Book review: The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech

The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech: Computer, Consoles & Games by Peter Leigh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Retro Tech provides just what it says on the tin. Starting with systems in the early 1970s, it provides a summary of virtually every video game console and personal computer released up until the debut of the original Xbox in October 2001.

Each summary includes a generous number of photos, sometimes including controllers or oddball accessories, or more mundane things like the power supplies. Leigh offers both an historical overview and also his own personal assessment on each device, which at times stands in contrast to how I saw some of the systems, accounting for the differences in reception between the UK and North American (and in particular U.S.) audiences.

Each summary concludes with a look at three games from each system: The Must-See, the Must-Play, and the Must-Avoid. A lot of the Must-Avoids are typically obscure fare (no, E.T. did not make the list for the Atari 2600–though it does get mentioned alongside the “winner”).

Leigh keeps the writing light and at times droll, never being afraid to call out lemons and questionable marketing of years gone by.

I was struck by the sheer number of systems that came out in the 70s and early 80s. It seemed that nearly everyone tried to get a slice of the video game pie before the famous crash of 1983. While there are systems that never sold well here in Canada that I was aware of–like the MSX computers, there are many listed here that I was utterly unfamiliar with, even leaving aside the UK-specific machines that never made it over here.

For anyone who grew up when these machines were coming out (as I did), this is indeed a heady dose of nostalgia. For others, it serves as a brief and well-illustrated history of the early days of video games and personal computers. In fact, my only real knock on the book is that each write-up only amounts to a page or so. I would love to see a more in-depth look at the same topic. As it is, I was able to tear through the book all too quickly.

Still, this was an enjoyable look back and an easy recommendation for those who would enjoy seeing the sometimes wacky products that came out in the quest for the early gamer’s dollars (or pounds).

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Book review: How to Sketch

How to Sketch: A Beginner’s Guide to Sketching Techniques, Including Step By Step Exercises, Tips and Tricks by Liron Yanconsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book review: How to Sketch

This book does a good job in covering all the basics when it comes to learning how to sketch. Author Liron Yanconsky brings an amiable style to the subject as he introduces everything a new artist will need to know and need to have. Starting with the correct mindset, he covers some core concerns and requirements, such as accepting and embracing imperfection (you’re learning to sketch, after all), and the essential quality of being curious and seeking variety in what you sketch. He moves on to suggested materials, some basic techniques on how to use your eyes and even how to hold a pencil.

From there, he covers more specific aspects of sketching, including:

  • Perspective
  • Light and shadow
  • Tones and Textures

The final part of the book consists of working from included photos to produce full sketches of people, landscapes and more.

I suspect that at least some may become discouraged as they try to replicate the excellent results Yanconsky shows for each exercise. At times the sophistication required to accurately capture the scenes feels a bit like those old “Learn to Draw” ads that went from a few scrawled lines in the first panel to lavishly illustrated drawings in the fourth panel. Yanconsky addresses this in a way, urging the new artist to focus on sections, to build a sketch piece by piece when there is a lot to draw. His enthusiasm for the topic certainly helps.

As someone who can draw but not really draw well, I found the first half of the book, with its straightforward lessons on the aspects of sketching, to be quite helpful. While I may never been a sketching whiz, this book has helped me in ways that my own bumbling around wouldn’t have.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Dream Interpretation Handbook

The Dream Interpretation Handbook: A Guide and Dictionary to Unlock the Meanings of Your Dreams by Karen Frazier

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a bargain purchase, using my two criteria for such:

1. Is the book on sale?
2. Is the subject interesting to me?

If the answer is yes, I buy and take my chances if I am not familiar with the author.

I came away disappointed here, for a few reasons. While the book is competently written and is logically divided into two parts, the first being some background and historical analysis of dreams, and the second being a dictionary that defines possible meanings to specific dream events/objects, it ends up having a little too much woo in it and also comes across as a bit facile.

As an example, it’s stated that if you dream about aliens, you may be feeling alienated. I mean, really? Many of the scenarios fit into this kind of literal interpretation, which may make “sense” but also doesn’t require an entire book to illustrate.

