Saturday, September 29, 2018

Build Your Own PC for Dummies

Build Your Pwn PC For Dummies
© 2009 Mark Chambers
336 pages

Both my increasing interest in learning how to work with computer hardware, and my nephew's desire to build a gaming computer,  have led to me watching hours of build videos on YouTube, and scrounging around the internet for helpful resources. Although this book was published in 2009, it has a long history of solid reviews, and I was able to find a used copy which included a working DVD.     This beginner's guide to building a PC first assures reader that it's not nearly as difficult process as they imagine, and requires minimal tools -- usually, just a Phillips-head screwdriver.   Because building a PC is an inherently sequential process --  beginning with the case and motherboard, and building from there --  the book's organization follows that process.  The initial chapters cover the first steps:   deciding on what kind of machine to build,  finding a case and motherboard that will meet the need, and installing essentials like the power supply,  processor, and RAM.  Once the hard drive is installed, the author shifts to optional-but-likely add-ins like DVD drives, graphics and sounds cards, and other accessories.  The video is divided into similar stages.

Obviously, a book on computer hardware from 2009 is going to be dated at this point, and arguably it was dated upon release given that it includes a chapter on floppy disks, when retail PC builds had stopped carrying  units with floppy disk drives at least three years before. (My family purchased a PC in 2004/2005 that had no floppy disk reader, just USB ports and a never-used reader for zip cards. ) Still,  storage and data transfer (SATA cables were still nosing into the market here)  are the only real age-related weaknesses. The book is designed to be read independent of any other sections, so each starts with the same advice about grounding yourself to prevent any static electricity discharges. The author always uses a joke to introduces these, which gets old quickly if you're reading it through.  The jokes are not as pervasive on the video, but they're there. 

Although certain elements of this are badly dated, the basic process remains current, and I think it would be helpful to someone introducing themselves to the idea of building a PC.  Fixing Your Computer: Absolute Beginner's Guide has more more information on the actual components and what their advertised specs mean, though. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Looming Tower

The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11
© 2006 Lawrence Wright
480 pages

"[...] we're told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor...religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any  ******* sense? " - David Letterman,  first show post-attack. 9/17/2001

Despite the efforts of Sunday School teachers who wanted to convey the fact that the end of the world was imminent, I didn't pay a great deal of attention to foreign affairs in middle school. One of those teachers dedicated a wall in her classroom not to Bible verses and theology, but to ominous news stories hinting at the imminent coming of the Endtimes.  Most prominent on the board and in my memory was a large article on the USS Cole bombing in 2000, organized by the same people who would later attack New York. After that 9/11, that seemingly random attack made more sense in context, and in Lawrence Wright's Looming Tower, the Cole bombing has a prominent place. Looming Tower is a history of al-Quaeda, of the ideological background of bin laden and his followers, as well as a chronicle of their activities. Although bin Laden did not create the jihadist fervor popularly known as Islamism, Wright contends that bin  Laden was the indispensable figure behind the movement, organizing smaller groups into an international force and financing it with his dead father's fortunes.

Westerners may find it easy to dismiss terrorists as the dregs of society, casting blame on their woes and failures on the easy target of the west. Far from being uneducated rubes, however, many of the key members of al-Queda and its related organizations were members of their society's elite: they were born into wealth and privilege, and (excepting bin Laden) spent considerable time in the west.  The intellectual progenitor of Islamism, as we might term the virulently anti-western ideology rooted in fundamentalist Islam which  has been sweeping the middle east in increasingly strong waves since the mid-20th century,  actually lived in small-town America during the 1950s. There,  after being initially impressed by its wealth, he (Sayyid Qutb) grew contemptuous of America, regarding it as decadent and materialist.Qutb's writings, made more attractive by his death as a prisoner back im Egypt,  remain relevant for consideration today -- for while many jihadists are directly motivated by contempt of the West's creation of Israel, and DC's continuing support of it,    they also have a fundamental contempt for western ideals -- Christianity included, which one describes as too idealistic.  These jihadists were fundamentally opposed to western thought -- capitalism, communism, etc -- because of its materialistic basis, and despite their backgrounds in medicine or engineering rejected the scientific worldview as inadequate. Bin Laden never traveled westward, but rather east; it was in Afghanistan that the pious business prince grew to think of himself as a leader of men and after he was repelled from the Sudan he would retreat to the very same cave-structure he carved out during the Afghan war. It was in Afghanistan that bin Laden met men who would be his future allies in destruction, and it was there that he establish training camps for his plans of violence on his targets.

