Timefulness

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Like an increasing number of people, I find mindfulness meditation is a great way to live in the moment, stop reliving the past and stop being anxious about the future.

That’s why I was taken by a book review of a new book, “Timefulness,” which has as its central argument that,

With mindfulness, the goal is to focus on the present. With timefulness, it’s to see the present as a tiny detail in a complex grand sum. Here is how the piece begins:

At midnight, the glittering crystal ball will drop in Times Square. Revelers around the world will straggle home, nod off, and greet the new year with a dullness caused by sleep deprivation, overstimulation and inebriation. This behavior suggests that we give higher priority to the final few hours of the past than the first few hours of the future—perhaps because endings are more concrete than beginnings, and regrets sharper than resolutions.

Geologists don’t think this way, particularly Marcia Bjornerud, author of “Timefulness,” a profound meditation on the richness, depth and entanglements of geologic time. Her brief book on a big subject puts the ball drop in proper perspective by reminding us that the Gregorian calendar is anachronistic and by elegantly condensing the landmark tomes of geology, from James Hutton’s “Theory of the Earth” (1788) to John McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World” (1998).

Want more? You can read the full article here.

A New World Order

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With tens of thousands of new books on the market, deciding what to read is getting more and more challenging. Friends recommend books and we get inputs from multiple sources.

That’s why I gravitate to the New York Times best-seller lists in the Sunday Book Review section, as well as their periodic lists of critics’ top choices.

Here is how the latest list of top books begins:

If we had to use a single word to describe the past year in books, it might be eclectic. Novels were told from the perspective of a woman imprisoned for murder, a woman who suddenly inherits a Great Dane and a woman having an affair with a writer who strongly resembles Philip Roth. We also got an esteemed literary biographer turning her lens on herself, a sprawling, fresh look at New York’s postwar art world and clear-eyed advice about how to die. As in 2017, some of the year’s best nonfiction addressed global tumult — but a bit more subtly, in several cases, by casting an eye back to distant but still-resonant history, like the decades of deferral and denial that led to the Civil War. Below, The New York Times’s three daily book critics — Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai — share their thoughts about their favorites among the books they reviewed this year, each list alphabetical by author.

Want more? You can read it here

World’s Policeman?

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Most Americans feel somewhere deep in their gut that it is futile for the United States to try to be world’s policeman – but many of us have trouble articulating why that is a bad thing.

A review of Stephan Walt’s new book, “The Hell of Good Intentions” helped me understand just how badly we stumble when we try to be everything to everybody. Here’s an excerpt:

Like Edmund Burke, who warned, “I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded,” Walt views America’s recurrent bouts of missionary zeal with consternation. Others, like the foreign policy writer Robert Kagan, may fret about an encroaching jungle invading the gardens of the West; Walt’s attitude is to forget about trying to trim it back. As a longstanding member of the realist school of foreign policy, which has traditionally subordinated considerations about human rights and morality to a balance of power, Walt might be expected to wax enthusiastic about Donald Trump, who has espoused a “principled realism” and condemned the foreign policy establishment. Walt, however, exhibits as much disdain for Trump’s bellicosity as he does for the liberal internationalists that he indicts here. Walt’s book offers a valuable contribution to the mounting debate about America’s purpose. But his diagnosis of America’s debilities is more persuasive than his prescriptions to remedy them.

According to Walt, the dominant narrative after the conclusion of the Cold War was that history was on America’s side, even, as Francis Fukuyama put it in a famous 1989 essay in The National Interest, that so-called history had ended and all that remained was economic materialism. Globalization would lead to what Karl Marx had called in the Communist Manifesto a “universal interdependence” among nations; warfare would become a thing of the past. America’s mission was to push other states to protect human rights and to help them transition to democracy.

In Walt’s view, “despite minor differences, both liberal and neoconservative proponents of liberal hegemony assumed that the United States could pursue this ambitious global strategy without triggering serious opposition.” But the very steps that America took to enhance its security, Walt suggests, ended up undermining it. He reminds us, for instance, that George F. Kennan warned in 1999 that NATO expansion eastward was a “tragic mistake” that would, sooner or later, ignite Russian nationalism. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia became a revanchist power that launched cyber-attacks on the Baltic States, seized Crimea, invaded Ukraine and interfered in the 2016 American presidential election. In Walt’s telling, “the energetic pursuit of liberal hegemony was mostly a failure. … By 2017, in fact, democracy was in retreat in many places and under considerable strain in the United States itself.”

Want more? You can read more here

Decision Time!

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We make decisions every day – dozens, scores, or even hundreds. Our brains are constantly juggling a dizzying array of choices. Somehow we do this with ease.

 

But it’s the big decisions that often trip us up and leave us befuddled. That’s why Steven Johnson’s book: “How we Make the Decisions that Matter the Most” is being wildly hailed as a breakthrough in helping us cope with the act of deciding (see the review of his book here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/02/books/review/steven-johnson-farsighted.html).

