Review: Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem

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Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem
Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am blown away by this book. I’ve read so many nonfiction math and physics books that they were starting to repeat themselves. So, when I picked this one up I thought, “Well, it’s probably more of the same, but it’s popular enough I should really add it to my repertoire.” Way wrong thought. Not only does this book contain even more charming mathematical anecdotes than I’d ever read before, but it also contains better written versions of the stories I’d heard of. For example, I knew about Sophie Germain, but I didn’t know she’d saved Gauss’ life. I knew all about the burning of Alexandria, but I didn’t know it was Mark Antony who attempted to rebuild the great library. I knew Galois died young in a duel, but I never knew the full story.

I read The Code Book in high school, and I remember it being good, but in a recreational way. It piqued my interest but I didn’t really shelf it with “high literature” like I did with Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid or Music of the Spheres: The Material Universe From Atom to Quaser, Simply Explained. It was enough for me, a young geeky teenager, to have a little fun playing with codes, then move on to another book. I am very happy that I returned to Singh, and I can confidently say this is the better of the two I’ve read. Mathematicians sure are a romantic lot.

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Review: The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren

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The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren
The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren by Gerald Brittle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It cracks me up how disparate the ratings are in this book’s reviews. That’s a sure sign of controversy about the book and its subject matter, with little regard to its quality. To rate a book 1 star because you believe the content is made up, yet being peddled as real is inappropriate. It would be like bashing Frankenstein or The Malleus Maleficarum for being unbelievable. I know, I know, the former was intended as fiction and the latter was from an unenlightened age by people who didn’t know better. But does that imply there aren’t books today peddling dubious concepts as fact by people that ought to know better…? I rest my case. I didn’t make it ten pages into Chariots of The Gods because not only was the subject matter ridiculous (which I knew before picking it up), but the style of presentation itself was ridiculous, like a street-corner preacher tugging at your shirt angry that you don’t take his words as self-obvious fact. This book was nothing like that.

I thought this book was even better than The Exorcist. The prose was clear, sharp, and intellectually rigorous. The plot, or rather the progression of the cases presented, was well-structured. The book oscillates, documentary-like, between the interview format and the narrative exposition of some of the cases. The cases are presented using simple, straight description. The interviewees give thoughtful, intelligent responses, dripping with expert knowledge. It is easy to tell the Warrens are well-read, humble individuals who love their work.

Do not pick up this book for a scare. Like The Exorcist, it is intended to inform the curious, not frighten an audience. The content can be appreciated for its explanatory detail regardless of the reader’s level of skepticism. Theology can be a fascinating subject, but reading original documents can be tedious. This book succeeds in explaining theological concepts using secular language, and that is the source of its power.

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The Past is a Foreign Country

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapters 1 & 2

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 1: A Foreign Country

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” ~ L. P. Hartley

We have lots of examples of how much more violent the world used to be under our very noses. Just read the Illiad or the Old Testament:

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.” (p 40)

Is Judaism (or Christianity) therefore a violent religion? Of course not. Their holy documents are simply windows, like many other ancient texts, that we can use to peek into the past and survey the landscape. What has happened, is that followers of these texts now take the symbols and imagery metaphorically, as fables to help them navigate a modern life which is far less bloody.

“Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.” (p 43)

What about other texts? Turns out, when read literally, there are lots of examples of violence in texts we now consider innocuous: Greek mythology, the Grimm brothers, Mother Goose nursery rhymes, Lancelot, and Shakespeare. Consider the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, when a personal insult escalates into an out-and-out brawl. Yet today dueling seems anachronistic.

“The career of dueling showcases a puzzling phenomenon we will often encounter: a category of violence can be embedded in a civilization for centuries and then vanish into thin air.” (p 59)

Why is that relevant today?

“People today think of the world as a uniquely dangerous place. It’s hard to follow the news without a mounting dread of terrorist attacks, a clash of civilizations, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. But we are apt to forget the dangers that filled the news a few decades ago, and to be blasé about the good fortune that so many of them have fizzled out.” (p 65)

Chapter Two: The Pacification Process

“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” ~ Thomas Hobbes

Why are we violent? What are the conditions for peace? Hobbes provided history’s first cohesive answers to both of these questions. According to Hobbes, there are three main practical reasons to fight:

  • Aggression: invading neighboring territory for want of resources like food, water, hunting ground, and women
  • Defense: protecting your resources from aggressive neighbors
  • Deterrence: following through on a show of strength, or settling a score, to prevent being seen as weak

Working in tandem, these sources of violence (which apply to animals as well as humans) serve to create cycles of anarchic infighting among communities, waning in the presence of abundant resources, and waxing in their absence. Despite being taught that humans are wicked and animals are naturally peaceful, chimpanzees in the wild (humanity’s closest evolutionary relative) enjoy homicide rates as high as 30%. That is, of all chimp deaths, nearly a third of them in some communities occur at the hands of another chimp, and only two thirds of natural causes. That statistic is far higher than any human community, past or present. This is our biological inheritance.

