Lisa Feldman Barrett gives one pause about thinking they know something about the brain.  Contrary to what some researchers have suggested, Barrett believes the brain is not segmented into three functional areas. 

Barrett suggests experiment confirms the brain is a singular organ, functioning as a network that controls human thought and action based on experience and memory. 

Barrett argues the brain is not for thinking but for survival. 

Barrett’s interpretation of Darwinian evolution suggests brains evolve based on random events.  A human brain evolves into a network of axons and dendrites that are not segregated but coordinated to preserve human existence.

However, Barrett notes that non-use or lack of firing by a neuron will render it dormant. Key to maintenance of neuronal activity is repetitive firing. (Parenthetically, Barrett notes solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment for that reason.) Firing multiplies the bushy ends of the neuron (the dendrites) which can become lifelong connections for thought and action. Barrett suggests the early years of childhood should be filled with opportunities to learn through different experiences. She believes exposure to different languages at an early age makes later life language-learning easier.

Barrett explains–through environmental influences human brains wire themselves to the world.  Each wired connection comes from repeated events that substantiate the principle of neurons firing together to become wired together.  If neurons are not stimulated, they become dormant. Barrett argues brain plasticity is based on neuronal activity which suggests different areas of a brain can be retrained to repair some functions of a damaged brain.

Barrett explains human brain’ function evolves over much longer periods of time than other mammals. 

Barrett notes neuronal activity evolves in humans over the first twenty or more years of their lives.  This longer period of evolution allows more flexibility in neuronal activity than is inherent for other species of the animal kingdom.

The mixed benefit of a longer period of neuronal evolution is evidenced by a calf, giraffe, or deer that can walk soon after birth while a human takes two to three years.

The benefit of longer neuronal evolution is a human child’s time to increase and improve neuronal connections based on wider experience. Though humans may not learn to walk as quickly as a baby Giraffe, they learn more from the changing environment in which they live.

Barrett goes on to argue that words spoken by one person to another modify brain function based on one’s experience and memory.  This reinforces realization that words do matter.  When one is constantly criticized or ridiculed, the impact of words on human behavior is highly consequential.  Barrett explains occasional criticism has little effect on neuronal activity, but repetitive criticism can significantly impact the way a brain’s neurons wire together with permanent effects on human behavior. 

This gives credence to psychotherapeutic treatment to discover why humans act as they do.  Psychotherapy offers a mechanism for changing one’s behavior.  This harks back to Barrett’s notes about brain plasticity.

Barrett believes every human being has a “body budget”.  That budget is added to or subtracted from by neuronal activity that is grounded in human relationship.  Barrett argues humans are social creatures. Barrett infers relationships have great consequence on how humankind views and lives in the world.  She argues human relations can either add or subtract from one’s body budget. 

The question becomes–what relational qualities add or subtract to one’s body budget?  Barrett infers love and empathy add while hate and apathy subtract from the body budget.  Becoming the best of who we are seems up to us.

A DIARIST

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Club (Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age)

By: Leo Damrosch

Narrated by Simon Vance

Leo Damrosch (American author and professor of Literature at Harvard)

“The Club” is more of a biography of James Boswell than “…the Friends Who Shaped an Age”. 

James Boswell (1740-1795, died at 54, Lawyer, diarist, biographer.).

Though many pages reflect on Samuel Johnson (best known for the “Dictionary of The English Language”), the primary source of information on Johnson, as well as “…the Friends…”, appears to come from Boswell’s diary and notes. 

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784, died at age 75, Author, poet, playwright, moralist, editor, and lexicographer.)

An irony of Damrosch’s story is that Boswell neither has the intellectual depth nor historical significance of Johnson or many of the “…Friends who shaped an Age”.  What Leo Damrosch explains is Boswell is a great mime for the opinions and voices of Johnson and Friends.  Damrosch suggests Boswell is the first biographer to capture natural dialog with detailed features of friends and acquaintances. 

In some ways, Boswell is like a court jester, eliciting laughter and opinion in a court of higher-ranking superiors.

Damrosch is not denigrating Boswell’s contribution to historical information but shows Boswell as a bon vivant, rather than an intellectual.  “The Club” is an association of writers, artists, and thinkers formed in a London tavern in the 1760s. Damrosch notes that the club is formed by Joshua Reynolds, a noted portrait artist.  In addition to Reynolds, the original members are Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, John Hawkins, Topham Beauclerk, Anthony Chamier, Bennet Langton, and Christopher Nugent.  To become a member of the club, one is elected by existing members.

Sir Joshua Reynold’s Club

Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith become members in the 1770s.  From an American perspective, the names of Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and Smith are the best known.  Many will recognize Reynolds for portrait paintings of famous people of that time.  Reynold’s portraits are in galleries today.  Damrosch notes the portraits represent the best of what a person looks like with creative enhancements of the subject’s best features.  Burke is famous for vilification of the French Revolution and his conservative views of government.  Gibbon is famous for his “…History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and Johnson for his dictionary.

Contrary to what Damrosch notes, it does not appear David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and producer, was in that club but had his own tavern club called the Garrick Club.  Garrick had been a pupil of Samuel Johnson.  Damrosch may have identified Garrick as a member of “The Club” because of his association with Johnson.

David Garrick (1717-1779, died age 62, English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer.)

Boswell is characterized by Damrosch as an excellent conversationalist because of an ability to listen and ask questions that have interest for those whom he questions.  However, at times, Damrosch notes Johnson becomes irritated with Boswell’s questions because of their vacuous value.  The example given is Boswell’s question to Johnson about why Apples are round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips.

Boswell’s question to Johnson-why are Apples round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips?

