Tongue Clucking Rationalist


Title: Fantasyland

Rating: 3 Stars

These are, it goes without saying, strange times in which we live. By career, I am a software developer, so rationality, logic, facts, and science seem to be obviously irrefutable guideposts in our modern world.

So what do I make of these times? Climate change is almost unanimously believed to be real by those who have dedicated their lives to the research, but around half of Americans believe it to be a fraud. Evolution is the basis for many branches of science, yet some forty percent of Americans are strict creationists.  Vaccines have saved literally millions of lives, yet there are a ton of Americans that refuse to vaccinate their children, causing the comeback of several previously essentially eradicated diseases.

Other parts of the Western world don’t share these beliefs. What’s so special about America? Is it something new? Was there some trigger?

This discussion underlies Fantasyland. Anderson’s thesis is that this is how we’ve always been, going all the way back to the Puritans. Due to a couple of possible factors, there is something native to the American character that impels us to irrational thought.

Before I go into more detail, which, despite the somewhat lukewarm three star rating, I did find thought provoking, let me talk a bit about why it only got three stars.

The first beef that I have with it is that he just covers too much real estate. The chapters are short and provide very little context. It’s like you’re driving by on a tour bus at full speed and the tour guide shouts at you every time you pass by something significant. You’re barely processing what you just saw and now already there’s another thing.

The second beef is the fact that it’s pretty clear that he himself was once a free thinking hippie but now has come to the true religion of rationality. Life a reformed alcoholic, he just can’t keep the sneer out of his voice as he talks about those that have not seen the light of reason. The tone of the book suffers as a result.

The first two groups of settlers to America were in Jamestown and Plymouth. In one case, the inspiration for the settlement was religious zealotry. In the second case, it was a pursuit of riches. These two threads run common throughout America’s history and form the basis of our national case of irrational thought.

Protestantism is one of the threads. Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism actively encourages decentralized thinking. There is no central figure that dictates edicts. From the time of Martin Luther, the idea is that everyone should read the bible themselves and effectively become their own priest.

It starts off this way, but inevitably a group coalesces around a particularly charismatic figure. That figure then effectively starts his own branch and rules over it with some variation of an iron fist. Inevitably, someone in that branch will take Protestantism to heart and will take issue with the leader’s dogma and question it. That usually results in the skeptic being thrown out of the flock, which results in the skeptic attracting a flock of people to his own teachings, after which he creates his own branch of Protestantism. Rinse and repeat.

This process ends up creating highly individualized thinkers who construct their own belief systems, which may or may not have a basis in reality.

The second group, the fortune hunters, have their own brand of unreality. They hear rumors of gold and blindly chase after it, regardless of its veracity. Their very occasional successes spur a further army of fortune hunters. This chase against all odds and in the fact of insurmountable hurdles brings out primarily those not susceptible to normal rational arguments.

These are our Americans.

This books goes on to list nearly innumerable examples. He talks about PT Barnum and his highly popular museum that mingled fact and fiction in a jumble. He talked about the role that irrationality played in the various Great Awakenings (four to date) that have taken place in America. He talked about the great fraud perpetuated by the Sun paper in New York City, which had people believing that a recently installed telescope had discovered life on the moon. He talked about the various Southern myths that arose out of the ashes of the Civil War.

He gives special focus to the 1960s because it was a great era of irrationality from both the left and right. Most people know about the left and how they went to great lengths to abandon scientific, rational principles. Tenured professors wrote serious peer reviewed papers about the falsity of reality itself.

On the right, it was during the 1960s that there was a strong movement to reinforce concepts such as hell, which was falling out of favor from the mainstream branches of Christianity.  The Left Behind series is a product of that movement. Creationism rose to the forefront of many Protestant teachings. Previously backwoods practices such as speaking in tongues came out front and center.

Today, we have the unreality of reality shows. We have the internet pumping every conspiracy theory or crazy philosophy into our household.

And out of this mess arises irrationality incarnate, Donald Trump. He believes that Trump is the natural apogee of our country’s history.

What can come next?



The Perils Of Data At Your Fingertips

Many years ago, I read a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan called Pulphead.

