Monday, April 30, 2007

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley

One of those book-of-the-month club selections that I just got without knowing what it was about or who Jane Smiley was. I enjoyed it. It’s set in the 1850s and tells the story of Lydia Harkness Newton, a young woman who marries an abolitionist and moves to Kansas Territory just as the violence erupts there before the start of the Civil War. It does a very good job telling the story of that time from all points of view, including those of the slave holders:

Don’t you think that’s a terribly hard religion? I know it comes from that, but Papa said none of our family were Puritans like that, that the Puritans were hateful people, and even the Dutch couldn’t stand them, and so that’s why they had to go to the New World, not because they were persecuted, but because they were hateful. And I don’t think it’s fair that they should come to New England and that our people should come to Virginia, an utterly different sort of place, and that in the end, they should put their hatefulness and hard religion over on the rest of us, after all! And you know what? It was those very people that started the slave trade, just to get rich. They treated those slaves much more horribly on those ships than ever Papa or Mr. Harris would treat even a dog, even a rat! Papa said they used to have more slaves in Newport, Rhode Island, than anywhere else in the United States, until the Irishmen came in, and it was cheaper to pay the poor benighted Irishmen, who don’t know any better because of their religion, nothing and get rid of having to care for your slaves as a proper master does!

A lot of slave owners treated their slaves well and a lot of slaves, in the context of their bondage, were very well treated. In Smiley’s exploration, it becomes clear that it is not slave owners who are evil, but slavery itself, as a slave under the kindest keeper is still a prisoner who will seek escape, as the character of Lorna did, and, who, when caught, will be exposed to all the bestial delights of the “catchers,” a profession that draws the lowest sort of individuals, but a necessary one nonetheless.

Unlike a lot of characters in fiction, Lidie is someone I actually came to care about. When her husband and prize horse are killed by some Missouri border ruffians and she goes on a vengeance quest, disguising herself as a man and infiltrating the land of her enemies, it is a quest I actually want to see succeed. It doesn’t, of course. It wouldn’t be the novel it is if Lidie got to extract her vengeance from the men who wronged her.

I made up my mind that revenge was more complicated then I had thought it would be, but then so was everything else one looks forward to with confidence.

Lidie is a reflective soul, coming up with her share of aphorisms like this, but all well preserved within the flow of the narrative.

People in the west made a big house of words for themselves and then lived inside it, in a small room of deeds.

And:

But children can be very early taught, that their happiness, both now and hereafter, depends on the formation of habits of submission, self-denial, and benevolence.

This last is not from Lidie herself, but from a book she is familiar with—A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home by Miss Catherine E. Beecher—which Lidie refers to throughout the novel and which provides a contextual quote at the beginning of each chapter. Thanks to a little Internet research, I know now that Catherine is the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who put her sister’s talents for domestic economy to good use, by asking her to take over the housekeeping while she finished Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei

A watershed in the history of science, this book was a difficult one to get through, but I’m glad I read it. One of my favorite passages is as follows:

Now two other periods occur, the monthly and the annual. These do not introduce new and different events beyond those already considered under the diurnal period, but they act upon the latter by making them greater or less at different parts of the lunar month and at different seasons of the solar year—almost as though the moon and sun were taking part in the production of such effects. But that concept is completely repugnant to my mind; for seeing how this movement of the oceans is a local and sensible one, made in an immense bulk of water, I cannot bring myself to give credence to such causes as lights, warm temperatures, predominances of occult qualities, and similar idle imaginings. These are so far from being actual or possible causes of the tides that the very contrary is true. The tides are the cause of them; that is, make them occur to mentalities better equipped for loquacity and ostentation than for reflection upon and investigations into the most hidden works of nature. Rather than be reduced to offering those wise, clever, and modest words, “I do not know,” they hasten to wag their tongues and even their pens in the wildest absurdities.

After talking for 400 pages about the true motions of the earth, sun and planets, and getting everything right, Galileo begins talking about the tides and gets everything wrong. But still in his confidence he manages to ridicule the other theories that are equally wrong about the origin of the tides. They’re not caused by the slowing down and speeding up of the earth as the sun and moon tug on it as it makes its way through the heavens, they are caused by the sun and moon themselves, and the inherent force of gravity that all mass in the universe possesses, a force that was dimly understood in Galileo’s time. His comparisons of the planets in their orbits to weights swinging at the ends of pendulums is quaint, but understandable given his observational approach to solving the riddles of the universe. And his solutions for the motions of the heavenly bodies are right on target, derived as they are from observation and analytical geometry. But what makes them move? Ultimately, that answer eludes this remarkable man in his remarkable age, and calls forth another passage from earlier in the book:

And finally I ask you, O foolish man: Does your imagination first comprehend some magnitude for the universe, which you then judge to be too vast? If it does, do you like imagining that your comprehension extends beyond the Divine power? Would you like to imagine to yourself things greater than God can accomplish? And if it does not comprehend this, then why do you pass judgment upon things you do not understand?

