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Retrospectives on Bestsellers

'To Kill a Mockingbird' Turns 50 years old--Still Brilliant

June 21st 2010

Book Topics - To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a magical book. That is the word. From the moment of its publication 50 years ago it radiated magic. To this day you may with confidence place it in the hands of anyone, anywhere, of any age, race or gender and know that if they do not love it, they have missed something transcendent.
The first thing to be said to clarify the magic is that its portrayal of childhood is wonderful. I mean this not as a stock word of praise from an author afraid of blundering stylistically if he writes “magical” again. I mean it literally: Mockingbird captures the wonder of childhood.

Once Scout and Jem befriend the visiting Dill, their familiar world cracks open with a series of delightful fissures caused not by the shattering impact of evil, though it surrounds them, but because it is expanding wonderfully and must do so. They are able to have a series of new adventures undreamed of before it all started yet somehow perfectly natural once they are happening. And this, to me, is one of the outstanding features of a good childhood.

I should interject autobiographically that I was fortunate enough to have a happy childhood including reading many books whose spell never entirely faded. Mockingbird was not among them, and when I first read it in my early 30s I was inclined to add to my very short list of regrets about my life that I didn’t read it as a kid. Try as we might to become again as little children, almost nothing that happens to us as adults seems to have that luminous quality of immanence that pervades a happy childhood, where every day or week may bring some new, unexpected wonder larger and richer than we have yet experienced.

On reflection I’ve changed my mind on that point. Part of the magic of the book for me when I did read it was its uncanny capacity to conjure up overpowering flashes of childhood (including the plan to lay out lemon drops that Boo Radley would follow “like an ant”). I believe I relished these far more for being an adult. Read more ..


Mendoza Against the Deaf

Author Edwin Black to Deliver Lecture on Implications of Eugenics Movement for the Deaf Community

June 14th 2010

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

Edwin Black, the author of numerous books and investigations including War Against the Weak will offer a public lecture in Sacramento CA on the history of the eugenics movement in America on June 15, 2010. Entitled “Eugenics – From California to Auschwitz, Implications for the Deaf Community,” Black will recount the history of a movement that began in the United States but would go on to influence Nazi Germany as it carried out the Holocaust.

In his book War Against the Weak, Black recounted how American corporate philanthropies such as the Carnegie Endowment and Rockefeller Foundation launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing , and helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Adolf Hitler and Josef Mengele, creating the modern movement of "human genetics." With the goal of creating a superior, white, Nordic race by obliterating the viability of all people thought to be “defective,” the eugenics movement sought victims such as the infirm, Jews, African-Americans, brown-haired white people.

Author Black will demonstrate the dangers of this mentality to Americans who hard of hearing in his lecture to be held at the Grand Hall in Sacramento CA. Members of the deaf community are flying in from across California in an event that will be video-streamed live. Questions and answers on a range of issues will be taken internationally. It is the first such event of its kind for the deaf, employing six sign language interpreters and split screen filming.

The diverse coalition of sponsors is led Norcal Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the California Association of Deaf, and is cosponsored by Ohlone College Deaf Studies Division and Gallaudet University Regional Center at Ohlone College in association with the Jewish Federation of Sacramento Region, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Mosaic Law Congregation and the Auto Channel. Additional sponsors include Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, State of California Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance, History Network News, the Institute for Religion and Public Policy, Jewish Virtual Library, and Spero Forum. Read more ..


Movie Review

The Cartel: American Educations Gets Spanked

June 14th 2010

Film - The Cartel

There is one scene in Bob Bowdon's movie, The Cartel, that ought to be required viewing for everyone who has ever voted Democratic, especially if you live in New Jersey. It is the scene of a lottery drawing for places in a Charter School in that state, which pays its teachers and the school administrators with which its educational system is top-heavy more than any other. Mr. Bowdon's camera shows us the faces of the parents and children who have been chosen for the school and the faces of those who have not. Both are in tears, but for the chosen ones, they are tears of joy; for those not chosen, they are tears of despair. "Thank you, God. They have a chance," says one of the lucky mothers who is overwhelmed by her good fortune. Mercifully, Mr. Bowdon allows the faces of those who have missed out on that chance - yet again - to speak for themselves.

This scene is singled out by Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times as being particularly "egregious" in a film that is already what she calls a "bludgeoning rant" and "lousy with ad hominems and emotional coercion." What she describes with sneering irony as "another tiny victim of public school hell" is to her just an example of the film-maker's "emotional coercion" - as if he had managed to find a child actress who could cry on cue instead of turning his camera on a real-life tragedy to which Ms. Catsoulis and others of her political persuasion are determinedly blind. The same must be true of a majority of the voters of New Jersey, who year in and year out, have allowed the vast pool of human misery of which this is just one small indication remain undrained in order that they may go on foolishly over-funding their public schools and the unions that run them for their own profit and convenience and congratulating themselves on their "progressivism" in doing so. Read more ..


Book Review

Choose Your Weapons: Two Centuries of British Foreign Secretaries

June 7th 2010

Book Covers - Choose your weapons

Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary: Two Centuries of Conflict and Personalities. Douglas Hurd. 448 pages. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. February 2010.

In this study of selected foreign secretaries during the last 200 years, Lord Hurd has written a fascinating and thought-provoking book. Indeed, he is better placed to write it in some ways than a professional historian for he has the immeasurable advantage of having been the UK Foreign Secretary – one of the four great offices of state – for six years, between 1989 and 1995. This stint included the fall of the Soviet empire, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the invasion of Kuwait.

First-hand knowledge of “abroad” is coupled with close analysis and a dry, witty prose style, such as the remark that “Britain did not have official diplomatic relations with China. This was because the Emperor of China knew that he was the ruler of the world.” His study has been helped by a bright young history graduate and collaborator, Edward Young. It is not quite clear how much actual writing the latter undertook; he is obviously more than a mere researcher of the kind employed, for example, by Churchill in his written histories, and Hurd generously often refers to “we” when discussing matters of historical debate.

Hurd’s study includes the careers (and brief, entertaining personal biographies) of eleven of his predecessors during the high point of the British Empire, between 1807, soon after the victory at Trafalgar, and 1956, the debacle of Suez. Sometimes contrasting two contemporaries, such as Canning and Lord Castlereagh, Lords Aberdeen and Palmerston, Ernest Bevin and Anthony Eden, he also includes other colourful or intriguing personalities, such as Lord Derby, Lord Salisbury, Sir Edward Grey, Ramsay MacDonald and Austen Chamberlain. Read more ..


Film Review

"Please Give" is an Enjoyable Notion of Modern Ladies

June 7th 2010

Film - Please Give

Please Give. Starrring: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall. Directed by: Nicole Holofcener Produced by: Caroline Jaczko, Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu. 90 minutes.

Once upon a time, it was widely accepted at all levels of American society, at least above the very lowest, that girls should be raised to be what were called "young ladies." Exactly what qualities this category of persons comprised varied along with changes in the wider culture, but so long as young-ladyhood remained a social ideal, it included ideas of sexual modesty coupled with personal and social graces thought to be desirable in attracting and keeping a husband. It was a often a fine line between attractiveness and modesty, but all girls were taught to walk it. 'Tis now more than 40 years since the lady was killed off in an avowedly political act by a new generation of feminists who saw the conventions and manners that went into the ladylike ideal as a form of oppression by an unjust masculine power-elite.

