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Can I See Your I.D.?: True Stories of False Identities
Can I See Your I.D.?: True Stories of False Identities
by Paul Hoppe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.41
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4.0 out of 5 stars A confection for readers, August 21, 2016
This is a collection of ten stories about people pretending to be somebody or something they’re not. Keron Thomas, for example, had such a desire to be a subway motorman that he pretended to be one and actually finagled his way into driving the train in New York City. Wow. Only problem: you’ve never done this before and…well, mistakes will happen.

Then there’s high school dropout Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. who passes himself off as a navy surgeon. It gets a little sticky when he has to actually tend the injured although he manages to pull the captain’s aching tooth. There’s a Yankee woman pretending to be a man as a soldier during the American Civil War. This ends badly. There’s a white man with dyed skin pretending to be black. (John Howard Griffin who wrote a famous book about it, “Black Like Me.”) The most edgy tale perhaps is that of Solomon Perel, circumcised Polish Jew during World War II who ends up in the Hitler youth trying to stay alive.

The stories are all told in the second person (“you” did this, “you” did that) giving the narratives a close-up feel. Short stories have been written in the second person and even some novels. It can seem artificial but for some reason it was natural here probably because Barton’s prose is so easy to read. In fact the book reads like something written for tweeners.

There are some excellent gray scale drawings by Paul Hoppe and a Bibliography detailing where Barton got the information for the stories including, I was amused to notice, a 1993 news story for The Washington Post written by Malcolm Gladwell . author of “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers” and other bestselling books.

I call books like this “confections” since the stories are like bonbons: you can’t read just one.

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye
Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye
by Michael Shermer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.01
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5.0 out of 5 stars Informed, beautifully composed, sharp, witty and fun to read, August 19, 2016
Let’s start with the prose. Shermer writes a delightful line. He eschews the mundane and celebrates the poetic. He likes the word that stands out, that surprises, e.g., “hoaxed” (as a verb), “phlogiston”, “flummery” (works well with “flapdoodle”), “homiletics,” “watchphrase,” to note a few.

Here’s some (perhaps overwrought) alliteration:

(On magnets increasing blood flow) “This is fantastic flapdoodle and a financial flimflam.” (p. 76)

(An observation on hosting a workshop at Esalen) “…the paranormal piffle proffered by the prajna peddlers…” (p. 120)

And here are some chapter titles alliterated: “Mesmerized by Magnetism,” “Cures and Cons,” “Codified Claptrap,” “The Myth Is the Message,” “Rupert’s Resonance,” “Quantum Quackery,” etc.

I especially liked the way he worked some fancy poets and bit of their poetry into the narratives, including Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats, Alexander Pope, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. And it was fun to read again Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws. First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” Indeed. And the Third: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I would add, as Shermer himself observes elsewhere in the book, any really advanced beings will be to us as gods. And it felt like a return to my youth to recall Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from his novel “I, Robot”:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But what really makes this book stand out (and others by the very articulate Dr. Shermer : see my review of his “Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown”) is just how incisive he is in revealing, exposing, satirizing, demeaning and being amused by the oceans of BS that surrounds us. Here are a couple of examples of his perceptive, penetrating, perspicacious and piercing prose:

“…[T]ruth in science is not determined democratically. It does not matter whether 99 percent or only 1 percent of the public believes a theory. It must stand or fall on the evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution. The preponderance of evidence from numerous converging lines of inquiry (geology, paleontology, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, genetics, biogeography, etc.) all independently point to the same conclusion: evolution happened.” He calls this a “convergence of evidence” and adds, “Whatever you call it, it is how historical events are proven.” (p. 224)

Writing about rising above our nature, Shermer avers, “Limited resources led to the selection for within-group cooperation and between-group competition in humans, resulting in within-group amity and between-group enmity.” (Call it tribalism.) “This evolutionary scenario bodes well for our species if we can continue to expand the circle of whom we consider to be members of our in-group.” Shermer adds that he believes that the trend is for including more people, women and minorities into the in-group deserving human rights. (p. 209) Call it the trek from bands to tribes to nation states to internationalism.

