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Review: The Farm: On Practical Wisdom by George Benda

The Farm, set in the second global energy crisis, juxtaposes Jack's high-flying energy career with his pursuit of an idyllic life with his new bride, Anna. Together with Jack's old philosophical friend, Ben, and Ben's wife, Rebecca, the couples explore a path to practical wisdom in the nuclear age. Jack and Ben, learning from their jobs and their marriages, distill out from the noise and tumult seven essential criteria in achieving happiness and a good life, the measure of practical wisdom in all ages and cultures.

“This pulls it together for me. The things that look like they cloud practical wisdom sort of gravitating to narcissism. I’m right; you’re wrong. I’m important; you’re not. My friends are like me; you’re not. Most of all, I want what I want, consequences are damned.”

This is a quote that brings this story together for me. The true meaning of the plot and what to expect.

Taken back to the late 70’s you step back in a world of faxes, pagers and cryptic messages where no one can be trusted. It’s the time of nuclear threats, Chernobyl, already lefts its mark on history and it’s a global fight about knowledge and power. Old lovers create interesting plots and couples tries to live an ordinary life while espionage and industrial terrorism threatens to bring it all to an end.

The Farm, On Practical Wisdom, is not a non-fictitious book as I thought at first. But a technical story that touches on Marx philosophy, Madame Curie’s death and nuclear disarmament as the group of scientists, and CIA agents rush against time to disarm another global energy disaster.

The delicate relationship between Russia and America cleverly weaved into the fabric of this growing plot that takes you across the borders into the heart of this crisis.

It is not my usual read and I feel a bit left out at times. As if the choppiness left me in a daze. The flow robotic and I miss the elegance a good story invokes. The exploration into the nuclear age practical wisdom gave it an interesting spiel. As the patterns reveal itself to us, we are left with thought-provoking points that are relevant for today. The book is one big dialogue that springs from one event to the next but strangely it works within the book’s genre. The unusual writing style left me hanging at times. I had no real connection with the characters, feeling one-dimensional. Like stick figures and then the author would surprise me with some good description to draw everything together.

The author comes right to the point with no-nonsense at the end.

George Benda grew up in the Chicago area. Born with a passion for the natural world and improving the environment, Benda studied first science, then politics, and ultimately philosophy to answer his burning question: how do we resolve the expanding conflict between human activity and the well-being of the planet on which we live?

Book clubs? Libraries? Academics? These are forums in which that burning question can be explored and answers formulated. Benda actively supports all of those pathways to a broader understanding. He offers free readers guides, Zoom sessions, and more. 

Check out some resources:

Benda started writing philosophical dialogues in 1977 while still a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He was inspired by Plato to experiment with dialectic styles. After multiple abandoned manuscripts, he found in Elmore Leonard a modern style of dialogue he could adapt to serious thinking -- propelling readers with strong storylines and action, as well. From this synthesis came the Jack Slack Shoebox Dialogue series.

The first in the series, The City, took nearly 40 years to mature. Those 40 years were filled with an active life and events which have inspired most of the dramatic plots of the Shoebox Dialogues -- fictionalized, of course, but a granular look at history. The action in the dialogues provides an intimate glimpse at the realities that lie behind the headlines and belie the history as told by the winners.

Benda started his career in government at age 18, working in natural areas preservation. He was Director of Energy Programs for the State of Illinois at age 27. Those years -- the late 1970s through the early 1980s -- proved to be the emergent years for today's global issues of both climate change and political turmoil fueled by an unending energy crisis.

Since leaving public service in 1983, Benda has been in the private sector, leading companies in sustainability, indoor environmental quality, and energy efficiency improvement. He has been the CEO of Chelsea Group, Ltd since 1990. Benda's company has won numerous awards for innovation in energy efficiency. Often a controversial figure in his industry, Benda has never escaped the universe of turmoil that enmeshed him in his early years.

Now residing on Molokai, a small island south and east of Honolulu, Benda still works diligently on environmental issues through his role as President of the Molokai Land Trust. Always engaged in both a life of action and a life of the mind, he continues to collect stories and plot lines, characters, and emotions that enliven his novels. Serious thinking has rarely been so much fun.

 “Reading Marx got me thinking about the nature of work. The work you and I do is advancing technology, reshaping the work,” Jack responded. 

“Isn’t all work like that? As you start building something, variations in materials… or changing goals… or altered aesthetics… or maybe an ah-ha moment of how to make things better, easier… any of those things can change at least the direction, sometimes the nature of the work.” “You need to take the longer view of what Marx says,” Ben argued. 

“Work is only part of it. Work, music, contemplation, socialization – it takes all of these and to do that takes balance. Achieve that balance and maybe you’re happy. Three areas for personal accomplishment and one shared area. Get something done and then talk about it. I know that sharing my accomplishments with others brings me that sense of wellbeing that I associate with happiness.”

“And accomplishment means what? Personal benefit? Societal benefit? Happiness – is that your personal happiness? Familial happiness? Societal happiness?” “I don’t think there is such a thing as societal happiness,” Ben said, eyebrows lifted. “Au contraire! Have you never heard of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan?” Jack, voice filled with glee. “They measure the prosperity of the country on its gross domestic happiness instead of its gross domestic product.” 

