seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Thoughts on books and book reviews

Links to Amazon

I have decided to become an Amazon Associate as an experiment. I am trying to review more books and make more book recommendations and so I am going to provide links on Amazon to these books. If you purchase a book via my link, I'll get 4%. If you are going to purchase other items from Amazon and you go to Amazon via a link on my site (even if you do not purchase that item) I think I will still get a 4% piece of the action.

So, if you are going to buy a book I recommend, or something else - please go to Amazon via this site. Though I would hope that first check a local independent bookstore - Amazon is great, but we need our independent book stores too!

As an example, I'm including the newest book by one of my favorite authors, Christoper Moore.

Thank you.

The Limits of Power

For my birthday, I received a couple of books by Andrew J. Bacevich, a critic of American Empire. I read "The Limits of Power" pretty quickly, but have procrastinated on writing about it.

Let me start by giving Bacevich a nod for having a great subheading toward the end of the book: "Does Knowing Douglas Feith is Stupid Make Tommy Franks Smart?" (His answer is no.) Possibly the best subheading ever.

I don't think most Americans think of our country as an empire.

Bacevich notes how odd this is:

For the present generation, it has already become part of the natural order of things that GIs should be exerting themselves at great cost to pacify such far-off domains. For the average American tuning in to the nightly news, reports of U.S. casualties incurred in distant lands now seem hardly more out of the ordinary than reports of partisan shenanigans on Capitol Hill or brush fires raging out of control in Southern California.

Despite having military bases around the world and importing the vast majority of the stuff we buy, I guess most folks just don't think about it. Perhaps people don't like the term empire because it brings to mind the worst excesses of previous empires.

Prior to World War II, it was clear that Americans did not support American troops permanently stationed around the country. I'm not sure how many people really opposed our efforts in the Phillippines 100 years ago, I know Mark Twain fiercely opposed it. Bacevich makes the case that something has changed since World War II.

To most Americans prior to 1940, the idea of seeking permanent global military ascendancy seemed vaguely alien. It was the sort of prospect that might have excited Prussians but was unlikely to play well in Peoria. After 1950, the notion that the United States might content itself with anything less than a position of unquestioned military primacy had become intolerable.

In some ways, this should not be a surprise. Better to be the lion than the gazelle, in so many ways. Empires have always viewed themselves as the lion and not the jackal or hyena. From inside, it is hard to judge. But it is interesting that while many Americans probably would not call us an empire, they would probably agree that we must have unparalleled military power.

But what is more interesting is how our lifestyle forces the country to maintain and occasionally expand the empire.

The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accomodate the American way of life.

We cannot manufacture all the stuff we have come to expect at the prices we expect it. And, as living conditions improve around the world, it would seem that eventually, no region will be able to supply us with ever cheaper goods. So perhaps our culture will change, not from intelligent decisions, but from necessity. But with Obama in office, I do think that we stand a better chance.

Eight years ago, I did not think it mattered who the President was. I think we all now recognize the folly of that. Though I had little respect for Gore (which has grown since due to his efforts outside elected office), I don't much think he would have been an exceptional President. We got the exceptional President - too bad it was in the wrong direction.

Even with W's mangling of the economy, foreign affairs, environmental policy, pretty much everything, it was reflecting on Reagan's legacy that turned on the lightbulb in my head regarding the impact Presidential decisions can have. Reagan has been noted -- by both right and left -- for his powerful impact on America.

No doubt Reagan spoke from the heart, but his real gift was a canny knack for telling Americans what most of them wanted to hear. As a candidate for the White House, Reagan did not call on Americans to tighten their belts, make do, or settle for less. He saw no need for sacrifice or self-denial. He rejected as false Carter's dichotomy between quantity and quality. Above all, he assured his countrymen that they could have more.

Consider many of the problems we face today.

  • Oil Dependency (or the problem of foreign oil for those who do not understand what the word fungible means)
  • Islamic Terrorists
  • Problems in Iraq
  • National Debt
  • China, maybe the next superpower - I hesitate to put this as a problem, including it only because it is another result of Reagan's policy choices - I would prefer to call it an effect, not a problem, because it is only a problem for the empire, not for those of us who support the republic

All of these problems were greatly worsened by Reagan - a point that Bacevich does not make enough. Islamic terrorists - it was the Reagan Administration who encouraged Islamic warriors in Afghanistan in the fight against USSR occupation. He chose to sell weapons to the Iranians to fight what he called "communism" in Nicaragua. What could go wrong?

