From ‘Swamp Gas’ to Believing in UFOs

#bookreview

The Close Encounters Man
How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs
Mark O’Connell
Harper-Collins, 978-0-06-2484176-9

For the first time in a half-century, Congress recently held a hearing on what many of us call “UFOs,” unidentified flying objects. Certain others of us, of course, now insist they must be called “UAPs,” unidentified aerial phenomena. Take your pick. UFOs/UAPs, whatever they are, have been zipping and maneuvering through our skies for many decades and (we suspect for much longer). And we still have no idea what they really are, what they are up to, and why they keep bothering to mess with us.

The Congressional hearing featured not only scientists and investigators but a House of Representatives subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism. Basically, the military finally admitted that UFO/UAPs are real.  And the Representatives predictably split along party lines, with Democrats seemingly more tuned toward scientific investigation and factfinding and Republicans muttering darkly about threats to national security and no doubt hoping to find ways to blame Joe Biden for recent surges in UFO/UAP sightings.

With America’s military and assorted civilian groups now putting a renewed focus on solving the UFO/UAP mystery, this seems a good time to remember astronomer J. Allen Hynek, the man who initially claimed people were just seeing flares of swamp gas, atmospheric eddies, and “ordinary celestial objects” in the sky. As Mark O’Connell’s 2017 biography, The Close Encounters Man, makes clear, Hynek (who died in 1986) was both a well-respected astronomer with significant scientific credits and, at first, strongly skeptical that UFOs/UAPs were real. Indeed, he was recruited in 1948 by the U.S. Air Force to help debunk the many sightings that were being reported by civilians, police officers, and military personnel. But he and others could not explain away 20 percent of the cases. Five years later, when Hynek was asked again to help the Air Force investigate UFOs/UAPs, he again saw that 20% of the reports coming in continued to be classified as “unidentified.”

ufo_sundog1 (3)

Photo by Si Dunn

O’Connell’s book smoothly lays out the story of how Hynek gradually changed from being a skeptic to believing that at least some UFO/UAP sightings are real and deserve deeper scientific investigation. The author had significant access to Hynek’s personal and professional files, as well as other materials, and his work is absorbing, informative, and often entertaining reading. (The book’s subtitle, however, goes well over the book-marketing top and should be disregarded.)

J. Allen Hynek is remembered today as the “Close Encounters” man because he came up with the terms “Close Encounters of the First, Second, and Third Kind.” Hynek defined a Close Encounter of the First Kind, the author explains, as seeing “a UFO within five hundred feet or so, close enough to make out detail but not so close as to make physical contact.” Hynek’s definition of a Close Encounter of the Second Kind, O’Connell noted, “is one in which the UFO has a physical effect on the environment, such as scorching nearby plants, leaving strange markings on the ground, or causing a car’s engine to stall.” And, O’Connell writes, Hynek considered a Close Encounter of the Third Kind as one in which the witness sees and sometimes interacts with beings that appear with the UFO.” 

I have written elsewhere about my own UFO experiences during childhood, and I confess that I had long disliked Hynek because I knew about his public statements about “swamp gas” and other dismissive responses to UFO questions in the 1950s. The Close Encounters Man has been surprising reading for me. J. Allen Hynek comes across as a man who could look at facts objectively, change his mind about his previous, dismissive declarations, and go public with his new views. Indeed, his changed position surprised and encouraged many people who had held back reporting their UFO/UAP experiences out of fear of being ridiculed or thought crazy. Relective of his changed views, Hynek founded the Center for UFO Studies in 1973. It’s now known as the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies.

In the Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Hynek makes a brief, Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo appearance for about six seconds in the film. As McConnell describes it: “…Hynek is shown stepping forward toward the colossal mothership as all the other scientists hold back. As he approaches the intense light of the alien craft, he thoughtfully strokes his goatee and fingers his pipe before putting it in his mouth. [H]e seems for all the world as though he belongs, as if he were meant to be there.”

He was. And his efforts hopefully will be remembered and drawn upon as new investigations into UFOs and UAPs move forward.

–Si Dunn       

 

Three Books, Three Hot-Again Issues – #bookreview

Photo by Si Dunn

Book 1

Crashback: The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific

Michael Fabey

Scribner, ISBN 978-1-5011-1204-1

Our eyes are locked on Ukraine right now and its horrific David vs. Goliath battle against Putin the Mad’s Russian military. But there’s another “war” in progress half a world away, and the United States is very deeply involved.

In his 2017 book that’s become even more relevant today, Michael Fabey has written: “Obviously, it’s not a hot war. American and Chinese military forces aren’t shooting missiles or torpedoes or naval artillery at each other–although in an instant of miscalculation or misjudgment, that could easily happen…But while the war is neither hot nor cold, China and the United States–particularly the United States Navy–are engaged in a warm war in the Western Pacific. It’s a war over tiny specks of land and vast reaches of sea and sky, a warm war of dangerous confrontations and small escalations, a war over military hegemony and the diplomatic and economic influence that naturally follows that hegemony. It’s a war that pits a diminished U.S. Navy against a burgeoning Chinese navy that is evolving with astonishing speed from a coastal defense force to a ‘blue-water’ fleet capable of projecting power throughout the region.”

