Category Archives: biography

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is, “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

You have all seen The Producers, right? The version with Zero or Nathan, in the cinema, on TV, on the stage, whatever. Those of you who have not…well…tsk, tsk, tsk, for shame, for shame. Well, there is one scene that pops to mind apropos this book. In the film, the producers of the title have put together a show that is designed to fail. The surprise is on them, though, when their engineered disaster turns out to be a hit. During intermission of the opening performance, to Max and Leo’s absolute horror, they overhear a man saying to his wife, “Honey, I never in a million years thought I’d ever love a show called Springtime For Hitler. One might be forgiven for having similar thoughts about Caitlin Doughty’s sparkling romp through the joys of mortuary science, Smoke Gets in your Eyes. If you were expecting a lifeless look at what most of us consider a dark subject, well, surprise, surprise.

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Yes we are, and dead-ender Caitlin is happy to help with the cleanup

Caitlin Doughty has cooked up a book that is part memoir, part guidebook through the world of what lies beyond, well, the earth-bound part, at least, and part advocacy for new ways of dealing with our remains. Doughty, a Hawaiian native, is a 6-foot Amazon pixie, bubbling over (like some of her clients?) with enthusiasm for the work of seeing people off on their final journey. Her glee is infectious, in a good way. The bulk of the tale is based on her experience working at WestWind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, her first gig in the field. She was 23, had had a fascination with death since she was a kid and this seemed a perfectly reasonable place in which to begin what she believed would be her career. Turned out she was right.

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Caitlin Doughty from her site

Smoke Gets in your Eyes is rich with information not only about contemporary mortuary practices, but on practices in other cultures and on how death was handled in the past. For example, embalming did not come into use in the USA until the Civil War, when the delay in getting the recently deceased from battlefield to home in a non-putrid form presented considerable difficulties. She also looks at the practice of seeing people off at home as opposed to institutional settings. There is a rich lode of intel in here about the origin of church and churchyard burials. I imagine churchgoers of the eras when such practices were still fresh might have been praying for a good stiff wind.

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No Kibby, no smoke monsters here

Doughty worked primarily in the cremation end of the biz, and offers many juicy details about this increasingly popular exit strategy. But mixing the factual material with her personal experience turns the burners up a notch.

The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymous Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.

Beyond her paying gig, Doughty has, for some time, been undertaking to run a blog on mortuary practice, The Order of the Good Death, with a focus on greener ways of returning our elements back to the source. (Would it be wrong to think of those who make use of green self disposal as the dearly de-potted?) One tidbit from this stream was meeting with a lady who has devised a death suit with mushroom spores, the better to extract toxins from a decomposing body. I was drooling over the potential for Troma films that might be made from this notion.

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No, not pizza

One of life’s great joys is to learn something new while being thoroughly entertained. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a unique compendium of fascinating information about how death is handled, mostly in America. Doughty’s sense of humor is right up my alley. The book is LOL funny and not just occasionally. You may want to make sure you have swallowed your coffee before reading, lest it come flying out your nose. I was very much reminded of the infectious humor of Mary Roach or Margee Kerr . Doughty is also TED-talk smart. She takes on some very real issues in both the science and economics of death-dealing, offers well-informed critiques of how we handle death today, and suggests some alternatives.

If the last face you see is Caitlin Doughty’s something is very, very wrong. The face itself is lovely, but usually by the time she gets her mitts on you you should be seeing the pearly gates, that renowned steambath, or nothing at all. Preferably you can see Doughty in one of the many nifty short vids available on her site. You will learn something while being thoroughly charmed. Reading this book won’t kill you, even with laughter, but it will begin to prepare you to look at that event that lies out there, somewhere in the distance for all of us, and point you in a direction that is care and not fear based. If you enjoy learning and laughing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is dead on.

Review posted – 12/11/15

Publication date – 10/15/2014 (hc) – 9/28/15 – TP

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Well, not really. I mean they specifically said that there was no obligation to produce a review, so there is no quid pro quo involved, but it does seem the right thing to do, don’tchya think?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

You MUST CHECK OUT vids on her site. My favorite is The Foreskin Wedding Ring of St Catherine . All right, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go ahead. I know you wanna ask. No? Fine. I’ll do it for you, but you know this is what you were asking yourself. “If she rubs it does it become a bracelet?” Ok? Are ya happy now? Sheesh!

If you are uncertain about making a final commitment to reading this book you might want a taste of the product first (That sounds sooooo wrong) Here is an article Doughty wrote about her first experience with death as a kid, from Fortnightjournal.com . There are several other Doughty articles on this site as well.

