altMark Schweizer's Liturgical Mysteries (St. James Music Press)

The Alto Wore Tweed (2002), The Baritone Wore Chiffon (2004), The Tenor Wore Tapshoes (2005), The Soprano Wore Falsettos (2006), The Bass Wore Scales (2006), The Mezzo Wore Mink (2008), The Diva Wore Diamonds (2010), The Organist Wore Pumps (2010), The Countertenor Wore Garlic (2011), The Christmas Cantata (2011), The Treble Wore Trouble (2012), The Cantor Wore Crinolines (2013), The Maestro Wore Mohair (2015), The Choir Director Wore Out (2018)

Back in 2000, I read and reviewed the first book in this series, The Alto Wore Tweed. I don't know what took me so long to get to the rest of it, but once I restarted, I couldn't stop. Four years ago, I said, "This book is just for fun. If there is something of redeeming social value about it, I didn't notice, but I laughed longer and harder than I have over a book in a long time." Our choir director introduced me to the series—we get some of our anthems from St. James Press, and are currently singing one by Mark Schweizer himself. Yes, he knows whereof he speaks when he writes about being a church musician!

Hayden Konig is the chief of police in St. Germaine, a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. He's also the organist and choir director of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, across the street from the police station, and a would-be writer of "hard-boiled" detective fiction. St. Germaine could be Jan Karon's Mitford....except for all the murders.

The stories could stand by themselves as delightful "cozy" mysteries, but what really makes them so amusing to me is Schweizer's highly accurate view of life in the Episcopal church, from a musician's point of view. Allowing for literary license, and concomitant exaggeration and hyperbole, there is so much about the Episcopal Church (and choirs, and other denominations, and small town life) that he just nails. There's plenty of wordplay of the kind I dearly love, and for those in the know, lots of what are known in the computing world as "Easter eggs"—here in Central Florida we call them "Hidden Mickeys." For example, here's one of my favorites:

[Speaking of a tent-revival preacher] The good reverend had an assistant who would be choosing the Gospel passages on which Hogmanay McTavish would preach each and every evening. This assistant was what many politically correct folks might call "Poultry-American." Other folks might call her "dinner." Her name was Binny Hen. Binny Hen the Scripture Chicken.

I'm certain many of Schweizer's gems have gone over my head, but having lived within five miles of Benny Hinn's ministry in Central Florida, I couldn't miss that one.

I said that there was nothing of redeeming social importance in these tales, but the truth is that they contain a good deal of accurate information about both Episcopal Church services and classical choral music. Granted, even in our heyday our thurifer was unable to draw Biblical scenes in smoke; I've never had a choir director who was independently wealthy (that's some wishful thinking on the part of the author, I suspect); and I doubt Tim keeps a pistol in the organ bench (though I've never checked). Thankfully, the rates of crime and moral turpitude among the choir, congregation, and clergy are greatly exaggerated, but for general misbehavior—such as persistent chatting during rehearsal, and whining about the music—it is spot on.

If the "crimes and moral turpitude" are all too human, the language is quite mild for modern writing, the worst I could find being the following passage, in which cleverness covereth a multitude of sins.

Her name was Barbara—Barbara Seville—and she was a mezzo. Some said she slid to the top of the opera world on her husband’s money: that before she married Aristotle bin Laden, she’d been demoted to seamstress and spent most of her time in the wings tucking up the frills instead of on the stage doing the opposite.

Here are some brief passages I particularly enjoyed. Expect further excerpts in subsequent posts. Some are from the mystery itself, and some from the detective fiction Konig writes in his spare time and copies onto the backs of the Psalm copies for the choir to read during the sermon.

"I thought you had given up beer for Lent," Meg said.

"I started to, but then I decided to give up meddling in church politics. In order to do that, I'm going to need the beer."

The following is unfortunately an accurate discription of our own church's sound system.

Our sound system in the church was minimal—just a little amplification for the readers and the priest. Trying to send music through it was akin to listening to a symphony over a CB radio.

I began to suspect that the alto section was trying to forestall the rehearsal of the Harris piece. The alto line had been giving them fits for the last two rehearsals. The soprano section, on the other hand, was sitting quietly and smiling demurely, having already mastered most of the notes in the upcoming anthem. Basses and tenors were, by all indications, asleep.

“You know there’s a handgun in the organ bench?”

“Yeah. That’s mine. It’s a Glock 9mm. Tends to keep the tenors in tune.”

“A new dive just opened up across from St. Gertrude’s. It sounds like our kind of place. Good looking beer-fräuleins in tight shirts, lots of German brews, and Baroque organ music from a three-manual Flentrop with a sixteen-foot heckelphone you can really hang your hat on.”

“Sounds sweet,” I agreed, suddenly interested. “What’s this place called?”

“Buxtehooters.”

"Nancy's off today, Dave's in at noon," I said, and sipped my coffee. "I'm hoping there's no crime wave till tomorrow."

"You're probably okay," said Cynthia. "We've had two murders in two weeks and I heard that yesterday someone tried to bludgeon the bishop to death with his own stick. That should do us for a while."

I sighed. "We've had two unrelated deaths and the bishop just happened to be standing in the way when Humphrey Brownlow decided to attack the video drone with the crozier during a naked baptism."

"Video drone?" said Pete. "Naked baptism? I've got to start going back to church."

"You know," said Cynthia, giggling, "I've heard of other churches that get together to sing hymns of faith, hear a sermon, pray for each other, and then go out to lunch afterward."

