Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Peter Beinart on the Democrats & the “Ground Zero Mosque”

Peter Beinart criticizes Democrats and New Yorkers on the principles involved in this controversy. He provides all concerned with some serious reflection.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

I recently finished reading The Maltese Falcon, having decided to go back and read some of the classics of the mystery and detective genre. I like the sparse, clean prose. In some ways, Hammett reads like Hemingway. Someone suggested the 1941 John Huston film production starring Bogie, Peter Lorie, and Sydney Greenstreet simply changed the margins in the novel to create the screenplay. An exaggeration certainly, but they do seem to track quite closely. One can't help imagining Bogie and the others as one reads it. Now I have to go back and watch the flick. Entertaining reading. An American classic.

Niall Ferguson on Decline and Fall

In the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs Niall Ferguson writes about the decline and fall of empires. What makes his perspective worth noting arises from his use of complexity theory as a guide to civilizations, as opposed to the more leisurely, cyclical view of older historians from Vico to Spengler to Toynbee. Ferguson, citing the work of the Santa Fe Institute and Nicholas Taleb, argues that complex entities, such as governments, societies, and economies, can change quite rapidly and unexpectedly. As examples, we can find the fall of the Bourbons in France (leading to the French Revolution), the fall of the Soviet Union (that few predicted), or the great economic crashes of 1929 or 2008 (which some, but only a few, predicted). Another example is the failure of bond markets to predict the outbreak of the Great War (this isn't mentioned in the article, but Taleb mentions Ferguson in The Black Swan on this point). After the fact, Ferguson notes, citing Taleb, we usually fall into the "narrative fallacy"; that is, the idea that the course of events as they unfolded makes perfect sense. But in fact, as the future, the course of events was essentially unpredictable. This view of history, I think, holds a great deal of merit. To borrow a phrase, hindsight is always 20-20. However, we don't live life backwards (although history is intriguing); we live life forward and must see as into a glass darkly.

Ferguson concludes his article with the suggestion that financial collapse is often connected with sudden changes in governments or political regimes, and that the U.S. public debt could provide such a trigger. Maybe. For the moment, interest rates remain low, and Krugman's argument that we need stimulus seems right. We are, nonetheless, in a bad way, and we as a nation—and as individuals—need to make sure that we have the necessary resiliency to withstand the shocks that might await us.

Nick Morgan’s Four Steps to Charismatic Communication

Morgan provides a short video explaining his four points:

  1. Openness
  2. Connection
  3. Passion
  4. Listening

Four easy steps to anything might seem inherently untrustworthy, but in a few short minutes, I think that Morgan is on to something. I subscribe to his blog because he offers a lot of short but pithy guidance about public speaking.

More Imaginative Literature Picks

Back here, I posted a list of favorite imaginative literature. Since then, some major omissions have haunted me, so I will post them now. How did I forget them: I can only blame it on old age!

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. This is a great book. It's a "literary chautauqua" that is truly unique. It's the story of a man and his son taking a motorcycle trip from western Minnesota to Oregon. It's the story of a man on the edge of mental collapse. It's reflection on motorcycles. It's a reflection o the Western intellectual tradition. And so I could go on. Entertaining and enlightening, it's as interesting an American work as I can think of in the last 40 years (although I'm no expert).
  2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. A detective thriller set in the Middle Ages? Yes, and more. I loved this book, and (like Zen above), I've re-read it. Eco uses his extensive knowledge of the Middle Ages to tell a great story with intriguing ideas behind it. A great fun read.
  3. A River Runs Through It, by Norman Mclean. I suppose that this book struck me because of the Presbyterian father who loved fishing, two marks of my father. The story is elegiac. Maclean, in a relatively few pages, captures a sense of his youth in Montana and the enigma of a brother. In the mean time, he reflects on the beauty of fly-fishing.
  4. Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. I must admit that this is a sentimental pick because I think that it's that last work that I read aloud to 1HP. And, of course, one finds it in the "YA" section of the bookstore. On the other hand, it's for the YA at heart. Only fools would scoff at a good story and instructive lesson rolled into one, and this book does it: combination mystery and history of philosophy. I think we both had fun with it.

I can't think of more right now, but if I do, I'll post. Someday I might get around to posting favorite read- alouds to kids. I could generate a very long list of those! Happy reading!