Let’s Try To Focus On The Positive

Some years ago, when I watched television, there was a series of anti-smoking ads from a group that called itself Truth–quite a daring name to choose–and I was generally amused by their advertisements, not being a smoker.  One of their commercials was a musical number called “Focus On The Positive” where they show the harm done to smokers including rather gruesome and unpleasant forms of death, all set to a jaunty and upbeat number that tries to focus on the positive and the plenty of people who are still here.  I was reminded of that particular song and its approach not too long ago when I was sitting in a restaurant and eating my dinner one evening when someone came by pushing a walker and telling everyone around not to smoke because she was dying of emphysema.  Given the fact that at least two members of my family gained lasting lung problems as a result of their time smoking, one on each side of my family, I have always viewed smoking as something that would be an immensely foolish move.  Yet for whatever reason, the insurance industry is full of smokers, something that I have noted from time to time [1].

Yet beyond the message of the advertisements itself, I have often been struck by the fact that I am not a particularly optimistic person.  This ought not to surprise anyone, for while I am a generally polite and restrained person and genuinely enjoy the time I spend around others, even if I am rather reclusive at home, I am by no means as cheery a person as others may sometimes think.  My paternal unit had the life’s motto of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, and he would have done better to prepare for worse than he did, seeing as he had undiagnosed diabetes and a diet that earned him a far too early grave.  As someone who has struggled with depression since my youth–with at least one multi-year case of major depression, focusing on the positive does not come naturally.  As I commented to another person who is even more pessimistic than I am, every silver cloud has a dark lining.  At times, though, it is worthwhile to step back and laugh a bit about the sort of pessimism that I have, as it can be genuinely humorous sometimes.

For example, yesterday night as I was getting ready to leave work when I got a series of e-mails requesting that I have the same access to our various bank accounts as one of my coworkers.  I was concerned that this would be a bricks without straw sort of situation given that I had not seen the bank accounts pulled for last week that are the first step in my own commission processing, but given that it was the end of the day I decided to pay it no mind and leave it alone for the time.  This morning, when I asked my coworker if the bank accounts were going to be ready sometime today, she realized that she had forgotten to do them, even though she came to work on MLK day when almost everyone was enjoying the longer weekend.  At any rate, I soon realized that the two events had not been connected.  The lack of the bank accounts being pulled for week was not connected to the request that I have access, which appears to have been done to provide additional backup for the finance department in case someone should be out for a considerable period of time.  Being someone who has been multi-trained many times before, it would make sense that I would be the most obvious choice to add another set of skills and abilities to my toolkit.

What I would like to comment on, briefly, though, is why it is that I drew a connection between those two things.  It was not a pleasant coincidence that an unasked for set of permissions to view bank accounts was connected to the person who normally does that forgetting to pull the accounts that I use for my work, which made yesterday a less productive day than I would have preferred and today a busier one than I would have wanted.  Still, the two things were not that closely related.  To be sure, the relationship that our department has with our auditors does have a lot to do with it, and the work for the year-end audit was what kept my coworker busy enough to forget to pull the accounts in the first place, so there was some connection, but it was not the causal connection I had seen.  What would have made it easier to not jump to the wrong (negative) conclusions?  Perhaps it would have been better to receive a brief message saying that the auditor wanted more backup for the various bank-related tasks in finance and I was being chosen to serve as that backup before receiving the request to add me to the various accounts?  A little bit of communication can certainly make some things go easier, but in my world, communication is not often an obvious element to be chosen, and that lack of communication carries with it some unfortunate consequences, like making it harder to focus on the positive.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/01/13/a-stick-set-fire-in-the-rain/

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Book Review: Pop! The Invention Of Bubble Gum

Pop!  The Invention Of Bubble Gum, by Meghan McCarthy

This book manages to serve a few tasks.  For one, it introduces its readers (not all of whom are likely to be young, although many of them will be) to the invention of bubble gum, and for another it manages to provide the context of chewing gum and the trial and error process of scientific experimentation.  The book also provides something of a corporate history that demonstrates the importance of product development for the survival of at least some kinds of companies.  I am reminded of the response of people when the company that made Twinkies went out of business and there was a rush for some people to hoard the snack until the recipe and trademark for that particular snack was sold to another company.  The same sort of thing happened to Double Bubble, the original bubble gum, a fact which is alluded to in this book, which merely states that the invention of bubble gum allowed the Fleer company to stay in business for another 70 years or so after its invention, implying that the company was no longer a going concern.  As it happens, Tootsie Roll owns the rights to Double Bubble, which is still going strong and still an enjoyable bubble gum.