"Where's the fun in that?" I said.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 9, 2024 at 6:00 am | Edit
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Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

This was not the Sarah Lohman book that first caught my eye. That honor belongs to Endangered Eating: America's Vanishing Foods, which was published in October of last year. But I make extensive use of eReaderIQ to find good prices for Kindle books, and Eight Flavors came up first.

Lohman tells the stories of eight quintessentially American flavors: where they came from, how they get to us, how they became "American" from their widely divergent sources. This is a book my father would have loved, and so, I believe would my sister-in-law, who has in the past given us several similar books.

Eight Flavors is easy and delightful reading. My main complaint is that Lohman is thoroughly immersed in her modern, urban culture, in which heretofore objectionable language is casually used, and worse, historical events cannot be presented without pointing out how oppressive and racist the people were back then. A simple example: In the chapter on garlic, she quotes a 1939 magazine article that remarks on the cultural assimilation of Italian-American baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio with, “He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.” Lohman dubs it "first-class casual racism," even though her chapter clearly explains that garlic, a hallmark of Italian cooking, was still a foreign taste to many Americans. I remember that when we lived just outside of Boston, the train would pass a set of apartments that were popular among people from India; the scent of Indian spices was distinctive and pervasive, even from the train. I'll grant that there's no subtlety in that observation—for all I could tell, the residents might have been Bengali or Pakistani rather than Indian—but there's nothing evil about it.  Noting that one can often tell by sense of smell what food a person has recently eaten is not racist—especially when the flavor is as strong as garlic.

She also reveals her (sometimes understandable) contempt for people who don't recognize that "chemical additives" are sometimes identical to the chemicals present in totally natural products. She acknowledges that the flavors found in nature are much more complex than the primary flavor molecule (e.g. vanilla versus vanillin) but at the same time dismisses the point.

All that aside, it's an enjoyable book. I'll share Lohman's list of delightful flavors to whet your appetite.

  1. black pepper
  2. vanilla
  3. chili powder
  4. curry powder
  5. soy sauce
  6. garlic
  7. monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  8. sriracha
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 15, 2024 at 1:52 pm | Edit
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The Shift is a new movie from Angel Studios, the folks who brought us Sound of Freedom. I thought the latter so worthwhile I wanted to support the studio and give The Shift a chance.

First, the good:

  • I cannot imagine making a movie out of the Book of Job, which consists almost entirely of Job and his friends making long speeches to one another. This is a creditable effort.
  • Neal McDonough plays a very convincing Satan.

But here's why it was not a good experience:

  • I'm an old-fashioned science fiction fan, and like my stories rational, logical, and scientific, with more thought than action (think Isaac Asimov). I'm not at all fond of multiverse stories, nor of confusing story lines and rapid transistions, which pretty much describes most of the movie.
  • I'm tempted to say the movie is too short—except that at times it felt too long. We need to get to know the characters better. Granted, the Book of Job doesn't go in for much character development, either.
  • It's not the film's fault, but the volume in the theater was so extreme that even my earplugs—which I take everywhere I go—couldn't do the job of making the experience pain-free. The bass, for example, was not just loud, but physically painful, the sound waves literally pummeling my body for 90% of the movie.

If you stay to the end of the credits, you will be assured more than once that the very best way to view a film is in a theater. Nope. Not even close. I'll take my small-screen TV with controllable volume and my own popcorn any day.

But that's me; your mileage may vary.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, December 12, 2023 at 3:47 pm | Edit
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EReaderIQ is my good friend, and it ought to be Amazon's, given how much of my business they've sent the company's way. I partially understand that Amazon might be annoyed that I'm buying these Kindle books because eReaderIQ informed me that they were on special sale, but the reality is that I've spent a whole lot more money on amazon.com than I would have otherwise, even if most of my purchases have been in the $1 to $4 range.

One of the things I've been having fun with is accumulating books that I particularly enjoyed in my childhood. There are those I can't remember well enough to find again, even though I know I found them special at the time. And there are those that aren't available as e-books, or inexpensive second-hand books. But I've been finding enough books to keep enriching someone's coffers, though quite often the authors themselves are dead.

One such author is Walter Farley, with his Black Stallion series. A friend and neighbor of mine had her own pony, and induced me to vary my science fiction reading with some horse stories. This was one series I fell in love with, and I've so far picked up three of the first four for $3 each.

Sometimes rereading old favorites reminds me of why I loved them; sometimes the pleasure is marred by things I didn't notice sixty years ago. Rereading the Black Stallion books has done both.

As a child, I loved adventure stories with young people as the heroes. I still do. The Rick Brant books and Robert Heinlein's "juveniles" were another two series that I loved. (Heinlein's adult books were a mixed bag, some good, some awful—but I loved the ones with youthful protagonists.) Looking back, I'm a little surprised it didn't bother me that it was mostly boys who had all the fun in these stories; females tended to be overly-protective mothers or weak, silly girls. But it didn't bother me; I strongly identified with the boys and ignored the girls. (And no, that doesn't mean I had any gender confusion in real life, any more than I thought I lived on Mars or could leap tall buildings in a single bound.)

On rereading the Black Stallion books, I can see clearly both gender and cultural stereotypes that were common during the 1940's, which is when the first five books in the series were written. But I don't find it objectionable; it all seems pretty reasonable for the time. If I read a book set in a particular time and place, I want it to reflect the culture and values of that location. There is little more annoying in a book than finding 21st century American values in the mouths of characters who are supposedly from a very different time and culture.

The Black Stallion Returns, for example, is primarily set in Arabia, and perhaps someone who really knows the culture of that time would find inaccuracies, but to my knowledge it is close enough, perhaps even with educational value. Certainly the culture and people, while acknowledged as different, are treated with respect.

