Category Archives: Book Review

Poetry Review — In a Language That You Know

In a Language That You Know by Len Verwey is a collection of experiences from South Africa. Verwey is a South African poet. He was born in Mozambique in 1973. His chapbook Otherwise Everything Goes On is included in the boxed set Seven New Generation African Poets, and his poems have been published in various journals including New Coin and New Contrast.

Verwey became an adult in an interesting place at an interesting time. His adopted country saw a lifting of Apartheid and the release from prison and election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s president. South Africa had a new flag and rejoined the world community. It was a place of dramatic change. In the world picture, South Africa had changed. In the village picture, much needed to be done.

The poems in the collection are narrative and reflect events in Verways life. He starts early (or even before his life) with in his life in Mozambique and tells of a simple life of fishing and one of poverty.  Young Verway does have great dreams as reflected in “El Bandito de los Nadas” where he is victorious in a most unlikely event.  There is also violence and the threat of violence in real life that is reflected in his writings. The longer narrative poem “An Unchained Dog for Each of You” tells of sadness, reality,  and growing up. “Sunnyside,” tells the story of a young couple in a segregated and dangerous suburb of Pretoria and the urge to move to someplace better and the urge just to stay. Not everyone wants to make the effort when they are used to what they have, however little that may be.

Verwey’s poetry is interesting in that it gives an African perspective from one of the few developed nations in Africa.  South Africa is the only African G20 nation. In some ways, it resembled the American south decades before.  Although African in fact, it has a message that can be felt or experienced in America.  A collection that shows commonality where we least expect it.

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Book Review — The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement

The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is a study of how big data is and can be used by law enforcement to encroach on what used to be privacy.  Ferguson is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law. Professor Ferguson teaches and writes in the area of criminal law, criminal procedure, and evidence.

American’s have always enjoyed privacy. Constitutional amendments like the Fourth and Fourteenth keep government intrusions at bay for most people. The internet and mobile communications have changed all of that. We gladly give personal information away to web sites. Sites like Facebook not only have your personal information but they know who your friends are, places you check into, who and what you like, where you live, and pictures you take. Other web sites collect information items you purchase and also looked for.  A Russian photographer has recently used a facial recognition application to find out information about strangers on the Metro. Simply taking a picture of a person on the Metro the photographer is able to identify that person through their social media accounts. Our private lives have become very public in the age of Big Data. Companies mine and buy this data for their own purposes. Say, for example, you owned a motorcycle shop and wanted more customers. You can pay a data collection company for personal information about everyone with a motorcycle license in your area. You would then have a contact list of potential customers.  Information is still power in today’s world.

There have been news stories of people posting pictures of themselves on social media sites with automatic weapons, drugs, or taking part in illegal activities. Police have used these postings to arrested people. Social media postings do not have an expectation of privacy; what you post is essentially public.  The Los Angeles Police Department, with outside help, tracks and records all crime and creates a database and an active map that predicts where and when crimes occur.  The idea is to police a predicted area before a crime happens — actual crime prevention.  NYC Police use cameras on the roads and sidewalk and can actively look for suspicious activity as well as possibly identify the criminal.  These systems don’t seem to infringe on people’s rights. One does not have an expectation of privacy when in a public place.

In Chicago, an algorithm is used to help predict those who might commit a crime or become a victim of a crime.  A list is made and police visit those people on the list and deliver a “we are watching you a message.”  What happens when the algorithm is wrong is another thing.  People without a criminal record or any other indicators might come up on the list because of a friend or relative who was killed.  It’s not a perfect system but Chicago police rate it well. 70% of those shot were on the list and well as 80% of those arrested in shootings.  Still, there seems to be no real infringement on individuals rights. Police use public data to predict crime and criminals

The problem comes in when the results of the Big Data seem to be the same as those in racial profiling.  The highest crime areas are usually in the inner city and areas where the minority population is high.  The Chicago list targets gang members 95% are African-American or Latino.  Can Big Data just be another means of racial profiling? Ferguson looks at racial bias in Big Data and researches whether the data is biased, the system is biased, or if the data is correct.  Ferguson also discusses the constitutionality of using Big Data as probable cause instead of “gut instinct.”

Where does law enforcement and Big Data limit themselves?  Imagine if your local police force bought personal data from Google or Facebook.  Private information becomes public information, becomes building blocks for private and government databases as Ferguson explains. A warrant is not needed for public information.  Police gather public information all the time.  License plate readers not only verify if the plates are good but also track and store all the locations where that plate has been seen.  The police could, in time, track your daily routine.  Upgrades to police body cams will have facial recognition software.  One may not be required to identify themselves, but facial recognition will allow the police to identify a person anyway.

Interestingly there is a push by law enforcement to use Big Data and other monitoring; however, requirements for police to wear and use body cameras meets resistance by police who do not want their every action recorded while on duty.  Similar algorithms used by police to monitor and predict crime could also be used to monitor police officers. Just like a small percentage of the population is responsible for the majority of the crime, a small percentage of police are responsible for the majority of the complaints.  Big Data could help identify bad cops.  

