Tag Archives: books

‘The Saga of the Pony Express’, by Joseph J. DiCerto – review

The Saga of the Pony ExpressThe Saga of the Pony Express by Joseph J. DiCerto

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

19th Century America was rapidly expanding her territory to the west with the growth of population. So the inception of a rapid mail service across the continent to deliver important business documents, letters of importance both private and governmental, and newspaper articles was inevitable. But it was a risky business to do because crossing the continents at that time meant a perilous adventure fraught with hostile Indians, highwaymen, treacherous desert weathers and temperature, and other unforeseeable elements indicating danger.

DiCerto tells the reader of historical and cultural backgrounds on which the birth of The Pony Express as a joint venture of William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddel was founded against the odds, when the United States as a young nation in the world started to mark herself as a burgeoning western country with booming commerce and increasing population on a vast land in comparison with the European counterparts. During its operation, the service reduced the time for messages to travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts to about 10 days, which is remarkable even for today’s standard of mail transit time. And it is a notable achievement of the Phony Express that the message carrying President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address was delivered from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA by a legendary pony rider Bob Haslam in record 8 hours.  In this book, the author explains about how the Pony Express came to exist despite its short lifespan (April 3rd 1860 ~ October 1861) with the advent of the transcontinental telegraphic system.

The author also relates with his consummate story-telling skills venturesome tales of the fearless young riders of the Express and their work routine, work conditions, and their interesting anecdotes, all of which are based upon veritable document records with pictures. The book is never a bore with the scintillating discourse of the historical context smacking of wits and love of the subject matter by the author who, in fact, asserts that this book is his child out of a long labor of love and passion for this awesome historical enterprise in the American history.

How they stole Christmas spirit

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They dispirited Joy to the World; no more Christmas carols, no more resplendently colorful lights of Christmas trees, let alone no more exchanges of Christmas gifts. Instead, they brandish a Five-starred Red Flag, chanting party doctrines and Chinese cultural manifesto amid a flow of flashy foreign imports and an ostentatious charade of manufactured exports produced in high volume sales at a low unit margin of profit in world market. To paraphrase the universal Shakespeare, I must be cruel, only to be kind: Thus truth begins and reality remains behind. It is indelible truth that in this time of global community, indispensably interconnected by mutual needs and benefits, what is reckoned an Orwellian idea of totalitarianism as fabulously satirized in Animal Farms and 1984 is really happening in our time.

110179To come upon an article from the Internet issue of The Guardian on Chinese government’s banning on Christmas celebrations spurred me on to write this piece of short essay. The journalist objectively reports that the Communist government crack downed on Christmas celebrations, dismissing as “western festivals” that have no cultural values on their Chinese cultural heritage, which should be in turn actively promoted among the comrades. The governmental institutions, schools, and bureaus relayed a directive at the behest of Xi Jinping, disapproving of observation of Christmas as well as practice of Christian religions, under the pretext of “maintaining stability” and cohesiveness of Chinese cultural legacies. Moreover, the myrmidons of Xi, the cult of Communism, ingratiate themselves with old-fashioned propaganda that urges Chinese people to refuse all other foreign (especially, western) festivals because they will corrupt the purity of their culture and weaken their party ideals.

However, such is not a sudden raid on non-Chinese customs or anything that might look threatening to the despotic hegemony of the Communist Chinese Party. It has always been there, but now the tip of the iceberg is beginning to show by Xi’s political ambition conflated with his proud Chinese ethnocentrism. With respect to religious freedom in China, it has not been changed since the Cultural Revolution. For instance, China does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and it has its own version of schismatic Chinese Patriotic Church of China, which the Vatican does not recognize. Not only the Catholics but also other Christian denominators are persecuted. The article informs the reader that the police raided a children’s Bible class, shut churches, and arrested the members because they practiced the religions outside of officially sanctioned institutions, which are in fact none other than governmental institutions vested with the ostensible canopy of a few de rigeur religious objects.

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Woe betides Xi, his myrmidons, the extreme Chinese jingoists, and their sympathizers who blindly declaim about their cultural superiority and proud ethnocentrism lasting for centuries despite their historical losses against the British, the Japanese, the Americans, and the Koreans. According to Ma Jian, a Chinese-British writer whose wife Flora Drew is his English translator, in China Dream, a satire about the Chinese communist totalitarianism, the Party developed a neural implant called the China Dream Device that is inserted to a person’s brain to wipe out his entire memories and dreams and to enter the Party ideals for the glory of New China built upon a gauche mixture of blatant consumerism and blind nationalism. The result is a Big Overfed Child who only thinks for himself and behaves without a decorum of civility common to Civilized Man.

