We Run This Internet Village

Last night at about midnight I got a somewhat surprising message on social media from my mother, who is almost as much an insomniac at times as I am.  I was a bit surprised to see that she would stay up until 3AM or so to send me a message, but once the content of her message was seen, it made sense that she would feel it necessary to inform me.  The message itself was straightforward, and that was that there was a great threat to those of us who do a lot of writing online and who have drawn a fair amount of scrutiny for it [1] in the probability of the UN running ICANN, the organization that controls access to creating websites, the regulatory body that approves or refuses to approve new extensions, which is until October 1 at least a government-regulated and protected monopoly ruled over by the United States.

Thinking that this message of gloom was itself perhaps a bit overdone, I went about and did some reading myself despite the late hour, and I found out that it was a matter talked about in all kinds of news resources [2].  So, it was clearly legitimate, and the gist of it goes as follows, with some permission for a bit of summarization.  Our current administration is abandoning efforts at preserving the anti-trust exemption that ICANN has to run the internet, that organization has shown itself unable to police it self and is looking basically for its own profit and increasing its own rental income as a result of being the gatekeeper of the internet, and that as a result of the refusal of the US Government to regulate the agency and the agency’s openly apparent inability to regulate itself, it will likely fall to the United Nations to regulate the internet and the gatekeeping into it.  This is a solution that few people, at least not freedom-loving bloggers like myself, particularly enjoy.

It may be thought that my hostility or opposition to the governance of the internet by the United Nations is due to simple prejudice on account of being an American.  No doubt this is to some extent true, but it is due to far more than that.  As someone who has traveled to other nations and witnessed and indeed seen firsthand the sort of scrutiny that bloggers have to deal with in many other countries simply for exploring the sort of book review and historical research that is fairly commonplace for a well-educated Westerner, this is something that is not an idle problem.  The fact that I am somewhat well known within my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances as a particularly prolific speaker of unpleasant truths and personal opinions without an evident desire for political trimming and machination has meant that those people have a good cause to be concerned about the well-being of those who seek to speak the truth regardless of how politically unpopular it may be.

Let us ponder what the UN is likely to do with regards to the internet.  ICANN, at present, appears to be most focused on handling the internet in such a fashion as redounds the most to its own profit.  This corruptibility makes it susceptible to the sort of pressure that large and unfree nations like Russia and China, among many others, are likely to put on it for twisting access to the internet and the regulation of its content in such a way as represents their own corrupt interests.  The fact that there are so many nations around the world where a tradition of openness to a free press and the democratization of journalism that is represented by independent writers is weak represents a considerable threat to such openness in the future.  Most authorities, regardless of what institutions they serve in, are not necessarily happy to receive critique and correction and admonishment from others, especially their own subjects.  It is rare when either the inherited legal climate or humility and openness triumph over this natural human tendency for defensiveness, for the desire of using one’s power to silence dissent and enforce conformity and submission, if not outright consent and agreement, to the behaviors and desires of those in command.

What does this mean?  It is hard to know at this point.  It will likely take some time to set up an international bureaucracy to govern the internet.  There will likely be some sort of anarchical space in the internet at first in the absence of government regulation, where ICANN attempts to serve as some sort of kingpin profiting off of corruption within the space of the internet, and is then countered by some sort of international regulatory body of law, or is confronted by laws in the larger and more important nations and supranational organizations that exist within the world.  The real threat is that as the consensus of the General Assembly UN involves tyrannical regimes, UN control of the internet by definition would mean that the internet use of Americans would be regulated and inhibited by these corrupt and tyrannical regimes.  We would all be living like one lives in an unfree and corrupt nation like Thailand, Russia, or even perhaps Iran or Eritrea.  Can our freedoms long endure in such an internet?  Oh, that our leaders had the moral courage to stand up for our freedoms, even in the face of international disapproval, if only to ease the pressure that is likely to fall on those people who do stand up against the corruption and evil around us in the world today.

[1] See, for example:






[2] See, for example:




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Book Review: Bug Swamp’s Gold

Bug Swamp’s Gold, by Billie H. Wilson

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/WestBow Press in exchange for an honest review.]

As someone who reads more than my fair share of memoirs [1], sometimes I wonder what separates a work that achieves a good deal of acclaim and a wide publishing deal and what is relegated to the ranks of the self-published.  Without any exaggeration involved, this memoir, which covers the life of the author from birth, including some family context, until the end of World War II, is the sort of memoir that could easily be made into a movie, miniseries, or serve as the inspiration for a comical television show.  It has all of the ingredients for successful screen adaptation:  a quirky location in podunkville South Carolina, humorous and poignant stories told with vivid prose and including dialogue in a rich Southern patois, and wonderfully quirky people.  This is the sort of story that wins people Academy Awards and sells out theaters, giving a look at the innocence and credulity of youth in a family that was a bit slow in explaining matters like the facts of life and the birds and the bees.  In any case, it is more than a little puzzling why this book was self-published given its potential for a wide and appreciative audience of people who like laughing at or with rednecks.

