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BOOK REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's DreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The backdrop for this story involves two young men (Lysander and Demetrius) and two young women (Hermia and Helena.) Both men have the hots for Hermia, which leaves poor Helena unloved though she loves Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander, which means Demetrius is unloved by the one he loves and has no love for the girl pursuing him. Enter the village elders—notably Hermia’s dad, Egeus, and the Duke of Athens, Theseus—who really muck up the works by insisting that Hermia marry Demetrius (whose family apparently has more cash than does Lysander’s.) This causes Lysander and Hermia to elope into the forest, where things really get freaky. Helena, courting Demetrius’s favor, tells him where the eloping couple went, and Demetrius gives chase while Helena chases Demetrius.

In the woods outside Athens, there lived ferries. Oberon, king of the fairies, has in his possession a Cupid-like potion that will make its victim fall madly in love with the next person he or she sees. Oberon orders this potion deployed in two ways pertinent to the story. Seeing Demetrius quarreling with Helena, he orders his subject, Puck, to deploy it on Demetrius. In a fashion typical of a Shakespearean comedy, the potion is misapplied.

The other use of the potion (a subplot of the story) is on the faerie queen, Titania. Oberon is upset with Titania over an Indian boy of whom they’ve come into parentage. Titania falls for a workman who is in the woods rehearsing a play that may be the worst play ever. Most disconcertingly, she falls in love with this man, called Bottom, as he’s wearing a donkey head for his role in the play. As this is a comedy, the two unholy loves that developed are eventually rectified, but not before some amusing happenings.

At its most basic level, the play is a commentary on the folly of mucking about in love–whether as matchmaking elder or a Cupid-like faerie. On another level, it’s a critique of an unrealistic pursuit of a perfect vision of love. In this way, the message isn’t unlike Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (i.e. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) This is seen in Demetrius’s ultimate recognition that he’s being an idiot by chasing after Hermia, when Helena is so clearly devoted to him. In other words, in love as in life the notion famously attributed to Voltaire that “The perfect is the enemy of the good” applies. As an aside, we also learn what Shakespeare sees as some of the mistakes of playwrights and theater companies as the assembled crowd watches Bottom and his comrades put on a hideous production.

I’d highly recommend reading this work for everyone. It’s Shakespeare; needless to say, the language is beautiful and the story is intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of RealityOur Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this book, physicist Max Tegmark makes an argument for the possibility of a reality in which the universe is a mathematical structure a theory that predicts a Level IV multiverse (i.e. one in which various universes all have different physical laws and aren’t spread out across one infinite space [i.e. not “side-by-side.”]) Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner wrote a famous paper entitled, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” The article describes one of the great mysteries of science, namely, how come mathematics describes our universe so well and with such high precision. Tegmark’s answer is because the universe is fundamentally mathematical—or at least he suspects it could be.

The first chapter serves as an introduction, setting the stage by considering the core question with which the book is concerned, “What is reality?” The book then proceeds in three parts. The first, Chapters 2 through 6, discuss the universe at the scale of the cosmos. Chapters two and three consider space and time and answer such questions as how big is the universe and where did everything come from. Chapter 4 explores many examples of mathematics’ “unreasonable effectiveness” in explaining our universe with respect to expansion and background radiation and the like (a more extensive discussion is in Ch. 10.) The fifth chapter investigates the big bang and our universe’s inflation. The last chapter in part one introduces the idea of multiverses and how the idea of multiple universes acts as an alternative explanation to prevailing notions in quantum physics (e.g. collapsing wave functions)—and, specifically, Tegmark describes the details of the first two of four models of the multiverse (i.e. the ones in which parallel universes are out there spread out across and infinite space), leaving the other two for the latter parts of the book.