Another book sample can be found here , in The Atlantic

Doughty offers a nifty list of sites to use for dealing with death, your own (presumably, you know, before) or others.

Interview in Wired

You might want to check out one or more of the following
—–The Loved One
—–The American Way of Death
—– The American Way of Death Revisited
—–Six Feet Under

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Public Health, Reviews

The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot

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We often forget how fragile a creation democracy is—a delicate eggshell in the rough-and-tumble of history. Even in the cradle of democracy, ancient Athens, rule by the people could barely survive for a couple of centuries. And throughout its brief history, Athenian democracy was besieged from within by the forces of oligarchy and tyranny. There were secret clubs of aristocrats who hired squads of assassins to kill popular leaders. Terror reigned during these convulsions and civil society was too intimidated to bring the assassins to justice. Democracy, Thucydides tells us, was “cowed in mind.”

Our country’s cheerleaders are wedded to the notion of American exceptionalism. But when it comes to the machinations of power, we are all too similar to other societies and ones that have come before us. There is an implacable brutality to power that is familiar throughout the world and throughout history. And no matter where power rules, there is the same determination by those in high places to keep their activities hidden.

Who killed JFK?

In The Map That Changed the World, Simon Winchester wrote about William Smith, an 18th century canal digger who discovered that beneath the surface of the earth there were hidden layers of fossils, earth and stone that rose and fell connecting one to another and forming an understructure that told a tale of the earth’s history. He spent more than two decades gathering the information to prove his theory and eventually created the map of the book’s title. David Talbot entered into a considerable effort of subterranean digging himself, and has drawn a map of unseen layers that cross the planet and affect everything, a map that shows some of the hidden structures that lie beneath the world we think we know, the history we think we have experienced. The fossils in this case are pieces of evidence showing a history of secrets. When you look at the mass of dark deeds perpetrated by the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, there is one man, more than any other, who appears, Zelig-like, over and over again, Allan Dulles, the evidence of his deeds buried in the fossil accretions of our public and foreign policy past. His older brother, John Foster Dulles, would become a Secretary of State and wield considerable influence on his own. The pair formed a two-headed monster of foreign intrigue while in office at the same time. But the focus here is primarily on Allen Dulles

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David Talbot – from USC

The Devil’s Chessboard reads like a riveting spy novel, peeling back layer after layer as it races to its climax. Dulles was a partner in an international law firm. Foster was chairman. Allen Dulles spent considerable swaths of time in government service, as a diplomat and spy. As such he made contacts all across Europe that would come in handy later.

Foster Dulles became so deeply enmeshed in the lucrative revitalization of Germany that he found it difficult to separate his firm’s interests from that of the rising economic and military power—even after Hitler consolidated control of the country in the 1930s. Foster continued to represent German cartels like IG Farben as they were integrated into the Nazis’ growing war machine, helping the industrial giants secure access to key war materials.

Nazi, schmazi. Foster kept the Berlin offices of the company, Sullivan and Cromwell, open until, in 1935, his partners forced him to shut it down, fearful of horrendous PR problems.

Consider some nuggets dug from the accretions of Allen Dulles’s history:
—WW II – he tries to arrange a separate peace with Nazi Germany despite specific orders from FDR to do no such thing, thus undermining the alliance between the US and Soviet Union, and contributing to suspicion between the Allies.
—Post WW II – he is instrumental in helping known Nazis and Nazi supporters hold on to their ill-gotten treasures and cash, and helps many either evade punishment or get reduced sentences and improved accommodations from the Nuremberg Courts
—He manages a ratline, an underground railroad through which Nazis escape punishment and find comfortable resettlement in other parts of the world
—Dulles uses some of these upstanding citizens to create an intelligence network
—He creates an armed force in France, ostensibly to be used against an imagined Communist takeover, but ready to act in support of an anti-deGaulle coup fomented by generals angry at the government’s decision to step back from the Algerian conflict
—Dulles is instrumental in staging the anti-Mossadegh coup in Iran, installing a reluctant Shah, who had to be dragged back into the country to take over
—He goes ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, knowing it will fail, but expecting that the failure would force JFK to commit the USA military to the plot

The list goes on, and on. Talbot proceeds like a prosecutor, laying out the details that set up the final argument. The litany of specifics, of events, of secret, illegal actions, is stunning.