And the culture back home? That's accurate, too. There really was a time in this country when children grew up with loving, supportive parents, where men and women married "till death us do part," and where children—boy children, at least—were given a lot more opportunities for adventure than they are now. Even if not quite to the extent that the characters in these adventure stories experience. That last part is where "suspension of disbelief" is required, but not the setting. That's the world I grew up in. Even if I hadn't, I think I'd rather read books like these than the depressing books that are marketed as "realistic fiction" today.

I'm curious to see how many of the Black Stallion books make it to the "can't pass this up" price range. I know I missed many of them as a child, being limited by a very small village library. Even the nearest "big library" wasn't all that large, and we didn't get there very often. There was no Inter-Library Loan, and buying books was rarely within the budget. I'm hoping I may have the opportunity to read some new-to-me stories.

Culturally, it may have been a more satisfactory time when I was young, but having such access to books as we have now is to me almost immeasurable wealth.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 6, 2023 at 6:21 am | Edit
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Twice now I have published my review of Andrew Scott Cooper's The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, the original review in 2017 and a reprise in 2020. You can read either of those to see why you should read this book.

To see why you should buy (and read) this book now, I'm telling you that the Kindle version is currently available for $1.99 on Amazon. That's the price of three postage stamps, or a small order of waffle fries at Chick-fil-a.

If you're concerned about the current cultural and political situation in the United States, you owe it to yourself to see what was going on in Iran 45 years ago. It may be even more important to read if you're not concerned about our situation.  If you're intimidated by the length of the book, or the subject, I strongly recommend reading at least the first few pages: the People, the Events, and the Introduction. That's only 25 pages. By then, you may be hooked, as I was; if not you will at least have been given a good overview of what is fleshed out in the remainder of the book.

And this is a good time to remind you of how helpful the eReaderIQ service can be, which will alert you when the Kindle versions of books or authors you are interested in have special sales. The last time I bought this book it cost $13.

WARNING:  These sales can come and go quickly, so if you have any interest, I'd recommend grabbing the book now.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 23, 2023 at 11:07 am | Edit
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It's not often we go to a movie theater. Seriously. I may have forgotten something, but I believe the last time we did so was in 2016, to see "Sully." But yesterday I couldn't resist venturing out for "Sound of Freedom."

Why? Well, for one thing, the subject—modern-day slavery and human trafficking—sounded important and serious and worth spending time on.  I look at the ads for so many movies these days and they sound boring at best. For another, I unexpectedly caught an interview with Tim Ballard, the real-life hero upon whom the film is based, and then later another with Jim Caviezel, the actor who portrays him. Ballard was a Homeland Security agent who quit his job of bringing down paedophiles in order to focus on rescuing their victims. I'm generally leery of movies that are "based on a true story," because they are so often inaccurate, but over and over again, Ballard would say, "yes, that really happened," or "that's actually understated," and he obviously approves of the film. Caviezel's interview was inspiring as well.

Perhaps the largest factor driving my desire to see "Sound of Freedom" was the surprising, even virulent opposition to the movie from sources I would have expected to cheer any effort to bring light into the deep darkness of slavery, kidnapping, human trafficking, and the exploitation of children. Unfortunately, that seemed to fit into a pattern I've been observing recently, that of downplaying the very existence of modern-day slavery, and pushing the idea that sex workers especially, even children, are voluntary participants in the business. Since no sane observer of human nature and human history could possibly really believe that, I had to see what it was that had generated such fierce opposition.

The only conclusion I can come to is that either (1) evil is now, if not worse than at any point in human history, at least more generally accepted by ordinary people as normal, or (2) there are a lot of rich and powerful people who have a great interest in the sex-slave trade. Probably both.

Even suggesting that is likely to get you labelled as a "conspiracy theorist"; as the makers of "Sound of Freedom" have learned. My opinion has always been that there's no need to call conspiracy anything that can be explained by mere human stupidity, but these days I'm seriously considering making myself a t-shirt that proclaims, "The Conspiracy Theorists Were Right."

Anyway, "Sound of Freedom" has my highest recommendation. Those who are accustomed to the ultra-fast-paced movies of today might find a few scenes a bit slow, but that didn't trouble me at all. The film is rated PG-13, which is pretty mild considering the subject matter. It's a story about a very dark and evil subject, but is nonetheless filled with goodness and hope. That's hard to beat.

Go ahead, do yourself a favor. See "Sound of Freedom." I'm not sure how young an age group should see it. Definitely our three oldest grandchildren could, but for younger than that it might be too intense. Probably PG-13 isn't a bad guideline.

It's not an easy film to watch, especially for parents and grandparents, but it's a good one.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, July 22, 2023 at 8:23 pm | Edit
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Over the years, Porter has ordered all sorts of movies from Netflix (the old-fashioned, DVD-in-the-mail way), and every once in a while one will catch my attention, too. I wasn't planning to watch Bridge of Spies, but I wandered into the room at the wrong time, and was soon hooked. Probably because it's based on true events, maybe because it stars Tom Hanks. Anyway, it's a worthwhile movie. Here's one of the trailers (under two minutes).

What has stayed with me clearest and longest from the movie is a single quote. Actually, it's one quote but used multiple times. You can see three in this 2.5-minute video.

