Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Peripheral by William Gibson

William Gibson’s storytelling skill is such that we read/listen to him string adjectives, verbs, and nouns together in the places we expect to find them, only to discover 30-40 minutes later that we have no earthly idea what it is he is talking about. Ah, but what does it matter? He is slick, cool, forward-thinking. Surely it will all become clear.

I like several things about the world that contains Flynn and her brother Burton. Composting toilets are no longer unusual, and virtual reality is commonly used. Coffee and Red Bull are in big demand but only two vegetables (jalapeno & green onion) were mentioned amidst cronuts, pork or chicken nubbins, blinis with caviar & sour cream, sardine panini, shrimp bowls, breakfast burritos, and an unreasonable amount of sushi. You can see where my head was.

Anyway, there’s lots of technology, but the really big thing is that two time periods can coexist: before and after the “jackpot." “That really was a vile period, Flynn’s day,” one character from the other side comments, and another tells us the jackpot had already begun while Flynn was living pretty rough, close by her veteran brother and his shot-up best buddy, Connor. Humans can travel between these two time periods, and can effectively change singular outcomes, though not the jackpot. The jackpot, we are told, is multi-causal and devastating to life on earth.

It is only a little curious (but still cool) that Gibson barely even refers to sex. It’s as though women got what they wanted—to be recognized for their minds and their skills rather than their bodies. Some attention is paid to clothing, haircuts, and attractive features, but Flynn is strangely reticent to be seen in a sweatshirt and panties by a face on a screen, even one some great distance in the future. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask the screen to hide it’s eyes. But the language and thought processes of men and women are oddly similar among everyone except Lowbeer, who has a mind I recognize as feminine.
It was delightful to discover she also has a male body, coincidently still alive in Flynn’s time.

I really liked what Gibson did with his worlds. He seems to have taken Naomi Klein’s nonfiction book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate to heart and imagined what comes before, during, and after climate change. His later world is filled with people for whom the concept altruism draws surprised comment. Newgate prison in London has been rebuilt because “the klepts thought it a wise and necessary thing.” One thing I didn't like as well was that he gave his chief villain in the post-jackpot world a Middle Eastern name. One could look at that as divine justice, but for me it was a little too reminiscent of those old films where the bad guy looked Russian and had a German accent. Maybe a little too obvious in a book without much of that.

China has a presence in both worlds, though not too heavily underscored. It was kind of cool, the post-jackpot imaginings...though sans vegetables…Connor, the shot-up veteran who was wheelchair bound, had a chance to bound around in new and different peripherals who accepted his personality and life force. And the very end shows the maturity of Gibson’s vision.

Despite liking the sentiments Gibson shares in this big story, I probably am not going to reach for another scifi novel very soon. I read this as a challenge to myself to get out of my comfort zone and see the world(s). However much I finally enjoyed it, it still feels a little too much like play when we have a lot of work to do if we’re to change outcomes slightly during our own jackpot.


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Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Bangkok Asset (Sonchai Jitpleeheep #6) by John Burdett

It is difficult to know if Burdett is so far out of touch he is creating a science fiction world or if he is so in touch that we are the ones inhabiting a present we know little of. He repeats often during this book that the West has so destabilized itself with the corruption of our spirituality and morals, and its support of divisive financial and corporate policy that all is left is for it to collapse into a state of oligarchy, state control, and slavery. The natural outcome of this disintegration are the trans-human creatures he introduces to us in this book: creatures bred to control humans.

All the things we liked about the Burdett series are still there but they are wrapped in this new black packaging. Burdett is funny and insightful. I loved his new character, Krom, a smart, capable lesbian with a full-body tattoo and a fierce libido. Burdett has a point when it comes to trans-humans: eventually we are probably all going to be installing little technological aids into our bodies to prevent problems or enhance features…he just jumped the gun a little with his physically perfect though psychologically stunted spawn.

