Book Review — Einstein & The Art of Mindful Cycling: Achieving Balance in the Modern World

Einstein & The Art of Mindful Cycling: Achieving Balance in the Modern World by Ben Irvine is a side by side look at the father of Relativity and the simplest machine used for travel. Irvine is a writer, publisher, campaigner, and recovered philosopher. He blogs for The School of Life, teaches philosophy to undergraduates at Cambridge University and is an Honorary Associate in the Philosophy department at Durham University.

As a reader of science who had a dose of philosophy in college and grad school and as a former bicycle racer and current bicycle mechanic, I pick this book up with great interest. The Einstien biography is interesting and the parallel bicycling history and philosophy run together smoothly. Einstien “A socialist who championed freedom, a loner who cared deeply for humanity, a non-believer who saw the universe as God’s handiwork – Einstein was Time magazine’s ‘person of the century.’” He was also a bike rider. He first imagined traveling alongside a beam of light while riding his bike. There is something peaceful and relaxing about riding. Much like Nietzsche and Thoreau who earlier found their mindfulness in walking, cycling slows one down and allows one to see the area and detail around them. There is a peacefulness in rolling along at 15 mph on quiet streets that isn’t there driving at highway speeds or fighting through gridlock. Bicycling relieves stress.  Driving causes stress. A human on a bike is more efficient than any other animal or machine. The calories per mile equate to 3,000 miles per gallon of gasoline.

More on the science and philosophy. The bicycle is a very simple machine four sets of bearings, a chain and cog system, a frame that will last a lifetime. Irvine states that cyclists are not image conscious individuals. I disagree. Having worked in the industry cyclists are the people willing to spend hundreds of dollars to lose 5 grams of rotational mass. They will also spend hundreds on training computers that document every moment on the bike. I have also seen $14,000 bicycles roll out of the shop. I do appreciate the non-image conscience riders. The industry, however, revolves around the newest, lightest, fastest seekers. I have been riding my single speed, steel framed bike for over a decade and have no reason to “upgrade.”  Like, Einstien, and some riders, I am not image conscious.

I think Irvine also knows his philosophy on the bicycle is from the ideal point of view, much like most philosophy and it does lose something in putting it to practical use. He does admit that the default argument against cycling is that it is too dangerous; cars on the street being the biggest threat. In the North Dallas area cars routinely make no stop right turns on red, ignore crosswalks, and have no problem with running cyclists off the road. It is dangerous. Of course, there are parks and bike paths, but one still needs to get to these safely. Having to drive your bike in a car to go ride your bike seems a bit ridiculous. Perhaps, too,  it is a bit quieter in Irvine’s neighborhood. Commuting unless very early in the morning is more stressful than mindful. But, yes, in theory, cycling away from the routine dangers is enjoyable and mindful.  The rider becomes one with the environment rather than sealed away from it.  “Cycling is a living meditation: it allows us to achieve mindfulness not in a hidden retreat but in the full flow of life, while still deriving the same lasting benefits.” An enjoyable, imaginative, and informative read.

 

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Book Review — Red-Green Revolution The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism

Red-Green Revolution The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism by Victor Wallis is an examination of the pairing of socialism and environmentalism. Wallis teaches in the Liberal Arts department at the Berklee College of Music and lives in the Boston area. For twenty years, he was the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy and has been writing on ecological issues since the early 1990s. His writings encompass an array of other topics as well, including political strategies, the U.S. Left, U.S. labor songs, and Latin American revolutionary film.

Environmentalism, climate change, CO2 levels, and socialism have all been recent hot-button issues in America. Environmentalism became a popular force and has been used to sell everything as green or environmentally friendly. That, however, is part of the problem. It is not the greening but the selling. Capitalism is about growth, consumption, and accumulation. Environmentalism is about protecting our habitat. The two are not compatible in practice, but in advertising and propaganda, the two seemed made for each other. Clean Coal, for example, does remove sulfur and particulates but does not remove CO2 which is responsible for climate change. Many things are not implemented simply because there is no profit to be made. Thinking green capitalism is not going to change much of anything.

Not to take Marx’s words as gospel, Wallis does believe that Marx needs to be updated. There have been many works done in the name of socialism that do not reflect Marx’s ideas or socialism. Stalin is the most notorious for creating a dictatorship and creating a system of production that had little to do with a classless society or not exploiting man or nature. Chinese Communism is in turn top-down capitalism. China’s economic colonization of Africa and Latin America might be a kinder colonialism but it is done for raw materials and economic advantage much like capitalism.

