Archive for January 2012

Reviews   Leave a comment

A couple more reviews of the things I’ve been reading.

Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinburg 

This is the first book I’m reviewing that I didn’t actually read. Not that I didn’t try, it was just so unevenly written that I couldn’t make my way past 30-40 pages. I was actually surprised by how badly edited the book was — it included primary quotes, and then would cite details that weren’t present in the quote! The book’s errors became too much to deal with, so I quit. Damn shame too, because I bet a competent biography of Otto von Bismarck would have been some great reading.

One star (I’m sure it’s not a truly worthless book, but its errors are so blatant that it’s practically unreadable.)

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell 

The premise of this book is that success or talent in a given area of expertise are rarely innate gifts of the individual, but are more likely to have been based on some luck in regards to opportunities available to the person or the chance of “being born at the right place at the right time.”

He does able service to the theme, opening the book with a study of Canadian hockey players. Canada has hockey fever, which causes them to have a firm apparatus for selecting the best talent from the youngest players to advance to more advanced training, and then more selection from among that group to more training, etc. As far as the Canadians were concerned, this system picked the best of the best and got them into competition for the draft among Canada’s biggest teams. However, it was discovered that of all the top-tier talent, an overwhelming majority were born in January, February, or March. Gladwell uses this fact to forward a compelling posit: The hockey selection process groups children by age — and January 1st is the cut-off date. Hence, if you’re born on Dec. 31st, you’re competing and compared against other hockey players that may have been playing the game almost a full twelve months than you’ve been. In addition, due to the quick growth of children, those extra few months of growth will almost certainly get you noticed as a brighter star than the smaller children you’re facing. Hence, being born early in the year gives you dramatically better odds of being moved forward to better training, which makes it more likely you become more skilled and can advance to more advanced training, etc. As a result, he argues with logical sense that, if you want to be a pro hockey player, you’re best move is to be born as early in January as possible.

For the example of luck vs. innate skill, he uses the early life of Bill Gates as an example. Bill Gates went to a school that just so happened to have one of the few computers available for experimenting outside a business or university setting. In addition, this computer allowed for multiple people to program on the computer at the same time. This chance allowed for Bill and any of the other students to put in as much time on the computer as they could, which they did — right up until the money to operate the thing ran out. Here again, luck prevailed. There wasn’t any way to raise more money to pay for the computer to function (it was networked to another computer that billed heavily for the use, IIRC), so he decided he knew enough to go to the University of Washington and use their computer during off-hours, which he was able to do as the place was in walking distance of his house. In addition, he was able to bluff his way into an internship writing new programming for a power company’s billing software.

So, rather than being some innate computer whiz, Bill Gates was just exceedingly fortunate in that he had early access to multiple computers which allowed him to practice programming for an unheard-of amount of time. By the fortune of these chances, he was then in a unique position to profit on his skills when the personal computer revolution hit. 

There are more anecdotes toward this end in the book. I found the most interesting one to be about the inability of Koreans to make successful pilots rather fascinating. Basically, for a good chunk of the 70s and 80s, Korean Air had the worst safety record in the business of flying. Their record became so atrocious that Canada and the United States had started taking steps to revoke their right to fly over their airspace. As this was becoming a crisis, the brass of Korean Air hired outsiders to look into their practices, and an interesting fact turned up. Of all the crashes their planes were involved in, the crew turned out to have known the trouble spots, but failed to explicitly tell their captain what was happening. What ends up happening is that the subordinate Korean cabin crew, not wanting to overstep their bounds, “suggest” things to the captain, hoping he’ll pick up on their cues and look into whatever warrants his attention. However, even with their very lives potentially on the line, they won’t go much farther than these suggestions and hints about the proper course of action. If the captain is too distracted, he often misses these points entirely, and then a catastrophe happens.

That particular story does have a happy ending. The airline hires some outsiders to come into their company, who dictate that all cabin communication happens in English to avoid these misunderstandings based on the “demure” nature of the native Korean language in regards to authority. This, as well as other reforms, have turned Korean Air into one of the safest fliers in the world.

It was an good book, with (in my mind) a pretty obvious premise, but one that is presented with enough backup to make the thesis intuitive going forward. I give it a solid three stars.

John Brown: Abolitionist by David Reynolds 

This book takes on the monumental task of trying to decide if John Brown was just some terrorist or a genuine crusader against evil. It comes down, rightly in my mind, on the side of the latter.

John Brown is not just an anti-slavery man, but he’s an active universal suffragist (for blacks, natives, and women), as well as an active integrationist. He doesn’t simply advocate the eradication of slavery, but also feels that blacks should have every right to public education, property, and every other right enjoyed by white people. More to the shock of most of his contemporaries, he puts these beliefs into practice. He establishes a small free labor farm in New York where his family, as well as several free black families, share in the everyday labors of the farm, and he even goes so far as to allow them to eat dinner in his house, at the same table as his own. 

To the author’s credit, he does what must have been some exhausting research on John Brown’s life. There’s a good three decades of active work on John Brown’s part toward forwarding his hatred of slavery — he was an active member of the Underground Railroad, an active anti-slavery murderer, and an active slave-freer. At one point, in disgust of some pro-slavery murders in Kansas, he sneaks into Missouri, and then frees a dozen slaves, personally taking them on the thousand mile trek to freedom in Canada.

The author does a good job of painting how Brown was moved into his increasing agitation regarding the slavery question. His own father believed in equality for all, and raised young John among natives and blacks, without regard to how the other whites around him would react. One of the defining moments in his childhood was when he was passing through town with his dad and saw a slave-owner mercilessly beat a black child. At that point, the seed of his hatred was sown.

