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Friday, December 23, 2005

The Best Books of 2005, #6-#10 

2005 was a good year for books (or the paperback release & subsequent popularization thereof of these books). The bottom 5 of the top 10 attest for how deep the pool was:

#10. Master Mind, the Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber (68 points)
This Faustian biography of the life of Fritz Haber, the brilliant--but uneven--chemist who brought nitrogen fixation to the world, is both interesting and horrifying. Nitrogen fixation, which has forever transformed agriculture, bringing about the green revolution that has led to unprecedented luxury (and unprecedented population, and unprecedented environmental destruction), has a disturbing dark side. Large-scale production of armaments. Without Fritz, World War I most likely would have ended with German defeat in 1915, as the Kaiser had no access to the vast, natural nitrate stores in Chile and other places. War profiteering led to the invention of chemical warfare, a ghastly practice used in modern times only by Saddam's and Bush's troops. This book shows (but does not focus on) how Fritz's inventions eventually underpinned the gas chambers used to kill Fritz' survivors. There are interesting side threads on Einstein, Fritz' many idiosyncracies, and others. The style, while unobtrusive, is at times almost absent. Still, this is a quick, lively read, with modern saliency to any concerned with war profiteering (like the Halliburton employees on your Christmas list).

#9. On Bullshit (70 points)
At first, reading this incredibly slim volume, I was tempted to think its author (Harry Frankfurt) was using it to pull a fast one on naive readers--in other words, to bullshit. But there is more here than simply a wry, erudite joke on the title words. Frankfurt argues convincingly that the bullshitter is far more dangerous than the liar, because he (and it's usually a "he", now isn't it?) does not compose his B.S. in opposition to any truth, but with completely unchecked, feckless abandon. This truth doesn't exist for the B.S.-er, and as with Voltaire's God, the bullshitter's truth must be invented. What the author does not add is that the bullshitter must completely lack faith, having to fill in any void of his knowledge with B.S. No surprise so many "religious" leaders are so damned good at B.S. They go into religion for the same reason many psychiatrists do into their profession--for self-cure. This book is 1 hour's read.

#8. Under the Banner of Heaven (77 points)
Released in June 2004, this book is listed for 2005 because that is when the book "hit its stride" in the press. The subtitle, a Story of Violent Faith, says it all. This book explores the tyranny of the various Mormon polygamist sects, and adds considerably to past works on the remarkable aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS). The life story of Joseph Smith, the "Mormon Prophet", is an excellent accompaniment to this bold work. As is Juanita Brooks' excellent work on the Mountain Meadows Massacre (MMM). By itself, Krakauer (who has also published works on mountain climbing gone awry and photos of wonderful Iceland) provides a dark look at the underbelly of modern Utah, particularly considering how the history and present-day of polygamy has twisted a tenuous faith into a toxic pretzel, from which escape is not always possible. The most Republican of states, Utah, is the perfect setting for some of the most patriarchal and self-knighting sects ever to see daylight. The illogical conclusion of this twisted faith is shown in the opprobrious story of the Lafferty brothers (who brutally slay a sister-in-law--and her infant--because she doesn't know her place). One protagonist, DeLoy Bateman, a descendent of one of the perpetrators of the MMM, has escaped the Fundy LDS church, but lives a guarded life in the snakepit known as Colorado City (formerly Short Creek). His continued living in this location in spite of apostatization is inspiring. The book ends with him looking over the Polygamist City and musing that, even if the folks there are happier than he with his lost faith, some things in life are more important than happiness.

#7. The Tipping Point (79 points)
The precursor to another book in vogue during 2005, "Freakonomics", the Tipping Point was released in 2002, but exploded into public consciousness in 2005. I know that "Freakonomics" addresses some of the same issues--for example, the reduction of crime in NYC during the 1990's--in new ways, but this does not distract from the central message of the Tipping Point. Namely, that small things do indeed make a huge difference. Seinfeld once joked that police officers should be sweeping the streets while they weren't directly involved in actively fighting crime. The Tipping Point suggests this might be a good strategy. Seeing the cops care enough to sweep instills civic pride, preventing "casual" crimes. One of the delightful stories in this interesting and occasionally substantial book is the one of Paul Revere's ride. Had Paul Revere not been a "maven"--the type of easy-to-talk-with, credible schmoozer that so greatly influences others--the British never would have suffered the 200 or so sniping casualties on their return to Boston from Lexington/Concord. Quite certainly, the nature of the War of Independence would have changed. This book is a (needed) slap in the face to theories that discredit the impact of individuals (as famously advanced by Tolstoy in "War and Peace" out of a need to deny Napoleon's influence). Where are the Gandhis, the Reveres, the Voltaires of our time? They're out there. Unfortunately, this book lost some of its zing at times (for example, his comparison of "Blue's Clues" to "Sesame Street" misses the point that "Sesame Street" is a show designed for parents to share with their children, while "Blue's Clues" is meant to be an electronic pacifier). Overall, though, it is a fast and pleasant read. Those wishing for a suitable genre-match for 2005, published first in 2005, may wish to read Freakonomics in its stead. Yea, I know, you've probably already read it.

