Saturday, July 23, 2016

Parent Chat by Matt McKee (Book Review #33 of 2016)


Parent Chat: The Technology Talk for Every Family

FTC Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review. The views below are my own.

Parent Chat answers every parent's question of "How do I begin?" in communicating with their children about technology use and thinking about how much we use devices around each other. It offers some helpful guidelines in starting a conversation and beginning to think about how best to protect your children without damaging your relationship or limiting their creativity. This book is not a drawn-out treatise or a theology of technology. It is not preachy or overly prescriptive. At 100 small pages, it has about as many words as a long-form magazine article or a Kindle Single. No fluff, just practical thoughts, with some personal anecdotes and humor along the way in the form of clever cartoons. I would recommend this to any parent who is asking "Should I be concerned about what my daughter is finding online?" I recommend it to counselors and pastors who are dealing with families wrestling with these topics. (There are even some blank pages for notes.)

(Note: I had a paperback copy but would recommend the Kindle version instead. The links work in the Kindle version, and the paperback is missing the family Cellphone Agreement which is found on the website: http://www.parentchat.tv )

I think the real "gold" in this book are the pages offering tips on how to best start a conversation with your child so that you are not left with one-word answers like "nothing." Practice eliciting their opinions rather than extracting facts. Ex: "What is something that has surprised you recently?" or "What is the craziest thing your friends are doing right now?" rather than just "What did you do at school today?" Engage your child by asking him to teach you something. A question like "Can you teach me how to...?" shows your child respect and encourages their creativity, while you get to learn about his world (p. 50-53).

I know the author-- he's my wife's brother-in-law. While that biases my review, I can tell you what he doesn't say in his book: Matt and his wife are the people who stand in line for every new iPhone release (he wears an Apple Watch); they have Apple stickers for each family member on their rear windshield (yes, they're that family). He used to own a company that built apps and made a living encouraging people to embrace mobile technology. His sons had screentime at very young ages. But as the boys have matured, so has Matt's view of how they use technology and the more mindful he's become about the example he personally sets. When he writes that they now judge a "good week" as one in which they spend most nights around the dinner table together without technology, that's a big deal (p. 54). When he writes that he deleted all the games off his phone so as not to embitter his children whose game time he was limiting, that's a really big deal.

As families, we won't remember many of the things we did online. Ten years from now I won't say "Remember that time I tweeted...?" I'll say "Remember that time we visited that park with the cave?" The irony is that even when we are in the same room we seem increasingly to want to isolate ourselves by spending time on the games and apps that will ultimately mean nothing to us. At an extreme, particularly as adolescents, we feel disconnected and then socially awkward. "The more people interact with screens or technology, the more people crave real, face-to-face relationships" (p. 36). Parent Chat subtly makes the point that it's possible for technology to bring us closer together and be more productive, but we have to set some boundaries rather than let it master us.

In terms of safety, the author makes a great observation-- adults look at a new tool practically with a cost-benefit analysis and ask "What will it do for me?" Kids look at it and ask "What CAN it do?" (p. 42). Kids tend to explore and push things beyond their intended limits, which is why they can suddenly end up doing things their parents would not allow (or what adults would have been afraid to try). Before bringing a new piece of technology into your home ask "What can it do?" (ie: What's the worst that could happen?) and figure out what you're okay with that tool doing, as a parent.

Matt's family has set time and space boundaries for technology, customizable boundaries that are different for each person in his household. That comes from conversations and getting to know their children individually. He mentions the new Circle with Disney as one tool for helping with boundaries; Matt is a paid spokesman for the product but doesn't try to sell it (or any other product) in the book.

If you are looking for something simple and non-threatening that you can read in an hour or less that will help get you started communicating better with your family and figuring out where you want technology to stand in your household, this is your book.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 22, 2016

First and Second Samuel by Eugene Peterson (Book Review #32 of 2016)



First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion)

I read through this while teaching Sunday school lessons on 1-2 Samuel (specifically The Gospel Project). This is definitely a non-technical commentary, there are not many references and few of them are scholarly in nature-- no deep insights into Hebrew language, history, archaeology, etc. Peterson himself relies on Brueggeman's commentary quite a bit, quoting him often. It is mostly Peterson's thoughts on a text, including some tangents his mind takes him on.

Nonetheless, Peterson's work is helpful in asking questions of the text and in being reminded of its Gospel implications. 1-2 Samuel is ostensibly a biography of David, but it is really about God's sovereignty in the hidden ways of everyday life. As Brueggeman wrote, the Bible is "unlaundered history," David is the standard-bearer by which all other kings would be measured and with whom God made a covenant with in continuation of the Adamic-Noahic-Abrahamic-Mosaic covenant. Yet, we see David as afraid as often as we do brave, angry as often as we do pleasant, as sinful as we do sinless. Modern Christians would find reasons for not voting for David for President, nor would he likely pastor a church. How could such a godly man have such a manipulative and dishonorable jerk (his nephew Joab) for his top general that he was seemingly powerless to replace? Yet, David is the "good shepherd" pointing us to the true and better shepherd--Jesus. "David's life is narrated as pivotal in the history of salvation. David's name occurs nearly eight hundred times in the Old Testament, and another sixty times in the New. David's name is taken up a thousand years later as a title for Jesus, 'son of David'" (p. 135). "This is, above all, theological storytelling. It is not, however, theology abstracted from life, as we so often encounter it in our studies and books, but theology embodied in life" (p. 155).

I find 1-2 Samuel (and its parallels) to be among the most difficult books in the Bible to read. There is much "distanciation" between us and the 10th century stories; much is going on we don't understand-- political marriages, territorial disputes, clan rivalries, syncretism, and larger geo-political conflicts that Israel is stuck between. (I read Finkelstein and Silberman's David and Solomon, a treatise on the history and archaeology around the text, in parallel with this commentary.) There are many details to ask questions about. "Culture, whether tenth century B.C. Canaanite or twenty-first century A.D. North American, is the straw used to make the bricks of the city of God" (p. 267).

