2016年12月8日 星期四

"The Clockwork Universe" by Edward Dolnick (2011)


"Sometime between those two events, at some point in the course of the 1600s, the modern world was born.  Even with hindsight, pinning down the birth date is next to impossible.  Still, if we who live in the new world somehow found ourselves transported to Newton's London, we would have a chance of navigating our way.  In Bruno's Rome we would founder and drown.  And since these earliest days, the pace of change has only accelerated.  The world has raced ahead, permanently in fast-forward, with science and technology taking an ever more conspicuous spot in the foreground."

Edward Dolnick served as a science writer for the Boston Globe.  He went on to author several books, all of them non-fiction.  He currently lives with his family in Washington D.C.

The title refers to the emergence of the scientific worldview in the late 1600s, and of the idea that we inhabit a world bound by natural laws, in which God, the original clockmaker, assumes an increasingly distant role.  

The subtitle of this book, "Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World," is a bit misleading.  The Royal Society plays a very minor role in The Clockwork Universe, and many of the details relating to it could have been removed without doing any harm to the book.

Instead of a dialectic between Newton and his English peers, The Clockwork Universe instead presents a battle of wills between the old ways of thinking and the new, between the two inventors of calculus (Newton and Leibniz), and between the scientific and theological sides of Newton's personality.  At the end of all these struggles lies Newton's discoveries regarding gravity and the motions of celestial bodies, revelations largely misunderstood during his lifetime.

Despite the misleading subtitle, it's an entertaining book and an easy read.  It's engaging from beginning to end, and the reader will come away from it with an appreciation for the magnitude of Newton's achievement.  The chapters are short, the times in which Newton lived are well described, and the author's personal observations add a lot to the historical facts presented.

Oh, and don't worry.  No understanding of calculus required.

2016年12月5日 星期一

"The Street" by Ann Petry (1946)


"It was a cold, cheerless night.  But in spite of the cold, the street was full of people.  They stood on the corners talking, lounged half in and half out of hallways and on the stoops of the houses, looking at the street and talking.  Some of them were coming home from work, from church meetings, from lodge meetings, and some of them were not coming from anywhere or going anywhere, they were merely deferring the moment when they would have to enter their small crowded rooms for the night."

Ann Petry was an American novelist active from 1938 to 1953.  The Street was her first novel, and remains her most famous work.

In the novel, Lutie Johnson struggles to make ends meet while raising Bub, her young son.  Along the way she crosses paths with various street characters, all inhabitants of Harlem on the eve of World War II.  The Street is also the story of Lutie's attempt to rise above her environment, and how this environment shapes the choices that all of the characters in the story make.

When I first came across this novel, my first thought was of Toni Morrison's novel Jazz.  The New York setting was familiar, the characters struggling against the alienation engendered by the city... but The Street is a much more focused novel, and it's almost as if the characters in it have no histories beyond the street they all inhabit.  This isn't in itself a bad thing, but I think that where Morrison's novel soars this novel flounders.  It also fails to make the kind of defining statement a book like Invisible Man would have made regarding similar themes.

Taken all in all, it's not a bad book.  It's only that the shifts between different characters can be a bit jarring, and there is also Lutie's disappearance for a long stretch of the narrative near the end.  This disappearance lessens the impact that the ending might have had.  

There is also the fact that Lutie goes out of her way NOT to make friends.  This, in my opinion, makes her a less-than-sympathetic character.  If this reluctance to form relationships with her neighbors was explained it wouldn't have been a problem, but as it is it draws her motivations into question, to the point where I wondered whether she had really been "painted into a corner" by her environment, or if she hadn't been the one doing the painting.

If you liked Jazz or Invisible Man, you'll probably like this book.  It starts off great, and doesn't lose steam until the last fourth or so.  Just the same, I can't say that it's a home run.  Its characters could have been fleshed out a lot better, their motivations could have been described in greater detail, and Lutie could have been given a lot more reason for her life-changing decision at the book's conclusion.