Since the 2022 outbreak of war between Ukraine and Russia, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and his military brass reportedly have been studying the Russian military’s numerous blunders, mistakes, and defeats in Ukraine, to help improve own their planning for possibly attacking and conquering Taiwan. Reading Fabey’s Crashback can give readers some good insights into an increasingly dangerous situation most Americans have ignored for decades.

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Book 2

Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide

Jonathan A. Rodden

Basic Books, ISBN 978-1-5416-4427-4

Democrats seem to pour virtually all of their resources into energizing liberal voters in big metropolitan areas and ignore many rural voters, who tend to be more conservative. So, a lengthy question: Are they just too lazy or enamored of the status quo to attack the very problem that keeps them in overly tight races with Republican candidates while also throwing away their chances to regain majorities in state legislatures and county and city governments? Short answer: Yep.

“The problem of platform choice and reputation management bedevils the Democrats not only at the national level but also within states. The urban districts, where Democrats typically win by large majorities, are often ideologically quite far away from the rest of the state,” writes Jonathan A. Rodden in his 2019 book. “As a result,” he adds, “Democrats face a difficult challenge in trying to manage their statewide party reputation. If it comes to be dominated by urban incumbents, they will find it hard to compete in the pivotal districts.”

Rodden’s book offers a detailed look at how America’s urban-rural political divide came to be and why it remains, and he delivers some explanations of how “federalism and decentralization” possibly could help “ameliorate the problem of geographic sectionalism.” With Congress mired in political gridlock over issues such as abortion, gun control, immigration, and the economy, U.S. citizens may have to rely on state and city governments “for practical policy solutions to everyday problems,” Rodden points out, adding: “Successful candidates for governor and mayor often run campaigns portraying themselves as nonpartisan problem-solvers” and sometimes “assemble different bundles of policy positions than the national parties to which they belong. By crafting unique local brands, state and local chief executives can bridge partisan divides and focus on results.”

Of course, with that “local brand” approach, if you have strong preferences for certain issues, you might feel the need to move from a “red” area or “blue” area and live where you feel that your concerns are better met. But, over time, little would change politically in these areas and important issues might go unaddressed if there is always one-party rule.

The bottom line for 2022: Democrats need to be ramping up their rural outreach…hard and fast.

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Book 3

How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind

Leah Weiss, Ph.D

Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-256506-8

The Covid pandemic is not over. Still, workers increasingly are being encouraged or forced to leave the safety and comforts of their home offices and commute back to the spaces, cubicles, and desks leased by their employers, if they wish to keep their jobs and benefits.

How We Work by Leah Weiss was published a year before the pandemic hit. Yet, even then, the American workplace already had a reputation for being toxic, full of stress and a frequently disheartening and debilitating place to have to spend up to 12 hours a day, or more.

Add the fear of contracting a Covid variant to memories of what the workplace was like before the pandemic hit, and you have a recipe for unhappiness, worry, and employees making value choices: Is this job, this company, or this boss worth my life? What if I’d rather have a different career or no career at all? As we now know, millions of people have decided to leave their current jobs, reevaluate their lives, and look elsewhere for opportunities that seem safer or better tuned to their capabilities, interests, and desires.

For those who remain, as well as those who choose to look elsewhere, How We Work offers some good workplace insights and ideas to consider. For example, the book has a strong focus on mindfulness and meditation and how they can lower your stress level both at work or at home while trying to juggle family life or individual feelings after long hours commuting and working in an office.

Quoting from studies, the author notes that “not only can meditation help you feel less stressed, but it can actually protect the brain from the damaging effects of stress, which include accelerated aging.”

On a related note not associated with this book, the U.S. Department of Labor recently has launched a new project called the Job Quality Measurement Initiative, in association with some nonprofits that include the Families and Workers Fund, the Omidyar Network, the Lumina Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, according to New York Times columnist Peter Coy. In a recently published column, Coy noted that “there’s no agreed-upon definition of what makes a job good or bad.”

The number of unfilled jobs remains in the millions this spring, and employers complain that they are having difficult times finding employees. Wages are up and to some people that signals jobs are “good.” But many positions have been simplified and dumbed down in desperate attempts to fill slots with almost any warm body. Other high-skill jobs, meanwhile, have been layered with extra tasks for one person, increasing their already difficult workloads.

The Job Quality Measurement Initiative plans to release its study results in September 2022. But how much it might clarify the “good job-bad job” debate remains to be seen. Meanwhile, many workers likely will continue to vote with their feet if they feel endangered, stressed, underappreciated, or underpaid after being told to return to the office.

Si Dunn

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Fingers in the Dirt

Could you grow your own food if you had to?

Russians no longer can get a Биг Мак at their local McDonald’s. Food supplies and farms are in peril all over Ukraine. And refugees in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere are overwhelming the available food aid from many agencies. (Please find at least one online and help them with a cash donation.)

