Randall Munroe brings his second hit blog, What If?, to book form. The premise: provide breezy, hilarious, scientifically-accurate answers to improbabRandall Munroe brings his second hit blog, What If?, to book form. The premise: provide breezy, hilarious, scientifically-accurate answers to improbable questions and scenarios. And the more likely the scenario is to end in death or destruction (ideally of the world), the better (for the reader, at least -- not for the hypothetical participant/perpetrator). For example:
* What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at close to the speed of light? (a massive explosion) * What if you had a bullet with the density of a neutron star? (it'd sink well into the earth, or if well-supported it would be near-impossible to touch it because of its local gravitational effects -- at least not without the blood vessels in your fingers rupturing and your blood pooling into a distorted sphere around it) * What would happen if all your DNA suddenly, just, weren't there? (you probably would die as if you had undergone severe chemotherapy, or eaten one of the most toxic mushrooms in the world)
If you're on the fence about this book, you can read a fair bit of it on the original What If? site. That should give you enough of the flavor to know whether you should pick it up yourself. But you'll have to buy the book for some of its totally-new questions and answers (and to enjoy some of the loonier submitted questions, interspersed within the book for comic relief), one of which coincidentally was submitted by my current roommate. :-) (Mini-disclosure!)
Having read the blog and been entertained by it, and having plenty of other things to read, I wasn't in a rush to pick this up, so I waited for it to be on sale. If it's on sale when you're looking at it, definitely pick it up. Otherwise, I'd say pick it up whenever you need a palate cleanser....more
Poilar Crookleg is a member of a village at the foot of the Wall, the large mountain atop which the gods reside. Since time immemorial, his village, aPoilar Crookleg is a member of a village at the foot of the Wall, the large mountain atop which the gods reside. Since time immemorial, his village, and other villages like it, each year sends forty individuals to climb the Wall. Successful climbers will reach the top and learn the wisdom of the gods for their villages' benefit. No one in the villages knows what happens to unsuccessful climbers, except that very, very few climbers are successful.
As a descendant of the First Climber, and the son and grandson of climbers, Poilar has always known his destiny as a climber. When the winnowing comes, Poilar is indeed one of the year's forty climbers. The novel tells the story of that climb: what Poilar and the others see along the way, the titular kingdoms they encounter, and the ultimate wisdom they gain during their climb. The story is in Poilar's own words, presenting his successes and failures during the journey.
The story has many of the trappings of Big Ideas to it. Possibly the most readily apparent is its discussions and approaches to sexuality. (Without getting into too much detail best learned through the book's revelations, Poilar's culture's treatment of sexuality has no real-world parallel I'm aware of.) The story also regularly presents situations testing the climbers' resolve and indomitability, offering lessons in perseverance. In the background hover questions of faith, religion, and the nature of the gods themselves. The story thus provides much fodder for reflection, as resonant stories do.
But I can't rate this story very highly for one reason: its near-relentless depression. The climbers, in continuously diminishing numbers, prevail against all manner of adversity encountered along the way. Yet each obstacle stands as monument not just to the shortcomings of prior climbers, but to their abject failures and and abandonment of their vows to prevail over the mountain. Each failure questions why previous climbers failed in that manner, almost always leaving that question unresolved, with too little information for the reader even to hypothesize. The climbers (and the reader) leave each successive challenge not invigorated for future conflict, but simply further wearied. The ultimate resolution is largely consistent with this prior trend.
I don't demand steady optimism from all stories. Lack of true conflict makes for shallowness and predictability. It's great that, for example, George R.R. Martin's excellent A Song of Ice and Fire novels buck the trend toward relentlessly-successful protagonists encased in Plot Armor.
But I do require occasional hints of optimism, of the importance and worthiness of the characters' strivings (even those that in hindsight are misguided). I need moments that make me cheer. In the words of a review of a much more recent fantasy novel, I need "something to love." A Song of Ice and Fire regularly gives me that, even with (or perhaps because of) its brutal treatment of characters (and readers). This book didn't.
This story begins optimistic and steadily declines into apprehension, melancholy, dashed hopes, and despair. There are a few moments of light in a few instances of character development. (Even still, I think Poilar remains a bit flat.) But they are few and far between. And I can't remember a single moment in the story where I wanted to cheer.