Presently, we willing give our data to Amazon, social media, mobile providers (location tracking, calls, and texts), and search engines.  Walmart collects 2.5 million gigabytes every hour from its customers enough to 50 million, four drawer filing cabinets with information every hour.  The government is also collecting data. Perhaps the most extensive is the Post Office’s Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program. It photographs every piece of mail.  Your name, address, and the sender is recorded on every piece of your mail. Big Data could also be used by the police and other community services by identifying runaways, homeless, Amber Alert victims, and Silver Alert victims. There is good that can come from Big Data if it is used correctly.  In the wrong hands, it could create tyranny. The Rise of Big Data Policing is a timely and possibly frightening book as what was formerly conspiracy theories become our daily reality.

 

Available October 3, 2017, from NYU Press

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Book Review — Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird

Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird by Robert Aitken is a series of Zen teachings told through forest animals. Aitken was a retired master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Honolulu in 1959 with his late wife Anne Hopkins Aitken. His introduction to Zen was as a prisoner in World War II. After the war, he obtained a B.A. in English Literature and an MA in Japanese from the University of Hawaii.

Zen is not an easy subject and especially not an easy one to pick up by reading a book. Aitken uses the raven as his central character. The reason for using the forest animals was done for a few reasons. The most important reason was to allow him to modify the koans to make them a little easier to understand. The character animals play their roles further helping the reader understand.  There are also brief explanations in the Notes at the end of the book.

The reader will follow the Raven from his search for meaning and through his teaching of the forest animals and interactions with others. Some of the meanings jump out the readers, some require more thought, others still left me wondering.  Aitken takes his life long study and makes it accessible to the curious.  His characters aid in the understanding and the language used is simple enough for most readers.  A well-done work that teaches and entertains.

 

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Book Review — No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st-Century Left

No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st-Century Left by John Medhurst is a detailed history of the Russian Revolution as a political event. Medhurst is a Trade Union Industrial Officer with a background in Civil Service and Public Sector policy issues. He was born in London and has a B.A in History & Politics from Queen Mary College, University of London. He has worked at all levels in the civil service including Job Centres, the HSE and Whitehall, in all of which he was an active trade unionist.

I have read quite a bit about the Russian Revolution since college and this book is different from most. First, it looks at the revolution as a political event. It concentrates on the political moves for power and the behind-the-scenes rather than the actual physical fighting.  The struggle between the Bolsheviks and the several other political parties (including the Mensheviks) are discussed in detail.  The revolution is shown not to be a glorious progression, but rather a series of errors, deceit, corruption, and bullying. Lenin planned the revolution but made no plans for the aftermath.

Secondly, and most importantly, it relates aspects of the Russian Revolution to other historical uprisings such as literacy programs in Latin America to educate the peasants. The American socialist movement is also covered as well the sedition act of 1918. European socialists were active but also very critical of what was happening in Russia. Liberation Theology,  The Zapatistas,  FSLN, FMLN, and the Arab Spring movement are also covered and tied into historical events in Russia.  Thatcher and the striking coal miners are also given a mention in a socialism versus capitalism in the West.

What this also shows is the corruption of Marxism under Lenin.  It was a slow, methodic move from a revolution of the peasants and workers, to Soviets (unions), to a dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally Lenin’s Dictatorship of the party.  Russia was far from a prime target for Marxism.  The vast majority of the population, over 90%, lived outside of the city.  Although Russia had a developing industrial infrastructure, the majority of the population were still in agriculture.   World War I accelerated Russia’s demise. Russia could not participate in the industrial driven warfare nor was it ready for the workers to rise up in revolt.  The revolt did happen, but it lacked direction.

Lenin was not the leader at the forefront.  He seemed to hide when the trouble arose and was more interested in consolidating his power than creating a workers’ paradise. Despite elections and their results, Lenin proclaimed his own General Will.  Trotsky gave the great speeches.  Stalin saw his opportunity to gain power.  The removal of the Czar was the beginning of Russia’s problems, not its solution.

No Less Than Mystic presents the complex process of revolution in Russia beginning 1905, through the civil war, and finally the rise of Stalin.  There was no one clear opposition movement as in the American Revolutionary War.  The system was broken and Czar Nicholas was making things worse.  There was no shortage of reasons to revolt but the desperate situation splintered opposition and Lenin managed to pick off the opposition through brute force or “legal” means.  The reader will discover how the promise of a new start evolved into a tyranny that came to represent the Evil Empire.

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Book Review — Whale Song

Whale Song by Margret Grebowicz is a short study of man’s coexistence Grebowicz is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Goucher College, USA. She is the author of The National Park to Come (2015), Why Internet Porn Matters (2013), and Beyond the Cyborg (2013, with Helen Merrick). Her areas of expertise are 20th and 21st Century Continental philosophy, critical animal studies, environmental philosophy, gender, and sexuality.

