Thursday, December 30, 2010

Textbook errors create a stir in Virginia schools; even academic publishing has problems in quality in this cost-cutting age

For all the discussion of “amateur” vs. “professional” authoring and publishing, it seems that the flap over errors in social studies textbooks from Five Ponds Press (link), including “Our Virginia: Past and Present” (Joy Masoff) and “Our America” have really created a stir. The publisher even mentions helping students with their SOL’s (Standards of Learning tests) in promoting the lower-priced texts. The Washington Post has a story on Dec. 30 by Kevin Sieff. Errors included stating that the US entered World War I in 1916 (it was 1917). Another was that the Confederacy comprised 12 states (it was 11). And there was a controversial error involving the participation of blacks fighting for the South.

An interesting sidelight seems to be that the authors did a lot of their research for the texts on the Internet. “I read it on the Internet so it must be right.”

Of course, I remember my own factual gaffe on the back cover of the first edition of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997 on the "age" of the Bill of Rights (I don’t know how it got past me), but corrected it in the 2000 print-on-demand from iUniverse. But no one caught it until 1998, when someone in Minnesota noticed it proofreading my second booklet. (It’s a good idea when writing history not to say how “old” some document is, because the book itself will age anyway.)

There was some controversy back in the 1950s, because social studies in Arlington was always “Virginia and U.S. History” and “Virginia and U.S. Government”. And we always had a lot of collateral reading besides history and literature anthology texts. I don’t even remember what the anthologies were (in college, we had Crane Brinton’s “A History of Civilziation” and “British Poetry and Prose”). We had a lot of collateral reading: “Silas Marner” in 10th Grade English, John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” in 11th Grade History, and “Huckleberry Finn” in college freshman English. It seemed (when I was a sub) that everyone read Goldman's “Lord of the Flies” (a kind of “Lost”) in 9th Grade English and had to take pop reading quizzes on it. Another external assignment was an abbreviated version of Elie Weisel’s “Night” – there’s eve a Spark multiple choice quiz here. And these assignments produced some vocabulary words (like “lorry”).

Update: January 9, 2011

Andy Rooney, on CBS 60 Minutes, talked about the textbook fiasco tonight, and Robert McCartney wrote a column for the Metro Section of the Sunday Washington Post, "Va. schools should insist on refund for textbooks".  No way to turn these into "teachable moments."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Smithsonian's "Mysteries of the Universe" takes up the coronal mass ejection issue

The Smithsonian has a Collector’s Edition for Winter 2011 of “Mysteries of the Universe” (104 pages) about many topics.
But the most important piece, by Robert Irion on p 70, “Staring at the Sun”, echoes the warnings that a large coronal mass ejection from the Sun could wreak havoc. Like the book by Lawrence Joseph reviewed Nov. 9 here, it discusses the 1859, 1921 and 1989 CME’s, and warns about our growing dependence on electronics.  It says that the effect of an 1859-style event might be reduced by precautionary voltage reductions by power companies and by various measures to redact satellites, but the damage could be over a trillion dollars and be long lasting.  Also, it notes that the 1859 event occurred after a period of little sunspot activity, and notes that sunspot activity dropped almost to zero in 2008 and 2009. But rather than 2012, it seems to think the greatest risk occurs in 2013 and 2014.
There are articles about all kinds of things, like the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, which does not have a quasar, but which will develop one in some billions of years when the Andromeda Galaxy approaches.
It talks about the Solar System, but does not have pictures of Europa and Titan, a disappointment.
It also has an article (“Ready for Contact”) by Sarah Zielinski about the search for extraterrestrials, and notes that a laser reply would be a sign of intelligence.  It is guarded as to how arriving extraterrestrials would treat us, but probably not as badly as in the film “Skyline” (or “V” or “The Event”).
If you believe in the idea that family gives future beyond the self, you have to realize that some day Man will have to find a new home, a new solar system, maybe a new galaxy or new universe to live in. Ever wonder “what makes me who I am?”  Why am I experiencing myself in 2010; why wasn’t I born in earlier times in more “primitive” conditions with more collective values?  It seems that “consciousness” or “soul” is an entity like matter and energy, and that consciousness can transcend the universe’s speed limit and jump universes.  It would make sense to transmit a person’s soul through a wormhole and reassemble it in another universe from the information transmitted, much like a download from the Internet, even like Facebook.  
The link for the “Magazine” is hereIt can be found in many supermarkets and retail outlets.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

George W. Bush and "Decision Points": Finding faith was like diving into the pool

Author: George W. Bush

Title: "Decision Points"

Publication: New York: 2010, Crown Publishers; ISBN 978-0-307-88522-7, 497 pages, hardcover, two sets of illustrations

The former president presents his experience, from young adulthood through the controversial presidency, as the unfolding of life’s challenges to an “ordinary person”.

True, he says early that if he had not made the decision to stop drinking, he could not have faced any other of his monumental problems during his presidency. He also describes the experience of going to a Christian church but not quite believing because he saw himself as a “logical person.” The “born again” experience was a kind of letting go, of diving into the deep end of the pool with dependents needing to be kept afloat.

I do recall his promotion of "faith based" initiatives early in 2001, and his interesting comment during an early speech at Ohio State, "a person without responsibility for others is truly alone".  I believe he made a similar comment toward the end of his Inauguration Day speech in 2001, a Saturday where I went snow tubing south of Minneapolis after hearing the speech. Later he would suggest that more people take interesting in "mentoring a child", and I don't know whether meant to include those who do not have their own children.

I do recall his announcing his stem cell decision, on "conventional right to life" grounds, in August 2001, about a month before 9/11, when I was "home" myself for a visit.

He is very firm in his conviction that he didn’t really “know” much more than the rest of us, despite the elaborate infrastructure for his daily presidential briefings, which go on the road with a president. Having lived in Dallas in the 1980s, I can say it would be nice to have a ranch and a fully equipped and stable personal office in the Texas Hill Country.

His account of how he came to understand the nature of the 9/11 attacks as they unfolded takes a little over a page. He first thought that a small plane had flown into the WTC, and then that a pilot had a heart attack. He experienced disbelief, until a point of recognition, as Andrew Card whispered to him in that elementary school gathering. The "Day of Fire" shocked him and indeed presented an existential threat to our way of life, not necessarily clearer to him because of intelligence, which was often murky. He mentions the New Line film "13 Days" about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I recall that there was a small "existential" problem about Taiwan in April 2001, however.

On Iraq, he also says he really believed that Saddam had WMD’s, and makes plenty of arguments that even without them Saddam Hussein needed to be removed, given his behavior and the likelihood that he could shield terrorists.

On Hurricane Katrina, he describes some amazement as he flew over the flooded city.

He also experienced the Election Night in 2000 as an ordinary guy, amazed for a while that the media had fumbled the information about Florida. As a factual matter, it simply is unclear whether Gore would have won had the Supreme Court allowed the recount.

He is self-critical on taking up privatizing Social Security, when he says he should have turned more attention to immigration.

One of his most interesting suggestions is that redistricting should be done by a non-partisan committee.

He does not mention gay rights anywhere but he does mention oppression of homosexuals in radical Islam.

He provides a brief an non-apologetic version of the Plame affair ("Fair Game")

I take it that "W." enjoys daily life in Dallas, Texas.  I did.

Crown Books provides the following YouTube video:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI gives book-length interview in "Light of the World"

Authors: Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) , Peter Seewald and George Weigel (Foreword)

Title: "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times"

Subtitle: "A Conversation with Peter Seewald"

Publication: San Francisco, Ignatius, 2010. ISBN 978-1-58617-606-8; hardcover, 219 pages (Foreword and Preface, 20 roman pages), Three Parts, 18 chapters, with Appendix; each chapter has the form of a sequence of comments or questions (“is that a question?”), each followed by the Pope’s reply; hence the publisher calls this a “book length interview” with the Pope.

