A Modern Desultory Philippic

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There are things that trouble me these days. Just to name a few:

  1. Too many things are going on in the world. Far too many. Can’t people live within their means? Can’t they help those less fortunate before things get too salty out there? Can’t we accept someone else’s opinions without hysterics?
  2. I have too little time to read. Or write. There are too few books out there worthy of my time, and when I ask someone what they think of my latest book, they say, “Whaaat?”
  3. Taxes are too complicated. And the money never goes for things I’d like it to.
  4. I’m aging way too fast.  That look in the morning mirror no longer seems like a photo – now it’s more like a movie.
  5. It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
  6. All the things I like to eat are bad for me and put weight on me.
  7. Everyone I know has too many problems –  health-wise and otherwise.
  8. I used to be 1-1/2 inches taller than I am now. I don’t like that.
  9. Going somewhere on a commercial airliner is miserable and cramped. And no one offers me a ride there in their Lear jet.
  10. I don’t go to movies much anymore. And if the guy sitting in front of me is wearing a long black overcoat he won’t take off, I’m outta there.

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All this to say that 2018 is going to mean changes for me. I’m not sure yet what they are, but you’ll see some evidence of them on this blog. Now, I admit there are a lot of blogs out there. And mine may seem the least consequential one you’ve ever read. I’m pretty sure, though, that readership ups and downs will be paralleled by the number and attitude of my posts. Yes, the picture above is of me, taken on a particularly bad day. It takes readership to keep this blog going, so if you want me to clean up, make a big deal of it every time I post.

 

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Provoking, Informing, and Magazine Success

The Atlantic, March 2014

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In a world in which magazines are closing their doors daily, a few have found the key to success, and The Atlantic seems to have that key firmly in its grasp. What makes its mojo work, then? Simple – find a way to entertain as it informs, and do so in a fairly concise fashion.  Sometimes this involves provocation for the sake of provoking. We all remember what makes our blood boil, it seems, as in the case of Jonathan Rauch’s brief, “The Case for Corruption.”

Did you know that WalMart claims that nearly half its purchases are made on smart phones? Neither did Alexis Madrigal, in a quickie interview with WalMart’s Gibu Thomas.

James Parker tries to overlay today’s polarized political TV talk shows over the film, Network.  He has a point, I think, but it’s a strained one.

This issue takes on hockey, of all things (a sport I liken to professional wrestling), but as Chris Koentges depicts the sport in “The Puck Stops Here,” a Finnish promoter has transformed it from a brawl on ice to  international prestige.

Paul Bloom, in “The War On Reason,” rings my bell loudly by explaining that philosophy, the bedrock of Enlightenment reason, has drifted away from logic and reason into a physiological abyss. In this semi-philosophical world, reason seems devoid of  worth, but Bloom seems to hold out hope: our human need for moral values will trump this straying and bring reason back in new clothes.

I remember how the KA fraternity partied till they puked in my college days. Those well-oiled frat rats even killed a famous horse in the process. In the lead article, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” Caitlin Flanagan tells us things are even worse, many frat peccadilloes now ending in court.

I’m a Southerner, despite all attempts to be a one-worlder, and I’m compelled to say that Ron Rash’s story “Where The Map Ends,” the story of two escaping slaves in the Civil War South, is the finest piece of short fiction I’ve seen in a magazine in a long while.

These are but my highlights in another fine issue of The Atlantic.

 

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Atlantic Ascendant

The Atlantic, January/February, 2014

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Perhaps Editor-in-Chief James Bennet has developed the complex touch of a successful pro sports team coach. Or maybe the world is handing him better and better stories. Whatever the reason, this issue of The Atlantic is one of the best balanced, most newsworthy, and downright interesting issues yet. And that’s with a minimal emphasis on things literary.

What does it take to find the next grand inventor? Derek Thompson writes, correctly, that such new gizmos are the thing of basements and garages. But how to make use of them? Technology sharing, says, Thompson, that’s the way to co-opt these gadgets for biz benefit. Only partly correct, I say; businesses are hidebound for the most part and resistant to new ideas and gadgets that compel change.

James Fallows talks cancer with Eric S. Lander, as well as new developments in the field of genomics. Is this the breakthrough approach? Lander says there are usually no “AHA!” moments in such things. It’s a process.

Why do the eminently cinematic Elmore Leonard books end up as crappy movies? Christopher Orr gives us a glance at both media. Justified is a hit now on TV, but why? I think there’s been too much devotion to every detail of Leonard’s work in cinema. Movies aren’t books, and movie adaptations need to be willing to do that: adapt the book. A TV series may very well be the better device to morph books such as Leonard’s into a cinematic format.

These Unites States have always looked the other way as criminal enterprises seek the bread to generate legitimacy. Taylor Clark gives us a look at Jesse Willms, a 26 year-old techie scam artist and a purveyor of technology and the Internet in doing just that.

Scott Stossel reveals the aches and pains of his life-long struggles with anxiety. Is there a solution here? Perhaps, but Stossel seems to be saying that the solutions are as varied as the persons afflicted with such anguish.

Too, there’s a glance back at poet Marianne Moore and her life.

