Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Putin’s Olympics

We go from Eurovision to world hockey championship, from the Olympics to the World Cup . . . We are going from holiday to holiday, entertainment everywhere.  Entertainment and pathos.  Because if people being to move beyond this fervor, and cool off a bit, clean themselves, then, you see, they will begin to see some things that the regime does not want them to see.  Therefore, we will continue to go from victory to victory, from holiday to holiday, it will be impossible to escape from all these holidays.  Holidays and war.  Anything that will serve as a distraction.

— Viktor Shenderovich (1958–)

I’ve been interested in the Olympics for as long as I can remember.  I have a couple stronger Olympic memories than others.  Obviously, the winter games in Salt Lake City stick out.  Unfortunately, they kind of stick out for the wrong reason.  I got to pick up trash as a volunteer.  I had friends who were interpreters and other more involved positions.  I know one friend of mine went skiing on the downhill course with the Uzbek skiers.  I was at the same venue, but at a different time, and doing a much different job.  Ultimately, I mostly enjoyed my experience volunteering for the Olympics, but it was certainly not what I had hoped for and not what I had been told to expect.  Much earlier in life, when I was four years old, I remember watching the Olympics on my parents’ old black-and-white TV.  It was a 12” model (at best) with rabbit ears.  We had it in a corner in the living room on a little stand by the bookshelves.  I remember seeing some ice skating from the competitions in Sarajevo.  Among other early Olympic memories, I remember sitting in our gray chair with my leg immobile because of a huge scab on my knee after a massive bike wreck that happened when I thought a car ramp would make a good bike jump.  I am also quite interested in Russia, having served there as a missionary and lived there more recently for work.

Book cover.Putin’s Olympics: The Sochi Games and the Evolution of Twenty-First Century Russia (ISBN: 978-1-315-81728-6) is a book by Robert W. Orttung and Sufian N. Zhemukhov that brings both of those interests together.  It takes a deeper look than the usual press on the subject at the Sochi Olympics and their greater context in Russia’s domestic and international politics.  The book looks at the problems surrounding the hosting of the Olympics in Sochi, which included corruption, a marginalization of civil society, problematic international relations, and the relation of security during the Olympics and its connection to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The viewpoint of the book was from that of the Olympics being something the authors defined as a “mega-project” and how Russia’s rulers, especially President Putin, tried to use that to their own advantages, both personally and to bring Russia’s standing up on the international stage.  The authors come to what I consider mixed conclusions, noting that the Sochi games were secure, did result in much-needed infrastructure upgrades in Sochi, and, from Putin’s standpoint, his position was secured because Russians saw the Olympics as a positive for their country, although, as the Shenderovich quote above notes, this is not necessarily a good thing.  On the other hand, the successes came at a great price, both monetarily and in prestige internationally, where Russia was hurt by the scandals surrounding the games.

The book was, of course, interesting.  It was interesting to see some analysis of the Olympics in their political context, and they’ve most often had a political context, no matter the average fan’s desire to separate sport from politics.  The most explosive conclusion in the book was the connection between Sochi and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The other stuff wasn’t really new for me, but that line of reasoning was new and fascinating and, really, rather hard to refute.  I was a little disappointed in the book because of its style.  It seemed to be long on background explanations, but then short on analysis by the authors.  That could’ve been because most of these conclusions have already been drawn in the media and there wasn’t really that much new ground to cover other than from a more standardized, academic approach, but it seemed to me to lack some punch in the sections other than the Ukraine conclusion.  Also, although a very small part of the book, I was disappointed that the book took the usual Western line of automatic support of the protest group P--sy Riot and automatic dismissal of Russia’s anti-homosexual propaganda law.  A more nuanced view than that of social media is something I would expect from an academic treatment of Russian domestic policy and its international context.  A relatively short book, it was interesting and presented some interesting, new ideas, and was worth the look.

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Friday, April 07, 2017

Hero of Hacksaw Ridge

I didn’t know much about “conscientious objectors” before hearing about this book (and the related movie).  I think the term was abused during the Vietnam era when many people did all they could to not serve in the military, but I honestly know very little.  That's what made reading this book so interesting — a way to learn more about this, especially what it originally meant and how someone made it work for them and ultimately was of great service to his fellow countrymen.  As someone who is active in one's church, the religious aspect of the story was also compelling, as such things seem to make the stories seem more relevant.

