Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Demonic by Ann Coulter

I confess, that Ann Coulter sometimes makes me uncomfortable. She can be so acerbic that even when I agree with her views, as I do most of the time, I find myself cringing from the way she presents them.

She is however, undoubtedly brilliant. I would challenge anyone to argue otherwise.

"Demonic, How the Liberal Mob is endangering America" is her latest book, and of everything she's written, this is my favorite. Ann makes a compelling case, starting with the most in depth coverage of the French Revolution that I've ever read.

The French Revolution, inspired and led by Robespierre, was per Coulter, more of an unruly and unthinking mob action than a thoughtful inspired process of change. "In the blink of an eye, a great civilization was reduced to rubble, its most valuable citizens dead or living elsewhere." Over 600,000 French citizens were killed and another 145,000 fled the country.

In the American revolution, fewer than 10,000 died in battle, and another 10,000 from disease and other causes. And, as Ann wryly notes, the King was fighting back in this case. In France, the king quickly capitulated, but that didn't stop the mob slaughter of hundreds of thousands of citizens. The leaders and participants in the American revolution didn't turn to killing their own once their enemy was disposed. She makes the case, that the American revolution was a well thought out path to change, with moral underpinnings, that forbade mobs. As contrasted, to the French, Russian, German, Southeast Asia, and more. The American Revolution was also, not led and inspired by atheists, as were all the others.

Coulter compares liberals to a mob. An unreasoning mob where slogans replace reason, and where the most ignorant and immoral are led by the more intelligent and immoral to wreck havoc on civilizations.

She cites father of mob psychology, Guistave Le Bon, from whom both Stalin and Hitler took inspiration.

Coulter says liberal mobs, follow the same path. fully prepared to use violence to gain their ill considered goals. This is contradictory to our traditions as Americans.

It's an interesting, albeit undeniably, controversial book. Reading Coulter's critics, one is struck by something she gives as a sign of a mob. Instead of presenting a rational argument to her assertions, most simply attack her.

The book is thought provoking. Some are going like it. If you're already a Coulter fan, you'll probably love it. If you're a liberal, it will anger you, but if you're thoughtful, it will just make you think.

If you're simply an a-political history buff, you'll enjoy that side of it as well.

And her humor, a bit dark and smart alec to be sure, but.. well, funny.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Few Americans know much about the Dust Bowl of the 30's, despite the fact, that arguably, it's the worst disaster in the nation's history.

"Throughout the Great Plains, a visitor passes more nothing than something. Or so it seems." (from the book's introduction)

Egan does a remarkable job of putting the reader right in the midst of the absolute horror that people living in much of the Great Plains during the 30's experienced. Encouraged by both local and national governments to settle, plow, and build, thousands of people flocked to what was billed as a new Eden of sorts.

By plowing up the native prairie grasses, after the Bison had been eradicated, the stage was set for an inevitable environmental and human disaster. Other writers have blamed the Dust Bowl on a decades long drought. While the fact of the drought is true, the implication that long droughts are uncommon on the plains is not.

The book is composed primarily of individual stories by people that were there. It would get so dark during a dust storm that people would literally get lost and die a few feet from their homes. Cattle died by the thousands from having their lungs full of talcum like dust. The static electricity generated by the storms not only presented dangers from severe electrical shock, it was so intense that automobiles would stop running. People, including many children, died by the thousands of lung diseases. One senses from reading story after story the utter hopelessness; of the inescapable and constant wind, filth, and driving dust. On the occasions that it did rain, it literally rained mud.

The Dust Bowl drained everything from the horrified people trapped there. With no crops, money, cattle, no water, unable to maintain any semblance of cleanliness, life was as desolate for the plains dwellers as anyone on earth.

The storms carried the dust all the way East, and darkened the skies of cities like New York and Washington. The government did respond, in part by forming the Soil Conservation Agency, which is still in existence.

I think the book is interesting on several levels. First, historically, it's a part of the American story that most of us know little about. Second, it's a good lesson about the inevitable folly of attempting to use land for purposes for which it's unsuited.

The book is almost depressing, and the stories are somehow, antithetical to what we consider the history of the pioneers that settled the American plains. However, since Egan primarily paints the times through the lenses of those who were there, it's also an important story. As much a part of our history as Lewis and Clark.

