2015年11月30日 星期一

"The Stranger/The Fall" by Albert Camus (1942 and 1956)

"That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her.  I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.  Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't love her.  'So why marry me, then?' she said.  I explained to her that it didn't really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Besides, she was the one doing the asking and all I was saying was yes.  Then she pointed out that marriage was a serious thing.  I said, 'No.'  She stopped talking for a moment and looked at me without saying anything."

Albert Camus was a French writer who grew up in Algeria.  He is best known for his novel The Plague, reviewed here about 9 months ago, and for The Stranger, which forms one of the two novels/novellas in this collection.  The Stranger was first published in 1942, when Camus was a member of the French Resistance, while The Fall was published 14 years after.

As one might expect from a writer of Camus' versatility, the two books couldn't be more different.  The Stranger describes the consequences of a murder, while The Fall is more of a commentary on human nature.  The Stranger examines the right (or lack thereof) of an individual to stray from societal norms, while The Fall is the story of a man who ascends to the very heights of society, only to find this society hollow and unfulfilling.  The two stories compliment one another nicely.

I really enjoyed The Stranger and its misanthropic protagonist, but it was The Fall that really spoke to me.  At times I had the feeling that the narrator was speaking to me directly, about my own condition.  It is a very philosophical story - and the narrator of this story is very up front about the fact.  The Stranger is more subtle, more muted, and has a more ambiguous case to make.

Both The Stranger and The Fall are, by the way, much easier reading than The Plague.  Where The Plague comes on like a funeral dirge, The Stranger and The Fall exhibit a lighter touch, and aren't nearly as depressing.  The Plague is also a story about a group of people, whereas both The Stranger and The Fall are about individuals, and their struggles with a larger culture.

This collection is excellent, and I heartily recommend it.

2015年11月27日 星期五

"Free Market Environmentalism" by Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal (2001)

"During the 1990s, free market environmentalism caught the fancy of a growing number of environmentalists, who have turned to market solutions to solve environmental problems.  Realizing that political environmentalism subjects resource management and environmental quality to the fickle whims of legislators and voters, some have turned to free market environmentalism because of its ability to provide a long-lasting solution.  When property rights are well defined and enforced, environmentalists can be satisfied knowing that protection of a wetland or bird sanctuary is secured by common law precedent and by the Constitution of the United States.  As the Sand Country Foundation's president, Brent Haglund, put it when asked about the effectiveness of government programs in protecting wildlife habitat, 'You know what I like?  A deed in the courthouse.'  Others have turned to market solutions simply because nothing else has worked.  'It's very hard to make progress through lawsuits,' says Bill Heddon of Grand Canyon Trust."

In Free Market Environmentalism, economists Anderson and Leal argue for the power of market forces to protect our natural resources.  This argument is predicated upon the value of these resources for human beings, and not upon some ill-defined environmental aesthetic that exalts "nature" above all other things.  Their argument is carefully reasoned, and they are open about the limitations of handing control of resources back to communities, or imposing property rights in certain instances.

This book begins, as one would expect, with an introduction to general economic theory as it could be applied to the environment.  From there it moves into discussions of land use in the continental US, failures within the National Park Service, energy use and exploitation of resources such as natural gas and petroleum, fishing in rivers and oceans, and the disposal of waste.  It concludes with a model of how communities might better manage their natural resources, and an argument against what is often touted as "sustainability."

As reading material it's pretty dry stuff, but it makes a strong case for the power of markets to resolve many environmental issues.  It's also a short book.  After reading it, I came to question many of my own opinions on environmental regulation and the role of governments in protecting us from environmental ills.  Many of the examples and counterexamples supplied by the authors are very surprising, and had me wondering what a freer market environmentalism might look like.

It's a good book and it's worth reading.  Many environmentally-minded people might find it hard to approach due to an inborn hostility towards words like "economics" and "market forces," but I would encourage such people to view economics in its much wider sense - that of supply and demand - rather than the restricted, commercially-oriented sense that is often used.

2015年11月23日 星期一

Marvel's Jessica Jones

There goes my weekend!  I spent about 11 hours last Saturday and Sunday watching Jessica Jones on my computer.  As you may know, I was a big fan of the Netflix Daredevil show, and I was hoping Jessica Jones would be just as good.

Like Daredevil, the first season of Jessica Jones is 13 episodes long, and each episode takes up 50 minutes.  As is to be expected, I remember the episodes near the beginning and end much better than the ones near the middle, and certain things that I liked or didn't like about those middle episodes may have escaped my memory.  I was up until midnight last night watching the show, and parts of it are indeed a blur.

Given the length of a TV season, I also find it hard to discuss Jessica Jones on its own merits.  Instead, I find it easier to compare it to Daredevil, which is/was most people's introduction to Jessica Jones anyway.