1 Samuel actually begins with God's sovereign choice of Samuel and then Saul "famously described by Milton as 'He who seeking asses, found a kingdom,' was Israel's first king" (p. 59). Saul was God's answer to Israel's demand for a human king "like other nations." "They suppose that getting rid of God as their king will give them more 'say-so' over their own lives. Every political system before and since, whether monarchy or democracy, socialism or communism, has encouraged that supposition" (p. 71). Saul is the tall and handsome warrior with an insecurity problem. Saul spends many chapters chasing the Lord's next anointed, David, in the wilderness. Peterson rightly notes that: "Everybody, at least everybody who has anything to do with God, spends time in the wilderness, so it is important to know what can take place there" (p. 108). In the wilderness, we learn that David does things counter to the culture-- abstains from killing those whom it seemed obviously justified. Has a desire for God inwardly while Saul has only been concerned about his own outward esteem among the people. "David's actions and words are shaped by his conviction that God is present and active in everything. Saul, in contrast, has little God awareness in who he is and what he does. Political and military considerations from which God has been eliminated dominate his life," (p. 117).

In the relationship between David and Jonathan we see friends who stick closer than brothers. Peterson depicts David's lamenting over Jonathan's death as a "gospel act" that prefigures Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus (p. 143). This is a good quote for this year's election cycle: "Without lament, a nation is gradually but surely dehumanized into a military force or an economic function. If all a nation does is wave its flag in parade or boast of its standard of living, go to war, and make money, it ends up sooner or later a husk. Lament keeps a people in touch with leaders and friends, losses and defeats, limits and suffering, with its humanity. Lament keeps us connected with reality, with the actual, with God" (p. 144). David's kindness to Jonathan's son Mephibosheth fulfills his covenant promise and demonstrates covenant for us.

David's entry into Jerusalem, as told by Matthew, contrasts (likely intentionally) with David's triumphal entrance over the Jebusites in a way I had not seen before. "David and Jesus both enter Jerusalem to establish the rule of God; they both clear the place of those who defile it; but the fate of the 'blind and the lame' is turned around. 'Those whom David hates' are the very ones that Jesus cures" (p. 158).

I thought Peterson's chapter on 1 Samuel 17, the Davidic covenant and David's response to God's desire that David not build the temple, to be quite good. "Christians are characteristically afraid of being caught doing too little for God. But there are moments, far more frequent than we suppose, when doing nothing is precisely the gospel thing to do...But biblical and Davidic not-doing is neither sloth nor stoicism; it is a strategy. When David sat down, the real action started: not David making God a house, but God making David a house" (p. 169-170). Peterson's observation of the actions in the Bathsheba-Uriah chapters is also good.

Peterson also shows parallels in David's fleeing Absalom and the passion of Christ:
At the farthest descent from Jerusalem, deep in the wilderness forest of Ephraim, David's story most clearly anticipates and most nearly approximates the Gospel story, the story of Jesus that extends into our stories, passion stories, stories of suffering, but suffering that neither diminishes nor destroys us, but makes us more human, prayerful, and loving...Both David and the "Son of David" are rejected and leave Jerusalem accompanied by both friends who help and foes who mock; at the darkest place both utter cries of dereliction; the rejection of each "David" is a revolt against God's anointed leader, and the rejections in both instances are unsuccessful David is returned to Jerusalem to resume his rule, and Jesus, raised from the dead, ascends to the "right hand of the Father" to rule forever (p. 226-227). 

The factionalism in David's time after his return after Absalom's death is akin to today's denominationalism:
We are all agreed that we want Jesus to save us from our sins and rule over us from the "right hand of the Father," but then we break up into factions, each group claiming precedent or privilege in being "first." Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian, Evangelicals and Pentecostal, Anglican and Methodist, Mennonite and Quakerand so many others: 287 denominations in North America alone at last count! Everyone, it seems, wants Jesus as sovereign but doesn't want to mingle too intimately with the various peoples over whom he exercises his sovereignty (p. 234). 

Peterson handles the awkward ending to 2 Samuel fairly well, including a look at Psalm 18. The theology of the last chapter is difficult to deal with, so Peterson wisely let's it go but reminds us to take the entire book and text as a whole.

"David's failures and sins will be used to legitimize bad behavior; we read them, rather, as evidence that we don't first become good and then get God. First we get Godand then over a patient lifetime are trained in God's ways...David's life is not separated into private and public, into personal and political, into spiritual and secular. He carries his God-identity into his God-work. What David does is who David is...David does not always obey God, but he always deals with God" (Ps. 255, 257, 264). 
3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions by Ron Fry (Book Review #31 of 2016)


101 Great Answers by Ron Fry 

I read this book in prepping for an interview, but it is good to read it even if you're just updating your resume/CV. That particular interview was mostly a behavioral interview, where you are told to explain specific times you displayed attributes like composure, initiative, etc. There was also a hypothetical situation component, where you were given a scenario or problem and asked to explain what you would do, how you would solve it. 101 Great Answers covers those types of interviews pretty well toward the end of the book and that is where I paid most attention. It does not mention the well-worn STAR (Situation or Task, Action you took, Results you achieved) approach, which would have helped the reader; acronyms are helpful to remember steps in high-stress situations. But the employer-centered approach is good-- it's a reminder of the risks the interviewer is facing that you are being screened for.

Fry recommends putting together a dossier of information about yourself that you can recall quickly and easily.
    - What's your employment, education, volunteer, and honors history?
    - How would people describe you?
    - What are your strongest skills, greatest areas of expertise, best personality traits, things you do best, key accomplishments, etc.
    - Practice showing your strengths in behavioral questions, not specifics of a situation. How have you leveraged your skillsets to solve problems for your employers?

