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Archive for December, 2012

A Review of On Wings of Eagles

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 31, 2012

On Wings of EaglesOn Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now this is a five star book if I’ve ever read one! I couldn’t put this book down. It was an amazing story told masterfully by Ken Follett. In looking over some reviews on Goodreads, I was surprised to see a couple of bad reviews with one saying it was not exciting. Are you kidding me??? This was one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read — and it’s a true story!

Ross Perot had a data processing company called EDS in the 1970s. (Too lazy to see if it still exists. LOL!) His company was in the process of creating Social Security and Medicaid programs for Iran when the Shah’s regime started to crumble and revolution was just around the corner. Iran didn’t pay their EDS bill for six months and it was quite large when two of the senior EDS executives were arrested without any reason and put into prison by an overzealous prosecutor I learned to seriously hate. He put their bail at 13 MILLION dollars. Murderers’ bail was typically $100,000. It was an insane amount. Essentially these businessmen were held hostage by the Iranian government for ransom. It was crazy.

Perot tried everything he could do to extricate his men legally and quickly, but nothing worked. He tried the US government, and that was laughable. He called in favors from people like Henry Kissinger. He tried to arrange bail to be paid, but it couldn’t work out. You couldn’t safely take that amount of money into Iran and lines of credit weren’t being honored by international banks. What to do….

I learned to really respect Perot a lot in this book. He worked his employees hard, but treated them like family and felt it was his responsibility to get these men out of prison and out of Iran. So he came up with a harebrained idea — bust them out of jail! During the Vietnam war, he had played a role in working to get MIAs out of Vietnam and supported veteran’s rights and was therefore well thought of by the military and those aligned with them. One of the people he honored at a party after the war was a Green Beret colonel named Bull Simons, a living legend. (In fact, I first heard about this book through a book on SOG I was reading that had a section on the infamous Bull Simons. I wanted to read more and bought this book. Am I glad I did!) Bull Simons was a retired widower, aging, but had led a rescue mission into North Vietnam and if anyone could do it in Iran, Perot thought it would be Simons, so he called him and Simons agreed to do it. Now, here’s a crazy part: instead of enlisting the aid of paid mercenaries or something along those lines, Perot lined up a few EDS employees, most of whom had military experience, and asked them to volunteer for something that was potentially life threatening. They all did. Simons met his team, trained them, and they went to Iran.

I don’t want to give away the story, but it’s an exciting tale. The revolution occurred while this was happening and there was insane fighting in the streets of Tehran and throughout the countryside. Americans were in danger. The American Embassy was no longer safe, so these men hid out in EDS safe houses and waited for the right time to rescue their men. It came and they did. That’s not the end of the story, however. They couldn’t exactly fly out of the country. That damned prosecutor was after these two men and had power all over the country, even with Iran in political chaos. Instead, the team had to trek through Iran to Turkey while other EDS employees made their way to Turkey to meet them and arrange transport out of Turkey back to the US. It’s a harrowing story with lots of suspense. I thought I was going to pass out reading this book at times. It’s just crazy! Perot flies into Iran, but as he would make a prime hostage, he flies back out, goes to the US, and then goes to Turkey with his team. When the two parties ultimately meet, it’s a delight to read about. However, even then, they’re not safe. They fly to Germany, but Germany has an extradition treaty with Iran, so they have to hightail it to England. They ultimately arrive back in their Dallas home city and are reunited with their families, just when the revolution is at its craziest. Perot spent a personal fortune in this successful rescue and in my eyes, he’s a true hero. And think about it — when Jimmy Carter tried to rescue the embassy hostages later in 1979, he should have called on Perot and his team led by Simons. Instead, failure and international humiliation.

This book was one of the most engaging books I’ve ever read. The poor reviews complained about too much detail. Well, I appreciated the detail. It made it seem all the more problematic in the rescue effort, and thus even more incredible that it was accomplished. This book was written in 1983, and Simons is dead now, and I have no idea what’s happened to the others in this book, but I didn’t take Perot seriously when he ran for president. I sure would now. What a leader! I loved Bill Clinton and have no regrets in voting for him, but who knows where we might be if Perot had led America? This is a stunning book to read and I give it my highest recommendation.

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An End of the Year Post — 2012

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 31, 2012

Last December 31st, I wrote an End of the Year Post where I wrote about highlights (and lowlights) of each month. I don’t know that I’m going to do that this year, but I’m going to try to list some of the same types of things for 2012.

