Category: Lit reviews


Little Brother (2008)

By Cory Doctorow

Rating: 9/10

This was truly an amazing book, despite a few style flaws.  A couple of typos and some repetitive phrases pretty much rounds out the faults I found in the work; the ending seemed a tad anti-climatic, but I often find that to be the case in books.

Little Brother tackles the relationship between technology, security, and “free” society, pitting a 17 year-old hacker against the DHS.  The book is marketed toward young adults, so the plot may not be overly complicated, but I think there’s another reason why Doctorow wrote it with that audience in mind.  By breaking down the technical details of security, networking, and the Internet, he has made the realm of techno-hackers more accessible to everyone, something he clearly views as vital in an age living under the shadow of the Patriot Act, Gitmo, DHS regulations, and constant government monitoring.  (I had a graduate-level course in public/private keys and Doctorow’s explanation made more sense to me).  The afterwords provide even more resources for the security-conscious should you wish to pursue them.

Little Brother provides a paradigm-shifting revelation about security measures for the average citizen should they choose to take the descriptions to heart.  You’ll never look at the “convenience” of chipped cards (EZ Pass, metro passes, your iPhone) in quite the same way again—and I think that’s a good thing.  Too often we surrender ourselves to technology without critically thinking about what it means for our privacy and, by extension, our freedoms.

I won’t get too much into the plot, but Doctorow drops plenty of allusions to other works, my favorite being a nod to Poe: “Guantanamo-by-the-Bay was in the hands of its enemies.”  This informs a whole other way of looking at the DHS and its methods (in the book), and I’ll post that analysis as soon as it’s evaluated by my peers (via Coursera.org where I had the fortune of discovering this book).

I can’t recommend this book enough to those who want an eye-opening look at the citizen’s role in a free society.

Favorite Quotes:

“Computers can control you or they can lighten your work—if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code. (120)

“I wondered if it was better to be clear-eyed and hopeless or to live in a fool’s paradise.” (135)

“I figured this stuff out by looking at the web and by thinking about it.  If I can do it, terrorists can do it.  They told us they took away our freedom to make us safe.  Do you feel safe?” (238)

“That’s when I knew it—Guantanamo-by-the-Bay was in the hands of its enemies.  I was saved.” (347)

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The Cult of Alien Gods: HP Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture (2005)

By Jason Colavito

Rating: 6/10

Overall, this book was an interesting look at the history of HPL, his influences, and the descendants of his works.  The author basically argues that since HPL invented the “alien-astronauts give birth to human civilizations” in his fiction, others took this idea and ran with it as non-fiction, influencing millions of people’s beliefs that humans, in fact, did have our cultural heritage influenced by visitors from outer space.  Colavito argues that since the initial non-fiction proponents of this idea read (and were therefore inevitably influenced by) HPL, the “gentlemen from Providence” unwittingly planted the seeds of alien-genesis that would germinate in the minds of dupes and non-critical thinkers down through the decades.

For me, I’m more interested in reading some of HPL’s influences and comparing his stories to the late 19th century authors he read and found inspiration from.  A more detailed outline of the book follows.

I.  HPL influenced by:

a)      Lord Tennyson Poem: “Kraken” [1830] (big ancient thing dreaming under the ocean)

b)      Ignatius Donnelly: Atlantis: “The Antediluvian World” [1882] (ancient mysteries, cross-cultural comparisons, similarities are the work from those Outside since the native not intellectually capable of advanced culture).

  • Archeological ruins being discovered by amateurs and wild theories abound during the late 19th century
  • Though HPL rejected this pseudoscience, he borrowed heavily from the imagery of Atlantis (for Call of Cthuluhu) and how it spawned later civilizations

c)      Helena Blavatsky “The Secret Doctrine” [1888] (channeled an ancient book older than man itself “Book of Dyzan”)

d)      Arthur Machen: “Great God Pan” [1890] and “Three Imposters” [1895] (strange things survived from Man’s earliest days)

e)      Lord Dunsany’s: “Pegana” [1905] (gods and demons interacting with humans)

f)       Poe: dark, gothic style

g)      Charles Fort: “Book of the Damned”[1919] (beings from space may have colonized the earth and humans)

h)      James Churchward: “Mu, the Motherland of Man” [1926] (another sunken continent whose only traces are standing stones in the Pacific Islands)

II. HPL Cthulhu Mythos:

a)      Cosmos populated by strange and powerful beings who were nonetheless subject to natural law (being a scientific materialist who didn’t believe in the supernatural)

b)      Hierarchy

  • Azathoth (Center of the cosmos- ‘demon sultan’ and ‘nuclear chaos’)
  • Old Ones surrounded the Lord of All
  •   Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep (soul and messanger); sometimes humanoid w/a thousand faces
  •   Yog Sothoth (connected the universes together); All-in-one and one-in-all
  •   Shub-Niggurath; black goat of the woods with a thousand young
  •   Cthulu- High priest of the old ones, trapped under the seas until ‘the stars were right’
  •    Tsathoggua- alien toad entity
  •    Under them were the various alien races who visited earth
  •       Mi-Go (Fungi from Yuggoth)- 9th planet from the sun (before Pluto was discovered); stalked backwoods to steal brains using metal cylinders

c)      Ultimately, aliens came down from the stars, ancient societies mistook them for gods (inspiring the first religions), and they promised to return; their evidence is in the anomalous ancient art and architecture.  All of these together were unique to HPL (elements from his predecessors rolled into one mythology).

III. The spread of the ancient-astronaut theory and pseudoscience:

a)      The Lovecraftian circle grew and HPL wrote for others to supplement his income, often intertwining each others’ works; even Blavatsky’s Book of Dyzan was included.  Though HPL didn’t believe in the pseudoscience works, he felt by mixing ‘real world’ books with his own creations would create an air of deeper fiction.

b)      During the 1930s, HPL, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard were prolific writers in Weird Tales, an interchanged each others’ concepts.

c)      After HPL died (1937) August Derleth took up the mantle of keeping HPL’s legacy alive, though somewhat controversially.  He wrote many stories, attributing “collaboration” with HPL even though little (if any existed). Derleth also injected a Judeo-Christiain good vs. evil dichotomy into HPL where none had existed before.

  • He also created his own publishing house to promote HPL, and sent many copies of the pulp overseas to the servicemen of WWII. (Eventually found its way into France)

d)      1940s: UFO craze with new technology, the threat of Communism, and the cinema with ‘alien invader’ movies (often as an analogy for the Red Terror).

