Friday, August 21, 2015

What I'm reading this summer II

Lots of good stuff.  For one thing, I read Alexander Dumas’ The Jester Chicot. Dumas is, of course, most famous for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. But, he was an incredibly prolific writer and I doubt I will ever get to the end of his books.  There are actually five volumes in The Three Musketeers series, of which I’ve read three – two left - and all great works. Dumas was by far the most modern of 19th century novelists that I’ve read. A few years back I started a new series known as The Valois or The Last Valois series, stories surrounding a certain family of kings in the 16th century, but it is historical fiction, not history, and it’s lively and fun. The first book in the series was The Queen Margot, which I read one summer in the mornings a few years back when I lived in Virginia. Though I wrote my own review on Amazon, it was a quickie, and I’d rather give you part of a review from 2013 by someone who calls her or himself CatLover:

Margot is the new bride of Henry, King of Navarre, and also the sister of his competitor for the throne, Charles IX. Henry was a protestant king at the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. They become allies but not lovers, theirs being the usual royal marriage of convenience.  Throw in the venomous Catherine d' Medici, murder, slapstick affairs (the serious ones I usually find boring), secret rendezvous, family and palace plottings, poisoning, hunting, sword fighting. Sign me up.

The Jester Chicot leaps a few years into the near future from Margot, with many of the same characters, but focusing on the adventures of two exceptional new ones. One of course is Chicot, who you already knew was a jester, but an unusual one, being a swashbuckling gentleman himself, and the idiot king’s favorite, who handles a plot against the king in his own fashion while satisfying his own need for revenge. The other is Bussy D’Amboise, the closest thing to one of the musketeers in Dumas’ works. The most noble and able man in France, he is helplessly in love with a beautiful married woman, but also beholden to the king’s evil brother who loves her too. And, of course, she is married. Well, sort of.  Bussy never runs from a fight, no matter the odds and he basically cuts his way through less noble and daring opposition. The plot doesn’t go where you think it will, nor does it come out where you expect – it’s not like reading a modern action novel.

I’m in the middle of the last in the series, The 45 Guardsmen, which many reviewers like better than Chicot.  It took a few chapters to grab me, but especially with the reappearance of Chicot, has now taken off.  The one thing that people don't know about Dumas is that he was really funny, much more so than any writer of his time who comes to mind.

I’m also in the midst of two Steven Pinker books. Pinker is an ivy league professor who writes sophisticated, detailed, entertaining, highly explanatory and fun books on the human mind and logic. His The Language Instinct, which I read a few years ago explains how we “grow” language, explains Noam Chomsky (who, whatever you think of his politics, completely revolutionized language theory, but was incredibly dense so as to be virtually opaque to the laymen). Right now, I’m re-reading Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which makes the case that we are as much a product of our genes as our experiences in our lives and that our minds are not complete blank slates to be filled at birth. If you’ve never given thought to it, you might even be a little stunned to discover so much of what we do was not because we saw our parents do it.  If you think that is obvious, he will enlighten you as to how much and how virulently the idea has been fought by scientists, students and others. The other one is How the Mind Works, and you can probably guess what it is about. But, it’s a broad topic and he will take you places you will not expect to go. All through his books he weaves his own social commentary based on where he thinks science takes us, much of which, to my surprise, I find I agree. Of course, his reasons are a little more well crafted than mind.

And, just this weekend I picked up yet a third Pinker book I hope to get to this summer – Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which deals with whether language is based on rules that the brain is programmed to follow (although the rules for each language differ) or based on a series of connections – aka, connectionism. I am warned in Amazon reviews that it is for serious language hobbyists only, unlike his other books which were aimed at a more diverse crowd. I am a language hobbyist – whether I am a serious one or just an admirer, I guess I will find out when I get to it. I’m always prepared to be disappointed, but I am really excited to read a book about verb use.

