War Horses and Stone Masons

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Wow! I just finished reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. WOW because the book is just short of a thousand pages long, and wow because the story is amazing, entertaining, and spell binding. Follett claims to be an atheist, but his book is mainly about the Catholic Church in England in the years 1123-1174. Of course when one writes a story about a period that far removed from us it can be false, and sound real. I believe this story to be based on real life in the 1100’s.

This epic is based on one man’s dream to build a cathedral. I visited cathedrals in Munich, London, and Montreal, and was totally awe-struck by the immensity of the buildings. How in the hell did they ever build this building in an age before modern machines? Pillars of the Earth explains how it was done in a fictional story that takes place over a period of fifty-one years. That is how long it takes to make a cathedral using manual labor.

The story line contains so many, characters, plots, and lives I found myself living in the period as an observer. If this story were made into a movie it would require ten or more two-hour episodes to tell, and I will watch every chapter.

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I love history and this is an era of history when Knights, and Kings, and Earls ruled the civilized world of Europe. Today’s kids and parents will go into shock when they learn that girls a young as fourteen were given into marriage, or that couples found having sex before marriage were given penance to live apart for a year before they could be married in the church. They would learn that life for the privileged was far different from the life of someone who did not have money to live on. The 1100’s gave meaning to the term “street people.” Common folk lived in homes of one or two rooms with little to no furnishings. Families slept in one room, and kids learned about sex by watching the action around them. Food was simple; usually dry bread and watered down beer. Workers were paid a penny a day. Families lived on six pennies a week. Kids worked. Royalty, lived much better, but a family of 2017 lives much better than did the royalty of 1117.

I rate this story at five stars, but it is equal to reading four normal books.

B17’s, P51’s, and B29’s

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How does it feel to be the very last pilot to fight an air battle in a great war? The Last Fighter Pilot told me exactly what is was like since this book is about his experience as a pilot flying out of Iwo Jima during the war against Japan. Until this book all I knew about Iwo Jima was that it took several thousand Marine lives to chase the Japanese off the island and when they raised to American flag one photographer got lucky and took a picture that has memorialized the place. Other than that I was never aware that Iwo Jima the island became a vital stepping stone in the defeat of the Japanese in WWII.

I became aware of this book while watching an interview with Captain Jerry Yellin on TV. My God I thought the guy is ninety-three, he still fits in his Army Air Corp uniform and he is a sharp as a tack, I want to hear his story. I ordered his book through my library, and waited three months for it to arrive, there were twenty-four holds on it before me. I picked up the book on Saturday afternoon, and finished reading it on Monday evening. I love war stories, with airplanes, and this was a great one.

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A Conservative Learns Some New Facts