  • The US Government used the UFO craze to cover up their top-secret testing of aircraft

e)      1950s: though UFOs/aliens became mainstream (and discredited), and small minority continued to believe an began recounting alien encounters

  • Many of these abductions were inspired by on-screen events

f)       1960s: Twilight Zone and Outer Limits big successes on TV

  • France still recovering from losing its “Great Power” role, and had already embraced HPL (introduced via US troops) in earlier decades. The French took his philosophies a bit more seriously

i.     Two Frenchmen, Louis Pauwles and Jacuqes Bergier (owners of the influential journal Planéte), published a book (Dawn of Magic) that revived an interest in the occult and introduced the philosophy/POV of “fantastic realism” (a new way of looking at the world thus revealing a new reality).  Ultimately, it speculated that aliens may have been responsible for the rise of humans and our culture (a concept invented by HPL).

ii.     This work drew heavily on Donnelly and Fort, asserting that the positivism of archeology could never get the explanation of the past correct

iii.     Also discussed HPL alongside Einstein and Jung

g)      1970s: In turn, Robert Charroux expanded on the alien-astronaut theme, writing several books (eventually appearing in the US)

h)      Erich von Daniken (Swiss) read Charroux’s books, embezzled funds to travel the world in search of archeological sites, and wrote Chariots of the Gods? And sold 6.5 million copies in the US and 60 million world-wide!

  • The media (TV, talk shows, etc.) spread the word, and people began believing in it.  Scientists refuted it, but their protestation fell on deaf ears.
  • It spoke in “may have beens” and “perhaps” so didn’t really say anything definitive. It ridiculed the establishment, academia, and relevant authorities which struck a chord with the US audience of the 1970s.
  • His follow-up book even quotes extensively from the Book of Dzyan (and admits in his intro that he is no scholar).

i)       1976

  • Robert Temple’s The Sirius Mystery

i.     Frog people from the star Sirius gave civilization to mankind around 5000 BCE, and the government was persecuting him for revealing this secret

  • Though debunked, the book seemed scholarly b/c of footnotes, complexity, and length
  • Zecharia Sitchin’s The Twelfth Planet

i.     Claimed to be the only one able to “correctly” translate Sumerian, and says they show how aliens called Annunaki visited earth and created humans to mine gold for them.

ii.     Brought the study of our past to the masses; gave lectures and certificates out if you attended

  • Viking probe records the ‘face on Mars’
  • L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of HPL brings him back for good
  • Claude Vorilhon begins the Raëlian Revolution

j)       1990s (resurgence in the unexplainable and alternative archeology)

  • 1995- Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods; something in human’s past was amiss, but dumped aliens in favor of  a lost civilization (respected journalist, good writer)
  • 1996- put aliens back in the equation
  • Overall a backlash against the establishment—trying to democratize the study of our past (Internet allowed like-minded people to shelter together)
  • Many of the works in the 1990s relied on the “authority” of earlier works from  1976 especially.

k)      Raëlians- a religion synthesizing Daniken’s appeal to mysterious past with Sitchin’s quasi-religious evocation of the aliens’ return.

  • Even began fundraising for human cloning…and Brigitte Boiselier claimed success (though no proof ever presented) (Clonaid lab in WV). The FDA and US gov’t stepped in and raided the lab (though they never disclosed how far Clonaid got in their research).

i.     This announcement also ignited a global debate about the ethics of human cloning

IV. Colavito’s Conclusions:

a)      Alien-astronaut theories are filled with circular logic and evidence being made to fit their desired “hypotheses”

b)      Our education system produces non-critical dupes who are susceptible to outlandish claims

c)      The rebuttals of fantastic theories never get the same amount of press.

d)      Our modern age, where old religion has been abandoned, has sought a new creation myth, and alien-genesis is a substitute.

V. Interesting tidbits:

  1. The movie Alien (1979) has been said to evoke the atmosphere of HPL, specifically his story At the Mountains of Madness.  Alien was based on the film The Thing from Another World (1951) which in turn was based on the story Who Goes There? (by John Campbell in 1938).  Many argue that Campbell rewrote HPL’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), thus coming full circle.
  2. HPL flirted with converting to Islam in his youth, and briefly went by the name Abdul Alhazred after reading 1001 Arabian Nights.  Of course, later in his writing career, HPL would name the “mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” as the author of the dreaded Necronomicon.  

 

H.R. Giger's version of the Necronomicon.

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (2011)

By Dr. Michio Kaku

Rating: 8/10

The author engages in a fascinating (and sometimes freaky) exercise in extrapolation from current cutting-edge technologies.  Dr. Kaku interviewed some 300 scientists around the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, and then predicts what this groundwork will lead to over the next 90 years.  Dr. Kaku argues that “following the science” makes sense when prognosticating our future since science and technology has been the guiding forces of civilization for millenia.

He investigates the futures of eight areas of development (remember, all of this already has groundwork laid right now):

1. Computers– eventually we’ll control them with direct electronic signals from our brains.  Heck, they’ll be such a ubiquitous commodity that they’ll literally be everywhere: in our clothes, in our houses, heck, we won’t even have computers as we know them today because we’ll simply be online all the time via contact lenses.

This author admits that this artistic rendition might be a slight exaggeration.

2. AI– the Hollywood version of the “rise of the machines” is unlikely (at least, in a single-apocalyptic event sort of way).  Rather, since coding always needs to be done by humans (he doesn’t entertain the idea that an AI can write new code for itself), and since computers lack “common sense” (the sole-providence of human beings), it’s more likely we’ll simply merge with machines via cybernetics to improve our own bodies.  Computers won’t become as “smart” as humans for a long while since “intelligence” includes things like pattern recognition and other complicated processes that computers simply are not that good at.  But they’ll take over driving and other mundane tasks that we won’t have to bother with anymore.

3. Medicine– constant monitoring by ubiquitous sensors will allow us to nip diseases in the bud.  We’ll soon have medical scanners like they do in Star Trek, and invasive operations will be a thing of the past.  Further, by decoding various DNA (including ours), we’ll be able to resurrect extinct lifeforms, manipulate genes (to prevent diseases), design our children (!), and, of course, create weapons of horrendous lethality through the manipulation of genetic material.  Or we might be able to live forever… (see below).

4. Nanotechnology– going beyond mere molecules, we’ll be able to further manipulate individual atoms and create things seemingly out of nothing.  Once the “replicator” is built, no one in the world will want for anything–we’ll truly have become masters of the planet.  Tiny robots will help keep our bodies clear of contagion, and can even help keep us young, extending our life expectancy by ten times its current length.  (See where this is going yet?)

5. Energy– Oil will give way to a solar and hydrogen economy (the former being inherently unsustainable).  Also, moving in this direction will allow us to address global warming which the burning of  fossil fuels is exacerbating.  Fusion power will also be a possibility, but the end goal is the ‘age of magnetism’ run by superconductors. Or we might collect solar power more efficiently from space, and beam it down to power the Earth.