One of the essays was called Unknown Bards. It centered around the very early recordings of blues singers. These recordings were during the time between the mid 1920s to the late 1930s.

There wasn’t a huge market for recordings in those days. Also, most of these blues records were done by black artists. As is sadly typical, even less care was taken of preserving this music than other music of that era. Over time, as the understanding grew that blues music is foundational to American music, there have been attempts to try to recover these very early recordings.

To a large extent, this article is about these recovery attempts. It features several odd characters. They are all obsessive record collectors that have given up much of what other people would consider a normal life in this pursuit.

There is the story of a man that owned a significant number of rare recordings. He lived at a YMCA and kept the recordings under his bed. There was another man that heard of a rare recording that someone owned that lived a long distance from him. He called the collector, verified that he had the record in question, immediately hopped into his car, drove overnight to get to the collector’s house, knocked on the door, asked the collector to play the record, listened to it, thanked the collector, and then left. He drove over night just to listen to a probably two or three minute recording. There was yet a third man that ended up with a known single copy of a record that gotten so overheated that it had warped into the shape of a bowl.  Painstakingly, over a period of months, he slowly but surely flattened it back into a playable shape.

All of these people seemed like their own personal Captain Ahab in pursuit of some white whale recording. Their lives might seem odd to us, but to them, this quest provided meaning.

As I said, this article was written many years ago. In that article, it listed many of these exceedingly rare blues songs, many of which only had one known copy still extant (at the time that it was written).

Recently, on a whim, I went to iTunes and searched. Every single one of those exceedingly rare songs that these obsessive recluses would have probably given up a kidney to procure is now available on iTunes for ninety-nine cents.

On the one hand, this is progress. This almost lost part of American history is now available for all. Do you want to know for yourself if Edmund Muskie cried in New Hampshire? Do you want to hear Black Panther philosophy directly from H Rap Brown? Do you want to see the first motion picture film (the Roundhay Garden Scene)? Do you want to hear Gore Vidal, famous novelist and intellectual, call William F Buckley, another famous intellectual and founder of the modern conservative movement, a crypto Nazi and have Buckley reply back calling Vidal a queer and threaten to punch him in the face? Well, it’s all there on youTube. It truly is a magical place for a history geek like myself.

However…sometimes it seems that something is lost. Part of the fun of the quest for the knowledge is the quest itself. If all knowledge truly is at the tip of your fingertips, does it start to make us lazy? How many of us, in our quest, now bother to even navigate to the second page of the Google search results?

This seems to be important because facts and opinions have always been blurred but in the current day there seems to be no difference at all. Now, apparently, fake news is anything that doesn’t jibe with the current president’s opinion. With the filter bubble that Google and other social media platforms force us into, many people legitimately believe that their opinions are mainstream, regardless of anything approaching objective reality.

I’m not saying that I’m pining for the days of my childhood, where pretty much the complete store of knowledge that I had access to was the five year old copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that my parents bought for myself and my brother.

However, it does seem that all of this ease of data has left us mentally flaccid and is  leading us to the path of the future humans in Wall*E.


The Enemy Of Your Enemy Could Still Be Your Enemy


Title: Ghost Wars

Rating: 4 Stars

As the book subtitle says, it’s the history of Afghanistan up to September 10th, 2001. Spoiler alert: it really doesn’t go well for anyone.

The story starts way back in 1979, over twenty years before 9/11. A riot breaks out in Pakistan where the US embassy is overrun and a Marine killed. The riot is inspired by Islamic extremist university students. While the embassy burns, the Pakistani government sits idly by.

Over in Afghanistan, the Soviet have installed a Marxist government. That government almost immediately tries to govern by Marxist principles (including such radical ideas as making it mandatory that girls learn how to read). This dramatic change leads to Islamic unrest throughout the country.

From these two pretty unrelated events, the grim history is set into motion.

Ultimately, the Marxist Afghan government collapses. The Soviet Union, wanting to protect its flank, apparently ignoring previous great power history, decides that it must avert this by invading Afghanistan and taking over. This immediately inflames local warlords and the Soviet Union finds itself in a brutal asymmetric war of attrition.