Bloomsbury Publishing takes makes an interesting choice for this edition. Rather than a marine biologist as the author they chose a philosopher. This presents a unique perspective on the subject. She starts with contemporary man’s awareness of sentient marines life. Any one old enough to remember the late 1960s and early 1970s remembers the “Save the Whales” campaign and The Song of the Humpback. The Song of the Humpback made it into mainstream culture and even primetime television. Suddenly, marine mammals and the oceans became popular. Jaques Cousteau had a television series exploring the oceans that ran for years.

Grebowicz takes a more modern look as well as the history of communicating with whales and dolphins. For a while, in the mid-1970s there was the talk that dolphins were as smart as humans. She also looks at Blackfish the story of the killer whale, who killed. Also discussed is a flash back to Carl Sagan and the gold plate on Voyager which included whale songs. The Voyager plate then takes the reader back to pop culture and Star Trek IV. The pop culture mentions are not important in themselves, but as a way of showing that the subject was on the minds of ordinary people.

Although communication takes up the lions share of the book, some information on whales in their environment is also given.  99% of earth’s biosphere is ocean and 80% of the earth’s biomass exists in the oceans. Most goods are transported by ship and the noise of the propellers has dramatically reduced the whales’ communication range. The Navy’s low-frequency communications equipment creates even larger problems.  In the past, man thought the oceans were too big to be destroyed or even damaged; We proved ourselves wrong.

Whale Song is an interesting and unique look at our oceans and its intelligent mammals.  Grebowicz combines the present and the recent past and examines man’s relationship with the ocean and, in particular, whales and dolphins.  A well-written book;  Informative and taken from an interesting perspective.

 

Available September 7, 2014

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Book Review — A Short Life of Pushkin

A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler is a short biography of Pushkin. Chandler is a British poet and translator. He is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and the author of Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin is perhaps Russia’s greatest writer. In his short life, he managed to leave a mark on all areas Rissian literature producing poetry, plays, novels, and short stories. Pushkin was a rebel with ties to the Decemberists, yet no matter how much trouble he caused he always managed to find a way out. He saved his life many times but was not able to to get out of financial debt. He wrote Russia’s most famous love poem about a woman who rejected him. He was exiled and returned to become a member of the court not only for his fame but also his flirtatious wife had an effect on the court. It was rumors about his wife that lead Pushkin to the fatal duel ending his life at the age of 37.

What makes this biography particularly interesting is its size.  At just over one hundred pages, it serves the reader better than most short introduction at the beginnings of books.  It also condenses Pushkin’s life to the most important parts of his life and his literature for those not wanting a several page account of the details of the man’s life. The writing is straightforward and easy to follow as well as informative.  A Short Life of Pushkin captures the excitement of the poet’s extraordinary life without sensationalizing events.  The reader will experience the high and low points of Russia’s greatest writer. An excellent short biography.

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Book Review — Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene

Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene by Clive Hamilton is a complex discussion of the coming, or already arrived, Anthropocene Era. Hamilton is an Australian public intellectual and Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) and the Vice-Chancellor’s Chair in Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. He is a member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government, and is the Founder and former Executive Director of The Australia Institute.

This isn’t a book warning about climate change. It seems more like the scolding a child receives after doing something wrong. You understand that what you did was wrong and that there is no way to fix it. The scolding seems to go on forever and the same things are repeated over and over again. This is a scolding to mankind.

The Anthropocene Epoch is here. The Holocene is over. The Anthropocene contains the root Anthrop meaning relating to humans or human actions. There is an argument of when this epoch began. Some proposals are the beginning of humans or the beginning of human impact on the earth (Industrial Revolution) or when man knew what he was doing to the earth and accelerated his influence (the 1990s).

This tends to be a very philosophical book rather than a science book. Different views are given and explained and sometimes leads to confusion whether these are a part of the author’s thesis or if he is arguing against it. Some are obvious like those welcoming the new epoch as a fresh beginning. There are even Evangelical Christians who are taking cruises to Antartica hoping to see the becoming of the new Eden. There are those who also think that we can return to the safety of the Holocene if we work at it or develop new technology. Still others like Reagan’s former Interior Secretary James Watt believed that the Natural Resources should be used because the Lord was due back soon and they won’t be needed after that. Other Christians argue what is meant by taking dominion over the earth — plunder or stewardship.

Hamilton brings philosophy into the mix citing Marx, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Kant are all used to examine man’s actions.  Technological industrialization is given the lion’s share of the blame.  Even as the West cleans up its act to prevent destruction, the destruction continues.  The West now blames China and other countries for damaging the earth system.  That blame comes right back as China manufactures goods for the West.  It is still the same planet.  Moving industry from one spot to another does not make it disappear.

All in all, Defiant Earth is a difficult read.  It is much more an academic level text than a general public reading.  It does feel like a lecture like I mentioned before and certain items, phrases, and themes seem to repeat to the point I was not sure my Kindle was actually saving my place in the book.  “You knew you were wrong since the 1990s yet chose to keep destroying the earth and destroying it at an accelerated rate.”  Perhaps this is the shock we need, or more precisely the realization that we need.

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