The Looming Tower is not a history of 9/11; itself : coverage of the day  is largely limited here to the death of John O'Neill, a colorful agent-in-charge of the FBI who had been doggedly hunting al-Queda operatives before his retirement in 2001. He chose to steer into his golden years by taking a post as chief of security for the World Trade Center, and a month later he perished there while leading people to safety.  Despite the fact that the CIA was also tracking al-Quaeda operatives,  internal security measures and concerns over jurisdiction stymied the information-sharing that might have led to O'Neill realizing  there were targets constituting an active threat within the US. Most of the subject material covers leading Egyptian and Arabian figures who would build jihadist movements in their countries, attempting to achieve takeovers in Egypt and the Sudan, and fighting abroad in Afghanistan.  The history indicates that Osama's war on the United States despite its status as an ally of the anti-Soviet jihadist, was not caused by DC's later support of secular dictators against more religious populaces.. Instead, Osama's attitude toward the US had already hardened, and he wanted to take the fight to the United States as soon as the USSR had withdrawn: having defeated one demonic superpower through prayer (and American-made Stinger missiles), he wanted to destroy the other.   Then, a new caliphate could sring into being and regain its medieval might --and more.

DC is now seventeen years into a war that Osama bin laden wanted it to fight.  That war has led to a succession of others, multiplying  with now grim predictability, creating other threats like ISIS. While that gangster-state  has now been reduced to a brand name for murder,  it is a safe bet that some other  threat will arise from the region.  Today DC is currently supplying al-quaeda in Syria, recalling the days when DC armed jihadists fighting the Soviets, only to find their "allies" were only weapon to turn said weapons against DC when the Soviet threat was passed. DC is also funding and supplying the Saudi enterprise of systematically destroying Yemen, in full knowledge of the fact that the Saudis are a leading sponsor of terrorism and its subjects constituted the majority of the 9/11 hijackers.  DC has learned nothing, it seems,  and is seemingly content to waste lives and resources until the heath death of the universe. (Sources linked above include The New York Times, The American ConservativeThe Huffington Post,  and the Cato Institute. Reality is not partisan.)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Digital Filmmaking for Kids

Digital Filmmaking for Kids
© 2015 Nick Willoughby
304 pages

I am not, readers may spot, a kid.  However, when I WAS a kid, I was one given to wandering around the woods with a massive camcorder in my shoulders, attempting to make nature documentaries -- or endlessly playing around with home audio equipment to make "radio shows"  or Calvin and Hobbes audiobooks.  (None of these tapes survived the nineties to my knowledge.)     Computers renewed that old interest in  mucking around with audio and video, hence my reading this.   The title is well organized and generously illustrated, but approximately a third of the content is useful only to Apple users. These are the chapters on digital editing, which only utilize iMovie. The only obvious indicator of this book being written for kids is the fact that all of the actors in the example stills are children; there's no overt "Boys and girls, today we'll be learning about 3-point lighting! Isn't that COOOOL?" tone.   Most of the content covers the basic concepts of filmmaking, a review of equipment from a basic cameraphone to more elaborate setups including mic booms, mobile camera tripods,  and lighting systems, and film production organization, and techniques.  I think a book like this would have definitely fed my imagination as a kid and helped me an even more pretentious little David Attenborough imitator.

Making YouTube Videos, Nick Willoughby.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Nation Challenged

A Nation Challenged: A Visual History of 9/11 and Its Aftermath
© 2002 The New York Times
240 pages

The first few anniversaries of 9/11 had a weight as they approached -- not only for what memories they evoked, but for the speculation that another attack might be attempted on the day itself.  But as the years passed, that salience eroded.  This past anniversary, in 2018, was different -- different because it was a Tuesday, an echo of the day itself.  I couldn't help but remember the shock and fear of that day, and especially of the early morning when things kept happening and we didn't know when it would stop or what might happen next. This past week, for the first time, I sat and watched extensive videos relating to 9/11 -- not  news footage, but video shot on the ground itself, after the attack or even before it,  seeing the towers both in their prime and in their demise.  In this mood I couldn't help but reading through one of the books I put on display at the library, A Nation Challenged.

