Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"The Story of Jesus" from NatGeo and Time

National Geographic and Time have produced a coffee table paperback for Easter, “The Story of Jesus”, edited by Bridget English Hamilton, 112 pages, very heavily illustrated photographs, maps, and realistic drawings of the people. Jesus is drawn as handsome, bearded, and white, and looking about 35.  Christianity does not object to drawings or images of Christ (it does not consider merely creating an image as “idol worship”) but some people feel that most images of Jesus conform to cultural (and racial) stereotypes about what is “desirable” to see in young adult males.

I’ll backtrack and mention that, back in the 1950s, in Sunday School we often had four story books (from the Judson Press) a year, color coded.  In Fall, the book had a red cover, and covered the entire Old Testament, ending with the Christmas story.  In Winter (through March), the cover was blue and covered the life of Jesus, up to the Passion and Crucifixion and Resurrection. In Spring, the cover was green and started with the Ascension or Pentecost and continued through the Acts.  Summer was orange and covered a bit of everything (except baseball, maybe).  Many churches over the years would follow a pattern of liturgical colors throughout the year.

This book is pretty straightforward but detailed, covering a lot of sensitive points (like the legal basis for the trial of Jesus before Pilate).  The authors seem to like the book of Mark the most, but mention the apocrypha and various gospels not part of the standard Bible (but generally most of them have become the subjects of cable movies by now).

There are two particularly amazing things that I would have noticed had I lived then.  Had I been “called”, I would have “worshiped” Jesus through a process psychologists call “upward affiliation” (which, unchecked, can skirt the dangers of idolatry).  Yet, I would have found it hard to become “fishers of men”.  I would rather win arguments than win converts, as a lot of people who know me will attest.

The other thing would have been that, besides witnessing miracles (and I think I have witnessed two in my own lifetime – in 1979 and 2012, and will not be more specific), being there for the Resurrection and Ascension would have “settled things” as for as the need for Truth about the Universe. Today, we have relativity, quantum theory, and cosmology.  I think this all reconciles. I think physics demands that consciousness persists after “death”, when, right now, we find out “what is really out there.”  Future generations may have the chance to learn this while living. Perhaps there will be (another) interaction with “aliens” who turn out to be “angels”.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Peter Bergen: "United States of Jihad" analyzes homegrown radical islamic terrorism since 9/11

Author: Peter Bergen

Title: “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists

Publication: 2016: New York, Crown Publishers; ISBN 978-0-8041-3955-7,  hardcover (e-book available), 388 pages, indexed, endnotes; Eleven chapters.

Amazon link

The author, CNN’s national security analyst and well-known from the days of covering 9/11, examines the question of American Muslims becoming radicalized, and then attempting terror attacks, often “lone wolf” in nature, but sometimes, in recent years, attempting to travel to Syria.  It is true that the United States does not have the volume problem that Europe does with returning extremists, and that the Muslim community in the US is much better integrated than in Europe. But the appeal of “jihad” to some people is quite troubling and hard to explain.  I’ll add that, over decades from the 1970s through the end of 2001 when I worked in I.T. at various companies, I worked with a number of people from Pakistan and other Muslim countries, and never experienced a hint of religious fervor (which I did experience from some evangelical Christians).

He covers a number of specific perpetrators, such as Nader Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who turned on his own at Fort Hood, TX in 2009, to the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernadino couple, covering history until the end of 2015.
Although we hear a lot about troubled young men (and women) being recruited on social media and going dark, over the years it is apparent that a number of terrorists have been relatively well off and well educated.  In some cases, it seems that the motive relates to joining a cause “greater than self” and belonging to a group.  Peggy Noonan writes in the WSJ March 26, talking about radical Islamic jihadism, sayimg  that to many of us in the west, religion isn’t that important, so we have “trouble taking it seriously as a motivation of others.”  Joining a religious cause may be an experience of eusociality (Eric Hoffer, March 6), and adherence to rigorous standards of a religion fundamentalist system may protect the personality from having to deal with unwelcome intimacy from others when they get in trouble – and may give “meaning” to everything.