It's a great book title.. it was indeed the worst hard time.

One Second After by William Forstchen

In case you needed something else to worry about, here is a terrific, fact based, adventure novel, which I predict will become a movie. Set in the small town of Black Mountain, NC; the story is about an Electro Magnetec Pulse attack on the United States, and the ensuing aftermath, which starts one second after the attack. The primary character is John Matherson, a retired Army widower, and devoted father. The story is told, more or less, from Matherson's perspective, although it's not told in the first person. Matherson is presented as a good, albeit imperfect man, thrust into a leadership role that he neither anticipated nor wanted. In this role, he becomes sort of an everyman facing the new realities that started with the EMP attack.

Almost all of the story is local. Forstchen presents a thought provoking incident in which the town leaders learn that the president of the United States has likely been killed. Embroiled in their own struggles to survive, the townsmen give it little thought. Their world has been reduced to the town and its surroundings. What is happening in a now very far away and disconnected Washington DC has little or no impact on their lives.

The forward is written by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and the afterward is written by US Navy Captain Bill Sanders. Although this is a novel, both Gingrich and Sanders attest to its feasibility, and to the vulnerability of the US infrastructure to just such an attack. The Compton Effect is explained; which briefly, is how a high altitude nuclear explosion can generate a pulse of sufficient amplitude and duration to significantly damage electrical and electronic circuitry. One of the more frightening revelations, is that it takes neither a particularly sophisticated targeting system, nor an especially sophisticated nuclear device to perform an attack of this nature. For all the techie types the forward and afterward alone are worth the read. For everyone, One Second After is an exciting novel.

Life in the small idyllic town of Black Mountain is something out of a Norman Rockwell painting; small town Americana all the way. And then the attack comes out of the blue. At first, it appears very benign. The power goes out, and cars stop running. Then people gradually become aware that virtually nothing electronic or electrical is working.

Forstchen does a wonderful job of painting a picture of how truly fragile our connected culture and society really is. The people of Black Mountain, along with the rest of the country, are suddenly thrust into a 19th century culture for which they are ill-equipped to live. Rampant disease, starvation, and anarchy are suddenly not just something that third world countries deal with, it's the way of life in the United States. Ethical questions, such as whether to share scarce food and medicine with the thousands trapped on nearby Interstate 40, are dealt with by people that never imagined dealing with such questions. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters, no help is coming to Black Mountain, because the entire United States is in the same shape or worse. The people of the town must face the reality that this is now the culture for years, not weeks.

It's an exciting and sobering story. A few nights ago, we had a power outage, and I found myself almost automatically checking my cell phone to be sure it was still working. Anyone reading this novel, and taking the time (and I recommend this) to read both the forward and afterward will find themselves questioning their own dependence on the fragile fabric of American society.

As I said at the start.. just in case you needed something else to worry about!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

AC/DC The Savage Tale of the First Standards War

By Tom McNichol

For a number of years, I've enjoyed telling the story of how Thomas Edison managed to convince the authorities in New York to use AC rather than DC to power the nation's first electric chair. He then began talking about that "deadly AC" in his efforts to make the nation's early electric grid DC rather than AC. His last great hurrah in that effort, was the widely publicized killing of Topsy, a rogue circus elephant, with 6000 volts of AC.

Thomas Edison, for instance, didn't really have a working electric light bulb when he began publicizing and building the first DC power grid in NYC. He told everyone he did, but in fact, he did not. He sold the grid on the basis of providing light, but his light bulbs, up to that point, were failures, with the elements burning out almost immediately. He got it figured out just in time to forestall an embarrassing disaster (not to mention financial ruin).

It's not only of historical interest to look at how electrical standards became part of our routine life, but it can also serve as a guideline for perceiving our future. McNichol hints at this in his closing chapters with a brief discussion of the Sony Betamax versus the VHS video tape war, and (at the time of his writing) the still emerging battle over HDTV.

One thing is clear; the best technology isn't always picked as the best standard. The human element is paramount. I recall looking at two computers side by side many years ago, with one running MS DOS as its operating system, and another running on Texas Instruments DOS. The TI DOS was easily superior, but fell aside as Bill Gates and Microsoft won the operating system war.