What about the earliest primitive human cultures? Humans started out as territorial, anarchic hunter gatherers, and some of those communities still exist today. Despite the myth we all learn in school about how peaceful the Native Americans were before the Europeans came, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies enjoy the highest homicide rates in the world, and the reasons are right out of Hobbes:

“One Yanomamö man in Amazonia told an anthropologist, We are tired of fighting. We don’t want to kill anymore. But the others are treacherous and cannot be trusted.” (p 92)

This is a classic description of the Hobbesian Trap. Consider, a homeowner is awakened by a rustling in the garage. He grabs his gun and goes down to investigate, whereupon he finds a burglar with a gun in his own hand. Now, both of these men are thinking, “I don’t want to kill this guy, but I’d better kill him before he kills me.” They might even be thinking, “I know he doesn’t want to kill me any more than I want to kill him, but he might be tempted to kill me preemptively if he thinks I might kill him.” And round and round we go. Taking this one step further, imagine the personal vendetta that would erupt between the two men’s families if one of them did kill the other. It is easy to see, from this simple example, how honor and might can amplify violence that may have been seeded by a simple quarrel over resources. Hobbes’ real thesis is that law is better than honor.

Historically, violence did not start its precipitous decline until the invention of agriculture, with its sedentary lifestyle and the creation of the first primitive states. According to Hobbes, the dominion of a ruling class over a producing mob creates a social pressure against infighting.

“Just as a farmer tries to prevent his animals from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding that just shuffle resources or settle scores among them but from his point of view are a dead loss.” (p 86)

He referred to this influence as the Leviathan, the power “to keep all men in awe.” Today, this influence comes in the form of law, police, courts, standing armies, treaties, penitentiaries, even credit scores. In the above example, it is the thought of “I should kill this man, but I could wind up in jail, and he’s itching to kill me, but he doesn’t want to get locked up any more than I do.” Thus, Hobbes provides a way out of his own eponymous trap: The Leviathan. It is the threat of retaliation by a disinterested third party for any infighting amongst the masses. It is the popularly sanctioned monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Note that “popularly sanctioned” is an important part of that equation. Although despots can reduce violence in their territories relative to their “natural” tribal state, they hit a glass ceiling that only more modern democracies have been able to break. That is, the people’s trust and approval of the ruling power increase its effectiveness.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Review: The Overcoat

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The OvercoatThe Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A charming little story. Despite its accolades, I found it somewhat ordinary, even predictable. Which is not to say it was a bad story, only that it didn’t create any sense of awe in me. What I liked about it was that it took an innocuous theme (the purchasing of a new overcoat when the old one is worn out), and dramatized it in an hysterical way. This is not a comedy, but its charm is irresistible.

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Review: Fear Itself

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Fear Itself Fear Itself by Bill Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love these little urban legends come to life. Reminded me, obviously, of the classic creeper “Altered States,” but also of dozens of other medical, psychological experiment gone wrong type stories. This is exactly the kind of thing that floats around the internet. What fascinates me most about it is the question: What exactly makes it compelling? The idea is 1) you find yourself the subject of an innocuous experiment, 2) you start to lose yourself and question the motives of the experimenters, 3) you lose it, and 4) the experimenters scratch their heads, saying “we never thought someone could react so strongly.” What is the pathology here, the symbology, that reels you in, as this author effectively has? I don’t know, but I like it.

I received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Lincoln Speeches

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Lincoln Speeches
Lincoln Speeches by Abraham Lincoln
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book was about what I expected: a short crash course on Lincoln the orator and the issues of the day. Being strictly text, and abridged at that, it is neither instructional for the beginner, nor exhaustive for the researcher. Book 4 of 6 of the Penguin Civic Classics collection, it is a good read for the layman who wants to go beyond the basics taught in grade school. Interestingly, some of his lesser known speeches moved me far more than his famous ones. My favorite was his Oct 16, 1854 “Speech at Peoria, Ill,” about the effective repeal of the Missouri Compromise via the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It is a sharp, clear explication of the difference in policy between the abolishment of slavery and its containment. Obviously, we know how the story ends, but transport yourself to the 1850s, when the house of cards was just beginning to fall and war loomed over the minds of Americans. His policies represented the death throes of compromise and the last ditch effort to preserve an “agree to disagree” national policy on slavery. He was the last famous public figure to tread this line before throwing up his hands and throwing his lot in with one side or the other.

