The Islamic Enlightenment

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly, Uncategorized by EloiSVM42 on November 21, 2018

Christopher de Bellaigue, author of The Islamic Enlightenment, begins his book by proclaiming it has a startling and controversial thesis, namely that all through Islamic history there were reformers trying to bring the religion and the territory, for they are one and the same, into modernity.

To this startling and controversial thesis, I say Duh. It’s not the least startling. I am perfectly willing to accept it. There are always some people, however small a minority, who are trying to move forward from ignorance toward the light. There’s nothing controversial about that idea at all.

It doesn’t help de Bellaigue’s thesis that at the end of the book, he is compelled to admit that all the reformers failed. In fact, it begs the question why “enlightenment” is even in the title.

This does not mean, however, the book is not worth reading. There is a great deal of interesting and well written history of the Middle East in it. I read it for that reason, gained more knowledge and insight about the subject, and found it well worth the effort.

“God Save Texas,” by Lawrence Wright

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on November 1, 2018

The complete title of this book is: God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State. It is equal parts political commentary, travelogue and memoir, but the primary theme is the iniquity and the willfully squandered opportunities that make Texas what it is today.

Lawrence Wright is a particular kind of Texan, my favorite kind. He is steeped in Texas but thinks and feels more broadly (Wright writes today for The New Yorker). There are many such Texans, just not quite enough quite yet.

This book mirrors What’s the Matter with Kansas, by Thomas Frank, in a way. Both describe a hidebound political environment. They differ in that what the matter is with Kansas is ignorance and stupidity. What the matter is with Texas is ignorance and meanness.

Texas’ politics are a bigger influence on the nation than Kansas’ because Texas is, well, bigger. Texas is in a terrible place politically, and it is warping national politics with its influence. Texas is gaining population rapidly and with it more legislative representation. As Wright observes, Texas is “moving further rightward and dragging the country with it.”

But Texas’ population growth can be a good thing. I’d like to think that its politics will change with this growth, particularly among minorities and in-migration from more liberal states. I’m hopeful about this, because I need to be. We shall see.

An aside: Texans are already more enlightened and liberal than their government. We can blame rural/urban legislative imbalance and Gerrymandering for this. Gerrymandering is the most insidious form of voter suppression, because you can vote, and think your vote counts, but it doesn’t because of where it has been recorded. With other forms of voter suppression, you know you are being cheated.

I like Frank’s writings, but Wright is the better writer. (That was an odd sentence.) I enjoyed the writing in this book enormously. On the other hand, I think Frank looks at the political problems of his state, equally as odious, more squarely in the eye. Wright is sentimental toward his home state in a way Frank is not toward his erstwhile one.

Having lived more than half of my adult life in Texas, I agree with the subjects Wright has selected to explain Texas, among them: oil, Dallas, Houston (the city and the man), Austin (the city and the man), Big Bend Country, birds, Molly Ivins and Willy Nelson. They resonate with me also.

I think Wright characterizes Sam Houston correctly, but shortchanges Stephen F. Austin. He criticizes Austin for bringing slaves to his colony, and so slavery to Texas, which cannot be denied. However, were it not for Austin’s enterprise, bravery and diplomacy, there wouldn’t be a Texas, only a larger Mexico. Austin set the table for Texas. He is its most important founding father.

Thinking of Robert Browning

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 18, 2018

When I was young, and first read Robert Browning’s lines, “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be,” I assumed it was a love poem to his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Spoiler alert: the poem is more complicated than that.)

Since Browning and Barrett were known to have a true love – they married secretly in 1844 against her father’s wishes, she was disinherited, and they left England to live in Florence – I took his supposed thesis on good authority.

As Cynthia and I were together into our 60s and me into my 70s, I interpreted the prescience of these lines clearly and personally.

What that couplet doesn’t convey, however, about graying, loving couples, is that for one of the parties, the worst is yet to be also.

At some point, one will die before the other, and the remaining lover will be left alone to grieve over the loss of a love that was growing deeper and richer with the years. It follows that the greater the love, the greater the grief.

It turns out that Browning wrote the poem on a more metaphysical theme and about the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167). It was published in 1864, not to Elizabeth, but three years after her death in 1861.