Still, Bergen gives examples where “joining a cause” was really hardly at issue – the Tsarnaev brothers – the idea of vicarious victimization and simply weak, narcissistic personalities.  Bergen refers to the younger Tsarnaev only as “Jahar” – the “stress-free kind of guy” who never showed remorse and who took the judge’s final lecture at hearing the death sentence as a kind of afterthought.  Really, he was just apathetic.  I’ve seen that before.  It makes me grateful that my own friends accomplish things as individuals, and I can love them even when there have been disagreements.

So has Bergen answered the question, posed especially by Donald Trump, “why do they hate us so much?”  Is it desire for expropriation through revolution?  That was more like Bolshevism.  Is it really, as Noonan says, really about religion as a defining force for one’s life?  Maybe, but Bergen’s narratives of the kinds of lives young jihadists are promised in Syria (free rent, health care, and brides, and power over others) – as already shown on CNN’s film “Blindsided” (“cf” blog, May 11, 2015)  -- shows how enticing merely “joining up” can be.

A few of the detailed narratives in the book are really unusually disturbing.  One is the story of Molly Norris, having to disappear and change her identity after she became a target for sponsoring the Muhammad drawing contest.  Another is the story of another target, Pamela Geller, who was kept from entering the United Kingdom because of the content of the books she had authored.
At the end, Bergen considers local jihad a low-level threat, not of the existential nature of the Civil War, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.  Given the growing concern of access to WMD’s – especially dirty bombs and EMP devices, which really can wreck our civilization as we know it, I would not be complacent. I rather agree with Peggy Noonan (WSJ Saturday)..  Having maybe a million people in the world who really would deploy something like this if they could has to be very dangerous. In fact, there are reports from a UK newspaper that two nuclear power plant employees from Belgium had joined ISIS and another was murdered (story by Jennifer Newton in Mail).

I am 72 and most of my adult life, the world has been a much more stable place for me than it has been for most people, here in the U.S.  I don't think that stability, and sense of personal control of one's life, could continue if thee was one major dirty bomb or EMP or major biological attack in the U.S,  Eric Hoffer's (March 6) idea that when people join mass movements like ISIS, they give up personal advantage and individualized self for the experience of belonging to a winning, redeeming or apocalyptic cuase, with the bonus of relief from the personal responsibility that comes with choice.  Think again about Jahar's chicken-scratching inside that boat in Boston

Monday, March 21, 2016

In book clubs, the pace is often slower; and audio books sell

I did attend the book club at Westover Market mentioned in my March 6 review of Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”.
The dense writing style was reported as a bit of a challenge.  But one particularly interesting point concerned the apparent oxymoron “non-creative man of letters” as discussed late in the book.  Also important was the idea that propaganda works only with people who already “believe” because of a sudden personal loss.

But what was interesting is the way many people relate to books and to reading.  People still get on waiting lists to borrow books at the library.  It’s a social experience, and particularly a child-rearing event. So the pace is much slower.

A “journalist” or “pseudo-journalist” like me uses Amazon (or iTunes or other such platforms) rather than physical stores because of the volume of content I must review.  I need the automation that doing everyone online offers.  But it’s a solitary experience; it doesn’t teach kids, and it doesn’t help booksellers or publishers maintain their business models (and people’s jobs) as well as the more occasional user.  Some persons tonight expressed an interest in audio-books.  I can recall back in the 80s, people would buy them – especially items like Stephen King novels – but it makes the course of consuming a novel much slower, and with much of it abridged.

My own content is so close to the vest that it is impossible to conceive of abridging it or packaging it that way, although crafting movie screenplays is a different matter.

I showed my three DADT books.  I did point out the passage in the first book about Rosenfels (p. 123, Chapter 3, in my “Do Ask Do Tell I” book), and discussed how Hoffer’s analytic writing style inspired Rosenfels and probably even me.  (I’ve heard the comment that it is like Philip Roth.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Notes about Pubmatch (international book rights exchange) and Combined Book Exhibit

Here’s a company that handles international book buying rights, called “Pubmatch”.   (The “.org” site takes you to the “.com”.)

Publishers Weekly has an article explaining how the group works here. 