#6. Blue Ocean Strategy (85 points)
What is a "marketing" or "business development" book doing on the list here on The Bite? Well, this book makes it because it steers clear of overt politics and absolutely nails the solution. A book on how to create new businesses without a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog competition to the death? I love it. How to avoid fighting with your competition, how to succeed and still have a soul. Great Yuletide messages. These are French authors, so expect the Cirque du Soleil to feature prominently, and you won't be disappointed. But there are many other examples, including the same NYC crime drop as the books in #7. Sure, there's a lot of pissant business jargon in here--that's its genre. But to see folks compellingly defining a means to success that makes your competition invisible, it's nothing short of business Zen.

That being said, don't expect a marketing/biz-dev book in the top 5 (though "Dangerous Doses" surely goes as an honorable mention for 2005), coming in the next blog. What a powerful Top 5 2005 has brought us! We must have been good boys and girls this year.

Or perhaps it's because some of us have been *so* naughty.

-Vulf

Diebold goes to Iraq... 

Diebold jokes? Sorry, too easy...

Many Iraqis outside the religious Shiite coalition allege that the elections were unfair to smaller Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups. "We refuse the cheating and forgery in the elections," read one banner among many decrying the elections. Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaei of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a major Sunni clerical group, told followers during Friday prayers at Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque that they were "living a conspiracy built on lies and forgery." "You have to be ready during these hard times and combat forgeries and lies for the sake of Islam," he said.

By the way, these are the criteria (points by category) for Vulf's Top 10 books of the year:

1. Saliency to current events (50)...hey, it is a list for 2005, right?
2. Even-handedness, politically and philosophically (15)...it's OK to "go off" if you're a blog writer, but for mainstream digestion, let's try to convince the moderates, not the extremes!
3. Writing style (15)...Why read a poorly-written book, no matter the subject?
4. Novelty of insights (10) ...Important, but pulling together a massive set of "mostly obvious" information into one place is also valuable, so this is just 10 points.
5. Value of the solution (10)...How does the author pose to solve a dilemma? What lessons are learned? How can mistakes be avoided in future? etc.

The Bottom 5 of the Top 10 will be announced in the next blog.

-Vulf

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas in Egypt for Bush 

As Bush heads out for another multi-week break from leading the free world (a sinecure to Bush, a bloody 100-hour/week job to former Presidents), a Reuters article suggests he is heading to Egypt...since he is clearly in DeNile...

By most accounts, it was a tough year for President George W. Bush, marked by a drop in public support for the Iraq war, legislative setbacks on Social Security and arctic oil drilling and a politically disastrous initial response to Hurricane Katrina. But according to a White House fact sheet, 2005 was a year full of "accomplishments" -- six, single-spaced pages worth distributed to reporters as Bush left town for his holiday break. The White House list of accomplishments included elections in Iraq, Senate confirmation of John Roberts to the Supreme Court and the first national energy plan in more than a decade. Bush is "advancing his agenda" and passing "legislation important to the American people," the fact sheet declares. "This has been a year of strong progress toward a freer, more peaceful world and a prosperous America," said Bush, whose approval ratings have improved somewhat in recent days after touching all-time lows in 2005. But several of the "accomplishments" touted in the White House fact sheet are anything but accomplished, top among them the Patriot Act, the first item listed under the headline "A week of accomplishments." Far from the outcome sought by the president, Congress appeared poised to approve only a short-term extension of key Patriot Act provisions due to expire at the end of the month. Under the headline "The president nominated well-qualified candidates to the U.S. Supreme Court," Bush made no mention of his failed nomination of Harriet Miers, who withdrew under fierce attack from conservatives. Under the headline "The president is acting to help the Gulf Coast recover from natural disaster," Bush touted more than $70 billion in hurricane-related assistance. Left out was any mention of the slow and bundled federal response to Katrina, which angered many Americans and which Bush himself called appalling.

Also not listed were the following:
1. 32 months after declaring major combat over, every two months of 2005 saw as many soldiers die as did during the "major combat".
2. The US trade deficit was the worst EVER in November, breaking the record set earlier this year, breaking the record set earlier this year, breaking...
3. The US budget deficit was the worst EVER in 2004. But, hey, the poverty rate went up, even though we're stealing from our future.
4. Where is Osama for the Holidays, again?
5. How many countries have augmented the coalition of the unwilling this year? You did shittily with Italy, you're in Neverland with Netherlands, Ukraine You Saw You Left, Portugal Punted, ...
6. What are you charging Padilla with, I must have misheard...it's a dirty diaper now, not bomb?
7. How has the US image in the world improved? Try reading the Geneva Convention.
8. Have you solved Plamegate?
9. How about that male prostitute planted reporter "Gannon" and the staged "interviews" with the troops?
10. Abramoff, DeLay, Halliburton...so many scandals, so little time.