Like most political progressives, the feminists determinedly closed their eyes to any non-oppressive reasons why there might have been ladies in the first place, with the result that post-feminist women, delivered from the old social necessity of being ladies, have often found themselves bemused by the new social necessity of not being ladies. What were they supposed to be instead? Men? Read more ..


Film review

Robin Hood: A Legend is Re-born with Gusto

May 31st 2010

Film - Robin Hood

Robin Hood. Directed by Ridley Scott Starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, and Max von Sydow. 140 minutes.


The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn will always be for my generation, and for many others, the definitive film version of the legend. The Robin Hood (1922) of Douglas Fairbanks, however admirable in its buoyant American hero, pales before the Technicolor glory, then new, of the Warner Brothers production. Hollywood followed by making two films about the sons of Robin, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), starring Cornel Wilde, and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), starring John Derek. It also produced a B version, Prince of Thieves (1948), with Jon Hall in the lead. Everyone loves Robin. Read more ..


Edge on Interfaith Relations

Exhibition of Jewish Manuscript Treasures Reveals Centuries of Cultural Exchange

May 31st 2010

Jewish Topics - Hebrew manuscript

The Jewish Museum of London is launching its first major temporary exhibition since its reopening in March 2010 with an exhibition of Hebrew literary treasures on loan from the Vatican and major British collections. The exhibition will bring together a collection of 27 rare manuscripts, many exquisitely illuminated, including three from the Vatican Library, eight from the British Library, three from Lambeth Palace Library, and eleven from the Bodleian Library. The manuscripts reveal a story of rich cultural exchange, practical cooperation and religious tolerance between Jews and non-Jews in the Muslim and Christian worlds during the Middle Ages and beyond. The exhibtion opens in June and continues until October.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are a richly illuminated 15th century version of the Mishneh Torah, an important Renaissance masterpiece, written in the 12th century by Maimonides, the greatest medieval rabbinical figure. There is also a 9th century midrash  on the book of Leviticus, thought to be the earliest Hebrew document in codex form. These two are both on loan from the Vatican Library. Read more ..


Arts on the Edge

British Singer Elvis Costello Bows to Palestinian demands to Boycott Israel

May 24th 2010

Art Topics - Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello, the British songster who is married to American jazz singer Diana Krall, has decided to join an artists boycott of Israel, having now cancelled two concerts there allegedly in protest at its treatment of Palestinians. Costello had initially said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that he was against such protests. Costello and his new folk band the Sugarcanes were to have had two concerts in Caesarea on June 30 and July 1. Costello and Krall currently reside in New York City. In a highly personal statement, Costello wrote “It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts.”

Costello offered apologies on his website to advance ticket holders while also expressing appreciation to members of Israeli media. Apparently seeking some kind of balance, he said in his statement “I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation.” Read more ..


Book Review

The Referral Engine: How to Make Your Business Market Itself

May 24th 2010

Book Covers - The Referral Engine

The Referral Engine: Teaching Your Business To market Itself. John Jantsch. Portfolio. 233 pages.

I skipped his last book, a bestseller called Duct Tape Marketing, for reasons that are now unclear; perhaps out of loyalty to Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. Regardless, I may have to go back and give it a gander, as John Jantsch's latest is a real gem. Under the guise of developing a system for generating business referrals, the Kansas City, Mo.,-based author also provides coaching on just about every aspect of entrepreneurial enterprise -- but more about that in a bit.

First of all, Jantsch identifies humans' inherent need to refer and recommend. He writes: "We refer to connect with other people. Being recognized as a source of good information, including referrals, is a great way to connect with others. Think about how eagerly you responded the last time someone asked you for directions, offering up your favorite shortcut and tips for avoiding traffic. We all do it. Making referrals is a deeply satisfying way to connect with others -- asking for referrals is just the other side of the same phenomenon. I think the growth of many popular social networks can be traced to the fact that people love to connect and form communities around shared ideas."

In order to have customers refer you to others, you must ensure that you delight them and surpass their expectations. Guys like Guy Kawasaki and Seth Godin have been pounding on that drum forever, but Jantsch updates the pitch quite nicely by adding his own perspective and experiences. Then he invokes using Facebook and Twitter, among other things -- which should be a no-brainer these days, although they're surprisingly absent from many businesses. He also covers stuff like product development and innovation, as well as market differentiation -- all vital elements in today's commoditized marketplace. Read more ..


Book Review

A Vast and Fiendish Plot: An 1860s Training Manual for Modern Terror?

May 17th 2010

Book Covers - A vast and fiendish plot

A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City. Clint Johnson. Citadel. 2010. 320 pp.

This is a digressive, partisan, entertaining and unsettling book. Using an obscure failed 1864 plot to burn down New York City as its backdrop, popular historian Clint Johnson captures the aggrieved mood among die-hard Confederates in the closing months of the Civil War. His work also suggests the ongoing power such attacks on federal authority continue to exert in the imagination of the contemporary Right.

In the first and most fascinating section of A Vast and Fiendish Plot, Johnson traces the arc of what might be termed the romance -- or, perhaps more accurately, the marriage of convenience -- between the antebellum Cotton Kingdom and New York. The city's port facilities, financial infrastructure, and trade relationships made it the linchpin of the Southern economy, and while this interdependency periodically would cause resentment -- Johnson repeatedly cites a statistic that forty cents of every cotton dollar stayed in Manhattan -- the strong economic ties also had political as well as cultural consequences, principal among them a shared investment in slavery.

The New York financial community remained sympathetic to secessionist sentiment for months after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who lost the city by an almost 2-1 margin, and there was talk in some quarters of the city seceding from the Union as well in early 1861. Only with the Confederate decision to attack Fort Sumter in April did this sympathy weaken. (I never understood until I read this book what a political masterstroke it truly was that Lincoln maneuvered the Fire-eaters of Charleston to fire the first shot.) By the end of 1861, it was increasingly becoming clear to the city's finance, manufacturing, and trading elites that joining the Union effort was going to be more lucrative than the slave trade ever was. While antiwar sentiment would continue to run high in the years that followed in some quarters, notably the working classes that erupted in the draft riots of 1863, the breach in the antebellum basis of the relationship would never be re-established. Read more ..


Book Review

The War Comes Home: How America Treats its Veterans

May 10th 2010

Book Covers - The War Comes Home

The War Comes Home: Washington's War Against America's Veterans. Aaron Glantz. University of California Press. 2009. 288 pp.

I once commuted to work on the Long Island Railroad with a neighbor. He had been an Air Force captain during the Vietnam War and one of his jobs in the states was telling people that their family member had been killed or grievously wounded. Tell me more, I asked after he unexpectedly told me about his war when I mentioned I had just published a book about Vietnam combat veterans. I’m sorry I told you that, he answered, adding that he’d never allow his two sons to join the military. The pain of delivering the news of death was too much for him.

Another memory: A laconic and pleasant kid who worked around his father and uncle’s neighboring gas station served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam and was mortally wounded. His parents were at his side when he died in a military hospital in Japan. My onetime student, Ronald, was a shy, not especially athletic African American who tried hard to get good grades. His mother cared for my mother in a nursing home and one day she told me about her dream in which Ronald had been killed in Vietnam. I had once been a soldier and told her to ignore it because most soldiers do make it home. He finally did, but in a casket draped with an American flag. Decades later one of his aunts told me that the family never recovered from Ronald’s death.

All the more reason to read and admire Aaron Glantz’s deeply disturbing and justifiably angry “The War Comes Home,” about our newest crop of wounded soldiers and marines who managed to survive Iraq and Afghanistan. It belongs on the list of books about combat and the incredible damage it inflicts on troops and their families. Read more ..