6. Space Travel– Due to prohibitive costs, we’ll probably only get as far as Mars and the asteroid belt with manned-spaceflight.  Though we might try to build a colony there (or on the moon) to allow further exploration.  (Getting out of the Earth’s atmosphere using chemical rockets is what makes space explorations so expensive. If we can start outside that atmosphere, costs drop exponentially).  We might even have a space elevator (made of carbon nanotubes) to get us up to a space station or beyond.

7. Wealth– As the nature of technology changes, so will the jobs and wealth (i.e. capitalism) that it creates.  If we can eliminate the scarcity of commodities, than intellectual capitalism will rule the day.  The types of jobs and fate of nations hangs in the balance, and the “winners” will be those who embrace scientific and technological progress.  We need to focus our brightest and best on science (especially the US which is now lagging behind), not finances in order to make the most out our potential as a species.

8. Humanity– While the energy consumption of the human race increases, we are moving toward a planetary civilization.  How we deal with the waste of that energy consumption will determine if we prosper of self-implode.  IF we’re able to control the entropy created by our energy needs through nanotechnology, room-temperature superconductors, and by becoming conservators of the natural world, we just might survive and cross the threshold to become a Type I civilization capable of indefinite self-sustainability.  If not, we’ll drown in the high tides of our own pollution and waste.

Overall Dr. Kaku is optimistic; he believes in humanity and its ability to make the right choices.  He does not deny dangers and obstacles on the road, but he believes we can overcome them.  His concluding “a day in the life of 2100” is a bit of a goofy mash-up of his predictions, but it’s a bit entertaining nonetheless.  This work seems mightily important, if only to understand how far our progression in science and technology has come, and some critical thinking about where it will take us.

 

Favorite quotes:

” The key to a democracy is an educated, informed electorate that can rationally and dispassionately discuss the issues of the day.” (p.351)

“From Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, perfection meant wisdom rooted in experience and in the relationships by which the moral life is learned through example.  Our perfection lies not in gene enhancement, but in the enhancement of character. -Steven Post” (p.353)

“The Roots of Violence:

Wealth without work,

Pleasure without conscience,

Knowledge without character,

Commerce without morality,

Science without humanity,

Worship without sacrifice,

Politics without principles.

-Mahatma Gandhi” (p.368)

When Genius Failed: the rise and fall of long-term capital management (2000)

Roger Lowenstein

Rating: 7/10

This book was quite technical (though the author did a good job of explaining terms overall), and a bit tough to wade through.  But the subject is crucial, hence the high rating.  Lowenstein takes a look at an elite firm (Long-Term Capital Management) and shows how their hubris, greed, and detachment led not only to their own downfall, but threatened to exasperate an economic crisis in 1998.  What’s really revealed, however, is that LTCM is merely a microcosm of how Wall Street and the financiers of the world seek only short-term profits at the expense of everyone else, even if that means some truly damaging consequences.

Then I came across the Fed’s speech about the 2008 crisis and its causes, and it basically reads like the Cliff’s Notes of Lowenstein’s book.  Thus, Wall Street, the Fed, and the financiers of the world learn no lessons from history, and carry on with business as usual, trampling 95% of the global population underfoot.  The system needs significant changes.

Below is a more detailed synopsis of the book for those with the inclination but not the the time to wade through the whole thing.

I.  Overview

  • John Meriwether worked for Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, and got a group of PhDs together to create mathematical models to play the finance game; he eventually had to leave over a minor scandal (1991).
  • JM created his own company (LTCM), pitching to a very elite clientele ($100 million investors)
  • LTCM was incredibly profitable for 4 years (1994-1998), playing the markets of derivatives, spreads, bonds, arbitrage, etc.
    • They remained secretive (to Wall Street banks), and leveraged themselves to 30-1
    • Their models worked on the assumption that market was rational and efficient, and they would always bounce back from any losses
    • Running out of ways to make money, they ventured into areas where they had no expertise and greater risk was present
    • In 1998, a default in Russia set off a domino effect on the global markets.  LTCM began hemorrhaging money, and lost some 90% of its value inside 5 weeks.
    • The FED summoned the big Wall Street banks to orchestrate a bailout in fear of what the loss of LTCM’s $100 billion balance sheet would do to the global market.  They barely got it done.

II. Specifics

  • LTCM’s models were based on odds premised with no uncertainty—which is not how the market works.  (Using the newish computers and Internet to look over global trends, they had an aura of invincibility and infallibility; some of these similar models leaked to other firms from academia—the Merton and Scholes model).
  • LTCM became illiquid which is fine—unless you have to sell in a hurry (they wound up not being able to when the crisis hit because doing so would have exasperated the crash and their losses).
  • Unregulated derivatives (a side bet on the direction of stocks as opposed to actually purchasing stocks—which is regulated) (and unregulated derivatives were advocated by Alan Greenspan) started in 1981.  In 10 years, one type of derivative swaps soared to $2 trillion and then ballooned to $22 trillion by 1997.
    • Significantly, derivatives aren’t disclosed in any useful way to outsiders (and thus impossible to pinpoint risks)
    • Thus: Wall Street “bought into a massive faith game, in which each bank had become knitted to its neighbor through a web of contractual obligations requiring little or no down payment.”  By the late 1990s, most of WS was leveraged 25-1
    • Fears abounded about what a shock could now do to the entire system, but the banks didn’t care b/c they were focused on short-term profits
    • Since Mexico was bailed out, investors shoveled speculative money into Asia, underwriting the corruption there.  When Asia had its crisis, foreign investors pulled their money out, exasperating the problem further.
      • The IMF stepped in to bailout S.Korea, stabilizing the markets.  Investors then assumed Asia was isolated and that the IMF would bailout similar situations in the future.
      • John Succo (ran equity derivatives desk at Lehman Brothers) declared that senior management on WS didn’t know what their 26-year-old traders were doing.  He was forced to resign for such heresy.
      • More warnings came in from the Fed warning that banks put too much faith in the past as a gauge for the future (forgetting the shocks).
      • When Russia defaulted and the IMF refused a bailout, global markets began plummeting.  This sent investors running from any risk (since nuclear powers weren’t supposed to default).
        • Main Street economy was sound, but financial markets were overleveraged and overextended, and were panicking.
        • LTCM began hemorrhaging money but had trouble getting new capital to shore up their finances (being so highly leveraged, every percentage point loss resulted in tens of millions).  Their secrecy and aloofness came back to bite them; other banks began sniping at their deals, causing further losses as LTCM’s portfolio became known.
          • If LTCM’s assets dipped below $500 million, Bear Stearns would refuse to clear them, effectively sinking the firm.
          • Desperately, LTCM looked anywhere for money (banks, William Buffet, foreign or domestic); Goldman Sachs offered a potential saving merger, and when their analysts began pouring over LTCM’s books, they began playing their weakened positions (taking total advantage of inside info).
            • Goldman Sachs used to be known as a gentleman’s banker, but their tactics changed and became much more aggressive (‘bare-knuckled traders’).
            • They admitted they needed to protect their own positions which may have hurt LTCM, but didn’t apologize for it.
            • Eventually, the WS banks saw that by savaging the bloated firm, they risked bringing themselves down
            • After all the losses, LTCM became leveraged greater than 100 to 1.
              • Greenspan didn’t seem to understand that the lenders (banks) avoided regulations in order to cash in on the hedge fund.
              • Buffet, a potential savior, was able to dictate his offer ($250 million for a fund that had been worth $4.7 billion at the start of the year and was now worth $555 million) and gave them a 50 minute deadline.  The deal didn’t go through.
              • A deal with 14 banks (and over 100 lawyers) drafted a deal for the consortium to take over the fund (it needed all the partners’ signatures). One thought about holding out and letting the fund fail so he would not have to work for the banks for a “mere” $250k salary.  Eventually it went through.
                • The public got wind that the Fed initiated the deal, and a backlash against them for bailing out private investors and funds came on.  If investors knew they’d always get bailed out, they’d go after riskier deals and make more mistakes, causing further shocks.

