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The Vanishing of a Species? A Look at Modern Man's Predicament by a Geologist
The Vanishing of a Species? A Look at Modern Man's Predicament by a Geologist
by Peter Gretener
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.95
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of a time capsule: a warning from thirty years ago, Nov. 5 2009
This book is unusual in that most of it was written prior to something like 1980 and put aside until its author passed away and then it was edited and published just this year by the author's son, Nick Gretener who is a lawyer.

The author Peter Gretener was a Professor of Geology at the University of Calgary, Canada. The species referred to in the title is human and Gretener's prognosis is a question mark. What I think is interesting is that much of what he worried about is the same today as was thirty years ago: pollution, war, ignorance of the masses, academics in ivory towers, rampant greed (especially corporate), too many people, energy shortages to come, etc.

He was also worried about the disconnect and lack of communication between what C.P. Snow famously called "the two cultures," identified by Gretener as the humanities/social sciences and the natural sciences. Gretener comes down hard on the social sciences, e.g.,

"Contrary to science, social science has been outright destructive and is largely responsible for the decline of the social fabric in all western countries. To expect social scientists to find solutions to basically scientific problems is ludicrous. Science to them is a strange world, and they are not prepared to come up with any viable solutions. Problems that have been created by scientists must be solved by scientists." (p. 216)

I tend to agree that the social sciences have been naïve and arrogant while their academic leaders often lack interdisciplinary knowledge and awareness (one of Gretener's salient points). However I think he has gone too far here, and indeed such statement only furthers the divide between disciplines that Snow and Gretener himself deplore.

The central problem and the reason that we may "vanish" as a species according to Gretener is basically because we are living beyond our means. He saw that back in the 1970s when there were something like four billion people on the planet. Today as we close in on seven billion the situation has only grown more acute. His solution comes in the form of three commandments constituting what he calls "the human revolution." The commandments from pages 229-230 are:

1. Thou Shalt Use Your Head
2. Thou Shalt Give Your Fellow Man a Fair Shake
3. Thou Shalt Not Be a Waste Maker.

I have a problem with numbers 1 and 3. " Thou Shalt Use Your Head" is vague and I think people are using their heads. It's just that we are not looking far enough ahead to see the potential disaster to come, or perhaps we see it but don't really care.

"Thou Shalt Not Be a Waste Maker" is almost humorous in that we cannot help making waste (!). The problem is we need to clean up and recycle our wastes.

Number 2. "Thou Shalt Give Your Fellow Man a Fair Shake" is a variant on the Golden Rule, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and is indeed golden.

More to the point and part of Gretener's farsightedness is his concept of "effective population" by which he means there is an optimum number of people AND their use of resources that the planet can sustain. He sees westerners as consuming too many resources especially of the non-renewable kind. Clearly he anticipated the postmodern concept of "ecological footprint" which is defined as a measure of human demand on the Earth's ecosystems.

Gretener rightly sees this overconsumption and pollution as a threat not to the planet itself but to human survival. He writes: "The planet is doing just fine, and the minor skin cancer it has developed will in no way affect the future existence of this planet. It is not the planet we wish to save but rather our personal and collective existence, which is quite a different matter." (p. 215)

On a deeper level Gretener feels that the imminent failure of our species (unless we change our ways) is not merely material but spiritual. He writes, "If the term Homo sapiens remains the designation of a mechanical genius and a spiritual imbecile, the fate of the species is, indeed, sealed." (p. 84)

Gretener's point of view was influenced as he acknowledges to some extent by the works of George Gaylord Simpson whom Gretener curiously calls "one of the most outstanding minds in the field of geology." (p. 232) I suspect Simpson was indeed (incidentally) a geologist but more significantly one of the authors of the modern evolutionary synthesis in biology and a world class paleontologist.

Gretener was also influenced by Vance Packard, whom I recall as the author the The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and other works of social criticism; Robert Ardrey, famous for African Genesis (1961); and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winning author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and other works. It was nostalgic for me to be reminded of these authors whom I also read and admired many years ago.

The strength of this book is in allowing the reader a perspective on how long ago the present predicament was identified. We are able to reflect on what has been done and not done (mostly the latter) and to see what technological and other developments have altered or not altered the situation. Kudos go to Nick Gretener who did an outstanding job of editing the manuscript and who made a number of illuminating comments.

