Monthly Archives: October 2016

Book Review — Smoke Over Steamtown

Smoke Over Steamtown by Dennis Livesey

Smoke Over Steamtown by Dennis A. Livesey is an intimate look at the Steamtown Historical Park and workers there. Steamtown is a sixty-two-acre reserve, near Scranton Pennsylvania, dedicated to preserving the historic trains. The park offers tours and train rides in a historical setting. Livesey takes his camera through the park and captures nearly magical photographs of the engines and the people who keep them running. One look at the complexity of the plumbing and gauges and the reader can easily see where the genre of steampunk originates. We think current electronics are complex but a look at the cab of a steam engine will have the reader reconsider his previous notion if simpler older times.

The trains themselves are works of art captured by the camera. The scenery just adds to the art — A pitch black engine breaking through a blizzard. The pictures are not just limited to the stately, but also the fireboxes, emptying the ash, cleaning the boiler, and greasing the moving parts. The people who keep the trains running are shown at work from the mechanics to the conductors. There is enough text to present an adequate and personal background. It is, however, the pictures, that makes this book come alive. A perfect coffee table book for the train enthusiast.

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Book Review — Stepping Up to the Plate: American and Australian Democracy

Stepping Up to the Plate by Graham Maddox

Stepping Up to the Plate: American and Australian Democracy by Graham Maddox is a study and comparison of the evolution of American and Australian politics. Maddox FASSA is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of New England, where he was for twelve years Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He is a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge, and of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton NJ. He was President of the Australasian Political Studies Association in 1995-6.

Maddox sees American culture seeping into Australia and seems unconcerned with some aspects and very concerned about others. It’s not American pop culture like Taylor Swift or more classic Walt Whitman. It is the business terminology and practices that are creeping in along with the Americanisms. For example, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former PM John Howard used the phrase “Stepping up to the plate.” To most Americans that would slip right on by, but Australia is not a baseball nation it is a cricket nation. “Stride out to the crease” would be more appropriate. It is not a complaint, just an observation of how Americanism has moved into Australia. America and Australia do share a common past. Both were British colonies formed in the British system of democratic representation. We share a common language. We fought together in two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. It would seem we are like brothers.

Maddox does have an issue with American democracy moving into Australia’s version of democracy. He forms a well-documented argument and covers the history of democracy from Athens to modern times. He examines American democracy from colonial times to modern times and notes the changes in government over time. He also does the same for Australian democracy. America’s history is covered in much more detail because the book is intended for an Australian audience. One thing this book does extremely well is that it examines America’s democracy from the outside. Maddox offers constructive criticism of the American system and explains why, although it is creeping in, the American type of democracy is wrong for Australia. America’s obsession with consumerism, small government, and corporate influence in government is examined. He does not pull his punches describing consumerism. “American democracy has succumbed to the totalitarian forces of the market.”

Americans believed they have cornered the market on democracy. Maddox shows how our vision is fairly narrow and we are not the most democratic among nations. America has a long history of supporting non-democratic nations and even helping overthrow democratically elected governments. We pride ourselves on the rule of law and due process yet we use drone attacks. Sitting half a world away we act as judge, jury, and executioner and accept collateral damage as an acceptable consequence. When asked about the US blockade of Iraq and the speculation that up to half a million children died as a result of that blockade, Madeleine Albright responded that the loss was worth the price.

Both Maddox and his book are critical of some US actions, but neither is anti-American. Stepping Up to the Plate’s intention is to examine the changes in Australian politics, but for an American reading it, it is like an intervention from a close friend. Americans are used to being the Great White Satan to our enemies, but we are used to our allies falling in line with our world vision. It is rare to see a well constructed critical argument from a close ally. The history is detailed and well-cited throughout the book. For Australians, it is an excellent study of American democracy that shows America with all its defects. It also shows where Australia is changing in a way that is not consistent with its history. This is one of the rare books, that even with an advanced degree in political science, I found fascinating.

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Book Review — No More Magic Wands

 

No More Magic Wands by George Finney

No More Magic Wands by George Finney is a book on cyber security for all level of readers. Finney is the Information Security Officer (ISO) and Director of Digital Interests for Southern Methodist University. He works in a variety of areas at SMU including facilitating IT Security and Compliance, increasing Regulatory Awareness, streamlining the IT Contracts process, as well as advocacy for Open Source software and processes. Finney earned his law degree from Southern Methodist University.

