Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

I love alternate history and what ifs. I do get a bit annoyed how so many alt history novels involve Nazis, but in the authors' defense, the Nazis are a truly odd regime with a lot of paperwork, audio and video left behind. Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" is set in an alternate America, Alaska to be exact, in our contemporary era but with some twists. The basic premise is that the Jews found refuge in Alaska in 1940, saving millions of lives in Europe, but after the Jewish state was stillborn in the Middle East in 1948, more Jews relocated to Alaska. The province is facing 'reversion' back to US control, and the Jews face another Diaspora. In the middle of all of this, a detective who is at the bottom of society's totem pole won't give up on a fishy murder of some heroin junkie in his flea bag hotel.

This is a fun book that is a wonderful homage to old detective noir tales and immigrant Yiddish culture. Sometimes it is tongue in cheek like a cop named Spade or kind of lame like the need for the detective to have a drinking problem that he can fix by the end of the book (whoa, he didn't need Intervention?). I enjoyed a lot of the Jewish-Yiddish stuff as it took me back to college at Cornell, candles lit in December and Matza during Passover. My Jewish friends seemed a bit exotic at the time, and when thrown together were like force multipliers. This book is like that, and delves into those niches of casual Jews, orthodox, and then the super-strict. The small references to their odd alternate world, as well as the definite post-9/11 influence, make this topical and interesting, but the characters hold the book together. Detective Landsman, Berko, and the random Jews of Sitka are fun characters. I liked the buddy cop interplay, the constant chess references, and the family ties.

This book is being turned into a movie by the Coen Brothers. Of course. There are enough quirky characters in this book to meet their needs. I'd love them to turn this into a 3 part miniseries for HBO to really flesh it out, but I'll settle for a Coen classic. I can just see Buscemi, Turturro and of course Goodman (as the Verbover rebbe Shpilman) in this. This is a fun read, and you can find it cheap on amazon.com's marketplace. Check out used book stores as well. It's a breeze to read and would make a great summertime beach book.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter with Family

It was great seeing family for Easter. Normal good times were had and good food was consumed. My highlight was spending about 8 hours smoking cigars, drinking whiskey and expanding minds with my cousin. I was smart and bought a smaller cigar and smoked slower. Nature worked with us and the temperature stayed above 60. It was an excellent night. No hangovers, no bad coughing, no nicotine poisoning. Much talk about the comic moments of the past and the opportunities of the future. I think I also explained the oldest memory of a musical connection for my cousin. Just a great night. There will be many more. Spend time with the ones you love, and you will be rewarded.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Brush With Nicotine Poisoning

After a month of sitting in my new cigar box, I managed to take out one of the nice, smooth Macanudos I bought for a nice night and smoked 80% of it in about 20 mins.

1. I forgot you should smoke cigars much slower than that
2. I am not a regular smoker
3. I am pretty sure I had a bout with nicotine poisoning.

I had almost all of the symptoms listed. I know that certain cigars can do this to me, as I had to lie down once when I smoked half of a Cuban I brought back from my honeymoon. I am not a smoker, and my biochemistry is sensitive to nicotine. I used to have cigars in college and randomly once I graduated. I was trying to wait for the first warm spring weekend night, and because I jumped the gun smoked it fast in the cold. Nicotine does give me a slight head rush, which I know from all 13 cigarettes I have ever smoked. Cigars can contain the nicotine equivalent of a half dozen cigarettes, and because your lips absorb nicotine very effectively, it hits you faster. Nicotine, like cocaine, caffeine, marijuana, etc., is a drug like any other.

Book Review: The Arabs by David Lamb

Looking at the recent news, a really interesting book to read to get a leg up on others is "The Arabs" by David Lamb. This is a much less intense book and shorter in duration. Part of that might be from the stability of the Middle East during Lamb's time there compared to Africa's tumultuous late 70s. Lamb does a nice job of giving an overview of the strong men who rule, the way Islam has permeated all forms of life in the Arab world, the odd space cities out of sand oil provinces, and the people who with sudden wealth have done a lot to try to pick the best of modern technology while retaining their way of life. Lamb also gives a pretty even handed account of the Israel/Arab/Palestinean relationship, which is so dysfunctional in all regards.