Robert and Elizabeth did not really grow old together. They were married 17 years when she died at 55, a little less time than Cynthia and I were together permanently. Browning lived another 28 years without her, until his death in 1889.

Still, I think that, though Browning’s poem may have dealt ostensibly with theistic paradox, his heart and mind were wistfully on Elizabeth when he wrote that first couplet.  His last 28 years had, I suspect, a mournful undercurrent.



John Wayne Movies

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on August 26, 2018

I’ve been thinking about John Wayne movies. Well, actually I’ve been thinking about Cynthia, which led to thinking about John Wayne Movies. Cynthia didn’t care for them. She thought he wasn’t a particularly good actor and that his movies were dated and politically incorrect. And, she was no big fan of westerns. She was right about all this, of course, up to a point.

Probably alone among John Wayne fans, my favorite of his movies is Donovan’s Reef. I love that movie. But talk about dated and politically incorrect. It is so much so that in the ending scene, Wayne puts his love interest over his knee and spanks her. And, of course, there is the obligatory, improbable, barroom brawl scene.

On the other hand, the movie makes a subtle but clear anti-racism statement, and takes a hard poke at Puritanism.

Plus, it has some interesting supporting cast members, including Lee Marvin, Dorothy Lamour, Cesar Romero, Jack Warden, Edgar Buchanan, some, but not all, playing against type. Patrick Wayne has a small, uncredited role as an Australian naval officer, butchering an Aussie accent.

Finally, the movie was shot in Kauai, Hawai’i, so the scenery is beautiful.  What’s not to like about that?

Another of my favorite Wayne movies is McClintock, an admittedly pedestrian western with a truly over-the-top brawl in a mud hole. Cynthia hated this movie and couldn’t understand why I liked it. Well, for one thing, Maureen O’Hara was in it, and Chill Wills. Plus, the movie takes a hard view of the mistreatment of American Indians, particularly on the part of government officials who were supposed to look after them. In those days, Indian Affairs officials were a loathsome, incompetent and corrupt lot.

The Quite Man is, without question, a truly, flat out great movie (also with Maureen O’Hara). And I liked Rooster Cogburn (but, boy, Glenn Campbell was a terrible actor). The rest of the John Wayne movies, including the acclaimed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, are to me take ‘em or leave ‘em, and I wouldn’t argue with Cynthia about them.

Book Review – The Stephanie Plum Novels

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 22, 2018

I’m about to lay a harsh criticism on the Stephanie Plum mysteries, written by Janet Evanovich, but they are not that bad if you like this sort of thing, so I feel obliged to tell you some good things about them first.

The Stephanie Plum Novels are a typical mystery series, with a protagonist – in this case Stephanie, of course – some continuing characters, a mystery plot or two running simultaneously and sometimes intersecting, some romance and a dollop of sex (there can’t be lot of sex like you find in series with male protagonists like, say, the James Bond novels, or Stephanie would come off as a slut, which she is not). She has a shtick. And, of course, she always gets her man….eventually.

That this is a series is unmistakable, because the titles each include a number in sequence: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to get Deadly, and so on. And, these books, like all such series, can be numbingly repetitive. The background and shtick has to be explained over again in each installment, because the author never knows which book the reader will pick up first.

Stephanie’s shtick is that she is a bond enforcement agent (bounty hunter), and an accidental one at that. She was an undergarment buyer at a small department store until being laid off. She wheedled a job with her cousin Vinnie, who runs a bonding company.

In other words, Stephanie is a rookie, green as grass. She wouldn’t have lasted long, or perhaps even survived, if it weren’t for two friends and mentors – a police detective to whom she lost her virginity at 18 and loves off and on again, and an alpha-male bounty hunter super star named Ranger, who is her mentor, temptation and occasional indiscretion.

Stephanie lacks some of the killer instincts useful in the bounty hunter trade. She doesn’t like guns – she keeps hers in her cookie jar except on rare occasions, and generally away from her bullets, when she remembers to buy some. Her other useful bounty hunter gear – stun gun, pepper spray, handcuffs – is jumbled up in her purse, not easily accessible when needed, and she doesn’t prepare ahead well for her take-downs.

