2014年9月27日 星期六

"Time Reborn" by Lee Smolin (2013)

"Logic is not the mirror of causality."

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist resident at the University of Toronto.  As a theoretician, he is known for his work in loop quantum gravity, cosmological natural selection, and the philosophy of physics.  As an author, he is known for the books "The Life of the Cosmos," "Three Roads to Quantum Gravity," "The Trouble with Physics," and this book, "Time Reborn."

"Time Reborn" discusses the role of time in physical models of the universe, and how current cosmological theory needs to be reformulated to accommodate the reality of time.  In other words, the picture of the universe achieved through Newtonian, Einsteinian, or quantum physics is static (timeless), and needs to be adjusted (or transformed entirely) to reflect the role of temporality - or causality - in our observations of natural phenomena.

And if some of what I said above got by you, don't worry.  It took me a while, too.  I had to read the first few chapters of this book SLOWLY, and there were a few sections I had to reread just to make sure I understood them correctly.  "Time Reborn" might be a short book, but it is a dense book, and some of the earlier chapters require concentration.  The part about "space atoms" gave me particular trouble, and even now I'm not entirely sure I understand it.

Which isn't to say that I found "Time Reborn" boring or difficult.  On the contrary, it's one of the most interesting books I've read in a while.  It offers a lot more than the generic "Wow!  Quantum physics!" that many popular science books are offering, and instead challenges the reader to think through a series of propositions.  Granted, some of these propositions must be taken on faith, but the author makes a very convincing case just the same.

If you like reading about philosophy, science, and the nature of reality I would highly recommend this book.  It challenges accepted notions in a way that any good book ought to.

2014年9月20日 星期六

"Outer Dark" by Cormac McCarthy (1968)

"When he did come he looked like a man who has a long way to go.  He had the supplies in a sack over his shoulder and he went by slowly with his eyes to the ground.  She crouched low while he passed and when he was gone she rose and dusted off her dress and took up her bundle and returned to the road again, walking out his tracks to the crossroads and the store."

"Outer Dark" is Cormac McCarthy's second novel, written long before the books that would truly establish his reputation.  He was 35 years old when it was first published, and it wasn't until the early 90s - when McCarthy was in his sixties - that his Border Trilogy cemented his status as one of America's greatest living writers.

Which might lead one to assume that "Outer Dark" is a work less mature than more recent, celebrated novels.  Such an assumption, however, misses the mark.  "Outer Dark" is no less developed than later novels such as "The Crossing," "The Road," and "No Country for Old Men," and it displays all of the strengths which later made McCarthy famous.

The novel follows the wanderings of a brother and sister after the birth of their child.  The father, perhaps shamed by the parentage of his new infant, leaves the child in the forest, where it is discovered by an itinerant merchant.  After she recovers from a difficult labor, the mother goes in search of the child, with her brother only a few steps behind her.

Like other McCarthy novels, this book showcases McCarthy's penchant for wordplay and dark themes.  To say that the ending of the novel is shocking is something of an understatement, and in terms of violence, this might just be the bloodiest novel that McCarthy has ever written.  If the ending of the Border Trilogy sat with you, you really ought to read "Outer Dark."

This is an excellent book, and I would recommend it without reservation.

2014年9月18日 星期四

"The Big Thirst" by Charles Fishman (2011)

"But the smell and the color of this tributary are astonishing, arresting.  The water is India-ink black.  The smell is barnyard-organic fermented with chemical-plant acrid - manure and methane.  At the point where the black tributary joins the Yamuna's riverbed, the smell is almost too strong to bear.

"This is one of the 'drains' that collect the wastewater from Delhi's residents, its hospitals, factories, and businesses, and pour it back into the Yamuna, almost a billion gallons a day.  It is, in fact, a black river of raw urban sewage - this one drain puts out 1 million gallons of wastewater every four minutes.  Out in the middle of the restored flow floats the carcass of a dead water buffalo; along the banks you can easily spot every sort of debris - flowers, clothing, take-out containers, a Bacardi rum bottle, a hypodermic needle."