Book cover.Hero of Hacksaw Ridge: The Gripping True Story That Inspired the Movie (ISBN: 978-1-629131-54-2) by Booton Herndon is an abridged version of the story of Desmond Doss, a medic who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and saw action in the Pacific theater as the army advanced on various Japanese positions.  What makes the story unusual is that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and not once during his training or active duty did he use arms since he was a Seventh-day Adventist and believed it was wrong to bear arms.  The story chronicles his time in the military from his joining to his discharge after being wounded in action in Japan.  Doss is unwaveringly strong in his religious convictions, including an extremely temperate and patient attitude with those around him.  He displays great faith in standing up for his beliefs when those around him threaten him and ridicule him at every opportunity.  He doesn't hold a grudge when it comes time to perform his duty, and more than once wile fighting in the Pacific, he helps and saves the lives of others, usually at great risk to himself.  The story ends with what truly are “gripping” details of battles on Okinawa where he saved likely around 100 lives while himself being injured.  He is then awarded the much-deserved medal and is able to return to civilian life.  The book also includes a post-script with information about Adventist beliefs (many are similar to those held by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

I found the short book to be extremely interesting and often an exciting read.  The persecution he experienced, especially during training was disheartening, and I consider myself lucky to have never experienced anything like that.  I always envision myself being strong like he was, and pray for that to be true.  The combat scenes were intense, but well-written and not too graphic.  There was also a lesson to be learned in the combat scenes because by then, his fellow soldiers knew Doss and respected him, in part because he was uncompromising his his duty, both to God and his country.  He was no longer ridiculed, but respected.  As is usually the case, sticking to one’s beliefs results in respect in the long run.  It was also refreshing to see a person who was able to understand how he could serve the country without compromising his beliefs.  One has a clear duty to one's nation, and it's too bad that so many peoople don't understand that today.

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The Qur’an

I had never thought of Islam in any serious way before the infamous attacks of September 11th.  After that, I had a short unit on Islam in a comparative religion class at BYU (to this day, it remains my favorite religion class at BYU).  It wasn't until living in Sarajevo, though, that I had any substantial contact with Muslims.  Bosnia's brand of Islam is, in the mainstream, moderate, and there's a standard joke among many of the Americans that Ramadan for Bosnians is the detox month.  My interpretation of Bosnian Islam is that Muslims in Bosnia are like a lot of Christians in Europe.  Christians in Europe and Easter-and-Christmas Christians; Muslims in Bosnia are Ramadan Muslims.  In the meantime, the more extremist flavor dominates the American headlines.  I figured it would be interesting to make my own, somewhat more informed, opinion about the religion that claims well over 1 billion adherents.

Book cover.To do that, I read the Qur’an (ISBN: 978-0-19-953595-8), translated by Abdel Haleem.  The Koran (there are lots of possible spellings for this) is Islam's holy book, purported to be a recording of revelation given to the prophet Mohammed (lots of spellings for his name, too).  It focuses on the nature of God as the only God, as opposed to idols, pantheons of pagan gods, or even God as Christians know him, the Father of Jesus Christ.  The Koran talks about Mary and Jesus, but Jesus is not God’s Son.  It talks about Muslims’ duties to the poor and orphans.  It discusses the afterlife and the resurrection.  It warns evildoers against their course of action.  There are some details about domestic life, finances, and there is the well-known injunction to prayer, which results in the call to prayer that happens five times a day wherever there is a functioning mosque.  There are some instructions regarding Muslims’ dealings with non-believers, or infidels.

