Monthly Archives: September 2011

** Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman

I greatly enjoyed Inside Scientology, a lively and opinionated history of the Church of Scientology starting with its business-minded founder (who, we learn along the way, was a bigamist for some time and uses his middle name rather than the lovely Lafayette his parents assigned as his first name). For me the best part of the book is the author’s analysis of how Hubbard structured scientology as a business, modeled after McDonald’s of all choices. He skillfully weaved together the themes of the day, self-development, technology, and UFOs, with a dollop of eugenics (oops!) and a strong pyramid scheme that brought the riches to him. The dictatorship aspects came later, when the troops started to rebel and revenue was at risk, and are reminiscent of Kim Il-sung et al.

I found the middle of the book weaker, as it retraces the sad stories of some of the members who were caught in the purges and exploitation at length rather than abstracting to a more general level, but the saga of how the organization won tax-exempt status is breathtaking since it is structured, first and foremost, as a profit-making venture.

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* Emus Loose in Egnar by Judy Muller

Great title! But I was disappointed by Emus Loose in Egnar, a book that explores local newspapers, which unlike the rest of papers seem to be thriving since they document what no one else can: the minutiae of small-town lives, from births and death to the exploits of the local high school football team.

The author does a great job of describing the difficult juggling act of local newspapers that need to report the news but can’t afford to antagonize those who make the news, with funny examples and serious ones both.  And she includes very funny (albeit genuine!)  excerpts of police blotters.
But I thought the book did not explore two important points. One is that the quality of these newspapers, no surprise, depends on the quality of the editor. Our local paper is a sad mix of blind, NIMBY resistance to change and naked displays of wealth, obscuring even the unintentionally funny police blotter (yes, I do read it!) and the liberal sprinkling of the names of every high school athlete. Sad.
The second point is whether these local newspapers will indeed survive. While it’s true that people thirst for local news, how many will continue to read a traditional paper? And local newspapers are not well-equipped today to adapt to electronic distribution and it’s unclear how their owners can make the transition since many seem to live on a permanent financial edge.

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** Among Penguins by Noah Strycker

Among Penguins is the delightful story of a young birder who spent an Antarctican summer studying 250,000 Adelie penguins, sleeping in a tent with access to a primitive hut for cooking and sheltering from occasional 100 mph winds, and going without vegetables or showers for three months.

The book is an unpretentious mix of stories about the penguins, from the lonely not-dark-enough bachelor to their nasty habits of stealing each other’s nest pebbles (the accoutrements of penguins’ nests being limited!), mostly funny stories about the primitive living conditions (although we get just too many descriptions of the difficulties of keeping proper toilet habits when it’s -20 outside), and stories of how science really works. I particularly liked the science stories, including how to set up an automated weighing station to weigh penguins before and after their fishing trips at see and how to count, manually, 250,000 penguins. Science is not all glory and pretty graphs!

The prose can be a little basic at times, but this unpretentious book is fun.

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** Marriage Confidential by Pamela Haag

Marriage Confidential sets out to show how many marriages, although enjoying little open conflict, are only semi-happy and that the spouses feel that something is missing. And she gives many convincing examples of marriages that don’t work too well, from the partnership approach (not romantic enough), to the Tom Sawyer approach (her word, I would call it the one-sided marriage, in which one partner works hard, at everything, while the other just “self-actualizes”) to the exclusively child-focused marriage, to cheating or open marriages, that don’t look much like marriages to me.

Poor marriage! But is it fair to overload the institution of marriage with the expectation that it will fulfill each partner’s every desire, and raise children successfully, and last forever, while keeping a perfect house while we are at it? Rather than asking for a new institution, as the author does, perhaps it would better to seek a more reasonable vision of marriage and not expect that it will be the one source of happiness, achievement, and personal growth forever and ever… Maybe I’m getting old.

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** I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards

I’m Feeling Lucky is the enjoyable memoir of Google employee #59, who gives a realistic and well-observed view of what it’s like to work in a startup with crazy work hours and no rules for anything, and what it feels when the startup endures through  the growing pains of becoming a public company. The quirks of the founders are there from the first days, when a chef and masseuses are hired but there is no marketing budget. Everyone troops over to the data center to set up servers as needed (I loved the description of the Exodus cages, which I was able to visit back in the day.) Standard corporate rules and etiquette don’t work and actually get in the way.

And there are less nice stories as well, including the engineering arrogance that not only assumes, but knows that every decision is correct, even when customers seem strangely unhappy about them. It’s a little scary to think that an individual engineer can decide to sort through individual user logs — even if the motivation is to find the 9/11 terrorists (it did not work in any case). And there are plenty of political fights, notably between the author and Marissa Mayer, that sounded utterly boring and pointless to me as an outsider.  But overall I would recommend the book for the accurate portrayal of life in the high-tech world.

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***The Greater Journey by David Mc Cullough

I very much enjoyed The Greater Journey, at least until the last two chapters that seemed to drone on quite unlike the rest of the book to show off that yes, the author has done considerable research on Saint-Gaudens and his (to me)s unpalatable monumental art and John Singer Sargent and his not so remarkable (to me, again) paintings. But the rest was such a delight that I, too, wanted to go to Paris between 1830 and 1900, despite the political travails that up to now were my only recollection from dull hours of French history class, to mingle with the artists and the physicians (including the famous obstetrician Madame de La Chapelle, often evoked by my parents when I was growing up) and the architects. The book is full of amusing anecdotes, such as how Whistler, the painter, was expelled from West Point for failing chemistry, or how  Louis-Philippe, king of France, had been a waiter in Boston. How I wish my dull French history teachers would have told such stories, or more sobering ones such as the expulsion of Germans from PAris at the start of the disastrous war of 1870.

Highly recommended,  even for non history buffs.

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*** The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

72% of Americans believe in angels but only 45% believe in the theory of evolution. I wonder how many “believe” in the theory of gravity. But I digress… The Believing Brain shows how our brains are wired to believe, based on two basic functions: one to detect patterns and the other to look for causes for said patterns, whether or not there is, indeed a pattern to be found, let alone a cause of the pattern.

Entertaining examples flow. From the fake mental patients who cannot convince their doctors that they are, in fact, sane and should be released from the psychiatric hospital (but, tellingly, are easily spotted by fellow patients as totally normal), to alien abductions that feel entirely convincing, to scientists who so fall in love with their theories that they disdain experimental evidence, to  political beliefs, that seem to be interestingly reinforced by genetic propensities to align behind specific value sets (fairness seems to be a blue gene and authority a red one).

I loved the book, with just one exception. The author seems to come back again and again to the idea that people with little education will somehow believe silly things. How snooty of his.

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