Speaking of language, I am also almost done with John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, my night table book, and which I guess has a pretty obvious topic too. McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English is in my pantheon of great language books. If you read my recent post on race in America, The Policing Thing, you will see that I also wish he was recognized as a leader for “the black community” rather than some of the more famous ones. Like Pinker, McWhorter strives to make his books interesting and persuasive, using all kinds of examples so unlike those that I remember from school, which seem just designed to bore you to tears.

I was wandering in a Barnes and Noble with Bear in Maryland and mentioned that I wanted to read The Cave and The Light, which contrasts the influence of Plato and Aristotle on thinkers throughout history. So, he bought me one for my birthday. Great book.  If you aren’t interested in Greek history, everything we are today is not just influenced, but still almost dominated by their scientists, artists and philosophers, and predominantly from just a couple of centuries in one City-State, Athens. Even the alphabet we all write in is relatively close variation on theirs. Plato and Aristotle are probably the most influential of all of them, but in different ways. Arthur Herman, the author, far from providing us with just the rote history by year and battle or discovery, is a comparative historian, whose most famous work, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, is a great introduction to the Scottish Enlightenment. Its sub-title How Europe’s Poorest Nation Created our World and Everything in It, is a bit of an overstatement, but he shows how powerful an influence their 18th and 19th century philosophers had on us today. Hume being one of my favorite philosophers, I’m not fighting him too hard. In any event, Herman tends to see history through the development of liberty, always a special attraction for me. Even if all of his subjects are fairly well covered in history books I’ve already read, it is the comparative method that makes it new and engaging. It’s like a meal – it’s not so much the ingredients as the recipe.  

Along with The Cave and the Light, I picked up single volume copy of Aristotle’s works – The Basic Works of Aristotle. A lot of it is kind of dry, and I intend to peruse it over a long period of time, but when you are reading him, you can’t help wondering if he thought and wrote about everything? Of course, like any ancient scientist or philosopher, he’s going to be wrong about more things than he is right about. Doesn’t matter. Whatever your field, you will likely find he was there before your idols.

I wrote about Cerf and Navasky’s The Expert’s Speak, earlier this month in my post on Iran so I won’t go into detail. But, it is just a long list of topics and examples of things experts or so-called experts, got wrong. I love it. It's a reference book and I pick it up when I feel like it, or if I'm drifting off to sleep in my easy chair.

I also recently read two texts I got from the library. The first was William of Ockham’s A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government (it didn’t start with the Declaration of Independence, you know). I didn’t want to buy it because I suspected that though the topic was a winner for me, an 800 year old theologian is probably not going to rivet me , and I would find a few tidbits in it that would enlighten me, or at least make me happy. It is in essence a battle over the authority of the Pope, but, it is by analogy, part of the long tale of liberty against kings and even our own democracy. The other book was by Michael Polyani (a chemist who was influential in the quest for the atomic bomb) whose explanation of the scientific method is the best I’ve ever read. Personal Knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy is his epistemology – that is, how we know what we know, another subject that fascinates me. I found that my note taking was taking too long for a library book and I bought it on Amazon to get to after I finish the other books on my pile. Admittedly, it’s a lot harder. But, his views on the subjective nature of knowledge is meant to and will make a good pairing with Popper, who I spent years reading, and who argues for an objective view. I know me pretty well. When I’ve understood Polyani – or if I do – I will think likely think they are both somewhat right, somewhat wrong and also a little off the deep end. 

I also just picked up and am racing through Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics, the topic of which you can guess. I got it after reading a review of it, and it lives up to the hype, explaining basic statistics (which I tried not to sleep through in college) through fun examples rather than the bone dry ones college professors seem to love. I love statistics, particularly probability. I just hate to be bored.

I’m hoping to stop buying books or taking them out of the library for a while, until I finish these – but it’s just so hard. There's always something new that I just can't live without. And then there are the long term projects, most of which I finish (sometimes after years). There going to have to bury me with my unfinished ones.

Comment with your own summer reading, if you like.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The first debate - here we go again!