Sown, but it was not his primary purpose. His main priority was providing for his growing family (the man ended up having twenty kids, several of which died fighting slavery). Here an interesting mark of John Brown’s character is exposed. The man is a horrible, HORRIBLE businessman, and practically every venture he’s a part of fails. But, in a testament to his character, he never alienates the people who give him his loans. They get frustrated with the lack of returns on their money, as well as the eventual outright losses that they endure, but they all believe him to be a man of extraordinary character, and don’t bear his failure to repay personally (several of his backers keep putting money into the man, when any sane person would have cut their losses long before). However, he can’t stop himself from getting into a horrible cycle of taking one loan to pay off another, and after many failed business attempts he declares bankruptcy. 

During his financial failures, there are a growing number of incidents which push him toward further and further extremism regarding slavery. The beginning of his crusade occurs in 1837, when an abolitionist editor named Elijah Lovejoy is murdered by a pro-slavery mob. In a meeting which follows, JB publicly declares he will do what is necessary to destroy slavery. He’s an active conductor on the Underground Railroad at this point, and he takes an intense interest in the thoughts of his passengers, hosting them at his own table, when he can do so. These experiences seem to confirm in him a complete sense of rights and equality between the races, and he subsequently informs blacks of his biggest plans to hear their ideas on them. Indeed, it is from the black community that he receives his earliest encouragement for the eventual raid on Harper’s Ferry.

As the political situation regarding slavery deteriorates in Washington, Brown becomes more and more fixated on raiding Harper’s Ferry. As the slavery question keeps coming up in the national scene, Brown becomes increasingly disgusted with Northern politicians, who, in his mind, are giving up the side of right by compromising with the evil slaveholders. He sees that, far from the expected, “slavery will go away on its own right,” the years are making the institution stronger than ever. Brown was never a rich man, but he increasingly snatches up books on slave rebellions and guerrilla warfare. His plan, hatched decades before his eventual attempt, is to raid Harper’s Ferry, seize as many guns as possible, free as many slaves as possible, and then run a Spartacus-style rebellion out of the Appalachians, using the mountains for a safe refuge from their periodic strikes at Southern plantations. His hope is to inspire such a long-lasting slave rebellion that the South gives up its slave rather than live in constant terror for keeping them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

While Brown had been working on the Underground Railroad, and working his racial harmony village in New York, the situation in Kansas had deteriorated into a shooting war. Now, his plan had been to enact his Harper’s plan at this point, but his black neighbors convinced him he could accomplish more in Kansas, so he and a few of his sons went.

Because of popular sovereignty, Kansas was being flooded by pro and anti slavery people with the hopes of swaying the territory’s status one way or the other. The pro-slavery people had no qualms about using violence and intimidation to further their aims, while the anti-slavery people just wanted to win at the ballet box. John Brown arrived in this environment, and quickly grew disgusted by the anti-slavery people. At one point, Lawrence, was one of the biggest anti-slavery towns in Kansas. The pro-slavery forces assembled a group of 800 men, and stormed into the town, hellbent on a fight. Without firing a shot, the townsfolk sheepishly handed over their stores of weapons and largely ran away, despite having built a functional earthworks around their town. This cowardice (along with the fresh news of the “Sumner/Brooks Debate”) made Brown furious, and he decided he would have nothing to do with it. He did what he could to round up like-minded people such as himself, and was able to assemble a band of about twenty fighters to work on evening the score (including his several children he had with him, though they were young adults by now).

A force of pro-slavery men had rounded up a group of abolitionists and shot them whilst they were unarmed and defenseless. This attack convinced Brown that violence must be answered with violence, and the Pottawattamie massacre followed, where five men sympathetic to slavery were snatched from their homes late in the night, and hacked to death by broadswords (a weapon Brown favored, because it was one that slaves were capable of using in their rebellions). Later, Brown would fight a stalling action with a pro-slavery band bent on attacking more abolitionist towns and people. Outnumbered seven to one, his group would inflict sixty casualties on the enemy before retreating, losing only one of their own in the process.

The latter battle would make Brown famous in the abolitionist circles of the North. Finally, the abolitionists had someone they could point to as a brave man fighting their cause. When the situation in Kansas cooled down, Brown went on a speaking tour in the Northeast, trying to raise money for his pet project, though saying the money would be to defeat slavery. He speaks throughout North, and in New England gets introduced among the Transcendentalist circles, which he takes by storm. Thoreau and Emerson are immediately taken with the man, whose intense vision strikes them immediately, and they send him on his way with great fanfare and applause (and a paltry $10). 

On this point, and it’s my biggest criticism in the book, 50-75 pages could have been trimmed by substituting the phrase, “While the moral support of Northern abolitionists was immense, their fiscal support amounted to a pittance, with continued promises for more.” Brown’s view of abolitionists continued to sink, as he felt they were far more suited to talking about the evils of slavery than actually doing something about it.

So, after a long period of fundraising and hobnobbing, he finally confers with a congress of freed black people. He informs these people of his Harper plan, and they give it their full endorsement and support. 

The actual raid on Harper’s is comparatively insignificant to its aftermath. The highlights are that the first person killed happens to be a black man, and one of the saddest casualties is the mayor of Harper’s, who’s loved by both the whites and blacks in town. John Brown loses two sons in the raid, although they managed to hold off a force of over 800 militia men with just twenty men for over a day. But, the raid is stopped, and Brown and his surviving men are taken prisoner.