I also liked this little comeuppance for “the end is nigh” people: “I’m skeptical whenever people argue that the Big Thing is going to happen in THEIR lifetime. Evangelicals never claim that the Second Coming is going to happen in the NEXT generation…Likewise, secular doomsayers typically predict the demise of civilization within their allotted time (but that they will be part of the small surviving enclave.” (p. 155)

Naturally I have a few differences with Shermer, but only a few. Here’s one. In the chapter “Why ET Has Not Phoned In” he believes that the lifetime of communicating civilizations (“L” in the famous Drake equation for estimating the number of technological civilizations in our galaxy) is rather short. He gives L = 420.56 years based on the lifetime of civilizations historically on earth. I believe this is in error since the rise and fall of Rome and some Chinese dynasties, etc. which Shermer has averaged do not connote planet civilizations capable of communicating over vast distances of interstellar space. Those civilizations, if only based on the fact that they have the technology to communicate, clearly must be longer-lived. What he is suggesting is that civilizations such as Rome, Egypt, etc. typically don’t last long enough to become technologically capable of interstellar communication. What he is apparently not noticing is that these very same civilizations haven’t really disappeared from the earth, but have evolved into the civilizations now present, which is what one might expect on other planets in the galaxy.

Unlike most people Shermer is positive about the prospect for cloning human beings. He comes up with “The Three Laws of Cloning” in the chapter “I, Clone” and argues that we have nothing to fear. I agree, but with this understanding: we already have too many people on the planet, cloned or otherwise.

And here’s a small difference of experience. I write a lot of essays very similar to Shermer’s (although perhaps not as eloquently) and I have found that being forced into a tight window of expression actually improved my prose. Shermer feels that something is sometimes lost when he has to trim his essays. Typically he was restricted to about 700 words for these essays which are from his column in the Scientific American magazine, although augmented and in some cases corrected for this volume.

One last thing: on page 223 Shermer’s title subhead reads “The advance of science, not the demotion of religion, will best counter the influence of creationism.” I agree, but I could not help but read “The advance of science, not the DEMON of religion, will best counter the influence of creationism.”

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

The Industries of the Future
The Industries of the Future
by Alec Ross
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.50
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Robotics, genetics, code money, weaponized code, endless data, etc., Wow!, August 12, 2016
Yes we will have robots. Yes we will alter the genetic code of not only plants and animals (which we’ve done already) but of ourselves. And yes children will learn how to code in elementary school. And indeed cyber wars will play havoc with our daily lives while cyber security becomes a trillion dollar industry and a common college major. What this book is about is the industries that will arrive, grow and prosper as a result of these technological developments.

Alec Ross is eminently qualified to write this book since he was Senior Advisor for Innovation at the State Department in the Obama administration under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That position and his later role as co-founder of the nonprofit One Company which uses technology and information to help low-income people around the world allowed him (forced him, actually) to travel extensively, which in a globalized world is necessary to get an idea of where we’re headed. (“Is that Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”)

Part of what this book is about is the technological developments taking place in sometimes surprising places in the world, such as Estonia and Singapore. Ross has talked to innovative people in high places in both governments and the private sector. His knowledge of other cultures and what is happening economically in many parts of the world is impressive. One of his most important ideas is that the difference between success and failure more than ever will be the difference between living in an open society and in a closed society.

In the first chapter Ross concentrates on the rise of robots and how working with, by and even for robots will change our lives and restructure many industries from elder and child care to transportation and agriculture.

The second chapter begins with this bold assertion: “The last trillion-dollar industry was built on a code of 1s and 0s. The next will be built on our own genetic code.” Ross is particularly excited about how advances in genetics will allow us to live longer and more productive lives.

The third chapter is primarily about “coded money” with a partial focus on Bitcoin and other non-fiat currencies (or actually decentralized, non-governmental fiat currencies).

The fourth chapter is on the “weaponization of code,” meaning using hacking to achieve military ends. This “Code War” chapter is a bit scary since even small states or just terrorist gangs may have the ability to shut down entire companies or even governments. What is not explained here or anywhere else I’ve read is why the hackers or the offense (so to speak) has a built-in advantage over the original programmers or the defense.