Wallis’ main thesis is that capitalism cannot become green.  Growth and accumulation are at odds with our long-term survival.  To put it in Ayn Rand’s terms capitalism is selfishness and selfishness is good. Socialism isn’t about making everyone equally miserable but ending selfishness (particularly the 1%).  Cuba, a poor country, with a life expectancy on par with the US spends 90% less on individual health care than the US.  Cuba’s literacy rate is also higher than the US.  It also sends medical, educational, and disaster relief volunteers around the world. In turn, the US (and now China) use their military and political power to exploit resources. There is an interesting case to be made about the collective good over the individual’s good.  It is an attitude on life and the environment that supports it.  Although not having all the answers, Wallis shows that there may be a better way to save the environment and man.  Jimmy Carter seems to sum it up well: “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but rather by what one owns.”

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Book Review — The Phoenix Project (The Liberty Box, #3)

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The Phoenix Project brings to a conclusion The Liberty Box Series of books by C.A. Gray. It is difficult to review the final book in a series without giving away the plot or too much information on the previous books. As this series draws to a close the battle between the resistance and the government run by Voltolini and his mind control network rages on. The resistance is small and grows smaller as members are arrested or killed. The majority of the population remains blind to the world as it actually is and sees an altered reality that Voltolini has programmed.

Gray writing style works well. Although this series is written for the Young Adult crowd the quality of the story and its detail will hold an adults interest throughout the story. There is enough action in the story without overdoing it and the characters do their best to plan their next actions. There is some romance but it seems a bit awkward at times. Although there are violence and death, sex is left out of the pages. It is a wholesome dystopia where the young characters, although modern, seem to cling to a 1950s morality even when challenging authority.

I enjoyed the first two books in the series and the final book does an excellent job of tying together all the loose ends and drawing the series to a proper end. For those who have read this far into the series, The Pheonix Project is well worth the read and for those who have waited a while to finish up the series, a nice summary of the previous two novels precedes chapter one of this book.  A very well done series.

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Book Review — The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made

The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made by Patricia O’Toole is a detailed history of Wilson’s political career. O’Toole is the author of five books, including When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, and The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She is a former professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia University and a fellow of the Society of American Historians.

The young me would have, and did say, Wilson was one of America’s greatest presidents. In my youth, he was the American Commander and Chief in the first World War, a war I read a great deal about. He also opened the Panama Canal. That image a of a leader continued when I was a Marine. The Marines had some of their greatest moments in that war and also were instrumental in shaping American policy in Central America. Later in graduate school working on my Masters in International Relations, Wilson played a major role in the formation of the liberal theory of international relations. Wilson was also the subject of my thesis research on Huerta and America’s intervention in Mexico. Recently, Wilson has come under fire for his lagging behind on racial equality, women’s rights, and political dissent.

O’Toole traces much of Wilson’s adult life and shows the evolution of his role in history. Wilson was, and remains, the only president with a Ph.D. Furthermore, his Ph.D. was in history and political science with a dissertation entitled: Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. Wilson knew more about government than any other president previously and arguably still. He changed the role of the president. Previously, Congress held the lion’s share of power. Wilson made the president the central point in American politics and that position is still enjoyed by the executive branch. The American people get excited about voting for president and not much excitement goes into voting for representatives aside from voting the party line. Wilson transformed the country and the world with his ideas.

The Moralist is an appropriate title for a Wilson biography. It does entail a sense of hubris and also a sense of uncompromising ideals, both of which fit Wilson. His Fourteen Points was mocked Cleameaceu — “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.” Wilson held the world to high ideals yet seemed to miss the mark closer to home. Racial equality was the law so Wilson saw it not as a government problem, but as a people problem. When he took a position he maintained that position and did not waiver. He based his positions on morality, which meant there could not be any compromise; his world was black and white.

Wilson made foreign policy a key point for his presidency. Outside of free trade and freedom of the seas, America cared little about what happened outside her borders or sphere of influence. Under Wilson, America played an active role in Mexico, invading twice, and in several other countries in Central America. In 1913 he said of the region “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.”