2016年11月21日 星期一

"The Death of Common Sense" by Philip K. Howard (1994)


"We would revolt if government tried to prohibit us from standing on a chair to reach something on a high shelf; or restricted the number of cups of coffee we drink, or told us how to clean our house.  But that is the level of detail of modern regulatory law.  We suffer it as individuals mainly through institutions like schools, hospitals, and places of work.  But those institutions are a large part of our lives, and wrap closely around us.  The thin separation only mutes each indignity, causing an overall ache and making it hard to pinpoint the cause.  We don't revolt mainly because we don't understand."

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author of three books.  He's worked with the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to both curtail the spread of bureaucracy and place limits on legal process.  A lot of what he says in The Death of Common Sense is summed up in his TED talk, which you can see here.

But in case you'd rather read my synopsis, The Death of Common Sense describes the effect of the legal edifice built up over the course of decades on the American psyche.  It also describes the wastefulness and inefficiency this legal edifice and its attendant bureaucracy engenders in every aspect of American life.  It also illustrates the vast gulf which exists between America's monolithic, centrally-planned government and the smaller, decision-based government envisioned by the founding fathers.

Many have pointed to the ills of modern American society and attempted to find a "first cause" behind the decline of a once mighty empire.  As this book would have it, the culprit is the more "process oriented" approach taken toward government in the 60s, which resulted in the mammoth, intransigent bureaucracy that we encounter today.  Out of an understandable desire for fairness and impartiality, procedures were put in place that effectively removed the decision-making process from government, replacing a government run by decision-makers with a government run by impersonal (and immutable) rules.

The remedy for all out troubles, suggests the author, is a move away from the rules which impinge upon our freedom, to a state of affairs in which those best suited to judge (and decide) are left to do so.  Instead of an elaborate system of checks and balances designed to remove the human element, we would instead embrace a more humane, albeit flawed, form of government, in which those in charge would have more authority to decide important issues.

And it all sounds great.  I agree with every word.  But I am left to wonder - as I am left to wonder with all arguments that recall former glories - that if this was the way we're meant to be, why did we ever change it?  If it worked so well before, why did we opt for the system that now confronts us?

Then, of course, I begin to think about all of the horrible things that more empowered decision-makers are apt to do, and all of the myriad ways in which power can be abused.  What if we give power back to those who will misuse it?  What then?

Is our system of government perfect?  No, not by a long shot.  The Trump Presidency proves that, if nothing else.  But I think the answer to our ills is vastly more complex than The Death of Common Sense would have you believe.  Certainly it's a place to start, but how to start it?  And when?  And on what scale?

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  Perhaps unfortunately for us, precious few of these details are to be found in The Death of Common Sense.

2016年11月17日 星期四

"Next Man Up" by John Feinstein (2006)


"It was midway through the second quarter and the Browns were driving.  Referee Jeff Triplette called a false start on Browns center Jim Bundren and tossed a penalty flag in his direction.  Back then, referees were instructed to throw penalty flags in the direction of the offender.  Penalty flags are weighted at one end by a tiny beanbag so they don't float in the wind but rather stay put once they land on the field.  Somehow, Triplette threw the flag right at [Orlando] Brown.  Instead of landing near Bundren, it went through Brown's face mask and smacked him in the right eye.  Brown screamed in pain because the weighted part of the flag had scratched his cornea.  Enraged, he charged at Triplette and knocked him over before he was pulled away.  He was ejected from the game, which was a moot point since he couldn't see out of his right eye anyway.  To add insult to injury, the league suspended him for the final game of the season, meaning he lost a week's pay while wondering if he would be able to play again."

John Feinstein is a sports writer living in Maryland.  He contributes to a number of publications, and he's also written books about golf, basketball, and baseball.

The cover of the book promises "a year behind the lines in today's NFL," but I didn't find Next Man Up to be that, exactly.  It's more of an in-depth look at the 2004 Ravens, with very little to say about other teams, or the general progression of that season.  The Patriots, who won the Superbowl that year, are only mentioned in the context of one game.  A lot of the NFC teams, such as the Seahawks, the Cardinals, the Panthers, and the Saints, aren't even mentioned.