In January, I was still recovering from a major December surgery — a sigmoid colectomy. They took out 25% of my colon. They also took out my appendix while they were inside me. It took me a full 10 weeks to recover from that surgery. January was a month spent resting and recovering. My mother had her birthday and we celebrated. She’s getting fairly old though and that’s a little depressing. My father celebrated his birthday in February. He and Mom are in fairly good health considering their ages. In February, my then-girlfriend and I traveled to Maryland to visit her family. It was a good visit. We saw 18 cops in Virginia on the way up and 18 on the way back. All but one had a car or truck pulled over.

In April, my girlfriend celebrated her birthday. She looks 10 years younger than she is. She’ll age most gracefully.  🙂 April also saw a new issue of Ray’s Road Review come out. It’s the online literary magazine for which I’m the poetry editor. Another issue came out in June.

We found a little Episcopalian church near us in May and started attending. We like it infinitely better than the Presbyterian one we had occasionally attended before. The music was better, the sermons were better (non-politicized), and the people were very friendly. We felt accepted right away.

On Independence Day, in July, I proposed to my girlfriend and she said yes! We’re getting married April 6th, 2013. On July 10th, we went to see one of Gretchen’s favorite bands — Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They can still rock it. Good show.

In August, I had to have another surgery, a neurological one to treat the pain caused by my Trigeminal Neuralgia. It worked for three weeks. Additionally, we were supposed to go to Knoxville to see Van Halen and we were pumped, but VH cancelled all of their shows and that really ticked us off. Very disappointing.

I had a birthday in September and tried not to be too depressed about it. That month, we were also undergoing pre-marital counseling. We want to get married in the little church we attend. Additionally, I was able to go see my longtime favorite musical group, Dead Can Dance, in Atlanta with my friend, Chris. We got second row, middle seats, and it was awesome. This tour was to support their first studio album since 1996, and it’s quite good. I wrote about the concert here and posted many pictures.

In October, I had to have two more neurological surgeries — one to anesthetize the Trigeminal nerve in my brain, and the other to literally burn it. These were my seventh and eighth surgeries since December, 2010. It’s gotten quite old. Another issue of RRR came out that month too. Meanwhile, Halloween 2011 had been a bust for us. We only got six kids, so this year we didn’t get nearly the candy we got last year and we didn’t even carve a pumpkin. And how many kids did we get? None! That’s right — not one. What the hell are all the kids doing for Halloween??? We live in a decent residential neighborhood. It’s not right.

November was pretty quiet, but the pain caused by my TN had been tempered by the surgeries, so that was good. Of course, Obama was re-elected and we celebrated our not having to move to Toronto if Romney won. LOL! Seriously, we were relieved and elated.

In December, Gretchen and I celebrated our second anniversary together. It was a more quiet affair this year than last, but it was still great to reflect on our past year together. In addition, another issue of RRR was published. I also had a job interview here that went great and I was told by the recruiter that I was one of two finalists for the position. I just had to undergo a second phone interview. I did and it was a complete disaster, which I wrote about. I’ve been looking for work for a little while now, so that was depressing. I think the person interviewing me thought I was interviewing for a different job, because he asked nothing about the position and all questions were about other stuff.  Of course we just celebrated Christmas, and it too was low key for us, but I was able to give Gretchen several Baltimore Ravens apparel items and some books while she got me a cool DVD, a Journey t-shirt and a Steelers stuffed bear. I’ve named him Beardy the Bear (I think) after Steelers defensive lineman Brett Kiesel. I’m still considering naming him Heath, after tight end Heath Miller, a Pro Bowler who’s had a great year.

All in all, it was a tough year for us health-wise (but better than 2011) and financially, but we grew closer together and bonded more with our respective families, so that was great. 2013 looks to have some challenges to it (I need a job!), but I think and hope we’ll have a good year and I’m looking forward to it. I’m especially looking forward to our April wedding. So, I wish everyone reading this a happy New Year and I hope that 2013 treats us all well. Cheers!


Oh, I forgot to mention the death of my favorite aunt — Aunt Katherine — late in 2012. We all traveled to Winston-Salem, NC for the memorial service. There I was reunited with several great cousins and even met some new ones I’d never met before. That was awesome. On the way back, we stopped in Asheville to visit my old friend, Ami. It was wonderful to see her again.