Part two takes readers from the cosmological scale to the quantum scale, reflecting upon the nature of reality at the smallest scales—i.e. where the world gets weird. Chapter 7 is entitled “Cosmic Legos” and, as such, it describes the building blocks of our world as well as the oddities, anomalies, and counter-intuitive characteristics of the quantum realm. Chapter 8 brings in the Level III approach to multiverses and explains how it negates the need for waveform collapse that mainstream physics requires we accept (i.e. instead of a random outcome upon observation, both [or multiple] outcomes transpire as universes split.)

The final part is where Tegmark dives into his own theory. The first two parts having outlined what we know about the universe, and some of the major remaining mysteries left unexplained or unsubstantiated by current theories, Tegmark now makes his argument for why the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) is at least as effective at explaining reality as any out there, and how it might eliminate some daunting mysteries.

Chapter 9 goes back to the topic of the first chapter, namely the nature of reality and the differences between our subjective internal reality, objective external reality, and a middling consensus reality. Chapter 10 also elaborates on the nature of reality, but this time by exploring mathematical and physical reality. Here he elaborates on how the universe behaves mathematically and explains the nature of mathematical structures—which is important as he is arguing the universe and everything in it may be one. Chapter 11 is entitled, “Is Time and Illusion?” and it proposes there is a block of space-time and our experience of time is an artifact of how we ride our world lines through it—in this view we are braids in space-time of the most complex kind observed. A lot of this chapter is about what we are and are not. Chapter 12 explains the Level IV multiverse (different laws for each universe) and what it does for us that the others do not. Chapter 13 is a bit different. It describes how we might destroy ourselves or die out, but that, it seems, is mostly a set up for a pep talk. You see, Tegmark has hypothesized a universe in which one might feel random and inconsequential, and so he wants to ensure the reader that that isn’t the case so that we don’t decide to plop down and watch the world burn.

While this book is about 4/5ths pop science physics book, the other 1/5th is a memoir of Tegmark’s trials and tribulations in coloring outside the lines with his science. All and all, I think this serves the book. The author avoids coming off as whiny in the way that scientists often do when writing about their challenges in obtaining funding and / or navigating a path to tenure that is sufficiently novel but not so heterodox as to be scandalous. There’s just enough to give you the feeling that he’s suffered for his science without making him seem ungrateful or like he has a martyr complex.

Graphics are presented throughout (photos, computer renderings, graphs, diagrams, etc.), and are essential because the book deals in complex concepts that aren’t easily translated from mathematics through text description and into a layman’s visualization. The book has endnotes to expand and clarify on points, some of which are mathematical—though not all. It also has recommended reading section to help the reader expand their understanding of the subject.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be loaded with food-for-thought. If Tegmark’s vision of the universe does prove to be meritorious, it will change our approach to the world. And, if not, it will make good fodder for sci-fi.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and AdventureCrossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure by Julian Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells two tales in parallel, connected by one theme: travel for love. The author, Julian Smith, recounts the experience of Ewart Grogan, an English explorer whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Grogan traveled the length of Africa from South to North and recounted his experience in a book entitled “From Cape to Cairo.” The purpose of his grand endeavor was to prove his worth as man. Grogan was in love with a woman whose family was of higher station, and he believed that if he could only do what had never been done before, then the objections to his “marrying up” would dissolve.

The other story is Smith’s own attempt to retrace Grogan’s route across the length of the continent. While Smith doesn’t have to prove his worth, his motivations are more complex and tied up with his engagement to be married. Maybe Smith’s motivation is best summed up as a desire to prove to himself and / or his fiancé that he had sufficient commitment and fortitude to get him through rough times—a characteristic relevant to both marriage and crossing some of the world’s least developed countries.