In a curious hiccup, the governor of Virginia, as well as several other people involved, publicly state to the press that they are impressed with Brown’s courage in all of this. They seem puzzled by the idea that someone of such deep anti-slavery sentiment could rise above a spineless piece of shit.

Anyways, the trial is a fiasco. Brown is charged with multiple murders as well as treason against Virginia. The scene actually sounds kind of funny — the court is packed with up to five hundred people, who are smoking and spitting tobacco, and also eating peanuts during the proceeding, casting their shells onto the courtroom floor. As the trial goes on, any movement produces a sharp crunching noise of peanut shells. Ignoring the noise from the peanut gallery, the lawyers do their wrangling, but Brown stymies his lawyer’s efforts to get him off with an insanity plea. Brown is found guilty on all counts, and sentenced to death. He then submits to the court one final message:

Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!” 

Brown’s composure and bravery during the trial and upon the gallows causes him to transcend his own existence and become a major symbol to both North and South. To the North, he is a man who violated man’s law in service to God’s law. He killed, he murdered, but he did so on behalf of millions who have no protector or savior. His death he offers freely to service the end that he gave his life to pursuing, that all men, everywhere, should be free. To the South, he became a different symbol, the embodiment of the abolitionist conspiracy to destroy slavery and unleash the Demon Negro in the South. Indeed, the aftermath of Harper’s showed the South terrified of what might be unleashed within its borders, as people began expelling any outsider from the South — Northern salesmen were tarred and feathered, and people who were strangers to Southern towns were sometimes butchered and hanged. The death of John Brown managed to unite largely disparate abolitionist factions, as well as cement support for successionists in the South. In his life, he fought for slaves and against slavery. In his death, he polarized the country toward making sure the issue would be settled once and for all.

As he was being led to the gallows, he passed his jailer a note, his final statement on the slavery question:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” 

This was a great book. It showed very well how John Brown was well ahead of the curve with race relations, as well as delved into his own thinking behind his actions in many of the momentous events in which he was involved. Brown was a Calvinist, and truly believed his was following a path God laid out for him, “before the Earth was made.” His conduct after the raid became such an inspiration to the Transcendentalists that he was essentially deified by the North, and his example inspired thousands of Union soldiers as they marched to battle with “John Brown’s Body” on their lips. His raid became so politicized that it helped destroy the Democratic Party, which allowed Lincoln to win the election. The man fought for his beliefs, and in doing so set in motion the events which caused the Civil War. The book ties everything wonderfully together, and, despite the long-winded nature of certain sections, I’m going to give this my first five star rating, with the caveat that it might not be a masterpiece of literature, but it is a masterpiece of historic literature.

Posted January 31, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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Fuck Paterno   Leave a comment

Now that his life and career have ended, I have seen several news articles arguing that, in the coming years, Joe Paterno’s legacy will be one of a great football coach, and that his involvement in the Sandusky Affair shall fall by the wayside along with the rest of the sands of time.

I hope they’re wrong.

Had this pedophile story never broke, I’m sure his legacy would have been as accomplished as they currently claim. Sure, there’d be the occasional footnote of JoePa using his influence to intervene on behalf of his players when legal/discipline issues came up, but this would be regarded far and wide as the cost of being a diligent and successful coach in a highly competitive field. His legacy would stand in perpetual assurance as one of the most talented and productive careers in college football.

But I can’t help but hope that this scandal exposes the depth and depravity of the one track mind that produced such victories. Here we have a coach who learns that one of his subordinates, and a highly placed one at that, has been caught red-handed RAPING CHILDREN. Even if we try to leave the obvious dictates of morality aside here, at this point JoePa should realize that this represents an enormous problem to his team, university, and organization. He should realize that, if this ever gets out, and there is even a whiff of a cover-up, the ensuing scandal will destroy everyone it touched. As a result, sheer pragmatism would have required a full disclosure and active investigation.

Instead, JoePa choose to swallow the Kool-Aid of his own importance. Rather than hit the exacta by doing the smart thing and the right thing (one and the same, in this instance), he does the easy thing, and participates in the conspiracy by passing the buck to someone else, and never following through with any followup ever again. In this case, the man’s actions prove both his complicity and his complete disgrace — by helping to sweep the incident under the rug, he makes himself guilty of placing himself and his own priorities (in this case, the importance of college football) above the lives of innocents. 

It’s not like he was powerless in this. If he had made the choice to intervene, he could have done so without any real trouble. He could have simply called a press conference (and the press would show up, regardless of the why), and exposed the scandal himself, had he run into a brick wall with the Penn State administration. But again, he didn’t. He went on coaching and pretending like nothing untoward had happened.

Until it all blew up in his face.

Now, his apologists say that he did report the incident. He made the reports to the proper authorities, and then felt he had done his part, the rest being in the hands of Caesar. I don’t buy it. Paterno wasn’t an idiot. It should have been obvious that, had this been looked into it, it would have broke on the news sooner or later. As the years went by, he should have realized that nothing was being done, at which point the imperative of justice would require he leverage his position into shining the light on what happened.

