On Best. State. Ever. by Dave Barry

Book coverI checked this audiobook out of the library for a quick listen that took a couple of weeks as, although I played it in my primary truck, my beautiful wife was not a big fan, so I had to listen to it when she was not in the car.

Not a fan of Dave Barry? I was unaware that was a possibility in human nature.

At any rate, this book was published in 2015, so it’s a fairly modern sensibility from his ouevre. The schtick is that he’s defending his state from the national news stories of Florida Man, or rather perhaps explaining why his state is home to Florida Man. As such, he visits a number of oddball and sometimes known locations in Florida such as Weeki Wachee (the tourist attraction and now state park with the mermaids), Lock and Load machine gun range in Miami, Key West, and a bunch of other places and rates them using a scale of out-of-order Mold-o-Matic machines.

So it’s Dave Barry, now in the 21st century with curse words, so you know what you’re in for. A lot of amusement and perhaps a laugh or two in the interim.

Probably a little better than Jean Sheppard for those of contemporary sensibilities.

Now, back to the audio courses.

On The Bible as the Root of Western Literature: Stories, Poems and Parables

Book coverSo I had expected to listen to this course, one from my personal library, on trips to St. Charles or the trip from Springfield to Poplar Bluff to St. Charles to Springfield that I’d planned to take last month, but unfortunately, I did not get that travel time, so I’ve been listening to it in fits and starts in my back-up truck.

And, to be honest, I was not making excuses to drive the truck just to listen to more of the course.

The course looks at parts of the Bible in the context of genre literature, whether it’s because the part of the Bible being examined is part of that genre or tradition or because other works in the genre might have their roots or allusions to Bible parts.

Lectures include:

  1. Authorship and Style in the Torah
  2. Cain and Abel in Story, Theology, and Literary History
  3. Icons and Iconoclasm: From Moses to Milton
  4. The Story of King David, or the Varieties of Love
  5. The Song of Solomon: The Poetry of Sacred and Profane Love
  6. Psalms: The Poetry of Praise and Supplication
  7. Proverbs: The Way to Wisdom
  8. The Book of Job: The Problem of Evil and the Aesthetics of the Sublime
  9. Ecclesiastes and the Questioning of Wisdom
  10. Isaiah and Prophecy
  11. Typology: The Life of Christ as Fulfillment of the Old Testament
  12. Parables: The Form of Jesus Preaching
  13. Paul: The Letter and the Spirit of the Law
  14. The Book of Revelation and the Symmetry of the Christian Bible

The course overlaps enough with The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon that it felt almost like a reprise at times. Some of the connections to modern (or at least more recent) literature seemed a bit thin, but perhaps I’ve already studied enough literature and its biblical allusions that it wasn’t fresh.

I guess I got the most out of the penultimate lecture on the spirit versus the letter of the law. So I did get something out of it, but that’s only a little out of, what, eight or ten hours of listening?

Probably I am being too hard on it; surely, repetition of things I’ve already heard or learned solidified it in my mind a bit, but it’s not as stark or startling (or pleasing) as completely new information.

So what I’ve said about the audio courses I listen true holds: The more it aligns with the fields I’ve studied / read a lot of already (English literature, philosophy), the less I actually get out of it or the more bored I am with it. The audio courses I like the most are the ones that teach me the most I don’t know. Unfortunately, in the past, I’ve tended to pick those very courses that will bore me up at library book sales and whatnot. Well, I did, until I discovered the secret. Now I look for courses in interesting disciplines that I don’t have a degree in, or I get them from the library, and I get more from them.

And the vast library of courses I already own, these I shuffle in from time to time.

So, do I recommend it? If you’re not already versed in the material, it might be worth your time. Or if you have a long commute or lots of time in the car and need something besides the desiccated playlists of modern FM radio.

On Pomp and Circumstance by Jean Sheppard

Book coverYou’re familiar with his work and his voice–he wrote the the basis for A Christmas Story and narrated it–and he had a long-running radio program back in the northeast where he would spend an hour minus commercials taking a topic and going off on a monologue with diversions about it.

In the middle 1960s, from whence these particular episodes come, contain the similar reflective humor from the curmudgeon genre. Kids these days, these modern things aren’t as good as they used to be, and so on. A little like Andy Rooney, but less cranky. A little like Dennis Miller, but less arch.

Sheppard covers different things, such as the difference in radio broadcasting technology, how Americans envy other countries their sense of stuffed shirt pomp, going to shows and the movies, regional accents, and so much more.