Those of us who live in currently peaceful places usually have an overabundance of food available. And the contents of our packed pantries and refrigerators can be supplemented with bags of chips, nuts, candies…or quick drives to the nearest fast-food outlets or grocery stores. “Food insecurity” to many of us means we just opened our last case of tuna and our new grocery order won’t be delivered for a couple of hours.

But what if we suddenly found ourselves cut off from food sources and running out of the food we have on hand? For example, a massive economic disaster that leaves our money mostly worthless and the prices of food mostly out of reach. Or, an environmental disaster that makes growing large crops unsustainable and food in short supply.

That question came to mind recently while reading Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World, edited by Martin Keogh. The book, published in 2010 but still valid today, is an anthology of about 60 essays focusing on a single question: “In a time of environmental crisis, how can we live right now?” The anthology’s goal is to present “diverse strategies for creating change in ourselves, our communities, and the world.” To semi-quote the poet William Wordsworth, the world is way too much with us at the moment, and many of us are trying to hide from its horrors. Still, the essays in Hope Beneath Our Feet are worth reading despite their age.

My “food” question arose after reading Michael Ableman’s essay “Thinking Like an Island.” Ableman is a well-known American-Canadian writer, educator, organic farmer, and outspoken advocate for sustainable agriculture. This point by Ableman especially hit home:

“In the end there is not so much a food crisis or an environmental crisis as there is a crisis in participation. We now have a couple of generations of young people who are not only completely de-natured, they no longer know how to use their hands for anything other than pushing keys on a keyboard.”

My father grew up on farmland, but I grew up entirely in urban areas, except for occasional visits to my grandfather’s farm. I learned nothing much about agriculture there. Essentially, I just came for the fried chicken and stayed for the fresh tomatoes and slices of homemade pie. Over the years, my father taught me almost nothing about growing food, mainly because he didn’t have the time for gardening. But he did show me how to type and gave me a typewriter. He had been the first in his family to graduate from college and the first who learned how to type. Throughout my childhood, he worked long hours at keyboards, helping edit a daily newspaper by day and doing “stringer” journalism at night as a freelance contributor to other publications.

Like father, like son: I taught my children how to use computers and showed them almost nothing about growing food. I didn’t know how and seldom saw the need; we lived within a mile radius of three supermarkets and a farmers’ market. When I finally made an attempt at urban gardening, as part of some homeschooling lessons for my children, I managed to grow a couple of bell peppers (which I like) and two stalks of okra (which I detest). But again–like father, like son–I, too, was holding down two keyboard-related jobs to feed my family. So my total summer “produce” added up to just small parts of two meals.

A Sweet 100 tomato plant freshly transplanted to a container. Photo by Si Dunn

Now that I’m retired, I have time for urban container gardening and helping Susan with this year’s produce. Over the past two summers, we’ve grown pleasing amounts of tomatoes in our front yard (the back is completely shaded by trees and a carport). This summer, considering the current prices of vegetables and fruit, anything edible that we grow will be helpful to our retirement budgets. And extras can be given away to friends and neighbors. Optimistically, we’re planning our biggest crop ever: tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, herbs, and a few others.

Plants are sprouting and adding leaves as I type this, and there’s a little bit of actual dirt under my fingernails. Real farmers will snort and snicker, of course. I don’t care. We’ll still be looking at farmers’ markets and grocery stores for the many things we can’t grow. But we know that we could grow more food if we really had to–and, given the current state of our world and its multi-troubled environment, will the have to happen sooner than later?

What are your thoughts? Post them below at “Leave a Reply.”

— Si Dunn

Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, writer, screenwriter, book reviewer, and photojournalist.

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The Power of the Slog: ‘Goodbye to a River’

John Graves Saved a Texas River by Writing a Book About It

If you’re battling to save a river, a creek, a lake, a pond, or any other body of water, be it large or small, you should read or reread Texas writer John Graves’s classic 1960 personal narrative, Goodbye to a River. (Copies are out there.)

Paddling a canoe, Graves took a 150-mile “farewell” trip down the Brazos River at a time when it appeared the historic waterway might be destroyed by a series of thirteen planned flood-control dams. He traveled the river for weeks alone except for his dog, and the handful of people he met along the way.

His book blends Texas history, Texas politics, and his deep connections with another Texas river, the Trinity, as well as the Brazos. The Trinity River, which passes through Dallas, had helped shape his early life and values. His connections to both rivers also helped fuel his adult concerns regarding the environment, urban growth, and people’s continuing to live at the very edge of bodies of water, despite the dangers of flooding, erosion, spilled chemicals sewage, and other hazards.

“When someone official dreams up a dam,” he wrote, “it generally goes in. Dams are ipso facto good all by themselves, like mothers and flags. Maybe you save Dinosaur Monument from time to time, but in between such salvations you lose ten Brazoses….”

The public response to Goodbye to a River was so strong that only a few of the proposed dams were built, and the Brazos continues to flow more than 60 years later.

A key lesson of the book is that saving something ecological, something environmental, something historical can require significant personal effort, as well as a love for, or, strong attachment to, a cause or ideal.

