Friday, November 11, 2016

Well, at least we'll have four years of hilarious SNL skits

It’s frightening, yet so fascinating at the same time. The Democratic Party fucked up so badly. They really are a loser party, which had a loser candidate this time round. Americans want radical change (Obama’s undelivered promise, which he ran on in 2008), and it seems about half of the populace will take it where they can get it. That’s why Bernie Sanders would have destroyed Trump without mercy; it would have been a massacre. He offered so much wonderful anti-establishment change to Americans, a great revolution in American politics and economics. The people are furious and fed up with the establishment! Clinton was an establishment candidate, who, on top of everything else, signed her husband’s stupid NAFTA bill, which sent so many American jobs to Mexico. This electoral “triumph” was the revenge of the working class. Trump is their last-ditch-resort fire-bomb of anarchy, wishful thinking and a desperate dream of revolution. It’s so sad, dark and perverse, like hiring The Joker to dish out justice and make things right. You can only squeeze a people for so long before they finally explode and revolt. In a democracy, they do that with their right to vote. In England, it was Brexit. In America, Trump. Well, Americans are finally gonna get change all right—a whole shit-storm of it, right up the goddamn yingyang—for the new king of the world for the next 4 (maybe 8) years is an orange-coloured, reality-TV Bozo the freakin’ Clown! Bravo, Uncle Sam, bravo!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships (A Book Review)

"People want love, but after they get it, they become scared or bored or uncertain or resentful. And when they get pain instead of love, they don't leave. They cling to it more strongly than they would to pleasure. And so in life, the real obstacle keeping two lovers apart is not external. The battle to be fought is within." - Neil Strauss, The Truth, Page 408

Every few decades or even centuries, there comes a revolutionary in a given subject or genre. His or her words are as profound as his/her insights are deep and subtle, and his/her thoughts and ideas as prolific as his/her understanding of the subject matter is vast and penetrating. For our generation, in this time we are in now—our modern age—and the posterity which will look back on it and us, this profound, prolific, unabashedly honest and unrelentingly searching revolutionary is Neil Strauss, and the nonfictional subject matter and genre that I am now speaking of is love and sex. And the truth always has been and always will be—uncomfortable.

I remember when I read The Game back in January of 2009, where he documents his real-life story of being an AFC (an average, frustrated chump) penetrating a secret society of pickup artists; he has an incredible adventure in different parts of the world that he prolifically turned into the utterly fascinating, thrilling, enthralling and ground-breaking book that changed the entire landscape of dating and how men—no matter who they are—can attract beautiful women all around the world, in particularly the Western World. I put it to good use. And then a little over two years later, I read The Rules of the Game and did the 30-day Style Life Challenge. It made The Game and the art of seduction make so much more sense to me, and I harnessed even more of the tricks of the trade, which, in this second installment, were laid out throughout the 30-day challenge and at the end of the book. And, yeah, things got better for me with the opposite sex, and I remained forever grateful to Strauss (AKA Style) and all the PUA gurus on his wild ride for their help and insight that he then gave to the world in those two very entertaining books. And now we come to the next step and stage of his journey and truth-searching: how to settle down in a relationship that is right for you, if you do indeed want to start a family one day, as Strauss did in fact desire to do and has done.

So he started writing The Truth due to something that, to him, was quite catastrophic: losing Ingrid, a woman he cared for deeply, more than anyone, yet cheated on her. She found out, and the walls came tumbling down. He wanted to know, despite having slept with so many gorgeous women all around the world, how he could have jeopardized the incredible relationship that he had with a woman he was hoping to marry and have a child (or children) with one day. He wanted to know if monogamy was really possible, at least for him. He wanted to know if non-monogamy for the rest of his life would be better. He wanted to know about all the different variations of open relationships out there. He really wanted to live, seek the truth of the matter, learn more about himself in the process, and to strip away all the obnoxious societal layers of bullshit and get to the inexorable reality of things. And that's exactly what he did.