Each disc has a single episode on it, so the sample size is only eight shows, but it made for amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny on various car rides. My beautiful wife, however, did not like it, so perhaps the appeal is more towards the curmudgeonly amongst us.

On Heaven or Heresy: A History of the Inquisition by Thomas Madden

Book coverThis course extends the lecture on the Inquisition from Medieval Mysteries and gives a fairly detailed history of the Inquisitions starting with the fact that the although the common 20th and 21st century representations of “the Inquisition” were oversimplified, incomplete, and based on popular culture not only of the current time but also the past centuries.

Well, okay, he starts with part of that and ends with a couple of lectures about how the various Inquisition was eventually portrayed after the Enlightenment as brutal and backward.

But in between, the ten or so lectures between introduction and conclusion, provide good historical context for the differences between the inquisitions in various regions and the modern, post-Enlightenment propoganda and popular culture interpretation of the Inquistion.

He lays out the contemporary zeitgeist–that it was a more uniform religious time, when crop failures and whatnot were still interpreted as God’s displeasure with a people as in the Old Testament. So the people wanted someone to come root out the heretics who were displeasing to God, and how the local rulers liked to take this upon themselves to find and quickly eliminate troublemakers in the area–often not so much theological disbelievers as political malcontents. So the local church leaders could call for an inquiry, which sought to find disbelievers and to convince them to return to the faith. Use of torture was limited, and the hearings had strict rules of evidence for the most part, and have some number of records in the church archives to support this. Only after a long inquisition and failure to recant was a presumed heretic released to the secular authorities for execution.

However, it did evolve, and by the time of the Spanish Inquisition, some of these rules were loosened. The ecclesiastical inquisition was co-opted by the Spanish government, so it was a little more brutal than other inquisitions.

Inquisitions, as they were, continued into the time of the Reformation where both Protestants and Catholics used them to ferret out the heretics–which were essentially the other side of that particular schism. Eventually, though, when the religious wars burned out, the inquisitions did, too, although the Spanish Inquisition formally continued into the nineteenth century.

When the Enlightenment authors got going, though, the Inquisitors were always the bad guys, and the then they were comic relief.

So the course adds detail to the one lecture he gave in the more summary course noted above, but I’m not sure I’m going to retain much from the extra material, and I’m not driven to a medeival studies degree with an emphasis in the material. But it did pass the time in the car and gave me a better time than the limited playlists on the radio.

And I’m thinking about writing historical fantasy with an Inquisitor as a protagonist. But Howard has almost done that with his Puritan Solomon Kane better than I would.

On Thinking Like An Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making by Randall Bartlett

Book coverThis Great Courses series of lectures provided an interesting insight into Economics, or more to the point the mindset of economists, and not necessarily in the way the professor behind it intended.

I mean, it does present some of the basic tenets of Economic theory. Namely, that people respond to incentives to make their lives according to their standards better; that decisions have costs; that free markets are good; that nobody has complete information for any decision; that decisions and actions often have unintended consequences, and that in the aggregate, crowds are wise (until they’re not). It really emphasized the concept of marginal value, which is that eventually effort will yield smaller results (also known as the law of diminishing results).

All of which I agree with. But then, economists’ thinking takes a turn into the totalitarian, where since economists have mastered these principles, they should build or help systems to alter individuals’ incentive structures so that they, the individuals, will make the right choices according not to the individuals’ but the economists’ ideas of what the subjects “free” individuals should be. So if traffic or air pollution is too high, it just makes sense to raise taxes to make it more expensive to drive into town. And when it comes to the environment, the economists must act because of the tragedy of the commons or something.

You know, the tragedy of the commons: When individuals share a resource, they will take more than their share because they alone are not responsible for its upkeep. Which, too, is an economist’s invented problem, because it features individuals divorced from tradition, religion, or morals who only act according to the economist’s reasoning constraints and unlike people.

So it falls to philosopher-king economists, ultimately, to set the incentive structures for people who don’t natively play by the pure economist rules to reach the economist-reasoned best outcomes. They ignore or diminish the elements of uncertainty that their own principles recognize (incomplete information, unintended consequences, freedom). Instead, they become Jigsaw Keynesers: You’re free to choose whether you want to cut your comfort off or pay extra taxes for heating your home.

Maybe instead they’re Keyneser Soze, except the greatest trick economists have ever pulled is convincing themselves they’re not the devil.

Maybe I should stop with the Keynes jokes already and get to the “at any rate” summation of what I got out of the course.

At any rate, some good, practical ways of thinking about values in decisions, but only at a low, tactical level. It’s best not to build a whole philosophy on it or to let others with credentials impose it upon you.

