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03-16-12: Vincent P. Barabba Weaves with 'The Decision Loom'

Steampunk Business Theory

We're not the first generation to feel overwhelmed by the new, and we certainly won't be the last. What will distinguish each and every one of us is how we meet the incoming crush of novelty, how we decide what deserves our attention, what can be ignored and what to do having made those decisions. Vincent Barabba brings a wealth and a wide variety of experience to his book-length answer, 'The Decision Loom: A Design for Interactive Decision-Making in Organizations.'

Part of that experience gave him the ability to communicate what he learned as he worked within both public and private organizations, and 'The Decision Loom' addresses a very interesting question that does not get asked very often, and is answered even less so; How do we decide what to do in the face of an onslaught of tasks, data and potential that overwhelm us from the get-go? Barabba does not pretend to have all the answers, but he's damn good at asking the questions and the answers he does have are smart and flexible enough to be worth reading.

The book is divided into two parts; his experience ("The Journey") and his advice ("The Design of an Interactive Decision Loom"). His experience suggests he's the right man to ask and answer these questions. He's worked to measure voter sentiments in political campaigns, in the US Census under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and he's currently in the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. He developed OnStar while working at GM, and while working at Kodak, watched as they decided to use digital technology to improve their film process instead of replacing it. The first half of the book offers nine episodes across a spectrum of American employment, crisply described with his thesis in mind. By itself it involves readers in a vision of information, opportunity and decision unraveling across the last thirty or so years of the economic landscape.

Barabba follows up his first part with a chart that summarizes the general aspects of his experiences and cross-references them with the four capabilities he identifies in the second half of the book. These are not necessarily going to shock anyone who has worked for any length of time — they are, roughly, be open to change, think holistically, be able to adapt, and make decisions interactively. But his expression and his approach — to wit, the "decision loom" — have a fresh, yet vintage, almost steampunk appeal. To a degree, this could have been put together one hundred years ago. At least Barabba finally got round to it.

As he cycles through the four capabilities, he emphasizes an open mind and a nimble, humble approach. This is not the sort of book that needs to shout at you, nor does Barabba take the "baffle you with abstractions" path. The charts, the lessons, the stories and the theories are not there as the final end-all and be-all. They're intended to make you think about how such material might and might not be applicable in your situation, in your life. 'The Decision Loom' does not tell you what to decide. It suggests the means by which you may make a good decision. It's one of the few examples of data that is really worth searching for amidst the incoming waves of novelty that confront you every day, including this review.

03-14-12: 'The Moon Moth' Flies Again

Graphic Novelization of the Jack Vance Short Story

Who we are and how we present ourselves to those around us are central themes of any human life; and they're tough to write about in fiction without sounding pretentious, portentous or boring. In his 1961 short story 'The Moon Moth,' science fiction writer Jack Vance created the planet of Sirene, where the natives all wear elaborately designed masks to indicate their social status, and communicate by musical instruments selected for different situations. With a nice bit of science-fiction ingenuity, Vance created a setting where the differences between self and presented-self are externalized, allowing him to examine them in the bright light of day.

Newly appointed Consular Representative Edwer Thissel is sent to Sirene and finds himself in the mask of the Moon Moth. He has a lot to learn, and makes his share of mistakes. When his off-world minders inform him that Haxo Angmark, a wanted criminal and murderer, is seeking refuge on Sirene, he must find an outlaw who can hide his real face behind a mask. In a brief space, Vance offers readers a crisply imagined mystery, an innovative thriller and an examination of social mores, all presented with an imaginative flair.

The justly esteemed First Second publishing company now offers readers a gorgeous graphic novel version of that story, adapted and illustrated by Humayoun Ibrahim, with colors by Hilary Sycamore. The decision to adapt a (longish) short story as opposed to one of Vance's many novels may seem strange until you immerse yourself in this world. For this reader, the decision seems ideal. Expanded by the art, the story takes on more heft and gets more pages. There's certainly enough story here to satisfy any reader, but not so much as to overwhelm any reader.

Ibrahim has done a wonderful job illustrating, laying out, translating (as it were) and pacing Vance's original work. The whole design ethos is as crisp and clean as Vance's prose. 'The Moon Moth' is a very easy book to look at. Ibrahim offers nicely but not overly detailed visions of the masks, and cleverly lets readers know when his characters are singing versus when they are speaking.

Hilary Sycamore's colors are just beautiful. She keeps things simple and light, preserving an uncluttered look. Her work is an essential part of the whole that perfectly presents a visualization of Vance's imagery and his underlying intent. Carlo Rotella offers readers an informative introduction.