Thus intones the chapter on India's water supply - certainly the most depressing part of this book.  Other chapters explore water shortages in both Las Vegas and Atlanta, Australia's chronic struggles with drought, and frequent side trips into the economics of water.  In the author's capable hands the subject of water scarcity never grows dull, and the book is well-written from start to finish.  In fact, I can't think of a single bad thing to say about this book.  I found it to be a gripping read, and it is one of the most interesting non-fiction books I've read in quite a while.

This is Charles Fishman's second book.  His first book, "The Wal-Mart Effect," is much better known.  I plan on picking it up the next time I visit a bookstore.

2014年9月12日 星期五

"The Mysterious Island" by Jules Verne (1874)

"'I was within the law and within my rights,' he added.  'Throughout all my travels, I did whatever good was possible, and whatever evil was necessary.  Justice does not always mean forgiveness!'

"'These words met only with silence, and again _________ spoke:

"'What do you think of me, gentlemen?'

"Cyrus Smith stretched out his hand and answered gravely:

"'__________, your mistake was to believe you could bring back the past.  You struggled against progress, which is a good and necessary thing.  This is an error that some admire and others condemn, but God alone can judge of its virtue, and human reason can only pardon it.  A man who errs through what he believes to be good intentions may well be denounced, but he will always be esteemed.  Some may find much to praise in your error, and your name has nothing to fear from the judgment of history.  History loves heroic follies, even as it condemns their consequences.'"

"The Mysterious Island" is one of Verne's later novels, presaging a string of darker, less popular works that you're not likely to find in your local bookstore.  By the time it appeared on Paris bookshelves, Verne was already a man celebrated throughout France, and his "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Journey to the Center of the Earth," and "Around the World in 80 Days" had found an eager audience in both Europe and the United States.

The novel is largely a story of survival, pitting four Americans against the island where they find themselves stranded, against the predations of pirates, and against a mysterious, reclusive figure who assists them at certain key points in the narrative.  If you haven't read the novel, you might already know who this reclusive figure is.  If you don't know, and don't want to know, I suggest avoiding both the Wikipedia entry on this book and the book's introductory sections.

Compared to Verne's other, more popular novels, I'd have to say that this one is really lacking in dramatic tension.  If Verne had only started the narrative much later, after the colonists had established themselves on the island, and just before their discovery of the fifth castaway, this book would have been so much better.  As it is, the story drags on for more than 100 pages, and it isn't until the second half that things really get going.  

There are also some scientific and chronological problems present in "The Mysterious Island," but I think that these can be excused.  Verne was, after all, writing this thing in the late 1800s, and it is easy to see how certain scientific inconsistencies might have got by him.  The chronological issues are perhaps more glaring, but don't appear until the end of the book, and don't really interfere with one's enjoyment of the story.

My greatest difficulty with this book was the psychology of the characters.  They spend four years on the island, and their desire to escape their confinement is, until the very end of the book, absent from their daily lives.  You would think that the colonists would be trying to escape the island from their first week there, but instead they spend much of the book contentedly building sheepfolds, and windmills, and planting wheat.  Wouldn't they miss the families they left behind?  Wouldn't they want to leave?  Even despite the vast distances they would have to travel, I think that a perilous sea journey would be preferable to a slow, lonely exile in the middle of the Pacific.

Aside from this question of psychology, "The Mysterious Island" is still a good book, and I would still recommend it, especially if you've read Verne's other, more famous novels.  As an adventure story it largely succeeds, and its flaws can be overlooked in most instances.

2014年9月11日 星期四

Superheroes I'd Like to See in Movies


At the outset, I've got to say that I'm very skeptical about Warner Bros.' plans for an interconnected cinematic universe.  I don't think that Man of Steel was a good enough film to build such a universe around.  If the upcoming Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is as good as DC fans hope it will be, then I'll be more optimistic.

1. The Flash

The Flash is the superhero I'd most like to see in his own film.  This is partly due to the fact that I spent most of my childhood reading the classic Bates/Infantino run on the comic, and partly due to the fact that he's such a visually interesting character.  It saddens me that Marvel beat Warner Bros. to the punch with TWO versions of Quicksilver, one in the X-men franchise, and one in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Warner Bros. is of course producing a TV show and plans to introduce him into their cinematic universe, but given what I've seen so far I am not optimistic about either venture. 