The Hero/Heroine

I think Matt Murdock was a far more interesting protagonist than Jessica Jones.  His character was more clearly drawn, and the moral ambiguities inherent in his character were more compelling.  The lawyer/vigilante aspects of Daredevil were one of the strengths of the show, while Jessica's self-esteem issues and post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes make for a convoluted mess.  I think the damage the Purple Man inflicted on her could have either been explained better, or was overemphasized.  At times it seemed like her psychological damage would have had a paralyzing effect on her, rather than the opposite.

One of the problems with Jessica Jones is also the use of her powers.  In the context of the show, Jessica rarely needs to use her powers, and the moments in which she does are often jarring, and brought me out of the moment.  Contrast this with Daredevil, in which his powers are really part of the character, and essential to the situations in which he finds himself.  When all is said and done, Jessica Jones didn't need superpowers, and giving them to her seemed like an unnecessary distraction.

I will say that Jessica's relationship with Luke Cage was one of the strengths of her show.  I think if they had just put more of this into the series it would have been much better.

The Bad Guy

I loved Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of Kingpin, but David Tennant is so much better as Killgrave.  Yes, his character seems a bit inconsistent by the last few episodes, but this is nothing compared to the stuttering indecision that the Kingpin experiences toward the end of Daredevil's first season.  In Killgrave we have a deeply threatening villain with serious mental and emotional problems.  In the Kingpin we have a threat that doesn't quite pan out.

Watching Jessica Jones, I often found myself wondering what an interaction between Tennant's Purple Man and D'Onofrio's Kingpin might look like.  It would have been great to see them in a scene together.

Supporting Cast

Both Luke Cage and Carrie-Anne Moss's character Hogarth are more interesting than any of the supporting characters in Daredevil.  Luke Cage is an enthralling addition to the Marvel Cinematic/TV Universe, and I'm looking forward to his show next year.  Hogarth might have been my favorite thing about Jessica Jones, and when she disappears for a few episodes toward the end of the season I found myself wondering where she went, and what she was doing.  I really hope she shows up again in Luke Cage's show.

The guy who plays Foggy Nelson (can't remember his name) on Daredevil is great, but his character is a bit slow on the uptake.  Probably the best of Daredevil's supporting characters is the Kingpin's girlfriend Vanessa, but she was underused in that show.  The Russian gangsters were also excellent.


This is the part of Jessica Jones that truly outshines Daredevil.  Daredevil was fu*&ing AMAZING for the first few episodes, but seemed to peter out near the end.  His costume was a disappointment, and the whole battle between him and the Kingpin seemed both forced and rushed.  A lot of the drama surrounding Matt's true identity dragged on, as did Matt's Catholic hand-wringing and discussion of "what the right thing to do" might be.

Jessica Jones ties together much better, even if the character's actions don't always make the most sense.  I think the episode where she goes to live with Killgrave was a misstep, but after this detour the series finds a firmer footing.  Like Daredevil, the climax of the show isn't quite as BIG as you hope it will be, but it's still a more definite conclusion than what they did in Daredevil.

Annoying Characters

In Daredevil it was the Kingpin's accountant, and by the end of that series it was Deborah Ann Woll's character.  In Jessica Jones it was her neighbor the fraternal twin and Simpson, the cop.  Neither the accountant nor Deborah Ann Woll's character were even half as annoying as the twin and the cop, so there's a point for Daredevil.


One of the highlights of Daredevil is the fight scenes.  This is in keeping with the character.  Jessica Jones isn't really a fight-related character, so it's not fair to compare the two shows from an action perspective.  Whereas Daredevil is all about kicking ass and setting a tone, Jessica Jones is about setting a tone... and occasionally kicking ass.

Even so, there's a good fight scene between Jessica and Luke Cage near the end of the series.  It's done well, but it's nothing like that part in Daredevil where he rescues the child from the Russian gangsters.  Now THAT fight was epic!


I think that taken as a series, Jessica Jones is the obvious winner.  This might not be fair to Daredevil, since that show was first and thus offered a template for Jessica Jones to build upon.  Just the same, Jessica Jones has a better bad guy, a better plot, and a better supporting cast.  It's definitely not as re-watchable as Daredevil, which is more of a straight crime/action drama, but it is far more memorable.  I'm hoping that elements of Jessica Jones show up again in Luke Cage - a proposition that seems likely.

As for Daredevil, season two is also on the way next year.  It will be interesting to see what that show makes of The Punisher, and also how the Kingpin continues to cause trouble after his incarceration at the end of season one.

A Trivia Question

What celebrated 80s sex symbol makes several appearances in Jessica Jones?  Clue: "Joel, every now and then say 'What the fuck.'  If you can't say it, you can't do it!"