It's not necessarily a bad book; I fully expect many readers will love it. But for the reasons stated, it doesn't appeal to me. And worse than simple absence of appeal: if I knew then what I know now, I would not have read this book the first time. I can almost always appreciate the perspectives and experiences of stories I don't like, as fresh and unusual experiences, even when I simultaneously dislike the stories. Variety and treatment of material I wouldn't ordinarily seek out are valuable. But this book's persistent negativity overcomes even my appreciation for variety. That's very, very rare.
Three stars. (And if I weren't grading on a curve that partially corrects for my predilection for stories with uplifting moments, I could easily drop to two.)...more
The Iran Deal may represent an uncomfortable agreement that ultimately prevents Iran from becoming a nuclear power with nuclear weapons. Or it may repThe Iran Deal may represent an uncomfortable agreement that ultimately prevents Iran from becoming a nuclear power with nuclear weapons. Or it may represent an infamous "peace in our time". The stakes are high. Should we accept the deal as the best achievable under the circumstances? Or should we reject it as worse than no deal? In either case, could we have done better? Alan Dershowitz in this book presents his answers to these questions.
But first, some caveats.
This book isn't quite a "book". It's more a chronologically-grouped collection of Dershowitz's op-eds from roughly the past decade, discussing the problem of Iran (and, sometimes, Israel/Palestine). The op-ed format is limited. Arguments, rebuttals, and conclusions can only be briefly and almost conclusorily presented. Op-eds don't really grant the space necessary for a persuasive, comprehensive proposition. Naturally, many of the arguments are quickly sketched out with little depth. (And, somewhat amusingly, Dershowitz's various rhetorical ticks become more apparent: his fondness for Winston Churchill's "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war" aphorism, George Washington's "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace" observation, and the arguable misuse of the "Sword of Damocles" metaphor for potential disastrous results determined by Iran [rather than for the weighty responsibility inherent in great power], for example.)
As the book is largely a series of op-eds, it's likely possible to find its various parts elsewhere. There's some apparently-fresh scaffolding connecting the various parts ("Maintaining Military Options", "President Obama's First Term Approach to Iran", "President Obama's Second Election Promises Regarding Iran", "President Obama's Second Term Policy toward Iran", "Closing the Deal"). But the bulk of the fresh material is in the introduction to the book (with notable inline comments in a condensed version of the agreement, in an appendix). This is perhaps to be expected in a book reportedly written in two weeks concerning a complicated and delicate matter of foreign policy.
Dershowitz's conclusions about the Iran Deal and the windup to it are roughly as follows.
The United States did a poor job of presenting a credible threat that we would do anything to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. We claimed the "military option" was on the table, yet we were never really serious about it -- and Iran recognized this. (President Obama receives the bulk of the criticism on this point, simply due to timing, but the second President Bush doesn't escape unscathed. The November 2007 National Security Estimate that concluded Iran had abandoned its nuclear program is particularly criticized as "known to be false", with Dershowitz faulting Bush for it.)
Dershowitz repeatedly received promises from Obama that he would do everything necessary to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and Dershowitz believed him in the runs to the 2008 and 2012 elections. Yet over time, Obama's rhetoric subtly shifted toward accommodation. As a result the Iran Deal ultimately negotiated is substantially worse than it could have been. Inspection regimes give Iran substantial time to hide any forbidden nuclear operations. And the deal is time-limited, with eight, ten, and fifteen-year timelines muddying the waters to make unclear exactly how and when the deal constrains Iran.
But the choice now is not between a better deal and this deal: it's between no deal and this deal. Obama has backed the United States into a corner. The best that can be done to salvage the matter is for Congress to emphasize its understanding of a sentence from the Iran Deal's preamble (perhaps not the best place to locate operative language, I would observe) -- "Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons" -- as the standard to which we will hold Iran during the deal's tenure, while simultaneously approving the deal. Congress should also authorize military action now should Iran violate the deal's terms, to emphasize that the military option emphatically remains on the table should Iran backslide.