Our beloved Sonchai is struggling with his history. He wants to know who his father is, and for some strange reason his mother has been withholding. In this episode she finally shows him pictures which helps only a little: it was all too long ago and old men often do not resemble their younger selves.

There is a mystery here, but the old police procedural format seems to have gone out the window. This is far more a psychological thriller with super-elements. It is interesting that Burdett chose to call his freaks trans-humans considering we are just going through trans-talk in the States at the moment. One of his Chinese characters, offered a choice of straight, gay, or trans bars, chose trannies as his far-and-away favorite. Perhaps it is the notion of infinitely adaptable human experience? Are we infinitely adaptable?

Speaking of Chinese, there is a strong suggestion of Chinese influence deep in Thai government business, and throughout Southeast Asia, which probably has an element of truth. It would be difficult to imagine they wouldn’t have a great deal of influence, given China’s size, wealth, population, needs, and proximity.
“War is always a balance between wanting to win and needing to survive.”
The book takes a dog-leg into Cambodia to visit the jungle site of Vietnam-era LSD experiments that sort of fit with the search for Jitpleecheep’s search for his father, but it is so dark and weird that it seemed Burdett wanted to add this to the historical record regardless of whether or not it fit perfectly. Is it true? Again, there may be elements of truth, though it is infuriating America’s secret spy agency would have this kind of reach in a country with which we had no diplomatic relations for at least four years in the 1960’s. Maybe it is folklore kept alive by people Burdett meets in Bangkok—it must be very strange at times in Bangkok with all those old operators hanging around.

Burdett also reminds us of three U.S. citizens who self-immolated in front of government buildings to protest the Vietnam War. I’d never heard of this. Alice Herz, Roger LaPorte, Norman Morrison. November 1965. How effectively they were erased.

One reviewer said the book was open-ended, suggesting a further installment in this vein. Perhaps that is true, though I felt Burdett was just offering questions for us all to consider. Who wouldn’t want enhancements of one sort or another? It depends. It depends on what we give up in the process, and what kind of society we eventually want. He has a couple of zinger quotes that seem appropriate to present-day America:
“Haven’t you noticed how childish the West has become? Just when it most needs men and women of mature judgment it seems there aren’t any. Such a society is vulnerable to the most radical manipulation…what do dissatisfied children do? They complain, they cry—but it never occurs to them to rebel effectively…Infantilism and slavery go hand in hand…”
I am only marginally sad to lose Sonchai Jitpleecheep to Burdett’s changing fictional world. It seems Burdett is giving us something new, filled with the insights of a lifetime. Thought-provoking.

A word on the audio: Actor Stephen Hogan does an excellent job with the material but he has a way of dropping his voice to indicate a character's thought or the narrator speaking. The change in register is so great that unless one is wearing headphones, one has to adjust the volume constantly, otherwise the other characters' voices are much too loud. This is only a problem in a car or on a stereo system. A suggestion to Recorded Books then, is that Hogan can drop his voice, but not to such a great extent. The difference in loudness is the problem.



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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré

These stories are pure enjoyment. David Cornwell makes up for all those years he refused interviews, answering questions we never got to ask. If he doesn’t quite “bare all,” within are things we may have felt strongly about at the time, but now excite us just for the pleasure of hearing a different voice tell us indeed, we may have been right all along.

The written word is fine, but I am going to urge readers to consider the audio of this memoir which is read by the author himself. His accents and inflection make for riotous listening in parts: his plummy enunciation explain moments of real learning, like when he was sent to Paris as a sixteen-year-old to pick up a debt for his father, or his learning the ways of Hollywood.

Society’s view of spies changes with the times, and David Cornwell acknowledges this, and along with us is horrified at the waste and destruction many of those pointed in the direction of the interests of state have wrought through arrogance and incompetence.

What is most appealing about le Carré’s writing is that David Cornwell has never stopped being the man that attracted MI-5 and-6 when he was recruited early on in his career. He is capable of enormous leaps of understanding—and judgment, when it comes to it. A few of his books will remain in the stacks, long-lasting as literature, because he managed to capture something we acknowledge as real, if dark and depressing and somehow enormously sad.