This is the revised edition, so it was written 20 years ago and then updated. I would love to see Lamb write another book say 5 years from now. To know there is a 2nd fledgling democracy in Iraq now, to see the Middle East countries on fire, and to see Khadafi giving the middle finger to the US, UK, and France must be on the tip of Lamb's tongue and on his mind. Seriously, the other Arab dictators and Saddam dead in hell, must be jealous of Khadafi's stand. As his book points out, there is tension beneath the surface in many of these countries that increases in food prices could start riots. This is a quick and good read.

What is a shame, is that you will read this book and realize that if we did not depend on oil so much (especially imported oil), we would not be subject to the volatility of oil, and therefore not base our foreign policy decisions on supporting dipsticks because it keeps oil prices down. Imagine the US not intervening in what would be a sleepy portion of the 3rd world so often because someone is an oil producer. Imagine the US being able to stand besides the oldest democracy in the Middle East, Israel instead of having to be somewhat impartial and 'understand' the other side that calls for Israel's destruction. Imagine either an America/West that could either respect the goings on inside the oil producers' borders and socieities or not have an economic blackmail piece to push the dictatorships towards democracy and better human rights. An American economy not tied so tightly to oil would make this a reality. I can hope for change.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: Gulag Archipelago Vol 2

After reading volume 1 of the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I had to find the 2nd volume. Solzhenitsyn picks up where he left off and this is once again a sledgehammer to the farce of Communism and to the reader's soul. The first volume ended just on the cusp of 'camp' and this 2nd volume takes you inside the camp. Solzhenitsyn's dark humor is on display here with witty and humorous comments throughout the book and even in the footnotes. How is this different than the first volume? How does Solzhenitsyn keep you hooked for another 700 pages after the onslaught of volume 1? He does it with beautiful writing and the truth.

Solzhenitsyn starts witht he history of the first work camps and from there describes all of the inhabitants and how camp culture permeated Russian culture while the archipelago was in place. It is incredibly depressing to read how camps were designed, run and staffed. You might read 75 pages and have to take a break because the subject material is so heavy. Solzhenitsyn goes through every type of camp citizen from the common thieves, the plight of women, the politicals, the 'trusties' (prisoners given better jobs), the camp keepers, and the wretched children in camps. A reader will understand daily camp life. A person might ask how does a country staff the camps for their own people, and Solzhenitsyn answers it with the camp keeper MVD selection process. I found the passages on camp 'marriages' entertaining, as even in the most shitty conditions, humans seek companionship and love. The sections about the plight of women and children are heart wrenching. One thing that I love about Solzhenitsyn is that he explains how each piece can fit intot he larger Soviet society framework and within each section he can display an example of said topic or an outlier.

In this book, he is a bit critical of the post-gulag era literature and takes to task people's memories. I really enjyoed his slaying of the rose colored reflections, the after the fact confessions, the focus on certain types of prison suffering but not others or the complete amnesia about certain things. He intends to shine the light of truth on the system so that the younger generations do not hear a filtered, sanitized version of the gulag. He is no saint as he admits int he book how the camp security came after him to be a stool pigeon, and he sort of caved partially. Solzhenitsyn had to write sections of the book in different locations out of fear certain apartments could be ransacked and the manuscripts found and destroyed, and these other fools would gloss over the horrible system or say "nothing like that could happen now".

The most beautiful and sad part of the book is the section (part 4) about the soul and barbed wire. This is the how the mind works in gulag section. How does one survive? How do you cope? How does a nation cope? How does a person not be corrupted? How does the soul progress in prison? He weaves a wonderful picture of how the mind operates in prison when it knows it is innocent, how the politicals who were innocent endured, and how the human soul can fight on. While this is a depressing book, it is also an inspiring book. The final 100 +/- pages about the soul in camp will inspire a reader. Eeven when all hope is lost, when everything is grueling and these people felt isolated, they endured and survived. His book is their testament and their story.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Political Cartoon on Inflation


I bet this political cartoon comes back from the '70s very very soon. Prices are higher in the middle of a depression with no wage increases or new jobs in sight. This cartoon captures that awful feeling that the middle and lower classes share right now. It will be back.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Work, Being One of Them

We had a wave of departures:
1. retirement - happy, yeah!
2. new job elsewhere - happy, yeah!
3. VP lost a political battle - boo hiss!
4. Someone got let go as they are useless - meh.