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2012 in review

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 31, 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A Review of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 30, 2012

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not LiterallyReading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this book really engaging, but I can now see why so many fundamentalists/evangelicals view Marcus Borg as little more than a heretic. He argues that you shouldn’t read the Bible literally, but through a historical-metaphorical lens. And he makes some great arguments, but he also makes some potentially faulty assumptions and, further, throws a number of things in the Bible right out the door without considering them seriously simply because they don’t seem realistic. He writes that you should see the Bible as a “human product” and writes that it is

“a human response to God. Rather than seeing God as scripture’s ultimate author, I see the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities [Jews and Christians] to their experience of God. As such, it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves. As the product of these two communities, the Bible thus tells us about how they saw things, not about how God sees things.”

Well. As you can see, that might be controversial for some people. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument, of course. It’s not new. But I’ve never actually read a book on it, and one so well written. Borg makes some compelling arguments. This Biblical view would be hard for virtually any fundamentalist/evangelical to hold. I grew up in such a background and I was taught that the Bible was the inherent word of God, that is was ALL completely true and literal, etc. — or else. (Of course, no one’s ever been able to satisfyingly explain to me then why certain sins and laws are so important — like opposition to homosexuality — and why some Old Testament laws were trashed, like the ones regarding shellfish, different cloth materials, etc., et al.)

As previously mentioned, here’s where Borg really starts getting into trouble in the evangelical world:

“…Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and … they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to. Thus I regard these as purely metaphorical narratives.”

Trouble. If you don’t buy into Jesus doing miracles (and why some, but not others Mr. Borg?), then would his argument was that he was the son of God be reliable or compelling? And if he was truly the son of God, why couldn’t he perform these miracles, even if no one else has ever been able to? No one else has ever been the son of God. Still, it’s food for thought, right?

Borg continues to trash Biblical miracles:

“To use the story of the crossing of the sea as an example: something happened at the sea. But it was not the sea dividing into parallel walls of water with a canyon of dry land in between. To imagine that God acted to bring about that in the past violates the principle of ‘divine consistency.’ Divine consistency affirms that God acts now in the same way that God acted in the past. Some might — some do — argue with this claim. But the notion that God acted in fundamentally different ways in the past compared to how God acts now presents insurmountable difficulties. Why would God change how God acts? What possible reason can be imagined? If God intervened in such dramatic ways then, why not now?”

Borg’s answer is, once again, historical-metaphor. These were stories constructed by ancient people who handed them down via oral tradition. They weren’t written down until some time later, in some cases, quite some time later. They’re not meant to be read literally. My old roots make it difficult for me to accept this, but it makes sense to me. I was (foolishly) shocked to read that Moses didn’t write the first five books, but his story and the events as told in the first five books were written possibly centuries after his death! If that’s true, who knows what reality was like?

Like Brian McClaren and other leaders of the emergent church movement, Borg argues that “social justice” is really important to Biblical authors, particularly the Old Testament prophets. He uses Amos extensively to illustrate this. He also uses various proverbs to discuss wealth and poverty, also like the emerging church leaders. There’s a lot I could say about this, but it’s taking me far too long to write this review, so I’ll probably be cutting it short soon….

The book has an interesting chapter on Job, and it argues the book makes one ask “why be religious? Why take God seriously?” and more. It’s a pretty good discussion.

Borg continues to hit the historical-metaphorical idea again and again:

“Like the historical narratives of the Bible generally, the gospels are the product of a developing tradition, containing earlier and later layers of material and combining history remembered and history metaphorized. They preserve the Jesus movement’s memory of Jesus and use the language of metaphor and metaphorical narrative to speak about what Jesus had become in their experience, thought, and devotion in the decades after his death.

As developing traditions combining historical memory and metaphorical narrative, they can be read in two different ways. On the one hand, as virtually our only source of information about the historical Jesus, they can be read for the sake of reconstructing a sketch of what Jesus of Nazareth was like as a figure of history. On the other hand, they can be read as late-first century documents that tell us about Christian perceptions and convictions about Jesus some forty to seventy years after his death.”

Borgs writes a lot more about this, but I want to touch on his treatment of Paul and the idea of being saved by grace, not works.

“First, justification by grace in opposition to justification by works of the law is not about the inadequacy of the Jewish law or Judaism…. The failure to recognize this has erroneously led Christians to think of Judaism as a religion of law, works, and judgment and Christianity as a religion of grace, faith, and love…. Second, justification by grace is not about forgiveness; it is not simply an affirmation that God will forgive those who repent…. This, justification by grace is not about who goes to heaven, or how. The notion that it is flows out of conventional Christianity’s preoccupation with the afterlife through the centuries, as if that were most central to the message of Jesus and Paul and the New Testament…. Fourth, Paul’s understanding of justification is not about the replacement of one requirement with another. This frequently happens in Christianity when ‘faith’ replaces ‘good works’ as what God requires of us. The system of requirements remains; only the content has changed…. So what, then, is justification by grace about? Very simply, it is about the basis of our relationship to God in the present….”