To Have & Have Not
To Have & Have Not
DVD ~ Humphrey Bogart
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bogie and Bacall at their best together, Aug. 8 2007
This review is from: To Have & Have Not (DVD)
This was billed as "Hemingway's To Have and Have Not," but if there is one thing it isn't, it isn't Hemingway's novel. It is a fine quasi-remake of Casablanca (1942) with Humphrey Bogart playing essentially the same kind of character he played in Casablanca, a worldly wise, cynical America ex-pat who doesn't want to get involved in politics as the storm clouds of World War II gather. Instead of a saloon in Casablanca Bogie has a fishing boat in Martinique. Instead of Ingrid Bergman he has Lauren Bacall. Instead of Claude Rains as perfect of police, he has Dan Seymour as Capt. Renard working for the Germans. Instead of Dooley Wilson to play the piano and sing, he has Hoagy Carmichael. Instead of Peter Lorre as a sniveling lowlife, he has Walter Brennan as an alcoholic friend. In either case, Bogie ends up helping the Free French even though he'd rather not get involved.

This was Lauren Bacall's debut. She was 22-years-old and legend has it that she and Bogart, who was in his forties, fell in love during the filming. She plays a sultry babe with a hard edge, and she does it very well. Her famous line, "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow" more or less defined her character.

I found Walter Brennan's Eddie annoying, but then I never liked lushes. Dan Seymour is memorable as the portly man with a scar who speaks with weighty precision as he works for the Vichy government. Hoagy Carmichael warbles a tune or two and Dolores Moran looks good enough to eat. Howard Hawks' direction is sharp and focused, although supposedly he was eating his heart out because Bacall preferred Bogart over him.

Clearly this is all about Bogart and Bacall, probably their best work together. They seem delighted with one another. And they were.

Macao
Macao
DVD ~ Philip Ahn
Offered by polski_film
Price: CDN$ 19.86
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting exotic film noir featuring a sultry Jane Russell, Aug. 8 2007
This review is from: Macao (DVD)
This begins with a chase scene: a man in a white suit and white hat running, being chased by some thugs and a sinister Chinese guy with a knife. The man stops and looks back, forgetting Satchel Paige's dictum: "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you." They are in fact only dozen yards or so behind. But he starts running again and miraculously they are now further behind! (Typical chase scene camera work resulting in illogic. But never mind.) He ducks around a corner and hides. One of the thugs pauses, turns and sees him, which gives the man in the white suit a chance to knock him off his feet with a swift uppercut. Then he runs off in the direction he had turned. I was thinking how much he would be ahead of everybody by now if he had just kept running.

Chase scene ends with a knife thrown at him landing in the middle of his back. He's a cop from New York. Dead. Somehow this scene reminded me of something from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Next scene is much better. Jane Russell as Julie Benson is in a cabin room on a passenger ship with a touristy kind of guy who's dancing, if you can call it that. He wants more than dancing. Julie pushes him away. He won't take no for an answer. She takes off a high heel and throws it at him. He ducks and the high heel flies out the window and hits Robert Mitchum who's playing an adventurer named Nick Cochran who just happened to be walking by. Boy meets girl, cute.

After a fashion he rescues the lady in distress. She's a hard talking, sultry babe with attitude. He wants to continue the party after knocking the masher out, but Julie isn't interested. So he takes her and kisses her. Very manly. She still isn't interested and tells him to beat it.

He does, but some time later he notices that his wallet is missing. We see her take out the dough and toss the wallet overboard. A few minutes later she meets up with William Bendix playing a global traveling salesman named Lawrence C. Trumble. Of course we know this is an elaborate disguise and he is somebody other than who he pretends to be. The "C" stands for Cicero, he later tells Nick, "but don't tell anybody." Trumble makes with the pleasantries, but Julie brushes him off. He tells her what he's selling. One thing she likes is nylons. He gives her a free pair, "no strings attached." She takes off her old nylons right there on the deck, tossing them overboard, one by one. Nick manages to be passing on the deck beneath and catches one of them as she puts on the new nylons. Later she asks, "Did you get a nice view?"

