Posts Tagged ‘Todd N.’s Picks’

Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know By Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax

January 27, 2014

I have friend who is died of cancer. He was 46 years old, married and  the father of a teenage boy. A few years ago he was getting violently ill. His doctors told him the cancer had spread throughout his body, his stomach, his lungs, his throat. When I found out my friend was sick,  a mutual friend of ours set up a time that the three of us could just hang out and chat. He told me the radiation therapy made him feel bad for days and then he would feel better for a few days. This triggered a memory in my mind of something I had read recently about the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Apparently the radiation from the accident has spread from Japan to California and it is a deadly force that all life forms must reckon with. I wondered: “How could the same process that is extending, albeit briefly, my friends life also be a ghoulish unstoppable menace?”

Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know has, in very simple terms, helped me understand this conundrum. Turns out we are radioactive beings living on a radioactive planet in a radioactive galaxy. The authors clearly give you the facts and debunk myths about this often misunderstood energetic process. Radiation is in the most mundane of everyday encounters. Tanning salons produce an enormous amount of radiation, an amount that actually rivals the sun, which is essentially a giant ball of radiation. Dr. Gale’s poetic metaphor for cigarette smoking is: “intentionally inhaling a small nuclear weapon into your lungs.” Now that I know more about radiation and understand, in a small way, how it helped my friend, the arbitrary cruelty of fate seems somehow less so.

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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

January 31, 2013

Over the last year or so I have been somewhat intrigued and also baffled by the Steampunk phenomenon. Even though I have read the Wikipedia page and summaries from other sources, I still don’t get it. Why are people obsessed with this sort of H.G. Wells’s vision of the future? Somehow I feel it is a shortcoming on my part that I don’t understand this movement.

That said, if Steampunk is your thing you might want to check out The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and the Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. One could think of it as sort of the roots of Steampunk. In this volume Holmes seamlessly melds the worlds of Science and Literature, including Mary Shelley, a Steampunk fav, or so I hear.

Essentially, Holmes documents how in a just a few decades scientists re-arranged the way we think about the solar system and the universe (William and Caroline Shelley), a revolution in the science of chemistry (Humphry Davy) and human flight by use of Balloons, (Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier). These discoveries were immensely influential on the artists of the time, Yeats, Shelley, Blake, Horace Walpole, you name it, they all had plenty to say, some quite prescient, about the startling scientific advancements of their age.

One of the accomplishments of this book is how Holmes conveys a sense of a time when science and it’s achievements were not only marveled at by a largely illiterate public, but were accepted as essentially positive ideas that would only help humans and improve our quality of life. Science and technology seem to be moving at such an accelerated speed that it is beyond the grasp of most people and often met with a bit of trepidation. Perhaps that is a clue to the Steampunk fantasy. It is a vision of a time when science solved problems instead of a post-Hiroshima world where it seems to mainly create them.

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The Idea Factory by John Gertner

November 9, 2012

In John Gertner’s wonderful The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, he mentions a comment made by Bill Baker: “…all of human experience can be expressed in binary digital terms”.  As far back as the 1950’s, or so the story goes, there were several scientists, truly brilliant minds, who were working on what we call cell phones. They also worked on and invented many more gadgets that currently shape our world. This book is the story of how all of this happened. The tome is quite fascinating and written at a caffeine injected speed. Many stories or biographies could be written with this book as an original source of inspiration. Gertner tells us that these are the people who invented our present.

But this reader was left with the question: is all of this a good thing? To be sure, all of the technology that we currently live with has certainly made many things in our lives more convenient, but I am not convinced it has made them wholly better. I realize that I am not a young man anymore, and that it could very well be true that I am an old fuddy-duddy. However, it is strange to see groups of people sitting together not conversing but staring at their smartphones. Manners seem to have also disappeared with the ubiquity of these devices. Alas, I am beginning to obscure the lines between observation and judgment.