Relax. Replace words like "anxious" with words like "excited," (I don't remember if that was actually in the book but it was in an article I read the same week as this book and it's in my notes). Maintain eye contact. Practice putting a positive spin on everything; if a job or project didn't work out, state what good did come of it or what you learned from the experience. Lead the interviewer to his preferred conclusion.

Share your management experience; if none, talk about consensus decision making and teams. Importantly, give examples of your tenacity. If a failure is part of your CV, name something unrelated to the job you are applying for (unless you have a good interviewer who wants to know what you learned). How will you not make the same mistakes again? How will you manage if given the chance?

What's the difference between a good boss and a bad boss?
    - A good boss helps others to learn.

Highlight your organization skills, and if you don't have them then develop them quickly. Make to-do lists and prioritize your tasks.

Show that you're adaptive to change. What changes were hard for you but turned out for the positive?

Know how to describe your current organization's tree? (In my own case, the tree might be confusing.) Make sure the organization tree matches your answers about your job responsibilities.

Answer this question: What do you want this job for?
- for more responsibility, more growth, etc.
- Say: "I look forward to..."
What are your new objectives or goals?

Hypothetical situational interview section:
You should demonstrate a "yes" to the following:
- Do you respect chain of command?
- Can you learn?

Admit it when a tough hypothetical situation would make you nervous.
Weigh the alternatives in each situation. Show how you reached your decision.
Don't be afraid to say you'd ask for help, or admit you don't know.
Never joke!

Also: Be aware of inappropriate questions
- Anything to do with current or applied for job are likely illegal.
Interviewer can ask about professional memberships. Avoid answering with church affiliations.
A current earnings question is legal and okay. Past earnings, however, is not, your assets are not. Know your state's guidelines.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. A good, quick preparation.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

A New History of Kentucky (Book Review #30 of 2016)

A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter
I read this book during the 2016 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly. I work in the Executive Branch at the intersection of budget and policy and appreciated that so much of this book is devoted to Kentucky's governors and their policies. I like to see how history is repeated as "new ideas" are really just rehashing of old ideas. I'm also the descendant of settlers having moved from Virginia to Western Kentucky in the early 1800s, and I enjoyed reading about the context in their areas and imagining the impacts of events on my forebears. While there is something in this book for everyone, there is not enough on any topic to satisfy anyone. (The authors sort of go out of their way not to write about basketball and modern horse breeding and racing, despite those activities mattering much more to the average Kentuckian than what happens in Frankfort.)

The highlights from my digital edition take up 38 pages, too much to summarize here. This book (1997) is billed as "the first comprehensive history of the state since the publication of Thomas D. Clark's landmark History of Kentucky over sixty years ago;" I have not read Clark's work. I had previously read John Mack Farragher's biography of Daniel Boone, which provides helpful early colonial context that takes up much of the New History. I had also read Penny Miller's Kentucky's Politics and Government (1994), which is a history of Kentucky's constitutions, legislative reforms, politics, and demographics. There is much overlap between that book and New History, but I found that book provided better explanations and details about various state government policy decisions. Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1963) is another indispensable book to aid one's reading of New History, along with books like Mutzenberg's Kentucky's Famous Feuds and Tragedies (1916).

My takeaway impression from New History is that Kentucky has spent much of its history as a lawless and violent place, where inhabitants faced danger either from Shawnee, armed gangs and mobs (as in the "Black Patch War" and dozens of feuds), Civil War soldiers from both sides, and poverty from exploitation. Those who are concerned about the decrease in civil discourse and increase in division ought to read books from the 1800s about how mobs pulled preachers from their pulpits and killed a gubernatorial candidate, farmers burned down each others fields, how feuds endangered entire populations, and how the numerous county officials maintained (and still maintain) their corrupt fiefdoms. While things get a bit better in the 20th century with advances in education and urbanism, and sports which unite the Bluegrass, New History leaves one with the distinct impression that Kentucky has a ceiling on its potential.

Some tidbits that go unappreciated: Kentuckians have had several important members of the Supreme Court, and these have not always sided with the politically conservative forces as you might expect. One example where a Kentucky justice was more "progressive" than his colleagues from clearly more progressive states than Kentucky is when the Kentucky legislature passed a law requiring a private college to racially segregate-- against its wishes. The Supreme Court upheld this federal overreach, as described on p. 382:
"In November 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Berea College vs. Kentucky. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Kentuckian, dissenting from the majority opinion, asked, 'Have we become so inoculated with prejudice of race that [Kentucky] . . . can make distinctions between such citizens in the matter of . . . meeting for innocent purposes simply because of their respective races?' His fellow justices in essence answered 'yes,' as they turned down Berea's appeal. The Day Law remained in force, and biracial education in Kentucky and the South legally ended for nearly a half century."

Kentucky did not have nearly the problem from the KKK as one might expect, as much as it did a cooperative of tobacco farmers who were united as an oligopoly and took to vigilantism to bully others. P. 240:
"In central Kentucky the Burley Tobacco Society organized in order to decrease production and increase demand. But success depended on cooperation, and if significant numbers of farmers defected, then the pool would not be effective. Some farmers, particularly those strapped for funds, did agree to continue to sell to the trust, and these so-called Hillbillies soon became the focus of violence, particularly in the dark patch tobacco areas of western Kentucky...Night Rider armies of hundreds of men took over entire towns and burned trust tobacco stored in warehouses...With some thirty thousand members in the PPA, more in the burley group, and an estimated ten thousand in the
paramilitary Night Riders, the tobacco farmers formed a formidable group."

Ten thousand paramilitaries is something I don't remember reading about growing up as a schoolboy in the 1980s-1990s. As I read other articles in the local papers touching on some of the history covered in this book, I note that the book did miss some important details. Watching some recent episodes about the Civil War in Kentucky on the local PBS affiliate taught me that the book did not do a good job explaining the major battles and perhaps majored on the minor aspects and local heroes of the war.

