Category: reviews

Russia in Private by Richard Yatzeck

Russia in Private by Richard Yatzeck

Russia today seems very far from the country I grew up with as an international ogre on the TV news,  the Soviet Union or USSR. After all, the Wall fell in 1989, already 23 years ago. The Soviet Union 

dissolved in 1991, 21 years ago. It is mostly in the memories of those over 40 years old that crossing behind the Iron Curtain was an exotic, even inexplicable adventure.

In the spring of 1971 I left my high school teaching job several weeks early to join the second Lawrence University Slavic Trip. This three month long camping trip through the Soviet Union, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Yugoslavia (I left to go to graduate school at Cornell before the trip concluded in Hungary and Czechoslovakia) has stood as a formative event in my life. For the first time I was outside of the US and definitively in foreign cultures.

Now we have Russia in Private (Amazon link) by Richard Yatzeck. Professor Yatzeck suffered through my presence in his Russian literature courses at Lawrence University for four years. More importantly here he also participated in 9 visits between 1961 and 1997. He calculates that cumulatively he has spent three years in the Soviet Union then Russia. 

The structure of the book is loosely chronological from his 1961-62 years of study at Moscow State University (the Harvard of Russia) through camping trips with undergraduates to a final stint at semesters abroad in 1997 in Krasnodar. The central content is really the particular world views of Russians in their public and private lives.

Since there is more continuity in human affairs than not, this book is an excellent introduction to some of the driving elements in the current Russia. It is not a psycho-sociological academic exercise. Whatever didactic goals there might be, the book moves forward with many well told anecdotes and observations of the personal and the private as well as the day-to-day.

George Smalley in Yatzeck's Russia in Private

George Smalley, back cover of Yatzeck’s Russia in Private

One of the treats of Yatzeck’s book for me is the opportunity to revisit George Smalley. George was passionate, sometimes about matters that seemed a bit mysterious to a college-age student. He worked phenomenally hard. He demanded hard work in return and it was difficult not to reciprocate. His language teaching methodology, based in Prague school linguistics (think Russian linguist Nikolay Trubetskoy and the Russian-born American linguist Roman Jakobson), was a miracle of clarity and power. Above all George was a wild and crazy guy.

Who else would invite you in for your private tutorials in Russian with cigarettes burning in both hands, wave you to your seat across from the over flowing ash trays and announce, “You have parachuted into Karaganda. You’ve been arrested and are now being interrogated by the local police.”

Dick Yatzeck’s book inspired a flood of memories and comments from me. The 6,000 word letter I tapped out is available for download here (PDF).

Lands’ End – deceptive advertising

Made In The USA – Sham

LandsEnd Made-in-USA catalog February 2012

This catalog showed up last week. Wow, I thought. Lands’ End is offering a whole bunch of US manufactured clothing. This should be interesting.

After turning the cover, there were two more pages of puff about the wonder’s of “Made in the USA”. A two page spread followed of a sweat shirt and two more pages of gym ware – “Made in the USA”.

Then, for the next 60 pages (excepting one page in them middle of “Made in the USA” wool socks) not another US manufactured item appears. Every page included the word “Imported”. Undoubtedly the good durable clothing I expect from Lands’ End, but NOT “Made in the USA”.

Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world by Mark Kurlansky

Cod by Mark KurlanskyThis wonderful little book (283 pages including 40 pages of recipes) by Mark Kurlansky is a great introduction to viewing history through a different kind of lens. We are all to used to history as told from the point of view of great men (almost always me) and nation states. Codis about the fish, fishing, processed food, ecology, trade, slavery, rum, fishing technologies, food around the whole of the Atlantic and beyond and more. It is a wonderful example of regional history.

How did the “sacred cod” sculpture end up hanging from the ceiling of the Massachusetts State House? Or, how did salted cod come to be such a prominent part of the cuisines of Spain, Portugal, France and other countries? How did it come that European fishermen competed for access to cod fisheries along the coast of New England and Canada well before the Pilgrims ever arrived? Where did cod fit into the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Caribbean, and North and South America?  How did cod come to be almost fished out of existence in the 20th century?

The_Sacred_Cod_of_Massachusetts

The Sacred Cod of Massachusetts - MA State House

This book answers these questions and more.

Title: Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1997
Reviewer: Mark Orton

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II

Slavery by Another Name by BlackmonThis book brings to light the extent to which the Jim Crow laws were in fact part of a totalitarian system of government that ruled the South for more than seventy five years. How these laws came to be called Jim Crow by historians instead of  “a system of racist oppression and exploitation” is a mystery. The fact that historians and school textbook writers  adopted this term,which is derogatory in its basis, points to a shameful lack of focus on the facts of life in the South during the period between 1876 and roughly 1965.  Worse it aided the systematic cover up of the actual functions of these laws and their impact on African-Americans. If the word Apartheid had been invented earlier this would also be a useful term.

