The Myth of Confrontation

To use Samuel Huntington’s phrase, one is inclined to see a “clash of civilizations” in these and other recent events. That is, a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations. And this may indeed be the reality. I do not wish to make a definitive argument here in favor of or against Huntington’s thesis, but rather present, by way of a book review, a counter argument that puts it into question.

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The Four Agreements

Book Review - During my bar orientation, one speaker gave an impassioned speech about the importance of maintaining one’s good character. She mentioned The Four Agreements, a book by Don Miguel Ruiz, so I decided to give it a read. I had never heard of the Toltec people, but learned in the Introduction that they are “scientists and artists who formed a society to explore and conserve the spiritual knowledge and practices of the ancient ones.” Miguel is a “nagual,” a master of spiritual knowledge, and he is concerned with the many false beliefs we have about ourselves and the world: “During the process of domestication, we form an image of what perfection is in order to try to be good enough. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody.” The aim of the book is to “reveal the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering.” The four agreements, Miguel says, are life affirming.

Ruiz uses lofty spiritual language that does not appeal to me, and my overall impression was that this “practical guide to personal freedom” is New Age fluff. On the other hand, I think it’s good and healthy to be aware of irrational and limiting thoughts, and if you strip away some of the distracting language, the book may serve as a basic reminder of how best to think about ourselves and interact with others. To give you an idea, I’ve distilled the basic principles from the four agreements and included them below. If you do read the book, I’d be interested to know what you think.

1. Be impeccable with your word – "All the magic you possess is based on your word. Depending upon how it is used, the word can set you free, or it can enslave you even more than you know" - We should be truthful and say things that have a positive influence on ourselves and others

2. Don’t take anything personally – "All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you" - We should acknowledge the subjective realities of other people and realize that the way others treat us says as much about them and their belief system as it does about us

 3. Don’t make assumptions – "We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing" -  Assuming you know what people are thinking or feeling is limiting and leads to undesirable consequences – the antidote is to ask for evidence before concluding what people are thinking

4. Always do your best – "In your everyday moods your best can change from one moment to another, from one hour to the next, from one day to another. Your best will change over time. As you build the habit of using The Four Agreements, your best will become better than it used to be" - We can’t achieve our goals by being lazy, and if we do our best we avoid criticism from our “inner judge”

Klinghoffer

John Adams’ 1991 opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by four Palestinian terrorists. During the course of the three-day standoff, the hijackers shot Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, disabled, Jewish-American passenger, and then threw his body overboard. The story of the hijacking is told in oblique monologues that are made more explicit in the Met production with the projection of words and images on the set.

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From The Holy Mountain

In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East.

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To The Wallflowers

Book Review - In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts because we are in thrall to the extrovert ideal, the “omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.” In the book she charts the rise of the extrovert ideal in America and how deeply it has come to permeate our culture, something that is not at all hard to believe or accept. She introduces a variety of anecdotes on interaction and preferences, and cites interesting scientific studies on temperament and development. For example, she notes Hans Eysenck’s finding that introverts are more aroused by sensory stimuli, and that over-arousal interferes with attention and short-term memory. Wound together, Cain highlights the powers of the quiet individual and suggests ways for introverts to assert their power and for extroverts to accommodate it.

As one reviewer put it, Quiet was “ploddingly earnest” (NYTimes). It was also overly broad in terms of how extroversion and introversion are defined. However, there were some interesting bits, especially for those not intimately familiar with psychology and the “biology of the self.” The Orchid Hypothesis, for example, and the connection between introversion, sensitivity, and empathy are important yet often overlooked considerations in pedagogy.

The end of the book reads like a sentimental rallying cry to the wallflowers of the world: “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest . . . and don’t worry about socializing with everyone else.” In the epigraph to this impassioned final chapter, Cain quotes Anaïs Nin: “Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for the center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.” That quest is a noble one, and if nothing else, perhaps this book will serve as the impetus to embark on it.

Naked Economics

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Book Review - People of my generation exhibit some deficiencies, as critics are quick to point out. Millennials, they say, lack extensive vocabularies and the ability to carry on a conversation. They can't write and are unable to perform the simplest calculations. But I have noticed another glaring deficiency that is not limited to my generation, and that is lack of economic knowledge. Sad though it is, one can get by with a paltry vocabulary and use a machine to add or calculate 15% of a total, but patently false economic arguments are dangerous. I can't count the number of times people have relied on the most basic of economic fallacies to support some position or policy.