More good things within, of course. And this is an issue that is to me an oddity – one I could read over and over.

 

 

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The Rages of Poverty in the Provinces

Harper’s Magazine, January 2014

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Thomas Frank’s essay here is one every self-styled liberal or progressive should read. It’s a screed, not against the Red State folks, Republicans, Tea Partiers, et al; instead he’s raging against the Democrats, liberals, and progressives for not taking advantage politically of the ever-shrinking white, male, etc. conservative base. And he’s right, In my mind. Waiting for the Republicans to self-destruct won’t get it done; they just keep up a steady litany of political noise that’s much larger than their base, and they’re good at it.

But why is their a burr under the blue-collar saddle, one the Democrats can’t seem to pluck away? Jeff Madrick delineates the failed job promise of the digital revolution. Sure, there’s innovation and new products being made in this post-industrial world, but with an ever-shrinking worker base. Are we making the best use of technology? No. Are we making forward-leaning technologies, such as electric cars and wind and solar power generators.? No.

I’ll just leave those questions hanging, but they say a lot about our economic vision and will.

And just for irony’s sake, there’s a bit of reportage from Mujib Mashal in Afghanistan on the trail of a Taliban chieftain, and the Taliban’s resilience, thanks largely to our tone deafness, politically and militarily, in that region.

All the above, built around the centerpiece (the grander bit of irony) of this issue, a long-winded piece on learning how to be a modern-day servant for the nation’s rich. And so what’s a job seeker to do these days, if she can’t work for “the man,” either in his home or workplace. Now you’re beginning to see the roots of rage on both ends of the political spectrum.

 

As always, there’s more in this issue. Always more.

 

 

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A Rarity – History and Cultural Affairs You Can Enjoy Reading

Eastern Europe!, by Tomek Jankowski

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It’s been my experience that books filled with history – and I think this applies doubly to the density of European history – can boggle and bore. Not so with Jankowski’s book. It’s indeed filled with close to two millennia of history, both western and eastern European (it is hard to separate the two) but the author uses an inventive writing structure and style that kept this reader turning pages. Too, it’s filled with charts, graphs, photos, and other visual apparatuses that not only break up the text, but serve to further inform the reader. Heck, he even provides a recipe for pierogi in the book’s epilogue.

The author begins with a bit of European prehistory, traces the migrations of Europe’s early people, and then embarks on the evolution of European culture in general. His project here is largely the effect of western European development on that of the east, how the west, the Asian and Muslim cultures lent a richness to that of Eastern Europe, but at the same time caused eastern Europeans a multitude of problems. This began to be manifested in the development of nation states, and of course, most of these cultures were eventually absorbed into the U.S.S.R. via the Warsaw Pact, only now struggling for parity with western European nations. But what’s clear here as well is that these pre- and post-WWII nation states have never fully resolved the diverse tribal and cultural differences within their borders.

To add to this rich text, Jankowski has added what he, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, calls “Useless Trivia.” These are largely anecdotal passages that often made this reader smile and even laugh at times. Some of these are not so delightful; after all, European history has its share of pathos and depravity. But the effect of these asides is to reach deeper into the details of such a broad-brush history. Thus Jankowski’s writing structure shines and vibrates with both overview and the deeply personal.

But of what use is this book? Certainly it would make a fine college text, or at least adjunct college reading matter. And if you’re going to do business in either the west or east of Europe, this book will afford you a basis for understanding the people, the cultures, even the languages (the author does yeoman’s duty in providing pronunciations of many names of people and places, names that might otherwise twist the English-speaking tongue) of this culturally rich area of planet earth.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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The Brave New Future

 

Note: I occasionally post on magazines; I’ve always read them, and would seriously bemoan their passing. While I don’t have the time to do all the mags justice that I might have an interest in, I do try to post regularly on the ones I think have the most substance to offer readers.

 

The Atlantic, December 2013

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I remain heartened by this magazine’s approach to informing its readers. Much of what interests me here is apparently gained from polls on various subjects, particularly the modern effect of male-female interactions.  In a similar form we come face to face with capitalism’s amoralities, and their effect on social unrest.

If this causes you unrest, don’t read the article on inmate control tactics in the nation’s prisons – a subject mostly hidden from the public – the article leaving this reader wondering how widely these tactics might be applied to the rest of us.

Too, we gain insight into John Kerry and his approach to foreign policy, which may very well ask you to wonder what he might’ve been like as president.

One subject bound to unsettle readers has to do with data and data mining in the workplace and how that might affect your life as a worker. Altogether fitting for sure, but big data need not be a workplace onus. Such data systems, properly used, can set workers free from almost all clerical work and much of the drudgery of reports, analyses, and the like. Why not, for instance, set these freed workers down in front of the organization’s future, using them creatively to further improve such organization’s products and services?

There’s more here, of course, and The Atlantic is doing those of us committed to reading this fine magazine a most welcome journalistic service.

 

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

A Commercial Interlude

 

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I don’t do this often, but it is the season for giving…and I do have published books for sale…reduced prices…at:

http://www.bobmustin.com

You can also buy digital files for Sam’s Place: Stories as read by the author here.

Thanks, and have a happy holiday weekend with friends and family.