Book Review

A Worthy Book on a Worthy Leader and Soldier--Harry Truman

May 3rd 2010

Book Covers - Soldier from Independence

The Soldier from Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman. D.M. Giangreco. Zenith. 2009. 304 pages.

The Soldier from Independence is the first of a proposed two-volume study of Harry Truman's military career. An historian and previous editor of Military Review, Giangreco recently published Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947.

Giangreco's book illuminates the combat experience neglected in studies of the thirty-third President of the United States. Truman, captain of an artillery battery of federalized Missouri National Guardsmen, led his unit in World War I.

Twenty-first century soldiers will be struck by the amateurism of the World War I U.S. Army. After enlisting in the Missouri National Guard, Truman was commissioned because he was popular, had run his family's farm, and displayed competency as a construction crew paymaster and bank clerk. 

Truman's work history, despite his lack of military experience, his limited formal education, and eyesight too poor to pass a legitimate physical examination for a commission or enlistment, suggested the intelligence essential to successfully lead men in an increasingly industrialized army. Shortfalls notwithstanding, Truman was a successful staff and line officer. Readers have to decide if the captain's appointment to an important leadership role was an intelligent selection or dumb luck.

When the Missouri Guard was nationalized and sent to training camps, Truman impressed his superiors with his grasp of technical skills necessary to lead an artillery battery and others with his horsemanship in an army reliant on animal power for transportation. Both in the States, and in France, Truman was an ardent student of artillery. It is unlikely that he considered himself undereducated for his Army role.  He did, nonetheless, understand the importance of training for his responsibilities. Read more ..


Film Review

El Secreto de Sus Ojos: Love and Murder in Argentina

April 26th 2010

Film - El Secreto de Sus Ojos

Here’s a question for you. Someone with a glittering eye, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, buttonholes you on your way to a wedding. Like the Ancient Mariner too, he has a fascinating story to tell, and he prefaces it by saying this: “A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion.” Do you believe him? In one way, he himself seems so passionate that you think he ought to know, and the thing does sound sort of profound. Yes, it certainly ought to be true—and, if you stipulate that it is, you get to hear his story whose fascination depends on just this assumption about passion. In fact, without it the story would hardly even make sense. It seems a small price to pay for the satisfaction the story gives you.

Once you manage to tear yourself away from the Mariner and have a moment to reflect, however, you can’t help thinking that that central proposition, this assumption on which all else depends, is nonsense. Passion dies and changes like everything else. Some people don’t have it at all, and for some it is only the thing of a moment, a sudden summer storm that blows up and immediately dissipates. Even those rare souls for whom a particular passion amounts to a lifelong obsession for the most part live their lives pretty much like the rest of us. Unless they associate exclusively with those who share their passion, they have to disguise it in order to avoid being a bore to those around them. At any rate, it must be easier than disguising one’s face.

El Secreto de Sus Ojos, now released here as The Secret in Their Eyes, by Juan José Campanella (Son of the Bride) is just like that Ancient Mariner, and one of its characters, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) says what he says—the thing about unchanging passion. And, lo, while you are listening to him, you may find it easy to believe. I know I did. Read more ..


Book Review

Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization

April 19th 2010

Book Covers - Leading Outside Lines

Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization, Energize Your Team and Get Better Results. Jon R. Katzenbach, Zia Khan. Jossey Bass. 240 pages.

In just about every organization I've worked for or with, I've repeatedly observed a formal hierarchy in place as well as an unofficial group of people who actually get stuff done. They are, more than not, two disparate groups. The somewhat loose confederation of doers, in my experience, tends to respect the authority of those above them on the corporate food chain, while developing and implementing ways to circumvent and subvert them to git 'er done, regardless and in spite of. Sometimes, it's just a slight variation to the table of organization that allows certain obstacles to be avoided and ``impediments to progress'' (to put it politely) to be ignored -- while including them in any necessary e-mail threads, of course.

Though the role of the guerrilla squad of achievers is frequently well known within the organizations, they are often officially disregarded. But I've seen situations where CEOs, VPs and directors often bypass protocol to enlist them in key projects, often to the chagrin of their bosses. I've known several of these stealth commandos, and when asked will admit, immodestly, to having been one.

Katzenbach and Khan look at this phenomenon and attempt to demonstrate ways that these ad hoc, informal groups can be mobilized and engaged. They do so by defining formal structures; that's pretty easy. Then they take a shot at informal ones. They write: ``The informal isn't as easily defined as the formal, because it does not have the clear structural boundaries that the formal has. Its elements often overlap and don't follow the clean principles of `mutually exclusive, comprehensively exhaustive' that analytical thinkers prefer. In essence, the informal is the aggregate of organizational elements that primarily influence behavior through emotional means. And, unlike the formal elements, the informal elements of an organization rarely appear as written instructions. Even so, they can still be identified and named.'' Read more ..


Book Review

The Evolution of Childbirth

April 12th 2010

Book Covers - Let Me Out

Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein. W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. 302 pages.

Birth is a fact of life. But, as Randi Hutter Epstein shows in this breezy but enlightening little book, it's a fact that's been subject to endless interpretation. In a survey that spans from antiquity to the reproductive technologies of the 21st century, Epstein traces the power struggles among men and women to cast birth in their own image of the way life should be.

As often as not, this struggle has been among purists of various kinds and those advocating new forms of technological improvement, with pregnant women in the middle. Epstein succinctly captures the dynamics of such debates in her discussion of foreceps, a device that went from secret innovation to childbirth staple to source of dread over the course of the last few centuries: “Doctors were confident, sometimes overly so. Midwives were worried, sometimes overly so. Women were confused, rightly so.”

One source of this confusion was the sometimes counter-intuitive logic that shaped ideology. At the turn of the century, for example, elite feminists were strong advocates for the use of drugs, often of dubious utility and safety, rather than subjecting women to lengthy, painful, and dangerous labor. Yet this typically meant ceding control of their bodies to experts, almost always men, who often feared bourgeois women were too overcivilized to endure the birth process, and who spoke of them with what we today would regard as a comic degree of cluelessness. (An obstetrician who believed doctors should make decisions about childbirth because a woman “has a head too small for intellect and just big enough for love” typifies the juicy quotes that pepper the book.) Read more ..


Author's Essay

What is the Meaning of Empire?

April 5th 2010

Book Covers - Against Empire

When I wrote my book Against Empire in 1995, as might be expected, some of my U.S. compatriots thought it was wrong of me to call the United States an empire. It was widely believed that U.S. rulers did not pursue empire; they intervened abroad only out of self-defense or for humanitarian rescue operations or to restore order in a troubled region or overthrow tyranny, fight terrorism, and propagate democracy.

But by the year 2000, everyone started talking about the United States as an empire and writing books with titles like Sorrows of Empire, Follies of Empire, Twilight of Empire, or Empire of Illusions—all referring to the United States when they spoke of empire.

Even conservatives started using the word. Amazing. One could hear right-wing pundits announcing on U.S. television, "We're an empire, with all the responsibilities and opportunities of empire and we better get used to it"; and "We are the strongest nation in the world and have every right to act as such"—as if having the power gives U.S. leaders an inherent entitlement to exercise it upon others as they might wish.

What is going on here?" I asked myself at the time. How is it that so many people feel free to talk about empire when they mean a United States empire? The ideological orthodoxy had always been that, unlike other countries, the USA did not indulge in colonization and conquest.