Wilson played an important domestic role also. He called his domestic program New Freedom. He implemented the Federal reserve, changed the tariff system and moved to an income tax. The Underwood Act reduced tariffs by 25% and eliminated tariffs on essential goods. He joined the progressives in fighting the trusts. Wilson also fought to limit child labor and to aid farmers with low-cost loans.

World War I would overshadow most of Wilson’s legacy. He was “too proud to fight,” but eventually committed the US to the side of the Allies. Although many take that decision as a given, after war broke out much of the US was divided on which side deserved support. Even in Wilson’s cabinet, Britain was creating as many problems for US trade as Germany. Britain had an extensive list of what they considered contraband and did there best to limit any products getting into Germany through neutral ports. Furthermore, with cotton being declared contraband the US stood to lose a substantial amount of trade. Britain was a threat to freedom of the seas and free trade to neutrals.

O’Toole writes a detailed biography of Wilson and the world that he lived and governed in.  It is not an apology for his failures or flaws, which are obvious today.  It shows how a person was shaped by the world around him and how that became the stage he performed on.  Idealism carries with it much hubris.  The lack of compromise creates stress and a feeling of standing against the world.  Wilson’s role in history and foreign policy still remains large despite his flaws and failures.  In many ways he was ahead of his time; in many other ways, he was trapped in the past.  An outstanding biography.

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Book Review — LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval

LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval by Kyle Longley is a detailed history of one year of the presidency of a longtime politician. Longley is the Snell Family Dean’s Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at Arizona State University and author of Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam and In the Eagle’s Shadow: The United States and Latin America.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a complex person. He was fifty-five when he found himself thrust into the presidency. It was rumored that he would be dropped from the Kennedy ticket in 1964. For a Texas Democrat at the time, Johnson was unusual. He worked as a day laborer and taught at a segregated Mexican-American school in Cotulla, Texas. Under his gruff exterior and mannerisms was someone who wanted to end poverty, but ended up having his presidency defined by war.

There is no lack of biographies on Johnson.  Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson is probably best known for its great detail.  Rather than focus on the entire life of the former president Longley concentrates on the final full year of the Johnson presidency.  1968, the final full year, was a year unlike any other in history.  Vietnam was distracting the public, before and continued to do so but now other events seemed to even overwhelm the war.

Longley starts with the 1968 State of the Union Address and follows along with events of the year.  The State of the Union Address may have shocked the nation but Johnson decided to hold off on his announcement not to seek another term.  The US was deficit spending with Vietnam and The Great Society competing for funds.  Johnson originally saw the prosperity of the US as a time to help eliminate poverty and expand on civil rights.  He felt the fruits of the country’s prosperity should be enjoyed by all.  Just six days after the State of the Union Address North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and its crew.  This event would drag on until December 1968.  A small nation was able to cripple any response from a superpower.  It became a deep embarrassment to US power and prestige.

In March, LBJ announced his intention not to seek reelection.  That announcement was quickly followed by the assassination of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.  King’s assassination brought violence to many cities as people reacted and rioted.  Gun violence killed JFK, MLK, and Robert Kennedy.  Johnson worked to restrict gun sales, particularly through mail order. Guns were a source of great violence in the US including the University of Texas Tower shooting in 1966.  Johnson’s role in restricting gun violence as well as the Great Society program was stifled by his self-inflicted lame duck presidency.

Johnson’s foreign policy also suffered.  The US stood by helplessly as Soviet troops moved into Czechoslovakia.  Attempts to make peace in Vietnam were also hindered when it appeared that Nixon persuaded South Vietnam to wait until his election rather than make a deal with LBJ.  Johnson had evidence of Nixon’s meddling but did not pursue it preferring not to sully the office of the president or appear to be playing in dirty politics.

As the election approached, the Democrats were in disarray.  Their convention was a scene of violence.  Hawks and doves splintered the party as well as the deep south that did not support the civil rights movement.  Johnson did not attend the convention and was barely mentioned. Humphrey lost a close popular vote to Nixon.  Wallace took the deep south from the Democrats allowing an easy electoral college victory for Nixon.  Johnson again was helpless.  He wanted to be known for the Great Society and for creating peace.  Instead, he is remembered by most for the Vietnam War and the national guard in American streets in Selma, Chicago, Detriot, Washington, DC, and Baltimore — the most deployments of any president since the Armed Forces Reserve Act.