The story itself is, aside for some flashbacks, a straightforward tale of growing up in a yeoman farming family in the rural South.  The author’s family grows tobacco, works together, deals with problems with neighbors, has an alarming history of eloping, tries to increase profits by building bigger barns and hiring sharecroppers, deals with drama with neighbors including runaway pigs corralled to keep them from eating all the turnips and all of the details one would expect of Southern life.  The author  talks about her experiences getting to know the last local surviving Civil War veteran, about her lonely experiences in school, about her lack of interest in being a farmer’s wife, and in the various other aspects of isolated rural early 20th century life, including the fact that the author’s family didn’t have a radio as late as Pearl Harbor.  The author’s family showed itself to be patriotic in terms of its service in World War II and the guilt that the author’s father showed in being too old and a bit too infirm to serve, and there were some dramatic circumstances where the author’s beloved uncle was a POW after the Battle of the Bulge.  As might be expected in such a tale, there are stories of family curses as well as the struggle to live as good a life as possible and avoid the crippling burden of debt.

It is hard to find something in this book that is not cinematic gold.  The author makes plenty of comments and jokes about the use of raccoon and possum for food, and the whole book has the warmth that comes from someone writing about a truly positive childhood.  The one criticism I have about the book concerns its title, which makes sense when one reads the story but which is a bit off-putting and misleading to potential readers.  Perhaps it is the title alone that kept this book from getting the sort of publishing attention that one would expect from a book that contains an account of parents warning children not to shoot their eyes out and learning how to live at least a little better based on the bounty of the land while growing tobacco and raising pigs and the like.  As someone who grew up in a farming family myself from Appalachian Pennsylvania, there was a great deal of this book I found entertaining on that level, and as this is the sort of childhood that regularly appears in movies, it would not be surprising to me if some enterprising screenwriter saw in this book a great deal of potential, given our fondness for enjoying sights of eccentric poor Southerners on film and television.

[1] See, for example:












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Book Review: Bittersweet: A Savage Memoir

Bittersweet:  A Savage Memoir, by George M. Savage

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

There are quite a few puns related to the title of this memoir.  For one, the book is a memoir about a life spent in a savage world by someone whose last name happens to be savage.  It is also not so much a memoir about one person alone but about the family in which he is a part, and the memoir itself looks at the savagery of life related to health and economic and geopolitical conditions.  The title therefore is rich in layers and irony to be puzzled out by its readers.  As a memoir, this book tests the boundaries of a memoir in several ways.  For one, it does not follow entirely the usual narrative flow of a memoir [1], but instead it features a lot of lists and seemingly extraneous material, and a fair amount of commentary by the author on other people in a way that is seemingly unrelated to the flow of the author’s life story and also contains a substantial bit of material about other people praising the author.  The author’s life sits at that boundary between not fascinating enough for a memoir in the eyes of some and too fascinating for the memoir it gets in the eyes of others–certainly a younger writer would have made much more hay of some of the material discussed in this book.

Despite the fact that the author himself does not believe his own life to have been that interesting, this memoir is a worthwhile account of an intriguing life, and it is clear that those friends and family members who urged the author for so long to write an account of his life, probably in light of the stories they had heard him tell about his youth, were right to do so.  The contents are divided into thematic blocks, many of which contain interesting commentary that can be taken further by the reader.  The author’s discussion of his own family history, which takes place over several chapters, some at the beginning and some towards the end, demonstrate a history of solid work in a particular area where the author and his family settled, and the fact that the family had to deal with several serious curses, among them TB and alcoholism, both of which influenced the author by increasing his isolation, forcing him to spend a lot of his childhood fatherless, and giving him an edge against alcohol abuse and even use that this book is full of.  The author’s religious background as a Southern Baptist is well discussed and the book as well discusses the difficulty many managers of the author’s companies had in dealing with the southern workers, while also demonstrating the author was in an uncomfortable position between union sympathizers or local racists on the one hand and management that the author continually comments on as Jewish and northerner and not being sympathetic to Southern concerns, which puts the author in an uncomfortable middle space which makes his lengthy success in work rather remarkable.