For me, to be able to do the book justice, I would have to be writing a very long paper here, but that's not what I'm doing. This is just a book review for my blog to give readers a taste of Strauss's new work and an idea as to why it's so good and so important.

The first thing he does, in searching for professional help on the matter, is go to a rehab clinic (for sex addiction), which he identifies as being the modern-day insane asylum, and it is. It's really scary. The place is filled with every type of so-called addict and dysfunctional type that there is to label, including sexual anorexics (people who avoid sexual activity at all cost), and labelling is what the so-called professionals there do best, not to mention shaming the so-called sex addicts with abysmal, pseudointellectual, modern-day feminist bullshit. He leaves treatment early but makes friends there. In fact, he becomes their hero, as he stands up to the noxious, asexual, mendacious, malevolent, misandrist, Joan. His short stay there, however, like so much of the rest of the book and the wild adventure and introspective ride he goes on, is very funny, very witty. It's really great. (There are some famous people involved in the story, as there are in all his books, and that adds to the entertainment value—not to mention all the freakin' orgies!) He does meet Loraine there, however, a woman who ends up helping him more than anyone, not just at the rehab clinic, but long after he leaves it and goes back to her.

To be fair, though, we learn a very important term from Joan: emotional incest. You see, Neil Strauss, like many of us—and this is so key—had a really fucked-up childhood and adolescence (brilliantly hinted at from the very beginning in a story that kicks off the book itself), one due to the neglect of his father and enmeshment of his mother. Hence psychoanalysis ends up being part of the backbone of the book and the motif and cornerstone that Strauss has to keep going back to in his introspection and truth-seeking. He is a victim of trauma, and it has always made it difficult for him to be in a stable relationship. "Emotional incest" is anti-nurturing and intrusive. An example of it is when a parent tells their child things that they should be sharing with their partner or with a therapist regarding a lover or ex. Strauss's mom used to bitch and moan to him about his father, even how bad he was in bed and that he could only get it hard twice in his entire life, once when conceiving Neil and the other when conceiving his brother—among other things she used to talk to him about at night by his bedside, his father clueless to the whole thing. But it was far worse than that. She really did make Strauss her surrogate boyfriend, wanting to control every aspect of his life growing up and even afterwards in adulthood, with constant criticism, putdowns and ridiculous, unfair, suffocating restrictions, especially in adolescence, which were met with unreasonable punishments if the rules weren't fully followed, while his younger brother got almost all the freedom in the world. To say it again, Strauss was enmeshed, one of the key terms used throughout the book, and he spent the rest of his life rebelling against that enmeshment, afraid of letting any woman get too close to him so as to not let her become his second mother who would smother him and take away all his freedom, another motif in the book. But in trying to find freedom, he keeps ending up in chains, especially since so many of the women he gets involved with, including Ingrid, have the same baggage—an abandoning or neglectful (and, in many cases, abusive) father and enmeshing mother.

"[P]eople are much scarier than any monster we can make up. It's not just the acts of horror they perpetrate on each other, but even when they spare the person's life, they still take their soul, their spirit, their happiness." - Page 60

The conclusion is this: No matter what kind of relationship, family, love life, etc. you're interested in having, you have to REALLY WANT IT, or it's just not going to work at all. The lives and stories of the people he meets and befriends in "rehab" prove that, along with everyone else he gest close to in the book. Strauss worked so hard on himself—read the book to know just how hard—to finally rid himself of all his past trauma and tainted emotions (including reaching a fascinating state of anhedonia that Loraine told him he had to reach) and figure out how to be the person he needs to be in order to have his nuclear family, and to make the love of his life as happy as she makes him; and the only way to achieve that, as Loraine tells him, is to learn how to be alone without being lonely, to feel whole on your own, without feeling like someone else has to be there to make you feel whole, because it's not fair to put that burden on somebody else, and it goes both ways. Two people have to be both mentally and emotionally stable and healthy for the relationship (be it monogamous or non-monogamous) to in turn be stable and healthy as well. It takes two to tango, and if one person had an abandoning or abusive father and a smothering/abusive mother, that person needs to do all they can to make sure their entire mind and physiology have been cleansed of that trauma so they can be fully in the present rather than in the abuses and heartache of a ceaseless past. For "relationships don't require sacrifices. They require growing up—and the ability to stop clinging to immature needs that are so tenacious, they keep the mature needs from getting met" (409).