Johnson served in troubled times and the times took a toll on the man.  Longley shows that despite the troubles Johnson was a man who deeply cared.  He was pained by American losses in Vietnam.  He cared about the poor and ending poverty.  He wanted to project America’s power and democracy around the world.  He met adversity in almost everything he attempted.  It took a toll on the man and was probably responsible for his early death.  Johnson died of a heart attack at the age of 64, almost exactly four years after handing over the presidency to Richard Nixon.  An excellent snapshot of a great American politician.

 

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Book Review — Death: An Exploration: Learning to Embrace Life’s Most Feared Mystery

Death: An Exploration: Learning to Embrace Life’s Most Feared Mystery. Mayshark has a B.A. in World History from Manhattanville College. He is the editor of cantheman.com, an alternative media resource focused on social justice, and The Jovial Journey (thejovialjourney.com), a website dedicated to food and travel.

Death is something we do not know first hand. We experience it through others — family, friends, news, and pets. We have religions that promise eternal life in heaven, paradise, or Valhalla. Loved ones will go to a better place. Is that based on us having hope in our impending deaths or to make us feel less of a loss? Catholic funerals I have gone to call it a celebration rather than a mourning. The loved one is with God; we should all be happy. Other religions teach of a reincarnation that allows the spirit to return to life again.

Mayshark presents other people’s ideas and thoughts on death in several short chapters. Steve Jobs’ battle with cancer changed his outlook on life. What good is it to be the richest man in the cemetery? In a way, most would not understand, he accepted death as an achievement.

Mayshark also looks at life as part of death. Would there be a thrill in dangerous or seemingly dangerous undertakings if there was no death? Approaching death but not touching it provides excitement. What about immortality? Would it become boring? As we extend the human lifespan we must also consider the quality of life. Life has gotten longer, but has it gotten better? Is the process of mechanically extending life really living?

Mayshark poses questions and other’s view on death.  It is enough to get the reader thinking about the subject but it is hardly more than an introduction to death.  The source material, however, provides enough information for the reader to begin his or her own research.

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Book Review — Lou Reed’s Transformer

Lou Reed's Transformer by Ezra Furman

Lou Reed’s Transformer (33 1/3 series #131) by Ezra Furman is another edition to Bloomsbury Academic’s album series. Furman is an American musician and songwriter. He currently performs solo and tours with his band The Visions.

I remember hearing Lou Reed on AM radio shortly after Transformer was released. Of course, the song that got the airplay was “Walk on the Wild Side”. At that young age, I didn’t understand the lyrics but the song was catchy. The song would become another song like the Kinks’ “Lola”. Guys would sing along even after realizing the message. (To be fair, girls did the same thing with Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Lights or The Knack for that matter). The battle over a cool song and a gay message was won out by the song. In case anyone missed the message, Reed repeats it with “Make Up” on the B side. At a time when gay was still criminalized Reed hid two songs in plain sight.

Furman’s interpretation of the album is interesting he manages to give it a Lou Reed review. It’s not the best rock album or the best album of 1972, he explains, it was ordinary music and it was like Reed, true to his form, didn’t give a f*ck. That is what makes this a great album according to Furman. Any serious look at the songs would find the same. “Andy’s Chest,” a tribute and olive branch to Warhol contains some of the most ridiculous lines:

Yesterday, Daisy Mae and Biff were grooving down the street
And just like in a movie, her hands became her feet
Her belly button was her mouth
Which meant she tasted what she’d speak
But the funny thing is what happened to her nose
It grew until it reached all of her toes
Now, when people say her feet smell, they mean her nose

and the bear lines that precede these makes one wonder what was Reed thinking? “Satellite of Love” also has interesting lyrics but more importantly it is playing along with his friend’s “Starman”. Bowie and Reed seemed to circle each other in music. Likewise “Perfect Day” in form with “Life on Mars.” “Perfect Day” also is interesting in that it has no violence of “Vicious” or open hidden meanings. It is mundane — a girl, the zoo, a movie, sangria. It’s very unReed like. Perhaps it falls in line with the Reed attitude — You want something more vicious or underground or counter culture? Well, you can have this instead.

Furman describes to the reader how this mix of music came to be such a great album despite what it is. He also details Reed’s and Bowie’s collaboration and explores Reed’s sexuality. It is not only a look at the Godfather of Punk but a look at Furman himself and what he sees as important and influential in his work.

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