In the days that followed the obscene attack on New York City in 2001, the New York Times began publishing coverage of the aftermath and its investigation in a special feature called "A Nation Challenged". This feature, an insert inside the paper,   ran until the end of the year. A Nation Challenged collects many of the photographs and articles from that run into a single collection to document the day itself,  stories of the people involved, and review the consequences of America's grief as it began a war in Afghanistan which, like a mythical hydra, spawns more conflicts the more we persist in flailing away at it.  The information included, however, is not merely text and photos; instead, there are other visual aides. A two-page spread reveals the interior of both towers,  and includes analysis of how each fell.  Another two-page spread provides a transcript of communications chatter as aviation authorities and other pilots realized that something was wrong.  Coverage of the day itself is only a part of the book, as subsequent sections review the clean-up process and the treatment of debris as a mass crime scene. Also included is information Osama bin Laden's background, and the political/ethnographic breakdown of Afghanistan.

While I've never read any other 9/11 books, this particular volume recommends itself as a remembrance.  Also, if you have time,   in late August a video was posted containing 30 minutes of restored footage shot on the day itself,  near the WTC site immediately following the collapse of tower two.  The photojournalist responsible, Mark LaGanga, spoke with people fleeing the scene, toured WTC-7 (empty save a few LEOs confirming the building was clear), and captured the collapse of WTC-1 on film.  It is unlike anything I have ever seen.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The TBR of Doom

I recently realized that I've bought ten nonfiction books in the last few months and haven't yet read them, and so began drafting another TBR challenge.  Both in 2014 and 2016 I imposed a challenge on myself: no more book buys until I'd  finished reading what I had.   Things are much, much worse now.   "How bad could it be?"


The Oil Kings: How the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East, Andrew Scott Cooper
The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East, Jay Solomon
Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler, Mark Riebling
An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler, Peter Fritzsche
The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, Ayn Rand
The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton
Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton
The Moral Animal, Robert Wright
To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, Arthur Herman
Taking to the Ground: One Family's Journey on Horseback Across the Sacred Land of the Navajo, Douglas Preston (Purchased in Flagstaff, AZ)
The Essential Russell Kirk, Russell Kirk
Honor: A History, James Bowman
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, Nicholas Stargardt
The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe, Andrew Wheatcroft
The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, Abolqasem Ferdowsi
The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and the United States, Kenneth Pollack (Purchased in St. Augustine, FL)
The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution, Brion McClanahan
Who Killed the Constitution?, ed. Thomas E. Woods
The Church and  the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy,
Thomas E. Woods
Constitutional Chaos | The Constitution in Exile | A Nation of Sheep, Andrew Napolitano
The Ends of the Earth: The Polar Regions of the World, Isaac Asimov (Purchased in Las Cruces, NM)
Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?, Galal Amin
The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season, Thomas Hopko
Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, Anthony Esolen
On the Good Life, Marcus Tullius Cicero
Go Directly to Jail: The Criminializaton of Almost Everything, ed. Gene Healy
Trucking Country: The Road to America's Walmart Economy, Shane Hamilton
Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to  Orthodox Judaism, Lynn Davidman

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, Roger Crowley
Virolution, Frank Ryan
The Scarlet Thief, Paul Fraser Collard
ST Vanguard: What Judgments Come, Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore
ST Vanguard: Storming Heaven, David Mack
ST Vanguard: In Tempest's Wake, Dayton Ward
How Dante Can Save Your Life,  Rod Dreher
Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy
How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America, Brion McClanahan
ST ENT: Live by the Code, Christopher L. Bennett
ST ENT:  Tower of Babel, Christopher L. Bennett
The Afghan Campaign, Steven Pressfield
American Contempt for Liberty, Walter Williams
Defeat in the West, Milton Shulman and Ian Jacob
The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves, Scott Woolley
The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings, Lars Brownsworth
The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, ed. Frank Shuffelton
Our Only World, Wendell Berry
The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry
A Place in Time, Wendell Berry
Sword and Serpent, Taylor Marshall
Democracy: An American Novel, Henry Adams
The Return of George Washington, Edward J. Larson
The Well and the Shallows, GK Chesterton
Survival of the Sickest: The Suprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity, Sharon Moalem, Jonathan Prince
Atomic Awakening: The History and Future of Nuclear Power, James Mahaffrey
The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, Frank Dikotter
The Damnation of Theron Ware, Harold Frederic