On The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon

Book coverThis course offers a history of how the books of the New Testament became the canon. I guess the title indicates that. But it’s not a straight ahead timeline of the conscious development of the New Testament. Instead, it’s more of a survey of different things to consider when looking at the history. It discusses the different types of literature in the New Testament, the Gospels, the epistles, and apocalyptic literature. It touches on apocrypha that did not make the final cut (and sometimes why). It talks about the creation of the written literature as the church evolved and needed a central repository of teachings to share among the scattered churches. It also talks about copying errors and whatnot and a touch of church history.

So it’s an interesting listen. My beautiful wife would not like it because she rankles at people who are probably not Christians opining or discussing Christian or Biblical history from a non-Christian perspective. This lecturer says that he’s not going to tackle the theological content of the books under discussion, but at times he does make light of what his Christian students say, so he’s probably not exactly a homer. I, on the other hand, am very interested in church history and consideration of the imperfections of translations of the Bible.

So you good bit of listening if you don’t mind those things.

On Medieval Mysteries: The History Behind The Myths of the Middle Ages by Thomas F. Madden

Book coverThis is a short course from the Modern Scholar series that focuses on myths and stories from the Middle Ages and how true they are. The four discs / eight lectures cover:

  • King Arthur
  • The Holy Grail
  • Pope Joan
  • Witches and Inquisitors
  • Chastity Belts and The Droit du Seigneur
  • Robin Hood
  • The Flat Earth
  • The Shroud of Turin

Not to spoil it, but basically, it boils down to there might have been a kernel of a real person for King Arthur and Robin Hood, but the stories have outrun the truth (print the legend!). A number of stories (Pope Joan, Inquisitors, the Droit du Seigneur, Flat Earth) were invented after the fact to reflect poorly on the past. As to the Shroud of Turin, who knows?

The author goes back to original sources and earliest mentions to try to get to the germ of each, and he does a pretty good job at a high, summary level or presenting the material. I enjoyed it, and it was only four hours which meant I could finish it on the recent drive up north.

Musings on Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations

Book coverSo the guidebook to this course presents me with a little dilemma: Should I count it as a book against my annual reading or not? I mean, I counted the guidebook for the course From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History as a book, but not the one for Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion. Of course, the former was over 100 pages, and the latter was like 25. The guidebook to Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations is 72 with the glossary, timeline, and bibliography. All right, you have convinced me to count it as a book read in 2019 even though I listened to the course probably over a year ago and only completed the guidebook now because I found it at one of my book accumulation points.

At any rate, this is a fascinating course, twelve lectures in all, that covers Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations (with a bit of a nod to early civilization in the Indus River valley, but as this last was not that well explored at the time of the course, it only gets passing recognition). The course covers the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, so you’ve got lectures on Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Israel, and the Persians as well as mention of the Hittites and Chaldeans and other tribes in those time periods who made a name for themselves.

As I mentioned in the book report on From Yao to Mao:

The fact that this succession of different groups controlling different regions could all be called “Chinese” history. You’ve got, for example, Mongols, Manchus, and various other tribes from outside the Chinese homeland taking over, succeeded by other non-Han peoples running things. But scholars continue to call it “Chinese” history. It would be like calling all of ancient Near East history Babylonian history (or Iraqi, perhaps) history–you’ve got different groups coming in and controlling the region around the ancient city of Babylon, but it’s Akkadian history or Chaldean history or whatnot. There’s not quite the enforced commonality you get in “Chinese” history. One has to wonder if that’s because in the 20th and 21st centuries, there’s a single Chinese government trying to control a large territoriy comprising different tribes’ homelands and to prevent fracturing or another tribe, so to speak, assuming power.

This sort of holds true for the Egyptians, whose civilization is controlled at various times by tribes from the Delta, tribes from up the river, and Greek peoples. The tribes that roam back and forth over Mesopotamia, though, aren’t characterized as a single civilization. I wonder why this is. The limited geography of Egypt versus the distributed loci of the other civilizations’ power? Aliens?

From the lectures and the guidebook, I come away with a vague understanding of the succession of the small empires and their chronology, and I will have something to say about the origin of the peoples in real life called Akkadians or Cimmerians when my boys are old enough to watch The Scorpion King or Conan the Barbarian.

Reviewing the guidebook makes me want to go through the lectures again, which is probably as high of praise as I can put into a brief report on the course.

Also, in retrospect, I want to count the much shorter guidebook for Elements of Jazz to my annual list.