There are many areas of the book that a different writer would have made more hay out of.  For one, the author had a lot of experience being bullied as a kid, and this likely shaped his view somewhat.  For another, the author seems to have teased one of his best friends about not being married–he comments that he wishes he would have been kinder to one friend who never married and died too young, and in the book he teases one of his grandchildren about not yet being married and having children of his own.  This is an area that I am particularly sensitive to, for easily understood reasons.  Nevertheless, the memoir is clearly a love letter to the author’s wife, who has managed to beat colon cancer, and to the rest of the author’s large family and circle of friends.  It is clear that the author is a loyal friend and relative to those he writes about, and the inclusion of a significant amount of praise is also worthwhile.  The author’s discussion of the shame of accepting handouts even during the Great Depression also shows much of the chip on the shoulder that the author likely had as a way to spur him on to success.  This book, as a history of a particular place and time and person, is likely to be a worthwhile resource for local historians of his area of Tennessee for some time to come, given that it discusses a great deal of interest to an understanding of life in that part of the South.  It is also a life worth celebrating on its own terms, and we can therefore be happy to see such a delightful, even if unconventional, memoir from a man whose life was far more interesting and noteworthy than he may have believed.

[1] See, for example:












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Everyone Was Looking, But I Saw You First

It is not entirely without reason that the music industry has such a bad name for being populated by crooks and thieves and scoundrels.  In a variety of ways, whether through their songwriting, writing tell-all books, or even their dramatic behaviors up to and including self-destruction [1], musicians and songwriters have made their hostility to the corrupt ways of many people involved in the music industry all too commonly known to the general body of the public at large, to the extent that even among a populace that harbors considerable mistrust for executives, music executives are viewed with even more mistrust and suspicion than the run of the mill examples of high capitalists.  It would seem to be pointless for people to defend the moral virtue of the music industry or those who are in charge of running it, and I will not attempt such a case here in the face of the near total opprobrium in which most executives in the business are held.

On what grounds can music industry executives be judged as less than entirely wicked?  Such grounds may be found in the sort of people that are discovered by A&R executives.  These are the sales and marketing people whose job it is to find people who can make labels a large amount of money.  The sort of people that are easily discovered can be placed into fairly narrow categories.  For example, it is fairly common when talented backup singers become famous musicians themselves–such as Mariah Carey being a backup for Brenda K. Starr before being discovered herself, or Sheryl Crow being a big-haired backup for Michael Jackson and, more happily, a backup singer for Don Henley.  Other people are relatives of other famous musicians.  Sam Smith, for example, is the cousin of another British artist who got famous first.  Whitney Houston was the niece of Dionne Warwick and the daughter of a talented backup singer herself, Cissy Houston.  The lead singer of the talented band The Wallflowers is the son of Bob Dylan, Julian Lennon and Sean Lennon both had John Lennon for a famous father, and on and on it goes.  It is easier to discover someone when they are already on the radar.  People from previous bands often find it easier to be discovered because they are known quantities.  That is how Chris Cornell manages to find himself continually in famous bands, after all, despite the fact that he seems to court a fair amount of drama within his bands.  The same is true of Carly Smithson, who was once an unsuccessful teen singer before becoming a slightly more successful American Idol contestant and member of a successor group to Evanescence.

We may see music executives, if we judge them as evil, as evil in the way that studios that continually greenlight mediocre retreads rather than risking investment money on daring and original films are evil, cowardly, mostly concerned with the bottom line, and with a strong bias towards safety and against risk because of the fear of loss.  Indeed, this fear of loss tends to exaggerate the behavior of music executives when it comes to milking every cent possible out of their artists and refusing to act with the long term in mind, a malady, it must be admitted, can be seen throughout our society and our general lack of interest in maintaining or building infrastructure of any kind, or in behaving with an eye towards the long term.  Music industry executives are not immune to the short-term thinking that is present within all aspects of our society, but they are certainly not role models in seeking to rise above it either.  If being cowardly makes one evil, then most of us can be said to be immensely cowardly, whether we are the sort of people who seek short-term pleasure in light of long-term difficulties, or fail to invest in our own lives and in the lives of others by paying now for future gain, including getting our own personal, institutional, and national houses in order.  If we point fingers at music executives as being a special sort of evil, then there are a lot of fingers to be pointed at the rest of us as well for having the same weaknesses in our own lives and for voting the same people into office ourselves, people who will blind themselves to future misery in order to prevent any sort of painful present retrenchment.