Johnson shared the highlights of his suggestions in a recent piece in the New York Times. Here’s how he began:

In July 1838, Charles Darwin, then 29, sat down to make a decision that would alter the course of his life. The decision he was wrestling with was not related to scientific questions about the origins of species. It was a different kind of decision — existential as well, but of a more personal nature: Should he get married?

Darwin’s method for making this decision would be recognizable to many of us today: He made a list of pros and cons. Under the heading “not marry” he noted the benefits of remaining a bachelor, including “conversation of clever men at clubs”; under “marry” he included “children (if it please God)” and “charms of music and female chitchat.”

Even if some of Darwin’s values seem dated, the journal entry is remarkable for how familiar it otherwise feels. Almost two centuries later, even as everything else in the world has changed, the pros-versus-cons list remains perhaps the only regularly used technique for adjudicating a complex decision. Why hasn’t the science of making hard choices evolved?

In fact, it has, but its insights have been underappreciated. Over the past few decades, a growing multidisciplinary field of research — spanning areas as diverse as cognitive science, management theory and literary studies — has given us a set of tools that we can use to make better choices. When you face a complex decision that requires a long period of deliberation, a decision whose consequences might last for years or even decades, you are no longer limited to Darwin’s simple list.

Want more? You can read the full article here

War Without End

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As I mentioned in a post this summer, a decade ago, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkens wrote, “The Forever War.” The book was a best-seller.

Filkens explained why we were mired in the Mideast. A few years later, President Obama announced America’s “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”

Why we are still fighting is a question that continues to bedevil all of us. That’s why I was drawn to a book review of C.J. Chivers, “The Fighters.” Here’s how Robert Kaplan began his review:

  1. J. Chivers, a senior writer for The New York Times and a former Marine infantry officer, begins his new book with a description of an American weapon, equipped with GPS sensors and a guidance system, hitting “precisely the wrong place” and killing and mutilating a family of women and children on the Afghan steppe as a consequence. But Chivers’s narrative has only begun to slam you in the gut; later on, the author captures the psychological effect the errant bomb has on the Marines at the scene. Indeed, because of the way the stories and characters spool into one another with mathematical intensity, and the second-by-second in-your-face descriptions of prolonged battles from a sergeant’s eye view, “The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq” could be the most powerful indictment yet of America’s recent Middle East wars.

Chivers is interested in the chemistry between platoons and companies, not that between battalions and brigades: In other words, this is a book about the lower ranks who experience the thing itself, the gut-wrenching violence and confusion of war — history from the ground up, not from the top down, precisely what Washington elites miss. “The Fighters” constitutes an illusion-free zone, where the concrete triumphs over the abstract, where the best and most indelible of those profiled, from that vast working-class heart of the country, begin their military service in a blaze of patriotism following 9/11, and end up confused, cynical, betrayed and often disfigured or dead.

Want more? You can read the full review here

Making Waves

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Much ink has been spilled about how America and the West won the Cold War. But little has been said about how that war was won on the oceans – until now.

Arthur Herman’s review of former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s new book, “Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea. Here is how he begins:

Two major shifts in military strategy allowed the United States to win the Cold War with the Soviet Union. One was the Strategic Defense Initiative launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It convinced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S.S.R. couldn’t compete in a high-tech weapons race without major economic and political changes—changes that ultimately backfired and led to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The other shift, less heralded, was Sea Plan 2000, a bold new idea for reviving American sea power in the face of a Soviet bid for naval supremacy. Reagan would be the president to put the plan in motion, and his secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, would be the man to implement it.

As Mr. Lehman tells us in “Oceans Ventured,” the strategy was first conceived in Newport, R.I., roughly three years before Reagan’s election—at a June 1977 dinner with Mr. Lehman, Graham Claytor (the Navy secretary), James Woolsey (counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee) and the military-affairs author Bing West. Mr. West served as amanuensis, recording the gist of the plan on a napkin. Over time, it grew into a full-blown proposal and led, not long after, to the rebirth of the U.S. Navy’s global dominance, often summed up as “the 600-ship Navy.”

In fact, as Navy secretary Mr. Lehman never quite made it to 600 ships—594 was as far as he got. The ships that the Navy did build, however, included a new generation of warships like Aegis cruisers and destroyers with advanced antimissile systems, and Ohio-class nuclear submarines of the sort that the novelist Tom Clancy would make famous in “The Hunt for Red October” (1984). There was as well an increase in the number of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

Even more important than the ships was a change in how the Navy planned to use them. Mr. Lehman’s “Command of the Seas” (1988) detailed the arduous process of expanding the Navy despite congressional opposition and a cumbersome Pentagon acquisition system. “Oceans Ventured” describes the men and events that enabled the Navy to snatch the strategic initiative from a Soviet navy determined to challenge the U.S. around the globe.

