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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Review: Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir by Matthew Chapman

Matthew Chapman is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. He's also a screenwriter and director of some note — at least to his lights. He's also an avowed atheist who decided to investigate the site of the famous "monkey trial," the infamous battle between religion and science in Dayton, Tennessee immortalized in the wonderful film Inherit the Wind. The book becomes a combination historical narrative/ memoir/personal voyage. He explains his interest in the Scopes trial this way: After a bus driver explains he belongs to the Pentecostal Church, where people speak in tongues and "fall over backwards" — 'It's amazin,' I ain't never seen one git hurt' — using that as incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God, Chapman is compelled to observe that "It requires so little proof on the one hand and so much on the other. People will inform you that Jesus was born of an angel-impregnated virgin and walked on water 'because it's in the Bible,' but think nothing of telling you with a sniff of contempt that evolution is 'just a theory, ain't no proof.' The inherent unfairness of this double standard is one of the things that attracts me to the Scopes Trial."

There are books about the Scopes trial that provide much more detail of how George Rappleyea, a Dayton resident, wanted to take advantage of the controversy surrounding passage of the Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of evolution, by hosting a trial in Dayton, a town that had suffered a severe economic downturn after a local mine closed. Inherit the Wind provides a good feel for the climate (pun intended) of the trial and community, but simplifies tremendously. The defense and prosecution each had four to five lawyers and one of the famous speeches for the defense was actually given by Dudley Malone rather than by Charles Darrow, one of my heroes — but those are minor quibbles.

Chapman, an open-minded, good-humored fellow, recounts his delinquent childhood and his musings about life in general as he visits with the Bryan College professor who teaches "proof" of creation and with a local minister, attending his church. He confronts his preconceptions of the South, his "neurotic city-dweller" northernness — fearing the banjo-toting violent, redneck with the gun rack in the truck. What he finds most disturbing, however is the pervasive religiosity. "I feel adrift. It makes me uneasy. What I find disturbing is not so much the belief in God, but the habit of credulity which it engenders. If they can believe in God --who never shows his face — simply because it makes them feel good, what else might they be persuaded to believe in? What's the difference between religious evangelism and political propaganda? Might one prepare you for the other? Was it not credulity as much as 'evil' which made the attempted extermination of the Jews possible?

Chapman goes on a field trip with some of the Bryan College geology students to visit a cave that their professor explains has evidence of the creationist theory of creation. On the way back in the van, he engages in a discussion with the students about hell, and they reveal a certainty that those who do not accept Jesus as their personal savior will be consigned to an everlasting hell. "I'm not saying these kids are Nazis — I like them, in fact — but . . . believing in a literal hell, a burning lake, an inferno of unimaginable suffering, they accept with equanimity that seven-eighths of the world, including me, will end up in it. Forever. . . "Either they don't really believe this or in fact there is something Nazi-like about them: their Final Solution is one of extraordinary scope and brutality; a holocaust of souls which makes the Führer's merely physical extermination of the Jews seem positively amateur. 'Our Father' is far more ambitious: he's going for the eternal destruction of not just Jews, but Hindus, Homos, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, atheists, agnostics, and presumably Scientologists and others on the lunatic fringe. Seven-eighths of the people He creates, He then destroys. The only place you get worse odds is the abattoir. The girl I'm looking at as I'm thinking this is an accounting major. How on earth can she become an accountant? Then what? A mother? Little League? A nice home? One of those vans with a sliding door down the side? Knowing what she knows, how can she even contemplate this? How could you enjoy the comforts of a suburban life knowing that your God is going to flambé just about everyone you meet? But there she sits, as optimistic and contented as any teenager I ever met."

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: The Scopes Monkey Trial (Images of America: Tennessee) by Randy Moore

I've always been fascinated by the Scopes "Monkey" trial, especially after watching the brilliant performances of Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly, and Frederic March in the classic Inherit the Wind (1960). (The 1988 film starring Kirk Douglas and Jason Robards is God awful and should be destroyed.) As we've been reading Marion Rogers biography of Mencken for my reading club, I thought I'd review some of the more salient features of the trial. This is a terrific book for that with supporting photographs.

I was not aware that Mencken had already left Dayton before the climactic interrogation of Bryan by Darrow. I knew it was hot, but did not know that that famous event was also outside the courtroom on a platform under the shade of the trees. The courtroom itself, was the largest in Tennessee, and pictures taken during the trial reveal just how large the crowd was. Scopes himself went on the study geology and worked in South America for an oil company. Ironically, the jury was barely in attendance during the trial, having been sent out repeatedly while the lawyers wrangled over procedural issues. The fine itself was never collected and the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution, remained on the books until 1967 when it was successfully challenged. It was followed in 1968 by Epperson v Arkansas when the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated an Arkansas law of similar ilk.

Bryan was a tragic figure. An immensely popular populist he was nominated to run for president on the Democratic ticket three times ,and had he not associated himself with the anti-science movement would have gone down in history as far less of a buffoon. Darrow himself had supported Bryan in his quest for the presidency. Dayton ruined what was left of their former friendship and Bryan died six day later following his usual gluttonous repast. (He was diabetic.)

In his defense, much of Bryan's antipathy toward evolutionary theory was its misuse by natural selection advocates who then made the leap to eugenics. The textbook that was being used in the school was filled with racist statements and its portrayal of evolution (there are pictures of the page in question in this book) was worse than simplistic. "The author, George William Hunter, not only asserted the biological difference of races, he insisted on the vital importance of what he called “the science of being well born”—eugenics. Like most progressives of the time, Hunter believed in “the improvement of man” via scientific methods. That meant promoting personal hygiene, proper diet, and reproductive control. A Civic Biology also has suggestions for what to do with “bad-gened” people, in a section called “The Remedy.”