Xi and the Party should first learn by heart that Christmas is not a byproduct of western materialism – which ironically has become their chief god – or an epiphenomenon of western imperialism under the aegis of European Christendom. Christian or non-Christian, Western or Eastern, Christmas is a joyful, a feel-good day that has been celebrated for centuries. It’s a most celebrated holiday season around the world that imparts a sense of warmth, togetherness, love, and hope. It does not require of anyone a special membership to enjoy the spirit. Besides, Jesus of Nazareth was not western but eastern because Israel was and still is geographically located in Asia. In light of the aforesaid, what the leaders and its Leader of the Party should understand is the cultural, religious foundations of not only Christmas Day but also all other legacies of humanity that transcend the subjectivity of time, territory, and tribe because as Edmund Burke also attested: “The standard of reason and taste is universal in all human creatures as regards principles of judgment and of sentiment common to all mankind.” Without the knowledge, China will still be clothed in the Old Mao Suit that does not fit.

 

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‘The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End’, by Hourly History – review

The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End (Mesopotamia History Book 1)The Sumerians: A History From Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always been interested in this mysterious ancient people who were the first inventor of the systematic written language in the history of human civilization. No eminent academics have ascertained where they were from. Subsequently, many a civilization claimed to be their descendants, ranging from the Caucasians to the Indians and even to the Far Easterners. But one thing is certain that the civilization of this enigmatic people merits itself as the cradle of civilization on the grounds of the following characteristics: (1) social structure based upon diverse economic sectors; (2) religious system concomitant with system of government; (3) advances in technology contributing to the cultural and scientific enterprises; and (4) written language, which is the bedrock of any known human civilization. They were the Sumerians. In fact, the Sumerian legacies are the sine qua non of a broad substratum of our modern cultural and social infrastructure. Notwithstanding such contributions, the Sumerians are still veiled in mysterious mist; no one knows for sure where these people came from and then vanished, leaving us with their brilliant legacies as their gifts to human history. Which makes the Sumerians all the more interesting and enigmatic as vividly and elegantly related in this book.

The Sumerian civilization burgeoned in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, also known as one of the River-Valley Civilizations, in modern day Iraq for almost 4,000 years. The staging of the Sumerians in history was akin to a dramatic entrance of a dark horse on stage. In around 3,300 B.C. a group of outsiders with “straight black heads” from nowhere, and they called themselves “Sumerians.” However shady and murky their backgrounds might be, the Sumerians were already smart and practical when they arrived at the land with their already fully developed written language and scientific knowledge, especially on irrigation systems. To elucidate, the priests oversaw the design and building of irrigation systems as something of civil engineers who also controlled the building of embankments to prevent flooding of agricultural land during rainy season in order to allow the rapid transport of produce from farms to cities. In fact, these two inventions are regarded as the most highly advanced and influential enterprises that betoken their cultural sophistication and engineering feats that are hardly inferior to those of ours in modern time. The irrigation resulted from a need of bringing water from the rivers to the fields, and the whole procedure was exclusively operated by the priests, who negotiated with farmers for water supply in exchange of a portion of the harvested crop.

With respect to the writing system, it is known as “the cuniform” engraved in the form of wedge-shaped markings made in wet clay using sharp reeds. And this the necessity of writing came from an accounting need of recording the amounts of agricultural produce. But the Sumerian writing was more than a language of commerce. It also blossomed into an art of literature modeled for other writings, such as famous biblical stories of the Garden of Eden, the Ark of Noah, and the Book of Job were all based upon Sumerian stories allegedly based upon true events that had occurred to them. Also, the words “saffron” and “cane” we use today are derived from the cuniform.