Evanovich describes Plum as being “incredibly average, and yet heroic, if necessary.” I would inject only if mortally necessary, which it can take her a long time to determine. But Stephanie has a good heart, and a natural ability to attract and accept a number of oddball characters, who over time form a group of friends, posse and support.

These books individually can be very entertaining. Hell, Evanovich has sold a ton of them. I think it is not offensive in this case to state the obvious that these are “women’s books.” Men who like this genre will enjoy them too, but most of the best, funniest and most insightful scenes occur between women, who will appreciate them more. There is a mall scene in the second book, which only women could initiate, and that is one of the funniest I have read in a long time.

Now, here’s the rub. Since Plum’s shtick is that of being a novice bounty hunter, she must make the same beginner mistakes in every sequential volume. After reading eleven volumes and counting, as I have done (don’t ask why), since she hasn’t learned anything, she now comes off as exasperatingly stupid.

How many times can she stand at the door of her FTA (failure to appear) target to take him in, and have him say, “Sure, give me a minute to get my jacket,” her to say, “OK,” and him run out the back door and get away, before she catches on?

How many times can she have her pepper spray or her stun gun in her purse or pocket when approaching an FTA, and not be able to get it out in time when he charges her?

Eleven volumes in, she should have her stun gun in hand, zap her targets the instant he or she opens the door, cuff them and drag them back to jail before they even cone to. She always gets her quarry, but often through just dumb beginner’s luck.

Stephanie Plum can’t learn, and that makes the series for me a frustrating read.

Reviewing the National Press Club Dinner and other Media Foibles

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 19, 2018

As I have written recently, I am very proud of the media these days. They are performing heroically in very difficult but important times. There is little about them of which to complain. Little, but not none.

After the National Press Club Dinner, the whole point of which is to celebrate freedom of speech and the press, many Press Club members were critical, again, of their invited guest comedian – Michelle Wolf – for telling jokes about them. I didn’t watch the dinner, but I went back and listened to Wolf’s roast. It was overall wicked funny stuff, and like all good comedy, contained a lot of truth.

Among the funniest bits to me was when, sensing her audience squirming, Wolf said, “You should have done a lot more research before you got me to do this.”

I am off-put by the hypocrisy of press members complaining about a comedian’s language. With a nod to President Donald Trump, you knew she was a viper tongued wit when you invited her.

I am particularly disappointed in Andrea Mitchell, a generally credible journalist, for saying Wolf owes Sara Huckabee Sanders an apology for what Wolf said about her. Perhaps Mitchell said that because she is afraid Sanders will stop leaking to her. Nobody owes Sanders an apology. Sanders stands into front of the press every day and lies to them through her teeth. And, she is rude, arrogant and condescending doing it. She is of a piece with her administration.

By the way, I have watched a few of those press briefings and the press’ questions are often as lame as the answers are offensive lies.

I think the press club would be better off doing without a professional comedian speaker. Keep the dinner serious and on point. The fact is, the press doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, and can’t seem to take a joke, even a good one, about themselves. Reminds me of Trump.

And then there is the overwrought coverage of North Korea. The press vacillates between overhyping a possible peace agreement between the U. S. and North Korea and a war between the U.S. and North Korea, like it’s a either or game, when, in fact, neither is going to happen, least of all a war, because it is the last thing either side wants (with the exception of John Bolton).

Kim wouldn’t dare start a war with us, because he knows he would be obliterated. Trump won’t start a war with North Korea, because if his staff or Congress won’t stop him, China will. Trump started this circus himself with his bluster, and he’s riding now in part because the press let him, and now we’re off on this insane farce of a nuclear agreement negotiation.


Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on February 10, 2018

I’m pretty proud of the Fourth Estate these days. The media is taking its responsibility seriously. The newspaper war between the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for scoops about the Trump administration is absolutely thrilling. It’s amazing how many reporters each paper has put on the beat, and it is paying off with great stories and increased circulation, which translates directly to advertising revenues.

That said, the media’s treatment of one story went off the rails in a way that, except for being serious, was rather funny. When President Trump displayed his racism and xenophobia by referring to Haiti, and African countries broadly as “shithole countries,” the media stumbled all over itself about how to handle Trump’s comment. Shit is one of the seven words you are not supposed to say on television.