Obviously barring myself from buying books until I'd taken care of all these would be futile, but I am pondering allowing myself to buy new books only as I read these -- for every book taken from the list, another could be purchased.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
© 2003 Cory Doctorow
202 pages

In the not-very-distant future,  death is an inconvenience, and material goods are no longer scarce. Instead, the currency of society is reputation,  and Jules needs all of his reserves to get through the next year of his life.  The trouble began when he was shot dead at Disney World.  A brain backup was soon downloaded into a freshly-grown clone, and soon he was back in business keeping the old Disney World -- an artifact from the distant past,  run by volunteers who loved  the primitive animatronics  --in working order.  Something had changed in the brief blip of time he spent unconscious, however: a group of fellow "adhocs" running Disney World decided to inflict change on the Hall of Presidents,  and they could only be after the Haunted Mansion next.  Jules is desperate to hold back the tide, but in the months to come he will be alienated from his closest friends and find himself strapped to a medical gurney, unable to speak.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was Cory Doctorow's first novel, and I read it purely for the author. DisneyWorld has no attraction for me, and that disinterest meant that I didn't actually care what happened in the novel.  Most interesting for me were elements of Doctorow's worldbuilding.  In his future, mental states can be downloaded into computers, and people make backups of themselves frequently. This is not just a precaution against death;  people can effectively erase negative periods of their lives by reverting to an earlier version of themselves.  Bioengineering extends to custom clones, as  teenage girls sport trendy faces, and musicians use augmented bodies (pianists with long fingers) that help them in their craft.  There's also a neural interface that allows people to interact with society's digital layer merely with their heads; one of the first things people do when encountering friends or strangers is to glance  at their "Whuffie",  the reputation system that functions as society's currency. ("Whuffie" is like reddit karma, but you can buy stuff with it.  The Orrville had an episode where the crew visits a planet with this kind of currency. Brief clip here.)

Fans of DisneyWorld may find this far more appealing than I did. His later novels have captivated me in a way that this one didn't even begin to.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Water Will Come

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World
© 2017 Jeff Goodell
332 pages

Complex problems of enormous scale rarely have a patent solution. There are, however, rational responses. In The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell reviews the way a few cities across the globe are moving to address the growing problem of rising sea levels, from flat denial  to grandiose plans to raise entire city centers. Goodell visits Miami, New York,  Venice, and communities in the Arctic circle, Nigeria, and the Marshall Islands.  Although Goodwell is hopeful that action can be taken, he's left with the grim conclusion that many communities may simply be abandoned and their people removed to higher ground.

Goodell reviews both the various ways rising water will threaten communities near seaboards, as well as their responses. Rising waters will lead to widespread property forfeiture, of course, but floods and storm surges will become worse.   Invasive waters are not simply the ocean with a bigger footprint:   waters sweeping through urban areas become toxic soups of offal and waste fluids,  providing a perfect vector for health crises  While it's easy for most people alive today not to worry about 2100, and easier still to shrug and say that those clever people of 2099 will no doubt have extraordinary technology to solve these problems,  rising floods today are an immediate risk.  Hurricane Sandy added particular impetus to New York City's own risk assessment goals: they intend to build floodwalls around some of the most vulnerable areas.    Venice, Italy, has been fighting its own reclamation by the sea for centuries, but tidal flooding has grown worse and the city now finds itself struggling to complete a controversial tidal barrier.   While Miami is wealthy enough that it can conceivably plow money into infrastructure to help it adapt to the future, places like the Marshall Islands can only look abroad for help.  If the Marshalls are reclaimed by the ocean, their population will have to find new homes abroad -- and as the migrant crisis provoked by the ISIS gang-state indicates, that won't be pretty.

Goodell's survey involved interviews with policymakers and scientists alike, and helps readers understand why more actions aren't being taken.  Many Miami developers don't care about sea level changes because they're short-term investors: once they sell the development, they move on.  The future peril of the development is for its owners and subletters to worry about.  There's also the fact that climate response  has to be mediated through society and governments that are not only unwieldy, but beset with other considerations as well. President Obama may have believed strongly in the threat posed by change, but when he's badgered by the author as to why he allowed the Alaskan oil pipeline to continue, the president patiently explained that no president is truly free to do what he wants; he enters office with wheels already in motion, and  he has to not only work through Congress but take into account politics and economics. If Goodell succeeds in promoting the need to plan for rising sea levels, it will owe to the threat itself and not his delivery; he appears to see only this problem, and dismisses any opposition. He refers to multiple people as "[cityname]'s Trump", or "the [country-adjective] Trump",  but that's confusing to say the least. Are they trumplike because they're developers? Populists? Overenthusiastic twitter-ers? 