Damrosch shows Boswell comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family.  He is the eldest son, in line to receive the wealth of his family when his father dies.  Boswell moves to London to become an attorney but fails to learn his profession well enough to be financially or reputationally successful.  He meets Johnson whom he admires, and through association, Boswell manages to meet the movers and shakers of his day.  Boswell becomes a diarist that records his life and the lives of people he meets.  His writing makes him famous, largely because of his association with Samuel Johnson and his remarkable ability to reproduce the natural conversation of “…Friends Who Shaped an Age”.

Boswell, from Damrosch’s description, is a hedonist.  He lives for pleasure from conversation with luminaries, drinking to excess, and dalliance with women of the street and lovers whom he seduces. 

Boswell is characterized as a pursuer of women who have an interest in sexual encounters for pay or pleasure.  Boswell’s lifestyle leads to periodic treatment for crabs and other sexually transmitted diseases. 

Damrosch notes that Boswell marries but continues his profligate behavior.  Boswell professes love and remorse to his wife, who knows of his dalliances.  She bares his behavior and accepts his remorse. His wife dies of consumption with seeming disregard by Boswell’s self-absorption. 

Margaret Boswell (1738-1789. died at age 51.)

Boswell inherits his father’s wealth but squanders it and fails as a barrister.  Nearing the end of his life, he produces the best biography of Samuel Johnson ever written.  It becomes a best seller in his time and is still read by some today. Damrosch notes Boswell’s contribution to biography is in making his subjects human by including detailed descriptions of their appearance, and emotive qualities.

More detailed information about the lives of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith would have made “The Club” more interesting to this reviewer but any who have listened to other narratives by Simon Vance will be pleased by Damrosch’s story.  At the least, a struggling writer may be encouraged to keep a diary of life’s events to become a better author.

FREEDOM’S HERO

Audio-book Review
 By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Gorbachev (His Life and Times)

By: William Taubman

Narrated by Henry Strozier

William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)

The length of William Taubman’s audiobook requires a Gorbachev II review.  The first review addresses Gorbachev’s personal life.  The second reflects on Gorbachev’s political life.  Gorbachev’s life is suffused with great accomplishment and tragic failure. 

Georgy Malenkov replaces Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953.  Malenkov is believed to be a reformist who plans to reduce military spending and Stalinist suppression.

However, within weeks, Malenkov is pushed aside by Nikita Khrushchev who takes supreme power within two years of Stalin’s death.  Surprisingly, Khrushchev becomes something of a reformist himself.

Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971, First Secy. of the Communist Party 1953-1964)

 

Stalin’s autocratic, paranoid leadership is semi-privately exposed by Khrushchev in a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.  Khruschev’s vilification of Stalinist suppression, imprisonment, and murder eventually become known to the world.

The overriding concern of Russian leaders is to maintain suzerainty over Baltic nations and satellite territories in the face of ethnic and economic diversity.  Taubman notes older Russian leaders tend toward autocratic dictate to maintain political control.  The younger and more politically astute lean toward confederation of adjacent soviet republics and East Berlin with the U.S.S.R. as an umbrella organization.  Gorbachev is in the “politically astute” group.

Mikhail Gorbachev rises to chairman of the Communist Party and eventual President of the U.S.S.R., with the expressed intent of democratizing the Baltics, Russia, and East Berlin into a democratic socialist block.  However, ethnic, and cultural differences, accompanied by general economic failure, defeat Gorbachev’s unionist objective.

There is no question of Gorbachev’s success in democratizing U.S.S.R.’ citizens. 

However, in that democratization, the drive for independence becomes paramount to the satellite countries.  German reunification, and the breakaway of Baltic nations from the U.S.S.R. is inevitable.  Freedom, based on ethnic and cultural identity, surmount all efforts by Gorbachev to reinstate U.S.S.R. suzerainty.  Only by force could the U.S.S.R. prevail over state and territorial independence.  Taubman notes force is not within Gorbachev’s nature as a leader.

Once socialist democracy is dangled before the electorate, the die is cast.  Gorbachev’s governance could not provide enough economic stability to justify confederation.  That is his tragic failure.

Gorbachev’s immense success is liberating millions of former U.S.S.R. citizens.  With liberation, former citizens of the U.S.S.R. return to govern as citizens of their own countries.  This at a time of Reagan’s conservative government in the United States, and European distrust of U.S.S.R. militarization.  Taubman shows Gorbachev becomes an international hero based on his personality and persuasive power.  He is greeted as the great liberator of the twentieth century even though his primary objective is to retain those countries seeking freedom within the U.S.S.R.

Gorbachev raised the bar for nuclear disarmament by cultivating American and European participation in the reduction of nuclear weapons. 

Taubman explains Gorbachev is a tragic hero because momentum-of-change is halted by a cult of personality, compounded by economic insecurity.  Gorbachev is replaced by acting President, Alexander Rutskoy, after the 1993 constitutional crises. Rutskoy is replaced by a second acting President, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Boris Yeltsin succeeds Chernomyrdin as President in an overlapping term.

The Russian economy falters in its transition from communism to democratic socialism.  Russian history of “rule-of-one” reasserts itself with the rise of an incompetent President (Boris Yeltsin) and an autocratic but effective leader, Vladimir Putin.  Taubman suggests and infers Gorbachev’s success, and world history in general, are two steps forward with one step backward. Based on historical precedent of “one-man-rule” (dating back to czarist Russia) Taubman’s inference seems spot-on. 

Gorbachev flipped a switch that released the power of democracy but failed to provide adequate economic infrastructure to assure U.S.S.R. survival.  Taubman optimistically infers economic infrastructure of eastern bloc countries will improve overtime, even with autocratic leadership by people like Vladimir Putin. 