Of his own admission, Smith’s journey was to be far less arduous than Grogan’s by virtue of the fact that he’d be traveling by taxis, motorcycles, buses, and ferries. Grogan and other 19th century explorers were subject to hazards far graver and more ever-present. For one thing, in Grogan’s day virtually everybody who spent any significant time in Africa got malaria. It wasn’t a question of if but when and how seriously. Even if you escaped malaria, there were myriad other tropical diseases to bring one to one’s knees. Next, there was the tribal environment in which one would travel through dozens of tribal territories, all of whose chiefs expected tribute and many of which were outright hostile. For Smith, rule of law was present in some form or fashion along most of his route, such that no one could just murder him and get off scot-free. There was also the risk of crew desertions that could cripple an expedition. Traveling parties had to carry huge amounts of goods from surveying equipment to gifts to medicines to food stuffs. Still, they had to obtain many of the party’s needs along the route. Among other things, this meant hunting animals that weren’t as docile as livestock. Anything less than an instant kill meant having to trudge into tall grass after a wounded creature that had a far greater killing capacity at close range.

This isn’t to say that Smith’s journey was adventure free. Anyone who has traveled in Africa knows that getting from place to place remains a slow and exhausting process. And many of the things that undermined Grogan’s trip also undermined Smith’s, e.g. the author suffered extended fever. But the most devastating factor for Smith’s travels was the fact that parts of Sudan were lawless and a brutal war was being fought. While Grogan barely managed to drag himself through the swampy landscape, Smith was unable to proceed overland because of the conflict. In telling of his travels, Smith discusses many of the dilemma’s that traveler’s face today (e.g. to give people money or not, how to contend with bureaucrats.) Among the travels that modern-day readers might be interested in is Smith’s visit to a gorilla sanctuary.

I enjoyed this mix of travelogue and history. The book gives one insight into the changing nature of the world and, particularly, what was once called the Dark Continent. [Note: while that may sound either racist or awash in a negativity bias, I’ve read that the reason it was called that was that when the 19th century explorers were traveling through much of the continent was unmapped, i.e. blacked out.]

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in travel in Africa—past or present.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

In Eggers’ novel, the Circle is a technology giant that looks a lot like Google + FaceBook + PayPal + Twitter all wrapped together under one corporate roof. Mae Holland, the book’s lead, is a young woman hired into the firm owing to her close friendship with a college roommate turned high level executive at the Circle, Annie. Even though Mae is brought in to work what is called “customer experience” (i.e. customer service) doing seemingly tedious work, Mae is in hog heaven. She left a job doing tedious work in a depressing environment with minimal support, and so this job personalizing boilerplate responses in a fascinating place with the opportunity to move up is a dream. The Circle is a utopian workplace where engineers are given free rein to experiment, where great minds and performing artists come to hang out, and where one gets handsomely rewarded for playing on one’s social media at work. All one needs to thrive at the Circle is a sharp mind and a willingness to accept that one’s days of privacy and solitude are behind one.

The Circle is the dystopia that some would say we are on the cusp of and others think we’ve already plunged into. It’s not Orwell’s gray dystopia of brutal state force. Neither is it Huxley’s bright and shiny dystopia of drugs and free loving. It’s a dystopia in which people willingly give up all privacy and negate the need for a neo-KGB by posting every idiotic thing that they do directly to the worldwide web. However, as in Huxley’s “Brave New World,” we see that the most nefarious character isn’t necessarily the most dangerous. The Circle is headed by an executive trinity. There’s the tech genius who we know little about until the book’s end–except that his life runs contrary to what the Circle seeks in its employees in that he’s fiercely private to the point of being mysterious. There is Tom Stenton who is the face of greedy capitalism, a loathsome character in every way imaginable. However, the real danger comes from the likable–and seemingly reasonable–Eamon Bailey who’s an idealist who thinks that people can perfect if they have no shadows in which to make mischief.

Mae is introduced to us as a likable character. She’s a hardworking but human girl next door. When we are introduced to Mercer, her ex-boyfriend and the face anti-Circle-ism, we assume that she’s being reasonable in her dislike of him. Even though he sounds reasonable, she knows him. Mercer rails against this corporatized surveillance state, and initially one may not be able to tell whether he’s a Luddite or the voice of reason. As the story goes on, however, the reader is likely to like Mercer more and more and Mae less and less. But the question remains until the end whether Mae will do the right thing as she becomes aware of the full—disturbing–picture of the Circle.

