Cromulent Book of the Week: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z, by David GrannThe Lost City of Z is the incredible tale of Englishman Percy Fawcett, one of the greatest explorers in history yet long overshadowed by the likes of Ernest Shackleton and Henry Stanley. David Grann paints a portrait of a man consumed by the unknown and a tolerance for suffering hardly imaginable today.

Fawcett had become convinced of the existence of the ruins of a once mighty city deep in the Brazilian Amazon. On his final quest in 1925 he brought just his oldest son Jack, Jack’s best friend Raleigh, and two native guides. The group disappeared without a trace, perhaps killed by an unfriendly tribe or the victims of disease and/or starvation in the hostile jungle.

Fawcett was the last of the great Victorian-era explorers, men that set out into truly unexplored country with rudimentary supplies, no maps, and the overwhelming desire to chart the unknown. In an interesting twist, as Fawcett set out on his final journey, a competing team led by an American set out to find the lost city with wireless radios, setting the stage for modern exploration using all the latest in satellite,aerial, and communication technology.

A movie, also titled The Lost City of Z, came out in 2016 starring Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett and Robert Pattinson of Twilight infamy. Save your time and money – it’s a bland, boring affair that does nothing to adequately reveal the spirit and determination of one of the all-time greats of exploration. Hunnam conveys all the emotion of a ballpoint pen and never comes within a mile of a convincing adventurer.

Available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Obligatory Top 10: Buildings

10. Erechtheion – Athens, Greece

The Erechtheion, completed in 406 BC, is one of several structures atop the Acropolis, the most famous being the Parthenon. Built in honor of Athena and Poseidon, the temple was built completely of marble and rests on a slope. The most prominent feature is the porch on the north side, supported by six caryatids, columns of draped maidens. Caryatids, “maidens of Karyai”, worshipped the goddess Artemis by dancing with baskets of reeds on their heads.

Erechtheion     Erechtheion - Caryatid Porch

Read more

Cromulent Book of the Week: Perilous Partners

Perilous PartnersThe United States, and any country for that matter, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Relations with foreign nations are necessary but in too many cases over the past seventy years, the US has allied itself with a murderers’ row of dictators, autocrats, El Presidentes, and psychopaths.

In Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes, Ted Galen Carpenter & Malou Innocent lay out the sordid history of questionable US alliances, particularly American efforts to put “their man” in control and the untold lives lost and millions of dollars spent to keep such men in power.

Read more

D.C. to Smokers: Drop Dead!

e-cigarette vape pen

Apart from a few nauseating puffs in high school, smoking was about as enticing as a root canal. My first day at college I walked out to the fire escape of my dorm where several people were hanging out, smoking. I started a pack-a-day habit then and there that lasted two decades.

Over that period I tried to quit multiple times- cold turkey, nicotine gum, nicotine patches, cinnamon sticks, and a few things I have long since forgotten and none of it worked for more than a week or so. You have to really want to quit to actually do it. Willpower is a limited commodity, some people have a bigger reserve of it but not even the Dalai Lama can run on willpower alone. For many smokers wanting to quit, you need to find a new habit to replace the urge to light up and for me vaping was that habit.

Read more

Words Have Meaning: Assault Rifles, Assault Weapons, & the roadblock to sensible debate

On too many issues today there is an inverse ratio between passion and knowledge. The more wrapped up people become in “their” issues, the dumber the debate tends to be. We’ve all become Red Sox or Yankees fans; my team is the greatest, your team sucks, you’re an idiot for liking them, and I won’t listen to any argument to the contrary. In sports, this feature isn’t merely a positive side-effect, but central to why we watch sports. Unfortunately, this has bled into how we view everything in society and our existence has been distilled down to sports fandom, and not the good kind (looking at you Philly and SEC fans).

Read more

Cromulent Book of the Week: Understanding China

Understanding China: A Guide to China's Economy, History, and Political Culture by John Bryan StarrChina is in the news on a daily basis- trade relations, human rights, territorial expansion, Taiwan, and recently Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate his power. How much do you actually know though about China and why they are the way they are? Understanding China: A Guide to China’s Economy, History, and Political Culture by John Bryan Starr is a great single volume on the country. Starr is a lecturer on China and a past president of both the Yale China Association and the China Institute in New York City.

If you want to understand the underpinnings of all those news stories this is the book to read. It covers a wide range of topics including the party-state, economy, “centrifugal forces of regionalism”, rule of law, rural vs urban, environmental challenges, and education.