III. Conclusions

  • (Lowenstein) The government or the IMF keeps coming to the rescue of private speculators (S&L, big commercial banks that had overlent to real estate, Mexico, Thailand, South Korea and Russia (attempted but failed)).
    • Losses would deter imprudent risks; not allowing them to fail leads to more greed and thus risk
    • Greenspan constantly wanted less regulation (thrall to Ayn Rand), even calling for less sixth months after the crisis!
    • Prophetic words from the author:
      • “Will the investors in the next problem-child-to-be, having been lulled by the soft landing engineered for LT, be counting on the Fed [i.e. a bailout], too?”
      •  “As the use of derivatives grows, this deficiency will return to haunt us”
      • “Banks have repeatedly shown that they will exceed the limits of prudence if they can.  Greenspan endorses a system can rack up any amount of exposure they choose—as long as it’s from derivatives”
      • “The Fed’s two-headed policy—head in the sand before a crisis, intervention after the fact—is more misguided when viewed as a single policy.  The government’s emphasis should always be on prevention, not on active intervention.”
      • “the fathers of the crisis were the big WS banks, which let their standards grow lax as their pocketbooks grew flush.”
      • (Me) Egos and greed facilitated the crisis; financiers play with virtual money and our out-of-touch with the common man (the real economy) and the effects their actions can have on the global and domestic markets
        • No lessons were learned as we steamed ahead into the 2008 crisis, this time on the back of derivatives (swaps) on the housing market.  Lehman Brothers collapsed during the subprime mortgage crisis b/c of its policies—a special session of derivatives trading was held to account for their bankruptcy.  In some ways, it was AIG in the place of LTCM because they could not pay out when the house of cards came tumbling down which shook the whole market.  And Bear Stearns was failing, so the Fed gave a loan to JP Morgan who then bought BS.
        • The Fed’s speech about the 2008 crisis: “The scale of long-term risky and relatively illiquid assets financed by very short-term liabilities made many of the vehicles and institutions in this parallel financial system vulnerable to a classic type of run, but without the protections such as deposit insurance that the banking system has in place to reduce such risks.” (http://www.newyorkfed.org/newsevents/speeches/2008/tfg080609.html)

The Grand Design (2010)

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Rating: 6/10

Overview:  Well, this book certainly tackles some tough physics subjects and presents them so the lay person (e.g. someone like me) can get their head around it.  I asked a real-live theoretical physicist some questions about the book, and since I was able to articulate the theories reasonably well, I’d say the authors did a pretty good job.

The authors take the reader step-by-step (more or less) from how physicists look at the universe, to how they model theories about the universe, to how the idea of multiple realities (and universes) fit into “M-theory” (the current reigning champ of physics), to how all of this points to a “grand design” that can be explained by science.

I’ll briefly attempt to hit the main points of the book (wish me luck), informed by my talk with the physicist (let’s call him T-dogg), and then I’ll give my reaction to some of the theories described.

The Meat & Potatoes:

(You'll get it later).

So basically physicists have been trying to figure out models and theories that explain the workings of the universe.  The Newtonian way of looking at things has worked pretty well for bigger things, but does not work so well on the quantum (really, really tiny) scale—that’s what quantum theories are for.  The physics “holy grail” is to find a single model/theory that encompasses both scales in one unified theory.

Before we begin with the difficult stuff, they lay out that there are four known forces governing our universe: Gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force (what binds neutrons and protons together in the cores of atoms), and the weak force (something that causes radioactivity and formed important stuff in the early universe).  Physicists have tried to find quantum theories of all these forces to explain workings at the scale.

It seems they (by “they” I mean the physics community in aggregate) have mostly given up on this quest.  Instead, they have what is called “M-theory” (with no agreement on what the “M” stands for).  But the gist of this theory is that it encompasses a whole range of models that are used in specific situations in the universe—basically the Swiss-army knife of physics.  Or it might become one big fundamental model as it gets refined.  Part of the issue is our technological ineptitude; however far we seem to have come, there’s always some things out of reach that just can’t be verified through direct observation (too small or too big). [T-dogg says that the CERN supercollider will help cull some of these theories with its experiments, thereby making M-theory even leaner].

But, even in the things that are observable, some results were just difficult to make sense of (like how shooting molecules through two slits results in patterns that don’t make intuitive sense).  In a sort of chicken or egg situation (as far as I

Relax Tyra, you wouldn't even notice. Gosh, you're such a diva!

understood it), a physicist (Feynman) came up with some math to explain these counter-intuitive findings, and they trust the math.  The authors wish to point out, however, that the same math that makes sense of this odd pattern, also allows for the molecules traveling through the slits to take all the infinite paths available (e.g. the molecule traveling straight through the slit or the molecule looping around Jupiter twice before going through the slit) and at the same time.  The probabilities of what path the molecules take is what’s important; i.e. it’s more probable that the molecules will go through the slits rather than through Tyra Bank’s underwear first.

Toss in the assertion that observation alters what you’re observing (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and quantum physics), and at the quantum level, even though one could observe a particle at any point along its path, in-between those observations that particle is still taking every path imaginable and simultaneously.  This leads to the conclusion that the observations one makes on a thing in the present affects its past (and hence, there is no single past (or history) of that thing.

[T-dogg says most physicists understand that extrapolation, but don’t care about all those other paths since it doesn’t really help with their work].

With me so far?

Don't buy real estate in these dimensions!