But something needs to be kept in mind in all of this, something that Strauss himself states in the book: He's a man who has had enough sexual experiences and fulfilled fantasies to last three lifetimes. Plus, Ingrid, who became his wife (and you can find pictures of them online) is drop-dead gorgeous, just like so many of the hundreds or thousands of women he's slept with all around the world. This isn't Joe Blow, who's only slept with a handful of women, feels sexually unfulfilled and is now concerned about settling down with a mediocre-looking one after just finding out about game. No, this is Style, man—the king of all playerkind. He wrote the most successful book in history on pickup art, selling over three million copies, for God's sake. He's no longer the sexually frustrated man in his late twenties, entering the world of game for the first time. He's sown his wild oats, baby, and now, in middle age, wants to settle down. The book is fueled by his anxiety-ridden worry about never being able to do so, and, in the end, figures out that being fully honest with your partner is of utmost importance and that, now, Ingrid and the family he wants to start with her must come first . . . Now he decides this, after a shitton of playing, and playing, and playing. NOW, he really wants the full kitten caboodle, and NOW he makes it work. So good for him. But, as it should be more than clear at this point, nowhere in the book does he try to make it look easy—on the contrary! The book is "uncomfortable," as the subtitle says, because of how fucking hard making a relationship work is, no matter how much you're in love with the other person, not just because of temptation—but because if you're broken, so will the relationship be. Soul-searching is never easy and often very uncomfortable, and it's what is demanded of us all in this life if we are going to be happy, and especially if we are going to make someone else and the children we may have with them happy and well-adjusted as well. And if it's not what you really want, and only want to "settle down" because you think it's just what everyone else does and therefore you should to, it will never work for you and them, and you will never be happy. So be honest with yourself before bringing someone else, and even children, into your world of turmoil, inauthenticity and unrest. If you're going to take only one thing from this book, let it be this: Break the chain of inauthenticity and past abuses done to you and your parents and parents' parents, and so on and so forth right down the retroceding line of hell, and start things anew. The world can be a better place, and this very honest, brilliant book lays out why and how that journey starts from within all of us. You have to learn how to truly love yourself, before you can truly love anyone else.

One more thing I've gotta say: It's really remarkable to me how much what he goes through and realizes throughout all this is in my third book, Screw the Devil's Daiquiri, which has a sex-crazed protagonist with a great deal of trauma (PTSD, actually), who is seeing a shrink about his life and going through many of the same anxieties that Strauss has (or had). My book deals a great deal, through most of the characters, with the matter of being broken at the hands of those closest to us. I think any fan of one (be it mine or Strauss's), would be a fan of the other. There really is a parallelism between the two; this isn't just a shameless plug on my part. It's funny, whereas Neil Strauss is a nonfictional writer heavily influenced by fiction (like James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, one of his favourite novels), as he says in an interview I listened to recently on YouTube, I'm a novelist heavily influenced by nonfiction.

Anyway, thanks again, Mr. Strauss. Once again, you hit the ball right out of the park. Five stars!!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Women (a book review)

"I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms." - Charles Bukowski, Women, Page 167

I finished reading Women today, March 9th, the 22nd anniversary of Bukowski's death. I'd never read anything of his before. Funny as hell! And I never thought I'd read the word cunt so many times in one book. Bukowski deals mainly in the dissolute, the seedy, the smutty, the lustful, the hedonistic, the wretched, the messy, the intoxicating and the orgasmic—in his crummy apartment, in bedrooms, in bars, cars and his favourite place of all—the race track—most of the time while he's drunk, hungover or trying to get there. And he doesn't hold back; he opens himself right up, as Women is autobiographical in nature. The things in there actually happened to him, and the insane, wild, over-the-top characters were people he actually met and knew, and the mad, at times hilarious, conversations and feuds were real parts of his past. That's what intrigued me all the more as I read along. And the dialogue is brilliant.

