Three authors with an in-depth, well-documented, balanced view of things: Haberman (2022); Galeotti (2022); O’Kane (2022)

I refer to:

  • Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America (2022) by Maggie Haberman;
  • Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine (2022) by Mark Galeotti [2]; and
  • Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy (2022) by Josh O’Kane.

The authors are reputable, have acquired and are in a position to share solid information, and they cite their sources. In my experience, a news report is always of interest but a more in-depth study of things, as through reading a book by a first-rate author, is at times of even greater interest and value.

Each author (of a book, film, blurb, or digital product) has a particular approach to getting a reader (in the case of a printed book, which has a physical presence in the analog world, or in the case of an e-book which has a digital presence in the virtual world) to turn the pages.

Whatever it is that we are going to visualize, when we consider the turning of the pages, is going to be concerned with a person’s focus of attention. [3] If it’s interesting enough to follow, then we follow the story. Often that entails clicking a link; as readers, viewers, and/or listeners we participate to a greater or lesser extent in determining where our attention will go. In some cases, the determination of where our attention goes is determined less by us and more by algorithms. In this regard,who is running the show is a topic of interest.

To keep us turning the pages and to acquire content as presented by the author or director (who is at the front end of a vast enterprise, whatever the enterprise may be, the tip of a vast iceberg) of a given news organization, institution, or system of governance, we are engaged in an act of performance. In such a performance, the author, director, and/or producer and the reader, viewer, and/or listener are jointly engaged in an act of performance. Are jointly engaged in an act of performance, engagement, enactment, and creation.

In summary, the turning of the pages and the bringing to life of the content are interactive processes.

The three books that I refer to concern themselves with the past. Again, in summary, we can say that the past is of relevance to the extent that the past always relates to the present moment. The past is accessed solely through the portal of the present moment, which is accessible through means of the application of mindfulness, however mindfulness may be conceptualized and practised.

The connection between past and present is highlighted by various expressions such as ‘the past is prologue to the future.’ As in, for example, The Past is Prologue: The Future and the History of Science.

The above-noted link opens a chapter from There’s a Future: Visions for a Better World (2012).

An excerpt (I’ve made some minor spelling corrections) reads:

Given the importance science has in our lives and societies, it is not [a] small question to consider whether it is possible to predict the future of this discipline. Using the history of science as his main tool, Sanchez Ron analyses predictions made by a number of scientist[s] about the nature of science and its future paths. Providing a wealth of examples from those who have practice[d] the soothsayers´ art, the author chooses cases that missed the mark entirely, including predictions in mathematics (Hilbert), The theory of evolution (Erasmus and Charles Darwin) and artificial intelligence (Wiener, Von Neumann and Turing). The author also explores the relationship between science and technology, as well as addressing issues such as how social needs or science fiction affects predictions of the future of science.

This paragraph by way of its back story, its creation, involves another language than English; it involves Spanish. It underlines the fact that English is one language among many.

Higgs boson

The excerpt brings to mind another study of interest: Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass (2022).

An excerpt for a blurb for the book at the Toronto Public Library website reads:

On July 4, 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN gathered to make a momentous announcement: after nearly a half century of speculation and work, the Higgs boson had been found, and the mystery of mass solved. Not far offstage was the man for whom the particle had been named: Peter Higgs. The Higgs boson is an anomaly. No other basic particle of physics is named after a person. And in a point of almost supreme irony, it is named after a man whom most physicists would call one of the most retiring people ever to join the field – indeed, on the day the Nobel committee called him to tell him he had won, Higgs had fled to a fish-and-chip shop by the sea, and ended up learning of his prize from a stranger who, recognizing him, stopped him the street to tell him the news. Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.

Artificial intelligemce

The excerpt brings to mind as well a Dec. 4, 2022 Guardian article entitled: “AI bot ChatGPT stuns academics with essay-writing skills and usability: Latest chatbot from Elon Musk-founded OpenAI can identify incorrect premises and refuse to answer inappropriate requests.”

An excerpt reads:

In the days since it was released, academics have generated responses to exam queries that they say would result in full marks if submitted by an undergraduate, and programmers have used the tool to solve coding challenges in obscure programming languages in a matter of seconds – before writing limericks explaining the functionality.

‘The future is history’

In relating past to present we can also refer to the expression ‘the future is history’ which is the title of a book I have previously discussed at this website. [1]

An except from the above-noted previous discussion at this website reads:

The comparative study of Nazi and Stalinist mass murder requires a strong conceptual framework. Otherwise, you are spinning your wheels and wasting time.

That is a key take-away from my reading of a chapter in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared (2009).

