On Lost Worlds of South America by Dr. Edwin Barnhart (2012)

Book coverAfter watching the Indiana Jones movies last month, I opted to watch the remainder of this video series.

I started listening to this course last June on our way to vacation in Fairfield Bay, Arkansas, but when we passed Harrison, the lanes on the state highways narrowed, and I needed all my concentration to navigate the roads, so I didn’t end up listening to it. And once we returned, well, I spend, what, an hour to an hour and a half in the car each week nowadays? It’s hard to maintain the thread of a lecture over a week. So the discs remained in the car until last month, when I pulled them out and brought them downstairs to watch.

And, gentle reader, as I discovered when listening to Unqualified is that listening to audiobooks is a bit of a pain for me these days since I’m not in the car and I’m not often doing mindless things where I can kind of listen and follow something while doing something else. In this case, watching a Great Courses lecture series means dedicating hours across many evenings. This lecture series is 24 lectures, which would be the upwards of 20 evenings given that I would sometimes watch two episodes. It seems like a big commitment–I haven’t completed seasons of television shows, for example, because of the commitment. So time will tell how often I complete these series until such time as maybe I commute again.

But I started watching the lectures in the middle, trying to remember where I had been when I last stopped listening in the car last year. I think I overlapped with a lecture or two, but the first couple of lectures–the first couple of nations/civilizations/worlds were very similar, although in different places.

The lectures include:

  1. South America’s Cradle of Civilization
  2. Discovering Peru’s Earliest Cities
  3. South America’s First People
  4. Ceramics, Textiles, and Organized States
  5. Chavín and the Rise of Religious Authority
  6. Cupisnique to Salinar–Elite Rulers and War
  7. Paracas–Mummies, Shamans, and Severed Heads
  8. The Nazca Lines and Underground Channels
  9. The Moche–Pyramids, Gold, and Warriors
  10. The Moche–Richest Tombs in the New World
  11. The Moche–Drugs, Sex, Music, and Puppies
  12. Enigmatic Tiwanaku by Lake Titicaca
  13. The Amazon–Civilization Lost in the Jungle
  14. The Wari–Foundations of the Inca Empire?
  15. The Chimu–Empire of the Northern Coast
  16. The Sican–Goldsmiths of the Northern Coast
  17. The Inca Origins–Mythology v. Archeology
  18. Cuzco and the Tawantinsuyu Empire
  19. The Inca–From Raiders to Empire
  20. The Inca–Gifts of the Empire
  21. The Khipu–Language Hidden in Knots
  22. Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
  23. Spanish Contact–Pizarro Conquers the Inca
  24. Remnants of the Past–Andean Culture Today

I say that the lectures were a bit repetitive, and some of that might be because I was listening and not watching the earlier lectures. The professor spoke of the earlier civilizations having similar architecture, but in different locations, and he focused a lot on the common elements–the similar architectural styles/city layouts, the prevalence of the Fanged Deity/Decapitator Deity, and so on–although he did mention the differences–seafood diets versus agriculture based on location and the importance in El Niño cycle in ending some of these civilizations.

But watching the lectures added some depth. One could see the art he was describing, view the maps showing relative locations, and observe the ruins as they are today (Brian J. stopped the series because he was running out of synonyms for see). It proved a little distracting in part, though, as one notices that the shifts from one camera to another were not cut, so when he changes between the two, he pauses, his head turns to pick up the teleprompter or cue cards, he turns his body, and then he starts walking again and speaking. One wonders, is he on a set or is it a green screen behind him? He picks up a stirrup vessel from a table, but was that table always there or was it set before a green screen? Has he always had the remote or controller in his right hand? How many lectures does he wear the same clothes? And so on. Maybe it’s not so much a distraction but just something else to observe and think about while learning the material. So it’s more like the actual college experience.

At any rate, the lectures focus on Andean civilizations mainly because the Amazon has not been explored properly even now–the professor mentions that archeologists don’t generally want to dig in really remote areas–they want to spend years in urban areas where they can drive out to a dig not far away. Which led me to look up the number of uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, and it’s dozens of tribes (I saw a table on one Web site, but cannot find it now). Fascinating. So although Raiders of the Lost Ark was set in the 1930s, one could throw in a couple of drones and set something very similar today.

And although I am briefly able to talk about some of the greater pre-Inca civilizations like the Chavín, the Moche, the Wari, The Chimo, and the Sican–I made a gag at a trivia night a couple weeks ago that if we had such a category, I would be dialed in. But as time passes between now and the future, the details will start to fade, and I’ll only remember a couple of things. Like that the people of the Incan civilization had endured a Civil War prior to Spanish contact, and smallpox had already done maybe the opposite of decimate (whatever the latinate for kill 9 of 10 is) the population. But the civilization was not a utopia, and it expanded by military force (a conscript army of 100,000 showed up and asked if you would like to join the empire). So the lecture series plays it pretty straight in laying out that everything was not rosy, even if the professor argues that the civilizations might not have been as bloody-thirsty and head-hunting as thought. It gives you room to think for yourself and to research further if you can.

So I enjoyed the course, and I am briefly interested in reading some of the primary source material I have here–I have some stories of the Aztec conquest written near the actual events, and I was kind of tempted to seek out some of the primary texts that Barnhart mentions, especially chronicles written by the Spanish. But this will likely pass. And I have recently been researching raising alpacas as the Inca did, and I’m already planning to plant some potatoes this spring. So the course might have influenced me more than most (especially if I end up with alpacas and a couple llamas). At the very least, it triggered passing enthusiasm.

