Wednesday, December 14, 2005

1984, George Orwell

George Orwell

After my review of Animal Farm, I had an interesting exchange with Bea about that book. (You can see it here if you're curious.) That exchange was in the back of my head as I wrote this review. (Thanks for the inadvertent prodding, Bea.)

I knew I was going to reread 1984 when I read Animal Farm, but I remembered even less about it. Having read it now, I want to break my review up into parts:

The text of the book

This was, perhaps, the largest surprise of rereading 1984. I found some of the actual text rather annoying. Criticizing one of the masterpieces of modern literature is risky - particularly for one such as me, who can't tell an adverb from a lemon, but I have to be honest here.

Mechanically, Orwell's paragraphs are huge and often contain three or more points. That's not how I was taught to write, and I found it distracting. But beyond that, I found some of the writing to be rather dull. Some of Winston's internal monologs go on forever, and the portions of Goldstein's book - quoted at huge length in the middle of part two - are repetitive, obvious, and pedantic. I kept looking ahead to see how long they went on, and they went on a long, long time.

Again, I must state that I am probably the least qualified person on the planet to quibble with Orwell's text, but it got up my nose, so I am mentioning it here.

The ideas in the book

Here again, I was disappointed, but for different reasons. Orwell's view of the future looks really limited to me. Some things, he clearly got right. As I write this, congress is debating whether or not the McCain anti-torture amendment will be part of the current defense authorization bill, and our own version of Big Brother - George Bush - has threatened a veto if it appears there. Taken in that context, what Winston endures in Miniluv is all too possible today. However, we also have the arguments - by John McCain, no less - that torture doesn't work, and produces no useful information. (Yes, I know, the Party wasn't after information in the book; they were out to convert their opponents before destroying them. Never-the-less, I doubt the usefulness of torture as an effective vehicle to actually change people's thinking.)

Looking at the broader picture, we're headed into a 1984 style scenario now, and we're going there willingly. That's the scary thing that I think Orwell missed. He envisioned a society where the revolution came and the new leaders put the party and all of its policies and mechanics into place deliberately. We're going to get there, but it's happening at our own request. Consider:
  • Does your cell phone tell the phone company where you are? Probably. Can they pass that information to the police, the FBI, or others, thanks to the PATRIOT act? Yes. Do they have to tell you if they do so? Nope.
  • Is the NSA capable of listening in on your phone calls? Definitely. Are they? Who knows? Do you care?
  • How many "security" cameras are posted on light standards in your town? How many are run by public vs. private entities? Just exactly who is watching you right now?
All of those things were done by our government to protect us from something at one point or another. The intent was almost certainly good at the time. The intent might still be good, but we all know what happens to those in power.

I could go on here, but I hope my my point is clear. An Orwellian future may well await us, but at the moment it looks like we're walking into it with open eyes and arms. Orwell envisioned getting there at the point of a gun.

How well it's held up over time

Here again, Orwell's crystal ball was cloudy. As a description of a repressive totalitarian regime - if you disregard the radical technological advances that Orwell had no way of predicting and extrapolate forward - it's OK.

The problem is that it discusses a society in a particular state. He discusses some of the rise of the Party, but the bulk of the story is set in the "now" of 1984. In contrast, Animal Farm showed the evolution from something familiar into something different - and yet still familiar, if you get my drift. In that way, Animal Farm seems more relevant to me now as a cautionary tale than 1984. As mentioned above, I didn't really buy Orwell's vision for how the Party came into existence, and so lost the willing suspension of disbelief.

What I worry about that might be similar, though, is a religiously inspired cataclysm. I recently discussed this with a family member, and we're both worried that some of those people who believe fervently in Armageddon (with a capital 'A') and "The End Times" might go out of their way to bring it about. That could result in many nasty things, of course, but exactly what depends on many variables. I suppose in some cases a religious government - as brutal and repressive as Orwell's - is a possible outcome. So is utter chaos, and nuclear winter with few or no human survivors, and everything in between. One thing I am not guilty of is underestimating the possible depravity and stupidity of groups of people under the influence of some set of inflexible rules. What makes things worse, of late, is that the number of people needed to unleash a really awful outcome is dropping - a lot. That partly explains why we may be willingly entering an Orwellian state, of course, but I don't like either the cause or the effect.

