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George Packer drives a stake into America’s heart in “The Unwinding”. American anger, fear, and frustration build in the minds of all—whether Republican, Democrat, Tea Partyer, or Libertarian.
Whether an accolade of private enterprise or government, Packer offers stories of Americans that show American’ belief makes no difference because America is no longer a land of opportunity but a land of greed; not of the free but of the shackled—a risk noted by Thomas Hobbes in the “Leviathan”. The shackles come from society’s failure to protect individuals from the tyranny of special interests. One side argues that it is because of ineffective government–the other side argues it is because of too much government.
The unwinding of the financial crises reflected in the dot-com bubble of 2000-2001 and the 2007-08 sub-prime mortgage crises unfolds in stories told by Packer in this disturbing narrative. America has become a nation of extremes with each extreme using whatever means necessary to deny success of either “tea party”, “libertarian” or “occupy wall street” followers. The consequence is a “do-nothing” congress, an ineffectual President, and a politicized Supreme Court. One is left with fear, anger, and frustration after completing Packer’s diatribe. The only consolation is in history.
America has been in crises before–in 1776, 1789, 1865, 1929, 1941, 1951, 1967-68, 2001. Americans survived before; Americans will survive again but how angry Americans are, and how frustrating it is to watch America muddle along while Congress fails to act.
Tail wags dog is a possible headline for Max Tegmark’s highly entertaining book, "Our Mathematical Universe". Tegmark is a Professor of Physics at MIT. Tegmark offers a theory of cosmology that posits the insignificance of human beings and the advance of cybernetics (automatic controls of the nervous systems and brains).
Tegmark offers interesting answers to all questions asked at the beginning of the book. The answers are clearly explained but often border on misanthropy, if not lunacy. Many people are willing to acknowledge humans are not the center of the universe but Tegmark concludes humans are mathematical equations derived from particles held together by dark matter and energy. Tegmark suggests what humans see, feel, touch and smell is an illusion; i.e. a movie with a beginning and end, signifying nothing but an agglomeration of atomic particles defined by mathematics. A logical extension of that conclusion is that there is no difference between a human being and a programmable machine.
This is a fascinating book, lauded by many, and panned by some. For a perspective on physics and cosmology, "The Mathematical Universe", is a TOUR DE FORCE. For entertainment, "The Mathematical Universe" is as good as it gets.
Professor Kreeft, in The Modern Scholar’ lectures, offers stories of interesting philosophers and what they think they know about moral thought. Ethics: A History of Moral Thought is a whirlwind tour of how philosophers define ethics. It begins in antiquity and continues through tomorrow. What one hears in these lectures may be accepted and practiced in life tomorrow or never; if never, one is seemingly confirming belief in free choice, but not much more. As a warning to the curious, the tour is circular. The tour ends as it begins.
Nearing the end of Krefft’s lectures, he addresses the attempts of science to define morality and ethics. Krefft acknowledges the idea of observational analysis, dating back to Machiavelli’s views of history but the scientific movement gains momentum with David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and John Stewart Mill (1806-1873). It seems these three users of the scientific method provide little light in their analysis of morality and ethics. Their contribution is in the use of scientific method to understand normative standards of society.
By the end of Professor Krefft’s lectures a listener returns to Socrates suggestion; i.e. “Know thyself” because “The unexamined life is not worth living”. What you believe is what you believe. Krefft suggests we should always seek to understand why we believe what we believe.
As Ronald Reagan famously said, “There you go again”. Dave Eggers writes another book about a tragic human event. However, Eggers avoids character controversy like that which followed “Zeitoun”, a story about the Katrina disaster. Eggers classifies “What Is the What” as a novel, without any claim to source-vetted facts or the integrity of its primary character.
"What Is the What" is about Sudan and its 20th century genocidal history. This is a clarifying story of the complex religious, ethnic, and moral conflict that exists in Sudan and in all nations peopled by extremes of wealth and poverty.