In the end I just wanted more and maybe that’s not realistic when it comes to dream interpretation. The author emphasizes repeatedly that you may want to check your personal frame of reference before seeking more universal symbols/meanings to your dreams. This makes sense, but it even further diminishes the value of offering dream interpretation. And a lot of it just comes down to “you may be anxious about [thing]”, unless it’s a dream in which you are flying, one of the apparently few positive dream experiences anyone has.

I have not read other books on dreaming, so I don’t know if this work is representative of the overall body of dream interpretation, and to give author Karen Frazier credit, she provides a decent list of other sources to check out.

Still, I didn’t feel like I got much out of this and can’t really recommend it.

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Book review: Ruined By Design

Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It by Mike Monteiro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Monteiro is angry, angry at design, angry at designers he feels are complicit in the design that has ruined things, but he is especially angry at Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg for their leadership at Twitter and Facebook, respectively.

In recent months (July 2020 as I write this; the book was published in 2019) both social media platforms have taken a few steps to enforce what rules or standards they may have, notably when it comes to the content that Trump posts, but I suspect these minor actions would do nothing to curb Monteiro’s ire—and it really shouldn’t, if you buy in even a little to his central premise.

That premise, presented with enthusiastically crude language, is pretty straightforward: Designers have aided and abetted social media platforms into becoming wretched hives of scum and villainy, by simply doing the work asked of them without questioning it, by never objecting, by never “becoming the change.”

In the introduction, Monteiro lays out his take on the world in general and social media in particular:

“We designed the combustion engine that led to global warming (climate change deniers can just stop reading right now). We designed the guns that kill school children. We designed shitty interfaces to protect our private information. We designed the religions that pitted us against one another. We designed social networks without any way of dealing with abuse or harassment. We designed a financial incentives system that would lead Mark Zuckerberg to assert what’s good for the world isn’t necessarily good for Facebook; and lead Jack Dorsey to believe engagement was a more important metric than safety. Either by action or inaction, through fault or ignorance, we have designed the world to behave exactly as it’s behaving right now. These are our chickens coming home to roost.

The world is on its way to ruin and it’s happening by design.”

From here, Monteiro splits his effort between listing the many crimes committed by design (both literal and figurative—a go to example is the engineer at Volkswagen who was “just doing his job” when he programmed the software that would fake diesel emission test results—and went to prison for his efforts after the scandal broke) and offering possible solutions, with a mix of hope and humility. He doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, but he’s willing to put stuff out there, if only to get conversations started.

Framing design as a political act, Monteiro agitates for change from within (unless you work at Twitter or Uber, he advocates outright quitting those two companies), for designers to question decisions that will lead to bad design or worse, deliberately deceitful or malicious design, to find and work on diverse teams, to use the role of designer to stand up against dark patterns, ethically questionable decisions on handling data and so on.

Monteiro is a UX designer with over 20 years of experience and beings immense passion to Ruined By Design. It’s obvious he deeply cares about design and how it has changed the world for the worse. He admits he may lack precision in language—citing his use of “nickel words”—but his ideas are clearly presented, and argued in extensive detail. It’s hard not to root for what he calls for.

The book is aimed directly at designers and though Monteiro uses a broad brush to indicate just who might qualify as a designer, I am not part of this audience. The closest I get to design is choosing a font for the body text on my blog and I am assuming that I am not making the world an actively worse place by choosing Roboto Slab over Helvetica. But even though this book is not aimed at me, the arguments are so compelling and accessible, and apply to so much of what I interact with on a daily basis—that so many of us interact with on a daily basis—that I find myself recommending it unreservedly.

There is a lot to chew on here, and Mike Monteiro does an excellent job in both illustrating the problems design has caused, and the possible solutions that may mediate the damage done.

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Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Save the Cat series of books is aimed primarily at screenwriters, but in this case Jessica Brody has reworked the formula for novel writing.

