Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds

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The quote on the cover of "The Yellow Birds" is from Tom Wolfe: "The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars." That's a strong comparison, but really, I think maybe Kevin Powers does it. The book is hard to put down, disturbing, sparse and haunting. Clocking in at 225 pages with biggish font and taking place over maybe 8 days over the span of about 8 years, Powers does a lot with a little. We just hit 10 years in Iraq, and just like Mother Jones "we're still at war" feature (every day they have a new picture of soldiers abroad), this book is a reminder that 10 years is 10 years too many. There are no heroes in "The Yellow Birds," just war. Read it.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin: Black Against Empire

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It is not easy to find "authoritative" writing on the Black Panthers. In my quest for learning about the Black Panther Party, I've come up with some theories: lots of the Panthers were killed, so couldn't tell their stories; the Party collapsed in on itself so the party has many competing versions; and the Civil Rights version of history is the "acceptable" version, so that's what gets funded/studied. But Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin don't have to guess: "Black Against Empire" *is authoritative, I mean, it's even published by the University of California Press- those guys do their research. Part of the lack of an "adequate history," they write is because of the "character of state repression of the Party [that was] aimed specifically at vilifying the Black Panther Party." This "shaped public understandings and blurred the outlines of the history." In order to overcome this, "Black Against Empire" was written through a process of "strategic genealogy": Bloom and Martin work through the Panthers' political practices through contemporary documents and primary sources, using retrospective interviews and memoirs only as backups. It's a fascinating read, especially coming after reading Elaine Brown's autobiography. If I could have a do-over, I'd read "Black Against Empire" first, and then "A Taste of Power," for reasons I'll get into later.

Bloom and Martin believe the Black Panther Party (BPP) came into being and fell away at a specific time for a reason. Not since the Civil War, they write, "almost a hundred and fifty years ago have so many people taken up arms in revolutionary struggle in the United States." That's quite something when you think about it. The civil rights movement was fading, they say, though that is something I couldn't quite wrap my minds around: Bloom and Martin say that civil rights was failing to deliver what black people really sought. The civil rights movement was a call for citizenship, for "full and equal participation." Legally in the late sixties, African Americans were getting closer to achieving this. In reality, many were still facing the same old shit, and needed a movement that did with the Panthers did: challenged the very authority of the state to grant them that citizenship. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founders of the BPP were angry and felt like they were living as colonized subjects. In founding the BPP they effectively channeled the rage of many other young blacks into a revolutionary group that sought to bypass the institutional channels that the civil rights movement was working through.

"Black Against Empire" basically covers the years from 1966 to 1971, though it is most comprehensive from 1967-1970. This is the time when the BPP were able to ally themselves with the anti-war movement at home and the anti-imperialist movements abroad. Ideologically, the BPP argued that black people were, like other people of color at home and abroad, a colonized people. They argued that theirs was a common cause with the North Vietnamese and all oppressed people and that police (pigs) were the occupying forces. As young white activists started protesting en masse against the Vietnam war and began feeling the blunt end of police oppression, this argument resonated. The BPP was anti-racist and believed in coalitions across racial groups while standing firm on black self determination. Abroad, the BPP found friends in places like Cuba, Algeria and China as they couched their arguments in Marxist language and allied themselves with the communist North Vietnamese.

Practically, the BPP gained strength through its self-defense tactics. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale figured out that one of the best ways to both organize "brothers on the block" and stand up for the black community was to police the police. This was hugely successful: so successful that in 1967 Assemblyman Mulford introduced AB 1591 to outlaw open carry. When Newton famously sent an armed delegation to Sacramento to protest this bill, the media coverage led to even more press and support for the Panthers. Armed self defense thus became a double edged sword of both an effective and illegal strategy for the BPP.

So why do I wish I had read this book first? "Black Against Empire" is presented as an authoritative political history of the Black Panther Party. I believe that it is, but having read Elaine Brown's book first, my impression of the BPP is anchored in her story, which is personal, detailed and by definition, autobiographically skewed. Reading "Black Against Empire" I found myself saying "that's not what Brown said," even though I know that means nothing as everyone lives their own story. I wish that I had read Brown's book saying "That's not what 'Black Against Empire' said." That being said, the two books compliment each other: where "Black Against Empire" is a political history and thus attempts to leave out the highly personal stakes of the BPP, Brown lived it, and her book gives the reader a true sense of the time.  Also, "Black Against Empire" ends abruptly, rushing through 10 years of Panther history, while Brown's direct involvement in the end of the era gives the reader a good picture of the school and the ultimate collapse of the Party.