I appreciated all the history of Governors and political parties included in New History. The explanations of Gov. "Happy" Chandler's politics, along with the spoils system of his day and the later 1962 reforms by Bert T. Combs (p. 408) were insightful for a state worker watching the pension system fall further and further into the least-funded in the U.S. I've come to believe that perhaps the most important 20th-21st century achievement by a sitting governor was Martha Lane Collins' working of the deal that brought Toyota to the Commonwealth in the mid-1980s. Toyota is now responsible for almost two percent of Kentuckians' paychecks, its factory is in the fastest-growing county in the state for the last several years, which now has over 50% of its workforce employed in manufacturing, a rarity in the US today. Toyota's presence has encouraged other parts suppliers move to the state providing thousands of more jobs as the other major auto manufacturers (Ford, GM) in the state have also expanded in synergy. As coal is no longer "king" and some of the highest unemployment rates are found in the Appalachians, automobile-related manufacturing has provided jobs with benefits for those willing to come down from the mountains. It has also increased the diversity of Kentucky by bringing in many educated Japanese. Future governors have only been able to add to this achievement, by helping broker workforce training initiatives between Toyota and the various universities and technical colleges. Kentucky may not have a high-educated workforce spinning off tech start-ups, but it has harnessed its lower-skilled population into middle-class incomes via transportation equipment manufacturing.

New History also reinforces my opinion that Kentucky has far too many counties for its own good. Many were created with names of Governors as almost a spoil for their reward. The problem is that the Constitution mandates offices, such as jailer, that each county has to maintain (whether or not there is actually a jail). This further propogates the fiefdoms that the county Fiscal Courts maintain, and corruption is still well-documented. Perhaps had some counties been combined, the feuds that were maintained within one county may have been eliminated when united with a larger populace with a force more capable of keeping the peace.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. It's definitely a must-read for anyone who claims to be really interested in Kentucky.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

A Time for Truth by Ted Cruz (Book Review #29 of 2016)


A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America by Rafael Eduard "Ted" Cruz.

I read this book as an attempt to read books by and about the various presidential candidates; I am a registered Republican. I finished it shortly after Mr. Cruz dropped out of the race. My view of Mr. Cruz before reading this book was pretty low, on par with critique of Lindsey Graham and John Boehner. But all I knew of the man is what I'd read in various media outlets, mostly liberal. Graham and Boehner have more facts and intimate acquaintance with Sen. Cruz than I do. But it struck me as odd that an evangelical Christian, convervative Constitutional lawyer, and veteran of a G.W. Bush's campaign, who is possibly the member of a Southern Baptist church was getting shunned by Russell Moore and other conservative evangelicals in favor of candidates like Marco Rubio and even Donald Trump. So, I asked a trusted friend who works on Capitol Hill what his impression of Cruz was. My friend could only relay what he'd heard from other staffers who had worked for Cruz, namely that the man is "untrustworthy and manipulative...opportunist and not really conservative" and surrounds himself with campaign staff who are slimy, which I think we saw evidence of in the campaign.

Multiple times in the book, Cruz admits that he has social problems, and that has cost him in terms of friendships and positions. "(E)ven if I had had the opportunity to do it over again, to be noncontroversial and universally amiable, I couldn’t have done it. Those qualities are simply not who I am" (p. 97). On the Bush campaign, he fought hard in the Florida recount only to be snubbed when it came time to receive the spoils. "I was far too cocky for my own good, and that sometimes caused me to overstep the bounds of my appointed role...I burned a fair number of bridges on the Bush campaign" (p. 132, 138). Early in life, Cruz was the grade-obsessed over-competitive nerd. He's like that deeply insecure person who wants everyone to acknowledge how smart he is. That personality seems to have followed him in high school, when he proved himself giving speeches for the Free Enterprise Institute-- memoring swathes of the Constitution and various conservative texts. A critical article of Cruz from his Princeton days suggested that he had few friends there, though the ones he had were very close. He was obsessed with winning every debate, burnishing his holier-than-thou conservative credentials. He is a professing Christian with a past full of drinking and fun; he strikes me as the time of Young Republican that I disliked strongly when I was in college. His operatives in Kentucky (where I live) reportedly took up his bullying tactics in this year's Caucus; I've no doubt we'll see the same at the GOP Convention.

Yet, there is much to appreciate about the man's background and career thus far. He has both clerked for the Supreme Court and argued cases in front of it. He knows the Constitution better than any of the candidates of any party. He's a third-culture kid; the son of a Cuban immigrant and a mother who was a pioneer in the field of computer science, born in Canada and raised in Texas. If you haven't read Marco Rubio's autobiography, don't bother, it's terrible and filled with so many useless and mundane observations on daily life. Cruz's autobiography is much better and filled with actual career experiences (he's also read Rubio's book). This book is interesting for its insights into the Supreme Court and the Bush White House campaign, and the intrigue between Cruz and operatives like Karl Rove, if nothing else.

Cruz begins the book explaining his notorious debt ceiling filibuster and the closed-door meetings Republicans make which enraged him and his constituency. He makes a rational argument for the strategy he was urging Republicans to pursue. It is clear he has long since burned his bridges with GOP leadership. He was elected as a Tea Partier pledging to shake up the system and he believes he fulfills that pledge. In the book, his most stalwart ally and friend is Mike Lee (I found it notable that Lee waited until very late in the game to endorse Cruz). Rand Paul is also a friend, but later gets criticized when it appears he is taking the McConnell party line during one of Cruz's failed filibusters.