Here we go with the first most ridiculous show in town. Where quips, fumbles, distractions or making a face at the wrong time influences peoples' votes. The real questions we want answered will never be asked. Would Jeb Bush really fight someone who didn't think his father was the world's greatest man? What other celebrities did Trump date? Can Carly Fiorina just list all the world leaders she's met and be done with it? Just how tall is George Pataki? I guess I'm rooting for John Kasich in group A at 7 p.m. and Carly Fiorina in group B (5 p.m.) which shall start in a few minutes, but, I can't say I have a real favorite in this race at all so far. Although I have made some early predictions in my time, I am not making a prediction on this pack until the Republican field thins a bit and we see if Biden gets in on the Democrat nomination. We all know you can't really predict anything, but, I'm going to do a crazy early prediction that I refuse to count on my official record (kept in a vault in heaven) - Kasich for the Republican nomination Joe Biden for the Democrats. Kasich is Jeb Bush without the baggage and eventually the powers that be might recognize that. Trump I still think will self-destruct or come to earth at some point. As far as Biden, in 2008 he couldn't even do well in his own state. This time it's different, partly because his son died - the tragedy has helped his legacy, though he'd trade it all in a second, of course, and the last few years has helped make him look less like a clown. Anyway, enjoy the debates. I might post-script this later.

Post script 1 - So, I watched the first debate. Well, sort of. Okay, I fell asleep for most of it. This stuff is just ponderous. But, from what I saw my one of my two I was rooting for, did well. That was the overwhelming consensus of commentators and viewers (82% in a lightning poll) on Fox, the station putting on the debate. My problem with her is that she is as negative as any of them, and that has been irritating me. Though she usually goes after just Hillary Clinton. However, she poked the bear tonight, teasing the Donald, and that seems scary for most of them. Points for courage. Oh, almost forgot. The booing of the muscular gay soldier by the audience. That's why they may lose again. Even though people are looking for something new, they aren't looking for a bully or muttonhead either. I thought Bobby Jindal did well for him - he is not overflowing with charisma in pressure situations. Graham was really serious, almost painfully so, but I liked it better than his grandfatherly sense of humor, which sounds better in his head than it does to me. Rick Perry and probably all of them were just trying to hard. That may be true in part two. One reason Trump is doing well is that he is himself and the rest of them are being, to one degree or another, phonies. If I were them, I would encourage Donald, because ego is his weakness. Whether his stunning ego and pride will overcome the pleasure people get in having someone be sincere with them, is the question. I wrote a little speech just now for Trump if he gets jumped on. He should not fire back in his usual petulant fashion. He should say something like - "Can you believe these guys. Same stuff that failed for us last time. Everybody go after the front runner. Don't you remember how that hurt Romney in the general election. Let's let the Democrats do that. We should be talking about what matters to Americans. And you know why I'm the front runner? It's because they can hear that I am telling them the truth and not being a phony and they like that. And they can tell that I'm on our side - their side - and they like that too. So, go ahead fellows - and Carly - spitballs at a battleship. I'm not that good with quotes, but what was that Churchill said - You do your worst and we'll do our best."

