Category Archives: Uncategorized

It’s Time to Change the Conversation

The United States is in a strange place right now. With the inauguration of Donald Trump, it seems like every conversation has become political and many people are living in a state of permanent distraction.

On the right, considerable gloating could and can be heard about the changes that are supposed to come and the over throw of the old system. As the opposition grows more vocal, so do the growls of retaliation from the administration and its supporters. A sense of discomfort is settling over the right as they realize they have no mandate and less support than they thought.

On the left, the election results were met with disbelief and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was concerning to hear people say that they could not function in their daily lives. If the results lay them out, then how will they be able to take the hits that will come? Now people speak of resistance and with cautious hope that occasionally dips back into despair. Meanwhile, a riptide of violent talk and action is starting to filter through the left. People talking about (and actually) punching Nazis and trying to establish their violence bona fides from their history of fighting at punk concerts.

At the center of it all, however, remains one constant topic — Trump himself. This central position is what gives him so much power. By becoming the locus of all the efforts, energy, and attention, all the moves become his. Everyone else is reduced to reaction. So, he is setting the tone and the agenda for the entire country. He runs the conversation.

It is time to change the conversation.

The president is not the only political actor in the country. The Federal Government is not the only political actor in the country. Yet the reactions point to an ugly truth that maybe no one wants to hear — perhaps the left really has become to dependent on the government.

What should the conversation be?

Instead of making everything about Donald Trump, we need to start thinking about the issues facing our nation and our world. We need to start with facts and data, identify the problems, and begin working on the solutions. Since the federal government is no longer going to be of much help, it is time to find state, local, and private solutions to problems we face. There will be some federal battles to fight.Those are important, but for this discussion let’s think about the things that can be solved.

With the Democratic party unable to provide leadership, the resistance will be local.

We are starting to see some signs of this. For example, in Massachusetts, there is a bill that would require the state to get all of its energy from renewable resources. At the same time, Governor Charlie Baker, a republican, has said that if the Affordable Care Act goes away, then he will work to reinstate the previous universal coverage bill in Massachusetts that the ACA was based on (also known as Romneycare).

Money Magazine took a look at 17 programs that the Trump administration wants to cut and calculated that the cost per American citizen is $22.36 per year. This includes funding for things like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($1.37), the National Endowment for the Arts ($0.46), and the Minority Business Development Agency ($0.11). All of these are worthy programs, but given the amount in the budget, maybe it is time to remove them from the political football field. This way, instead of being kicked around, they take the loss of federal funding, use it as a call to action, and build up their own private endowment. Call it an “Ice Bucket Challenge for the Humanities.” We can get people to kick in a little extra. I realize that not everyone can afford to donate — the battle cry of the left whenever someone suggests that people should do some of their own funding — but it becomes a case of from each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her need. What would it cost to cover five Americans? About $111.80? I’ll cover myself and four others.

Yes, private funding can be fickle (so can government funding). But really, the question now is what do we value, and are we willing to support it, whether through our state and local governments or our own efforts.

The point of these examples is not the examples per se. It is that solutions exist, and they don’t need Donald Trump or the federal government to bless them. Maybe by changing the conversation, we can start to prevent some bad things from happening by creating sustainable, smaller scale solutions.

Modern Works: Should I Stay or Should I Go? “Leap” By Tess Vigeland

Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really WantLeap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever thought about just saying ‘Forget it, I am not going into work tomorrow?’ even if you didn’t have something else lined up? This book is about people who have done just that.

Tess Vigeland starts with her own experiences in leaving Public Radio’s Marketplace without a plan B in place. Much of the book is structured as a memoir, but it is designed to help people ask the questions of themselves about whether they should stay or go. One of the most interesting ideas is whether or not quitting something is as bad as it is made out to be. We are all taught early on not to be quitters, but there are times when it makes sense to walk away.

This is not a how to book, but there are plenty of references in it for people who want to follow up with those kinds of reading. Instead this is about preparing yourself mentally and emotionally to make a change when you need the change to happen — even is there is no plan B in place.

View all my reviews

How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.