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On Unqualified by Anna Faris (2017)

Book coverThe 2024 Winter Reading Challenge, like previous ones, has a category for audio books, but this year, it had an additional requirement: it needed to be narrated by the author. Fortunately, I had a copy of this audio book, which was at the top of the box containing audio books and courses that I’d removed from atop the desk hutch because the stacks were blocking the light from the lamps up there. It was fortunate that I picked up this former library copy at the Friends of the Library book sale last spring as I took a quick spin through the audio books section of the library and did not find anything narrated by the author. Well, nothing I would want to listen to anyway.

It took some effort to fit this audio book in, gentle reader. As you might know, my children are older now and don’t require me to drive them to and from school on weekdays, so I lost about an hour each day in audiobook listening time. Coupled with the fact that I currently have no wheels (ask me sometime about how the autumn and winter of 2023/2024 vexed me) and don’t really go anywhere, so I had to make an effort to listen to an audio book at home. I briefly tried to listen while I worked, but I was focused on other things and was not paying attention to the audio book, so I could not do that. I didn’t have any hands-on, not processing words hobbies in the workshop to do while this played. So I spent six evenings, well, six individual hours over six evenings, to listen to this. Instead of reading a book or watching a film. I lit a fire, popped a CD into the DVD player to listen through the den’s audio system, and I just listened to the book. I gave my attention pretty strictly to the book. I couldn’t even putz around on my phone as I don’t have any games or mindless activity apps installed on the phone. Just a browser for reading Web sites. But, gentle reader, I wanted that 2024 Winter Reading Challenge mug. And, most importantly, I wanted to hit all of the categories. So I listened to Anna (ah-na) Faris (one R) read her book.

So: Although I have seen her in Lost in Translation and Keanu (although it must have been a small role, playing herself, perhaps in the Hollywood scene), I remember her mostly from My Super Ex-Girlfriend where she played Hannah, the cute assistant to the Luke Wilson character. Mostly because I just watched the film last year. She has been in a number of other comedies and voice actor in children’s movies and some television appearances. But, as I discovered, she is a comic actress and not a comedienne, which is important because this book is earnest and not humorous.

She also has or had a successful podcast, or maybe successfulish as I don’t know what metrics mark a successful podcast, called Unqualified. On the podcast, Faris gives advice, mostly (I presume based on the contents of the book) on sex and relationships. But she holds that she is really unqualified to give this advice.

So this book is part memoir, with some stories about her growing up and becoming an actor but also about her early relationships, her first marriage, her second marriage to Chris Pratt and the birth of their son, and some behind-the-scenes glimpses of life in Hollywood (she and Pratt divorced after the book came out, and she is on her third marriage now), and a bit about the podcast and its production. Another part of the book is relationship advice based on callers to the podcast, and another bit of it is filler material where she reads comments from the podcast’s Facebook page and whatnot. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly humorous (comic actress, not a comedienne). It might be a better read as some of the material is probably pretty skimmable, whereas listening to it means you have to hear every word at the author’s pace.

I don’t want to poop all over the author’s efforts here; she is very earnest in wanting to help people by giving them advice. But I am really not the target audience for this book, and I’m sure I would not have picked up the book if I saw it in a bookstore. But I saw it through the veil of profligate accumulation on a Audiobooks table for $.50 a month after I’d seen Faris in a film, so I got the book. And, fortunately, it counted for a category in the Winter Reading Challenge. But I can only recommend it if you’re a fan of Anna Faris or advice columns/podcasts. Not if you’re looking for topical humor from a comedian or comedienne.

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On Behavioral Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide by Scott Huettel (2014)

Book coverIt’s been a while since I listened to most or perhaps all of this course. My beautiful wife discovered that the DVD player in our old, but newish to us, truck would “play” DVDs, but when it played them, it would not display the video on the new-then-fangled touchscreen video control. Instead, it would play the audio. Which opened us up to “listening” to DVD courses while driving. Except that the track listing was not as straight-forward as actual CDs. The track listing includes menus you cannot see, titles and whatnot, and other things. So I listened to this course in May and June, culminating in our trip to Wisconsin. But somewhere on the trip, we reached a point where we were retreading the same ground, hearing the same course again, so either we got the discs out of order or mangled returning to our place on the last lecture or three. So we removed it from the car’s audio system and went onto the next course. And then we didn’t drive anywhere of consequence. Given that my oldest son is old enough to drive he and his brother to school, and the round trip in the car is no longer an hour and a half per day, who knows when I will finish another course?

Well, UPDATE, although you have not seen this post before, I started it in August of last year and discovered the course in the back of my to-review and notepad set on my desk. All I had written was the above paragraph, and then I rebooted or something where I closed the text editor. So, six months later, my recollections of the course are a little hazier, but at a high level, I can remember some elements of it, and sometime I think I would like to revisit the course and/or read more on the subject.

The book deals with research in psychology, particularly the science of decision making, which is the root of economics. How do people make the choices they do given the information they have? How much do they weigh this, how much do they research, how much do they go with their gut, and how’s that working out for them?