“Okay, okay, but stick to the argument here, Jack. Your question is a good one. We already answered it in part – we tied happiness to justice. Help your friends, harm no one. I believe practical wisdom also has to be anchored in something more positive, more beneficial, than justice alone. And I assert that the something we are looking for is happiness.” Jack nodded concurrence. Journal out, Jack again scribbled: Practical wisdom is the ability to build on good decisions and actions to make a good life, the standard for which is happiness.

Excerpt # 2

The car, Evie thought, was the perfect cover. 1956 Ford pick-up. Exterior beaten to crap, the guts beefed up and tuned to race-car perfection. Her blue jeans and plaid cotton shirt, tucked in, combined with her long blond hair, parted in the middle, made for a solid country look. She pulled up to the feed store – a combination of farm supplies, hardware, and a sort of snack bar that might elsewhere pass for a trendy coffee shop because of the authentic rocking chairs out front. Rural West Virginia – no place like it. Heads turned when she walked in – tall slender blond, new to town. Country boys filled the place. Lots of beards, plenty of bald spots covered with seed caps. Evie flashed them a warm smile and tossed out a casual “Hey.”

Evie walked up to the snack bar counter and asked for a cup of coffee. The young man behind the counter straightened and adjusted his cap to a jauntier angle. “My cousin Arlin lives up in one of the hollers, or at least that’s what he tells my pappy. You know him?” Evie asked the boy at the counter. “Uh, no ma’am. Don’t know no Arlin ‘round here.” 

“Maybe there’s a town records office? My pappy’s worried. Could be Arlin up and died and nobody knows…” Evie said. “Ma’am, it’s a quiet little town. Not kindly to strangers poking around. Can I help you find what you need?”

Evie smiled at the boy and smiled to herself. Her first field test complete. She recruited a source for information in a closed community. Her first operative. Mission accomplished. DDD “It was a hero’s welcome at the office today, and I owe it all to you!” Novovic exclaimed, popping a bottle of champagne in his Lake Shore Drive apartment. “That is so wonderful, my love,” Tanya crooned, thinking: two, maybe three more days. “How was your day, sweetheart?” he asked. “A good day,” she smiled. “No one died in my arms.”

“Excellent,” he said. “Do you think you could take some time off tomorrow and come meet the crew? I haven’t told them it was your idea, but I’d like to introduce you to my colleagues.” Her eyes darted.

Excerpt #3

Wednesday, 28 March 1979, about 4:00 am. Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Cycle 10,942 of Novovic’s optimization program. The control algorithm switched off the main feedwater pumps, which normally sent water to the steam generators that remove heat from the reactor core. “Sir,” the plant operator, a well-trained nuclear engineer, said to his floor supervisor. “Sir, we have an excursion in the feedwater pumps. I’m trying to override the software now.”

The plant’s turbine-generator, and then the reactor, automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary cooling system for the nuclear reactors began to increase. “The system is not responding properly, sir.” Older safety algorithms kicked in to control that pressure, opening the relief valve at the top of the pressure vessel. The valve should have closed when the pressure fell to proper levels. It did not. “There it goes, sir, the pressure is dropping.” “Is the safety protocol working correctly now, Aaron?” asked the floor supervisor. “It looks correct for the data I see, sir.”

The new optimization software continued in its cycle, overriding the safety algorithm. It held the valve open. Instruments in the control room indicated to the plant staff that the valve was closed. The operator opened his emergency protocol manual and ran through a checklist. “Pressure is nominal, sir. I think the relief valve closed and the pumps should restart in their normal mode. Looks like everything is back under control.” Unaware that cooling water was pouring out of the stuck-open valve, the supervisor nodded to Aaron and went back to his crossword puzzle. Coolant continued to flow from the primary system through the valve. “Uh, sir, we have another excursion. Coolant pressure just alarmed.”

The supervisor threw aside the newspaper and shouted: “Everyone, check and report!”

The seven operators frantically checked every gauge. Shouts of “nominal” filled the room. Every instrument indicated that system parameters were normal. There was no sensor, no instrumentation, that showed how much water covered the core. The new sensors installed at Novovic’s direction, and his new software routines, all indicated that the pressurized water level was sufficient. All parameters appeared nominal. The core must have been properly covered with water. It was not. A new round of alarms rang, and warning lights flashed. A wide range of parameters was no longer nominal, but the patterns made no sense. Following the protocol books for each out-of-range parameter, operators adjusted controls and made incremental changes. Conditions worsened.

“Everyone remains calm,” the supervisor said above the rising din of operator panic. Stacks of operation manuals and incident protocol handbooks were pulled from desk drawers wedged into the ledges of the control panels. Books flopped open on the central table, normally used for reviews of operations reports. Shouts of commands disappeared in the cacophony of voices. “Get that coolant pressure down,” shouted the supervisor. “Open the reliefs.” The operators received no indication that the plant was experiencing a loss-of-coolant event. No action was taken to reverse the coolant loss.

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