In line with its history, the CIA not only completely missed out on the Soviet invasion but was quite literally on the eve of it still insisting that it won’t happen. Despite that, the United States, fairly fresh off of being on the losing end of its own brutal asymmetric war of attrition, decides that it will be great fun to use this as an exercise to give the Soviet Union a bloody nose. Working through Pakistan, specifically its intelligence agency, the ISI, it begins to funnel arms and money to the mujaheddin.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia, always looking for opportunities to prove their Islamic bona fides (despite generally living lives that a platinum selling rap star would concede as excessive), match the American funds as a gesture of Islamic solidarity.

Pakistan provides active support to the mujaheddin. Some hard core Islamic clerics set up madrassas on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Religiously inflamed Arabs start poring into Afghanistan to take up the war against the Soviets. Many of them are poor soldiers and die. However, many do stay and fight. One of the Arabs that sees action is Osama bin Laden.

Ultimately, the Soviets admit defeat and pull out. In fact, not longer after that, the Soviet Union ceases to exist. This seems to be a great victory for the West.

However, there is now a large number of religiously inflamed battle hardened veterans. They look around for what is stopping a regional caliphate from being born that would encompass all of the Islamic lands. Their eyes rest upon the United States that bestrides the planet like a colossus and also has the audacity to station thousands of troops in the holy lands of Saudi Arabia. The United States is seen as a particular enemy to Osama bin Laden and he begins to preach a global jihad against the great Satan itself.

Obviously, there is so much more to the story than this. Coll does a masterful job of putting together the story of how Afghanistan gets from 1979 to 2001. I simply can’t do it justice here.

Some things to keep in mind:

The United States government repeatedly takes its eye off of the ball in this part of the world. The presidency of George H.W. Bush pretty much ignores Afghanistan and terrorism in general. The Clinton administration ignores these issues as well until a couple of African embassies are blown up. This hot and cold interest in the region leads to frustration to its allies in the region.

Pakistan is so focused on its confrontation with India that it is willing to overlook the Taliban excesses and its harboring of bin Laden to keep an Islamic ally on its border. Pakistan not only overlooks but actively funds and supports the Taliban, despite the US pleas for it to stop.

With the bin Laden family so deeply enmeshed in the Saudi government, it is reluctant to move on Osama. As mentioned previously, the government wishes to present itself as a paragon of Islamism, which means that, like Pakistan, it is directly and indirectly supporting both Osama and Afghanistan.

The CIA is both frustrated at the lack of support that it perceives from the government but is also gun shy from its earlier sordid history of coups and assassinations. By the time that 9/11 rolls around, the CIA is reduced to repeatedly shouting about pending attacks but providing virtually no detail regarding the attacks, sounding like nothing more than a multi-billion dollar Chicken Little.

At the CIA, the book discusses at length its two main leaders during this time. There is William Casey, the ex-OSS officer that wants derring-do operations that stick it to the Soviets. During the 90’s, it is George Tenet, the hail-fellow-well-met glad-handing career staffer that succeeds in re-energizing the CIA but leaves it a bureaucratic organization afraid to act without specific permission from the White House.

As is typical with such books, as you read it, even though you know how it will end, you find yourself hoping that it will somehow be different. Maybe Osama gets arrested in Sudan. Maybe the raid that got cancelled at the last minute goes ahead and Osama dies in Afghanistan in a hail of fire.

But alas, history does not work like that.

How Eccentric Amateurs Beat The Nazis


Title: Churchill’s Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Rating: 4 Stars

At the start of WWII, most of the British military believed only in conventional warfare. Two armies would meet on the field of battle and may the best one win.

There were a couple of people that had other ideas. Especially considering the fact that Germany had effectively run over most of Europe and was occupying hostile territory, there would be ample opportunity for guerrilla actions that could at least slow down the Nazi war machine. The British military was appalled and seemed to think that such tactics were not fair. Churchill overruled it and strongly encouraged so-called ‘dirty’ fighting.

