BOOK REVIEW: Healing Mushrooms by Richard Bray

Medicinal Mushrooms: Healing Mushrooms for Immune Support - Improve your Memory, Reduce Inflammation, and Fight Cancer (Urban Homesteading Book 7)Medicinal Mushrooms: Healing Mushrooms for Immune Support – Improve your Memory, Reduce Inflammation, and Fight Cancer by Richard Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This guide offers a concise overview of the medicinal use of fungi. It’s a soup-to-nuts examination of how to utilize approximately thirty different mushrooms for treatment of a wide variety of ailments.

The book consists of eight chapters. Each of the first three chapters is quite brief and provides simple background information about mushrooms as medicine. The detailed information begins with chapter four, which provides an in-depth overview of fungi and the characteristics by which which some of them derive health and medicinal benefits. Chapters five and six repeat some of the same information, but from opposing angles – making it easier for the reader to find the information they are seeking. Chapter five describes the mushrooms, including a brief mention of the uses of each. Chapter six, on the other hand, introduces a range of ailments and medical conditions, and suggests which of the mushrooms have been studied as remedies. There are endnotes, directing one to the papers in which the scientific results appear. This is also where one finds information on dosages.

Chapter seven shows various approaches to preparing mushrooms for use as medicine. Not all of the mushrooms can be eaten, some require tinctures or other preparations to be made, and this chapter explains how to do that work in a step-by-step fashion. For the mushrooms that can be eaten, it describes the relative merits of different cooking methods. The last chapter discusses where to obtain mushrooms. It offers considerations for foraging mushrooms, but also tips for commercially acquiring them.

The book has many graphics. These include color photos of the various species of mushrooms as well as some drawings and diagrams throughout. The chapter on preparation has graphics interspersed within the textual directions to offer a visual indicator and break up the text. As mentioned, there is a huge set of paper references arranged as endnotes linked to the places (largely in chapter six) where findings are cited.

If one is wondering, the book does not discuss any mushrooms with psychoactive (psychedelic) properties (e.g. psilocybe.) Many of the mushrooms included will be well known to culinary mushroom users (e.g. button, portobello, enoki, lion’s mane, chicken-of-the-woods, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms.) Others were familiar to me [as someone with a minimal knowledge of mushrooms] even though it wasn’t from their culinary use (chaga, reishi, and jelly ear.) And a few of the fungi I was unfamiliar with before reading the book.

I found this to be a useful book. It’s concise and offers attractive and useful graphics. If you are interested in medicinal mushrooms, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Matrix and Philosophy ed. William Irwin

The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the RealThe Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As might be expected of a collection of twenty essays that try to squeeze every drop of philosophy out of a two-hour movie (or to criticize each drop,) some of the chapters are much more compelling and pertinent than others. One could argue that some of the chapters are of sounder quality than others (and I would make that claim,) but even if you take them as a collection of high-quality philosophy essays, it’s hard to deny that some of the chapters are germane to the story the filmmakers created, while others try to use the film to get across an idea they find worthy – regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the film, per se. More simply, the book comments on “The Matrix” through the varied lenses of a wide variety of philosophical branches and schools, most of which have something to say about the movie, and others… not so much.

Few films have achieved the mix of popularity and philosophization of 1999’s “The Matrix.” The movie imagines a world in which the simulation hypothesis is true – i.e. there are people living in a simulated / virtual world that is so convincing that they are unable to tell that they aren’t going about their lives in “base-reality.” The movie’s central question is: should one prefer an existence that is real — if grey, dismal, subterranean, and hostile – over one which is illusory — but one has all the modern comforts, delicious virtual steaks, and one isn’t being hunted by killer machines? Over the course of the story we see two divergent perspectives on this question. The lead character, Neo, chooses to leave the Matrix to enter the real world. Meanwhile, one of the crew members of the ship Neo finds himself on, Cypher, betrays his shipmates in order to get back into the Matrix. It’s clear from the fact that Neo is the lead and Cypher is portrayed as a treasonous scoundrel that opting for “the real” – warts and all – is viewed as the correct position on the matter. However, the fact that we see Cypher in relatable circumstances, ones that engender some empathy for the character, means that answer isn’t meant to be taken as a forgone conclusion.

The movie’s premise engages a couple branches of philosophy – notably, epistemology (asking what, if anything, can one know to be true?) and metaphysics (asking, what is real?) While there are a number of philosophical ideas that recur in the book, the most repeated is Plato’s cave? Based on the ideas of Socrates, Plato described a situation in which people live chained in a cave in which they can only see silhouettes moving about on the wall from a light source behind them. What happens when one becomes unchained and leaves the cave into the “real world?” How is one received by people when he returns and tells the story of what one experienced? Is anyone interested in following in one’s footsteps, or do they believe it’s a lie, or the ramblings of a madman?

The twenty chapters of the book are divided into five parts. Chapters one through four consider the epistemological questions raised by the film. Chapter one sets the scene and gives the most extensive discussion of the comparison of the movie to Plato’s cave. Chapter two takes an anti-skeptical turn. It argues that, if one isn’t a philosopher, one has little reason to view the world skeptically. The world works, why question it? The argument is both true and not particularly useful. Chapter three proposes that one cannot make sense of a world in which all or most of a person’s beliefs are false. Like the previous chapter, this one boils down to: we can’t eliminate the possibility of a Matrix-like truth, but neither do we have any good reason for giving it a second thought. Chapter four focuses on sensory perception and what it says (and / or doesn’t say) about what we know. In daily life, we intuitively (if not explicitly) base a lot of what we “know” on our sensory experience — even though most of us know it is flawed. Perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by Chapter 4’s author was about the Hmong people, and their increased incidence of dying during sleep – in conjunction with a folk belief about malevolent spirits who attack during sleep. (Thus, it’s suggested that the mental world and the physical world aren’t separated such that the former can have no influence on the latter – i.e. the materialist take.)