I got engrossed in this book. It’s absorbing both because of good character development and an intriguing story. That’s probably why the novel was made into a film that came out earlier in the year. It’s one of those books with the readability of popular commercial fiction, but which provides some food for thought. Some of the twists you may figure out, but the book keeps one wondering until the reveals.

I’d recommend this book for fiction readers—particularly if you have any pictures on social media with a drink in your hand or bad judgement in progress.

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The movie trailer, if you’re interested:

BOOK REVIEW: Wired to Grow by Britt Andreatta

Wired to GrowWired to Grow by Britt Andreatta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is one of those books that is hard to rate and review. It does a thing well, and if one is looking for a book of its strengths, it’ll serve one well. That thing it does well is to concisely and clearly summarize research in neuroscience relevant to learning new skills. If that is something one is interested in, and one hasn’t done much reading on the subject yet, this book will get one up to speed in just over 100 pages while offering insight into where to go to flesh out what one has learned.

That said, if one has read up on pop-sci neuroscience and /or self-help books applying said research, one is likely to find that this book offers little value-added while lacking the depth and narrative approach of competing works. The latter is particularly intriguing as this is a book about effective learning, and it seems clear that humans like learning through stories. However, Andreatta does little story telling beyond brief mentions of approaches she’s used in her seminars and occasional recaps of the stories of the researchers whose work she’s drawn upon. Some may find this isn’t so bad because it keeps the book compact. Story telling is page intensive. On the other hand, a lack of story-telling means that the material is a bit less prone to stick than it might otherwise be.

The author’s approach to making the material stick is to hang it on a three-phase model (learn-remember-do) and to keep it brief. Many of the chapters consist largely of bullet points, and in places the book feels like a PowerPoint handout. (I’ll let the reader decide whether that’s a good thing or not.)

The book is organized into twenty chapters arranged in five parts. (That tells one a lot about the brevity of chapters, given the book is 102 pp.) The five parts consist of: I.) an overview of neuroscientific fundamentals; II.) a description of research related to the “learn” phase of Andreatta’s model; III.) the same for the “remember” phase; IV.) coverage of the “do” phase; and V.) a section called “design” that helps the reader to apply what they’ve learned in the earlier parts to build approaches to teaching and learning.

There is some useful ancillary material. First, there are many graphics of a variety of types (pictures, line drawings, tables, and graphs) that are nicely drawn and effective. Second, there are “Your Learning Journey” sections interspersed throughout the book. These are one page or less exercises that are designed to help one put one’s learning to use. Thirdly, there is a bibliography that includes crucial reference materials divided by type: i.e. journal / scholarly research, books, journalistic / media accounts, and cited scholars. Finally, there are apparently additional resources accessible online, e.g. downloadable pdf files, but I didn’t investigate these features.

I would recommend this book for those looking for a concise summary of recent developments in neuroscience as they apply to education and learning. If you’re well-read on the subject, however, you might not find that this book delivers much extra. It should be noted that the author is speaking from an educator’s perspective (i.e. not a scientist or psychologist) and readers may find that a plus or not.

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BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en

Monkey: A Folk Novel of ChinaMonkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

If you’re familiar with any Chinese folklore, it’s probably this story. But you probably know it as “Journey to the West.” It’s not only been released in numerous editions as a novel, it’s also been adapted for film, stage play, and I’m sure there must be a video game of it out there.

If you’re thinking, “Chinese folklore? Sounds boring.” Think again. This is a superhero story. Monkey, also known as the Monkey-King and “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” is an immortal who has all manner of supernatural powers. He can fly. He can make copies of himself. He can transform himself—either disguising himself as another being or appearing as an inanimate object. He has an iron truncheon that can be the size of a sewing needle or a mile long and which is indestructible. Wielding said staff, he can defeat armies or deities.