It's Macao, 36 miles from Hong Kong. It's hot. People are smoking and smuggling and gambling, and ex-pats who are stranded tend to make friends quickly. Naturally there's romance with Julie falling for Nick and vice versa, but some misunderstandings come between them. One has to do with Margie, played by the always intriguing Gloria Grahame, who, unlike Jane Russell, actually has an Oscar statue for her work in The Bad and the Beautiful from 1952, which, alas, I haven't seen. Seems that Margie would like to get her mitts on Nick and so manages at the urging of her boss, who owns a gambling nightclub, to make it seem like Nick bedded her down, or vice-versa, as you like.

This reminded me a bit of Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have Not (1944) in that we have an American in an exotic locale with a dame in a joint amid some nefarious goings-on. As in To Have and Have Not, Jane Russell, like Lauren Becall, does some singing. One of the numbers is "Make It One for My Baby and One More for the Road," which she does very well. Russell hails from a time when movies featured full-figured babes, and she was one of the best. Sexy, shapely and not a bad actress, Russell melted a few hearts in her time.

In a way "Macao" is almost a parody of Far Eastern intrigue films, which might account for the slight Abbott and Costello feel. I think this may come from the fact that Josef von Sternberg began as director, but Howard Hughes fired him and had Nicholas Ray finish up. Anyway, this moves right along and there is some nice chemistry between the two stars. Personally I got a kick out of seeing them both again after all these years.

Bottom line: a kind of film noir done with atmosphere and a lot of snappy one-liners. Definitely worth seeing.

Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest
Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest
by Albert A. Dalia
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 19.75
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5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary and wondrous tale, Aug. 7 2007
Wine and dreams are at the heart of this remarkable novel. Frankly I have never read anything like it. Dalia who is a Chinese scholar has recreated a style and a world view long gone from this realm, a style that interprets the world as dream and mystery, a style that celebrates Dao as an occult religion.

The form of the novel is a quest. Li Bo, a celebrated poet from the eighth century of the current era, whose drunkenness has led to his banishment from the imperial court, is the central character. He has lost his power with words. He is a poet who can no longer rhyme, to whom metaphors no longer occur. He and his warrior companion, Ah Wu, are traveling west as the adventure begins. What will they find? Will they encounter the Daoist immortals? And what does it mean to acquire the Dragon Pool Sword? Is it a curse as Ah Wu believes or an instrument to bring about heavenly recognition to Li Bo and perhaps a return to the imperial court with his poetic powers restored?

Dalia's prose, like those of a fairy tale master, immerses the reader in the mists of the long ago, into a world in which ghosts and dragons, shamanesses and wondrous magicians, goddesses and monsters, exist in reality as they do in myth. He recalls a vision of this world in which there is no line drawn between the mysterious and the mundane, between the world of spirit and that of mortal flesh. The gods and the goddesses are real. Monkeys can catch ghosts and creatures such as the Albino Swordsman can enter your dreams and kill you while you lie sleeping. The dragon can assume horrific forms, terrible and awesome to the eyes. And mortals can mingle with immortals.

To write such a novel requires a child-like love of mystical adventure combined with a deep understanding of the subconscious of human beings. It requires a love for the legends and the mysteries of the past. Dalia's quest is to take us back to the supernatural world that existed for the people who lived during the time of the Tang dynasty and to allow that consciousness to invade our minds and envelop us in wonder and mystery. His is a splendid accomplishment, a fantasy rich in imagination and history, an atmospheric tale charged with the phantasmagoric.

Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut
Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut
by James Marcus
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.87
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Being a literary editor at Amazon in the heyday, July 19 2004
There are "editors" at Amazon today, but what they mostly do is censor reviews by Amazon.com customers. There was, however, a Hellenic time not too many years ago when euphoria wafted across dot.com land like the heady scent of flowers in springtime, and nobody really knew what they were doing, and everybody was going to get filthy rich.
It was then in 1996 that James Marcus, literary type, was lured to Amland to bring, he thought, some literary class to a commercial venture. He was thus among the original denizens of Amazonia, #77 on the hired list--a list that eventually included over eight thousand names. Hired to write quickie reviews and interview writers and blurb up the Amazon pages, Marcus also learned how to answer e-mail cheerily and helpfully, how to change the content on Amazon's pages, and occasionally how to stuff product into boxes for shipping.
One can see that Marcus was a little older, noticeably less geeky, and somewhat of a literary dandy compared to his fellow stock option holders. One can further see that he played the game with an eye on the exit and was never completely comfortable being a corporate cog. I was reminded of the strong allegiance to the corporate family that the modern corporation demands of its white-collar types, the long hours, the frequent meetings and the morale- and team-building conferences, the pep rallies, the employee trips and outings, etc.
The story here is not a tell-all (although there are some juicy tidbits) nor is it a chronicle of the rise and fall, and rise again of one of the Internet's stellar giants. Instead it is a very personal tale of being hired by Amazon in 1996, what he did, whom he met and worked with, what they said and did, and why he eventually left. His own personal rise and fall of fortune, peaking at about $9-million early in the year 2000 (consisting mostly of unvested stock options that he couldn't yet sell) and ending during the meltdown, is an interesting one nonetheless, and Marcus tells it well. As a literary type, he takes his time to polish the prose and use authentic diction; and there is considerable evidence of a brow-knitted search for le bon mot, which he often finds. Mainly, he has uncluttered the text and attended to the reader's needs, and so the story flows.
One can see, of course, that this was premeditated. Marcus knew he was going to write about his experiences at Amazon as soon as he was hired, or perhaps before. That is, he took notes while he whistled while he worked, which is why he can simulate conversations eight years old and can recall the exact titles of books he chased down in Amazon.com's mammoth Dawson Street warehouse.
But one is struck by how downright mundane Marcus gets at times. Here he is at the warehouse doing the obligatory help-out during the Christmas rush. He's talking about the employees who ship the stuff year round. He says, "They considered themselves the core of the business, the extreme employees. Yet they weren't being rewarded with stock options like their white-collar counterparts. It made for the occasional display of territorial rudeness." And then he gives us some action and conversation that amounts to "a tall guy with a tongue stud" standing in his way and not responding to his "can I get by?"
Not exactly exhilarating stuff, and to be honest, some of this will bore a lot of readers.
More interesting is this story: Marcus was at a morale-building ski trip conference in his first year at Amazon. He joined a group at the hotel bar playing a parlor game in which you have to name a movie star of the same sex that you would have sex with. Jeff (the Jeff) was in the group. Guess whom Jeff Bezos named? Indiana Jones! (That would be Harrison Ford.)
Marcus's portrait of CEO and visionary Jeff Bezos is carefully if sketchily drawn, and Marcus seems to get as much of Jeff into the book as he can. There is Jeff planning, scheming, laughing, flying everywhere, appearing, speaking, guiding, cajoling, mesmerizing, seemingly having a lot of fun. Jeff even worked (briefly for show, of course) in the warehouse running a cart up and down the aisles "picking" books to send to customers.
Marcus recounts some of Jeff's mistaken purchases (what's a few hundred million dollars more or less?), and reports on once seeing Jeff give an employee a public dressing down. But mostly we see Jeff at something close to play: Jeff genially allowing himself to be dunked at a company picnic (by employees throwing a ball at a target), Jeff in a hula skirt, etc. Indeed, Marcus finds nothing negative to say (or show) about one of the Internet's most powerful moguls. One gets the sense that Jeff never showed his claws in Marcus's presence or that Marcus is being more than careful.
In the Epilogue, we see Jeff playing tennis against Anna Kournikova in a PR stunt while Marcus watches, the manuscript of this book under his arm, hoping to get Jeff's attention and hand it to him.
In the final analysis what Marcus finds out about Amazon is that it's "always day one" (one of Jeff's slogans) and what really counts is "monetizing those eyeballs" and "revenue velocity."
Bottom line: a little too precious at times, a little too mundane, but overall a good read that will especially appeal to dot.com watchers and Amazonians, past and present.