The biography of Cruz's father is interesting. He had been a public-speaking apologist for pro-Castro Cuba policy in Texas, but later went publicly to every place he had spoken to apologize after visiting Cuba and seeing the true Communist intentions. Both Cruz's parents were educated professionals; his mother one of the first female computer engineers. They work in Canada and later have their own business in Texas only to see it go under when when Houston suffered under the low oil prices of the 1980s. In the 1970s, Cruz's dad left but later returned home after having a life-changing encounter with Jesus. Cruz himself writes that he accepted Christ in 1979 at a suburban Baptist church in Houston.

His formative years saw him eventually become self-aware of his off-putting academic competitiveness, which he tries to shun in a failed attempt to try athletics. Life lesson: "Happiness doesn’t come from popularity, but rather from doing something that matters, making a difference, and fulfilling God’s plan for your life" (p. 56). He finds his passion with the Free Enterprise Institute, raising money by giving speeches at Rotary Club meetings. "Students were required to prepare a twenty-minute speech on all ten pillars, after reading a curriculum of economic fundamentals including the works of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, and Ludwig von Mises." He joins the debate program at Princeton, but loses an election for President there.

His clerkship at the Supreme Court was maybe the most interesting, gave a good view of the life of the Court. How smart and tempermental the Justices are. How the conservative justices, like Scalia, hire at least one liberal clerk whereas the liberals do not hire conservatives. The difficult and often on-call-all-the-time nature of clerkship is also highlighted.

Cruz campaigned hard for G.W. Bush, and worked hard on the Florida recount. "The fact is that every time the ballots were counted—four separate times—Bush won" (p. 132).  He rubbed enough people the wrong way that he was given a position at the AG's office that disappointed him--he wanted to be in the White House. Nonetheless, he got good experience as an associated attorney general, and later at the US Federal Trade commission. He explains the courtship of his wife, a daughter of Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries, a fellow Bush campaign staffer.

From D.C., they moved to Texas where Cruz worked as solicitor general (2003-2008), getting to argue several cases before Supreme Court. He banged heads with Karl Rove while trying to later run for Attorney General in Texas, which Bush '41 had supported him in. "(Rove) implied that if I made any news about Bush 41’s support, then Bush 43 would endorse my opponent and come out publicly for him—a threat that was fairly striking given that I had devoted four years of my life to working as hard as I could helping to elect Bush and serving in his administration. I always wondered whether Karl had the authority to make these threats on behalf of the former president—he certainly acted like he did" (p. 202). In 2012, Cruz pulls out an underdog win as the GOP candidate for Senate, similar to Marco Rubio and others. ("Marco has become a good friend, and he is many things—but an arrogant hothead is not one of them," p. 221).

You'll find nothing in here about whisper campaigns or dirty tricks that Cruz was either famous for or accused of, depending on your perspective, in 2016. Others ran dirty campaigns against Cruz, in this book, and Cruz overcame them all as honestly as you would expect from an autobiography. That little loan bit from Goldman Sachs is not completely explained, either.

Cruz explains his worldview and voting record adequately-- you should read this book if he's your Senator. "Members of Congress don’t entertain thoughts about whether or not their legislation is constitutional for several reasons. For one, they believe and behave as potentates who believe that every crisis, every national headline, demands federal legislation that will impress a subset of their constituents. It’s constitutional because they say it is" (p. 258). He problematically tells his side of the story, sometimes presenting falsehoods as facts. Example: "Since banning handguns, sexual assaults and rapes in Australia have skyrocketed, because there are few things a criminal likes better than an unarmed victim," (p. 262); see Snopes for this. Cruz does make a valid point about Politifact--they don't critique everything and the statements they do choose to fact-check are sometimes bizarre (like this bizarre one in which they critique Cruz's statement that Americans invented the video game Pong. http://www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2013/jun/06/ted-cruz/ted-cruz-says-americans-invented-pong-space-invade/)

He expresses his conservative disappointment with G.W. Bush, and his outrage over Obama, who he likes to dig at: "The prosecution of gun crimes under the Obama administration had dropped [30] percent. Whereas the Bush administration had made going after violent criminals who use guns a top priority, the Obama administration put far less emphasis on doing so" (p. 265). "If President Obama had his way, Congress could pass laws that block the ability of houses of worship to choose their own ministers" (p. 315). On the Citizens United case: "(I)f Congress can 'prohibit' corporations 'from spending money to influence elections,' then Congress can 'prohibit' NBC—a corporation—from airing Saturday Night Live" (p. 317). While "there will never be another Ronald Reagan," Cruz ascribes great power to Reagan's memory. "His act of vision and courage still echoes through the Middle East," (p. 293). Given that it was Jimmy Carter who signed the Camp David Accords and Reagan's administration who negotiated with Iran, Cruz's memory is quite selective.

His foreign policy is "strong" hedged in a cautious tone. "It is not the job of our military to try to democratize every country on earth, or to turn Iraq into Switzerland," (p. 332).

He does not forsee a Donald Trump outcome in this book. "The most consistent pattern of the last forty years is that Republicans win the White House whenever we nominate a candidate who runs as a strong, principled conservative with a positive, optimistic, hopeful message. We lose whenever we nominate the 'more electable' candidate who runs as a mushy establishment moderate" (citing Bush '41, Dole, McCain, and Romney as examples, p. 333). "The only way to win in 2016 is to bring back the conservatives who are staying home. And if we nominate another candidate like Bob Dole or John McCain or Mitt Romney—all good, honorable men, but all lost—then the same voters who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 . . . will stay home again in 2016. And Hillary Clinton will be the next president," (p. 338).

I like this advice the best; I do not feel that Cruz lived up to this on the campaign trail, choosing religious rhetoric over Constitutional conservative arguments: "Conservatives are against excessive governmental regulations, but rarely explain why...We need to explain why" (p. 341).

