Sunday, December 11, 2016

Everything I write is now posted daily on my website

I am now writing daily blog posts about my poetry, book reviews, history and other topics on

my website, click here:

Thanks for your interest, I welcome your feedback on my website.

Rick Subber

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Rick Subber's new website

Here’s a sneak preview of my new website, check it out here:

It’s still under construction, but you can read samples of my poetry and my blog posts on books and book reviews, history, politics and some strange and wonderful stuff in the “Tidbits” category.

In the near future I will say goodbye to my three longstanding blogs—Barley Literate, History: Bottom Lines, and Magister Librorum—and do all of my daily posting on the website, where everything will be conveniently accessible from a single landing page.

I will manage the new website in tandem with my dedicated Facebook page, click here to take a look at it—and please “Like” the new Facebook page if you care to, I need 25 “Likes” to get access to some advanced Facebook audience measurements (all aggregate stuff, no personal or private information about individual persons, not even a little bit, not ever).

With appropriate humility and excessive excitement, I mention that in the near future I will publish my first poetry chapbook. Stay tuned!

Thanks again for your kind consideration in reading my daily scribblings. I try to write something worth reading every day.

Words, words, words—they can say so much if we choose them carefully, and if we choose to listen....


Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Mindset: think about it

Book review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
By Dr. Carol S. Dweck, New York: Ballantine Books, 2006
277 pages

This is one of those books that knocks a hole in your head and then fills it up with startling knowledge.

Dweck wrote this rather chatty book about a very serious subject: the mindset that influences much of your life, and can literally play a critical role in your success or failure at work, at school, among your friends and at home with your family.

Here’s a simplistic summary of her findings based on years of teaching and research:

There is a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A mindset is a frame of mind that enables you to interpret what’s happening in the world around you, and to determine how you will feel about it, and how you will act and react.

I’ll take a stab at briefly defining the two mindsets in my own words.

Fixed mindset—you interpret most everything that happens to you in terms of whether it validates your static view of your own abilities and self-worth, in other words, you see the events and people in your life as confirming that you are talented and wonderful, or proving that you’re stupid and worthless. You can’t change, and you’ve got to grab what you deserve.

Growth mindset—you interpret most everything that happens to you in terms of feedback about your motivation and your performance, in other words, you see the events and people in your life as part of your continuous quest to learn and achieve your goals and enjoy your relationships with others. You can change, and you can learn to do better.

Of course, it’s possible to have different mindsets in different circumstances, and it’s possible to have some mix of the mindsets.

Dweck says you can learn to have a more effective growth mindset, and you can teach others, kids and adults, to embrace a more effective growth mindset.

We can always learn, we can always build up our talents, we can always get smarter, and we can help ourselves to have more enjoyable lives.

This all makes sense to me.

I don’t think I learned everything Dweck can teach me, so I’m going to read the book again.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General

Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General
by Marc Leepson (b.1945) 
Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2011
202 pages

I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Leepson entertains by re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions. 

There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.

Was Lafayette a great man? Leepson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Leepson amply demonstrates these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”

I feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Leepson fully describes but does not adequately interpret.

Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”

Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Leepson says that Lafayette’s campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “led to the victory at Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau and others arrived with sufficient forces before he participated in the final assaults.

In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention. However, Leepson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.

Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.

A final note: for my taste, neither Leepson nor Gen. Wesley Clark (in his Foreword) lives up to the promise of sifting “lessons in leadership” from Lafayette’s battlefield and political exploits, or his largely exemplary personal character. I think the fact is that almost all of the notable events in Lafayette’s public and private lift were as much circumstantial as anything else. Certainly, in the worst of times during the French Revolutions, when he could have demonstrated compelling leadership for the lasting benefit of his countrymen and nation, Lafayette came up short.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Book review: The Climate Casino

Book review: The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World
Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2013
378 pages

I think Prof. Nordhaus has given us a remarkable achievement: a solid, sobering, stimulating, scientific, scary book on human-caused global climate change, that leaves no room for doubt about the prospect that climate change deniers are going to sweat more, like the rest of us, in coming decades. 

This is not a book about Apocalypse. If anything, the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University writes with an even temper and drily matter-of-fact language that is a teensy bit annoying, given the massively dangerous, initial impacts of climate change and global warming that are already unavoidable.

I think the principal value of The Climate Casino is that Nordhaus lays out the economic (cost/benefit) framework of policy considerations and possible remedial steps that the nations of the world, and mankind, can take to deal with the fact that we’re putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In simplest terms, he says there are many things we can do to mitigate global warming….some are more costly than others and some are very expensive….some folks and some companies and some countries will have to pay more of the costs than others.

I was surprised to read his conclusion that humans can likely survive the initial moderate impacts of global climate change/warming without substantial social and economic disruption, if we start seriously working on it now—there is a big pricetag, but we can tolerate it.

(I mention, for the record, that Nordhaus carefully discusses the unpredictable, and more than trivially possible, catastrophic “tipping points” in climate disruption that might occur regardless of what we do or don’t do—think Dennis Quaid and “The Day After Tomorrow”).

We’re going to have to stop using coal around the world, or figure out how to burn it cleanly. And more generally, we’re going to have to figure out how to require companies and individuals to pay the true cost of burning fossil fuels, that is, the present and future cost of the damage those fuels cause to our environment and to our grandchildren’s prospects for survival.

It was remotely heartening to read Nordhaus’ estimate that we have a reasonable chance of dealing with global warming if we get the ball rolling now, and make sure everyone pays the price.