In at least one other way the behavior of music executives is very similar to our own behavior.  We are all creatures far more comfortable with the tried and true than with the novel.  We have a sort of conservatism by nature, in which our wide ranging habits in some areas depend on having a life that is more or less stable in other areas.  This bias towards familiarity and stability is, in the main, a good thing.  Whatever bonding we have between parents and children, whatever loyalty between husbands and wives, whatever fidelity we have in our friendships and other relationships, we owe at least in part to this bias towards familiarity.  I will not pretend to deny that this familiarity exists with myself, for I am notorious among my friends and coworkers and other acquaintances for being a person of habits, for having my very facial expressions be rather telling about my thoughts, for eating the same foods and going to the same restaurants over and over again because of this fondness for the familiar, for hanging around with and working with the same people, and even for listening to the same music over and over again.  How can I blame other people for doing the same thing, for showing a certain bias to what is known, and a caution to what is unknown, even when what is known is not necessarily to my own preferences?  I at least struggle not to be a total hypocrite in judging others for what I do myself, and if I do not always succeed in avoiding hypocrisy, at least there is some worth in making the effort, right?

[1] See, for example:









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Book Review: What They’ll Never Tell You About The Music Business

What They’ll Never Tell You About The Music Business:  The Complete Guide For Musicians, Songwriters, Producers, Managers, Industry Executives, Attorneys, Investors, And Accountants, by Peter M. Thall

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Watson-Guptill Publications in exchange for an honest review.]

It is easy to see, upon reading this book, how this more than 400 page tome fulfills its obligation to be a complete guide to the business side of the music business.  For those of us reared on horror stories about how much trouble artists and songwriters have had because of various trickery in the music industry and how artists have struggled to maintain business success as well as personal integrity [1] for a long time, this book offers a guide to how to survive in the music industry no matter what one’s role that sits somewhere in the sweet spot between cynicism and realism.  The author is an entertainment lawyer and he definitely has written something of use to a wide audience, and if he does not spare too many feelings in the process, he tells a straightforward story that will hopefully be a wake-up call to many.  There is no doubt, for one, that this book is immensely worthwhile for anyone who has any sort of role in the music industry, and as someone who sings, writes, and has been a college radio dj [2].  If there are any friends or acquaintances similarly involved even on the margins of the music industry or with any ambitions as far as writing and performing are concerned, this is a good book to buy and I will happily lend it to those who are curious about reading it.  It is a demanding read, but an excellent one.

The lengthy and detailed contents of this book are divided into reasonably short but extremely detailed chapters about such matters as:  investing, advances, royalties, personal management, managing one’s financial future, employment agreements, record producers, marketing and promotion, touring, merchandising, audits, music publishing, songwriter credits, owning one’s own music publishing company, internet entrepreneurship, largely unknown royalty opportunities, urban music, classical music, termination of copyright grants, compliance with copyright law, catalogue valuation, copyright issues, and solving piracy.  The book’s contents are of use to business-savvy musicians as well as those who are songwriters or A&R people and help the readers become aware of special concerns in various genres, and aware of the legal demands as well as the general business climate.  As might be expected, the laws and customs in the United States are fairly backward about the property rights of intellectual property creators and much stronger at seeking to protect the privileges of business, but that ought to surprise few readers.

Seeing as many artistic types of people are the sort of people who are easily taken advantage of when it comes to business deals, the main purpose of this book is to be a reference so that if artists are going to have to sign dodgy contracts or engage in trade-offs between present comfort and future security, or avoid giving away huge revenue streams, they will at least be forewarned about the dangers faced in contracts and will be well-equipped to at least think seriously about the need to hire good counsel in those aspects where they do not wish to be directly engaged on a regular basis.  Many artists have to wear many hats–part time businessmen aside from their duties in writing and performing, and this book is worthwhile in equipping artists on how to do what they want to do best, and to earn a decent living at it.  And when it comes to enjoying the fruits of one’s creative labor, it is worthwhile to at least have some insight in how one can go about living a decent life while one creates beautiful art, and how one can continue to earn after one’s active career is over.  If you want to make any money in any part of the music industry, this is a good book to have as part of one’s library.