I've never been an official student of economics, but economic principles are the foundation for politics and law and, well, life. Markets run the world. They are amazingly powerful and quite beautiful in their efficiency and complexity. I often ask myself why people, especially those whose very identity is wound up in a particular theory or idea, don't stop for a moment to learn more and to test the validity of their presumptions. Then I remember that economics is known as the dismal science, and that people think it is extraordinarily dull. As one definition goes: "An economist is someone who is good with numbers but does not have the personality to be an accountant."

Indeed, most of the books I've read on economics have been textbooks or academic journal articles that tend to be very dry and very long. There are notable exceptions, such as Bastiat's essay What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen, and Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, but before I read Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science by Charles Wheelan, I had not read an "accessible" and entertaining overview of basic economic principles. In the Forward, Burton Malkiel notes that people often become glassy-eyed when confronted with the study of economics because "economists generally do not write well and. . . most economics texts rely far too much on algebraic manipulation and complex diagrams. Moreover, few economists are able to transmit the considerable excitement of economic analysis or to show its relevance to everyday life."

Wheelan's book is very light but comprehensive. My primary criticism is that it's too pop-sciencey, but I suppose that's also part of its strength. Wheelan does a good job of bringing the "old" ideas or theories together with what's happening now, he explains basic economic principles in plain English, and then he explains why they are relevant. He says, "one need not know where to place a load-bearing wall in order to appreciate the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. This book is not economics for dummies; it is economics for smart people who never studied economics. Most of the great ideas in economics are intuitive when the dressings of complexity are peeled away. That is naked economics. Economics should not be accessible only to the experts. The ideas are too important and too interesting."

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it maximized its utility. If you want to understand that and so many other useful, beautiful concepts, read the book. Memorize it. I hope you become as excited about economics as I am. "Our best hope for improving the human condition is to understand why we act the way we do and then plan accordingly."

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Book Review - I am fascinated by the work of Edward Tufte, a statistician and professor of political science and computer science at Yale University who is best known for his writings on visually pleasing informational design. That sounds pretty dry, but his work is wonderfully complex, and the visual representations in his books are stunning. In Visual Explanations he says, “Assessments of change, dynamics, and cause and effect are at the heart of thinking and explanation. To understand is to know what cause provokes what effect, by what means, at what rate. . . Many of our examples suggest that clarity and excellence in thinking is very much like clarity and excellence in the display of data.”

He quotes Calvino, "My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. . . Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world — qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them" (Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium).

An excerpt from Beautiful Evidence:

A colleague of Galileo, Federico Cesi, wrote that Galileo's 38 hand-drawn images of sunspots 'delight both by the wonder of the spectacle and the accuracy of expression,' That is beautiful evidence. Evidence that beats on questions of any complexity typically involves multiple forms of discourse. Evidence is evidence, whether words, numbers, images, diagrams, still or moving. The intellectual task remains constant regardless of the mode of evidence: to understand and to reason about the materials at hand, and to appraise their quality, relevance, and integrity.
Science and art have in common intense seeing, the wide-eyed observing that generates empirical information. Beautiful Evidence is about how seeing turns into showing, how empirical observations turn into explanations and evidence presentations. The book identifies excellent and effective methods for presenting information, suggests new designs, and provides tools for assessing the credibility of evidence presentations.
Evidence presentations are seen here from both sides: how to produce them and how to consume them. As teachers know, a good way to learn something is to teach it. The partial symmetry of producers and consumers is a consequence of the theory of analytical design, which is based on the premise that thepoint of evidence displays is to assist the thinking of producer and consumer alike. Evidence presentations should be created in accord with the common analytical tasks at hand, which usually involve understanding causality, making multivariate comparisons, examining relevant evidence, and assessing the credibility of evidence and conclusions. Thus the practices of evidence display are derived from the universal principles of analytical thinking- and not from local customs, fashion, consumer convenience, marketing, or what the technologies of display happen to make available. The metaphor for evidence presentations is analytical thinking.
Making an evidence presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity. To maintain standards of quality, relevance, and integrity for evidence, consumers of presentations should insist that presenters be held intellectually and ethically responsible for what they show and tell. Thus consuming a presentation is also an intellectual and moral activity.