The growth of democracy has always been messy, but it moves forward in the face of temporary setbacks.  Spheres of influence will always be in play.   It seems a matter of time for another Gorbachev to make two more steps forward with a repeat of the next leader’s “one-step-backward”.  Taubman reminds readers of America’s trial in the civil war. Slavery is abolished but institutional racism remains a work in progress. The risk is that the world destroys itself before freedom and economic security become real for all.

GORBACHEV I

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Gorbachev (His Life and Times)

By: William Taubman

Narrated by Henry Strozier

William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)

Having reviewed the first two books of the planned Stalin trilogy by Stephen Kotkin, it seems wise to review William Taubman’s “Gorbachev”.  Kotkin’s analysis suggests Stalin was a pragmatic autocrat who systematically eliminated potential adversaries who might challenge his leadership.  In contrast, Taubman’s Gorbachev is characterized as a democratic rather than autocratic leader.  This is not to say Gorbachev is less strong willed than an autocrat, but Taubman suggests he chooses to listen to both equals and subordinates before deciding and acting.  Kotkin shows Stalin keeps his own counsel before deciding and acts as his paranoid behavior demands.  Gorbachev is a politician, not a dictator.

Mikhail Gorbachev (Pres. of the Soviet Union 1990-1991, General Secy. of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1985l-1991.)

Through force of intellect, ambition, and persuasion Gorbachev tries and fails to reify Leninist socialism.  Gorbachev’s ambition is to turn an increasingly dysfunctional Russian autocracy to democratic socialism.  Democratic socialism would theoretically provide Russian citizens a voice in control of their fate. 

Taubman notes Gorbachev is a student of Lenin’s writing. Gorbachev argues for change in Russia to what Lenin called democratic socialism. Gorbachev’s belief is that the 1917 revolution is more than a rebellion against monarchy

Gorbachev is not alone in believing Stalin abandoned Leninist idealism by instituting a government of the one in control of the many.  Many historians note Lenin did not want Stalin to succeed him as the leader of the revolution.

Kotkin suggests Lenin views Stalin as a soldier who enforces discipline but fails to understand the importance of creating a platform for power to the people.

The sad consequence of Stalinist history is that it reinforces kleptocracy, “a society or system ruled by people who use their power to steal their country’s resources”. 

Taubman shows Gorbachev understood Stalinism from personal life experience.  Taubman explains how Gorbachev comes from humble surroundings in a farming village in Russia.  Gorbachev sees firsthand how the idea of collective farming decreases, rather than increases productivity.  The bureaucratization of collective farming has the same impact in communist Russia as it did in communist China.  Leaders in charge of collective farms distort production quotas to make themselves look good to superiors.  The result is either lower productivity, or worse, the famines of 1920s and 30s in Russia and the 1950s in China.  (This is not to say famines do not occur in democracies, but the cause of famine is not bureaucratic lying but nature, or something beyond human control.)

Gorbachev loved his father and adored his grandfather.  Both parents were great influences on Gorbachev’s belief in hard work and education.  Gorbachev’s mother is the disciplinarian in the family.  She rules the young Gorbachev with a belt until he is old enough to say, “no more”.  “Tough love” from Gorbachev’s mother, in Taubman’s telling, instills respect for women.  Taubman suggests Gorbachev’s choice of a wife is based on belief in equal partnership to help him achieve life’s evolving goals. 

Taubman suggests Raisa, Gorbachev’s wife, is an equal partner in his decisions in life and in governing the Soviet Union.

A reader/listener is only halfway through the book at this point.  The last half of this 32-hour narration deals with Gorbachev’s failure as the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union.

BOXING

Audio-book Review
  By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Ali (A Life)

By: Jonathan Eig

Narrated by Kevin R. Free

Jonathan Eig (Author, Former reporter for WSJ, Eig also wrote Luckiest Man, and Opening Day.).

Jonathan Eig’s research of Muhammed Ali’s life offers some surprises to listener/readers. One who grew up in the sixties will be reminded, entertained, and appalled by Eig’s biography of the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time.  Muhammed Ali, aka Cassius Clay, The Greatest, The Champ, The Louisville Lip, and less flattering nicknames, shows Ali lives up to every name noted in Eig’s biography of Muhammed Ali.

A criticism one may have of Eig’s detailed biography is its length. The last chapters dwell on Ali’s deterioration as a boxer with more detail than necessary. It becomes too repetitive in its reification of a man’s life who is ultimately only human.

The defeat of Sonny Liston.

One might think sports, particularly boxing, is no measure of intelligence. 

However, Eig notes Ali had an instinct for knowing when a punch is going to be thrown. Ali’s reflexes responded with such great speed punches often missed their target.  That skill and Ali’s showmanship made him the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.  Ali’s voice and opinion during the early years of his fighting career show him to be a brilliant actor, comedic insulter, and revered representative of Black America. What hid the truth of Ali’s intelligence is standardized testing, and the social circumstance of the 1960s. 

There are many forms of intelligence. 

Ali is classified as 4f by the military when he flunks its reading and comprehension test for the draft.  Eig suggests Ali is dyslexic which makes reading a laborious and unrewarding task.  To reinforce the idea that Ali is dyslexic, Ali only receives a high school diploma because of his school principal’s intervention. The principal recognizes something in Ali that is missed by standardized tests. As most Americans know, Ali goes on to become the heavyweight champion of the world by beating Sonny Liston, a monster of a man who was a 7 to 1 favorite to beat Cassius Clay before the fight began.  What is revealed by Eig’s research is the complexity, the joy, and sorrow of Muhammed Ali’s life and world renown.