In all, a good autobiography and an interesting read on various aspects of politics and Supreme Court life. I like Rand Paul's memoir a little better on his internal deliberations and emotions. But this is far better than Rubio's book, and an easier read than Trump's The Art of the Deal. 3 stars out of 5.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Perlman (Book Review #28 of 2016)

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Perlman.

I enjoyed this book during the 2016 NBA Finals. In some ways, Golden State's small ball run-n-gun is like a throwback to the early 80's Lakers. There is much time and paradigm difference between them, though. The three pointer was a novelty in the 1980s and it's hard to imagine coaches and pundits so blindly unaware of the inefficiency on offense back then. When you have a guy like Byron Scott shooting over 43% from 3-point range but he only takes a few a game, you're leaving points off the board. No analytics back then, alas. Tempo-free statistics would have been helpful to add to this book, it's a lot easier to get a triple-double when there are 120 possessions a game versus only 90. It is also hard to imagine that in the early 1980s the NBA Finals were not televised live on the West Coast so as not to preempt hit shows like the Dukes of Hazzard. Before Magic and Bird, and NBA highlight films by a more savvy media office, NBA stars were not so "super." I read Larry Bird's autobiography Drive which also looked at this era, but Bird's NBA was much less lecherous. This book is a good, sometimes humorous, chronicle of the Lakers' dynasty.

The story begins with the long-forgotten inventor of Showtime: Coach Jack McKinney, who is senile when the author interviews him. He was almost killed in a bike accident during the season and his brain never fully recovered-- he was replaced by Paul Westhead who won the 1980 running McKinney's fast-break style. Jerry Buss had wanted UNLV legend Jerry Tarkanian to be his first hire (or co-hire with Jack Kent Cooke who was passing his ownership to Buss). Tarkanian's agent sealed the lucrative deal but then was mysteriously murdered and discovered to have many ties with organized crime; Tark backed out of the deal and allegedly never recovered emotionally.

It is hard to imagine the era. Supposedly 80% of NBA players (and half the Lakers) were using cocaine. Magic Johnson was the first Buss draft pick and fit into the playboy Jack Buss' lifestyle. Buss lived like Hugh Hefner with multiple women and a party lifestyle; Magic famously enjoyed that lifestyle as well and paid heavily for it later with HIV. It was Buss who invented the Laker Girls and renovated the Forum Club to be an after-game place where players could engage with women and celebrities away from their wives. Magic (and Kareem) didn't drink or use drugs, but Magic was known to host Playboy-style orgies where profligacy was mandated. The cocaine-fueled downfall of Spencer Haywood and other Lakers is difficult and almost impossible to imagine today. Perlman doesn't chronicle it, but the epidemic seems to fade by the late 1980s. At one point, Mark Lansberger, who had an open relationship with his wife and other women, told his wife about his teammates' exploits on the road. His wife gossipped with the others and internal scandal insued. He was ostracized and later traded.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was always reading, never fooled, and unfriendly with outsiders. He was accused of "hating white people," ignored or belittled autograph seekers, and was the opposite of Magic, who he repeatedly scolded to "calm down" his rookie season. He only mellowed one time in the decade, when his house burned down and he lost his carpets and thousands of jazz records. Fans would send him their antique jazz records and he would show appreciation, but later became angry and distant again.

After Westhead won the 1980 title, he imposed his own odd system that was the opposite of McKinney's to the dismay of Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson. (Westhead would require his players to run the same way down the court every time, to run the same set plays where they stood around; the opposite of Showtime.) It took a whole season for the whole team to hate him, eventually Magic was the bad guy for getting him fired. It is interesting to hear of the rivarly between coach-and-players as well as teammates vying for playing time and positions. Norm Nixon and Magic competed both with the same women and at point guard. The 1981 Laker team basically imploded, which led Laker assistant and afterthought hire Pat Riley to be thrust into the limelight as coach, who was announced by Buss as a "co-coach" with Jerry West, which West vehemently denied. The Lakers wanted to force Norm Nixon out and hired private investigators to follow him, at which point he agreed to be traded. Magic was vilified in the media and roundly booed by Laker fans after signing a 10-year, $25 million contract. That lasted for all of 10 minutes as he reminded them what value he was on the court.

It wouldn't be a Showtime story without Magic versus Bird. The Lakers players interviewed for the book even use terms like "underrated" to describe Bird-- he was unstoppable for many of them. The Lakers' most satisfying championship was probably the 1987 one. Much of this part lined up with my memory of the battles from Bird's memory in Drive.

Perlman chronicles a lot of unsung heroes on the Laker teams like Jamal Wilkes. He gives the reader an idea of how weird Kurt Rambis was. AC Green later became an All-Star and stood out like a sore thumb in his virginity and desire to share the Gospel with his teammates. I was glad to hear that he was legit in his lifestyle. Michael Thompson filled in as a solid replacement for Kareem in his old age, and Michael Cooper apparently was accutely paranoid-- always convinced the Lakers were going to trade him and working to prove himself. Byron Scott was both tough-minded and an able teammate, a better shooter and athlete than often given credit for.

While Pat Riley introduced a grueling pre-season camp and physical practices, which the players appreciated, eventually he took it too far as a personality cult developed. He would forbid wives from coming on the road and demand that they have one mission during the season-- keep their husbands happy. Eventually, his ego got the best of him as he became ever more demanding and took every loss increasingly poorly. After he stole a Lakers' player's phrase "threepeat" and trademarked it, he became obsessed with obtaining it. He cost the Lakers' the 1989 crown by hosting a mini-camp before the series where he wore the aging players out, and then a grueling practice with unnecessary drills in Detroit caused an industry to Byron Scott that left the team undermanned. The team mutineed and Riley was replaced by Mike Dunleavy who did a good job getting the aged and worn-out Lakers to the 1991 finals against the Bulls-- the last gasp of Showtime.