And many more. In all sincerity, W, best wishes for a better 2006. The planet can't survive another three years like 2005. Laura, do the world a favor, and get your man a couple dozen cases of George's three best friends: Jack, Jim and Johnny (Daniels, Beam and Walker). Let's keep him comatose in '06.

-Vulf

Next: Vulf's Top 10 books for 2005.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

CAFE for ANWR 

The "bundling" of the vote to drill in ANWR with the defense budget is the latest cynical rider to a bill wrapped in the flag. But it may backfire on the Republicans. If the ANWR drilling passes, then the government will need to vote to raise CAFE (mean new car mileage) standards as their "one" eco-vote for the year...they'll no longer be able to use the ANWR vote to appease the Greens in their constituency.

Without raising the mean mileage in new cars, the ANWR drilling is doubly a shame. New US oil profligacy will simply erase its oil production in a couple of years. The only way to reduce oil dependency is to reduce its use until its replacement energy economies are developed. Pressure your senators to not bundle, not drill, and not let CAFE continue to languish in its 1988-present torpor.

-Vulf

9/11 Update 

Since our Prez mentioned it 8 times again in his latest diatribe, let's review the lessons of 9/11.

It is now 4 years, 3 months, and 10 days after 9/11. Rumsfield today suggested that Bin Laden is spending much of his time on the run, and isn't effectively running his organization. What insensitivity! Since Rummy and his cohorts claim the Al Qaeda is largely responsible for killing our troops in Iraq, how much more effective does he want them? Given the nature of the insurgency in Iraq, I'd hardly be bragging about Bin Laden.

Let's compare it to Pearl Harbor, a comparison the Bush-itters love. 4 years, 3 months, 10 days after Pearl Harbor, and it's March 17, 1946. Churchill has already given his "Cold War Speech", the primary Nuremberg Trials are in full swing, and Hitler has been dead for nearly a year. In Japan, their Constitution has already been drafted, and they are well on their way to becoming the loyal, valuable allies to the US that they remain to this day.

Coming back to 9/11. Afghanistan troop deployment, at 17,900 a year and a half ago, is now at 18,000...but of course it's about to get cut back. US troops in Iraq at 140,000 a year and a half ago, now at 160,000, but of course, about to be reduced again. These are seasonal adjustments, folks, there were 16,500 and 138,000 in Afghanistan and Iraq at the end of last year, too. These are not troop "cuts", they are seasonal variations. The countries are no more stable than they were the last two Christmases.

In other words, 4 years, 3 months and 10 days after 9/11, the US has a tenuous hold on some Afghan cities and is pinned down in a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Putting this in the context of Pearl Harbor, it would be a bit like the US pinning down the main cities in Austria and having invaded Brazil (which harbored Nazis, dammit!). Wouldn't really feel right, would it? Meanwhile, the real source of terror (Saudi Arabia 2001/Japan & Germany 1941) is unscathed.

So why does the man keep mentioning 9/11 and World War II? The comparison is hardly flattering. Hopefully a more ominous event in March 1946, the French declaring Vietnam a free country, will not be a more accurate comparison to this month's declaration of Iraq's freedom.

-Vulf

Monday, December 19, 2005

"I don't listen to polls", the latest in Bush's litany of lies... 

Funny how Bush says he pays no attention to polls. Seems this Yahoo! article has exposed this for yet another lie. He clearly pays attention to polls, but only where he can select something from them to try to distort the facts...

[H]e was more specific in his televised address when he declared, "Seven in 10 Iraqis say their lives are going well — and nearly two-thirds expect things to improve even more in the year ahead." He was referring to an ABC News poll conducted with Time magazine and other media partners before the Iraqi general elections last week. Bush is dismissive of polls that reflect on his own performance, claiming not to pay attention to them.

Seems you are paying attention, W, at least until the ethanol-induced daily amnesia/analgesic kicks in.

By the way, the top 5 reasons (sadly) Iraqis think things will improve?

5. It can't really get any worse, can it?
4. Recruitment numbers in the US are lower than sediment in the Dead Sea.
3. The US needs to recall troops for ventures into Iran and Syria.
2. They feel they are mastering the mass-manufacturing of IEDs.
1. Saddam's fiasco of a trial looks to end in debacle, returning him power. After all, life was better under him.

-Vulf

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