[1] See, for example:









[2] See, for example:






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Book Review: Who Did It First?: Great Pop Cover Songs And Their Original Artists

Who Did It First?:  Great Pop Cover Songs And Their Original Artists, by Bob Leszczak

I would like to begin this review with a bit of an apology.  As a music historian with a popular series on artists not inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame I have gotten a lot of mileage out of joking about the lack of worthiness of Laura Nyro for being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [1].  In reading this book, it is clear that Laura Nyro, even if she had a slender resume as a performer, was undoubtedly one of the most notable pop songwriters of her era, and given that she died young she likely had a lot more songwriting and performing in her.  Her presence in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a songwriter, or as a singer-songwriter, which is likely how she was viewed, is therefore not a terrible fluke.  It should be noted, though, that this book makes it clear that other artists are worthy of great recognition on the grounds of being extremely prolific and talented songwriters as well, perhaps most notably Neil Sedaka, who is nearly single-handedly responsible for the entire hit production of Captain & Tenille, who basically raided his unreleased album tracks from the 1970’s for their own catchy hit singles.  Given the number of times that Neil Sedaka shows up as having written songs that were made famous by other people, his omission from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is especially suspicious, and therefore one can expect that I will be writing about him as part of my series of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame snubs soon, even if there is a long backlog of posts in that series yet to come.

This book amounts to one part of a three-volume encyclopedia of cover songs written by the same author, one of which looks at pop songs, one of which looks at rock & roll songs, and the other of which looks at R&B songs that have been covered whom the author and whose recording history the author wishes to discuss.  Admittedly, there are songs in here that could easily have been considered as rock & roll or R&B songs, given the fact that numerous Elvis and Beatles songs appear here as well as Dobie Grey’s signature cover(s) of “Drift Away,” where the fact that the song was in fact a cover is not well known.  The songs are organized in alphabetical fashion, after an introduction from the author, who himself has a modest presence on the pop charts as a charting vocalist himself.  Each of the entries has the same format.  The name of the song comes first, then its composer(s), its original artist, label, recording, release year, and chart success, if any.  Then the most notable or definitive cover artist, label, recording, release year, and chart performance are given, followed by a few paragraphs that give the detailed history of the recording and the process by which it became a standard to be covered by others, giving a fascinating glimpse into the logistics and context of pop chart success as well as the sometimes chaotic process by which numerous simultaneous recordings blur the identity of covers and originals.

Despite the fact that this book is immensely enjoyable to read and deeply informative, there are a few comments that need to be made about the book.  As has already been mentioned, there are some questions here about the arbitrary nature of the genre of the books listed here.  Some additional comments could be made about the cover versions chosen, as the chart success of, say, the version of Lady Marmelade by for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge was only credited to Christina Aguilera and not to the whole group.  Perhaps the most obvious error, though, was his ascribing to Henry Nilsson the original composition of the song “Without You,” which was originally composed by two of the members for the notable power pop band Badfinger [2], a band that wrote amazing and beautiful music but had a cursed history worthy of being discussed in this book.  Perhaps that shortcoming will be corrected in future volumes of this book.  Although not perfect, this book is worthwhile as a research, encouraging its readers to indulge in their fondness for obscure music history, something that is often worthwhile to ponder.  For those readers who share my love of music history and enjoy giving credit to songwriters and often little-known original recording artists whose songs are covered by others with lasting fame as a result, this is a book worthy of savoring and enjoying and considering as a worthwhile reference book.

[1] See, for example:










[2] See, for example:





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To Which Office Do I Go To Get My Reputation Back?

Not long ago I finished reading a political memoir written by a controversial former Attorney General [1] who was at some pains to demonstrate his own integrity and honor, in the face of the controversy that had filled his days in the Department of Justice.  During his time there had been no massive firing of all the attorneys to have a clean slate and opportunity for patronage, no massive gun sales to foreign gangs involved in drugland violence, no behavior that can be termed as shady of any kind.  Even in a world as dark and murky as Washington DC, a probe of his conduct in office demonstrated he was above reproach, and yet while the controversies of his time in office had gained a great deal of attention with the punditry class of people who watch Sunday morning news shows as if they were religious television, containing messages from on high, the clearing of his conduct was not something that gained a great deal of attention at all, nor did it help the author himself regain the sort of reputation he wanted or the sort of life that people who have served as conspicuously and ably as he did find upon leaving public office.  He was found to be more or less blameless apart from ordinary human frailty, but being shown to be a person of high moral character did not in any way undo the loss of reputation that he had suffered because of the political gamesmanship of others.

The question he quoted is one that haunts me personally.   “To what office do I go to get my reputation back?”  Where indeed?  When one’s name has been dragged through the mud, and one has faced calumnies and slander [2], even if one’s behavior has been generally decent, if somewhat eccentric, where does one go to get one’s reputation back?  I remember about four years ago or so, I was having a conversation with a shrewd and intelligent woman who was able to rather quickly realize that what had been thought of me in a particular situation was not in fact so.  Yet in our conversation she said that there would be repercussions even to a false picture that had been presented, and that it would dog me for years.  Indeed it has come true, one of the unfortunate prophecies uttered about my life that has.  And no doubt such a situation has happened for others.  It is bad enough when people who have committed great evils find themselves unable to get a clean slate and start again, but a far worse one when one’s reputation is ruined by the wickedness of others rather than one’s own store of folly and error.