The authors then go on to say a similar thing about our universe(s); i.e. there are an infinite number of universes (well, 10500 of them) with 11 space/time dimensions each, and each of those dimensions are present in various forms in all the different universes.  In our universe, all but 3 dimensions (plus time) are wound so infinitely tight and small, that they’re unobservable.  And, according to the authors, all physicists care about is our universe, not what occurs in the other universes since we’re operating within the parameters of our particular universe (i.e. those 4 dimensions we live in).  Further, since particles are made up of patterns of vibration (or “strings”—hence String Theory), those curled up dimensions determine the “laws of nature” (e.g. the charge of an electron or how particles interact with each other) in any particular universe (and are constrained by the math making all of this possible).

Still with me?  (Don’t worry, I’m not sure I’m even with me at this point).

Let’s take a step back; at first scientists explained everything they could observe with their own eyes or early scientific tools, using mathematical models.  As our technological advances allowed us to observe more, things got complicated.  “Then came quantum uncertainty, curved space, quarks, strings, and extra dimensions, and the net result of their labor is 10500 universes, each with different laws, only one of which corresponds to the universe as we know it” (p. 119).

Okay, so what does this mean for the origin of our universe and where it’s going?  Well, the authors argue that the Big Bang (BB) is pretty well supported through observation and mathematical models.  (The BB theory, if you recall, is that all matter was condensed into a singularity (a point with infinite mass) that expanded and gave birth to galaxies, stars, and us.  It’s also a really good TV show).  That theory qualifies the origin of the universe as a quantum event, and, being such, “the universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way” (p.136).  And, given the current theories and math, time began with the beginning of the universe since it functions differently at the quantum level: “the question of what happened before the beginning of the universe is rendered meaningless” (p.135).

But where it the universe going?  Well, it’s stretching out, and they use the analogy of the surface of an expanding balloon.  If we (and other galaxies) are all at different points on the surface of a balloon that is blowing up (i.e. stretching), then things are getting further apart while their relative position to each other remains the same.  A few solutions to the mathematics reveals that the universe will either a) contract back on itself; b) expand forever; or c) the expansion will slow to near zero but never quite reach stalling.

The authors conclude: “For these reasons M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.  If it is finite—and this has yet to be proved—it will be a model of a universe that creates itself” (p.181).

Issues Raised

Well, if you got this far, and if I did a reasonable job summing the book up as objectively as I could, perhaps their description of the universe raised some questions for you.  It certainly did for me!

1.  Much of their modeling depends on math—a man-made device.  Sure there is some universality to it, but I’ve always viewed math as an incomplete, albeit sophisticated tool.  Why? One question: what is any number divided by zero? (Answer: “undefined” or “meaningless.”) What? One of the most fundamental numbers in mathematics has undefined/meaningless attached to it? Riiiight.

2.  Several times throughout the book, the authors seem to dismiss a fundamental question as “meaningless” simply because…well, I’m not sure why. I think it’s because their mathematical model doesn’t support it (e.g. what existed before the beginning of the universe).  Or how about the balloon analogy? My question is: what is the “balloon universe” expanding into? (T-dogg said it doesn’t matter because we can’t observe it—it’s outside the realm of our understanding).

3.  The authors tend to take digs at religion throughout the whole book.  (Miracles, intelligent design, etc.).  While I’m not religious myself, it seems a little funny for them to denigrate a set of beliefs when they have essentially invented dimensions and universes to “make the math work” in their own description of the universe.  Of course, I’m sure to most lay people, the idea that a particle traveling through a slit to a detection board takes every possible path at the same time is equally superstitious-sounding.  They dismiss things they can’t explain (beginning of time and what is outside the expanding balloon), and yet it is tenets in religion that try to provide an explanation for these very things.  I’m not saying one side is right, I’m just saying that both sides are suspect on issues that the human mind has trouble comprehending, and both sides have found a safe haven to ease that cognitive dissonance (i.e. faith or math).

4.  And, if things at the particle level are so infinitely possible, why isn’t it possible for things to happen at the quantum scale that could result in observable “miracles?”  If all paths/histories are viable, why couldn’t water molecules change just enough to allow someone to walk on them for a brief time?  Sure the probability might be incredibly low, but not impossible—and that makes all the difference in the universe.

5. There often seems to be some sort of exception made whenever something doesn’t agree with a well-established theory.  For example, Einstein’s relativity postulate that nothing can move faster than the speed of light has been a staple ever since he stuck his tongue out to decorate college dorm rooms and t-shirts.  Yet, in order for the expansion of the Big Bang to have taken place, things had to have moved faster than the speed of light.  Their answer? That speed limit does not apply to the expansion of space itself (even though we could not have—and currently cannot—observe such a thing; it’s all in the math).

In the end, I gave the book a 6/10 because, although a lot of it seemed funky to me, it did present some awfully complicated theories in a way that even I could understand it (given my conversation with T-dogg).  But in the end, it merely opened up more questions for me about science rather than impressing me that we’re on the verge of really understanding the universe and all its mysteries.

 

The Hunger Games Trilogy (2008)

Suzanne Collins

Rating: 7/10

Overall: [Spoiler Alert]

I thought the book was well-written and fast-paced; it has been awhile since I had a real page turner and Collins deftly kept the suspense and cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter going strong.  In fact, the main break I had in reading this first book was when my wife absconded with our copy and refused to put it down!

The post-apocalyptic setting is quite dark, with a return to feudalism where the Capitol is the noble and the districts are mere serfs.  The Capitol holds the monopoly on technology and violence, and its gladiatorial games are reminiscent of Rome as it entertains its superficial and apathetic aristocracy (its own citizenry) at the expense of those lower in the social hierarchy (the districts).  Though it’s clearly rotting from the inside out, given Collins’ subtle description I used as the title of this post.

Favoritism amongst the districts was also interesting, especially the juxtaposition of child-soldiers being raised in the more wealthy of districts as opposed to the poorer ones who are barely eking out a living (the opposite of our current global situation).

And the appearance of the mutts was particularly gruesome, especially given their history.

Specifics:

Katniss- her name is derived from an aquatic plant (Sagittaria) which means “belonging to the arrow” (no-brainer there).  Of course, despite Kat being presented as the “fire girl” by her stylists, it’s water that dominates her during the games.  Whether it’s fighting off dehydration or using streams to lose her pursuers, Kat is much more suited to a water symbol than fire—which of course is in direct contradiction to the Capitol, again, befitting her personality.

Cato- well, Cato the Younger was known for his stoicism, so I think we can rule him out.  Collins’ character is much more akin to the Elder whose military record and life of training seems more apropos.  Of course Cato in the Games is apt to lose his cool so doesn’t have that balance of statesman that his namesake, but we don’t want simple parallels, do we?

Gale- a silent hunter, his rages against the Capitol are tempestuous, and I’m guessing he’ll have a more pivotal role to play in upcoming books.

