Thursday, February 28, 2008

Perpetuating a myth

I am predisposed to dislike a revisionist history of World War 2 written by novelist using a non-analytical framework, but there is one element of Nicholson Baker's upcoming Human Smoke that I find particularly grating.

Like the celebrators of the Good War, Baker, from all I can tell, makes the Anglo-American-centric error. The Western Allies did not win the war, they contributed to the victory of the Red Army. Removing the Western Allies from the war would have just allowed the Germans to attack the Russians more quickly.

The vast majority of killing and dying happened in the East. Combined, the total deaths for the UK and the USA totaled less than a million while Poland lost five million, Germany over seven and Russia over twenty. Had the US and the UK sat out, it still would have been the worst war ever. This puts aside the problem that the UK most likely faced the choice of conquest or vassalization regardless of whether Churchill led the government.

In this, admittedly brief, interview, Baker connects the Holocaust to the events of 1941. His apparent thesis is that Roosevelt and Churchill were war-mongers and if we just sat out the war, things would have been better.

The Holocaust is connected to 1941, but certainly not due to Pearl Harbor. World War 2, even more than World War 1, is centered on the German-Russian conflict. Once the German Army was able to commence its race war in Russia, the real killing began. While the death camps didn't kick into gear until after the 1942 Wannsee Conference, the Einsatzgruppen began their reign of murder well before the United States entered the war.

If you want a provocative argument for pacifism by Britain, take a look at Niall Ferguson's Pity of War, which argues that the world would have been better off if Germany quickly won World War One, without Britain joining.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Something to do with a nuke

Nuclear weapons aren't just for war. Edward Teller supported the idea of using H-bombs to make harbors and managed to begin the process for Project Chariot, which was to create an artificial harbor in Alaska using a small number of H-bombs. Locals were none too pleased and no one knew why we needed an artificial harbor in Alaska anyway, so the plan was shelved. More interesting is the plan to use nuclear weapons as propulsion system as in Project Orion. That project was designed to create a ship capable of taking humans to Saturn.

The clip below shows science writer George Dyson discussing what he knows of the project, based on his research. He presents a number of fascinating documents and presents many of the challenges involved including the almost certainly lethal levels of radiation to which the crew would be exposed. His final note, where he presents the good and bad news about destroying an asteroid coming to Earth, is both amusing and disturbing.

As if nukes weren't enough to worry about, now we are told that automated killer robots are a threat to society. Time to apply for robot insurance.

Free book

Well, electronically at least. For the next three days you can download Charles Bock's Beautiful Children. It's a rather disturbing looking story of a runaway falling into a bunch of street kids and strippers in Las Vegas.

Best of Booker

The Man Booker Prize is approaching year 40 and to celebrate, the Man Booker judges are picking the best of the prize winners so far. One of the oddsmakers have an interesting take with Life of Pi with the greatest chances, followed by Midnight's Children and The English Patient. This is a mixed bag, with one of the easiest to read followed by two of the densest. Ladbrokes says no way, its Midnight's Children, Sacred Hunger and the Blind Assassin. I am rooting for Margaret Atwood, partly for loving the books and partly because I like to see science fiction win. You can read Atwood's defense of science fiction here.

My true hope is that JG Farrell's the Siege of Krishnapur. Set in the Great Mutiny (or if you prefer the First War of Indian Independence,) the book is at once a thrilling story and an exploration of the colonial mindset.

I think a much more fun Prize would be the making up for past errors prize. That is to say, which book should have won the Booker, but didn't. I would say that Oryx and Crake was robbed in 2003, but Atwood had won two years previously, so that might be overlooked. Despite quite liking the Line of Beauty, I think the Cloud Atlas is the better book.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How about another video

James Poulous sociological exploration of Radiohead and indie rock makes for some fascinating reading. This essay skates right up to the edge of pretentious bullshit, but pulls off the triple axel. For example,

Like their albums, Radiohead’s live performances are events, recoronations of the band as the peerless postmodern icons of popular music. In the past ten years, they’ve learned how to thrive as the embodiments -- deliberate or otherwise -- of our full palette of era-appropriate buzzphrases. They’re authentic. They break down boundaries. They reinvent themselves. They flout convention. They shatter expectations. They’re ‘willfully perverse.’ They almost broke up over track listing. They were the subject of an essay in n+1’s first issue. People think seriously about writing their dissertations on Radiohead.