Modern Works: “Back Channel” By Stephen Carter, a Spy Novel and Study in Politics

Back ChannelBack Channel by Stephen L. Carter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back Channel was one of those books that gave me a new perspective about something that I thought I already understood. The book is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. It has an unlikely protagonist who, through a series of odd events, ends up in the middle of the negotiations around the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

What I had never considered before was that there could be people on both sides who thought that 1962 was the time for a war between the United States and the USSR. As the novel portrays it, there were people on both sides who felt that each country could win the war, so they thought that moment was the time to take the chance.

In a afterward, the author alludes to this possibility without going into details. I will need to do more research to understand it, but as the novel portrays it, it goes beyond the simplistic conspiracy approach to the world of international intrigue and into a setting of calculations around world politics.

The novel itself was entertaining on its own merits, and Stephen Carter is a good writer. I may check out more of his books after this. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in spy novels and cold war history.

View all my reviews

Modern Works: The Martian By Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. In a world where Sci-Fi has become focused on computer hacking and cyberspace, it was fun to come back and read a book about rocket ships and outer space.

What made this book a classic is that our hero, Mark Watney, has gotten stranded on Mars. Only a freak accident and great luck kept him alive through a crisis. Now, after the crisis, he has been stranded on Mars with no hope of rescue for four years — so it is up to his brain to do the rest.

While the circumstances of his survival could lead the reader to think “Gee, this guy his really lucky,” it is soon apparent that luck is a door that swings both ways.

The thing about Mark Watney is that he is smart, but human. He gets sad, frustrated, and full of despair. He gets hurt. But he keeps going and keeps working to figure things out. All the same, it is nice to read the hero say “Just once I’d like something to go as planned, ya know?” It’s nice because then we are there with him, and maybe could be like him.

The book was recommended to me by engineer and scientist friends, so the science in it is good enough to satisfy even the technically minded. If you are, or have ever been a science fiction fan, then you should read this book — especially if you liked authors like Asimov, Ellison, or Heinlein.

If you have ever felt like you have been stuck on a strange world as you move through your life on this one, then you also should read this book. Because the message, delivered by a hero we can relate to is clear:

“Okay, enough self-pit. I’m not doomed. Things will just be harders than planned.”

View all my reviews

Modern Works: The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

The Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book came to my attention thanks to the Tragically Hip song “Courage: For Hugh MacLennan.” The song draws on the following quote from the book:

“But that night as I drove back to Montreal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”

This book, which spans the time from Great Depression to about 1950, is a product of its place and time, which helps it make observations about the human condition like the one above that are universal. In a strange way, it seems the more we change, the more we stay the same as people.

While I am not entirely sure how I feel about the narrator of the book, I realize that I can like the book without entirely liking the narrator. This book is a collection of love stories set against the backdrop of history, but they are the love stories of intense and flawed people. So the stories are somewhat unconventional, because it is not just love for other people, but also for ideals, and sometimes those things get confused.

At the same time, we see the changing world through the eyes of the narrator, who is a political commentator for the CBC. So at the same time that we get observations like the one above, we also get insights like this:

“The evil inside the human animal — the fascists are charming it out like a cobra out of its hole and the capitalists let them do it because they think it’s good for business.”

I feel like this is as true today as it ever was, though perhaps it is not the fascists, exactly. But that evil gets charmed out, and some people think it is good for business.

People like historical fiction, Canadian literature, and understanding how a specific time and place can reflect universal themes will like this book. If the quotes above can’t pique your interest, then leave this one alone.

View all my reviews

Modern Works: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jennifer Government describes the world that the libertarians in the United States wish we had. It is the kind of world where people are defined almost exclusively by their job, regulations and government interference in business are minimal, and the pursuit of profits is the highest order.

The author trusts his reader to get the symbolism rather than trumpeting explanations about why things are this way. While some of it can seem obvious, when you stop to think about the action, there is nuance to be found.

The book is an easy read, and I think it starts to rush a bit towards the end. That said, though, it was a fun read that occasionally made you stop and think. As someone who grew up near where kids were shooting each other over shoes, the story doesn’t seem that far-fetched. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes near-future speculative fiction.

View all my reviews