[Note: The reason the point about the Hmong is salient is that there is a scene in which Neo asks whether dying in the Matrix means dying in the real world. Morpheus answers “the body cannot live without the mind.” From a storytelling perspective, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers created this rule. There would be zero tension in any scene that takes place inside the Matrix (i.e. where almost all the action takes place) if it weren’t the case that people could die from what happened inside. However, from a philosopher’s (or scientist’s) point of view the statement is problematic. Every night our conscious minds go “dead” and yet we wake up just fine. However, the Hmong issue raises an interesting point, suggesting maybe we don’t understand the issue as clearly as we feel we do.]

Part two of the book (ch. 5 – 8) shift from epistemology to metaphysics. Chapter five lays out the basic metaphysical issue, asking how effective a two-category classification scheme of real and unreal is, and where it runs into problems. Chapter six shifts focus to the mind-body problem (does physical matter generate subjective experience, and – if so – how,) and asks what minds are and whether machines can have one. Chapter seven rejects the film’s notion that mental states can be reduced to physical states, but ventures into interesting territory by evaluating the ethics of “imprisoning a mind” — if it were possible. Chapter eight explores questions of fate and determinism, which is also a central premise in the film. The appeal of the real world in this film is obviously not that it’s better, bolder, brighter – it’s none of those things – a major part of the appeal is that in the real world it seems one is free (i.e. one has full free will.) Whereas inside the Matrix, a least much of one’s life is deterministically dictated by computer programs.)

Up to this point, whether or not I felt a given essay said anything interesting, I believed they were all addressing this film’s philosophical underpinnings. From part three, we see a shift. For example, chapter nine asks, is “The Matrix” a Buddhist film. Not surprisingly (given – to my knowledge – none of the filmmakers ever said it was,) the authors conclude that it’s not, but that it has touches of Buddhist influence (also not surprising, given they aren’t hidden or subtle.) Chapter ten discusses the problems of religious pluralism. Because this film presents not only the aforementioned Buddhist influence but also Christian influence (Neo as savior) and bits from all-manner of ancient mythology (starting with character names / roles, e.g. Morpheus,) it’s proposed that it’s advocating a kind of pluralism. [Given that the movie exists in a fictional world, the fact that it draws ideas and names from various sources, doesn’t seem to me to be a suggestion that the filmmakers are advocating a particular hodgepodge, pluralistic, Frankenstein’s Monster religion.] I do think the author did a fine job showing that pluralistic “religions” tend to be logically inconsistent and systemically untenable. Where he lost me was in the suggestion that individual religions are logically consistent. The one I was raised in had an all-powerful god who couldn’t contradict human free will, and one god that was simultaneously three separate and distinct entities. In short, the religion I had experience with is chock-full of logical inconsistency. I burst out laughing when I got to this statement, “Is it really the case that the evidence supporting the truth of, say, Christianity is no stronger than that supporting the truth of, say, Buddhism or Jainism?” Given that (at least the schools of Buddhism closest to what Gotama Buddha taught) pretty much only ask one to believe that if one meditates and behaves ethically one can achieve a heightened state of mind free of the experience of suffering, and Christianity asks one to believe in a God[s] and demons and miracles and sundry ideas for which there is not a shred of evidence, I’d say it really is the case.

Chapter eleven examines the question of happiness, and concludes that: 1.) happiness “is the satisfaction that one is desiring the right things in the right way”; 2.) that one can’t have happiness without a “right understanding of reality.” I don’t think its convincingly conveyed that either of those two ideas is true, but the question of happiness as it pertains to Cypher’s decision is an interesting one. I found chapter twelve to be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking of the book. It focuses heavily on the teachings of Kant, and it discusses how important features we see with the Matrix (e.g. illusion and enslavement) aren’t features projected from an external source but are imposed by oneself. I think this is a useful way to think about how the film can be related to one’s own life – i.e. thinking about the Matrix world as symbolic for an illusory mental world.

Part IV is entitled “Virtual Themes” and it looks at “The Matrix” from the perspectives of nihilism, existentialism, and then takes a step back and asks questions about the usefulness of studying philosophy through a fictional device (i.e. film.) Chapter thirteen looks at “The Matrix” through the lens of nihilism, putting it beside Dostoevky’s “Notes from the Underground.” Chapter fourteen is similar in that it compares / contrasts “The Matrix” with another philosophical literary work, the existentialist novel by Sartre, “Nausea.”

I thought the questions taken up in the second half part IV were important ones. These two chapters (i.e. 15 and 16) deal with what is the proper relationship – if any — between philosophy and the product of storytellers. I say this is important because the discussion throughout the book is contingent on there being some value in philosophical ideas in fictional accounts that aren’t optimized to conveying philosophy, but rather are optimized to building an entertaining story. Some of the critiques lack effectiveness because they seem to accept there is value in considering philosophy in fiction, but the correction to make it more effective philosophy would make it useless as story. I would hazard to say that any film that would receive a thumbs up as a conveyor of philosophical ideas from a panel of 24 philosophers (the number involved with these chapter) would be fundamentally unwatchable. But does that mean the bits and pieces of philosophy one gets are worthless? I’d say no, but opinions may vary. Chapter fifteen asks why philosophers should engage with works of fiction, as wall as considering the value of story. Chapter sixteen focuses on genre, concluding that “The Matrix” is a work of real genre, but virtual philosophy.