Read The Idea Factory if you have any nascent interest in science, technology, ingenuity, industry, and people with vision. I left this volume with a little bit of hope. I felt that if people can create and reconstruct reality just out of sheer will and imagination, then surely we can solve the seemingly overwhelming problems of our own time. Maybe people in the future will look back at what we do, the way we look at Bell Laboratories, and become inspired, not discouraged, maybe not.

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Munich 1938: Appeasement and World War II by David Faber

October 11, 2012

On May 15th 2008 Chris Matthews asked conservative pundit Mr. Kevin James, a fairly simple question. What did he do? Mr. James had no idea. Several times he replied “He was an appeaser!” He did not know the answer at all. It is a painful exchange to watch. Near the end Mr. Mathews said “When you make a historical reference you better know what you’re talking about.” Matthews added “Gee you guys are really blank slates.” It is my sincere hope that Mr. James has read David Faber’s Munich 1938 since that embarrassing moment.

So what did happen in Munich in 1938? Faber’s tome illustrates this diplomatic catastrophe in beautiful detail and earnest tone. What happened that was so fateful that Mr. James had no idea about? In 1938 the then Prime Minister of England, Neville Chamberlain signed an agreement with Adolf Hitler that would concede the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany. This was an area that had a large population of German ethnicity and that spoke German. When Chamberlain returned to England he was greeted by throngs of happy people. They believed that by appeasing Hitler he had avoided war. Some, including Winston Churchill, disagreed they thought this would only make Hitler think he could do whatever he desired with impunity. Ever quotable, Churchill said “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.” Chamberlain did however continue a re-armament program. The logic was that it would be ridiculous to hope that other countries would disarm.

The public opinion of the Munich agreement started to erode after the madness of Kristallnacht on November 9th and 10th, 1938. Chamberlain still hoped for peace but when Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939. England declared war on Germany. James was comparing Obama to Chamberlain trying to make him look weak. His unbelievable ignorance was upsetting because not only was he not aware of the basic facts but more importantly he was not aware of the nuances of the situation. In 1938 England and France were still building monuments to the millions of soldiers who died in World War one. No one, save Hitler and his administration, wanted a conflict on that level again.

It is absurd when people try to reduce history to sound bites and talking points. It’s dangerous when the aforementioned are completely hollow.

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Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

February 17, 2011

Have you ever washed dishes? I’m not talking about washing up after dinner. I mean a dishwasher job at a restaurant. Well, I have. Of the numerous degrading and humiliating experiences I’ve endured in my lifetime, it has to be in the top five. Some of my degrading and humiliating experiences were so rotten that I am sure I have blocked them out so I can go on with my life. One can say that there is something noble in an honest day’s work, however, when I look back on those days I don’t recall ever feeling noble or anything else for that matter. I do remember vacillating between misery and just feeling numb, so I guess I felt something. You are constantly derided and chastised by your fellow co-workers. You are constantly covered with a vomitous, gelatinous substance. You are covered in water. Water that gets into your shoes and makes your jeans feel great in 90-degree weather. Your hands become infused with bleach and when you collapse into bed at night you will constantly be awakened by the bleach fumes when your hands go anywhere near your face. That was my experience, a middle-class, middle-brow, know-nothing from the suburbs.  I cannot imagine what it was like for George Orwell A.K.A.  Eric Blair. Mr. Blair received a King’s scholarship to Eton. One of the top preparatory schools in the world then and now. Blair was raised upper middle class in England at the height of the power and reach of the British Empire. He could have gone on to Oxford or Cambridge and who knows where from there but I am certain he would not have been washing dishes unless he wanted to, which apparently he did. Orwell/Blair took this burden upon himself. He decided that he wanted to see how it was to be truly poor and destitute. He became a vagabond and at one-point was washing dishes in a grimy bistro in Paris. He slept outside covered in newspapers, begged for food and eventually became quite sickly. Well, I don’t want to give away too much. The book is excellent. If life’s got you down, read this. You will be greatly appreciative of your station when you finish the final page.