The book, as befits one concerned about plot, is well-structured, with sections designed for easy reference after the initial read-through. At its core, Brody puts forward that there are 10 core plots that are used in pretty much all successful stories (note that this success is oriented toward readers more than critics, hence the inclusion of novels that have received what some might call unkind reviews, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

In the first chapter Brody describes how we are wired to respond to certain types of stories and covers the usual concerns over “How can I be daring and original if I’m following a strict plot outline?” by saying nothing is really original, but all authors have their own voices and style that separate them from other writers.

The next ten chapters are devoted to an explanation of the specific plot type, covering three essential requirements for each, followed by a “beat sheet” (beats are a big thing in the Save the Cat world) for a specific novel, explaining how it conforms to the particular plot type in question. This is followed by an even more precise summary of the beat sheet, handy for quick reference.

The final chapter is a general set of common questions Brody has addressed in related workshops, along with answers, ranging from the basics of “Where do I start?” to handling multiple narratives. Brody also provides templates on a website that serve as virtual corkboards for plotting (for those who don’t want to use actual corkboards). In all, the information is detailed, but presented in a light, informal style that will be easily accessible to young or new writers, as well as those who have yet to plot their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.

You can get an idea of the tone of the book by observing some of the plot types discussed:

  • Whydunnit
  • Dude with a Problem
  • Buddy Love
  • Monster in the House

All of this may sound very rigid–and it is. Brody does allow that some bending of the rules may be allowed, but that overall these plots, their associated acts, scenes, and overall beats, must be followed to achieve the effect they are meant to have on that primitive part of our brain that responds so well to structured tales.

If you believe in the power of plotting, this is an excellent primer on how to write a novel using any of the ten specific plots discussed. As Brody mentions, it also works well for those trying to fix a work in progress.

For new writers or those who have a tendency to send their initially sound novels upon the rocky shoals of “I don’t know what happens next”, this is recommended.

P.S. “Save the cat” is a reference to how an unlikable main character should do something to show they have a good side or some merit, such as…saving a cat.

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Book review: The Happiness Equation

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything by Neil Pasricha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw Neil Pasricha at The Art of Leadership in Vancouver in December 2019, and he is a passionate, funny speaker, one of those compelling personalities that will compel you to buy-in what they’re saying just through their sheer enthusiasm and exuberant delivery.

In book form the effect is muted, so it’s easier to sit back and ask yourself, “Is this really god advice?”
Of course, one of the things Pasricha writes about in the quest for happiness is to ignore advice. Except sometimes you can listen to it.

A lot of the book trades on this line of thinking—take what you need for you, discard the rest. Be true to yourself, above everything else, and a lot of the happiness that eludes you will fall into place on its own, or at least more readily than it would otherwise.

One of the things Paricha mentioned in his talk that he doesn’t really address in The Happiness Equation, is his view of smartphones. He describes them as “poison”, strongly urging everyone to drastically scale back how much—and for what reasons—they use them. This does tie in with one of the broad philosophies of the book—to be authentic, to not do things to curry favor or approval of others (“This post is sure to get lots of likes!”) but to just be yourself, flaws and all, because this is the foundation of being happy.

It makes sense, really. If you can’t accept who you are, how likely are you to be happy? Pasricha’s advice (which you can accept or reject as appropriate, of course) ranges from the simple (put your gym clothes within easy reach to make it more likely you’ll actually change and go to the gym) to things people would want to consider very carefully—like, how happy is your significant other? Are they dragging you down? Are you better off leaving them?

A lot of the rest of the tips are basically about shutting off access and focusing. He rightly points out that people are easily distracted and tend to multitask poorly. He encourages people to apportion the time to check things like email to a minimum, to “unplug” as much as possible, what some might see as a kind of digital detox. It’s actually pretty appealing, but I say this as someone who works in IT and has started to have had my fill of the same.

At times funny and sometimes a little awkward, there’s a lot to recommend in Pasricha’s approach to achieving happiness, even if some of his declarations are bound to surprise or even shock. He believes retirement is a bad thing and points out that it’s mostly a modern invention, and the argument is compelling. He isn’t suggesting 85 year olds should be working 40 hour weeks, but more that to stay happy, people need to keep doing things and feeling productive, no matter what this things may be.
I’ll revisit this book over time to see how some of its advice plays out. It’s not perfect and Pasricha openly encourages the reader to discard the things that won’t work for them, but there is enough here to at least shake things up a bit and see what happens.