I've tended to ignore the band, but they made a song by one of my favorite bands their own and that says something.

And there stands REM

Every decade REM puts out a rockin' album. In the 80s it was Life's Rich Pageant. In the 90s it was Monster and in this decade we are going to get Accelerate. The first single, Supernatural Serious, bodes well. It's the best song I have heard from them in over a decade. Please note, Bad Day cannot be counted as a recent song, here it is an 1986 demo version.

Although I am not an IRS-only type, there are plenty who rue the day that REM signed to the majors and became popular. Many of these folks probably skipped the Eponymous compilation, as they had 90% of the songs already. The one highlight from that one is Romance, a song recorded for a crappy movie. It's actually a great song, so here is an audio only YouTube bit for those that missed it the first time.

Monday, February 25, 2008

But they should never have taken the very best

I found the Palme D'Or winning The Wind the Shakes the Barley to be terribly depressing, if well made. While it is very much about the rise of the IRA in the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Civil War, it is also a story of political radicalization, and it looks approvingly on it. Cillian Murphy, who is excellent, plays Damien, who initially resists taking any part in the resistance to British rule, but eventually becomes so die hard that he believes killing fellow Irish is the best course of action.

There isn't a lot of subtlety to the movie. The Black and Tans are presented as brutal thugs, which they may well have been, but they are also nearly faceless. It would have been much more interesting to see the two-sided approach taken in the Battle of Algiers. While that film clearly sympathizes with the oppressed, it presents both sides as rational actors, pursuing opposing goals. This movie would have greatly benefited from a strong British character that wasn't a sneering villain or a target.

Once the British have been driven out, the insufficiently radical Irish Free State and its agents become the enemy. It doesn't take long for the killings to commence and for brother to turn against brother.

In the end, the film sides with the view that political result is best achieved through violence, and not as a last resort, but as the first resort. The situation at hand is certainly dire and it is understandable that the actors take the positions that they do. While I am not sure that is the intention of the director, the movies stands as a warning to those who would counsel war, especially civil war.


Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational sounds interesting. Taking advantage of the rise of pop economics (Freakonomics, Discover Your Inner Economist) Ariely argues that behavioral economics shows that people do not behave in the way that classical economics claims. You can see Ariely discuss the book with Will Wilkinson on

Friday, February 22, 2008

Prince of Spies

For many years, the superior spy novels of Charles McCarry were only found in used bookshops. Thanks to republication by Overlook Press, it is now possible to easily get copies of McCarry's Paul Christopher novels. I've just finished the Last Supper, which is probably the best of the four Cold War Christopher novels.

What I find most remarkable about these four novels is that they remain consistently excellent while being dramatically different in execution. The first, Miernik Dossier, is the most experimental. It using a documentation review as the framing device, and the reader is meant to be a government official examining various reports from a spy operation.

The Tears of Autumn is a conspiracy thriller with Christopher developing a novel theory about the Kennedy assassination. Be sure to read this before you read Last Supper as it is partially a sequel to that book. This one is a bit bleak.

The Secret Lovers precedes Tears of Autumn chronologically and is the most conventional spy novel of the bunch. It will be one of the finest spy novels you read, but it is at heart a basic story of betrayal and identity.

With the Last Supper, McCarry goes epic. The time scale is much longer, starting just after WW1 and ending in the early 80s. It spans two (maybe three) generations of the Christopher family and their strong wills and great misfortune. There are many more characters and non-obvious interactions. I think James Ellroy read this one, as I can see how the murky moralities and actions of the main characters influenced the LA Quartet.

While these books are different, together they paint a fascinating view of the world of espionage as a machine that churns up its participants, but they keep coming back for more. The overall tone is realist as to what can be achieved although an element of despair creeps into the final book. These are consistently good books and I will continue reading them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Meeting in the middle

In Declaring Independence, political pollster Douglas Schoen argues that the time is right for an independent third party candidate to run, and win, the Presidency. He identifies a group of voters he calls restless and anxious moderates who are disenchanted and even alienated by the two parties. He also claims these key swing voters will be won over by substance and not style, and that they are looking for a pragmatic problem solver who fix the many problems the country faces. Schoen also points to changes in the ability of third party candidates to reach voters and raise money. It is the combination of a desire among the electorate and a system more friendly to third party candidates that makes this heretofore unlikely occurrence a possibility.