Murder By Death [Import]
Murder By Death [Import]

4.0 out of 5 stars Grade B+ Neil Simon, July 13 2004
Despite the (mostly) excellent cast this movie production of Neil Simon's play leaves a little to be desired. In particular I think that director Robert Moore needed to work harder toward getting the timing of his players down pat and focusing the jokes. I also think it was a mistake to cast Truman Capote in the role of Lionel Twain, the eccentric millionaire who invites the five world famous detectives to his estate with the idea of matching murderous wits with them and fooling them. Although he looks the part, Capote stands out like a sore thumb amidst the much more experienced and talented cast, so much so that I almost felt sorry for him. He pronounces his lines competently but with neither flair nor finesse.
The premise of the play reveals Neil Simon's satirical intent: the characters are all caricatures of famous fictional detectives: Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers ) as a Charlie Chan type; Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) as a Sam Spade type; Inspector Milo Perrier (James Coco) as a famous Belgique detective of similar name (Agatha Christie's Poirot) who could also be Georges Simenon's famous French detective (except that he cries out, "Not Frenchie--Belgie!"). The absurd plot begins as the detectives motor toward Twain's haunted, fog-shrouded castle in northern California for a dinner that is never served. Everything is played as a farce ("farce --n. 1. a comedy based on unlikely situations and exaggerated effects." --Random House College Dictionary) and everybody tries to ham it up. I particularly liked Peter Sellers as the Chinese Wang with his #3 adopted Japanese son in tow. Alec Guinness plays the blind butler ("The butler did it!") while Nancy Walker has a small part as the blind and deaf cook. David Niven is mildly amusing as the debonaire Dick Charleston who, unbeknownst to his wife (Maggie Smith), has only a buck-seventy-some in his tuxedo pocket (and some stamps) after going through some of her millions.
Representative joke: When asked by his #3 adopted Japanese son why HE has to clean up the dead body, Inspector Wang tells him, "Because your mother isn't here." By the way, the makeup on Peter Sellers ("Inspector Slanty," according to Sam Diamond) is especially well done. As usual Peter Sellers manages to look more like the character he playing than himself, so much so that one needs to do a double take to realize it is Peter Sellers at work.
One of the problems with a movie like this is that all the actors are trying to upstage one another and every line and pratfall is played as MY moment in the spotlight so there is little contrast around which to frame the best bits. Still, afficionados, especially those viewing this repeatedly, will find plenty to crack up about.
See this for Neil Simon, one of America's most popular playwrights, whose semi-sophisticated, upbeat comedies delighted theater and movie audiences for several decades beginning in the Sixties. I particularly loved The Out-of-Towners (1970) with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis; The Good-bye Girl (1977) with Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason; and the unforgettable The Odd Couple (1968) starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Simon and Peter Falk followed this up with The Cheap Detective (1978). Incidentally, Falk's work here and in The Cheap Detective and in a couple of earlier Columbo movies served as a proving ground for his long-running TV hit Columbo.