Salviati is talking to Simplicio here, but clearly Galileo is also talking to a larger audience. He’s slamming people who claim things are impossible because they’ve decided that they are, or because they are beyond their understanding. But in a sense, that is what Galileo is doing with his theory on the tides and his contempt for the theories put forward by others. It may very well be that Galileo failed to remember his own homily:

Let us just say that there are two sorts of poetical minds—one kind apt at inventing fables, and the other disposed to believe them.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

We Have Always Done It That Way: 101 Things About Associations We Must Change by Five Independent Thinkers

This is probably the first book I’ve read that is a collection of postings on a blog. The Five Independent Thinkers are Jeff De Cagna, David Gammel, Jamie Notter, Mickie Rops and Amy Smith. They have such provocative ideas as:

1. The key value of associations is no longer in providing information to their members, it is now in helping their members find critical information and knowledge in the mass of information that permeates their world. They should act like an information concierge rather than a publisher.

2. Association CEOs need to establish a culture in which the leaders understand that the appropriate way to make their mark is to advance the association, its members, and the field it represents, not their own personal agendas. Don’t ask an incoming Board chair what her agenda is. Discuss with her the association’s current strategic priorities and ask what particular ideas she has to move these forward—ideas that need to be scrutinized, budgeted for, and approved by the Board.

3. Build the topic of change into a regular agenda item at staff meetings. Engage them in the conversation about what is changing or needs to change in the organization. Don’t allow the discussion and decision to reside entirely with the CEO and the Board. Doing so puts you in the mode of change enforcement, not change management.

4. Associations can position themselves as the knowledge center of their industry or profession by regularly asking their members the following questions:
a. What is the number one most pressing business issue you need to address in the next six months?
b. What is that business issue costing your organization?
c. What kind of information or interactions to you need in order to address this issue?
d. What would you pay if you knew that you could get assistance addressing that issue by participating in a learning experience?
…and reshaping conference formats, features and functions to address the answers.

5. Don’t send memos to all staff in response to one person violating a policy or procedure. Have frank conversations with staff members who are out of line, and don’t punish everyone for the actions of a few.

6. Contacting members individually to design customized membership packages with different sets of membership benefits at different price points creates an environment in which: (a) your membership director begins to see membership benefit trends, (b) members appreciate and highly value the personal attention, and (c) members begin to take advantage of a wider range of programs and services offered by the association.

7. If you create a web page that simply lists the RSS feeds from your industry or profession, your organization will become the knowledge center for your industry or profession, and you don’t have to offer all the content.

8. Associations can move beyond being pushers of information and become facilitators of knowledge creation and sharing by:
a. Filtering – extracting from the information masses only the relevant information for a particular audience.
b. Providing feedback – offering a constructive and informative response to the results of an activity.
c. Contextualizing – adding meaning to content by relating it to specific circumstances.
d. Facilitating connections – bringing together individuals with common interests, issues or expertise.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

You Are Being Lied To: This Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths edited by Russ Kick

This is one of those books that I heard about on NPR. It’s a collection of essays, articles and interviews with a bunch of counterculture types that pretty much purports to tell you that everything you think or hear about in the mainstream media is a load of crap. And of course, it pretty much is.

One of the most interesting things about the collection is that it was assembled in the pre-9/11 world, and so mention of the most colossal conspiracy theory in the history of mankind is nowhere to be found. And yet, reading this, you can see how such ideas begin and flourish. There’s a lot of people out there who evidently think Skulls and Bones controls the world, and that all institutions support some dark and sinister purpose, even those run by people who have no clue what they’re talking about, they still unconsciously serve the bidding of the master. The people in this book really don’t like the War on Drugs, and believe that the criminalization of opiates is nothing more than the State’s way on controlling and monitoring the society. The State wants the power to relieve pain to only reside with itself, so it can decide when to use it and, more importantly, when not to use it.

Every tyrant knows that a person in pain will also reliably respond to the ‘positive’ reinforcement of relief from pain. The ability to offer that—an escape from agony—is a power no amount of money can buy.

Guess we’re ruled by tyrants now. The logic they seem to use is as follows:

1. Here’s something that’s going on in our society.
2. Here’s one way of interpreting that something.
3. The way that we’ve interpreted it coincides with ways tyrants have oppressed people in the past.
4. Therefore, our society must be being oppressed by tyrants.

The stuff in this book reminds me a lot of Brother Hovind. Wouldn’t it be great if that many pieces of the puzzle actually fit together? Forgot what they fit together into and whether that’s good or bad, right or wrong. Just the fact that they fit together is enough. Fitting the pieces together is all any of us ever need.

In any event, here are some books from their suggested reading list that I wouldn’t mind checking out:

The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S
Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit by Garry Wills
Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl
The Myth of Human Races by Alain F. Corcos