As you might expect, Allan Dulles was a person of questionable human quality., even to his family. His wife, in her diary wrote:

“My husband doesn’t converse with me, not that he doesn’t talk to me about his business, but that he doesn’t talk about anything…It took me a long time to realize that when he talks it is only for the purpose of obtaining something…He talks easily with men who can give him some information, and puts himself out with women whom he doesn’t know to tell all sorts of interesting things. He either has to be making someone admire him, or to be receiving some information worth his while; otherwise he gives one the impression that he doesn’t talk at all because the person isn’t worth talking to.”

He subjected his war-damaged son to bizarre medical treatment in a secret mind-control program he has established. He married his daughter off like a political bargaining chip.

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Allen W. Dulles – from Foreign Policy Journal – Funny, he doesn’t look like a psycho-killer

But it is in his foreign intrigues, and in illumination of his ties to the rich and powerful, that the way is paved for the book’s payoff. It is David Talbot’s contention that Allan Dulles, acting in league with members of America’s business and military elite, orchestrated the murder of JFK. Kennedy was seen as particularly soft on foreign nations who dared to nationalize property owned by Dulles’s peeps. There were many in the military who were eager to get the next war on, the nuclear one, and Kennedy would not play. (Doctor Strangelove had nothing on these guys.) JFK had decided, because LBJ had failed to deliver the Southern votes he had promised, that he would find a replacement VP for his second term, so Johnson, beholden to Texas oilmen, and looking at the potential termination of his political life, was on board. JFK had also sacked Dulles for his insubordination. Not only was the Dallas murder a political hit, there had been an earlier attempt, in Chicago, in November 1963, that did not come off. The Warren Commission was set up not to investigate the killing but to cover it up. Bobby Kennedy knew this, but also knew that unless he could be elected to the Oval Office, the truth would remain cloaked. It is likely his determination to find the truth that got him killed too. The details Talbot offers to back his claim are compelling. I expect that the usual suspects will raise a hue and cry of that old favorite pejorative, “conspiracy theory.” But as we all do, or should know, sometimes there really is a conspiracy. I’m with Talbot on this one.

The details of the sundry plots and executive actions, the coups, planned, executed, or foiled, the breadth of Talbot’s gaze make for gripping reading. And I didn’t even go into the CIA’s work in the mind-control biz, an early example of extraordinary rendition, or any of the juicier bits about our old friend Tricky Dick Nixon, or Castro’s stunning political success story in New York City. This is a compelling must-read, filled with colorful characters, intrigue, and a look at the creation and persistence of a mechanism by which an undercover foreign policy is implemented. You will wonder if, today, the White House has any more control over the intelligence apparatus than it did back then. It will change forever how you view history.

During a 1965 tour of Latin America, Robert Kennedy—by then a senator from New York—found himself in a heated discussion about Rockefeller influence in Latin America, during an evening at the home of a Peruvian artist that had been arranged by [Richard] Goodwin [an RFK aide]. When Bobby brashly suggested to the gathering that Peru should “Assert [its] nationhood” and nationalize its oil industry, the group was stunned. “Why, David Rockefeller has just been down there,” one guest said. “And he told us there wouldn’t be any aid if anyone acted against International Petroleum [a local Standard Oil subsidiary].”
“Oh, come on. David Rockefeller isn’t the government,” Bobby shot back, still playing the role of Kennedy family tough guy. “We Kennedys eat Rockefellers for breakfast.”
The Kennedys were indeed more successful at the rough-and-tumble of politics than the Rockefellers. But, as JFK had understood, that was not the full story when it came to evaluating a family’s power. He fully appreciated that the Rockefellers held a unique place in the pantheon of American power, one rooted not so much within the democratic system as within what scholars would later refer to as “the deep state”—that subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guided national policy no matter who occupied the White House. The Kennedys had risen from saloon-keepers and ward heelers to the top of American politics. But they were still overshadowed by the imperial power of the Rockefellers.

There is no law, only power. Bobby Kennedy should have known that. We all need to know that. Rule by sociopaths is definitely not the way to go, whether the morally-challenged sit on corporate boards, manage branches of government or direct elements of our military. With The Devil’s Chessboard, David Talbot has written an eye-opening and devastating look at modern American history. Your move.

Review Posted – October 16, 2015

Book Published – October 13, 2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

An interesting site on keeping up with developments re the JFK hit

Talbot interview in Mother Jones

Lest anyone think the CIA is not in the business of killing, here is the CIA manual on assassination 101 – A Study of Assassination. There will be a quiz.