Whew! That’s a lot to swallow in a couple of pages. There’s a lot there and I encourage interested people to read it and think about it. The final chapter is on the book of Revelation and it’s pretty interesting. Not too surprisingly, Borg argues that it’s not about some future apocalypse, but simply a letter intended for specific early church members about the Roman empire in which they lived. I’ve heard this argument before, but Borg lays it out nicely here.

Some people will be horrified at the contents of this book. Some people will be offended. Hopefully some will find it as engaging as I have though. It’s thought provoking and I think that’s what Borg is after. I’m no longer an evangelical, so I’m open to much of what the book discusses. That said, I think Borg’s picking and choosing what’s to be read literally and what’s to be read metaphorically places him (and us?) in a God-like role, and hence, is the book’s greatest weakness. A recommended book nonetheless.

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A Review of iPhone Google Music Apps

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 26, 2012

I have a lot of music. I have a lot of CDs and I have all of them stored on my iMac. Along with those, I have just as many CDs that I’ve downloaded from iTunes over the years. I have about 1,000 albums all told. I also have a 32 GB iPhone 4. I have crammed as much music as I can on it, but at best, it can only hold about 100 of my albums. I therefore miss out on playing a lot of my music and that’s really bothered me. So call me late to the party, but I recently came across Google Music at play.google.com. It’s a free cloud-based service that imitates iTunes in many ways and is probably viewed as a direct competitor to Apple. Strangely, though, when you sign up with your Google account, you have to enter a credit card number, but it goes on to charge you $0. I’m not sure what the meaning behind that is, and I really don’t like it, but for the time being I guess it’s acceptable. Some of the benefits of Google Music are obvious. You can listen to all of your music any time you want anywhere you want, as long as you have an Internet connection or access to “the cloud.” Unlike Amazon, which I understand doesn’t have much storage capacity, Google Music allows for storage of up to 20,000 songs. Friends, that’s a lot of songs. After I opened my account, I then told the app on my web browser to start uploading all of my albums from iTunes, and it started doing just that. I was surprised to find I only had about 11,000 songs, so I could probably have 1,800 albums before getting close to Google’s limit. That was a pleasant surprise. It took the better part of a day to upload everything, and to my minor frustration, it didn’t actually upload all of my albums. It missed about 50 of them, give or take. I don’t know why. It also on occasion showed different album covers than what iTunes shows for cover art, but quite often Google Music got it right when iTunes got it wrong. Interesting.

Now, the real reason for opening up my new account … I had to get an iPhone app for Google Music so I could listen to all of my albums on my iPhone. Exciting! To my disappointment, however, there aren’t many Google Music app choices in the iTunes store. I counted about four, although I guess I could have missed one somewhere. I’ve downloaded these four and want to report here what my reactions are to them. They’re mixed and I’m not entirely satisfied with any one of them.

First, I downloaded GoMusic. It seemed easy enough to use. As was the case with all four apps, I had to enter my Google name and password and it downloaded my entire library to the app. Surprisingly, it didn’t take very long at all to download close to 11,000 songs to any of these apps. At first I was pleased with GoMusic. Until it started doing something which I found both annoying and inexplicable — it would cut off songs before they were over. Why? And not on every one either. No rhyme or reason to it. I became annoyed, so I looked for another one.

Next, I downloaded gMusic. gMusic seemed pretty cool. It has an easy menu, from which you can choose playlists, artists, songs, albums, genres, etc. Pretty exhaustive. And thankfully, this one didn’t cut songs off at the end! Good, right? Wrong. After using it for several hours, which really drained my battery, it stopped working. Just froze. Don’t know why. I was disappointed, because there really weren’t too many more choices out there.

Next I downloaded an aesthetically pleasing one called Melodies. It too seemed promising. Like the others, you can choose from playlists, artists, songs, albums, and more. One feature I found enjoyable was beside each of the albums was a miniature icon of the album. The others just had lists. I thought this was cool. I started using it extensively, but to my bitter disappointment found that, like GoMusic, it cuts off various songs before they end. It’s really distracting when that happens.