Councillor Jim Tovey (1949-2018) speaking at May 28, 2016 Small Arms Jane’s Walk. Jim Tovey was a key player in saving the Small Arms Inspection Building in Mississauga from demolition and coordinating efforts to secure strong government and community support for its repurposing. Jaan Pill photo

I refer to chapter four, entitled: “State Violence – Violent Societies.”

I’ve also recently finished reading The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017) by Masha Gessen. The latter book argues – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 notwithstanding – that the government of Russia remains totalitarian, albeit in a form that differs, slightly, from the Stalinist regime of the 1930s and 1940s.

Assuming that the latter book’s definition of totalitarianism is accepted by readers, Gessen’s argument is compelling. I have turned to Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) because I want to get up to speed, as best I can, on current historiography as it relates to totalitarianism – as a concept, and, in particular, as an analytical concept.

Assembly line at Small Arms Ltd. munitions plant, circa 1942. Archival image

That is, what do we mean when we speak about totalitarianism? And how useful is it as a term that seeks to explain what has happened in the past, and what is happening now?

Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) is aimed at more of a specialist audience, a smaller audience – whereas The Future is History (2017) is more for general readers, a larger audience. Books for larger audiences tend to present arguments in slightly simpler, less nuanced forms thereby reaching more readers. The general reader takes a stroll through the park. The specialist reader, on the other hand, may not find the slog, through a dense and intricate package of words, quite as easy going.

Jim Tovey did A-1 job hosting the only @Doors_OpenTO in @citymississauga (also known as the Small Arms Jane’s Walk) at the Small Arms Inspection Building in Mississauga! Jaan Pill photo

Of the two books about totalitarianism that I refer to at this post, I can say that each is a compelling read. From reading them, I have a better understanding of how things work in the world. For any book related to history, I want storytelling that connects at an emotional level, with its audience; I want reliable evidence that drives the story forward; and I want a conceptual framework that enables me to understand the meaning of the story. Depending on the intended audience and the quality of the editing, a given book may be more accomplished in some of these areas, and less in others.

3 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 1

    An intriguing feature of The Future Is History (2017) is that a key feature of its narrative structure involves explanations (about happenings in the world) built upon an intensive study of psychoanalysis as practised (particularly some decades ago) in Western countries.

    It’s my understanding that psychoanalysis as a way of making sense of human functioning is now held at a lesser level of esteem in Western countries than was the case, say, in the 1950s. The author of the 2017 study in question, however, holds psychoanalysis in particularly high esteem. By way of comment, I can say that such a way of seeing things works great when a person is building a literary narrative (in this case, I refer to nonfiction as a literary narrative). Otherwise, its value is not quite so impressive from what I can gather.

    For dealing with the kind of issues that psychoanalysis sought to claim it had the capacity to effectively address, my sense is that a current view, quite widely held, appears to be that psychedelics (such as psilocybin) combined with a structured, evidence-based approach to psychotherapy shows more promise, in terms of outcomes amenable to evidence-based research.

    Many writers have addressed this topic in recent years. My own favourite author, with regard to the history as it relates to this topic, is Erika Dyck at the University of Saskatchewan. I would add that do-it-yourself approaches to such matters (that is, without adequate attention to ‘set and setting’) does not appear at all to be an advisable route to go.

    Some posts of related interest:

    Drug wars and the power of rhetoric

    Updates to Drug Wars (2013) and related topics

    The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973 (Kathleen J. Frydl, 2013)

    Updates: Drug Wars (2013) and the gangster genre

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 2

    I now write my drafts for this website on a particular browser. This makes it easy for me to copy and paste from articles on other browsers on occasions where I am cutting and pasting.

    Galeotti (2022) is well-written as are the other studies highlighted at the current post.

    The point about Galeotti and similar authors speaking on military and political themes is they know their stuff. They have a robust narrative and (given a focus on a general audience) they provide citations typically in the chapter notes. The reader gets a sense of progression over time and space. There is original content about things the general reader may know little (in depth or in detail) about.

    Galeotti makes good use of foreshadowing to maintain the reader’s attention. For example, in Chapter 25 he refers to the fact that Chapter 28 will focus on a discussion about China. Such foreshadowing works well. It’s not overdone. There isn’t much complication in the text as it unfolds. A point is made; then the narrative moves on. The chapters are interconnected. The content is strongly in line with the title of the study.

    Things are explained clearly. The content is strong. The chapters are a good length. The font is a good size making for easy reading. When a font gets too small, or if the text is in a dark grey instead of a solid black, it does not work as well.

    The introduction of personal anecdotes related to meetings and conversations is done unobtrusively. It’s done judiciously. It’s not overdone but is rather done in a way that adds relevance and increases engagement on the part of the reader.