That last section includes analysis from the perspective of what I would call the single-issue schools of philosophy (feminism and Marxism,) as well as postmodernism (which is said to have been a major influence on the directors) and other twentieth century philosophers. The two single-issue schools do what those schools often do, which is to myopically focus on what is interest to them (regardless of that issues importance to the film, or lack thereof) and pick and choose examples that seem to support their idea. The feminist essay reduces the story to an attempt to be un-raped (i.e. unplugged) and catalogs all the instances in which some “penetration” took place, be it characters being jacked into the Matrix hardware or shot. The author compares “The Matrix” to “eXistenZ,” a film with similar themes that she prefers (though, given the relative popularity of the two films, she may be the only one who feels that way.) The chapter on the Marxist perspective isn’t as poorly related to the film. However, I doubt the essay would exist if the Wachowskis had stuck to their original plan. I read once that the filmmakers originally had a different (and more sensible) rationale for why the machines had humans in a vat. The idea that appears in the film is that humans are used to produce bioelectricity (probably the most scientifically ridiculous idea in the film) and this forms the basis for the Marxist critique of the pod people as exploited labor.

The penultimate chapter is probably the most relevant of the last section. It discusses postmodern philosophy, notably Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” which is said to have influenced the Wachowskis and it [the book] even had a cameo appearance in the film. The last chapter is the most convoluted read, but probably by the most prominent author in the book. It’s by Slavoj Zizek and it critiques the movie from the perspective of the ideas of Lacan, Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and Freud.

I found lots of interesting nuggets of food-for-thought in this book. As I said, the effectiveness of the chapters varies tremendously. This isn’t so much because the quality of authors varies. It’s just that some of the work gets off topic – kind of like if there was an analysis of “My Friend Flicka” and it was decided that the thoughts of a Marine Biologist were essential — you’d be like “what am I reading, and why?” That happens sometimes as one reads this book. But, if you like the movie and want some deeper insight into it, this is a fine book to check out. It’s also a good way to take in various philosophical ideas, leveraging one’s knowledge of the film.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells

Shakespeare's Tragedies: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Once again, we revisit a title in my favorite source for mainlining quality information on niche topics, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series of books. These guides are generally between one-hundred and two-hundred pages in length, and provide essential information on a specific topic or discipline without getting bogged down in minutiae or in attempts to be entertaining.

I’ve been reading (/rereading) the tragedies of Shakespeare, and thought the guide might give some insight into the background of the plays and the more obscure shifts in language and meaning. Which it did. I would say more the former than the latter. But it also brought up subjects that I wouldn’t have necessarily given much thought, such as how the nature of the theater of the day shaped the plays – e.g. what could and couldn’t be done and how it influenced the pacing.

The book consists of an introduction, eleven chapters, an epilogue, and the usual backmatter (i.e. references, recommended reading, index.) The introduction and first chapter together set the stage by explaining the nature of tragedy in literature and drama. The introduction deals more generally with the question of what is tragedy, while chapter one deals more specifically with theatric tragedies in Shakespeare’s time. The question of which of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, versus the other two genres of the day – comedies and histories, might seem straightforward, but it’s not. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies are quite historical (e.g. “Julius Caesar”) and some of his comedies are fairly bleak (e.g. “The Winter’s Tale” and “Troilus and Cressida”) and his tragedies generally have comedic elements and language (e.g. see: “Hamlet.”)

Having established differed approaches to defining tragedies, the remaining ten chapters each take on one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in what is believed to be chronological order: “Titus Andronicus,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Timon of Athens,” “Anthony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.” For each play, the author discusses things such as how what was going on at the time and where Shakespeare was in his career play into the character of the plays. However, much of the page space is occupied by laying out each story. In that sense, this guide is probably most useful for someone who has minimal experience with these plays. However, one will learn about how the plays were received at the time and subsequently, a little about the modern retellings (i.e. film, mostly,) and a little bit about how these works fit in the context of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and those he borrowed from.

Having recently read Bart van Es’s “Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction,” I was thinking about which organizational scheme I preferred, between the two. Instead of organizing chapters by the play, as Wells does, van Es has chapters that are topically arranged — covering subjects like setting, language, characters, the role of time, etc. It should be noted that there is a good reason for this difference in approach. There are more comedies (18, by some — but not all — counts) and some of them are “more comedic” than others, and so the topical arrangement is more sensible for a short book (i.e. it wouldn’t make sense to have 18 or more chapters in a book designed to be concise, and it wouldn’t be the best use of space to have full chapters to cover “problem comedies” or “tragi-comedies.”) Ultimately, I don’t know that I have a preference. Both clearly have advantages, and I thought each approach was sensible for its subject.

A brief epilogue delves into why we are even interested in reading tragedies – Shakespearean or otherwise. As might be expected of an epilogue in such a concise guide, the author doesn’t bother arguing for a decisive answer, but rather presents a few alternatives in basic outline. The book has a few plates of artwork that take their subjects from the works of Shakespeare, notably paintings by the poet / artist William Blake.