This is an important matter for concerned citizens to consider, especially in seaboard communities like Miami which are already fighting "sunny day flooding" because increases in sealevels have submerged their seaside drain outlets. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Fire and Fury

Fire and Fury
© 2018 Michael Wolff
336 pages

"You look at the operation of this White House, and you have to say...'Let's hope to God we don't have a crisis." - Bob Woodward, CBS Sunday Morning interview

Even its fans must admit that the present administration is the most unstable in American history, with an incredible amount of staff turnover in the first year. The election results themselves were clouded in intrigue, involving multiple intelligence agencies, and just recently an op-ed contributor of the New York Times claimed to be part of a resistance group within the administration itself, actively interfering and manipulating Trump's actions as president to minimize his disruptive and unpredictable behavior. When we are presented with supporting for either an unelected shadow-cabal or a temperamental and reckless executive , all Americans should be gravely worried.   Michael Wolff's tabloid-esque Fire and Fury argues that the present administration's instabilities were baked in, that Trump and his allies entered governance not seriously expecting to win, and were wholly unprepared for the responsibility once it was theirs. 

Trump's team was not a 'team of rivals', but a soft detente between bitter factions who found Trump's position a useful tool.  Trump actively encouraged rivalry between his subordinates to prevent any one from assuming too much importance and overshadowing him, and the man himself -- in Wolff's portrayal,  one shared by virtually everyone except for his admirers -- is..."anti-professional", to put it mildly. Wolff claims that Trump is totally disinterested in the materials of administration -- reading, reviewing,  listening -- and mostly spends his days talking and then getting excited over various bugs lobbyists had put in his ear.  While there are people within the office with coherent agenda,   said agendas often conflict.  One faction might convince Trump to back more work visas for immigrants which his business friends need, while at the same time the populist faction reminds him that he ran on immigration being a problem.  Although Fire and Fury cannot be taken seriously as an expose of the administration (its style, lack of citations, etc),   two years of watching Trump's public behavior makes the general premise believable.  However one may wish to think that the popular portrayal of the president as temperamental, aggressive, etc, is a multimedia conspiracy,  his own output betrays him.   As Hurricane Florence drew near the Carolina coast this past Friday morning, Trump was seemingly more interested in arguing over the death toll from last year's devastation, defending himself over twitter.   Even if the estimate of three thousand deaths was inaccurate, the eve of another disaster isn't the time to argue it.  At such an hour one would hope for a projection of strength and competence from the nation's chief executive, not playground petulance.

While I wouldn't necessarily recommend this, it may be helpful to those who find the Trump administration inexplicable, in explaining some of the causes of its internal chaos.  Bob Woodward's Fear is presumably a more considered review of the same,  and I hope to evaluate it soon.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Fly Girls

Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied the Odds and Made Aviation History
© 2018 Keith O'Brien
352 pages

"Women must try to do things as men have tried. Where they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others." - Amelia Earhart, 1937

The subtitle is a bit of an oversell, but Fly Girls  honors five pioneers of aviation,  most of whom died while trying to push the envelope.  Amelia Earhart is the only one of their number who has any name recognition today,  disappearing as she did while trying to accomplish the first trans-pacific solo flight.  She'd previously been the first to fly solo from the United States to Hawaii, as well as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.  Judging by her accomplishments, Earhart is in a class by herself here, but I'm tempted to agree with one of the other featured fliers here, Louise Thaden, who responded to someone asking her how she won the 5th National Air Race by stating it was 25% skill, 25% the airplane, and 50% luck.      Early aviation was a lethal enthusiasm, practiced with evolving tools and planes composed with canvas wings.  When things went wrong -- and flying planes for hours at a time meant something was bound to --  survival came down to circumstance. Sometimes a catastrophe could be survived, but sometimes there was nothing but to accept rapidly-hurtling fate. No one in this book is ever far from death; Earhart, for instance,  was nearly sucked out of her aircraft during the same race that Thaden won. 