So no, it's not the league-wide look at football you were probably hoping for.  Instead, it focuses on the Ravens to the exclusion of nearly every other team, which I suppose is a given considering that the author's method of writing the book was to follow the Ravens around for a season.  My biggest complaint is that the book jacket goes out of its way to disguise this fact, in the hope that fans of other franchises will buy it.  I'm sure I'm not the first person to take exception at the marketing ploy, and I doubt that it's won the author any new fans.

And then there is the attention to detail.  Don't get me wrong, detail can be a fine thing, but choosing the right details is what separates good authors from bad authors.  Next Man Up features such an onslaught of detail that reading it felt like preparation for some kind of super obscure quiz on the 2004 Ravens.  Even most football fanatics would be put off by the endless parade of names, dates, and pre-game speeches that make up this book.  Honestly, who cares about the guy who played one down in a game against the Jets 12 years ago?  Who cares about the job worries of an assistant defensive coordinator from the same time?  There was a greater football narrative to be told in this book, and instead of doing so, Next Man Up gets lost in an abyss of trivia.

Granted, I don't read a lot of books on football.  I watch every game the Seahawks and Steelers play, but I'm not big on reading about the game.  Just the same, I feel certain that there are better football books out there, and even fans of the Ravens will probably be disappointed by Next Man Up.

2016年11月3日 星期四

Superhero Fatigue?


I saw Doctor Strange the first day it appeared in theaters.  In Taiwan, this was Tuesday of last week, long before it premiered in the States.

I've seen almost all of the superhero movies on the first or second day of their release.  I've been doing so since 2011's Thor, and I've only missed the opening weekends of a few superhero films.  I didn't bother to see The Wolverine in the theater.  I also didn't bother to see The (first) Amazing Spider-Man.  But all of the other ones, from Thor onward, I've seen on - or very close to - their release date. 

But you know what?  I've been enjoying these movies less and less.  And I can remember being ecstatic when the first Avengers came out.  I can remember having my mind blown by The Dark Knight.  I can even remember thinking that Batman v. Superman was the movie I'd been waiting for my whole life.1  But now?  Now I find it hard to stir up anything close to that level of enthusiasm.

Whether it be Wonder Woman, Justice League, or Avengers: Infinity War, I now find it hard to get that excited about superhero movies.  They just don't shine as brightly as they once did.  They don't seem as special.


Don't get me wrong.  I'm still looking forward to most of these movies.  I plan on seeing Wonder Woman.  I plan on seeing Black Panther.  But they're becoming so damn similar, and one wonders how the newer ones will be substantially different from all the movies that came before.  CGI action scenes?  Check.  One-liners?  Check.  Battles for the fate of the world?  Check.  Costumes?  Check.  Advertisements and/or hints for future movies?  Check.

It is, in large part, a formula pioneered by Marvel Studios.  But now one gets the feeling that Warner Bros. and Fox are following suit.  With rampant imitation, these movies are becoming increasingly repetitious, and the MCU's newest entry, Doctor Strange, is - despite the eye-popping visuals - just more of the same.

Which is a shame, because I've wanted a Doctor Strange movie for decades.  I'm also old enough to have seen Batman in 1989, and I can remember pondering the cinematic future of the Marvel characters at the time.  What if - one day - there was a movie about Spider-man?  Or the Hulk?  Or... Doctor Strange?

Now, with an embarrassment of riches, I find myself asking what obscure character won't get their own film.  Harley Quinn?  Sure, why not?  Guardians of the Galaxy?  Sure, why not?  The only problem is that when we FINALLY get that Omega the Unknown movie you've been waiting for, you might be too tired of superhero movies to care.  

Don't worry, however.  If you miss it in theaters, I'm sure you'll be able to see the Extended Cut on DVD.


I have no doubt that one day the superhero movie will go the way of the Western.  Why?  Because if Hollywood teaches us anything, it's that these things go in cycles.  Right now superhero movies are huge, but they are bound to fail at some point.  The genre will eventually give way to a slew of science fiction films, or a slew of musicals, or whatever else captures the viewing public imagination's at the time.