Want more? You can read it here

War Stories

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One of the most well-credentialed military writers of our generation is Thomas Ricks. Why? He is a former war correspondent and author of six military-themed books.

That’s why I gravitate to his quarterly column in the New York Times Book Review, “War Stories.”

Ricks serves up military books that are rich resources for all of us – from casual reader, the military buff, to serious historian. Here’s how he begins his latest offering:

One of the most interesting books on military affairs that I have read in some time is ARMY OF NONE: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War (Norton, $27.95). Its author, Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official who is now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security (a think tank with which I was affiliated several years ago), provides a thoughtful overview of the mind-boggling issues associated with autonomous weapons — or, as some people call them, “killer robots.”

Unlike many authors examining the advent of autonomous weapons, Scharre doesn’t get bogged down in the question of whether they will be built. They already are here, he argues, citing the example of the Stuxnet computer bug as just such an armament. It was software inserted, almost certainly by American and Israeli intelligence agencies, into Iranian computers running that country’s nuclear enrichment program. Because the Iranian computers were “air-gapped” — that is, not connected to the global internet — once the bug was inside the Iranian system, delivered through porn-laden thumb drives, it was on its own. And it worked impressively, physically destroying a key part of the nuclear program.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Summer Reads

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Full disclosure, I like to line up my summer reading early. That’s why I latched on to the latest summer reading recommendations from the New York Times. Here’s how it begins:

Here come the page-turners of summer 2018. They’re about … maritime disaster? America’s opioid crisis? Toxic social media? The legacy of the Confederacy? How about a man who falls in love with a bear and is completely serious about it? No one said this was going to be pretty, but there are some very fine reads out there this year. There’s also some of the season’s usual fun, like the glitter of Broadway and fiction that wallows in the richly dramatic lives of the rich.

Want more? You can read the full article here

A Writer’s Writer

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Tributes are still pouring in for one of the greatest writers of our – and maybe any – generation. Tom Wolfe did it all and he did it with wit and verve.

William F. Buckley perhaps said it best, He is probably the most skillful writer in America – I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.

There are far too many eloquent tributes to capture in one blog post, so I’ll focus on just one, that by Ben Yagoda. Perhaps I picked this one because I spent most of my adult life as an aviator”:

One of the best passages in Tom Wolfe’s best book, “The Right Stuff” (1979), starts out:

“Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ . . . the voice that tells you [ . . . ]: ‘Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not . . . uh . . . lockin’ into position when we lower ’em . . . Now . . . I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ . . . faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is really worth going into—still, it may amuse you . . .”

The rendition of the “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ”—the style of speech even pilots from Massachusetts or Oregon universally affect, Wolfe says—goes on for another few hundred words, too long to quote here; I commend it to your attention. The voice, Wolfe ultimately tells us, originated from someone who picked it up in the mountains of West Virginia. Starting in the late 1940s, it drifted “into all phases of American aviation.” “It was the drawl,” he writes, “of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

You can read his full piece here:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-appreciation-tom-wolfe-1526678237?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

Want more? You can read a comprehensive New York Times piece here.

We Have An App

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Few writers have as much of a knack for taking difficult subjects – especially technology – and making them understandable for the lay person. Tom Friedman is one of those people.

I read his book, “Thank You for Being Late” some time ago, and found it interesting and enlightening. However, I never really felt I was able to capture succinctly just what the book was about. Then I came across an old review of the book in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s how it began:

Change is nothing new. Nobel laureate Bob Dylan sang that the times they were a-changin’ back in 1964. What has changed is the pace of change: “The three largest forces on the planet—technology, globalization, and climate change—are all accelerating at once,” notes New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman in “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” Gradual change allows for adaptation; one generation figures out trains, another airplanes. Now, in a world where taxi-cab regulators will figure out Uber just in time for self-driving cars to render such services obsolete, “so many aspects of our societies, workplaces, and geopolitics are being reshaped and need to be reimagined.” All of it creates a sense of discomfort and provokes backlash—witness Brexit and the American presidential election. Yet there is cause for optimism, Mr. Friedman believes. Humans are crafty creatures.

In this book, Mr. Friedman tries to press pause. The title comes from the author’s exclamation to a tardy breakfast companion: The unexpected downtime had given him an opportunity to reflect. If we all take such time to think, he claims, we can figure out how to “dance in a hurricane.” It’s a comforting idea, though one wonders why, if Mr. Friedman was so happy for this pre-breakfast downtime, he was busily scheduling daily breakfast meetings in the first place. Likewise, this ambitious book, while compelling in places, skips about a lot. His attempt to cover much of the history of modern technology, for instance, quickly descends into gee-whiz moments and ubiquitous exclamation points. Big-belly garbage cans have sensors that wirelessly announce when they need to be emptied, and so Mr. Friedman marvels that “yes, even the garbageman is a tech worker now. . . . That garbage can could take an SAT exam!”

Want to read more