This is no ringing endorsement of the Iran Deal. It almost seems to me (as one who did not vote for Obama and likely disagrees with much of Dershowitz's politics, to put my ideological priors on the table) that Dershowitz's conclusion is one he reaches as an unconsciously-partisan attempt to view matters in the light most favorable to the president he voted for and continues to support. Were Dershowitz not a supporter of Obama, or a Democrat in general, I wonder if he would so grudgingly support the Iran Deal. (I think there's a good argument that a gullible Dershowitz was suckered into continuing to support Obama based on incompletely sincere, privately-expressed promises Obama made primarily to gain Dershowitz's political and rhetorical support as, perhaps, a "useful idiot". I'm not sure this was the case, but it seems a very strong possibility.)
But political affiliations aside. Is Dershowitz nonetheless right, even if his opinion is the product of unrecognized partisanship? Are we stuck in the bed we've made? At the very least, I can't say he's wrong (cathartic as it might be to confidently conclude the deal is all right or all wrong). And, sad to say (for I agree this deal indeed doesn't seem very good, particularly with a state so untrustworthy as Iran), I think he might well be right: now, with this proposal as the only possible proposal, this deal is better than no deal.
I'm not sure how convincing Dershowitz's arguments will be to its target audience of the one hundred senators. (And the general public, as a far-distant second.) I suspect most Republicans' hawkishness will lead them to dismiss any argument for the deal, even an argument as critical of the deal as Dershowitz's. A few Republican fence-sitters might be willing to entertain Dershowitz's argument, yet (at least for the senators) certainly the politically safe option is for them to condemn the deal consistent with their opposition to Obama. Similarly, partisan Democrats will already approve the deal to support Obama. That leaves Democratic fence-sitters as the only audience I expect might be receptive to Dershowitz's argument.
But as we've now (as of September 15) seen, dubious political machinations (the deal requiring a two-thirds vote of disapproval to prevent its implementation, as the Iran Deal is allegedly not a treaty -- an at best dubious legal conclusion in my opinion) mean that the Iran Deal will not be voted down. So ultimately the remaining Democratic fence-sitters can vote as is politically convenient.
The most likely value of this book, for the success of the Iran Deal, is that it represents an argument for the deal, from a critic of it, who nonetheless strongly supports Israel. If you find that stance interesting, this book may be of interest to you. If not, reading it might be only an academic exercise. Either way, if the Iran Deal interests you, I think it's worth considering this book's arguments....more
The first Holmes story, the first meeting of Watson and Holmes, the first characterizations of that eccentric detective. And a mysterious murder for SThe first Holmes story, the first meeting of Watson and Holmes, the first characterizations of that eccentric detective. And a mysterious murder for Sherlock Holmes to investigate. How did a dead man arrive in the empty house? Why is there blood everywhere, when the dead man is apparently unwounded? What's that bloody writing on the wall about?
As Holmes capers go, the story is unremarkable in the Holmes canon. This is Doyle's first essay approaching Holmes, and he hasn't quite found the distinctive formula. Too many clues Holmes discovers, Doyle fails to relate to the reader, leaving the ultimate train of logic obscure without insights Holmes only relates in the aftermath. Also, at the halfway point in the novel there's a strange digression into 19th-century Mormon society. (A highly inaccurate account, according to the preface of the edition I read, Doyle having depended upon erroneous news accounts, in addition to the parts that are obvious fiction.) The Mormon side trip is ultimately topical, but a better novel would have segued more smoothly, as Part II first appears to be almost an entirely different story. (The first time I read it, in a different collection, the abrupt storyline change mightily confused me.) Ultimately, however, Holmes characteristically clears up the mystery to the reader's satisfaction.
But really, this novel is best appreciated for its characterizations of the now-familiar Watson and Holmes. When Holmes professes to not care whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa (and of the answer, "I shall do my best to forget it"), when we see Watson's grading Holmes's knowledge ("Botany — Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening."), when we see the first glimmerings of Holmes's philosophy — this is what makes the story worth reading.
I could rate this either three stars (for an imperfect story) or four stars (for the fresh impressions of Holmes). Ultimately, the story's deficits sway me to three stars....more