This is that story. It’s a very British story. The main men leading this guerrilla action were, by and large, eccentric, erratic, and brilliant. Many men leading commando missions were aristocrats trained on the playing fields of Eton. This mix of pragmatic lower class and elites somehow created a uniquely British fighting force that was singularly successful.

To give an example of some of the uniqueness, there was a man who volunteered to take part in a dangerous commando mission to Greece for the most part as a great opportunity to actually use the classical Greek that he learned during his university education.

The pictures included in the book are useful as well. It includes photos of Bill Sykes and William Fairbairn. The photos show two elderly, modest, quiet men, which, as a matter of fact, they were. They also happened to be experts with long applied practice in silent killing. They would quietly and calmly explain in graphic detail how to snap an opponent’s spine or his trachea.

The main explosive expert was a man named Cecil Clarke, who, before he was found and recruited for duty, had a business building and selling car camping trailers.

From this modest start, several innovative weapons were created specifically designed for sabotage. By the end of the war, literally millions of the weapons were built and sent out to guerrillas behind enemy lines. Not only that, but training camps were built that churned out large numbers of British, Polish, Czech, and French commandos highly trained in the arts of guerrilla warfare. The American training camps were pretty much exactly patterned after the British.

Probably their most famous mission was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. The British trained the Czech commandos and provided them with the weapons.

The Germans were planning on dramatically increasing their production of heavy water to advance their atomic program. The single source for production of this was in a very isolated part of Norway built on top of a sheer granite cliff. The British trained the Norwegians and again provided them with the material. They were parachuted in and immediately almost died in a multi-day blizzard. Ultimately, they were able to sneak up to the granite wall, scale it, sneak into the factory, plant bombs, and escape before the bombs went off. It rendered the factory unusable. Even better, a while later, remnants of that same crew discovered that the remaining heavy water was being moved to Germany. They were able to sneak onto the ferry that was transporting the water and sunk it. That effectively ended any hope for the Nazi atomic program.

Finally, in preparation for D-Day, many groups of commandos parachuted into France. In particular, there was a dreaded SS Panzer unit that was relatively close by and was called into to knock the invasion force into the sea. Through acts of sabotage all along the route, the normal 3 days that it should have taken instead took 17 days. That delay was long enough to allow the Allies to secure the beachhead.

This is not a serious history. Don’t look for deep, insightful analysis. This is a book of heroes and villains. It is the story of individuals over bureaucracy. It is a series of real life derring-do adventures populated by interesting and eccentric individuals. As such, it was an enjoyable read.

Something Is Rotten In The State Of Rome


Title: A Killing For Christ

Rating: 2 Stars

The basic plot is that some rich and powerful elite have hired someone to assassinate the pope. The deeper hidden plot is that those same people want the sniper to become a fall guy so that they can blame it on the Jews, so that, um…I’m not sure, start a second Holocaust? I literally just finished it less than an hour ago and I’m still not sure what the actual end game was.

This was written in 1968 and it clearly shows it. By this time in history, JFK has been assassinated, MLK has been assassinated, RFK has been assassinated, commies are in Cuba, there are dope smoking hippies everywhere, and the Vietnam War is in full swing. Whatever self satisfaction that America felt upon the successful conclusion of WWII, the re-making of the world in its own image via the Marshall Plan, and its comfortable role as the good guys in history has been pretty much shattered.

This lack of faith and belief that the world is irrevocably in a state of despair is in full bloom here. The story itself is at best slow paced and predictable (hence its low rating). What interest I found while reading it lies in the utter lack of faith or belief in what were previously considered institutional bulwarks.

First of all, you have the protagonist, Father Malloy. He’s an American priest living in Rome. He apparently served in Vietnam in some capacity and ended run running away in a firefight, much to his disgust. This lack of courage in a cause that he doesn’t believe in anyway has led him to a loss of faith. He is working at the Vatican as basically a paper pusher. At night, he goes to the beach house that he shares with a prostitute.

One of the leaders of the plot is Rail, an immensely fat man living the life of a libertine. As the plot unfolds, he loses his joy of life. Food no longer appeals to him. Women no longer appeal to him. He begins to fear death. He attempts to confess to Father Malloy, who in his own state of despair refuses to hear it.