Anyone will benefit from reading about the emergence of electrical standards. It's difficult to imagine our culture without electricity, and had Edison's vision of the electrical grid prevailed, many things that we now accept as standard would be different. Not necessarily worse, just different.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Alice Schrodeder wrote this recounting of the life and times of surely one of the most enigmatic men of our generation. Buffet, usually a very private individual, cooperated with Schroeder on this work, and while the book may lack a bit in its critique of Buffett, it does provide a revealing look into his life and philosophies. The title comes from a Buffett quote, "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill."

To begin with, it's clear that Buffett is not an ordinary person, although he modestly credits most of his success to luck. "I won the ovarian lottery," Buffett is quoted as saying, giving credit to his parents and schooling. However, this is a child that asked for a stopwatch as a kindergartner, and carefully noting the time it took for various marbles to race down his bathtub, learned to calculate odds. He became so enamored with numbers, that he sat in church calculating the lifespans of hymn writers in the hymnals, in order to figure out if piety actually resulted in a longer life.

As a fifth grader, Warren memorized most of the world almanac, including the population of every major city. His first business, at six, was selling chewing gum, and his genius for complex business principles began to evidence even then. He would refuse to break apart packs of gum to sell individual sticks, reasoning that neither the profit nor the risk was worth doing so. He also began his love affair with Coca Cola at an early age, selling cokes to sunbathers during family vacations. At 10 years of age, Buffett requested and got a trip to the New York Stock Exchange and was mesmerized by what he saw.

As a teenager, Buffett learned about handicapping race horses and parimutuel betting, and began publishing a tip sheet for betters. He figured out that the rules of the racetrack, applied to the stock market as well, and hence the beginning of Buffett's famous abilities in that area.

Warren is uncomfortable in posh settings, and is noted for pulling a server aside at a state dinner and asking if they could bring him a hamburger and coke.

There's a sad side of Buffett as well. Schroeder doesn't dwell on it, but its hard to escape the "poor little rich boy" side of him. As with many of us, Buffett's strengths are also his weakness. He's not unkind, but can be distant. He doesn't seem to know how to relax, and his relations with his family are odd at best. He doesn't live with his wife, but with a defacto mistress, and while he's notoriously miserly, he doesn't seem to be motivated by money in the traditional sense. Perhaps to Buffett it's just a scorecard.

What he seems to be fixated on, is the game. The book can serve both as an inspiration and a warning. Buffett seems to have the business of business well figured out, I'm not so sure about the business of life.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Outliers by Malcomb Gladwell

When a friend first told me about Outliers , I was not impressed. Over and over we've heard "It's not my fault. It's my parents, or my race, or my school, or whatever." I never questioned that some have advantages others don't, be it innate intelligence, family connections, luck, or what have you. But, it always seemed to me, that blaming others for your own shortcomings is to guarantee prolonging and exacerbating those shortcomings.

I still believe that, but Gladwell's book, I must admit, gives one pause. He begins by using statistics on the Canadian Hockey league to drive home a very simple point. The month an aspiring hockey player is born plays a huge role in whether or not the talented player will make it to a professional level. Gladwell doesn't deny talent, but the statistics are inescapable. The vast majority of professional hockey players have birthdays that fall within a narrow range of months. When a new class of youngsters begin to play hockey, the oldest within that group have advantages.

The reason is simple. The slight difference in age at that stage of a boy's life, results in significant differences in size and ability. And once a child gets labeled as either a star or a mediocre player within the youth leagues, that label tends to stay with him. The better players get more playing time, more coaching, and end up on the top amateur teams. From those elite teams, come the professionals.

Gladwell takes this same premise and applies it to education, and other disciplines. He uses examples such as Bill Gates and others in support of his Outlier theory.

It's an interesting and thought provoking book. The only issue or question that I have with Mr. Gladwell's work, is that although he makes a point of almost always giving talent, hard work, and ability credit, I get the feeling that he doesn't really believe it. In other words, he over emphasizes, in my opinion, the environmental and situational circumstances, and in the process, minimizes the individual accomplishments.

That being said, it's a book that I've recommended to almost everyone I know that teaches school. There's no question, that labeling a child at an early age, is a dangerous process, because he or she may actually believe that they are somehow, less able than those labeled more highly. And, it reiterates the sober duty that parents and grandparents have to both discipline and encourage a child to discover and maximize their innate gifts and talents.

Eddie M.