Opening Skinners Box
Opening Skinners Box
by Lauren Slater
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Controversial reevaluations vividly presented, July 6 2004
This review is from: Opening Skinners Box (Hardcover)
This is a remarkable book not only for its content, but for the way it is written. What Lauren Slater does extremely well is (1) provide a context for the experiments and personalize them; (2) insinuate herself into the narrative in meaningful ways; and (3) write the kind of prose that is vivid and psychologically engaging. She has the gift of the novelist, and she is not satisfied with the conventional surface of things.
But there is an edge to Slater's prose. She dwells on the horrific: the lobotomies, the monkeys being abused for the experimenter's purposes, the living rats with their brains exposed... She does/doesn't believe that the means of animal experimentation justifies the ends of neurological knowledge. This dialectic that she holds in her mind, now favoring the value of experimental psychology, now questioning it, may leave the reader dissatisfied and confused. Where DOES Lauren Slater stand? She says she stands "with this book" for which there is no conclusion, even though she writes a concluding chapter with that title.
So it is not so strange that among these "great psychological experiments" she finds nothing like solid ground. Instead she waffles between experimenter and experiment, between one interpretation and another. And while she addresses the experiments themselves and the controversies they raised, more significantly she addresses the experimenters themselves, challenges them with sharp and sometimes impertinent questions; and when the experimenters are not available, she finds relatives or friends and fires loaded questions at them. Slater wants to find the truth, if possible, and to be fair; but often what she finds is that she doesn't know what the truth is, and that life is oh, so complex.
This is refreshing and of course disconcerting. She began with an attitude of deep distrust, for example, toward B. F. Skinner, the man who had put his daughter in a box, the man who apparently cared more for experiment and establishing behaviorism than he did for human beings, a man whose conclusions could pave the way to a new and more horrible fascist state. But Slater plunges in and finds that his daughters loved him and that the one who supposedly committed suicide is alive and well. Slater even realizes, after being confronted by Julia Skinner Vargas, one of the daughters she interviewed by telephone, that she, Slater, hadn't read Skinner's magnum opus, Beyond Freedom and Dignity--had instead, like most of us, myself included, known it only by reputation, bad reputation.
So Slater reads the book and when she is through she compares Skinner to a "green" Al Gore and speculates that "maybe" Skinner "was the first feminist psychologist." Quite a turnaround.
But this is characteristic of Slater's approach. Become engaged. Keep an open and flexible mind. Dare to believe what others are afraid to believe. Turn on a dime. And this is right for this book since many of the experimenters did exactly that: they sought to show where the conventional wisdom was wrong; and they sought to turn psychology on its head.
The first piece I read (opening the book at random) was "On Being Sane in Insane Places." This is about how in the early 1970s, Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and eight collaborators showed up at nine different mental hospital around the country and told the shrinks they were hearing voices. The voices said one word: "Thud." They were committed even though otherwise they acted normally. Their stay was from fifty-two to seven days each.
This experiment created a sensation and a scandal in the psychiatric community and caused a complete overall in the DSM II (we have DSM IV today). The diagnostic language was rewritten so that the definitions became measurable, and the volume grew by two hundred pages.
Slater decided to replicate the experiment. She went to mental hospitals and said she heard a voice that said, "Thud." What she got were prescriptions for antipsychotics and antidepressants.
There are ten chapters and a conclusion. "Obscura," the second chapter deals with Stanley Milgram's infamous electric shock experiment which showed that ordinary people would, guided by the authority of the experimenter, administer what they thought were possibly lethal shocks to fellow human beings. Another chapter looks at Leon Festinger's experiment with infiltrating a doom's day cult and seeing what happens when doom does not arrive at the appointed hour. What happens is "cognitive dissonance"--which I would call "elaborate rationalization."
Still another chapter is devoted to the famous "Lost in the Mall" repressed memory experiment by Elizabeth Loftus which demonstrated how subject to suggestion are our memories. Loftus who, along with Katherine Ketcham, wrote The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (1994), showed how a false memory of being lost in the mall as child could be suggested to people and how they would not only come to believe it, but would confabulate all sorts of "remembered" detail around an event that never happened.
This is a book that may make some practicing psychologists uneasy. (And they may write nasty reviews.) Certainly Slater does not play to their feelings. Quite the opposite. Toward the end she asks: "At what point does experimental psychology and clinical psychology meet? Apparently at no point. I interviewed twelve licensed practicing psychologists...and none of them even knew most of these experiments, never mind used them in their work." (p. 253)
And Slater is not enchanted with the new psychopharmacology. She argues that Prozac, Zoloft, and other psychoactive drugs may have long term effects worse than lobotomies. In fact the point of Chapter 10: "Chipped" is to tell the story of a man who benefitted from a cingulotomy (the modern, streamlined lobotomy) after electroshock therapy and after "more than twenty-three...psychiatric medications" had failed him.
The walnuts pictured on the cover come from this statement about the brain on page 249: "there is still something holy about that three-pound wrinkled walnut with a sheen."