The answer, I realized, is that the word has been divested of its full meaning. "Empire" seems nowadays to mean simply dominion and control. Empire—for most of these late-coming critics—is concerned almost exclusively with power and prestige. What is usually missing from the public discourse is the process of empire and its politico-economic content. In other words, while we hear a lot about empire, we hear very little about imperialism. Read more ..


Book Review

Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business Has Quite a Tug

March 29th 2010

Book Covers - Pull

Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business. David Siegel. Portfolio. 288 pages.

Because an e-mail address accompanies my reviews, I often get interesting notes from diverse individuals and groups. My Spanish is limited mainly to menu items, so most missives in that language go unread. Political screeds and PR pitches to review chick lit, religious tracts and teen adventure novels get similar treatment, as do political essays clearly intended for the op/ed desk.

I did, however, happen to read one the other day from a very frightened guy who was convinced that chips were being surgically implanted in individuals' skulls (in Ohio, no less) and that these procedures were sanctioned by the government. Presumably, there was something to be gained from doing this, but what was not clear.

Then there's the scholar I know who tells me that when he collaborates with researchers and assistants around the globe, he avoids Google and its array of applications, including Gmail. He wonders who Google really is and what they are going to do with all the information they gather. (Sell more ads, perhaps?)

I hadn't thought much about these things before I read David Siegel's rather enthralling new book but now have been reflecting upon them. The idea that data will be free and open, and that by becoming so, commerce will ensue is pretty exciting. It also seems like a naive notion, and unbelievably Utopian. But worry not! Microchips need not be slipped into our skulls to be efficacious. Not yet, anyway.

If all the information that's floating around (or remains earthbound) is electronically tagged in ways that can be detected, collected and inspected, Siegel says that we will all benefit. It's not solely a commercial breakthrough, though that's a big part of it. This semantic web will make the current online (and offline) world seem primitive. Instead of information, products and services being pushed to us by providers, we will be pulling it, as customers. Read more ..


Book Review

Love and Race in the Early 20th Century

March 22nd 2010

Book Covers - Rising Road

Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America by Sharon Davies. Oxford University Press, 2010. 368 pages.

This gripping story, ably reconstructed by Ohio State law professor Sharon Davies, has all the makings of a Hollywood movie. The facts are clear enough. In August of 1921, a hack Methodist minister named Edwin Stephenson (a hack because his credentials were dubious, he lacked a pulpit, and loitered at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama to marry couples for a living) shot and killed a Roman Catholic priest named James Coyle in broad daylight and in front of numerous witnesses. The reason? Hours before, Father Coyle had married Stephenson's eighteen-year old daughter Ruth, a convert to Catholicism, to a 42 year old Puerto Rican native named Pedro Gussman.

In many contemporary legal thrillers, one is typically presented with a person falsely, but understandably, accused of a crime, dependent on the gifted detective or attorney to finally show that appearances are deceiving. In this case, though, the drama comes from reading to discover how far bigots are willing go to set a guilty man free, and whether their enablers will condone the triumph of evil. One of those enablers was Hugo Black, a future Supreme Court justice known for his support of racial integration in the Civil Rights era, who defended Stephenson and joined the Ku Klux Klan prior to his election to the U.S. Senate in 1925. This is one a number of twists in this story—the outcome of which won't be revealed in this review. Read more ..


Book Review

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India: Whither the Sub-Continent?

March 15th 2010

Book Covers - Nine Lives

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple. Bloomsbury 2009. 302 pages. 

Rudyard Kipling, best-known of all the chroniclers of Empire, wrote when India was still the largest jewel in the British crown, “Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Having read this fascinating book, I am inclined to agree with him. William Dalrymple, a modern-day writer and observer of India, who lives outside Delhi, sets out to discover just what makes the sub-continent still so different from the West—or, more accurately, the “Anglosphere”. In this task he makes no judgments and comes to no conclusions; he simply allows selected Indian voices speak for themselves.

From a Western perspective, India is the country which is soon to overtake Japan as the third largest economy in the world. Yet only 20 minutes’ distance from the Microsoft Indian headquarters, cars have largely given way to camels and bullocks, the immemorial form of transport. This discrepancy was further highlighted for the author when he happened to meet up with a sanyasi (wanderer). To his surprise he found that this man had an MBA and a high-flying career in marketing, yet chose to give it all up to become a wandering, naked sadhu. He told Dalrymple he could not face selling fridges any more so “I gave away my belongings to the poor... threw away my suit, rubbed ash on my body, and found a monastery.”

Wondering how common such a dramatic gesture might be, Dalrymple went in search of nine different people who had either turned their backs on ordinary life, like the sadhu referred to, or who had stayed loyal to an ancient familial or tribal tradition of semi-mystical entertainment. Among them are a Jain nun, a dancer, a temple prostitute, a hereditary singer of epics, a blind minstrel and a craftsman of idols to be used for worship. Some, such as the dancer or the temple prostitute, are from the poor, Dalit (untouchable) caste so that it could be argued that their calling gives them a social status they would not otherwise have. This is not a sufficient answer. It would be more accurate to say that they followed a family profession into a world they regard as at least half-divine and which they believe gives a transcendental dimension to their lives. Read more ..


Film Review

Jeff Bridges Excels in Crazy Heart

March 8th 2010

Film - Crazy Heart

Nothing compares to the life of the touring musician, does it? ‘Life on the open road’, ‘the wind in your hair’, ‘the feel of the white desert sun beating down against your face.’ Ah… yes there’s nothing quite like the all too familiar loneliness of the lifeless highway after a ten hour drive. Playing a show to five hairless couples in a bowling alley for pittance. The glamour! The splendour! Still, for all its pitfalls this is the life that country musician and the film’s protagonist, ‘Bad’ Blake has chosen or rather one that he has found himself thrust into.

Based on the Thomas Cobb novel of the same name, Crazy Heart looks at the breakdown of an ‘old successful’ in much the same way Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler did. Whilst the film does not allude to one specific country musician, director Scott Cooper said that beardy types such as Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard all presented themselves as sources of inspiration for the film. Through the construction of  ‘Bad’ Blake, Cooper cleverly avoids committing to any one figure in particular, thus avoiding the backlash so prevalent within musical biopics. Instead, Cooper creates his own fictitious musicians living out their own dreams and dramas.

Blake, played by Jeff Bridges, is a country musician with a taste for alcohol and women. Whilst we aren’t really shown where he went wrong (apart from his four failed marriages of course) one can only imagine he spent his wealth on ladies and whiskey and then squandered the rest. We watch as world-weary Blake barely holds himself together, spitting bilious curds at his manager because of his current state of affairs. Read more ..


Book Review

The Battle of Ole Miss Tightly and Tensely Retold

March 8th 2010

Book Covers - Battle of Ole Miss

The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights v. States’ Rights. Frank Lambert. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Sometimes history turns a corner, and nobody notices. But such was certainly not the case in the fall of 1962, when James Meredith’s ultimately successful integration of the University of Mississippi involved a showdown between state and federal authorities, an on-campus riot featuring tear gas and gunfire, the presence of federal marshals and then federal troops, two fatalities and dozens injured. For a variety of reasons, the whole world was watching as President John Kennedy and Governor Ross Barnett jockeyed for position. The stakes for Meredith himself, the Kennedy administration, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and the South’s diehard segregationists couldn’t have been higher.