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Book review: Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read so many books on writing without writing that I feel it’s become my official career to write about books about writing.

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit is a good book about writing and manages to put a bit of a unique spin on the usual advice. Instead of addressing story structure, plot, characters and other mechanics, or providing the nitty gritty about finding a good agent or other specifics of the business of writing, Becca Syme instead tackles the things a new or indie writer needs to quit doing–including up to the possibility of not writing anymore.

It’s a light read and the tone is conversational–perhaps a bit too much at times–and the way Syme repeats key phrases, like “QTP” (Question The Premise) makes sections of the book feel more like a transcription of a class or talk (which it is, more or less, based on material she uses in coaching sessions and classes). On the plus side, this lends a kind of authenticity to the topics, as Syme isn’t just writing what sounds good, she’s providing advice based on her own experiences with authors. As a bonus, she is not afraid to point out where she has plainly blown it herself.

A lot of the book is built around tempering expectations and looking after yourself while pursuing the dream of making a living as a writer. Syme flatly states that for most people that this will not happen. Don’t quit your job is not a cliché here, it is a repeated mantra. Chapters are spent framing writing as a hobby you might make a little money from, but that’s all. Do it because you love it, but work it into your existing routines, don’t forfeit your job, time and money pursuing a dream that is unlikely to come true.

That sounds like a downer, and Syme admits as much–that if you don’t have the drive, it’s perfectly fine to just quit writing altogether.

She does address more specific topics, too, taking on the idea that you must plot out your story first (or just improvise and never plot), pulling back to essentially say what works for one writer may not work for you. Do what works for you.

In all, this is a breezy and eminently sensible set of tips on how to tackle the writing life. While it seems aimed at indie writers who have a few published novels already, new writers will benefit from at least considering the advice on offer.

Recommended.

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Book review: A New World

A New World

A New World by Whitley Strieber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much like The Afterlife Revolution, this book is pretty bonkers when viewed through the lens of the world most of us see and know. There is always the chance that Strieber, for reasons unknown, is pulling a very long con (dating back to Communion, published in 1986) or is merely delusional. But while it might make one feel smug to dismiss this as nothing more than crackpot theorizing, there is enough evidence to suggest something is going on.

I’ve long felt that there is a lot in the world and the universe that we don’t understand, that for all our advances and (alleged) intelligence, humans are still pretty primitive. As explorers, we don’t know what is in most of our own oceans. We have only seen our solar system on a limited scale (albeit with some fantastic results) and have ventured no further than the moon when travelling off the planet. We have exploited said planet to the point where we may be accelerating drastic climate change–global warming–and when we need them most, it seems more of us are turning away from science, rational thought and logic, especially those in positions of power, both in business and government.

It’s kind of depressing.

Against this backdrop, A New World is both a summary of Strieber’s previous books recounting his experiences with what he calls the visitors, and a call to action for the visitors–and the reader. For the first time Strieber puts emphasis on having as many people as possible seek out the visitor experience, believing that open communication between us and them may be the only thing that will prevent humanity from being all but wiped out as climate change accelerates (because the visitors will share knowledge that can help us, but won’t do so until we are “ready.”)

In presenting his case, Strieber recalls past experiences, putting them into new perspective, then builds on them by detailing a new chapter with the visitors that began in 2015 and continues now (the most recent events are from a scant month ago as I write this, in November 2019). What it basically comes down to is time is running out and Strieber believes that the more people that join in the communion (sharing) with the Visitors, the better our odds of achieving a communication breakthrough and getting help in literally saving the world.

Again, this sounds bonkers, but Strieber builds his case piece by piece, drawing from experiences he had that feature credible witnesses, to citing other incidents and examples–such as the recent admission from the U.S. Navy that objects captured on video by Navy fighters are actual unknowns. He makes connections that may surprise those who are only familiar with movie aliens. While never stating firmly–as he claims he doesn’t truly know–Strieber posits that the visitors may actually be some form of human from a parallel or mirror universe that is overlapping ours, that they experience time differently, able to see the past and the future, and are attracted to us because we get to experience things in the moment, with a spontaneity they lack.