If you want a book on the Panthers, read this one. With the backing of the University of California Press, it's got the weight of credibility. The authors are thorough in describing other literature and the book clearly leans to the left, which appeals to me. The book looks long, but that's partially due to extensive endnotes; it reads fast. Try it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Baseball in March?

Sort of. Last night I went to the Semi Finals of the World Baseball Classic at AT&T Park. In a way it was amazing- I was at the ballpark, with a beer and the season hasn't even started. In another way, it was so strange- baseball in March? Baseball with non-teams? The Olympics of Baseball? Very odd.

So, in honor of THB, I decided to write it up. It was a little awkward to take notes on my phone, but I guess that's modernity for you.

PR fans go crazy over exactly nothing
Our seats were in section 106, under the overhang, in the second to last row. THB can give you the run down on MLB ballparks, but there aren't a lot of BAD seats at AT&T. These seats weren't bad- even being way under the overhang only the very top of the giant scoreboard was obstructed, and that meant we didn't have to see the ads. It did mean that whenever the Japanese guy across the aisle stood up, I couldn't really see home plate. There was a small press box next to us, complete with two Japanese photogs with extra super duper long telephoto lenses.

The park was EMPTY. We're not talking Marlins empty, but a semi-crowded (not Yankee's or fireworks) A's game empty. I had heard a couple days before that tickets were selling on facebook and twitter for $8, and I believe it. We had no trouble getting into or out of the ballpark. There were no lines for food, and I only waited at the bathroom one of the times that I went. The only sign that we were at a popular event at all is that they ran out of hot chocolate sometime in the 6th inning. (I attribute this to the temperature, though, not the crowds.) The bleachers were packed- the Japanese fans had clearly bought at least the three middle sections of the bleachers well in advance and were sitting as a group.

Yes, you can keep score in Japanese
Before the game, flag bearers came out with a flag for each country that had participated in the WBC (yeah for nationalism) and the Puerto Rican and Japanese teams stood on each base path. My first thought was how BIG the Japanese guys were. There was only one guy who looked like the small, Ichiro-type that we are used to in the MLB- the rest were tall and big-boned kind of guys. Not beefy, but big. Everyone, though, even on the PR team, looked small compared to MLB: it's clear that steroids are still everywhere in the majors. During the pre-game we heard 3 national anthems, all piped in. Lots of singing along, at least to the Japanese and Puerto Rican anthems, not so much for the star spangled banner. Many fans had brought flags in, and some of the flags were on really long poles- pretty sure they wouldn't have gotten by the security at the Coliseum.

Two Japanese guys from the winning team of the last WBC threw out the first pitches, and Orlando Cepeda came out to ceremonially greet them. Cepeda didn't look so good- might have had a stroke.

Angel Pagan of the Giants led off for PR and before he stepped in they showed him just beaming- I had this moment like "baseball season's almost here!" You could really see how happy he was to be back home in his park, playing his game. It was awesome. The PR fans liked it, too, and they started what was to become a routine: they did a drum/percussion/dance/song routine pretty much any time they were happy. The 10 or so fans in our section seemed to be the ringleaders of said drum circle, and there were many people taking videos of them throughout the game. It was quite infectious.

Announcements were made in Japanese and Spanish, but only for the offense. "Angel Pagan is batting," for example, would be in Spanish. Then Spanish for 3 outs, then when Japan came up, three outs of Japanese. Very odd. When the Japanese batted, the group out in the bleachers would play songs on trumpets and bang those white rally sticks together. Everyone in the stands seemed to know the songs- it seemed there was one for each player, kind of like players here have their walk-up music. The trumpet would play and the fans would sing and the player would bat. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican fans would be drumming and cheering and waving flags with frogs on them.

In the second inning, the Japanese pitcher looked a little shaky and a guy got up in the bullpen. The Japanese pitcher settled down, but Japan kept someone up in the bullpen for the rest of the game. Different guys in the bullpen, but always someone up. Couldn't tell if this was a mental strategy for the guy on the mound or if the manager really was constantly thinking of bringing someone in.