    The sentences are well-structured; the tone is affable and at the same time the tone is proper when serious matters are under consideration such as when there is a reference to the fact that tens of thousands of people have perished at a particular time at a particular place in Ukraine.

    Some characteristic word choices are repeated from time to time, ‘linking words’ that work well because they help to keep the reader’s attention as the narrative proceeds.

    The really critical thing here is that there is continuity and consistency regarding subject matter. A given topic is presented and there is enough detail – enough attention to the topic at hand – to enable the reader to follow the story closely, to comprehend what the message is and how it fits into the general narrative.

    My own understanding of a wider narrative is as follows:

    – When decision makers are out of touch with what a give state of affairs actually is (including with regard to state-level ‘ways of seeing’ as enunciated by authors such as James C. Scott among others), or if there are gaps in their formative experiences and practical knowledge regarding key topics, they are bound to lose their way.

    – What is going to unfold with regard to control of the narrative in future in a wide range of realms and domains we do not know; that said, as Galeotti aptly notes, we can expect that certain next steps will entail some predictable unravelling of a current narrative and the emergence of a new one. A previous context is in place (one cannot, it appears, readily get away from past trends, a past historical narrative, a previously established milieu) and serves to set the scene for what can, possibly, be expected to next emerge.

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 3

    I was interested to read a Dec. 11, 2022 New York Times article by Ezra Klein entitled “The Great Delusion Behind Twitter.” I have access to the New York Times through the Toronto Public Library website.

    An excerpt reads:

    I think there is a reason that so little has gotten better and so much has gotten worse. It is this: The cost of so much connection and information has been the deterioration of our capacity for attention and reflection. And it is the quality of our attention and reflection that matters most.

    In a recent paper, Benjamin Farrer, a political scientist at Knox College in Illinois, argues that we have mistaken the key resource upon which democracy, and perhaps civilization, depends. That resource is attention. But not your attention or my attention. Our attention. Attention, in this sense, is a collective resource; it is the depth of thought and consideration a society can bring to bear on its most pressing problems. And as with so many collective resources, from fresh air to clean water, it can be polluted or exhausted.

    The recent (2022) paper to which the article refers is entitled: “Political Communication as a Tragedy of the Commons.”

    The abstract reads:

    In this article, we argue that many contemporary challenges to democracy can be traced back to how political organizations compete for attention. We begin with the idea that these organizations appeal for attention both by mobilizing their own members, and also through media that reaches a wider audience, such as social media and mass media. But since many organizations are competing for the limited attention of this wider audience, they all have an incentive to send “too many” and “too sensational” messages. This overwhelms the audience and leads to polarization and populism. Our article describes the conditions necessary for this “tragedy of the commons” to occur and also reviews empirical evidence demonstrating that these conditions are met. We find that social media is not a necessary condition for the model, but does accelerate it. We conclude that Elinor Ostrom’s theories of the commons are important for understanding political communication.

    Resource competition

    The discussion reminds me of the observation by Mathew E. Archibald in The Evolution of Self-Help (2007) that the growth and decline of self-help groups can be pictured as involving, among other elements, the competition for services, social technologies, and resources.

    Concentration: Staying Focused in Times of Distraction (2020)

    The discussion also brings to mind a study entitled Concentration: Staying Focused in Times of Distraction (2020) by Stefan Van der Stigchel.

    A blurb reads:

    How to concentrate in a world of beeping smartphones, channel surfing, live-tweeting, pop-up ads, and other distractions.

    We are in the midst of an attention crisis—caused in large part by our smartphones. There’s a constant stream of information that we are powerless to withstand because it shows up in our notifications. More and more of us are finding it harder and harder to concentrate. In this book, attention expert and cognitive psychologist Stefan Van der Stigchel explains how concentration works and offers advice on how to stay focused in a world of beeping smartphones, channel surfing, live-tweeting, pop-up ads, and other distractions.

    The good news, Van der Stigchel reports, is that we now know more about brain and behavior than ever before, and he draws on the latest scientific findings in his account of concentration. He explains, among other things, that the battle for our attention began long before the digital era; why our phones are so addictive; the importance of working memory (responsible for executing complicated tasks) and how to increase its capacity; and why multitasking is bad for our concentration, but attention rituals help it. He describes the 2017 Oscars debacle (when the Best Picture presenter was given the wrong card) as a failure of multitasking; argues that daydreaming can be good for our concentration; and shows that the presence of a passenger in a car reduces the risk of an accident. He explains the positive effects of taking “tech breaks” (particularly in natural surroundings), meditation, and even daydreaming. We can win the battle for our attention, Van der Stigchel argues, if we have the knowledge and the tools to do it.


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