The company is assisted Xlibris and other publishers with a Combined Book Exhibit  , with four different sponsors.  These are the Public Library Association (Denver, April 6-8), American Library Association (Orlando, June 24-27), National Education Association (Washington DC, July 2-3), and American Library Association in Boston, early 2007.  I have signed up for the process and expect to be present in Washington in July, and to have the third of my "Do Ask, Do Tell" books available at all four fairs.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bookseller talks about the failure of "net pricing" in the physical stores business

Gray Frank, a founder and former owner of Booksmith  in San Francisco, has a major Letter to the Editor in the New York Times on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, “Real and False Discounts”.  He says that books are one of the few mass-produced commodities with prices printed on the product, a fact which enabled Amazon and Jeff Bezos to focus on books two decades ago when forming Amazon as a “discount” online store.

He also describes a furtive effort among booksellers (the American Booksellers Association ) to implement net pricing, to protect the effectiveness of physical stores.

I don’t recall seeing prices printed on many books that I order recently, and they are not printed on my own “Do Ask, Do Tell” series.  Paperbacks seem to have prices a lot of the time.

I can remember a similar concept with phonograph records, and later compact discs, for music.  Back in the early 1960s, a standard list price for an LP record was $4.98 mono and $5.98 stereo, with discounts often been 20-30% in “discount stores”.  Budget labels were $1.98 and $2.98.  In the mid 1980s, classical compact discs often started with a list price of $15.99.  Back around 1962, a friend said, "Bill, why don't you pay $4.98 for a classical record like most people?" I didn't have to.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Alec Ross: "The Industries of the Future"

Author:  Alec Ross

Title: “The Industries of the Future

Publication:  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016; 978-1-4767-5365-2, 292 pages, endnotes, hardcover (also e-book), six chapters.

Amazon link.

Ross starts out by a reminiscing about his coming of age in West Virginia, working as a janitor cleaning up vomit in bars, and noticing the slow death of the coal industry.  While noticing that the illusion of stability was important to families in the past, he loses no time on his own realizing he has to move on. There will be jobs, he says, for the most talented of us.  Humans will become geeks and vice versa.

And toward the end, he says that being a dad (“The Most Important Job You’ll Ever Have” as a Conclusion) has transformed him, but also convinced him that the tremendous changes in the paradigm of civilization really do give the best future for his kids.

Think for a moment, for example, about the student loan debt crisis.  Yes, it’s harder than it used to be for many young adults to start their own lives as independent people let along start families.  But if you have the right skills – particularly if you are fluent with coding – you’re likely to be able to support yourself early, even while in college.  (“Working your way through college” changes as a virtue, even given the old coop programs of the past.) Of course, there’s a risk of coding to support the wrong things.

Coding involves developing abstraction as a part of one’s personality. In a way, it runs counter to connecting to people naturally in a community or family.  That sounds like a psychological hurdle to overcome (as Mark Zuckerberg did).

The six chapters are long and detailed, and pretty much segment his entire world view.

Chapter 1 focuses on robotics, although I think the claims that robots can provide nursing home care (and relieve adult children) are a bit much.

Chapter 2 talks about the “human machine”, particularly with advances in longevity, medicine, as expressed by revolutionary nanotechnologies, which might eventually eliminate most cancers and genetic diseases.  (Teen cancer researcher Jack Andraka (“Breakthrough”, March 18, 2015) has already written about nanobots and has become a comic book character as “NanoMan” in a space helmet.) But we will have to get used to the moral quandaries genetic knowledge and manipulation can lead to.  Will we have a “Brave New World”?  Will marital sex as we know it take on even less meaning? George Gilder had warned about this in the 1980s.

Chapter 3  talking about the “codification of money, markets and trust”.  The last of these is a very important component to how any economy works.  He migrates to a detailed discussion of bitcoin and the math of the block chain ledger.  Despite the abstraction of bitcoin, the infrastructure around it has been breached.  I think it’s likely that any advance civilization would have discovered the block chain. If somehow we could reach aliens with warp drives and trade with them, we would almost certainly use something like bitcoin.