His efforts to rectify the mistake seem to be token at best. For a man with as long and distinguished a career at Penn State as Joe Paterno had, it seems inconceivable that he could have so fundamentally dropped the ball on this. But every bit of evidence said that he did just that. Instead of acting with alacrity and zeal to purge an insane injustice, he instead focused on winning the next football game, without regard to the disadvantaged youths whose lives were forever twisted by a sick monster. It was only when he was unceremoniously discharged and humiliated that he seemed to grasp the full nature of his colossal failure. His failure was not a failure of procedure, though that certainly occurred. His failure was not a failure of follow-through, though he’s certainly guilty of that. His failure, his true failure, is a failure of character. There is simply no amount of glory that can overcome child rape. He could have coached for a centuries’ time, winning season after season, and this scandal would have still destroyed the man, because at the end of the day, if you have the hubris to believe that your career and your reputation are more important than protecting the innocents in your care, then you have earned the scorn and derision of your fellow human beings.

Posted January 30, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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Thoughts on Vegetarianism   Leave a comment

Well, I put in my time, and am once again a free man from a dietary standpoint. My burst of inspiration from Gandhi ran its course, and after a year of practice, I can now offer a few thoughts on the lessons learned.

First off, I was surprised how easy it was. Granted, when I first began the practice it was anything but easy; my meals always lacked a centerpiece, and they never felt complete even when I finished them. But, once I got used to it, it really wasn’t as bad as I had expected. I learned some better ways to stir-fry (the addition of nuts, if done correctly, adds an excellent texture), learned that tater tots can become an acceptable substitute for meat balls in spaghetti, and also learned that Ramen noodles are the most cheap and versatile source of carbohydrates money can buy (with the possible exception of plain rice or potatoes). Despite my own picky tastes when it comes to vegetables, I was able expand my palette to include mushrooms and gain a healthy respect for beans as well.

It’s interesting to note, but when you’re a vegetarian, people have absolutely no qualms about immediately weighing in with their opinions on the topic of vegetarianism and animal rights. I know I’ve spoken about this point in the past, but I can’t tell you how many times people would hear of my vegetarianism and opine on how foolish it is, how impossible it would be for them to do, how impractical and needless, etc. Granted, I probably have an unusual perspective on this, as I myself am an avowed meat-eater and adopted this more as a tribute to a man rather than some personal revelation, but I cannot imagine another topic where people would so flippantly accuse someone of idiocy based on choice. Announce to a co-worker that you’re a Catholic, nothing. Announce to a co-worker that you’re a blood donor, nothing. Announce to a co-worker you’re a Redskins fan, you might get some good-natured jabs about the laughable talents of Rex Grossman, but still be treated with the modicum of respect due a retard. Announce to a co-worker you’re a vegetarian, and prepare for the wild card reaction! I got everything from the expected, “Oh, that’s nice…” to the more visceral, “FUCK THAT!!!” Granted, no harm done because it wasn’t something I myself believed in, but I was still surprised how people reacted. I should take this opportunity to note, one great reaction, which I discovered at the end of my experiment’s tenure, was to ask waitresses what vegetarian options their place offered. Their reaction tended to be one of unmitigated surprise and new-found interest. The best example came at a Mexican joint, when my asking resulted in the hostess spending the next ten minutes talking to me while hunched over, exposing her generous cleavage to as much study as the rules of eyesight and politeness would permit. 

It’s something that’s never happened as a result of ordering a cheeseburger.

Now, while I would never describe myself as malnourished during this past year, I have to wonder if I didn’t incur some sort of energy shortfall related to the vegetarianism. One day, while I was at the gym, I ran into one of the girls I worked with. As we were bullshitting she found out I was a vegetarian, she told me I should stop it immediately: type O blood types require meat in their diet to maintain their energy levels more than other types, and as a result I might be risking my health. (As a side note here, she and I used to give blood at work, and while we did so we found out we were both O) I waved her off, but now that I’m back to my normal eating habits I’m wondering if maybe there wasn’t something to it. There was things at the gym that I would do when I was a meat-eater which, looking back on it, almost never happened during the non-meat interim. For example, the benchmark of my elliptical exercise was to do seven miles in forty-two minutes. While I did manage to do that on some occasions during the veggie year, the last time it had happened was March 19th, this despite regular gym sessions going into July. A period of intervening sloth prohibits me from doing the same today, but I can tell you that the energy to do it has returned, in a way that wasn’t equal to the task prior.

I still have no idea if there’s any truth to her our-blood-type-requires-meat theory, but there might be something to it.

So, in looking back on the experiment, I can say that I don’t think I wasted a year in its pursuit. Moving forward, I can forever say, “Yeah, I was vegetarian for a year.” I’ve been able to learn some things about its practice, which will help me relate to people on a more personal level, should it ever come up. I expanded my cooking skills to include things like stir-fries, pasta salad, vegetable soups, and even going so far as to learn how to make some cheesecake for desserts. I’m certainly no worse for the wear as a result of the dietary change, and while there were certainly moments of hunger which would have been best satisfied by deep-fried chicken flesh, I’m pretty sure I still gained more than I lost by foregoing their indulgence.

Posted January 30, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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More Book Reviews   Leave a comment

Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming

This was a good book, a mixed biography of my favorite Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and his long and increasingly disintegrating relationship with Aaron Burr. As such a book is inevitable to do, it also crosses paths with Madison, Jefferson, and some other notable figures from America’s Founding generation.

The focus of the book is on Hamilton’s late career as an increasingly overworked and politically irrelevant New York lawyer. His days in government are now largely behind him, as his chief benefactor, George Washington, has passed on. Hamilton, without Washington’s support, finds himself increasingly marginalized by the dwindling support of the Federalist Party as well as the ascension of the Jefferson Republicans. In addition, his political star is largely destroyed in a sex scandal, to which he takes the odd step of “setting the record straight” by explicitly detailing what sexual scandals he is guilty of, and which innocent. As a politically diminished man, he finds that his former wealthy supports have now largely fled him, making him work long hours as a lawyer to avoid defaulting on his debts.