Post Script 2 - Okay, Trump didn't need my speech, although the hosts went after him right away because he would not pledge not to run as an independent. I don't find him believable. When asked about his evidence about the border, of course he just made up stuff (my opinion, but . . . ). I think he may have hurt himself by being a little too petty and by being himself (which is what got him there). Not that any of them were that substantive, but he doesn't even approach presidential. Of course, who hasn't been wrong about him before? They all did well. Paul was the most aggressive. He went after Trump and he went after Christie. I thought if I had to pick a loser, it would be Paul. He certainly had his fans, but I thought he lost each altercation. I don't know who won. I was rooting for Kasich and I thought he did great. It didn't hurt that Ohio is his home stage. He's running on resume and without being overly religious, with an anti-poverty, pro-minority stance. But, Trump fended off all of the attacks with his usual bluster. Christie came off better than I thought though he was pretty aggressive too. Cruz seemed to get the least time to speak. Carson was treated, after the first tough question about his experience, with kid gloves. Huckabee, Walker, Bush, Rubio . . . everyone did pretty well, but I'm not sure that anyone made any advances. I still say the worst problem that they will have is the religious jargon and the anti-gay rhetoric. But, they haven't listened to me before, so . . . . Here's my ranking of them 1. Christie 2. Kasich 3. Walker 4. Huckabee 5. Rubio 6. Bush 7. Carson 8. Cruz 9. Trump 10. Paul Comparatively, Carly Fiorina did better than any of them. I expect that she will be in the next debate, but not sure who she will replace. My guess at the moment is Cruz or Paul. Trump will sink, but will still have a lot of support. That's all, folks. Post script 3 Wow. I woke up this morning and popped on Drudge to see the instant poll results. It reminded me that I am surprised every primary debate when the partisan viewers weigh in. Drudge had Trump winning the main debate with about 51%, the next one was Cruz at about 12% and everybody else a tiny fraction. It was close to the opposite of my rankings, which, of course are through my relatively moderate eyes. I tend to like the guys (and gal) in the middle and not those throwing red meat bombs. Of course, that is Drudge and a conservative audience. The Drudge results were nothing like the Frank Luntz focus group on Fox the night before where Trump fared very poorly. Trump blasted Luntz overnight, mocking him looking for work in his office. Then, watching MSNBC, they had very different views again. What probably matters most is how they fare in the polls the next few days. And the results will be slanted depending on whether Republicans are being polled, conservatives, or the general population. Everyone expects Fiorina to pop, as almost everyone who commented has said good things about her, but it is not clear at whose expense. And likely, I'll do one more post script after that. I bet you can't wait. Okay, going to watch Trump on Morning Joe. This was fun.

Post Script 3 - Last post script (or is it postscript? Note to self - look that up). So, there was an overnight poll a few days after the debate by NBC and Survey Monkey, which is a website that lets you create your own polls. Arguably, they are limited in importance because the subjects are people looking to answer polls. But, still, they have a reasonable track records. It turns out I was completely right and completely wrong about who won the debate. I was right that Trump and Paul lost because that's the way the poll turned out. And I was wrong that Trump lost because he improved his position better than anyone but a few who gained name recognition (Fiorina, Carson, Cruz and he tied with Huckabee) although he only improved a little in the polls. It is clear what happened. People who like him, liked him more or the same, regardless of how badly the rest of us thought he was doing.

Trump keeps surprising because it is only now being understood by many what he represents. People who are as mad as hell and just can't take it anymore. They don't care if he is an egotistical blowhard who debates by calling them names. They don't care that he doesn't seem to know much about the policies. They care that he seems unafraid, is in people's faces and they think he will pull for them.

I still don't think Trump will be president or even the nominee. I still believe there is a line, not for his followers, where too many others just realize he is a disaster in the making. They might say - even if he runs independent, we can't let him represent us.

However, the notion that he made reference to Meghan Kelly menstruating was just ridiculous. Listen to what he said. You can stretch and torture it to mean that if you want, but that's on you. He is right, political correctness is killing this country.

And there was a very good example yesterday. A group of black youngsters took over a Bernie Sanders rally, grabbed the microphone and forced the crowd to have a moment of silence for a thug, Michael Brown, whose death may be a tragedy, because he never had a chance for redemption and to become a decent human being, but was brought on by himself. The Black Lives Matter movement is out of control. Between the attack on police and riots in Ferguson and the invasion of the Sanders' stage, there is nothing that can be salvaged from it, even if there are some points I might agree with them on. It seems that their model is Michael Brown and it is succeeding in intimidating the left based upon the fact that the candidates are afraid to buck it, so that they do not lose their base.  Sanders didn't have them arrested. The organizers just ended his rally. They seem to believe that they are victims and if they are stopped from any misbehavior it is because why white supremacists are victimizing them. But, Democrats, as intimidated by them as the right are by evangelists, are afraid to lose their base. So, they are doing nothing about it. At least the evangelists aren't invading the Republican stages. if this keeps up, of course, it will end in violence, and that is what they want. So that they can claim they are victims all the more. Of course I hope they are arrested just as I wanted the Pink Ladies arrested when they interrupted congressional hearings during the Bush administration. This is, no doubt, a problem with the left, perhaps because their ardent supporters are younger.