One of the things I loved the most was his jaded, unabashed, quintessential dirty-old-man narrative, his own personal thoughts and imaginings regarding people (both men and women), his sexual exploits and the mundane in general. The graphic way he'd describe things, and the absurd thoughts and imaginings that he dared even put down on paper were not of a sort that I'd come across before. All the sex he had was consensual, of course, but the way he enjoyed it and wrote about it was brutally savage in nature:

"The thought of sex as something forbidden excited me beyond all reason. It was like one animal knifing another into submission."—Page 77

"I kissed her, working her lips apart, sucking at the upper lip. I saw her hair spread wide across the pillow. Then I gave up trying to please her and simply fucked her, ripping viciously. It was like murder. I didn't care; my cock had gone crazy. All that hair, her young and beautiful face. It was like raping the Virgin Mary. I came. I came inside her, agonizing, feeling my sperm enter her body, she was helpless, and I shot my come deep into her ultimate core—body and soul—again and again."—Page 99

He definitely reveled in iconoclastic shock-value, all the while maintaining sincerity. And once in a while there'd be these sudden outpouring needs to confess certain things about his inner angst and turmoil to the reader, always wearing his heart (and, yes, he certainly did have one) on his sleeve. It creates a unique dynamic of going from the obscene to the introspective:

"When I came I felt it was in the face of everything decent, white sperm dripping down over the heads and souls of my dead parents. If I had been born a woman I would certainly have been a prostitute. Since I had been born a man, I craved women constantly, the lower the better. And yet women—good women—frightened me because they eventually wanted your soul, and what was left of mine, I wanted to keep. Basically I craved prostitutes, base women, because they were deadly and hard and at the same time I yearned for a gentle, good woman, despite the overwhelming price. Either way I was lost. A strong man would give up both. I wasn't strong. So I continued to struggle with women, with the idea of women."—Page 77

Indeed the whole book is a struggle, one he comes to terms with more and more as he unravels and divulges himself to the reader (or spectator) bit by bit, one meaningless sexual rendezvous (usually with a hot, young, sexy fan of his work) to another. And it does take a big man to admit he's lost. But he reveled in being lost, for, as he put it, "Goodness could be found sometimes in the middle of hell" (69).

There are other times where I just laughed (sometimes quietly while reading it on the train) because of how intensely and earnestly he'd write about things he seemingly found to be so profound, yet these, for example:

"I began rubbing her cunt, easily. It's like making a rosebud open, I thought. This has meaning. This is good. It's like two insects in a garden moving slowly towards each other. The male works his slow magic. The female slowly opens. I like it, I like it. Two bugs."—Page 78

"We sat upright in bed and drank the drinks, side by side. I couldn't understand how I managed to come the first time. We had a problem. All that beauty, all that gentleness, all that goodness, and we had a problem. I was unable to tell Mindy what it was. I didn't know how to tell her she had a big cunt. Maybe nobody had ever told her."—Page 78-79

Call it puerile if you want; that last one had me in stitches. He's writing as if it's the end of the world or something, but I guess that's where his absurdist humour lies, and I always liked and dabbled in absurdist humour myself.

It's a dark comedy, obviously, and does have plenty an intellectual moment in it, while never ever being too pretentious to shy or cower away from self-deprecation, for he lets loose against himself just as harshly as he does against the world around him. The ridiculousness of the personalities and lives of a lot of the characters really had me shaking my head a lot of the way through, and I think a psychologist would find it to be quite a fascinating read, despite parts that (s)he might consider to be downright putrid and juvenile. I'd say it's a four-star book. I wouldn't give it five, because, even though there's an arc, there's nowhere it leads to before it suddenly ends abruptly. But I do highly recommend it, especially if you're interested in how a person's life can change post-fame, as the book begins after the protagonist's (Henry Chinaski's) writing career has taken off, taking you from place to place on his poetry-reading tour and all the drunken, sex-crazed insanity along the way, seamlessly jumping from one bizarre relationship to another, all of which Henry (called Hank by people in the book, as Bukowski often was in real life) takes in stride, always laid back, just like his writing style. It's no big deal. It's just life—a former postal worker turned famous writer.