"Would it help?" We find ourselves asking each other that question a lot these days, when we all have so many things to worry about. It makes us smile, and maybe let go of a little anxiety.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 at 9:05 pm | Edit
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 The Queen's Poisoner by Jeff Wheeler (47North, 2016)
 The Thief's Daughter by Jeff Wheeler (47North, 2016)

 The King's Traitor by Jeff Wheeler (47North, 2016)

Jeff Wheeler is a prolific author with enough books to keep me going for a very long time. Due to the length of my current reading list, it will be a while before I get to any of his other fantasy worlds—unless our grandchildren start reading them. But these three were a delight. I'm very grateful to the friend who recommended Jeff Wheeler to me. Here's what she wrote about his books:

As for Fantasy, Jeff Wheeler is at the top of my search list. Though I am long past the age of the readers his books are aimed at, I thoroughly enjoy the worlds he has created, borrowing liberally from the Arthurian Legend, Shakespeare, and the Bible! Sometimes his allusions are obvious; others, I have a belated OMG moment when I realize a certain character is actually a well-known figure from our own legends of the past. I should add that through thick and thin Wheeler emphasizes the honorable behavior of his young protagonists, including chastity.

You certainly don't need to catch all his allusions (or even any of them) to enjoy the books, but they are delightful, like finding hidden Mickeys at Disney World, or Easter eggs in a computer game.

The Queen's Poisoner, the first in the Kingfountain series, was a true joy to read, probably because the protagonist is young. The second, The Thief's Daughter, was not so hard to put down because the character has grown enough to make romance—one of my least favorite genres—a significant element, but there was enough action to get me through it. Plus, the romantic element has an interesting twist. And in the final book, The King's Traitor, you get all three: interesting children, romance with surprises (but not too much), and satisfying action.

All in a world where good is good, evil is evil, and both degradation and redemption are real.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 8, 2023 at 5:22 am | Edit
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Is It Always Fun to Travel Abroad? by Antonio Evaristo Morales-Pita (Austin-Macauley, 2021)

I wasn't happy to discover that Porter had bought this book.

We were in Chicago, worshipping at the wonderful church of our former rector. After the service, the author approached Porter, engaged him in conversation (normal for after a church service) and pressured him to buy his new book (not normal).

Having bought it, I figured we ought to read it, but I was not looking forward to the experience. Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it—enough that I figure it's worth a review.

The author was born in Cuba, lived there through Castro's revolution and long afterwards, and eventually ended up an American citizen. Whenever and wherever he was, he travelled as much as he could. He speaks several languages and if he didn't come anywhere near visiting every country in the world it wasn't for lack of trying. In this book he briefly describes some of the major events of his life, and the places he visited, including his recommendations of what to see and do.

Is the book well-written? Frankly, no. The author's English isn't as good as it might be—what works really well for speaking does not always translate well to writing. I also found it too egotistical for my taste. In short, the book is a walking testimony to the importance of editors in the world of publishing. More than anything else, the book sounds to me like a personal blog.

But I like reading blogs. I write a blog. I like the writing of ordinary people telling their own stories, and I don't hold them to the highest publishing standards.

You can get your own copy of Is It Always Fun to Travel Abroad? on amazon.com for less than $4. Let me just say that we vastly overpaid for our copy. On the other hand, we do have an autographed edition. :) And it is fun to read about the author's travels abroad and to get his perspective on places and events.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 28, 2023 at 5:55 am | Edit
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The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2017)

I read Live Not By Lies first. The Benedict Option was written three years earlier, and the two make good companion pieces for asking vitally important questions about our lives, our priorities, and our actions. In Live Not by Lies I preferred the first half of the book to the second; with The Benedict Option my reaction was the opposite. I find myself quarrelling with Dreher in a number of places, but nonetheless highly recommend both books, because he is observant, and he is asking the important questions. Dreher predicts very hard times coming for Christians—and others—as our society diverges more and more radically from its classical Western and Christian roots and values.

In my review of Live Not by Lies I mentioned that despite being specifically written for Christians, it's an important book for a much wider audience. The Benedict Option is less comprehensive in scope, especially the first part, but still useful. In Kindle form, it's currently $10, but if you use eReaderIQ and are patient, you can get it for quite a bit less. And don't forget your public library!

You know I'm not in the business of summarizing books. I don't do it well, for one thing. When one of our grandsons was very young, if you asked him what a book was about, he would instead rattle off the whole thing, word for word from memory. I'm like that, minus the superb memory. But secondarily, I don't think summaries do a good book any favors. The author has put together his arguments, or his plot and characters, in the way he thinks best, and trying to pull it apart and reduce it seems to me rude and unfair. Or maybe I'm just trying to justify my weakness, I don't know.

But if I were forced to write my simplest take-away from The Benedict Option, it would be this: Riding along with the current of mainstream culture may have worked all right for us when American culture was solidly rooted in Judeo-Christian and Western ideals, but that time is long gone. Doing the right thing—whatever that might be in a given situation—might never have been easy, but it's harder than when I was young, and it's on track to get much worse.

With that cheerful thought, here are a few quotes. Bold emphasis is my own.

Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. (p. 12). 

I agree wholeheartedly about building communities, institutions, and networks. However, I don't think we should abandon political work. After all, for half a century, Roe v. Wade looked absolutely unassailable, and now there's at least a small crack. Prudence would say to do both: attend to politics (a civic duty, anyway), without putting our faith in political solutions, and at the same time prioritize the building of helpful communities, institutions, networks—and especially families.

The 1960s were the decade in which Psychological Man came fully into his own. In that decade, the freedom of the individual to fulfill his own desires became our cultural lodestar, and the rapid falling away of American morality from its Christian ideal began as a result. Despite a conservative backlash in the 1980s, Psychological Man won decisively and now owns the culture—including most churches—as surely as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and other conquering peoples owned the remains of the Western Roman Empire. (pp. 41-42).