In any event, even with all those issues stated, I still think 1984 is pretty good, and I'm glad I reread it. Perhaps, in 1949 when it was published, it was dark and scary enough that it opened some eyes (and minds). Today, I think our (or at least my) vision of ugly futures is more "advanced" than it might have been back then.

Perhaps I need to write some of my own thoughts down. That way someone can accuse me of not having an adequate vision of the future and poor prose in 55 years. If only.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book & Album, Terry Jones & Brian Froud

Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book & Album
Terry Jones & Brian Froud

Two books:
  • Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, by Terry Jones & Brian Froud
  • Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Album, by Brian Froud
These were an unexpected loan from someone at my local gym. They are both funny and sick.

Pressed fairies, like pressed flowers. How? Simple: fairy lands in open book, SLAM!, and voila, you have a pressed fairy. Now imagine a whole book of them, like a diary, with a running story line about a girl in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (The first book is about one girl, the second about two, actually. Any more details would be a spoiler, so you're on your own for that.)

If you search on amazon for these books, you'll find out there are more. In addition, some brief digging on google will also get you to this web site:

at which you can learn that the Terry Jones credited with the text in the first book is the same Terry Jones that was in Monty Python. You can also learn that the Frouds (Brian and his wife Wendy) appear to be artists who've made careers out of fairy art of various sorts.

Interesting, funny, sick, and worth the time if you can get ahold of a copy of these books. They are still for sale, as far as I can tell, with a 10th anniversary edition of the first book (Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book) coming out this year.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene

Title: The Elegant Universe
Author: Brian Greene
Rating: Great!

Wow. If you have any interest in physics or cosmology, read this book. Now.

My father gave it to my for my birthday a few months back. When I got to it, I discovered I was in for a treat.

The first couple of chapters give an overview of things like Relativity in a way that mostly made sense to me for the very first time. I say "mostly" because these concepts are fundamentally hard to grasp. I need to go back and read those chapters again. They were great, and they made a LOT of sense. I, however, am dense, and I was gulping the book down, rather than reading and pondering.

Then we learn about string theory: its past, present, and possible future. Wow. Greene makes this thing - which I had no real understanding of - come alive. I'd read a fair bit about it, but it was all pretty dry. Greene shows how it has grown, how it has fit into and enhanced existing theories, and where work still needs to be done. (And he's honest - there is a LOT of work that still needs to be done.)

Greene's prose is excellent, and his enthusiasm for the topic really comes through. He uses a lot of analogies to assist with the explanations, and he never bogs you down with the math. There are some hints at the math in the end notes, but the real stuff is so far out that I'm not sure how doctors Shaw and Eisworth would handle it. I suspect it would be nice to know the math, but honestly, I'd have to start all the way back at trig to get it into my brain again. And I'm the one that couldn't grasp the introduction for the layman in Doug's doctoral thesis.

Another great thing about the book is how often Greene acknowledges the people in the field. He shows just how big an enterprise string theory is, and how many people have been involved, and provides some insight into the cooperative nature of the research. There are a lot of people working on string theory, and after reading this, I hope they all get to keep at it for as long as it takes.

There is a newer book out by Greene as well, titled The Fabric of the Cosmos. I am fortunate enough to have been given that book as well, and I am looking forward to digging into it. I will put it off for a few days, though, to give me time to finish all of our holiday stuff. But then...

In all seriousness, if you have any interest in physics or cosmology, this is the book to read. From what I can tell, it provides both excellent background, history, and then follows all that up with current theory and future research directions.

Highly, highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

God's Debris, Scott Adams

Title: God's Debris
Author: Scott Adams
Rating: OK

First off, this was an entirely unexpected thing. I visited the Dilbert web site when I had a few minutes to spare and found a banner saying Scott Adams was giving a way an e-book titled God's Debris. I like the Dilbert comic strip. As an (ex-)engineer, I know that is has an air of truth to it. In fact, sometimes it is far too close to the truth - bordering on a documentary about engineering life. (I've also found that people in many other professions feel the same way about it, which I find interesting. Mr. Adams is tapping into something deep and shared in all of us somehow.)