Ali beats Sonny Liston and becomes the heavyweight champion of the world.  After his ascension to champion, Ali does not want to be drafted. He does not see how he could be ineligible for the draft when he was evaluated by the service and found to be 4f but now is considered draftable.  He enjoys his life as it is and notes that he has no desire to go to war against Vietcong for whom he has no understanding or hate.  Ali refuses the draft without arguing his newly found Muslim faith could make him a conscientious objector.  The government sentences him to 5 years in prison.  Ali is stripped of his title and banned from boxing for 3 years. He is 25 years old and in the prime of his boxing career.

Those who grew up in the sixties knew of Ali whether they were sports fans or not.  Vietnam is raging in the sixties.  Many young, and some older Americans rebel against government overreach with anti-war protests, and human rights demonstrations.

While many enlist or are drafted into the service, a few burn their draft cards and escape to Canada. Some draft dodgers stay in America and publicly fight the draft because they view Vietnam as an unjust war.  Ali chooses to stay in America and fight the draft based on his early 4f classification.  Though that argument does not stand up, Ali refuses to be drafted.

With the help of growing public unrest, Ali is eventually released from a lower court’s charge of draft dodging by the Supreme Court of the United States. His ban from boxing is removed but only after the suspension removed Ali from the healthiest years of his boxing life.

What makes Eig’s biography so interesting is there is no singular motive for Ali’s choices in life.  Ali is a human puzzle.  He chooses to become a Muslim and devotes his life to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Ali appreciates NOI’s teaching because it directly challenges white America for unfair treatment of Black Americans.  However, Ali is not a religious zealot. He is shown to be a human with many of the same failings of all human beings.  He prays to Allah but violates many preachments of NOI. He pursues conjugal pleasures of other women while married.

Ali is suspended from NOI for a year by the order of NOI’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The suspension is not because of philandering but because of Ali’s public pronouncements about boxing as the source of his fame and fortune.

Elijah Muhammed, the leader of NOI, considers sports and entertainment as frivolous and unworthy of anyone who believes in the Muslim faith.  Ali accepts the punishment and is never officially released from his banishment, though he remains a Muslim.

Ali does not abandon his religion, but he says his greatest regret in life is having abandoned his friend, Malcolm X (aka Malcolm Little) who criticized Elijah Muhammad’s flaunting of marriage vows because of sexual relationships with women other than the leader’s wife.

Malcolm X is murdered.  Some say he was murdered at the direction of NOI.  One wonders if Ali is fearful of the power of Elijah Muhammed or just aware of NOI’s potential for harming followers if they differ with the leader’s pronouncement.  Eig’s biography implies Ali’s intelligence and hedonism are likely motives for Ali’s actions, not fear of NOI’s punishment.  After all, Ali is a prolific violator of his own marriage vows and cash income from fighting remain his most important goal.  However, it is a puzzle that Ali said his biggest regret is abandoning his friendship with Malcom X who vilified Elijah Muhammad’s morality and rejected belief in a separate, exclusively Black, NOI nation.

Eig’s biography implies Ali is inadvertently, rather than deliberatively, on the right side of history.  One wonders if it is inadvertent.  Vietnam is a tragedy, badly managed by America.  Resistance to the war, Malcolm X’s recognition of the equality of all human beings, and Ali’s regrets about their friendship being broken suggests something more about what Ali really believed. Hedonism is one of many faults of humanity. Eig clearly shows Ali is no Saint, but Eig implies Ali has a moral center beyond his ill treatment of women. 

The last half of Eig’s book recalls Ali’s boxing matches, his relationships, and the terrible impact of boxing on the human brain and body.  Ali is shown to be an inveterate user of prostitutes when training for fights regardless of its consequence to four marriages.  (It’s interesting to note that the Muslim faith accepts the right of men to have four wives at the same time.  This is forbidden in America but violated by more than one religion.  Is it a coincidence that Ali marries four women?) 

It is difficult to believe a fighter could fight for 15 rounds when 3 rounds for an amateur are exhausting.  Ali’s stamina throughout his boxing life is seemingly supernatural.  He loses and wins the Heavyweight Championship’ title 3 times in his boxing career.

Eig’s detailing of Ali’s fights is particularly interesting to anyone who has boxed as an amateur or professional.  Eig points out Ali’s change in the way he fought left-handed boxers without understanding that leading with one’s right is what a trainer tells a right-handed fighter to do when fighting a lefty. 

Ali, and opponents like Frazier, show energy and determination that seem other-worldly.  One wonders how much of that energy and determination is based on subliminal punishment for a profligate or hedonistic life.  That may be personal psychobabble more than objective interpretation of Eig’s biography of Ali. One may ask oneself; what avenues were open to Black Americans in the 1960s to become rich and famous in order to be hedonistic?

Ali obviously fought for money and fame, but Eig shows Ali and other boxing champions pay a very high price.  Ali died at 74 years of age but suffered from diagnosed Parkinson’s for 32 of those years.  Though there is no proven direct correlation for Parkinsons’ diagnosis, it has been shown that boxers are more suspectable than the general public to speech impediment, Alzheimer’s, and erratic body movement from blows to the head. Frazier died at the age of 67.  (Ali was 33 and Frazier was 31 in the “Thrilla in Manilla”, the fight of the century–it is won by Ali in this third fight between the two, but that fight sent both to the hospital after its conclusion.)

Eig pulls no punches in his biography of Ali.  Ali was a flawed human being that treated women as property.  Ali entertained the world in his rise to fame.  Ali made the most of what he could in the time he lived.  Ali was the greatest in some ways and the least in others.  He exemplified much of what many want to achieve but at a price few are willing to pay.

SPHERES OF INFLUENCE

Audio-book Revie
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Destined for War (Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

By: Graham Allison

Narrated by Richard Ferrone

Graham Allison (Author, American political scientist, Professor of Government at Harvard.)