People today who are nostalgic for the 1960's are mostly those who didn't live through them, I think. It was not a nice time.

Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church. “Your majesty,” the cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
 (p. 49).

You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let His grace heal us and change us. To this end, what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it. (p. 52).

[T]he day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. This is why asceticism—taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal—is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life. ... [A]scetical practices train body and soul to put God above self. ... To rediscover Christian asceticism is urgent for believers who want to train their hearts, and the hearts of their children, to resist the hedonism and consumerism at the core of contemporary culture. (pp. 63-64).

For most of my life ... I moved from job to job, climbing the career ladder. In only twenty years of my adult life, I changed cities five times and denominations twice. My younger sister Ruthie, by contrast, remained in the small Louisiana town in which we were raised. She married her high school sweetheart, taught in the same school we attended as children, and brought up her kids in the same country church.

When she was stricken with terminal cancer in 2010, I saw the immense value of the stability she had chosen. Ruthie had a wide and deep network of friends and family to care for her and her husband and kids during her nineteen-month ordeal. The love Ruthie’s community showered on her and her family made the struggle bearable, both in her life and after her death. The witness to the power of stability in the life of my sister moved my heart so profoundly that my wife and I decided to leave Philadelphia and move to south Louisiana to be near them all. (pp. 66-67)

Dreher wrote about his sister's struggle and the effect it had on him in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which I have also read, and may eventually review. As with all of his books, I have mixed feelings about that one. He idolizes his sister and her choices in a way I find uncomfortable, and reduces almost to a footnote the damage those choices did, to him and to others.

Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world—to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.” The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality. (p. 73).

Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.” (p. 73).

Though orthodox Christians have to embrace localism because they can no longer expect to influence Washington politics as they once could, there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty. Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option. Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values. What’s more, Christians who don’t act decisively within the embattled zone of freedom we have now are wasting precious time—time that may run out faster than we think. (p. 84).

I know the book was written for Christians, but I wish Dreher had also emphasized how important this is for everyone. No one can afford to ignore the trampling of someone's Constitutional rights, even if they don't affect us personally. If Christians lose their First Amendment protections, no person, no group, no idea is safe.

Lance Kinzer is living at the edge of the political transition Christian conservatives must make. A ten-year Republican veteran of the Kansas legislature, Kinzer left his seat in 2014 and now travels the nation as an advocate for religious liberty legislation in statehouses. “I was a very normal Evangelical Christian Republican, and everything that comes with that—particularly a belief that this is ‘our’ country, in a way that was probably not healthy,” he says. That all fell apart in 2014, when Kansas Republicans, anticipating court-imposed gay marriage, tried to expand religious liberty protections to cover wedding vendors, wedding cake makers, and others. Like many other Republican lawmakers in this deep-red state, Kinzer expected that the legislation would pass the House and Senate easily and make it to conservative Governor Sam Brownback’s desk for signature. It didn’t work out that way at all. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce came out strongly against the bill. State and national media exploded with their customary indignation. Kinzer, who was a pro-life leader in the House, was used to tough press coverage, but the firestorm over religious liberty was like nothing he had ever seen. The bill passed the Kansas House but was killed in the Republican-controlled Senate. The result left Kinzer reeling. “It became very clear to me that the social conservative–Big Business coalition politics was frayed to the breaking point and indicated such a fundamental difference in priorities, in what was important,” he recalls. “It was disorienting. I had conversations with people I felt I had carried a lot of water for and considered friends at a deep political level, who, in very public, very aggressive ways, were trying to undermine some fairly benign religious liberty protections.”

...

Over and over he sees ... legislators who are inclined to support religious liberty taking a terrible pounding from the business lobby. (p. 84-86).

Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith. (p. 87).

Agreed—except that I would put "Christian parents" or just "parents" ahead of "institutions." Dreher is a strong advocate for Christian schools at every level, especially the so-called Classical Christian schools with their emphasis on rigorous academics. However, he gives short shrift to home education, an option that is at least as important and in need of support.

Because Christians need all the friends we can get, form partnerships with leaders across denominations and from non-Christian religions. And extend a hand of friendship to gays and lesbians who disagree with us but will stand up for our First Amendment right to be wrong. (p. 87). 

Over and over again I have seen the importance of these partnerships. In all the "fringe" movements I've been a part of, from home education to home birth to small and sustainable agriculture, this collaboration with others with whom we had next to nothing else in common made progress for the movements, and—which was perhaps even more valuable—forced us to work beside and learn to appreciate those who were in other ways our political opponents.

Most American Christians have no sense of how urgent this issue is and how critical it is for individuals and churches to rise from their slumber and defend themselves while there is still time. We do not have the luxury of continuing to fight the last war. (pp. 87-88).

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 at 6:10 am | Edit
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It's that time again: Here's my annual compilation of books read during the past year.

  • Total books: 83
  • Fiction: 65 (78.3%)
  • Non-fiction: 16 (19.3%)
  • Other: 2 (2.4%)
  • Months with most books: February (27)
  • Month with fewest books: A tie between April and October (2 each)
  • Most frequent authors: Brandon Sanderson (24), Randall Garrett (23), Brian Jacques (9). As with last year, Randall Garrett is an anomaly; he makes such a strong showing because he was the subject of a particular focus and—thanks to the way I've accounted for them—his books are generally quite short. Actually, each of the runaway leaders was part of a special focus.  Both Jacques (with his Redwall series) and Sanderson (with his seemingly infinite collection) combine very interesting stories with books that my grandchildren are currently reading, which makes them especially attractive.  These two authors made up 40% of this year's total reading.  That's by number of books; if you count pages, Sanderson is immeasurably ahead.  (That's "immeasurably" as in "I am not going to bother to do the calculations.")