On the problem of oil, following the oil shocks of the 70's, Reagan strongly pursued what we might now call lame-brain Palin-McCain policy of drill here, drill now, drill baby drill. Bacevich notes,

Reagan had no interest in promoting energy independence through reduced consumption. 'The answer, obvious to anyone except those in the administration it seems, is more domestic production of oil and gas.' When it came to energy, he was insistent: 'We must decide that "less" is not enough.'

Rather than read the writing on the wall and encourage conservation - to preserve a valuable commodity - Reagan's policies encouraged people to waste oil. Now we are saddled with an inefficient energy machine and very high prices of oil. We lost decades of time, research, and billions of barrells of oil to wastefulness. We tore through domestic reserves - an obvious outcome from the start, but one that Reagan chose to ignore.

One of the beautiful things about this country is that while one level of government may be run by fools, others are experimenting with novel, good ideas. Around those times, the city of Burlington, Vermont, was considering a major investment in a new electrical power plant (they have a municipal power company) but chose instead to invest in conservation efforts. Decades later, they have saved as much energy as that plant would have produced, everyone in the community saved by using power more efficiently, and they created more jobs because people needed to execute the energy improvements and teach others how to use energy more efficiently.

We could have done this at a grand level, but Reagan - and the many modern day leaders who think we should put our money into securing more energy sources rather than using what we have efficiently - chose not to. The result was predictable:

By the end of Reagan's presidency, 41 percent of oil consumed domestically came from abroad. It was during his first term that growing demand for Chinese goods produced the first negative trade balance with that country.

His strategy was not just to hope others would sell us cheap oil, but to lay the groundwork for our short term interests in the Middle East. It was, after all, Reagan who fought Congress to export all kinds of things to Iraq to aid Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran (which Reagan was secretly arming). Not only did we supply Saddam Hussein with some of the weapons he used to brutalize his people, we were also encouraging him to continue the war with Iran, who we were arming.

The idea was to make sure the Middle East did not get a strong leader that might unite people in the Middle East. Fast forward a few years to 9/11 and many of the same conservatives who pushed these policies were suddenly wondering why that region has so much anger against America. Why do they hate us indeed?

But we cannot push this off solely on conservatives. The astute among us should remember that President Clinton's policies toward Iraq were aimed at forcing Saddam Hussein to surrender to our wishes ... by starving the poorest Iraq for nearly a decade. Madeleine Albright made the famous remark "the price is worth it" in response to a question about hundreds of thousands of starving children in Iraq. Bacevich touches on this:

No doubt Albright regretted her obtuse remark. Yet it captured something essential about U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf at a time when confidence in American power had reached its acme. In effect, the United States had forged a partnership with Saddam in imposing massive suffering on the Iraqi people. Yet as long as Americans at home were experiencing a decade of plenty -- during the Clinton era, consumers enjoyed low gas prices and gorged themselves on cheap Asian imports -- the price that others might be paying didn't much matter.

To quote Bill Maher, "They hate us because we don't know why they hate us." The post-WWII American way of life has been predicated upon an unsustainable model that has had real consequences around the world. These policy choices have been made by Presidents - of both parties - over many decades. And it has left us greatly in debt - we can overwhelmingly blame the debt on Republicans - who have exploded our national debt by spending way too much while cutting taxes on the rich.

After decades of irresponsible choices, we have to make some serious change. I desperately hope Obama will start us on the responsible path. It will take someone with incredible intelligence and charisma. If he can't, I shudder to think who could. Something that cannot go on forever won't. If we don't start to act responsibly, history suggests we will lose a choice in the matter.

You Suck

Just finished You Suck: A Love Story by a favorite author of mine, Christopher Moore. This was a follow up to his Bloodsucking Fiends which I also liked. However, Michelle found his other books to be much better.

I particularly loved this book as portions are written from the perspective of a high school angsty goth teen in San Fran (via diary entries). Witness:

OMFG-W00T! I have failed, left my duty undone, like so much dog poop on the gloaming sidewalk of the tragedy that is my life. Even as I sit here at the Metreon Starbucks, writing, the froth slaves seem to move like silver-eyed zombies and my nonfat, soy, Ameretto Mochaccino has gone as bitter snake bile.

It gets better.