The actual assassin is Harwell. Harwell is a fanatical bigot that actually hates himself. He is Jewish but follows a white supremacist. He’s attracted to men but sublimates that by sexually abusing women.

Malloy tries to stop the plot by enlisting his friends Richards. Richards is a journalist. But even here, Richards is an unsuccessful hack that has moved from job to job, from country to country, before landing here in Rome. In his past are wife and children that he never sees. He cranks out 1500 word pieces of journalism as if working on an assembly line.

The power behind the plot is Count Rienzi. He’s urbane, aristocratic and rich. As a member of the elite, he is plotting assassinations and his house and the boat are the scene of orgies.

Even minor characters, like the innkeeper Fuente, is viewed through a prism of degeneracy. He’s Cuban whose heart was with Castro but whose wife was aligned with Batista. He ends up losing everything in the revolution. Living in exile, he performed illegal abortions. He too has now somehow washed up in Rome, full of regrets and dreaming of an earlier better time.

All of the characters seem to be living in the worst of their times. They are disillusioned and disappointed.

It doesn’t make for happy reading but it does give a bit of insight to how journalists (Pete Hamill was a New York journalist) were feeling in 1968.

History As Postmodern Literature


Title: Libra

Rating: 4 Stars

Now that it’s been 55 years since the JFK assassination, the mystique that it held over America for several decades has kind of been forgotten. The assassination could be the event that marked the end of one America and the start of another.

Think about it. First of all, the confusion of it all. It all seems so simple. Shots are fired from a building. An employee working at the building was seen at the building. Shortly after the assassination, that same person shoots dead a police officer. Later, the greatest, most respected, and leading members of our establishment (including the then current chief justice of the Supreme Court and a future president) got together, conducted an exhaustive investigation, and concluded that that person was solely responsible for the crime.

What’s confusing about that? However, by the time the dust settled, more than half of the American population believed that he did not act alone.

And there were oh so many conspiracies. The Cubans did it to get back at the JFK ordered CIA attempts to assassinate Castro. The Soviets did it to avenge the Cuban Missile Crisis. The expat Cubans (or maybe even the CIA!) did it as revenge for JFK not providing full support to the Bay of Pigs invasion. Mobsters did it to avenge themselves and to threaten the organized crime obsessed Robert Kennedy. Or, according to Oliver Stone, the deep state did it to preserve the military industrial complex.

And what about Lee Harvey Oswald? Who was he? Was he an expert marksman? Why did he really defect to the Soviet Union? Why did he come back? Was he truly a Cuban sympathizer? Or was he just trying to infiltrate the pro-Castro movement under the employ of Guy Bannister? Did he really try to shoot the right wingnut Edwin Walker?Why does he use aliases? Is there only the one Oswald or was the CIA or other such parties sending false Oswalds all over?

And what about all of the coincidences? How is it that Oswald got a job at the Book Depository that just happened to have a perfect sniper shot on a presidential route chosen months after he’d gotten the job? And what was happening in New Orleans when the pro-Castro and anti-Castro organizations are literally in the same building? How did David Ferrie, a pilot who knew Oswald back in the 1950s, work with Guy Bannister years later in the same building as Oswald?

And why is it ever more confusing the more information that you receive? It used to be that you could carefully gather all of the information, make an assessment, and render a clear opinion. In the current age, information is no longer used to inform but to sow confusion.

Given all of that, a credible argument can be made that the assassination is the first example of a postmodern historical act.

It seems clear that DeLillo certainly seems so. Think of the hallmarks that come to mind that signify postmodernist literature. There are deep conspiracy theories. There are mind bending coincidences.  Multiple characters are paranoid. You are, like the CIA analyst Nicholas Branch (a stand-in for the reader), literally buried in information, an avalanche of data that leaves you feeling ever more lost.

At the center of it all stands Oswald. The book covers his time in the military in Japan, his defection and living in the Soviet Union, coming back to the United States, time spent in New Orleans and Dallas. You are even there as he pulls the trigger. Yet, in the middle of it all, he’s still a cipher. His life is fully described but his motivation is never really known.