Schoen also discusses the way that technology and the Internet in particular is increasing the viability of candidates outside of the anointed. Where Ross Perot had to rely on 800 numbers and TV advertising, today's candidates can use the various Web 2.0 tools like social networking, YouTube and PayPal fund raising.

The rise of Obama in the past few months could argue both for and against Schoen's thesis. On the one hand, Clinton and McCain could be associated with the same old product from the parties, and Obama represents the idea of the new. On the other, voters may merely like his fresh new style, as they once liked JFK, which would argue against what Schoen is saying.

Imagining a scenario in which Obama was not involved, but Clinton and McCain were the candidates, it is much easier to imagine voters looking to someone else. Schoen is an advisor to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and he muses about Bloomberg's chances in 2008. You don't have to believe in the Bloomberg candidacy to think that someone could step in at this point, if there was no Obama that is.

The specifics of the 2008 election aside, Schoen does identify the means by which a insurgent candidate could overturn the existing party structure in the US. The result would likely be the emergence of a party that would eventually replace the Democrats or Republicans. The government can't be run by an independent alone and eventually a legislative agenda would have be created and that would require local organization and party affiliation.

If you would like to get a sense of the argumentation in the book, read his recent editorial in the Washington Post. It lays out his thinking nicely.

The return of nukes

My reading pile is getting dominated by nuclear weapons. I've recently finished PD Smith's excellent Doomsday Men and my next nonfiction is Richard Rhodes' Arsenals of Folly, which is Rhodes third book on the development of nuclear weapons. After that I have Atomic Times, a memoir of military service at the H-bomb testing grounds on Eniwetok.

All of this would seem like history, which I wish were true. Nuclear weapons are creeping their way back into the world at a disturbing pace. While I think Graham Allison overstates the risk in his Nuclear Terrorism, the fact that countering potential terrorism is so low on the policy agenda is shocking. The fact that three (NK, Pakistan and India) new nuclear powers and potentially one more new one (Iran) are creating new risk of nuclear war gets surprisingly light attention. Any review of the history of the US-USSR nuclear stand-off will reveal that the world is lucky to have escaped without a war.

I fear the Iraq war with its false/failed (depending on your viewpoint) assessment of the Iraqi program has focused the attention away from the problems of nuclear weapons and towards parsing the motivation of those who would address nuclear weapons. The development of new weapons systems, now canceled, like the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, has not helped either. It's hard to support the norm that people shouldn't develop new nuclear weapons when you do the same yourself.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I push my fingers into my ears

Carrie Brownstein muses on the nature of covers on her blog. She remains mostly positive, identifying the times in which a cover can be good. I hope she gets to the world of the terrible, misbegotten cover. I am sad to say that I have found a new cover that I hate even more than Natalie Merchant's brutal slayings of REM and Morrissey songs and the Ataris misuse of Donald Henley.

I speak of metal band Celtic Frost's cover of Wall of Voodoo's Mexican Radio. Aside from the Gwar-like shout of "Hey!" at the beginning, this song just makes me want to die. This raises the question as to whether metal bands are even capable of making a decent cover. Metallica makes Whiskey in the Jar their own, but former bandmate Mustaine's cover of Anarchy in the UK is a real horrorshow (complete with at least one mistaken lyric).

Country on the other hand, and alt country in particular makes for excellent covers in both directions. Social Distortion's cover of Ring of Fire is a treat. And Uncle Tupelo's cover of Now I Want to Be a Dog is fantastic, when played acoustic at least. This live version is fun, but sounds like the Stooges.

With just a touch of my burning hand

One of my favorite movies of the 1980s was Evil Dead 2, the movie which most of all made Bruce Campbell a B-movie star. As someone who also enjoys comics, I was drawn Marvel Zombies vs. the Army of Darkness. As it happens, I didn't get much out of the book, which consists of various Marvel heroes turning into zombies and Ash dodging them. He finds allies among the heroes, but they keep dying so he has to find more, which eventually lead him to Doctor Doom.