God offers man a choice of cows or something called the "What". God asks, “Do you want the cows or the What?" But, man asks, “What is the What”? God says, “The What is for you to decide.”
The father of the main character of "What is the What" explains that, with cows, a man has something; he learns how to care for something; becomes a good caretaker of a life-sustaining something, but a man who has no cows has nothing, cares about nothing; and only becomes a taker of other’s something.
What is the What? It is more than cows; it is the enlightenment brought from education that combats cultural ignorance, and religious intolerance; i.e. the "What" is that which celebrates freedom and equal opportunity for all.
Alan Furst creates a sense of foreboding, isolation, and hedonistic abandon before WWII in "Midnight in Europe". It is 1938. The Spanish Civil War is raging. France and England are kowtowing to Hitler’s land-grabbing demands and false concessions. By the end of the year, the Franco/English appeasement agreement in Munich will be signed and Czechoslovakia will be ceded to the Nazis.
Spies lurk in Paris’ bars and crooks work on the fringes of clandestine arms’ and munitions’ deals. The spies are working for their governments. The crooks are lining their pockets at the expense of nationalist patriots.
There are several tales of derring-do in Furst’s book but this genre of fiction is overdone and nothing new about pre-war Europe seems revealed by Furst’s effort. Furst is a good writer but he needs a new story line.
“Silent Snow” resurrects one of the most notorious crimes of the century, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932; i.e. Steve Thayer reincarnates the history of the kidnapping by creating a modern-day’ abduction by a possible mystery accomplice of the original crime.
Thayer weaves a tale of intrigue ranging from World War I to the modern day. He manufactures new criminal characters, cops, and news reporters with detailed obsessive/compulsive backgrounds. He creates heroes, and heroines of a terrible crime. “Silent Snow” is a re-creation of a crime of the past, the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and bludgeoning. Thayer may or may not have the same ending in his modern-day version of the kidnapping. David Birney’s telling of Thayer’s mystery keeps listeners waiting for answers until the last chapters’ closing.
Thayer has great imagination with excellent descriptive' skill. The recorded facts of the Lindbergh’ kidnapping are nicely recreated, including involvement of General Schwarzkopf Senior (America’s “Desert Storm” General’s father) in the original investigation; i.e. the kidnapping is an important incident in American’ history because it led to the Lindbergh law that shifted investigation of kidnapping from local to national control. The irony of that shift plays out in “Silent Snow” as a questionable federal government usurpation of power. Mistakes are made by the federal government as readily as they are by local government. Putting that observation aside, the story is interesting; overly melodramatic, but worth the time for a mystery’s unfolding.
The book cover of “For the Love of Physics” summarizes its endearing intent. Walter Lewin bridges the chasm between the lay public and Physics by simplifying and vivifying fundamental laws of a confusing science. With erudition and demonstration Lewin reflects joy in physics. Lewin is a teacher and astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lewin considers Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein to be the greatest scientists in history because of their prescient ability to produce theories that unify laws of nature. Though quantum mechanics was never accepted by Einstein and not discovered until Newton and James Clerk Maxwell were gone, these three scientists viewed the world with blunt measurement tools and, through force of imagination, succeeded in creating theories that have been confirmed by future physicists within the probability environment of quantum mechanics.
Science continues to advance with refinement of particle physics cyclotrons like the Large Hadron Collider that are exploding protons into constituent elements, and refined tools that measure smaller and smaller elemental particles that define bigger and bigger natural laws.
Lewin and Goldstein’s book excites the imagination and encourages the future of science.
Michio Kaku infers there is an undiscovered Unified Field Theory. Kaku is a theoretical physicist, a graduate of Harvard and U.C. Berkley. Kaku’s "Einstein’s Cosmos" mingles interesting details of Albert Einstein’s life with Einstein’s unshakable belief that there is a Unified Field Theory that explains everything about everything; i.e. the cosmos’ origin, its deterministic exigencies, and the physical realities of this and other universes. Kaku recounts the incredible insights Einstein gave the world through thought experiments that became experimentally proven truths; truths revealed many years after Einstein postulated the immutable speed of light, the mutable fourth dimension, and mass/energy equivalence.