Yet today, almost 50 years later, the event is usually relegated to a paragraph or two in history textbooks, and although there have been some fine journalistic accounts—William Doyle’s “An American Insurrection” (2001) is probably the best—it has received relatively little scholarly attention. Until the last year or so, that is. In 2009, Charles Eagles, a historian at the University of Mississippi, published “The Price of Defiance,” a lengthy, detailed, authoritative account. Now Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, offers up a narrative of fewer than 180 pages that is, he says, “written primarily for students.” A part of Oxford’s series on “Critical Historical Encounters,” it is well suited for classroom use and should enable instructors to bring Meredith’s story to the center of the civil rights discussion. Read more ..


Book Review

Michael Marrus Falters Badly in Some Measure of Justice

March 1st 2010

Book Covers - Some Measure of Justice

Some Measure of Justice—The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s. Michael Marrus. University of Wisconsin Press, October 2009. 184 pages.

Few would have been more receptive than I to the latest volume by Michael Marrus entitled Some Measure of Justice -- The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s. I have enormous respect for Professor Marrus who is clearly one of the world’s most talented Holocaust historians. Robert A. Paxton, Marrus’s coauthor in the book Vichy France and the Jews, was one of four leading historians to vet my own work, IBM and the Holocaust, and was acknowledged by me in my book. Like many, I have been troubled by the chaotic mess of Holocaust restitution and I authored a syndicated article for the New York Jewish Week and other Jewish newspapers headlined "Holocaust ‘Industry’ More About Money Than Memory." Moreover, I am fully versed in the war-time crimes and collaboration of such companies as IBM, GM, Ford, the Swiss banks, and the leading Holocaust-era insurance companies, all of which knowingly helped Hitler pauperize the Jews, systematize the persecution, and consciously helped empower the Third Reich’s war against humanity.

In my opinion, Marrus’s misguided volume seems to be so filled with selective facts and misplaced emphasis that the text creates a totally wrong impression and historical insight into this important topic. Marrus’s five-chapter volume, consisting of 127 pages plus front and back matter, displays no archival references or other primary documentation. Instead, I see a selective collage of secondary and tertiary opinions, journal articles, newspaper reports, essays, and editorials attributed to other thinkers and writers who are struggling with the difficult subject of Holocaust restitution. How Marrus arranges these second-hand and third-hand assessments can be troubling.  Read more ..


Film Essay

'Inglourious Basterds' Should Be Recognized With an Academy Award

March 1st 2010

Contributors / Staff - Abraham Foxman Color cropped
Abraham Foxman

Today it seems that films about the Holocaust and events surrounding it abound. Almost with a bizarre regularity they reach the big screen in twos or threes. They are made by major Hollywood studios and independents; they feature known and unknown actors. Most attempt to dramatize "true" events. It is hard to imagine there was a time when it was not so.

For many years after the end of World War II and the truth became known about the Final Solution it was a subject most filmmakers avoided. The horrors of the Holocaust were still too raw; the images seen in newsreels not yet ready to be placed on the big screen. Several Holocaust films that were made and had a profound impact, including The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971), told their stories through words rather than images of the horror.

As the number of survivors and witnesses dwindled and we moved farther away from the Holocaust one filmmaker conceived of how to have an audience understand the history through dramatization. The filmmaker was Steven Spielberg; the film was Schindler's List, winner of seven Academy Awards, seen by millions and used as a teaching tool since it appeared in 1993.

After Spielberg's incredible portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust one might have thought that the subject was exhausted for filmmakers. How else could they produce an account of the Holocaust in a way that had not been done before, through a story to which new and younger audiences could relate? Read more ..


Book Review

Customer Service Key to Building Business

February 22nd 2010

Book Covers - Flip the Funnel

Flip the Funnel: How to Use Existing Customers to Gain New Ones. Joseph Jaffe. Wiley, 2010. 286 pages.

It's bizarre and baffling to me that companies expend so much time, money and energy on customer acquisition and then follow it up with crappy service after the sale.

Think about it: Advertising, marketing, and sales departments are all geared toward convincing prospects to buy the company's products and services. But after asking for the order and getting it, the customer—especially if it's a consumer and not a business—is often ignored. Worse, they're frequently forced to deal with incompetent, unhelpful, or ignorant people several continents away when they have a problem.

There's nothing inherently wrong with outsourcing customer service to India or South America. For example, I've had exceptional service, in fact, from friendly and well informed people in those places. But I've had also awful ones, too. Every interaction with a customer holds the potential to not only serve their needs, but turn them into evangelists and advocates for your company and continued sources of sales and revenue. So why is this not obvious to every enterprise?

Joseph Jaffe wonders the same thing. In this new book, he looks at every aspect of the client experience, including, obviously, “customer service” interactions. But he goes well beyond that, too. Engaging people is the challenge. Your product is secondary. After all, they're not buying what you're selling; they're buying a solution to a problem or a fulfillment of a need. Read more ..


Book Review

Controversially Documenting “The Cartoons That Shook the World”

February 15th 2010

Book Covers - The Cartoons that Shook the World

The Cartoons That Shook the World. Jytte Klausen. Yale University Press, 2009. 240 pages.

“What are you reading?” my 8-year-old daughter asked me as I sat with Jytte Klausen's The Cartoons That Shook the World on my lap. “A book about cartoons,” I said. She looked at me, puzzled, and asked, “Where are the cartoons? What a strange book.”

Strange, indeed. Even before it was published, Klausen's history and analysis of the Danish cartoon crisis was big news because, in its wisdom, Yale University Press (YUP) had decided that the cartoons in question, the primary documents on which the book rests, were too inflammatory to include.

In its desire to err on the side of caution, YUP has caused irreparable harm not only to the text itself, but also to academic discourse as a whole. In its “Publisher's Statement,” YUP claims that it is “an institution deeply committed to free speech.” But that depth is apparently not too profound. If the editors were too frightened to publish the book, they should have passed on it. As for the author, Klausen claims on her Web site that she wanted the cartoons included. But if that were true, she would have been wise to have given YUP the boot and to have taken her book to a publisher that has some backbone and academic integrity.

In lieu of actually showing the images, Klausen provides prose descriptions of the cartoons that are decent enough, but simply don't do them justice. That the book doesn't include images of its very topic is, quite simply, ridiculous, and even she admitted in an interview last year that this presents a “significant loss to the reader.” Yet perhaps part of the reason she so easily jettisoned the images may have something to do with the fact that she is less interested in the cartoons themselves than in the events surrounding them. Understandable, perhaps, but problematic, because the reader is never informed of the roles of cartoons or images in either the Danish or various Islamic societies in which reactions took place. It's a component of the story that the book completely ignores. Read more ..


Book Review

Looking Out at the New Power Brokers

February 8th 2010

Book Covers - End of Influence

The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money. Brad DeLong, Stephen S. Cohen. Basic Books. 176 pages.

I've long thought that the best advice one can give a youngster seeking success in the business world is to learn Chinese. Our pals in Beijing and Shanghai hold serious paper on us (``Us, U.S.,'' as Paul Harvey used to say) and they can wreak terminal havoc upon America, its institutions and infrastructure, if and when they chose. But it's not really in their best interests to ask us to ante up and watch us turn our pockets inside out, show our empty hands and shrug.

Why?

Cohen and DeLong invoke the quote, ``If you owe the bank $1 million, the bank has you; if you owe $1 billion, you have the bank,'' then spend much of the rest of the book explaining why and how it's true. Along the way, they discuss the failure of neoliberalism, which sought to transfer portions of the control of the economy from the public to the private sector, skewer former Fed head Alan Greenspan, and describe with palpable awe the pandemic failure to oversee credit and banking in the United States and the major role it played -- and continues to play -- in our ongoing economic meltdown. The rampant corruption of the political system is also calmly recounted as a powerful catalyst for this dissolution and dispersal of American wealth.