No More Magic Wands takes the very complex subject of cyber security and explains it in short fictional stories involving elves and forest animals. Finney does an excellent of making the stories cute without being cutesy and passes along information without talking below (or above) the readers level. Part of any successful security program is to have everyone involved and not make any exceptions. People are the weak link in any security system whether it is the military setting up a perimeter, a bank protecting its vault, or a company protecting its data. Perhaps on of the biggest security hacks was Stuxnet. The amazingly successful virus was discovered only by accident and was introduced by a person, intentionally or not. Finney gives examples of how the bad guys can get into the system through unknowing or overly helpful employees. Stressing, again,that security is everyone’s responsibility, not just the IT department.

Combining technology with elfin magic and even the Tootsie Pop owl makes for enjoyable reading and much like parables there is a lesson to be learned with each chapter of the story. Finney includes take away points and also asks open-ended questions at the conclusion of each chapter. The appendix gives an outline of the important points of the book. Computer security is the main topic of the book, but it easily translates to any physical security situation. The reader can easily take away useful information for day to day life or computer security. The stories are easy to follow and the “morals” are not hidden too deeply in the story. Most people outside of the IT circle find security boring and not really part of their jobs and security training is a bitter time. The stories act as a sugar cube to the training distracting the employees from the fact they are learning security.

This book came as a recommendation and was read for free from Kindle Unlimited selections.

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Poetry Review — Forever Words: The Unknown Poems

Forever Words by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is a man who needs little introduction. Even in my “only Rock and Roll” youth on the east side of Cleveland, I knew who Johnny Cash was and could instantly recognize his voice on the radio. I didn’t know much about the man. He had that Christian front and an outlaw image. Forever Words starts with an introduction that covers nearly one-third of the book. His outlaw image really worked as the man in black and also as a man who never served a day in prison. He read and re-read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the Bible. Christianity was more than just a front. He also wrote a novel called The Man in White about the struggles of early church leader Paul (Saul of Tarsus).

The poetry is accompanied by photos of handwritten poems. Reading the poetry was easy. The language is plain and simple and covers easily understandable topics. The one problem I had, if it can be considered a problem, was reading the poems as lyrics in a voice that sounded deep and baritone in my mind. It’s hard not read the poems in that distinctive voice. It is country music poetry more so than Patti Smith or Jim Morrison is rock poetry.

There is humor in some of the poems such as trying to get his wife to wake up by telling what the president is doing or a call to go dove hunting. She is unresponsive to both so he tells her that Roy Rogers and Dale broke up and the next thing he hears is her running to hear the news. He shows his understanding of history with a poem about Tecumseh and religion with a poem on Job. The poems date from the 1940s through the 1980s and although very similar in style the topics cover a great range. I very good collection with an excellent introduction.

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Book Review — Aim High in Creation!: A One-of-a-Kind Journey inside North Korea’s Propaganda Machine

Aim High in Creation! by Anna Broinowski
Aim High in Creation!: A One-of-a-Kind Journey inside North Korea’s Propaganda Machine by Anna Broinowski is an Australian filmmaker’s experience in North Korea. Broinowski fell into filmmaking by accident – when she uncovered Japan’s queer, bikie, and Otaku subcultures in cult hit, HELL BENTO!! She’s been working as a director/writer/producer ever since. Her last film, FORBIDDEN LIE$, about hoax author Norma Khouri, was one of the top ten highest grossing Australian theatrical docs of all time. She was born in Tokyo and grew up traveling across Asia as a daughter of an Austrailian diplomat.

I have read several scholarly books on North Korea over the years and over time the information begins to repeat. There is a limited knowledge of what goes on in North Korea and, for that matter, what has happened in the past. North Korea is unique among nations. The US and Cuba had been enemies for years and both countries political systems fed off the mistrust and hate. But, in Cuba, many still know and remember capitalism. North Korea is closed off to such an extent that the people there believe they are the second wealthiest country in the world trailing only China. Aid from the West particularly from the US is passed out as war reparations from the vanquished Americans. Kim Il-Sung was a child of missionary trained protestants, a background he used to create his own state religion with himself as the savior. His son Kim Jung-Il was a talented cinematographer and propagandist. North Korea is a country controlled by its government’s ability to entrap its population in a perverse Disney-like “reality.” Those who look behind the curtain are sent to prison camps.

My first thoughts were this is going to be an excellent book. Here is a Westerner allowed into the propaganda center of the country and this will be interesting and possibly enlightening. Broinowski starts her story with coal seam fracking in her hometown and decides to fight the corporate propaganda by making a movie about it. She turns to the North Korean professionals to help her make the movie. Despite difficulties, she gets a visa and permission to meet and work with leaders in the North Korean movie/propaganda industry. There is praise and discussion of Kim Jung-Il’s cinematography methods and earning the trust of her North Korean minder and the directors. There is a bond that develops between the author and the North Korean professionals. They help Broinowski make her anti-fracking film in North Korean style.