The fifth chapter is about data. Ah, yes, data. The life blood, or as Ross has it, “the raw material” of the information age. You can’t have too much of it and it may reside in the ubiquitous cloud forever, or at least until there’s a near-by super nova or a madman as US president or Putin in his dotage. Ross asks the question “How many languages do you speak?” and his answer is you should speak at least three: one, your native natural language, two a digital or programming language such as Python, and three a second natural language associated with your business or other interests.

The sixth and final chapter is on the geography of future markets. Ross makes the point that yes Silicon Valley will still draw innovators and venture capital, but there is little reason to suppose that the next trillion-dollar industry will start there. Ross recognizes that financial hubs like New York and London have a pre-existing advantage in banking and investment ventures; and that indeed countries like South Korea, the US, Japan and Germany have a head start in developing robotics, for example; but because of the globalization and the easy spread of knowledge worldwide, things can and will change. To repeat, Ross believes that the most important factor for success in the industries of the future will be openness. He contrasts the success of Estonia (a relatively open society) with the relative failure of Belarus (a “tightly controlled” society) since their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Also significant is the role that women play in the society. If women are suppressed economically and politically as in many Muslim lands those societies will not be as productive as countries in which women have the same rights as men.

All books about the future are per force mainly extrapolations from the present. Nobody in the 18th century could have predicted how immensely important electricity would be to human life. Before Einstein we didn’t really understand what powered the stars or imagine what destruction there could be in a teaspoon of matter. If history is to be any guide there will be great discoveries and or inventions that will transform society in ways that cannot be predicted. Nonetheless I think Ross has done an excellent job of giving us a highly plausible vision of the immediate to short term future. The book is easy to read and very well edited with copious notes and a modest index.

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World
The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World
by Derek Chollet
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.34
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evaluating Obama’s presidency from the inside, July 28, 2016
Chollet is an unabashed supporter of President Obama having served in several senior positions in the current administration. Consequently this is not only an explanation of why Obama did this and did not do that, but a cogent delineation and evaluation of those policies.

Chollet devotes the first chapter to explaining why Obama did not bomb Syria and go after Assad when it was revealed that the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people. Obama has faced an enormous amount of criticism for seemingly doing nothing even though he had drawn a “red line” in the sand. But what his critics don’t want to acknowledge and what the general public doesn’t understand is that Obama got rid of the chemical weapons through diplomacy, something Chollet asserts could not have been done by using military force. The main point being that the huge stockpiles of chemical weapons were in numerous sites all over Syria, some in populated areas. Experts concluded that blowing up the sites from the air would be hard to do successfully and there would be the danger of the spread of toxic chemical plumes. (p. 12) Chollet quotes Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying that the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons was “the one ray of light in a very dark region.” (p. 25) The Israelis believed that the chemicals weapons could very well be used against them and they saw no clear way to get rid of them.

Personally I am convinced that Obama handled the chemical weapons horror in the right way, especially since I also read the same explanation in the recently published Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance (2016) by Dana H. Allin, and Steven N. Simon. But I am not so sure the President has handled the overall problem of Assad correctly. I think getting rid of Assad early on would have clarified the military situation on the ground in Syria and made it easier to defeat ISIS. But, you know, when you are not privy to all the facts it’s a little like Monday morning quarterbacking. Although I have an undergraduate degree in political science from UCLA, or especially because of that, I am not sure what was the right thing to do, and indeed judgment in this case should probably be left to the historians. At any rate, I don’t think any amount of evidence will convince Obama’s critics.

The heart of the book is the idea in the title: “The Long Game.” Short term results in foreign policy may result in long term failures, as we recall from the “Mission Accomplished” banner as George W. Bush deplaned on an aircraft carrier during the initial stages of the Iraq tragedy. The long game can be clarified from a “long game checklist” beginning on page 215. The elements are:


Balance. Obama believed that when he entered the White House in 2008 our policies both foreign and domestic were out of balance. We were too much engaged with the Middle East and not enough involved in what was happening in Asia. We were also too much involved with foreign affairs to the detriment of urgent needs at home.

By sustainability Obama means conducting our affairs in such a way as to allow them to be sustained beyond his time in office.