So, these are our choices, Republicans intimidated by Trump on one side (he at least does not seem afraid of anyone) and evangelists on the other, and Democrats intimidated by young bullies spewing racial hate. And that sounds too much like Nazis to me. What a choice we have.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Rembrandt's little brother

Probably few people know that I am a world renowned artist. I keep it a secret to avoid having to hire bodyguards. And, you know, modesty.  Actually, I have little to no artistic skill, just as I cannot seem to learn a musical instrument (failed  at least 3 times, and that isn’t including grade school). With a lot of practice in law school, and desperation born out of boredom, I learned to draw Garfield the Cat with some proficiency.  When I would go to the school on weekends, I’d visit the blackboard where they would post jobs and erase the out of date posts so that I could draw Garfield cartoons and say what I hoped were funny things about law school. The only one I remember was Garfield sitting in front of a fire burning his law books and saying (the usual balloon over his head) “I knew I’d find a purpose for these things” or something like that. For about a year the artist was a mystery, which mystified me as so many people were aware of my obsessive Garfield cartooning in lieu of taking notes. I felt like Superman must have when he put on glasses and instantly acquired a secret identity. One day, someone pointed out that I draw Garfield a lot. So, reasoning mightily, it must be me.  D’uh. And they were all going to be lawyers.

The picture above is probably the best design I ever made. I’m not capable of drawing anything realistically - that is, as it appears to our eye. I took a class once and have tried practicing a few time, likely a lot more than most adults, but, I just suck at it, to state it as accurately as possible. So, I’m stuck with abstract doodling like the above. That one I had always thought I called Creation Myth which was the impression I was going for. Then I thought it was better as Spirits of the Underworld or Odysseus in the Underworld, something like that.  I can re-name them. as much as I want. After all, Michaelangelo’s David was first called Il Gigante when it was mostly just a big block of stone, although King David was always the intended project. And there is a connection between Michaelangelo and I. When I was taking the art class I mentioned above I once heard him spinning in his grave. Might have been my imagination.

As a total side note, David is the greatest piece of art I ever saw, of course, in my humble opinion. Photographs do not do it justice. The copy in the Piazza della Signoria does not do it justice either. You have to go to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see it. From what I saw and others have reported to me, even people who don’t like or know much about art go away with a feeling of awe.  I assure you, this is not only my opinion.  As Jodie Foster’s character said in Contact when she was given a view of the cosmos only available to us in animation – “No words. No words. They should have sent a poet.”  It is possibly the first time in my life I felt I came in close contact with what I would call genius.  It is probably not that well known that the sculpture was started by another artist before Michaelangelo was even born and even another sculpture took a whack at it after that.

Back to my portfolio, when preparing this post I looked for it on my computer and realized that that I simply and prosaically named my black and blue work - “Black and Blue,” and so it shall remain for eternity. So much for creative titles.

The picture below shows off my lack of any talent more clearly. I called it “Falling star over tropical island.” It may seem pointless to name them, but you have to give the computer file a name, so why not?  I do like the picture, but Michaelangelo is preparing to spin again. I know it would be smarter to tell people that this was an impression, but that would be living a lie. That yellow splotch on the perfectly round island (like in real life, right?) is supposed to be a beach, if you are confused.

