Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book Review: Watchmen

March 21, 2009 3 comments

The new movie Watchmen sounded interesting, but it will have to wait for video because I just can’t pull 3 hours in a theater (or any other kind of chair) without serious painkillers.  So I got the book for ten bucks from Amazon.

The danger of hype is that it can interfere with actual enjoyment.  Watchmen is one of Time magazine’s “100 best novels”,  and the co-creator of the TV series Lost calls it “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.”  Several of my friends have told me that it is just… “wall-to-wall awesomeness”.  Some of that is well-deserved.

The story is about a group of super-heroes and their complicated lives.  You have to know that putting on a funny suit and beating up criminals requires a… certain kind of mind, and a certain kind of surrounding society.  Authors Moore and Gibbons do a great job of exploring on a human scale just what that might be like.  It’s a grown-up story not only because of the violent and sexual themes and language, but also because it does a very good job of exploring how relationships blow up and become painful (or pleasant) memories, and how that affects the present and the future.  This is something adults know from experience; insignificant moments we treasure in our mind, scars that we hide or deny.

On reflection you might not expect superheroes – or super villians either – to be virtuous people, and you’d be right.  In Watchmen, most of them are violent, internally conflicted, living out the compulsive results of twisted childhoods.  They get old, they grow fat, they die of cancer.  Politically they range in all directions.  An attempt to get them to join forces fails utterly, which becomes a major plot point. 

The novel does a good job of explaining connections and background, though it is a staggeringly complex story.  This is not; “alien threatens city, Superman beats up alien.”  But I was able to follow it easily enough.  Complex stories may be a unique asset of graphic novels: plot points become associated with images, and flipping through the book at high speed allows the reader to return to the relevant portion in seconds to refresh their memory. 

The novel begins with the brutal murder of one superhero, and as the story continues (moving forward and backward in time, developing the lives of all the characters) we aren’t really sorry to have seen him go.  Yet in his brutally amoral way, he was a mentor to even more powerful and intelligent characters. 

Only one character really even has super-human powers, and his biggest challenge is that he is so powerful, humanity seems remote to him.  How involved should he be?  Should he interfere at all?

It ends with a moral conundrum; an act of mass murder rivalling anything in human history, which has the effect of saving humanity.  At least, it will have that effect, provided the few people who unwillingly know about it know about it agree to remain silent.  One person does not agree, the terrifyingly uncompromising vigilante named “Rorshach”. So what ought to happen to him?

Some people don’t like the term; “graphic novel”, opining that “it’s just a fancy term for comic book”.  Well sure, and “Great Expectations” is just a soap-opera series collected into one cover.  Fact is, I’ve seen some truly great stories put together that way: Maus, The Crow, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns to name a few.  There’s no question in my mind that it deserves a place in the pantheon of literary types alongside text novels and story anthologies.

One point where Watchmen falters, artistically, is that the color pallate could use refinement.  It was an annoying distraction in an otherwise great work of the imagination. 

There are thematic similarities between Watchmen and other stories.  For instance, The Incredibles also posit a future in which costumed superheroes are not really welcome, and someone is methodically killing off the ones who retired from the business.

I won’t try to go into more detail – it would require a post as long as (and far less interesting than) the novel itself.  You can check out Wikipedia’s Watchmen article or better yet, just read the novel.  I look forward to seeing the movie.  Frankly it strains my imagination how it could be committed to cinema and still make sense.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Surviving the unthinkable

June 11, 2008 Comments off

Mother Jones magazine interviews Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable; who survives when disaster strikes, and why.  Here’s an excerpt:

“…citizens are not prepared for attacks because there is a bias against the public by nearly every expert and government official. In emergency preparedness, there is this belief that public will panic, that the public is not to be trusted, that there will be looting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been with very smart, knowledgeable Homeland Security experts who are essentially tasked with saving your life who do not trust you with information. They just don’t. They kind of dismiss the media and the public in one fell swoop. A lot of the time you see a warning, in the subway, or in a movie theater, the main thrust of the warning will be to not panic if there is an emergency. To listen to directions. Now that’s a waste. They could have given you information, but you can see their expectation that you’re going to screw up…”