I’d recommend this book as an accompanying guide for those reading through Shakespeare’s tragedies. It may prove slightly more beneficial for readers with limited experience of the works. However, even those who’ve read, watched, and reread the plays are likely to learn something new.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio

The Photographer of MauthausenThe Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Due out: September 30, 2020

This “graphic novel” tells the story of a Spanish photographer, Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp as a Communist during the Second World War. [Note: I only put graphic novel in quotes because it’s not a fictitious story, which “novel” implies, but graphic novel seems to be the accepted term for any graphically depicted story – fact or fiction.] Mauthausen was a camp in Austria. While it wasn’t technically one of the extermination camps, it was legendary for the death toll associated with the granite mine where many of the inmates labored. Its “staircase of death” was the location of untold fatalities, including: murders by the Nazis, suicides, and even tripping accidents that will happen when an emaciated prisoner has to carry 50 kg stones up almost 200 uneven steps with no railing day after day.

Boix, who had been a journalistic photographer previously, was assigned to work for a Nazi officer who took pictures in the camp – particularly pictures of fatalities. Boix carried equipment, set up lighting, developed negatives, and made prints. His boss, Ricken, is depicted as bizarre character. On the one hand, Ricken seems not so bad by Nazi SS standards, but, on the other hand, he has a sociopathic inclination to see death as art. Boix takes advantage of his position to make copies of the negatives with the idea that they will be evidence when the war comes to the end. At first, there is support for this plot among the Spanish Communists, who help hide the negatives away in places like the carpentry shop. However, this support dwindles when it becomes clear that the Germans will lose the war, and – thus –surviving to the end becomes everyone’s primary focus. Soon Boix is on his own to figure out how to get the photos out. He develops a plan involving one of the boys at the camp (children being less intensely scrutinized) and an Austrian woman, who is a sympathizer.

The book climaxes with the operation to get the negatives out of the camp, but resolves with the immediate post-War period when Boix attempts to generate interest in the photographs as well providing testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Boix is portrayed as fiery and impassioned. When the others at Mauthausen just want to survive to the end, he maintains that any risk is worth it. While he is shown to have some conflict about putting a boy’s life at risk with (arguably) the riskiest step in the process, he doesn’t seem waiver. At the trials he’s outraged about the panel’s insistence on “just the facts.” He wants to freely and fully tell the story of Mauthausen, and they – like courts in democracies everywhere – wish to maintain an appearance of the dispassionate acquisition of facts.

I found this book to be engaging and well worth the read. The artwork is well-done and easy to follow. The story is gripping. While there are a vast number of accounts of events at places like Auschwitz, there aren’t so many popular retellings of events at Mauthausen. I highly recommend this book for those interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

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BOOK REVIEW: Simulacra & Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

Simulacra and SimulationSimulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20-ish essays that share as a theme the idea that we live not so much in a world of events, information, and things, but in a world of simulacra in which those things represent or symbolize something (either the true version of that object or something else altogether.) After an opening that introduces the idea of simulacra and simulations, the chapters each look at an example of illusion and simulation in our world. The book’s strength is in suggesting outside-the-box, thought-provoking ideas. This is not to say that said ideas are all sound or unassailably true. A reasonable reader might conclude that much of the book consists of crackpot ideas. I tended to find that there was a kernel of truth in the points that Baudrillard was making, but that he often blew that kernel up into an absurdity.

To clarify, let’s discuss a couple examples of events that Baudrillard says that we don’t know, but instead we know a simulacrum of. These two examples are very different, and I believe one is a stronger argument for Baudrillard’s ideas than is the other. One is the Holocaust and the other is the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In both cases, Baudrillard argues what we “know” is not the event itself, but a representation that has been created through fictionalized accounts and “common knowledge” with varying degrees of accuracy. In my view, his point was more clearly made regarding the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. What people think they know of the event is more representative of what happens in the movie “The China Syndrome” than what actually happened. Most people grossly overestimate the costs and consequences of the event because they have a fictional representation of it in place of a factual understanding.

Besides events, Baudrillard considers a number of other ways we might be considered to be living in a representational world. The hypermarket doesn’t perform the same function as markets historically did. It exists to provide some hyperreal experience that is as much entertainment as it is the acquisition of necessary goods and services. Baudrillard also talks about how the media and advertising provide a façade in place of the real because of disincentives to provide accurate information. Journalism benefits from sensationalizing. Advertising benefits from hyperbolizing.

Baudrillard also ventures into the realm of science fiction. One of the most intriguing discussions is about holographs and how one might know whether one was the item being projected or the projection itself. There’s one chapter on J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” as an example of one of the more bizarre ways in which modernity conflates disparate things. [For those unfamiliar, Ballard’s novel deals with characters who are sexually aroused by car crashes.] An essay on “Simulacra and Science Fiction” proposes that sci-fi maybe dead by virtue of the fact that science fiction builds simulated worlds and since we already are a simulated world, the genre is passé.

I mentioned that this book’s strength is swinging for the fences with bold ideas about how modern humanity has built itself into a simulated world. So, what is its weakness? That’s easy. Low readability. The author assumes the reader has knowledge that it’s not reasonable to assume even an educated reader will have. If you weren’t familiar with the aforementioned J.G. Ballard novel or with the Beaubourg building in Paris, you’d have no idea what Baudrillard was going on about. Also, while it’s true that some of the ideas presented in the book are complicated, the author (and, perhaps, the translator) often make even relatively straightforward ideas complicated. There is a love of rare words. Beyond those issues, there’s a stream of consciousness approach to writing that makes the author’s train of thought hard to follow.