I have two theses as to why I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped, and they both relate to humor. The dialogue was decent but not quite what I remembered. So one possibility is that the humor is dependent on the verbal delivery and facial expressions of Bruce Campbell. The other is that this a kind of entertainment I really enjoyed as a teen, but not so much in my mid-30s.

Monday, February 18, 2008

End of days

Having just visited Shanghai, I finally pulled Noel Barber's The Fall of Shanghai off the shelf. This one has survived countless book purges over the 12+ years I have owned and now it will be shipped off to a friend in Shanghai.

It isn't the best book you can read on China but it is one of the few to concentrate on the city in the year before the communist takeover in 1949. The city was home to many millions in the late 40s and was the leading commercial center of the country. This was largely due to the concentration of colonial power in the city. Barber's book, while it touches on the Chinese in the city, is primarily concerned with foreigners in Shanghai and the lives they led.

The book's tone is nostalgic, longing for the days of the clubs along the Bund, and for the country of living of some of the foreigners as well. The violence of the war is referenced but is most closely discussed in the case of the HMS Amethyst, a British frigate that became trapped on the Yangtze river in between communist and nationalist troops.

What makes the book a bit peculiar is the emphasis placed on the Europeans when China's biggest national drama was underway around them. That's not to say it isn't covered, but the emphasis is strange. The book's coda, written in 1979 laments the loss of the colorful colonial Shanghai and its replacement by the drab Maoist version. Had Barber lived to this century, I imagine he would be impressed with the activity in the city today.

There are of course a number of good books about China available. The one about which I keep hearing is China Road written by NPR's Rob Gifford. It's next on my list. Peter Hessler's River Town is a readable and thoughtful account of Hessler's two years as a teacher in a small town on the Yangtze river. The interior of China remains far less developed than the coasts and it is interesting to read about how the changes in the economy affect this part of China. Finally, one question that should be on everyone's mind is how green will be China be. Elizabeth Economy's The River Runs Black presents a bleak picture.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A new field guide

If you have some time to kill, check out Stuff White People like. On Colbert/Daily Show:

Take note that Tuesday through Friday during the working week, you can break ALL awkward silences with white people by saying “did you see the Daily Show/Colbert Report last night?” At which point they will start talking until it’s time for you to move on to more interesting activities.

On Recycling:

If you are in a situation where a white person produces an empty bottle, watch their actions. They will first say “where’s the recycling?” If you say “we don’t recycle,” prepare for some awkwardness. They will make a move to throw the bottle away, they will hesitate, and then ultimately throw the bottle away. But after they return look in their eyes. All they can see is the bottle lasting forever in a landfill, trapping small animals. It will eat at them for days, at this point you should say “I’m just kidding, the recycling is under the sink. Can you fish out that bottle?” And they will do it 100% of the time!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hungry Hill

Carole O'Malley Gaunt's Hungry Hill is a hybrid novel-memoir about growing up in a family with an alcoholic parent. The book starts with Carole's father sending her away as her mother dies. This is the start of his bad decision-making and the torment the children faced. Carole herself became an alcoholic and the book is part of her way of dealing with it.

The book is not quite a memoir as it contains fictional pieces. The memoir sections are separated by short scripts in the present day. This deepens the overall story but may seem peculiar in light of the memoir of the rest. At least unlike one prominent recent memoirist, she clearly separates the truth and the fiction.

You can hear Gaunt discussing her book and her early life here.

As nerdy as they want to be

One of the many reasons I listen to indie rock is that I suspect all those people are nerds. While it doesn't prove the broader case, this video of Butterglory's 1996 She's Got the Akshun! certainly argues in favor. It's not often you get Pavement-esque rock with a little LARP on the side.

Friday, February 15, 2008

And we become silhouettes when our bodies finally go

PD Smith's Doomsday Men is a mix of science fiction analysis and all too real history. The book covers the fixation on the dream of the ultimate weapon, which evolves from chemical weapons to a true doomsday system put in place by the Soviets. On both the side of scientists and writers there is the great fear of what these more powerful weapons might mean for political power and for society. What drives them is the dream of what they might do. From Nobel with his dynamite on, the dream has been that weapons might become so powerful as to prevent war altogether.

