Saturday, May 16, 2009

Book Review: Breathers - A Zombie's Lament

(Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Boychik lit
and its nastier cousin genre fratire are both skewed takes on the romantic comedy, or rom com. So the blurb for Breathers hooked me, "... a romantic zombie comedy (rom-zom-com, for short) that will leave you laughing, squirming, and clamoring for more."

Now, despite their body temperature, zombies are hot these days. I figured I was a newbie to the genre, but then I realized that Michael Keaton played a zombie in Beetlejuice, as did Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her. And this zom-lit book specifically acknowledges its legacy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (About all I remember from that black-and-white movie is the delicious piece of trivia that they used animal parts from a butcher shop and smeared them with chocolate syrup for the icky, sticky blood.)

So, like so many commercially successful story formulas, zombie lit is a new idea that's stood the test of time.

I was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised by Breathers. The scum-sucking horndog in me was disappointed there wasn't any explicit sex. You know, pointers on how to hit climax before your member falls off? There is a romantic plot line, but it's a subplot and a minor one, at that.

On the other hand, the geeky snob in me was gratified to find "redeeming social value" in the book's themes. I suspect a reason for the popularity of zom lit with young audiences is that the state of zombitude is a handy metaphor for teenage angst. (Author Scott Browne tweeted me that, no, teenage distress is a metaphor for being undead, but let's not quibble.) In Browne's plausible-realistic fictional world, zombies try to fit into middle-class suburban Silicon Valley society. They go to twelve-step groups for counseling, and when they backslide, otherwise screw up, or are simply spied by humans ("breathers") in a public place, the animal welfare wagon collars them, and some responsible person has to post bail to spring them from the pound. And as with unfortunate animal strays, you do not want to know what happens to them if no one shows up to take them home.

Zombies are shunned, reviled, and -- most politically troublesome for their survival -- prohibited from reactivating their Social Security numbers. Yikes!

You could also compare the unfortunate plight of zombies to that of other "protected classes," and suffice it to say the author has thought of that. As a rule, teenagers do not go political to redress their grievances, but Browne's zombies do.

As I believe I picked up in Silence of the Lambs, the theme of cannibalism versus vegan ethics comes up. (I don't know what to say about it, other than that economics will ultimately decide the question for humans in the real world. Expenses of land use, water, and energy will eventually drive the cost of meat so high that most people will become de facto vegetarians for economic rather than ethical reasons.) One of Browne's zombies was a vegetarian when he was a breather, and let's just say he has trouble making the transition.

I'll stop short of throwing in the big spoiler here, but there's a whopper. Just remember, zombies will be zombies. Browne seems to say, if they can embrace that fact, they will be happier. But as long as you're a breather, you won't be.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: The Poet and the Billionaire

There is nothing so compelling as a new idea that's stood the test of time. Philosopher-author Jared Matthew Kessler has reinvented at least two of them -- the Socratic dialogue and the Zen notion that the answer is to be found in the question.

In The Poet and the Billionaire: A Personal Journey of Conversation, Kessler (the poet) conducts an ongoing correspondence with an anonymous guru (the billionaire), who advises a daily Process of self-empowerment by setting goals and attending to every detail with care, love, and commitment.

This little book is full of wit and wisdom and well worth a plane-ride span of your time to digest, although you may be spending the rest of your life working through the insights it stimulates in you.

I do take issue -- kindly, and not adamantly -- with the notion that guru equates with billionaire. I think it's really unfortunate, if not misguided, to think that your run-of-the-mill billionaire has any corner on spiritual insight. Supposedly Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey are nice people. I would guess that Warren Buffet is a decent sort, although I suspect he's more of a disciplined pragmatist than a philosopher. I would not under any circumstances, however, take personal advice from the likes of Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump. In the jargon of Hollywood, they are reputed to be attackers, not attractors.

If you carry New Age thinking to its extreme, you begin to wonder, if I'm so spiritual, why ain't I rich? But the corollary question might just as well be, if Mr. X is such a jerk, how come he's so stinking rich?

I'm reminded of that ancient Hippie quip, "There's no reason for anyone to work. The economy is strong enough to support everybody." (Admittedly, this was pre-meltdown, dot-com and real-bubble.)

I wish latter-day philosophers would take some economics courses just as much as I want some health-remedy hawks to take basic chemistry.

So I cringe the same way when I hear Christopher Howard talk about his crash-course in success, Billionaire Boot Camp. If just a few percent more of the world's population were billionaires, the rest of us would be devastated. There's this economic principle called inflation. A loaf of bread would cost a million bucks (as it did in pre-Nazi Germany for awhile), and those of us who aren't spiritual enough to become billionaires would literally starve.

Monday, May 4, 2009

How to Lie with Charts (original intro)

My most popular nonfiction book has been How to Lie with Charts. The first edition appeared in 1995. The book is now in its robust second edition and has been adopted for coursework at schools such as Georgetown Public Policy Institute and Empire State College.