Here's the list, grouped by title; links are to reviews. The different colors in the titles only reflect whether or not you've followed a hyperlink. The ratings (★) and warnings (☢) are on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest/mildest. Warnings, like the ratings,  are highly subjective and reflect context, perceived intended audience, and my own biases. Nor are they completely consistent. They may be for sexual content, language, violence, worldview, or anything else that I find objectionable. Your mileage may vary.  Ratings in red indicate books I found particularly recommendable this year.

Title Author Category Rating/Warning Notes
...After a Few Words Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Anchorite Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
The Asses of Balaam Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Belly Laugh Randall Garrett fiction ★ ☢  
The Benedict Option Rod Dreher non-fiction ★★★★  
The Bible: Apocrypha Revised Standard Version non-fiction ★★★★  
The Bible: New Testament Revised Standard Version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Bible: New Testament King James Version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Bible: Psalter King James Version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Bible: Tanakh Old Testament, Jewish version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Black Stallion Walter Farley fiction ★★★★★  
The Black Star of Kingston S. D. Smith fiction ★★★★★  
The Blue Book of Tales J. A. Sommer fiction ★★★★  
Dead Giveaway Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
The Destroyers Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Elantris 1 Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★ On Sanderson in general: Excellent writing combined with wanting to read what my grandchildren like makes an irresistible combination. Elantris is one of his early books.
Elantris 1.2: The Emperor's Soul Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Elantris 1.3: The Hope of Elantris Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Everything Sad is Untrue Daniel Nayeri non-fiction ★★★★ It's classed as fiction, and the style is fiction, but except for a little literary tweaking, it's non-fiction.
Fifty Per Cent Prophet Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Frazz: Cogito, Ergo Caulfield Jef Mallett other ★★★ Short Kindle book with commentary, not nearly as good as the regular Frazz books.
Hanging by a Thread Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Heist Job on Thizar Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Here Shall I Die Ashore Caleb Johnson non-fiction ★★★★★ Excellent history of Porter's ancestor Stephen Hopkins (who turns up in Colonial Jamestown, the Mayflower, and Shakespeare's The Tempest)
A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein non-fiction ★★★★ 90% fascinating, 10% weird, 5% dangerous
I Am Not a Serial Killer Dan Wells fiction ★★ Well-written, but disturbing and definitely does not belong on the YA shelves where I found it.
I Am Not a Serial Killer Dan Wells fiction ★★ Yes, I read it twice for purposes of discussion.
In Case of Fire Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Inheritance Sharon Moalem non-fiction ★★★  
Instant of Decision Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Librarians 1: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming Rod Dreher non-fiction ★★★★  
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents Rod Dreher non-fiction ★★★★ Important warnings from those who have escaped totalitarian societies.
The Man in the Queue Josephine Tey fiction ★★★★★  
The Man Who Hated Mars Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
The Measure of a Man Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 1: The Final Empire Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★ This year I re-read the first Mistborn trilogy, and found it to make much more sense on the second reading, so I raised its rating.
Mistborn 2: The Well of Ascension Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 3: The Hero of Ages Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 3.3: The Eleventh Metal Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 3.7: Secret History Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 3.7: Secret History Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 3.7: Secret History Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★ Yes, I read it three times this year, as I was figuring out the Mistborn world.
Mistborn 4: The Alloy of Law Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Mistborn 4.5: Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, Episodes Twenty-Eight Through Thirty Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 5: Shadows of Self Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 6: The Bands of Mourning Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional Paul David Tripp other ★★ I know people who will find this exactly to their taste, but I’m not a fan of devotionals, and this was generally too depressing for my current needs.
Or Your Money Back Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Prince Lander and the Dragon War S. D. Smith fiction ★★★★★  
Psichopath Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
The Real Anthony Fauci Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. non-fiction ★★★★★ Whatever your politics, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to read this book.
Reckoners 1: Steelheart Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Reckoners 1.5: Mitosis Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Reckoners 2: Firefight Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Reckoners 3: Calamity Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Redwall 1: Redwall Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★ Technically a “juvenile” series, this one, like the Green Ember books, ought to be read by anyone who needs encouragement, i.e. everyone.
Redwall 2: Mossflower Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★  
Redwall 3: Mattimeo Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★  
Redwall 4: Mariel of Redwall Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★  
Redwall 5: Salamandastron Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★  
Redwall 6: Martin the Warrior Brian Jacques fiction ★★★  
Redwall 7: The Bellmaker Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★  
Redwall 8: Outcast of Redwall Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★  
The Redwall Cookbook Brian Jacques non-fiction ★★★  
The Secrets of Stonebridge Castle Blair Bancroft fiction ★★★ Blair Bancroft’s books have this in common with Brandon Sanderson’s: The excellence of the writing keeps me coming back, even though there are parts I dislike.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Sixth of the Dusk Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Stormlight 2.5: Edgedancer Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Stormlight 3: Oathbringer Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Suite Mentale Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Thin Edge Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Time Fuze Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
The Unnecessary Man Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Unoffendable Brant Hansen non-fiction ★★★  
Viewpoint Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
What the Left Hand Was Doing Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
White Sand (prose excerpt) Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★ White Sand is a three-volume graphic novel. What I read is the prose story on which it was based. Somewhat interesting, but not enough to induce me to read a graphic novel.
With No Strings Attached Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
A World by the Tale Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
A World Without Email Cal Newport non-fiction ★★★★ As with most of Newport's books, this is too business-oriented for my taste, but he always has an interesting perspective.
The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner S. D. Smith fiction ★★★★★  
Zao's Tales J. A. Sommer fiction ★★★  
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 3, 2023 at 6:54 am | Edit
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Everything Sad Is Untrue: (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri (Levine Querido, 2020)

Sometimes the AI—which Porter, seeing with eyes clearer than most, insists stands not for Artificial Intelligence but for Automated Idiots—sometimes the AI gets it right when it recommends a book for me. Usually it's 'way off base, nowhere near the skill of, say, my sister-in-law or my son-in-law in discerning what I might enjoy. But sometimes it makes a surprising score.