The lectures include:

  1. What Is A Good Decision?
  2. The Rise of Behavioral Economics
  3. Reference Dependence–It’s All Relative
  4. Reference Dependence–Economic Implications
  5. Probability Weighting
  6. Risk–The Known Unknowns
  7. Ambiguity–The Unknown Unknowns
  8. Temporal Discounting–Now or Later?
  9. Comparison–Apples and Oranges
  10. Bounded Rationality–Knowing Your Limits
  11. Heuristics and Biases
  12. Randomness and Patterns
  13. How Much Evidence Do We Need?
  14. The Value of Experience
  15. Medical Decision Making
  16. Social Decisions–Competition and Coordination
  17. Group Decision Making–The Vox Populi
  18. Giving and Helping–Why Altruism?
  19. Cooperation by Individuals and in Socialism
  20. When Incentives Backfire
  21. Precommitment–Setting Rationality Aside
  22. Framing–Moving to a Different Perspective
  23. Interventions, Nudges, and Decisions

I liked it better than On Thinking Like An Economist: A Guide To Rational Decision Making because this course and discipline are more descriptive and enquiring into what guides peoples’ decision making rather than on how to proscriptively alter people’s minds and mental calculus by imposing outside incentives–that other course sure did want to guide people to the right path, which is what the economists and their paymasters determined as the right path. I also liked it far better than Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World, which I did not finish, which found the State should fix the values for its subjects (and the bad ideas were basically individuals and self-determination).

Sorry to have held out on you, but this really was a good and engaging course, and I recommend it. I guess it’s available on the Internet and you don’t need a DVD player that plays audio in your truck to appreciate it. And watching it on an actual television might just give me the excuse I need to watch it again, perhaps with an actual notebook in hand.

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On How I Write by Janet Evanovich with Ina Yalof (2007)

Book coverThe The 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a category (at the top, no less) Listen to a Book. As the Philosophy: Who Needs It? audiocassette was not actually a book, I had to go searching for something else. Fortunately, the Nogglestead to-listen shelf is not as deep as the to-read stacks–basically, it’s the top of the hutch on my desk, where the audiocourses I’ve bought at library book sales remain, casting shadows and eclipsing the little lamps I have up there, for years, and more years to come since I’m in the car far less these days. And, like another audio book I’ve listened to this year (Pure Drivel by Steve Martin), I actually (I think) have a printed copy of the book in the far deeper to-read stacks, so I will (possibly, as the to-read stacks are deep, and I am not as young as I was when I started this paragraph) read this book as well as listen to it. But the Winter Reading Challenge demanded I listen to it, so I did.

This is a fifteen-year-old (!) book that talks about how best-selling author and industry Janet Evanvovich of the enumerated Stepahine Plum series of books writes. I say “industry” because she makes clear that her family works in the family business–her husband is her manager, and her daughter is her Web master (and perhaps fifteen years later her social media manager). And this book is a bit of a FAQ from her Web site–basically, she’s answering questions readers have posed on it about writing.

So her daughter asks the questions in the read version, and Janet answers. Ina Yalof is mainly a nonfiction writer who has collaborated with Janet Evanovich before, so she comes in with some no-nonsense answers about the business from time-to-time. And they inject numerous bits from the Stephanie Plum novels to illustrate Janet Evanovich’s answers in early parts of the book.

The book is broken into sections about writing and then about the business of submitting and publishing. The bits about writing, inspiration, and mostly just, you know, writing, are the best. When she starts talking about getting an agent and the business of publishing, she tut-tuts self-publishing, but that seems to have come to the fore more than it would have back then. Perhaps it’s just the circles I blogtravel in where this is true. But trying to get an agent and then get sold to a big publishing house? That seems so last century.

So the audiobook version runs about four hours, and it does include listening to Ina Yalof read references at the end. So not too long of a time investment, and probably worth it. Although to be honest, it has not compelled me to open a word processor and write. I am not sure what would these days.

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On Philosophy: Who Needs It? by Ayn Rand (1974)

Book coverI must have bought this cassette of of eBay around the turn of the century–or did I order it directly from Second Renaissance Books back in the day? In the 1990s, Second Renaissance published a lot of Ayn Randia, and maybe you could order stuff from its catalog or from the forms in the back of its books. I know I subscribed to The Intellectual Activist (wow, that was still a going concern as late as 2021, so maybe I saw ads in it (probably not). I even read Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and The Ominous Parallels back in college. I was a pretty dedicated little-o objectivist back then.

I found this audiocassette in one of the bins in my desk cubby; I am not sure why it was up there or why it was floating around. Perhaps it had been in a desk drawer and I moved it to the cubby at some point. I got it out with the intention of relocating it to our other collection of music audiocassettes, but when I saw the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a “Listen to a Book” category, I thought maybe it was the text of the book of the same name, or maybe just the title essay. However, it’s a speech delivered at West Point in 1974 along with a little question and answer session. No doubt the title essay of the book comes from this speech and probably others she gave in the line, I could not in good conscience count it as listening to a book after all.

You can hear the speech on YouTube:

Now, thirty years have passed my first exposure to Objectivism (I read The Fountainhead the summer before college after the Swedish mechanic who lived next door to my father shamed me for not reading literature, and I remembered The Fountainhead from flyers advertising the Objectivist Institute’s scholarship contest that I’d missed out on). And you know what? I still agree with a lot of the premises and conclusions of Objectivism. The basics. So it was a pleasant listen, and it reminds me that I have not read The Fountainhead since 2005 which means it’s long overdue.

And during the question and answer period, listen to the seeds of modern wokeism–out of, what, five questions we get one about the United States’ guilt for slavery and native genocide? At West Point? Man, it’s amazing how far back the long march started, but that’s why it’s been a long march and why not many reacted to its slow approach.