Slaughterhouse-five
Slaughterhouse-five
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Read it again, July 5 2004
This review is from: Slaughterhouse-five (Hardcover)
I know this novel fairly well having read it several times (once aloud to my students). It is about all time being always present if only we knew, or could realize it, or had a sense about time in the same way we have senses for light and sound.
It is also about the Allied fire bombings of Dresden which killed more people than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. (And so it goes.) Kurt Vonnegut begins as though writing a memoir and advises us that "All of this happened, more or less..." Of course it did not, and yet, as with all real fiction, it is psychologically true. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, an unlikely hero, somewhat in the manner of unlikely heroes to come like Forest Gump and the hero of Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, transcends time and space as he bumbles along. This is a comédie noire--a "black comedy"--not to be confused with "film noir," a cinematic genre in which the bad guys may win or at least they are made sympathetic. In comédie noire the events are horrific but the style is light-hearted. What the genres have in common is a non-heroic protagonist.
This is also a totally original work written in a most relaxing style that fuses the elements of science fiction with realism. It is easy to read (which is one of the reasons it can be found on the high school curriculum in our public schools). It is sharply satirical, lampooning not only our moral superiority, our egocentricity, but our limited understanding of time and space. And of course it is an anti-war novel in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun.
Vonnegut's view of time in this novel is like the stratification of an upcropping of rock: time past and time present are there for us to see, but also there is time future. Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians (who kidnapped him in 1967) that we are actually timeless beings who experience what we call the past, present and future again and again. And so Billy goes back to the war and forward to his marriage, and to Tralfamadore again and again. He learns that the Tralfamadorians see the stars not as bright spots of light but as "rarefied, luminous spaghetti" and human beings as "great millepedes with babies' legs at one end and old people's legs at the other." So time is not a river, nor is it a snake with its tail in its mouth. It is omnipresent, yet some things occur before and some after, but always they occur again.
And so it goes.
What I admire most about this most admirable novel is how easily and naturally Vonnegut controls the narrative and how effortlessly seems its construction. It is almost as if Vonnegut sat down one day and let his thoughts wander, and when he was through, here is this novel.
In a sense, Vonnegut invented a new novelistic genre, combining fantasy with realism, touched by fictionalized memoir, penned in a comedic mode as horror is overtaken by a kind of fatalistic yet humorous view of life. Note here the appearance of Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's alter-ego, the science fiction writer who is said to have invented Tralfamadore.
Bottom line: read this without preconceptions and read it without regard to the usual constraints. Just let it flow and accept it for what it is, a juxtaposition of several genres, a tale of fiction, that--as fiction should--transcends time and space.

Esquire Presents: What It Feels Like: *To Walk on the Moon*To Be Gored by a Bull*To Survive an Avalanche *To Swallow Swords*To Go Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel*To Be Shot in the Head*To Win the L
Esquire Presents: What It Feels Like: *To Walk on the Moon*To Be Gored by a Bull*To Survive an Avalanche *To Swallow Swords*To Go Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel*To Be Shot in the Head*To Win the L
by A.J. Jacobs
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Betcha can't read just one!, July 2 2004
This is what I call bon-bon journalism. The pieces are all under a thousand words, some are under three hundred. They are pithy, quickly sketched and to the point, written in the first person as told to some of the writers at Esquire. I call it bon-bon journalism because the book is like a box of chocolates: you pop one into your mouth and then another and before you know it you've read the whole thing!
There are sixty-one of these little tales taken from the pages of the magazine. I wouldn't be able to pick a best one, but I liked Buzz Aldrin's reprise of what it feels like to walk on the moon: "powdery dust...the sky velvety black...surreal..." Naturally he was super focused on the task and aware that "if we made a mistake, we would regret it for quite a while."
I also liked "Going over Niagara Falls in a Barrel." It was a lot more high tech than you'd think. It took them almost a year and a half to construct the barrel. "Geoffrey Petkovich, 39, self-employed" who did it with a pal got roughed up a bit. His mouthpiece "got driven, hard" into his gums. He had two cans of beer and a pack of smokes in the barrel and two hours worth of oxygen in tanks in case the barrel sank.
Good too was "What It Feels Like to Have an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder." This guy, "Craig Strobeck, 24, actor" has to take two and a half hour showers. He runs out of hot water but doesn't stop. He has to clean every inch of his body about a thousand times. Sometimes he has to get back in the shower because one area just doesn't feel clean enough.
I was surprised to learn that when giving birth all that pushing that you have to do not only pushes the baby out, but also empties the bowels, etc. leaving a clean up detail that I never heard about before. But the endorphin rush is tremendous, so says "Dee McManamy, 43, housewife."
You get the picture. I think this would be a perfect book to take on a cross country flight, just enough light reading to keep you distracted, but you might want to skip the "What It Feels Like to Be in a Plane Crash." Then again "Ellen Hassman, 55, retired advertising executive" walked away from the detached section of the plane's tail while more than thirty other people died...
As a writer, I admired the crisp way the pieces were edited: tell the story and stop.