This book, though, is less a corporate history than a look at how a mild-mannered accountant become a noted inventor.  Our story begins with a family owned business named Fleer that is having some financial trouble but which makes candy and chewing gum in the Philadelphia area.  The chance arrival of a research lab next to Walter Diemer’s office and his own curiosity lead him over the course of a few months to first create a bubble gum that works but quickly gets too hard and then, with the addition of some secret ingredients and pink food coloring, becomes a massively popular item that instantly makes the company far more profitable.  The author demonstrates how Diemer did not become wealthy off of his invention, because he did it for the company, but managed to parlay his creative genius into a position as an executive within the company who likely had little financial trouble despite the loss of intellectual property rights for working within a company.  The book ends with a discussion of the historical sources and context of chewing gum and bubble gum, the former of which has a history which goes back deep into ancient history.

There are at least a few obvious lessons that a young (or not-so-young) reader can take from this drawing, which is gorgeously drawn as the author manages to do in general.  For one, the author realistically portrays creativity as involving a lot of hard work and experimentation.  For another, the author portrays creativity as something that is within the reach of anyone who has sufficient persistence and imagination, something that will likely encourage many people who are not necessarily thought of as being creative.  After all, financial bean counters are not viewed as creative types, and yet a young accountant invented bubble gum.  If he can do that, then certainly such creativity can be found among others.  We are often all too quick to take for granted people who work in jobs that we consider boring and fail to consider just how inventive and creative as people they may be, and that is a lesson this book seeks to counteract.  The author also demonstrates that successful creativity can be the difference between a company’s survival and failure, a reminder of the high-stakes nature of research and development in the corporate world.

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Book Review: Seabiscuit The Wonder Horse

Seabiscuit The Wonder Horse, by Meghan McCarthy

If you have seen the movie about Seabiscuit based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, you know almost all of the facts that are discussed in this book.  That said, this book is being aimed at children who are likely unfamiliar with the movie, although it would probably be worthwhile for older children to watch the movie after reading a book like this, because the film examines some aspects of life (like brothels and quickie divorces) that are probably likely to be distressing and confusing for younger children.  Be that as it may, the author provides a basic narrative of the events that made Seabiscuit such a beloved horse in the time of the Great Depression and even today in a way that is kid-friendly.  And as is common in her drawing, the author manages to draw some really cute pictures of Seabiscuit and other horses, but especially Seabiscuit, that make him come off as very lovable to the reading audience.  The ability to draw one’s subjects in an appealing fashion is a very underappreciated skill in illustration, and the author manages to have that skill in spades and to demonstrate it well here.

The author sets this story about a wonderful but initially unrecognized horse in the context of the Great Depression, where horse racing was a way that people chose to escape from the economic troubles of the time.  After presenting Seabiscuit as a lazy horse who loved to eat and sleep but not race, the author introduces the owner, trainer, and jockey who made sure that the horse lived up to his potential, and demonstrates the ways of horse psychology including counteracting loneliness, providing motivation, and demonstrating friendship, that allowed Seabiscuit to blossom.  The racing career of the horse and his famous duel with War Admiral, a triple crown winner, as well as the successful closing race of the horse and jockey after both were considered to be out of it because of leg injuries, is also detailed before the author discusses the historical context and research undertaken for the creation of this book.  The end result is a short but immensely appealing book that is aimed at younger readers and is filled with really cute drawings that make horses and riding appealing for young people.  It should be noted that horses are a particularly easy animal to make appealing to children, and the author does well here.