Our inner and outer identities are the ever-shifting wave we ride through each day of our lives, and the tension between them is what pulls us forward. Vance's science-fictional exploration of this inner conflict is a tribute to the power of the genre; this graphic novel is a tribute to the power of that form to expand the message and artistic visions of prose. It's a great introduction to a great writer, smart, sharp and to the point. It may well be the first step to bringing the work of Jack Vance to a wider audience who have yet to discover that outer space is a perfect place to explore our inner lives.

03-13-12: Archive Reviews: Patrick Harpur's Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld

Sublime, Inspiring, Beauiful

Editor's note: As I read Whitley Strieber's latest, I could not help but be reminded of this classic title. THe UK Hardcover first edition is very lovely, as is the reprint. This is a book that could inspire a hundred novels of surreal fantasy, science fiction nd horror.

Books about monsters, apparitions, UFOs, demons and "the otherworld" tend to be fiction. But those that aren't, those that purport to document or comment on such phenomena in what passes for "real life" vary across such a wide range of quality, credulity and comprehensibility that it's tempting to dismiss them all as pure badly-written hokum. Of course, as in any genre, no matter how microscopic, there are classics. Charles Fort's 'Book of the Damned' is surely in the forefront. But once you get past the looming shadow of Charles Fort, matters become far murkier.

Patrick Harpur's 'Daimonic Reality' is a work that would surely make the top ten lists of many Fortean scholars. Subtitled 'A Field Guide to the Otherworld', 'Daimonic Reality' synthesizes the reports of many different phenomena into a single Unified Field Theory of the Strange. It's an audacious attempt that largely succeeds. Harpur has a low key writing style that makes this work easy to read. His comprehensive knowledge of a wide variety of inexplicable events is impressive and entertaining. Most importantly, he has drawn together these disparate elements with a rather interesting philosophical take that looks to Jung, Fort, Blake, Yeats and beyond. There are enough elements in this stew to make it a really tasty treat for the hungry mind.

UK HC First
'Daimonic Reality' is divided into three sections through which Harpur journeys ever deeper into the mind behind the perceptions. But he's careful not to shortchange the perceptions and events themselves. 'Part One: Apparitions' covers apparitions of all kinds, from UFOs to lights in the sky, from aliens and fairies to sightings of Black Dogs and Big Cats. Harpur's economical coverage of these subjects makes it easy for any level of Fortean reader to enjoy the individuality of each experience. But this treatment also enables the reader to step back and see the bigger picture, to move towards the idea of the 'otherworld'. The individual reports are carefully chosen and beautifully written.

Harpur takes a more substantial step towards the otherworld in 'Part Two: Vision'. Starting with a discussion of "seeing things", he moves on to visions of 'Ladies', which are dominated by (but not exclusively) visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He discusses the evidence that these encounters leave behind, from fairy shoes to crop circles. (Coming soon to a theater near you.) He talked about the part that Imagination plays in the otherworld, and finally reaches the mythic land itself.

In 'Part Three: Otherworld Journeys', Harpur gives both practical and philosophical advice for otherworld journeys. He discusses the variety of journeys that one can have, from missing time to alien encounters, from a trip to fairyland to an out-of-body experience. When Harpur sticks to the practical, he has practically no peer in writing compelling prose about otherworldly experiences. His philosophical thoughts aren't quite as page-turning, but they're pithy, fascinating and pertinent. Harpur is not content to merely provoke thought. He wants to invoke internal debate in the reader, and does so with some formal philosophical discussion that is difficult to pull off with the authority that Harpur achieves. He's a remarkably intelligent writer, and his work requires a reader of nearly equal intelligence.

You don't have to be a philosopher to read Harpur's work, but it certainly helps to be philosophically inclined. This is not mere reportage of events, but a reasoned analysis, with conclusions that go well beyond 'Is it real or are they all just a bunch of crazy yahoos?' That there is an audience for this sort of thinking is shown by the eternal sales of the works of writers such as Carlos Castenada, not to mention the immense and increasing popularity of Fortean fiction, horror, science fiction and fantasy. That's because Harpur is looking to snatch something from the center of creation, something that is partly in the human mind and partly in the otherworld. 'Daimonic Reality' does an excellent job grasping at the ineffable and getting it in print.

As of February, 2003, this title is back in print by Pine Winds Press / Idyll Arbor. They've chosen an equally nice cover print, and are publishing the book as a sturdy US hardcover. Better yet, they're a small press, so you can buy directly from them. Since Harpur has managed to wrestle the ineffable into print, we've got to thank Pine Winds Press for keeping it in print.

03-12-12: Whitley Strieber is 'Solving the Communion Enigma'

Ask the Better Question

We can't help but suspect there is something more to our existence than what we see. One of the best ways to explore that suspicion is to read. The meditative aspect of reading reflects to a degree our involvement in something important but immaterial, hard to pin down. Books that take the immaterial, the elusive as their subject are most certainly the best reading material when you wish to immerse yourself in what we might call the "otherworld."