Point of Impact

After spending most of my recent reading time learning and reading magazines, I finally jumped back into fiction while on vacation. The book Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter inspired the movie Shooter with Mark Wahlberg. I loved both. Good, smart action.

The adaption was true to the book - and it was modernized quite well given it was written before 9/11, when everything supposedly changed. This was my first Stephen Hunter book but I think I'll be reading more. In particular, my friend Neil had recommended one with the provocative title Dirty White Boys.

American Idol? Try Idolatry...

Damon Linker's "The Idolatry of America" in the 23 April, 2008 The New Republic stunned me with a revelation I never considered. The rest of the article is interesting, but I have to first emphasize this:

Marsh makes his point with alarming ease, noting in one of his later chapters that although polls in early 2003 showed that an astonishing 87 percent of white evangelical Christians in the United States supported Bush's invasion of Iraq, "Christian leaders around the world--evangelical, orthodox, and liberal" expressed "dismay over the administration's case [for war]." Marsh quotes, to great effect, twenty-five of these critical statements, written by the leaders of Christian organizations from every corner of the globe, most of which the majority of American evangelicals have undoubtedly never seen or read. Regardless of one's position on the war, these pages of Marsh's book make a powerful and important point about the American evangelical difference: either the United States contains the only Christians capable of recognizing the fundamental compatibility between the moral message of Christianity and George W. Bush's foreign policy--or else evangelicalism in America has transformed itself into Republican Party propaganda.

The article is a review of Charles Marsh's Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from the Political Captivity. It raises many points I have considered and occasionally ranted about - one of which is whether the "conservative Christians" are capable of loving the Constitution and placing it first in their lives. Their very religion tells them not to.

Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, warned often against "the idolatry of America"--teach Christians that however much they may love their terrestrial homes, their families as well as their political communities, their true home lies elsewhere, in the next life, in eternal unity with Jesus Christ. They must always remember, in other words, that love for God comes first, conditioning, ordering, and limiting the scope and intensity of their other loves. For a devout Christian, then, patriotism can never be uncomplicated, never wholehearted.

I had never considered using the term "idolatry" though. I think it fits - especially when you consider the way these supposedly Christians prostrate themselves upon patriotic themes. Consider who Robertson was serving when he called for killing Chavez, Venezuela's President. Was he serving his God, or the geopolitical interests of his country? He might claim they coincide nicely, but let's ask some non-U.S. Christians to evaluate that argument.

Jeffrey Sachs on Diane Rehm Show

Jeffrey Sachs was on the Diane Rehm Show (download mp3 file for your computer or personal listening device - 51 minutes).

The interview is well worth listening to. He addresses many of the world's problems and gets several difficult questions. I was impressed and will be looking for that book. In particular, I liked the way he talked about issues dealing with the Middle East and the way too many people blame Islam for the anger and violence there.

However, I had a lightbulb explode during a discussion that mentioned religion. One of the reasons I am horrified by the creationist attacks on science and why I strongly believe science must be taught to all students is because it guides how you respond to problems.

We face many problems in our future and Sachs rightly noted we need to use science to figure them out and solve them. I had this thought about a creationist response to problems: prayer. Imagine how many would still be killed and maimed annually if we used prayer rather than science to solve polio.

I have no problem with prayer - in fact, I believe it can be a force for good by reminding us of our interconnection and the need to care for others - but I do have a problem with a reliance upon it. Pray if you want, but act as well. Fortune favors the bold, eh?

This is a big deal because a stupid new documentary is coming out called Expelled and it makes a bunch of ludicrous allegations regarding supposedly persecuted creationists. Let's not forget that we are not telling them they cannot teach creationism, just that they cannot teach it in science class. Meanwhile, they are trying to bar science from science class.

At any rate, there is a funny story about the preview for this movie and who they let in to see it. For those who do not know, PZ Myers is a science blogger who rails against creationist attacks on science. I used to read him, but he posted too frequently and I gave up ... though I loved it when I followed it.

Company - Max Barry

A hilarious, if barely far-fetched, romp through a modern company. I loved his previous book, Jennifer Government, which I had hoped was going to be made into a movie.

In Company, the protagonist is the newest hire in marketing for a large company. But no one appears to know what the company does - other than live in fear of "Senior Management." Senior Management is constantly reorganizing things.

