Hillbilly Culture: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a book I loved and couldn’t put down. It’s written in beautiful English, but the primary reason I reacted to it as I did, is J.D. Vance (33) is so honest as he talks about the Appalachian values of his upbringing and how they relate to the social problems of his original culture. He wants people to understand these problems and see the real reason for them, as he sees it.


Born and brought up in Middletown, Ohio, he paints a clear picture of his dysfunctional family. Unemployment, violence, drugs, absent fathers, lack of a structured lifestyle, lack of understanding of the value of education and direction, are the main problems, as he experienced it.

J.D. Vance in 2017

The saving factor in his own life was his grandmother. He went to live with his grandparents in his late teens. His grandmother instilled in him the idea that he could do better with his life than he had up till then. He began to work at school, and, with sympathetic teachers, achieved good enough grades that he could go into the Marines for four years. He went on to Ohio State University, and from there to Yale. At Yale, he met a young woman from a different American culture, who taught him the mores of that culture which was necessary for him to become a successful lawyer. He learned how to dress and behave for success in the professional world. He points out that his adopted culture, with it’s different value system, is much better than his original environment in producing people who are successful in life. Presently he is a CNN contributor, and is considering running for the US Senate.

J.D. Vance considers that the real poverty of Hillbilly country is not simply material, but cultural. It is the product of the attitudes of the people. These attitudes include accepting fighting, violence and coarse language as being normal. Their fierce loyalty to their families, culture and country, discourage people from leaving to improve their lives. Young males are encouraged to consider education as being not for macho males, but only for “sissies.” People take advantage of government programs to sell food stamps so that they can have cell phones. This infuriates the people who aren’t receiving these programs. The most self-defeating attitude is that the actions of an individual can make no difference to any individual’s life. Neither respect for education nor ambition is encouraged.

The greatest value of Vance’s book is that it make us all reconsider our preconceived ideas about poverty, and what can be done by government to alleviate it. He seems to be saying that the hillbilly culture needs to accept responsibility for its own part in its problems. Education would seem to be helpful to do this, but this might be difficult unless the barriers against the value of education can be removed from the minds of the people. Teachers can only do so much to undo the influence of parents. The government throwing ever more money at the problem, is not the answer. This is a universal challenge, in and around many cultures, and the questions raised can be applied to all those others. It’s not money alone that is needed, it is a change of value systems.

This book raises many questions. Is J.D. Vance correct in his assessment of his culture, and the solution of its problems? Does it need to be said that some cultures ought to examine their value systems before blaming the government, corporations, colonialism, the loss or lack of jobs, and anyone else they can conjure up, as the root of their poverty? Should cultures be given ever more money when it has been shown that this doesn’t make any difference to their poverty? How can cultures be encouraged to change their destructive value systems? Perhaps more emphasis ought to be placed on individuals responsibility for their choices in life, and understanding the consequences of those choices.

Hillbilly Elegy should be read by all thinking people, with an open mind.

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Book Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Damien LewisAfter becoming prime minister in May 1940, one of Winston Churchill’s first acts was to establish the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was intended to conduct raids, sabotage, reconnaissance, and support resistance movements in Axis-occupied countries. The SOE was not part of the military: it was a branch of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and its very existence was a state secret, camouflaged under the name “Inter-Service Research Bureau”. Its charter was, as Churchill described it, to “set Europe ablaze”.

The SOE consisted, from its chief, Brigadier Colin McVean Gubbins, who went by the designation “M”, to its recruits, of people who did not fit well with the regimentation, hierarchy, and constraints of life in the conventional military branches. They could, in many cases, be easily mistaken for blackguards, desperadoes, and pirates, and that’s precisely what they were in the eyes of the enemy—unconstrained by the rules of warfare, striking by stealth, and sowing chaos, mayhem, and terror among occupation troops who thought they were far from the front.

Leading some of the SOE’s early exploits was Gustavus “Gus” March-Phillipps, founder of the British Army’s Small Scale Raiding Force, and given the SOE designation “Agent W.01”, meaning the first agent assigned to the west Africa territory with the leading zero identifying him as “trained and licensed to use all means to liquidate the enemy”—a license to kill. The SOE’s liaison with the British Navy, tasked with obtaining support for its operations and providing cover stories for them, was a fellow named Ian Fleming.