On a more practical front, the dream has been that powerful weapons will drastically shorten war and thereby lessen its effects. The fixation on technical solutions to these problems tend to come up short as demonstrated by chemical weapon which were initially overpowering but were quickly countered. The technologists tend to forget that war is a competition of measure and countermeasure and all the new weapons tend to do is to make it worse.

The book is an excellent introduction to the subject of weapons for non-specialists, but specialists will benefit from the seeing the interplay between science fiction and the development and understanding of what these weapons can do.

It is worth noting that the British cover is a much better representation of the book's contents that the American one.

Here is the British cover:

Here is the American one:

The British cover accurately conveys the mix of science fiction and science, while the American cover makes it look like a conventional history of the H-bomb.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Motorway to Roswell

One of my favorite scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark was the last one, with the Ark of the Covenant being placed in a nondescript box and rolled into a giant government warehouse. Well from the trailer it looks like the warehouse is the setting for a fight scene in the newest Indy movie and the box is from Roswell.

Chabon movie

I think it is good news that the Coen brothers are tackling the Yiddish Policeman's Union rather than Kavalier and Klay. While I think the latter is the better book, the former is better suited to a film treatment (although it is also being attempted). Since Union is at its heart a noir crime story, the Coens should feel right at home. The movie is going to be a mix of Insomnia, Kiss Me Deadly and Yentl. To feel true to the book, the mix should be about 15, 45, 40, which I hope the Coens get right.

Regarding Kavalier and Klay, it will be difficult to fit the range of the story into a 2 to 2.5 hour long movie. LA Confidential and LOTR prove that epics can be distilled into a shorter format, but I worry that the number of scenes would get short shrift. This site lists some of the scenes in the current script. I note no mention of Antarctica, which to me is pretty essential.

Everyday's the fourteenth

Candy Addict blogs a questionable Valentine's gift, the chocolate pastie. It really won't do to give a gift meant to be consumed by the gift giver rather than the recipient. If you feel the need for something risque, why not give Lust by Ellen Forney. The book is a series of cartoons illustrating the often bizarre request from personal ads (note: not at all work safe) in Seattle's The Stranger. If you just want to spend a few bucks, there is always the cock-n-balls donut from Voodoo Doughnut.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Where are the green apocalypse novels?

Reading Doomsday Men with its analysis of the predictive power of science fiction in regards to the possibility of nuclear doom, I got to thinking about the relative lack of environmental apocalyptic fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy starting with Forty Signs of Rain has been successful. Frank Schatzing had great success in Europe with the Swarm in which a Gaia like force decides to rid Earth of the polluting humanity. Aside from that, science fiction doesn't appear to have caught up with the latest fear.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Geek test

You can tell how big a geek you are by how much you laugh at this page. Essentially the more you know about D&D, particularly D&D from the 70s and 80s, the more you will laugh. I suppose this is also a geek hater test. (via inconsequential ruminations)

Some people should die, that's just unconscious knowledge

As a fan of the Dexter novels, I was a bit nervous about the Dexter television show on Showtime. I needn't have worried. Michael C Hall nicely captures Dexter's mix of fake emotion, goofiness and cold murderous need. If you are not familiar with the books, Dexter is a oddball. He has a girlfriend, He works as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami PD. For fun he hunts and brutally kills the criminals that the justice system can't catch. In episodes 1 & 2, a child murderer, a rape snuff film maker and a serial drunk driving killer come to unpleasant ends.

He chooses these bad people because his foster father realized early on that something was not quite right with son. He trained him to follow the code, which sets rules for who Dexter can kill and who he cannot. He calls his need his Dark Passenger and he is unable to resist.

While his need to feed his Dark Passenger is a core component of the show, most of the show is spent with Dexter either amazing his colleagues with his insights into the criminal mind and dealing with people trying to get close to him. On the positive side, he has a girlfriend who is inching closer to sex, an intimacy Dexter neither wants nor understands. On the other, there is Doakes a policeman who understands that Dexter is something out of the ordinary. And not in a good way.

The Dexter stories neatly elude some of the core problems of the vigilante story. Most feature either vigilantes collapsing under the moral weight of their acts (Munich,) an avoidance of killing (Batman) or simply devolving into parody (Death Wish.) Dexter can go on killing until they catch him. Because he researches so long, he makes absolutely certain of the guilt. Collateral damage is hinted at, but rarely touched upon. It's clean and just. And funny.