If you are interested in philosophy, this book is worth reading if you don’t mind struggling with difficult writing (a form of masochism with which I’m afflicted.) There have probably been more readable distillations of these ideas that will offer a clearer view of what Baudrillard means by ideas such as hyperreality. (We know Baudrillard means “more real than real,” but one only has one’s own intuition to make sense of that in a way that transcends Justice Potter Stewart’s dissatisfying definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.”) If you don’t enjoy struggling with abstruse writing (or if you don’t know the meaning of the word “abstruse” without looking it up) this book is probably not for you.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov

Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug TradeDopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade by Niko Vorobyov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book ventures over broad territory while maintaining a tight focus on recreational (and, mostly, illicit) drugs. It is — in part — an autobiographical account of the author’s short-lived career as a drug dealer and his subsequent prison experience. It’s also a global microhistory through the lens of drugs. It’s also a travelogue for the narco-curious who wonder things like: what the drug scene is like in Iran; or: what life is like on either side of the war on drugs in the hotspots of supply and demand. It’s also a gonzo policy tract, presenting scenes from the good (e.g. Portugal and New Zealand), the bad (e.g. the U.S.,) and the terrifying (e.g. the Philippines) of national policies on drugs, taking that knowledge into the author’s advocacy of legalization and other policy changes.

The book’s thirty-six chapters are arranged into eight parts. The first part is where one will find the autobiographical account of the author’s life as a street-level drug dealer. Part two is largely about the history of illegalization of various drugs (including America’s experiment with alcohol prohibition,) but it also has a chapter on the author’s experience with ayahuasca (a potent psychedelic substance historically used by shaman of tribes in Peru, but which has spawned a touristic cottage industry in Peru in recent years with the resurgence of popularity of psychedelics.)

Part three is about the rise of organized crime’s involvement in drugs in the Americas, and it includes a particular look at how Cuba was involved with (and touched by) the drug trade. The four chapters of Part IV focus on the United States, a reasonable distinction given not only America’s prominent demand-side dominance but also its ineffective, yet extremely costly, war on drugs [and the influence that was exerted globally in that pseudo-war’s name.] These chapters look at a collection of intertwined problems that America has experienced around the drug war, including: poor race relations, high imprisonment costs, and unnecessary loss of life. Part five shifts from the 800-pound gorilla of the demand side to its suppliers – notably Columbia and Mexico. There are extensive explorations of the Medellin and Sinaloa cartels and the fates of famous drug lords such as Pablo Escobar and El Chapo.

Part six shifts back to the individual as the primary unit of investigation (as opposed to the regional, the national, or the international levels.) However, this time the author, himself, is not the central character. He focuses on the story of a junky who managed to lead a normal life and of parents who lost children to overdose. A major theme of this book is countering the popular societal narrative that if one ever tries any illicit substance one will have a brief and miserable life as a drug-addled addict (as well as countering the fallacious belief that illicit drugs must inherently be more dangerous than legal one’s – alcohol being more damaging than a few illegal drugs along several different dimensions of danger – e.g. addictiveness, bodily damage, and encouragement of aggression.) The last chapter in this part is a fascinating look at how drug dealing via the dark web (anonymous online marketplaces that work on cryptocurrency) works in Russian (and how this could be improving safety.)

The penultimate part explores four prominent fronts in the War on Drugs. Here we see countries that are making all the costly mistakes of the United States, but – by virtue of weak governance – many additional ones, as well. Each of these locales shows the reader some new facet of the drug trade. With Russia we learn about how soldiers returning from the Chechen War brought with them a growing drug problem. In the chapter that deals with Iran [and its drug growing neighbors (e.g. Afghanistan)] we see an interesting twist in which hard drugs aren’t as challenging to acquire as one might expect under an Islamic theocracy. The Philippines has become the proverbial wild, wild west with police going Judge Dredd on drug dealers (Dredd is a comic book in which law enforcement, judgement, and punishment are all in the same individual’s hands.)

The final part shows some of the progressive shifts of recent years – moving away from a war on drugs and toward a tailored management of drug problems. The case of Portugal, a country that found itself with a huge drug problem but chose to handle it as a health rather than criminal justice issue, is highlighted. There is also a chapter on the wave of decriminalization and legalization of drugs (particularly of marijuana) in the US and elsewhere. The final chapter both discusses the drug issue du jour (the opioid crisis) and then finishes with an argument for why legalization combined with certain other policy changes would make for better outcomes.

The approach of this book is largely gonzo journalistic. It’s written in a humorous and self-referential fashion, and is not shy about taking a particular stance. It’s a fun and interesting read, and is conversational in style. The book is at it’s strongest when it’s telling personal stories – both the author’s own and those of the individuals that he meets in his journeys and in his life. As with gonzo journalism, more generally, its weakness can be seen in the reporting of the facts, in which it can be a little deceptive, lazy, or oversimplifying of complex problems here and there.

To avoid being gratuitous, I’ll give an example of each of those three criticisms [with the proviso that I read a review copy and they might be changed by the final published edition.] With respect to being deceptive, an example would be Vorobyov’s discussion of Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD. The author simply says that Hofmann “took” the substance (the phrasing implies he did it on purpose, but several other accounts I’ve read suggest Hofmann was accidentally exposed and didn’t know what was happening to him [such a smart fellow probably wouldn’t ride a bicycle home if he consciously took the substance.]) This may sound like nit-picking. I wouldn’t doubt that the author knows that detail, but was paying more attention to how he was expressing himself than fine details. An example of laziness with facts is seen when he discusses the cost of the drug war. He gives a dollar figure for Portugal, proposing that that has to be a better path than the US, which has spent a tremendous amount on the war on drugs. I suspect this is right, but he doesn’t offer a comparative figure for the US cost [just superlatives,] and so we are left to suppose it is the right conclusion. (Who knows, the relative size of both the populations and economies of the two countries might result in this assumption being wrong.)