A few problems:

So I had just a few issues throughout the novel (not so bad considering it’s a young adult work).  First, how/why Cato left Peeta alive (despite “that kind of wound”). If he was as well trained and deadly as everyone thought he was, I don’t see why he would not have finished off a severely hampered opponent.

Secondly, I thought the ending was a bit anti-climatic overall, though that may be more of a symptom of setting up the next book.  For such a fast and furious-paced story, it certainly came to a grinding (and somewhat unsatisfactory) halt in the last couple of chapters.

Thirdly, the level of technology is somewhat confusing as far as the Capitol is concerned.  They’re apparently able to terra-form (change the landscape and climate at will), genetically splice new species (including animal/human hybrids), maybe raise dead/dying tissue (the mutts), but unable to save Peeta’s leg?  Picky? Maybe, but rules of the world ought to be consistent, especially if it’s not fantasy.

Finally, having not read the next book, I’m hoping that the story doesn’t devolve into some teenage-angst-filled love triangle that the ending seems to be leaning toward.  That would really kill the series for me, especially if we’re led to believe that Kat is going to lead some sort of revolution against the Capitol oppressors.

On to the next one!

Second and Third Books: (Updated 2/21/12)

After reading the second and third books, I must admit that I was a bit disappointed.  I felt the first book’s ending fizzled, the second book started slow but picked up right into the third book, where the grand finale also fizzled.  It wasn’t as disappointing as say, Harry Potter 7, but I thought Collins could have delivered more.

For example, Gale and Haymitch get woefully short-changed in their ending/wrap-up.  A sentence each determines the fate of these two very important figures in the story, which doesn’t do them justice.  Katniss and Peeta just sort of fumble through recovery, resigned to their fate with each other. Meh.

My take on the series was a source of disagreement between my wife and I, which led to an interesting and enriching conversation, parts of which inform the following character analysis.

Katniss- I can’t say I found her to be a very heroic heroine (though a twist awaits below).  I found her to be quite self-centered and self-absorbed, but then again, so are most teenagers, right? The problem with injecting this normalization into her character is that we were already led to believe that she had grown up fast in District 12 in order to provide for her family.  Kat’s vacillating-obsession over the boys (Gale and Peeta) got old quick (as I predicted), but Gale summoned it up best when he noted: “she’ll pick whoever she can’t survive without.”  By that point, even though Kat was mad at them both (again), she didn’t really argue the point.

Further, even if she did carry some guilt for those she was forced to kill, any possible moral redemption was lost when she agreed to have a Hunger Games for the Capitol children.  Why did she agree to put others through this? Presumably because her little sister Prim died—even though the little girl she was “protecting” died a while ago in the sense that Prim was also forced to grow up fast in the midst of the rebellion.  Yet let’s even say we can see this proverbial straw breaking Kat’s resolve, the problem with her decision is that it’s not even punishing those Kat believed to be responsible at that point! (Recall, she was pretty sure that the new President Coin ordered the hit on the crowd in front of the presidential mansion).  So really, Kat is just punishing the Capitol (and soon Coin herself); not very heroic, but rather petulant which fits nicely with the rest of her portrayal.

Finally, Kat remains an outcast (having so much in common with her mentor Haymitch) after the revolution, having no place in the new society.  (Even Gale fits in after his wrathful vengeance is sated).  So how is this main protagonist a heroic heroine?  Perhaps she’s not meant to be heroic at all.  Maybe she’s a 17 year-old kid who gets used by every faction (think Anakin), and is so damaged that her only recourse is isolation and trying to find joy removed from the very people who have hurt her so badly.  Surely not a Hollywood ending, but a realistic one, and I can respect that.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (2011)

Ha-Joon Chang

Rating: 10/10

This book is an amazing and enlightening work that every world citizen ought to read.  It succinctly breaks down what is wrong with our global economic market in terms that any non-economist can understand.  It throws new (to most of us) and important light on the flaws of conventional “wisdom” about free-market capitalism and how those policies over the past 30 years have created the systems and incentives for ongoing economic crises during that time (including our current one).  But Chang is not content with simply nay-saying the system: he also provides some general principles about how to rebuild the world economy to function better and more humanely.

His methodology is pretty sound (as far as I can tell), and his evidence is convincing.  Indeed, I only found one place where I questioned one of his solutions (though I wasn’t able to give it the most critical analysis on my first read).  Chang begins each chapter by: 1. telling us about the “thing” (remember, there are 23 “things”); 2. telling us the oft-touted myth about that thing; 3. telling us the untold story (and reality) about the thing; and 4. presenting his evidence and solutions for that thing.  (He even presents several ways to read his book and directs you to the “things” that might matter for a particular reading.  And yes, he simply calls them “Thing 1” throughout the book for ease of reference).

I won’t go into detail over all 23 things here (of course), but I will point out some of the tid-bits that I found particularly poignant.

There is no such thing as a free-market.  As Chang points out, all markets have some sort of rules and regulations, some of which we take for granted (e.g. child-labor laws).  In fact, as the economy has come to be dominated by corporations, those economies are also more fully-planned since successful corporations tend to be carefully-planned themselves (otherwise they’d fail).  So the idea that we should not regulate the market is not only fallacious, deregulation over the past 30 years has actually caused more problems and slowed growth, despite the rhetoric.  Related to this, trickle-down economics has not worked out as planned, either.  The wealth has only trickled upwards (as evidenced by the US having the largest wealth disparity of any developed country).

Companies should not be run in the interest of their shareholders.  Since most of those shareholders tend to have little interest in the long-term fortunes of a company (they’re focused on short-term profits), and managers run those companies to maximize such profits (and satisfy shareholders), the companies are inevitably harmed in the managing policies.  Labor forces (i.e. workers) are collateral damage as cost-cutting (i.e. layoffs) occur.  The government has lowered corporate tax rates which have helped wealth inequality skyrocket, and the average citizen’s borrowing has likewise gone up to get in on the “apparent” wealth.  This has led to slower per capita growth as long-term investment has been slashed.  Harming the companies’ long-term viability, focusing on quick, short-term profits, and increased wealth concentration has resulted in a failing economic system.

US managers are overpaid.  In recent months, the ridiculous paychecks that CEOs and managers receive (including their bonuses and severance packages), have come under some scrutiny.  Chang points out that not only do our CEOs make 2 to 20 times what other countries’ managers do, but their earnings have also increased 10 times since the 1960s (while the average workers’ wages have remained virtually stagnant, accounting for inflation).  Of course, American companies are not 10 to 20 times more efficient, productive, or successful either temporally or geographically, so this needs to be rectified as well.  Worse, the CEOs are not held accountable for failing (and are often rewarded with severance packages when they do fail!).  Remember the crisis way back in 2008?  Know any financier or CEO that went to jail or was held to task?  Yeah, neither do I.