It is unclear if the author has any particular ambitions with this book.  The author uses Hillenbrand’s book and various primary documentation from Seabiscuit’s racing career (mostly a few articles from Time and the New York Times) as sources.  Seabiscuit, though, is the sort of horse that many people can identify with.  Somewhat down and out and definitely a bit out of the mainstream, misunderstood and long mistreated, a horse like Seabiscuit is a reminder of the importance of bloodlines in horse racing as well as the need for people to understand the complexities of horse psychology.  It is not coincidental that even in contemporary times horses are used as therapeutic animals to help children who have suffered abuse because of the high levels of empathy and bonding that horses can have with people, recognizing those who are kind as opposed to those who are cruel.  By shining a light on a story of a horse that blossomed under the kind and understanding care of a quirky group of people outside the mainstream of the horse breeding world, the author subtly points out the way that horses and human beings can be greatly misunderstood but can rise to heroic levels of achievement when nurtured properly.  If that is an agenda of the author, it is certainly a worthwhile one.

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Book Review: Steal Back The Mona Lisa!

Steal Back The Mona Lisa!, by Meghan McCarthy

The other books I have read by this author are historical books and this one is clearly not, although it should be noted that the author at least based the adventure on a historical incident where the Mona Lisa was stolen by someone who was hoping to return it back to its home in Italy.  As usual, though, the author manages to combine some really cute animation (this one dealing with a brave kid whose adventures have a blithe disregard for logistical realities) with a compelling story that young readers should enjoy.  Even as someone who is at best young at heart I found a great deal to enjoy about this book.  It was certainly a fun read, and if it is not a deep sort of book it is one that many readers will be able to appreciate if they are the kind of reader who wants to insert themselves into a caper involving art theft.  The Mona Lisa is a famous enough painting that it it draws the attention of even casual art lovers, and casual art lovers (and those more serious about art) will likely enjoy the author’s drawings as well.

The story of the book itself is a straightforward one.  The author imagines some thieves have stolen the Mona Lisa, and a brave boy is informed in his sleep, travels in a car that he can’t drive (perhaps it can drive itself, or he is being too modest about his skills), flies to Europe, is waylaid by poison, has a bunch of gadgets, and escapes certain death with sharks before surprising the criminals who want to deface the Mona Lisa drawing.  The end result is a humorous ending where the hero, Jack, ends up back in his bed, albeit with some small alterations to his look that may require explanation.  The story is lighthearted, painted mostly in grayscale to allow for the darkness of the plot to carry the drawings, and makes light of some of the aspects of stereotypical European culture.  Whether we are looking at the spycraft of Russia or funny mustaches, there is a lot to appreciate here in the artwork, and it is comical that the Mona Lisa would even be threatened with such a treatment even by the most lunkheaded of art thieves given the fact that there is little value to be found in defacing famous artwork unless one’s motives are destructive in nature.

This is the sort of book that works best the less you think about it.  The author clearly doesn’t want the reader to dwell on the logistics of a child getting out of bed, driving some distance, catching a flight across the ocean, parachuting into Moscow, getting poisoned, kidnapped and nearly fed to sharks, disarming a group of art thieves and returning a stolen painting into the Louvre and returning home quickly enough to avoid detection.  Clearly, if someone could do all of these things they would be a superhero at any age, much less childhood.  That said, this is a story that is easy to enjoy if you take it with a sense of lightheartedness as a silly but fun caper that has its inspiration in actual history.  Children have a love of adventures, and this sort of adventure, which pokes fun of the cliches of entertainment that children are likely to be familiar with, is just the sort of fun that many people would like to have in their imagination, and without being so realistic that people would actually try to do these things.  The author even manages to make some subtle points about the limitations of gadgets to the proper situations.

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Slow To Outrage

From time to time I find it worthwhile to reflect upon contemporary outrage culture.  For the last few days, I have been treated to a massive degree of outrage about the conservatism of some pro-life Catholic teens.  It does seem as if social media, whatever its intended purposes, has been the means by which people become subjected either to that which outrages them or becomes a means by which they can express their outrage with some aspect of contemporary society about which they improve.  I do not happen to own any MAGA hats in my own collection, and admittedly I am not someone who often wears hats at all, but a school that cannot stand up for those who are soon to be adults who show no particularly terrible taste in political standards and those who believe it to be an outrage that someone would support the idea of making America great again by supporting a moderate populist of the kind of our current president are not the sort of people I want to be associated with.  Indeed, it can be easy to be outraged that someone is outraged by something that is pretty ordinary and not blameworthy in the least.