Like I said, fascinated. And I'm not the only one. The New York Times has described him as the Leonardo Da Vinci of data, and he is "most likely the world's only graphic designer with roadies"(NYMag). Not a statistician or political scientist? Doesn't matter. "Pretty much anyone who writes or presents can learn from Tufte, and those who have studied his work often speak of him as a kind of prophet" (ibid).

Let The Great World Spin

Book Review - I very much enjoyed Colum McCann's story about New York City in the 1970's, about 9-11, about Vietnam, and about a tightrope walker. Let The Great World Spin weaves in and out of the past, and ultimately concerns, in McCann's words, "ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground."

The section quoted below struck a chord with me because I once lived very near the Soldier and Sailor's monument on the Upper West Side. The monument is a stately white marble structure that seems so misplaced in a city bereft of many political symbols. As McCann points out through one of his characters, New York is not a place that dwells much on the past. It's much too pragmatic for any of that. I like the idea that the living, breathing people of this city are the real monuments, and that what is happening now is as important as what happened then.

"Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief. He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occured precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city wouldn't care less about where it stood.

He had seen a T-shirt once that said : NEW YORK FUCKIN' CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would. New York kept going forward because it didn't give a good goddamn about what it had left behind... he could only really pinpoint a dozen true statues around New York City- most of them in Central Park, along the Literary Walk, and who in the world went to Central Park these days anyway? On other famous street corners, Broadway or Wall Street or around Gracie Square, nobody felt a need to lay claim to history. Why bother? You couldn't eat a statue. You couldn't screw a monument. You couldn't wring a million dollars out of a piece of brass."

Canal House Cooks Everyday

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Book Review - I never thought I'd include a cookbook in a review series. First, because I'd never read one before, and second, because I didn't think they said much more than 1 cup of this or 2 tablespoons of that. But this cookbook, which I happened upon while searching for winter soup recipes, is really special. The Canal House Cooks are two women, Hirsheimer and Hamilton, who have built an enterprise that the New York Times calls a foodie fantasy. "Really, these women might as well have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. After decades at the pinnacle of New York food magazines, they set up shop along the Delaware River, just across from New Hope, Pennsylvania. In their little town, there's still a noon whistle, and church bells toll the hour. Their studio, located in an old redbrick warehouse, overlooks a canal. But 'studio' makes their loft sound professional. They prepare food on an old wooden carpenter's worktable, with their pots and pans hanging overhead. They cook on the kind of stoves you find in rental apartments. They have a dishwasher, but prefer to clean up by hand."

I ordered Canal House Cooks Everyday immediately, and have started trying some of the very easy seasonal recipes. As a novice cook, I appreciate that the recipes are unfussy; I love fancy food but I definitely don't want to cook it myself. I love that there are poems and stories scattered throughout, and that the cover is red and cloth-bound and imprinted with the phrase "Eat well, be happy." It also contains some gorgeous photography. Books, of course, are magical, and this book makes me want to cook everyday.

On Directing Film

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Book Review - David Mamet says, "You always want to tell a story in cuts. Which is to say, through a juxtaposition of images that are basically uninflected." On Directing Film is a short and straightforward book, one that gives practical insight into the art of film directing. I really enjoyed this book, so much so that after I finished it I wanted to reread it immediately to make sure everything had sunk in. Most notable was the absence of blather about artistic expression and finding one's voice, subjects that fill chapters of lesser books on the subject. In its place, Mamet explains techniques and sets forth rules that every prospective director must master, and emphasizes doing rather than thinking about doing throughout. For example, "The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious. If you follow the rules ploddingly, they will allow your unconscious to be free. That's true creativity. If not, you will be fettered by your conscious mind. Because the conscious mind always wants to be liked and interesting. The conscious mind is going to suggest the obvious, the cliché, because these things offer the security of having succeeded in the past. Only the mind that has been taken off itself and put on a task is allowed true creativity."