This le Carré autobiography is arguably even more engrossing than his novels because he applies his writing talent and unparalleled observation and pacing skills, but he shares the sources of his inspiration, highlighting for us where his characters diverge from their real-life counterparts. Real people in real crises are almost always more interesting than their fictional counterparts, aren’t they? Best of all, we get cameos of famed leaders and crooks, winners, losers, and those who tried.

The most affecting bits he saved for the end, where he talks about his “confected” childhood memories, including a mother, all angles instead of curves, whom he met at the age of twenty-one and who talked nonstop about Ronnie (his father), but supplanting the “he” with “you.”

A family of storytellers, then, and it all manifest in a man torn between the truth and it’s opposite. Cornwell could tell a scam from a mile away, which is why he never went public with the “tell-all” offered to him by Nicholas Elliott, best friend and colleague of Kim Philby, one of the most infamous double agents in British Intelligence history. But hearing Cornwell take on the voice of Elliott as he ostensibly spilled the secrets regarding the still-classified debriefing with Philby in Beirut is something you do not want to miss, even if you aren’t aware of the significance of that confession.

A couple of meetings with Yasser Arafat stand out, as does his unrehearsed seventy-five minute live interview with French television personality and host Bernard Pivot. Cornell speaks so glowingly of what a phenomenon Pivot was on television that I will forever regret not knowing enough French to understand Pivot's wit and sense of style.

This book gives enormous pleasure, whatever your preferred method of consumption. The revelations may seem out of date to some, but it is actually one of those memoirs that never go out of date. Classic, I think they call it.


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Hope for a Cool Pillow by Margaret Overton

Many end-of-life discussions have been popular these past couple years, but this one is a little different. It comes at the discussion from a different angle, and it is an angle I have not seen well-articulated, certainly not by a doctor.

For one thing, it is intensely personal, especially in the beginning. Overton claims to be an introvert, but she does an awful a lot of reaching out in this book. I laughed aloud at one joke she told on herself:
At her nursery school, they often played musical chairs, “which I loathed and which may have scarred me for life. I still worry about adequate seating. Usually some poor kid who was not paying attention got stuck without a chair. Then he stood awkwardly and felt blazingly stupid while everyone else sat comfortably and looked smug. It was a terrible game.”
It is hard not to like this woman flinching yet at a child’s game. But, in a way, this book is about paying attention so you can lie as comfortably as possible on your own deathbed.

As a doctor, Overton has the viewpoint, motives, and reaction to incentives of a doctor. But here she is talking about the health care system and why it doesn’t seem to work for everyone (according to statistics, we might say anyone) in this country. I have never personally seen a doctor question in detail the incentives of the system, but Overton does here. She is very thought-provoking, particularly because she doesn’t give us easy answers. She acknowledges the questions, and asks us to do the same.
”The last six months of life accounted for roughly twenty-five percent of our Medicare spending….We try really hard to revive the people least likely to benefit….doctors often operate to fix something that will not save a dying patient, and in doing so avoid the difficult conversation with patients and caregivers about their prognosis and what they want.”
So, it is not so different from Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, except that she gives a little responsibility to doctors, many of whom are not trained nor equipped for this conversation.

If a person with good health insurance and a terminal disease is in the hospital, is there any reason to limit treatment? She suggests that a for-profit private system of healthcare may not give us the kind of incentives, treatments, and quality of life (or quality of death) we desire.
”I find the concept of for-profit hospitals appalling. There’s an inherent misalignment of motives in the “business” of medicine. Physicians have a moral and financial incentive to provide excessive care to people who can pay for it as long as they have a heartbeat.”
She interleaves her narrative about taking a three-part post-graduate course at Harvard on hospital administration with the declining health of her father and her mother, and with experiences she is having in the hospital. Mostly she wants to share her grief, her expertise, her thinking, and her care. She seems the best kind of friend to talk with about end-of-life issues.

