Friday, July 29, 2011

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, by Janet Reitman

This is a fascinating book, an expose of Scientology with detailed references behind every assertion.   The net-net:  Scientology comes across as not only a business exploiting tax laws to increase profitability by claiming religious exemptions, but also as fundamentally evil at the top.

The predecessor of Scientology, Dianetics, doesn't seem that bad a notion:   by identifying conflicts in your past (though a structured conversation called an audit), you bring those conflicts to the surface, resolve them, and more forward with greater mental health.    Seems no worse than Freudian psychoanalysis.

The religion's narrative is a bit tougher to swallow.    We (people) are the vessels of thetans, entities trillions of years old, that, a brief time prior to one's inception, select which human embryo to inhabit.  Where do thetans come from?   It turns out there was a galactic ruler named Xenu who was in charge of 76 planets in our galaxy.  He had a population problem, as each planet had an average of 178 billion people.  So he transformed his people (aliens) into thetans (aka souls), trapped them and packed them off to Earth, then called Teegeeack.

So my immediate response to this is something like, "huh?"

But in fairness, isn't is the case that the narratives of all religions read like science fiction or fantasy novels?   Noah, with two of every creature stuffed into his ark.   Joseph Smith learns about the transatlantic journeys of Christ through the translations of the Angel Moroni of gold plates found in his New York fields.   The Hindu god Yama, previously in disguise as a dog, takes the virtuous Yudhisthira to the underworld en route to heaven.   The resurrection of Jesus.   Moses parting the Red Sea.  

So how to get past the admonition that folks living in glass houses oughtn't throw rocks?   (Probably you're allowed to throw rocks if you're a follower of one of the more logical Buddhist sects, but doing so wouldn't be right action.)

There's a believability issue.   Perhaps because so much is known about L Ron Hubbard (the inventor of Scientology), it is easier to dismiss Scientology as just a tax dodge religion gone wild.    He was more or less a screw up, a known liar, a failure as a US Navy officer, a pulp fiction writer later specializing in science fiction, and was widely quoted as pointing out that the best path to business profitability is to invent your own religion.

Sure doesn't sound like the resume of Moses, or of the Prophet Muhammed pbuh, now does it?   But who really knows -- maybe the alien emperor Xenu really liked the stories that L Ron Hubbard was churning out and decided to make Hubbard his equivalent of Joseph Smith.

Okay, so although I've tried really hard to cast the nonsense of Scientology as no less valid than any other major religion, you can tell that it is at the lower end of my plausibility spectrum.

Also, many other religions try to do good at the same time they attempt to not do harm.   They advance charity or love in the world while not organizationally promoting death to non-believers (or apostates); they don't engage in a crusade of torture against those of other beliefs, and they don't start wars about their belief set.   Examples include Baha'i, BuddhismJudaism, and of course FSM, and no doubt some others.   Scientology doesn't do too well on this dimension either, according to Ms Reitman, as it thinks nothing of destroying the lives of anyone who gets in the way of its fundamental goals (tax exempt revenue growth and expansion).

Funny that folks sign up for this stuff.   Then again, as a species we seem to be really good at ignoring inconvenient facts that get in the way of our favorite beliefs.   And besides, cool actors like Tom Cruise are doing it.

If reading about scams like this make you ill, avoid this excellent book.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism, by Lama Thubten Yeshe

The first part of this small book is the transcription of Lama Yeshe covering for an ill his holiness the Dalai Lama at a conference in France.   It is exceptional in its clarity and humor.

The second part is a bit more complex but still very well written.

The folks at the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) make this book available as part of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.    This is quite wonderful: you can read for free online or if you prefer paper, you can obtain several of their books for free (paying only shipping) as part of your quest to understand more about the practice of Buddhism.   This book is part of the Wisdom Archive's starter pack and imho is the way to go.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Momentem, by Jerry Lee Osborne

I glanced over at my bookshelf last week and noticed a paperback on the shelf that didn't look familiar.   It was large format, all white but for the title and author's name.   I couldn't remember putting it there, but none of my family members knew how it got there either.   I hope I didn't borrow it from someone, as I don't recall to whom to return it.

What do you do when you find a novel mysteriously sitting on your bookshelf?   You read it!

Or try to.   I made it to page 90 (out of 218).   Even this took me the better part of a week of on and off reading, putting it down as a side effect of my lack of enthusiasm.