Slog Ahead

You also must be willing to share your personal experiences and feelings with others. You can’t save the Great Lakes or Big Onion Creek or an unnamed duck pond threatened by development if you simply put up a website with a donation link, post a tweet, and wait for the world to send you volunteers and money. Just as Graves did, you need to experience your cause well enough that you can write about it and tell others about it with knowledge and emotion. You must take them on a mental journey with you and convince them why they also should care and be willing to share some of their time and resources to help the cause. Could you care enough to write Goodbye to a Duck Pond or make a film titled My Butterfly Teacher?

As Kermit the Frog has often sung: “It’s not easy being green.”

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#environment #ecology #Texas #bookreview

Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, writer, screenwriter, book reviewer, and photojournalist.

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Note: If you enjoy book reviews and comments related to books, you can help encourage this blog’s mission by making a donation here.

Random Reads: Five Books, Five Hot Topics

#bookreviews

By Si Dunn

Climate change is a massive economic challenge, not simply an environmental problem for scientific debate and political delay, writes journalist and author Robert S. Devine in his 2020 book The Sustainable Economy: The Hidden Costs of Climate Change and the Path to a Prosperous Future. Devine states: “For the most part we currently take a piecemeal approach to sustainability problems. We labor to restrict harmful chemicals, prevent species extinctions, stop sewage systems from overflowing into our rivers, protect marginalized communities from toxic dumping, and save critical wetlands from being paved over. Such endeavors are indeed vital, but they are stopgap measures that don’t reach the core question: Why does our economic system enable and even encourage such harms? Running around trying to mop up all the water spewing from a burst pipe is exhausting and relatively ineffective. We need to fix the pipe.” In this book, Devine lays out a clear, engaging, and often humorous look at “sustainability economics” and why adopting it could lead to a more sustainable, fair, and prospering economy that saves us from environmental destruction.

Saving your personal economy from destruction is another noteworthy goal. But what if you hate dealing with money, banking, and investing stuff and don’t want to hire a financial adviser, broker, or cryptocurrency guru? What if you could, instead, simply organize your financial goals on a single index card? (You do still have an index card somewhere in your desk, right?) In The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack. This 2017 book offers 10 effective rules for taking charge of your economic life and profiting from your decisions regarding how you spend and save money. You may need the front and back of two index cards to get all 10 rules written down, plus whatever notes and excuses you may wish to scribble beneath each rule. You also may not agree with all of the rules. Rule 4, for example, says don’t buy and sell individual stocks, because Rule 5 then urges you to follow the lead of Warren Buffet and “buy inexpensive, well-diversified indexed mutual funds and exchange-traded funds” (ETFs). Overall, however, you may be able to get a stronger grip on your income, debt, and savings if you keep the 10 goals in mind and pursue them when you can.

Meanwhile, the Great Resignation is still happening. Many people now are sick of their jobs, burned out by the pandemic, weary of worrying about money, and longing to escape from their couches and stalled careers. Remember Willliam Least Heat-Moon’s famous 1999 book travel book Blue Highways: A Journey into America? He also penned a follow-up work in 2014, Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened, about why he quit his job, drove some 14,000 miles around America’s backroads, and created a book that many critics consider equal to or even better than On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s travel classic. In Writing Blue Highways, Heat-Moon explains: “In the weeks leading to my setting forth on the road, I saw my ten-year marriage collapse and my part-time job teaching English at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, disappear because of declining enrollment. Underlying those changes was the memory of six hundred letters from colleges and universities saying they had no openings in my area; in a drawer was an unframed, unhung diploma commemorating five years lost in earning the legal right to attach to my name three, now useless letters, Ph.D.” So, big question: Will the Great Resignation soon lead to a revival of the days of Kerouac, tribes of hippies on the move, and Scott McKenzie singing “If you’re going to San Francisco…”?

It paid to advertise in 1968. But the narcs were everywhere.
— Photo by Si Dunn

Are you ready for some digital minimalism? After being stuck mostly at home for two years, praying daily to Amazon, and working remotely at a fistful of round-the-clock, low-paying gigs, you may be ready to nuke your computer and take up something radical, such as sleeping eight hours, reading a book on actual paper, and avoiding email or “brand-building” on social media for the next few years. Cal Newport does not go nearly that far in his 2019 book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. But he does propose three key principles for reducing how much time, mental energy, and life, in general, is being taken from you as you attempt to pay attention to “too many devices, apps, and services” each day.

Last but not least, a trip back in time, to a desperate technology gamble by the Nazis and Japanese in 1944, while the war momentum was shifting from the Axis forces to the Allies, both in Europe and the Pacific. Written by Jerome Preisler and Kenneth Sewell, Code Name Caesar: The Secret Hunt for U-Boat 864 During World War II tells the gripping story of how the Norweigian underground, the British Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, and the Royal Canadian Air Force teamed up to go after a German submarine base in Norway and a German cargo submarine that was bound for Japan carrying some of Hitler’s latest rockets and jet aircraft technology. Also aboard the sub were several top Nazi scientists, and a huge load of mercury needed in Japan for weapon-making. Hitler and Hirohito had signed a pact early in World War II. Now, they each needed the other’s help. Japan hoped to build rockets and jet fighters and shoot down enough American bombers to stymie the Allies’ advances in the Pacific. Another goal was to force the Allies to move more troops and other resources away from attacking Germany. The actions and heroics recounted in this 2012 book could make a great war action movie. (There is a 2007 TV documentary about the hunt for U-864.)

Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, writer, screenwriter, photojournalist, and book reviewer.

Note: If you believe good books deserve notice, even when they are no longer considered “new” enough to be “newsworthy,” please consider making a small donation to help continue this blog’s mission. Thank you!

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You’re Framed, I’m Framed, We’re All Framed

Guest Post #sociology #bookreview

By EJ Dunn
Special Contributor

Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis is not about things in frames, nor is it about what to do if you’ve been framed. Ironically, whether you observe objects in frames or have been framed, Erving Goffman offers an analysis that squarely could be of interest to you. Without further ado, let’s dive into this complex topic. It’s one that likely could make many grad students sit in a corner and cry, wondering if they’ve made a big mistake with their life.

Sociology theory is a never-ending carousel ride of determining if reality is a poorly made Matrix film or something more akin to a Buster Keaton special-effects reel of slipping on a banana peel endlessly while running late for a train. Erving Goffman’s book is a paper cut in the middle of that madness, and it offers a hefty dose of critical introspection. In his most famous work, The Presentation of Self in Everday Life (1956), Goffman tells us that we are but mere actors and that life is a stage…yes, Shakespeare said something similar, so keep up. In his view, we are judged on our performance by all whom we encounter and, thus, we create our own perception of ourselves, and our reality is based on how we believe others view us.

Goffman studied chemistry and got into film before moving on to sociology.– Photo by EJ Dunn

Another theorist, Charles Horton Cooley, took Goffman’s theory out for drinks and dinner and came up with a complimentary theory called “the looking glass self,” which plays on Goffman’s themes of the “front stage” and “backstage” self. If you’re a sociology undergraduate student, take a deep breath, click your heels together, and repeat after me: “We’re not in grad school. We’re not in grad school. We’re not in grad school!” These two main theories typically are taught to undergraduates. You’ll be fine. (Maybe.)

The eminent Erving Goffman was born in 1922 in Mannville, Alberta, Canada. In college, he first studied chemistry (and trust me, it shows in some of his works). Then he decided to get involved in film. This later became influential in his theories of dramaturgical sociology. Because of his career in film, he was introduced to several prominent sociologists in Canada and later became a student of sociology at the University of Toronto. He completed his Ph.D. in 1953 at the University of Chicago.

One of Goffman’s most notable ethnographic works, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, drew from his experiences being a pit boss in a casino in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Frame Analysis is one of the last few works created by Goffman before his death in 1982. It is also one of the most encompassing when looking at Goffmanian theory.

One example quote: “The argument is that informal speech – talk or conversation – is more loosely connected to the world than other kinds of utterances. All speaking, it could be argued, tends to be loosely geared to the world; talk is merely looser. Consider in this connection, then, the belief the speaker has in what he says.” (1974:502).

Another quote: “If an individual can claim unseriousness in order to avoid penalty for an act he has committed, the claim being made after the fact, then certainly at times the individual may from the beginning arrange his actions so that if he is called to account can argue for its unseriousness.” (1974:332).

And yet another: “A performance, in the restricted sense in which I shall now use the term, is that arrangement which transforms an individual into a stage performer, the latter, in turn, being an object that can be looked at in the round at length without offense, and looked to for engaging behavior, by persons in an “audience” role.” (1974:124).

If you are now questioning your own grip on reality and perhaps even wondering if you could put up a defense of “unseriousness” after challenging your neighbor to a duel for not taking the bins back in after the garbage truck has passed, I would encourage you to pick up this book now. Goffman offers a unique set of theories on what he calls organization of experience. How we view or perceive situations depends heavily on how we view and perceive ourselves and how we believe others view and perceive us. We’re quite selfish in that regard – according to Goffman.

While this book was written before the turn of the millennium, the contents and contexts still apply to situations today and deserve a second, third, or even thirty-seventh look. It is a dense read and will scramble your brain like an egg. But if you enjoy being confused and confounded, then this is the book for you, my friend. Come join the “sociology books that made me cry in undergraduate school” book club. We could always use one more. Just bring tissues and cookies, preferably framed in seriousness.

Reference: Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

ISBN: 0-930350-91-X

EJ Dunn is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she concentrated in sociological theory. 

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Note: If you enjoy book reviews and comments related to books, you can help encourage this blog’s mission by making a donation here.

Sociology 101: Death by Theory?

Guest Post #bookreview

By EJ Dunn

Sociology 101 is by far one of the least favorite classes of university students who are or who are not majoring in the field. SOC 101 is a grueling death march through the histories of how sociology began and then onward through the swampy waters of why each subfield matters and the dinner parties of who is who of major theoretical works that make up the discipline. It is a genuine rite of passage for sociology majors: if you can survive the never-ceasing torture of who-begat-who-begat-who, you may pass Go and collect your expensive diploma.