Since Sumerians also instituted farming of the land, instead of being a nomadic hunter-gather people, they established a village as a permanent settlement, which begot food surpluses, creating diverse social structures, including a compartmentalized class system and various types of work unrelated to farming. Sumerians also produced the first codes of law and the first written literature in the form of pieces of writing, such as the Sumerian proverbs as wittingly inserted in the beginning of every chapter of this book. For instance, on the subject of married life one Sumerian man uttered thus: “For his pleasure he got married. On his thinking it over, he got divorced.”Which also bespeaks a permission of divorce in Sumerian society. Sumerians treasured monogamous marriage in which a man gave gifts to the bride and her family upon agreement to a marriage contract. Besides, women were not confined in domestic restraints; they could work as scribes, weavers, and proprietress of businesses.

There were four strata of social class in Sumerian society as follows:

  • Nobles: Senior priests and warriors and their families who owned the most of the land. The nobles distinguished themselves by resplendent clothing made of fine fabrics and impressive jewelry with their shaved heads. They all lived in temples and palaces in the center of the cities where the irrigation systems and commercial centers were located.
  • Commoners: Traders, artisans, merchants, scribes, and craftsmen. In fact, scribes were held in high esteem because of their dual role as accountants. Commoners also owned a small portion of land.
  • Clients: Senior administrators and temple personnel working for nobles who lived in small houses in highly congested streets close to the city walls or outside cities on farms.
  • Slaves: Manual laborers who were prisoners of war or sold into slavery due to the inability to pay the debts. Also, fathers of free people could sell their children into slavery to raise the funds. (So Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in which a man sold his wife and daughter in a public market had its legal foundation in the Sumerian practice.) However, slaves could merry free people and purchase manumission themselves.

The emergence of the above-referenced class system indicates that the Sumerian economic infrastructure was constituted by a variety of business sectors developed in the cities with food surpluses, highly advanced irrigation systems to transport water from the rivers to the farms, and solid military prowess endowed by professional solders and inventions of steel chariots used at war for the first time in history.

In conclusion, the Sumerian contributions to our modern civilization as a collective enterprise are deeply entrenched in many aspects of our life, whether or not we know or even care, because well, let’s face it, history is written by a winner, a victor, a survivor who lives to tell beyond the boundaries of time and space. In this regard, the Sumerians might not be ostentatious de riguer per se victors because just like their mysterious origin, their demise as a sovereign entity with their direct descendants to whom their cultural artifacts and legacies stunned the proliferation of its heritage. Nonetheless, the Sumerian civilization bestrides one of the world’s most significant ancient civilizations that left indelible marks on our cumulative cultural progress as elliptically put by the following Sumerian proverb: “What comes out from the heart of the tree is known by the heart of the tree.” You see, the Sumerians were indeed brilliant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

French Dinner, Lords’ Supper

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Getting ready for the dinner

Nice Christmas office dinners are all alike. Any not-so-nice Christmas office dinner is boring in its own fashion. It all depends on a venue and invitees, and a host of the occasion that create an ambiance and conjure up a spirit of the minor revelry. That said, this Christmas office dinner Seraphina attended last night was a nice and delicious revelation of characters, personalities, and tastes served with a fashionably delicious Haute cuisine at a fashionably cultural restaurant in downtown nearby the office. It was an unusual raillery of lawyers – the lords of the firm as Seraphina would like to think – whose stiffness seemed to be temporally suppressed by the intoxication of prime red wine. All of this became a valuable empirical addition to Seraphina’s quest for a meaning of her life, a voyage into the heart of the world, the terra incognita, charting her emotional course according to the winds of her unknown destiny.

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The course menu designed for the lords’ banquet

The dinner began at La Boum, a new European fusion restaurant in town, at 6:30 PM. As Seraphina wended her direction toward the restaurant, she bethought herself of Somerset Maugham’s adage: “At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” It was one of the best sagacious and elliptical advice on how to conduct oneself at such occasion, thought she. Or was it just a universal principle to be a civilized guest at a social event? It’s just that when such common sensible etiquette is uttered by a notable person like Maugham, it carries a tone of authority, power of significance. Come to think of it, the Little Prince in the eponymous novel by French aristocrat, writer, poet, and aviator Antone de Saint-Exupery thought the same when a Turkish astronomer dressed in the traditional costume presented himself at an academic convention, no one paid attention to him but belittled his outstanding scientific achievements. It was not until he changed his costume to a well-tailored suit that his fellow astronomers took him seriously and attended to his remarkable scientific contributions. Well, that’s one of the human foibles and follies that we all stumble upon no matter how educated and good-hearted we are, contemplated Seraphina, Lady Philosopher, as she was approaching near La Boum.