Lincoln, ever the “Good Whig,” presents arguments with mathematical precision, reflected in such simple quotes as “Either one or the other is wrong, or perhaps both a little, but both cannot be right.” There are some quotes that seem lofty by modern standards, and others that seem downright repugnant. What stands out in his prose is his scientific obsession with proper wording and presentation. It gives the impression of an insomniac kept up all night drafting and re-drafting tomorrow’s speeches, questioning the tiniest errant connotation. I believe his example of gentlemanly rationality is one all can follow in public discourse.

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Review: Isaac’s Storm

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Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in HistoryIsaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me preface by saying, if you haven’t read The Devil in the White City, pick that one up! Having said that, this book is an exhilarating and quick read. Like in DWC, the author gets lost in the details some of the time. It helps me appreciate the sheer volume of research that goes into these kinds of books. But even the masters have difficulty sometimes taking a step back and deciding which pieces in the vast, neverending puzzle actually advance the narrative. I think natural disasters in general will always thrill because they are at once deadly and innocent. This book will appeal to nerds interested in the mechanics of cyclone formation, as well as history buffs curious about some of history’s major storms and the battles they perhaps influenced or postpones, and general readers boggled by the image of a grown man leaping out of a window to use the wall of his collapsing house as a raft when the storm waters rise up above the second story of his own house. Both facts are equally compelling: that to this day, the Galveston storm of September 1900 holds the casualty record for American natural disasters, and that people lived to tell about it in detailed notes and journals.

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Review: Lolita

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Lolita
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one sexy book. I hope a reader is not perverted by default for thinking so. For those not familiar with the plot, it is about a French expat who immigrates to America, falls in love with a twelve-year-old girl, marries her mother, murders her mother (without the daughter’s knowledge), then seduces the daughter, taking her on a two year, cross country road trip love affair. Told in any other way, this would be nothing but a typical murder-mystery or crime drama. But Nabokov not only tells the story from the villian’s point of view (and villians, of course, never think of themselves as evil). He goes further, and tells the story from the point of view of a gentlemanly, aristocratic, extraordinarily well-read and well educated anti-hero. From this vantage point, he is the romantic tragic hero, and his darling Lolita is not just an object of his desire, but a love of his life. While the reader conjures modern, ugly images of pedophilia, abduction, rape, and murder, the narrator spins the tale of a great, yet star-crossed love affair.

The prose is the most startlingly colorful and advanced I can ever remember reading. Nabokov wrote most of his novels in Russian, and this is his only English novel. In the afterward, he laments that his half-grasp upon the English language held the book back from fulfilling its potential. I am shellshocked at such a sentiment. Not only was I humbled by his vocabulary, frequent insertion of French phrases, and cultural references, I was also taken with the sheer literary quality of the prose. It is erotic without being vulgar. It is stylized without being inaccessible. And of course it is appalling without being alienating. It is not unlike Poe’s treatment of “A Tell-Tale Heart,” where the narrator knows he is a villian, but romanticizes his actions nonetheless. This book will shock, challenge, and believe it or not, entertain.

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Review: Seawind

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Seawind Seawind by M. Blackwell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book starts out very well, then gets silly. Then it gets sillier and the silliness takes off with a mind of its own until it’s the silliness itself that has to be resolved. The book is a ghost story, set in Cape Cod, and the exposition leading up to the first sighting, is extremely well written. I was impressed with the author’s ability, her grasp of the English language, her command over setting and mood. Unfortunately, the first ghost sighting sends this book in a new direction, that of a Scooby-Doo mystery, with a bona fide group of mystery solvers hitting the local library and folklorist to solve a 150-year-old murder. If I wasn’t disappointed in the first genre shift, I was certainly disappointed in the second. The story climaxes and resolves as a fantasy, with witchcraft begetting pagan gods and involving the unlikely hero: the pet housecat. Had the cat spoken, I probably would have had to put it down, but fortunately she stops short of talking animals.

I would have to say that this is a young adult fantasy novel with the plot of a ghost murder-mystery story. It will doubtless appeal to many readers. I only wish the author would have utilized the reserved, moody prose from the beginning of the story throughout, and resisted her temptations to explore the cliche side avenues along the main road of her idea.