To get to my last critical example, I have to first offer a bit of praise for something that the author does well. He often anticipates the opposing view and provides both evidence that supports his point and that supports the counterclaim. As an example, in the chapter on race relations he does point to the counter-point to his own that more police officers are killed by suspects than cops kill suspects during arrests [in the US, not necessarily the case in other places addressed in the book.] However, the ultimate point Vorobyov dismisses the discussion on is that cops (as opposed to suspects) sign on for that risk. [I feel I can safely say that no one applies to be a police officer with the idea that they will not have the best possible opportunity to defend themselves.] I’m not saying there isn’t a problem. There certainly is. However, attempts to reduce the issue to cops-are-all-just-racists-eager-to-get-their-guns-off (not this author’s stated argument, but at times the rant does seem to swerve into that territory) don’t get us anywhere.

While that may sound like harsh criticism, I wasn’t too concerned about such matters. As I mentioned, this reads like gonzo journalism, and such works are famous for not hiding bias, and – in that regard – I found this book more balanced than many. The form attempts to entertain, to present a personal argument, and to not get caught up in the minutiae of conveying precise facts. I wouldn’t quote fine detail or assume my interpretation of what was written was correct without fact-checking, but I don’t think there was any matter of fact that was far off the mark. And the fact that the author has a point-of-view that he’s advocating is par for the course.

This book was a fun and fascinating look at the narco-world. I was intrigued, educated, and sometimes horrified by what I learned. I’d highly recommend this book if you [like I] are curious about what goes on in the dark corners of the world beyond one’s everyday world.

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BOOK REVIEW: Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks

Introducing Baudrillard: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean Baudrillard was a French Postmodernist philosopher who passed away in 2007. To those who aren’t navel-gazers of the philosophical variety, he is best known – if he is known at all – for having influenced the conception of the game-changing sci-fi movie, “The Matrix.” While I haven’t yet read “Simulacra and Simulation” – the book said to have inspired the Wachowskis, it seems that the influence of Baudrillard on the film’s world is that he provided abstract ideas that the film takes in a more literal sense. If this book represents his ideas well, Baudrillard didn’t claim that we are in a computer simulation run by an AI [or by anyone / anything else, e.g. an alien overlord] (that would be more in line with ideas presented by Swedish Philosopher, Nick Bostrom.) Baudrillard’s claim is that we are increasingly building and gathering around us a world of things that are — at their most fundamental level – signs and symbols. However, it’s also true that there are some quotes and concepts that make there way into “The Matrix,” probably most famously, “the desert of the real.”

A film [and its source novel] that might be said to more directly reflect Baudrillard’s ideas is “Fight Club.” Which isn’t to say that Baudrillard deals with issues of lost masculinity [he is, to many in academia, infuriatingly contrarian on gender related issues — proposing seduction as the source of feminine power to balance the masculine.] Instead, the ideas that play into “Fight Club” are that human beings have become – first and foremost – consumers, and second that people are striving for hyperreality — an existence that is more real than real. These core ideas: 1.) human as consumer, more so than producer; 2.) the world as a simulation; and 3.) the pursuit of hyperreality are book’s bedrock.

Built on that bedrock is a flow of topics. There are considerations of what Baudrillard’s ideas mean for art and entertainment. What is art? Is high art and low art a meaningful distinction? Baudrillard’s ideas are contrasted with various schools of thought that were active at the same time such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. Of course, as a postmodernist, Baudrillard takes aim at the arrogance and absurdities of modernity, e.g. criticizing the prevailing notions about “primitivism.”

As the subtitle suggests, this book uses graphics. In the case of this book, they are mostly cartoon drawings, along with a few diagrams. Some of the cartoons repeat key text and definitions [like a text-box, but including whimsical cartoon images] and other depict debates between Baudrillard and his contemporaries.

I found this book was an informative outline of Baudrillard’s thinking. Baudrillard’s ideas are complicated, and thus conveying them clearly is a challenge, still I think that there were points at which the author could have favored clarity over scholarly precision in his discussions. If this were a philosophy text, that wouldn’t be valid criticism, but as this book is meant to be a basic introduction, I think it’s fair to say.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the WorldSand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book does a good job of showing that there are fundamental differences in philosophy, worldview, and perspective between indigenous / aboriginal peoples and the rest of the world. It’s fair to say that differences exist between any two different cultures, but the argument is that these are deeper and more profound. Said differences run from how one visualizes abstractions to how one views and interacts with nature to one’s go-to pronouns.

What the book does not do, not by any means, is honor its sub-titular promise to show how changing to aboriginal modes of thinking would save the world. It doesn’t even strongly demonstrate that the world needs saving. Instead, it relies heavily on the looming sentiment among many in the modern world (myself included) that the world is FUBAR [if needed, please look it up.] That sentiment is what draws people to the book in the first place. (And to others, e.g. Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” books, that argue for overturning modernity in favor indigenous ways.) While I, too, feel the imminent fall of modernity on a visceral level, I also recognize that this inevitable collapse is a combination of fact and fiction, and that its bases are as well. So, in some sense, Yunkaporta’s book is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Because of this, it only tweaks and clarifies the reader’s philosophy and mode of thinking (sometimes in clever and fascinating ways,) but it doesn’t vastly overturn a reader’s thinking. But even if it did completely change modes of thought and philosophies, those things don’t automatically change behavior. And saving the world (if the world needs saving) requires changes in behavior. Ultimately, one needs to know whether, how, and to what degree incentives change. (FYI – the importance of incentives is not lost on Yunkaporta, as he discusses them himself in another context.)