DeLillo buries you in the flotsam of that time. He puts you into, what one postmodernist called, ‘the immediate now’. Before you read, you better bone up a little on your 1960s JFK trivia. Here you’ll read about Guy Bannister, David Ferrie, Clay Shaw, Jack Ruby, Edwin Walker, and others.

As with many classic postmodernist novels, after reading this, I am left with a question…will this even be readable a century from now? Or will the immersion into the arcana of the time render this work to be completely inaccessible to all but the most dedicated scholars of the genre?

Also, one more question as I was reading it. How much did the JFK assassination and the successive unmooring it did of what was conventional actually inspire the flowering of postmodernist literature in the 1960s and 1970s?

Forget it, Harry. It’s Glasgow


Title: Bloody January

Rating: 4 Stars

For long term readers, you’ll recognize that I used almost this exact same title for an earlier post about a Swedish noir novel called Clinch. In theme, they are both similar, and in both cases the protagonist detective is named Harry.

So sue me.

This one is set in Glasgow Scotland, in 1973. Harry McCoy, a police detective, is warned by a prison inmate that a woman is about to be murdered. McCoy and his partner, Wattie, try to track her down. Just as they find her, right in front of them, she is gunned down and then her murderer turns the gun on himself.

They try to figure out what happens, and in so doing, go down a rabbit hole of intrigue, violence, and privilege of the extremely wealthy.

So, yes, it’s a very typical noir-ish novel. McCoy is the dogged detective. He’s had a rough childhood that’s left him indebted to the local crime lord. That makes him in turn ever so slightly dirty himself. He drinks too much, he womanizes too much, and is impertinent to authority. He asks too many questions and when he steps on the wrong toes, he is beaten. He steps on many wrong toes. By the end of the novel, it’s a wonder that he can walk. So, basically like every noir detective ever invented.

His partner, Wattie, is new to being a detective and is new to Glasgow. He’s eager, friendly, and looks askance at McCoy’s behavior. He plays the role of naive foil to McCoy’s world weariness. So, basically like every noir detective sidekick ever invented.

Murray, McCoy’s boss, is impatient of McCoy’s behavior but respects his results. Murray yells at McCoy but also respects him and ultimately stands by him and protects him. So, basically like every noir police boss ever invented.

McCoy’s Moby Dick is the Dunlop family. Obscenely rich and powerful, they stand above the law. Worse yet is that McCoy has had previous run-ins with them that nearly ended with McCoy being fired. It appears that the murder might have some connection to the Dunlop family. Will McCoy be able to finally bring the Dunlop’s to justice? If you’ve ever watched Chinatown, you’ll probably know the answer to this.

As with the Swedish novel, Clinch, the city is front and center here. Glasgow in 1973 is in a bad state. What was charming about Glasgow has been torn down and replaced with what passed for architecture in the 1970s. McCoy, a native, can barely recognize the city that he grew up in. Drugs and crime are running rampant. Parts of the city aren’t safe for even police to go into. Also, this takes place in January, so the sky is dark, the weather is bitter cold, and the snow is blowing sideways. So, basically the perfect setting for a noir novel.

You probably get the idea. If you’re looking for some new innovation to the noir crime genre, you probably won’t find it here. If you’re looking for a well executed example of the noir crime genre in a new time and setting, then this could very well be exactly what you’re looking for.

How I Single-Handedly Destroyed America


Title: A Generation Of Sociopaths

Rating: 3 Stars

This book has a very simple theme. There was an entire generation of Americans, born roughly between 1940 to 1965, that were raised in such a way that they felt themselves to be the center of the universe. As they aged, this was reflected in their politics and in their approach to government. Now, as they are fading from the scene, the country lies in ruins for future generations to clean up.

And…I was born on the very tail end of that date range, so I guess that I owe…um…an apology?