One of the SOE’s first and most daring exploits was Operation Postmaster, with the goal of seizing German and Italian ships anchored in the port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island colony of Fernando Po off the coast of west Africa. Given the green light by Churchill over the strenuous objections of the Foreign Office and Admiralty, who were concerned about the repercussions if British involvement in what amounted to an act of piracy in a neutral country were to be disclosed, the operation was mounted under the strictest secrecy and deniability, with a cover story prepared by Ian Fleming. Despite harrowing misadventures along the way, the plan was a brilliant success, capturing three ships and their crews and delivering them to the British-controlled port of Lagos without any casualties. Vindicated by the success, Churchill gave the SOE the green light to raid Nazi occupation forces on the Channel Islands and the coast of France.

On his first mission in Operation Postmaster was Anders Lassen, an aristocratic Dane who enlisted as a private in the British Commandos after his country was occupied by the Nazis. With his silver-blond hair, blue eyes, and accent easily mistaken for German, Lassen was apprehended by the Home Guard on several occasions while on training missions in Britain and held as a suspected German spy until his commanders intervened. Lassen was given a field commission, direct from private to second lieutenant, immediately after Operation Postmaster, and went on to become one of the most successful leaders of special operations raids in the war. As long as Nazis occupied his Danish homeland, he was possessed with a desire to kill as many Nazis as possible, wherever and however he could, and when in combat was animated by a berserker drive and ability to improvise that caused those who served with him to call him the “Danish Viking”.

This book provides a look into the operations of the SOE and its successor organisations, the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, seen through the career of Anders Lassen. So numerous were special operations, conducted in many theatres around the world, that this kind of focus is necessary. Also, attrition in these high-risk raids, often far behind enemy lines, was so high there are few individuals one can follow throughout the war. As the war approached its conclusion, Lassen was the only surviving participant in Operation Postmaster, the SOE’s first raid.

Lassen went on to lead raids against Nazi occupation troops in the Channel Islands, leading Churchill to remark, “There comes from the sea from time to time a hand of steel which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency.” While these “butcher-and-bolt” raids could not liberate territory, they yielded prisoners, code books, and radio contact information valuable to military intelligence and, more importantly, forced the Germans to strengthen their garrisons in these previously thought secure posts, tying down forces which could otherwise be sent to active combat fronts. Churchill believed that the enemy should be attacked wherever possible, and SOE was a precision weapon which could be deployed where conventional military forces could not be used.

As the SOE was absorbed into the military Special Air Service, Lassen would go on to fight in North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, then occupied by Italian and German troops, and mainland Greece. His raid on a German airbase on occupied Crete took out fighters and bombers which could have opposed the Allied landings in Sicily. Later, his small group of raiders, unsupported by any other force, liberated the Greek city of Salonika, bluffing the German commander into believing Lassen’s forty raiders and two fishing boats were actually a British corps of thirty thousand men, with armour, artillery, and naval support.

After years of raiding in peripheral theatres, Lassen hungered to get into the “big war”, and ended up in Italy, where his irregular form of warfare and disdain for military discipline created friction with his superiors. But he got results, and his unit was tasked with reconnaissance and pathfinding for an Allied crossing of Lake Comacchio (actually, more of a swamp) in Operation Roast in the final days of the war. It was there he was to meet his end, in a fierce engagement against Nazi troops defending the north shore. For this, he posthumously received the Victoria Cross, becoming the only non-Commonwealth citizen so honoured in World War II.

It is a cliché to say that a work of history “reads like a thriller”, but in this case it is completely accurate. The description of the raid on the Kastelli airbase on Crete would, if made into a movie, probably cause many viewers to suspect it to be fictionalised, but that’s what really happened, based upon after action reports by multiple participants and aerial reconnaissance after the fact.

World War II was a global conflict, and while histories often focus on grand battles such as D-day, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, and the fall of Berlin, there was heroism in obscure places such as the Greek islands which also contributed to the victory, and combatants operating in the shadows behind enemy lines who did their part and often paid the price for the risks they willingly undertook. This is a stirring story of this shadow war, told through the short life of one of its heroes.