While not every SOC 101 class will feature a guided tour of social theory, a lucky few, me included, have been graced with a gleefully tortuous professor who assigned Modern Sociological Theory, 6th Edition, authored by the illustrious Drs. George Ritzer and Douglas J. Goodman. Each is distinguished in their fields and highly regarded in sociology as masterful teachers and interpreters of theory. 

Dr. Ritzer, at the time of the original book publishing, was a professor at the University of Maryland, with a subfield of the sociology of consumption. As of 2022, he is now Professor Emeritus at U-Maryland. Among his many accomplishments, he is an expert in metatheory which is by far the most confounding and prolific of sociological theory.

Dr. Goodman, at the time of the original book publishing, was an assistant professor at the University of Puget Sound, with a concentration in comparative sociology. As of 2022, he has written many sociological books pertaining to consumer culture and other comparative sociological works relevant to the study of theory and real-world applications. Of his many accomplishments, he is one of a handful of Habermasian and Lacanian theory analysts – or in simpler terms – a specialist in symbolic interaction.

Modern Sociological Theory starts out at how sociology came to be. In a galaxy far, far away…oh now, that’s Star Wars. In a time far, far away. And the introduction eases the reader into what to expect from the book. As with all academic material, it is important to actually read the introduction. Seriously. Always read the introduction. If you never read the rest of the book for the entire semester or for your entire life, read the introduction and learn what the author(s) are intending for you to understand about their grand plan with the information they have crammed into the pages you are now lugging around as a fancy paperweight.

Sociology 101 “is a grueling death march through the histories of how sociology began and then onward through the swampy waters of why each subfield matters and the dinner parties of who is who….” –Photo credit: EJ Dunn

Many people are extremely blessed with confusion over what sociology is, and, in the introduction to this marvelous book, enlightenment dawns with the authors’ first biographical sketch of Abdel Rahman Ibn-Khaldun, who in Morocco in the 1300s developed early views on sociology and sociological theory by studying society, doing empirical research, and focusing on the search for (and understanding of) causes of social phenomena. In fact, Ibn-Khaldun is considered one of the first sociological theorists before the Enlightenment of 17th-century Europe, when everything became about whether the French or Germans had the better understanding of social phenomena.

As Drs. Ritzer and Goodman aptly point out, the word sociology was not first used until August Comte uttered it at the height of the Enlightenment. It is him that we call the first sociologist because he gave us a name. It is as simple and as complicated as that. Comte developed a notion of social physics, which we now call sociology. What about Ibn-Khaldun? He is also considered the father of sociology. Comte and Abdel Rahman Ibn-Khaldun share the pedestal whether they like it or not. Unfortunately, Drs. Ritzer and Goodman do not go into greater depth about Abdel Rahman Ibn-Khaldun. His social histories from the sociological perspective are of great pride to the Middle East sociology academy and have added much to worldwide sociological knowledge and world history knowledge.

Again, the Introduction to Modern Sociological Theory is a guided tour of the major hits of sociology, and for Abdel Rahman Ibn-Khaldun to get the first mention is incredible, as most sociology students are completely unaware of his existence as our forefather. Many assume Comte alone is who we owe credit for our existence as a discipline.

Sociology aligns closely with history, political science, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy and is influenced by our sister studies, though we’d like to think we are the ones who are the influencers. By reading this book you will be taken on the journey of how every major theory and theory system in sociology was created and the main points from each of those theories. It is not a quick read, but it will keep you from losing your mind while trying to understand what your professor is saying in lectures every week.

Reference:

Ritzer, George and Douglas J. Goodman. 2004. Modern Sociological Theory, 6th Edition. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

ISBN: 0-07-282578-2

EJ Dunn is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Boston’s sociology department, where she says she “learned stand-up comedy from professors on a weekly basis and how to write papers that mostly make sense.” She states that the best thing about not being a student anymore is “the savings on bandages from paper cuts and professors’ remarks.” You can now find her doing an impression of Auguste Rodin’s statue “The Thinker” while watching Netflix.

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Can We ‘Stop Reading the News’ and Force Some Needed Media Reforms?

In his book, Rolf Dobelli says ignoring the news has made his life better. — Photo by Si Dunn

#BookReview

Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life

Rolf Dobelli

Translated by Caroline Waight

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2019

Jesus, Matthew, Abraham Lincoln, and a few other folks have tried to warn us: a nation divided against itself cannot stay stitched together for very long. If the center cannot hold, the turmoil at the extremes can rip the entire circus tent to shreds. Yet here, in 2022, we are once again a nation sharply divided–by political extremes, by anger vs. support for science, civics, history, by book bans, and by pandemic mask mandates. Many other factors contribute to the sharp and seemingly widening divide, including a U.S. Congress apparently hellbent on dithering itself into oblivion.