Her father had urged on her the need for preparation, and attention to these matters. He managed very well, until his cancer diagnosis. After many treatments meant to extend his life rather than cure his cancer, things got grimmer. He decided he’d had enough, and his preparation meant his family did not have a hard time of it.

Overton’s mother was a different story, and many of you will recognize the more lingering death of a dementia patient. However, even this wasn’t as painful as some of us experience, due to that planning again. The real problem comes when someone has no family to help, as is the case with many patients Overton sees in the hospital at the last stages of their lives, treated callously by an ever-changing roster of medical care personnel, and unable to make clear decisions.

I find it fruitful to hear the experiences of a doctor, and note she says “Personally, I don’t want to live into my nineties.” Her recommendation is that we do not wait on thinking about these things because life is fragile, and you don’t want to be one of the 45% of patients without advanced directives. Your life, in that case, would no longer be your own.

Totally inappropriately, I am adding a note that Overton introduced me to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is something I thought I'd invented, frankly. It is the notion that incompetent folks may be too incompetent to know how incompetent they are. It is a very useful construct, particularly in these times.


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Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila

Helon Habila trained as a journalist in Nigeria where he grew up. He is now a celebrated prize-winning novelist residing in Virginia, where he teaches. He’d read the stories of the April 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings of schoolgirls from Chibok and thought that perhaps there were some clues missing. How had this happened and why haven’t the girls been found?

Searching for clues in country, it must be said, sounds terrifying and risky. Boko Haram as an organization has the madness of a wounded animal and so is exceedingly dangerous. It is also profoundly anti-democratic and filled with a religious fervor Islamist scholars say has nothing to do with Islam. When the Boko Haram’s founding leader Yusef was killed by government security forces, the man who took over was even less stable and more brutal.

Government forces under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, it turns out, did not put much credence in the veracity of kidnapping claims. Nigeria was to host the World Economic Forum the following month, and Goodluck Jonathan was convinced political opponents were trying to sabotage the event.

None of which explains why the government wasn’t able to make a larger effort to find the girls after the forum. Goodluck Jonathan lost the presidency the following year, the first time in Nigeria’s history an incumbent lost to a challenger. His incompetency and corruption in office may have been a factor.

The road Habila travelled to get to Chibok was pocked with exploded ordnance and littered with large shell casings. He was in a convoy with military trucks in front and at back, mounted with machine guns, with armed motorcycle outriders on the sides of his vehicle. They drove very fast and quiet, past abandoned villages whose buildings had been shattered with bullet holes or burned down. Rotting firewood was still stacked where it had been placed by farmers before everyone left.

What he ultimately discovered is, as he describes it, shockingly banal: some of the kidnappers were often hostages of a sort themselves. Ordinary boys in dirty shirts and slippers, shooting at whatever they were told to shoot at. Some of the girls managed to escape, but their story is devoid of magnificent acts of heroism or valor. They ran away in the night.

Habila’s investigation reminded us that ordinary people are capable of the most extraordinary cruelty and kindness. We just have to decide which it will be for ourselves. It requires attention, to make sure we do not stray into believing that we, as individuals, do not matter.

Habila sees the roots for the development of Boko Haram in government mismanagement of the 1970’s, when oil money did not translate into a better life for more educated citizens, but in the “cornering” of state money and privilege for personal use. Small, innocuous opportunities to feather one’s own nest and look the other way opened the door to division, discontent, and hardline religious fervor which rejected secular leadership ("democracy is a challenge to God's sovereignty") and every other religion but the “one, true” religion.

Nigeria may seem distant with its dirt roads, searing heat, and sand-filled Sahara winds but these folks have seen that transition from budding democracy to its charade. And these are lessons every nation can take to heart.

Habila’s reporting centered on interviewing the girls who escaped, some of whom were protected in the U.S. under the care of a concerned citizen. One managed to attend and finish high school and is anticipating college entrance, but most were ill-prepared for the U.S. education system. The Nigerian government then revoked the agreement the parents had with the benefactor in the U.S. and the government took over guardianship of the girls.