Ripley turned up some surprises while researching the book, and has an interesting take on the psychology of terrorism and those who imagine themselves as possible victims of terrorism.  Check it out.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Science Friday: More Asimov!  And friends…

February 8, 2008 1 comment

Asimov on the relationship between science writing and science fiction writing (he did both).  I wish the whole essay were online but here’s a little bit of it.  First, on science writing:

Why write about science?  What does it accomplish?…

First, through the wise use of scientific knowledge humanity has a chance to solve the otherwise overwhelming problems that face it.  How do we increase our supply of materials and energy and prevent waste and pollution?  How do we make life more comfortable and secure?  How do we ameliorate the ravages of disease and old age?  If these problems can’t be solved by science, they can’t be solved at all.  On the other hand, the unwise use of scientific knowledge may destroy us all through nuclear warfare, pollution, desertification, uncontrolled population increase, and so on.

If the world is to learn how to use science wisely and to shun the unwise, as many people as possible must learn about science – not, perhaps, enough to become scientists themselves, but at least enough to have a chance to come to sensible decisions and to exert a force of public opinion on their leaders in the direction of sense.

A fine example of this is the agreement to ban the atmospheric testing of nuclear explosions in 1963.  The governments involved were not keen on this, being driven by mutual fear and hatred in the direction of suicide.  It was an aroused world opinion that forced sanity upon them very much against their wills.

Second, science has reached the stage where it needs far more investment than the scientists themselves can supply.  Even private industry may fall short where the greatest projects are concerned.  No source remains but governments – that is, the public purse.  If the public is expected to pay, it would be best if they understood what they were paying for.

Third, for science to advance, there must be a continuing supply of bright young men and women who are willing to devote their lives to scientific advance.  The supply can best be increased in both quantity and quality if the general public continues to be well informed as to the nature and content of science.

And a bit on science fiction writing:

Change has always been with us, but the rate of change is what really counts.  That rate has increased steadily in the course of human history, and beginning about 1800, it became rapid enough to make change visible in the course of a single lifetime.  (It was soon after 1800 that science fiction began to be written).  The rate of change has further increased until it is now a whirlwind that is whipping us all into the unforeseen.

If we are to control our own destinies, we dare not ignore the inevitability of change, or fight it blindly as something that is annoying and undesirable.  We must accept it and attempt to channel it in what seems to us to be a desirable direction.  It helps if we are acquainted with science fiction and have therefore learned to treat change as something familiar.  Science fiction readers, in other words, are relatively immune to future shock…

As I said, I wish the whole essay, indeed the whole collection of essays and stories by many writers including Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury and a host of others, scientists and science-fiction writers, were available online.  But I can offer the next best thing: the book is available used at Amazon, cheap.  It contains factual essays as well as fictional, one of each kind about each of the planets of our solar system.  It may not be the latest dope (1985) but it’s GOOD stuff and it’ll cost you less than five bucks including the shipping.  And wouldn’t you rather read a good book anyway?

The Planets, edited by Byron priess, copyright 1985.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Book Review: CASCA

January 9, 2008 4 comments

You may remember Barry Sadler, the famous soldier and author of the popular song; “Ballad of the Green Berets”.  I was not aware that he also wrote a fictional novel, and then he wrote 24 more novels before his untimely and mysterious death in 1989.  In each of these novels, Casca is Barry Sadler’s observer in a different part of military history -  a nifty literary device.  My boss was kind enough to loan me the first in the series over Christmas break.

Here’s the setup: Casca Rufio Longinus was the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with a spear at Golgotha.  Jesus cursed him to wander the Earth forever as a soldier, and this first novel is the story of how he became the eternal mercenary.  It has some truly horrifying twists, such as when Casca realizes that 1) he cannot die, and 2) as a slave in the copper mines, if he were buried alive as slaves often were, it would be for all eternity.  After more than a decade he escapes the mine, but he must forever move on.  If anyone learned his secret, they might burn him at the stake for witchcraft, or impale him, or visit any number of other kinds of execution.  And while he could not die, he could certainly feel pain.