There seem to be three major points in the Pope’s thinking, as to what the teachings of the Church comprise:

First, God has a plan for us, to develop into a civilization that has a future, where we have much input but where He has a final say, and it is arrogant to say that we can challenge his Plan with intellect and reason alone to define “good” in our terms. (That’s a paradox as the Pope must use considerable abstract intellect to compose his answers.) Indeed, we are imperfect by definition and need salvation by Grace.

Second, God provides many instrumentalities for us to develop and gives us Free Will. He does not stop us from making choices that vary from his Plan, because if he did His Plan could not be carried out at all; His Plan requires us to have freedom. But some personal choices are intrinsically wrong or at least contrary to His intentions for us.

Third, because human beings are imperfect, they face challenges or “miseries” which demonstrate need for God. The “miseries” are individualized and different for various individuals and may seem to contradict political ideas of equality.

Before going into the “specifics” of Vatican prescriptions in morality (which are controversial), I’d like to run through a few original scenarios.

One: Back in First Grade, the teacher let us choose between white and chocolate milk for morning snack. But she warned us that chocolate was the wrong choice because it could make us sick. The boy who sat in front of me, Mike, chose chocolate. I said “you may get sick” and he said, “I don’t care.” He never got sick. Was his choice wrong? What was the point of the teacher giving us a choice if one option was always wrong?

Two: Physicists say that a universe could exist without the “weak force” and a weakless universe could have stars and planets supporting intelligent life. But a weakless universe doesn’t have elements heavier than iron. That means no radioactive elements, and no nuclear weapons. It means no heavy metal poisoning. But probably such a universe would have much less variety and “opportunity” than ours.

Third: In a typical information technology shop, ordinary programmers might not be given regular authority to update production files. This protects the integrity of production systems, but can make getting work done and fixing production problems more difficult. Should programmers be “bonded” and have more “freedom” to do their jobs more efficiently?

You can see where I could be heading: the questions about gay people. The Pope insists that God insists that God’s intrinsic purpose for sexuality is procreation and providing humanity a future, and also he hints that marital sexuality socializes people into meeting the needs of others rather than just following their own “rational” purposes, which for some people can seem quite tempting and rewarding. Hence the famous Vatican doubletalk on homosexuality – and contraception. The book does pay brief attention to his widely announced admission that condoms may be acceptable to prevent STD’s.

The Pope admits he is not sure whether homosexual orientation could be immutable or would develop in the environment. If it is immutable, he might have a problem, because God seems to have created something that is beyond behavioral choice that contradicts his plan. The Pope really doesn’t answer this. Maybe he’s wrong and God intended that some people explore psychological polarity for its own sake, without the need to procreate. But with the “environmental” hypothesis, the Pope may make more “sense”. Sometimes people (especially men) don’t “compete well” according to gender norms; and this is the “misery” that they must deal with to understand they need God. If they were encouraged to express “upward affiliation” openly, we might arrive at a society where people show much less empathy within the family and which people in general have much less “investment” in their biological future. It’s a scary style of thinking, isn’t it.

I understand his reasoning from an abstract perch. But when you say some lifestyles are more in line with God's (or society's) purpose than others, you invite expropriation (and the talk about compassion for "people" as opposed to their indivualities -- whether "chosen" or "miseries" -- sounds like a contradction). And some people feel that, to lead their own lives dedicated to marriage and family, they need to see everyone else have to do the same so that their world has "meaning."

The Pope does rationalize the celibate priesthood. He writes “Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation” (in analogy to the Pentagon’s 1981 statement “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service”). He takes head on the idea that celibacy could become a “pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don’t want to get married anyway.” He also writes that homosexual orientation “estranges them from the proper sense of paternity”, as if to highlight that generativity is an intrinsic moral responsibility for everyone. It wouldn’t be hard to connect the Pope’s thinking with right wing arguments about “demographic winter”.

The Pope does discuss the abuse scandal in terms of going back to standards of right and wrong, and in other parts of the book he gets into some things that are generally esoteric, such as Fatima’s appearances (Portugal) and the healings at Lourdes (France) (I visited both in May 2001).

Seewald sometimes begs the questions, summarizing moral arguments on his own, particularly toward the end, where he suggests that a media-saturated and “me first” world takes people away from the social cohesion (and Godly devotion) that a society needs for sustainability.

Ignatius provides this YouTube trailer:

Monday, December 06, 2010

Time's picture book on Benjamin Franklin

In my junior year in high school (they say it’s the hardest year), I remember having to read and compare two biographies for English. One of these was “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (now available from Dover paperbacks),with its Moral Perfection Project of the Thirteen Virtues. I thought the family had a copy, but I don’t see it, so maybe I did borrow it from that old Clarendon library. The other biography was that of Edgar Allen Poe, and I even recall giving an oral book report on that, vividly, some public speaking experience setting up my 1998 talk on my own book, maybe.

Time Magazine offers (in supermarkets and pharmacies, mainly) a spiffy illustrated paperback “Benjamin Franklin: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times” (128 pages), by Richard Lacayo.

The book makes Franklin, our greatest non-president among the Founding Fathers, into a kind of heterosexual Leonardo Da Vinci or polymath. As a teen he might have come across as someone who would get onto “It’s Academic” or “Jeopardy” today. He was also given to philosophical ruminations (as a friend in the 1970s said, “verbosity promulgates egregious epigrammitization”). At 19, he wrote “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain” and tried to argue that evil does not exist. Later, he tried to destroy all copies of this foolishness, but here it is (link ). Most of us know of “Poor Richard’s” pamphlets. Like #3, “Journey of My Voyage”, all rather self-centered, comprises lots of short passages rather like blog entries. Franklin’s activity in the printing business probably got him as close to global self-distribution, in comparison to what happens with today’s Internet, as anyone achieved. He also helped other pamphleteers, including Thomas Paine.

But perhaps it took his sort of Ayn-Rand-hero personality to enable everything he did, including is inventions (such as his armonica (p 54) where wine glasses produced musical tones, and for which Mozart and Beethoven wrote music (no polytonality yet, please).

His sense of family values was interesting, as he entered into a rare common law marriage with a woman whose first husband had deserted her, and as he had his first son by another woman.

Franklin’s contribution as a political founding father are in every history text, of course. He was early to oppose slavery, and the different schemes for representation in the House and Senate were largely his. Yet it’s his contribution as a literary content originator and distributor, relative to the capabilities of his day, which he increased, that seems like his most remarkable achievement. Intellectually and as a business person, he compares to the Internet entrepreneurs of our era.

The book sells for about $10 and the illustrations practically make it into a filmstrip (like what we used to have in grade school, in the 50s of course).

Franklin was also an avid chess player, but the rules may not have been quite the same as today, and published opening theory in those days was very limited.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Beal and Strauss: "Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online"

Authors: Andy Beal, Dr. Judy Strauss, with Foreword by Robert Scoble

Title: “Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online

Publication: 2008, Wiley, ISBN 978-0-470-19082-1, 378 pages, paper, indexed, 3 parts, 15 chapters., Amazon link.

The authors define the term “radically transparent” on p xxiv of the Introduction, to mean “being open and honest online, admitting mistakes, engaging stakeholders in discussions about you and your brands, and even revealing your internal processes.”

Now, wait a minute: my first pause. “Online reputation” (as characterized by companies like Michael Fertik's Reputation Defender) has become a “personal property” or attribute, an element of our lives that has developed quietly and insidiously over the past decade or so (actually, even longer). [Note well: the word "Reputations" in the book substitle is plural!] But the focus of this book is the presumed situation that “you” already have your career and professional goals defined, and that you are interfacing with the public through your job, using and managing your company’s or organization’s resources, representing their best interests before your own. Indeed, even a dozen or so years ago every major company (almost) had a public website that it put effort into (my employer, ING/ReliaStar had “I Hate Financial Planning”), but it tended to be done “at work”: “those were the days my friend” (“I thought they would never end”) of Web 1.0, before “Blogumentary” (a documentary film), and social networking sites, when Mark Zuckerberg was still in prep school. There was a presume separation, for most people (particularly in information technology, where I worked as an “individual contributor”) between “work” and “private life”. In the early days of the Web, people “sort of” understood that what you wrote online was yours, not your boss’s (until Heather Armstrong came along – we all know what it means to get dooced now).