Lewis, Damien. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. New York: Quercus, 2015. ISBN 978-1-68144-392-8.

Here is a video review of this book by Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons.


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Book Review: Starship Grifters

“Starship Grifters” by Robert KroeseThis is the funniest science fiction novel I have read in quite a while. Set in the year 3013, not long after galactic civilisation barely escaped an artificial intelligence apocalypse and banned fully self-aware robots, the story is related by Sasha, one of a small number of Self-Arresting near Sentient Heuristic Androids built to be useful without running the risk of their taking over. SASHA robots are equipped with an impossible-to-defeat watchdog module which causes a hard reboot whenever they are on the verge of having an original thought. The limitation of the design proved a serious handicap, and all of their manufacturers went bankrupt. Our narrator, Sasha, was bought at an auction by the protagonist, Rex Nihilo, for thirty-five credits in a lot of “ASSORTED MACHINE PARTS”. Sasha is Rex’s assistant and sidekick.

Rex is an adventurer. Sasha says he “never had much of an interest in anything but self-preservation and the accumulation of wealth, the latter taking clear precedence over the former.” Sasha’s built in limitations (in addition to the new idea watchdog, she is unable to tell a lie, but if humans should draw incorrect conclusions from incomplete information she provides them, well…) pose problems in Rex’s assorted lines of work, most of which seem to involve scams, gambling, and contraband of various kinds. In fact, Rex seems to fit in very well with the universe he inhabits, which appears to be firmly grounded in Walker’s Law: “Absent evidence to the contrary, assume everything is a scam”. Evidence appears almost totally absent, and the oppressive tyranny called the Galactic Malarchy, those who supply it, the rebels who oppose it, entrepreneurs like Rex working in the cracks, organised religions and cults, and just about everybody else, appear to be on the make or on the take, looking to grift everybody else for their own account. Cosmologists attribute this to the “Strong Misanthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe exists in order to screw with us.” Rex does his part, although he usually seems to veer between broke and dangerously in debt.

Perhaps that’s due to his somewhat threadbare talent stack. As Shasha describes him, Rex doesn’t have a head for numbers. Nor does he have much of a head for letters, and “Newtonian physics isn’t really his strong suit either”. He is, however, occasionally lucky, or so it seems at first. In an absurdly high-stakes card game with weapons merchant Gavin Larviton, reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the galaxy, Rex manages to win, almost honestly, not only Larviton’s personal starship, but an entire planet, Schnufnaasik Six. After barely escaping a raid by Malarchian marines led by the dread and squeaky-voiced Lord Heinous Vlaak, Rex and Sasha set off in the ship Rex has won, the Flagrante Delicto, to survey the planetary prize.

It doesn’t take Rex long to discover, not surprisingly, that he’s been had, and that his financial situation is now far more dire than he’d previously been able to imagine. If any of the bounty hunters now on his trail should collar him, he could spend a near-eternity on the prison planet of Gulagatraz (the names are a delight in themselves). So, it’s off the rebel base on the forest moon (which is actually a swamp; the swamp moon is all desert) to try to con the Frente Repugnante (all the other names were taken by rival splinter factions, so they ended up with “Revolting Front”, which was translated to Spanish to appear to Latino planets) into paying for a secret weapon which exists only in Rex’s imagination.

Thus we embark upon a romp which has a laugh-out-loud line about every other page. This is comic science fiction in the vein of Keith Laumer‘s Retief stories. As with Laumer, Kroese achieves the perfect balance of laugh lines, plot development, interesting ideas, and recurring gags (there’s a planet-destroying weapon called the “plasmatic entropy cannon” which the oft-inebriated Rex refers to variously as the “positronic endoscopy cannon”, “pulmonary embolism cannon”, “ponderosa alopecia cannon”, “propitious elderberry cannon”, and many other ways). There is a huge and satisfying reveal at the end—I kind of expected one was coming, but I’d have never guessed the details.

If reading this leaves you with an appetite for more Rex Nihilo, there is a prequel novella, The Chicolini Incident, and a sequel, Aye, Robot.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Kroese, Robert. Starship Grifters. Seattle: 47North, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4778-1848-0.

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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012), by Charles Duhigg (43), is a useful tool as to how to change destructive habits.