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The marvelous chef and proprietor of La Boum Monsieur Randy Beaver

All the partners of the firm had already been expecting Seraphina’s elegant entrance into the restaurant. Always a principled, reliable, and capable assistant, Seraphina was their sine qua non, and they all could not exert their years of expertise on their areas of law, ranging from corporate to litigation, without her existence at the office. So they could not help but beam with smile at her beautiful presence into the dinner table that would have been rather drab and dreary without her graceful presence like Beatrice serving as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory in Virgil’s Divine Comedy. So the course of dinner commenced with a glass of red wine made in 1986. It was amazing to see how just one sip of wine making a person agreeable and sociable quite contrary to his usual stiff and standoffish self. That might be the reason why Dionysus, the god of wine and anything relating to intoxicating spirits, was indiscriminately revered by all regardless of status, sex, and age in the antiquity. And the cult is still going strong all over the world.

Amid the intoxicated euphoria under a glowing chandelier, Seraphina was observing the faces of the partners, the purveyors of her sustenance, her daily victuals, her existential livelihood. In the dusky glow, her minor and major bosses seemed full of amiable qualities. Seraphina liked their polished frankness, their intelligence, their sense of humor, their lack of snobbishness. Even the occasional moroseness and astuteness which sometimes were so like abrasiveness now seemed the natural sign of social ascendancy belonging to the station. They were lords of the world she now decided to care for, and they were ready to accept her only if she was willing to make it her primary world, not the secondhand, which had been that world she was now beginning to turn herself in. Or so it seemed at the moment. But one thing was certain that she felt within her a secret allegiance to their standards, an acceptance of the demands imposed upon her unavoidable obligations, a scornful pity for the people who would put their ideal ideas before existential needs and adhere to abstract abracadabra of metaphysical philosophy of life. Now she began to despise all such feckless rabbles, the starving intellectuals without the gumption, the proud egoists who put forward their own doctrines of life in which Seraphina would not want to find herself. Already she was beginning to feel like a new person at the denouement of the dinner. And her qualms about leaving for her imago bespoke a vestige of her abstract self that only lived in a textual world.

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‘The Rational Optimist’, by Matt Ridley -review

The Rational Optimist (P.S.)The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are anxious about when the sky will fall upon your head, you sure need to read this book that will awaken you from the ghastly trance  cast by populists who make living out of scaring people. The fallacy of popular pessimistic views on the impending end of the world resulting from overpopulation, a lack of food, or any other apocalyptic reasons befitting a doomsday scenario, arises out of sheer ignorance of the nature of the human progress and/or of willful negligence of acknowledging it so as to populate epidemic scare across the globe for sensational attention and personal gains on the part of the popular authors of such doomsday scenarios.

This book by Matt Ridley is a fresh breath of air that gives people of the world a beacon of truth. Ridley asserts on the grounds of rational evidence and explanation that the progress of the human race within the historical times ranging from the ancient Greek/Roman times to the modern time has been made possible by collective human intelligence by which we exchange our ideas, skills, and knowledge in the form of specialized division of labor. This social collectivism, whether tacitly or unconsciously realized by doers, appertains to synchronicity, a kind of inter-brain entrainment in which information based on experience is exchanged between individuals, which is also known as collective phenomenon. This collective intelligence is a vital essence of cultural evolution which results from selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits. It is this element of cumulative culture that makes us singularly different from beasts. Since this social trait is innately pre-programmed in mankind, there is no inevitable end to specialization of efforts and talents that keeps this collective phenomenon going. In fact, more jobs will be produced in more specialized areas contrary to brooding premonition that technology will push out manpower from work.

In sum, Ridley aims to enlighten readers about the necessities of changes as part of cultural evolution for the betterment of mankind and the world itself. In the human history, no other time period has produced the better living conditions and cultural developments than those we have now due to a continued cumulative cultural evolution, which links to the evolution of the origins by natural selection. This book renders me a feeling that how wasteful it would be fretting about the uncertain and dark future that looks darker by popular theories of dystopian economic and social future. Just as Ridley will remain a steadfast rational optimist, I will continue to perform demands imposed upon daily tasks of life as a contribution to the orderliness and constancy of the world just as my ancestors did because I know the world will not fall in calamity as long as we as a collective body of the human race exist.