The haunting question that the author I read quoted came from a former Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan.  What had prompted the sad witticism?  Shortly after having left the Department of Labor, the company in which Mr. Donovan had a 50% share ran afoul of an investigation in New York City related to construction contracts and the need to subcontract work his firm had owned to minority-owned subcontractors.  He was indicted for fraud because the firm ended up having connections to one of New York’s mob families and because they leased equipment from his firm, and though he was acquitted of all charges, along with all of his co-defendants, there was no office he could go to in order to get his reputation back.  His reputation had been torn to shreds, and his years of faithful government service largely were forgotten, despite the fact that they had been conspicuous in nature.  At least he was left with other comforts–his business ventures continued to go well and he remains the part owner of a country club and the his construction firm was sold to a Spanish multinational in 2007, so at least business has been kind to him.

Reputation is one of those matters that is of particular mystery.  It is so light and airy that one cannot feel it, yet it is as heavy as a millstone hanging around your neck or a chain tied to one’s feet that keeps one from escaping the flood of evil and wicked speech.  It cannot be bought or sold for oneself, and yet it offers one a sort of currency in dealing with others that can either provide one the benefit of the doubt or ensure that every one of one’s actions and statements will be viewed in the most unfriendly light possible.  A reputation that has taken years to build can be ruined in an instant either by one’s own actions or by the whiffs of rumor spread by others.  We have cliches like where there is smoke there is a fire, but sometimes where there is smoke there is no fire, only a smoke machine put in place by an enemy to cause us trouble and misery.  And sometimes there is neither justice or mercy this side of heaven, despite our fondest wishes for both, not only for ourselves but for many others as well, for to the extent that slander is able to bring any of us down, none of us are safe from its ill effects.  Such is the way with evil–we ignore it at our own peril, because where it has a foothold anywhere in this world, it is a threat to anyone, no matter how high and mighty they are, or how noble and fastidious their conduct.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/book-review-true-faith-and-allegiance

[2] See, for example:












Posted in Christianity, History, Musings | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: The Artist And The Mathematician

The Artist And The Mathematician:  The Story Of Nicolas Bourbaki, The Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed, by Amir D. Aczel

It takes this book a while to get to its point.  As a fond reader of matters mathematical [1] and historical, and as someone with a somewhat downbeat view of the goodness of humanity as a whole, I expected that when I read the book I would read about a fraudulent attempt on the part of someone to pretend to be a genius mathematician that gullible people happened to believe.  At any rate, I expected that the author would begin talking about Nicolas Bourbaki fairly quickly, given the fact that his name appeared as part of the title of the book, and certainly as part of the hook to draw the reader’s interest.  What, a world-famous and genius mathematician never existed?  Say what?  However, the author, himself an accomplished and excellent historian of mathematics, most famous for his book on Fermat’s Last Theorem that is on my lengthy list of books that I want to read, decides to delay the reveal of who Nicolas Bourbaki is and why he never technically existed, and why that matters.  Although the payoff is delayed, it is a worthwhile one, and so those readers who are as puzzled as I was upon starting this book should be encouraged that it will all make sense eventually, even if the book is definitely a slow starter.

The contents of this book definitely cross over the border from ordinary into deeply mysterious, examining aspects of biography, religion and philosophy, military history, linguistics, as well as the history of mathematics.  The book opens with the mysterious of one Alexandre Grothendieck, a Jewish mathematician who grew up in France of foreign ancestry who was said to have worked with Nicolas Bourbaki, before retreating into obscurity and voluntary exile and solitude, going entirely “off the grid” as it were, discussing his personal history as a refugee seeking to escape Hitler’s final solution.  The author then turns to a short biography of another French Jewish mathematician named Andrè Weil, whose attempts to avoid service in the French military ended up leading to jail and nearly execution for desertion in the run-up to World War II.  Then the author examines the flight of another French Jewish mathematician from the German wehrmacht in World War II.  On the 59th page of the roughly 200 page book the author asks the obvious question:  Who was Nicolas Bourbaki?  At this point the author goes back and gives context, discussing the career of General Charles Bourbaki in mid-1800’s France, famous for his loyal service to the French nation and his escape into Switzerland and captivity after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War.  Then the author looks at art history and the relationship between cubist and surrealist art and the mathematics of the 20th century, showing how a group of French mathematicians formed an anonymous/pseudonymous commune as a way of influencing the course of world mathematics by their approach to structuralism with its dependence on set theory.  At this point the author’s mystery has been revealed and a more straightforward discussion of the rise and fall of structuralist philosophy, from its peak influence in the 1950’s and 1960’s, its influence on the pioneering anthropology work of Levi-Strauss, and its gradual decline after the rise of postmodernism.