I was very interested in reading the Koran and am glad I did.  However, it was often slow going.  I found the book to be extremely repetitive.  The discussion of God as the only god and the lack of any other gods and the renunciatin of the false practice of worshipping idols was repeated ad naseum.  I read the book looking for two things.  The first was some of the more controversial passages about women, jihad, and relations with the infidel.  The second thing I looked for were doctrinal differences or similarities with the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The doctrinal aspect of the read was interesting.  As I already knew from discussions with Muslims, there were some similarities.  God’s existence being the most basic and fundamental.  It was interesting to read about the resurrection and various injunctions to help the poor, be fair to orphans, and in general help others.  The prohibition against alcohol and pork remind one of the Word of Wisdom.  There were discussions of the afterlife that included seven degrees of heaven that seemed awful similar to the Mormon three degrees of glory with a celestial kindgom divided into three of its own degrees.  There were other similarities, too.  The biggest difference has to be the denial of Jesus as the Christ.  I found it odd because the Koran repeatedly says the prophets of the Old Testament, such as Moses and Abraham, were true prophets, so since those men all testified of Christ’s coming, it seems there was some misunderstanding of the Old Testament.  As for the controversial passages, I found them to not be too inflammatory, although it was easy to see where the more extreme interpretation comes from, but I was reminded of Glenn Beck’s analysis in his book about Islam in which he explains that ultimately it doesn’t matter what we think the Koran says and it doesn’t matter what Islamic scholars say the Koran says; what matters is what the extremists think it says because their interpretation is the one that drives them.  Finally, a note on the book I read.  I was disappointed in the translation.  It was meant to be accessible to a modern reader.  There were many instances of my reading it and translating what I was reading in a more King James style, which I thought read a lot better.  I think I would’ve appreciated a more traditional translation.  There were many passages that included Arabic metaphors that the translator often tried to explain, but with which I struggled.  I tried to be fair to the Koran and admitted my unfamiliarity with it, but in the end, I realized that one of the big reasons there were struggles to understand it were not translation problems, but the simple fact that the book is not inspired scripture in the way the Bible and the Book of Mormon are.  Those books contain similar Old World metaphors, but I usually get them.  Part of that is familiarity and a lifetime of study; part of it is the fact that when you read inspired scripture, your understanding is influenced by the Holy Ghost.  The Koran was well worth a read, especially if one is trying to understand those around oneself, and also provides Christians a chance to look inside themselves, explore their own beliefs, and come away stronger.

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The Power of Positive Parenting

When I was a kid, my mom, like most of my friends' moms, would threaten me by wishing upon me a kid just like me.  I never considered that much of a threat.  If the kid was just like me, I’d know how to deal with him.  Now, a kid like my mom or one of my sisters, that scared me.  Now, as a parent, I sometimes see myself in my kids, but mostly not, and parenting is a huge responsibility with a lot of good moments, fun times with kids, but also a few moments of fear as one realizes that one doesn't have the answers to all that life seems to throwing at us.

Book cover.The Power of Positive Parenting by Glenn I. Latham (ISBN: 1-56713-175-1) doesn't have all the answers either, but after reading it together with my wife, we decided that it has many of the answers, and even where it doesn't it tends to point the reader in the right direction.  The book is full of guidance on how to deal with all kinds of different behaviors that children (and adults) engage in.  There are sections for younger kids, for teenagers, for small problems, for sibling rivalry, and for larger, more destructive behaviors.  There are a couple over-arching themes in the book that course through the suggestions for each kind of problem.  One is to ignore things that doen't really cause any harm since most people just want attention and will take it however they can get it.  Igoring kids’ whining, for example, is the most effective way to get them to stop.  The other thing that was presented over and over was the need to positively reinforce good behavior.  Default parent settings seem to be set to find negative behavior and call it out.  What about the good?  Fidning and reinforcing good behavior gives kids the attention they need and teaches them that good behavior will be rewarded.

I recognize that God has all the answers when it comes to parenting, but I also believe that God helps those who help themselves, so I have to do all I can first.  This book is one of those things.  My wife and I have tried to implement many of the strategies taught in this book and plan on reading through it again.  As always, some days are more successful than others, but when we catch ourselves implementing the strategies we liked from the book, things really do go smoother around the house.  We have found so many behaviors that are eligible for ignoring instead of attention.  We also find ourselves trying harder to be patient, react to things calmly, and provide positive feedback on all the things that the kids do right.  The book was written in the late 1980s, and you can feel that in the language used, but the science behind it is strong, and would recommend it to anyone involved in the sacred role of parent.

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A Captain's Duty

Pirates are a fascinating subject and the subject of many a young boy's imagination.  I was fortunate enough to grow up when reading was still somewhat popular and encouraged by parents, so I read classics like Treasure Island more than once as a kid.  There was, of course, a certain romanticism about such stories that may not have been real, but it made for great reading and even better pretend play later with plastic swords, skull-and-cross-bones flags and costumes.