The Far Away Brothers is one book which I recommend. It is history, political science and social studies all rolled into one. Auren Markham did a fine job of unraveling the complexities of US policies which did not make any sense to me like DACA. I’ve written a few blog pieces on GrumpaJoesplace.com about how befuddled I was about the thousands of kids migrating to the USA from Central America. How could little kids do that by themselves? That is one of the questions she answered for me. Another question I asked is why did the USA advertise its DACA policy in Central America? Had our administration gone nuts? What she leads me to believe is that our Department of Homeland Security did just the opposite. Why I heard that the USA encouraged Central Americans to migrate is still a mystery, but I think it might have been Fake News that did it.
Markham exposes why kids from El Salvador are leaving in droves. It is simple and it has nothing to do with America. It has everything to do with Central American government’s inability to improve conditions in their countries, their inability to control gangs, and their excessive corruption. Where have we heard that before? In the meantime, the USA in its compassion, and mercy tries to legislate solutions to solve problems that we know nothing about. In my years as an engineer we learned to find to the root-cause. DACA legislation resulted from being unable to reach the root-cause. The frustration of passing laws without knowing what problem the law deals with in a country we have absolutely no intimate  knowledge of. Even if did have intimate knowledge, how would we go about implementing laws in a foreign country to solve their inner problems? Meanwhile the people of Central America look to the North as a place where the ‘streets are paved in gold,’ and look upon the USA as the answer to all of their problems.
All along I wondered how young kids could travel over a thousand miles without any resources. They didn’t, they paid big money to hire a Coyote to get them into the USA. I should say, their parents paid big money by borrowing at ridiculous interest rates ( 20% +) , and expecting their liberated kid to work it off. What they don’t realize is the infinite maze of agencies, and systems legislated to insure only those who seek political asylum qualify, and not easily. Why these same people didn’t pay to get their kids a passport and visa before they paid for the coyote remains a mystery. In the meantime, we Americans swallow the bill to pay for the exorbitant court costs for years of needless red tape. I can now see why groups like La Raza want open borders, and free passage across borders to prevail.
Author Markham tells this story by telling the story of  one family with nine kids from El Salvador whose one son gets in trouble with a gang that threatens to kill him.  His loving parents pay for his escape. After he leaves, his twin brother who looks exactly like him fears the gang will kill him by mistake, so the parents take another juice loan to get the twin out-of-town. The story of their escape and arrival in the US is a mind-boggling drama that none of us would want to live through, but they make it.

I gave this book four stars.

LIFE 3.0

I just completed reading “Life 3.0, Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”  This was not one of my better selections, but I read it to the end anyway. The subject intrigued me. I first heard the term Artificial Intelligence used some thirty years ago, and it didn’t hurt me to finally learn something about the topic. Artificial intelligence refers to super computers with programs that learn, and adapt quickly. The only real example of AI that I know of is the IBM computer that beat the world champion Russian chess player at chess.

Behind the scenes that I am familiar with there is an army of people developing software and hardware to think like humans. The current rage of robots need AI to exist. Author Max Tegmark is obviously a genius at AI. He teaches at MIT and writes about two miles over my feeble brain level. I thoroughly enjoyed the Prelude titled The Tale of the Omega Team. This is a well drafted story of robots gifted with AI, and how they develop into a force we don’t want to reckon with. When I began reading The Tale of the Omega Team the story was totally believable given the advanced level of today’s technology. The story hooked me into complete concentration, but as the narrative developed I began to suspect Omega Team was toying with me. It was. As Omega used its experiences to learn, he quickly adapted to become smarter and smarter surpassing his creator in intelligence. The story became more and more preposterous, but still very believable. The Tale of the Omega Team could very well become a TV series.

The last two chapters were also very engrossing. Tegmark’s discussion on consciousness is very insightful, and one realizes that making an AI machine into a real human requires consciousness. How to do that is another monumental task. The last chapter deals with the people who are currently developing AI. However, they agree that developers need a set of rules by which to guide themselves to keep from creating AI monsters.

The chapters in between the Prelude and Consciousness were so steeped in physics, philosophy, and mathematics that I found them about as exciting as I did during college reading my books on differential equations, and meta-physics. The physics discussions were so far beyond my comprehension that I could have skipped them and been just as satisfied. Most probably, that is because my knowledge of physics peaked in 1960, and the physics in this tome has developed since then.

I enjoyed reading this book, but I am glad I finished. Because of the level of difficulty I have to rate this book at three stars. However, I rate the prelude, The Tale of the Omega Team five stars.

 

Strange, Sad, Hilarious

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Authors who write fiction amaze me with their ability to create characters. Where do they get them? Do they model the people whose stories they tell after real people, someone they know, a relative, themselves, or do they create them from scratch?  I just finished reading a sometimes funny sometimes sad story about a man who is strange indeed. He is a loner, an introvert, as honest as can be, but also secretly loving. His name is Ove, and the story is called A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. It came to me from my book club, and so far I have to say this story is a little unbelievable in the beginning because of the strange and unique habits of Ove. As the plot evolves so did I. Ove dug his way into my mind, and I began to like him. Slowly the humor of his eccentric life began to unfold and his actions are hilarious.

