Archive for January, 2015

Review: Does Santa Exist

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

I picked this up based on a review of a writer I like, and I got something I wasn’t expecting.  The blurb and the review both gave me the idea that Eric Kaplan was going to use the abstract question of how we relate to imaginary characters as a stepping stone into a general philosophical discussion. Does Santa Exist is more about how Kaplan has made peace with the questions than how society has.  The result is a philosophical memoir.  I admire the audacity but don’t share his positions.

He begins with a tour of the philosophy of logic and quickly zeros in on logic’s limitations in dealing with self-reference and contradictions.  Valid concerns, of course, and well expressed.  He moves on to other belief systems: Buddhism and other mystic systems.  It’s sort of an odd juxtaposition in terms of the overall shape of philosophy, but seems to trace his own metaphysical journey.  He alludes to formal Buddhist and Zen training a few times.  He clearly does not find what he calls the mystic approach compelling, either. From there he wends his way to Kabbalah.

I’ve encountered the Kabbalah system before, and I don’t find it an intuitive way to organize my thoughts on reality. If Alan Moore (and J. H. Williams III!) can’t sell me on a system of magical thinking, well, anyone else will have an uphill battle.

So, I’m happy Kaplan’s found a belief system that works for him, but if the point of Santa was recruiting others – and I think it is – he didn’t manage to get me.


Review: The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things is an essay by the estimable Bruce Sterling that promotes his perspective on pervasive computing, big data, the giant companies that promote these and the effect of it all on society.  It’s thought provoking and refreshing with plenty to turn over in the reader’s mind.  It’s also thick with snippets that went directly into my quote file.

Sterling is largely interested in current trends in public and private surveillance.  He starts by working backword to see their causes – tech drivers and economic ones – and forward to see their effects.  Many have pointed out the changing role of consumers in a system where so many “products” are free, but Sterling captures some of the driving forces particularly clearly. His perspective is both polemic and entertaining.

Not all of his essay is convincing, of course.  He’s thin on the economic forces that sustain his favorite big data companies, for example.  However, as a perspective changer and food for thought The Epic Struggle is invaluable.

Strongly recommended.

Review: MaddAdam

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Douglas Adams warns against blowing up the Earth in chapter 1 because you’ll need it later.  This is good advice even if you’re writing an apocalyptic trilogy. MaddAdam is the last of Margaret Atwood’s apocalyptic trilogy that started in Oryx and Crake, and the trilogy had kind of run out of gas for me.

MaddAdam ties up loose ends from the earlier books, fills in some details of some characters pasts, and advances the post-apocalyptic plot.  The earlier episodes had more momentum and satirical bite.  One of the joys of those books was the fairly biting look at the modern society that Crake wanted to wash away.  Atwood would skillfully extrapolate that world from this with equal parts horror and humor that made for the best satire.  MaddAdam does not extend the satire much, and it is definitely missed.

The plot of MaddAdam fills in the gaps in a character’s history, but that history doesn’t add much to the world or the plot.  One of the strengths of After The Flood is that Atwood shows us the events of Oryx and Crake from a different conceptual part of the world.  The difference in the characters’ perspectives enrich the plot and add satirical targets.  MaddAdam’s flashbacks bring few new perspectives, though plot details get filled in.  I’m glad that Atwood knows these details that make her plot more sound and consistent, but I didn’t get very excited about learning the finer points.

Atwood is one of my favorite writers and technically the writing is spectacular.  Even though I was not very impressed by MaddAdam, it is full of beautiful phrases and brilliant literary constructions.

Overall, I recommend MaddAdam for completeists, but most readers won’t get much out of it that wasn’t in Oryx and Crake and After The Flood.

Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

As a comics fan, I’ve long been aware that the backstory of Wonder Woman was at least as interesting as the character herself and much less accessible. Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman solves the second problem, and leaves one free to look over the glorious craziness and fundamental importance of the first.

The fellow generally credited with creating Wonder Woman is William Moutlon Marston whose resume is quite remarkable in a vacuum, aand more interesting in the context that Lepore provides.  Marston was an early student of psychology and physiology as the connection between the two was beginning to be understood.  He claims to have created the lie detector and was certainly the fellow who first tried to get its evidence made admissible in trials.  He was an early feminist and proponent of women’s equality, if not superiority.  He was an unusual choice to create a comic character, but the one he created was an uncontested smash hit, selling Superman & Batman kind of numbers.  While comics fans remember many characters fondly, that kind of financial and popular success was beyond rare.

And yet, as Lepore draws out, there was more than a hint of the charlatan about Marston.  His lie detector didn’t seem to work reproducibly for people other than him, and even his successes were often inflated in his claims.  His attempt to get lie detectors made into legal and investigative tools failed as a matter of law, and quite probably was a key distraction that undermined the defense of the accused.  Worse, his claims and results are generally so unconvincing that investigators use the device as a bluff to get confessions rather than a tool to find facts.  He lectured widely partially because he was slowly failing himself out of academia, sliding down the hill from professor to lecturer and below.

He also lived in a basically polygamous arrangement with several women, all of whom contributed materially to the creation and success of Wonder Woman, and all of whom saw their contributions minimized to keep the details of their living arrangements hidden. His principles of equality of the sexes seemed to be limited by practicality.  As a result, when he died young, the core creators of Wonder Woman lost creative control quickly. Consequently, corporate profit overshadowed feminist principles – even the somewhat unusual ones of the creators – as a primary driver of plot and theme.

It’s a fascinating story that touches on many of the intellectual revolutions of the 1920’s to the 1940’s culminating in the creation of one of the most unusual and compelling characters in popular culture.  Lepore’s story follows these gripping people through their remarkable journey and can also be a jumping off point for many more historical and intellectual explorations.

If there’s a downside to Secret History, it’s that Lepore writes more like a scholar than a storyteller.  She  has her facts straight and documented, but often the people do not breathe as they could.  Fortunately these folks are largely dynamic enough that the facts speak fine.  Furthermore, just unearthing these facts is an achievement in itself.

Strongly recommended.