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The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

February 16, 2011

I haven’t known many wealthy people in my life. But I have known a few and let me tell ya. They are different than you and I. Well, me for sure. The wealthy people that I know have, as the song goes “Got their mind on their money and their money on their mind.” Believe it. Pretty much everything was about money to them. Everything was thought in terms of how much money could one make off of something that they did or were going to do. Listening to them I realized that in their world making a lot of money was something to be revered on the level of finding a cure for cancer. But any problem that they had, which were few, could usually be solved by their money. They did not work and they ate good food all the time. So while reading The Great Gatsby I’m torn. On one hand I get Jay Gatsby. If I fell in love with some super rich girl and wanted her and her lifestyle I can understand doing anything to get it, even consorting with serious gangsters. On the other hand I’m with Nick Carroway, who yes, has the advantage of having money, but can also see the shallowness of the rich and understands that they live lives of ridiculous privilege. I think about all of this when I plow through bills, receipts and credit card offers. Now that we in America, according David Stockman Ronald Regan’s budget director, have the largest economic inequality gap in history. The Great Gatsby is more relevant than it’s been in decades. Read it while your five dollar latte cools.

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Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

February 14, 2011

When  J.D. Salinger died last year, I, like everyone else who cared, started to reminisce about Catcher in the Rye, his most prominent work. As an adult I can look at Catcher in the Rye from a somewhat wiser perspective. When I first read it, some 31 years ago I was thirteen, perhaps the perfect age. The emotional connection was visceral and sort of all encompassing. I then wanted to read everything by Salinger. The first one I attempted and never finished until about 1o years later was Nine Stories. As far as I can recall, I made it to the the third story. Ten years later I finished the book because I supposed I needed closure. At the time I was still in the throes of adolescence and I was not impressed. Now at 43 I have finally arrived. Understanding these stories and appreciating them for the works of art that they are gives me insight into my own character. In one way or another I can relate to all of these stories. The stories are warm, melancholy, literate and down to earth. The conversations sound like something you hear everyday from strangers and the people you love. Perhaps that is the feeling I get from these stories. I feel as though I am greeting an old friend from long ago. The warmth is there, the familiarity is there and yet somehow it is strikingly sad and distant. The sadness in these stories is not tragic, rather they evoke a certain world weariness that feels comfortable because it’s so real.

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Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum

June 17, 2010


Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum

First, let me spoil the ending.  It turns out that the responsibility for the Final Solution, the concentration camps and most of the culpability for the atrocities of WWII rests with Adolf Hitler.  Not exactly revelatory news for most people, however, in Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum examines the complicated, often tortuous theories that have been presented, primarily by scholars, to “explain” the scale and barbarism of the Final Solution.  The ending, in which the author somewhat nervously concludes that he mostly blames Hitler, is not nearly as fascinating as his main thread, which is, what the attempts to explain Hitler says about the explainers.  With the rigorous intellectual discipline he later exhibited in The Shakespeare Wars Rosenbaum examines each theory on its own merits.  It was the fault of the Germans.  It was the fault of the Jews.  The holocaust didn’t happen, and if it did, it was the fault of middle level bureaucrats who just didn’t know what to do with all those Jews in camps.  He also examines the varying theories on the level of Hitler’s culpability.  He began his political campaign with the Final Solution in mind.  He came to his decision about the Final Solution on this date.  He came to his decision on that date.  He never actually authorized the Final Solution.  Hitler really changed when Geli Raubal died.  Or he really changed when he murdered Geli Raubal.   Hitler can be explained.  Hitler defies explanation.

What becomes so compelling is not the explanations themselves, but rather the obsessions of the people doing the explaining, not to mention the obsessions of the author Ron Rosenbaum himself.  For the explainers, explaining Hitler is also a method of explaining themselves, explaining their place in the world and their relationship with God.  To Ron Rosenbaum, the argument also seems to be a construct to explain the nature of evil.  The question asked most frequently in the book is a meditation on evil.  If we can’t call Hitler evil, if people can explain away Hitler’s evil, then who qualifies?  If not Hitler, then who?   The book was very controversial, as the cover is a baby picture of Hitler.  Offensive to some is the very idea that Hitler ever could have been an innocent child, that Hitler was a man, a human being who became a genocidal monster.  It is clear, for many of the explainers,  that the idea of Hitler’s possible humanity is terrifying, and that rather than question the nature of evil, it calls into question the nature of humanity.