2015年11月20日 星期五

"The Maker of Universes" by Philip Jose Farmer (1965)

This is the first book in Farmer's World of Tiers series.  I reviewed the second book, The Gates of Creation, over two years ago.

The author, Philip Jose Farmer, is most famous for his Riverworld series, which bears many similarities to his World of Tiers.  I have yet to read any of the Riverworld books, but I suppose I will eventually.

In The Maker of Universes, the aging Robert Wolff finds a portal into another dimension.  After entering into this other world, he finds himself growing younger, and also crosses paths with a distant figure referred to as The Lord of the Tiers.  To find this mysterious person, he has to advance through the World of Tiers, a ziggurat-shaped universe in which worlds are layered one upon the other, with the Lord of Tiers occupying the highest level.

It's a lot like Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Space Trilogy-era C.S. Lewis, with a lot of obscure vocabulary thrown in for added effect.  Wolff advances very quickly from desperate senior citizen to mythic hero, and the type of world that Farmer builds adds a luster that many other pulp adventures seem to lack.

It is, however, written in an amateurish manner, and some of the transitions between "scenes" are awkwardly handled.  The book's conclusion is somewhat arbitrary, and it feels like Farmer was at a loss for how to end it.  Some of the word usage is also questionable ("twilightly"?), but having already read the sequel, I can assert that these flaws were addressed/corrected in later books.

It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it is consistent.  It's also the gateway (excuse the pun) to other, better books in the series, and for this reason I would recommend it.

2015年11月15日 星期日

"Porn" by Robert J. Stoller, M.D. (1991)

"Right.  They object to its depicting a sexuality they don't like.  The feminists who object to pornography are the women who feel pressured by society's sexual expectations of women.  They don't look like the people in those movies; they don't want to be like the people in those movies.  In no sense do they want to do those things.  They feel that this material creates unfair expectations of them on the part of men.  I really think that's what it's about.  Pornography is mainly an expression of male sexuality that they find threatening because of the demands that it implies.  That's what they're pissed off about.  In the same way that if men read women's romance novels, they'd find much to be annoyed about: in the idealized portrayal of men, because most of us are not handsome, swashbuckling guys.  Most of us are not physical men of action.  Most of us are not enormously wealthy or broodingly handsome and would find it difficult to live up to the standards of romance novel heroes.  The pressure on men to perform up to the heroic standards in our society has plenty of bad effects on men.  But they don't recognize that in the political way that feminists do."

I should say at the outset that I'm not a big believer in Psychology or its cousin Psychoanalysis.  The author of this book was a psychoanalyst working at UCLA, and many of the conclusions he draws concerning heterosexual pornography were far outside of what I consider a practical understanding of human behavior.  To put it another way, I tend to think that a dream about a woman eating a banana is just a dream about a woman eating a banana - and not a metaphor for oral sex.  Until proven otherwise, I try to take the facts of human behavior at face value, and I regard the over-interpretation of these facts as a misleading and often dangerous business.

So I had trouble with the introductory or explanatory parts of this book.  Freudian terminology is just not my thing, and I consider the author's analysis of porn to be far from objective, and also far from empirical.

Yet this disagreement with Psychology, Psychiatry, and Psychoanalysis wasn't a big impediment to my enjoyment of this book.  This is because the book is mostly just a series of interviews with those in the porn business.  In these interviews the subjects merely explain what they do, how they do it, and their opinions on both.  The author doesn't interrupt them too much, and he doesn't ask too many leading questions.  Those reading this book are free to take what they say for whatever it's worth.  It's not a perfect (comprehensive) picture of the porn industry by any means, but it is interesting.

This book is a bit dated now.  It was published in 1991, and the interviews were conducted in the late 80s.  But even if the technologies in use have changed, the content of porn hasn't.  We might be using the Internet now, we might be renting or purchasing DVDs, but a porn movie or magazine in 2015 isn't going to stray too far from what people were watching, buying, or renting in the early 90s.  For this reason the interviews in this book retain their relevance, and many of those interviewed had a lot to say.

I would recommend this book, but I would also recommend skipping the introductory sections.  It's brief, it's to the point, and it offers an interesting window into an extremely popular form of entertainment.

2015年11月11日 星期三

"Macroscope" by Piers Anthony (1969)

"'I don't know.'  That was the irony of it.  He had no evidence there was anything to find.  'But if there is any help for us, that's where it has to be.  They - the galactics, whatever they are - must be hiding something.  Otherwise why have such a program at all?  They can't really be trying to destroy us, because this is a self-damping thing.  I mean, a little of it warns you off, just as it did for the probs.  But the discouragement would really be more effective if there were no signal at all.  The signal itself is proof there is something to look for.  It is tantalizing.  It's as though - well, interference.'  He hoped."