But think of the “job” of an insurance agent, or a trial lawyer, or a surgeon, or any professional who interfaces with the public to get and serve consumers, in some relationship with larger companies. Now (especially since about 2005 or so as social media became important), he needs to deal with the idea that consumers will find him online, and grade him on the web, too. Yup, it’s an asymmetric world: in some cases, what one blogger writes about you (or your company, as the authors show with Dell) can seriously disrupt your business. (Some physicians, at least, have been making patients sign "gag order" contracts that they will not complain online; the asymmetry, some professionals say, of unsupervised complaint sights can destroy their practices or businesses. But you don't have to be a surgeon for others to talk about you online!)

So, I guess, my “second pause”. Generally, most professionals are in some particular “place” in their career situation, and now the practical reality is that they have to use the online world to support their business reputation, not to express their own personal views or engage debate, as I did (and I’ll get to that). So going online and networking is indeed a practical necessity, a skill everyone must master. As individuals, we all need to develop our own “brands” online, for ourselves as well as our employers.

On p 58, the authors have a gray-font “FAQ’s about online reputation management for individuals”. They tend to downplay the serious risks of litigation (for libel, copyright infringement, etc) and of being fired for personal online behavior (although later the authors mention the doocing problem again, particularly the young woman who lost a teaching career over a “drunken pirate” Facebook picture). The authors also present writing and media savvy as something that used not to be expected of many professionals in the workplace the way it is now, and they’re right (oops, not “write”) about this!

My circumstance, to be honest (as I reach my “third pause”) is the inverse of what the authors describe. I got onto the web early (around 1996, as Hometown AOL was coming into being), first with desktop publishing (and book self-publishing) out of a desire to project my own voice on a particular issue, gays in the military (and “don’t ask don’t tell” – which certainly, by the way, presents issues for “online reputation” for servicemembers). The issue, in an existential manner, became the focus of all kind of other issues that revolved around it, just outside an event horizon, which I in turn took up, “connecting the dots”. So I developed a quick way to present the news, with a bit of a “Chicken Little” flavor, a sense of warning of so many other things that can go wrong, and an idea that so many perils can be prevented. I was very much against the “herd mentality” (not “nerd herd” of Chuck!) that seems to drive people like lemmings into catastrophe (like the mortgage meltdown). That worked wonderfully in the early days of Web 1.0, but after 9/11 things seemed to change. Once social networking sites became a staple of life, it seemed as though online behavior could become a demonstration of “fitting in” and taking on “social responsibility” (particularly readiness for family responsibility) as compared to my original paradigm of becoming an individual voice of libertarian-oriented constructive criticism of everything going on.

One of my motives was not to depend on the collective voice of “organizations” whose positions, sometimes based on a faulty sense of victimization, might eventually reinforce a sense of shame. Nevertheless, someone who expresses his own political opinions visibly online could run into issues in the workplace if he has direct reports or makes underwriting decisions about others, a problem I have already covered on my blogs. Taking on such responsibilities in the workplace could mean removing a lot of personal materials, but once they’re out in cyberspace, digital copies exist forever, part of what we have come to see as the “online reputation” problem. On the other hand, as the authors point out, most people approach the Internet with specific career-related goals already laid out for them to be supported. So someone in my position is left with the “inverse” problem of making my online innovation into a viable news or media business, perhaps with film. From a legal perspective, when dealing with the “implicit content” problem (and fending off charges of gratuitous “recreational outrage” in some “conflict of interest” problems), one might need a viable business plan to maintain one’s legacy place online.

One of the caveats that come with social networking (especially as Mark Zuckerberg says he envisions it as he grows Facebook) is that in a moral sense, a person has only one "identity", one "soul". So we come back to a more personal meaning for "radical transparency": personal life and professional life merge into one mass. It's a new world of "do ask, do tell".

The authors give “how to” and handbook advice on all kinds of Internet-use matter, such as email. The suggest that people not use aol, msn, or hotmail accounts for business email or job searches, as, according to them, these domains suggest amateurism and spam; I’ve had AOL since 1994 and not run into that attitude at all. (For some reason, Verizon email addresses sound better for reputation.)

The authors do discuss blogging, and the various tones of writing that are appropriate in blogs as compared to formal white papers and (particularly academic) books.

See also, trademark blog (Nov 18), “BillBoushka” blog (Nov. 19), IT blog (Nov. 19 and 22).

(Note: I bought the paperback; the image shown is for a slightly different version; Check Amazon for all versions).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Amazon pulls "objectionable" Kindle book; a slippery slope?

Should Amazon have “given in” to public “recreational outrage” over a Kindle Book title by Phillip Greaves II, which had been self-published in late October, 2010? Fox News has a story on the disabling here. Apparently in two weeks the e-book had risen to sales rank 65 among Kindle books.

The “book” (rather more like a leaflet) dealt with disturbing subject matter, to say the least, and had a title that most would find offensive (so I won’t reproduce the title here, for practical reasons). Quotes from the book show some egregious and obvious spelling errors.

As of Thursday morning (Nov. 11), pricing information on the e-book was not available, and the individual URL for the book does not come up. However late Wednesday night I saw several angry comments threatening to boycott Amazon, and one of the comments said that other comments had been removed. (It's not absolutely clear if Amazon or Greaves did the removal.)

Greaves has other entries on Amazon that continue to work.

Although the book had been available for almost two weeks, outrage erupted late Wednesday when Anderson Cooper covered the issue on his AC360 program (in his “keeping them honest” ® series). Dr, Phil appeared, and then Jeffrey Toobin, legal advisor, indicated that the book probably would not be found obscene or in violation of child pornography statutes because it contained only text and no images. (That is not necessarily the case overseas, even in Canada.)

Fox notes that Amazon has been criticized before, and once removed a violent video game, but also allowed another book about underage interest to stay despite threats of suits from a conservative group.

Amazon reportedly said “Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.”

But critics noted that Amazon was inconsistent because it does not sell (visual) pornography.

Toobin described Amazon’s issues as purely business ones, not legal.

Anderson Cooper’s 360 blog entry is here (updated).  The entry even reports an urban legend that the book is an FBI sting (like a former Dateline series!)

The incident could make “public outrage” a more sensitive issue for Amazon (and BN) since some people are offended by a number of topics (such as abortion). It could cause them to become more wary of accepting self-published books.

I have reviewed one or two books that I think could have inspired boycotts. I have one such review Jan. 21, 2009, and I hid the objectionable nature of the book title with a blog posting title (“Women and children first”) that expressed the “spirit” of the title in a less “offensive” way.

Back in 2005, a couple staff members at a Fairfax County high school where I substitute taught were “very offended” by the presence of a screenplay on my own website about a similar subject matter after I mentioned (to one teaching intern) the fact that I had a website in response to a newspaper story regarding the First Amendment. The incident is covered on the “BillBoushka” blog July 27, 2007.

There have been a few cases of litigation and prosecution around websites with intention similar to Greaves’s book.

AOL has a detailed story about the incident here.

NBC affiliate 9News in Denver has this story about the Pueblo author (including a brief interview with the author, as well as with lawyers and prosecutors):

My own concern: rule of the mob, and possibility we could sink back to "Fahrenheit 451" or book burnings. You don't have to buy the book.  Amazon's Discussion Page about the book is still available here, and many of the comments look pretty responsible and balanced.