A prophetic paragraph from Bryan's never delivered speech: Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed, but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo. (https://newrepublic.com/article/128144/dark-history-liberal-reform.)

If you are looking for a compact review of the events and characters of the trial, this one is perfect.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Review: Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked by Marcia Biederman

Those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties will remember Sputnik and the intense fear that permeated the American science and education communities. America could not be permitted to fall behind in the space or arms race and to stay ahead education was to be reformed and supported. 

It was the perfect medium for Evelyn Wood and her husband to grow interest and support for her "dynamic" reading program that purported to not only increase reading speed, sometimes up to 25,000 words per minute, but also would increase comprehension and memory they claimed. 

It was all bunk. Studies done by NASA in 2000 showed that while speeds supposedly increased comprehension declined. In fact, even an exceptional student whose eye can make four fixations per second, is limited to only 600 wpm and then they have to go back. The Woods' (her husband ran the business part) claimed that the secret was to enlarge the view and increase the number of words per fixation. Sounds good. Unfortunately there was little to it.

They were outstanding at publicity, but they had famous people in their corner, as well. JFK was a big advocate and had even recommended that her course should be required for Congress. (I don't remember any one suggesting it for Supreme Court Justices who do far more reading -- crucial reading -- than anyone else. Then again, JFK didn't write Profiles in Courage, either.)

Even the demonstrations had a catch. Before reading the book, demonstrators were allowed to peruse the cover and the book and take notes before whipping through the novel (rarely was it non-fiction.) Readers were often told to spend twenty minutes or so "previewing" the book before launching in a twenty minute "reading" of the entire book.

There are ways to increase your comprehension but they involve more prosaic tactics like previewing, reading the table of contents, building your vocabulary, reading a lot to increase subject matter, and reading often. It would appear there is a difference between comprehension and retention as well. I can often comprehend and understand the contents of a book, but what is singularly irritating is the inability to retain it all over decades. That's why I started taking notes years ago and writing reviews.

The rights to her "method" were purchased by the Famous Artists Schools in 1967. That organization suffered its own scandal following a Jessica Mitford expose that revealed the famous names associated with each genre had nothing to do with the students and were being paid for the use of their names, but had little other input into the business.  

I have never been a particularly fast reader and took a speed reading course in the late seventies. Slowed me down.

Some reviewers have complained about the "digressions" on the Mormon relationship to the Nazi regime and the Woods' experience in Germany leading up to WW II. Both Church and Regime were authoritarian and it does appear that the LDS Church revised its lessons in Germany where there was an active mission and rising number of adherents to be compatible with Nazi doctrine. Superfluous perhaps, but quite interesting, nevertheless.

The Audiobook totally held my interest. The Kindle version is ridiculously overpriced as is typical of University presses. Competently read by Marguerite Gavin.

N.B. The latest reading hype comes from China. Called QSR it proclaims that readers need not even look at the pages as the rifle through a book. See Biederman's blog for more information. https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/19216101-in-newest-speed-reading-scam-popular-in-china-no-need-to-look-at-the-p


Monday, January 06, 2020

Review: A Lone Wolf by JC Field

Thought it might be a spy novel but even though the novel is littered with CIA, NSA, Mossad, and KGB current and former agents, no one is doing much spying except on themselves. Nadia and Michael, following an abortive mission in Barcelona, realize that someone is targeting them and they set out to determine who is targeting them and why. It then evolves into getting the bad guys in assorted clever ways. 

I'm sure the title is intended as a pun although the Michael Wolfe is about as far from a lone wolf as one could get. He has help not only from Nadia, but Joseph, JR, the hacker, and numerous other people both inside and outside of government. I'm sure the ending is supposed to be some kind of twist, but I saw it coming from the moment the character was introduced. Those kinds of "twists" just seem to be emulated all the time.

While I enjoyed the book, I am very troubled by the world portrayed by the author, one in which rogue elements, ostensibly operating in the interests of national security (which often have more to do with their own security than the nation's) operate with relative impunity and send secret operatives off around the world assassinating people they do not like. It seems the antithesis of responsible democratic government and, I hope, represents merely a simplistic fantasy world. 

It's certainly very readable, hence the 4 stars even though I hated the world it creates.




Review: When the Wolves Bite: Two Billionaires, One Company, and an Epic Wall Street Battle by Scott Wapner

I first became interested in the epic battle over the future of Herbalife by watching a documentary. Bill Ackman had bet enormous sums of money that Herbalife was nothing but a huge pyramid scheme (the more pleasant term with less baggage is "multi-layered marketing" - one is illegal, the other legal. Personally, I find but little difference between them.)

What was astonishing was the amount of money thrown around in pursuit of even larger amounts of money and how each of the titans, Icahn and Ackman (one going long the other short respectively, used huge sums and PR in attempts to manipulate the market to their advantage; small investor and company employees matter for little. The market would move in substantial gains or losses simply by one or the other buying or selling large blocks of stock or by making comments in the press. 

Scott Wapner, the author, is a business reporter for CNBC, and one couldn't help but wonder if he wasn't being manipulated by the parties as well. He was eager for the scoop by having "breaking news" on his show and they were eager to use his platform for their own financial gain. It was on his show that the famous verbal brawl occurred between Ackman and Icahn. Lasting almost the entire show they hurled insults at each other. "Apparently, if you have enough cash to spend, it doesn’t seem terribly difficult to weaponize social justice in the cause of your portfolio," said one observer.

Troubling, too, is the outsize influence these billionaires have with federal regulators like the FTC. Their money gives them instant access. Moreover, their decisions, we learn, may be influenced as much by personal animosities as good business, although none of them would ever admit it. Unfortunately those decisions have disproportionate impact on smaller investors. 

Fascinating book.