Kaku ends Einstein’s Cosmos with a brief explanation of the current state of Unified Field Theory’ research; i.e. Kaku suggests the most promising research is in string theory; particularly, superstring theory. The belief that a probabilistic and deterministic world can be explained in terms of strings that vibrate and change the nature of reality like a violin changes the sound of a note based on strings that are plucked.
However, like Einstein’s brilliant thought experiments in 1905, the truth of a superstring theory’ is not provable with today’s technology. There is presently no way of observing or measuring strings. They are too small-smaller than a Planck length.
Though Kaku does not mention Lee Smolin, a Harvard educated physicist, some believe string theory is a research' dead-end. Kaku’s book shows that research' dead-ends were raised about Einstein when his thought experiments could not be experimentally proven.
What irony–two of the best known literary adventures ever written were about white’ heroes based on the life of a black' swashbuckler. Tom Reiss, in "The Black Count", resurrects the life of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, a Haitian-born’ Frenchman who is the son of a white aristocrat and a slave. This swashbuckler becomes a fearless and heroic general in Napoleon’s army. He is the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Christo”.
"The Black Count" dies at the age of 43 and is nearly erased from history by the duplicity and discrimination of his time. After a two-year imprisonment, with failing health, General Dumas is nearly a broken man. Napoleon no longer wants Dumas in his army. One presumes because of past personal conflicts or because of Dumas’ failing health.
Reiss intertwines the novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, with the story of General Dumas’ life but, unlike the novel, the General does not escape prison with enough treasure to destroy his enemies. Revisionists, like Tom Reiss, are left to correct, or at least, vivify history. Reiss shows that Napoleon is less than a liberator and Alex Dumas is more than a father of Alexandre Dumas.
"Big Little Lies" is about bullying, in every sense of the word. Liane Moriarty intimidates (bullies) those who think they are novelists. Caroline Lee offers a bully performance of an expertly written novel. "Big Little Lies" will influence (bully) men with anger management issues, intimidate (bully) inept marriage counselors, and browbeat (bully) idle gossips.
Moriarty sustains suspense about adult bullies by building a story about the origins of human cruelty, a murder, and a murderer. There is no definitive answer about the origin of bullying, but Moriarty infers heredity and environment play a part.
What Moriarty so beautifully renders is a murder mystery tied to the origins and consequences of bullying. Someone is murdered. It could be Jane. It could be Celeste. It could be the husband of Celeste. It could be a child. It could be one of the mothers or fathers that unjustly blame Jane for raising a child bully. The accompanying question is who is the murderer? Moriarty maintains the mystery and suspense until the end.
The “History of Money” is an interesting historical journey, written by Jack Weatherford. However, at times, resource selection seems loosely based on the title’s inferred theme. One of Weatherford’s references is to Michel Montaigne. Montaigne’s reference to money in his book, “Essays”, is superfluous. Montaigne said little about the historical role of money, except as an inheritance and burden.
Weatherford explains that we have entered a new age of money. Early civilizations disclaimed the importance of money; the ruling class coveted money for power; the merchant class acquired money for trade; the industrial class sought money for production; and now the capitalist class has risen. Like the Romans, capitalists acquire money for power.
However, the medium of money has become unanchored by the physical world. Money lives in cyber space, untethered by physical relationship. Capitalists have become the new Caesars backed by money that never touches human hands. Though Weatherford does not address bitcoin, he infers a new form of money is being created out of nothing.
One might argue money has always been created out of nothing, except convenience. Money is certainly more conveniently handled today than in ancient times. The concern is that the speed of change, figuratively and physically, is less controllable in cyber space.
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