The plot:  Dutch scientists invent a miraculous drug (momentem) which enhances sensation, cures disabilities, and generates huge amounts of cash from distribution through traditionally illicit drug channels (although it is itself too new to yet be regulated or declared illegal).    Characters deal with varied aspects of this situation.

The problem:  stilted writing.   I don't precisely know how to describe it.   I imagine that if a high functioning autistic person wrote dialog, this is how it might sound.   But that might be pejorative to autistic folks.   I don't want to be rude to the author either.   The writing was just so stilted.

Another way to describe it:  imagine you read the wonderful Elements of Style but then go overboard with terse business style writing in the dialog and descriptive sections of your inventive novel.

So I just gave up.

Oh, and also because the author misspelled Zilker park Zulker.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Informationist: A Thriller, by Taylor Stevens

Wow, this is a terrific novel.   Our hero is the strange, lethal, troubled Vanessa who also goes by Michael, who dresses alternatively as female or male (not in a cross dressing fetish way but rather as a means to get closer to her targets).   She's a private analyst who gathers information, or in this case, investigates a complex and suspenseful matter of a missing woman in Africa with many scenes in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

Maybe just by a hair, maybe because the competition has been light this year, but Ms Stevens' novel made my 2011 best books of the year list for fiction.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, by Barbara Pleasant & Deborah Martin

This is a very nice collection of information about composting and the use of compost in gardens.   But two major flaws mar the text so much as to make it of borderline use.   First the organization, or I should say the confusing and illogical organization.   Information is presented in an order that doesn't make sense with lots of future references by page numbers (the most painful of speed bumps to reading) and key information hidden deep in the book.  

Second, and more serious, is the glaring absence of information about compost bins.   Open sided bins are the default (effective, and inexpensively built from pallets), with some discussion about the downside of rodent access.  But not a word about alternative approaches, from rotating tumblers to indoor techniques.   Which one would reasonably expect to see in a text of this title.

Still and all, it is a great compilation of information, so I'll give it a C+.

Building Fences + Gates, by Richard Freudenberger

Unfortunately the content of Mr Freudenberger's book matches neither his title nor sub-title:  "how to design and build them from the ground up."   Instead it is a near -coffee table book about fences.   Most of the content and photos are lovely in this context.

As an example of the un-evenness of the text, there were six pages of photos and detailed explanation (in 30 discrete steps) for setting up a basic wood fence.  In contrast, building a wire fence got a very cryptic half page, no illustrations and not a single enumerated step.

So all in all, a pretty book, but just barely a D+ grade.    By the way, it is so much the opposite of George Martin's book on fences that it is worth looking at them next to each other.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Debunkery, by Ken Fisher

I was sent a free copy of Mr Fisher's book by his eponymous investment firm which is seeking my business.   It isn't a book I'd have otherwise sought out; rather it is Bevelin on my wish list.    But, here I am, a free book in my hands, but still not all that excited about it.   Then at a July 4th party a friend told me he has been an enthused client of Fisher Investments for years.   That energy overcame my inertia so I read the book.

Bottom line:  not bad.   Mr Fisher takes 50 "money killing myths" of investing and debunks them.  Most are common sense obvious or reasonable, some are filled with the optimism of capitalism (Mr Fisher is, after all, a billionaire), and his comments (negative) on annuities no doubt annoy many life insurance sales people.

Oh, by the way, I mentioned the firm is seeking my business.   Not going to happen.   No offense to anyone there, it is just that an investment advisory firm that spends such a huge amount on marketing immediately turns me off.   I confess it as an emotional reaction, but I figure the energy put into marketing and hype is as likely a cover for a mediocre model as it is a fair and appropriate means to grow the business.   So color me cynical.   I did appreciate the free book though.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Seven Days From Sunday, by MH Sargent

This is a quick read, suitable only for poolside or airplane use.   Not that it was bad: the plot was solid, and most of the character development was good.   It is just this close to a strong book; something about the writing.  It seemed loose, like a beginner's effort.   Some of the phrases were goofy and there seem to be a few factual errors.  Maybe I'm being too critical as I can't precisely explain the problem.   Net net though, for 99 cents, I've already complained too much.

Some details:  the setting is Iraq, the main characters are CIA agents embedded with US military and a handful of Iraqi civilians.    The set up is for a sequel.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bloodmoney, by David Ignatius

This is an interesting espionage thriller with a complex plot and solid character development.   At the end I wasn't completely sure what happened, yet I didn't feel cheated by the novel - rather I felt as if that was the right response.