Allison briefly reviews the history of war to reinforce an argument about its causes.  He suggests wars come from the rise of competing hegemonic powers. A quibble one may have with Allison’s argument is that it diminishes reasons beyond power that led to WWII. The rise of Hitler may not have occurred if reparations for WWI had not been excessive.  However, his main point is that cultural differences are seeds from which power and conflict grows.  Allison suggests, when nation-state’ cultures are different, countries competing for political and economic power incline toward war. He gives many relevant and convincing examples.

Graham Allison suggests the cause of war is defined by Thucydides (Greek Historian of the Pelopnnnesian War, Born 460-455 B.C., Died 400 B.C.) in the fifth century BC. 

The “Thucydides’s trap” is when one country achieves a competitive level of political power it challenges existing hegemonic powers, leading to conflict and probable war. 

Allison argues that war is not inevitable but that to avoid it requires acceptance of spheres of influence.  This is not a new concept.  The terms “sphere of influence” became legally significant in the 1880s when Africa was being colonized by European countries.  It was meant to explain a colonizer’s political claim for exclusive control of a particular area of the world.

Allison notes that China’s Chairman Xi is, in a singular respect, the same as America’s Ex-President, Donald Trump.  That “sameness” is Xi’s goal of making China “Great Again”.  In no other respect, does Xi seem comparable to the bombastic Trump. 

Allison explains China is culturally unique based on its history, reaching back to 1600 B.C.  Like Ancient Egypt (3400-3200 B.C.), China is as culturally different as any nation-state in the world.  Allison offers a highly intelligent and informative analysis of how different Chinese culture is from American culture.

To avoid war, Allison argues America, the current hegemon of the world, must couch its political behavior and power in ways that acknowledge cultural difference between itself and rising hegemons of the world.

Allison recalls the history of England’s dealings with America after the 1776 revolution.  England reluctantly accepted America’s eventual rise to hegemon of the world. (Some would argue, England’s decision to remove itself from the European Union accelerates that decline.)

The United Kingdom’s economic, military, and political power (its sphere of influence) diminishes as America’s flourishes.  England remains a power in the world, but its sphere of influence steadily declines.

Russia struggles with their sphere of influence because of the collapse of the U.S.S.R.  In 2021-22 Russia may invade Ukraine, just as they did Crimea in 2014, to re-expand its sphere of influence.  Russia maneuvers to politically enlist China as an ally to accomplish that end. Putin undoubtedly cultivates China’s objection to America’s attempt to expand its sphere of influence in the far east.

The issues of Ukraine and Georgia are more precarious for Russia than the rest of the world. Putin’s demand to expand Russia’s sphere of influence renews a cold war that will inevitably become hot. The only question is where the heat will lie.

Ukraine and Georgia will become Putin’s Vietnam. It is a war that can only be resolved at the expense of many Russian’, Ukrainian’, and Georgian’ soldier’s lives. The most other countries can do is support Ukrainian and Georgian resistance while pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects sovereign independence.

The inference one draws from Allison’s book is that America must recognize the cultural difference between itself and China to avoid war.  Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other hegemons of world history, America must gradually adjust its behavior as a hegemon of the world.  America, like all hegemonic powers, effectively operates within a sphere of influence. America’s sphere of influence is being challenged in the Far East by China.

Allison’s view of the world gives weight to Putin’s great concern about Ukraine’s independence and implied wish to join NATO. The fear Putin has is a reminder of even Gorbachev’s opposition to western encroachment on eastern bloc independence.

The sense one draws from Allison’s insight about culture is that no country in history has ever treated its citizens equitably.  In America, the stain of slavery and native Indian displacement remain festering wounds.  When and if those wounds heal, America’s sphere of influence will either grow or diminish.  In China, it may be the wounds of Uighur discrimination and Han superiority that wounds its future as a hegemon.  In Afghanistan, the unfair treatment of women may doom its sphere of influence.  In Russia, it will be the mistakes Putin makes in violating the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia.

Every nation’s sphere of influence is affected by internal cultural errors and external cultural influences.  Only a state that adjusts to the demands of its culture will survive.  Culture is not exportable, but it has weight.  Foreign cultures can only be an influencer to other countries.  A culture imposed by force will fail as both America and France proved in Vietnam.  Cultural change must come from its own citizens as it did with the U.S.S.R. in 1991. 

Spheres of influence evolve.  They are not static. 

America’s goal should be to understand other cultures.  In that understanding, there must be acceptance of a competitor’s sphere of influence. Allison is not suggesting America withdraw from the world stage, but that engagement be along the lines of a containment strategy like that proposed by the former ambassador to Russia, George Kennan, in the 1950s.  Kennan’s long memorandum is born of an intimate understanding of Russian culture.

Allison argues America should pursue a policy of minimizing conflict while promoting democracy to citizens who seek freedom and equality. 

Allison recommends engagement with rising hegemonic powers with an eye on their respective cultures.  Allison argues, only with understanding of cultural difference is there a way to avoid Thucydides’ trap.

One cannot deny the economic success of China.  At the same time, anyone who has visited China in recent years knows of dissidents who object to communist monitoring and control of citizen freedom.  Tiananmen Square remains a rallying point for mainland China resistors.  Hong Kong continues to demonstrate against Xi’s influence on the lives of local business owners. Taiwan objects to Xi’s intent to repatriate their island country. Tibetans are denied their rights as followers of Buddhist belief.