Ove is not the only character in this story that makes it a good read. Author Backman created a cast of misfits from various ethnic backgrounds to be his neighbors in a tight-knit row of houses. Even Ove’s deceased wife is a character who he talks to often during visits to her grave, and by flashing back his memories of her. We learn all about his Sonya, and their marriage through these graveside visits.

Grief is the emotion that plays on Ove’s mind. He is so saddened by his wife’s death that he wants to be with her as soon as he can. Several times he meticulously plans suicide, each time by a different method, but some strange event diverts his mind to something else, and averts his demise. This story has a happy ending but also a sad one which is not predictable

Democracy, You Can’t Buy It On Amazon

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I just completed a book by Condoleezza Rice titled Democracy, Stories from the Long Road to Freedom. I give it four starsMs Rice writes very well about atopic that most of us know about, or al least we think we know about, i.e. Democracy. There are many new things I learned about condo as she unfolded this narrative, like she reads and speaks Russian, has worked in the government for many years in Russian affairs, and served as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under George W Bush. She has a Doctorate degree in Politics Science and currently teaches at Stanford University.

When she speaks on Democracy it is because she has personally worked with many countries trying to establish democrats systems. She confirmed my own thoughts regarding our policy of Nation building, I isn’t easy. Often while watching the news during the Iraq war and afterwards it always confounded me that the people in Iraq believed that once Saddam Hussein was gone that democracy would descend upon them from the heavens and life would be beautiful. It doesn’t work like that. In her book Condoleezza provides example after example of countries like Russia, Kenya, Brazil, China, and more of how leaders struggle with the concept and even more so with the implementation. If it were easy, the whole world would be living in a democracy. Maybe someday it will, but right now there isn’t a chance in hell that I will see a democratic world in my lifetime.

Another thing I learned is that Ms Rice truly believes that Democracy requires a huge Government to work. Throughout she explains that many countries fail because they do not have the necessary components in place. In my opinion there are three necessities: Executive, Judicial, and Legislative. We don’t need the huge bureaucracies that we have now. It doesn’t really matter, Condoleezza has written an insightful book with great explanations about how many countries have taken on the task, and in some cases have done so successfully. As I mentioned above her writing style kept me reading, and I thoroughly enjoyed every chapter.

This book is available on Amazon, but Democracy is not.

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Heroes

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When I first learned of President George W Bush’s hobby of painting portraits I was amazed. This was not what I expected from him. I guess not too many people did. I wanted to see his work, and to decide for myself whether he was an artist or not. I have seen his work and have decided he is an artist.

In his book Portraits of Courage, A Commander In Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors ninety-eight US Military personnel are depicted. Bush has written a short bio based on the warrior’s injuries and the path to recovery. There is a distinct similarity among all of them. They all lost limbs, suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury, and Post Traumatic Stress. Yet, each of them is distinctly different looking just like they are in life. President Bush captures not only the faces but also the look of the soldier. As an artist he is fully aware of the fact that no human being has a symmetrical face, and it is the asymmetry that defines all of us. He has captured the gaze of the eyes and more deeply into the soul of the subject.

A few years ago, while researching President Bush’s portraits of world leaders on the internet I read a series of comments regarding his work. I remember one in particular where the commenter sarcastically criticized Bush’s ability to paint by stating his amateur work was the opposite of an accomplished and seasoned portrait artist. I wished an evil act to befall the critic. His dislike for Bush as President showed.

All my life I have been a closet artist, and I can attest that drawing and painting faces is not easy. Capturing the lines, shades, values of a person’s uniquely distinctive facial features takes a ton of practice, and patience. Hell, I couldn’t even draw my own portrait to resemble me. I give George Bush five stars for his ability, and desire to do something radically different from what he did all his life, and to succeed in making people look like people in his work.

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