In contrast to Hamilton’s collapse, during this same period Aaron Burr’s star is on the rise. He’s been able to thread the delicate needle of New York state politics (which largely consists of not pissing of the Clinton-Livingston alliance, which runs the entire state as if it was their own private province), and has managed to build an electoral base within the state that will allow a Republican victory in the election of 1800.

Of course, in this case, that victory is anything but an easy one. Burr and Jefferson deadlock in electoral votes, and it’s left to the House of Reps to sort out the mess. The ballots go on multiple times, with Jefferson and Burr tying on every vote. At this point, Hamilton steps in and brokers a deal with Jefferson: If Jefferson will agree to leave the Bank of the United States alone, Hamilton will use his remaining influence to swing the votes in his favor. Jefferson agrees, and eventually becomes President.

This incident has two consequences. First, Jefferson moves into the Presidency without trusting his Vice President. Second, it is an example of Hamilton interfering in Burr’s affairs.

Moving forward, the relations between Burr and Jefferson during the first few months of their presidential tenure is formal, but very civil and polite. Burr is invited to Jefferson’s parties, and publicly they seem to be good company. However, behind the scenes, Jefferson is constantly working to undermine his vice president as well as find some way of getting rid of him. Burr, meanwhile, is actually doing some credible work on his own. He’s probably the first VP to do anything to expand the power of the position by taking an active role as President of the Senate. During his tenure, he makes sure that the entire Senate body works according to established rules of decorum and procedure. His attention to detail and civility in the Senate earns him a wide array of friends, which furthers the growing breach between him and Jefferson, the latter seeing his viper VP’s political base growing, and not trusting him to use it to further the administration’s goals.

The Louisiana Purchase essentially destroys anyone’s hope of challenging Jefferson for the Presidency in 1804 (ironically, a purchase made easy by the resolute success of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States). In addition, by the time of that election it’s officially open-daggers between Burr and Jefferson. As a result of Jefferson dropping Burr from his ticket, Burr feels he has but one option left open to him — running for Governor of New York.

The state politics are too intricate to get into here, but Burr runs a competent campaign, but is no match for the men against him — Hamilton working to undermine Burr, and Clinton-Livingston working to eliminate their new rival for control of the state, as well as Burr’s questionable involvement with a range of real estate scams, Burr’s candidacy is doomed.

So, at this point, Burr’s career is now rock-bottom. He’s almost finished with his tenure as VP, and he has but one political prospect going forward — war. Burr had a distinguished career during the Revolution as a capable commander who was capable of earning victory over the Redcoats. However, he has one chief rival to his claim for command of America’s armed forces during time of war… Alexander Hamilton, the man that Washington put in charge of the nation’s defense during the Whiskey Rebellion, has a claim which is above reproach. To add to Burr’s woes, his debt is now likely to blow up in his face, as his political offices were the only things holding his creditors at bay.

So, in what essentially seems to be a contrived argument over political slanders, Burr and Hamilton agree to duel. Hamilton, who has lost a son to a duel, is reported as saying he won’t fire at Burr. There are only two things we’re sure that happened after the duel — Hamilton was murdered, and Burr escapes unscathed.

The aftermath is an interesting one. Burr’s conduct forces him out of New York, and he eventually returns to D.C. to some very enthusiastic applause from people who hated Hamilton. Oddly enough, his last major act as VP involves him presiding over the case of Justice Samuel Chase, who is being impeached because Jefferson and his supporters don’t like his rulings (the fact that he may have been insane, seemingly irrelevant). With Burr presiding over the trial, it becomes clear beyond a shadow of doubt that Jefferson is trying to impeach the man for political, rather than professional, shortcomings, and Chase is acquitted as a result. It’s an interesting end to Burr’s VP career, because he managed to stop an impeachment that Hamilton had been urging his friends to vote against, for the very reason of it being shameless politics intruding on the judiciary.

So, after he leaves the Vice-Presidency, Burr runs west to join forces with Gen. “Judas” Wilkinson. Wilkinson is an active double-agent on the Spanish payroll, and for a long while he baits Burr with offers of possibly forming their own confederation in the American West. Eventually, however, he decides he needs a show of loyalty to Washington to keep suspicion off his back, so he throws Burr under the bus and lets him get arrested for treason. The ensuing trial lets Burr off the hook, and he dies in large obscurity in New York in 1836.

I’d give the book three stars. It’s an interesting read, and one that does justice to an interesting chapter in American history. That being said, there’s nothing particularly amazing about it.

Some stray observations:

I hate Jefferson. Seemingly every book about this era can’t help but make you conclude he’s a complete hypocrite. The slave-holding writer of, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ” can never come off as anything but a hypocrite. In addition, while he railed against the Alien and Sedition Acts (which allows the shutting down of newspapers, among other things) while he was outside of office, once he was in office he had no qualms about using them to his own ends.

There’s a funny anecdote in the book about Martha Washington’s cat. Apparently this cat humped everything that moved, at which point she gave it the nickname, “Hamilton.”

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

In large part a book of mini-biographies, this book was written by JFK while he was interred at a hospital for several months recuperating from back surgery. In this book, JFK seeks to illustrate a few examples of politicians obeying the dictates of their conscience instead of making the “right” move politically by playing ball. The book contains about a dozen or so examples of politicians who displayed such courage, on topics ranging from slavery to Union to adoption of the silver standard. Some of the biographies it contains are fairly obscure to modern audiences, but it contains a few entries I’d agree with, namely Daniel Webster, and Sam Houston.