Also, the dead may also be in this mirror universe as energy beings, and are only able to manifest in the physical realm in very limited ways. While noting that some of the visitors may have ill intent, Strieber says it is only in the same way that some humans are criminals or otherwise operate outside of society’s norms.

As for why they have been so reticent to present themselves openly to us (by landing on, say, the lawn of the White House–and hoo boy, would that be interesting right now), despite possibly having been around for thousands of years (picture Georgio Soukalos leaning forward and saying, “Aliens!”), it’s that they experience reality so differently than we do that just trying to wrap our minds around it can overwhelm us. The visitors can’t chat casually with us because they are fundamentally non-physical beings, so they use imagery and symbols and it all comes out cryptic and weird. We just want to sit down at a table with them, have some tea and get to know each other. They can control things–including themselves, perhaps, at a sub-atomic level. Idle conversation isn’t really possible.

There is a chapter that actually goes into the possible science behind this, referencing everything from Schrodinger’s cat to decoherence and the fine-structure constant. The very nature of reality is brought into question, that the information our senses provide may not be exactly reflective of what reality really is. Strangely, the tone in this chapter is a lot less serious than the others, possibly because the entire thing is framed as trying to prove how something so bizarre can be real.

The book ends on an urgent note, calling on the visitors to more openly present themselves, to “open the doors of their school wide, to us all. We have a planet to lose and our lives along with it, or we have a journey to take.”

As always, Strieber writes clearly and with a sober tone. More than usual he confesses to how strange everything sounds, imploring the reader to make a leap of faith (not necessarily a religious one, but with a spiritual component). He also provides good news to lazy, but generally decent people–you don’t need to believe the visitors are real or that the soul is a thing to contribute positively to the communion process, you just need to be a fundamentally good person.

Any book that ends with that kind of promise can’t be so bad.

As I’ve said, it is difficult to buy into what Strieber talks about, especially if you’ve never experienced anything even tangential to what he talks about, unless you have a very open mind and are willing to think way outside the proverbial box. I keep an open mind (some might say downright vacant) and I find the theories and ideas presented in A New World to be interesting and intriguing. This is in a way a hopeful book, and in these dark times, that goes a long way.

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Book review: The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar's Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone looking for nuts and bolts advice on writing should be warned that this is a collection of some of Block’s fiction columns from Writer’s Digest, and as such they sometimes provide instruction or advice, but sometimes Block just takes you along on his musings about the writing life.

It’s probably also relevant to add that the columns in question date from 1981 to 1987. He mentions typewriters a lot.

And that is probably what I enjoyed most about the book. Some of the writing advice is obviously dated–he has a wonderfully detailed column about self-publishing his own book that isn’t particularly relevant to how self-publishing works in the 2010s, but Block has such an affable style that the column still entertains.

The columns also serve to paint a portrait of the author as he draws extensively on his own experience writing and publishing–he had been in the business about 25 years at the time these columns were new–and in a way, this makes the pieces serve as a kind of memoir. Block recounts his early days writing soft porn novels, confesses to questionable behavior in his youth, details his fights with editors, agents and others, and regularly reminds the reader that what works for him may not work for them and to adjust as needed.

If you want a no-nonsense book about writing full of advice on plot, pacing, story structure, characters–you will find that here, to a degree. But more than that, you will get a good glimpse into the life and habits of a particular writer, and a snapshot look back at what the writing life was like in the 1980s.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your first book on writing advice, but I would recommend it as one of the books to check out.

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Book review: Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect by Mick West

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mick West was a video game programmer in the 90s who cashed out, retired early and became fascinated with conspiracy theories–and then more specifically in debunking them. With plenty of time to support his hobby of debunking, West went on to create multiple sites on the subject, with https://www.metabunk.org being perhaps the best known. This is his first book on the subject.