Some wrote “S***hole” or said “S-hole.” Others just wrote or said it was a “vulgar term,” or “something that can’t be said on the air.” One news network said “Shithole” but then backtracked to “S-hole.”

Chaos doubled when one of Trump’s defenders said Trump didn’t say the word at all (he did), and redoubled when some moron defender said he said “Shithouse” instead, giving us the dictionary example of a distinction without a difference. (Samantha Bee, of course, said Shithole right off the bat, which for her is mild anyway.) Eventually, most media outlets worked up the courage to quote what Trump said directly.

With a nod to Bill Maher, New Rule: when a word is used in a quote, use the quote. Don’t try to soften it. That’s not only too politically correct, but it distorts the intended emphasis and sounds silly. This is especially true for the President, whose words, for better or worse, speak officially for the government.

For example, the word “nigger” is one I would never use…unless I was doing a public reading of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. In that context, it is a quote. It is his word; Twain chose it deliberately, in this case to strengthen his pointed opposition to slavery. (“The difference between a word and just the right word, is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug”.” – Mark Twain) I cringe or scoff every time I hear or read “the ‘N’ word.” It’s so, so precious and pusillanimous.

“Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 16, 2017

For the same reason I studied Bernard Lewis to understand Islam and how its extreme elements came to be, I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance to understand the people who voted for President Trump in numbers large enough, and in just the right places, for him to win the election. I reasoned hillbillies and many of Trump’s voters are basically one and the same…and I was right.

An elegy is a lament for the dead, technically in the form of a poem. Vance, a self-described hillbilly, doesn’t say they are dead, but he suggests they are doomed, economically at least, by their own hand absent significant changes.

The term “Hillbilly” originally applied to descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants – Calvinist Protestant dissenters – who migrated to America in the 1700s and settled mostly in the back woods of Greater Appalachia.

Vance’s description of the hillbilly culture pretty much matches up with my own, admittedly stereotypical view of them: uneducated, backward, rural, misogynistic, blame everyone but themselves, pessimistic, extremely conservative and LAZY.

I wasn’t expecting this last one at all. I thought these to be people who want to work, but just can’t find jobs. Vance says hillbillies may say they want a job, but don’t really, and even if they do, they are unwilling to do what is required to get and hold one. In other words, they’re almost unemployable.

Vance observes that hillbilly men draw “strict lines between work acceptable to men and acceptable to women.” It’s clear what “women’s work” is, but not clear what’s acceptable for men. “Apparently, not paid employment,” Vance writes.

As a result, the hillbilly population is rife with unemployment, poverty, ignorance, broken homes, drug addiction and violence out of proportion to other populations. Although Hillary was stupid to say it, these are deplorable people.

To make his case, Vance serves up his own family as typical of the breed. His father came and went; his mother, a slut and hopeless drug addict, ran through “husbands” at such a pace that Vance had difficulty keeping up with their first names, as well as his own last one. His maternal grandparents were uneducated, violent, vulgar and profane, but at least they loved him. He credits them for saving him from a hillbilly’s fate.

Most of Vance’s family members have killed someone, or tried to, including in the case of his grandparents, each other. Vance’s uncle thinks of the family as normal, but admits, “They go from zero to murderous in a fucking heartbeat.”

Judged on this scale, Vance’s family has somewhat celebrity status. One of his forebears – Jim Vance – killed Asa McCoy, which ignited the Hatfield and McCoy feud. (

Similar to the migration of southern blacks to find work in northern cities, hillbillies began migrating from Appalachia in the same general direction, to find work in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. The out-migration was so great along U.S. Route 23 that it is called the “Hillbilly Highway.”

Vance grew up in Jackson, Kentucky, a rural town in the county of Breathitt, in the southeastern part of the state. Breathitt County (also formally the name of the town) was a place of such violence (much of it due to feuds) that it became known as “Bloody Breathitt,” and the feds came in to clean it up.

During the migration, Vance’s grandparents moved to Middletown, Ohio along with so many others from his home state that it was called “Middletucky.” The grandparents moved not for economic opportunity, but to avoid an underage pregnancy scandal and certain honor killing.