Briefly, Webster sacrificed his immediate legacy and career by speaking in eloquent defense of the Compromise of 1850. His speech began with the immortal line, “Mr. President, I wish to speak not as a Massachusetts man, nor a Northern man, but as an American.” Webster’s speech goes on to testify to something which was the hallmark of his legacy, namely his being a Union man first and foremost. The speech succeeded in its aim, and prevented the Civil War from breaking out for almost a decade. Himself close to death’s door, John C. Calhoun was so impressed with Webster’s ability to keep the country together that he remarked, “he deserves the presidency.”

Of course, Webster’s perceived capitulation to the Slave interest was vilified throughout the North and New England. Despite his critical efforts in preventing the outbreak of Civil War, Webster has to resign his Senate seat, somewhat disgraced.

The story of Sam Houston is a worthy one in its own right, but I’ll refrain from expounding too deeply upon it. In way of brief summary, the man was a friend of Andrew Jackson and had a long military career under his belt. He was a central player in Texas’ fight for independence, as well as the two-term president of the short-lived Republic of Texas. After the annexation, he served as one of Texas’s senators, and also as the governor of Texas during the outbreak of the Civil War. While governor, he worked tirelessly to prevent the state’s succession, and in doing so almost got himself lynched by an angry mob. Realizing that he had done all he could do to prevent the succession, he resigned and spent time trying to rally the citizens against the war, saying to a crowd:

“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”

Overall, I give this book a three. It was nothing earth-shattering, nor particularly compelling to recommend it. After reading it in its entirety, I found the most interesting feature of the book was JFK’s ability to delicately address the Southern Slavery issues in such a way that he comes off as condemning them, but without doing so explicitly nor doing so in such a way as to re-open old wounds. I felt that this aspect of the book showed more of the acumen of the author than was probably ever intended.

3 stars.

The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I had such high hopes for this book. Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite of the books I had to read in high school, and I was hoping that the book hailed as that author’s masterpiece would finally earn a five-star rating from me, but it was simply not meant to be. While certain aspects of the book were quite interesting, I found that others dragged, sometimes painfully so. (As a favor to my readers, I won’t go into depth as I typically do so as to not spoil anything should any of you find yourself reading it). I always enjoy Dostoyevsky wrestling with issues of faith, and this book offers plenty of it, but at the end of the day, it simply doesn’t work as well as I would’ve hoped.

4 stars.

Book Reviews   Leave a comment

Lord knows it’s been a long time since I’ve done any sort of update on this thing, so I figured I’d take a few minutes and write some reviews of the books I’ve read over the past few months. I’ll be using a 1-5 stars scale:

1 star equals a book that has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If it’s in your bathroom, save the toilet paper for a special occasion.

2 stars equals a “pulp” book. Nothing fancy, nothing inherently interesting or provocative, but not a complete waste of time either.

3 stars equals a story of above average quality. Reading the book will embed a scene or dialogue into your subconscious, or plant ideas which will be batted around in your skull for some time to come.

4 stars equals an epic maturing into true literature. You will not be able to look at things going forward the same way you did in the past. Having read this, I think other’s reading of it would impact their lives and thoughts in a meaningful way.

5 stars equals a true masterpiece of literature. This story is of such quality that it should entitle its author to being enshrined as one of the great artists of human history. You do yourself a disservice by not reading this work if otherwise you have the time to do so.

Anyway, onward with the reviews!

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas Gandhi

I had such high hopes for what I might learn by getting the story from the horse’s mouth. As you may or may not remember, I practiced a year of vegetarianism as a result of being moved by the Gandhi-led independence movement in India. As a result, I was hoping that I would find some interesting or compelling ideas in one of his autobiographies. Instead, perhaps quite fairly, the saintliness of the man was compromised and the human contradictions shone through. One of the ideas voiced in the book relates his inherent distrust for Christianity and Jesus… much as he admires Jesus the man, he can’t fathom the man’s divinity if his creed allows for short-changing the animals of God’s creation the same Christian love typically reserved only for our Fellow Man. He thinks it a sin against God to murder one of his creatures for any reason, adding pain to an already abundantly stocked universe, when such easy food abounds in nuts, grains, fruit, etc.

However, my respect for Gandhi the man took a great hit as I delved through the book. One thing that seems a constant is his bullying of his wife. Being from a completely different culture, I can’t in fairness comment on their marriage in terms of marriages of his peers, but one thing seems to be absolutely clear through the reading; he is spiritually “possessed” early in the marriage, whereas his wife is more grounded in her expectations for the relationship… she’s happy with children, amenities, and money for food and other things the household needs. He relates several vicious arguments they had that amount to him giving away the family’s possessions (and, in her eyes, many things which would be essential to the family if he suddenly died), and Gandhi bulldozing over her objections and doing what he wanted to anyway. Reading the book, you understand his actions based on his evolving ethics at the time, but you can’t help but feel that he’s being a complete prick solely to ease his own ability to sleep peacefully at night.

