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review 2017-12-16 01:01
The Power of Narrativium
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

Murder by Death and BrokenTune have essentially summed up a lot of the points I'd want to make about The Science of Discworld.  (What a misnomer that title is, incidentally -- and not only because the science part is really concerned with "Roundworld," i.e., our world ... the science part in this book expressly negates what chiefly makes Discworld tick, namely narrativium, which is described here as the narrative imperative, but actually stands for so much more.  But I'll get to that in a minute.)  And there is quite a bit of more discussion in MbD's post here and in the comments sections of BT's posts here and here, so little remains for me to add. 


There is one point in particular that is bothering me about the assertions made by the scientist co-authors, though, and that is their constant poo-pooing of any- and everything that isn't scientifically quantifiable or measurable, even though (in one of their many contradictions) they do admit in the book's final chapters that the "How-to-Make-a-Human-Being" kit we have inherited and are, ourselves, passing on to future generations (both individually and collectively) includes "extelligence", which constitutes not only collectively shaped knowledge and experience, but also virtually every abstract concept known to mankind today ... as long as -- according to Stewart and Cohen -- a person's response to such a concept can be measured and recorded in some way, shape or form.  That, however, still doesn't stop them from talking down the concept of a soul (human or otherwise), or from insisting that narrativium doesn't exist in our world.  I disagree, and largely in lieu of a review I'm going to throw their co-author Terry Pratchett's own words right in their teeth (and incidentally, Pratchett was, for all I know, an atheist, so religion -- which seems to be a key part of Stewart and Cohen's objection to the notion of a soul -- doesn't even enter into the discussion here):

"I will give you a lift back, said Death, after a while.

'Thank you.  Now ... tell me ...'

What would have happened if you hadn't saved him?' [the Hogfather, Discworld's  version of Santa Claus.]

'Yes! The sun  would have risen just the same, yes?'


'Oh, come on.  You can't expect me to believe that.  It's an astronomical fact.'

The sun would not have risen.

She turned on him.

'It's been a long night, Grandfather!  I'm tired and I need a bath!  I don't need silliness!'

The sun would not have risen.

'Really?  Then what would have happened, pray?'

A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.

They walked in silence.

'Ah,' said Susan dully. 'Trickery with words.  I would have thought you'd have been more literal-minded than that.'

I am nothing if not literal-minded.  Trickery with words is where humans live.

'All right,' said Susan.  'I'm not stupid.  You're saying humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable.'

Really?  As if it was some kind of pink pill?  No.  Humans need fantasy to be human.  To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

'Tooth fairies?  Hogfathers? Little --'

Yes.  As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

'So we can believe the big ones?'

Yes.  Justice.  Mercy.  Duty.  That sort of thing.

'They're not the same at all?'

You think so?  Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy, and yet-- Death waved a hand.  And yet you act as if there is some ... some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

'Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point--'

My point exactly.

She tried to assemble her thoughts.

There is a place where thwo galaxies have been colliding for a million years, said Death, apropos of nothing.  Don't try to tell me that's right.

'Yes, but people don't think about that,' said Susan.  Somewhere there was a bed ...

Correct.  Stars explode, worlds collide, there's hardly anywhere in the universe where humans can live without being frozen or fried, and yet you believe that a ... a bed is a normal thing.  It is the most amazing talent.


Oh, yes.  A very speccial kind of stupidity.  You think the whole universe is inside your heads.

'You make us sound mad,' said Susan.  A nice warm bed ...

No.  You need to believe in things that aren't true.  How else can they become?  said Death, helping her up on to Binky."

(Terry Pratchett: Hogfather)

So you see, Messrs. Stewart and Cohen, there is narrativium everywhere where there are humans.  It may not have been part of the universe from the time of its creation (however we attempt to pinpoint or define that time).  And we don't know whether any of the long-extinct creatures who populated our planet millions of years before we came along had it -- if they did, it seems they at any rate didn't have enough of it to create a lasting record beyond their fossilized physical remains.  But humans wouldn't be humans without narrativium.  Because that's how the rising ape becomes something more than a mammal (call it a falling angel or whatever you will).  Because that's why it is the sun we see rising every morning, not merely a ball of flaming gas.  Because that's why the stars are shining in the sky at night, not a collection of galactic nuclear reactors that just happen to be close enough so we can see them with our naked eye.  And because that's what enables us to hope, to dream, and to consequently make things come true that nobody previously even thought possible.


It's narrativium that got us where we are today.  Not alone -- science, technology, and a whole lot of parts of the "How-to-Make-a-Human-Being-Kit" helped.  A lot.  But narrativium is the glue that holds them all together.


And since as a species we also seem to be endowed with a fair share of bloodimindium, maybe -- just maybe -- that, combined with narrativium and scientific advance all together will even enable us to survive the next big global catastrophe, which in galactic terms would seem to be right around the corner (at least if our Earth's history to date is anything to go by).  If the sharks and a bunch of protozoons could, then one would hope so could we ... space elevator, starship Enterprise, or whatever else it takes, right?