He makes some very interesting friends, among them Shiu Tze, a Confucian philosopher far from home.  There’s a a number of gory battle scenes and one climactic battle with his nemesis in the gladiatorial arena before the emperor Nero. After one especially pointless and bloody battle against the Parthians, he curses the Christian god as a sadist for placing him on the road from which he cannot escape.  But when he tries to kill himself by falling on his sword…

Alas, they’re out of print but I’ll be watching the book sales.

Categories: Books, Reviews

National swagger and whistling in the dark

December 21, 2007 7 comments

A correspondent best known for penning the infamous “Letter to Dr. Laura” sent me this brief review of a new book yesterday:


I just finished a new book that I must enthusiastically recommend:
Are We Rome?” by Cullen Murphy. It’s a sobering comparison of the USA and the Roman Empire in its latter stages. Just a few of his observations:

  • Roman leaders had a mindset that Rome was invincible, and refused to visualize military defeat by “inferior” forces.

  • Romans saw themselves as the center of the Universe, with no need to understand other cultures.
  • Over the years, the Roman government, and in particular its military services, became increasingly privatized, resulting in lack of oversight and an epidemic of corruption.
  • In Rome, the economic disparity between the numerically tiny ruling class and the majority working class greatly increased over the course of its history.
  • Rome began as a secular republic and ended as an empire with an official state religion.

It’s food for thought when we contemplate the best direction for the United States.

- Kent

This is exactly why I am more afraid of preening, ignorant, pious, tough-talking, denialist politicians than of our country’s enemies.  It has never seemed likely to me that America could be brought down by an outside enemy without mutual destruction by superpowers.  But our situation is more analogous to cancer.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Review: Carl Sagan’s The Varieties Of Scientific Experience

February 28, 2007 15 comments

I recently finished reading Carl Sagan’s new book, The Varieties Of Scientific Experience, and recommend it as an antidote to the lethal venom that has been building up along the epistemological boundary between supernaturalism and naturalism since Sagan’s death.

How, you ask, can Sagan, dead these eleven years, have just come out with a new book?  TVOSE is a compilation of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures On Natural Theology in Scotland, about the relationship between religion and science.  Here’s a sample:

“The astronomer Sir William Huggins frightened the world in 1910.  He was minding his own business, doing astronomy, but as a result of his astronomy (the work I’m talking about was done in the last third of the nineteenth century) there were national panics in Japan, in Russia, in much of the southern and midwestern United States.  A hundred thousand people in their pajamas emerged onto the roofs of Constantinople.  The pope issued a statement condemning the hoarding of cylinders of oxygen in Rome.  And there were people all over the world who committed suicide.  All because of Sir William Huggins’ work.  Very few scientists can make similar claims, at least until the invention of nuclear weapons.  What exactly did he do?  Well, Huggins was one of the first astronomical spectroscopists…. “p. 69

The Gifford Lectures were made famous in 1902 by William James’ classic Varieties Of Religious Experience which gave Sagan the inspiration for his series.  Sagan reflects on the history of the long struggle between science and religion, including the painful adaptations each has made to the other over the years.  He talked about biochemistry, physics, evolution, astronomy, and scientists’ own religious feelings as they grapple with the natural universe.  He outlines the risk to humanity from nuclear weapons (let no one say this is an outdated concern).  TVOSE is a deep and very involved series of lectures.

“Does trying to understand the universe betray a lack of humility?  I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring…

I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship… the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.”

Sagan understood the desire to believe. It was no pale theoretical fancy to him; he yearned to reach into the inmost nature of the universe.  Even in his dying years he worked tirelessly to build connections with people of faith.  Where a religious person expressed wonder at the universe, or opposed violence, or moved to save the natural environment, Sagan agreed and recognized common purpose.  He respected the religious desire to frame the universe in some larger meaning, because he had the same desire even if he could not reach the same conclusion.

Today contempt is everywhere between science and religion. We have Richard Dawkins taking advice on American religious culture from PZ Meyers (possibly the worst, most divisive possible choice).  We have Sam Harris positing the end of all religions as a solution to mankind’s problems.  We have the Discovery institute trying to poison science education with thinly veiled creationism.  The opportunity for peace, to say nothing of achieving any common purpose or reaching any constructive compromise, seems more remote than ever.