The emphasis on black humor lets the reader or viewer hide from the bleakness of the underlying message. It also lets them vicariously enjoy the deaths of people who really deserve it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him

I admit my interest in the Australian Western film The Proposition was based mostly on the fact that the screenplay was written by Nick Cave, he of the scary songs. As he points out in the making of special, Cave's song writing is of a narrative bent, so it isn't surprising he has crafted a compelling story here.

The story begins with two of the Burns brothers, wanted for rape and murder, captured by Captain Stanley of the local constabulary. Stanley correctly sees that Arthur Burns, who was uncaptured, is the true demon. So he offers Charlie Burns a deal. If he can bring back Arthur, he will spare the life of the simpleton brother Michael Burns. If he doesn't, Michael will hang.

Like the Wire, the Proposition blurs the lines between good and bad guys. Both Charlie and Captain Stanley live by a reasonable moral code, while Arthur and many of the other police are merciless and cruel.

At some level, this is about the environment, the harsh Australian outback. On one level, the English try to bring their culture and lifestyle to the outback. This fails to take. Unfortunately they bring their hatred of the Irish and the Aborigines, and this succeeds all too well.

Like Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian, director John Hillcoat contrasts the beauty of the landscape with the cruelty of the people. Adding to the ambiguity only the truly wicked, like Arthur Burns, express admiration for the landscape.

It's a good movie and a look at Australian history that will be new to many.

A few good pieces

Here is Andrew Bacevich, one of my favorite writers, on the end of NATO. This is a nice lead in to my next IR read, End of Alliances.

Fred Kaplan's NYT magazine piece on SecDef Robert Gates is a must-read. After reading it, you will wish he held the position in 2000.

Two IR profs discuss a book from one of my grad school colleagues. Yeah, I feel lame.

Friday, February 08, 2008


I am reading P.D. Smith's Doomsday Men: The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon. It's an odd, but very enjoyable, book mixing the relationship between science and weaponry in the 20th century with the visions found in science fiction.

As you might imagine based on the subject matter, the narrative is discursive, starting withe the idea of a true Doomsday bomb and then heading back to Marie Curie and Fritz Haber, the chemist who developed nitrogen fertilizer and the German chemical weapons program. One of his major themes appears to be the balance scientists take in assisting destruction and serving the greater good. The main subject of the book is Leo Szilard, the man who sought peace but who created the idea of the doomsday weapon.

It's a entertaining and educational read> I love the little details, like the fact that Marie Curie's personal papers remain radioactive and researchers have to sign a waiver before seeing them.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Preoccupied with 1986

Is there any soundtrack that is more 80s than Pretty in Pink? (yes, Repo Man) It was a giant introduction to indie (or as was then known alternative) rock. New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, OMD, the Smiths and the Psychedelic Furs were probably first heard by many on this disc, or tape as was more likely. What could be better than covers of these classics?

The National - Pretty In Pink. They take the slow down approach, which I think makes sense. The speed up approach could lead to the dread Ataris error.

Nada Surf - If You Leave. The best of these covers. They strip it of the 80s shimmeryness but keep the spirit of the song intact.

The Decemberists - Bring on the Dancing Horses. Colin Meloy loves him some covers. See Cuyahoga, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Nobody's Home, and Ask. Still don't believe me? He made an EP of nothing but Morrissey songs.

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want - Tom Baxter. Not bad.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The good times are killing us

Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma was my favorite read of 2007, so I had to get his new book, In Defense of Food. The new book starts where the old one stops. The first book talks about the origin of American food and the new book argues that Americans should eat food. That strange argument is a set-up for a larger discussion about the idea that Americans actually don't eat food, but instead eat nutrients.

The focus on nutrients is problematic for a number of reasons. The most important is that the understanding of the health benefits and detriments of various nutrients is misunderstood. What's more, the benefit comes from the combination of multiple nutrients (in a food) and not from an individual nutrient. Because these nutrients cannot be understood by the non-specialist, Americans come to rely on experts, who unfortunately don't seem to have a firm grasp on the subject. The example of margarine, once supposed to be better for us and now understood to be bad is just one example. The worst effect of the focus on nutrients over food is the switch is the crowding out of healthy delicious whole foods, by processed foods which principally benefit shareholders in food companies.

