I just finished two of the four books in Robert Caro's series "The Years of Lyndon Johnson." I read the last two, "Master of the Senate" and "The Passage of Power." I can't really say enough about how good these books were, and I'm really not sure that I need to. They have won Pulitzer Prizes and are widely considered to be among the best political books ever written. At well over 1,000 pages each, they are not exactly casual reading, but they are well worth the effort.

The last history book I wrote about here was "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," and reading the Caro books really highlighted what was wrong with that book as a serious history. Caro does not take a moral position on his subjects. He reports the details of what happened and the reasons why and it's effects, but does not add his personal opinions in. The level of detail indicates the huge amount of research he did to write these books, and the books present a very engaging narrative, but he lets the facts speak for themselves. I also now understand why historians feel that they need some distance from their subject.

What really jumped out at me was how little politics has changed since the days of Johnson. Today, we tend to think of the corruption and influence of money in politics as a relatively recent development but that is absolutely not the case. I believe some of that bias has to do with the way history is taught in American public schools - Presidents are always above reproach, progress is constant, problems are encountered and shortly after are solved never to rear their ugly heads again. (See Lies My Teacher Told Me for an in depth analysis of this.) In school, American history is greatly whitewashed and anything that might reflect badly on the country is eliminated or glossed over. 

One of my favorite stories from these books is how in Johnson's first Senate race, he was behind in votes. Then at the last minute, 300 extra votes were "found" for Johson, in alphabetical order, all in the same handwriting, just enough to put Johnson over the top. While today something like this would be a huge scandal, at the time it didn't seem to be too big of a deal, just business as usual.

Johnson switched position on issues constantly, depending on what would be the most politically favorable stance for him to take. Whether he needed to keep wealthy donors happy, needed to appeal to a segment of the population he felt he needed on his side, or whether it was all just internal Senate posturing he had little hesitation on switching his position whenever it benefitted him to do so. No one knows how he really felt about controversial issues such as civil rights, and it may be that he didn't really have a firm opinion on way or the other besides what was most advantageous at the moment. 

In the end Johnson was a great man because he did great things, not because of his personality or his dedication to social causes. It seems as if all he really cared about was power, and it is just lucky for the world that what he did to gain that power was mostly beneficial to the country, because it could easily have been otherwise.

Although I have been reading these books for months now, I am sad to have finished them and I anxiously await the fifth and final chapter of the Years of Lyndon Johnson, which Caro has said is forthcoming.

Libellés: books, politics
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Blue Friday

vendredi 08 septembre 2017

My new song:

Written and produced by Eric Scuccimarra, inspired by New Order's "Blue Monday," made with Ableton.

Libellés: music
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My grandfather was always obsessed with World War II, especially reading about Nazi Germany. He was a doctor in World War II although he was stationed at West Point and never went overseas. We used to make fun of him because every Christmas he would get a huge stack of books about Hitler and such. As I've grown older I've come to maybe not share, but at least appreciate his obsession, and I have been known to watch lots of documentaries on TV and Netflix about World War II.

Amazon Prime said I could read this book for free, and so I did. It was quite long but written in a very accessible way. Mr Shirer was a journalist stationed in Germany and other parts of Europe before and during WWII so had a first-hand view of the rise of Nazism. Before reading this book I never really appreciated the difference between a journalistic style of writing and a historical one but, especially having read this book shortly after having read some of Robert Caro's biographies of LBJ, the difference in styles really jumped out at me. On the plus side the journalistic style makes the book more engaging and easier to read. On the down side Caro interjects a great deal of personal opinion into his recounting of the Third Reich. He repeatedly refers to Hitler as "the demonic dictator" - and even if I happen to agree with that I don't know if it's appropriate to use that kind of language in a historical document. It's obvious he feels very strongly about the Nazis as he does things like refer to Goering's weight where it bears absolutely no relevance to the matter being discussed, and in general wastes no opportunity to throw in little ad hominem asides about anyone and everyone he has a negative opinion about. 

One notable example of this is when discussing how many early Nazis were homosexuals, many of whom were later executed by Hitler, he feels compelled to discuss their "disgusting perversions" and make other such disparaging comments, although it adds absolutely nothing to the book. This was quite shocking to me, but I let it go as the book was written in 1960, which was a very different time from today.

The other bias which really disturbed me was Mr Shirer's negative overall view of Germany and the German people. He seems to think that Nazism was the result of some inherent flaw in the German national character rather than the result of a manipulative person taking advantage of a desperate economic and political state in the 1930s. In the afterword, written in 1990 as Germany was preparing to reunite, Shirer seems to expect that a reunited Germany will inevitably try to dominate the rest of Europe by force. Interestingly, the preventative measures he prescribes seems to be exactly what has occurred. He suggests that embedding Germany into a united Europe would prevent her from exerting military ambitions in the future. 