Book cover.In the early 2000s, as people in poor countries got desparate and the security situation deteriorated in many parts of the world, piracy made a comeback.  There was nothing romantic about it, and it didn't involve the big ships with masts and sails, but usually small boats and a couple Russian-made machine guns instead of swords.  A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea (ISBN: 978-1-4013-1044-8) by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty tells one such story with a happy ending for the good guys.  Phillips and his crew made international news when Somali pirates boarded the ship he was captain of and took him hostage.  He preserved the lives of his crew and saved his ship, but felt it was likely that he would end up sacrificing his life for that.  After a few harrowing days at sea with the pirates in one of the ship's lifeboats, U.S. Navy SEALs rescued Phillips and killed the pirates in a stroke of incredible marksmanship.  The book also includes a little bit of the story of what Phillips's wife and family were going through during the ordeal.

The book was an easy read, in part because it was interesting.  I read through it quickly, but with great interest even though I knew what was going to happen, both because I read the headlines just like everyone else when this happened, but because I'd seen the movie about the events, too.  Still, it was good to get the story from the captain himself, as it's always a little different than second-hand through the media or a filmmaker.  I wasn't as interested in the homefront aspect of the story, but it is a real dimension of the story that cannot be dismissed.  There were a couple holes in the story, such as whatever happened to the lead pirate and how he came to have Navy gear, which is something that is alluded to over and over, but never fully explained.  I could've handled less R-rated language, too, but it seems that these days, people don't know how to express emotion any other way, which is sad.  These shortcomings notwithstanding, I enjoyed the story.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Russia was an enigmatic Communist nation when I was a kid.  What little I knew of the USSR centered around the lack of freedom the people had.  I vividly remember my one-time conception of how the centrally planned economy and complete lack of freedom would result in some people being condemned to a lifetime of emptying garbage cans in some forlorn office building somewhere in the Soviet Union.  Reality, as I understand it, was slightly more forgiving.  One thing that fascinated me was the state-sponsored oppressors or the secret police that seemed necessary to keep the Russians (I knew nothing of the almost two hundred ethnic groups in the Soviet Union) under control.  It was so different from the life I knew in the U.S. and it involved secrecy, spies, and a powerful military that seemed more fiction than fact.

Book cover.KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents by John Barron tells some of the stories of the main Soviet agency of oppression and secrecy, the KGB.  It provides an overview of all the Soviet intelligence agencies, but focuses on the KGB, which the author assessed to be the brains behind all of them.  After the more academic portion of the book, it recounts a few fantastic stories.  Most of the stories, a few which I had read elsewhere previously, had to do with the stuff of movies.  The book contains the stories of Americans who betrayed their country and of Russians who betrayed theirs.  They are fascinating accounts full of sneaking around big cities, breaking into vaults, offers of money, international intrigue, “seductresses” (as promised by the paperback version’s typically sensationalist cover art), and, of course, spies.  It was interesting to read of a disgruntled U.S. Army soldier, his former prostitute wife, and his giving the Russians access to something they likely figured was impossible to access.  I was also really intrigued by the stories of Russians and other eastern Europeans who risked it all to do what they figured was their part in the battle against authoritarianism and for liberty.  One interesting story was that of a Czech who was sent to Canada by the Russians, but who ultimately decided that all he had been taught in years of intense training was not true now that he’d been in the West and seen how things really worked.

The book was really interesting to me since I have an interest in all things Russia.  It is, of course, dated, since it’s about the Soviet Union and the KGB instead of Russia and the FSB, but there are two reasons I thought it still seemed relevant, besides being fun to read because of the incredible stories (it’s Bourne, but it was real).  First, Russia today is closer to the Soviet Union than it’s been since the fall of Communism.  The types of operations described in the book are likely going on right now.  Second, and probably more important, the KGB and its tactics are part of any authoritarian government.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is slowly sliding down that slope.  As government grows and grows, it seeks to retain power, usually done by taking away the rights of the people.  People inherently desire freedom, though, so to sustain a government that does not have the freedom of the people as its raison d’être, that same government turns to oppression and the elimination of liberty to preserve itself.  We must always be vigilant about what we are allowing the government to do lest we become the victims described in this book.

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