Mamet says, "Screenwriting is a craft based on logic. It consists of the assiduous application of several very basic questions: What does the hero want? What hinders him from getting it? What happens if he does not get it?" It is a fascinating art form. But even if you're not particularly interested in film, this book is worth reading because underlying an exposition of the rules and principals of film making, Mamet is getting at more basic "lessons" valuable in any trade. He says, "If you're correct in the small things, the smallest of which in this case is the choice of a single uninflected shot, then you will be correct in the larger things. And then your film will be as correct and as ordered and as well-intentioned as you are. . . especially under conditions of great stress, you have to know your trade . . . the task of any artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the most simple technique perfectly." Also, it's only 107 pages.

Les Misérables, The Film

We saw Hooper's Les Misérables last night and I thought it was fantastic. Two minor criticisms that are hardly worth mentioning: Seyfried's voice (too shrill) and the night scenes (many were too dark). The acting and singing was overwhelmingly poignant, and this is probably why:

"Part of the success of the performances in the film owes greatly to Hooper's (the director) decision to record the actors singing on set, rather than have them lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks, the usual method for filming musicals. The technique works exactly as intended: The actors, freed from having to match a vocal performance from weeks or months prior, are able to live in the moment. The impact on the emotional immediacy of the songs is striking." - NPR

I was particularly impressed with Russell Crowe's performance -- who knew he could sing! Great pick for Javert who is unquestionably the most interesting character in the story. Overall, the film is a powerful rendition of one of the longest novels ever written, and perhaps one of the most important. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement from Upton Sinclair:

"So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless."

Tiny Beautiful Things

Book Review - Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of columns by Cheryl Strayed or "Dear Sugar" from The Rumpus. The book received rave reviews and debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list in the advice and self-help category. I tend to steer clear of this genre, but I was curious to see what all the hype was about. While I'm not as enthusiastic as other reviewers (Guardian, NYTimes), I did find most of her replies to be empathetic, necessarily blunt, and occasionally illuminating.

The introduction was preachy and strangely anti-capitalist -- you'd have to accept the assumption that capitalism is not and cannot be compassionate to make sense of it -- and since the book is a compilation of advice column letters and answers organized one after the other, some of the overused phrases begin to grate when read in succession. Additionally, the amount of personal information Strayed invokes in her replies is intermittently shocking and slightly unbelievable. But if you enjoy reading life advice, you should read the book. "What runs through all the columns, which range from a few hundred to a few thousand words in length, is Strayed's gift at panning out from the problem in question. Often, the fuller picture that Strayed gives us illustrates what needs to happen for the letter writers to change, to pull themselves out of their current predicament, to see things in a different way, to act" (SFGate).

A couple excerpts:

on love
There's a poem by Adrienne Rich I first read twenty years ago called "Splittings"- the last two lines of the poem are: "I choose to love this time for once/with all my intelligence." It seemed such a radical thought when I first read those lines... that love could rise from our deepest, most reasoned intentions rather than our strongest shadowy doubts.

on writing
[How many women] went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It's strength. It's nerve. Writing is hard for every last one of us... coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

Fifty Shades

Book Review - I picked it up out of curiosity a few months ago and absolutely could not get through the first chapter. Salman Rushdie recently said, "I've never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace." While it pains me to hear War and Peace spoken about that way, his assessment makes the spot on point that Fifty Shades of Grey is extremely, shockingly, distressingly bad.

Rushdie is making a stylistic critique in the article, which should be more than enough of a reason to throw it on the burn pile, but if you're not convinced by that argument and can stand to read sentence upon terrible sentence, then please read this entertaining review on substance. The choicest critique:

"It's this kind of ignorant trash that sets feminism back decades. Women who defend this book are, however unwittingly, participating in some of the most blatant misogyny I've ever witnessed, giving the impression that some women enjoy being debased, abused, and controlled . . . this is a book about one sick, abusive man and his obsession with a young, naive invertebrate. It's a book about a girl who has absolutely no sense of self, who sacrifices any pretense of individuality in order to hold onto a man who doesn't even show her the faintest glimmer of respect. It's about two attention-starved individuals with the emotional maturity of toilet paper convincing themselves that their relationship is 'like, the best thing ever, OMG'. It's trite, insulting, and dangerous. I fear for any impressionable young women who read this and think that this is how an ideal relationship should operate. If nothing else, it should be issued as a guidebook to mothers around the world to show their daughters the kind of man to avoid at all costs. This book does good men (and indeed, all of humanity) a disservice."

What should we make of the fact that 40 million copies have been sold worldwide?