2. Captain Atom

Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan is an adaptation of Captain Atom.  He is one of DC's acquisitions from the long-extinct Charlton Comics, and he was created by the great Steve Ditko.  The history of his powers and abilities is a bit muddled (especially after the New 52), but to make a long story short he taps into a quantum (or nuclear) force that exists outside of the normal space-time continuum.  I like the idea of using him to bring aspects of quantum physics into a superhero world.  I can see a lot of possibilities there, if the character isn't oversimplified.  Watchmen (both the film and the comic book) has of course done this already, but I'd like to see it done with the real Captain Atom. 

3. Wonder Woman

I can't figure out why they haven't made a Wonder Woman film.  Her background as an Amazon and the mythological origins of Paradise Island offer a more interesting origin story than any other superhero.  She's set to appear in Batman V. Superman, but the actress playing her looks nothing like Wonder Woman.  The costume is also a letdown.  This character, if done right, could be amazing. 

4. Shazam/Captain Marvel

Warner Bros. has plans for a Shazam movie, and Dwayne Johnson has already been cast as Black Adam.  The script will probably undergo a thousand rewrites and maybe even a few changes of directors before it finally gets made, but it might be good.  I think Shazam would work better as a period movie, set in World War II, but I doubt that we'll get to see him fight Captain Nazi. 

5.  Swamp Thing (the Alan Moore version)

I'm probably only one of three people who bothered to see Return of the Swamp Thing, but the title montage made me hopeful, and the overall movie wasn't that bad.  I'd really love to see some of the horrific and metaphysical themes that Moore introduced in the comics make their way onto film.  A Swamp Thing movie could be DEEP.


Right now Marvel Studios is a lot like my hometown football team, the Seahawks.  They've won the (metaphorical) Superbowl, and now everyone's wondering how long their success can continue.  This summer's Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive hit, and next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron is likely to be an even bigger hit.  20th Century Fox's X-men franchise was also reinvigorated by X-men: Days of Future Past, and they plan to release a Fantastic Four reboot next year.  Even if Sony's Spider-man franchise is struggling, the other Marvel characters are alive and well. 

1. Spider-Woman

Jessica Drew, given her history with Hydra, would be a great addition to the next Captain America movie.  She is also one of my favorite superheroines, and could be introduced in a stand-alone film.  Sony's ownership of Spider-man shouldn't present a problem, especially since Spider-woman never had all that much to do with Spider-man anyway. 

2. Doctor Strange

After The Flash, this is probably the character I'd most like to see in a movie.  A director has already been assigned to this project, and a lead will be cast soon.  Kevin Feige has touted Doctor Strange as the door into the magic side of the Marvel Universe, and there are a lot of visual possibilities inherent in this character. 

3. Black Panther

A black superhero, please, and not a sidekick.  There are already too many white males in the Marvel cinematic universe.  The Black Panther also has an interesting backstory, and could give a larger, international context to the superhero genre. 

4. Longshot, Spiral, and Mojo

Longshot has been a longtime favorite of mine.  His power is somewhat similar to the Scarlet Witch, in that he is able to manipulate luck or probability.  He has also been an X-man, and he hails from Mojoworld, a weird parallel dimension lorded over by the psychopathic Mojo.  The three of these characters together could easily hold a movie in their own right, though they could certainly be introduced in one of the X-men films.

5. Namor (the Sub-Mariner) 

Namor is so much more interesting than Aquaman.  Lately Aquaman has this anti-hero thing going on, but this was just borrowed from Namor, Marvel Comics' original anti-hero.  Namor was also a member of The Invaders, a superhero team comprised of Captain America, the original Human Torch, and Namor himself.  Their existence predates the Avengers, and would also make a great period film. 

Then again, it's possible that 20th Century Fox purchased the rights to Namor along with the Fantastic Four, so perhaps a film featuring him and Captain America is impossible.