The second edition omits the original introduction, which was not only a "reason to read" piece but also presents my satiric take on the history of computer graphics for business:

Truth is the Best Revenge
If you feel a twinge of guilt as you pick up this book, don't worry - you are among friends. I admit that the title is provocative, promising a tantalizing debasement of moral values, at least in the realm of business intercourse. But don't be ashamed that you are tempted to look behind the peepshow curtain. We have all been there, or wanted to. Make no mistake: The promise of the title is not false. In these pages can be found the potent means to work serious mischief. Call me an optimist, but I have a better opinion of your motives. I can think of several legitimate-even honorable-reasons for your wanting to know how to lie with charts, and I like to think those are the real reasons I wrote this book for you.

For the moment, then, let's assume that you're not a shameless, unprincipled liar who will stop at nothing in your frenzied scurry to the top of the heap. What is there for you here?

You may have been drawn to this book because you feel, as most of us have at one time or another, that you have been lied to. Whether you are a manager being presented with a suspiciously rosy sales forecast or an investor being enticed with a pretty addition to your portfolio, you could be easy prey for seductive chartmakers. Learning their nasty tricks is one way to even the odds, if not the score. (more)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thoughts on Wolfram Alpha and Artificial Intelligence

I've been thinking about the announcement of the natural-language search engine Wolfram Alpha, which supposedly makes Google seem like a crude toy.

Humans have so many inherent limitations of perception. It is easily conceivable that within this century we will create a race of machines that are smarter (wiser?) than we are. (Sony is projecting 2011 for the year a computer can mimic human thought convincingly, the old Turing test.)

It all goes back to that famous saying of J.B.S. Haldane that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

If we build thinking machines that have sensory capabilities far surpassing ours (like cell phones "understand" microwaves), they may eventually be able to see into other dimensions, discover things literally beyond our ken. Presumably they could translate those experiences for us, but the more advanced they get, the more the translation will be like formulating lessons for little children. For example, could anyone hope to explain the Theory of Relativity to a five-year-old?

The current ethical problems of artificial insemination, cloning, stem cells, etc. will seem like child's play when world leaders have to decide whether to trust a computer that says "You can't possibly understand, but I know I'm right."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

I encountered Bill Bryson's work only recently (don't know how I missed him), but this is the third of his books I've read (you can read my reviews of his Shakespeare and The Thunderbolt Kid).

At 500-plus pages and with its compendious title, A Short History of Nearly Everything is the friendly bedside companion I expected it to be. Bryson is incurably curious, a trait all too rare in our entertainment-anesthetized society. What's more, he's obsessively curious about science, which elevates his geekiness to the level of sainthood, in my view. (I'd be willing to bet he has a well-thumbed copy of The Way Things Work, for example.)

As I read his description of nearly everything, I kept hearing the ghost of Carl Sagan muttering "billions and billions" in my ear. If nothing else, Bryson's comparative anecdotes -- if electrons were the size of beach balls (or it is the other way around?) -- will redefine your notions of small (substring size) and large (universe). I recall he had a similar penchant for numeric comparisons when he informed me that Shakespeare's vocabulary contained just 20,000 words and mine 50,000 but the bard personally coined at least 800 of mine.

I learned somewhere else that every breath we take includes about one air molecule that Julius Caesar breathed in his last breath. Bryson informs us that we share billions of molecules with our forebears. Nature recycles. Indeed, the Earth has only so many molecules, and the more complex elements including many we need to live had to be cycled through the furnaces of at least five stars to be manufactured. Just assembling the raw materials for life takes billions upon billions of years.

However, although we may contain a lot of Shakespeare and the detritus he shed over a lifetime, apparently Elvis shit is not yet sufficiently dispersed for all of us to be so full of him.

As Bryson has in the other two books of his I read, he slips into lessons that verge on sermonizing about the future of our race and planet. There is a lot of anger underneath his whimsy. But like him, I really wonder whether we will destroy our habitat or whether the planet will destroy us.

It would not have seemed so likely before the recent announcements from the scientific community that they have apparently been "underestimating" the extent and rate of global warming.

So I recalled a scientific curiousity that Bryson doesn't mention. But I wish he had. I'd like to have his take on it. Sagan was fond of it -- a mathematical formula called the Drake Equation. It's a series of ratios (probabilities) that, when multiplied together, predicts how many intelligent, communicative civilizations are likely to be in our galaxy.

The last factor in the Drake Equation is crucial and yet seemingly impossible for us to know. It's essentially the typical lifespan (actually, the communicative technological span) of an advanced civilization. Drake estimated it at 10,000 years.

If you plug that number into the formula, the result is about two. That is, there could be two potential civilizations in our galaxy with whom we could become Twitter friends, presuming we didn't mind the years-long communication delays as our tweets traverse the light-years between stars.

However, the Wiki article on the Drake Equation points out that the typical lifespan of ancient civilizations on Earth has been only a few hundred years. And the span of time since we've had radio telescopes for signaling has been about 70 years. And our prospects for longevity as a species are not looking all that good.

Civilizations may be as brief as summer roses in their beautiful flowering. (Shakespeare could have said that, but without my rich context.)

If that's true, don't bother to do the math. Our existence might not be the rarest of accidents, but for all practical purposes, there's no one else around at the moment.

That should make us feel very, very special. And very fortunate to have what we have, for however long we have it.