What I found to be really cool were the parts where he'd just be lounging around at home when the phone would ring, and it would be another fan of his who's read his work and is dying to meet him, or Chinaski would enter into a letter-writing correspondence by mail with a fan of his, which would inevitably lead to debauchery of one kind or another, often with a woman enthralled by and ready to fly over to spend a few days with him, like this one who looked 18, but was in her twenties, while he was 55:

"Then Tanya unzipped my pants. She took my cock and pushed it into her cunt. She began riding. She could do it, all 90 pounds of her. I could hardly think. I made small half-hearted movements, meeting her now and then. At times we kissed. It was gross. I was being raped by a child. She moved it around. She had me cornered, trapped. It was mad. Flesh alone, without love. We were filling the air with the stink of pure sex. My child, my child. How can your small body do all these things? Who invented woman? For what ultimate purpose? Take this shaft! And we were perfect strangers! It was like fucking your own shit."—Page 281

I have no idea how it's like fucking your own shit, but I just find it absolutely riotous! Would you believe I was reading Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume before this? Anyway, Bukowski was a refreshing change from that. Now, I don't doubt for a minute that our modern-day feminists would have a field day with this book, along with the rest of his writings, but there is no misogyny in Women. On the contrary: what you'll find in it is misanthropy, for, like me, he disdains both men and women equally. In fact, he shows a great deal of sympathy for women and their plight with him throughout the book, and that's a huge part of his struggle and angst. He admires every little detail about women, you see, and loves the fact that no two—are the same!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Twelve Years a Slave (book review)

You know when you read a book that's so good you actually can't put it down—I mean, literally, viscerally, simply can't put it down? You might have other things to do and need to get to them; there are emails you have to send; chores you have to do; perhaps you're hungry and have to get or prepare something to eat; you need to get to sleep to wake up early in the morning—but your mind demands you keep on reading, absorbing every last word, and therefore your hands must stay where they are along with the rest of you until your eyes are weary. Such was my experience in reading Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, written and published in 1853, the year he was set free from bondage and became a free man once again. I loved the movie so much, and was so impressed by it, that I had to get the book. And I'm so glad I did. I'm proud to have it in my library. The prose is superb, and I learned so much from this absolutely incredible, extremely well-documented, astoundingly vivid story. My favourite passage is this one for its imagery and the way it makes the reader feel like (s)he's actually there. Northup had escaped the clutches of a lunatic he was working for. The psychopath had tried to kill him for no good reason for the second time, and, unlike most of the slaves in the region, Northup could actually swim, and swim well. So he ran and ran, towards the river, through the godforsaken Louisiana swamp and backwoods, filled with alligators and moccasin snakes all around him, always worrying he'd accidentally step on something reptilian and deadly, and he got far away from the bloodhounds trailing after him, their barks fading and fading away into eventual nothingness, his scent being lost along the water, and then was able to give us a glimpse of something spectacular that must have shaken him to his very core:

After midnight, however, I came to a halt. Imagination cannot picture the dreariness of the scene. The swamp was resonant with the quacking of innumerable ducks! Since the foundation of the earth, in all probability, a human footstep had never before so far penetrated the recesses of the swamp. It was not silent now—silent to a degree that rendered it oppressive—as it was when the sun was shining in the heavens. My midnight intrusion had awakened the feathered tribes, which seemed to throng the morass in hundreds of thousands, and their garrulous throats poured forth such multitudinous sounds—there was such a fluttering of wings—such sullen plunges in the water all around me—that I was affrighted and appalled. All the fowls of the air, and all the creeping things of the earth appeared to have assembled together in that particular place, for the purpose of filling it with clamor and confusion. Not by human dwellings—not in crowded cities alone, are the sights and sounds of life. The wildest places of the earth are full of them. Even in the heart of that dismal swamp, God had provided a refuge and a dwelling place for millions of living things.—from Chapter 10