Chapter 4 is the “Code War” which replaces the Cold War.  He actually doesn’t delve into the grim idea that cyberwar could shut down major parts of the power grids (Ted Koppel’s “Lights Out”, Nov. 10, 2015).  So far, the most spectacular attacks have been against big companies (including health insurance companies and hospitals)  and governments.  Hackers could compromise home security systems or any utilities or appliances controlled by remote.  They could compromise implanted digital devices, leading to deaths.  A good question is whether ideologically motivated hackers  to target insular individuals and those connected to them to send new kinds of political messages.  Already, individuals have been affected by ransomware, and some restaurants or small retail businesses have had sites defaced by politically or religious attacks. The designers of the Internet did not envision a world where users would attack one another – partly because they didn’t see the demoralizing effects of inequality, poor job markets overseas, and mass movement mindsets.  Ross could have gone into the issue of online recruiting here.

Chapter 5 is “Data: The Raw Material of the Information Age” of course gets into the big payoff from collecting personal data for advertising.  Doesn’t the immense profitability of companies like Google and Facebook stun everyone?  And much of this business model could be undermined by “do not track”.  In fact, the collection of data is so ubiquitous that the double lives of the past are impossible.  This can have a huge impact on how issues like gay rights (most of all in environments like the military) are argued.  But, as Ross notes, cultural behavioral norms have changed and loosened in tandem.  Ross gives some space to the problems of online reputation management, and the idea that a social media indiscretion in youth can stay out there forever – an unprecedented problem for parents, something the childless don’t see.

Chapter 6 is the geography lesson.  Ross is quite hopeful about the way digital entrepreneurs in Africa can transform the standard of living, both in improving agriculture to arranging microfinance. He sometimes seems to think that authoritarian statist capitalism is pretty successful in raising living standards and creating markets, as in China, sometimes very impressive as with Singapore.  He notes the complexity of bureaucracy in India, and is particularly critical of Vladimir Putin and Russia, which he says is trying to preserve a 19th century world.  He notes the schism within the post Soviet states, most notably the Ukraine, but notes the turnaround in Estonia, where anyone can become an “e-resident”.  Putin's attitude could conceivably give him a motive to bring back the West to 19th century life with EMP attacks, as could some elements of radical Islam.  Ross doesn't get into the psychology of hatred of modernism, but the previous book (Hofferr's) gives you more pieces to connect, on how the loss of mass affiliation affects some people.

Fareed Zakaria recommended this book on his “Global Public Square” on CNN.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Eric Hoffer: "The True Believer": 1951 classic explains why ISIS recruiting works today

Author: Eric Hoffer

Title: “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Publication:  1951, republished 2010 by Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-08-050501-2, 177 pages, paper, with endnotes. Four parts, 28 chapters, 125 numbered sections.

Amazon link.

The book will be the subject of a forum at the Westover Market in Arlington VA March 21, 2016

Inequality is a moral topic that I have written a lot about (especially in my DADT-III book) but maybe not acted as much as I should. So is “rightsizing”.  There is a general moral consensus in a modern democratic free society that the individual is morally entitled to what he can earn with his own wits. (That’s like saying a wild animal – like the fox that camps in my back yard -- stays healthy living on what he or she can catch or forage, without being fed by external humans and getting diabetes.) But to earn that wealth he or she must meet real or perceived needs, or at least wants, of other real people.  (That’s one observation that makes the “it’s free” culture of the Internet so troubling and maybe unsustainable.)

OK, but even to earn our wealth, we are very unequally situated.  Some of us grow up in wealthier families.  Some of us have “better” genes.  Others are harmed by what others do, or by neglect (example – the water crisis in Flint, MI).  Is it even “moral” to contemplate the moral stature of someone who both starts and finishes further behind in line?  The New Testament seems to be about giving up that kind of “Pharisee” thinking.

The book at hand today was first published just six years after Hiroshima, but it seems to explain a lot of what is going on today, obviously including but not limited to the recruiting for “jihad” by radical Islamic groups like ISIS.  It also explains why people join cults (like Jonestown), although Hoffer doesn’t use the word. (I am reminded of Walter Martin’s “Kingdom of the Cults” from the 1980s – where he regards then LDS church as a cult but not the Seventh Day Adventists.)