I have read Understanding China on several occasions and each time taken away something new to think about, perhaps the most important idea being the overwhelming fear by the ruling Communist Party of social upheaval and the need for harmony at all costs.

To understand China is not necessarily to love it, but understanding China is a prerequisite for dealing with it effectively … And, given its size and its potential, and the degree to which the rest of the world has become linked with it both economically and politically, there is no avoiding the necessity of dealing with China in the years ahead.

It is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.



We’re all gonna die, or get a sweet new phone: Artificial Intelligence


Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere, in the news, TV commercials, and countless movies and shows, but what exactly does the term mean? The best way to describe it is to first state what it is not. It is not Skynet or HAL 9000, at least not yet.

HAL 9000AI, simply put, is the capability of machines to mimic cognition, primarily learning and problem solving. Over time the scope of what AI is has changed, so that previously cutting-edge tasks, such as text recognition, are dropped as those functions become routine. Optical character recognition (OCR) is now found in everything from Adobe Acrobat to Google Translate on your smartphone. Today, speech recognition, strategic games, and driverless cars are all considered AI but in time will also likely be dropped from the definition. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter summed it up best saying “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.”

While these tasks seem amazing to us there are many tasks we take for granted that AI cannot perform. The CAPTCHA program you see on websites is incredibly simple to us but fools even complex AI. Jokes, satire, and non-verbal communication also confound the most powerful AI systems. Consciousness is the missing link.

Read more

It’s Time to End the Death Penalty

Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders.     Albert Camus

Since 1976 when it was reinstated by the Supreme Court, more than 1,400 people have been executed in the US and there are currently over 7,800 on death row. Thirty one states, the federal government, and the military still allow for capital punishment. For decades the death penalty could be used for a variety of offenses including theft and rape but today is limited to murder, treason, espionage, and large-scale drug smuggling, although the last time it was used for such offenses was the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 for passing along top secret information on radar, sonar, and nuclear weapons to the Soviets.

For many years I was a proponent of the death penalty as a fitting punishment for murderers but have since come to the realization that it is unjust and should be abolished completely, with no exceptions. While the issue bubbles up into the national consciousness on occasion, unfortunately there has been little sustained discussion concerning its application of late.

Before I lay out my case against capital punishment let me first point out a couple of oft-cited arguments against that don’t factor in my reasoning and conclusions.

– China and Saudi Arabia. What moral authority can the US claim when we apply the death penalty just as the autocrats of those repressive regimes do? While not a baseless point, we should not use foreign examples to make a case here in the United States. It paves the way for a game of moral relativism with no end. Let’s terminate the practice not because awful governments do it nor because “good” countries don’t do it, but because it is the right thing to do.

– The religious argument. Once again I don’t believe it to be without merit nor do I intend to denigrate someone’s faith but religious systems can be interpreted in vastly different ways, from within and without the faith. The Bible itself contains passages for and against execution.

Read more

Cromulent Book of the Week: Merchant of Death

Merchant of Death

Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible, Douglas Farah & Stephen Braun, 2007In the 1990’s, Viktor Bout, an obscure former Russian military officer, became one of the greatest illicit arms dealers in history. Not just small arms and ammo, but explosives, rocket launchers, attack helicopters, and all manner of destruction were available to those with money, and with astronomical profits from blood diamonds to illicit drugs, dictators, revolutionaries, and terrorists had millions to spend.

What made Bout so effective was his access to the stockpiles of the recently defunct USSR and his incredible delivery network. He was quite simply the Amazon and UPS of arms procurement. Bout sold to anyone with money and in many conflicts sold weapons to both sides; in most cases he made no secret to his customers that he sold arms to their enemy. With the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, US forces came to rely on men like Bout to deliver much-needed supplies for reconstruction efforts; his shady dealings were known but overlooked.

In The Gun, the previous Cromulent Book of the Week, C.J. Chivers lays out the development of the AK-47 and why the state-run economy of the Soviet Union necessitated the sheer number of AK’s built, free from the restraints of supply and demand. Merchant of Death, continues that story, revealing the emergence of shady entrepreneurs, like Bout, in the aftermath of the Cold War, who provide the means of death, destruction, and instability in conflicts large and small across the globe. Look no further than the disaster unfolding in Yemen for proof.

Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, & the Man Who Makes War Possible is available in paperback and digital from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)