Escaping the Rabbit Hole delivers exactly what the sub-title promises. West devotes space to general techniques and methods on debunking conspiracies, with the aim of helping you (the reader) to help someone else (referred throughout in the book as “your friend”) break free from believing whatever conspiracy or set of conspiracies they are holding to. He also offers more specific information on some of the more popular–and in one case, more fringe–conspiracy theories, including the claim that a controlled demolition brought down the World Trade Center towers, that the Sandy Hook shootings never happened, the theory that contrails from planes are actually chemtrails either changing the weather or poisoning us (or both), and, of course, the flat earth theory. The latter may boggle any sensible person, because it is by far the most extreme and easily disproved conspiracy theory, yet West provides an example of someone who genuinely believed the earth was flat.

West accompanies each specific conspiracy theory with a shorter chapter chronicling how a particular individual escaped the rabbit hole (such as the aforementioned flat earther), showing how for some it can happen swiftly–in a matter of a week–and how for others it may take years. Often it is the patient work of a friend that pulls them out, but sometimes it is seeing a specific video or getting a critical piece of information at the right time that gives the conspiracist just enough pause to start questioning what they believe. West also shows how it can also be a matter of adherents to a particular theory crossing a line that the believer isn’t prepared to step over.

Throughout the book, West keeps repeating his mantra of being respectful and patient, urging the reader to avoid arguing and mocking the conspiracist’s beliefs, rightly stating that this puts them on the defensive and makes them less receptive to hearing other points of view. He emphasizes the use of examples and evidence, or actual demonstrations where possible that show how the conspiracy theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Anticipating one of the claims conspiracists will throw at him–that he is a simply a paid shill–West spends a chapter providing background on himself and how he came to be a debunker. Reading where he came from and how he ended up running metabunk as a hobby, I both envy and admire him for having the freedom and funds to not just pursue a hobby, but one that will genuinely help to make the world a better place.

He perhaps puts too much faith in the efforts of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to combat bots, disinformation and conspiracy stories/videos. He is heartened by the work they have done (I am more skeptical), but still warns it is likely to get better before it gets worse, with AI growing ever-more sophisticated in its ability to present itself as credible-sounding “people,” not to mention the work being done in the area of deep fakes where pulling apart what is real and what is a fabrication will get increasingly difficult.

Escaping the Rabbit hole is a thorough, sensible and compassionate toolkit for getting someone you know out of the world of conspiracy theories. Even if you don’t know anyone personally who has gone down the rabbit hole, the book’s techniques and background are an interesting examination of modern conspiracy theories and the damage they can do.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy

The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy

The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy by Brian Klaas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oof.

For historical reference, this review was posted in August 2019. The book in question came out in late 2017, a little less than a year into Trump’s term as president of the United States. That means there’s been more than a year and a half of further events and actions to either bolster the case Klaas makes on how Trump is undermining democracy in America, or to provide evidence that Trump has “become” presidential and changed course.

Anyone who knows anything about Trump will know, of course, that the latter was never and is not a realistic scenario. Trump has no experience in government and in the time he has been president has shown little inclination to learn or improve, unless you count improvements on being a terrible person and a terrible leader.

This book is exhausting. Reading it is like getting punched lightly but continuously. It hurts but you go on, because the punching is bound to stop. But it never does.

In the short time span covered, Klaas documents all the horrible things Trump has said and done, underlining how just a few things have essentially kept America’s democracy intact for now–mainly by the grace of Trump’s incompetence and inexperience, and the still relatively strong (but weakening) bedrock that forms the democratic government the U.S. has had since 1776.

The problem, as Klaas points out, is that much of what holds U.S. democracy together, takes the form of political norms and traditions. Presidential candidates always release their tax returns. Presidents don’t profit from their presidency. Presidents don’t mollify dictators while attacking allies. But Trump doesn’t care about norms–he bulldozes through them, showing how fragile democracy is when it relies on people being innately good, or at least respectful of what government should be.

Klaas makes it clear that Trump is not the first president to engage in lies and work at tearing down important government structures, citing Nixon as the obvious modern go-to equivalent, but in comprehensive detail, he lays out how Trump is so much worse–and therefore, more dangerous.