Going further Pollan argues that the Western diet, which includes an overabundance of processed foods and a paucity of whole foods, encourages unhealthy eating in the form of snacking and the disregard for the culture of food which comes from cooking and eating meals together. He argues that our great wealth (and the pursuit of it) has led us into food choices of a dubious quality) He is aware that changing this is a tall order, but he does provide some basic advice about how to realign your relationship with food.

This a much shorter book than Omnivore's Dilemma and because of that it lacks much of the detail that made that book so great. That qualm aside, this is the sort of book that is incredibly motivating. People want to enjoy food and Pollan helps you see how this can be done.

You can read the intro to the book here.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

So many ways to be wicked

Thanks to Nonanon, I picked up Ron Franscell's harrowing Fall: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town (note: the upcoming paperback edition will be called the Darkest Night.) The book is principally about the fallout of a brutal crime. Two petty criminals kidnapped two girls aged 11 and 18. They raped one and threw them both off a bridge. The surviving 18 year old was able to identify them and off they went to prison, missing the death penalty due to timing.

The book shows that nearly everyone touched by the crime was permanently damaged. Some were only slight, like the author's brother who lost part of his happy go luckiness, while others, like the victim and killers families, were shattered. The only ones who turned out fine were the killers. One thought prison was a pleasant place and the crueler leader of the two managed to work the system to his benefit.

Franscell is arguing for the death penalty in this book, and if anyone deserves it, people like these do. Even if you do not support the death penalty, the book raises a number of questions about criminal justice. Why as Franscell points out should the killer get medical treatment on the public dime while the victim must pay their way? What to do with people who like prison?

While not quite explicitly, Franscell calls for blood vengeance for the victims to help them cope. Again, you don't have to agree with this, but prison should be a place of torment for people such as these killers. How do that is more than a little tricky of course. The fact that these two are among the worst of the worst makes it hard of a generalized system to deal with them.

This is a very good book, but also a very sad one.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Not the face of the one you love

I wager you noticed the Danzig song Mother used as background music for the Terminator TV show. Much though I make fun of him, this is a very good song and it is great to hear it on TV. The video made it clear that the Danzig of the Misfits and the fun Ramoneseque paeans to 50s and 60s horror and scifi movies was no more. No, in this video, he is become the Herald of Satan with lots of upside crosses, scary John Bunyan quotes, scary lighting and a ritual sacrifice scene. Watch this interview where Glen shows that he is both evil AND learned. A nice chaser is parody Danzig singing his grocery list.

Scanning the online Netflix movies I see that my second favorite (first favorite? Ghouls Night Out) Misfits song's title comes from an actual movie. Astrozombies rates an astonishing 2.5 out of ten on Imdb. Perhaps you can satisfy your curiosity with some film footage set to the song.

Update: While I felt the grocery list song was sufficient to balance out that insane interview, Brack believes that karmic justice demands that I post the video of Danzig getting clocked. Apparently his martial arts training didn't help.


Set in the late 20s and early 30s and featuring an independent female investigator, the Maisie Dobbs series will appeal to those seeking good period mysteries. While the books deal with the aftereffects of World War One, they present an alternative to the bleak period mysteries of Charles Todd and Rennie Airth. The mood is much less dark and unlike Inspector Rutledge, whose only companion is the voice of an executed soldier in his head, Dobbs has a circle of friends.

Her latest book, An Incomplete Revenge, tells the story of a county village and the odd secrets it holds. The story continues her themes of the shifts in the social order that allow women and the working classes a bit more equality. And as usual, there are those that would oppose such changes.

One of the rewards of a mystery series is watching the development of the characters back story. Reading the up and downs of the returning characters in Peter Robinson's mysteries is almost as much fun as the crime story. In his case, the lives of supporting characters in prior novels often furnish the main storyline of subsequent books. Winspear similarly uses the pasts of her supporting characters to drive and enrich her stories.

Winspear is one of the five authors who contribute to Naked Authors, a mystery blog. Take a look at Cornelia Read's noir quiz on that site.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Happy, happy, happy all the time

With a title like You Must be This Happy to Enter, you might expect bucket loads of bitter irony. This third collection of stories by Elizabeth Crane is actually filled with laugh out loud humor, strange turns of events and stories that look realistically at the world, while maintaining the belief that life is worth living.