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize winning, investigative reporter with the New York Times, and his book is based on research done by many scientists into how habits are formed and changed. He takes the results of that research, and writes it into an easily understood book that everyone can read.

He tells us that there is a neurological pattern that governs any habit. This consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. We first need to examine our behaviour and feelings to determine how this works with us. For instance: what feeling drive us to perform the behaviour; what is the behaviour; and is it good for us?

To change an addictive habit and replace it with a new one, we keep the initial cue, replace the routine, and keep the reward. For example: I feel bored; I go outside and smoke a cigarette with other people; I feel better because I have socialized with people. To change: I feel bored; I go to the gym and work out; I feel better because I have worked out, and built into my routine that I socialize with other people, perhaps at a coffee shop afterwards. The Golden Rule of Habit Change says that if we do this often enough, change will happen.

Charles Duhigg also goes into many other facets of human nature, and how we can use habit-forming to transform our lives. Fascinating book! It was on the New York Times and Amazon’s Best Seller List for months.

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Book Review: Artemis

“Artemis” by Andy WeirSeldom has a first-time novelist burst onto the scene so spectacularly as Andy Weir with The Martian. Originally written for his own amusement and circulated chapter by chapter to a small but enthusiastic group of fans who provided feedback and suggestions as the story developed, he posted the completed novel as a free download on his Web site. Some people who had heard of it by word of mouth but lacked the technical savvy to download documents and transfer them to E-readers inquired whether he could make a Kindle version available. Since you can’t give away Kindle books, he published it at the minimum possible price. Before long, the book was rising into the Amazon bestseller list in science fiction, and he was contacted by a major publisher about doing a print edition. These publishers only accept manuscripts through agents, and he didn’t have one (nor do agents usually work with first-time authors, which creates a chicken-and-egg problem for the legacy publishing industry), so the publisher put him in touch with a major agent and recommended the manuscript. This led to a 2014 hardcover edition and then a Hollywood movie in 2016 which was nominated for 7 Oscars and won two Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actor in its category.

The question fans immediately asked themselves was, “Is this a one shot, or can he repeat?” Well, I think we have the answer: with Artemis, Andy Weir has delivered another story of grand master calibre and shown himself on track to join the ranks of the legends of the genre.

In the latter part of the 21st century commerce is expanding into space, and the Moon is home to Artemis, a small settlement of around 2000 permanent residents, situated in the southern part of the Sea of Tranquility, around 40 km from the Apollo 11 landing site. A substantial part of the economy of Artemis is based upon wealthy tourists who take the train from Artemis to the Apollo 11 Visitor Center (where they can look, but not touch or interfere with the historical relics) and enjoy the luxuries and recreations which cater to them back in the pleasure domes.

Artemis is the creation of the Kenya Space Corporation (KSC), which officially designates it “Kenya Offshore Platform Artemis” and operates under international maritime law. As space commerce burgeoned in the 21st century, Kenya’s visionary finance minister, Fidelis Ngugi, leveraged Kenya’s equatorial latitude (it’s little appreciated that once reliable fully-reusable launch vehicles are developed, there’s no need to launch over water) and hands-off regulatory regime provided a golden opportunity for space entrepreneurs to escape the nanny state regulation and crushing tax burden of “developed” countries. With tax breaks and an African approach to regulation, entrepreneurs and money flowed in from around the world, making Kenya into a space superpower and enriching its economy and opportunities for its people. Twenty years later Ngugi was Administrator of Artemis; she was, in effect, ruler of the Moon.

While Artemis was a five star experience for the tourists which kept its economy humming, those who supported the settlement and its industries lived in something more like a frontier boom town of the 19th century. Like many such settlements, Artemis attracted opportunity-seekers and those looking to put their pasts behind them from many countries and cultures. Those established tend to attract more like them, and clannish communities developed around occupations: most people in Life Support were Vietnamese, while metal-working was predominantly Hungarian. For whatever reason, welding was dominated by Saudis, including Ammar Bashara, who emigrated to Artemis with his six-year old daughter Jasmine. Twenty years later, Ammar runs a prosperous welding business and Jasmine (“Jazz”) is, shall we say, more irregularly employed.