Notably, the Japanese batters did not all charge at the ball or out of the box like I was expecting. There were plenty of right handed batters. Even the pitchers didn't take an exorbitant amount of time on the mound, though they took plenty. The style of baseball on both sides just seemed fairly routine, if a little amateur (duh).

Between innings we were treated to (?) Emeryville Taiko, Irish Dancing (it was St Patrick's Day) and the Orquesta Boriquen.

Lastly, and most importantly, the winner of the dot racing equivalent, Delta flight around the world was RED.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Curt Flood: The Way It Is

So, to be very honest, I didn't read this whole book. I skimmed it at the library while writing an OaklandWiki entry about Curt Flood. But I read enough (let's say 200 of the 250 pages) of "The Way It Is" to feel comfortable writing this: the book is a fast and engaging and devastating read that really any fan of the game should read. Flood, besides being a famous and well respected baseball player, is from Oakland, and that alone makes him awesome. But beyond that, he's the guy that wouldn't take the trade. In 1969 the Cardinals, the team he had played with for 12 years, traded (or tried to trade him) to the Phillies. (For a clean version, read the Atlantic Monthly article from 2011 that came out after the HBO documentary that I haven't seen but might look for.) At that time, baseball players were total property of the team, and Flood finally had enough. He had been active in baseball's player's association, but this was the last straw: he wanted to be his own man, and he wanted baseball to follow US labor law.

The book is short and readable and eminently heart breaking. Written before the outcome of the case in 1970- the Supreme Court found for MLB in 1972- Flood is clearly ahead of his time in terms of his outspokenness about racial disparity both within and without baseball. Although he publicly says that his fight against MLB is not about race, he admits he has second thoughts about this. He writes poignantly about the shock of going from West Oakland, where whites are seldomly seen authority figures to dealing with the Jim Crow south and blatant, horrible racism. The book is written conversationally, and you can almost read between the lines as Flood falls into alcoholism and melancholy. I did a little further reading in "The Curt Flood Story" by Stuart Weiss, published in 2007, and found that either Wiess doesn't think much of Flood or Flood was quite self-serving in his autobiography. He had serious financial troubles and was more than a little emotionally unsteady. Bottom line, though, "The Way It Is" is a baseball autobiography that is a true picture of a moment in time. Flood tells it like it is: he's honest about ownership in a way few players dare to be, and more fans and players should be now.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Wealth Inequality in Infographics You Can Really See

Don't cry. Watch this video, read "The Spirit Level," and start thinking differently.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Brian Christian: The Most Human Human

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I gave up. Sometimes, when I look at how long it's been between blog posts, I realize that I've been reading the same book for a Very Long Time. This only really happens when the book is extraordinarily long and complex or extraordinarily boring, or can't hold my interest. So today, during my quest to finish "The Most Human Human," I gave up. I couldn't read more than 2 pages at a time and I was forgetting the two pages I read before that. The premise and ideas in Brian Christian's book: what does it mean that computers are getting smart, and what does that say about humanity, is genius. But the book is broken into mini-essays- like a page and a half essays- that are more like wisps of thoughts, and it's just not there. It reads like a college thesis (not really even a doctoral thesis) by a philosophy student, which I think Christian was, which means it was allowed to drift around from thought to thought.

Jonathan Foer wrote a beautiful, captivating book, "Moonwalking with Einstein" about memory, that was centered around this crazy memory contest that he ended up taking place in. The contest ended up holding his book together. Christian attempts a similar maneuver, as he signs up to be a "confederate" in the Turing Test. The Turing Test (something I first learned of when I was playing Glitch- new players would constantly ask me if I was a "bot," and refer to that test) is basically to find out if machines can think. Each year artificial intelligence people come together with a bunch of computer programs they've designed and face off against "confederates" or real people. Judges have 5 minutes to talk to a series of real people and computer and at the end, say which they think is real and which they think is the computer. Christian takes it upon himself to prove, emphatically, that he is human, and to win the "most human human" award. It's a very cool premise: what makes us human is one of the most fundamental questions ever, and computers are most definitely encroaching on our territory.

And that's about all I can say about this book, even though I almost, ALMOST finished it. I think that makes me human: I tried and failed.

Christian talked to some "pick up artists" in order to get their idea about what to say to the judges. All I can say is watch this video. It's very, and strangely, human.