It sounds appropriate to say that the company won't sell knowingly anything that gives instructions on illegal conduct, and that logic would apply, for example, for weapons making. But in the past it could have applied to all gay conduct, even with adults.  Most of us don't know exactly what the ebook says, but there's a good chance that, despite Greaves's assertions, a lot of it would be illegal in most or all states (let alone harmful).

I remember the controversy over "Hit Man", from Paladin Press ("Rex Feral"), resulting in a lawsuit. It's still n Amazon, and very expensive.

Update: Dec. 21

NBC and Kerry Sanders on the Today show report that the Polk County FL sheriff set up a "sting" to buy the book through the mail and then sent sherrif's deputies to Colorado to arrest Greaves on obscenity charges.  The sheriff used the word "manifesto" in discussing the case in this video. It sounds like it will be hard to get past the First Amendment in court. I thought one had to use US Marshalls for such an arrest, but apparently not.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Lawrence E. Joseph: "Apocalypse 2012": Beaucoup "coronal mass ejections" from the Sun coming?

Author: Lawrence E. Joseph

Title: "Aftermath: A Guide for Preparing for and Surviving Apocalypse 2012"

Publication: Broadway Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-76793078-9, 272 pages, hardcover; 4 sections, 11 Chapters, Introduction and Epilogue.

Amazon link.

Let me start with a personal anecdote. Back in October 1962, I was a patient in a psychiatric ward at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. (Readers of my blogs and books know the background.) I was the only person who left the “campus” to go to college, at George Washington University, at night. So I heard JFK’s speech about the Cuban Missile Crisis while having supper in the Student Union. I was the only “patient” who knew what was going on. I don’t think that much of the staff paid attention. Now, I had been bullied as a kid, but I’m afraid that I turned the tables a bit in the “group therapy” and “unit government” sessions. I would say that a post-catastrophe world would have no use or tolerance for non-adapted (maybe even “parasitic”) people like “us”, who had failed to perform certain social duties imposed from without for the good of everyone besides our own selves. I’ve always felt this way about survivalism; I have become dependent on a stable, technological world where I, as an individual person, have considerable reach regardless of ability to function in a conventional social hierarchy. Take that away, and you have a world with no place for me.  The author, toward the end, even admits that while living in LA (Beverly Hills) he may not be able to fully live up to his own moral precepts. I’ll come back to this, but now for the book.

The author (who in 2007 wrote “Apocalypse 2012: An Investigation into Civilization’s End”) presents his material in quixotic fashion. In fact, only the last Section deals with how to survive; the rest of the book makes his choppy case. His presentation is punctuated by sidebars on gray pages where he sketches some fictitious, movie-like scenarios. Nevertheless, his thesis and many of his points are interesting, even compelling. He does provide his own take on the Mayan Dec 21, 2012 date early, and it is more wrinkled than you expect.

By now, the word has gotten around. NASA (and the National Academy of Sciences) put out a report in early 2009 to the effect that the Earth might experience unusually strong “coronal mass ejections” from the Sun at the height of the sunspot cycle in 2012. Joseph makes the case that the outbreak could be somewhat prolonged, for some number of months toward the end of the year; and one or more of them really might hit the Earth in orbit. He paints a scenario of many large power blackouts taking weeks or months to repair, possibly throwing the US back into the early 19th Century.

There is some history here. There was a sequence of huge CME’s in 1859, and another in 1921; a “smaller” one in 1989 knocked out Quebec for a few days. He also shows that a grid based on alternating current (which he says developed in the US partly after blizzards and storms showed that DC networks were too vulnerable because of the need for more generators and wires) is more at risk to CME damage than a DC one (as in Europe). He shows that it is easier to “harden” satellites than transformers on the ground, and easier to protect satellite telephone networks than conventional cell networks. He also argues that terrorists or anarchists could try to take advantage of natural catastrophes. Ironically, he gives no discussion to the threat of a terrorist EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) blast from a small nuclear weapon (at high altitude) or even from certain microwave jamming weapons widely used by the military in deployed areas (like Iraq) but not normally in civilian possession. Ironically, Popular Science had discussed such possibilities in September 2001, just before 9/11.

He properly argues that the world (especially the US) is much more vulnerable to prolonged disruption today than it was in 1859 or 1921, and hints that the smart grid (monitored by the Internet), as proposed by Friedman and probably the Gore-Clinton-Obama crowd, could make it even more vulnerable. That point is debatable, however. If every home (or at least neighborhood) could generate its own wind and solar power and even maintain (and perhaps harden with Faraday-like protections) its own Internet connections, the country might be much more secure because of decentralization.

He also provides some nuance to the debate on climate change (such as explanations of ice ages and discussion of ocean currents and the risks of methane hydrates).

What’s more interesting is his venturing into spiritualism and social psychology toward the end of the book. He talks about his travels to Siberia and meeting shamans, who he says teach us the value of ancestors and of connection to lineage.

His discussion of who would survive a global cataclysm or “The Purification” and how is quite sobering. Basically, it seems, his prescription is that if you want to live, well, you have to really want to live and function as a very social creature. Street smarts count a lot more than book smarts (which amount to zero or worse) – although he notes, that at least in the case of Lebanon, individually-based arts made a rebirth in a very stripped down world. Using the specific example of the novel and film “Sophie’s Choice”, Joseph talks about the need for one to find a “protector”, almost in the sense that the Mafia or a street gang would use the term. As I’ve noted, a world like that has no use for me. Yet a soul of conscious-unit seems as much an element of the universe as anything, and perhaps cannot be destroyed. Perhaps the soul is the tunnel or wormhole between universes, and one day physics (and thermodynamics) will prove that. So someone who was “spoiled” by civilization and leaves with bad karma will awaken in poverty on another planet around another star in another universe. He’ll have to learn to connect.

YouTube lecture from Lawrence Joseph (26 min) here.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Adam Hamilton: "Enough": Christians, stewardship, and financial planning

Author: Adam Hamilton

Title: "Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity"

Publication: Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2010; 110 pages, paper. ISBN 978-1-426-70233-4

The Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington has been selling this little book for a stewardship class, and in the fall most congregations hear a lot about stewardship. That’s been especially true since the financial collapse of 2008.

It’s not hard to imagine the arguments against consumerism and materialism. The author goes into a few of the “seven deadly sins”. And there’s no question that the Financial Crisis was fueled in some part by the gullibility of many consumers, who, following a herd mentality, were duped by unregulated banks into believing they could get a lot of house for nothing.

But this book doesn’t repeat Suze Orman’s lessons on financial discipline (valuable as they are). It is also prescriptive against careless consumption even by those not in particular financial trouble or debt (either credit cards or mortgage).

It maintains that a financial plan starts with a tithe first. I once (in the 1980s) heard Rev. Don Eastman at the old MCC Dallas (before the Cathedral of Hope) answer a question about before or after –tax tithe: “Do you want a before tax or after tax blessing?”

But consumerism is a relative thing. For some people, consumption of media or technology related items or even entertainment gets turned in to income (think about people who write Facebook applications and make a good living at it, or think about professional musicians). Many such individuals have to deal with the whole issue of gadgetry vs. family time, too.

Picture: From Jon Stewart's Rally:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Favre and Stanford: "The Cure for the Chronic Life": Is it "purpose-driven"?

Authors: Deanna Favre and Shane Stanford, foreword by Max Lucado

Title: "The Cure for the Chronic Life: Overcoming the Hopelessness that Holds You Back"

Publication: Nashville: Abingdon Press, hardcover, 204 pages. (The dust jacket has a rear view of a very fit looking youth jumping into (baptismal) water, curious indeed. ) ISBN 978-1-4267-1001-8

First, a note about the authors: Deanne Favre is wife of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and breast cancer survivor; Shane Stanford is pastor of Gulf Breezes United Methodist Church in Pensacola, FL, and himself has lived years as HIV-positive having been infected by a blood transfusion related to hemophilia.