Artemis is an “energy intense” Moon settlement of the kind described in Steven D. Howe’s Honor Bound Honor Born. The community is powered by twin 27 megawatt nuclear reactors located behind a berm one kilometre from the main settlement. The reactors not only provide constant electricity and heat through the two week nights and days of the Moon, they power a smelter which processes the lunar regolith into raw materials. The Moon’s crust is about 40% oxygen, 20% silicon, 12% iron, and 8% aluminium. With abundant power, these elements can be separated and used to manufacture aluminium and iron for structures, glass from silicon and oxygen, and all with abundant left-over oxygen to breathe. There is no need for elaborate recycling of oxygen: there’s always plenty more coming out of the smelter. Many denizens of Artemis subsist largely on “gunk”, an algae-based food grown locally in vats which is nutritious but unpalatable and monotonous. There are a variety of flavours, all of which are worse than the straight stuff.

Jazz works as a porter. She picks up things somewhere in the settlement and delivers them to their destinations using her personally-owned electric-powered cart. Despite the indigenous production of raw materials, many manufactured goods and substances are imported from Earth or factories in Earth orbit, and every time a cargo ship arrives, business is brisk for Jasmine and her fellow porters. Jazz is enterprising and creative, and has a lucrative business on the side: smuggling. Knowing the right people in the spaceport and how much to cut them in, she has a select clientele to which she provides luxury goods from Earth which aren’t on the approved customs manifests.

For this, she is paid in “slugs”. No, not slimy molluscs, but “soft-landed grams”, credits which can be exchanged to pay KSC to deliver payload from Earth to Artemis. Slugs act as a currency, and can be privately exchanged among individuals’ handheld computers much as Bitcoin today. Jazz makes around 12,000 slugs a month as a porter, and more, although variable, from her more entrepreneurial sideline.

One of her ultra-wealthy clients approaches her with a highly illegal, almost certainly unethical, and very likely perilous proposal. Surviving for as long as she has in her risky business has given Jazz a sense for where the edge is and the good sense not to step over it.

“I’m sorry but this isn’t my thing. You’ll have to find someone else.”

“I’ll offer you a million slugs.”


Thus begins an adventure in which Jazz has to summon all of her formidable intellect, cunning, and resources, form expedient alliances with unlikely parties, solve a technological mystery, balance honour with being a outlaw, and discover the economic foundation of Artemis, which is nothing like it appears from the surface. All of this is set in a richly textured and believable world which we learn about as the story unfolds: Weir is a master of “show, don’t tell”. And it isn’t just a page-turning thriller (although that it most certainly is); it’s also funny, and in the right places and amount.

This is where I’d usually mention technical goofs and quibbles. I’ll not do that because I didn’t find any. The only thing I’m not sure about is Artemis’ using a pure oxygen atmosphere at 20% of Earth sea-level pressure. This works for short- and moderate-duration space missions, and was used in the U.S. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. For exposure to pure oxygen longer than two weeks, a phenomenon called absorption atelectasis can develop, which is the collapse of the alveoli in the lungs due to complete absorption of the oxygen gas (see this NASA report [PDF]). The presence of a biologically inert gas such as nitrogen, helium, argon, or neon will keep the alveoli inflated and prevent this phenomenon. The U.S. Skylab missions used an atmosphere of 72% oxygen and 28% nitrogen to avoid this risk, and the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations used a mix of nitrogen and oxygen with between 21% and 40% oxygen. The Space Shuttle and International Space Station use sea-level atmospheric pressure with 21% oxygen and the balance nitrogen. The effects of reduced pressure on the boiling point of water and the fire hazard of pure oxygen even at reduced pressure are accurately described, but I’m not sure the physiological effects of a pure oxygen atmosphere for long-term habitation have been worked through.

Nitpicking aside, this is a techno-thriller which is also an engaging human story, set in a perfectly plausible and believable future where not only the technology but the economics and social dynamics work. We may just be welcoming another grand master to the pantheon.

Weir, Andy. Artemis. New York: Crown, 2017. ISBN 978-0-553-44812-2.

This is a talk by Andy Weir at Google in December 2017 about his writing career, The Martian, and Artemis.