So let Harris languish on the discount rack; it’s a very good time to read Sagan.  TVOSE may seem quaint, 22 years after the lectures were given, but it could hardly be more timely. 

Categories: Books, Reviews

Bad Astronomy

June 22, 2006 3 comments

Philip Plait wants to punch holes in all the ‘Bad Astronomy’ out there, from myths about the coriolis effect to the astronomical aspects of creationism to UFO’s and the moon-landing hoax.  To that end he’s created a website,, he lectures at schools and research centers, and he’s written a book named, appropriately enough, “Bad Astronomy”.  I just finished reading it.

Plait is a solid scientist, an astronomer for the physics and astronomy department for Sonoma State University.  He’s very good with explanations…

‘Anything with mass has gravity.  You do, I do, planets do, a feather does.  I can exact a minute amount of revenge on Earth’s gravity knowing that I am pulling back on the Earth as well.  The amount I am pulling is pretty small, sure, but it’s there.  The more massive the object, the more it pulls.  The Earth has a lot more mass than I do (something like 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as much, but who’s counting?), so it pulls on me a lot harder than I do on it.

If I were to get farther away from the Earth, that force would weaken.  As a matter of fact, the force drops with the square of my distance; that is, if I double my distance, it drops by 2×2=4.  If I triple my distance, it drops by 3×3=9, and so on.

That does not mean that I feel one-quarter of the gravity if I climb a ladder to twice my height, though!  We don’t measure distance from the surface of the Earth, we measure it from its center.  A few hundred years ago, Sir Isaac Newton, the seventeenth-century philosopher-scientist, showed mathematically that as far as distance is concerned, you can imagine that all the mass of the Earth is concentrated into a tiny point at its center, so it’s from there that we measure distance…”
- Philip Plait, Bad Astronomy

Not to say I didn’t enjoy reading the book; I did.  But I do have a few quibbles over style.

First, he should remove remove the exclamation-point key from his computer, and give it to his wife under instructions to return it only when he can provide a good rationale for using it in the current sentence.  He tends to use exclamation points in places which are not points of exclamation.  I found it annoying, but then I am rather grouchy.

Second, he should hire an editor who isn’t in love with him.  When he says, “something like 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as much” it’s distracting and conveys less information (due to the difficulty in reading it) than saying “something like 7.8×1022 times as much” or “something like 78 sextillion times as much.”

Or when he says; “a few hundred years ago, Isaac Newton, the seventeenth-century philosopher-scientist” he should eliminate either “a few hundred years ago” or “seventeenth-century”. 

Third, and most important, he tends to go on for multiple paragraphs about how ridiculous some huckster’s fakery is, before explaining why it’s ridiculous.  He knows a lot of synonyms for “absurd”, and it just gets old. OK, Phil, you’re mad at the guy for being such a flim-flam; we get it.  Would you mind getting on with the debunking?

He writes exactly as one might lecture: “Let’s stay at the North Pole for a while (I hope you’re dressed warmly)”, “as a matter of fact”, etc.  There are lots of worse ways to write (and he is reputed to be an outstanding lecturer) and no style will appeal to everyone,  but what works in a lecture is often cumbersome on the printed page.

OK, so he isn’t Shakespeare; no one will confuse me with the Bard, either.  You shouldn’t let my stylistic natterings stop you from enjoying the book.  The two best things about the book are the infectious! enthusiasm! of its author, and the correctness of the explanations.  I’d like some of that fever to infect a few school boards.  After all, if you aren’t going to get the kids worked up about learning the truth, why have school?  Teachers, especially, should read the book, and better yet, invite Plait to speak or take a class full of kids to one of his events.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Book: ‘Why Things Break’

April 10, 2006 Comments off

One of the books I read during my vacation last week is Why Things Break, by Mark E. Eberhart.  It is a biographical story of Eberhart’s life work in discovering the quantum chemistry roots of materials fracture. More below the fold:

Eberhart does a great job explaining for the layman (such as me) the relationships of thermodynamics, crystal field theory, atomic topology, grain interface boundaries, and other delicious tidbits.  But he also embraces all the people he’s known along the way; mentors, bureaucrats, a generous cop, and many others.  The book ranges widely from cynical observations about academic funding to the joy of knowing great scientists.