Restraint requires the kind of mentality that does not go off half-cocked or without due diligence. Chollet writes, “Strategy is as much about what one decides not to do” as much as it is about what one does. (p. 220)

Precision “demands specific approaches for particular problems.” (p. 221) This sheds light on Obama inclination to use drones against ISIS rather than troops on the ground.

Patience. Yes. Working just for next quarter’s earnings report may not be the best long term strategy either as a CEO or as President of the United States.

Fallibility. Yes we are an imperfect nation and we have and will make mistakes. Chollet remarks, “The recognition of fallibility also cautions a leader to exercise power, especially military force, with great care.” (p. 224)

Skepticism. We should be skeptical of “quick answers and easy justifications.” The quick draw McGraw style of Obama’s predecessor is the immediate case in point.

Exceptionalism refers to the exceptionalism of the United States which Obama believes in, but with the emphasis on the tremendous responsibility of being the strongest nation on earth.

I want to say in closing that what I find attractive about Obama’s foreign policy is his deep understanding that we, not just as Americans, but as human beings, must move away from the disastrous tribalism that has dominated international affairs since the dawn of history. The knee-jerk resort to the use of lethal force in attempting to solve conflicts must be reconsidered and every effort towards other solutions must be employed. As Obama has said, war must be the last resort.

I enjoyed reading this book primarily because of the insights into the thinking of President Obama that Chollet presented.

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

Killing the Market: Legendary Investor Robert W. Wilson
Killing the Market: Legendary Investor Robert W. Wilson
by Roemer McPhee
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.95
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4.0 out of 5 stars Will satisfy some curiosity about how Robert W. Wilson did it, July 21, 2016
This sketch (88 pages) of Wilson’s career focuses on the stock market trades that he made during the latter part of the twentieth century and on his work as a philanthropist. Author Roemer McPhee does not delve much into Wilson’s private life, leaving this reader with a desire to know more about what kind of man Wilson actually was. The fact that he ran a five figure inheritance into something like $800-million just by investing the in the stock market is of course extraordinary. And that he gave it all away before jumping out the window of his apartment across the street from Central Park in New York City at age 87 is also extraordinary. We can guess that he was a “limousine liberal” since he gave $40-million to the New York Public Library and was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union for something like 40 years. But in fact he was a true liberal who cared deeply about his fellow human beings and our planet as evidenced by the hundreds of millions of dollars that he gave to such stalwart charities as The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Monuments Fund, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Additionally he gave $45-million to New York City’s Catholic schools.

I was particularly interested in his actual stock picks and pans. (His portfolio typically contained 20% in short positions.) It is impossible to discern how Wilson was so good at figuring out which stocks were going up and which were going down. It would seem that Wilson worked extraordinarily long and hard at what is termed fundamental analysis while keeping a close watch on the market’s herd mentality through technical analysis. What struck me about Wilson’s strategy was the leverage he used and the amount of hedging. While hedging mitigates against the possibility of catastrophe (called “gambler’s ruin” in some circles) it tends to temper overall returns. But while Wilson was protecting his downside by hedging he greatly increased his upside by borrowing large amounts from brokers and banks for his investments. According to McPhee, Wilson typically margined 80% of his investments. This is a strategy that by itself is worthless. The key is being able to buy winners and sell short losers. To do this you simply have to be a great investor, period, or gosh-darn lucky.

One of the more interesting stories in the book is Wilson’s great misadventure with Resorts International which he sold short beginning at about $16 a share. He rode the bull as it climbed and climbed and climbed before he bailed out when it hit something like $187, losing $25-million. That was in 1978. No big deal, especially when his portfolio went from $28-million at the end of the year to $81-million two years later. And then to $100-million and up, up and up to eventually the $800-million mentioned above.

Could he have just been lucky? As some people have pointed out if you have a sampling of hundreds of investors, by chance a few of the successful ones were just lucky. That is the law of averages. And that is the experience of your average hedge fund. We’ve seen hedge fund managers have a great year and no more thereafter, and we might guess they were just lucky that year. However Wilson’s success goes beyond anything having to do with luck. He was just a great investor as touted.