Indeed, I would like to comment on the way that this outrage spreads.  I know quite a few people who have drastically curtailed if not eliminated their social media presence for a variety of reasons.  It is likely that at least one of those reasons is the problem of outrage that so much of social media encourages.  When I was still active, I managed to spend enough time culling what appeared on my social media feeds that I was able to greatly reduce the sort of material that would outrage me.  We must consider social media, at best, to be a garden filled with spreading plants that one must ruthlessly prune in order to keep them from being unruly.  There are positive aspects to it, especially for those of us with far-flung family and associates who we want to keep in touch with, but social media can easily get out of hand.  We can believe ourselves to be having a positive effect on the world by sharing the outraged views of others and by participating in ferocious online conflict, when our outrage is having a far more negative effect on ourselves as well as how we are seen by others.  As someone who is quite susceptible to expressing my own spleen at the outrageous actions and words of others, I am certainly aware that outrage culture is something that it can be difficult to avoid being a part of.

For a variety of reasons, though, it is best to be slow to outrage.  For one, a great deal of outrage comes about because of false narratives being promoted by those who wish to gain popularity as a result of stirring up discontent.  Perhaps someone wishes to gain or maintain political power in a church through falsely accusing someone of sabbath breaking or falsely accusing others of wishing for heretical changes.  Perhaps someone wishes to deny the confirmation of a principled man because they are afraid he might interfere with their murderous hostility to the unborn.  Perhaps they cannot believe that anyone would want to advertise political beliefs that they view abhorrent despite their being fairly ordinary, and they are so bent out of shape by the idea that someone could think differently from themselves that they accuse those people of the worst sorts of evil.  And it is easy to repay others in kind.  The use of false narratives against those who are relative innocents makes it easy to view those who spread along such false narratives as being forces of evil, whether they are merely deceived or whether they are responsible for the false narratives themselves.  And when someone has in earnest accused someone else of that which they believe to be outrageous, and have been found out to have made false accusations and been castigated and reviled in turn, it is hard to step back and admit that one was wrong, because it would seem to be admitting that one’s behavior was worth savage denunciations in turn.

What happens after the outrage is over?  I have known friendships of mine to be disrupted because of the spread of mutual recrimination and hostility.  No one has ever apologized to me in such cases for having come to false conclusions and acted on them.  They assume that their good faith will protect them from having uttered falsehoods.  Not so.  And even when I have sought to apologize myself [1] for my tendency to be rather quick to ferocious discourse, it is not always clear what one is apologizing for.  I do not feel bad for having exposed evil or for having defended my own honor and dignity, but I do regret things getting out of hand.  And yet it was not my fault entirely that things got out of hand.  Right and wrong are often commingled.  And nowhere is this more obvious than in outrage culture, where we are encouraged to be hostile to certain people because of certain sins that may or may not be present.  How can I be upset at some Kentucky conservative young people for speaking out about political beliefs that I generally share with them?  Does the fact that their views are considered to be outrageous mean that I too am a potential target of these hatemongers and character assassins?  Does my mistrust of those who pass on false narratives make it more difficult for me to behave towards them as charitably as I ought to?  Does it hinder their own goals of being authoritative sources of information and insight?  In a few days or weeks the outrage will go somewhere else, but people will remain whose friendships and relationships and trust has been broken.  A school that cowardly refused to defend the proper views of its students may face the anger of those who were betrayed by its cowardice.  People will find their friendships and other relationships harmed by the poison of activist political discourse.  A group of people will be further convinced that to support Trump or conservatism in general is to be a hateful fascist, as ridiculous as that is.  And none of us will be the better for it in this case or any other one like it.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/11/true-confessions-of-a-pitchfork-wielding-peasant-from-an-internet-lynch-mob/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/04/30/some-observations-on-the-ministry-of-reconciliation-part-one/

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Book Review: Restoring America’s Soul

Restoring America’s Soul:  Advancing Timeless Conservative Principles In A Wayward Culture, by Rita Dunaway