In sum, one comes away from Allison’s book with the hope of a future without war.  Hegemonic powers will rise, and fall based on the evolution of their respective cultures.  History suggests governments that rely on the “rule of one” in modern times will not last.  Adding population demographics and ecological threats, China’s “rule of one” suggests the best policy for American democracy is acceptance of spheres of influence with a policy of Kennan-like’ containment. 

Chairman Xi is mortal, and mortality is the penultimate harbinger of change. In the long run, freedom and equality will change the nature of even the oldest cultures.

PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP

Audio-book Revie
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Spaceman of Bohemia

By: Jaroslav Kalfar

Narrated by Jot Davies

The author, Jaroslav Kalfar offers a perception of communist Czechoslovakian history.  Kalfar became a resident of Brooklyn, New York at the age of 15.

“Spaceman of Bohemia” is partly a “stream of consciousness” tale. Just as a reader/listener thinks the story is complete, a new story begins with a similar thematic destination.  In an implausible space journey to a galactic dust cloud and a miraculous rescue, a Bohemian astronaut is saved by a Russian spaceship. The spaceman of Bohemia’s spaceship is compromised by dust from the cosmic cloud he is inspecting.  

The Russian spaceship comes out of nowhere and is part of a top-secret program that explores the universe without knowledge of the rest of the world. The spaceman’s story begins with a young boy in communist Czechoslovakia just before the 1968 Prague Spring and Czechoslovakia’s democratization in 1989.

Jakub is the teller of this tale.  In recounting his life, Jakub offers a history of what life is like for families that supported a repressive communist regime before the Prague spring movement. 

Jakub’s father is employed by the secret police who torture dissidents at the direction of the communist party.  One of those dissidents is tortured by Jakub’s father.  After the communist party is rejected by the Czechs, this particular tortured dissident returns to seek revenge on Jakub’s family. 

As a real-life example of dissident torture in Czechoslovakia, a Slovak priest dies from torture and radiation poisoning from forced labor during the communist era. He is beatified by the church after his death.

After Jakub’s father dies, he is raised by his grandparents.  However, they are evicted from their home that Jakub’s grandfather had built.  The eviction occurs because of political influence used by the dissident who had been tortured by Jakub’s deceased father.

Jakub becomes a Czech astrophysicist. As a scientist, he discovers a new life form in cosmic dust.  Because of that discovery, he is called upon by his government to become an astronaut to make a trip to analyze a distant cosmic dust cloud.   The true reason the Czech government calls for Jakub to become an astronaut is revealed at the end of the story.  It is the influence of the tortured dissident.

Jakub’s ego, patriotism, and the added weight of the Czech republic’s storied history of science (referring to the likes of Bolzano, Purkinje, Wichterle, Heyrosky, etc. and oddly, Nikola Tesla who was a Serbian) entice Jakub to take the risky space journey.

Cosmic dust cloud.

The journey to the cosmic cloud takes several months.  As the journey toward the cloud continues, Jakub meets, at least metaphorically, an alien that has the general form of an arachnid, but with 13 eyes. 

The arachnid has lived for centuries and is able to communicate directly with Jakub.  The arachnid calls Jakub “skinny human”.  The arachnid can read Jakub’s mind which suggests it is a figment of Jacob’s imagination. That idea takes a listener into a state of suspended disbelief that becomes more surrealistic as the story progresses.

As the spaceship reaches the cosmic cloud, it becomes disabled by dust particles that penetrate the life support system of Jacob’s vessel. 

As the “Spaceman…” nears death, a Russian spaceship rescues Jakub. The approaching spaceship is a part of a secret Russian science program that has explored the universe for many years.

Everyone in Czechoslovakia presumes Jakub is dead.  The Russian’s plan is to keep their rescue of Jakub secret.  As they near earth, Jacob impresses one of the cosmonauts (who incidentally has lost his mind) and helps him take over the Russian spaceship. It crashes into the ocean.  Jacob escapes and returns to his home country.  

Those are the general details of the story, but its appeal is in the author’s skillful use of words and his characterization of human relationship and fragility.  As the author explores human relationships, he exploits beliefs in authoritarian, democratic, communist, and capitalist government’ deficiencies. 

Jakub marries a free-spirted artist, a woman whom he loves.  She also loves him but resents his self-centeredness. 

Jakub chooses to take this dangerous journey without considering his wife’s opinion.  He treats her as a non-person; not worthy of consideration when deciding something that deeply affects both their lives. She decides to leave Jacob just as he left her, without explanation.  Jakub is only part way through his journey to the cosmic cloud when she leaves.  She chooses not to explain anything to Jakub in their weekly contacts while he is in space.  She just leaves. 

Jakub’s wife works with a psychiatrist that helps her understand the decision she makes to leave her husband. 

The meetings are transcribed, and Jakub is given a copy of the transcript when he returns to earth.  He realizes the mistake he has made and hopes to reenter the relationship he has lost.  When he sees his wife, he realizes there is no chance for reconciliation because of the past.  He recognizes his failure as an equal partner to a woman of substance.

Personal relationship is the beginning and end of all that matters in life.  Kalfar tells a story of human fragility.  Life is not government.  Life is not politics.  Life is not economics. 

THOUGHT IS A BEGINNING

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Secret Garden

By: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Narrated by: Carrie Hope Fletcher

Frances Eliza Hodson aka Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924, Author, British American citizen died in New York.)

              “The Secret Garden” is a period piece.  One should read/listen to “The Secret Garden” with an understanding that it is a story of its time, not of the 21st century.  It tells of wealth’s privilege at a time when poverty is ignored and perceived as a natural part of civilization.  “The Secret Garden” was serialized in a 1911 publication called “The American Magazine”. 

“The Secret Garden” is a story of childhood privilege and neglect.  The story begins in India and ends in an English manor house.  It is a story of how some children overcome the circumstance of parental neglect. 