This book is interesting if you are a stock market investor. And if you lived and traded during the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, it might be especially fascinating. McPhee’s narrative gives us some gloss into how some of the prominent old line companies such as IBM, Compaq, Wendy’s, Lockheed, American Airlines and some startups built their businesses . It was an exciting time for an investor if you had the right vibe or a penetrating and informed insight into what was happening.

Ultimately though I think McPhee could have done a better job with this book. He needed to not only shine more light on Wilson the man but he could have hired a professional editor and done some serious legwork. There’s a lot of needless repetition in the text sometimes with nearly the same expression and information given a few paragraphs or a page later. On the other hand, McPhee’s prose is definitely readable.

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

Crack-a-mac - Handheld Macadamia Nut Cracker - Koala
Crack-a-mac - Handheld Macadamia Nut Cracker - Koala
Offered by crack-a-mac
Price: $19.95
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cracking the nuts of the gods, July 20, 2016
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Okay, second update. I have upped the number of awarded stars for this little handy-dandy macadamia nut cracker from three to four since I have discovered a very helpful secret. Oil the threads of the Crack a Mac! I used coconut oil. I cracked eight to ten nuts prior to oiling and struggled mightily.

It worked some of the time on some of the nuts but not on all. I endeavored to position the nut correctly with the tiny white spot on top, and then turned the handle. It was tough going and made me think that if you’re eight years old or eighty-eight you might not be strong enough. Still it beat hitting the nuts with a hammer on concrete and chasing the scattered bits all over the place. However once I oiled the little devil with coconut oil it was almost fun.

It usually takes three full turns to hear the crack. And sometimes you have to reposition the nut and screw it again. (I know, I know.) The main value of this product is in the relatively inexpensive price and in how cute the crack a mac looks. I sent a photo to a friend and she was delighted because somehow the crack a mac reminded her of Sedgewick, the little Santa Claus-like mythical world traveler.

Bottom line: cute, and functional on a modest scale

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”
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Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
by Andy Stern
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.16
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How today’s world of work works and the big surprise to come, July 17, 2016
What the former head of the Service Employees International Union is proposing here is a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for every American. Wow. That ought to scare the bejesus out of every right thinking American conservative. Wouldn’t such a harebrained idea run very much askance of our cherished work ethic and sully the American dream?

Not so, Andy Stern and his co-writer, Lee Kravitz, tell us. In fact they argue strongly that not only is the idea of a UBI as American as apple pie, it is at the very heart and soul of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Nor is it new. They quote Thomas Paine from “Common Sense” as advocating in the eighteenth century a basic income for all. (p. 172) I was interested to learn (p. 173) that Brit philosopher Bertrand Russell a hundred years ago believed that human beings have a fundamental right to a basic income. I would add that the Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal. (Today we should interpret that to mean all women as well.) But all people do not have the same opportunity. If everyone came into this world with the same resources then all would have an equal opportunity. A UBI would move us closer to that ideal.

In writing this book Stern interviewed a lot of people in high places in our economy, from CEOs of large corporations and government honchos, to people in more modest places, including gig economy bit laborers and the unemployed. He makes a strong case for what would amount to a sizable wealth redistribution from the one percent to those further down the pyramid. I think we can see with the rise of Thump and Sanders that something radical is in the wind. (And you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way it blows.) Middle class and poor people are feeling squeezed and the young are feeling they have been cheated out of opportunities by the mal-distribution of wealth.

Personally this book interested me because as an amateur futurist I have come to the conclusion that technology will eventually eliminate most jobs while at the same time markedly increase our collective wealth. So what’s a body to do? I imagine people will be allowed to follow their hearts as long as no harm is done, and so we will have artists and athletes galore, postage stamp scientists and creative economists aplenty, not to mention navel gazers and other “deep thinkers.” Someone will be the world’s authority on the zebra dove and another on Argentine ants…well, perhaps ten thousand people will be experts on the ants! Several million will study movies and many will be experts on the films of Zhang Yimou and others on those of Buster Keaton. Utopia? Well…yes, but never mind, that’s another story. (I’m working on it.)