A few personal anecdotes come to mind to tie into this book. In my own coming of age period, I knew a contemporary, already in a second marriage to a wife who had been married to a pro football player. In 1971 or so, that had seemed like a distant connection to celebrity (no so any more). Much more to the point, I recall an incident in 2004, shortly after I had start substitute teaching. I had taken an assignment in a special education setting without understanding what it meant or the situations that it could set up. The classes, though nominally high school, were for profoundly disabled teens. Then I was moved to another class, that was going on a “field trip”. The unremarkable male teacher, himself in gym clothes, asked me if he could count on me for help in the locker room and then to man the deep end of the swimming pool. Well, I never had learned to swim very well (now we hear that African Americans {I am not} are not learning this skill at all). Furthermore at the time, I was a 61 year old male who would have felt humiliated to be seen by any student in swimming trunks. Now, on p 131, Deanna talks about “what would cause people to hide themselves from others.” Funny, because in 2004 I perceived this as infringement on my right to consent.

I can spin other tales of both wonder and misunderstanding. In 1979, I was on a gay camping trip in the prairies of West Texas with MCC Dallas and we were going to have a midnight service. There was some intrigue about a booklet I wanted to deliver to a particular friend. At midnight we are ought in front of a pyre when this other member puts his arm around me and speaks about me as if I were partially disabled, even retarded. I was certainly misunderstood. Then a violent thunderstorm came up immediately and drove us back to the bunk houses before he could finish his “prayer”. Later the same person would invite me to brunch at a controversial Dallas restaurant at the time, the Lucas B&B, and want to talk to me about God. Then, a few weeks later, in August, on a Sunday night, someone who had been paralyzed for ten years really would get up and walk for the first time while my “other” friend sang “He’s Alive” with his guitar.

I go back into my long-term memory bank for a third anecdote. When I was a patient at NIH in 1962 (I explain all this in my first book and on the “BillBoushka” blog posting Nov. 28, 2006), I did befriend a couple of the more “intact” male patients, but there were a particular female patient who would wake up in the middle of the night screaming about why we “can’t love everybody.”

What I’m getting at here is something about “autonomy.” Some of us are indeed “different” and can accomplish unique things if left to our own devices and we follow through and work hard. Yet we find that others press us to conform , to join in the group, and support the causes defined by others.

I have to say that a lot of evangelical thinking, even from relatively liberal pastors and denominations, supports this “joining in” mentality.

On p 10, Shane mentions Pastor Rick Warren (at Obama’s inauguration) and his concept of “The Purpose-Driven Life” (a best selling 2002 book (from Zondervan), but takes it further; it is not (just) a common or shared social purpose (as in the idea of the “Natural Family” from Carlson and Mero) but a purpose given by God himself.

In the last pages, the book, speaking of “selfless views of life, God, and God’s people” says (p 185), “The chronic life seems to make it all about us.” He gives an example of a young woman who is not a bad person but who “is constantly focuses on her own needs.”

The book gives a 40-day recipe for curing the “Chronic Life”, which seems to center more around compulsiveness in managing relationships than anything else (as the authors describe it). He starts out by categorizing the Seven Worries of Living in Christ – as if anxiety itself were the grand pathology of (psychologically feminine) self-indulgence. The grand acronym is the “CURE”, with the four temperaments: “Compassion, Understanding, Response, Encouragement”. (Yup, kids, be able to name these on a test.) Each day there is a four-step process: “Discover, Deepen, Deploy, Discern.”

His concept of “Understanding” is interesting (and reminds me of Dan Fry’s group in Arizona in the 1970s). He says that teaching is not about imparting knowledge (the way college professors handle it when they lecture), but about personally engaging students in the process of learning. I’m reminded here of the “knowledge of good and evil” problem.

Shane does give a good account of the HIV panic of the 1980s, which extended to all those infected, not just to MSM’s.

At a certain level, the books seems like a call to introverts for social conformity. I can say from my own live that my desire to “leverage” by differences were motivated in large part by the humiliation of competitive battles centered around the expectations of gender-related social conformity. (The “competition” aspect of this presents a certain paradox.) No doubt, others can raise existential questions if I try to stand out without responding to “real needs” of others for me to join in with them. But, sometimes, to accomplish anything, you just have to be left alone.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bob Woodward: "Obama's Wars" (review)

Author: Bob Woodward

Title: "Obama’s Wars"

Publication: New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010; hardcover, 439 pages, indexed, 33 unnamed chapters, Amazon link.

I was in the Army myself, stationed at Fort Eustis, VA during the 1968 election, and in 1969 when Nixon took office from LBJ. In fact, I was in “special training” in Basic when LBJ made his famous March 31 speech that he would not run or accept, and heard the speech on a radio in the barracks tent. My Army experience took a turn for the better almost immediately.

But we all know that Johnson’s war became Nixon’s war, even though most soldiers expected that personally they had a better chance of surviving exposure to Vietnam if Nixon won. Nixon did get us out (and would end the draft), but not soon enough for many people, and it was Nixon who would take such offence at some of the dissent from the privileged.

I remember another personal circumstance, in December 1990, when on an “Adventuring hike”, when there was a discussion of the Persian Gulf situation among some gay men on a West Virginia retreat, over a great dinner, and some of them (that is, us, including me) were so hawkish. We could already imagine that the Persian Gulf situation could naturally lead to openly challenging the ban on gays in the military.

Remember how William Westmorland kept demanding more troops during Johnson’s war, and how long they stayed under Nixon? That was scary when we had a draft.

Today, Obama has indeed rightfully shifted the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, but in many ways the liberal Democrat sounds as determined to see “War on Terror” through as was Bush, even if his intellectual focus is much more abstract. That’s true even though there was a much ballyhooed schism between a hawkish side (Gates, a Republican whom Obama kept as Secretary of Defense to keep continuity, and Hillary Clinton, probably a little more “conservative” than Obama) and Joe Biden. Obama took a middle road, but his commitment of large amounts of troops continues, even as there is now a definitely announced end. On p 309-310 Woodward outlines Biden’s approach. On pp 395-390, Woodward reproduces Obama’s final orders.

Much has been made in the media of Woodward’s conversations with the president about our nations’ ability to withstand terrorist attacks. We’re stronger, he says. But the government did a paper war game that assumed that Indianapolis was struck by a suitcase nuke. The exercise assumed a second nuke existed and maybe more. Woodward feels that the exercise just scratched the surface as to what would happen, and Obama talks as if that could be a game changer. Again, for me, this strikes a personal coincidence; I spent a summer in Indianapolis in 1970 on my first career job with RCA.

Woodward gives some discussion of the incidents on Christmas Day and then May 1, and discusses the Tehrik-al-Taliban (TTP).

The Washington Post has a YouTube video from Bob Woodward on tips for investigative journalism.

Some have criticized Woodward for disclosing "so much"in the book (given the WikiLeaks scandal and the questions being asked about the right to publish "leaked" information), but here the president and vice-president can lawfully release anything they want (discussion on CNN, Spitzer's program, Dec. 23).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hawking: "The Grand Design": Nature allows us to get something for nothing (maybe); why am I "me"?

Authors: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Title: "The Grand Design"

Publication: New York, Bantam, 2010, ISBN 978-0-553-830537-6, 198 pages, hardcover.Amazon link.

Hawking has attracted attention lately with his theories about extraterrestrials, and this book gives his view of cosmology and theology in terms of unified theories of physics.

Essentially, quantum mechanics, combined with gravity as an essential force, according to what we call M-theory, that posts ten dimensions and time, characterize “Nature”. It becomes possible and inevitable for countably infinite universes to appear spontaneously out of nothing. There doesn’t have to be a specific plan from God other than total logical consistency.