The end of Magic's career is chronicled, along with the scare it put into players (his teammates quickly swapped lists of mutual partners), and Magic's young marriage. I enjoyed the insights into the aftermath of the careers of those who took part in Showtime.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of five. As mentioned above, it lacks adding any analytical component. It is a nostalgic look back on the 1980s NBA and a team and rivalry (Lakers-Celtics) that launched the NBA into the modern era. It is profanity-laced and pretty insightful into the personal lives of highly-paid athletes in Los Angeles.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses) by John Esposito (Book Review #27 of 2016)



Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses) - Dr. John Esposito

A glance at the voluminous publications on Islam by the author would seem to make this an ideal person to learn from. But Googling raises some troubling questions about what he tends to leave in and out of his works. There is a reason he's been written up several times on Jihad Watch. At any rate, I thought his lecture series would be an interesting to compare to several other works on the history of Islam and the Middle East I have finished. That list is at the bottom of this post. 

Let's get the problems out of the way first:
It is a bad sign with Esposito states that 9/11 interrupted writing his book The Future of Islam, in which 9/11 did not match up with his narrative, only to return to the book later and finish predicting the future of a stronger reformist Islam...which looks nothing like the future we have now in which (according to surveys on clothing according to Mona Eltahawy) the veil is more prominent on women in the Middle East, Mecca is more gender segregated, Turkey's Islamic-leaning government has become less democratic, Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting two proxy wars against one another, ISIL has run amok among a Sunni-Shi'ia divide and inter-Sunni tribal conflicts, and the Taliban is poised to dominate Afghanistan once again. I'm writing this review a week after the shooting in Orlando, the same city to which just two months prior a conservative cleric known internationally for preaching that "death is the sentence" and that "we should get rid of" all homosexuals was invited to preach at a mosque which may have helped inspire the alleged shooter. Do a search for the source of Esposito's funding at the various conferences he speaks at-- always follow the money.

While Esposito is encouraging of reforms, he does not acknowledge the imprisonment and persecution of many who are actively trying to push for them. He wants his audience to be respectful of the theocratic nature of Islam, but does not acknowledge its implications. He does not acknowledge that he has much greater freedoms in American than any academic counterpart in any country with Islamic-based governance. While he highlights increasingly educated women with stronger voices in Islamic countries, he does not state the context from which they've come from, such as cultures of polygamy, female circumcision, child brides, etc. justified by clerics citing the Quran. You'll hear no mention of Ayan Hirsi Ali or others, these are more of a problem than a solution to Esposito. Reformers that Esposito does single out tend to have been on record advocating violence against Israel. Where is the example of open debate between conservatives and reformers that we can tune in to watch?

One huge contrast with other works on the history of Islam is that when Esposito gets to the 1950s and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he does not even mention Sayyid Qutb, and his works calling for violence that are still influential today. Esposito goes so far as to praise the Muslim Brotherhood without even a "by the way," that it's considered a terrorist organizations by many countries. He completely ignores the Qutb-inspired groups who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and where the terrorists who "hijack" Islam get their ideology. It's not clear what Esposito considers orthodox Islam, but whatever definition he has no paradigm for why his version is rejected by so many today.

For the most part, this series is well-worded and has a coherent narrative. I did not find it boring. The author begins with explaining the root "slm" in Arabic, meaning both "submit" and "peace"-- the Islamic ideal. Esposito gives an overview of the beliefs, the Five Pillars, and the key rituals such as fasting in Ramadan. He explains things largely as they are accepted without comment-- his goal is to explain the religion and not critique or analyze it in-depth. Next is a brief overview of the life of Muhammad. He explains the tribal polytheistic context but doesn't seem to recognize how many rituals already existed around the kabaa in Mecca that still exist today under Islam. You will not find any hypotheses on the composition of the Koran from the Nestorian Christian and Jewish inhabitants of the Middle East that Tom Holland gives in his work. Esposito does not acknowledge, unlike Reza Aslan, that Zayd ibn Amr preached monotheism in Mecca about the time of Muhammad's youth. He accepts at face value that Muhammad was illiterate, despite being a man of commerce (Aslan claims Muhammad was a profit "for the illiterate" rather than "of the illiterate," for example). 

Contra Tamim Ansary, who chronicles the early use of the word "jihad" in offensive context, Esposito states that "jihad" was only defensive and had specific limits and specifications in the Koran. Hence, Osama bin Laden's use of "jihad" is in error because he "rejects the rules regarding jihad." (Funny that we don't see many fatwas disagreeing with bin Laden and others' interpretation?) Esposito cites Surra 2: "God loves not the aggressor." He does not bother to examine the claims of bin Laden and al Baghdadi that Islam is under attack, hence they are always on the defensive. Esposito states that Islam is the "oldest of the faiths" because the Quran is eternal. Esposito's lack of reconciling these points for the audience is troubling. During Lecture Four, while he acknowledges the different context between the "Meccan verses" and "Medina verses," he never deals with the logical contradiction of historical context and a document that he tells us is considered to be eternal and un-created according to orthodoxy. In Sura Nine, he examines the "sword verses," showing that if one reads the entire paragraph he can see death was contingent on not paying the required head tax. 

Memorization for the purpose of recitation is important. There is no doctrine of original sin, so no "vicarious atonement" such as is found in Christianity, in Islam each person is held accountable for his own sin. He cites surras that show "no compulsion in religion" and states that one evidence of the empowerment of women in Islam is that they are required to perform the five pillars as well as men. Muslims believe the Christian trinity is "idolotry" but Esposito does not recognize the contradiction of "idolotry" or "heresy" and the respect in the Quran for the "people of the book." How can we reconcile the need and justification to eliminate the idoloters and yet respect/tolerate them as a "protected class" provided they pay a head tax? Esposito's mind never works that hard in these lectures.