One of the most fascinating parts of this eye-opening book is the material in Chapter 5 “The Dark Side of the Gig Economy” on the cleanup of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina in 2005. Stern relates a horror story of corruption and chaos as contractors and other brokers simultaneously rip off the government and workers as New Orleans and environs are cleaned up and rebuilt. This particular story is just part of the larger picture of the American worker being given less while the one percent get more and more bloated. He goes deeply into the so called gig economy where “nobody is quite a worker anymore. Everyone is an entrepreneur.” (p. 111, quoting Saket Soni) But, as Stern shows, this is a cruel illusion. By being piecemeal jobbers much of the work force has been deprived of job security, benefits, and the hope of a secure retirement. Meanwhile the corporations that hire temporary “entrepreneurs” grow the dividends of their stockholders. They are “exploiting the entrepreneurial dream.” (p. 111)

The bottom line argument here is that the world of work is changing and it’s changing fast. The way we have conjured the American dream no longer applies. As Kelly CEO Carl Camden puts it, “We built a whole social structure based on the concept of a job, and that concept doesn’t work anymore.” (p. 89)

In the concluding chapter, Stern presents “a menu of funding possibilities” in answer to the obvious question, how can we pay for the UBI? He would eliminate welfare programs, various tax deductions; institute a Value Added Tax, and tax stock trades. He would make corporations pay for “using and/or abusing our ‘common wealth,’” i.e., water, air, even “the electromagnetic spectrum.” Additional revenue could be raised by instituting a “wealth tax” while trimming the military budget and farm, oil and gas subsidies.

The “big surprise” is that, soon or late if we don’t destroy ourselves, a universal basic income will be part of our way of life. If we can do it, and the authors are sure we can, our humanity demands it.

I should add that Stern and Kravitz write very readable prose, and that the book is well edited with 16 pages of notes and a good index.

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.–Israel Alliance
Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.–Israel Alliance
by Dana H. Allin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.25
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, authoritative, easy to read, and sure to be controversial, June 27, 2016
The first part of the book recalls not only the history of the Jewish state, how it came to be and how it has struggled and progressed, but how it has been perceived in the imagination of the American politic. As we recall, progressives, liberals, Democrats and educated people in general in the United States have long supported the Zionist idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. More recently in the middle of the twentieth century with the sense of the horror of the holocaust still fresh in everyone’s mind our feelings that Jews are justified in having a homeland safe from the prejudices and persecutions that they had long suffered during the centuries-long diaspora was strengthened. But then came in the latter half of the twentieth century “The Rise of the Right” (Chapter 2) and a shift in American appreciation of Israel’s struggles. Now Christian fundamentalists were in the vanguard of support for Israel while liberals were seen by some as growing lukewarm because of what many on the left saw as a growing apartheid state in the Middle East.

The second part of the book zeros in on the nitty-gritty of recent U.S.-Israeli politics, especially during the Obama administration. Authors Allin and Simon (both avowed Zionists, by the way) are senior professional political scientists with Simon being both Jewish himself and lately a close adviser to President Obama. They present a fascinating inside look at much that has gone on between the US and Israel during this latter stage of the conflict involving the Muslim world and Israel. Allin and Simon work hard to be objective and fair, but there is little doubt that they see President Obama as having a balanced position in the struggle and Prime Minister Netanyahu being an uncompromising nationalist. Indeed from reading this book it appears that Netanyahu is vehemently opposed to a two-state solution and is intent on Israeli supremacy in the Holy Land.

One of the things that the authors are at pains to demonstrate is that the Obama administration differed in no significant way from previous US administrations in its unequivocal support of Israel as a friend and an ally. I think they make case very well in spite a lot of right wing BS to the contrary, and despite the unfortunate personal animosity between Obama and Netanyahu, dubbed “the Obama-Netanyahu psychodrama…” on page 175.

In addition to the insights the authors provide into US-Israel relationships there is a wealth of information about the so-called Arab Spring and its aftermath and about the situation in the Middle East vis-à-vis the rest of the world. They offer insights into the Sunni-Shia divide and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is some material on the horrors that developed in Syria and Egypt.