The first character introduced is Mary who lives in India with her British parents. 

The second is Colin who lives with his father in England. 

              Because of implied wealth and virtual absence of parents, two ten-year-old cousins are raised by servants.  Their early perception of the world is that they are masters of their domain.  At the age of ten, both children have been neglected by their parents.  Mary is characterized as unattractive with a beautiful mother who has turned her parental responsibility over to Indian servants.  Mary’s father is never a part of the story. 

Cholera strikes India in 19th century. Both of Mary’s parents die from Cholera, and she is carted off to England to live with her uncle.

Mary’s uncle lives in a 100-room mansion in the English countryside.  Mary arrives at the manor and is greeted by servants, not her Uncle.

              Her Uncle lost his beloved wife in the birth of their son.  The son, Colin, is isolated in one room of the mansion, cared for by servants, and rarely visited by his father.  Colin believes he is going to die because of a physical affliction that is presumed to have come from his father’s unspecified condition, a condition of melancholy more than physical being. 

                Mary begins to recognize people who care for her are not slaves when she returns to England.  Her realization comes from being taken out of India’s way of life into an English countryside where servants are noted as somewhat independent while handcuffed by low wages paid by employers and the independently wealthy.

The consequence of Mary’s and Colin’s neglected upbringing is their characterization as imperious martinets who order their care givers as though they were slaves.

              Mary begins to realize English servants are more than order takers.  They have lives of their own.  She begins to realize one must treat others as she wishes to be treated. 

The author makes it clear that Mary’s steely imperiousness has not left her but that she tempers its use as she becomes better acquainted with the poor who must work to live.

A secret garden is the center of the story because it is a symbol of life’s resurrection. 

               Even the most neglected and spoiled children can be metaphorically planted in a different environment to become more caring and understanding.  A secret garden changes Mary and Colin into better human beings.

The key to understanding “The Secret Garden” is that thought makes humans who they are and what they become.   

              Colin is introduced as an invalid that is unable to cope with the world as it is.  He is neglected by a father who may blame him for the death of his beloved wife.  Colin is ten but acts like a two-year-old.  He is as imperious as Mary when she lived in India.  Because of Mary’s experience in India, she understands Colin’s reasons for acting as a two-year-old.  In that understanding she uses her experience in India and her newly acquired knowledge of English life to lure Colin out of his melancholy.  She talks of a secret garden that was created by Colin’s mother before her untimely death.  Mary found the key to the Secret Garden and the metaphorical key to Colin’s health and happiness.

               Frances Burnett created a story that explains how children who are neglected by parents can change the direction of their lives.  The course of one’s life begins with thought.  Good thoughts lead to good actions.  Bad thoughts lead to bad actions. After Burnett’s story, a final thought is–weather neglected or not, it is a child’s choice.

MIDDLE EAST AGENDAS

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Black Wave (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry)

By: Kim Ghattas

Narrated by: Kim Ghattas, Nan McNamara

Kim Ghattas (Author, Dutch Lebanese Journalist for the BBC)

               Kim Ghattas capsulizes the causes of cultural and religious conflict in the Middle East. Her complex explanation of politics in the Middle East shows the importance of religious freedom and the negative consequence of mixing religion in nation-state governance.  Ghattas’s intimate understanding and experience in the Middle East illustrates how ignorant America has been in confronting Middle Eastern leaders in their struggle for peace in their own countries.

              “Black Wave” is a difficult book to summarize.  Some reader/listeners will conclude from Gattis’s book that the heart of Middle Eastern conflict is religious intolerance.  However, it is not religion itself but political leaders who distort religious belief for personal power that roils the world.  America has its own religious zealotry, but it is tempered by a political culture that demands freedom of religion, independent of political governance.  It does not keep American political leaders from distorting religion for their own agendas, but it tempers its potential for state acceptance of orchestrated violence.

Osama bin Laden used religion to justify his directed murder of innocents.  He sought political power at the expense of religion. 

              Ghattas dances around America’s bungled effort to democratize the Middle East.  Some would argue Iran democratically elected an Imam to lead their country. Ghattas notes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia clearly fears popularly elected leaders.

In ancient times, the middle east is known as Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Empire, and Babylonia (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and today’s Saudi Arabia). 

America’s self-interest has made many enemies in the Middle East.  America is a cultural and political baby in respect to the ancient cultures of the Middle East. The birth of the Islamic religion dates to 7th century in Saudi Arabia. 

As is true of all religions that have stood the test of time, the Islamic religion has broken into different factions that consider themselves Islamic but with different interpretations of their faith. 

The added dimension of poverty, cultural identity, and economic inequality encourage belief in religion. A religious believer’s purpose in the world is to gain some peace in this world, with hope for eternal life in the next. Therein lies the source of much violence within and among all countries of the world. There can be little peace in a world where people are being indiscriminately murdered, starving and treated unequally.

An example of how violent and unfair nations can be is Syrian leaders’ murder of its own people.

Ghattas explains there are two major versions of the Islamic religion in the Middle East.  One is Sunni, the other is Shite. 

              The hegemon for the Sunni Islamic religion lies in several countries but its center of power is Saudi Arabia.  The center of power for Shite belief is Iran.  “Black Wave” recounts a history of both power centers and how they use religious belief to increase their influence and power in the Middle East.

  Ghattas argues religious interpretation is a tool used by Saudi Arabian’ and Iranian’ leadership to gain power and influence in the Middle East.  Ghattas infers the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia do not believe in peaceful coexistence but in hegemonic power.  They use the Islamic religion to maintain control of their power.  When state power is threatened, their leaders’ resort to interpretations of Islam that preserve their control. 