1. Nemesis the Warlock

Doing this in live-action would be counterproductive.  I'm thinking of something more like the Pixar films, with an art style similar to what Kevin O'Neil did in the comics.  It wouldn't be popular by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd love it. 

2. Marshal Law

Marshal Law is the one non-Marvel, non-DC character that's crying out for his own movie.  In case you're not familiar with the comic, Marshal Law is the product of genetic experimentation, created in the aftermath of a Vietnam-style war which employed superheroes.  After most of these superheroes return home as psychopaths, Marshal Law must hunt them down with extreme prejudice.  The comic offers a great commentary on American society and its relation to the superhero genre, and would be a terrific counterpoint to the current spate of superhero films.  Think Judge Dredd on amphetamines.

2014年9月1日 星期一

The Films of David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg is a Canadian film director, best known for his horror films.  Along with John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, and a few others, he was one of the leading lights of horror cinema during the late 70s and early 80s.  These days he's making more "serious" films, but he's still strongly identified with his ventures into the "body horror" genre. 

Stereo (1969)

An hour-long film about an experiment conducted on a group of telepaths.  Incredibly tedious and arty.  I have seen three-hour films that felt much shorter.

Crimes of the Future (1970)

Another hour-long film, this one about a scientist's research into...?  Slightly better than Stereo, but still excruciating.

Shivers (a.k.a. "They Came from Within") (1975)

This is a surprisingly good movie, despite the fact that it was made 39 years ago on a minuscule budget.  A scientist develops a parasite that he believes will free mankind from its "intellectual burden," and the inhabitants of a new apartment complex are this parasite's first victims.

Rabid (1977)

Very similar to Shivers, though in this case the parasite (growth?) has only infected one person, a young woman who goes on to infect hundreds with a rabies-like virus. Marilyn Chambers stars in one of her few non-pornographic roles.  It's also a good movie, though not as good as Shivers.

Fast Company (1979)

This is the only one of Cronenberg's films I haven't seen.  It's a B-movie, has to do with car racing, and is extremely hard to find.

The Brood (1979)

Very similar to Rabid, which was very similar to Shivers.  I haven't seen this one in a while, and I don't want to give the ending away, but it's a great film and probably marks the beginning of Cronenberg's "classic" period.  Could also be seen as the fullest realization of the ideas explored earlier in both Shivers and Rabid. 

Scanners (1981)

This movie is best remembered for the exploding heads.  I've seen it many, many times, and it remains a classic film.  People with telepathic and telekinetic powers do battle in the most disgusting way possible.

Videodrome (1983)

This might be Cronenberg's best movie.  It was revolutionary for the time, predating films like The Matrix and even Cronenberg's own ExistenZ by over a decade.  James Woods stars as the owner of a cable TV company.  After a coworker stumbles upon the torture program Videodrome, everything gets weirder, and weirder, and weirder.  Long live the new flesh!

The Dead Zone (1983)

This film mark's Cronenberg's first foray into big budget territory.  Christopher Walken stars as a man who can view both the past and future of people he comes into physical contact with.  One of the less bloody Cronenberg movies, but still great.  Like The Shining, the soundtrack for this film almost makes the movie. 

The Fly (1986)

Probably Cronenberg's best remembered film, and also the end of his "classic" period.  Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, the inventor of a teleportation device.  This is perhaps the goriest film Cronenberg ever made, and even though the central premise doesn't make a lot of sense it still holds up very well.

Dead Ringers (1988)

A transitional film for Cronenberg.  Twin gynecologists (really!) begin a descent into drug dependency and madness.  Cronenberg's first collaboration with Jeremy Irons, who would also feature in M. Butterfly. I thought this film was good, but not great.

Naked Lunch (1991)

I disliked the novel, and thought the film was a vast improvement.  As the novel is essentially unfilmable, this film remains more of a related artwork than a straight adaptation.  The movie removes almost all of the homosexual imagery from the novel, and borrows from Burroughs' other books as well. 