Incidentally, there's a story Northup relates of a young light-skinned slave woman who escapes and hides in the wilderness, and, for some reason, the hounds refuse to track her. Northup says that, for whatever reason he never could explain, there are people whose scent the dogs would not under any circumstance follow. I'd never heard of anything like that before, and I found it absolutely fascinating. Make no mistake about it, however: This book is a horror story. And what makes it so frightening is that it's actually true. Fiction never did scare me that easily, even as a child. I always found nonfiction to be infinitely more terrifying. What astounded me more than anything, even beyond the sheer brutality, callousness and perpetual torment of innocent, undeserving people within the story, was Northup's ability to rise above it all, with a clear and rational mind, with patience and self-discipline:

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave's back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.—from Chapter 14

Now that right there is cold-as-ice objectivity. The way he sympathetically puts himself in the position and milieu-saturated mind of his oppressors is absolutely remarkable to me. It's an objectivity that I haven't yet come across in any other book of any genre, and I've read many. The reason I say so, is that this sentiment rises and ascends so high above the baser instinct of refusing to see the grey area, an instinct which commonly has a person prefer rather to comport themselves to the human-all-too-human sentiment of what Nietzsche called ressentiment. Northup never even expresses, at least not in the book, personal wishes that those slave-masters be thrown into eternal hellfire, even though he was a Christian and believed in such a place as hell and a final judgement for all. His resentment and hostility are so shockingly minimal after twelve years of the most horrific, torturous of hardships at their hands. He was a greater man than I; that's for goddamn sure. I'm not so naive, however, as to believe for one second that he didn't wish the fires of hell on a regular basis for his most heartless and tyrannical master of ten years, Edwin Epps, because, for the most part, as is to be expected:

They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come—it will come, if his prayer is heard—a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.—final words of Chapter 17

And, for the record, as amazing as Michael Fassbender was at playing Epps in the film version, the movie itself only scratches the surface of the man's ruthlessness, vindictiveness, madness and cruelty. You need to read the book to get the full picture. As for Northup, he always stuck out from the rest of the slaves with his many diverse abilities, his profound intelligence, and his skills. With his musical talent, he made extra money on the side and, from time to time, got out of the backbreaking work of the cotton fields and endless sugar-making industry, because people all around demanded he come play his fiddle for them on certain occasions. That instrument of his kept him much company through those gut-wrenchingly trying twelve years. In a way, it kept him alive. And, in the end, it could be known for all time that Solomon Northup was a man who used his stealth, wisdom and shrewd-mindedness to gain his beloved liberty, family and home once again.

It's funny: The last book I read before this, The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan, nearing the end of it, touches quite a bit on slavery (something I didn't realize before purchasing and reading it, yet was already planning on reading Twelve Years a Slave right after), so it was like it blended, as a precursor, right into it. To be sure, this autobiographical masterpiece of Northup's made me wonder what kind of slave I would have been myself, how long I could have possibly handled living in such inexorable, utterly despondent, wretched conditions of ceaseless torture, exhaustion, stress, fear and malnourishment day after day, and how long I would have even lasted—if I perhaps would have taken, or tried to take, my own life. But, more than that, it made me wonder what kind of master I would have been, if brought up that way in an upper-class southern family: the benevolent kind, like William Ford and others whom Northup spoke of with great reverence, or a monster like Edwin Epps. I'm glad I don't have to know the answer to either of those questions.

To me, Solomon Northup is the ascending type that Nietzsche wrote about extensively. He was a slave with the strength of will and profundity of a true Dionysian spirit—a 19th-century Spartacus, you might say (though without the revolt)—affirming his hellish twelve years with the writing of his prolific, profound and enlightening contribution to the world, Twelve Years a Slave, and by dedicating the remaining ten years of his life to using all he had experienced and learned to make all the difference he could within the realm of abolition. This man was a survivor, and he has allowed me to understand, better than I ever have or could on my own, how lucky I am to have freedom, and that no matter what life throws my way, I have no excuse to recoil in weakness and acquiescence, but rather to use all I have at my disposal along with the power of my inner strength to overcome and persevere. And for that, I'll always be thankful—to Solomon Northup.