I was searching for a book for the above-mentioned son-in-law when Everything Sad Is Untrue popped up on Amazon. Nayeri's book caught my eye because the title echoes Sam's words near the end of The Lord of the Rings:

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

That was just enough to get me to click on the link. Which just goes to show how misleading titles can be. Still, it's not unfitting.

Everything Sad Is Untrue ticks off an awful lot of my "avoid-this-book" checkboxes:

  • Modern fiction (published in 2020; anything less than 50 years old is modern to me and I find the signal-to-noise ratio very poor in that group)
  • Young Adult fiction (what I said about poor signal-to-noise ratio goes a hundred-fold for YA fiction; I find most YA books insipid, narcissistic, and rarely appropriate for young people)
  • Won "Best Book of the Year" from a whole slew of entities like NPR, the New York Times, Today, and Amazon (not organizations that inspire my confidence, rather the opposite)
  • Has reviews that include accolades such as, "implementing a distinct literary style and challenging western narrative structures" and "urges readers to speak their truth" (phrases guaranteed to turn me off)

Despite all this, I clicked on Amazon's "Look Inside" and read the first few pages of the book. That actually made things worse, as the literary style is clearly "middle school Young Adult fiction," which, as you can guess, normally makes me run away, fast. And yet ... the story was intriguing enough, even in that small sample, to make me check it out of the library. I wouldn't have bought it, but this is one of the things libraries are good for.

And here's the thing: I don't care what the reviewers say, what the putative grade level is for the book, or how many middle school teachers assign it to their classes, this is not a Young Adult book. It's an adult semi-autobiography, written in the style of books aimed at middle-grade children. I say "semi-autobiography" because it's not written in a style normally associated with biographies, and it's classed as fiction. Here's what the author has to say about that:

I figure you want to know which parts are true. The short answer is all of it is true. I have changed the names of some people ... combined others ... and played a tiny bit with the timeline. But the elements are all—to my recollection—true.... Perhaps I misunderstood a great deal, in the way that a child misunderstands, but those are the myths I believed at the time. This was my life, as I experienced it, and it is both fiction and nonfiction at the same time.

Like poetry.

Daniel Nayeri, whose name was Khosrou until his mother got tired of Americans mispronouncing it, was born Persian, and if that makes you think of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and of Scheherazade I'm sure the author would be pleased. The son of a dentist and a doctor, he lived six years of a good life in Iran, until 1988 when his mother was forced to leave behind her husband and a thriving medical practice to flee with her two young children, a single suitcase, and a death-sentence fatwa on her head for the crime of having become a Christian.

Khosrou's tale is told through his childish memories, interwoven with tales of Persian folklore and Iranian culture. It's probably worth reading the book for that alone, because it doesn't assume much knowledge on the part of the reader. Those of us whose knowledge of modern Iran is largely limited to the tumultous and tragic times into which Khosrou was born can benefit from this more personal, if limited, glimpse. Anyone can benefit from this view of refugee life from a child's point of view. It's especially moving for me, because I know three people who fled Iran during that time, whose stories give credibility to Everything Sad Is Untrue.

Here's a 10-minute video with Daniel and his mother. It's well worth watching, whether you read the book or not.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 22, 2022 at 10:02 am | Edit
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Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives—and Our Lives Change Our Genes by Sharon Moalem (Grand Central Publishing, 2014)

I've read 75 books so far in 2022, but my "to read" list just keeps getting longer. Not that I'm complaining. This one was a gift from my sister-in-law, who despite our literary tastes being very different, is very good at recognizing a book I'll probably enjoy. In this case, it helps that we are both genealogists.

Is this a critically important book to read? Probably not—at least not immediately. But it's fascinating to learn that while our inherited genes may be fixed, the expression of those genes is not, and what happens to us in life can indeed affect the genetic inheritance we pass on to our children. And with personal genome sequencing (far beyond what 23andMe has to offer) becoming more common and less expensive, I look forward—despite some privacy concerns—to the day when doctors will be able to be much more accurate in drug and dosage prescriptions, based on a patient's specific genes. It turns out that prescribed dosages tend to be based on averages, and thus sort of work, most of the time, for most people—while ranging from useless to fatal for others. Knowing a patient's specific DNA can turn that from a flashlight beam to a laser.

Inheritance will also give you even more appreciation for how "fearfully and wonderfully made" we are, how remarkable the human body is put together—and how the tiniest genetic changes can have effects ranging from unnoticeable to the hurricane that arises because of the flapping of a butterfly's wings.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, December 2, 2022 at 9:50 pm | Edit
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I'll admit I'm astonished that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s shocking book, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health has not generated more interest, especially since at the time I first wrote about it, the Kindle version was only $3. It's $15 now, and the hardcover close to $20, but I'd say it's still worth it at that price, especially if you can't get it from your local library. Or you can do what I do: put it on a watch list at eReaderIQ; for a brief time yesterday it was only 99 cents. At that price I would have bought copies for a few friends—if I hadn't been away from home for the whole day. I find the eReaderIQ service worth supporting, by the way: it really helps with playing Amazon's little games.