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Principles by Ray Dalio

Principles (2017), by Ray Dalio, is an incredible book. In it, Ray Dalio, at the age of 68, shares the principles on which he has based his life’s work. He is the founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, with $160 billion in assets, and has amassed a personal fortune of $17 billion, according to Forbes (2017). He is among the 100 wealthiest people in the world, states Bloomberg. has become a philanthropist, and joined Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in wanting to share his fortune with others. He is presently building a large philanthropic foundation, the Dalio Foundation.

Ray Dalio was born in 1949, in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, of a lower-middle class Italian/American family. At a very early age he realised that he wanted to be successful, and that to be motivated, he had to work for himself. He began working at delivering papers, mowing lawns, and caddying. At the age of 12, on a tip from one of his golfing customers, he made his first investment in the stock market. It was hugely successful. He received a bachelor’s degree in finance from Long Island University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He has to have worked to pay for this. Perhaps he won a scholarship to Harvard.

He worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Later he worked for companies in the financial world. In 1975, he founded his company, Bridgewater Associates. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but Dalio navigated difficulties and continued on his course. The rest is history, as is said.

In Principles, Ray Dalio states the first five principles he lives by in his business. He says that they also carry over into his private world. These principles are, as follows:

  1. Embrace Reality and Deal with It. I particularly like his advice to look to nature to see how things are done.
  2. Use the 5-Step Process to Get What You Want Out of Life. This process is, as follows:
    • (a) Have clear goals.
    • (b) Identify and don’t tolerate the problems that stand in the way of your achieving those goals.
    • (c) Accurately diagnose the problems to get at the root causes.
    • (d) Design plans that will get you around them.
    • (e) Do what’s necessary to push those designs through to results.
  3. Be Radically Open-Minded.
  4. Understand That People Are Wired Very Differently
  5. Learn How to Make Decisions Effectively

In other words, Get a Grip and Just Do It! The book continues in that vein. If you don’t believe in facing reality, acting on that insight, regardless if this means exercising tough love, don’t bother reading this book. On the other hand, if you are in business and would like morale building, this book is for you. Here is everything you need to know to build a strong, successful business.

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Book Review: How Trump Won

This post was inspired by TKC’s recent post entitled “Private …”

I was initially absorbed in Gingrich’s book Understanding Trump, but have since been wholly distracted by my recent purchase of How Trump Won written by Joel B. Pollack (Breitbart) and Larry Schweikart (NYT bestselling author). This is why:

I am only 39 pages in to this book and these are some observations that have greatly impressed me already:

  1. “Trump seemed to have little use for ideological arguments: to him, ideological rigidity was one more way the country’s leaders had tied themselves in knots; preventing government from doing what it was for- building infrastructure, defending the country, helping the weakest.”
  2. “As talk show host Rush Limbaugh has explained many times, Trump is not ideological. He is a pragmatist, a problem solver who measures success not by adherence to a political ideology but whether or not people are prosperous, employed, and safe.”
  3. Lastly, and because I  was not aware of this particular fact, I have literally had my socks blown off: Trump engaged one professional pollster and relied upon some of the following supporters for analyses and predictions:

A CA aerospace engineer in the defense industry who enjoyed politics as a hobby and totally understood his own backyard.

An ob-gyn living in Tampa who also enjoyed politics and understood south Florida “like the back of his hand.”

A NYC investment banker/ analyst who understood the political power of economic prosperity.

Can’t wait to finish the book to post Part II of this remarkable journey.

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TOTD 1.15.18 Good Art/Bad Art

One of my favorite scenes from the tv show The Office was when Pam’s old boyfriend Roy struggles to compliment her paintings in a group art exhibit. He stammers sincerely, “Your art – is the best art – of all the art.”

I was tempted to do a solid rant about some bad art I’d encountered recently, until I remembered I’d seen some undeniably good art this past week as well. So we’ll end this post on a high note.

BUT FIRST THE BAD ART.  Have you ever heard of Basquiat? He was a NYC graffiti maker in the 1970s and 80s whose alleged artwork excoriated the privileged classes while simultaneously draining large sums of cash from the pockets of the art collectors among them.  He was discovered and assigned fame by Andy Warhol, feted by elite art critics and even was Madonna’s boyfriend for a time; but a heroin overdose caused his death at age 27. Below is one of his ‘paintings,’ which sold for over $5 million at auction in 2002.