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On Legends, Lies, & Cherished Myths of World History by Richard Shenkman / Read by Arte Johnson (1993)

Book coverI started listening to this audiobook on the drive to and from the St. Louis area in October and finished it up last weekend on a trip to Poplar Bluff. It’s read by Arte Johnson, whose name I recognized. He was that guy on that one comedy sketch show you played a Nazi. You know, when you could laugh at Nazis instead of think they were the worst thing to compare your contemporary foibles to. No, not the “I saw nothing!” Nazi. The “Very Interesting” Nazi from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In:

I guess it was only twenty-five years later that he was vocal talent for audio books. Speaking of which, these cassettes are now almost 30 years old, and they still sound pretty good. I guess audio books and the like didn’t get played as often as popular music tapes did.

At any rate, the book is a snarky look at “myths” of history which are really only myths to people who get their history from popular culture. Well, the popular culture of the 1990s. The 21st century study of history, at least the teaching of it to children and the professional class of it (or the journalists who pretend to be the purveyors of knowledge), has its own newer myths and greater ignorance.

I mean, we have chapters on Ancient Rome, the Barbarians, the Crusades, British Royalty and its traditions, and a whole section on sex, amongst other things, and all of the snark is couched upon setting up some myth/lie/legend of history and knocking it down. So maybe it’s a good intro to some of these things, or maybe it’s best for the snooty who know these things and want to be along for the ride as Shenkman voiced by Johnson knocks down something the igno’ant believe.

I guess I got more into it on the last couple of cassettes (this book is on four with a running time of about 6 hours), as I was less annoyed on the trip to Poplar Bluff, but still not my favorite bit of history reading. You definitely get more depth out of an American Scholar or Teaching Company/Great Courses series, even the surveyish ones, which are six hours better spent. But if you can find this set for a buck or fifty cents or whatever I paid for this, I guess it’s worth it.

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On Pure Drivel written and read by Steve Martin (1998)

Book coverI have been holding out on you, gentle reader. And by “holding out on you,” I mean “have been lazy.” I actually listened to this audiobook the last weekend of October on the way to my boys’ last marching band festival of the year and have only gotten around to writing about it now. Which means I will have forgotten anything I really want to say about it. Actually, I don’t know if I had anything in particular I wanted to say–it’s hard to put a little sticky note into the pages of an audiobook when you’re driving 80 miles an hour down the highway.

At any rate, this is a collection that includes numerous essays that Martin wrote for The New Yorker in the middle 1990s. You can see a chapter listing on Wikipedia here and can see the first two chapters here.

The writing is wry, not (often) crass, and is topical, kind of like humor would have been in those days, not mocking, and amusing. The audio book was read by Martin as well, so he phrased it just as he intended. Which hopefully was reflected in the writing.

It’s been sixteen years since I read Shopgirl, and it won’t be sixteen years until I read another book by Steve Martin (no bets, as I’ve actually started it). I think I might actually have Pure Drivel here in print form, and I’ll actually read the book if I find it. Martin is one of the comedians I’d like to see live, and I hope that someday he and Martin Short come near enough to Springfield that I can see them.

So let that be my recommendation. I’ve heard it, and I’d like to read it. Maybe I will listen to it again. It is certainly more ageless than most comedy albums I listen to on road trips.

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On The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss (2010)

Book coverI picked this book up on the dollar side of the Friends of the Library Book Sale this spring, and it’s the first of the courses/audio books I got that weekend that I loaded into the CD player in my main truck. It’s only three CDs, about 3.5 hours total, so I did not have to displace anything in the CD changer (which had three spots open).

Ferris is probably best known for The 4-Hour Work Week which he then turned into a little bit of a franchise–this book is one of several with similar titles, and it deals with exercise, diet, sex, and such things.

The sections, basically, deal with those things in that order. The first, exercise, explains how to get the most out of a minimalist exercise program. Basically, do a small set of exercises to failure, fewer exercises than even Rippletoe advocates, and then take plenty of time off to recover. The second section on diet talks a lot about body chemistry and includes supplements and whatnot. The third section deals with sex, mainly how to please a woman, and to be honest, it was a bit squicky, but I’ll get to that in depth. He also talks briefly about life extension strategies, like caloric restriction, but rightfully rejects this as impeding the quality of life for mere quantity.

So Ferris does a lot of research on the topics he writes on and then tries them out himself. So when it comes to the exercise, over the course of a couple of years, he tries various approaches and measures his body mass index and stuff. When it comes to supplements, he tries a variety of regimens and diets and self-reports that he has his blood tested frequently for various effects and markers. And when it comes to sex–well.

All right, when it comes to sex, he talks about how few women achieve orgasm, and then he attends a couple of training sessions or seminars involving actual sexual contact between the instructors, where you can actually get very close to the naughty bits to see exactly what they’re doing. Which is, in a word, weird. The tips Ferriss learns in the sex section, I’m pleased to say I already knew. Because I have had a sexual partner for a long time, and we communicate. I suppose you need this sort of abstraction if you’re changing partners quickly and don’t have the time to understand and explore with a single person. But as the section was targeted at pleasing women pretty exclusively, one must assume something about the target audience. That it’s young men, not middle-aged old folk like me (although Ferriss himself is only a couple years younger than I am).

So, what did I take away from the audio book?