People on all sides now are so fed up with “the other side,” they literally are making themselves sick with anger and sometimes hurt or kill others amid their stressed-out rage.

One particular business currently seems to be triggering widespread turmoil: the news media. Much of the media has long attempted to stay close to America’s middle ground. It has tried to provide supposedly “fair and balanced” information and viewpoints from all sides. Lately, however, reporters at Presidential press conferences seem to be asking (or shouting) inane, slanted, and even unanswerable questions at a time when we desperately need more clarity. Many other media people seem focused mostly on creating “Gotcha!” moments that may go viral for a few minutes and get a burst of “likes” or “hearts” before being swept into the nonstop torrent of social media sewage.

Beyond the world of journalism, people everywhere now yell profusely about “fake” news, “biased” news, and “bad” news anytime what’s reported doesn’t fit their own misinformed opinions. And the media’s main response apparently is to deliver more vapidity about celebrities and athletes.

Nine years ago, Rolf Dobelli, author of the bestseller The Art of Thinking Clearly, announced at a Dutch news conference that he had completely quit reading the news.

In his 2020 book, Stop Reading the News, he has updated what has happened since that decision. “Today, I’m ‘clean’. Since 2010,” he writes, “I’ve been entirely news-free, and I can see, feel, and report first-hand the effects of this freedom: improved quality of life, clearer thinking. more valuable insights, and vastly more time.” (If you are unable to quit the news cold turkey, he does offer one slightly softer choice: pay attention to the news just once a week by reading a weekly newspaper or magazine one time through.) [Click here for links to the book.]

“The connection between the increasing glut of news and the decreasing quality of political discourse,” he contends, “may be a random correlation. But I don’t think so.”

Dobelli favors turning away from mainstream media but also recommends bypassing the media and go directly to certain news sources (such as the Food & Drug Administration as one example) to read what they say and post. This way, he says, you can avoid the reinterpretations and new slants that are layered on by reporters, editors, and those who lay out the print or digital pages.

He does have some sympathy for journalists who have seen their time-honored profession collapse beneath their feet and hurl them into a cesspool of “click-bait” writing and reporting. Click-bait writing emphasizes controversy, scandal, crime, and squabbles among politicians, celebrities, and famous athletes. The goal is less about reporting the news and much more about simply getting viewers or readers to click on web links, view advertisements tied to the links, and hopefully buy a product and subscribe to the publication or station so it can make money.

He declares: “It’s extremely difficult to write something thought-proving about a single topic, let alone on ten different ones over the course of just one day. Yet this is precisely the ‘mission impossible’ demanded of journalists. Generally, unless the media is funded by taxpayers, like the BBC, employing specialists is far too expensive, so everything necessarily remains superficial.” Dobelli

Dobelli also argues that “[t]he news is incapable of explaining anything” in useful detail. “Its brief reports are like tiny., shimmering soap bubbles bursting on the surface of a complex world.”

Could enough Americans actually start boycotting the media and forcing it to reinvent itself along fairer and more accurate lines? Color me very skeptical. That said, Rolf Dobelli’s book is intriguing reading and recommended for readers outside and inside the media. It is informative, and it could help some people live happier lives, perhaps.

I’ve been in the media nearly all of my adult life. At most, I manage to ignore the news only in short bursts lasting much less than 24 hours. A widespread news boycott, I fear, would not lead to great changes. Instead, many precariously financed publications and outlets simply would fold and be sold for scrap, and even more journalists lose their jobs. Keep reading the news, please. But also keep speaking out for changes, reforms, and better coverage of the wide swath of American known as “Flyover Country.”

Si Dunn is a writer, screenwriter, journalist, photographer, and book reviewer in Austin, Texas. Some of his reviews appear at Lone Star Literary Life.

Note: If you enjoy book reviews, you can help encourage this blog’s book-review mission by making a donation here.

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Tuning in Again to ‘The Songs of Distant Earth’

The Songs of Distant Earth

Arthur C. Clarke

Ballentine, 1986 Book Club Edition

–> Click here for links to other editions.

By Si Dunn

Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite in 1945, long before any nation had the ability to send one into Earth orbit. The British physicist, astronomer, and prolific author also looked far into the future in his many science fiction novels and stories.

I was happy to find this time-battered copy of Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth at a used book store recently. I’ve devoured a lot of science fiction in my lifetime, and Clarke’s novels and stories have been among my favorites.

The Songs of Distant Earth is a mostly calm, thought-provoking tale about tapping the energies of not-so-empty space (the “Final Frontier” of later fame) and rocketing hundreds of thousands of people (most of them asleep in suspended animation) away from a dying Earth in hopes of finding habitable planets in other star systems and reestablishing life there. Powered by engines known as quantum drives, the giant spacecraft can keep going for centuries and centuries–basically forever–until a suitable stopping place is found. (Or, as Buzz Lightyear likely would say, “To infinity…and beyond!”).

Things get complicated when some of the awake travelers and crew of one spaceship decide they’ve gone far enough. They’ve just made a repair stop at a planet where some former Earthlings have established a tiny nation on a watery planet with only two small islands. Now, some of the visitors would rather stay and overwhelm those who have welcomed them than keep pushing deeper into the unknown.