The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America's Economic Future
The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America's Economic Future
by Laurence J. Kotlikoff
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Let them eat cake, June 29 2004
This is about the "big whammy," as the authors term it, a $51-trillion debt that America has piled up that will come home to roost upon the heads of our children and grandchildren. They will not be pleased.
The really scary thing about this story is that, although Kotlikoff and Burns wax hopeful near the end of the book, and indeed present a possible way out of the crisis, one gets the sense that they believe that there will be no remedial action and certainly no cure until the pain sets in, and then it will be too late.
Personally I won't be around to experience any of this, but my grandsons will. According to the authors, my grandsons will be burdened with tax obligations of unprecedented weight and/or runaway inflation of the banana republic variety, or the collapse of the American economy as we know it. It's even possible that they'll have all three, probably in that order.
The main culprits are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Quite simply we are incurring transfer payment obligations to our elderly so enormous that the working population will not be able to pay for them. And the terrible thing is that our government knows this--there have been many studies--but has neither the will nor the desire to do anything about it. Call it the crisis of representative democracy. No one in Congress or in the White House has the guts to tell the American people that we are going bankrupt. Everybody seems to think that the future will take care of itself, or, at any rate, that's THEIR problem. Maybe some fabulous invention or technology will confer upon my grandsons enormous wealth and all the financial obligations will disappear like wisps of clouds on a sunny day.
It is important to note that the present incumbent in the White House has greatly exacerbated the problem by recklessly cutting taxes while going on a wild spending spree so that his friends at Raytheon, Halliburton, Big Oil and Big Pharma will have full capitalization. As the authors note, politicians care almost exclusively about maintaining themselves in office. Consequently they are seldom able to address problems beyond the short horizon of the next election.
In a larger sense, the crisis so vividly and exhaustively described in this strangely readable book isn't about economics at all. It is about demographics. With increasingly aging populations, thanks to modern sanitation, cradle to grave health care, plenty of food and safe water, etc., the highly developed countries now have to figure out who is going to pay for keeping the old folks alive and well. The authors present some solutions: make them work longer, print money so that inflation will dilute the financial obligations, massively tax the working generations, etc. What they do NOT propose is that the elderly be left to fend for themselves, nor do they suggest a modest proposal of the Jonathan Swift variety, say massive euthanasia. Instead they propose a 12% national sales tax. This would be on top of all the other taxes. Imagine in my state (California), where we already have an eight and a quarter percent sales tax, what it would be like adding over twenty percent to the cost of products and services. Guess what? This would put a damper on spending and would greatly increase black market traffic, and probably wouldn't work--which is why Republican think-tankers are scheming to "privatize" Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, a venture that the authors rightly call "eliminating" Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Well, that's not going to happen. "I'm old and I vote," will say the AARP, and politicians will take notice. And no politician is going to vote for the authors' proposed 12% national sales tax. Read my lips. So what IS going to happen?
Nobody knows. The problem is unprecedented in human history, because never before has the ratio of the old and retired to the young and working been so high.
Historically when governments overspend, they reach for the printing press and flood the market with cheap money. This is what I predict will happened. The US, Japan, and Europe will all go massively under the flood of inflation and will, after horrendous suffering, reemerge to restructure their transfers so that all of the suggestions of the authors are put in place including later retirement, responsible taxation, controlled medical costs, and a more modest lifestyle for all. That is, if we don't have revolutions and a return to some sort of absolute state control.
Some examples of the engaging prose spun out by Kotlikoff (who is an economist) and Burns (who is a journalist):
(After documenting the progressive aging of our populations): "This will not be a phase. We will be older forever." (p. 36)
Perhaps the most important truth in the book is this from page 83:
[What is really happening is] a massive redistribution [of wealth] from young and future Americans to currently living adults. Our de facto generational policy has been to indulge the present at the expense of children living and unborn. This gives new meaning to "no taxation without representation."
They really rub it in a few paragraphs later:
[The AARP] has dropped the word "retired" to attract members in their 50s who aren't yet retired but have the same interest as current retirees: ripping off the next generation.
The book ends with tips on how to protect yourself from the meltdown. Interesting enough, the most important tips are on how to stay healthy, since health is the most important capital one can have. But here's a nice economic tip from page 134: "The government is going to need the budgetary resources that only high inflation can provide. Hence, high inflation is going to occur. Indeed, it's likely to occur sooner than later."
Gold mining stocks, anyone?

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