Though both authors are academics, they're rather decent writers; DeLong is also a blogger, see http://delong.typepad.com who struggles online daily to make sense of various economic effluvia and ephemera with a combination of alacrity, disgust and amusement. But this book is far from a knee-slapper and unlikely to be chosen by Ms. Winfrey for her book club. Read more ..


Book Review

Brutal Story of the Bataan Death March Told Excellently

February 1st 2010

Book Covers - Tears in the Dark

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath. Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman's. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009.

For Americans old enough to remember 1941-2 when the Japanese took control of the Philippine Islands—that economic and strategic prize seized by the United States in an imperial war of conquest---the depressing events of those years are hard to forget. Despite the many thousands killed and maimed, Japanese war crimes, the eventual U.S. reconquest of the islands and the vengeful, perhaps even legally questionable, execution of the two top Japanese commanders, the brutal era is captured in this engrossing history of the Bataan Death March, grounded in large part on the experience of Ben Steele, a death march survivor and Montana artist, whose impressive sketches of his years as a prisoner are scattered throughout the book.

Michael Norman, a Marine combat Vietnam veteran, previously wrote the impressive and moving These Good Men: Friendships Forged from War. Elizabeth, his wife, is the author of two striking accounts of military nurses, We Band of Angels, about the women captured on Bataan, and Vietnam’s nurses in Women at War. Both now teach at New York University.

Before the Japanese attacked, thousands of Americans, civilian and military, lived lives of colonial tropical ease. At the summit sat the imperious, egomaniacal, proconsul General Douglas MacArthur, for whom the authors reveal a deep distaste for his military blunders long hidden from worshipful wartime Americans desperate for heroes. Read more ..


Book Review

Haiti's Legacy of Freedom to the World

January 25th 2010

Book Covers - African Americans and the Haitian Revolution

African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents. Maurice Jackson and Jacqueline Bacon. Routledge publishers. 2009. 272 pages.

Scholars as well as religious and political leaders have rightly condemned Pat Robertson’s racist and absurd claim that the recent earthquake in Haiti was punishment because the Haitian people “swore a pact to the devil” during their revolution in the 1790s to gain freedom from the French.  It has been ably noted not only that Robertson’s remarks were bigoted and heartless but also that the “history” he alluded to was a crude misrepresentation. 

But beneath the surface of Robertson’s remarks there is another underlying assumption, one both racist and ingrained in conventional American lore.  In his bizarre and merciless condemnation of the Haitian Revolution, Robertson perpetuates an unfortunately all-too-common historical myth:  that black people are incapable of freeing themselves, and must rely on outside forces to “save” them.

This illusion has long been promulgated in popular culture and historical texts, from the representations of abolitionist leaders as white men to the white saviors of Mississippi Burning.  The reality is in fact quite different—African Americans were the primary founders and innovators of antislavery activism in the United States and the architects of the Civil Rights struggle—but the misconception endures. 

Within scholarly circles, many historians have finally begun to attend to the important work done by African-American scholars such as Carter G. Woodson, John Hope Franklin, and Nathan Huggins, but cherished myths die hard.  Claims that white abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison “started” the abolition movement and influenced the thinking of his black colleagues (when in fact it was the other way around) can be found in books published in the last decade.  It’s not difficult to figure out what is at play here and why these narratives persist:  white supremacy depends upon the notion that freedom and rights, when attained, are “granted” to blacks by benevolent whites, who then can distance themselves from their racist history through their purported efforts at salvation. Read more ..


Book Review

Altered States and Ordinary Miracles in Africa Still Dazzle

January 18th 2010

Book Covers - Altered States

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden. Public Affairs. 2009. 592 pages.

Few people come here, writes Richard Dowden, former Africa editor of The Economist, even though it’s only a few hours from Europe. The visitors are package tourists, back-packers, aid workers, multi-national CEOs and international civil servants. They seldom stay long. But when they do they’re often surprised by Africa’s welcome, entranced rather than frightened, because its people are friendly, gentle and infinitely polite. They have a natural ability for social skills; they look you in the eye and empathize, share and accept from others without twitchy self-consciousness.

Africa is big and dazzlingly beautiful. Outsiders lose inhibitions and feel more themselves here. The essentials of existence—light, water, food, birth, family and death—are more immediate and more intense. Visitors suddenly understand what life is about: the richness of humanity, of other people.

This positive scenario is counterbalanced by the hell of poverty, famine, disease, war, corruption and chaos in countries like Zimbabwe, Somalia and Darfur. "Africa just can’t get its act together," mutter newspaper readers in London and New York.

But as Dowden wryly points out, it’s in the media’s interest to keep Africa backward, as it is for the aid agencies too, and the arms manufacturers. A Nigerian journalist tells him: "Yes, Nigeria is chaos. But the chaos is created by the government. Chaos allows it to stay in power." And so for much of the continent. Read more ..


Book Review

A Hard Look at Scientific Fact

January 11th 2010

Book Covers - What Science Knows

What Science Knows And How It Knows It. James Franklin. Encounter Books. 2009. 200 pp.

In What Science knows and how it knows it James Franklin presents us with a defense of reality and common sense against the attempt by post-modernists to dismiss science as just another form of colonial, white male oppression. Irrationalists love to pepper their works with quotation marks around such success terms as “facts” or “proof” as a way of downplaying their value.

A few moments of reflection are sufficient to show that post-modernist skepticism is as dim-witted as the liberation group in Monty Python railing against the Romans: ‘what has science ever done for us? Nuffing!’ ‘Well, there is penicillin, adult stem cell cures, the Internet, awareness of the importance of eco-systems and biodiversity, a tripling of the average life span...’

Science is not Voodoo. Science is a systematic practice that leads to knowledge about the world, much of which seems pretty straightforward once it has been pointed out to you. Theses like ‘sex can lead to conception’ or ‘the blood of animals circulates’ were not always known among our ancestors but they can be easily tested and are not about to be falsified.

The rationality of science rests on the validity of induction and thus on probabilities rather than metaphysical certainties. If the sun has risen everyday in the past, and no blackhole is in the vicinity, it’s a safe bet that it will rise again tomorrow too. An analysis of π’s first million decimals reveals randomness.

Read more ..

Authors on Tour

Edwin Black in Atlanta for Nazi Nexus Book and War Against the Weak Film

January 11th 2010

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

Award-winning author Edwin Black – author of  War Against the Weak, IBM and the Holocaust, and other groundbreaking works of investigation, will appear on January 12 in Atlanta GA to speak about his latest book Nazi Nexus. Black will appear at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Atlanta. The event is cosponsored by Congregation Beth Tefillah, Ahavath Achim Synagogue and the Hebrew Order of David in association with the Georgia Holocaust Commission.

Nazi Nexus links five major American corporate entities in direct and pivotal complicity with the horror of Nazi genocide. Corporations working to advance Adolf Hitler’s murderous racial policies and military conquest were household names in the United States: Ford Motor Co., General Motors, the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and IBM. A review in the Miami Herald called the book “powerful and astounding.” Black has given lectures on Nazi Nexus at dozens of campuses, synagogues and resource centers since its 2009 release, and has published on the topic extensively. Echoing other reviewers, Michael Hirsch of Newsweek called the research “Stunning.”