Earhart's triumphs could have belonged to other women, like Ruth Nichols:  she refused to give up trying to cross the Atlantic, even after she crashed two planes within a span of four months.  A broken back aside, she was determined to try it again -- only to have Earhart beat her to it.  Another accomplishment of the women here -- who were friends and competitors simultaneously -- was organizing the International Organization of Women Pilots, more popularly known as "The Ninety-Nines" because 99 women attended the first full meeting thereof.  The Ninety-Nines organized in response to the discriminatory policies adopted by air race organizations to keep women out of the racing. The exact kinds of accidents that downed fantastically gifted fliers like Florence Klingensmith occurred to male fliers, but no one demeaned the talent of the male deceased or questioned their mental state at the time. Flying was inherently dangerous, but women, the Ninety-Nines protested, should have the right to accept that danger, and to try for the glory that would be theirs if they were successful.

As much as I enjoyed this look into aviation history,  it does not live up to its title. The subjects were all outstandingly courageous and talented, moreso for continuing to seek their passion despite little support from outside, save for businessmen interested in gaining advertising value by sponsoring the odd attempt to across the Atlantic or set a new endurance record. But if this is a book about early women aviation pioneers, why is someone like Bessie Coleman completely absent, not so much as mentioned?  Unable to take pilot training in the US because of her race, Coleman learned French and traveled to Paris to learn to fly, an incredible demonstration of doggedness that surely belongs here. I think Fly Girls is  therefore more accurately regarded as a book about the women who formed the Ninety-Nines, culminating in their successful re-entry into national air races and Thaden's victory.   They were an impressive group of women who refused to quit, and I'm glad their story is being shared decades after the last of them has left us.

Earhart and the Autogyro prototype, which she used to demonstrate across the country before her Atlantic solo flight. I would have loved to learn more about this!

Monday, September 10, 2018


Antiquity: The Civilization of the Ancient World
© 2003 Norman F. Cantor
256 pages

Perhaps western history is all Greek to you. In that case, Norman Cantor's Antiquity may shed a little light on the subject. It is a brief work, scarcely over 200 pages,  and in it Cantor reviews the primary roots of Western civilization (Greece, Rome, and Judaism), as well as more material considerations like the role of cities.  Civilizations of the middle east also appear through the Jewish connection.  This book has a curious organization, and one of its chapters eschews narrative altogether: instead, Cantor presents the debates within early Christian thought as a lively conversation involving St. Augustine and a few others.   Although the book is intentionally pitched as a survey for the historically illiterate, Cantor doesn't shy away from probing a little more deeply when he can --  exploring the meaning behind classic architecture, for instance, the common emphasis on rationality and restraint that linked Greek aesthetics and philosophy. (Of course, they can't help but be linked, considering that aesthetics was considered one of the branches of philosophy, along with ethics and metaphysics.)   Cantor holds the Roman empire in especially high regard, declaring that it was the most harmonious and stable multiethnic society in history. 

Although I enjoyed this quick romp through the ancient and classical world well enough ,  it has its quirks -- the unusual approach to reviewing Christian thought, for instance, and the fact that Cantor believes that imperialism and  plutocracy  were passed down not by human nature, but by the classic heritage.   I'm preee-eety sure they had war and imperialism in China, Africa, and...oh, everywhere else.  Those who have a serious interest in repairing historical blind spots can probably find better works.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
© 2014 Caitlin Doughty
272 pages

Memento mori -- remember your death. Young Caitlin Doughty couldn't help but remember it; as a child she was traumatized by the memory of another girl her age plummeting to her death inside a shopping mall.  The event led to episodes of compulsive behavior as Caitlin did whatever she could to keep the Boatman at bay, whether that be avoiding stepping on newly-fallen leaves or drooling into her shirt.  A slightly older Caitlin, one facing adulthood, realized she had to face Death, too: so she started working at a crematory.   There, faced on a daily basis with faces of decay,  she began to realize that her unhealthy obsession with avoiding Death --  avoiding  facing the reality of it -- was endemic to modern society,  and began to chart a new course for herself, as someone who sought to help people deal with death in a more healthy manner.