Esposito's history of rapid expansion and conquest roughly matches that found in Hoyland's book on the first century after the Prophet. He chronicles the rise of the Ummayads, the appearance of the Harijites (a forerunner of Salafis and Al Qaeda today), and chronicles the greatness of the Abbasids at their peak. In 1258, the Middle East faces being overrun by Mongols, and the Abbasids break down as three sultanates emerge-- In Turkey, Egypt, and Iran.

Lecture Six introduces Islamic law and mysticism (Sufism) and explains some of the pressure between reformist movements. There are the four schools of Sunni ejtihad. Muslim family is one of the central and unchanged aspects of Islamic law since the time of Muhammad. I appreciated the explanation of the origins of Sufism. Ahmad Ghazali, considered the founder or at least the first prominent author, tapped into Muslim's emotions while also passing muster with the Umma in regards to his doctrine. Sufism spread widely and had many aspects of Christianity-- monastic orders, poetry, reflection and meditation on the attributes of God, veneration of saints ("pirs"), etc. Rumi is perhaps the most well-remembered Sufi poet (died in 1273) and Sufi ideas carry on today clerics such as Fetullah Gülen, about whom Espisito has edited a book. Islamic reform movements later target Sufi practices. (I've personally witnessed a revival of this attack in the 21st century in Azerbaijan where Wahabbist groups burned down Sufi pirs.)

More on "revival and reform" comes in Lecture Seven when we see various revivalists and ejtihad. Esposito moves quickly to the 19th and 20th centuries where we find ibn Wahhab and ibn Saud in an alliance against the rival Shi'ia in Iran. Esposito touches on the Mahdi movement in Sudan, Muhammad Iqbal in India/Pakistan, and al-Afghani in Persia. (Some of these strains are the same by Ansary in his book.) Unfortunately, Esposito does not provide the context from which to make sense of Muslim reformers. He does not mention the much earlier details about ibn Hanbal and others in the Abbasid period who rejected Greek ideas of logic, reason, and rhetoric and how such ideas became rejected as anti-Islamic. He notes that modernists have criticized both the mystic Sufis and conservatives who take the Quran literally. He praises the "reform vision" of the Muslim Brotherhood without once mentioning Qutb and his contributions to to the violence that Esposito later claims has "hijacked" the faith. He also praises the Jammat al Islam in Pakistan and explains that these two groups' ideas spread and propogated (without mentioning the accompanying violence such as the seizing of the Grand Mosque).

In Esposito's narrative, both modernists and conservatives have become disillusioned with western institutions via colonialism. He blaims colonialism on the lack of democracy. While he acknowledges that some revolutions had their violent aspects, most of the reformers he hails are from the 1980s' "new elite"-- educated and skilled Islamists. He notes that Islamic-oriented parties in Algeria and Turkey engaged in democratic elections (how has that worked out when they eventually gained power in Turkey and Egypt?). Esposito apparently believes that "religious reform is catching up to political reform." He cites evidence of new Quranic studies and contextual analysis. He does not note, however, that many who have pioneered these efforts have had to hide or flee for their lives, or spend time in jail. Esposito purports that Islam simply hasn't had the time that Christianity had to get to the Reformation and the 30 Years War. He conveniently ignores the recent spread of Wahhabism and the most conservative strains of Islam worldwide, how thousands of educated Europeans have left Europe to join ISIL in Syria, how the 9/11 hijackers were well-educated themselves. Esposito claims that women are gaining ground in terms of scholarship and Quranic interpretation-- without naming examples and flatly contradicting those like Hirsi Ali who have been persecuted for their calls for scholastic reforms. He ignores the increasing use of the hijab and the increased segregation of Mecca, which he claims is desegregated (read The Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed).

Esposito looks at the under-chronicled (IMO) history of the Nation of Islam in America from its foundation to reforms under Louis Farrakhan. It strikes me as odd that the Sunni world can be concerned about orthodoxy in the Middle East but accept the Nation of Islam, which claims the American Elijah Muhammad was the last prophet, as its own. Esposito describes "what assimilation looks like" in Europe and the US while ignoring the thornier issues like whether wearing a burka is a violation of women's rights in France or honor killings and such. Esposito states that since Islam "grew up in a merchant culture" (the Ummayad dynasty) it is therefore compatible with capitalism. The experience of the AKP and parties in Algeria show it is compatible with democracy. Esposito states this without dealing with the fact that Islam was founded as a theocracy, the only legitimate state in the Quran is an overtly religious one based on Islam. There is no obvious possibility for a firewall of church and state-- the church is the state.

For more critiques of Esposito: http://www.meforum.org/3043/john-l-esposito-apologist-for-wahhabi-islam
His troubling statements: http://www.campus-watch.org/article/id/6958
"Here the Esposito method was laid bare: thanks to his sponsorship, Saudi money subsidized a U.S. academic product intended to ameliorate the image of Wahhabism, the most extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in modern times, and the inspirer of so-called "Salafi" radicals, from the Muslim Brotherhood through the South Asian jihadist movement founded by Abul Ala Mawdudi to al-Qaeda. In the mind of DeLong-Bas, Wahhabism could be considered, as noted in a review of the book, "peaceful, traditional, spiritual, and even feminist."

For other books I have reviewed recently on the history of Islam:
Tamim Ansary - Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (4.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Tom Holland - In the The Shadow of the Sword (4 stars)
Michael Cook - A Very Short Introduction to the Koran (4.5)
Malise Ruthven - A Very Short Introduction to Islam (3 stars)
Robert G. Hoyland - In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars)
Albert Hourani - History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars)
Peter Mansfield - Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars)
Salim Yuqub - The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (The Great Courses)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
The Cambridge History of Turkey vols. 1 and 2.(4 stars)

Also useful in critiquing the part of Esposito's course covering the 1970s and onward is The Seige of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars). There are several other books (particularly those by women authors) which detail the complexities of life on the ground in Islamic countries that are worth contrasting to the picture that Esposito paints.