M. Butterfly (1993)

Not a bad film, though it certainly has its faults.  I think it might have worked better if they had chosen a more effeminate actor for the "female" role, if the scenes depicting life in China had been in Chinese, and if they had changed Jeremy Irons's nationality.  The story and the character arcs work well, but it doesn't feel especially authentic.

Crash (1996)

Though not a horror film, this was a return to form for Cronenberg.  James Spader survives a car accident and becomes erotically aroused by the experience.  Another great exploration of the links between sex, death, and violence from a director very familiar with those themes.

ExistenZ (1999)

Like Videodrome, this movie was ahead of its time.  Several players enter a virtual world and come to question the nature of reality.  This film came out the same year as The Matrix, a movie that explores similar themes.  While I think The Matrix is a more entertaining film, ExistenZ also has a lot to say - on a much lower budget. 

Spider (2002)

Ralph Fiennes stars as a schizophrenic exploring his own past.  Very low budget, but very well acted.  Miranda Richardson gives one of her best performances in this movie.  I found the ending a bit predictable, but it's worth seeking out.

A History of Violence (2005)

A lot of people love this movie, but I wouldn't say that it ranks among Cronenberg's best.  Viggo Mortenson, fresh from Lord of the Rings, stars as a man threatened by mob violence.  The part with William Hurt is great, but this one felt a bit uneven to me.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Along with Videodrome and The Brood, this film is one of Cronenberg's best.  Viggo Mortenson stars as a Russian gangster, and Naomi Watts is a nurse trying to locate an infant's mother.  It's violent, it's well paced, and Vincent Cassel is in it.  What more could you want? 

A Dangerous Method (2011) 

Familiar territory for Cronenberg, though done as a period drama concerned with Freud and Jung's early careers.  A young woman (Kiera Knightley) seeks a cure for her "insanity."  It's a very good movie.

Cosmopolis (2012)

A crushingly boring film, though this may be due to Cronenberg's desire to remain faithful to Don Delilo's novel.  Almost all of the movie occurs in the back of a limousine, and even the sex scenes aren't interesting.  Pretentious in the extreme, and not worth the effort.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

It's easy to dismiss this film as another movie by Hollywood about Hollywood, but the performances are excellent and the story has a lot of depth.  Incest, violence, and an obsession with youth take center stage in this story of a fame-obsessed family.  This movie deserves a larger audience.

Books I Read During Summer Vacation

Made it to both Taipei and Kaohsiung this summer, and as a result I've acquired a lot of books.

"The Pilgrim's Progress" by Tom Bunyan

A primer on Christianity, couched within an adventure story.  This story is divided into two parts, and the second part is virtually identical to the first.  Incredibly tedious, though I'm happy to know that people don't bother with nonsense like this anymore.

"Spillover" by David Quammen

"Spillover" refers to the passing of diseases between animals and humans, often resulting in epidemics.  Consistently pretentious, often condescending, yet it does offer some fascinating insights as to how epidemics such as Ebola and AIDS come to be.  Could have been much shorter.

"The Savage Detectives" by Roberto Bolano

I have also read Bolano's "2666," and was intrigued enough to seek out "The Savage Detectives," a much earlier (and more complete) novel.  Unfortunately this book bored me to tears.  It's extremely long-winded, full of pointless details, and designed for those suffering from a certain amount of intellectual vanity.  Novels like this might make people feel "smart," but they sure aren't entertaining.

"A Field Guide to Radiation" by Wayne Biddle

A nonfiction introduction to radiation, written by a non-scientist.  It's not a bad book, though the author tries too hard to be funny.  He also displays a definite bias against nuclear power.  I think a more balanced account would have served the subject better.

"N-W" by Zadie Smith

A novel centered around four Londoners.  I have also read Smith's White Teeth, and this novel reminded me of that novel.  White Teeth is much better, but N-W is not bad.

"The Case for Mars" by Robert Zubrin (with Richard Wagner) 

A plea for a renewed program of Mars exploration, with particular emphasis on the author's Mars Direct program.  Robert Zubrin is an aeronautical engineer, formerly in the employ of Martin Marietta.  The first few chapters are very boring, but the later chapters on colonization and terraforming were interesting.