In reading the preview for the book, I noticed it was made into a Netflix movie. I started the movie and found it to be more of a slapstick mockery than a serious look at the North Korean propaganda machine. The book, however, offers a few good points and bits of new information. One point that is left out is that although North Korean directors have a free hand in their movie making and do not have to listen to investors and sponsors, there is little doubt what would happen to a filmmaker who made a movie that was unfavorable to the regime. Broinowski had great potential to do some serious work in an area of North Korea that has not been opened to the West. Instead, I found her book to be light. My background is political science and as mentioned I have read quite a bit on North Korea. This book may be of more interest as a film study book than to those interested in the workings of North Korea and its propaganda machine.

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Book Notes — Jaws

Jaws by Peter Benchley

I remember reading this back in the mid-70s when the movie came out. I have seen the movies several times since and had forgotten how different the book was from the movie. Brody in the book still seems a bit like Roy Scheider. The others except for Quint seem to be very different. The shark is the main character in the film but in the book, it is the complex relationship between island lifer Brody, his (former) socialite wife, and a younger man named Hooper. There are several underlying themes of rich and poor, shady financial deals, race, and of course a renegade shark.

In typical 70s fashion, it carries all the hot themes of the day — marital infidelity, homosexuality, the mob, the economy, and everything else short of disco. The shark plays much more of the setting than a character. He does have his appearances, but more so acts to drive the sub-plots in the story. The movie focus on action and the shark in the book Quint, the shark hunter, doesn’t appear until the end of the book. A good popular fiction from the seventies with a shark still lives in the minds of many.

This was a free streaming audiobook for members of Audible.com

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Poetry Review — Cold Comes Through

Cold Comes Through by Jim    Bennett

Cold Comes Through by Jim Bennett is the author’s first of five poetry collections. Bennett is a poet from Toronto and graduate of the University of Toronto. This book comes to me as a request from another author. After my initial reaction to the “I have this friend…” email, I checked up on Bennett. His interests cover much ground in many different directions from religion to quantum mechanics and from tropical fish to data processing. It seems we traveled down many of the same paths and both ended up with poetry. I took that as a good sign.

I didn’t read the press release or the book’s description before starting. Sometimes I like to see if the poetry catches with me. The writing here is clear and concise with a message that envelops the reader. There is no hammer that drives the message to the reader it is simply wading into the poetry. From the start “Made to Last” shows the Bennett can create imagery that lasts:

leaving gifts on the shelf of memory gone like kindling
into the stove of time.

The concept of loss and remembrance is perfectly captured in “Aft Cast”, a fishing analogy, that will not have the reader thinking Bass Pro Shop or any fishing cliche. Its message is almost as universal; simple and clear like a parable. The poems also carry the themes of cold, nature, and time. There are many excellent poems in this collection, but one, in particular, stood out for me.

“Facing December” takes the reader through the year as seen by one person of a life-long couple. It opens with the line “How did our lives become December?” It is a powerful and meaningful journey through life. Spring takes a full stanza. Summer takes less and October and November collectively take two lines. All that is left is to make a stand, hand in hand, and face December. The poem also reflects our perception of aging, as we get older, time seems to move faster. The eternity of years of waiting to drive, to buy a drink legally, suddenly seems like a high-speed race to old age.

Not all poems have a serious take on serious matters. For those of us old enough to remember life before Windows, Bennett reminds us of the days of running CHKDSK on our ailing hard drives. Our minds are much like those ailing hard drives. Sectors go bad. Memory is lost. Bennett mentions an old friend who had a stroke and lost “entire file extensions” and cannot remember things that happened after a certain date. It is like no one hit “save.” Backup drives are incompatible with the new but damaged system. There is even a mention of the blue screen sky. It left me thinking if only there was a CHKDSK/f for the human brain.

Loss is something we all face at different times and in different ways. Be it death or the loss of the person we know as a result Alzheimers it often leaves scars on those still living. Scars were pain that has healed and as with most scars they memory is not always a bad one. As time passes we are left wondering what of our life will be remembered. We, however, are pretty much defenseless against aging and its effects. We all experience loss and one day we ourselves will become a loss. Bennett takes us on the journey and reminds us what is most important as we travel through life moving ever closer to our own December.

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