P.S.  Like MbD's and BT's, my love of the Discworld wizards is unbroken.  And clearly there is no higher life form than a librarian.  (Ook.)


P.P.S.  I said elsewhere that I'd be replacing Val McDermid's Forensics with this book as my "16 Festive Tasks" Newtonmas read.  I'm still doing this: at least it does actually have a reasonable degree of actual scientific contents; even if highly contradictory in both approach and substance and even if I didn't much care for the two science writers' tone.



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review 2017-12-13 12:37
How to Fight the Presidents
How to Fight Presidents: An Illustrated Comedic History of the Wildest, Toughest, and Most Interesting and Badass Facts About Every US President - Daniel O'Brien

Total. boy. humour.  And it's hilarious.  Really silly and did I mention the boy humour?  There's a lot of it.


At a guess I'd bet that maybe 60% of the information in each section covering each president (except those that are still alive - is that for legal reasons, do you think?) is probably factual.  20% is blatantly called out by the author himself as just wishful thinking, and the other 20% could go either way.


But I hope nobody thinks they're picking this up in order to expand their factual knowledge  of presidential history.  There's a lot of good stuff I didn't know before, but the focus is very narrow and aimed solely at making the presidents all look like bad asses.  How to Fight Presidents is a fun, entertaining, wishful thinking sort of book that will accidentally import some small inconsequential facts into the reader's brainpan when they aren't paying attention; guaranteed to make them only slightly quirky at the next cocktail party, or the dark horse at their next trivia night.  Or maybe just slightly better prepared should he or she accidentally find themselves in a dark alley with a sitting president-pretender. You never know I guess.


Book themes for Festivus: Read anything comedic; a parody, satire, etc.  Books with hilariously dysfunctional families (must be funny dysfunctional, not tragic dysfunctional).  Anything that makes you laugh (or hope it does).


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review 2017-12-12 21:32
My eighty-first podcast is up!
Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic - David Head

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview David Head about his book on the Americans who engaged in legalized piracy during the Latin American wars of independence. Enjoy!

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review 2017-12-12 14:00
Best History I've found about the Italian theatre in World War 2
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 - Rick Atkinson

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like the battle for Italy doesn't seem to get as much attention as other areas of World War 2. Normandy and Stalingrad are more theatrical... larger-scale clashes and deceptions. The war in the Pacific is primarily naval, and aviation plays a bigger role, so those are both glamorous, and they involve cultures seemingly more "exotic" to Western readership.


As stated above, this is the best book I've read on the subject... actually the only book I've ever read exclusively devoted to this subject, and it does a solid job addressing a few deserving main topics:


The Italian Campaign as "battlefield laboratory"

Italy is smaller scale, and was a testing ground for a lot of things that followed, so there are a lot of humiliating missteps... but they were worth it, because the lessons learned helped win the war in other places. The "laboratory" of the Italian campaign involved the first large-scale mechanized amphibious landings in the modern era (the Romans apparently did a lot of this, and the various British and American Generals involved read extensively on those. The book furnishes some of the titles, if you wish to pursue this.) Landings in Gela, Sicily and Salerno, near Naples were successful in that they weren't catastrophic failures (e.g. the landing armies weren't pushed into the sea by defending Axis powers), but were also filled with a lot of embarrassments... supplies lost overboard, equipment ruined by sand and saltwater, the hazards of landing supplies in poorly-chosen order (e.g. landing field guns to defend the beach, but with all the ammunition in another ship scheduled to arrive a few hours later;  landing unarmed medical personnel before infantry to defend them, etc)  


How best to coordinate multinational fighting forces?  The Italian campaign was fought by American, British, Canadian, Australian, Indian, and New Zealand forces. Later some additional nations added to the effort (French North Africa, South Africa) Working out the command structures took a lot of adjusting, and some of it was complicated with the individual personalities involved (British General Montgomery was a showboater but very risk adverse; American General Mark Clark was very competent but very politically minded and not-so-secretly an Anglophobe; British General Alexander was strategically sound and aggressive in a good way, but perhaps not the best manager of his subordinates, etc)  The books does well in this area... and provides a nice balance of telling the war from the flag-rank level (where the decisions are made) as well as the "boots on the ground" experience of the footsoldiers. What I particularly like was the amount of time the author describes a soldier based on his letters home, diary entries, hospital notes about him, etc, and then cuts his narration short with a "he died later that day, in an enemy shelling" etc.  The cumulative effect of these thumbnail sketches, where the person becomes humanized, followed by a quick and inglorious death- really drives home the human cost of this campaign. More than 50,000 Allied fatalities (about the same losses as America experienced in the Vietnam War, but that was drawn over nearly 10 years, as opposed to 15 months here) and over 200,000 wounded in final tally. 