In fact, the flaw in this story isn’t a lack of adventure or thrill. On the contrary, it’s one adventure after the next. If anything, the flaw is “Superman Syndrome.” That’s what I call it when the hero is so ridiculously overpowered that even when he’s fighting gods, dragons, or whole armies there’s still no doubt about the outcome.

Of course, the Monkey does eventually meet his match in the form of the Buddha. The Buddha defeats Monkey not in combat, but in a bet. That event shifts the direction of the story. In the early chapters, Monkey is goes about heaven and earth arrogantly wreaking havoc. He’s not altogether detestable. He does have his redeeming traits, but he’s insufferably arrogant and mischievous. After he’s imprisoned following his run-in with the Buddha, a monk is assigned to go to India to bring back scriptures (hence, a “journey to the west”) to China. Monkey is assigned to be the monk’s guardian and along with two others that they pick up along the way (Pigsy and Sandy) the monk is escorted on his journey. The party faces one challenge after the next, and the trip is long and arduous. Some of the challenges require brute force but in many cases they are battles of wits. So while Monkey may be overpowered, he does experience personal growth over the course of the story.

The story is told over 30 chapters, each set up with a cliffhanger. I enjoyed this translation by Arthur Waley. It is end-noted, which is useful given the historic and cultural nuances that may not be clear to readers.

It should be noted that this is unambiguously a Buddhist tale. There is a bias against Taoists and other non-Buddhist religions evident throughout the story. It’s not just the fact that the Buddha easily defeats Monkey when no other deity or group of deities can, there’s a steady stream of anti-Taoist sentiment. So, Taoists and Chinese Folk Religion practitioners be warned, I guess.

I would recommend this book for fiction readers, particularly if you have an interest in the superhero genre or Chinese literature.

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BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Poetry ed. by Louis Untermeyer

Modern British PoetryModern British Poetry by Louis Untermeyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page (not the same edition)

 

This is an anthology of 183 poems written by 77 British authors. Given the title, “Modern British Poetry,” the first thing that should be stated is that the original work came out around 1920, and so the bulk of these poems are from the 19th century. That may fit perfectly with your classification of modern poetry, but if you’re looking for present-day poets, this isn’t the book you’re after.

However, the good news is that you might still find some unexpected treasures. Often collections of public domain poetry like this gather poems that are ubiquitous and which are probably already on the shelves of most poetry readers in various collections and anthologies. But of the almost 80 poets included, only a handful will be household names for a general reader—particularly if you aren’t from the UK and thus didn’t get exposed to the more obscure British poets. Of course, there are a number who have stood the test of time: Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, A.E. Housman, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, Alfred Noyes, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Graves spring to mind. Furthermore, the poems chosen aren’t a straightforward “greatest hits” list. (e.g. “If” isn’t among the four Rudyard Kipling entries.)

As one might expect of a 230 page anthology that contains 183 poems (plus author bios and the occasional footnote), the poems selected are brief. In a few cases, excerpts from longer works are included, but for the most part these are poems that fit comfortably on a single page. This is great for someone trying to get a feel for the various poets and for those who enjoy more compact works over epic poems—which, if we’re being honest, is most of us.

The anthologist, Louis Untermeyer, includes brief bios for each of the poets in front of their entries in the anthology. Generally, each included poet has between one and four poems. While the poems are organized by poet, the poets seem to be organized chronologically (at least as near as I can tell; it begins with Thomas Hardy [1840 – 1928] and ends with Robert Graves [1895 – 1985.])

I read a Kindle version of this work and found it to be far better organized than most of these public domain compilations. It not only had an index that would take one to individual poems or poet bios, but it also contained a hyperlinked index. Unfortunately, I obtained the book some time ago and I couldn’t find the same edition when I looked for it while doing the review. Most of the Kindle editions now seem to bundle Untermeyer’s “Modern American Poetry” with his “Modern British Poetry” but the edition I had was just the British poets.