Piers Anthony is a naturalized American citizen who now resides in Florida.  He has written a TON of books, and most of them are not very good.  He often boasts that he has written a novel for every letter of the alphabet, and within this vast catalog are many, many series, each consisting of several books, and each book consisting of several hundred pages.  If you stacked his books from floor to ceiling, you'd probably run out of room before you ran out of books.

All of which makes him sound like a hack, doesn't it?  And maybe he now is.  But Macroscope was written very early in his career, and it's better not to judge it against later, far inferior works.  The Piers Anthony to be found in 1969 is very different from the same author in 2015.  You could say something similar about most other other sci fi "greats."  Their early output - the books upon which their reputations rest - often overshadows what came after.

In the world of Macroscope it is the early 1980s, and the nations of the world have banded together to create the macroscope, a kind of telescope that can peer across vast interstellar distances.  This new invention allows us to see alien worlds in detail for the first time, and to finally discover evidence of life on other planets.

Enter Ivo Archer, a young man who is himself the survivor of another, failed experiment in social engineering.  Ivo is called upon to join the crew of the macroscope, and shortly thereafter he becomes entangled in the lives of three other individuals resident aboard the space station where the macroscope is kept.

What follows is a sprawling adventure across the solar system, across the galaxy, and beyond.  Along the way Ivo and his three companions embark upon a journey of self-discovery, and it is the counterpoint between their level of self awareness and the awesome alien technologies they encounter that informs many of the critical moments in the book.

It's all very involving, though readers put off by the "hard" variety of science fiction may want to avoid this book.  The author goes into great (sometimes too much) detail with regard to the phenomena they encounter, and it doesn't always make for the easiest reading.  There are also a few passages that seemed unnecessary to me, as when Groton attempts to explain astrology to Ivo, or some of the group's hallucinatory experiences near the end of the book.  These passages felt like aborted short stories from earlier in the author's career, and they might have been better used elsewhere.  The "astrology" passage in particular almost brings the book to a screeching halt.

Even so, Macroscope is one of the weirdest, most interesting science fiction novels I've read in a long time.  It's not perfect, but given the time in which it was written, and given the material it chooses to explore, it scores highly.  It made me wonder what else Piers Anthony might have written - before he dedicated himself to churning out novel after novel, and series after series.  

Yes, having written a novel for every letter of the alphabet is an impressive achievement - if you don't think about it too hard - but having written a book like Macroscope is something an author can truly be proud of.

2015年11月5日 星期四

"The Turbulent Universe" by Paul Kurtz (2013)

Some warning signs...

1. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, wrote the blurb on the back cover of this book.

2. The author uses Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, as a reference.

3. The author is a professor of Philosophy, and the term "universe" is used in its more philosophical sense, not the physical sense that we would usually employ.

4. Several YouTube debates feature the author, and in these debates he makes extremely general points which are easily proven, and often strays from the topic of discussion.

But anyway I bought it, so I felt an obligation to read it.  I try to approach every book with an open mind, and the four warning signs mentioned above may have been - I hoped - misleading.

But they weren't.  The Turbulent Universe is one great big mess of a book, written by a champion of secular humanism.  It veers between academic disciplines, it offers personal anecdotes that make little sense, and it generally fails to make a point.

You know a book is bad when you're 200 pages in and you STILL have no idea what it's about.  The author spends so much time dredging up questionable observations on cosmology, history, and other subjects that by page 200 my mind was reeling, and I just wanted the book to be over.  I thought at first that it was just over my head, or that I wasn't paying enough attention, or both.  But no, it really is a disorganized mess.

Reading this book was a lot like being back in undergraduate school, and attending a lecture given by a new professor who doesn't quite know what he or she is doing.  Any number of "facts" are brought in to prove his or her thesis, but the manner in which this professor argues his or her point defeats the purpose.  By the end of the lecture everyone's exhausted, and no one has the patience to hear the argument to its conclusion.

And this is a shame, because the last section of this book, the Grand Finale, is really very good.  Taken on its own merits, it's an excellent argument for secular humanism, and for living life to its fullest.  Unfortunately the rest of this book is composed of half understood theories and idle conjecture, none of it enlightening for anyone who's earned an undergraduate degree in any subject.

Oh well.  At least it's not long.  At 251 pages, it was far more palatable than the above-mentioned Better Angels of Our Nature.  It also made me think that Paul Kurtz, 85 years old when he wrote The Turbulent Universe, may have written much better, long before.  Sad to say, he passed away before this book saw publication, and his presence of mind may have been affected by health concerns.

I'm sure he would have been an interesting guy to talk to, but I can't recommend this book.