In the first Part, Hoffer argues, when talking about “the poor”, that in most cultures throughout human history, the “poor” tended to live relatively communally and equally among themselves.

Typically, they experienced some sort of collective identity or national pride.  When this worked, society tended to be peaceful.  The individual, he points out, was not really conscious of his own lack of freedom (by today’s standards) and expected little in the way of opportunity for personal recognition or public self-expression. Freedom, Hoffer points out, could be “irksome”, leading to opportunities to fail and fall through the cracks.  It was the identity of the group that mattered, not of “you”.   But when abuse by rulers or external enemies or other disasters broke things down, then some people could promise better futures if the people would rebel.  Usually there was some kind of enemy or “other” – the bourgeoisie, foreigners, people of other races, or religions.  Often, membership in the group was marked by obedience to a personal moral code that confined the individual. It might be religious (like fundamentalism in any religion, most of all Islam), or it could be political (communism, or national socialism).

There are many examples of group identity that seem constructive.  It could be rooting for a sports team (the “Fighting Irish”)  We could compare ourselves to orcas, whom biologists say have a “distributed sense of consciousness”.

On p. 100, Hoffel writes, "... when we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage, but we are also rid of personal responsibility."
But Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote inside the boat where he hid before capture, that one Muslim is part of the body of all Muslims and must share in the fate of all.

That sort of thinking does make a lot of people, especially less well educated or well-off young men tick. Western individualism becomes an unwelcome influence, not directly because of colonialism or exploitation as it is usually condemned by the “People’s” Left, or because of theological reasons themselves, but because it breaks up the collective cohesion of the group, presents young men with the possibility of choices that they cannot possibly make wisely.

On p. 33, paragraph 29, Hoffer writes, “Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority.  Equality without freedom creates a more stable social structure than freedom without equality.”  I wrote a similar idea in my DADT-III book, but noted that freedom, when allowing inequality, promotes innovation that raises living standards for everyone.  Trickle down trickles for a while, but not enough.  The better off need to give back, and it gets personal.

But even this analysis stalls out in Hoffer’s own analysis.  It’s not just inequality, it’s that other cultures don’t want to be conscious of the idea at all.  Coexistence with a rich liberal intellectual in the West becomes difficult. But inevitably, every group (where tribal as with much of Islam, or the former Soviet Union) makes demands of its own members and punishes those who don’t comply, sometimes exterminating them.  It’s impossible for them to maintain forever that individuals don’t matter.  But the idea, of joining a brotherhood, becomes enticing to young men living in “rich” societies whose values don’t give them a chance to compete or which don’t make sense to them.

Hoffer doesn't specifically address homosexuality (this is 1951), but most political mass movements express homophobia because they see gay values as an affront to the procreative future and cultural identity of the entire group, and have little concern about the immediate effects on individual members. In the political or religious area, liberation often results in new oppression. But it is possible to construe liberal mass movements, like feminism, as something you "join" as a group experience.  But there is a difference between the "solidarity" that political activism usually demands, and the sense of national or religious identity that drives some more radical cult-like movements like ISIS.
Later, Hoffer explains radicalism in terms of personality character specialization.  He talks about “men of action”, and “men of words”.  These correspond roughly to the polarities set up by Paul Rosenfels (April 12, 2006), as “masculine” and “feminine”, or perhaps “balanced” and “unbalanced”.  In factm Hoffer’s writing style and book organization, dividing his presentation into little sections and often writing paragraphs almost as mathematical proofs, resembles Rosenfels, whom I believe had studied Hoffer as I recall from my days at the Ninth Street Center in the 1970s.  Hoffer lays out he ways both personality types can rescue themselves from self-annihilation as well as the ways they sink further.  “Men of words” who fail at gaining the success they want or who are too spread out in their scope (that could be me) can become vulnerable to fanaticism. Hoffer often explains how joining mass movements, and then offering self-sacrifice, or joining in with proselytizing or enemy-spotting, is connected with keeping any inner self (a very important idea in Rosenfels) obliterated and “not showing.”  It should come as no surprise that revolutions often result in regimes more repressive than those that they had just replaced.