Bigger government can help growth and the economy.  Some folks point to Europe and the boogeyman of socialism as an evil that capitalist America must avoid at all costs.  What they don’t tell you is that several of those socialist countries have had equal or better growth that the US, even during our booming 1990s.  As with nearly all of the “things” Chang addresses, it’s not a matter of pure absolutes (i.e. big government is good or bad).  It’s a matter of the right kind of thing and the right kind of policies (e.g. a large welfare state that has good policies [Scandinavia] is better than a welfare state with self-defeating policies [the US]).

Developing countries need our help and it’s about time they received a leg up from us.  Not only is this the right and humane thing to do, it will inevitably help the world economy become more stable (along with other changes Chang recommends to rebuild the global economic system).

There is plenty more to digest including the liquidity (and ratios) of financial assets, limited human rationality, the fallacy of us living in a post-industrial world, and so forth.  I hope this brief summary hasn’t made things more complicated (not my intention), because the book is very digestible.  Rarely do I come across books that are paradigm-shifting and life-changing, but I’d venture to say that Chang’s 23 Things is such a work.

My American Unhappiness (2011)

Dean Bakopoulos

Rating: 6/10

I read this book on my wife’s recommendation and found it to be an interesting and somewhat enlightening read.  It’s about a struggling non-profit director (Zeke) who is trying to get at the root of what he perceives as most Americans’ chronic unhappiness (as distinguished from sadness).  He does this through interviews and email responses to his website.  Zeke struggles with his own tragedies throughout the book and we get to read a sampling of his respondents’ answers which range from the mundane to the macabre.

I won’t give too much away about the plot (that’s below), but I did find some resonance with some of the “reasons given” via email or oral interviews (and Zeke’s own philosophy on the subject).  Everything from a general injustice in the world, to constant indebtedness to corporate institutions, to a lack of drive to do what really want are given as reasons why some people are unhappy (and of course, some claim they are not unhappy at all).

Zeke does fall deeper into a depression of sorts, and at several points I wanted to slap him around and tell him to “man up” (proverbially).  This shed an enlightening angle on my own self-righteous rants that sound eerily similar to Zeke’s.

It’s not a wholly depressing book though, and humor is spread throughout.  The author goes into some fun detail about my alma mater (Ann Arbor) and even mentions one of my favorite professors (Ralph Williams).  I’d recommend it for a light read (I finished it pretty much in one night) that can provoke some good and possibly motivating thoughts (“crap or get off the pot” comes to mind).

SPOILER ALERT:

I had a few problems with some of the plot holes.  The catalyst for Zeke’s downward spiral is never fully explained (his new wife fakes her own death and we never find out why) other than she admits “she was not a good person then.”

And a sinister government agency’s role in investigating Zeke, his non-profit, and a congressman are left pretty vague

But looking past these, I enjoyed the book overall…I think.

The Narcissism Epidemic (2009)

Jean M. Twenge and  W. Keith Campbell

Rating: 5/10

Overall, I had high expectations of this book.  After all, here were some PhDs looking into some of the things about American culture that I had been ruminating over for a few years now.  And overall, they touch on many of the facets that I expected: vanity, a sense of entitlement, materialism, and celebrity status.  They even came up with a few that I hadn’t considered—namely easy monetary credit and the role of religion and volunteerism.

Ultimately, however, the book fell short my expectations.  I found some of the methodology to be sloppy and even the definition of their main subject to be all-too encompassing.  The latter was particularly annoying as they just seemed to lump every ill of society under “narcissism” without allowing for a more nuanced (and probably accurate) use of the word.  And within each of those ills, they seemed to generalize the cases of narcissists to put everyone in the same boat (or at least attribute the motivations of narcissists to everyone).  For example, Twenge and Campbell claim that easy monetary credit and the narcissist motivation of self-creating the “illusion of success” would account for nearly everyone struggling under financial debt.  They briefly talk about the “pleasure principle” of buying stuff colliding with the “reality principle” of rational decision-making, but simply subsume this under narcissism as well, rather than the irrational behavior and short-sightedness which is common to human behavior in buying most non-essential goods since the dawn of marketing.  Or in their discussion of American Idol, they claim that its popularity stems from the narcissistic appeal that the audience can affect the outcome (through voting), rather than simply the appeal of audience participation and voting for your favorites (which is counter-intuitive to the authors’ claims that narcissism is strictly about self-love and no empathy for others).

Further, their methodology seemed very shoddy at times.  In some instances, they would provide numbers and graphs to back up their claims, at other times they simply made general statements like “children now have more say in their birthday parties, which often leads to requests for lavish parties like those features on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 (pp. 171-172).”  Really? I’ve never known anyone to make such a ludicrous demand; and if such demands are made in rich families (say the top 10%), then that’s a very different case to make than wide-spread narcissism epidemic (as the authors are claiming).

Twenge and Campbell also play semantic games that undermine their point.  In the chapter about “uniqueness,” they argue that telling our kids they’re unique (or giving them unique—read non-modern-American—names) leads to narcissism because people are not unique.  Well, we have a “mundane uniqueness” (p.190), which includes our DNA and exact place in the space-time continuum, but this doesn’t make us “special.”  Okay…

They even cite “correlation” studies, apparently forgetting the mantra “correlation does not equal causation.”  The decline of pirates coincided with the rise in global temperatures, but that doesn’t mean we should bring back the life of piracy to combat greenhouse gases!

The authors’ method of treating this epidemic also lacks real bite.  It seems their sub-textual utopia would be to go back to the values of the 1950’s with the modern conveniences of today.  (Part of this is probably because they labor under the mythology of the “Greatest Generation” of WWII).  Oh, and we should also get us some real, authentic religion, fix our parenting styles, and change the way we use the internet and how the media operates.  Feasible, right?

Despite all my misgivings, they do have some good points.  We, as a culture, ought to be more empathetic, less self-centered, and more aware of our surroundings.  Unfortunately, in my experience, most of human nature trends in the opposite of these ideals, so what can we really do to affect change?  Usually, it takes a crisis of some magnitude to humble us and bind us together in solidarity (9/11).  But even that tends to be short-lived (a week after the towers fell, I saw street vendors selling photos of the planes crashing into the buildings; a year later, the solemnity of Ground Zero was nearly gone as evidenced by the tourists on their cell phones at the site).

Our best bet is to try and think critically before making our decisions, inject a dose of rationality into the thought process, and not let others get on our nerves, because let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things, each of us really doesn’t matter that much.  (Again, easier said than done).

