Minor Thoughts from me to you

Jim Dalrymple's AirPods Review →

Jim Dalrymple wrote a hands-on review of Apple's new wireless headphones, over at Loop Insight. I just love how he opens his review.

I have seen all kinds crazy things written since the keynote about the AirPods. Some people say they will drop out of their ears when they walk or run, others say we will lose them because they are so small.

Most of these things have been written by people that have never touched the AirPods. I have been using them for almost a week now and I can tell you that those concerns are not warranted at all.

I am not a child, so I think I can keep track of my AirPods—I have for a week with no problem at all. If you don’t think it’s within your ability to keep track of a pair of headphones, then clearly these are not the right accessory for you.

People in the tech industry seem to have a real problem with critiquing anything new, before they've even tried it or talked to anyone who has. It's a weird obsession — this idea that everything new is stupid — especially for an industry built around new and untried ideas.

Now let's let Jim talk about what intrigues me the most: how the AirPods solve the massive problem that Bluetooth headphones have pairing (and re-pairing) to different devices.

The AirPods will respond to whatever device invokes them. For instances, when you put them in your ears, you will hear a tone telling you they are ready. Press play in Apple Music on your iPhone and music will start playing. If you then press play on your Apple Watch playlist, the AirPods will automatically switch to that device for playback.

I was playing a song from my Apple Watch, activated Siri on my iPhone 7, the AirPods switched and activated the mic, I asked Siri a question, and when I was finished they automatically connected back to the watch to finish the song.

That’s pretty cool.

The AirPods also know when they are in your ears. If you are listening to music and someone comes up to speak with you or you’re in line ordering a coffee, you can just take one out and the music will automatically pause. When you put the AirPod back in your ear, the music will start playing again automatically.

And how's battery life?

I will say this: the only time I ran out of battery on the AirPods is when I meant to run the dry. It took 15-20 minutes to get them charged to 100% using the charging case.

On making phone calls and using Siri:

The AirPods will also seamlessly switch when a phone calls in as well. I’ve made and received phone calls using both headphones, in which case you can hear out of both headphones; taken out the left headphone, which then turns off; did the same with the right headphone; and then put them both back in.

The mics on the AirPods seem to be very good, although its hard to do a meaningful test when you can’t tell people why you want to test the microphone. I had one person comment, unsolicited, that I sounded really good while using the AirPods, but he didn’t know why. I didn’t tell him.

Using a double-tap on the side of the AirPods will invoke Siri when using the iPhone. It will pause the music, and then bring up Siri—ask your question, Siri will give you the answer and then return to playing the music in 5 seconds. A completely hands-free operation.

You can change this to have the double-tap do play/pause instead on the iPhone if you like. This is what happens when you use double-tap on AirPods using the Apple Watch.

These are the details that we expect to get right and they certainly did with the AirPods and how they work with the different devices we use.

At $160, I really don't want to like the AirPods. That's a lot of money to spend on headphones. But the magic ability to switch audio from one source to another, to another is seductive. No other headphone on the market can do this. And switching devices is such a pain that $160 starts to seem like a reasonable price to pay to make the pain go away.

If I used a Mac at the office, I think I'd be a lot more likely to buy AirPods. But since my Windows desktop will be unable to use them (it doesn't have built-in Bluetooth), I'm not sure it's worth it to buy headphones that I can only use at home or with iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.

Remind of these doubts when you see me wearing AirPods next summer.

This entry was tagged. Apple

Why Apple Killed The Headphone Jack →

John Paczkowski, reporting for Buzzfeed.

For Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, the iPhone’s 3.5-millimeter audio jack has felt something like the last months of an ill-fated if amicable relationship: familiar and comfortable, but ultimately an impediment to a better life ahead. “We’ve got this 50-year-old connector — just a hole filled with air — and it’s just sitting there taking up space, really valuable space,” he says.

​What did they need the space for?

A tentpole feature of the new iPhones are improved camera systems that are larger than the cameras in the devices that preceded them. The iPhone 7 now has the optical image stabilization feature previously reserved for its larger Plus siblings. And the iPhone 7 Plus has two complete camera systems side by side — one with a fixed wide-angle lens, the other with a 2x zoom telephoto lens. At the top of both devices is something called the “driver ledge” — a small printed circuit board that drives the iPhone’s display and its backlight. Historically, Apple placed it there to accommodate improvements in battery capacity, where it was out of the way. But according to Riccio, the driver ledge interfered with the iPhone 7 line’s new larger camera systems, so Apple moved the ledge lower in both devices. But there, it interfered with other components, particularly the audio jack.

So the company’s engineers tried removing the jack.

In doing so, they discovered a few things. First, it was easier to install the “Taptic Engine” that drives the iPhone 7’s new pressure-sensitive home button, which, like the trackpads on Apple’s latest MacBook, uses vibrating haptic sensations to simulate the feeling of a click — without actually clicking. (Did we mention that Apple killed the physical home button too?) Taptic Engine vibrations will also be used to deliver feeling specific notifications — hitting the end of a scrolled page, for example. And because Apple has given developers an API for it, an awful lot of other stuff as well — particularly in games.

“You can’t make it feel like there’s an earthquake happening, but the range of customization lets you do an awful lot,” Apple SVP Phil Schiller explains. “With every project there are things that surprise you with the meaning they take on as you start to use them. The Taptic Engine API is one of them. It turned into a much bigger thing than we ever thought it would be. It really does transform the experience for a lot of software. You’ll see.”

Second, there was an unforeseen opportunity to increase battery life. So the battery in the iPhone 7 is 14% bigger than the one in its predecessor, and in the iPhone 7 Plus, it’s 5% bigger. In terms of real-world performance gains, that’s about an additional two hours and one hour, respectively. Not bad.

Even better, removing the audio jack also eliminated a key point of ingress that Riccio says helped the new iPhone finally meet the IP7 water resistance spec Apple has been after for years (resistant when immersed under 1 meter of water for 30 minutes).

The 3.5-millimeter audio jack has been headed to its inevitable fate for some time now. If it wasn’t the iPhone 7, it might have been the iPhone 8 (or, for that matter, the iPhone 6). In the end, it was simple math that did the audio jack in, a cost-benefit analysis that sorely disfavored a single-purpose Very Old Port against a wireless audio future, some slick new cameras, and the kind of water resistance that anyone who has ever dropped an iPhone in the toilet has long wished for.

​Given that the new iPhone comes with both Lightning ear pods and a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter, I think this is a very fair trade off. I already do most of my listening with Bluetooth headphones, so this really won't affect me that much. I think the updated features are worth the loss of my headphone jack.

This entry was tagged. Apple iPhone

What's a Women's Issue? →

Mona Charen writes, at The Weekly Standard, about a Jewish charity called In Shifra's Arms (ISA). Its goal is to support women who have an unintended pregnancy, want to have the baby, but are being pressured into having an abortion. For all that the mainstream feminists focus on supporting a ”woman's right to choose“, they mainly support a woman's right to choose an abortion and provide precious little support for women who want to choose life, but are pressured (by men!) to choose abortion.

These are some of the women that ISA has helped.

A 42-year-old married immigrant from Russia with older children had not expected to be pregnant again. Her husband, a truck driver, was tyrannical and difficult. Money was tight. He was so insistent that she abort the child that he left the family home for a week. When he returned, he actually drove her to the abortion clinic. She sat immobilized in the car. "I'd done it before," she told Nathan, "and I just couldn't do it again. Even if my husband divorces me, I cannot do it."

She turned to In Shifra's Arms, where she found sympathy and then tangible help. The first step was helping the client to decide what her own wishes were. Since money was tight, the mother elected to get certified as an X-ray technician. In Shifra's Arms helped her with funds for babysitting for two semesters.

Her husband did not divorce her, and in time, was happy about the new addition to the family. All are now doing well and are grateful to ISA.

Another client was in her 30s when she contacted ISA. An Israeli, she was living in the United States with her American boyfriend. When he learned of her pregnancy, he angrily demanded that she get an abortion. Worried that this might be her last chance to become a mother, she refused. Her parents were both dead, but she did have an uncle in America. A secular liberal and abortion advocate, he chided her for getting pregnant in the first place and urged her to abort. When she declined, he refused any assistance. "You did this to yourself," he said. "Don't come to me."

Her boyfriend seemed to agree. Her unwillingness to abort was an affront. The abuse was first emotional and then eventually physical. (Some men beat their wives or girlfriends in hopes of inducing an abortion.) It became so extreme that she moved out. The local women's shelter was full, and while she had stayed with friends for a time, she felt she couldn't impose for too long. Out of options, she turned to a Christian crisis pregnancy center. There, she was safe, but uncomfortable. The center featured Christian worship, which was awkward. Through an Internet search, she discovered In Shifra's Arms. ISA cooperated with a local Chabad rabbi to find the pregnant woman a place to live for three months, and linked her with a domestic violence group. They advised her to return to Israel before the child's birth. In Shifra's Arms paid for her plane ticket and two months rent in Israel along with psychological counseling. She delivered a healthy baby boy. Her child, she reported from Israel, was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

The American left focuses on protecting abortion rights to such a degree that they're often hostile to crisis pregnancy centers that offer choices other than abortion. But many women don't want abortions. They just want a helping hand. Surely true feminism requires you to support women when they choose life. I'm glad ISA is doing that.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy [★★★★★]

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 27 August 2016 - 10 September 2016
Goal: Non-Fiction

I highlight the things I read for one of three reasons: because I vehemently disagree with it, because I agree with it, or because it makes me think. I've highlighted this book more than any other and all of it made me think.

J. D. Vance writes his story, of how he achieved the American dream. He's now a successful lawyer and venture capitalist, living in San Francisco, married, and with two dogs. He started as a hillbilly in Eastern Kentucky, lived with his mother, grandparents, and a string of his mother's boyfriends and husbands. He came from a broken home — in nearly every way that it's possible for a home to be broken.

While this is a story about overcoming obstacles, it's really a story about the obstacles and how daunting they are. This is a story about J. D., but it's really a story about hillbilly culture and how it's both an asset and an incredible hindrance to success.

I was enthralled by this book and often had trouble putting it down. But I also had multiple nights when I had to put it down, because J. D.'s story was wrenching and too emotionally draining to just power through.

This book, more than anything else I've ever heard or read, showed me how incredibly privileged I've been. Not in finances — I definitely didn't grow up rich — but in having an intact family, in having stability, and in having a supportive community who never told me anything other than how I would succeed in life. J. D. Vance's story was educational, in the best possible way.

This book is worth your time.

‘Polls Are Closed,’ They Lied →

C. Boyden Gray and Elise Passamani, writing at The American Conservative, argue that the major TV networks fed misinformation to voters in the Florida panhandle, during the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore.

The northwesternmost part of Florida is the Panhandle, which stretches along the Gulf of Mexico to Alabama. Often called the “Redneck Riviera,” it is the most Republican part of Florida, regularly giving Republicans big margins in state and national elections. The nine Panhandle counties that are farthest west—Bay, Calhoun, Escambia, Holmes, Jackson, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton, and Washington—are in the Central Time Zone, and one additional county, Gulf, is split between Central and Eastern Time. According to the Miami Herald, “It is only a few miles to the Alabama border from anywhere in the western Panhandle, but more than five hundred miles and a cultural light-year to Miami.”

On Election Night, between 6:30 and 7:50 p.m. Eastern, anchors on all the major networks and cable channels reported over and over again that the polls in all of Florida closed at 7 p.m. Eastern. Not once did anyone on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, NBC, or MSNBC inform the audience that Florida has two time zones and two poll closing times. During that hour and 20 minutes, 13 journalists asserted a total of 39 times that there was only one poll-closing time throughout the entire state of Florida.

​They argue that this misinformation caused hundreds of thousands of Florida votes to stay home, rather than voting after work, and that this voter suppression made the Florida vote look like a dead heat rather than a clear Bush lead.

The stark effect of this widespread misreporting can be seen in the sworn, notarized testimony of a pair of poll workers who were on duty as inspectors that day in Precinct Eight, Escambia County. According to the 2004 Almanac of American Politics, “Pensacola’s Escambia County, where about half the district’s people live, is the state’s westernmost county.” The first poll worker attested that:

We had the usual rush in the early morning, at noon and right after work. There was a significant drop in voters after 6:00. The last 40 minutes was almost empty. The poll workers were wondering if there had been a national disaster they didn’t know about. It was my observation that this decline in voters between 6:00 and 7:00 was very different when compared to previous elections. The last 30 minutes was particularly empty. There is usually a line after the poll closes. In this election there was no one.

The second poll worker corroborated the testimony of the first, stating, “The expected rush at the end of the day didn’t happen. We were all very surprised. It was a normal day until 6:00 pm. Between 6:00-7:00 pm voter turnout was very different from past elections. There was practically no one the last 40 minutes.” Since the final hour of voting in any election is typically characterized by an after-work rush, one can only imagine how many people would have voted in that last, deserted 40 minutes, but for the misinformation dispensed by the network and cable news anchors.

It is possible, though, to make a rough estimate. The Florida Department of State provides the 2000 election results by county in an online archive. If you add up the total votes from all 10 Panhandle counties in the Central Time Zone, you find that the total number of votes cast was 357,808; Bush received about 66 percent and Gore received about 31 percent. The polls were open for 12 hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If you divide the day into 12 hours of voting at an equal rate, with 357,808 representing the votes cast in the first 11 hours, an additional 12th hour would have yielded a further 32,528 votes. Assuming the partisan split remained the same, Bush would have received over 21,600 additional votes, and Gore more than 10,100. This would have added over 11,000 votes to Bush’s statewide margin in Florida. (The same calculation done excluding Gulf County, which is on both Central and Eastern Time, also adds more than 11,000 votes to Bush’s statewide margin.)

It stands to reason that the pattern of voting in the Panhandle in the final hour would have remained the same. While this additional group of votes would not have been large enough to have precluded an automatic machine recount immediately after the initial statewide tally, it would have raised Bush’s lead to five digits, and it would have ended the conversation about who actually won the state very early on.

​I think they have a point about the overall swing in the vote count and the margin in the election. I think they're overstepping their evidence when they argue that the news anchors deliberately lied, in an effort to boost Al Gore and harm George Bush.

I'm quite willing to believe that the anchors were idiots who couldn't manage to remember that Florida straddles two time zones. I'm much more skeptical about a deliberate coordinated series of lies, in an attempt to swing the results of the election.

FDA bans antibacterial soaps →

Beth Mole reports, for Ars Technica.

In a final ruling announced Friday, the Food and Drug Administration is pulling from the market a wide range of antimicrobial soaps after manufacturers failed to show that the soaps are both safe and more effective than plain soap. The federal flushing applies to any hand soap or antiseptic wash product that has one or more of 19 specific chemicals in them, including the common triclosan (found in antibacterial hand soap) and triclocarbon (found in bar soaps). Manufacturers will have one year to either reformulate their products or pull them from the market entirely.

As Ars has reported previously, scientists have found that triclosan and other antimicrobial soaps have little benefit to consumers and may actually pose risks. These include bolstering antibiotic resistant microbes, giving opportunistic pathogens a leg up, and disrupting microbiomes. In its final ruling, issued Friday, the FDA seemed to agree. “Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), said in a statement. “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.”

How Libertarianism Promotes Civil Society →

Jeffrey Tucker wrote, at the Foundation for Economic Education, about the differences between the alt-right and libertarianism. I enjoyed, and agreed with, his descriptions of what libertarians believe.

Creating a Harmony of Interests

A related issue concerns our capacity to get along with each other. Frédéric Bastiat described the free society as characterized by a “harmony of interests.” In order to overcome the state of nature, we gradually discover the capacity to find value in each other. The division of labor is the great fact of human community: the labor of each of us becomes more productive in cooperation with others, and this is even, or rather especially, true given the unequal distribution of talents, intelligence, and skills, and differences over religion, belief systems, race, language, and so on.

And truly, this is a beautiful thing to discover. The libertarian marvels at the cooperation we see in a construction project, an office building, a restaurant, a factory, a shopping mall, to say nothing of a city, a country, or a planet. The harmony of interests doesn’t mean that everyone gets along perfectly, but rather than we inhabit institutions that incentivize progress through ever more cooperative behavior. As the liberals of old say, we believe that the “brotherhood of man” is possible.

Small Acts of Rational Self-Interest

The libertarian believes that the best and most wonderful social outcomes are not those planned, structured, and anticipated, but rather the opposite. Society is the result of millions and billions of small acts of rational self interest that are channelled into an undesigned, unplanned, and unanticipated order that cannot be conceived by a single mind. The knowledge that is required to put together a functioning social order is conveyed through institutions: prices, manners, mores, habits, and traditions that no one can consciously will into existence. There must be a process in place, and stable rules governing that process, that permit such institutions to evolve, always in deference to the immutable laws of economics.

Breaking Down Barriers

The libertarian celebrates the profound changes in the world from the late Middle Ages to the age of laissez faire, because we observed how commercial society broke down the barriers of class, race, and social isolation, bringing rights and dignity to ever more people.Of course the classical liberals fought for free trade and free migration of peoples, seeing national borders as arbitrary lines on a map that mercifully restrain the power of the state but otherwise inhibit the progress of prosperity and civilization. To think globally is not a bad thing, but a sign of enlightenment. Protectionism is nothing but a tax on consumers that inhibits industrial productivity and sets nations at odds with each other. The market process is a worldwide phenomenon that indicates an expansion of the division of labor, which means a progressive capacity of people to enhance their standard of living and ennoble their lives.

Suspicion of Democracy

as many commentators have pointed out, both libertarians and alt-rightist are deeply suspicious of democracy. This was not always the case. In the 19th century, the classical liberals generally had a favorable view of democracy, believing it to be the political analogy to choice in the marketplace. But here they imagined states that were local, rules that were fixed and clear, and democracy as a check on power. As states became huge, as power became total, and as rules became subject to pressure-group politics, the libertarianism’s attitude toward democracy shifted.

Surf’s Up, and the Ocean Is Nowhere in Sight →

Diane Cardwell and Matt Higgins report for the New York Times on artificial surf parks. I started out feeling bemused by the entire idea. But the article is interesting and the technology and challenges are fascinating.

The quest to surf on artificial waves has long been challenged by the difficulties of mastering the fluid dynamics, engineering and mechanics necessary to mimic the ocean. And the energy required was often too expensive.

...

Mr. Townend was also an investor in the Ron Jon Surfpark, in Orlando, which was scheduled to open in 2008. It promised to produce saltwater waves eight to 10 feet high and to transform artificial waves from water park attractions into stand-alone operations.

The wave test run at Ron Jon Surfpark was “unreal,” Mr. Townend recalled. “But it tore the bottom up.” Investors lost millions in the failed experiment.

​So what's changed?

The newer surfing pools have been made possible by advances in computing, allowing for better simulations of how the water will behave and for more sophisticated controls. Slight changes in timing, pressure or angle of the water can determine whether a wave will form a curling barrel — the holy grail for skilled surfers — or a soft hump that’s easier to ride.

​The focus of the article is the new NLand Surf Park, in the Texas desert. (I just love the visual of ambitious investors trying to bring the most quintessential beach activity to one of the harshest and least beach like areas in America.) What is NLand?

a much-delayed attraction under development by Doug Coors, a scion of the beer-making family ... a giant artificial body of water within 160 acres of cactus-studded former ranch land here in Hill Country.

And how does NLand produce its waves?

The waves at NLand, like those at Mr. Slater’s site in California, which uses its own closely guarded technology, are produced using a hydrofoil. The large blade moves through the water, pushing it into formations as it hits the contoured bottom of the pool.

“Essentially a chairlift motor with a snowplow on it,” Mr. Coors said, the mechanism travels beneath a central pier, creating waves that flow off both sides until it reaches the end, where it resets and runs back the other way. The water comes from a rain catchment and filtration system, and the approach is less energy intensive than older wave-making practices that involved pumping.

Still it takes a lot of energy to make a wave — roughly equivalent to running 10 cars. Mr. Coors is considering installing solar panels to help generate the electricity.

​What are the advantages to surfing in Texas instead of in California?

“It takes a long time to become a surfer,” said Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, the global governing body for the sport. “If you’re in the ocean for an hour, and you get six, seven waves, you’re very lucky. Learning to surf is like learning to play the guitar when you can only strum once every 30 seconds.”

Some who have surfed NLand say it feels just like natural waves but with more frequent and longer rides — up to 35 seconds — that give novices more time to properly position themselves and advanced practitioners the opportunity for more maneuvers.

The entire article is interesting and includes some video of the NLand Surf Park. Sure, real beaches are the best, but I'd like to have some other options for waves when I'm stuck in Wisconsin, far from the beach.

Innovation and its enemies →

​Matt Ridley wrote about a new book, Innovation and Its Enemies.

“When a new invention is first propounded,” said William Petty in 1679, “in the beginning every man objects and the poor inventor runs the gauntloop of all petulant wits.” As Calestous Juma, of Harvard Kennedy School, recounts in a fascinating new book called Innovation and Its Enemies, even coffee and margarine were fiercely rejected at first.

He shared some of the stories from the book.

In the 16th and 17th century, coffee was repeatedly outlawed by religious and political leaders in Cairo, Istanbul and parts of Europe as it spread north from Ethiopia and Yemen. Their objection was ostensibly to its “intoxicating” qualities or on some spurious religious ground, but the real motivation was usually to ban coffee-houses’ alarming tendency to encourage the free exchange of ideas. King Charles II sought to close down all coffee houses explicitly because he did not like people sitting “half the day” in them “insinuating into the ears of people a prejudice against” rulers. He’d have hated Starbucks.

Margarine, invented in France in 1869, was subjected to a decades-long smear campaign (blame Professor Juma for the pun, not me) from the American dairy industry. “There never was . . . a more deliberate and outrageous swindle than this bogus butter business,” thundered the New York dairy commission. Even Mark Twain denounced margarine, showing that celebs have been anti-progress before.

Laws were passed in many states to cripple the margarine industry with bans, taxes, labelling laws and licensing provisions. By the early 1940s, two thirds of states had banned yellow margarine altogether on spurious health grounds. This is reminiscent of today’s reaction to the invention of vaping: banned in some countries, such as Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, discouraged in most others.

The Horse Association of America once fought a furious rearguard action against tractors. The American musicians’ union managed to ban all recorded music on the radio for a while. Like the initially successful opposition to railways from the canal owners in Britain a century before, incumbent industries will do their utmost to stop new challengers.

People react to many new innovations with an attitude of "ban it until it's proven safe". This is an easy reaction, but a wrong headed one. We're all made poorer by knee jerk fear. We look people at our ancestors and wonder how they could have possibly been afraid of margarine or coffee. What will our descendants think of our fear of GMO foods or plastics?

"Sustainer", Not "Help Meet"

I find Robert Alter's Bible translations fascinating because of his footnotes and his uniquely fresh take on translating different passages. I recently bought, and started reading, The Five Books of Moses, his translations of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. He caught my interest right away.

Long time Bible readers will be familiar with Genesis 2:18 (rendered here, from the KJV).

“And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”

Because of this verse, there's a nice tradition (at least in traditional Christian circles) of referring to one's husband or wife as "a help meet". I do it myself, on occasion. So I stopped and took notice when Alter footnoted this section.

The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “opposite him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.

Instead of "help meet", Alter translated the phrase as "sustainer".

“It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.”

I really like that. It has a much more active sound and still maintains the same connotation as someone that a person needs to thrive in his or her life.

This entry was tagged. Bible Marriage

Reading Idea: Remembering Abraham

Remembering Abraham

Remembering Abraham
by Ronald Hendel
$57.95 on Kindle

Robert Alter mentions this book in his introduction to The Five Books of Moses, as he talks about the historical origins of the Five Books.

Scholarship for more than two centuries has agreed that the Five Books are drawn together from different literary sources, though there have been shifting debates about the particular identification of sources in the text and fierce differences of opinion about the dating of the sundry sources. Some extremists in recent decades have contended that the entire Torah was composed in the Persian period, beginning the late sixth century B.C.E., or even later, in Hellenistic times, but there is abundant evidence that argues against that view. Perhaps the most decisive consideration is that the Hebrew language visibly evolves over the nine centuries of biblical literary activity, with many demonstrable differences between the language current in the First Commonwealth—approximately 1000 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E.—and the language as it was written in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. There is very little in the Hebrew of the Torah that could have been written in this later era. (Ronald Hendel provides a concise and trenchant marshaling of the linguistic evidence against late dating in the appendix to his Remembering Abraham.) A recent revisionist approach, purportedly based on archeological evidence, places the composition of our texts as well as most of the Former Prophets in the seventh century B.C.E., during the reign of King Josiah, the period when, according to scholarly consensus, most of Deuteronomy was written. This contention, however, flatly ignores the philological evidence that Deuteronomy was responding to, and revising, a long-standing written legal tradition, and that the editors of the so-called Deuteronomistic History (the national chronicle that runs from Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings) were manifestly incorporating much older texts often strikingly different from their own writing both in style and in outlook.

I looked up the book and the description caught my eye.

According to an old tradition preserved in the Palestinian Targums, the Hebrew Bible is "the Book of Memories." The sacred past recalled in the Bible serves as a model and wellspring for the present. The remembered past, says Ronald Hendel, is the material with which biblical Israel constructed its identity as a people, a religion, and a culture. It is a mixture of history, collective memory, folklore, and literary brilliance, and is often colored by political and religious interests.

In Israel's formative years, these memories circulated orally in the context of family and tribe. Over time they came to be crystallized in various written texts. The Hebrew Bible is a vast compendium of writings, spanning a thousand-year period from roughly the twelfth to the second century BCE, and representing perhaps a small slice of the writings of that period. The texts are often overwritten by later texts, creating a complex pastiche of text, reinterpretation, and commentary. The religion and culture of ancient Israel are expressed by these texts, and in no small part also created by them, as they formulate new or altered conceptions of the sacred past. Remembering Abraham explores the interplay of culture, history, and memory in the Hebrew Bible. Hendel examines the Hebrew Bible's portrayal of Israel and its history, and correlates the biblical past with our own sense of the past. He addresses the ways that culture, memory, and history interweave in the self-fashioning of Israel's identity, and in the biblical portrayals of the patriarchs, the Exodus, and King Solomon. A concluding chapter explores the broad horizons of the biblical sense of the past.

This accessibly written book represents the mature thought of one of our leading scholars of the Hebrew Bible.

It's a lot pricier than my normal reads (by at least a factor of four), but it sounds interesting nonetheless. It's not on my immediate list of things to find and read, but I wanted to remember it for future research and reading.

Reading Idea: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance
$12.99 on Kindle

Throughout the Republican primary, I kept wondering what attracted people to Donald Trump. Because I always look for the good in people, I refused to believe that Trump’s supporters were motivated by racism, misogyny, or nationalism. Some were, I’m sure. But all of them? I believed that there had to be something more — something that Trump represented that resonated with certain Americans.

Rod Dreher’s interview with J. D. Vance in The American Conservative caught my interest. Dreher had high praise for Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy and focused on the problem of Trump.

The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

​And the interview focused on the relationship between Trump and his voters.

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book.

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party.

​I already bought a copy of this book and I’ll be reading it soon.

Reading Idea: A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe
by Geoffrey Wawro
$11.99 on Kindle

I can be persuaded that a book is interesting on the slimmest of recommendations, sometimes. For instance, this offhand comment by Warren Meyer.

Back in the depths of WWI, the Germans woke up one day and found that their erstwhile ally Austria-Hungary, to whom they had given that famous blank check in the madness that led up to the war, was completely incompetent. Worse than incompetent, in fact, because Germany had to keep sending troops to bail them out of various military fixes, an oddly similar situation to what Hitler found himself doing with Italy in the next war. ([A Mad Catastrophe] is a really interesting book if you have any doubts about how dysfunctional the Hapsburg Empire was in its waning days).

And that's pretty much how Amazon describes the book too.

A prizewinning military historian explores a critical but overlooked cause for World War I: the staggering decrepitude of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The world isn’t getting worse — our information is getting better

Ray Kurzweil explained how it is that the headlines can be continually worse even if the world is getting better: our information is getting better.

People think the world’s getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

We know more than we've ever known before about what's going on around the world. Things aren't getting worse every day, we're just better informed about how things really are. Tragedies are no longer local news, they're now national news. Instead of rarely getting bad news about our local area, we now get daily bad news from everywhere. Even if there's less bad happening overall, there's still enough of it for one depressing headline a day. The upshot is that everything's getting better and everyone's convinced that everything's getting worse.

Review: Grendel [★★★☆☆]

Grendel

Grendel
by John Gardner

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 2 July 2016 - 5 July 2016
Goal: Literary Fiction

I read this book because Adam suggested it to me, as a somewhat out of the box choice for literary fiction. It's the story of Beowulf. Except that it's really the story of Grendel, the monster whom Beowulf killed. The entire story is told by Grendel, from his perspective.

This is one of those books where I feel like I must be missing something. Probably a lot of somethings. A lot of people really like this book. I didn't like it. I didn't hate it. I was mostly apathetic towards it.

It's short enough that I'd be willing to read it again, if I was reading it as part of a larger discussion group. I'd be interested to see what's there that I'm not seeing.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Imagine if Exxon Was Protected From Liability After the Valdez?

John Gruber approvingly quotes Evan Osnos:

Anybody — especially people who favor free markets — should conclude that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was a big mistake. Imagine if Exxon was protected from liability after the Valdez? That’s not how markets should work. It will probably be revised or repealed to make sure that companies are doing safe work — as with any industry.

The argument is that because Exxon was held responsible for the Valdez oil spill, gun manufacturers should be held responsible for deadly shootings.

That's one of the stupidest comments that I've seen smart people make. Exxon was the company operating the Valdez. The Valdez itself was manufactured by National Steel and Shipbuilding Company. As far as I can discover, NASSCO was never sued or penalized over the Exxon Valdez crash. Exxon (the user of the ship) faced massive penalties for the oil spill.

The same principle would apply to cars. If someone uses a Ford Focus to detonate a car bomb, you don't sue Ford for making the car. If someone drives a Ford into a crowd of people, killing some, you don't sue Ford for making the car. And if someone uses a Colt handgun or rifle to kill someone, you don't sue Colt for making the gun. You prosecute the individual who was using the gun.

This entry was tagged. Guns Regulation

2016 Reading Goals: Progress So Far

The year is half over and I've been reading books that catch my eye, without thinking too closely about this year's reading goals. I think it's time to look at how I'm doing, measured against my self imposed yardstick.

I wanted to spend more time reading long form articles on the web and less time just reading novels. I've been doing that, spending much more time in Instapaper than I normally do. I've already read a few more "slower" books than I normally do, but I still want to read more.

More Literary Fiction

I haven't yet read any literary fiction. Clearly, I need to focus on that over the next six months.

Non-Fiction

I've read three non-fiction books so far this year: Meet You in Hell, The Prime Ministers, and Mr. Lincoln's Army. (None of them were on my initial list.) Mr. Lincoln's Army impressed me enough that I'm likely to be reading more of Bruce Catton's series during the rest of the year.

Fix the Oops

I haven't yet read anything by Jack Vance.

Enjoy Comics

I've read Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows and Battlefields Vol. 1: The Night Witches. I'm slowly working my way through Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom.

Hard Science Fiction

I'm still having a hard time finding hard science fiction that I like. I've read Stephen Baxter's Space, but I didn't enjoy it that much. I'll keep looking.

Finish the 2014 and 2015 Goals

I had a major success here. I read the last three Wheel of Time novels and finished the series. One of 2014's goals checked off at last!

I still have the Culture novels to go and may re-read Kiln People or Ender's Game.

Other Diversions

I finally read William Gibson's Neuromancer. Brandon Sanderson published two new Mistborn novels and I read both of them. I was finally able to buy all of the Hornblower novels on Kindle and I've read several of them.

Between Hornblower and my recent discovery of The Accursed Kings, I’m feeling a strong pull back into historical fiction. I’ll either give into that pull this year or else it will definitely be on next year’s reading goals.

Conclusion

If I want to finish all of my goals this year, it looks like I should focus on literary fiction, hard science fiction, non-fiction, and the works of Jack Vance, over the next six months.

Time to re-visit the 2016 reading ideas list.

This entry was tagged. Reading List

Parents Should Avoid Comments on a Child's Weight

Roni Caryn Rabin reports, at the New York Times' Well blog.

Should parents talk to an overweight child about weight? Or should they just keep their mouths shut?

​And?

Now a new study offers some guidance: Don’t make comments about a child’s weight.

The study, published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders, is one of many finding that parents’ careless — though usually well-meaning — comments about a child’s weight are often predictors of unhealthy dieting behaviors, binge eating and other eating disorders, and may inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about weight that children internalize. A parent’s comments on a daughter’s weight can have repercussions for years afterward, contributing to a young woman’s chronic dissatisfaction with her body – even if she is not overweight.

​Tell me more.

The new study included over 500 women in their 20s and early 30s who were asked questions about their body image and also asked to recall how often their parents commented about their weight. Whether the young women were overweight or not, those who recalled parents’ comments were much more likely to think they needed to lose 10 or 20 pounds, even when they weren’t overweight.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, characterized the parents’ critical comments as having a “scarring influence.”

“We asked the women to recall how frequently parents commented, but the telling thing was that if they recalled it happening at all, it had as bad an influence as if it happened all the time,” said Dr. Wansink, author of the book “Slim by Design.” “A few comments were the same as commenting all the time. It seems to make a profound impression.”

Some studies have actually linked parents’ critical comments to an increased risk of obesity. One large government-funded study that followed thousands of 10-year-old girls found that, at the start of the study, nearly 60 percent of the girls said someone — a parent, sibling, teacher or peer – had told them they were “too fat.” By age 19, those who had been labeled “too fat” were more likely to be obese, regardless of whether they were heavy at age 10 or not.

​That's scary. What should parents do?

Dr. Neumark-Sztainer was besieged by parents asking her this question, and wondering, “How do I prevent them from getting overweight and still feel good about themselves?”

In her book, called “I’m, Like, SO Fat: Helping Your Teen Make Health Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World,” she notes that parents can influence a child’s eating habits without talking about them. “I try to promote the idea of talking less and doing more — doing more to make your home a place where it’s easy to make healthy eating and physical activity choices, and talking less about weight.”

For parents, that means keeping healthy food in the house and not buying soda. It means sitting down to enjoy family dinners together, and also setting an example by being physically active and rallying the family to go for walks or bike rides together. Modeling also means not carping about your own weight. “Those actions speak louder than words,” Dr. Puhl said.

This entry was tagged. Children Food

Reading Idea: The Accursed Kings

The Iron King

The Accursed Kings
by Maurice Druon
$45 on Kindle

Reading Recommendations from George R.R. Martin (emphasis added)

Fantasies are not the only books I recommend to my readers, however. It has always been my belief that epic fantasy and historical fiction are sisters under the skin, as I have said in many an interview. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE draws as much on the traditions of historical fiction as it does on those of fantasy, and there are many great historical novelists, past and present, whose work helped inspire my own.

Look, if you love A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and want "something like it" to read while you are waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for me to finish THE WINDS OF WINTER, you really need to check out Maurice Druon and THE ACCURSED KINGS.

I never met Druon, alas (he died only a few years ago, and I regret that I never had the chance to shake his hand), but from all reports he was an extraordinary man. He was French, highly distinguished, a resistance fighter against the Nazis, a historian, a member of the French Academy... well, you can read about his life on Wikipedia, and it makes quite a story in itself. He wrote short stories, contemporary novels, a history of Paris... and an amazing seven-volume series about King Philip IV of France, his sons and daughters, the curse of the Templars, the fall of the Capetian dynasty, the roots of the Hundred Years War. The books were a huge success in France. So huge than they have twice formed the basis for television shows (neither version is available dubbed or subtitled in English, to my annoyance), series that one sometimes hears referred to as "the French I, CLAUDIUS."

Hers the publisher's description for the first novel, The Iron King.

Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!”

The Iron King – Philip the Fair – is as cold and silent, as handsome and unblinking as a statue. He governs his realm with an iron hand, but he cannot rule his own family: his sons are weak and their wives adulterous; while his red-blooded daughter Isabella is unhappily married to an English king who prefers the company of men.

A web of scandal, murder and intrigue is weaving itself around the Iron King; but his downfall will come from an unexpected quarter. Bent on the persecution of the rich and powerful Knights Templar, Philip sentences Grand Master Jacques Molay to be burned at the stake, thus drawing down upon himself a curse that will destroy his entire dynasty…

That sounds … wonderful. It's even better because it's all based on real history. The past is an experience that we can never have or see. I love historical fictional for its ability to make the past live and breathe again. (It's not a perfect reproduction of the past, but it's far better than nothing.)

The entire series is available on Kindle, for just $45.

  1. Books 1-3: The Iron King, The Strangled Queen, The Poisoned Crown; $9.90
  2. The Royal Succession; $6.99
  3. The She-Wolf; $7.99
  4. The Lily and the Lion; $7.99
  5. The King Without a Kingdom; $11.99

Love your spouse more than your kids

When your children eventually leave you — and if you’ve done your job right, that’s exactly what they’ll do

​What a great statement. It's blunt enough to be surprising, but completely true.

Karol Markowicz is arguing that you should live your life in such a way that you still have an identifiable life once you no longer have kids at home.

This entry was tagged. Children