In some of them, ours, the other forces (electromagnetic, strong, and weak) and various physical constants are arranged in such a way that the resulting universe becomes non-homogeneous or lumpy, and eventually stars and planets form, and sometimes even life. Toward the end of the book, Hawking explains British mathematician John Conway’s “Game of Life”, in which x-dimensional dominoes set up self-replicating structures that sometimes die out, and sometimes are “reborn”, in theory generating so much complexity that eventually biology develops.

I’m left to wonder then, what makes my train of experience attached to “me”? Why now? Why am I 67 and not 26 (Zuckerberg’s age), or why wasn’t I born at the time of Christ? I think it has to do with “karma”, and that karma is part of Nature. The recent film “Inception” probably demonstrates it.

I think that with our motives and thoughts (our “existential integrity” when we have it), we create “trends” (maybe “gliders”) that play out in such a way as to motivate others. Dreams may be part of this. Suppose you have a dream of an intimate encounter with someone you are attracted to. You don’t know how you got there (Inception), but it seems real when you “experience” it. After waking, you believe you have been with the person (a “brain belief”). It may wear off. I wonder if the other person knows. I think sometimes he or she does. I think that ultimately telepathy will turn out to become as controversial as information sharing on social media, even though the birth of Facebook seems like a process of “Nature” to me. But in this example, the intimate encounter probably occurs in a different universe, with access through worm holes – no, through the other 7 unused “dimensions”. The nice thing is that usually there are no consequences in this universe for the encounter. (You get to “undoredo” the time arrow, something not normally permitted within a particular universe.)

I say usually, but it’s possible sometimes there are consequences, particularly with a REM-sleep dream. You might not wake up. Your heart could go into fibrillation, you could flatline, and you might perceive yourself as staying in that alternate (just different) universe forever.  (You might stay in a specific situation forever, which could be painful or pleasurable; call it the "Bugcrush Effect".) We call it “afterlife.” You might not like what you find. You could be alone forever, or you could be in a situation where you don’t like your emotional reputation with the other beings who know you. Or maybe it does work out, and you get some bearings, and you stay.

Some other sources write that universes compatible with life could exist without the weak force (we call them “weakless”) with life around smaller stars. There would be no elements heavier than iron, so no nuclear weapons.

The book is printed with thick high quality paper and has many colorful illustrations (like a school text book) that would lend themselves to animation videos.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

John Grisham talks about how he became a novelist

I posted a story about John Grisham’s novels back in April 2009, but I thought I would mention his op-ed September 5 in the New York Times “Boxers, Briefs and Books”, about how he went from manual labor to becoming a lawyer to writing novels. He did not start out by wanting to become a writer, but became one anyway. He says that this is the most difficult job her ever had, and worth it. He’s also coming out with a collection “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit”. The link for the op-ed is here.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Chandler Burr: "You or Somebody Like You" (novel, review)

Author: Chandler Burr

Title: “You or Someone Like You

Publication: 2009, Ecco (Harper), ISBN 978-0-06-171565-5, 319 pages, including source notes and acknowledgements, fiction. (Amazon says that the book became available in paperback in June 2010.), link here.

Chandler Burr may be best known for his 1996 book “A Separate Creation”, from Hyperion, building upon a 1993 Atlantic piece “Homosexuality and Biology.” He has described himself in the past as an assimilationist, a moderate “conservative” to not quite libertarian, somewhere in line with Andrew Sullivan or perhaps Bruce Bawer (“While Europe Slept”) in outlook.

His novel strikes me as a meditation. He says he is examining the question as to whether one can be both a progressive humanist and faithful to an established religion (here, Judaism, but the problems are the same with almost any faith). And he clearly thinks the answer is no, as if it were a scientific conclusion, perhaps disappointing, as if to tell us we will never, in our own bodies, travel faster than the speed of light.

The title of the book hints at an essential, or fundamental problem of moral physics: tribalism. That is, when the individual accepts the goals of the group (the “natural family” or tribe or faith-based community) as his own, he gains some security, and some protection for the most vulnerable of selves within the group, at the terrible cost of being able to accept full accountability for one’s own track record and station. Christians will say that’s why we need Salvation by Grace (or existential forgiveness). Jews will saw we need purity, atonement and redemption, and Muslims will say we need absolute loyalty to the Creator. But ultimately there is loss of loyalty to self (or at least a protracted shame and guilt); and sometimes that is fatal. One can cease to be a person.

There’s something else important about identity tied to organized religion: sometimes, group identity, that of a “chosen people” (demanding competitive procreation) sounds downright arrogant.

The presentation of the story seems unusual, if explainable. It is told in first-person by Anne, from Britain, married to Howard Rosenbaum, raised as an Orthodox Jew and now a Hollywood executive. They have a smart 17-year old son, Sam, who is exploring the dualities – religious and sexual – in his own identity. (If all parents had a “Sam” as the oldest son, they should count themselves as lucky; yet Sam will provide an existential challenge to their marriage, just as I did [as an only gay son] to my own parents’.) The narration moves between past and present tense (ironically using present tense for back-stories). Burr does not use Chapter numbers (I think he should have), instead just breaks the 300-pages into small sections, some as short as a paragraph, with many literary quotations (almost as if writing a take-home literature exam in grad school).

A director guides Anne into forming a book club, although “no one reads in Hollywood.” Pretty soon various treatments and screenplay scripts are circulating (in one spot the novel has to emulate the screenplay format like FinalDraft to show a portion of script), some of which seem to be period pieces circumscribed by the consciousness of their characters. Here, I’ll quote Burr on p 299

“Literature shocks not because what it shows us is inherently surprising. It does the exact opposite. It is shocking because it breaks down what we would be and shows us what we know we are.”

The characters encounter most of the Tinseltown players: Miramax, Spyglass, Paramount. (I didn’t see The Weinstein Company.) Various specific people get mentioned (David Geffen). You get a feel for how the movie system (which is somewhat balkanized off of the old studio system, with indie-focused companies like Summit and LionsGate gaining more influence).

I do have a treatment of sorts for how my own “Do Ask Do Tell” ought to be made (I haven’t put it online), and this book has me wondering how it would fare in all the perambulations of submissions. No, the book wasn’t run through an exclusive book club first (and by the way, book clubs should not be social clubs – see the “BillBoushka” blog (Aug. 26, 2010). Yet the concept is open, following an argument hierarchically, and telling a story, rather an “inception”, non-sequentially. There is, however, a beginning, middle and end. That’s mandatory. (I just have to have Meryl Streep as the high school principal, and Leonardo Di Caprio as the Dean of Men.)

I would presume that Burr expects this book to capture the attention of the indie film market – the real Landmark or “AMC Independent” fare, because it is about some of the values of that world. (I don’t see it on imbd “yet”/) Somehow the IFC Independent Film Channel three-note plucked music jingle runs through my mind. Then one has to imagine who the director is, and who is in the cast. I wonder if an actor just fresh from playing Mark Zuckerberg would fit as Sam. Time will tell. I don’t think the novel mentioned the industry’s “third party rule” (that’s how reviewers get scripts to read, always from agents), to preclude copyright and script clearance problems – a rule that breaks down in the age of Facebook and blogs (just as “don’t ask don’t tell” does).

Burr's website for the book is here.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Barnes & Noble may sell itself; a testimonial to the fact that even the chain book stores face challenges; any effect online?

Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest bookstore chain, is considering selling itself, possibly to Leonard Riggio, which might take the company private. The story broke Tuesday on the New York Times blog here  and continued Wednesday August 3 with a “Business Day” story by Julie Bosman (linked above).

The deal marks the latest chapter in the difficulties faced by traditional bricks-and-mortar print media, like newspapers. Independent book stores have trouble competing with chains (the gay “Lambda Rising” closed at the end of 2009), and the chains have trouble competing with Wal-Mart at Costco’ but most of all, they have trouble competing with their own on-line sales websites as well as Amazon. is also a major bookselling website (as is Booksamillion and Powells).