I recommend this book for poetry readers. In addition to having some exemplary short form poetry from both well-known and forgotten poets, it happens to contain the first poem I ever memorized in it—a powerful little poem by John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Fields” (if you don’t know it, read it; it’s war poetry at its finest.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Narconomics by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug CartelNarconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Narconomics” is about how drug cartels are taking pages from the playbooks of big businesses like Walmart and Coca-cola. In cases like diversifying into new markets or deciding to collude with a competitor, this might not seem surprising. However, it may come as a shock to find out about the franchising and CSR (corporate social responsibility) practices of drug cartels. Other than being outside access to the justice system, and thus resorting to violence to achieve what contracts, mediators, and courts would do for other businesses, the drug business it turns out is very much a business.

 

Along the way a secondary story emerges that is just as interesting and even more important. It’s the story of how the drug war makes no sense from the standpoint of economic logic. Destroying fields in South America only makes for poorer farmers because their monopsonistic (i.e. single buyer) market pushes the cost of lost crops back onto them. And because raw product is such a tiny portion of retail price, their destruction has almost no effect on prices at the user end. Furthermore, as more US and European states legalize marijuana, it seems that this will have more of an effect at putting cartels out of business and ending their reign of violence than all the arms shipments and foreign aid for drug enforcement ever had.

 

The book consists of ten chapters, each of which addresses an area of business practices that have been taken up by the drug cartels. Chapter one is about supply chains, and in the case of cocaine there is a rather long one. The raw product is grown in South America and must be infiltrated into the US—usually through Mexico. (For a while there was a prominent Caribbean route, but it was shut down—at least for a while.) This is where we learn about how the cartels adapt to eradicated crops, as well as how the product is marked up at various stages of the operation.

 

Chapter 2 is about the decision to compete versus collude. We mostly read about the competition, because in a lawless market competition equals violence. However, over time cartels have been increasingly willing to agree on distribution of territory. Although, there are also clever means to compete unique to criminal enterprises, such as engaging in violence in someone else’s territory to cause the police to crack down there—thus making it harder for said opposition.

 

Chapter 3 is about human resources, and the different approaches used to handle problems in this domain. In the movies, a drug cartel employee who fouled up always gets a bullet to the brain, but it seems that this isn’t always the case—though it certainly happens. Different countries and regions have differing labor mobility. In some cases, there is no labor mobility. (i.e. if one has a gang’s symbols tattooed all over one’s body, one can’t interview with a rival gang and Aetna sure as hell isn’t going to hire you.)

 

Chapter 4 is about public relations and giving to the public. One doesn’t think about drug lords engaging in CSR, but in some cases they may be more consistent with it than mainstream businesses. The cartels face an ongoing risk of people informing on them, and at least some of those people can do so without their identities becoming known. Violence is often used to solve problems in this domain, but it can’t do it all. That’s why drug lords build churches and schools, and often become beloved in the process.

 

Chapter 5 explores “offshoring” in the drug world. This may seem strange, but drug cartels, too, chase low-cost labor. But it’s not just about lowering costs, it’s also about finding a suitable regulatory environment—which in the cartel’s case means a slack one. An interesting point is made that all the statistics on doing business are still relevant to the drug business, but often in reverse. That is, if Toyota is putting in a plant, it wants a place with low corruption, but if the Sinaloa want to put in a facility–the easier the bribery the better.

 

Chapter 6 describes how franchising has come to be applied to drug cartels—famously the Zetas. The franchiser provides such goods as better weaponry in exchange for a cut of profits. Of course, there’s always a difference in incentives between franchisers and franchisees when it comes to delimiting territory, and this doesn’t always work out as well for drug dealers as it does for McDonald’s franchisees.

 

While the bulk of the book focuses on cocaine and marijuana, Chapter 7 is different in that most of it deals with the wave of synthetic drugs that has popped up. The topic is innovating around regulation, and so it’s certainly apropos to look at these drugs. If you’re not familiar, there are many synthetic drugs that are usually sold as potpourri or the like. Once they’re outlawed, the formula is tweaked a little. In a way, these “legal highs” may be the most dangerous because no one knows what effect they’ll have when they put the out on the street.