At one point, sales reps are scrambling to convince their customers to order fewer products because they are afraid one rep got sacked for making too many commissions.

At Zephyr Holdings, no one has ever seen the CEO. The beautiful receptionist is paid twice as much as anybody else, but does no apparent work. One of the sales reps uses relationship books as sales manuals, and another is on the warpath because somebody stole his donut.

Quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. You need a break from a frustrating job? Read this puppy.


From Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen

If you're like most people, you think of yourself as having been born. But if you look at this notion carefully, you'll see that you have no immediate experience of having come into existence at all. Trace it back. Follow your memory. Do you remember coming into existence?

Of course you didn't begin at birth -- but when did you begin? At conception? When, exactly does conception take place? When the sperm first finds the egg?

But what about that sperm and egg? When did they begin? With your parents? And when did they begin? And their parents before them?

The truth is that you can't find "coming into being" as an event in actual experience. Everything involves what came before in its identity. It's dependent on earlier conditions which, in turn, are dependent on earlier conditions still, and so on as far back as we can trace or imagine. In other words, there's something very odd and contradictory and unsettling about this concept of "coming into being."

This book changed my life several years ago when I first read it. I started reading it on a roadtrip with Adam and was only a few chapters in when I dislocated my left knee for the second time, one or two games after returning from months of rehab from doing it the first time. Without the lessons of this book - without having learned to see the world in a different way - I would have been crushed.

I cannot recommend this book to others strongly enough. It is not about becoming a Buddhist (I am not one) - it is about seeing the world differently. It is about having a healthy mind. Read it and don't worry about the friggin cow on page 28 - most of us cannot see it. If not seeing the cow stops you from reading the book, you REALLY need to read the damn book.

Jennifer Government

I was janking around on IMDB the other day (Internet Movie Database, and no, I don't think janking is really a word, but I liked the sound of it) and I saw that Steven Soderbergh has a new project that goes by the name of "Jennifer Government."

I read the Max Barry book a few years ago and found it quite delightful. Looks like he has a Jennifer Government webpage and the book has its very own wikipedia entry.

It looks like it is fairly early in production but I'm looking forward to it. Put the book on your reading list before it is spoiled by the movie!

<em>Children at War</em>

I was assigned Children at War by P.W. Singer for a class in October and did not expect to get into it. Yeah, poor little kids, fighting wars in Africa. Life sucks. How many of us are capable of reacting much differently? Our ability to care about problems in Africa is greatly surpassed by our ignorance of the continent.

Therefore, I was rather surprised at an engaging account of how children are forced into these conflicts, what it does to them, and the difficulties in stemming the tide. I was immediately drawn in when Singer discussed the technological aspects of child soldiers.

Historically, children were considered off limits in combat because they were our future and they could not operate weapons. Kids with clubs? Kids with bows? Swords? Muskets even? AK-47s? Yeah. Out of all of those, it was the automatic weapon that allowed kids to become soldiers. They can use guns.

Kids also have the advantage of not requiring money to fight. You want to draft adults into your militia? It is far easy to convince/coerce/force kids to fight for your cause than other adults. They are cheap. In areas with a lot of child soldiers, they are also plentiful. If they weren't, those areas wouldn't be known for child soldiers... This is circular logic, but true.

Many of the children have only known difficulty. They have suffered incredible pain and may not have any family. If they do have family, once they have been involved with a militia, they may be ashamed to return to the family because they have participated in atrocities. Despite the fact that they were forced or tricked into it, we all know how easy it is to make children blame themselves for actions that they should not be held responsible for (because there are countless movies that dwell on it, not because I am a sicko).

The problem itself is circular. Recently, I seem to remember reading that the Bush Administration has loosened restrictions on immigration for those who participated in such atrocities when they were forced to do it. This is difficult to ascertain, but we cannot refuse refuge to those who have been forced to commit atrocities.

This is a step forward, but the U.S. hasn't even started baby steps toward solving this problem. While the U.S. likes to claim it gives more foreign aid than any other government, it gives less as a percentage of GDP (measure of economic productivity) than any other industrialized country. Even then, the "aid" that we give is designed to benefit us as well. 70% of U.S. aid is spent on U.S. goods and services. Hardly the altruistic leader of the world.

The book was an eye opener. If you want to understand this problem, check it out. As with many problems, the solution often lies with education and development. The solutions are there, but it mostly means we have to act less selfishly and have compassion for others.

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