Citizens of any country may be murdered by zealots, domestic terrorists, or foreign invaders. Leaders seeking power care little for those who believe in an afterlife or the luxury of their current life as long as they are obedient servants of the state.

Ghattas recounts many examples of Middle Eastern leadership that show little concern for their citizens, e.g., Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi, Syria‘s gassing of Syrian citizens, and Iran’s imprisonment and torture of citizens who choose not to follow political leaders’ interpretations of the Koran.

              Ghattas’s book implies the consequence of American ignorance of Islamic beliefs victimizes the poor, powerless, and disenfranchised.  A western country that does not understand the subtlety of religious beliefs in the Middle East has little influence on the course of events.  With a better understanding of Islamic faith and how it is being used by Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is some hope for peace. 

Understanding and acceptance of those who fervently believe in a religion, along with economic opportunity for those who are victimized by hardship and/or violence, offers some hope for peace.  Without understanding of foreign cultures and economic assistance for those victimized, world conflagration is an ever-present danger. One must ask oneself–how wise is it to use political policy or trade to victimize the poor and disenfranchised?

BRAIN SKEPTIC

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Idea of the Brain (The Past and Future of Neuroscience)

By: Matthew Cobb

Narrated by: Joe Jameson

Matthew Cobb (Author, British zoologist, professor of zioology at University of Manchester.)

Matthew Cobb is a skeptic.  “The Idea of the Brain” cautions the public about claims of doctors, psychologists, chemists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and technologists who claim breakthrough understandings of the brain.  Cobb explains the history of how, where, and why the brain creates thought and action. Even to this day in the 21st century, brain function remains a mystery to science and the general public.  Cobb does not deny progress has been made but his history of “The Idea of the Brain” shows progress has been slow, often misleading, and sometimes flatly wrong.

He explains how, in the time of Aristotle, the source of human’ intelligence and emotion were believed to be in the heart.

As the present takes hold, it becomes clear that intelligence and emotion come from chemistry and neuronal activity of the brain and body with its primary loci in the brain.  The shift in understanding from heart to brain is proven by science, but details remain as much a mystery in the present as in the past.

MRI

Cobb skeptically reviews modern science’s explanation of brain function.  He questions the detail value of brain imaging (MRI), and researchers’ comparison of computers with brain function.    MRI does not analyze brain function at a neuronal level.  It offers broad information about areas of the brain that influence action.  It fails to reveal anything about the brain at a neuronal level.

Cobb acknowledges brain imaging offers some insight to specific areas of the brain that process information for thought and action.  However, Cobb notes MRI is a blunt instrument of analysis because it only indirectly notes stimulus by showing increased blood flow to specific areas of the brain.

“The Idea of the Brain” recalls the history of patients who have been treated for epileptic seizures. The seizures are partially abated by brain surgery.

The consequence has been mixed in that the seizures are reduced but some motor skills or memory functions are diminished.  Cobb also explains a consequence of separating the two lobes of the brain.  When they are separated, the surgery literally makes the person of two minds, one of which knows little about the other’s thoughts and actions. The separation of the two halves of the brain confirms the differences in perception and utility of each lobe of the brain in viewing and understanding the world.

Cobb goes on to criticize comparison of brains to computers by noting neuronal activity is much more complex than the most sophisticated computer programs. 

He notes a brain’s network of neuronal activity is different from a computer’s processing of information in fundamental ways.  A brain predetermines future action of the body before it knows what action will be taken.  There is no predetermination in a computer.   

Cobb explains a human brain processes information through chemical as well as electrical impulses.

Cobb notes brains create reality from past recollection and present perception. A brain reconstructs the past from experience and interpretation.  A computer does not interpret the past or create thought.  Input to a computer is based on coding past and present information that is interpreted and input by humans. There is no homunculus in the human brain. A human brain mysteriously creates the past and present to form thoughts and action.  Human thoughts and actions are based on emotion, imprecise memory, and intellect.  Computers only correlate, not create, information. A computer devises plans based on correlation rather than creative thought implied by human neuronal activity.

Cobb makes the point that today’s computers do not think in a human sense.  Computers do not create but only correlate information with results that are plans for action and execution. 

Cobb suggests a computer singularity like that suggested by some futurists is too far into the future to be predictable.  Until there is testable proof and understanding of human neuronal action, computers will remain lifeless tools of humankind.

Cobb’s research makes him skeptical of chemical treatment for psychological disorders because of their unsuspected side effects.  He acknowledges some of their success in abating Parkinson’s symptoms and other chemically caused maladies.  However, Cobb forthrightly warns anyone taking prescribed drugs for mental disorder to continue taking their drugs under the supervision of qualified physicians.  Cobb notes two major pharmaceutical companies have abandoned research for chemical treatment of mental disorders because of their imprecise medicinal benefit.

In the end, Cobb is optimistic about science’s ability to fully understand the brain.  However, he suggests it will be centuries before full understanding is achieved.  Cobb believes the avenue for further research should be on living things which have fewer brain cells.  He argues the complexity of neuronal function requires understanding at a neuronal level before expecting a breakthrough that will reveal the mystery of consciousness and human thought and action. 

To Cobb, science requires experimental proof.  That proof must begin with repeatable experiments that result in the same answers by different experimenters.  He argues understanding at a neural level will be key to understanding brain function and its chemical and electrical activity. 

Cobb implies present-day computer comparison to the brain is a dead end.  He infers–when neuronal brain activity is understood, today’s comparison of computers to brains will be the equivalent of science recognizing the brain, not the heart, is the source of thought and action.  Cobb’s implication is that with an understanding of neuronal brain function, artificial intelligence may, in the far future, create life and consciousness. The ramification of that thought is that human procreation may be a thing of the past.