That said, there were many ideas that resonated with me, and in which I found deep truths. I’ll go straight to what may be the most controversial idea in the book and that is that modernity’s discomfort with – and desire to do away with — every form of [non-state sanctioned] violence has not been without cost. Yunkaporta is not justifying domestic violence (although the perception – justified or not – that such acts are out-of-control in aboriginal populations is likely an impetus for bringing up the subject.) What he seems to be arguing is that what seems like a disproportionate problem of violence in aboriginal populations derives from looking at what is happening in tribal communities through the lens of modernity, and the resultant tinge blows things out of proportion while missing part of the truth of the matter.

I’ll elaborate how I came to have a similar view through the study of martial arts. For example, when I’ve traveled to Thailand, I’ve always had mixed feelings about child Thai-boxing. On the one hand, I recognize a reason for concern about concussions in a brain that’s not fully developed. On the other hand, those children display a combination of emotional control, politeness, and self-confidence that seems in decay in much of the world. On a related note, I think that the lack of coming-of-age ritual might be failing the kids in the modern world because they skip a step that puts a bedrock of self-confidence under their feet. As a result, it’s not that they all end up milquetoast, some end up murderous because they can’t process challenging emotions effectively, they have a feeling of powerlessness gnawing at them, and they have no grasp of how to moderate their response under challenging conditions.

As far as ancillary matter is concerned, it’s mostly line-drawn diagrams that are used to show how aboriginal people depict various concepts under discussion.

I enjoyed the book and found many new ideas to consider. I’d recommend it for individuals interested in approaches to thinking and problem solving – and for those who want to learn more about indigenous populations. Just don’t think you’ll have a map to fix the world at the end.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the WorldPale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before the present-day COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seemed to be a largely forgotten historical footnote. It was overshadowed by its more explosive, if less lethal, co-event, World War I – the war that was fallaciously believed to hold the promise of ending all wars. Furthermore, Spanish Flu never achieved the mystique of the Black Death. In fact, among the fascinating questions this book examines is why such a world-changing event isn’t more diligently studied. Of course, these days there is a sort of grim desire to understand what happened in 1918 and what – if any – lessons can be learned.

[Which isn’t to suggest that that Influenza virus pandemic was perfectly analogous to the present Coronavirus pandemic. In 1918, science was still at a state in which there remained debate about whether the disease resulted from a bacterium or a virus, and — in some sense — it didn’t matter because they didn’t have good treatments for either. For COVID, we had accurate tests in short order, and will no doubt have a vaccine at some point in the coming months. That said, I’m not dismissive of COVID-19. As I understand it, COVID’s R-nought (reproductive ratio), and the fact that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission occur make the current pandemic serious business. Furthermore, while scientific understanding has increased radically, human psychology is surprisingly similar and some of the same conspiracy theories and wishful thinking that made things worse a hundred years ago may prove to do the same today.]

The strength of Spinney’s book is that it takes global perspective. It doesn’t fixate on the United States (where the 1918 Flu was first understood to its own, new disease) or Europe (where it was inexorably linked to the fighting, and got its fallacious name of “Spanish Flu.”) In addition to these locals, Spinney’s telling visits and revisits China (one of the alternative candidates for ground zero,) India (which suffered tremendous fatalities from the disease,) Brazil, and a number of other countries around the globe.

The book’s twenty-two chapters are arranged into eight parts. While these divisions are topically organized, emphasis is given to the stories being told and so said topics aren’t in one’s face but are, rather, background that is subtly presented in narrative form. Chronological consideration is tertiary. The penultimate part (Part VII) does explore the world in the wake of the Spanish Flu, but discussion of attempts to find the true index patient (a.k.a. patient zero) don’t take place until chapter 11 [Part V.] [To clarify, the acknowledged patient zero was a soldier at a US military base in the middle of America, but there are widely divergent thoughts about how long the disease might have been infecting people before that – masked either by the war or by the lack of data collection and reporting throughout the world. The only thing that is widely agreed upon is that the “Spanish Flu” didn’t originate in Spain.] I’m certainly fine with meandering on chronology in order to serve a more appealing narrative.

A lot of the subjects covered are interesting, but are what one would expect, e.g. what was it like to live in the midst of Spanish Flu. Therefore, I want to focus on a few topics that I found particularly interesting because they were illuminating, but weren’t necessarily what I anticipated. One set of topics addressed sheds light on just how different a time 1918 was. I suppose different people have different ideas about how modern the early 20th century was — relative to today. To me it was interesting to hear about church leaders calling upon people to attend services because there was an idea that the Flu was a result of god finding humanity’s “lack of faith disturbing.” [I quote Darth Vader, not this book’s author.] I’m sure there are priests and preachers saying the same these days, but I also suspect those voices are so far into the lunatic fringe as to not merit much attention, but not so in 1918 (and, thusly, many went to sit in high-density churches only to spread the flu more effectively than any virus could hope for.) Another interesting insight into the level of modernity was Spinney’s explanation of the fact that medicine, as we know it, had not yet risen to a favored spot above approaches like homeopathy and shamanism. Lest it sound like I’m engaging in the outhouse fallacy; I will say that people are falling in many of the same holes despite more advanced understanding of viruses – particularly as regards to people’s desire to impose order and purpose on a natural event.]