It is sad to see anyone los their job, especially in this economic environment, but the termination was super emotional for her. She spoke to me for 10 mins then started crying. She has not had any good other opportunities as first interviews don't lead to call backs. It was uncomfortable, and I enjoyed working with her. I also was freaked out by her focus on the job giving her a sense of purpose and her exaggeration on work. I get work is important, but it should not give you a sense of purpose. You should find that elsewhere.

Seriously, work can pay the bills, it can be fun, it can give you a sense of pride, it can give you a lot of emotions or a sense of satisfaction, but a sense of purpose? Purpose, as I understood her use of it, is the reason to exist. I think she might be a little over the top as she is losing her job right now and has nothing lined up. I never want a job to be my purpose. To feel that way, I'd become one of them. I never want work to define my identity or why I get up in the morning. I won't become a zombie.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Absinthe Poster

I love this poster. I love that it was an advertisement for a trippy drink with a semi-nude woman in 1896. Wonderful.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Hunt

I read American Psycho about 4 years ago when I first moved to the Midwest. I gave my copy to a family member. I am now hunting for a 1st edition. It has to be first edition as subsequent editions were tamed down for public consumption. This and the Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim are on the top of my rare books list. Abe Books supposedly has both and for decent prices, but has anyone ever used Abe Books?

Why Reverse Mortgages are Bad Ideas

Please click here and read why reverse mortgages are bad ideas in retirement. I had this debate years ago with my parents about handling my grandparents' situation. I said if they take out a reverse mortgage they can kiss selling that home and having anything to pay for nursing home care if needed. The link is a great housing blog with a cheeky attitude. If I may add....

1. A reverse mortgage creates a new debt in retirement for your estate and heirs to pay off
2. A reverse mortgage creates a debt based on fictitious wealth: "home equity"
3. A reverse mortgage opens you up to the banks and their stealth fees and penalties
4. You can access that equity in your home by selling your house and downsizing or moving to a less pricey area.

I bring the 3rd point up as my credit card company tried to tag me with a finance charge when I paid my bill in full on time. Yup, $15 and change, and I called them about it. No basis for it. The customer service person handled it well and apologized for whatever demented executive that came up with the idea of randomly charging finance fees on stable customers and seeing if they will fight it. The 4th point is that you can't have it all. You can't stay in the same home but have access to that equity without paying your pound of flesh or leaving that home. Life is a series of trade offs.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Paglia on Taylor

Cosign. I wish more women in Hollywood could physical and sensually represent what Taylor represented. It is OK to have strength in sexiness.  Shame it gets confined to the random, odd actress like Christina Hendricks and Sofa Vergara.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

RC Copters


Purchasing two RC copters for me and my boy. Sure he is only 2.5 months old, but he can watch me and his mom fly them.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Japanese Nightmare Nuclear Scenario Once Again Possible

Video is at the link. There is now the possibility, which previously had been 'ruled out', of Fukushima going Chernobyl now. This is especially troublesome as there is more nuclear material in Fukushima than there was at the Chernobyl site. As Japan has run out of plans, it appears pouring concrete on the reactor is there only solution to dealing with it, which a week ago was seen as a worst case option.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

My First Gun Show

I grew up going to my grandparents constantly with hunting rifles and shotguns on the wall of my grampa's den. Never in 15 years of visiting with those guns present did I ever find the ammunition. When my grandfather stopped hunting, an uncle took his (and his father's) guns and kept them in a cabinet in his house. I grew up amongst responsible gun owners. I first fired a rifle and hand gun with my friend and his dad as a teen. Once again, we had never seen the ammunition but knew where his guns were on the rack in the basement. I've also had a loaded gun pointed at my face by an irresponsible gun owner. That idiot kept a loaded gun under his bed and stumbled out of his bedroom, WITHOUT HIS CONTACT LENSES IN, into his living room to check on the intruder using his computer at 3pm. I still don't talk to my aunt's husband. There are good gun owners and bad gun owners. My father-in-law has recommended that I purchase a gun for home safety (or personal safety in my car) and offered guidance with making a selection. With the arrival of a quarterly gun show, I took him up on his offer.