Profit I, Basquiat

Basquiat was also a proto-BLM advocate, who found it ironic that any black man could be a policeman since cops only enforce the laws that ‘enslave black people.’ But some in today’s haut monde were not satisfied that this blot on art history should stay in tony places, suckering only rich people who want to sully large swaths of white wallspace in their NYC lofts.  No, they had to publish a book last year – a children’s picture book – glorifying him, titled Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I’ve never seen an anti-children’s book before, but that sums up Radiant Child for me: unattractive artwork, dull writing, bad message. The author-illustrator, Javaka Steptoe, couldn’t use direct copies of Basquiat’s work in his illustrations, much of which would be too disturbing for children, so he sought the feeling of it by using a very primitive art style, which excels in no standards of composition, color harmony or gesture I’ve come across.

Illustration by Javaka Steptoe
Illustration by Javaka Steptoe








I once read, to judge artistic skill say to yourself: can I picture how this piece would look if it were executed poorly?



Illustration by Javaka Steptoe

Steptoe painted the art on found boards, which is why there are awkward, confusing concurrences of lines in the images. The text is clunky, the colors are straight out of the tube, the composition is cluttered, there are conflicting focal points.  Not unlike Basquiat’s own work, I admit, but is this what we should accept as publication-worthy?

To top things off, for this notably unappealing work Steptoe was awarded the premier prize for children’s illustration in 2017 – the Caldecott Medal, given to ‘the most distinguished American picture book of the year for children.’

So the progressives have evidently commandeered the American Library Association, who in the past have given awards like the Caldecott to excellent artists like David Weisner, E.B. Lewis and Beth Krommes. The art in Radiant Child isn’t worthy of this recognition, and neither is the uninspiring writing – the story openly highlights Basquiat’s desire to become ‘a famous artist’ simply for celebrity’s sake, a terrible value to hold up for children.

ON TO SOME GOOD ART. Have you heard of Lilias Trotter? I had not, until a friend loaned me a book about her work and an exquisitely done documentary of her life, Many Beautiful Things.

Illustration by Lilias Trotter

Trotter grew up in an upper-class family in late 19th c. England, was quite religious, and a self-taught artist. While still young she met John Ruskin, the foremost arbiter of the arts in the Victorian era, who deemed her talent prodigious and became her teacher and life-long friend.

Trotter loved and dwelt on nature so she could paint it in all its lyrical, elegant detail. She drew and painted in dozens of sketchbooks and often entwined Biblical quotes with the images. She saw God’s handiwork in every tendril of nature.

Illustrations by Lilias Trotter
Illustration by Lilias Trotter

Ruskin mentored her in art for a time but she felt drawn more and more to help the poor in London, and she joined an organization that ministered to homeless women and prostitutes.  Several years later she became a missionary in Algiers, and spent most of the last forty years of her life teaching Christianity and helping desperately poor and outcast women and children of Algeria. She filled more sketchbooks with the scenes and people that surrounded her.

Illustration by Lilias Trotter

Hers are among the best sketches I have ever seen – simple strokes; fresh, unlabored color; the uniqueness of each human pose and gesture, captured with unhurried purity, as if in one glance.

Ruskin had told her she could be among the great painters of her time if she stayed in Europe and continued her study. Lilias Trotter could have been – a celebrity. Instead she devoted much of her life to helping people, and kept her sketch diaries to record the beauty she saw.

In my research about Lilias I find there was a children’s book published about her in 2015 – Lily, the Girl who Could See.  I have not read it yet but I have ordered it. I’d like to show my grandchildren a story about a really good artist.

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2018 Reading List

What books do you have in the queue to read?

These books are in my queue.

  1. Pre-suasion by Robert Cialdini
  2. The Bitter Road to Freedom by William Hitchcock
  3. Stonewalled by Sharyl Attkisson
  4. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
  5. Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
  6. The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson
  7. Murder In The Grove by Michael Henry
  8. An Inconvenient Presidency by Eric Hamilton
  9. The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun by Matthew Bracken
  10. The Berlin Project by Gregory Benford