Following his appearance, the award-winning film War Against the Weak, based on Black’s bestseller of the same name, will be screened at Lefont Theater in Sandy Springs, GA on two dates: January 17 and January 20, 2010,. The film by director Justin Strawhand, reviewed as “chilling,” has already won numerous awards including Best Feature Film at 2009 Beverly Hills Film Festival and Best Documentary at the 2009 New Jersey Film Festival. Black will not be in attendance at the screenings; but in an Atlanta Jewish Times interview, Black described the film as “factual to a fault.” Read more ..


Book Review

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian Witness of the Holocaust

January 4th 2010

Book Covers - Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906-1945 by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. T & T Clark. 432 pages.

There is something about the history of Germany before and during the last War that continues to haunt us. Perhaps it is the spectacle of a highly civilised, modern European nation destroying itself; perhaps is it because the choice between good and evil was so stark. The life of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplifies both aspects; he came from a cultured and musical family which also chose - unlike the Wagner clan at Bayreuth, for instance – the painful road of opposition to National Socialism.

The author of this new biography understands this Kulturkampf from within. Not only is he the son of a pastor from the German Confessing Church but he was also a close friend of Eberhard Bethge. It was Bethge who, rather as Robert Bridges did with the poetic legacy of his friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins, preserved the posthumous writings of Bonhoeffer, brought them to international attention and wrote the first important biography.

In this book Schlingensiepen touches on the development of Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas only as they impinge on his life; he does not try to place his subject within 20th century Lutheran scholarship, so much as bring sympathetic insight to the man and to his milieu. His subtitle is "Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance."

Bonhoeffer himself would have considered them as one: his Christian beliefs made him resist Nazism and this resistance ended in his execution. Born in 1906 to a professor of psychiatry in Berlin and one of eight children who all excelled academically, he surprised his non church-going family by announcing aged 14 that he wanted to study theology. At first this was an intellectual pursuit; the brilliant and highly ambitious student early made a name for himself in Lutheran academic circles. Nonetheless, in his first sermon he stated "Christianity entails decision" – an indication that he recognised that being a Christian would affect the way one lived. For him the statement was to prove prophetic. Read more ..


Book Review

Is Alcohol the Future of Fuel?

December 28th 2009

Book Covers - Alcohol Can Be a Gas

Alcohol Can Be a Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century. David Blume. International Institute for Ecological Agriculture. 2007. 640 pages.

In his revised edition of Alcohol Can Be A Gas, David Blume provides an accurate, comprehensive case for the effective use of alcohol as a liquid fuel source. This book is far more than a survey of the basic issues surrounding ethanol. Organized as six books in one, the compendium presents Blume's vision for national utilization of alcohol as a solution to the nation's desire for transport fuels. It describes the business and economics of alcohol: how to make alcohol, alcohol co-products and how to use them to enhance products, and how to use alcohol as a fuel. The breadth and depth of information and the perspective that Blume brings to the work make this volume the definitive work on the subject of producing, selling, and using alcohol and its by-products. Assertions are backed by extensive references and solid science. Blume typically cites official government and academic sources.

Blume's insistence on “designing farming as a method of harvesting solar energy for multiple uses” (p.31) takes the book beyond single-issue thinking and offers integrated solutions to the challenges facing those seeking to grow food, produce and use liquid fuels, treat sewage, and more. The discussion in Chapter 3 provides a stand-alone manual on how to do farming right.

Blume's analysis refutes the old myth that alcohol production detracts from growing food. He also dispenses with the inaccurate assertions that alcohol production necessarily requires more energy than is obtained; that there isn't enough arable land; that it's ecologically unsound; that making alcohol takes away from food crops; that alcohol negatively impacts global warming; and more. Read more ..


Book Review

Poisoned Wells in Africa Make for Dirty Politics

December 21st 2009

Book Covers - Poisoned Wells

Poisoned Wells. The Dirty Politics of African Oil. Nicholas Shaxson. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. 280 pages. 

“Oil,” wrote Ryszard Kapuscinski, “is a great temptation… the temptation of ease, strength, fortune, power…wealth achieved through lucky accident…” We know too that oil can be a curse; world politics and dirty deals centre on oil. A country where oil is found in large quantities is much more prone to conflict, and extremes of opulence and stinking, violent poverty. In “Poisoned Wells,” Nicholas Shaxson, zeroes in on the politics of oil along the West African coast-line, from Angola to the Niger Delta. It is a bumpy ride with plenty of pot-holes and nasty shocks along the way.

In 2005 the United States imported more oil from the Gulf of Guinea than from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. West African oil is in special demand: it is “light” and “sweet,” ideal for refining into motor fuels. Most of the region’s oil is off-shore, so that wars on the mainland can go on undisturbed –as happened in Angola, for example; and there are no pirates, no Suez Canal to prevent the transporting ships making a quick dash for America and Europe.

The author’s research, he says, taught him that the oil trade is about information; whoever knows the most makes the most money. Because of the complexity of the energy markets and their secrecy, transparency is difficult and corruption abounds. It’s everyone for himself. Read more ..


The Ancient Edge

Robbing the Cradle

December 14th 2009

Book Covers - Banking on Baghdad

This article is based on the Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog Press). Buy it here

Mesopotamia—now known as Iraq--enjoyed a 2,000-year head start on Western civilization. What happened?

Part of the answer lays millennia before our current turbulent times. Understanding this pivotal land and its peoples is necessary.

A single ancient people did not monopolize the historic territory between the Tigris and the Euphrates to create one cohesive, shining civilization as a beacon to others. Mesopotamia was in fact a diverse, often contentious, network of competing city-states. At different times, in different centuries BCE, cities such as Uruk, Lagash, and Eridu in the south, and Kish, Nippur, and Sippar in the midsection, as well as Assur, Nineveh, and Nimrud in the north, each flourished and made their mark. These city-states were ruled by their own kings, developed their own gods and cults, spoke their own languages and dialects, and manifested their own distinctive cultures.

A succession of disparate groups came from near and far to conquer the developing prize of Mesopotamia, and each conqueror was in turn conquered. The Semitic Akkadians arose among the original Sumerians, for whom Sumer was named. In the third millennium BCE, the Akkadian king Sargon created history’s first “empire,” extending his political reign, military dominance, and commercial primacy from western Persia, through Syria, to what is now eastern Turkey. But Sargon’s almost 150-year dynasty was overrun by the Guti mountain people. The Guti ruled until the Sumerians regained supremacy, only to be succeeded by Amorites from the west, and then the Elamites from the Zagros Mountains. Other invaders included the Indo-European Hittites from Anatolia and the obscure Hurrians and Kassites.

These invading and pervading groups destroyed and built up the city-states between the two rivers, as well as those in surrounding lands. During Mesopotamia’s golden millennia, each of these dynasties and empires, no matter how transient, purloined or planted something valuable, advancing the ever more complex culture growing atop the ancient Sumerian foundation. Over 3,000 years—perhaps 120 generations—the region became not a cradle but a veritable engine of civilization, energizing the entire Fertile Crescent, that is, the lands from the Nile Valley up through Palestine and Syria into the Tigris-Euphrates valley and beyond. Read more ..


Book Review

Chaos Scenario is a Forewarning to All

December 14th 2009

Book Covers - Chaos Scenario

The Chaos Scenario. Bob Garfield. Stielstra Publishing. 294 pages.

When advertiser-supported media -- print, broadcast, online, whatever -- cease to exist as audiences shrink below the critical mass needed by businesses to justify placing advertising therein, it's what Advertising Age columnist and NPR host Bob Garfield calls ``The Chaos Scenario.''