The migrating hillbillies were able at first to find good paying jobs that didn’t require much education, and the work became progressively easier as manufacturing technology advanced. A significant economic spread developed between the income and opportunities of those who left Appalachia and those who stayed behind, but the culture remains the same in both places.

Inevitably, things reached a tipping point when manufacturing technology advanced to the point very little labor was needed in the plants, and the work could be done in other countries with similar labor skills at much lower labor cost. The jobs disappeared, and both the Appalachian hillbillies and the transplanted ones are back in the same boat, as unprepared to compete as ever. Vance calls them “relics of American industrial glory.”

(Note: Middletown was the home of A. K. Steel, which was the employment anchor of the town. But A. K. Steel jobs declined along with the rest of the steel industry in the U.S., and though there is still a plant in Middletown, there are very few employees. Today, without the A. K. Steel jobs, Middletown is the center of opioid addiction in Ohio.)

The bleak history of Appalachia is pretty well understood, but the migration story was new to me. Put together, they explain how Trump voters came to be and how they came to be where they could nudge the election to Trump, though Vance opines that “Hillbilly” describes much of America’s white middle class today.

Interestingly, Vance goes easy on hillbillies on the Obama-racism issue. He says hillbillies didn’t hate him because he is black, but because they knew that he is simply above them. They knew he had done it right.”

Hillbillies bought into Donald Trump and vulgar rhetoric and impossible conspiracies because they are simply not able to compete and resistant to becoming so, and they have to blame others for this.

Vance believes about hillbillies that “you can’t believe these things [conspiracy theories] and participate meaningfully in society,” but hillbillies did participate meaningfully, at least to the extent that they showed up and voted overwhelmingly for Trump. It’s those who stayed home who failed the citizenship test. Sadly, hillbillies picked precisely the wrong man to address their problems. So, maybe Vance is right about the “meaningfully” part. Hillbillies aren’t going to participate in any meaningful way economically any time soon.

Hillbilly Elegy, informs our understanding of what went on in 2016. However, the mystery of J.D. Vance himself remains. By any measure, Vance, for all his affinity/distain for hillbillies, simply does not fit the picture.

Vance was smart enough to get accepted at Ohio State University. He was smart enough to realize how unprepared he was for the broader world, so he joined the Marine Corp to catch up before matriculating at OSU. He was smart enough to graduate from Yale Law School. He is obviously an extreme outlier from the culture in which he lived.

That said, Vance can’t be the only one. There must be more potential in the people of this community. We need to find ways to nurture it. In the meantime, I cannot respect them, or even sympathize with them. Respect for determined ignorance and violence is just not in me. But I can emphasize with them better now and realize there are more resources in the Appalachian Mountains than just coal.

Vance is surely right that there is no magic solution, no single government program to rescue this group from its status. It will take many approaches, a long time and a lot of money. But education would be a good place to start.

Two Good Books on Death and Dying

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on January 5, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi (mostly)

It was first said (circa 1665-68) by Francois de la Rochefoucauld that “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at directly.” Well, two fine writers have taken a crack at it recently, from very different viewpoints, and with very different styles, but each with credible results.

Consider the credentials of this 36-year-old writer: BA and MA in English Literature from Stanford; M-Phil (Master of Philosophy) in History of Science and Medicine, from Cambridge; Graduate, cum laude, from Yale Medical School; Senior Resident at Stanford Medical School. Would you consider this man capable of writing a meaningful book about clinical death? I certainly would.

Oh, and he has one more qualification: 14 days before becoming a Professor of Neuroscience at Stanford, he was observing a scan of a patient with Stage-4 lung cancer (read terminal). About which he writes, “This scan was different; it was my own.”

Such was the fate of Paul Kalanithi, a man of extraordinary intelligence with a sky’s- the-limit career before him, whose life hanged in an instant and whose death was foretold and near. His life – its length, scope and purpose had to be re-considered.

Paul planned to write a book, someday, after a distinguished career in medicine. Now the 30 or more years between his imminent graduation and far-in-the future plans are gone. He skips far ahead to book writing, but first he has cancer to deal with as best as is possible. (Note: I use Paul’s first name in this review because with all he revealed about himself to me in this book, it feels only right.)