In addition, past experience has shown me that Scott Adams has some odd (to my way of thinking) ideas.

So out of curiosity, I chased the link. I figured it might be amusing, and (even more important) it might help me in my quest to get ahead of the Rev. Dr. Shaw in the totals page again.

The link is:

I don't know how long it will be good, but it's there now. If you want to read what I did, and have a PDF viewer on your computer, the entire thing is free.

Of this book, the page above says:
Why is it Free?

Frankly, this is the hardest book in the world to market. When it first came out in hardcover, booksellers couldn't decide if it was fiction or nonfiction. Was it philosophy or religion? It's a religion/science book written by a cartoonist, using hypnosis techniques in the writing. It's a thought experiment. It's unlike anything you've ever read. How do you sell something that can't be explained?
I'm not sure those big claims are all true. I've read some interesting things in my day, and I think they can be explained rationally if you take the time.

That said, I am not going to write a review that will spoil or explain the book.

I will say that it presents a lot of unusual ideas in quick succession, and that the author himself (on the web page listed above) challenges you to figure out what is wrong with it. Frankly, I found some of it interesting speculation, a bit of it was interesting philosophy, and some of it was tripe. However, the entire thing taken together was at least interesting enough to keep me reading. I also suspect that people will differ over which parts of it were interesting, tripe, or whatever. I think Scott Adams would be happy to hear that.

It's not long - about 150 pages of large type. I read it in perhaps three hours, total. (I wasn't keeping close track, so don't hold me to that number too tightly.)

The worst thing about God's Debris is that he got some of the physics entirely wrong. (Don't worry... there are no equations, and you don't have to understand relativity to read it.) The best part is that even when he's wrong he's trying to make you think and figure out what is right or wrong or interesting from your own perspective.

Consider reading it. It costs nothing, and some of the major messages (as I read them) can only do you (and the rest of the planet) some good.

There is a sequel as well, but that isn't free. At least not yet. I'm pondering that.

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Title: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell
Rating: Good

A TV commercial style review:
This is the point.
This is me banging the point into your head.
Any questions?
More seriously, though:

Animal Farm is one of the couple of books that Orwell is really well known for. It is a fast read, simple in content and style.

As a howl of protest against totalitarian regimes, it is still a reasonable cautionary tale. However, rereading it well after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, I think it has lost something. I hasten to add that I know there are still totalitarian regimes out there - some of them quite large and nasty. Orwell was targeting the specifics of the Soviet Union with this book, though, and that has all changed rather substantially now. I don't hold that against the book or the author. After all, Animal Farm was originally published in 1946. I think any book is allowed to age a bit after nearly 60 years.

One of the more interesting things in this book was the actual, physical, copy I read. It belonged to my wife in school, and was clearly read for some class (probably in early high school, but perhaps a bit earlier - I'm not sure). She's highlighted various passages in the book, and included some notes (things like "the provisional government exists for a while", "you must sacrifice for the state", and "purge") in places. All pretty obvious stuff, really. However, when I asked her about her memory of the book as I was digging it out, the quote she remembered was the donkey (Benjamin) saying "Donkeys live a long time." I discovered that quote isn't highlighted. So the thing that stuck with her 25 or 30 years after she read it wasn't what she'd noted at the time. Interesting how our minds work.

I read it far too many years ago as well. The only thing I remembered was that the pigs took over, and the final revision of the commandments, painted on the barn wall: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." I've used that phrase in my professional career, but no one has ever taken the amount of offense I intended by it. Funny that.

I'd like to quote Doug's review of Animal Farm from his top 100 book review: "It's never too early to start mistrusting people with power." That is an important lesson we all need to learn somewhere along the line. If this book helps drive that lesson home for you or someone you know, good.

It's a classic book, and a reread every 20 years or so is probably in order, but if you're naturally cynical like me, the message is something you keep it in mind all the time anyway. Whether we do anything about it is left as an exercise for the interested reader.