This is the only planet our grandchildren will have to live on. We must do the right thing for them.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The history that didn't happen

Book review:
Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
261 pages

Dowd's A Spirited Resistance provides some examples of considering "history that didn't happen."
For every account of "history that happened" there might be a complementary book of "history that didn't happen."

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.

Thus, the "history that happened" is one of the possible histories that could have happened. It never was inevitable. There is difficulty enough in reconstructing, analyzing and understanding the actual "history that happened." The discovery and illumination of the course of history, however well done, is profoundly insufficient for the student of history.

Any possible, speculative scenario of historical events is a "history that didn't happen." Any version of the "history that didn't happen" is potentially a compelling object of interest, and there are limitless different versions. There is an effectively boundless scope of interest in such histories, and a wide range of probabilities that they might have occurred.

To be clear, popular accounts of so-called "alternative history" or "what if?" history are not suitable exemplars of this theme. An historical treatment that focuses on a single, arbitrary "what if?" scenario for a known historical event or extended historical process is of course a "history that didn't happen," but it is a special case. For example, a speculative presentation of "The South Won The Civil War" can be entertaining overall, even instructive in detail, but it is flawed. The author has the benefit of hindsight and cannot avoid using it. Of necessity, the author must repeatedly, expansively and arbitrarily choose alternative versions of what actually happened; the probability of occurrence of such a single, massively multi-variable alternative actually is vanishing small. Why bother writing or reading it? One may imagine that simultaneous nasty influenza outbreaks might have sidelined all the generals in both camps on July 2 in Gettysburg. The probability of such a scenario is vanishingly small. This scenario may be entertaining, but it does not merit serious consideration. It is imaginable, but it adds little to our understanding of history. The popular "what if?" approach to history is almost always arbitrary, eccentrically narrow and overwhelmingly improbable.

A structured, exploratory consideration of "history that didn't happen" could be useful. Such a structured approach, for example, could include:
·                     examination of the knowledge, values and motivation of historical actors;
·                     identification of realistic, feasible alternative decisions and reactions that might have
                              occurred at specific points in time or throughout an event in process;
·                     analysis of decision factors that were considered or ignored by the historical actors.

This approach envisions a retrospective presentation of history that illuminates reasonably feasible alternative courses of action, and clarifies possible explanations of why the actors did not make such decisions or pursue such courses of action. This concept does not assume and generally would avoid any attempt to prove that any particular alternative decision or action would have been better or should have been chosen. The point of this essentially objective reconsideration of history is to clarify the motives and expectations of the actors, and to gain a broader and deeper appreciation—in analytical contexts framed by hindsight—of what they thought was happening, what they wanted to happen and what they thought was possible or probable, all without the benefit of foresight.

A poignant example is Jared Diamond's question in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It includes a chapter on the almost complete deforestation of Easter Island and the cultural decline of its people who had depended on the trees for canoes, construction material and fuel. Diamond asks: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" (p. 114). By extension, what did the rest of the Easter Islanders say while he was doing it? Of course, with hindsight it's obvious that cutting down the last tree was not a good move. Was it obvious in the 17th century on Easter Island?  It would be interesting to attempt to reconstruct the ax-man's knowledge, values and motive: did he not know it was the last tree? Was he concerned about preserving his essential environment? Did Easter Islanders desire a tree-less landscape? 

Was the last tree worth a million bucks? Forward-thinking, environmentally sensitized Easter Islanders could have started planning earlier to figure out how to conserve a minimum number of trees or develop substitutes for transportation, construction and fuel. What are some possible elaborations about why that didn't happen? Was any such attempt actually made? Was tree-cutting strictly a commercial activity? Were there any social/religious/cultural imperatives regarding tree cutting? Was that ax-wielding Easter Islander a hero or a villain?

Now, back to Dowd and A Spirited Resistance. Apparently, a fundamental constraint to the success of the 18th century pan-Indian prophets on the East Coast was the persistent obstruction of many neutral or accommodationist chiefs who rejected their prophets' call for both violent and spiritual resistance to the Anglo-American authorities and settlers. These neutral chiefs sought to co-exist in relative peace with the Europeans. This internal division among the native Americans and the longevity of the ill-fated nativist movement suggests many questions.

In hindsight, it seems, at least superficially, that the ultimate dominance of the Europeans was inevitable. Did none of the chiefs in the late 18th century recognize this imperative? What arguments did both the nativist and neutral leaders use in their private councils to minimize their prospects for failure? How did their knowledge, values and motives sustain their doomed objectives for decades? Is it possible that the prophets might have been substantially successful if no internal Indian strife had existed?

Dowd says the inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts in leadership actually bolstered the motivation of the nativists, who argued that the neutral chiefs' failure to respect Indian cultural and spiritual values was partly to blame for the degradation of their culture and way of life. Did the neutral chiefs make the same criticism of the prophets? By implication, Dowd suggests that most nativist and accommodationist chiefs were doing their honorable best for their people. This viewpoint should be challenged; can it be confirmed? What was the motivation of the prophets and nativist chiefs? Did Tenskwatawa share personal attributes with Martin Luther King? with Billy Graham? with Elmer Gantry?

What primary military, political, economic and cultural factors were important to the neutral chiefs and to the prophets? Was their strife righteously motivated and conscientiously implemented? How much of it, if any, was simply opportunistic, localized internal wrangling for political power and personal prestige? Did the warriors and the people and the clans who actively supported the chiefs fully understand the implications of their commitments? Did the warriors follow Tecumseh for glory or for their informed vision of a better future? Did any Indian chiefs believe there was a third version of doing "the right thing"?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.