Paul takes us through the details of his consultations, tests, treatments and results. Others have done similar recording and reporting before, though few have such professional insight or writing skills. And he adds something more. Common or rare among surgeons, I don’t know, but Paul gave a lot of thought to what it means and takes to lead a meaningful life. Ultimately, Paul came to a rather common conclusion – friends and family – which he calls, being a scientist/philosopher, “relationality.” But his thinking processes, intertwined with the events of his medical adventure, make meaningful reading.

Among the first decisions: his wife Lucy and he decided to have a baby, via in vitro fertilization, which is by now, we must infer, was all he was up to, to create a for comfort for Lucy when he is gone, and for himself if he lives long enough.

Thereafter, Paul’s life is simply a matter of living it out and recording it for us. When treatments permit, he works as long as he can as a surgeon – and then spends his remaining time with his wife, and, yes, with his new baby daughter, Elizabeth Acadia (Cady). Paul died with eight-month old Cady in his arms.
Paul did not live quite long enough to complete this book. Lucy added the finishing touches. We do not know how much of the book is truly his. Lucy wrote the Epilogue for sure, and her style seems a lot like Paul’s, which obscures the issue a bit. However, the vast bulk of the work is clearly Paul’s. The literary references and allusions are those of a Master of English Literature.

Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death
By Baron Brooke Fulke Grenville

You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.

You should read this book, but there is a caveat. The New York Times reviewer wrote that “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option,” and I think he’s right.

Old Age: A Beginners Guide

By Michael Kinsley

Having heaped all that praise on When Breath Becomes Air, you may be surprised to read that I saved my favorite of the two books for last. Michael Kinsley is one of my very favorite writers, almost an idol to me, actually. His thinking is insightful, even on subjects you might think have been completely well worn. What’s more, his work, regardless of topic, is humorous.

Kinsley’s short book is as poignant as Paul’s; more insightful about death in some ways; definitely more practical about the meaningful life and how to live it; plus it is wicked funny, in both meanings of the term, which makes death a little easier to look at directly, but leaves no doubt about its ultimate result.

Kinsley approaches his subject from the point of view of the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), to which he belongs, and which is rounding the turn and beginning the home stretch to the finish. He assures his contemporaries that, “the best medical research indicates that eventually you’re going to be dead.”

Boomers are characterized by being especially ambitious and competitive, but while Kinsley thinks Boomers get a bad rap, he also acknowledges that there is some truth to this, particularly when compared to the sacrifices made by the previous, “Greatest Generation,” which won World War II and saved the world.

Kinsley admits being a classic Boomer, but with one rare difference: he contracted Parkinson’s disease at 43. This is much, much earlier than the disease generally presents. He has been fortunate in that his symptoms have been mild for much of this time, and even today are not as typically inhibiting. As he observes about Parkinson’s, “like its victims, it tends to move slowly.” Fortunate as Kinsley has been in this regard, still he has been dealing with this reminder of his mortality directly for around 25 years.

It turns out that Parkinson’s doesn’t kill that many people, though it did kill my father. Most people who get it do so later in life and usually die of something else before Parkinson’s gets them. But the diagnosis, Kinsley writes, “…is a pretty valuable warning shot from the Grim Reaper.”

This is not the case, Kinsley reminds his fellow Boomers, for old age. As for that, “We don’t need any tests. We can give you that diagnosis right now. You’ve got it, it’s progressive and (unlike Parkinson’s) it’s invariably fatal.”

Kinsley discusses the pros and cons of a number of ways to measure the value of lives in the competitive spirit of Boomers: material success (The one who dies with the most toys wins); longevity; cognition; finally settling on reputation, though only of a certain kind. (He has some fascinating ideas about reputation versus fame and celebrity.)

Fortunately, Kinsley tells us how to do this. If you want a good reputation, he says, “be good. And you better get started now, because after your dead, it’s too late.”

Kinsley even has an idea that would let the entire Baby Boom generation pass on with a good reputation, almost as good as that of the “Greatest Generation.” His proposal: pay off the national debt…about $17 trillion dollars. This will take a big sacrifice – not as big as getting shot and killed in your youth – but still huge. It will require a lot of contribution from every Boomer. It will require soaking the one percent pretty good. It will require (all but) eliminating the inheritance tax, something I’ve always advocated.