Aside from the fact that this book is an intriguing and insightful multidisciplinary history that deals with a wide variety of fields with skill and polish, there is an intriguing and deep irony in this book that students of philosophy will find of great interest. Rather, there is a whole host of ironies.  For one, the author is at pains not to relate the Jewish origin of the mathematicians of the Nicolas Bourbaki collective with their struggles of faith in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  For another, a great part of the decline of this collective came about with the decline of nationalist mathematics as a whole, as well as the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the rise of the radical left, for which several of the mathematicians gave their enthusiastic support.  Additionally, the author speaks often about the contradictions inherent in the set theory that formed the philosophical underpinnings of structuralism, but comparatively little time talking about the fact that the entire philosophy of postmodernism is self-refuting [2].  These ironies demonstrate that mathematics is of great importance in the larger culture even if many people shy away from the strangeness and difficulty of intense and deep study in mathematics.

[1] See, for example:











[2] Although the matter is too lengthy to be discussed in full here, it is worthwhile to note that postmodernism believes there is no absolute truth, although the statement that there is no absolute truth is itself an absolute truth.  Likewise, this worldview comes with the point of view that there is no possibility of conveying what is understood by one person to another, but postmodern philosophers write lengthy and weighty tomes in which it is possible for the reader, albeit only an unusually patient and longsuffering one, to understand what the author is getting at.  The fact that postmodern philosophers claim to be teachers of absolute truth and communicate through lengthy books gives the lie to their claims that there is no truth nor any possibility of communication between human beings.  It would be hard to imagine a philosophical view that was more entirely self-defeating.

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Audiobook Review: The Lords Of Strategy

The Lords Of Strategy:  The Secret Intellectual History Of The New Corporate World, by Walter Kiechel III, performed by Robertson Dean

As someone who appreciates intellectual history related to business culture [1], I found this to be an intriguing and worthwhile book, and written with a good degree of humility from someone who has spent plenty of time talking with people involved in the strategy revolution and having a strong groundwork in the business context of strategy consultants.  It is a shame that many people think of this book as something that is likely to be too harsh and too damaging to the reputation or honor of strategy firms, as this book offers some correctives to the excesses of shareholder capitalism but represents a fair-minded and largely positive view of the complexities of strategy as it was undertaken by the leading lights among management consultants and their academic boosters.  The result is a book that is notable both in terms of its intellectual heft as well as its historical value, and is the sort of book that is a slow burn, amusing its readers who approach it with a sense of cynicism and then surprising the reader (or listener) with thought provoking insights that remind us of the sorts of massive cultural changes that are needed to make business just and also successful.

For the most part, the author approaches this subject in a chronological fashion, looking first at the origins of the strategic revolution in the people responsible at Boston Financial Group (later BFG):  Bruce Henderson, Bill Bain of Bain & Company (whose story includes a cameo appearance by one Mitt Romney), and McKinsey & Company[s Fred Gluck, along with longtime Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter.  The author examines their own biographical stories, along with that of other people, as well as the histories of the companies and institutions they served as well as the companies who were helped, and manages to discuss academic disciplines like Organizational Studies and finance alongside the intellectual remnants of decades of books on strategy filled with all kinds of hype and best-selling books that offered to help managers and executives get a grip of matters like competitive threats, customer needs, and business costs.   The result is something that is as entertaining as the intellectual history of fad diets, which is what many of these strategic approaches most resemble, combined with a scary real-world influence on history and the course of civilizations in our contemporary world.  It is this combination between the ephemeral and the vitally important that makes this such a notable and worthwhile book of intellectual history, even if there are ways that the author acknowledges that he failed to cover the entirety of the intellectual domain he wrote about, specifically omitting a discussion of the corporate planners who are nearly invisible in this book except as a foil to strategy consultants.