The most egregious of his sins, if I might be allowed to use the term, comes from a chapter late in the book where his wife suddenly and violently takes ill. For a long (but, to my memory, undefined) period of time, his wife is so sick that she cannot keep food down for longer than a few minutes, at which point she quickly spews it back out. After trying to work with their vegetarian beliefs, the doctors arrive at the point where they think further lack of food will kill her. They plead with Gandhi to allow them to administer to her beef broth, which she’d be able to keep down and draw some nourishment. However, Gandhi being the vegetarian extremist he is, decides that he’d rather sacrifice his wife that break his family decree. “God will keep her safe.” She survives, and after the fact said she agreed with his position, but considering how little her voice was heard in other arguments, I have the feeling it’s more of a going-along-to-get-along type of decision.

So, in the end, the book was at least an interesting and at times thought-provoking read. I would have liked it more if it had actually dealt more deeply with the social protests in South Africa and India, but he didn’t want to retread on ground he’d already broke in other books.

4 Stars (with the added caveat that, had I read it sooner, I’d have abandoned my vegetarianism sooner rather than ride it out for a year)

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Now this was a fun book to read.

Nelson Mandela was born into the extended family of a royal tribal household. Due to his birth order, his destiny from birth is to be trained, educated, and once mature, to give reasonable and excellent advice to kings. As a result, his family gives him a fairly long leash in his boyhood to better develop his social skills and remember the roots of his people when he’s called to offer advice about them.

Not to delve too deeply into his young biography, which is an essential background to the man he later becomes, but the story becomes really interesting when he sees the discrimination of blacks in Johannesburg and is so irritated by it that he joins the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela is a rare figure in South Africa at this time, because he’s a black man who’s been trained as a lawyer and accepted to the bar (his kingly uncle pulled strings to get him accepted to a university). As a lawyer, the fact that he’s black lets the people at large trust him more than they ever would a white lawyer, and the fact that he performed many cases pro bono when possible allowed him to meet a wide variety of people who are suffering all kinds of indignities due to their race during apartheid. As Mandela becomes more familiar with the widespread corruption and injustice of the regime, his work with the ANC moves from being mostly peaceful protesting to ever-increasing outright militancy after the State ruthlessly massacres several peaceful strikes throughout South Africa.

The State eventually succeeds in nabbing Mandela and subjecting him to trials prior to throwing him into prison. These trials and his time in prison were, for me, by far the most interesting points in his story. I was enthralled by the game being played between the ANC political prisoners, and the State — the State would do all sorts of underhanded tactics leading up to the trial, such as bugging their lawyers offices and such. Mandela and friends knew their rooms were bugged, so would prepare elaborate bogus defenses for the benefit of their listeners while preparing their real defense in secret on hand-written messages passed between friends. Then, the trial would come, and the prosecution would be caught flat-footed by a complete reversal of the defense strategy they were expecting!

But, fun as that was (and Mandela does seem to have a lot of fun speculating how many hours the prosecution wasted preparing for a defense which never happened), you can’t win in a court stacked with bought judges.

The time at Robben Island seems unfathomable. 19 years in a prison where you’re exposed to frigid ocean breezes, forced to quarry rocks (with a quota, lest you be beaten!), and guards who are often sadistic racists. Somehow, through sheer force of will and some lucky breaks, Mandela still manages to organize with his fellow ANC prisoners to affect change within the prison and in the ANC proper (still located well away on the mainland, and also largely driven underground by an extensive surveillance state). He’s able to get a government official (who came on a surprise inspection) to replace a particularly brutal guard, able to end the quarry quotas, and get real blankets for the inmates (albeit after more than a decade of trying). He was also able to establish a small correspondence school library for some of the inmates. Despite his successes here and there, the prison time almost destroys him — in his 19 years at Robben, I believe he was able to see his wife around five times, and each visit lasted no more than twenty minutes (and the guards would never say, “two minutes left!” They would simply whisk his wife away the second the twenty minutes was up, a point which he seemed very bitter about). The island, by design, is cut-off from the events going on in South Africa, and newspapers of any sort are considered extreme contraband by the guards, resulting in long periods where Mandela has no idea what’s going on in the world.

But, despite the trials, literal and figurative, he’s slowly reintroduced back into South African society. As the South African government’s world standing begins to disintegrate due to apartheid, they pull Mandela out of Robben Island and put him in a more palatial jail back on the mainland. This situation lasts for a few years more, but during the interim he’s able to get re-acquainted with ANC leadership as well as local and world events. The day finally comes where he’s released from prison and starts working toward suffrage for his fellow black South Africans, with the sometimes helping hand of de Klerk.

Excellent, excellent stuff here. Mandela led an interesting life, and his autobiography highlights only a small but great portion of it. In having read it, I was struck yet again how often great leaders tend to be able to look past insults offered them, look beyond the petty fighting of today, and work toward making a different tomorrow. Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mandela all seem to share this trait, and it constantly amazes me how this ability grants them a unique window in which to make their move, which they invariably do.

4 stars

Falling Leaves and A Thousand Pieces of Gold by Adeline Yen Mah

A Thousand Pieces of Gold is a proverbial history of China. I came across it while I was walking through the University of Scranton campus on a late summer day. The library was having an end of the season book sale, and I saw it on the cart. It seemed interesting enough, so I picked it up (I believe it ran me a dollar).

The book deals with Chinese history by explaining some of its “foundation” proverbs by putting them into context. As one might expect, in a country with a history and culture as dated as China’s, their lexicon has adopted a great deal of pithy remarks which drive home decisive meanings. According to the author, it’s considered a mark of great erudition in Chinese culture to be able to succinctly drop a proverb at the right time. This book seeks to put forward a proverb, and then expounds on its unique meaning by going into Chinese history and elaborating on its origin story. However, the author often intersperses the historical account with a story from her own childhood, and how the proverb came up in her affairs growing up (more on this later).