The other discussion that I found unexpected and revelatory was about the dearth of art and literature on the subject of the 1918 Flu. Spinney describes the effects of Spanish Flu on many major artists of the time, but goes on to discuss how few of those who survived the flu in 1918 brought it into their works. She does also discuss some of the works that did come about, as well.

I found this book fascinating from cover to cover. The fact that it covered so much ground geographically as well as topically was part of that intrigue. Learning what changes occurred in the wake of the 1918 Flu has certainly helped me consider what to expect in our future. The similarities and differences between then and now also surprised me. Just like today, there were a lot of wildly bizarre conspiracy theories from people who had to make sense of both the randomness of the Flu’s action and the fact that it put such a nasty a crimp in their lifestyle. It’s also interesting to consider some of the more intellectually stimulating theories – e.g. that part of the reason for the lethality of Spanish Flu is that in the theater of war, the virus didn’t benefit from the internal restraint usually shown (because people were dying so rapidly) and so mutations that favored a quick and harsh influence made gains. [For those who aren’t aware, it was the second wave of the Spanish Flu that was really nasty. The first wave was like seasonal flu for almost everyone, and by the third wave the virus didn’t have much of a reservoir of those without acquired immunity and so petered out relatively quickly.]

If you want to learn more about Spanish Flu, I’d highly recommend this book – particularly if you are interested in the global story and the after-effects of the disease.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es

Shakespeare's Comedies: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up this guide because I recently finished reading through a superset of Shakespearean comedies. By a superset I mean all the plays that are unambiguously classed as comedies (e.g. “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Merry Wives of Winsor,” etc.,) but also the ones called “problem plays” (i.e. “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”) and some late plays that are sometimes called “romances” (e.g. “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”) Having read 18 plays [in some cases] called Shakespeare’s comedies, I had questions that I hoped the book would help to answer.

The first such question is “what’s a comedy?” I was somewhat familiar with various literary definitions, but still plays like “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and even [in ways] “The Merchant of Venice” seem a bit dark – regardless of how things worked out for the lead character in the end. I was pleased to learn that I’m not the only one befuddled by this question. It turns out there is a great deal of debate among scholars on the topic. This topic is discussed in the introduction, in an epilogue, and at various points in between. The epilogue looks at one variation on the question, which is “When did Shakespeare stop writing comedies?” The reason is that his latter plays that are classed as comedies (on folios, playbills, and by scholars) tend be much more mixtures of tragedy and comedy.

The book is organized into five chapters, each of which takes on a different characteristic of the plays. I liked this arrangement as it allowed the author to compare and contrast Shakespeare’s work with his contemporaries on crucial aspects of a play. A recurring theme throughout the book is to consider what the norm was for comedies during that period and then to look at how Shakespeare followed, bent, or blew up the rules.

Though I liked the organization, I found some of the chapters more intriguing than others. The first, entitled “World,” explores setting. One major distinction between Shakespeare’s comedies and those of his peers is discussed in depth. While it was common to set comedies in urban environs, Shakespeare wrote a lot of forest scenes, and while he employed even more urban settings, van Es argues that the urban settings are forest-like in terms of expansiveness.

Chapter two examines wit in the works of Shakespeare. In doing so, it differentiates humor and wit and suggests the latter was more Shakespeare’s forte. The author also considers where Shakespeare’s wit is most clever and where it is ham-handed or even out-done by his contemporaries. One thing that I wish there was more of would have been elucidation of peculiarities of humor and wit of the day. There is some of this, and I did learn some new things. Still, when one is reading Shakespeare, no matter how much one is engaged by the story, there are references that one doesn’t know what to make of because while they must have made perfect sense in the lexicon of the time, they are meaningless (or divergently meaning) in today’s language. Some of these can readily be Googled, but not all. I have seen books that systematically explain such terms and phrases, but this one only offers a few examples.

Chapter three is about the theme of love. There is a lot that seems strange to modern sensibilities in Shakespeare’s work as pertains to love and relationships. Take “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Helena can have anything she wants from the King of France (who she cured of a fistula) but she insists on marrying Bertram — a man who despises her, resents her for what he views as having tricked her, thinks he is vastly better than her, and (worst of all) is not. How tricking a disgruntled jerk – Count or no – into moving back to live with one is considered a happy ending is hard to fathom. This was another area in which I was reassured to find that I’m not the only one who found some of the relationship matters bizarre.

Chapter four is about the element of time. During Shakespeare’s era it was normal for a comedy to take place over the course of a day – i.e. a short period. A couple of Shakespeare’s early comedies comply with this norm, but that is less and less the case as his works progress. “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale” both see infants grow into marriageable age (granted that was like 12 in back in those days, but still) over the course of a play. [Granted, not everyone would class those works as comedies.]

Chapter five was by far the most interesting to me. It discusses the idea of characters, and it does so largely by employing E.M. Forester’s conception of flat versus round characters. Comedies of the day relied heavily – if not exclusively – on flat characters. Characters that were like caricatures, having simple motivations and little of the depth that might make them relatable or sympathetic. The author argues that Shakespeare increasingly wrote characters that were – to a person — round. Shakespeare was often able to gain comedic effect by making characters seem flat at times for which it was called. However, it’s also considered that this need for roundness might explain why Shakespeare’s late “comedic” plays are far less clearly comedic than one might expect.

The book has graphics, references, and a further reading section.

Chapter five and the epilogue really improved my view of this guide. I was not displeased with it prior to that point, but didn’t think it offered any great value-added to my understanding of the topic. However, in the end I found the book highly informative and useful. If you’re looking for a concise, no-nonsense guide to Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s worth having a look.

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