It’s not clear if an acquisition would have any affect on the web business, affiliated with iUniverse, a cooperative and self-publishing “print on demand” book publisher. But most “print on demand” books are sold online rather than in stores, and the POL business model has been integrating itself with the eBook business lately.

Amazon had recently announced that it’s eBook (and Kindle) sales were outperforming regular books.

There is also evidence that people – especially young people – are simply reading less. Sad!

Barnes & Noble stores try to increase business with discount membership “green cards”.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Cahn and Carbone: "Red Families v. Blue Families"

Authors: Naomi Cahn, June Carbone

Title: “Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture

Publication: 2010, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-537217-5; 288 pages, indexed, endnotes; hardcover; Introduction and Conclusion; Three Parts with twelve Chapters.  Amazon link.

Recently, on July 28, on my “BillBoushka” blog, I mentioned a Washington Times op-ed on this recent book, which really does get at what a lot of the culture wars of marriage is all about it. Indeed, the authors have an interesting treatise, but what’s missing is the effect of that English language conjunction “If”. Somehow the book title reminds me of the “three colors” films of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Red, White, Blue).

The authors describe two paradigms for family life and map them to various regions of the country in terms of political and particularly partisan effect. But it’s “what they mean” is what really matters, not so much the political and even legal landscape.

The “Red state” family is based on older ideas founded in religion and tradition, so it seems. In the red state model, people marry younger and have more children, and sit in church a lot having their souls saved, but they tend to sin more, not able to live up to their religious teachings, resulting in shotgun weddings and more divorces.

The “Blue state” model emphasizes personal choice and responsibility (which sounds strangely libertarian, not leftist), developing income earning skills and personal identity (regardless of gender) before marriage, and better preparation for having children, who may be born later but who can be better provided for. “Blue” marriages tend to be more stable and be less likely to end in divorce because the partners are better prepared. The “blue” model emphasizes public tolerance and public diversity but a private sense of personal responsibility. “Blue” homes tend to be higher income.

As a practical matter, teenagers raised in stable two-parent families with some practice of religious faith tend to do well in school and later life, whether the political and religious beliefs of the parents are socially liberal and tolerant or more conservative. But it’s important to look at where the “blue” and “red” models lead and what’s behind them.

The “Blue” model is based on “rationalism” and individualism. Some social critics maintain that such a model leads to an unsustainable, “atomized” society where individuals pursue their own visions into discordance, and where less competitive individuals are left to drop on the floor.  One could compare the "Blue" model to "unbundling" in pricing a contract: the individual picks the pieces of emotional and family life he wants as long as he or she can take personal responsibility for it.

The “Red” model is based on tradition, religion, and the deep belief that marriage, when connected to sex and procreation, is transformative, in such a way that people share the deepest parts of their lives but can take care of one another in a sustainable but decentralized (eg, with the state) fashion. That may explain the affinity of the “Red” model with the Republican party. To some extent, the “Red” model expects people to become “irrational” when dealing with their own best interests in the area of family and sex, and yield to authority, faith and tradition.  The "Red" view sees marriage, sex, procreation, and the caretaking of family as a totally bundled experinece, essential to civilization and practically mandatory for anyone who enters the world on his or her own. The “Red” model can become corrupted at the top, since it still depends on a social organization that needs to be led; the Blue model can become undermined by lack of shared commitment and unfairness at the personal level.

The “Red” model comports with the “Natural Family” as described by Allan Carlson and Paul Mero (review Sept. 18, 2009 here), and in theory it sounds compatible with social and environmental sustainability. But the “Red” model is challenged by economic realities, abetted by the industrial and then information technology revolutions, making society less dependent on male labor or even “protective instinct” (e.g. “The Blind Side”), and requiring better preparation of both men and women for adult life and raising children (leading to a “deep purple” like “The Color Purple”).

The authors discuss the various legal issues that come up in conjunction with culture wars. Fertilization technology (and surrogate parenthood) is opposed by some (as the Vatican) on moral grounds, but could help “blue” parents have more children (including same sex couples); economic changes regarding work and family balance could help “red” families have their children earlier in life and still support them. But along the way, the “blue v red” battle has grown with the legal landscape concerning contraception (including the “morning after” and “Plan B” controversies), abortion (which is becoming more tangential now), and most of all, gay marriage and acceptance of gay sexuality at all (the authors discuss Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 in some detail).

But the biggest problem, it seems to me, is not just the culture of marriage and parenthood for people who want it, but the fact that it is imposed on people who don’t want it, including many gays and lesbians. The authors (having a subchapter called "Respecting Autonomy", which is discussed from the viewpoint of the powers of the state [Lawrence], which of course depends on the values of people) say that there is a balance between promoting personal autonomy and pro-family public policy; on p 165 they write “we are optimistic about the prospects for generational change and therefore see the issue as one of allowing space for the reconciliation of the critical demand and equal respect for gays and lesbians with understandings about the nature of human family creation” and then make an odd comment about persecution of people for the sins of their parents (or ancestors). Remember, “Reconciliation” is one of gay novelist Clive Barker’s favorite concepts.

I’ve always thought that the moral mantra of “no sex until marriage” (or experience of sexuality outside of marriage) is an indirect (Vatican-driven) way guarantee that everyone has a real stake in procreation and in intergenerational responsibility – in a world where technological advance offers special opportunities to those who would stand alone. There is no question that the “childless” are sometimes conscripted to serve the interests of those who do have children (as with Elinor Burkett’s “The Baby Boon” book (2000), reviewed here March 28, 2006). But this could be seen as another paradigm for moral fairness among individuals, as opposed to whole groups of people. It’s easier to sidestep the question (especially with gay issues) by regarding people as born intrinsically different, but the way the burdens of a community get shared raises profound ethical questions that earlier generations understood better than we do now. We’re really seeing this big time now with the explosion in demand for eldercare, which will draw in people who never made (or “chose”) commitments before; but single people have often had to raise siblings or their relatives’ children (a theme known in Hollywood [“Raising Helen”] but not discussed by politicians). The “compulsory” aspect of marriage and parenting (and the "family slave" situation on the other end) needs to enter the debate. In the end, freedom wins, but it can get hard for many people to see.

Interview with authors by TYTInterviews and the Huffington Post on YouTube:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Truman Capote's famous book "in Cold Blood" is subject of a trial in CT

The books chosen from a prison library are now being considered as evidence in at least one trial, that of Steven J. Hayes for a home invasion and triple murder in 2007 on Chesire, Connecticut.

The defense attorneys have objected to this as leading, but prosecutors think there is similarity between this case and the events of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (Signet, 1965). The book depicts the attack on a Holcomb, Kansas family, the Cutters, by two drifters in a robbery gone bad. There was a black and white film from Columbia in 1968 from Richard Brooks, which I saw my first weekend on pass in downtown Columbia, SC near Fort Jackson. Two more recent films about the author of the book are “Capote” (Sony) and “Infamous” (WB).

William Glaberson has the New York Times story on July 21, 2010, here.

There was a “novel” by Meyer Levin, originally published in 1956, republished for collectors by Carroll and Graf in 1996, named “Compulsion”, loosely based on the 1920’s Leopold-Loeb case, but the book was sometimes viewed as a fictional precursor to the real life events that led to Capote’s book. I read the Levin book while in the Army. Leopold also became the subject of theplay "Never the Sinner" by John Logan.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Amazon says Kindle and e-book sales exceed conventional book sales

Bloomberg Business Week reports that Amazon now says it now sells more electronic books, for Kindle, than conventional printed books. The trend toward e-books seems to be returning: it was touted in the late 1990s (one of the COPA plaintiffs had an e-book innovation called SoftLock), dropped off, and seems to have returned.

The iPad certainly can also generate interest in eBooks, yet it’s hard to imagine that the appeal of a printed book, something you can take anywhere and out to the beach or on camping trips without worry about power, damage or Internet connections, would dwindle in comparison.

Kindle sales soared when Amazon cut its price.