Musings on Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion

Book coverI go through phases listening to these CD courses, and I think I’ve figured out the secret. I tend to accumulate courses in subject areas with which I’m already familiar, like philosophy or literature, and they underwhelm or bore me. That, and if they’re a summary course from the 21st century, I’ll find enough to disagree with politically to not really want to finish them. But something I’m not really familiar with, such as deep dive history courses (not summary courses) or music courses, these I listen to with some zeal, and I learn a lot more from them probably because they’re completely new knowledge to me and not merely rehashing what I already know.

I really enjoyed this course for those reasons, if they are the real reasons why I get away from listening to these in the car, and because I rather like jazz music, but I’ve not really been educated in it. Until now, a bit.

The course is eight lectures. The first seven talk about a building block in the evolution of jazz, and the last has the lecturer, a known jazz pianist, improvising with some other artists to illustrate how it works. The building blocks include cakewalks, ragtime, blues, swing/big band jazz, boogie and bop/bebop, and modern jazz including free jazz, cool jazz, and fusion.

I’ve learned a heck of a lot about music, including what syncopation means (although I’ve read the word, I’ve never tied it to the actual sound), the origins of the words in jazz (jazz, ragtime, bebop, and so on). And I’ve identified the styles of jazz I prefer (swing, cool jazz, and fusion)–although I would have probably guessed these. Also, I like free jazz like I like Matisse. Which is not at all.

So I’m glad to have spent, what, six hours on this course. I wish it were longer. I wish I could play a boogie woogie bass line on the piano. I have tried because of this course. So take that as an endorsement.

Unfortunately, I have a five foot shelf of other courses which on DVD and/or fit the bill of courses that I have mentioned aren’t the ones I get the most from. So expect other entries in this series irregularly.

Musings on From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History

Course coverI’ve mentioned over and over that I was listening to a lecture series on Chinese history. Welp, I finished it. I also read the guidebook that came with the course, and if you’re wondering if I counted it as a book on my annual list, yes, I did. The lecture series itself was many hours in the listening, and the guide book itself is over 100 pages, so of course I did.

It’s a pretty interesting set of lectures, especially since my Chinese history was somewhat lacking. I read a couple of Wikipedia entries after watching the movie Hero, and I’ve looked at tourist books about China (like this one), but I’ve not really delved into it except where it’s intersected with Mongol history. Well, there was this book. But I’ve only dabbled in Chinese history. Not that listening to a series of lectures is much more than dabbling.

But I did get some insights and found some remarkable things. Including:

  • The fact that this succession of different groups controlling different regions could all be called “Chinese” history. You’ve got, for example, Mongols, Manchus, and various other tribes from outside the Chinese homeland taking over, succeeded by other non-Han peoples running things. But scholars continue to call it “Chinese” history. It would be like calling all of ancient Near East history Babylonian history (or Iraqi, perhaps) history–you’ve got different groups coming in and controlling the region around the ancient city of Babylon, but it’s Akkadian history or Chaldean history or whatnot. There’s not quite the enforced commonality you get in “Chinese” history. One has to wonder if that’s because in the 20th and 21st centuries, there’s a single Chinese government trying to control a large territoriy comprising different tribes’ homelands and to prevent fracturing or another tribe, so to speak, assuming power.
     
  • A lot of the tensions you find in the modern United States have repeated themselves throughout Chinese history. The tension about how much the government should control? See also the Discourses on Salt and Iron circa 81 BC. You see cycles of governments taking power, doing some good, and then focusing on the trappings of power in the capital city and leaving the rest of the country to fall into disrepair until the government falls, and the new government does some good until it becomes decadently focused on pomp, at which point….
     
  • A historian’s detachment to the present day can be misplaced. Historical deaths and brutality are just a story to me, but the deaths of millions by the present regime are not. However, the lecturer treats them all the same.

Is the lecturer pro-Communist China? Yes, but I suppose that’s either an occupational hazard or required to remain in good standing with the current government of China in case one wants to travel there for research. He calls the Long March epic and excuses a lot, including the millions dying in the Great Leap Forward, as though the bureaucratic overreporting were not a repeating motif in centralized government systems (If only Mao had known!). But Communist China is a small drop in the history of the reason, so it does not detract from the lecture series much.

So I’ll need to read more about Chinese history to cement what I heard. Also, I’ll need to read more and hear more to become more familiar with the transliteration of Chinese names and places. Listening to the lectures and reading the guide book afterward was a bit confusing as the spellings don’t match the pronunciations very well.

At any rate, worth my time, and sometimes worth going a little out of the way so I could finish a particular lecture.