The research and the writing is compelling. Blackmon has a website devoted to the book and the production of a documentary movie on PBS that will air in 2011.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II
Author: Douglas A. Blackmon    Publisher: Doubleday, $29.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-385-50625-0

The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson

Warmth of Other Suns - Isabel WilkersonIsabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns – the epic story of America’s great migration,1 creates  whole new planes of awareness of our history.

This book startled me to a new understanding of how encompassing and pervasive the Jim Crow laws and social rules of the South really were. Without much thinking on my part, I have always equated Jim Crow with images of separate water fountains, lunch counters, and schools, along with denial of voting rights. Included were images of lynchings and mob violence. Wilkerson’s work brings to life the real depth of the American system of Apartheid. These laws and social rules were so extensive as to lead to separate break times in factories so that whites and blacks would not even use a stairway at the same time.

This is the story of the six million African Americans who left the South for the North and West of the US between 1910 and WWII. Wilkerson builds her narrative of the main courses of this migration through the stories of three people leaving three different parts of the South, venturing to the three main destinations, NYC and the northeast, Chicago, and Los Angeles over three decades (teens through 40’s). Her overall research included interviews with over 1,200 people.

The stories do not end with the escape from the South. Wilkerson follows the stories as they unfold in their new environs. Here the transition from the oppressions of the South to the new realities of the north and west. No surprise the escape from the South did not mean an instant escape from racism institutionalized or otherwise. This part of the story is more familiar to a Northern urbanite.

This book, along with Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name – the re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII2 are compelling additions to understanding the history of racism in the US. Both are must reads.

  1. New York City, Random House 2010 []
  2. NYC Doubleday, 2008 []

Book Review: Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises by Kindleberger

Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises, fourth edition by Charles P. Kindleberger (New York: Wiley 2000)

Manias,Panics,and Crashes by KindlebergerA recent Wall St Journal article described this book as a “must read” classic for anyone involved in financial markets. I have been involved directly in financial markets in two ways recently. First, I spent a year chasing around chasing angel investors and venture capitalists during the DotCom boom to fund Valuedge (the software company I co-founded in 1999 and left in 2004, though I still hold a large ownership interest).  Second, I receive quarterly statements for my 401K retirement investments. Primarily driven by my experiences with Valuedge and the phenomenal boom time of the DotCom era, I read through Kindleberger’s durable book (originally published in 1978 and never out of print since).

Although I have come to refer to the year 2000 as the Tulip Phase of Valuedge after the well-known Dutch tulipmania in the 1630s. Little did I know that financial bubbles, booms, and the inevitable crashes and depressions are a very common feature of capitalism. The first couple of chapters describe or mention dozens of bubbles and booms located around an amazing array of geopolitical centers. These have been focused on anything and everything: the well-known tulips in the 1630s; railroads; copper; English country houses; agricultural land; private companies going public (Britain 1888, US 1928 and IPOs 1998-2000); and many others.

The first lesson, then, is that booms and speculative bubbles are a commonplace feature of the capitalist world.

So, why do these bubbles and speculative manias occur? The answers are complex, involving human psychology, malfeasance, regulation (or lack), banks, and government. Read Kindleberger .

An important explicit message from Kindleberger is that economists’ models of “homo economicus” and “the market” are far from a useful mirror of what actually goes on. People are not even vaguely rational in their economic behavior and markets never constructively approach the model of a market found in Econ 101 or for that matter anywhere else that I have ever heard of.

This is not just an academic concern. In recent years our politics has displayed a dominant rhetoric that calls for the application of “market solutions” to almost every area of our lives, particularly those where traditionally we expect government to provide services, regulations, etc. Instead, we now reflexively think that “market solutions” are inherently more efficient and effective than government services. Liberals, trapped in their abandonment of even the moderate criticism of capitalism that the Catholic Church, for instance, engages, have provided no useful critique of “market solutions” as a universal policy approach.

At a practical level, this public policy fixation on “market solutions” combined with a generalized attack on all government spending, is driving a generalized impoverishment of the public infrastructure of our civil society and not coincidentally an enrichment of the wealthy and particularly the super-rich.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the day-to-day political and economic life of the world.

Yottabytes and the National Security State

The current New York Review of Books has an article by James Bamford, “Who’s in Big Brother’s Database” that reviews the new book by Mathew M. Aid, The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency . I have gotten in line at my local library to read this book and will make further comments after that.

Secret Sentry by Mathew AidMeanwhile, the Bamford article mentions the construction boom at NSA (National Security Agency) with a doubling of its headquarters and million sq. feet of data storage in the Utah desert costing some $2 billion. This to store the data from all of NSA’s spying that by 2015 will be spoken of in terms of yottabytes.