The next two are companion pieces, both entitled “Me roasting in hell.” For some reason I found that funny, although I imagine it would hurt quite a bit in real life. It's the same picture in different colors.  Of course, not that I believe in hell, but if there is one, I doubt that there is anything to do about it now as I've been an atheist for most of my life. The really important thing is that before go we should have something cool to say as our last words, hopefully not something like “Ohhhh, sh. . . .” (which is what my dad told me he was thinking when he fell off a ladder once) or “Does that sound like a plane in a dive? “

“Too infinity and beyond” is already taken,” which is a shame, because that would have been a very memorable note to leave on. I have always been partial to a line from a dying associate of the hero in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom "I've followed you on many adventures...but into the great unknown mystery, I go first, Indy!” But, who would I say that to?

I do have my own catch phrase, which I try not to say anymore, but  it still slips out of my mouth all the time. “See you folks in church,” or “see you in church.” I didn’t make it up. I saw it said by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm's (Shirley Temple) evil uncle as a sarcastic exit line (just before he stepped on a loose board on the porch and got whacked in the face). I just liked it. Maybe I started off saying it deliberately – that was probably 25 years ago when my daughter was little and loved Shirley Temple movies, and I just can’t remember anymore. But, very quickly, it became a reflex when I'd say good-bye. After a few years, people started saying it to me. Anyway, it would be really cool if just before I made the big leap I could have the strength to say “See you folks in church.” But, then I’d really better die, because I would just look pretty stupid if I didn’t. Yes, I digressed again.

If I remember correctly, the inspiration for me in hell came from my daughter's friend, who I was driving back from a Christian summer camp at which they had spent a week or two. She blithely remarked that if you did not accept Jesus as your personal savior, you have to burn in hell for eternity. Now, I really didn't care what she thought and for all I know she is an atheist now as an adult, but at the time I asked her if that wasn't a little peevish of God. After all, probably a few seconds of roasting in hell and I'd be a believer and apologizing all over the place - why was eternity necessary? She explained, in the most traditional religious fashion, that this was just the way it was and she was sorry.

Christmas in Iceland is the name of the exuberant light show below. I think the squiggly reddish lines are supposed to be Christmas trees. I don't even know if that type of tree grows in Iceland. If they do, I imagine they are green like other such trees, but, it’s art, so I did what I wanted, just like Bob Ross told me I could. And, to be frank, I'm not sure why it has to be Iceland. There's really nothing in the picture to indicate that.

Speaking of Bob Ross, I did take a shot at oil painting with his paint kit about a quarter century ago. I enjoyed his show, but I couldn’t keep up with his speed and just winged it. I literally didn’t understand how to get the paint on a brush when I first tried. I can actually date this experiment to 1990, because I remember the woman I was dating. She painted, and I called her to ask her how to go about it. She was a little surprised but told me. In retrospect, it might seem impossible that I did not know how to do this –  even as I write this I'm thinking how could I not know that? I guess I kind of did, but I was sure the paint would just fall off and needed reassurance.  When I was done painting I tried to clean the brushes for what seemed like forever. After a while I called her back and she told me, no, you don’t have to get every last drop of paint off the brush. Thank God. I was exhausted.

I still have the Bob Ross paintings I did somewhere (I think), but I looked in the attic and couldn’t find them. You will not be surprised that they were not very good. The first one was of a mountain range at a distance. All the mountains looked pretty much exactly the same – again, just like in real life, right? The last of the four paintings I remember doing was a river running through the woods in autumn. As they were real pictures, and not computer files, I never named them, but River running through the woods in autumn would likely be the name of that one. When I showed it to the office one day, every one said some version of “Oh, a road, running through the woods.” Now, a smarter man would have said, “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what it is.” But, I insisted that it was a river, not a road – “See, look at the rocks underneath the transparent water. See. See.” They saw what they saw, and wisely, I lay down my brush for the last time. I don't need to be hit in the face with a loose board to see the light.

And so I remain undiscovered by the art world, perhaps like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, to be discovered later on, when future generations are discovering Bill and Ted’s revolutionary music too.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .