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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith:

Good grief.  At the time of this posting there are almost 70,000 ratings and  baskets of reviews.  So why another one?  Good question.

Predictably, if you are a Mormon you won’t like this book, although it does seem to be well-researched and relatively even-handed. What appears to us skeptics as just silly nonsense is, for some people, inspired holy writ.  Go figure. The Mormons themselves can't figure out what's revelation or not and who is or is not a prophet as Joseph Smith discovered to his dismay. His original revelation suggested that any Mormon could receive a revelation but quickly got another message from God that revelations would only go through Joseph Smith or his appointee.  Very convenient way of maintaining control. God said so, so do it. What a great line.

It's interesting, but reading about some of the  misdeeds of the early Mormon settlers and comments about this book on other sites, I was reminded of similar remarks made on Civil War book reviews by adherents of the "Lost Cause" myth. The same kind of myopic view .

I had no idea that those "other" Mormons, the FLDS, the polygamists, thrive(d) in assorted little places like Colorado City/Hildale, AZ/Utah twin cities that straddle the border. ** The whole town is controlled despotically by the local leader/prophet (it sure is tempting to declare myself a prophet and start pronouncing, what a kick.)  The police, the school board, the mayor, everyone in authority is FLDS. The United Effort Plan owns almost all the town property. Many men there have many wives and it has become  (or should anyway,) a scandal in the way they manipulate the system. Since the wives are legally single mothers and are unemployed they draw millions in benefits which becomes a major source of income for the hubby in charge. Ironically, if the marriages were declared legal, they would lose millions.  The FLDS folks are positive they represent the true adherence to the "principle", celestial marriage without which one cannot go to heaven;  the mainstream is equally positive their prophet got a message from God indicating that being admitted tot he union was more important than celestial marriage.  So, there you are.  I say put it to trial  by ordeal. Dump both prophets in a vat of boiling oil.  Of course, in the end, it's all about money and power.

 The issue of what constitutes valid revelation from God (somebody explain to me why God finds it necessary to speak in 15th century English.) Since all male Mormons become priests (blacks excepted until God changed his mind about their essential evilness in the early sixties) many of them feel God is speaking unto them. Most of us would consider them delusional and in the case of Dan and Ron Lafferty who insisted God had told them to strike down the infidels who happened to be their wives. Raised in an atmosphere of religious fanaticism and paranoia, not to mention hatred of the federal government (I’ve never understood why federal and not state and township,) they saw themselves as the true righteous and holy.  Ron’s descent began when his wife refused to go along with his desire to take a polygamous wife.  In 1984 he received a “removal revelation” from God which he recorded on a yellow legal tablet.  He and Dan then murdered Brenda and Erica. Last I checked, Ron was awaiting execution in Utah.  He is now 61 and his brother is serving two life sentences.

 The Lafferty’s had been fans of Robert Crossfield, otherwise known as Onias, who claimed to have received several revelations of God making hm the one and true prophet.  They helped to distribute the Onias revelations, which, conveniently, also said the Lafferty’s had been the chosen ones even before they were born.

Krakauer interweaves the history of the Mormon church i n this bloodthirsty account of the Lafferty brothers. He finds the seeds of their crimes in the church.

Tidbits: Brigham Young wanted the  statet o be called the Beehive state rather than Utah (after the Ute Indians) because of its emphasis on the collective doing what's best for the group rather than emphasizing the individual. Today, given the collective association with communism, the beehive on the state flag is considered to represent "industry."

 If you are interested in the whole revelation business, I recommend the LDS website’s transcript of the revelation regarding blacks and the priesthood. It’s available here: Hard to believe there are people who take this stuff seriously.

For a recent example, I quote this from the June 3 Washington Post: "

The leaders have come under intense scrutiny. Barely 36 hours after the caustic New Year’s Dayvote, Boehner faced a coup attempt from a clutch of renegade conservatives. Thecabal quickly fell apart when several Republicans, after a night of prayer, saidGod told them to spare the speaker…..

Southerland woke up convinced that Boehner should be spared. Others, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they, too, prayed before siding with Boehner.“ He’s not a God of chaos, he’s a God of order,” Southerland said."

Amazing that God might give a shit about the Speaker of the House.

Oh, and by the way, I have just received a startling revelation. Everyone reading this must get  together and purchases for me an around-the-world cruise on the QM2, a suite of course. Chop, chop, if you want to avoid everlasting damnation.  Now explain to me how that might be different from a revelation to kill my wife or to add wives.  Or start a new religion.


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Review of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel: Questions, Answers, & Reflections

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel: Questions, Answers, & Reflections:

I have been reading Patrick Smith's blog on Salon for several years.  He's a professional airline pilot and always brings sense and rational thinking to the often hyperbolic world that is so prevalent in a society that prefers the fearful over understanding. I was hooked from the start, especially by his enthusiasm for the journey  as opposed to just the destination when traveling.  I think he's also correct when he describes air travel as having become so commonplace it's now, by definition, tedious.  I found the information to be fascinating and useful. He's opinionated and sometimes pedantic (does one lead to the other?) but since I suffer from the same flaw, it's hard for me to be critical.

I remember my first sight of a 747.  I had just dropped off my wife at the Minneapolis Airport decades ago and I had just left the airport and drove by the end of a runway when I was confronted by this behemoth, resembling a ship in size, as it accelerated just a little overhead.  "Jesus H. Christ" (note the presence of the middle initial prevents it from being blasphemous - then again, blasphemy is a victimless crime)  was all I could come up with.  There is no way something that large could ever fly.  And now we sit (crammed, if you must know, in a tube called the  "Boeing 747, a plane that if tipped onto its nose would rise as tall as a 20-story office tower. I’m at 33,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, traveling at 600 miles per hour, bound for the Far East. And what are the passengers doing? Complaining, sulking, tapping glumly into their laptops. A man next to me is upset over a dent in his can of ginger ale. This is the realization, perhaps, of a fully evolved technology. Progress, one way or the other, mandates that the extraordinary become the ordinary."  What a shame when the extraordinary becomes the ordinary (the laptop being another example.)

Smith's goal (he's an active airline pilot and I suspect the name might be a pseudonym) is lofty. "I begin with a simple premise: everything you think you know about flying is wrong. That’s an exaggeration, I hope, but not an outrageous starting point in light of what I’m up against. Commercial aviation is a breeding ground for bad information, and the extent to which different myths, fallacies, and conspiracy theories have become embedded in the prevailing wisdom is startling. Even the savviest frequent flyers are prone to misconstruing much of what actually goes on. “

I loved his comments about airports and what they should be like.  I had no idea the difficulty foreign visitors have simply using an American airport as a transit point to other places. They have to go through immigration, get fingerprinted, suffer all sorts of other indignities, collect and recheck their luggage, not to mention go through TSA indignities  again.  Even if they are only passing through. This is why US airlines are losing business to airlines like Emirates and Singapore which fly through Frankfurt and Dubai, airports which cater to transit passengers.  Why can't airports have short-stay hotels inside secure areas? How about free wireless? Stores that sell something other than Mont Blanc pens? Multiple power ports? Play areas for children (the Kids' Forest in Amsterdam would attract even adults if no one was looking)?  Information kiosks that actually dispense information? Not to mention enough seats in the waiting area for the size plane at the gate (no more sitting on the floors.)  Airports in other countries have managed to do these things.  What's wrong with American airports?  I part company with him about airstairs however.  Give me a jet-way any day. Taking the bus from the terminal to the plane in Frankfurt and then climbing up a set of stairs in the rain was not what I signed on for.  *He* may think it's thrilling and a reminder of yesteryear;  not me.  And must we be bombarded with constant CNN at the gate which no one ever watches and can't be shut off (there aren't even power cords.)

If you've ever wanted to know what happens when lightning hits an airplane (frequently), what declaring an emergency really means, what planes dump fuel and why, (dumping toilet waste is impossible), and why when someone says the turbulence was so bad they dropped thousands of feet it was probably only 20 feet (I actually enjoy turbulence,)  what a walk-around accomplishes, the hidden but crucial role of dispatchers, why V1 is an important decision point, why losing an engine on takeoff is more of an inconvenience than a danger, then this book is for you.

And, of course, how could we discuss flying without mentioning the security theater run by the TSA. As Smith notes, maximum security prisons staffed by jack-booted guards who have total control can't keep knives or drugs out of prisons, so whatever gives the TSA the idea they can prevent box-cutters from getting on an airplane when they have to screen 2,000,000 people a day. And the premise is wrong. They are looking for "things" rather than "people." The success of the terrorists on 9/11 had nothing to do with airport security; it was a failure of "national security." The CIA and FBI failed us. And the terrorists benefited from a mindset that viewed hijacking as they had occurred in the seventies (when in one year there were 40(!) skyjackings, usually resulting in a brief layover in Havana. Armored doors on cockpits would have prevented all of them and what happened on 9/11 (airlines refused for decades to install them because of the cost and added weight.) So now everyone from age 2 to 95 (including pilots who could bring down a plane with a twitch of a thumb - he had a butter knife confiscated from his carry-on once) is considered a suspect even though even a moron knows how to craft a weapon from a ball-point pen. But we all love our delusions (and over 80% of Americans believe in angels.)

His comments on UFOs and the conspiracy theories that pilots have agreed not to talk about them. "For the record, I have never seen one, and I have never met another pilot who claims to have seen one. I had to laugh at the notion of there being a tacit agreement among pilots over anything, let alone flying saucers.... And although plenty of things in aviation are tantamount to career suicide, withholding information about UFOs is not one of them."

Happy flying.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Justice Alito's Inexcusable Rudeness - Garrett Epps - The Atlantic

Justice Alito's Inexcusable Rudeness - Garrett Epps - The Atlantic:

What's truly depressing is less Alito's opinionated facial reactions to both Obama and Ginsberg, than the tone of disrespect and boorishness of many of the commentators to this article. One expects better from readers of The Atlantic. I, as a classic liberal, happen to believe, along with Floyd Abrams, that Citizens United was rightly decided. I also happen to be of the opinion that economic inequality represents a serious problem in this country, but the way to fix that is not by attacking speech whether it be from an individual (regardless of wealth), an association (regardless of message), or a corporation, including newspapers (regardless of ownership.) Let's not forget the an issue in Citizens United was political speech, a form of speech that clearly was intended to be protected by the First Amendment. It was a quasi-documentary, paid for by an association of individuals to be broadcast within 60 days of the election. That FEC time restriction was, in part, what was ruled unconstitutional. I urge those interested to listen to the oral arguments and then read the majority and minority opinions of the Court. They are illuminating. There were four parts to the decision, the one that seems to have most irritated people was overruling the section of the McConnell decision. (In the prior cases, the Court had held that political speech may be banned based on the speaker's corporate identity.) But the court also held disclosure rules as constitutional and I believe strong disclosure requirements would go a long way toward addressing some people's concerns.

Obama's comments in the State of the Union Address represented an opinion. To call that a lie is just to misuse language. He may have been wrong in his suggestion that Citizens United would open the floodgates of foreign influence (there's little evidence that has happened - indeed the enormous spending on the right by all sorts of groups in the last election seems to have backfired) but when we conflate presenting an opinion with lying (which implies a deliberate falsehood) we descend to the nether regions of mudslinging with no substance. Alito's facial expressions are just symptomatic of his partisan rudeness, nothing more and should not detract from a much more serious concern: his consistent support for authoritarian governmental/business measures. .

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review of Death of a Village

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Death of a Village:

Hamish MacBeth is a walking crime squad, an infinite repository of local knowledge, who cheerfully solves any number of crimes from a nursing home killing patients (with the help of a Miss Marple wannabe), a husband-beater who marries gullible men for their money, and a village that seemingly has found God, but actually.... well, read the book. All the while conspiring with Jimmy, a detective constable, to avoid being promoted, so he won't have to leave his little corner of the world.

Some people will argue these books have become formulaic. Then again the formula for my favorite pizza never seems to get old and neither does this series. Hamish is such a likable character it's hard not to enjoy these pieces of fluffery. But they are just the thing to pass the time and to listen to in audio form.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Review of The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception:

In 1947, many old scrolls were found in several caves near Qumran along the shores of the Dead Sea. They were very old, but their significance was not immediately recognized. Eventually, most of them found their way into the hands of the Ecole Biblique, a Dominican-owned-and-operated research institution in what was then part of Jordan. The scrolls appeared to date from around 200 B.C. to 70 A.D. and were originally thought to be the work of the Essenes, a monastic group of pacifistic Jews who retreated to the desert to live a communal and impoverished existence.

The Ecole Biblique was headed by an anti-Semitic monk named Father de Vaux. He and a small group of scholars (whose credentials have been disputed) jealously guarded the scrolls from any outside (particularly Jewish) examination. Meanwhile, the world waited to discover what these scrolls might contain. Only small portions leaked out. John Allegro, one of the early members of the team, suggested that the contents of the scrolls indicated that much of the Christian "myth," to use his phrase, was already recorded in the scrolls, which had been written many years before the birth of Jesus. Allegro, (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth) insisted that the Christian orthodox creed survived by ruthlessly suppressing any deviant beliefs, and by institutionalizing the beliefs of the early Essenes. Allegro was drummed out of the Ecole for such speculations and refused further access to the documents. Admittedly some of his later writings were quite fantastic and peculiar.

By the late 1980s the failure of the international team, as it was now called, to release the scrolls for examination by scholars other than those approved by the team, had become an academic scandal. The Biblical Archaeology Review and major biblical scholars around the world finally created great pressure on the Ecole to make the documents available. They consistently refused to do so, arguing that they wanted to prevent "shoddy" scholarship.

Only recently have the documents become available through other means. The Huntington Library in California, which had come into possession of a microfilm copy of the scroll photographs, decided to make the material public on interlibrary loan to any interested scholar, and a text was published of the scrolls which had been created from a published concordance.

But let's return to my original premise. Because of the Ecole's reluctance to permit outsiders to view any of the scrolls, and the Ecole's very close ties to the Catholic church (de Vaux and his successors have all sat on the Pontifical Biblical Commission, whose job it is to monitor and supervise all biblical studies of the church), naturally it was only a matter of time before someone decided that a conspiracy existed to suppress the scrolls because they contained information that threatened the very existence of the Christian Church.
Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh have done just that in a recent book entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception. Baigent is previously known for his collaboration on another book, Holy Blood Holy Grail, which, according to reviews, purported to discover a plot by the Prieure de Sion, a secret French society. This group derived its raison d'etre from a legend that claims Jesus did not die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene, and together they sired a line of Merovingian kings (which doesn't say much for their blood line). Anyway, the authors predicted that believers in this Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ and emphasized his humanity, would place one of the Merovingian descendants on the throne of Europe. Baigent and Leigh admit to having no evidence for this little theory, only a hypothesis. They make it sound plausible, but that doesn't cut it. Ockham's Razor, or the third rule of history, states that in the absence of evidence, what most likely happened is probably the simplest solution; that which requires the fewest assumptions.

As in the Merovingian plot book, their "Deception" book is very short on evidence. Suggesting that the Catholic Church would want to suppress evidence that Jesus' beliefs predated his birth might be plausible, but it's irresponsible to present a thesis based simply on conjecture. An eminent theologian and scholar I consulted confirmed my suspicions that the mystery surrounding the scrolls, while indeed a scandal from the standpoint of scholars in the field, represents nothing more than a case of little men guarding a tremendous find for themselves and their friends. Still, the book is fun to read and does disclose a fascinating account of an academic embarrassment. 

Another, more scholarly work, albeit early (1955), is by Millar Burrows and entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls . Fortunately, now that the Ecole and the international team have been suitably humiliated, one can hope that we will see more accurate and less speculative studies on the archaeological find of the century.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Review of Dead Watch

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Dead Watch:

Listened to this as an audiobook.  Read by a favorite: Richard Ferrone who seems to make a specialty of John Sandford's books.

A refreshing change from the increasingly redundant Lucas Davenport series. In this case we follow Jacob, "Jake,"  Winter, a "forensic bureaucracy specialist."  He works for the president's chief of staff as a fixer who uses his knowledge of the bureaucracy to solve problems. He has one "Rule":  who benefits? Answer that question and most every problem becomes easily solvable. Shades of Mike Lawson's Joe DeMarco, another very good series.

Madeline Bowe's husband, Lincoln, an ex-Senator has disappeared.  He was becoming a thorn in the side of the "Watchman" a nebulous group reminiscent of the Brown Shirts and Ku Klux Klan all rolled into one. Jake's "research" soon uncovers a much larger plot related to the presidential election.  To reveal any more might spoil it.

All that being said, my one complaint is that some of Jake's more extreme actions in the end of the book (endings are not a Sandford strong suit,) seem out of character and occur only because it gets the author off the hook.  I much prefer conclusions that use the protagonist's intelligence to turn the evil-doer's actions back on themselves without the seemingly inevitable reliance on bullets, to my way of thinking, the dummies' way out.  I suppose many authors feel the necessity to appeal to the large segment who complain if there's no "action." Action is cheap.

Great for traveling, mowing, doing chores.

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Sunday, June 09, 2013

Review of The Bombmaker

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Bombmaker:

Every parent's nightmare. A child is kidnapped and held under threat of death to force the parent to do something that may result in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Andy is a former IRA bomb-maker. Retired from the IRA after a bomb accidentally kills some children who were not the targets, she has another secret that we only learn mid-way through the book, but which has profound implications for everyone's actions. Martin, her husband, knows nothing of her past. Katie, their daughter, has been taken by a group of ostensible terrorists who want her to construct a massive fertilizer bomb, a la Timothy McVeigh, the kind of bomb that had been Andy's specialty. (Their ultimate motivation stretches credulity, but never mind.) In return they will keep Katie safe, they promise, but if Andy fails to follow instructions precisely, her daughter will die. Andy soon realizes that part of their plan is to tag the IRA for the bombing. Why, remains a mystery until almost the end.

Neither Andy nor the readers know the motivations of the "terrorist" cell, composed of a mix of true-believers (but in what?) and common criminals. We learn early on it's related to a shadowy Chinese general, whose motivations are equally suspect. That makes for a volatile mix but Andy and Katie are not without their own resources. Then throw in MI-5 to spice things up.

The actions and feelings of the participants struck me as very realistic, and one gets the feeling that these are real people dealing with what could be a very real situation (except for the Chinese motivation) and that ratchets up the tension considerably.

Great mowing/traveling listen.

Review of Every Precious Thing

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Every Precious Thing:

Logan, in his second outing, is asked to locate Alan's wife, Sara, who disappeared into Mexico, leaving only a note and their child. After Alan returns home, he discovers that every trace of Sara has been removed from their home, including pictures stored on their computer. Alan, worried for her safety, contacts his lawyer who hires Logan.  Soon, it becomes apparent that others are looking for her, too. Questions arise.  Is Diana really operating in Sara's best interest. And who is the doctor who hires thugs (relatively incompetent) to track her down and along the way eliminate the competition?

There is a side plot involving Logan's father and his long-lost brother who had been killed in World War II. It seemed irrelevant and continually interrupted the story.  Contrary to many other reviewers, I didn't think it expanded on the relationship between Logan and his father at all.  Harp's brother (Logan's uncle) had been missing for sixty+ years and his Logan and his father haven't developed much of a relationship by that time, well....

I read the first Logan Harper and while the first part of that book (Little Girl Gone) was a good mystery, the last half, when he was in Thailand and Burma bordered on ridiculous (of course my credibility is strained here since I liked most of the Bond movies.)  On a more general note, I think I prefer Battles' Jonathan Quinn "cleaner" books a bit better even if they tend to even more fantastical.

We all have different expectations for books we read (or listen to.)  Those expectations can be met or destroyed by any combination of things: are we reading for information?  entertainment? to be challenged? is the narrator competent?, etc.  Sometimes when I read negative -- or positive -- reviews of books like this, I wonder whether the reviewer might have forgotten this basic premise.

This book more than met my expectations for a good light read/listen that kept my interest while mowing and driving to work.  Three instead of four stars (ridiculous rating system) because the ending leaned toward action rather than a more cerebral solution which I prefer.

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Friday, June 07, 2013

Antonin Scalia, Bleeding-Heart Liberal -

Antonin Scalia, Bleeding-Heart Liberal -

""If the Court’s identification theory is not wrong," Scalia writes, "there is no such thing as error." And since "the Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incrimi­nating evidence," he concludes, Maryland's law is unconstitutional."

and In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the 2004 case involving an American citizen detained in the United States as an "enemy combatant," Scalia took the most radical position against the Bush administration, saying the government had to try Hamdi in civilian court or let him go. That is hardly the position of an authoritarian.

"Sentencing is another area where Scalia has shown concern for the rights of criminal defendants. He and Thomas led the charge against mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, insisting that the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury means judges may not determine facts that automatically trigger harsher punishment."

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