Now, before you think that Bamford is mainlining old Star Wars characters, a yotta- is the largest large number prefix officially recognized in the scientific lexicon. At our house we are approaching 1/2 Terabyte (1012) in our total digital stores, mostly photos. Really large corporate databases are measured in Petabytes (1015). A Yotta is 1024.

Are you feeling safer?

Do you really think that any email sent or telephone conversation you have had since 2002 or 2003 is not logged in the vast secret Security State Apparatus??

I guess that a National Security State (Empire) that has had over 800 military bases throughout the world (see an earlier posting on this topic) to assure our influence elsewhere can not resist the opportunity the state of so-called war we have been in since 2001 to penetrate into every American’s life.

Book Review: Diamond Street – Hudson, NY: the story of the little town with the big red light district

Diamond Street by Bruce hallDiamond Street: The Story of the Little Town With the Big Red Light District by Bruce Edward Hall (Black Dome Press, Hensonville NY 1994 and 2005)

This is a fairly readable history of Hudson as seen from the other side of the tracks and from the corrupt office holders in city government and local police. Sheds new light on how Hudson has been dependent for a very long time on “weekenders” to support a significant portion of the local economy. the difference is that the current economy is not dependent on men’s interests in gambling, drinking and sex.

Lots of wonderful stories and much local color and geography. Somewhere a wonderful, marvelous in its excess, statistic appears that Hudson once had 76 bars packed into its 2+ square miles.

Book Review: Looking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York

Looking for Work by Peter stottLooking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York, The Emergence and Growth of Local Industry as Revealed in Surviving Sites and Structures by Peter H. Stott, Syracuse University Press, 2007

This is a comprehensive review of industrial sites in 18 towns and the City of Hudson in Columbia County. There is a narrative historical description of the industry in each town and more detailed descriptions of the 134 sites. A great resource for anyone interested in the history of Columbia County and industrial archeology in general. The author has earlier written A Guide to the Industrial Archeology of Boston Proper (MIT Press, 1984)

More information and to purchase here.

Healthcare Crisis

Originally written in 2005

The healthcare crisis in the US is growing in severity and yet is not the subject of any real public debate. More than 44 million Americans are without health insurance and almost 65 million will experience a lack of coverage during the year. Emergency rooms are the primary care provider of necessity. All of this despite the fact that, as a nation, we spend more than any other country in the world; 11% more than the next closest country; 90% to 100% more than countries like Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia, and France. Yet the outcomes for our healthcare system are completely second tier and nearly third world.

You may be shocked to see exactly how poorly our phenomenally expensive health system is performing. Just to add some further context, note that Sweden (1st in Infant Mortality to the US 41st position) has a per capita income roughly equal to that of Mississippi (the poorest US state) and spends almost exactly half of what the US does per capita on health care. Examine the Comparative Health System Data in which I have color-coded a few countries for quick comparison.

During our quadrennial presidential personality sweepstakes, neither candidate offered real solutions, really not even a discussion of the issues. We are stuck in a political environment in which neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are offering, and I would argue, are capable of offering real solutions.

Lets make a one basic observation about the situation:

This is not a money problem. As demonstrated by the data on the Comparative Health System Data chart, we clearly are spending enough money in aggregate.

But, this crisis is about money, namely, who gets it and what do they do with it. And, starting from the last serious attempt to tackle the problem during the first year of the Clinton administration, it is very clear that the political system is completely in the pockets of the various interests who have the money now, namely insurance and drug companies, hospitals, and doctors.

It seems obvious to me that we just need to look at any of a number of the top performing countries for the solution. Then, we need to have the political forces in place to tell some of the current participants that the rules have changed.

Central to any solution will be the participation of all US residents in the system. Healthcare is a basic human right and we should not be treated as “risk” factors in insurance company profit calculations. If everyone is part of the healthcare system, then we can effectively share the individual risks and expenses of healthcare across the whole population. Healthcare should not be an actuarial game to derive profit. It should be a system that delivers a reasonable level of service to everyone in the society.

Two players clearly are at the top of the hit list. First, most assuredly the insurance industry, which adds no value to our health care, but consumes by many estimates 15% to 20% of the resources, must go. Second, the drug companies can be brought into reasonable competition for prices that will bring market forces to bear.

Ironically, given the long history of doctors opposing national or single-payer systems in the US, doctors have now been reduced to the status of wage slaves like the rest of us. Many, if not a solid majority of doctors, will support real reforms to the system.

I close here with two basic notions:

  • our healthcare problems are not about a lack of money, and
  • we need to develop political forces that can overcome the control of government (Federal and state) health policies by the current players in the healthcare system.

Given the current Bush administration, I believe the focus of reform must be at the state level. It seems feasible to envision a single-payer system that covers all residents in a state like Massachusetts. We should try it.