The girls he interviewed who stayed in Nigeria have continued their educations, though not in Chibok, which remains almost a dead zone. The vibrancy of the area is almost completely gone, the area isolated and remote now that surrounding towns are deserted.

It seems a small story, almost pathetic in its simplicity. We want to hear of success, not failure. We want to know more about the difficulties in finding the remaining girls and why, with even foreign help, the Nigerian military hasn’t been able to beat this seemingly discreet problem. But we will have to wait. That is a story for another time.

This book is in pre-production and will be released in December 2016 by Columbia Global Reports. Thanks to CGR and Netgalley for an advance copy.


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Friday, September 9, 2016

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age by Daniel J. Levitin

Oh, boy, I wish every one of my fellow citizens had the information shared in this book as part of their reading regime. On one hand, it would make it much harder to convince people with statistics. On the other hand, it would be much harder to convince people with statistics. Come to think of it, I think nowadays most people mistrust statistics, unless the statistics back up their own opinion.

How many times I received end-of-quarter reports from some mutual fund company showing showing growth and profits exceeding other companies’ but their graphs do not have the axes on their bar charts or line graphs labelled. Even one so discrepant in the moneymaking arts as I know this for a sham report.

Levitin does a couple of things in this book: he describes common ways to use statistics to disguise facts. He points out common errors the best-intentioned of us make (like doctors determining probabilities in positive cancer screens) and leads us to the way to find answers. He demystifies “expert testimony” by pointing out that expertise is typically narrow.

Donald Trump features in this book, both quoted directly and by implication:
“Truth is the default position and we assume others are being truthful with us. An old joke goes, “How do you know that some is lying to you? Because they begin with the phrase to be perfectly honest. Honest people do not need to preface their remarks this way.”
In the last third of the book, Levitin tells us how to think straight: deduction and induction, logical fallacies, framing risk, and belief perseverance, ending with a separate chapter on Bayesian probability. Finally, he gives four case studies to see if you managed to understand what he’d been telling you all along. He ends with a physicist’s explanation of new ideas and what we really don’t know for sure.

Levitin is very good. The material in his book parallels an earlier book I’d reviewed, Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge, which takes a fun look at the ways we can deceive or stun our friends. And, truthfully (?!), I found Ambridge's explanation of Bayesian probabilities a little more understandable and applicable. But if you are like me, you need to review those proofs again and again every which way before you can explain it yourself. Psy-Q is a Penguin Paperback Original.

Both these books would be very useful for high school or college students or educators. These experts (now I wonder if I can use that term ever again) try to make it easy for us whose expertise lies elsewhere. It seems that most Americans may have learned only half of what they needed to from this book, so learning what we didn’t the first time around will be useful for the rest of our lives.

Below a short video intro by Levitin explaining logical fallacy which will give you some idea of the audience to whom he is speaking:




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Thursday, September 8, 2016

101 Stumbles in the March of History by Bill Fawcett

So many fiction authors have taken on the notion of “what if” in recent years, to great success. Bill Fawcett does the same in this book of very short essays addressing major moments in history. “What if” Hitler had not been rejected from art school, or “what if” General Douglas MacArthur had halted his attack on North Korea without provoking the Chinese counter-attack, or “what if” Sandra Day O’Connor had sided with Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the vote Bush v. Gore?

The only problem with “what if” scenarios is that they are so frustrating, and so rarely fruitful. Looking back at history knowing what we know now and seeing the points of fracture…is it worth excavating reasons and imagining different scenarios? Perhaps. But one thing is sure: for historians it must be lots of fun. And that is what this book promises to historians and those who like detail-laden and provocative cocktail conversation.

Random House/NAL sent me this book in exchange for an honest review. Just published this month (September 6, 2016), it is filled with arguable premises and conclusions. But for those who like short essays before bed to keep you thinking until slumber, this might be just the ticket.


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