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature, Preface

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Yes, you read that title correctly. Here’s the story. I read about this book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in a Scientific American article. A deadly shooting had just occurred in Norway, and the author used it to promote this book, about the decline of violence in the modern world. There’s a statement to stop a reader short. A decline of violence? The article went on to summarize Pinker’s theme, as it related to the shooting. Namely, that a decline in violence is evidenced by the shock value of a random act of violence that kills only a handful of people. In times past, such events would have been commonplace, and hardly newsworthy. Interesting point, I thought, but is that not just semantics? I was intrigued, and bought the book… The 1341-page book. Shit.

My loyal readers know I do not like long books. However, all of my research into Pinker and this particular book of his led me to believe that it was important. 481 pages in, I can tell you this is not just an important book, this is an incredibly important book, not just in its content and theme, but in its accessibility. A few years ago I read Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, and it so struck me as one of the most important books I’ve ever read that I went out and bought about twenty copies and started gifting them to people I knew. I am not going to do that here. I doubt very much that my friends and family, if gifted a 1341-page book, would read it. So, while my impression so far is that this is one of the most important books I will ever read, I am in a pickle as to how to share its essence with others.

I have decided that rather than a short, blurb-like review of the book once I’ve finished it, I will write a short blog post after finishing each chapter, summarizing the main points for a skeptical audience. That way, I can satisfy my prophetic urges to disseminate the profound content of this book to the masses, while still respecting my friends’ and family’s sense of patience. That’s right, after 481 pages, I am turning back to page 1 to re-read, re-bookmark, re-highlight, re-live, and re-hash this book in more granular detail, so I can broadcast my reactions as I go. Having said all that (which I will not repeat in subsequent reviews), I suppose I can summarize the preface for interested readers:

Review of the Preface

An interesting starting point is the question of whether the public really believes the world is a peaceful place. Certainly, an opinion poll would reveal quite a healthy dose of despair stemming from the news feed today. But an opinion poll is not reality, and we must proceed scientifically if we are to investigate the question of whether modernity with all its virtues and vices, is a force of good or evil in the overall moral progress of the world. The first problem, of course, is the old “if it bleeds it leads”:

The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. (p 16)

Another problem is what Pinker refers to as “historical myopia,” that is, the tendency to dwell mostly upon recent events in thinking about the world as a whole, and ignoring more distant events. Thus, the world as it existed to a peasant during the time of Attila the Hun, is too remote to incorporate into our modern vision of life as it exists today. When we think of violence, we tend to think of the days of innocence we remember from our childhood, and that our parents relay to us, and the contrasting ugliness of events we see on TV today. We forget to acknowledge that (a) as children, things just seem innocent by default, though surely awful things were going on then too, and (b) parents sugar-coat the world for their children, and tend to remember the best things their generation accomplished in their prime, not the ugliness of the world around them.

One thing Pinker does not do is claim that human nature itself is changing for the better. He clearly states that this book is an investigation of the external (or, in the scholarly parlance, exogenous) factors that push the world towards peace. Thus, the thesis is that while human nature itself does not change, the environment does change, partly by our conscious effort, and partly by happenstance. For example, things like medical progress, decreasing infant mortality, literacy, and urbanization, are all factors that, via one route or another, can lead to decreasing rates of, say, rape and domestic abuse. While some factors are truly exogenous, having (at least ostensibly) nothing to do with violence, others are very purposeful, like feminism:

Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men. (p 23)

Even if we accept Pinker’s thesis without a fight, we are still left with a moral qualm. Should we dismiss modern acts of violence as symptoms of the death throes of anachronistic world views and not worry about them, since the overall trend is opposite, effectively giving them a free pass? Absolutely not. The book will argue that, far from giving anachronistic violence a free pass, societies going through periods of pacification will amplify the reactions of rage and disgust to such acts, and push even harder to eradicate them than before. In other words, an anti-segregation movement, for example, could not take hold until an anti-slavery movement had succeeded. If that statement seems obvious, think about it a little more. Not until a disgusting and unspeakable evil (by modern standards) had been eradicated, could sentiments react to the more subtle and insidious evils that took its place.

One starts to appreciate the small gifts of coexistence that would have seemed utopian to our ancestors: the interracial family playing in the park, the comedian who lands a zinger on the commander in chief, the countries that quietly back away from a crisis instead of escalating to war. The shift is not toward complacency: we enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time. (p 23)

The moral lesson is not, then, to ignore the eddies of violence in the overall flow toward peace. Rather, it is this: Let us first acknowledge that we, as a civilization, are doing something right. Then, let us identify those somethings so we can do more of it, and perhaps leave an even more peaceful society behind for the next generation.