My rating: five stars!  

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (book review)

"The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir." - Page 29

I love Carl Sagan. The way he brought science, astronomy, history, skepticism, etc. to the common man in his acclaimed 1970s show, Cosmos, was so admirable. The Demon-Haunted World has been on my "to read" list for a long time now. It was originally published 20 years ago, in 1996, and then he died later on that year from cancer, so he didn't get to enjoy its success. He wrote it over a ten-year period, and that patient, careful, finely tuned aspect of it comes out quite evidently in the book, which I'm going to call a marvelous one. In it, he covers numerous topics that overlap each other in regard to the intriguing historical nature of people having the same tendency throughout history of letting their minds get carried away with them, for example, repeatedly, tenaciously and mistakenly searching the sky or their dreams for signs and beings that simply aren't there, be they gods, devils, angels or aliens coming to take them away and/or use them. So, with all the scholasticism of a great skeptic, scientist and historian, he covers matters such as the crop-circle hysteria, the age-old problem of confusing dreams with reality; he covers hallucinations, demons, visions of the Virgin Mary (and how, for hundreds of years, it's always been about the Church trying to influence politics to its liking and been a huge cash grab each and every single time) and the sheer, grand-scale brutality of the witch hunts; he tackles UFO sightings and abductions, hypnotism and government propaganda, giving examples of modern-day "witch hunts." He has a very well thought-out baloney-detection criteria that he lays out for the reader point for point, and he applies it to all sketchy matters that cry out to be debunked.

All the chapters meld into each other so fluidly, the end of one usually being a kind of precursor to the next. He was so brilliant. And his passion for the sciences is so refreshing. I love how he explains the closely nit nature between democracy and science, and how both are at the root of the philosophies and outlooks of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who truly were ingenious men (scientific men) with almost superhuman foresight. And he often uses previous chapters to bolster arguments in a given one and show how a present chapter ties into what was discussed much earlier on in the book. As is to be expected, it's all very erudite, rational, logical, and fueled by a zeal and wonder for life and the truth.

"Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." - Pages 29-30

I learned so much from reading it about science, history and the things which have shaped our civilization and species. I love the section in Chapter 18 where he refutes the claim that the roots of science are in fact the religious (in particularly monotheistic) demand for the truth. Nonsense! It came from our ancestors' need to survive (namely by hunting) by analyzing and understanding the natural world around them:

"They scrutinized the shape of the depressions. The footprints of a fast-moving animal display a more elongated symmetry. A slightly lame animal favors the afflicted foot, puts less weight on it, and leaves a fainter imprint. A heavier animal leaves a deeper and broader hollow. The correlation functions are in the heads of the hunters.

In the course of the day, the footprints erode a little. The walls of the depressions tend to crumble. Windblown sand accumulates on the floor of the hollow. Perhaps bits of leaf, twigs, or grass are blown into it. The longer you wait, the more erosion there is.

The method is essentially identical to what planetary astronomers use in analyzing craters left by impacting worldlets: other things being equal, the shallower the crater, the older it is." - Page 313

Really fascinating stuff, in my opinion.