Whitley Strieber has been talking about the otherworld in his writing from the beginning, first as fiction, then, later, as non-fiction and autobiography. His latest book in this regard is 'Solving the Communion Enigma: What Is To Come,' which one might presume to be a direct follow-on to 'Communion.' This is sort of true; in this book Strieber does examine the events described in 'Communion,' and some that took place both before and after, all of them otherworldly. But while there is a lot of autobiography here, and a lot of truly chilling moments, with 'Solving the Communion Enigma,' Strieber is casting a wider net. With his latest work of non-fiction, Strieber strives to come up with a unified field theory for the otherworld, drawing from his personal experiences and those of others to step back and get a bigger picture. But Strieber is ever a contrarian. For him, the solution lies not in answers, but in questions.

'Solving the Communion Enigma' is pretty short, just over 200 pages, and divided into three sections, "The Mystery," "The Extreme Strangeness of the Evidence," and "Caterpillar and Butterfly: Lifting the Veil." He revisits some of the events of 'Communion,' and others that took place earlier in his life. The idea is to put the whole series of event, indeed, the vision of the events, into a bigger context. He explores well beyond his own life, talking about UFO sightings, crop circles, animal mutilations. It's almost a survey, a compendium of strange stuff that is presented with little comment, leaving the reader to explore the implications.

Strieber does not abandon autobiography. 'Solving the Communion Enigma' gives us a fairly raw portrait of a best-selling writer who hits the skids. It's understandable. When 'Communion' was published, there had been nothing like it. Many took it as science fiction, or hoax, or looked at the cover and saw something from their own nightmares. Two more big-selling books followed, but when Strieber was unable to cough up a grey to join him on Oprah, his fortunes started to fall. His books stopped selling. All this real-world economic unhappiness makes a curious counterpoint for Strieber's adventures with the otherworld. It's certainly interesting to read this sort of confession in this setting.

The creep factor in 'Solving the Communion Enigma' is pretty high. Regardless of your assignation of the events described to "fantasy" or "reality," there's no doubt that this book has a number of superbly chilling moments. It's easy to understand how Strieber became a bestselling author of horror fiction. A few scenes here are so striking (and well-written) that they are iconic. The work here is quite simple. It's disturbingly surreal, not gory or violent. Strieber explores our unconscious fears with a clear conscience.

What's most interesting about 'Solving the Communion Enigma' is what it does not say. Strieber frames some very interesting questions, inspired by his wife, but does not offer the reader answers that are clearly in view. It's not hard to put together where all this is going, but this time around, Strieber leaves well enough alone. It is one thing to be led into the unknown by the hand. If you're handed an answer, you're inclined to doubt. But to provide an answer to a well-framed question, you as a reader must make the not just the connections, but the commitment. If you're looking for a date when the saucers will land on the White House lawn, this is not your book. But if you suspect that there is more not just to this life, but to you, than is accounted for in the philosophy that runs the world, then 'Solving the Communion Enigma' might just be the answer to a question you have yet to ask.

New to the Agony Column

02-22-15: Commentary : Jennifer Senior Experiences 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' : Reading Fun for the Whole Fambly!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jennifer Senior : " becomes a source of enormous tension once a baby comes along..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 197: Jennifer Senior : All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

02-09-15: Commentary : Stewart O'Nan Looks 'West of Sunset' : Twilight of the Great

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Stewart O'Nan : "...we see him as a tragedian because is life is a tragedy..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 196: Stewart O'Nan : West of Sunset

02-04-15: Commentary : Armistead Maupin Maps 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' : Swiftly Flow the Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Armistead Maupin : "I could see what silliness was going on while it was happening..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 195: Armistead Maupin : The Days of Anna Madrigal

01-31-15: Commentary : Christine Carter's Path to 'The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work' : Neurohabits

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Christine Carter, Ph.D. : "...a real tipping point..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 194: Christine Carter, Ph.D. : The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

01-23-15: Commentary : Jake Halpern Pushes 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld' : Non-Fiction 21st Century Noir

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jake Halpern : "...he goes to Las Vegas to this debt-buyers' convention..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 193: Jake Halpern : Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

01-19-15: Commentary : David Shields and Caleb Powell Assert 'I Think You're Totally Wrong' : The Power to Bicker

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell : "I read no book reviews any more; the level of discussion is really pedestrian." David Shields "I'm just saying it's a conflict of interest!" Caleb Powell

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 192: David Shields and Caleb Powell : I Think You're Totally Wrong

01-17-15: Commentary : Charles Todd Expects 'A Fine Summer's Day' : We Interrupt This Program...

Commentary : Charles Todd Engages In 'A Test of Wills' : The Politics of Passion and Policing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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