As a threesome, my father-in-law took me and my 21 year old cousin for a trip into the subculture of gun owners in America. My cousin had seen a Lady Gaga show recently, so this was the Yin to that crowd's Yang. What we found were very friendly vendors. The sellers were incredibly nice with trying to help us find the gun we were looking to purchase. One might have expected the sellers to be condescending to say a 21 year old female in a hipster looking outfit, but they were very friendly. It helped to have my extremely knowledgeable father-in-law as an interpreter and insider. Even as a novice, the vendors did not speak to me like I was a dolt outsider. They asked for my 'needs' and did not try to upsell me, which could have been very easy. There was something a bit old timey how they often said, get this in your hands and get a feel for it before you narrow down your choices.

While the sellers were nice with me, I absolutely loved their interactions with my younger cousin. The very first vendor had us cracking up. He consciously took into account a female keeping a gun in her purse as he explained why she should look at hammerless revolvers. He drew up a hypothetical of a Jammal or Bubba walking toward her on the street late at night. He even looked at her purse to consider what would fit. This honestly made us all laugh. At each table, they would see her and as she viewed different hand guns, they'd pull out the pink handle gun they kept under the table for the one feminine looking woman per show (I assume). When she would say "I don't need a pink gun, I just need something that can kill", they would laugh and put it away. There was an odd chivalry about it. One vendor said "2 shots will kill Mr. Rapist, but next 3 are to make sure". I asked one seller about the pepper spray advancements and taser guns, but as he said "men on meth don't stop for pepper spray". Sad truth of modern drug abuse.

I ended up purchasing a hand gun. Thanks to modern technology, they can use the internet to do a background check in 5 minutes. One clean record later, and I was looking for ammunition. My next purchase is for a fingerprint locked small safe to store this gun. I do not want a combination or key lock as a kid can always find a way around it. With a fingerprint lock, I can keep access limited to my wife and I. My father-in-law and I have talked about it, and while a fingerprint/biometric lock might be more expensive, it is the safer way to go with curious kids.

Why I Don't Support Anything Beyond a No Fly Zone in Libya?

This other blogger does a great job of listing some ideas on Libya and how we can or should act. Gadafi is a tyrant who was behind the Lockerbie bombing and has supported terrorism for years. The unfortunate thing is President Obama has waffled with what the objectives are and most importantly, we do not know who the rebels are or how big of a force they are. They sound more and more like a small band of fighters with limited support that have ties with Al Qaeda. A no fly zone can be administered and handled in a multinational way (the Brits sent 1 submarine, hahahaha), but what we are doing now is beyond a No Fly Zone as we bomb ground forces and cities (which could kill innocent civilians, the horror). Russia has commented on this mission creep, as this could set up an odd precedent.

Syria has had protests and is gunning down civilians yet Sec of State Clinton said that we will not intervene. So killing civilians with helicopters is worthy of intervention but using just machine guns is within a sovereign nation's right? The Ivory Coast has a civil war type conflict, slaughtered civilians, and calls for the leader to step down. Will we intervene? Most likely no. No oil in Syria or the Ivory Coast. This is the slippery slope one slides down when the rationale for war is flimsy, when objectives are ill defined and when you have a half hearted effort for a commander in chief who does not sound like his heart is in this. Obama's half hearted efforts in so many things are extremely dangerous when war is involved. This is where his squishy inability to stand up even for things he was supposedly voted into office to do or his base desires with strong support (public option, taxing the top 1%, pulling out of Afganistan) really hurts us as a nation. He also hurts himself with his non-stop chatter in useless ways, like when he said the fighting would be 'days not weeks'. Never overpromise and underdeliver, wait that is his entire career.

A problem with Libya is that the rebels have limited weapons and limited money. They are dependent on outside aid. Heck, they sound like they do not like fighting. France was smart to recognize them and set up an embassy to start covert aid. That should be the funnel for aid, money and weaponry. The rebels are going up against an oil wealthy dictator with over 100 tons of gold. Gadafi's gold wealth could keep a fight going for years. I was surprised when it looked like Gadafi would be overthrown so quickly, and am depressed to think that I had a better view of how Gadafi would fight back than our Sec of State and President. Our military has grown too powerful and awesome for the civilians in charge of it. This statement applies to the last 15 years of our republic.