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Adams PR Group.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

As someone who reads a great deal of material relating to Conservatives and the conservative worldview, it is worthwhile to ponder the approach that different books have.  Some books preach to the converted, pointing out the flaws of the statist mindset.  Others focus on matters of election tactics or seek for conservatives to become activists in the narrow and partisan ways we see on the left.  This book, though, strives to discuss timeless principles in a different way.  The author questions the conservative bona fides of President Trump, something that is not always done on the right, and also points out that for conservative views to prevail that conservatives must be winsome as well as right, and that a hostility to government trying to solve problems need not include a callous attitude to genuine social needs being met.  Conservatives need more than negativity but also to point out alternatives to the statist solutions presented by contemporary leftists.  This is a worthwhile approach and it gives this book a certain degree of excellence it would not otherwise have.

Coming in at a bit under 200 pages, this particular book is divided into three parts after the foreword and introduction.  The first part of the book consists of four chapters that discuss a contemporary identity crisis within conservatism, with chapters that discuss the authors’ revelation on conservatism (1), on the need to be charming and charismatic (2), on the importance of valuing truth and virtue over one’s feelings (3), and that our political behavior must be rooted in conservative principles (4).  After this the author discusses tough issues with persuasive conservatism, providing thoughtful discussion about caring for the poor (5), protecting religious liberty (6), defending the right to life (7), and preserving the sanctity of marriage (8).  In these chapters the author provides a savvy elevator speech at the end to give a brief defense of the conservative view on these subjects.  Finally, the author closes the book with two chapters that provide strategies for restoring America’s soul.  The author argues for an article V constitutional convention that would help to put government back in its place (9) and also seeks to restore a culture of virtue in the United States that will make the false messianic hopes of big government less appealing to citizens of the republic (10).

There are a few things that this author does particularly well in providing an appealing vision for Conservatism.  For one, the author recognizes that too often Conservatives are defined for what they are against and not what they are for.  The absence of a vision that is articulated in opposition to the false messianic state is a great hindrance.  The author also recognizes that all too often the truth about Conservative generosity is not recognized and that the ideals that Conservatives strive for are not presented in an appealing way.  The author also urges a recognition of matters of truth.  This includes the fact that people recognize when someone is presenting a straw man picture of the other side, and that Conservatives need to be able to confront the real aims and assumptions of leftists rather than to be content with painting an obviously false picture that hinders the credibility of those promoting conservative viewpoints.  The author’s comments on various issues of social and cultural importance are on point as well, and the author does a good job in not seeking to pander to those who are unwilling to promote genuine conservatism.  If she is not necessarily sanguine about the current state of the American republic, this is a book with a lot of worth advice on approach and vision.

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Book Review: Oskar Schindler

Oskar Schindler:  The Untold Account Of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the Story Behind The List, by David M. Crowe

For readers whose only familiarity with the life and times of Oskar Schindler is through their familiarity the Spielberg movie or Keneally’s novel that inspired it, this book provides a vastly more complicated look at Schindler’s life.  For one, the author makes the judgment that Schindler was not a complex man, by which he appears to mean that Schindler was not a person who was philosophical or reflective but was rather someone who acted on impulse or intuition, something which is definitely in evidence throughout this book.  The author writes not as a novelist but instead as a scholar, and this book is full of a great deal of research into some aspects of Schindler’s life and career that are particularly murky, including his Abwehr career, his shared inability with his estranged wife Emilie to handle money well, and the conflict over his (and his wife’s) efforts to be named as righteous among the Gentiles.  Overall, this book makes for a powerful read, but one that assumes the author has read a lot of other books about Schindler and the Schindler Jews, and it has a deeply sad story to tell about Schindler’s postwar life and reputation.