I understand that people might be skeptical, whether, as in my case, from distrust of the Kennedys in general, or from a reluctance to question authority—especially when questioning authority can get you shoved into a "right-wing extremist conspiracy theorist" bucket. If you have the courage to look around outside of your comfort zone, however, I predict you will find this book worth your while.

Here are two short (about 5 minute) videos from my current favorite Left Coast liberal academic scientists, whose genuinely liberal credentials I don't doubt, albeit they also sometimes find themselves flung into the above-mentioned bucket when their search for truth leads them in certain directions. Both videos contain Bret's and Heather's evaluations of the book, and more importantly, their evaluation of its documentation. The videos do well at double speed if you want to save time. Spoiler alert: Bret and Heather are even more concerned than I am, with better reason and authority.

This one is just over five and a half minutes long.

And this one four minutes.

As I said in my review of the book, if what Kennedy claims, with such extensive documentation, is true, why are Dr. Fauci and a whole lot of other people not in jail? If it's not true, why isn't Fauci suing Kennedy for libel? I expected outrage on all sides, refutation, corroboration, investigation.

I did not expect ... silence. That silence on the part of investigative journalists, academic researchers, and medical professionals almost scares me more than the book.

I understand that people's lives are too busy for them to want to tackle a long, dense non-fiction book, so I don't urge you lightly to read The Real Anthony Fauci. But for your own health, and especially for your children, if you can make time to read this book, or listen to it in audiobook format, it has my strongest recommendation. The story is as riveting as it is frightening, and I was surprised at how quickly I finished it. I do recommend the Kindle version; the primary reason I also bought the hardcover was the knowledge that Amazon can make a Kindle book "disappear" at any moment, even from my physical e-reader. Most of the time I'm more comfortable with physical books, but in this case I actually find the digital version friendlier to the eyes. Don't be put off by the fact that the e-book format appears to double the page count (934 vs. 480).

Those who know me know that I do not like horror stories. Even during my Girl Scout days I was not a fan of ghost stories around the campfire. The Real Anthony Fauci is a horror story par excellence, because most of the others are about situations we are very unlikely to experience, and this one has already happened to us—we just didn't recognize it. Nonetheless, I am, as Bret suggests, hopeful: Information is power, and this book has answered questions that have troubled me for decades.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 21, 2022 at 11:28 am | Edit
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It's time for another in my series of YouTube channel discoveries. I resent the amount of time it takes to get information out of the video/podcast format, but it's so popular these days that it has become a major source for interesting and helpful information. So I'm unapologetically recommending another video channel: Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying's DarkHorse Podcast. That link is to their podcast website, but I usually watch it via their two YouTube channels: Full Podcasts, and Clips. Full podcasts are long. Very long. They would be great on a car journey, not so much in everyday life, unless you have a lot of work to do that doesn't require much thinking. I can fix dinner while listening to a podcast, but I sure can't write a blog post. Clips, on the other hand, are much shorter (maybe five to twenty minutes). Focussing on clips means I miss good insights, but giving in to Fear of Missing Out is a pathway to madness.

I've mentioned Bret and Heather before, in my Independence Hall Speech post, so it's about time I gave them their due. I must also give due credit to the good friend who introduced me to DarkHorse, as well as to Viva Frei, and remained patient with me even though it was at least a year later before I finally got around to checking them out.  Thank you, wise friend.  (There's but an infinitesimal chance he'll actually see that, but still, credit where credit is due.)

By way of introduction, the following quotes are from their DarkHorse Podcast website:

In weekly livestreams of the DarkHorse podcast, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying explore a wide range of topics, all investigated with an evolutionary lens. From the evolution of consciousness to the evolution of disease, from cultural critique to the virtues of spending time outside, we have open-ended conversations that reveal not just how to think scientifically, but how to disagree with respect and love.

We are scientists who hope to bring scientific thinking, and its insights, to everyone. Too often, the trappings of science are used to exclude those without credentials, degrees, or authority. But science belongs to us all, and its tools should be shared as widely as possible. DarkHorse is a place where scientific concepts, and a scientific way of thinking, are made accessible, without diminishing their power.

We are politically liberal, former college professors, and evolutionary biologists. Among our audience are conservatives, people without college educations, and religious folk. We treat everyone with respect, and do not look down on those with whom we disagree.

Needless to say, I often disagree with them—sometimes strongly—but more often I find their insights at least reasonable. And it is always interesting to listen in on their conversations. I take great pleasure in hearing smart people interact with each other—assuming they're polite, which Bret and Heather always are. It's also particularly satisfying in the rare circumstances when I find I know something that these highly intelligent people, with much greater knowledge than I, don't. I love living in Florida, at least in its current free-state situation, but I've never gotten over the loss of the intellectual stimulation that came with having the University of Rochester within walking distance.

I find DarkHorse so diverse and absorbing that it's really hard to limit myself to three examples here. But you can always check it out for yourself. Here are a couple of hints: Bret and Heather's speech is measured enough that I can hear it at 1.5x speed, and Porter can manage 2x. I prefer not to speed it up, but it is a time saver. An ever greater help with the full podcasts is that, once the livestream is over and the video is set on YouTube, you can hover your mouse over places along the progress bar and see where a particular subject begins and ends. I sure wish more long videos would provide that information.

Warning: Objectionable language occurs, though rarely, in the DarkHorse Podcasts.

Multi-age education (11 minutes)

 

When science is not science (9 minutes) 

 

Wikipedia redefines recession (19 minutes)

 

I'll close with some advice from their website, which makes me smile every time I read it.

Be good to the ones you love,
Eat good food, and
Get outside.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, September 20, 2022 at 5:32 am | Edit
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