I was repeatedly struck by how closely the conclusions Eberhart reached in the 21st century parallel those of Theodore Honey, the dysfunctional boffin of Neville Shute’s 1948 novel No Highway, which I also recently (re-) read.  Eberhart, being a real scientist nearly 60 years beyond Shute’s fictional one, got rather farther down the road toward understanding the quantum mechanics of fracture but I could easily imagine a conceptual thread.

I enjoyed Eberhart’s description of a scientist:

Dr. Olson – Greg as i now call him – typifies everything wonderful about good scientists.  They exude enthusiasm and curiousity.  To scientists like Greg, the whole world is a series of puzzles, and their desire to solve them is downright contagious.  To many, such scientists seem more like children than responsible adults.  Perhaps this is the reason that good university scientists seldom look their age… (p. 59, 60)

Why Things Break begins with Eberhart’s glass marble fracture experiments as a child, his broken kayak in college, trips along the prehistory of materials science (discovering copper in pottery glaze, for instance), and revisits the Titanic disaster repeatedly as an important case of materials’ embrittlement.  There’s lots of human psychology to ponder, too, such as why a passenger about to board an Aloha Airlines plane failed to raise any objection to a large crack she noticed in the fusilage (part of the plane ripped off in flight, killing a stewardess).

Another example: why do incandescent light bulbs have a continuous spectrum, and flourescent a discontinuous one?  The answer turns out to be rooted the quantum properties of large and small molecules, related to Slater’s observation that the appearance of wave properties in photons are a result of the wavelike properties of the laws of probability.  And this, too is fracture-related.

By now you should know if you’d enjoy the book.  I found it very entertaining, and I accidentally learned a lot too.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Calvin And Hobbes is back

November 3, 2005 5 comments

After a several-year hiatus, Calvin And Hobbes is back in the comics pages.  Maybe Bill Watterson ran out of money, or maybe the current crop of comics just passed the pointless threshold – whatever, I don’t care.  It appears they’re re-running the whole series.

Calvin is sharply written, beautifully drawn, often deeply insightful, and utterly apolitical.  It involves the fantasy life of a little boy – in this case, working a math “word problem” and trying to get the answer off of Susie’s paper.  He often fantasizes that he is a detective, a spaceman, or a tyrannosaur. 

In yesterday’s strip, his recurring detective character walks down a dark, rainy street, lights a cigarette, and muses:

“I stepped out into the rainy streets, and reviewed the facts.  There weren’t many.

Two saps, Jack and Joe, drive toward each other at 60 and 30 mph.  After 10 minutes, they pass.  I’m supposed to find out how far apart they started.

Questions pour down like the rain.  Who are these mugs?  What were they trying to accomplish?  Why was jack in such a hurry?  And what difference does it make where they started from?

I had a hunch that, before this was over, I’d be sorry I asked.”

Yes, I said he lit a cigarette.  In his fantasies Calvin performs dangerous stunts, uses firearms, and walks alone down the dark and lonely city street with cigarette smoke trailing his Fedora.  Take that, whiny politically-correct turkeys!

In other words, his childhood fantasies are not shaped by the concerns of adults.  Just like those of real children.

Welcome back, Calvin.  I’ve missed you.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Constitution arrived!

October 6, 2005 2 comments

As I mentioned on Constitution Day, you can order a FREE pocket-sized copy of the United States Constitution from the American Bar Association.  I did, and my copy came today.

Not only does it contain the full text of the United States Constitution, but lots of other goodies too: 

  • brief well-written facts about the Founding Fathers and about the Constitution,

  • Dates to remember
  • The Bill of Rights (even including proposed amendments that were never ratified)
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • Facts about the Supreme Court
  • Overview of how cases on the Supreme Court happen
  • 20 landmark cases in Supreme Court history
  • Supreme court justices
  • Index to the US Constitution and its amendments

In 64 wonderful pages, it is a model of succinct clarity, and a reminder of how much can be said in very few words.  Perhaps the author of the supplemental text (Terry L. Jordan) was inspired by the language of the Constitution itself.  It’s going right next to my copy of “Economist Magazine Pocket World In Figures” reference.  :-)

Categories: Books, Reviews