Amy Goodman interviews Dulles on Democracy Now – Thanks to Natylie for the heads up on this one

Talbot interview with Tavis Smiley – November 16, 2015

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance

book coverElon Musk is not exactly a name that rolls easily off the tongue, like say Tony Stark, the fictional person to whom he is most often compared, or even Steve Jobs, a real-world visionary, whose mantle Musk now wears. There is no question that Musk is a special individual, someone with BIG dreams and the drive, talent, and money to make them happen. But, like Jobs, and Stark for that matter, he might be an acquired taste on a personal level. In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future biographer Ashlee Vance gives us a picture of both the dreams and the man, peering back to where Musk began, describing his journey from then to now, looking at how he is impacting the world today, and gazing ahead to where he wants to go. It is a pretty impressive vista. Here is what it says on the SpaceX website

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

It might have seemed like visiting another planet when Musk split his home country of South Africa as a teen and headed to North America, anything to get away from an abusive upbringing. He seemed to been blessed not only with exceptional analytical capabilities, and probably an eidetic memory, but an impressively immense set of cojones. He was able to talk his way into whatever he needed and deftly talk his way out of trouble as well. Sometimes that entailed a bit of truth-bending, but whatever.

book cover Ashlee Vance – from HarperCollinscaption]Vance take us from his adolescence as a computer geek, bullied at school, through his arrival in Canada, cold-calling to get work, putting together his first dot.com startup, and using the money from that to invest in a banking-oriented company that would become PayPal. It was the mega-bucks from the sale of PayPal that would allow him to begin realizing his big dreams. In 2003, Musk bought into Tesla, then a struggling startup. The company took the early knowledge that lithium ion batteries had gotten pretty good, added some top level engineering, design and programming talent, and, after plenty of mis-steps and struggles, brought the remarkable all-electric Tesla Roadster to the market in 2008. Tesla followed this with the Model S in 2012. Not only did Consumer reports call this a great car, it named both the 2014 and 2015 versions the best overall cars of their years, and the best care they ever tested. The last time an auto startup succeeded in the USA was Chrysler, in the 1920s. But this is not about simply making a buck on a new car. The long term goal is to shift our petrochemical auto industry to renewable power, and the Tesla is a nifty start. Not only is the car amazing, the company has constructed a nationwide series of charging stations where Tesla owners can recharge their vehicles…for free. There are currently 499 such stations, with many more planned. Tesla is involved in building battery production factories, hoping to help support a growing electric-car auto-economy.

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Inside the Tesla Model S – from Tesla Motors

But this was not the only big notion that drove Musk. A parallel effort was to develop a solar power business. And with the help of a couple of enterprising cousins, he did just that. SolarCity provides the solar arrays that prove power to the Tesla charging stations, but it has also become one of the largest solar utilities in the nation, installing, maintaining a third of the nation’s solar panel systems. There is obvious benefit to both Tesla and Solar City in sharing gains in battery and other technology. But I expect the third jewel in Musk’s crown is his favorite, SpaceX.

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Falcon 9 first stage attempting a controlled landing – from Wikimedia

Musk doesn’t have much going on here, nothing major, only an ardent desire to colonize Mars. But it takes the establishment of an infrastructure in order to be get from point E to point M. Musk saw an opening in the market for satellite launch vehicles. Existing rockets blast things up into orbit and then burn up on their way back down. His idea was to design a rocket that could make its way back to earth in one piece, to be reused. And he has. SpaceX is nearing its goal of launching at least one rocket a month. The manifest available on SpaceX.com lists missions to date. The company also designed a capsule called the Dragon that can be used for cargo, but also for astronauts. The cost of launching a satellite using a Falcon is a fraction of what other options charge. The next step is a larger launch vehicle. Space X is expected to launch the first Falcon Heavy later this year, offering the biggest load capacity since the Saturn V was last used in 1973. And, while this is definitely good for business in the relatively short term, one must always keep in mind that this is a stage in a bigger plan for Musk. Once the launch infrastructure is established, plans can begin to move forward to put together Mars missions. Not go, look, and explore sorts of adventures, but establishing a colony, a permanent human presence on the red planet.