  • When working out, remember to work to the point of exhaustion. I think he favors the 5×5 weight approach, which is five reps and then add five pounds for the next set, and do five sets. Maybe that makes it 5x5x5. I had been working sets of 10, but I was not exhausting the muscles. Now, I might not hit five sets, but I get to the point where I can’t lift all the way up, and I hold it at that position until I can’t any more. Of course, this is not an exercise for barbells you’re under if you lack a spotter. But I’ll try that for a while; I have heard about it from other sources as well, so the audiobook is only reinforcing other information.
  • Both this book and Mike Cernovich’s Gorilla Mindset extoll the virtues of cold showers, so I’ve started turning the temperature down in the shower after washing and shaving. Also, when I started listening to this book, I was getting ready for the annual “Pool is open in April” plunge into some cold water, and I wanted to minimize the chances of it killing me this year. The water in our pool has not really cleared, so I didn’t have to take the plunge before the Summer switched turned to on, but I’ve kept turning the water cold because of a couple things mentioned in the book: Specifically, that cold helps burn calories faster while working out (the shower is not exactly working out, but the body needs to spend to heat for that minute or so) and because something in Ferriss’s research indicated that cold on the neck produces a fat burning response. And, frankly, I have gone through a period of eating a lot of sandwiches recently, and I could use a little extra burn.

So that”s it. Basically, two things. But, still, not bad for a couple hours of interesting.

Note that my youngest listened to parts of the chapters on diet, and asked as he was getting out of the car, “This diet is supposed to make you shredded? I’m not going to do it.”

Me, either, kid. I’d rather eat what I want and work some of it off than try to make like a professional body builder.

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On Understanding Japan: A Cultural History by Professor Mark J. Ravina (2015)

Book coverI borrowed this course from the library because I’ve only a passing knowledge of Japanese history from thin books like Samurai Warriors, although I have read original sources like Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai and The Book of Five Rings (and I learned the definition of Keiretsu from The Ninja as some of that novel’s back story is set in post World War II Japan). So I was excited to find this course at the library.

It’s a cultural history, so we get a bit of linear talk about the different eras in Japan’s past, but most of the lectures center around a topic and delve into its relevance in history.

Lectures include:

  • Japan: A Globally Engaged Island Nation
  • Understanding Japan through Ancient Myths
  • The Emergence of the Ritsuryo State
  • Aspects of the Japanese Language
  • Early Japanese Buddhism
  • Heian Court Culture
  • The Rise of the Samurai
  • Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism
  • Samurai Culture in the Ashikaga Period
  • Japan at Home and Abroad, 1300 – 1600
  • Japan’s Isolation in the Tokugawa Period
  • Japanese Theater: Noh and Kabuki
  • The Importance of Japanese Gardens
  • The Meaning of Bushido in a Time of Peace
  • Japanese Poetry: The Road to Haiku
  • Hokusai and the Art of Wood-Block Prints
  • The Meiji Restoration
  • Three Visions of Prewar Japan
  • War without a Master Plan: Japan, 1931 – 1945
  • Japanese Family Life
  • Japanese Foodways
  • Japan’s Economic Miracle
  • Kurosawa and Ozu: Two Giants of Film
  • The Making of Contemporary Japan

The tone is respectful, but not slavishly praising of the current regime (as one suspects modern Chinese histories are). The professor only lets slip some politics in a couple of places (calling a Japanese attempted assassin right-wing, saying that the way to improve declined fertility rates is government programs that did not exist when the fertility rate was higher, and so on).

The book also provided some additional context for the aforementioned Hagakure and The Book of Five Rings–although both purportedly represent the height of Bushido, the way of the warrior, they were both written after the wars in which the samurai fought, and Hogokare was not actually a military man–he was a scribe. Both of these books were written looking back at an earlier time, with a bit of nostalgia was well as disdain for the way things were when the books were written–that is, a peaceful period bordering on decadence.

So a good summary, overview course for someone just getting into Japanese history. As I’ve learned from listening to an audio course and reading a couple books on Chinese history, particulars will fade unless you continue studies with it, but highlights and perhaps some interesting stories will remain. As with the Chinese audio course, the names will fade a bit as I’ve heard them but have not seen them in print–so I might actually not recognizes them if I see them in print.

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On Friedrich Neitzsche narrated by Charlton Heston (1991)

Book coverNot long after having Charlton Heston and vocal talent narrate Søren Kierkegaard, I picked up the next chronological set of tapes, those on Neitzsche. You know, I am listening to tapes more than lectures or books on CD because my truck has a CD changer in it, where you can load up six CDs at once. Which sounds good if you’re the only one driving it, but it’s a bit of a hassle to load six CDs at once, and it’s even more of a struggle when your beautiful wife wants to load some of her CDs as well. Oh, the humanity!

So. This set details Neitsche’s life and thought, focusing mostly on the thought, and focusing mostly on Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil because, face it, that’s where the bulk of what you talk about when you talk about Neitzche comes from (unless you like to talk about his facial hair).

They rely a lot on vocal talent ranting Neitzsche’s own words in a harsh German accent, so it was distracting and hard to follow. But Neitzsche’s work is harsh and ranting anyway–I am sure I thought a little better of it when I was young, inclined to Dionysianism and thinking of myself as an ubermensch. But ultimately, the recasting of morals as dependent upon man’s capacities or whatever so that different actions are wrong or right depending upon…. Well, it’s clear that one, or a national socialist party, might take that to heart.

I never really got into Neitzsche as I was innoculated by my earlier exposure to Aaron Rodger’s favorite author Ayn Rand, wherein the superman (John Galt or Howard Roark, take your pick) was reined in by a real, concrete morality probably influenced by Kant and maybe Thomas Aquinas.