He first tries to figure out why this birth cadre are a bunch of sociopaths. This is all the fault of, wait for it…Dr Spock (the pediatrician, not the Vulcan), bottle feeding, and television. Apparently the relative permissiveness of child raising advocated by Dr Spock created an entire generation that was left feeling somewhat unconstrained by rules and discipline.  The bottle feeding instead of breast milk led to lower cognitive development and a loss of emotional bonding. The many, many hours of television that the boomer kids were subjected to led to a general mental laziness and attention deficit.

As the boomers aged, the laws and culture of the country changed accordingly. For instance, as the boomers entered prime home buying age, home capital gains were no longer taxed and the mortgage interest deduction was introduced. As the boomers entered their prime wage earning years, the taxes were reduced. As the boomers’ parents were hitting the years were they were most likely to die, inheritance taxes were dramatically reduced (actually removed for the vast majority of estates). And so on…

The end result is that, by the year 2030, potentially America will be in a state in which: social security will be drained, medicare will be drained, the infrastructure will be in a nearly hopeless state of disrepair, global warming will be irreversible, and the military will be second rate. But it will be OK, because most of the boomers will be dead and so it’s not their problem to worry about!

The only way to get out of this very near term dystopia is to start dramatically increasing spending now to deal with these problems. This would be many trillions of dollars. If we do it right now, with the economy relatively strong and with borrowing costs so low, that will give us enough time to right the ship again.

What do I think about the book? Eh, it’s OK. I don’t have a huge quibble with his arguments. Especially if you look at our country since 1980, there have been several decades where the country went deeply into debt really for no reason at all. Tax cuts were handed out with little thought to whether or not they make financial sense or the impact that the cuts could have on the government. Certainly, boomers who were historically such a large presence in our country bear a commiserate amount of responsibility over that mess. Many of the policies of the recent past were biased towards the boomer generation.


The style of the book wasn’t great. He was clearly trying to be humorous, but instead ended up being shrill. He was kind of like your friend at the bar that gets a little too drunk and makes ugly jokes about his/her spouse.

Gibney seems to think that American history only started in 1950. This is where he picks up the narrative. So, in effect, he’s really only comparing the boomer generation to the WWII generation, a generation, for right or wrong, that is considered to be a paragon of virtue. If he’d gone a little further back, would he have found a generation of sociopaths in, oh, I don’t know, the generation that first started the slave trade? Or maybe the generation that decided to split itself into another country because of slavery?

Next, he actually does elude to this a bit, but comparing our current state to post WWII is unfair. In 1950, quite literally the entire industrial world, except for the United States, was in a state of collapse. People in Europe were literally starving to death while the continental United States was left at least one if not two orders of magnitude stronger than before the war. The world we live in today is much different than then.

Also, how about the next generation of politicians? Ted Cruz is not a boomer. Paul Ryan is not a boomer. Marco Rubio is not a boomer. Sociopaths all.

Finally, the solution presented is laughable in its naivete. It reminded me of Piketty’s book, Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century. It’s a compelling, cogently argued work that makes the case that since investments (ie rents) historically rise faster than wages, that, short of a disaster, it is inevitable that wealth disparity will grow over time. It makes perfect sense. However, his remedy is a globally administered wealth tax. There doesn’t exist a bizarre enough alternate universe in which that will happen. Offering an impossible solution is offering no solution at all. So it is here.

So, to sum up, it was an interesting read. However, it was a pretty depressing because he saw only one way out and that one way out looks to be pretty impossible.

One Man’s Search For Hidden Truths


Title: The Secret Parts Of Fortune

Rating: 5 Stars

I think that this is the third time that I’ve read this collection. It was first published in 2001, so the the essays are by now somewhat dated, but even so, I find the large majority of them to be entertaining and interesting.

Ron Rosenbaum had a long career writing articles for such magazines as Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and Esquire. This is a collection of such articles. And what a collection! There must be over fifty articles and columns included here, dating from the 1970s to the late 1990s.

He has a couple of journalistic subjects that seem to drive him. First of all, he is somewhat obsessed with conspiracies. He’s too logical and cerebral to be a believer, so he always approaches the subject with a certain detachment. On the other hand, he is empathetic to the conspiracy believers. These two tendencies lead to skeptical but open articles on sensitive subjects.