Then, of course, superhero movies will go into hibernation, until they are "rediscovered" by a future audience (usually in about 10 years' time).  Movies are, after all, a very "generational" phenomenon, in that they are embraced for a time, their audience grows out of them, and then the tropes they thrive upon are introduced to a younger set of viewers.  You see this a lot in action films, comedies, and especially horror movies.

So yeah, I'm getting a bit tired of superhero movies.  I'm determined to watch them until The Flash (hopefully) comes out in 20182, but my enthusiasm is waning.  Then, after finally seeing my favorite superhero in his own movie, I might just decide NOT to see Avengers: Clusterfuck, or Justice League Part 7.  I might instead play with my grandchildren, read one of those "book" things that history teachers talk about, or take my flying car out for an oil change.

Or maybe I'm wrong!  Maybe Avengers: Clusterfuck will be a real game-changer for CBMs.  Maybe it'll be the second (?)3 comic book movie to win Best Picture.  Maybe Avengers: Clusterfuck, in which the X-men, the Avengers, the Teletubbies, G.I. Joe, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Men in Black, the Osmonds, and the Flock of Seagulls do battle with Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders, will be the superhero movie that really gets this genre going!


1. Yes, that's right.  I loved it.  If you didn't, that's like, your opinion man!

2. This movie just lost its director.  Will it be... "delayed?"

3. What, you say?  The second?  Let's not forget about Birdman in 2014.  It is, in many respects, a superhero movie!

4. Gal Gadot has some wonderful legs, doesn't she?

2016年11月2日 星期三

"The Minds of Billy Milligan" by Daniel Keyes (1981)


"'When did you first learn you were a multiple personality, Billy?'

'At the Harding Hospital.  I kind of believed it, but I really knew it when I saw the videotapes at the Athens Mental Health Center.'

'Why do you think it happened, Billy?'

'Because of the things my stepfather did to me.  I didn't want to be me anymore.  I didn't want to be Billy Milligan.'"

Author Daniel Keyes wrote a novel called Flowers for Algernon, which is much better known.  Strangely enough he began his career writing comic books, serving as a staff writer at fledgling Atlas Comics under Stan Lee.

The Minds of Billy Milligan follows the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Billy Milligan, one of the first documented cases of multiple personality disorder.  His trial coincided with the release of the book Sybil, through which multiple personality disorder was first introduced to the general public.

Billy, living in Ohio at the time, was arrested for several rapes he committed near Ohio State University.  Upon his arrest, his legal counsel pushed for the multiple personality diagnosis, and instead of prison he was sent to a minimum security mental health facility.  After public officials faced criticism in the wake of Milligan's insanity plea and "light sentence," he was moved to a higher security facility in another part of the state.

The circumstances which led to Milligan's multiple personality disorder are also touched upon in the book, though in a manner too subjective to easily credit.  The way in which his alleged abuse is detailed actually causes one to doubt the multiple personality diagnosis, and might have done Milligan more harm than good.  What faith, I wonder, can you put in the testimony of someone with this kind of disorder?  Especially when some of the "alter personalities" involved are confirmed liars?

I should also state that I'm not a big believer in psychology.  I've studied a fair bit of it in the course of becoming a teacher, and both my father and aunt work in a mental health facility.  The psychologists in this book, like many psychologists practicing today, seem entirely too credulous, and entirely too ready to confirm preexisting notions of what is going on (or not going on) with Billy Milligan.

I think there is a good book to be written about Billy's trials, but Daniel Keyes hasn't done it.  He floods the narrative with unnecessary details, and the larger struggle between a patient/criminal and the various governmental agencies which either attempt to treat or punish him is pushed too far into the background.  There's also the related fact that Keyes isn't a very good writer.  The vocabulary employed in this book is incredibly repetitious, many of those involved in Milligan's trial are little more than stereotypes, and it is way, way too long. 

Maybe Sybil is a better book?