Print-on-demand, popular with self-publishers, has not necessarily increased conventional printed book sales that much.

The BW story is here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Kirkpatrick: "The Facebook Effect"

Author: David Kirkpatrick

Title: "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that Is Connecting the World"

Publication: New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-0211-4, 372 pages, hardcover, Prologue and 17 chapters.  Amazon link.

I start this review with repeating an (apparently unrelated) old chestnut from my own political activity: “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” To which history answers, “Facebook is incompatible with ‘don’t ask don’t tell’”. Military members do have Facebook pages, and some have outed themselves without consequences. But, innovated largely by a young man whose “personal” life appears to be heterosexual, Facebook may have done more to destroy the DADT policy than any politician, any judge or any advocacy organization (even SLDN). (Oh, well, there’s straight San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome’s support of gay marriage, too.)

Of course, what I’m hitting on goes back to the evolution of the Web, as “average people” starting using in the mid 1990s, before the first dot-com boom and bust, long before social media became fully established, when the Web was more like a self-publication platform (and e-commerce store). Anyone could make himself a celebrity with almost no capital, with the help of search engines, if he or she had something important to say.

With Facebook, as with other social networking sites, there has developed a fundamental dichotomy: is it about meeting and interacting with people, or is it about self-publication? Indeed, the book, as have others, traces the origins of “TheFaceBook” at Harvard, with the idea of facilitating connections with people whom you have a real chance of hooking up with. In time, however, it would go global. It had to, to make money, even as it was popular on campuses as a virtual “speed dating” prompt. It would become an incredibly effective tool for keeping up with people over long times and vast physical distances. As a mathematician puts things, it would create a new measure space for social interaction. It would provide an alternate universe with (as Clive Barker would call it) “Reconciliation”.

But as the Prologue of this book starts us with, Facebook has also provided a facile means of political protest, often in the Third World, overwhelming totalitarian attempts to put people down. Indeed, some governments like Pakistan have tried to disable it.

I take this back to the mid 1990s when I pondered and then wrote my self-published book on issues that concentrically surround the dilemmas posed by the “gays in the military” issue, as these issues related to my own past history. I followed up with a web presence, provocative enough to get involved with the litigation over COPA, and, particularly during my time in Minneapolis from 1997-2003, became a minor celebrity. Self-publication definitely did create desirable social contacts.

But in time an ethical question evolved, something I have called “The Privilege of Being Listened To” on my main “BillBoushka” blog. Should one definitely enter the world of social and family responsibility before being heard from? I had grown up in a culture that had good reasons to believe in that idea as a moral precept. This could have legal consequences. Web content could be seen as gratuitous, making the publisher morally and maybe legally responsible for putting others at risk if he did not have a clear motive from his self-broadcast other than to provoke others. In the COPA trial, this got called the “implicit content” problem. It then becomes possible to say that people in some workplace or familial situations don’t have the right to broadcast themselves under the Web’s “free entry” model at all.

But social media flip this content-driven question upside down, by starting with the precept that people should have an efficient medium (and topology) to initiate and maintain social contacts. Someday this could have a profound test in constitutional law. And Facebook, by growing from the bottom up from a social, almost dating service to a platform that can support self-publication, illustrates the dilemma perfectly.

That brings one to consider the role of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook is a creation of “Our Kids”, but in fact it evolved from much more specific social applications envisioned by a number of people, including the Winkelvoss twins and Aaron Greenspan. Accounts of the history of this phenomenal site present Mark Zuckerberg as a kind of “chickenman” – I mean that in the sense of Army barracks jokes at Ft. Eustis around 1969 (even the Colonel watched the Saturday morning cartoons on the character), about “me”-- as an abstract person, “he’s everywhere”, omniscient, ready to drill through all the mannerisms of the world to some kernel of absolute truth and force everyone to see it. Kirkpatrick reports a lot of interviews with Mark, and describes him as somewhat absorbed in his own thoughts, ready to look right through someone until he hears something he connects with. In fact, he tends to behave that way even on the late 2007 CBS 60 Minutes (“toddler CEO”) interview I reported on in my “BillBoushka” blog on Dec. 6, 2009 (the “Is that a question?” moment in the video). Perhaps there was a body image issue at one time; Kirkpatrick, on p 20, describes him as “an intense introvert with curly brown hair whose fresh freckled face made him look closer to fifteen than the nineteen he was.” As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that his thought processes are a lot like mine (although I’m not sure I get his moral dilemma that leaves him in tears in the Accel offer situation). If I could have entered a time machine and become his age and become a student in Kirkland House, I probably would have related well to him and become involved in the project.

The book does not spend a lot of space on the legal controversies over the ownership of Facebook. I do know that ownership of software copyright can be a difficult subject, and a particular incident at NBC where I worked in a mainframe environment back in 1977 comes to mind. While companies guard their code and design even for inhouse applications, in fact programmers take what they learn and write similar code in other companies. The issue may be more testy with object oriented programming than older procedural programming. But to a reasonable person, Facebook sounds like it is quite different from the earlier services Mark had worked on, sometimes without pay. That's one thing about Internet innovation: underlying paradigms of consumer use keep shifting.

There’s another thing about the OOP: when teenagers (or preteens) learn it, they can get very fluent at it, which explains in part the ability of kids to make the intellectual connections it takes to come up with a Napster or a Facebook. It’s much harder for older people, trained in other thought patterns, to make the switch, just as it is harder to learn foreign languages at later ages. In the book, Kirkpatrick documents Facebook’s rather brazen preference for youth.

Zuckerberg’s “ideology” seemed to develop over time, inductively. It seems to me he would have become aware of Dean Elena Kagan’s opposition to the military gay ban while at Harvard in 2003, it must have occurred to him in time that his innovation was the antithesis of a social “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality in society that had tempered older generations and led to the current policy for gays in the military. Facebook insists that a person has only one “identity”, and denies the value of anonymity. Whether that “identity” should always be searchable for “everyone” is a major piece of the privacy debate.) Zuckerberg’s idea of radical social networking denies the idea that work identity and personal identity can any longer be kept apart (so much for “don’t ask don’t tell” indeed).

Mark's evolution of thought shows in the gradual evolution of Facebook from a campus-specific service to a facility for almost everyone. There was a period in late 2005 where high schools could become separate "facebooks". It was about the same time that the controversy over the public implications of my own website erupted when I was substitute teaching. In retrospect, I wonder if the schools were concerned about the sudden effect of social media on the security of their environment and then connected the dots incorrectly.

Along with “radical social networking” (and probably “radical self-publication” as in my own 1997-or-so “innovation”), comes all the new problems of online reputation (enough to inspire Michael Fertik and others to start companies defending online reputations). Kirkpatrick documents numerous cases of lost jobs and broken relationships because of unexpected anomalies that can occur with Facebook use (including the entire photo tagging facility). But many of these had started happening before with convention Internet blogging and forum posting (again, my “BillBoushka” blog July 27, 2007 documents my own mishap with this). But Kirkpatrick’s chapter on Privacy is a valuable addition to the literature on the problem by other authors like law professor Daniel Solove. Facebook is becoming particularly a trove for divorce lawyers.

The other “ideological innovation” is Zuckerberg’s particular idea of a “gift economy” although it’s rather like the thinking of Bill Gates. Sometimes “pay it forward” really does make economic sense. Since the company is privately held (so far), with Zuckerberg having a lot of control, it has been able to approach monetization (such as advertising based on the visitor's profile and subsequent cross-sharing) based on philosophical ideas as well as short-tern results. That in turn would raise interesting legal questions were it a publicly traded company and does raise questions with investors.

Here is a YouTube interview with author David Kirkpatrick from Thomas Crampton.  Note that he says that Facebook doesn't see itself as a website, but as a paradigm for the structure of the Internet. It is almost like a "government."  We might use a Facebook ID as a social security number some day.