But, hey, paying off the debt would lift an enormous drag on our economy, and on the prospects of all those yet to come, and who by definition had nothing to do with creating it. Though I’m not technically a Baby Boomer – I was born a few years too early – I’m willing to chip in. How about you, young-uns?

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 23, 2016

In an interview about his new book, David McCullough opined that Wilbur Wright was “certainly a genius,” and that Orville Wright had “mechanical ingenuity as few people had ever seen.“ Read this book, which I recommend of all McCullough’s books, and you will see that he was right on both counts.

At the turn of the 20th Century, few people thought man would ever be able to fly. In fact, most people were certain we would not. There were hot air balloons, of course (Ben Franklin rode in one in France) and some gliders, but neither was hardly the same thing. (The first and best glider engineer – Otto Lilienthal – died in a crash in his own invention, but left behind some observations about flight that the brothers studied.)

Some few cranks and some serious scientists, most notably Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, with large financial backing by the War Department, experimented with manned, powered flight. You’ve seen the old film clips of their odd looking machines launching (or not) and crashing quickly to the ground. Some of those were Langley’s efforts.

The Wright brothers – brilliant, though without formal training or even a college degree – approached the problem differently. First, they began with the absolute certainty that flight was possible and the determination to be the first to do it. Second, they approached the task patiently and scientifically, in sequential steps, from research, to designs; to gliders, to manned gliders, to power source, to Voila.

Wilbur’s first, and perhaps most brilliant insight came early on. He perceived, as no others had, after watching birds soar in flight, that the more important aspect of flight was the flyer, not the machine. As a baby bird must learn to fly by practice, starting with merely flapping its wings on the edge of the nest, so the flyer must gain experience on the controls of the plane and how it reacts to changes in the air currents to the point of reflex. Thus, the patient, sequential development of their invention and its flying.

The brothers did their design and construction at their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, but they wanted privacy (read secrecy) for their testing. They chose Kitty Hawk, on the outer banks of North Carolina for its seclusion and favorable winds, of which they got both in spades. (The Wrights actually went to Kitty Hawk in four successive years to further their project sequentially. Before their first flight on December 17, 1903, the brothers made over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, to become true, experienced pilots.)

Having achieved true flight – heavier than air, controlled, power driven, with a pilot – in the isolation of Kitty Hawk, with only a few locals and their own still camera to witness, the word of their achievement got out slowly, and with more skepticism than they expected. The brothers returned to Dayton and put one some exhibitions, and the news began to circulate more broadly.

There were still more skeptics and doubters than fans. The War Department, having sunk a lot of money into Langley’s spectacular, public failures, had no interest in the Wright’s claims or their machine. The two small town boys had to go to Europe for recognition (Wilbur stayed in Paris for more than a year on his first trip, yet never learned French. His sister visited him and in four months became his interpreter. Remarkable family.) In France, England and Germany, the news got the adulation it deserved.

The Wright brothers spent the next several years building better and better machines, and flying higher and faster and farther and longer, setting new world records nearly every time they flew. The possibility of manned flight having been proven, others joined in the pursuit, and progress was made quickly. In less than a quarter of a century, aviation progressed from the first short flight in Kitty Hawk to Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927. (Lindberg was born the year before Kitty Hawk.)

The Wright brothers other pursuit – falling mostly on the shoulders of Wilbur – was filing and fighting lawsuits to protect their patents. Wilbur wasn’t interested in the money, but both brothers wanted it undoubted that they had been the first to fly. They won all the suits, and their recognition is undisputed. But the effort wore Wilbur down as flying never had. “It is always easier to deal with things than with men,” he wrote.  The effort destroyed Wilbur’s health. He died in his mid-40s. Orville succeeded him by 37 years.

The story of this most remarkable achievement makes great reading in McCullough’s hands. It’s a must read story of the dawn of aviation. But the most astounding factoid in it to me is that Wilbur – the genius visionary and creator of manned, powered, piloted flight – did not think that the automobile would ever become practical. Too noisy and unreliable, he thought. Orville, on the other hand, loved motor cars, and after Wilbur’s death, and when he could no longer fly, due to a bad crash, drove them all over Dayton at high speeds. The local police cringed and looked the other way.