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Monday, February 22, 2016

#SundayReads 2016-02-21 Tears and Watchmen

#SundayReads 2016-02-21, a day late...
Two books this week. The first, Tears on the Sand was a page-turner that kept me up for a night or two. Dr. Joseph Agris, a cosmetic surgeon from Houston, narrates an adventure in Pakistan. He had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan multiple times on medical mission trips, repairing cleft palates and other facial defects, as well as injuries caused by drone attacks of the US and the collateral damages of the war on terror. After thousands of these surgeries all over the country, he decides he wants to meet with Osama bin Laden to try to understand what sort of thoughts and habits motivate that man. As his bodyguards tell him, he will not find Osama, but if Osama wants to find him, the meetings will take place. The "crazy Texan" notices some Pepsi that he cannot buy, and figures out where Osama is getting his fix, and shortly after, emmisaries manage to kidnap him and deliver him to the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad for a series of conversations. Just minutes after his last conversation with the leader, Dr. Agris is able to witness the Navy seal assasination squad arrival, and then has to beat a speedy exit from the country. The doctor's musings about the impact of drones and the nuclear ambitions of Pakistan makes one pause and think about how so much money can be spent to so little improvement of the situation on the ground. He also highlights how al Qaeda, when cut off by the financial lock-down by the international banking system, turned to the refining of grade four heroin as a mechanism to extract billions of dollars of revenue from enemy states. And he realized how efficiently al Qaeda was able to wage war, with an unheard-of kill ratio by its suicide bombers. Most upsetting for me to read were claims that Osama supposedly made to the doctor about suitcase-sized dirty nuclear bombs that he claimed had already been smuggled into sleeper cells at dozens of US cities. If true, this could be the next phase in the global war on terror. All in all, a disturbing, but reasonably plausible story. Also interesting is his report of an ambush on the road that required him to kill four men in order to rescue his bodyguards after being thrown from the vehicle by an improvised explosive device. Not exactly a typical tourist jaunt! The second book this week was Harper Lee's second book, Go Set a Watchman. It was kind of spooky that I finished the book the day before the author died. My host at a missions conference in Helena, outside Birmingham, AL, had a copy her aunt had read, and the Accra Book Club had read it and "To Kill a Mockingbird" for their January meeting, so it was one that had been on my list. It was short, and written in a simple style. The story picks up after the story reported in her first book, as Scout returns home for a visit after moving to New York. The theme is coming to grips with a human father who is not the hero she had portrayed in the first book, but I found the psychological portrait very realistic. Books such as these make for great conversations about race relations in the USA, and understanding life in Alabama. As a yankee who lived in Atlanta for a generation, the culture is still mysterious, and books like these are a good way for me to try to understand southern culture. Oh, and the newspapers here reported the author's original title had been "God sent a Watchman" but in today's book-publishing environment, such a title was not perceived as viable, apparently. So they took off one letter... Ready anything good lately?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

#SundayReads 14-Feb-2016

#SundayReads 14-Feb-2016 Charlie writes:

Image from Central UMC, Atlanta, GA

As Lent begins, I have resolved to listen to an audio version of the New Testament, according to a 40-day plan. There is an on-line audio Bible site,, and I was able to use the FOSS audio editor audacity to paste together the thirty minutes or so of audio for each day, deleting the chapter labels. Finally did my first listen today, so it may be a challenge!

My big read this week was Michael Lewis's expose of the Salomon Brothers meltdown in the mid 1980s, Liar's Poker. I was intrigued after my readings on risk two weeks ago. Here is an Art History major who became incredibly sucessful as a bond salesman, but bailed out before the company imploded. His depiction of the personalities involved and their motivations seem as unlikely as the fictional account by Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities.

I was intrigued by Lewis's Epilogue:

"When you sit, as I did, at the center of what has been possibly the most absurd money game ever and benefit all out of proportion to your value to society..."
introducing his decision to quit that job, freeing him to write about it. Once again, the theme was the weirdness that happens when you can't find the person on the other side of a trade or a market.

I've also been plowing through a MOOC by Scott Page, of the University of Michigan, on coursera, about Model Thinking. This will be great preparation for my Data Mining class this fall, although the amount of stuff he crams into each ten minute clip is truly exhausting in tempo. An interesting reading that came out of that one was Dr. Feynman's essay "The Value of Science" in his book "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" which is available here on page 141. This famous physics prof from CalTech argues that the skepticism of the rational scientist is an attitude that was only affirmed in the relatively recent future, but represents an attitude that is a pre-requisite to a functioning democracy. Earlier forms of governance just don't allow dissent, since those in charge are certain they know how to run society. He claims that the skeptical attitude of science is very related to the development of the "Age of Reason," and he for one doesn't want to go back:
"Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar."

On to Alabama next week, planning to carry a tome called "Tears on the Sand" by a reconstructive surgeon in Houston who had just visited Osama bin Laden hours before the US military engineered his assasination.

Monday, February 08, 2016

#SundayReads 7-Feb-2016

Charlie writes: During this week I only read one book:

Old 300: Gone to Texas, by Paul N Spellman, 2014, self-published, ISBN: 1497470587

My father-in-law took me along to the yearly meeting of the San Jacinto Historical Society, here in Houston, TX. The author delivered an entertaining talk about his research into the 300 families who were granted properties under the Empresario Samuel F. Austin during the years 1822-1826. Dr. Spellman has been teaching Texas history for a generation, to fourth and seventh grade classes, to university students, and most recently at Wharton County Junior College in Richmond, TX, and felt that it was time to document three issues:

  • Who were these people?
  • Why did they come to Texas?
  • Where did they come from, and how did they get here?

Professor Spellman was able to lay hands on the original land records in the Texas Land Office in Austin, and then tracked back through census records to conclude that there was at least one family with a connection to each of the 24 United States at the time, and some from Ireland and Canada. He also discovered that not all the 300 were huge, poor families, although there were many who fit that bill. While Austin tried his best to keep out bandits, and had confronted five escaped convicts, throwing out two, not all the folks were necessarily upstanding characters. There were a handful of women who arrived as widows when husbands died on the perilous journeys to the Brazos and Colorado River basins. It seemed that the land route through Nacogdoches and the "Piney Woods" was easier than the skiff journeys over the sand bars of the Gulf of Mexico from New Orleans.

The book also used the word "filibuster" in a sense I had never encountered, meaning "a person engaging in unauthorized warfare against a foreign country." There had been some earlier attempts by citizens of the USA to invade Mexico and settle the northern portions, but Moses Austin had proposed to settle Anglo farmers who were willing to live under the Mexican catholic administration on tax-free plots to encourage the development of the area. Of course, this settlement approach ended up not lasting very long. In fact, the original grant was made by a government which was overthrown before he could mobilize his settlers, and his son Steven had to travel to Mexico City to renew the deal with the new administration, taking him nearly a year (during which he learned Spanish!).

You will find some of these 300 names, like Fulshear, Dickinson, Austin, Bastrop, Kerrville and Stafford across Texas today. The Texas Rangers date from these early years, and the importation of slaves also dates from this time.

The book was a long read, but carefully drawn. His original draft had been nearly 600 pages, so the 400+ represented quite an abbreviation. Dr. Spellman also quotes a few pages from other histories to give a taste for the challenges experienced by various families. I was particularly interested in his quotes from various, conflicting accounts of the first deaths recorded amongst these 300 families in attacks by the local Native Americans (p 194-196). This explains why history can be somewhat difficult to pin down.