Which is kind of depressing, as I have an old Waldenbooks? Barnes and Noble? omnibus edition of Neitzsche around here, and if I am going to eventually read all of the books I own (assuming medical science can keep me alive until 2173), I will have to read it.

But, you know what? Listening to this book and reading the Neitzsche when my brain is in a jar and the “reading” is the injection of a certain chemical into the jar whilst receiving certain bioelectroradiographic pulses is still a good thing, if only to refresh how far one has come in one’s understanding of philosophy over the decades. Also, it was only a couple of hours of drive time, and, man, I love these things. But not the German accents.

(Oh, yeah, the latest link on the Aaron Rodgers maybe pointing at Ayn Rand on a podcast from Instapundit, who is seemingly the only thing that’s not a tabloid that I read.)

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On Comedy, Tragedy, History: The Live Drama and Vital Truth of William Shakespeare by Professor Peter Saccio (1996)

Book coverThis is an old timey Great Courses/Teaching Company set of cassettes. The copyright date says 1996, but the instructor at one point talks about the 1980s as being the present time, so it might have been recorded a couple of years before the copyright date. The lectures feature a live audience, so people laugh at his jokes and you can hear them shift from time to time–and one can expect that it’s actually them applauding at the end of each lecture–a sound effect that the company has kept throughout even though you cannot hear the audience otherwise or see them on the few DVDs I have watched.

The lectures include:

  • Shakespeare and Stratford
  • Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Theater
  • Richard III
  • Henry IV and Henry V
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear

It was a pretty short course–four or five hours–and the professor goes not only into Shakespeare in his time for context, but then delves into eight plays to provide some comment on them, their genres, and their interpretations over time.

For example, he talks about the Shylock question. As you might know, gentle reader, Shylock was a Jewish character in The Merchant of Venice, and the play apparently contains some stereotypes of Jews (that carry forward to this day). The professor talks about how the interpretation has changed over time to present a more sympathetic portrayal of the character, and the professor remarked that at least one performance he saw stripped some of the Jewishness from the character–and that plays in the 19th century were Bowlderized to remove the sex jokes, but in the late 20th century they were getting chopped up to remove other objectionable content. Brother, have I got news for you from the future.

At any rate, I really enjoyed these audiocassettes. If you’ve been here for some time, you might remember that I started reading the complete works of Shakespeare in 2018, and I got about five plays in before laying the book aside. See my category Shakespeare for my current progress on reading the book. If it has more than five entries, know that I have been inspired by this lecture series to pick it back up. I will have to pace the plays out like Executioner novels to ensure that I don’t get tired of them and see the formulaic parts too clearly. Perhaps 2022 will be a year of drama, as I have Volume 2 of the complete works of Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, around here somewhere (the first volume comprised the reading of my college course on Ben Jonson back in the early 1990s).

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On Soren Kierkegaard narrated by Charlton Heston (1991)

Book coverI have read a couple of books on Kierkegaard (Søren Kierkegaard in the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series and Kierkegaard in the Leaders of Modern Thought series) and actually some of the source material Fear and Trembling. I think I have another book or two of his around here somewhere. This two cassette overview narrated by Charlton Heston makes the books sound more accessible than the books on Kierkegaard probably are.

Again, these Giants of Philosophy sets are two cassettes, so they run two and a half or three hours. So you don’t get a lot of depth of the thought but rather get more biography and summary of the high points of the thought–although some of the series, like Aristotle, get a little more detailed in the thought because the bio is so thin. This book talks about Kierkegaard’s private life and upbringing and relationships with his father and Regina, his spurned fiance. It goes through his publications roughly in order and how his thought evolved at the time, and how he eventually battled the organized Lutheran church in his hometown.

Like the best of these lectures and courses, it made me want to dive into more primary materials, perhaps Either/Or next if I find that I own a copy or if I get an ABC Books gift card for Christmas (or if another book signing occurs, and I have to buy something else as a fig leaf, although I am pretty sure Mrs. E. tells all the authors that I come to all the book signings, which is only a slight exaggeration).

I only have two more of these left, one on Neitzsche and one on John Dewey. I will be sad to finish what I own, and I will definitely keep my eyes out for others in the series in the future, especially if I can get them at a buck or less per (as I did with these this May).

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On Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment by Professor Alan Charles Kors (2001)

Book coverI took a break in the Charlton Heston-narrated cassettes on philosophers to listen to this Teaching Company/Great Courses series on French author Voltaire. Although I had read Candide–my beautiful wife and I took turns reading aloud from it during our courtship–I was not that familiar with him. This course certainly set me a-right. Apparently, he was the biggest European author/thinker of the 18th century, although it might be a touch exaggerated since it is a course on Voltaire, and the course slant tends to be a little homer if you know what I mean.

The lectures include:

  1. “The Patriarch”–An Overview
  2. The Education of a Philosophe
  3. Philosophical Letters, Part I
  4. Philosophical Letters, Part II
  5. The Years at Cirey
  6. From Optimism to Humanism
  7. Voltaire and the Philosophical Tale
  8. Voltaire and God
  9. Voltaire at Ferney
  10. Voltaire and History
  11. Voltaire and Toleration
  12. Apotheosis

It definitely gives a pretty good survey of his writing, his life, and his times. The strongest parts are, again, the biographical stretches and the specific works in the beginning. When we get to the broad summary Voltaire and lectures on the back half, it moves away from citing individual works and more exploring themes with little support in the actual texts.