As for the “red line” that Obama had famously drawn in Syria about the use of chemical weapons, the authors exonerate the president by claiming that by the time it was clear that Assad had used chemical weapons the situation had changed and “98 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile of 1,308 metric tons of mustard agent and precursors had been destroyed.” (p. 151) The authors go on to argue that bombing Syria would not have gotten rid of the chemical weapons. Indeed some were in civilian areas and bombing them would result in the kind of collateral damage that would be unacceptable. On the other hand Obama’s opponents argue that the loss of credibility from not bombing Syria was of significant damage to the creditability of the United States. My personal opinion is I wish I knew what would have been the right thing to do. It’s easy to second guess and criticize but as Harry Truman said, “the buck stops here” and when you are in the hot seat you have to make a decision that will inevitably lead to dead bodies on the ground somewhere. One thing I have always admired about Obama as president is his obvious desire to be responsible for as few deaths as possible. However I think he made a mistake in not going after Assad regardless of what the Russians thought.

Putting aside the horrors of the past one of the most disturbing parts of the book is on education in Israel and the rise of a relatively uneducated ultra-conservative population. As the authors observe, “…the average achievement level of Israeli children in math, science, and reading is below twenty-four of twenty-five most relevant OECD countries.” (p. 195) They add, “The erosion of higher education in Israel has accelerated a serious brain drain because young Israeli doctoral students have little hope of finding teaching jobs in their own country. A truly astonishing percentage of tenure-track physics professors in the United States are Israeli.” (p. 196)

The authors believe that many well-educated people will consequently emigrate out of Israel. They add, “Over time, this process would facilitate the right-wing grip on electoral politics, not only by decreasing the pool of potential left-wing constituents but by increasing the societal load of economically disenfranchised voters, who, like their American counterparts, may be more attracted to right-wing policies.” (p. 198)

Finally, the authors quote George Washington University Professor Michael Barnett who opines that in lieu of a two state solution some other possible outcomes in Israel include “civil war, ethnic cleansing or a non-democratic state.” Then Allin and Simon ask, “can Israel and the United States remain close allies?” This is a very real question since it appears to the authors (and I for one tend to agree) that the United States is moving toward the multicultural left.

If you want to know how seasoned political scientists view international affairs as opposed to sound bites on Fox News or CNN this book is an eye-opener and an education.

--Dennis Littrell

The Naturalist on the River Amazons
The Naturalist on the River Amazons
by Henry Walter Bates
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary and very readable, June 24, 2016
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I read the Kindle edition which is the edition from 1864. It came out five years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” (I believe all the editions offered are very much the same; after all, this is public domain book.) It includes “An Appreciation” by Darwin and numerous typos and archaic geographical names; however I wasn’t the slightest bit distracted. The lengthy narrative is a masterpiece of its kind coming from one the great naturalists of the nineteen century in the person of Henry Walter Bates who began this awesome adventure in 1848 with Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace returned to England in 1852 but Bates stayed on another seven years as he sent over 14,000 specimens back to Europe, some 8,000 of them new to science, including plants, animals, many birds, and many, many insects.

Bates does not limit his attention to flora and fauna. He gives the reader a vivid, colorful and detailed account of what it was like to live along the rivers of the Amazon among the various “Indian” tribes, the mulattos, the half breeds, the “negroes,” free and slave, the whites and even some cannibals. He gives us some idea of the politics, the sociology, geography, and a riveting account of what’s it’s like to face mosquitos, poisonous snakes, alligators, jaguars, biting insects, etc. in heavy, humid heat while tramping through the jungle in bare feet. Yes, he was often in bare feet.

In navigating the rivers we learn what it’s like to travel aboard small craft tossed about by sharp changes in wind and weather. Additionally, finding enough to eat was no small matter; and eating nothing but turtle flesh for weeks on end with just a smattering of fruits and nuts was more challenging that I would ever want to be challenged. But Bates didn’t just endure this; he reveled in it. What a romantic age it was for the naturalist adventurer! It was like competing for the highest prizes since there was still so, so much to be discovered; and to be one of the great naturalists of that age was to be a most amazing and greatly admired person.