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The Dragon Capsule, attached to the ISS – from Musk’s Twitter page

Of course when one has one’s eyes fixed on the stars (yes, Mars is a planet, I know, Geez), there is a large inclination to lose touch with earth-bound reality. In the movie, then play, then movie The Producers Max Bialystock, in order to cope with the absurd success of a play that was designed to fail, suggests to his partner, Leo Bloom, that one solution would be to do away with the cast. “You can’t kill the actors, Max! They’re human beings,” Leo says. “Human beings? Have you ever seen them eat?” Max replies. I suspect that there are more than a few folks who feel about Elon Musk the way Max felt about the actors. He is rather notorious for his insensitivity to anyone not living inside his head. For example, here is what potential recruits are told to expect when they meet with Musk.

The interview, he or she is told, could last anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Elon will likely keep on writing e-mails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you.

Musk has an amazing capacity for work, putting in monstrous hours as a matter of course. But then he expects the same from those who work for him.

The rank and file employees…revere his drive and respect how demanding he can be. They also think he can be hard to the point of mean and come off as capricious. The employees want to be close to Musk, but they also fear that he’ll suddenly change his mind about something and that every interaction with him is an opportunity to be fired. “Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared: maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

Musk even fired his loyal assistant, Mary Beth Brown, who had been with him for twelve years, after she asked for a raise. What a guy.

Ego is certainly a big piece of the picture here. But I guess if you can do it, it ain’t bragging. Elon Musk is a larger than life figure, a computer geek, an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a dreamer, in addition to being a walking IED as someone to work for. He is one of the inspirations for Robert Downey‘s portrayal of Tony Stark in sundry Marvel Universe films. In fact, Downey came to visit Musk, specifically to get a taste of what a real billionaire techno-industrialist was like. Downey insisted on having a Tesla Roaster on the set of Iron Man, saying, ”Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans.” Musk even had a cameo in Iron Man II. The resulting publicity from this connection did little to diminish Musk’s view of himself. Living the high-life in Tinseltown, hanging with, social, economic and media A-listers added more gas to the bag. Part of his ego issue is that he tends to take internal company timetables and announce them to the world as promises (I can see his entire staff jointly rolling their eyes, clutching palms to temples and issuing choruses of “Oh my god” and “WTF” as they spin in place), then holds his employees to those unreasonable schedules. Of course this results in many missed deadlines, much ingestion of antacid and probably the odd nervous breakdown or two.

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Musk, in an Iron Man II cameo – fromWired

Musk is the sort of guy who shows up with some regularity in science fiction novels, a genre trope, like the researcher who has exactly the sort of experience and insight the President/PM/Chairman/Secretary General needs in order to stave off global catastrophe. He’s the guy who has been secretly building the arc that the world needs to stave off extinction. In this case he is doing it publicly. Of course this raises some issues. Do we as a country, as a planet, really want to be reliant on private companies for our space exploration? Do we want a possible colony on Mars to be a privately held branch of Musk Industries? There are only a gazillion questions that are raised by the privatization of space. What’s good for the bottom line at SpaceX may or may not be good for humanity. We have certainly seen how a reliance on the inherent civic-mindedness and good will of corporations has worked on this planet. Musk is a dreamer, for sure, and I expect his dream of making a better world through the use of renewable energy and his hopes of establishing a human outpost on Mars are pure ideals. But the devil is always in the details, and what would happen should Musk be infected by another virulent strain of malaria and not escape with a near miss, as he did in 2001? Would the replacement CEO share his ideals? Would a replacement CEO be willing to take big risks to support those ideals? Would a replacement CEO look to sell Tesla off to GM to make a few quick billion? One person can move the world, but it takes more than a start to keep things rolling. We could certainly use plenty more people with the sort of drive and ambition that Elon Musk embodies. Innovation is a rare resource and must be cherished. But like any powerful force, it must be, if not tethered, at least monitored, to make certain that it does not run amok.

Ashlee Vance has done an amazing job of telling not only Musk’s story, but of making the life history of the several companies with which Musk has been involved fascinating reading. I did get the sense that Vance was, from all the time he spent with Musk, smitten with his subject. While his portrait of Musk is hardly a zit-free one, I got the feeling that there might be a few more skeletons safely tucked away in closets, a few more bodies buried in basements. Nevertheless, Elon Musk is a powerful, entertaining and informative look at one of the most important people of our time. Your personal vision of the future should certainly include checking out this book.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Here are links to Musk’s three main companies, SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City

To Musk’s Twitter – Loooooooove the image he is using for this. He really needs a pinky ring to go with it though. There are a lot of nifty videos in here

Here is the press kit SpaceX provided with its latest Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station. There are many links in there that are worth checking out.

A visit to the Tesla Factory

And be sure to check out the link Tabasco brought in – Comment #1

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Filed under biography, business, Non-fiction, Science Fiction