But, still, I already knew my Voltaire from my Voltron, and should I fall into any trivia nights in the near future (unlikely), I will surely remember that he wrote a long poem on the Lisbon earthquake and that he wrote the Dictionnaire Philosophique. However, as time goes by, I will likely confuse that with Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Except one is titled in French, although the obvious might not help me. Fortunately, the deadliest plague ever!!!1 has curtailed trivia nights. That, and in approximately eighteen minutes, I will misremember Voltaire’s birth name as Martin L’Aday and subsequently “remember” that Voltaire is French for meatloaf, which will be disputed the next time my beautiful and French-speaking wife serves her beloved meat casserole.

Also, when I was at Hooked on Books a week and a half ago, I mentioned looking for some Leibniz. Because this course says Voltaire started out really digging the philosophical optimism by argument Leibniz offered and then turned against it after the Lisbon earthquake and the death of Voltaire’s mortal beloved. So I’m interested in acquiring some Leibniz. Not necessarily reading it–heaven knows I have many, many fine primary texts that I’m saving for retirement–but to have just in case. As I’m going to ABC Books this morning, perhaps I will luck out.

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On Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World by Jeff Madrick / Narrated by Adam Grupper (2014)

Book coverI had hoped that this would be an antedote or rebuttal of Thinking Like An Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making, a Great Courses lecture series that started out explaining how free markets were good, allowing to use choose their actions to make their lives better according to their wishes but then veered into the econonmists know better and must maniuplate the “free” market so individuals make the right decisions.

Oh, but no.

Written not long after the banking crisis of 2008, this book instead takes the tack that the state did not have enough control of the economy to prevent the problems, and that the free market economists like Hayek and Friedman were the deluded puppetmasters who made the problem. Not Keynes and Krugman and their statist ilk. The problem with real socialism economism is that it’s never been tried!

I only made it a couple of chapters into it before abandoning it because I was listening to it while driving, and experiencing a Red Curtain of Blood (RCOB) and shouting Eff you, you effen mothereffer, that’s not true! until you’re hoarse while driving is dangerous.

So that’s my report. I didn’t make it deep enough to get to the enumerated ideas, but I am pretty sure that economic performance over the decade or thirteen years after the crisis would disprove the author’s beliefs (not arguments, which can be refuted, but beliefs which can only be reinforced). But I bet he loves him some Build Back Betterer thinking.

If you’re interested, I’d recommend reading it in throwable paperback rather than audiobook.

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On David Hume read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverAll right, all right, all right–it’s actually been a couple of weeks since I finished listening to this short, two-cassette overview of David Hume’s life and thought. This is from the Giants of Philosophy series as were Socrates, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and Baruch Spinoza. Needless to say I am enjoying the series.

Helpfully, the vocal talent voicing Hume (Heston narrates, but vocal talents do the voices of original sources, including Hume and his critics) is doing a high Scottish accent, so it’s not distracting, and it’s not pompous. The, what, book? Lecture? Whatever the antecedent of the following pronoun, it balances Hume’s biography with his thought and offers a basic overview of his works over time.

And what do I think about Hume’s thinking? Well, I agree that our understanding of the world comes from our sensory experience, but Hume dismisses the role of reason and the human mind in being able to project future events from past experience. He also denigrates the self/soul as a coherent thing but rather a memory of sensations (but no predictions, of course–you cannot prove their worth or even a person’s ability to do them logically). So, dare I say it, it goes a little Buddhist for my taste.

I mean, you cannot reason a lot of things out of nothing but reason, but you can apply some thinking to your perceptions and get value out of it, ainna? So I’m a fan of his beginnings and some of his premises, but not his conclusions.

He’s part and parcel of what has become philopsyche: Instead of man’s place in the world, philosophy has turned a bit to the world’s place in man, and it ends up just as speculative and untethered from the concrete reality as purely reasoned speculation. Were I more than a layman dabbling in philosophy, I suppose I could seek out the primary sources–I have one or more on my shelves–and write a well composed refutation of them, but I have a list of things to do today, and Refute Hume ain’t on it. Of course, one of the things is to complete the filing in my office and maybe clear my desk, but where would I go for Five Things On My Desk posts? But, Brian J., you haven’t done one of those in two years! That’s because the same things are on my desk, gentle reader. I really need to clean it.

You want well-reasoned refutations of Enlightment’s failures, go to Blogodidact.

All I have to say is that the deeper I get into the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy, the more I think Ayn Rand was on the right track with a lot of her thinking.

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On Baruch Spinoza read by Charlon Heston (1990)

Book coverAfter listening the Charlton Heston narrating St. Augustine, I went right into this, skipping ahead 1200 years (although I did listen to St. Thomas Aquinas earlier, so I did have a medieval interlude).

With Baruch Spinoza, we’re coming into more modern modes of thought. Spinoza embraces a sort of Platonism as well, but unlike St. Augustine, his does not contain a personal God. Instead, God is distant (but present in everything) and rather inscrutible except through deep thought, as God (not a he as that is antromorphic) created everything and continues to create everything every day, but God is not responsive to mankind at all.

So working from that point, Spinoza tries to build a set of ethics with some disappointing results.

The course is about half biography and half deep thought, which is just about right for this lecture series. I had to listen carefully to the bits that explored his theory of substances, modes, and attributes, and I’m pretty sure I would have to read more detail about them before I could talk intelligently about them, but rest assured, they’re Platonism in Dutch.

The course mentions how he influenced the Romantic poets–probably in the God is in Nature lines of thought, and how he was excommunicated from his local synagogue and lived a life in relative poverty and isolation as a result. But interesting.