Corpses aside, this is a funny book -- but one with a serious heart.  Caitlin uses her experiences at her first funeral home -- with a good bit of physical and morbid comedy as she learns the ropes --  to review how  death and funerary practices have changed in the United States,  and to explain what actually goes in during cremation or embalming.   For most of history, death was an everyday reality, inescapable. Disease and famine  were never far away, and when deaths happened they were handled within the home; family members saw to the final care of their loved ones' remains.   Death is  now shoved away into the recesses of our minds, hidden until a serious sickness or a sudden accident forces it into the light. Doughty argues that this is psychologically and socially unhealthy: not only is contemporary society obsessed with youth, but it fights death to the point of making itself miserable. Although we continue to defer death,  Our triumphs in modern medicine have produced a bitter victory: as societies become more proportionally populated by aging citizens,   we're left with a question:  where are the adults who will be taking care of these rising aged?  The numbers of geriatric physicians are falling, even as the need increases.   On a more practical level,  people's refusal to consider death means that when it happens,   few families are prepared for it, financially or otherwise.. Few can distinguish between what is legally necessary and what the funeral home recommends, and are cajoled into accepting burdensome fiscal obligations.

When Caitlin began working in a crematory,  it was a way to make money and face her fears. What it became, however, was a vocation, as she realized she wanted to help people manage death better.  Not only did she want to educate people about what happened to their bodies after death, but she wants to open eyes to the possibility of making death a meaningful part of life again.  It isn't necessary to eject people from their loved one's homes as soon as they perish, or pickle them and entomb them in vaults that seal them off from decay,   the author argues. The family can and should be part of the burial process; Caitlin's own funeral home now offers families the option to wash and dress the deceased themselves, as well as push the button that begins the cremation, which serves as a powerful moment of closure. She also explores the concept of green burials, which return allow human remains to be reclaimed by nature quickly and purposely.

I cannot recall how I stumbled on Doughty's YouTube channel ("Ask a Mortician").   which made me aware of this book, but I'm glad I did. Although it's often funny, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is a work of tender reflection on the most haunting aspect of the human experience.  It's definitely one worth reading.

Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, F. Forrester Church
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

Friday, September 7, 2018


Well, dear readers, I appear to be in a reading funk. I'e read very little since early August, with only two serious reads within the last month and only a few novels besides that.   I don't want for books to read-- I have four I'm pecking at -- but nothing I try is sticking.    Homo Deus has, so far, been more about animal rights than transhumanism; Our Only World by Wendell Berry is rather like everything else I've read by Berry;  and Fly Girls is interesting enough-- just not, as yet, compelling.  I've also been reading Where Wizards Stay Up Late, a history of the internet. I'm hoping to find the exit sign from Funkytown soon, however, as I've just purchased a few promising titles from Bookbubs. I was also tempted by two Trek titles, but my inner miser kicked me and pointed to the existing Trek titles I've yet to read.

What do you do to break out of a funk? 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Centauri Dawn

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: Centauri Dawn
© 2000 Michael Ely
292 pages

Earth was a sad memory for the crew and colonists of the good ship Unity, who fled its radioactive remains in hopes of building a new society near a not-too distant star, Alpha Centauri.  But an unexpected assassination brings the fears of the past alive once again, and when Unity arrives at her target, she no longer lives up to the name. Instead, the people of the dying colony-ship  cling to like-minded ideologues, and the sorry spectacle of human history begans to unfold again, this time on a planet covered in mysterious xenofungus and populated only by mind-destroying worms.

Such is the premise of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, a turn-based strategy game that compels a player to pick a faction and see them through to victory. The sequel to  Civilization II, SMAC remains one of the best-critically received PC games of all time -- holding, for instance, the PC Gamer record with a score of 98%.  It was a logical successor to Civ 2, which allowed players a 'peaceful' victory if they built a colonyship and sent it to Alpha Centauri.   While the traditional Civ games have players choose a civ to play as -- the Persians, the Japanese,  the Aztecs, etc --   SMAC's factions were sorted among ideological lines, championing religion, science, capitalism,  miltarism, etc.   Unusually for an open-ended "4X" game like this (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), SMAC  had a plot which would develop as the player played, learning about the planet "Chiron" -- specifically, learning that the planet is alive, with a collective consciousness,  and  that the constant attacks on human outpost by mindworms were a response to the constant terraforming.  The story of Alpha Centauri -- the human in-fighting amid the alien world's exploration -- is presumably the setup for the trilogy of novels written about them. 