These stories are some of the best I have read in years, and remind me of another favorite, Ted Chiang. Like Chiang, Crane sets up bizarre situations (a woman goes through life with words on her head, a woman becomes a zombie and is put on a reality TV show, a couple's child turns into Ethan Hawke and so on) and then sees how they react. These people find that yes, their lives are strange, but they are still good and worth living.

A major theme of the book is realizing that you are different (usually bizarrely so) but living with it rather than ranting, collapsing or withdrawing. Don't worry, Crane doesn't go all Free to Be You and Me on you. No, it manages to portray a sincere belief in goodness without becoming cloying or cheap. I think she manages this by focusing on the individuals and not trying to present lessons. The humor doesn't hurt either. As I mentioned this is a funny book.

One of the better, albeit more sad and touching than funny stories in the book is called Promise. Its a list of promises that a hopeful mother is making to her eventual child. You can read it here.

Since this is a short story collection and they tend to be spotty, I planned to read a few strories each night, but I found myself powering through it all at once. I guess I need to get her other two collections.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

If only to punish you, for listening too much to one song

One of my college roommates once blasted Garth Brooks's Friends in Low Places ten times in a row, so that we could all hear and enjoy it (Full disclosure: it was my CD) . He didn't have the excuse of drinking either. On the plus side, he probably worked out his desire to hear the song.

When I was trapped on the 12 hour plane ride from Shanghai with only a single book I wanted to read, I had to rely on my Ipod (along with wine and Benadryl) to stay sane. Like my friend, I had the bad habit of listening to the same songs over and over again on the plane. Here are some of the songs I will soon be avoiding.

Mistakes and Regrets - ....And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead. Without question my favorite song of late January 2008. The quiet, loud start is fantastic and the opening lyric is wonderful (If I could make a list/of my mistakes and regrets/ I'd put your name on top.) I dig the video, except for the obvious impossibility of all that dancing at an indie rock show. Either that crowd is rolling or they stole kids from a DMB show.

Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out - The Replacements. Some people like the Replacements for their thoughtful songs about teenage alienation, but I like the snotty ones. Listen for the whispered voice of the doctor hitting on the nurse. From the same band, check the Alex Chilton anti-video.

Shine A Light - Wolf Parade. This one miraculously went from over-listened to shunned and back to over-listening. This is rare indeed. This song is one of the finest arguments for promoting synths and percussion over guitars. And the video is hilarious.

Here are a few covers I (at least kinda sorta) wish I had on the plane.

Silver Stallion - Cat Power. Back before they were cool, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson had a country super-group called the Highwaymen. If you don't know the band, acquaint yourself immediately. Their excellent songs are marred only by the cheesy 80s production, so this cover by Chan Marshall is welcome.

- Dropkick Murphys. The song that most needs the ultimate cover is the hookalicious wonder from Thin Lizzy and this version...isn't it. An update either needs the space between instruments provided by the likes of Spoon or the the power of Shellac, Sleater-Kinney or Slipknot. Oh well, maybe this cover will inspire.

Hang Me Out to Dry - Kate Nash. I am not sure whether I should love or hate this. Nash certainly puts her mark on this one and while I like the fiddle, I miss the aggression of the original.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Land of hope and gloria

In The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Paul Kennedy, author of the classic Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, explores the overall utility of naval power through the case of Great Britain. The book is an excellent choice for students of international history and politics, but will disappoint those looking for stories of battles or naval lore.

Kennedy explores the role that geography, society, alliances and the utility of land power played in the various wars facing Britain from the 1600s to the 1900s. He argues that naval power was most valuable in the mercantile trade era and became less valuable in the industrial, except against island nations like Japan, and unfortunately enough, Britain. His successfully argues that naval power alone is defensive, but becomes valuable when combined with land power, but that the utility for a given power is dependent on the particular conditions in which it is being used.

The book will irritate navalists and those who want to learn more about the specifics of British naval history. Peter Padfield's Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind will appeal to those wanting more battle history, even if you don't buy his thesis of the interconnection between the small l liberal world and naval power.