You know, many of the lecture series I have, I put on the shelf as trophies, but these are brief enough and interesting enough that I might want to listen to them again. So long as I have continued access to a cassette deck.

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On Saint Augustine read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverI listened to these lectures, er, audio books, out of order–I listened to St. Thomas Aquinas before this couple of cassettes, so I’m going out of order on the history of philosophy (sorry, Father Copleston, but I stalled out on your series years ago). I would probably have gotten more out of the Aquinas lectures reading how much his Aristotle-focus was a counterweight to Augustine’s Christian Platonism.

Which it is; I know, I just listened to the Teaching Company’s Augustine: Philosopher and Saint last February, so I remembered a bit of historical context–Augustine’s mother’s name was Monica, and he flirted with heretical thought in his youth, and the merging of Platonism with Christian thought.

You know, as I’m going through these philosophers again with Charlton Heston reading them to me, I think I’m soaking more in. The interplay between the thoughts. Of course, the Aristotle versus Plato bit. I like Augustine’s Platoism, though, amongst all the strains I’ve seen. Its World of Forms is God, and he somehow makes it a personal God as well–as I have mentioned, I need to read the primary sources more, but I’m not sure that I want to get into Professional Philosopher mode, where I spend years studying to split a hair differently than my also-publish-or-perish peers and base my argument on a particular translation which might not really capture exactly what the author meant. I prefer my high level, so that’s kind of what he was thinking approach. Where these short lecture series serve me well.

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Audiobook Report: Just a Guy: Notes from a Blue Collar Life by Bill Engvall (2007)

Book coverYou know, I first heard about Bill Engvalls in the middle 1990s, when my girlfriend referred to him as the guy who says, “Here’s your sign.” The Blue Collar Comedy Tour was, what, almost twenty years ago? And this book is from fourteen years ago, so it’s not fresh and new. It’s the story of Bill Engvall’s life up until that point, from his childhood in Winslow, Arizona, and Texas to his marriage and his start and climb into comedy.

So it’s not a gag reel; it is more a wry biography. I found it kind of meh, but poignant in spots–the story of his parents’ divorce and his wife’s brush with death after a miscarriage particularly struck me. But not much of the rest of it.

At the conclusion, he says he’ll be happy if he’s almost remembered as the fourth guy in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. But rest assured, Mr. Engvall, you’ll always be the third guy because you had a tagline, although not as good as “You might be a redneck” or “Git-r-done.” To my knowledge, the fourth guy–Ron White? Maybe?–did not.

But he seems like a nice guy, and I feel like I might be selling him short, but the book just didn’t resonate.

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On St. Thomas Aquinas read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverCharlton Heston reads this one, as he did Aristotle, so it’s the voice of Moses, Ben-Hur, and the Omega Man lending some heft to the reading. But his part is not really a dramatic reading–he’s reading the content pretty straight. And, fortunately, the dramatic readers who step in to act/read the quotes from Aquinas and his contemporaries and critics play it pretty straight, although other friars from Italy speaking with Italian accents but Aquinas speaks in American English which is inconsistent.

The two hours focuses as much on his biography as his thought, but it does show how he re-introduced Aristotle to the Western canon and interpreted him for the Christians. Which reminds me of how much I want to own a copy of Summa Theologica. It’s only a couple hundred dollars. Not like the complete works of Hemingway, which runs to the thousands for a nice matched set.

Of course, would I read it? I would aspire to read it, gentle reader. Although to be honest, I’m getting a little less aspirational these days. Why, I did not even go into the Better Books section at the recent Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale.

Well, I’ve gone afield here from talking about Aquinas, though, ainna? Dominican friar, a great teacher, one of the first Dominicans to teach at the University (and not without some scandal), participated in public lectures where he answered questions extemporaneously at length. So this is a good portal to the life and works of Aquinas. Better than studying four years at a formerly Thomist Catholic university anyway, although I dropped my theology minor impetuously one semester, and the university was far along the secularization path even then.

But I am enjoying the set of cassettes I got in the spring, and I’m pleased to see that Heston is reading more of them than Redgrave.

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On Aristotle read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverI actually started listening to this pair of audiocassettes pretty soon after listening to Socrates at the end of June, but I got a little bogged down because unlike Socrates which was heavy on the biography and only broadly spoke of his philosophical leanings as filtered through Plato.

I had to listen to this book a little more closely, though, as it went into greater detail into Aristotle’s work, which was probably lecture notes transcribed and arranged by his students after the fact. Still, it required more attention than I could give it on family drives in the summer, and I really didn’t go anywhere much without the family in the summer. At some point in post-trip car-cleaning, the cassettes disappeared from the console, and they only made their way back to my office but recently.

So what can I say briefly about Aristotle? The man started, well, not from the very beginning–there were philosophers before him–but his systematic approach to natural science and then onto thought, ontology, metaphysics, and ethics really marked a starting point of sorts. Well, I suppose you could say he offered a counterpoint to Plato, but, c’mon, man, we’re not idealists here, are we? So the audiobook hits the highlights, but it still quotes Aristotle at length, and that’s where you really need to pay attention.

Charlton Heston reads the book, but other vocal talent performs quoted texts, so whenever Aristotle speaks, we get someone doing Aristotle. However, the interpretation of Aristotle is a bit to learnéd, a bit to pompous, to do anything but distract. I mean, you have Charlton Heston reading the book. Why not let him read the quotes, too?

At any rate, it’s a good intro or a good refresher. In my case, it’s a good reminder that I have read too little Aristotle.

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