All of this is compounded by America’s troubled history, something Trump has taken advantage of, choosing to divide and turn Americans against each other and the rest of the world. Klaas repeatedly shows how Trump is emulating despots both old and current, by assaulting the free press, by perpetuating damaging lies, by undermining trust in government institutions. The list–and examples–go on and on. As I said, it’s an exhausting read.

The book ends with four possible scenarios (remembering that this came out before the 2018 midterms in which a glimmer of hope was raised when the Democrats won back the House of Representatives), three of which result in things getting worse. The first suggests a slow decay of democracy, as people grow numb and then indifferent to Trump’s actions. The second offers the chilling scenario of a Trump 2.0 coming along and picking up from where Trump left off–but imagines the successor being much more intelligent, savvy, and able to appeal to a broad audience in a way Trump simply can’t, making this person far more dangerous. The third scenario offers Trump the opportunity to use some kind of large scale disaster or terrorist attack to provide cover for further draconian actions under the pretext of national security. George W. Bush’s popularity soared into the 90s following the 9/11 attacks. Trump’s popularity could hit the lofty heights of fifty percent! More seriously, a country under attack or ailing is more vulnerable, and a person like Trump could easily take advantage of that to peel away rights and freedoms.

The fourth scenario offers Trump as a virus, with people banding together to make a vaccine to fight back. This did come to pass in the 2018 midterms, and there is some evidence that it is still a process that is advancing and not retreating. Trump, through it all, has not changed.

In the end this book didn’t really offer me any new insights, but it did lay bare and in explicit detail just how thoroughly, through malice and incompetence, Donald Trump has carried on the work of chipping away democracy in America. Even if he does not get re-elected in 2020, the U.S. is looking at years or even decades to undo the damage already done.

It’s hard to recommend a book like this, but Klaas makes his points clearly. The only fault I can offer is the idea he has of working alongside your political adversaries to keep government functioning and healthy. Klaas states what seems obvious–the Democrats and Republicans can disagree on specific policies, but must work together to keep the institutions of government strong and healthy. In an ideal world this could happen, but the current incarnation of the Republican party has been taken over by extremists who are of much the same mind as Trump. Those who oppose Trump’s actions ineffectively offer criticism from the sidelines or say (and do) nothing at all, making them complicit and helping to enable Trump’s behavior.

If you still hanker for a primer on how Trump’s first year in power emulates the worst sort of authoritarian leader, The Despot’s Apprentice will provide everything you might need. You might want to start by choosing a palette cleanser to read after, though.

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On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer (Million Dollar Writing Series)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slim volume is basically Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker telling you why they use voice dictation for their writing, and the specifics of how they do it. Their techniques differ–Shoemaker dictates while driving a one hour commute to and from work (and emphasizes the safe way to do so), while Anderson usually takes a digital voice recorder with him when he is out on hikes, keeping fit while staying productive. They sometimes overlap methods and Anderson in particular makes use of typing services, which can transcribe at a typical cost of one cent per word or thereabouts. He admits this is not suitable for all writers. A 100,000 word novel would cost $1,000 to transcribe, a hefty sum for a lot of people, especially those new to writing.

Each author also uses dictation for brainstorming, tossing out ideas, character background and more into their recordings. Shoemaker uses Dragon Professional 15.0 to transcribe his recordings and is satisfied with its accuracy, noting that cleanup is always part of the editing process, regardless of writing method.

They cover all the basics–when and where to dictate, overcoming the embarrassment of talking to yourself in public, getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice, and more.

All of this is good stuff, and both writers present their use cases in convincing fashion. The book does lack a certain amount of depth–this is Anderson and Shoemaker relating their experiences, with a minimum of advice, technical or otherwise. Those looking for more specifics on using voice dictation for writing may be better served by checking out The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker (which still covers the latest version of Dragon as of this writing, August 2019) or Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per hour.

Still, this is very much a worthy read, if for no other reason than to provide a little more incentive to making the jump to using voice dictation.

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