At more than 600 pages of scholarly writing, this book is by no means a quick or simple read, although it goes in generally chronological fashion.  The author begins with a discussion of Schindler’s early life (before 1938), including his identity as a Sudeten German and his initial contacts with Abwehr (1).  After that the author examines Schindler’s service as a German spy involved in the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland (2).  Schindler’s efforts to acquire the Emalia factory led him to be charged with theft and brutality (3) and the author examines his hesitant and limited initial use of Jewish workers in Krakow (4).  The author discusses the origins of the Schindler myth (5) during the period of the closing of the Krakow ghetto as well as the relationship between Oskar, the sadistic Amon Goth, and the Jews of the area (6).  The author then moves on to discuss the establishment of Schindler’s sub-camp and his ties to the Jewish Agency (7) along with the investigations of Goth and Schindler by the SS and the closing of the concentration camp and the fate of the Jews of Emalia (8).  The author spends a whole chapter looking at the myth and reality of the creation of Schindler’s list by Marcel Goldberg (9) as well as the struggle for survival in Brünnlitz (10).  The rest of the book looks at the postwar period, including Schindler’s immediate postwar experience as a Sudeten German refugee (11), his time in Argentina, return to Germany, and the controversy over his status as a righteous gentile (12), the evening of his life and his struggle with fame and the initial efforts to make a movie about his life (13), and finally a look at his death and the long evening of Emilie’s life and her own struggle with the Schindler legacy (14) and some afterthoughts.

Ultimately, the author comes to the sensible and reasonable conclusion that Oskar Schindler was a man who combined some human flaws, including an inability to handle financial details, alcoholism, and womanizing, along with a fundamental sense of human decency that allowed him to overcome the limitations of being a German in World War II Poland and save the lives of a great many Jews who would otherwise have perished in the death camps.  The author engages in some complex moral calculus that demonstrates how he was able to have some enemies among the Jewish population (namely those who had financial axes to grind against him) but was viewed as a savior type figure by those whose lives he saved over and over again during the darkest days of the war.  The author provides some examinations of areas that have not been well-explored by many other writers and also points out that Schindler’s humanity cut both ways, and presents him as a somewhat tragic but also worthwhile figure.  And anyone reading this book who takes the time to read it all the way through will be similarly both saddened as well as inspired by the straightforward humanity shown by Schindler and his own need to be liked and appreciated by others, something his deeds well deserved.

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Book Review: Schindler’s Legacy

Schindler’s Legacy:  True Stories Of The List Survivors, by Elinor J. Brecher

As someone who has read quite a lot of material relating to Oskar Schindler and his activities in Poland and Czechoslovakia to save more than a thousand Jews, it is perhaps inevitable that I would come to a book like this, which presents the stories of some of the survivors among Schindler’s Jews.  It is a powerful book, but its organization and structure also make it somewhat repetitive, as one notes the patterns of difficulties that these survivors of Hitler’s final solution faced as free men and women in the United States.  The author ably combines accounts of interviews together to make for a compelling book of a bit more than 400 pages, but the book raises as many questions as it answers and also provides evidence of the serious damage that continued to affect the lives of the people who survived through the generosity of Hitler and their own resilience.  Intriguingly, the author suggests that many of the survivors attempted to surround themselves either with friendly company that reminded them of the Old World or tried to blend in with American society around them, that some were religious and others defiantly not so, but that all were affected strongly by their experiences.

The book itself is divided into a number of chapters extending over 400 pages by the people or family that the author was able to interview.  There are a lot of repetitious aspects to their story, as many of the survivors attempted first to return home to Poland, found the nation unwelcoming for survivors of the horrors of the Holocaust, and then managed to find temporary housing in Germany and surrounding areas while seeking a permanent home, which the survivors in this book mostly found in the United States or in Israel.  There is the struggle to learn English, the frequency of intermarriage, the struggles with faith, the divorces, the deaths due in part to grief, the long experience of trauma and suffering, the desire for violent revenge against those who like Marcel Goldberg were viewed as being treasonous collaborators with the Germans, greedily exploiting their own people, the decision whether to have children or not in the knowledge that their children would be overprotected as a result of their own horrifying experience, the struggle between the desire to tell their own stories and to hide it and preserve their own anonymity and privacy.  The author does a good job at telling these stories, but the same elements pop up over and over again.