The history is interesting, and some of the proverbs certainly have their English counterparts, and I’ll provide a handful after I give this book its rating, as the main focus of this particular review is Falling Leaves.

A Thousand Pieces of Gold gets 3 stars from me. It’s an easy read about a topic about which I know almost nothing, and it has some neat phrases to put into your lexicon.

“Yi zi qian jin” — One written word is worth a thousand pieces of gold — aka, Five Stars

“Ren xin nan ce” — The human heart is difficult to fathom — no doubt!

“Luo ye gui gen” — Falling leaves return to their roots — typically used to say that children age and then return home

I was wandering the library one day and couldn’t decide what to pick up. As it happened, I had recently finished A Thousand Pieces of Gold and decided now would be as good a time as any to try out Falling Leaves. Whereas Gold only tangentially touched on Yen Mah’s life, Falling Leaves is her true autobiography. Before going further, I wish to state, unequivocally, that if you ever feel that your family life sucks, or that no has it as bad as you, that no family can be as fucked up as yours, pull your head out of your ass and open Falling Leaves . The tagline to this book is, The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter.

Adeline was born in Tianjin, China, in 1937. In China, it’s tough enough being born female, but Adeline had the added luck of having her mother die in childbirth, which marks her as unlucky from there on out. Going forward, you have to admit that there might well be some truth to that! Her father quickly remarried to a fashionable (yet evil) young French/Chinese half-breed. Adeline’s father was a very busy businessman, who co-ran his father’s import/export business with his father. In short, as the war progresses Adeline’s grandfather signs his share of the business over to his son in order to avoid being killed by Japanese thugs. After the war, his son refuses to let him back in as co-owner, and instead gives his father a living allowance.

However, Adeline’s father considers the actually handling of family money to be somewhat beneath him, so he entrusts the money to his new wife to distribute. She does so quite willingly, only asking that her brother-in-law humiliate himself before her every time he needs money. He doesn’t, and quickly becomes something of a pauper.

So, enter Adeline. She has three older brothers and one older sister (from her true mother) and one younger brother and sister from her new mother. The father’s business is quite profitable, and he’s considered a pillar of the community, which is to say that the family is rather well off. Now, there’s a great schism and power struggle in this house, where the youngest children are given every special treatment, culminating in a completely separate floor of the house just for them. The rest of the children are left to fend for themselves, and quickly learn that any sleight against the youngest children will be punished severely… whereas anything done to Adeline will not even be noticed. So she is the constant whipping girl of the house, the one person for whom no punishment is too severe or no injustice too callous to be inflicted upon.

Adeline’s grandfather bought her and her brothers and sisters pet ducklings. One day, after her father’s German Shepherd finished his dog training, he wanted to demonstrate to the family how well-behaved his dog had become. He told his son to fetch a duckling for the demonstration. His son fetched Adeline’s duckling. The father put the duckling a short distance from his German Shepherd. Within a moment the duckling received a fatal wound, and Adeline was left with nothing — no solace from her father, nothing from her step-mother, and I believe her brother kicked her several times for crying in a hallway.

The only support her family offers her comes from her aunt and grandfather. Both of them have been marginalized by her step-mother, and while they themselves have little material comforts to offer, they do give her the support and love she needs to get through the first few years. They become something akin to tutors to her ( A Thousand Pieces of Gold was inspired by his tutoring her in the Chinese proverbs, as well as his hobby of writing them in calligraphy) and she learns that, while she can control little else in her family life, she can absolutely dominate in school if she works it hard enough.

So, she does well at school, only to her aunt and Grandfather’s enjoyment. However, it is around this time that world events catch up to her, and she’s separated from her aunt and grandfather by the Communist Revolution, which forces her family to migrate to Hong Kong. Through some tenacity on her part, she’s able to convince her father to put her up at a Christian boarding school, where she is quickly thought to be an orphan by staff as no one ever visits her. She catches her big break when, over a Christmas holiday where she’s the only person left on campus, she sees an ad to write a play for non-native-English speakers. As she has nothing else to do, she writes it and sends it on its way.

Many months later, at which point she’d more or less forgotten about it, she discovers she won first prize. This event gets her published in the papers, which gives her father a lot of “face” among the community, which in turn forces him to think about his daughter’s future. He decides to send her to medical school in London.

At this point I’ll trim much of the synopsis going forward. Suffice it to say, she’s betrayed by her one “good brother” who decides he’ll never get any family inheritance if he stays on good relations with her. Her sister, who quit school and lived in Communist China, begs and pleads for her help getting her children to America (where Adeline had come to settle), which Adeline agrees to, later learning that her sister was learning secrets through her kids and then undermining her to the rest of the family. It culminates when the father gets Alzheimer’s, and their step-mother succeeds in refurbishing the will so none of the children get anything but a pittance (including her own, which by this point realized she was scum and disowned her long before).

Now, Falling Leaves is typically not the sort of story I’d opt to read (as I tend to stick to non-fiction). However, it must be said that this is an eye-opening autobiography — while there is little to commend her family life, you have to admire the sheer tenacity to keep going. It would have been very easy to say, “fuck it!” and end it in her situation, but she didn’t, and in the end she met a guy who supported her and apparently makes her life worth all the bullshit she went through prior. Also, it is an interesting insight to how Chinese politics disintegrated her family (as well, I’d assume, many millions of others).

4 stars.

Posted January 20, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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