This first novel, Centauri Dawn, only covers the ship breaking up into factions, and the first decade of life on the planet as a few of the colony pods find one another and try to maintain some semblance of unity despite tensions over resources.  Not all of the factions feature here, as the first novel focuses on the conflict between the UN Peacekeepers -- the alleged 'government' of all the settlements -- and the Spartans, who are militarists.  The Gaians, who, feature, and  the capitalists and religious fundamentalists also make an appearance. Mysteriously absent is the Human Hive,   which  is a totalitarian society with obvious Chinese influences. (They're supposedly based on the Chinese philosophy of Legalism.)   The Hive does appear in the second novel, however.

If you are interested in a storied playthrough of the game, I found a good one on the Let's Play Archive. The player chose the Gaians, who are supposedly the easiest faction.  Also,  just for flavor, I've inserted the Spaceship victory cinematic from Civ 3 below, as well as the intro video for SMAC. Also,  in the last few years another SF 4X game called Beyond Earth was intended as a spiritual successor to SMAC. It wasn't anywhere near as critically acclaimed, but it does have some interesting elements.  Here's a review if you're interested!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Old Man's War

Old Man's War
© 2005 John Scalzi
320 pages

Boot camps on Earth may promise to make a new man out of you, but the intake camps of the Colonial Defense Forces do it for real. At the tender age of seventy-five, John Perry enlisted in the Colonial Defense Forces and disappeared from Earth, never to be seen again.  No knew what happened to CDF enlistees, but on Earth the rumors were pervasive: they can make you young again. Why else would they only recruit 75-year olds?   Perry thought it was a gamble worth taking, and even when he woke up in a new body -- a green one -- it was still better than being hunched over and arthritic. But then the mysteries around the CDF fell away to reveal ugly truths: the universe brims over with intelligent and aggressive species, and all of them are fighting tooth and nail to expand faster than the next guy. Ordinary soldiers stood no chance against the universe of horrors, but auguments -- with increased strength, stamina,  and abilities -- could at least hold their own, especially when coupled with the experience of mature humans transferred into them. Even so,  75% of augments would not survive their term of enlistment.

 Old Man's War is first in a trilogy,  and is somewhat reminiscent of Starship Troopers given the supersoldiers fighting against a galaxy of monsters. The alien creatures vary widely, from slime molds  to biological shredders. The Hork-Bajir would not be out of place here.  Part of the reason so many CDF troops die is that they're in constant use: if humans aren't defending colonies, they're attacking alien colonies or clearing out native species to make room for human colonists.  Can't we all get along? The last person to ask that question in the novel got turned into a puddle of goo in an alien church, It's kill or be killed. The only diplomacy in the novel occurs after a ritual of individual combat designed to see how many questions the winners earn the right to ask.

This is the first Scalzi novel I've not read which is intended to be more serious than funny, and while there are light moments, Old Man's War is chiefly a SF combat thriller.  There are creepier elements to explore, too, like the "Ghost Brigades".   I could see reading more of this series, but I was mostly interested in the idea of transferring consciousness from an aged body into a lab-grown young one. Unfortunately, a lot of the tech the CDF uses is above the heads of our newly-arrived narrator, so we don't really get an inkling as to how it works. Because humans often steal technology from aliens, even the upper echelons of the CDF don't know exactly how things work, and they're not the only ones.  I might continue with this series if the kindle books go on sale, but I mostly read this for the basic ideas of consciousness-transferal. More monster-slaying doesn't strike me as too exciting.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Yesterday's News: The Shangri-La

When the United States government formally announced that the Doolittle raid -- a flight of B-17s over Tokyo in early 1942 -- had been carried out, President Roosevelt informed a reporter that the bombers had been launched from a secret base in "Shangri-La", an island from a novel popular at the time.   I was thus intrigued to see this ad while searching for obituaries in 1943, encouraging Americans to buy stamps to support the building of the  "mystery ship" Shangri-La. I assumed this was a codename,  but it proves to have been the actual name: a USS Shangri-La was laid down in January 1943, completed in early '44, and put into service in the autumn of that year.   An Essex-class carrier, the ship participated in late-war bombing raids against the Japanese home islands, so this is a rare case of an advertisement getting fairly close to the mark.  According to Wikipedia, the ship served through Vietnam, specializing in anti-submarine warfare,  and was retired in 1974.   Although I'm familiar with war bond campaigns, this is the first I've encountered where bonds or stamps were linked to a specific project, in this case a bonafide ship.