And this, by the end of the book, leads the reader to a sense of fatigue over the repetition.  Whether we are grieving over the losses of the Holocaust suffered by survivors, whether one is looking at the unfriendly atmosphere in a Poland that does not want the Jews to play a large role in their society and almost seems to rejoice in the property stolen from Jews by Poles, or whether we are looking at the efforts by survivors to appear normal and come to grips with the nightmares and problems that continue to plague them, the way the book is structured forces the reader to see the same sorts of stories over and over and over again.  And in that sense of repetition, one realizes that the horrors of Nazi Germany and the ordinary horrors of life leave the same sort of trace, and that living in a nation of laws is only a defense from life when people live by the law and do not live according to their own lusts and their own hatred, which all too easily make a hell on earth where a heaven is promised.  And those who survive such a hell, as the people in this book did, carry that hell with them wherever they go and as long as they live, and pass on some aspect of it to their children as well.

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On The Legitimacy Of The Middleman

Nobody likes the person in the middle.  Throughout the course of human history, imperfect communication and the difficulties of trade and logistics gave certain peoples the role of intermediary in transmitting goods and knowledge from one area to another.  Such cultures sought to find some degree of legitimacy and permanence in inhabiting the spaces in between hostile but interacting realms, able to work between the two sides for one reason or another, whether because they had elements of sympathy or similarity with both sides or a reputation for neutrality or because they were somewhat expendable and marginal in their native environment.  Yet such peoples and roles have never been viewed by others with a great deal of enthusiasm, and I would like to discuss why this is the case, at least briefly today.

How are we to best understand the plight of the middleman?  Let us consider two examples in our contemporary world.  I work with a lot of insurance agents, and such brokers are classic examples of middlemen, or indeed middlemen for middlemen.  In the health industry, one has people who want medicare care as cheaply but as complete as possible, and in order to get that service from doctors and hospital staff and pharmacies, they need insurance.  Yet this insurance is hard to understand, and so brokers connect people to the insurance companies that provide the product that allows people to pay for their medical care and cover the risk of catastrophic accidents.  For their role in serving as intermediaries between customers and insurance companies, these brokers make a living based on the commissions received for the sale, and the level of commissions is commensurate with the value offered–fairly low for individual medical and dental plans, considerably higher for accident and critical illness and life insurance plans.

Are such middlemen legitimate?  Yes, they are, largely because of the complexities of insurance care itself.  The health care industry is bafflingly complicated on all levels, and this complexity breeds middlemen.  Let us not forget that the insurance companies are themselves middlemen seeking to profit off of the desire of people to avoid risk while also burdened with the costs of dealing with routine care, while brokers are middlemen who match individual customers to insurance companies based on what sort of care is wanted and what cost can be paid.  There are further middlemen who provide quoting engines to make this matching process more efficient, and so it goes.  Even government’s attempted role in shoring up the system as a whole does not simplify the process, but rather adds another layer of middlemen who seek to regulate the entire process.  Until and unless there is a commitment to simplification, we can expect there to be quite a few middlemen who are necessary to keep things going at all.  A great deal of the costs involved come about because of this complexity, and because insurance may not be the most efficient and effective mechanism at providing for the desire of people for routine health care necessary because of chronic health difficulties like diabetes at a reasonable cost.

But not all middlemen have such an ironclad case for legitimacy.  Let us look at another set of brokers, those who provide financial management for investors.  In this case, such brokers appear to earn their entire livings at the cost of the customers they purport to serve.  At its core, the stock market is not necessarily very complicated in its operations.  Corporations have divided ownership of their firms into large amounts of shares, and those shares are sold at markets, and for every seller there must be a buyer.  The long-term trends demonstrate that any gain in stock prices ultimately comes from the profitability of operations, as the short-term speculative bets end up a wash.  An investor can buy very low cost index funds and ensure an average rate of return commensurate with the market as a whole, and more expensive plans that feature greater amounts of activity do nothing more than earn fee money for the people in the middle.  Are such brokers legitimate?  The case would appear to be a negative, because the supposed expertise of the stockjobbers and ETF software does nothing more than increase tax payoffs because of gains realized prematurely and lower the return to customers through fees and expenses.  If there were a way for experts to demonstrate a superiority in returns to the average market, they would find a way to earn a legitimate place, for at present they are nothing but parasites on the profits of ordinary investors.