He began documenting this meltdown in 2005 with a column that engendered widespread industry hysterics. The book took all this time to write, he said, because the chaos was ongoing and accelerating. But he told me at the Miami Book Fair International that he was compelled to write this. Driven. This was something that needed saying.

If he'd managed to do it quickly, this book would have been even more explosive and mind-blowing, four years ago. Now, his tour of the emerging media-less landscape is slightly less shocking. Most mavens and everyone else already know what's ahead and take Facebook, Twitter, blogs, social networking, crowdsourcing and all that other Googlely stuff pretty much for granted.

But Garfield's take remains invaluable and is still quite timely, even urgent. Major components of the scenarios he describes are still unfolding. For example, Jay Leno's nightly TV chat show is a direct result of NBC's plummeting ratings and the relatively low cost of producing that show compared to (more or less) original dramatic presentations. Daily newspapers' diminishing circulation numbers have publishing execs considering patently suicidal tactics like charging for online access or withholding content from the great god, Google. (Good luck with that one, Rupert!) Read more ..


Book Review

The Neglected Art of Diplomacy or Jaw-Jaw instead of War-War

December 7th 2009

Book Covers - The Atlantic Century

The Atlantic Century: Four Generations of Extraordinary Diplomats who Forged America's Vital Alliance with Europe. Kenneth Weisbrode. DaCapo Press. 2009.

It has become a commonplace that the post-Bush era is one of the unclenched fist. Gone are the days of military “cakewalks,” shock and awe. George W. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, repeatedly urges jaw-jaw over war-war.

The notion that diplomacy and the use of force are alternative “tools of national power” or, at worst, mutually exclusive policies, ought to seem absurd. But this is the legacy, not only of the Bush years, but also, I'd argue, of the Vietnam War and the strains it placed upon officialdom. An generation of American leaders has been brought up with a kind of Manicheanism: to some, bombs are the necessary catalysts to negotiation; to others, bombs are just evil. To only just a few traditionalists, it seems, dropping bombs represents a diplomatic failure, however necessary it may be as a last resort.

Such reductionism in foreign policy thinking is compounded by the periodic rivalries between the State and Defense Departments (and the White House), and the widespread but bizarre perception that negotiations (and “diplomacy” itself) are the weapons of the weak. Obama has rightly ridiculed the perception. But he will need to show some results for his critique to take hold. He won’t get those results if his diplomacy continues to be as tentative and under-managed as it has been to date.

This is hardly his fault. The machinery of American diplomacy warped much during the past few decades; dozens of departments, agencies and now increasingly non- or quasi-governmental organizations exercise roles that, once upon a time, fell under the purview of the State Department. Even within the department, many of the top positions are held by outside appointees instead of by professionals who have come up through the ranks. "Functional" expertise continues to outpace local and regional knowledge in career advancement. Read more ..


Book Review

What's Wrong with the World's Leading Media Companies?

November 30th 2009

Book Covers - The Curse of the Mogul

The Curse of the Mogul: What's Wrong with the World's Leading Media Companies. Jonathan A. Knee, Bruce C. Greenwald, Ava Seave. Portfolio. 320 pages.

The first word that you usually hear when seemingly disparate corporate entities unite is ``synergy,'' but the authors of this new book demonstrate that there usually isn't much of that after the fact.

Early in The Curse of the Mogul, the authors cite a full-page ad by Vivendi Chairman Jean-Marie Messier published upon that media conglomerate's acquisition of venerable publisher Houghton Mifflin. The Frenchman mused about the new opportunities that were going to emerge, including a movie featuring Curious George, the venerable kid lit character whose exploits were published by Houghton Mifflin. That Messier was blissfully unaware that such a project was already underway, and seemingly clueless, as well, about the general nature of intellectual property, served as apt foreshadowing of the disaster ahead.

But most of new media clusters were illogical amalgamations to begin with. And clumsy execution guaranteed their failure, even with the best of intentions. Inevitably, the value of the properties quickly bled out. For example, the following passage, although a bit clunky, thoroughly describes the numerous flaws of the Time Warner/AOL merger and how it all unraveled:

``Time Warner announced in May that it plans to spin off its AOL division by year end. The new AOL's value will likely be barely 1 percent of the market price of the inflated stock that Time Warner accepted in the original $175 billion merger almost a decade ago -- despite the inclusion of numerous subsequent expensive add-on acquisitions. While extreme, the Time Warner-AOL combination was no aberration. The deal represents less than half the financial damage done during an unprecedented era of excess in the media business. Since 2000, the largest media conglomerates have collectively written down more than $200 billion in assets, a record that would make even Citigroup blush. These write-downs reflect a broad-based legacy of value destruction from relentlessly overpriced acquisitions, `strategic' investments and contracts for content and talent.'' Read more ..


Book Reviews

I am Justice: A Journey out of Africa

November 23rd 2009

Book Covers - I Am Justice 2

I am Justice: A Journey out of Africa. Paul Kenyon. Preface (Random House). 2009. 256 pages.

A new book, “I am Justice. A journey out of Africa”, by BBC tele-journalist, Paul Kenyon, highlights the precarious plight of migrants from West and Central Africa to Europe. While no unemployed Kenyan, Tanzanian or Ugandan would think of making his way to Libya over land as the first stage of migration to Europe, that’s what hundreds of thousands of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Congolese, Ivorians, and men from Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Central African Republic do every year.

They make two crossings: first of the Sahara Desert, which begins in Niger. If they manage that, and reach Tripoli safely they plan the next stage: crossing the Mediterranean, by boat. Their dream? To reach Sweden, where there’s work and a generous welfare system, or Britain where they can meet plenty of their own people, land a job, talk soccer all day, and perhaps get Wayne Rooney’s autograph.

According to the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) at this moment between 750,000 and one million African migrants, mostly young men, are waiting on the Libyan coast for a passage to Italy. May–June is the time of bright, calm weather after the storms of the northern spring, and the people-smuggling business starts another season. Hundreds of thousands more will be waiting hundreds of miles to the west, mainly from Senegal, to take the shorter passage to mainland Spain or the longer one to the Canary Islands. Read more ..


Book Review

The Fall of the Soviet Empire - A House of Cards

November 16th 2009

Book Covers - Fall of Soviet Union

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. Victor Sebestyen. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. 480 pages.

It is rare to read an historical study that is unalloyed good news. Victor Sebestyen, a journalist specialising in East European affairs, whose own family fled Hungary when he was a boy, has provided the reader with a dramatic account of the death throes of Communism in the six Soviet satellite countries comprising the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania and Bulgaria. (Yugoslavia is not included as the author rightly judges that it requires a book on its own.) Of course it is a complex story; but still a story in which "good" -- the right of a country to govern itself -- triumphs over "evil" -- a tyrannous empire determined to control it. In the democratic West we have belatedly discovered the greedy shadow side of capitalism; learning here of daily life under Communism is still a salutary reminder of our own good fortune.

The author begins with an arresting quote from Lenin: "It is impossible to predict the time and progress of revolution. It is governed by its own more or less mysterious laws. But when it comes, it moves irresistibly." Lenin was more right than he could have known and in a way that he would never have foreseen: in a fine irony it was his own vaunted "proletariat", the ordinary working people of Eastern Europe, who voted with their feet and in mass peaceable demonstrations, to throw off the intolerable yoke that the Communist system had imposed on them. The puzzle is that what to western observers looked like a permanent monolithic structure finally folded up in a matter of months. Read more ..



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