 

In chapter 8 we learn that the drug world hasn’t missed the online retail phenomena. Using special web browsers, individuals are able to make transactions that are not so difficult to trace. In an intriguing twist, the online market may foster more trust and higher quality product than the conventional street corner seller ever did.

 

Chapter 9 examines how drug traffickers diversify—most notably into human trafficking. Exploiting their knowledge of how to get things across the border, they become “coyotes.”

 

The last chapter investigates the effect of legalization, and it focuses heavily upon the effects that Denver’s legalizing marijuana has had in Denver, in the rest of the country, and on the cartels. Wainwright paints a balanced picture that shows that not everything is perfect with legalization. E.g. he presents a couple of cases of people who ingested pot-laced food products intended for several servings, and did crazy stuff. However, the bottom line is that legalization (and the regulation and taxation that comes with it) seems to be the way to go if you want to really hurt the cartels and stem the tide of violence, as well as to reduce the number of people showing up at the ER having ingested some substance of unknown chemical composition.

 

There is an extensive conclusion, about the length of one of the chapters that delves into the many ways our approach to eliminating drug use is ill-advised and dangerous. This connects together a number of the key points made throughout the chapter.

 

I found this book fascinating. Wainwright does some excellent investigative reporting—at no minor risk to life and limb. If you’re interested in issues of business and economics, you’ll love this book. If you’re not into business and economics, you’ll find this book to be an intriguing and palatable way to take on those subjects.

View all my reviews

5 Books to Introduce You to Your Subconscious

In a world free of frontiers, the subconscious mind is the final frontier.

 

Below are a few books that I found useful. The hyperlinks forward to my review on GoodReads or the book’s GoodReads page.

 

Also, I’ve included three honorable mention books that I haven’t yet reviewed, but which seem both relevant and intriguing.

 

5.) Brainwashing by Kathleen Taylor: What makes some minds more malleable than others and how are minds bent to a given purpose? In learning the answers, one discovers that the bases of our beliefs are often more deep-seated than one might believe.

brainwashing_taylor

 

 

4.) Sleights of Mind by Macknik & Martinez-Conde: Magicians and mentalists are notoriously skilled at exploiting the chinks in the armor of  our minds.

sleights_of_mind

 

 

3.) Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow: Physicist and pop science writer, Leonard Mlodinow, explores the many ways in which our behavior is more influenced from the back of the house than we feel to be the case.

subliminal

 

 

2.) The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: This is my nod to the fact that the Western scientific community isn’t the only entity that has something useful to say on this subject. Tibetan Buddhists have a long tradition (arguably predating Buddhism and into the Bon-era) of dream yoga (lucid dreaming) and our dreams offer the greatest portal to the subconscious.

tibetanyogas

 

 

1.) Incognito by David Eagleman: Eagleman tells us that our conscious mind represents the tip of the mental iceberg, and he explores the many ways in which we are subject to the vagaries of what exists below the surface.

incognito_eagleman

 

 

Here are a few others.

 

The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: I just finished this book. In it, the author investigates whether there really is  such a thing as the self by studying a number of diseases and phenomena of the mind that look like negations of self. (e.g. Cotard’s Syndrome in which people insist they are dead, depersonalization disorder in which life seems a dream in a literal rather than poetic sense, out-of-body-experiences in which there is a hallucination that one is outside one’s body, etc.)

 

The Attention Merchants  by Tim Wu: I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s said to be good and is about how our programming is exploited to keep us clicking. If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t seem to just drop social media even when it seems like a phenomenal waste of time–why it exerts such a strong pull–this book delves into what proclivities of the mind have been seized upon.

 

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal: I’m about 1/3rd of the way through this one. It has some overlap with the Wu book. In it, McGonigal asks why games have so much appeal–even to the extent of becoming addictive. As with why we keep clicking, the answer has a lot more to do with the primitive parts of our mind than the high tech subject matter might suggest.

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