The other big area where Italy served as "learning curve" was appreciating the uses and limitations of airpower in a land campaign. In the Pacific, airpower was supreme... because the distances are so great, because the fighting platforms (battleships and attack submarines) are so much slower than aircraft, and because the wide open sea provides clear appreciation of the targets.  In land warfare, air superiority is also necessary (witness American destruction of Iraqi forces before we ever entered ground phase, in the First Gulf War), but there are a lot more places to hide, and the enemy can blend in with the civilian population, making them a poor target. The enemy might also do ingenious things like hide tanks and field guns in train tunnels or mineshafts, etc. Directing air power to good effect is trickier... which author Rick Atkinson deftly describes.


Interesting: because so many of these issues were unresolved at the onset of the Italian campaign, Atkinson argues credibly that the reclamation of Italy is the portion of WW2 which most resembled WW1... entrenchment, large scale head-on infantry confrontations, with massive body counts for small gains of real estate, and tanks (instead of air power) serving as the primary forward destructive force.


Political aspects of the fight

What's interesting about the political dynamics of this theatre is that Italy was an enemy at the time of the initial Sicilian landing, but by the time the Sicilian operation was completed,  Mussolini was driven from power, and his successor, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, promptly surrendered. Now, officially, Italy was essentially an ally being occupied by hostile German forces... but it wasn't that easy, because pockets of Italian fascists were still fighting, and a large portion of the civil population was ambivilent/ noncommittal to the fight. This complicated a lot of supply questions. If the local population is willing to help supply you (i.e. sell to you), that reduces the supplies you need to bring to an operation, and how much you care about defending your supply chain. This is also an area rich with psychological warfare, and a robust campaign was mustered to convince Italians to support the Allied forces (even fight the Germans with them), and to disrupt German operations. As the campaign progresses, the Italians come over, but the question of loyalties is still a factor in the landing at Salerno. 


Other considerations explored

How much value is there in capturing Rome?  It has great propaganda and morale value, but much less industrial value than pushing on for a quick capture of industrial centers in Turin, Milan and Bologna.


Arguments pro and con for invading Italy at all. Was it really necessary to the war?  Churchill really wanted to secure the Mediterranean, in hopes of reestablishing trade with India through the Suez Canal... in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful bid to retain the British Empire after the war. Americans were less enthusiastic, and felt Italy could be marginalized and left to "die on the vine", thinking that a landing in Southern France might be more effective, by forcing a direct confrontation with German border forces earlier in the war.


Ultimately, the decision to Italy came down to two factors: 1) and urgent need to draw German forces out of the Russian theater, to ensure that Russia not fall to Hitler (although there is a question of whether he could have held it, even if he captured it); and (2) insufficient capacity to transfer the land forces anywhere else. Neither the British or American Navy could spare sufficient transport ships to more all the  tanks, infantry, and mobile infrastructure which captured North Africa in 1942 to the Pacific, or even up to Britain to participate in the Normany invasion. Tunisia is only about 125 miles from Sicily, so the jump could be achieved over this small distance with many short shipping runs, but would be impractical for much larger distances. Really, if the forces left over from the North African campaign weren't used to capture Italy, there was no good place to locate them, with the available shipping resources. Even in the European theater, WW2 was truly a naval war.  


Good reading.   Four stars (not five) because it gets too bogged down in detail in some parts, is a bit too uncritically laudatory of Eisenhower, and it lacks sufficient maps to support the text. Some of these little villages are not in my atlas. Google maps makes up for some of it, but even so, there are bridges, reservoirs, railroad lines, etc which aren't around today... a five star military history book would err on the side of too many maps, rather than too few.



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review 2017-12-11 05:44
It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History
It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History - Jennifer Wright

This was good!  I wasn't sure at the start, because it's pretty clear the author geared her narrative towards women (or men, but really, women) who were battling their way through breakups while reading this book.  But it's easy to get past that and just enjoy the history and the wry humour.  And omg were these people awful.  You expect Nero to be horrible, but - and maybe it's just my general ignorance of Roman history, but not this weirdly horrible.  And Oskar Kokoschka... holy cheese whiz weird, although I think I found it even more bizarre that everybody let him get away with his flavour of weird without seemingly batting an eye.  By the time you get to Norman Mailer, his horribleness almost seems bland by comparison.  Almost.  


This is popular history in its purest form, but it's lively and entertaining while it's being informative.  The source list at the end is a little web-link heavy for my taste, but I'm going with it; I learned a lot and little of it had to do with how these people broke up with their exes. 


I have this in print, but borrowed the audio from the library and while I was a bit hesitant about the narrator at the beginning, I soon changed my mind.  Hillary Huber's performance starts off sounding a bit monotone, but I soon found it works really well with Wright's wry humour and occasional sass.  I particularly enjoyed her narration in the car as it was both calming and often hilarious.


I definitely recommend this (in audio or print) if you're looking for light, breezy and educational.


Book themes for Kwanzaa: Read a book whose cover is primarily red, green or black.


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