It was first here that I read about Danny Casolaro’s Octopus. This is an incredibly complex theory trying to link together everything from Iran-Contra to the October Surprise. Here also is the unsolved murder of one of JFK’s mistresses. Who killed her? Where is her secret diary? How does both Ben Bradlee and James Jesus Angleton get involved? Speaking of JFK, he goes deep with the group of people, over a decade later, still trying to prove that Oswald was just a patsy to some deep conspiracy.

Adjacent to conspiracy theory are another group of people seeking and/or offering alternate truths. This includes the alternative medicine people. And by alternative, I mean very alternative. He goes on a journey with cancer patients as they venture into Tijuana in a desperate search for a cure. For those old enough to remember Laetrile, this resonates. He found an evangelist miracle worker (and I’m not joking here) who claims that, by laying hands upon you, he can cure your dental woes. He doesn’t claim anything else. Don’t come to him with your arthritis or back pain. The good lord only works through him to cure teeth problems.

Here also is the fascinating story of Henry Lee Lucas, who for a moment in time was notorious. He was arrested for a couple of murders.  He soon realized that he could get out of his cell and get some decent food if he started to confessing to murders. Again, I’m not joking here when I say this because I remember it, police from all over the country came to him with their unsolved murders and with just a little prompting to understand basic facts, Lucas would willingly confess to them. He ended up confessing to over two hundred murders and claimed to have killed something like 3000. The lawmen were happy because he was clearing up their cold cases, so they didn’t push him too hard. It wasn’t until a journalist came along and actually started checking out his known movements and comparing them to his confessions that it all fell apart. Even knowing that, many police refused to reopen their previously closed cases, thus allowing some unknown number of murderers to remain free.

For those of who were conscious during all of this time, reading these articles bring back memories. There is an article about being an officer buried deep in a nuclear bomb site and determining their willingness to actual turn the key to end the world. There’s an article about twin gynecologists that ended up dying within days of each other, surrounded by their own filth (this was made into a movie starring Jeremy Irons as the twins). There’s an article about the first hackers who broke into Ma Bell’s (anyone remember Ma Bell?) network. It was based upon very precise sounds and clicks. A surprisingly large number of these original hackers were blind.

He wrote an article on Robin Leach, the frenetic voice behind the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. He wrote another one on Mr Whipple, the sexually repressed grocer who yelled at women for squeezing the Charmin. He wrote about Kim Philby, that in turned inspired me to write a post on this blog about whether or not Kim Philby should be voted the man of the last century.

And I’ve not even really scratched the surface. There is so much more here. If you find yourself drawn to an intelligent man writing long form articles about borderline culturally significant subjects from decades past, this is the book for you.

Finger In The Light Socket Literature


Title: Love And Other Wounds

Rating: 5 Stars

Holy Crap.

I’m tempted just to leave it like that. Love and Other Wounds is a collection of short stories. They are all crime noir and absolutely dark as fuck.

There are about 15 stories adding up to maybe 150 pages total. I tried to ration myself. I wanted to spread the reading of it over a couple of days. I kept saying to myself, OK, only one more. And then one more. And then, before I knew it, no more.

Crime noir is certainly a genre form, but Harper takes it to a different level. The only work that I’ve ever read that is even close to it is Pollock’s Knockemstiff. I probably should re-read Knockemstiff, but right now, I think that I have to give the edge to Harper.

His stories run the gamut, everything from black drug dealers to white supremacists to crime capers to dog fighters to jealous cops to a Hollywood fixer to bank robbers to, and I fucking kid you not, a philosophical dissertation. The sheer variety of the stories is astonishing.

I could go into more detail, but the stories are so short that describing them probably gives away too much.

It’s got it all. There’s really not a weak link in the collection. Some of the stories link to each other, but most of them are standalone.

Every one of the stories is a jolt of adrenaline. Most of them have at least one WTF moment. Several of them have a last line that puts the final nail in that story’s coffin.

Don’t get me wrong. This is rough, wild, and raw. If that is not your cup of tea, this is not for you. If you are, then this is genius story telling.

Holy Crap.