Geek Love (1989)

Katherine Dunn

Rating: 5/10

Sometimes I look to see what other people recommend in books, and I found an odd set of books on NPR’s Three Books series.  Only Geek Love caught my attention (the rest were beyond my tolerance if their synopsizes were to be taken at face value).  Even tt was outside my normal reading “comfort zone,” but that was part of the appeal.  Although the tone was crass and held nothing back, the writing was decently executed overall.  I had worries about the plot however, as about one-quarter into the book I wasn’t sure where the main storyline was going.  I struggled through that part (and my revulsion at various scenes) and made it to the end.  Overall I’m still not sure I enjoyed it, but there were themes in the book that made me feel that it wasn’t a total waste of time.

Brief synopsis (no spoilers):

The book is really the memoirs of an albino hunchback dwarf (Olympia) who grew up in a carnival amidst her family (the Binewskis) of purposefully-bred freaks.  By purposefully, I mean her mom (at the husband’s request) took various drugs and other chemicals to breed her children with abnormalities.  In addition to Olympia, the mother birthed a conjoined set of sisters (Electra and Iphigenia), a boy with flippers instead of legs and arms (Arturo), a seemingly normal boy with a hidden gift (Fortunato), and several other children that didn’t make it.  Arturo the Aqua Boy goes on to found a perverse cult and Olympia gives birth to an “almost-norm.”  The book is really a memoir for Olympia’s daughter (Miranda) who doesn’t know who her mother is or about her family lineage (though she does have a small tail as her Binewski trademark/legacy).

Detailed synopsis (spoilers and some disturbing ones at that):

The story starts after the closing of the Binewski traveling carnival when Olympia is living (incognito) in a building with her daughter.  Miranda is approached by a woman who discovers her tail via a dance show at a local seedy joint specializing in oddities of nature.  The woman (Miss Lick) tells Miranda that she can remove her tail and that she’s helped out many women “liberate” themselves from such problems.  Olympia is suspicious (and angry as she views her family’s freaky parts as something to be treasured) and begins looking into Miss Lick.

A long flashback ensues and we discover all sorts of horrible things about the carnival.  Fortunato (or Chick as he comes to be known) has incredible powers of the mind (telekinesis, emotion control, and even pyrokinesis).  Arturo slowly takes over the family business and starts a religious cult where “norms” willingly lop off parts of their bodies to be more like him (the more they lop off, the more “elevated” they are in the church hierarchy).  A “norm” doctor (Miss Peabody) has joined the carnival to help with the operations and is aided by Chick who regulates their pain.  She eventually attempts to create a schism in the church and is removed leaving Chick as Arturo’s surgeon.

With Chick’s help, Olympia hijacks Arturo’s (yes, her brother) sperm and gets pregnant with Miranda but doesn’t let him know he’s the father.  She thinks it will bring them all closer at some point.

The conjoined twins are impregnated (at Arturo’s decree) by the man who once tried to kill the whole family but who was horribly disfigured when he tried to commit suicide but failed (with a shotgun to his face).  They give birth to a hyper-gluttonous baby who is killed by one of the twins who had been reawakened by Chick after Arturo gave the order (to Chick) to lobotomize her when he found out they had been prostituting themselves.  The twin who killed the baby is then killed in turn by the other twin.  This sets Chick off the deep end who then goes out and incinerates Arturo, his congregation, and the rest of the family except for Olympia and her mother.

Back to the present, Olympia stalks and befriends Miss Lick who is disfiguring (“liberating”) pretty women who then channel their energies into their chosen profession and become successful (physicists, doctors, etc.).  Olympia finally murders the woman before she can get her hands on Miranda, but is killed in the process.  She had left letters and keys to Miranda who must now navigate her family’s history annals alone.

As I said, not my normal fare (nor for the faint of heart).

So why did I bother to continue reading through one horrible revelation after another?  A couple of themes caught my attention.

Religion:

Although the attraction of Arturo’s cult seems too outlandish to be plausible, I’ll admit I’ve never been in the position that his initiates have been in (desperation, lack of critical-thinking skills, emotionally empty, etc.).  Besides, his church in all had some 5000 adherents at its peak which is some miniscule percentage of the US population at this time.  But moving beyond all this, his cult is portrayed as an interesting historic parallel to the Catholic Church history.  I don’t mean the self-mutilation bit (that’s for Dan Brown novels, right?), but rather the general historical trends.  1) A group of desperate people are looking for something greater than themselves to provide succor and salvation (a la the Middle Ages); 2) the Church consolidates its power over secular rulers (Arturo supplants his father as head of the carnival); 3) a rival sect in the Church disagrees with its dogma (Dr. Peabody and Catharism); 4) the heretical sects are removed by force (Arturo’s henchmen and the Albigensian Crusade).

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this (trying to make use of my generally useless medieval studies), but I think Arturo’s cult can be seen as portraying a constant set of needs of the human condition.  A need to belong to an “in” group, a need for acceptance, a need for someone to acknowledge our pain.  But I think it also serves as a warning against charlatans and those who can exploit those needs for their own selfish gains (the initiates do sign over all their money to Arturo and then they have to fend for themselves as they trail along after the carnival, resorting to stealing food to survive).

Or maybe it’s just a crazy story about some flipper-boy with a Napoleonic complex.

The Super Being:

What happens when Superman is raised by a freak-show carnival?  You get Fortuanto.  Born a pacifist who can hurl bodies or manipulate molecules with equal impunity, Chick can even manipulate peoples’ emotions.  But he is terrified of hurting people (or animals) and seeks only to comfort other living beings once he is old enough to reason (4-5 years old).  Slowly, however, he is molded under Arturo’s flipper and gets to the point where he does the cult’s amputations and even lobotomizes his sister on the Aqua Boy’s orders.  When he finally snaps on Arturo (for the death of his sister and nephew), he incinerates nearly everyone in his path in his quest for vengeance before self-immolating (presumably so he won’t have to live with the guilt).

So why does he put up with Arturo?  For love and acceptance from his older brother.  But even Chick has his limits of perceived betrayal, and woe to the world when this alpha-psychic blows a gasket.  The character of Chick alone can thrust this novel into the science fiction genre, though I doubt many others would agree.

Memorable Quotes:

“The truth is always an insult or a joke.  Lies are generally tastier.  We love them.  The nature of lies is to please.  Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.” -Arturo Binewski

“Consider the whole thing as occupational therapy.  Power as cottage industry for the mad.  The shepherd is slave to the sheep.  A gardener is in thrall to his carrots.  Only a lunatic would want to be president.  These lunatics are created deliberately by those who wish to be presided over.  You’ve seen it a thousand times.  We create a leader by locating one in the crowd who is standing up.  This may well be because there are no chairs or because his knees are fused by arthritis.  It doesn’t matter.  We designate this victim as a ‘stand-up guy’ by the simple expedient of sitting down around him” -Arturo Binewski

“The more people we exclude, the more people will want to join.  That’s what exclusive means.” -Arturo Binewski