In summary, this was an interesting and engaging book which gives a brief (if 1,200 pages can be considered brief) synopsis of Germany under the Nazis. Unfortunately it's author was a very opinionated and bigoted man, who's biases are constantly revealed even when they bear no relevance to the text. It is very clear he was more of a journalist than a historian. I will grant that when the book was written anger towards Germany over WWII was likely still very pronounced, and his attitudes maybe a bit more socially acceptable. This is an interesting introduction and overview of the history of Nazi Germany, but in no way should it be considered a serious historical work.

Libellés: books
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This is another book I decided to read after seeing a TED talk by the author. The Chicago School of economists, led by Milton Freidman, basically redefined what "freedom" means. The word used to refer to individual freedom to do what you want to do. Friedman et al changed it by equating "freedom" with economic freedom to buy what you want to buy. Friedman did a whole series on this called "Free to Choose." While maybe this made sense during the Cold War, today it has led to the neoliberal philosophy of free trade and unregulated capitalism. Basically, Western civilization is based on the idea that the more choices you have as to what to buy the "freer" you are and the happier you will be. This book analyzes this theory and finds it greatly lacking.

One thing I noticed when moving from the USA to Switzerland is that there aren't as many different brands of everything. In the grocery store you might have 5 or so different brands of toothpaste instead of the 100 brands, each with 20 different varietes you would find in the US. At first this was a bit shocking and hard to get used to, but I did get used to it and I have started to appreciate it. I believe the reason for this has to do largely with advertising. There isn't as much of it here, and it's nice to not constantly be bombarded by ads trying to get you to buy stuff you don't need. 

Since the major difference between the brands of toothpaste is the brand, rather than the ingredients or the effects or any characteristics of the actual product, less advertising means there is less to differentiate between the brands, and thus fewer brands and fewer products to choose from at the grocery store. Advertising is not really about the product at all - it's about trying to create an image or a feeling in your mind that you associate with the product. Like "chew this gum and you will be rich and famous and attractive to the opposite sex." When you buy the gum and chew it and none of that happens you will likely be disappointed. 

The book explains why having more choices is not necessarily a good thing. An example is expectations - in our society we expect that with 200 choices for sneakers we should be able to find the perfect sneaker that will meet our every desire in a sneaker. When the shoe inevitably fails to meet those expectations, we will be disappointed. If we only had 3 choices for sneakers we would know that we had picked the one we like the best and won't be so upset when the sneaker doesn't make us a basketball star. Of course this is a great simplification of the arguments which Schwartz lays out in very well thought through detail. 

This was a very interesting book, and I highly recommend it. It was especially interesting to me fromy my vantage point in Switzerland, where I have gained some clarity on how things are in the United States. My brother came here recently and his first complaint was there are too few brands of everything to choose from. When I first got here I was frustrated by the fact that if I wanted to buy any random thing I couldn't go on Amazon and have it delivered the next day, I would have to try to find a bricks and mortar store that might have it and then go there and hope they do, or try to order it from Amazon France or Germany and wait a couple weeks for it to arrive. The thing is - it wasn't that I needed whatever thing it was that I wanted to order, I was just used to having every single thing I ever could want at my immediate disposal. What changed was my expectations, and now, before I go online to try to order something I actually think about whether I really need it and if it is worth ordering. 

It never even occurred to my brother that not having 175 options for salad dressing at the grocery store might be a good thing, but Mr Schwartz lays out clearly and with factual backing the reasons why, past a certain point, adding more choices becomes counterproductive.

Libellés: books, economics
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Born a Crime - by Trevor Noah

mardi 04 juillet 2017

After Jon Stewart left the Daily Show I wasn't all that interested in watching it. But after catching clips of it a few times I began to appreciate Trevor Noah more and more. I decided to read this book after reading Bill Gates's review of it. The book is about Noah's childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, the title comes from the fact that since his father was white and his mother was not his conception was technically illegal at the time it occurred.

I was shocked by just the state of things in South Africa at the time. I was still young when apartheid ended, so I just never really understood just how bad things where. Nevertheless Noah managed to make it through everything with his sense of humor and his intellect intact, in large part due to the influence of his mother. The book is at times amusing and at times poignant. There were a number of times when I had to read passages from the book to my wife.

I read this because I needed a break from Robert Caro's biographies of LBJ, and the book provided a short but needed respite from that. It's not a great piece of literature by any means, but it wasn't intended to be. I would definitely recommend it.

Libellés: books
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