There are a few areas of this book that give a lasting feeling of deep unease.  For one, the rise of strategic thought within business came with a certain degree of intellectual baggage from areas of military strategy [2], where competition was viewed as a matter of life and death, giving it a degree of seriousness.  For another, strategic thinking, up to this day, has greatly valued what could be easily measured, accounted for, and controlled in a vein of “greater Taylorism,” and has subsequently disregarded areas of human factors, despite their obvious importance.  For another, the rapid spread of strategic consulting within the United States and abroad has occurred during a time of increasing decline for the businesses of the United States even as a fierce and mean capitalism, in the author’s terms, has increasingly spread around the world.  On top of this, strategic thought has tended to be rapidly commoditized at its basic levels even as the essential aspects of business strategy have proved immensely difficult to implement because of the difficulty many companies have in either changing their culture or valuing the well-being and interests of customers and employees.  The book manages to be intensely critical of many aspects of contemporary business culture while also aware of the immense and difficult constraints that executives and consultants are under as they attempt to succeed and innovate.  The author leaves the reader or listener with the hope that to do right by others will be the right thing with regards to the longevity and profitability and reputation of companies, but that remains a hope that is seldom put into practice in companies that are egalitarian and just in their dealings.

[1] See, for example:





[2] See, for example:









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The Hours That Count

Most of the time, I enter work when it is dark outside and when the place is silent, and I slip in the back entrance, deposit my lunch in the company fridge, and fill a glass of water and make my way to my desk to stealthily begin the day.  At times, at least for three months of the year, I can regularly be found at work for half of the day or more on a Sunday, creating reports and sending them out while no one except perhaps the cleaning crew was around to see me, at times even unlocking the building for the students and instructors of the Saturday Academy who were happy to see me despite my distinct lack of interest in drawing the attention of anyone on a quiet day.  Such hours certainly count on my paycheck, as I am a wage earner and all hours that I am clocked in count, but they do not often count in a social sense, as people only think one working if there is a certain degree of visibility.

The vexing question of what time counts matters in other contexts as well.  As a teenager, I had wished to sing the song “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” for a congregational variety show.  The song, by Sting, from his Mercury Falling album [1], told a story of an ugly divorce from the point of view of the father, who notes the existence in the park of other Sunday fathers who try to do their best within their given time, given that there is a general bias towards granting custodial rights to mothers in the absence of some serious problem on their part.  Speaking from painful personal experience, there can be a great deal of resentment when it comes to the sort of time that is spent with different parents [2].  If one parent shows oneself inclined only to enjoy the fun times and pass off all the unpleasant tasks, like taking sick children to the hospital or something else of that nature, to the other parent, a substantial amount of bad blood will develop between two parents who should be partners and allies in seeking the best interests of their common children.  The absence of quantity time tends to lead people to seek quality time as a substitute, but this is usually a fallacious sort of quest, as genuine quality time depends on having enough quantity for there to be sufficient context.  We know that someone is fun not because we are always having fun when we are around them, but because we know they have the capacity for fun in the midst of being able to handle the serious issues of life.  Frivolity may work for a while, but sooner or later the serious business of life intrudes and someone has to show themselves able to handle the difficulty of such situations, as unwanted as they may be.

What hours count in our own lives?  Are we quick to compartmentalize our time and divide it up among different people who are never to meet, never to see each other, never to know about each other?  We may find, much to our dislike, that different parts of our world have the tendency to bleed together, and that try as we might we cannot keep our world separated and neat and tidy and in various boxes, because everything is connected in some fashion.  The scriptures tell us that we should redeem the time, for the days are evil.  We are all accountable with how we use the time we have.  This is not so much a call to add more activity to our already crammed lives, but also a recognition of the fact that time, like any other undeserved gift we are given, comes with accountability attached to it.  We are stewards of something that belongs to another, and we do not know when we will suddenly be taken from our comfortable or uncomfortable existence and held to account for the way that we have lived our lives.  Most of us may have little to fear, and some will likely have a great deal to regret about the way that they have lived their lives.  At any rate, by the time we are accountable, the time to do anything about the time we wasted is gone.  Most of us, in fact, have wasted a great deal of time in that which was without profit either in this world or in the world to come, in either making life better for us or in honoring God or in serving other people, but such is the life.

How do we count in the calculations of time that others make?  Do other people enjoy spending time with us, find great pleasure in the hours passing as we eat and talk and play games together?  Do other people find us pleasant to work with, whether we are casting shade by making witty comments about something or another or doing our work productively and enthusiastically.  Do other people find us reliable as well as enjoyable?  These are questions that we might be tempted to answer either negatively or positively based on those experiences that come to mind, but if people we judge to be of sound mind and decent character enjoy our company and appreciate our efforts and are able to pleasantly enjoy our presence and our conversation even when they have heard all of our stories and become familiar with the way we operate, then truly we are doing something well, living life in a good fashion [3].  May it always be so for us.  Which hours count?  They all do, in many ways, over and over again.

[1] See, for example:


[2] See, for example:






[3] See, for example:









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