It's not only people who have a passion for truth and knowledge and people whose minds are darkened by their credulity for pseudoscience, propaganda and sensationalism who need to read this book, however. It's also a large number of people out there, many of whom actually dwell and thrive in academia, who think that science is just more faith-based religion, who need to read it as well. The relentlessly rigorous scrutiny for facts by experimentation and peer review that goes into scientific research simply does not exist in monotheism, polytheism, the New Age, etc., and it's in fact anathema to them. And non-scientists can know certain scientific discoveries to be factual if those discoveries have spawned actual innovation. For example, I may not understand the mathematical calculations of Thomas Edison, but I know they must be correct - because now we have the light bulb. And if his findings, in their raw form, were incorrect, we'd still have to be lighting candles in order to see. I may not understand the physics expressed in the equations of Sir Isaac Newton, but I know he must have been right, or planes, rockets, probes that have flown across our solar system and landed on meteors and comets, etc., wouldn't get off the ground - hell, wouldn't even exist. I don't know how Albert Einstein discovered E=MC2, but I know he must have been right, since now we have atomic power, and the latter could not exist without the former. I can't for the life of me understand quantum mechanics, but I know it's real and absurdly precise, given it can calculate the distance from New York City to Los Angeles within a hair's width!! Therefore, no faith is required to know any of those things to be accurate. In Chapter 23, entitled, Maxwell and The Nerds, Sagan discusses the immense, world-shaping discoveries and scientific contributions of James Clerk Maxwell. A lot of it is way over my head, but "[t]he now conventional understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum - running in wavelength from gamma rays to X rays to ultraviolet light to visible light to infrared light to radio waves - is due to Maxwell. So is radio, television, and radar" (386).

"The linking-up of the modern world economically, culturally, and politically by broadcast towers, microwave relays, and communication satellites traces directly back to Maxwell's judgement to include the displacement current in his vacuum equations. So does television, which imperfectly instructs and entertains us; radar, which may have been the decisive element in the Battle of Britain and in the Nazi defeat in World War II (which I like to think of as "Dafty," the boy who didn't fit in, reaching into the future and saving the descendants of his tormentors); the control and navigation of airplanes, ships and spacecraft; radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and significant aspects of the electrical power and microelectronics industries." - Pages 392-393

Arguably, the most important aspects of what Sagan has to say in this last and mighty tome of his, because he really did care about the world a lot, is his emphasis on the importance and intrinsically emancipatory nature of literacy and that the skepticism and scrutiny involved in science must be thoroughly taught (all over the world) within educational systems, so that people have a full grasp of it by the time they leave high school, and, more importantly, that they direct that rigorous, intellectual ability towards their politicians and justice system. That way, the people keep their governments from running amok by creating arbitrary laws that only serve themselves and subject the people, bringing them closer and closer to an Orwellian world with Big Brother in absolute power and control, and a history that is rewritten time and time again to suit him.

"Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we're true to its values, it can tell us when we're being lied to." - Page 38

Anyway, I could go on and on talking about all the fascinating, eye-opening and extremely important things Sagan has to say, as I've only just scratched the surface here, but I'll do you a favour, and leave you with the joy of reading the rest all on your own.

My rating: five stars!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Animal Farm (Book Review)

So I finally got around to reading this iconic classic by George Orwell, and I really enjoyed it! It's a fun, witty political satire against Stalinism and I think totalitarianism in general. I loved 1984 when I read it back in May of 2009, so it was about time that I got around to reading this. It's a short novella, so you get through it quickly, especially since Orwell was such a great writer. He charmingly and brilliantly takes you through the following events and stages: The first speech that instills, within the minds of the animals, the idea of an uprising against their unjust master, the farmer, who keeps them in their miserable, short, slavish state that usually ends with them being either butchered, drowned, or something else terrible. Then there is the revolution, the sense of victory, the illusion of freedom and the implementation of the new "government" run by animals. Then come the inevitably polarized factions. It is a split between a pig named Snowball and a pig named Napoleon, the latter of whom just disagrees with the former about anything and everything, simply because it was Snowball who said it. After that, comes the wicked and unscrupulous means by which Napoleon violently scares off Snowball in the middle of an election and, by power of fear and sheer brute force, appoints himself as leader of the farm. After this, comes the Orwellian propaganda that is also presented to us in 1984, executed by a shrewd, double-talking pig named Squealer. The majority of the animals are depicted as being illiterate and too stupid to know what's going on, kind of like the dumbfounded masses of a nation in constant upheaval (or, some might say, pretty much like the mob in general all over the world, upheaval or not), and, in the end, they're all (except for the liars and swindlers running the show) worse off than they were when enslaved by a human being. Meet the new boss, WORSE than the old boss. The motto? Politicians are pigs, and the majority of people are as dumb as sheep.

My rating: five stars!