Finally, today I’ve tried yet another: Blackbird. Blackbird had uneven reviews on iTunes, with many people talking about its glitches and crashes. However, when it worked, people seemed pretty happy with it. This one took the longest to download my Google Music library, but it wasn’t too bad. One feature I really like about this one is it includes your cloud-based Google Music AND any music you have stored on your iPhone’s iPod. Since I have a number of albums on my phone that never got uploaded to Google Music, this was a big plus, having both. However, Blackbird is not without the aforementioned glitches. You can choose from playlists, artists, albums, and songs like the others, but when I choose “Albums,” nothing happens. They simply don’t appear. So I have to choose from artists or songs in alphabetical order, which is okay I suppose, but not ideal. I would like to have a working Album feature. Also, to my immense irritation, this app also cuts some songs off prematurely. It seems that three of these four apps do that and I have no idea why.

Google Music seems like a pretty good service, and if you’re an iPhone owner, you’ll need one of these apps. I hope I’ve given some insight into what they’re like. There really isn’t a lot separating them from each other, but I think I’ve decided to go with Blackbird because of the fact that it draws from my Google Music account and my phone’s iPod. I really like that. This way, I can delete albums from my phone that are in my Google Music account and upload albums that never made it into my Google Music account. Best of both worlds. I think I’ve given up on GoMusic, while if gMusic worked, I’d use it the most. Melodies is attractive, but ultimately lacking. Download some of these for your iPhone and let me know what you think. Cheers!


EDIT: 5:40 PM

OK, less than 30 minutes after writing this review, Blackbird stopped playing mid-song and crashed. Upon opening it, I have no songs in my library there anymore. There are no songs, artists, or albums. WTF? Man, these four apps SUCK!!! I guess I’ll go back to using Melodies and living with having the ends of my songs cut off. *sigh*

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A Review of Contents Under Pressure

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 24, 2012

Contents Under Pressure: 30 Years of Rush at Home and AwayContents Under Pressure: 30 Years of Rush at Home and Away by Martin Popoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this authorized biography of Rush, as would any fan I think. Even people who aren’t big Rush fans might find it an interesting read. The book starts from the first album, Rush, back in the early 1970s. This book celebrates 30 years of Rush, and it covers every album — including live ones — all the way up through 2002’s Vapor Trails. The book equally covers each album — and each song on each album — and the accompanying tour that went with it, starting from Rush opening for KISS to headlining major festivals around the world. I already knew quite a bit about the band, but this book really filled in some gaps for me and added some personality with all of the quotes from Geddy, Alex, and Neil. It was pretty good stuff! I enjoyed reading about what their favorite songs were, as well as albums, particularly the lesser known later albums, which I’ve developed a late appreciation for over time. I only have two areas of disappointment, one of which couldn’t be helped. First, the book was published in 2004, so it couldn’t cover the very good Snakes & Arrows album from 2007 and it obviously couldn’t cover this year’s masterful Clockwork Angels. I would have liked to read what the band had to say about that one. Thus the one “real” area of disappointment with the book is the fact that the band’s always original album art is rarely discussed and I would have loved to know how the covers for Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, and A Farewell to Kings came about. What was the thinking behind them? How were they produced? It does touch briefly on the Moving Pictures shoot, but really, there’s not much there on the album cover art. The book does delve deeply into the song writing process, and I found that interesting because I had always heard Neil did all the writing, but apparently all three do, Geddy more so than Alex, with Neil carrying the bulk of it. But Geddy’s got to be able to sing his songs with conviction, so there’s real collaboration. That was interesting. I also found it interesting to note how different they are from so many other bands, for one thing, in wanting to stick to studio-style songs in their concerts rather than improvising. They want their performances to mirror the mastery of their albums, which they put a lot into. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I guess I can respect that. The book briefly covers Neil’s tragedy of losing his wife and daughter to death in the same year and how the band didn’t know if they’d ever play again. Vapor Trails was their first album back together again after four years apart and it’s a surprisingly strong album. I like it very much, and they do too. Though I think they view Moving Pictures — with the song, “Tom Sawyer,” — as their true defining moment. It’s what separated their past prog rock clubs and small arenas popularity to their later huge arena-filling popularity. That’s the album that got me listening to Rush way back when. It was a defining album for me too.

This fall, I’ve read a decent book on Journey and now on Rush. Next I have one on Queen lined up, and it’s huge! It covers every album and every song Queen ever did, in greater detail than this Rush book does. This book was hugely enjoyable and while I feel it could have been three times longer with much more material, I do feel it captured the essence of the band fairly well and even though I would rarely give a band bio five stars, I’m doing so this time because my complaints are minimal and my enjoyment was great. Recommended.

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