Bates can claim his place alongside Darwin and Wallace and maybe even hold a bit of an edge in terms of hardships endured and species discovered. His indefatigable curiosity about plants, animals, people and their interactions is like no one I’ve ever read. I won’t say that this book is better than Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” published in 1839, but it belongs in the same league. No serious student of natural history, evolutionary biology, anthropology, or sociology, for that matter, should miss it. The difference between the way people lived along the Amazon in the middle of the nineteenth century and the way they live today alone is fascinating. The many hardships of everyday life that Bates endured along with the locals—and endured them with such nonchalance—amazed me. I thought at one time what a fine thing it would be to study ants in faraway places like the Amazon basin. To be honest after reading this book I know that even in my best years I would not be able to do it.

Bottom line: this is the best natural history book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few.

--Dennis Littrell, author of “Understanding Evolution and Ourselves”

The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East
The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East
by Marc Lynch
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.38
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable, dense, authoritative, June 2, 2016
Professor Lynch is a professional political scientist with a chair at Georgetown University and the author of several books on the Middle East. He is the kind of writer whose expertise is unquestioned, and it is only in his interpretation of events that one might find controversy.

I didn’t find any, myself. I would only say that Lynch failed to fault Islam, the religion itself, for the horrors taking place in the Middle East today. This is understandable since there is little to be gained by blaming an entire religion and much to lose through distraction and ineffectual focus. True, it is in part Islam’s inability to separate mosque from state that underlies the failure of democracy to take hold in the Middle East. Lynch seems to intimate as much when he writes, “The Arab uprisings of 2011 were only one episode in a generational challenge to a failed political order.” (p. 254)

What Lynch focuses on is the autocratic regimes themselves and their inability to awaken to the new reality brought about by rapid and nearly universal communication among the populace. (They can see clearly how much better things are in other places in the world.) No longer can the regimes manage public opinion and knowledge through nearly absolute control of media. Instead with Facebook, Twitter and other venues anyone with a smart phone and/or an Internet connection can learn via YouTube videos, outside news sources and messages from friends, comrades, family and even enemies the truth about what is happening almost anywhere in the Middle East.

Lynch of course points with muted voice to the colonialism of the past since this book is about today and now, and the past is well known and nothing can be done about it. (The word “colonialism” does not even appear in the excellent Index.) As for the more recent past beginning with the stupidities and gross ignorance of the Bush administration, Lynch spells them out unsparingly. He finds less fault with Obama than he does with Bush, and that is understandable since George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the neocons are the ones who destabilized the Middle East with their invasion of Iraq. As Lynch points out one of the effects of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was to increase the influence of Iran. Iraq with Hussein’s Sunni government in charge was a buffer against Iranian ambitions.

Whereas Bush didn’t care how many people his actions caused to die, Obama’s policies are obviously directed toward killing as few people as possible. However any decision that Obama made or will make will result in the death of people. Such is the nature of military and political power, which is why sociopaths (such as some of the autocrats in the Middle East and elsewhere) are often found in power today and historically. Personally, writing as a political scientist (I have an undergraduate degree in Political Science from UCLA) I believe that Obama should have gone after Asad following the gassing of his people. For complicated reasons including Russian support of Asad and the possibility of a negotiated settlement Obamas was persuaded not to attack the regime. In the last chapter of the book Lynch, disagreeing with me, states that the “Intervention would not have saved Syria.” He writes:

“The conventional wisdom now holds that the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria has been as devastating as the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq…But American non-intervention was not the problem, and if it does ultimately intervene directly this will only create new problems.” (p. 248) He adds (p. 249) that intervention by the Obama administration was exactly what jihadists wanted since it would ultimate fail. “Obama was right to avoid this intervention. Perhaps his greatest sin in the eyes of the Washington consensus was to have learned the lessons of Iraq.”

As for the prognosis, Lynch (writing in January, 2016) contends forcefully that the uprising that began in 2011 is not over, that the autocratic powers will continue to be under pressure from people who want a greater say in how their lives play out.

Further he believes (p. 246) that “…America has no real allies in the Middle East.” (Interesting. Does that include or exclude Israel?)

Finally, Lynch expects Islamic extremism to get worse.

The book is eminently readable and exquisitely edited but with this reservation: if you don’t have some familiarity with the politics of the Middle East you might want to take notes. It’s hard to know the players without a score card, and separating Sunni from Shi’a can take some getting used to.

--Dennis Littrell
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