And that is the issue that middlemen face in general.  To the extent that trading and communication become easy and efficient, goods become commodities sold at low profit margins, and middlemen and brokers have less and less place.  Middlemen thrive in complex situations where a great deal of arcane knowledge is required to successfully manage a situation.  Dealing with bloated bureaucracies or systems where fawning courtiers can smooth the process are places where middlemen thrive.  Areas of study that require large amounts of specialized knowledge like law and engineering tend to allow middlemen to proliferate because this knowledge is not accessible to the ordinary person with ordinary time and interest in such matters.  Indeed, the existence of a large body of middlemen enjoying a good lifestyle is a sign that there are large degrees of inefficiencies of some kind in an aspect of life.  The legitimacy of the middleman depends on what they offer to their customers in exchange for the use of their arcane knowledge and personal connections.  A well-trained guide in a foreign nation provides a worthwhile service to customers.  So does a competent and fair-minded insurance agent when dealing with arcane insurance laws and products, or an engineer or architect who allows the vision of the customer to be built.  But when middlemen profit at the expense of customers and offer nothing worthwhile, then they attack their own legitimacy and endanger the position they and others like them hold, because sooner or later they will be found out and rooted out for the parasites that they are.

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Album Review: Golden Earring 50 Years Anniversary Album

Among all the bands I have written about for my series on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the fans of Golden Earring have been among the fiercest, upset that someone like myself would know of the band simply through their two biggest American hits, “Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone,” both fantastic songs.  But having listened to this album on the advice of a fan of the band, I get it.  This band is one that deserves to be thought of as among the best of the British invasion, even though they’re Dutch.  They have songs that remind one of such bands as the Beatles, the Hollies, the Rolling Stones, and even AC/DC and Duran Duran.  While maintaining their own amazing instrumentation they also demonstrated an ability to turn their beautiful and dark songs into a wide ranging exploration of genres.  This is a band that should be much better known, and it’s not as if they only have a couple of songs that are good.  This collection has 50 songs on CD and then another fifteen (with a lot of duplicates) in live and music video versions, and it’s not as if there are any bad songs here.  Most of the songs are classics, and the rest are at least good.

Since I listened to these cds in my car (alas, my computer doesn’t have a cd drive), I wasn’t able to do my usual track by track reviews, but there are more than 50 songs here so that would have been an interminably long review.  The first of the albums here shows the band starting out with Beatlesesque melodies.  But even at this stage of their career they were more than copycats.  “Daddy Buy Me A Girl,” the fourth song on this collection, mixes innocent sounding music and vocals with dark lyrics about the struggles to find a faithful and loyal woman with hints of slavery.  And the material only gets darker and more melancholy from here, intermixed with songs about nonsense like “Dong-Dong-Di-Ki-Di-Gi-Dong,” which should have been a hit.  The band explores death in material like “Another 45 Miles,” “Kill Me (Ce Soir),” and “My Killer, My Shadow.”  They have strange songs about girls like “She Flies On Strange Wings” and “Weekend Love,” along with “I Can’t Sleep Without You.”  They explore the exoticism of India in “Bombay” and picture heaven going to pieces in “Paradise In Distress,” one of the last songs here.

It is not as if the band was only a studio creation, as this collection demonstrates the band’s considerable live chops on the first eleven songs of the DVD as well as tracks like “Just Like Vince Taylor,” “Slow Down,” and “I Can’t Sleep Without You.”  So whether you like the dark music videos by Dick Maas, the live tracks, or the band’s studio songs, this compilation gives you all the information you need to know to realize that this band was one of the greatest British Invasion acts ever, only they were from the Netherlands.  And it is that fact which probably kept them from getting more hits.  “Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone” are neither the two blandest nor the two best of the songs here, and I don’t love them any less hearing the context of the band.  Instead, the fact that Golden Earring was able to make so many really great songs, with a commitment to songwriting craft, a high degree of variety, and some amazing instrumentation makes the fact that they only had two hits a bit sad.  This is a band that deserved far more success, and it is easy to understand why those who have taken the time to listen to the band’s material as a whole would be a bit upset that the band is known for only two songs that don’t even hint at all of the weird and wonderful approaches taken to rock music over the course of a long and productive and accomplished career for Golden Earring.

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