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

June 16, 2010

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

Even though I was only seven I remember watching Walter Cronkite on television with my father and seeing footage of the final helicopter leaving the American embassy with people trying to hold on as it took to the sky. I don’t know why but it struck me as something very important. Something was wrong. I also remember watching clips of the Richard Nixon resignation speech. My father told me “Here’s something you’ll probably never see again in your lifetime.” He’s been right so far. Even as a child, something about Nixon seemed wrong to me. I find it queer and oddly compelling that even though I was to young to comprehend,  I had witnessed one of the most imporatant political downfalls in history. How did this person, whom Senator Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern conservative movement,  called  “the most dishonest man I have ever met” ascend to the highest office in the land? Perlstein has the whole unhappy, depressing story of how this dishonest, deceptive, bigoted, jaw droppingly venal and hateful man mudslung his way to the top. To make a long story ( 896 pages!) short, he consistenly appealed to the worst aspects of human nature to get a vote. Red baiting, bigotry, fear and  an almost psychotic mean-spiritedness were his stock in trade. With “Nixonland” Perlstein synthesizes all of this into our current deplorable politcal conversation.  Perlstein argues very convincingly over some eight hundred pages that Richard Nixon is the spiritual father to the nasty divisive politics that currently poisons our country. I realize this seems pretty melodramatic at first  but remember he was an American President, re-elected in 1972 by the largest margin any president has ever received. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Neighbors: a novel by Thomas Berger

June 15, 2010

Neighbors: a novel by Thomas Berger

In my adolescence, which continued on in to my late twenties, I scoffed at most suburban traditions, customs and goals. Hell, it certainly didn’t seem to make my parents happy. Why would I strive for that? Instead of a carbon copy of yet another drone goose-stepping around in Docksiders, what I imagined myself to be instead was some sort of combination of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Chandler’s Phillipe Marlowe. I would be wild, free, sexy, cunning, lethal and hard as steel. Now in my forties, I have a mortgage, a wife, a dog and lawn to mow this Saturday. I work 40 hours a week and I am chipping away at grad school. A hammock in the backyard and a gin and tonic awaits my imminent arrival.

No, I have not become something resembling the fictional heroes of my misspent youth. I have instead become something closer to a fictional character I met in my early adulthood, my thirties to be exact. A few years ago a biography of one of my childhood heroes, John Belushi, was published. Some of his broad humor still stands up, although much of it does not. While reading the Belushi bio (Belushi: a Biography by Judith Pisano and Tanner Colby) I was reminded of a film called “Neighbors”, made just before he died. The film was uneven but of note because of the atypical role played by John Belushi. The movie was based on a book Neighbors by Thomas Berger, author of the deservedly beloved Little Big Man, which is worth your time as well. I checked out the book and eagerly read this source material for a movie that I remembered as oddly droll rather than knee slapping hilarious. And so it was. Earl Kleese is a mild mannered, bespectacled, somewhat overweight, newly christened suburbanite who moves with his wife and daughter into a house in a new development. In suburbia, Kleese sees everything that he should have control over, his house, his family, his faithful dog slipping out of his control. This chaos is unleashed by his neighbors Harry and Ramona. They are the personification of chaos. They sweep in like a hurricane and swiftly turn all of Earl’s preconceived notions upside down. The tone of the novel becomes macabre, nihilistic, Kafkaesque even and yet marvelously funny. I interpret this novel as parable for how Suburbia emasculates men. Domesticity may not be the best route however it may be the only choice that keeps death or barbarism at bay. It seems, however, as one seeks solace inside the womb of certainty, that by looking hard enough you can suss out the confusion, fear and mayhem that you think you want to escape.

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