The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, 1986 Book Club Edition

The ragged dust jacket of the 1986 Ballentine Book Club Edition caught my eye right away. I love its depiction of people on another world gazing at moons and a distant star or planet across a scaled-down version of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo radio telescope observatory. For more than a decade, I was one of many volunteers around the world who donated computer processing time to help the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researchers crunched data gathered from the Arecibo and Green Bank (West Virginia) radio telescopes. ( I also enjoyed Arecibo’s star turn in the Jodie Foster movie, Contact.)

When cables snapped in 2020 at the aging Arecibo facility and its radio platform collapsed and damaged its huge dish, I felt that I had lost a good friend, even though I had never seen the radio telescope in person. And, like many others, I thought Arecibo was finished.

Apparently not. Plans supposedly are still being considered to perhaps build a new dish in the crater and install new equipment. And, on December 15, 2021, Arecibo Observatory announced that it has restarted radio astronomy observations after recommissioning a much-smaller 12-meter dish antenna previously installed at the site in 2011. The observatory’s administrators declared: “We are excited to inform the community that we plan to start regular observations with the 12m telescope from January 2022, including participation in the European Very Long Baseline Interferometer (EVN) network.”

Arthur C. Clarke would be proud, I believe.

Si Dunn is a writer, screenwriter, photographer, and book reviewer in Austin, Texas. Some of his reviews appear at Lone Star Literary Life.

Note: If you enjoy book reviews, you can help encourage this blog’s book-review mission by making a donation here.

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Shrapnel: Short Stories – #bookreview

Shrapnel: Short Stories
James Lloyd Davis

Available in soft cover and Kindle editions
ISBN 9798681904472

James Lloyd Davis’s Shrapnel is a well-written, engrossing, and entertaining collection of nearly 50 short stories. True to the book’s title, most of the works in Shrapnel are stories spanning a few pages at most. Indeed, some of them appear, at first glance, to be fragments, shrapnel-like moments of life shaped into fiction or prose poems. Yet, they stand on their own as individual stories.

Many of Davis’s short stories have appeared in literary magazines in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. One my favorites in this collection, “Standup gigs in zendos make you cry,” spans a mere page and a half, yet its ending made me laugh outloud, and I’m still chuckling as I recall it a few days later. The book’s opening story, “Knitting the Unraveled Sleeves,” is much longer, a dozen pages, and it is a powerful tale of love, fate, and the will to survive. It was published in the anthology Best New Writing 2013 and selected for an Editor’s Choice Award in this Eric Hoffer Award collection.

Shrapnel is Ohio writer James Lloyd Davis’s first short-story collection.
He is now working on a novel.

Confession: I knew James Lloyd Davis back the 1960s, during the early days of the Vietnam War. We served together on the same ship, the destroyer USS Higbee (DD-806). I knew him then as “J.L. Davis.” I was a petty officer third class and one of the ship’s ten radio operators who worked around the clock in shifts of three, with a chief radioman allegedly supervising us. Davis, also part of the radio gang, was a year or two younger than me. He was a two-stripe seaman apprentice also known as a “radio striker.” His main job was to carry typed-out radio messages to the ship’s officers and get them read and signed. My job included operating several different radios, sending and receiving messages via Morse code or radio teletype and handing Davis messages to carry up to the ship’s bridge or down into the “officers’ country” living quarters. During the ten months before my enlistment ended, we spent a lot of time in dangerous waters with the Seventh Fleet off the coast of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. And there were a lot of urgent radio messages flashing back and forth between the White House, the Pentagon, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and even our small, expendable ship.

I already had intentions of becoming a writer someday, and I had taken a couple of journalism classes in high school and during my disastrous freshman year in college (after which I went on active duty from the Navy Reserve). It turned out that James Lloyd Davis knew a lot more about writing than I did. I still remember him quizzing me about the writers I had read, particularly Ernest Hemingway. I had to confess that I knew a few famous authors’ names, but realized I was woefully unprepared to discuss any of their books or their writing styles. After my enlistment ended, I returned to college and lost track of Davis and other crew members. But I never forgot that encounter: You can’t be a writer without being a reader. I became a reader and writer and have had a decent, if unspectacular, career writing newspaper stories, magazine articles, poetry, books, book reviews, and screenplays. Via the Internet, I managed to get back in touch with some of my shipmates, including Davis, a few years ago while writing Dark Signals, a memoir about my time aboard DD-806. I haven’t seen him since 1965, but now and then, we still exchange an occasional message. He lives in northeast Ohio, in town of Cuyahoga Falls.

Thanks for challenging me those many years ago, J.L. Of course, I do have to grin a bit now when I see these words in your short story “Being Che”:

“Maybe Hemingway got it wrong, a disillusioned old man, a suicide walking when he changed your life with his words…and perhaps you were wrong to listen.”

Holding your book and also thinking back on all that I have gotten to do, I’m very glad I listened…to you both.

Si Dunn