The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Reading challenge book 41: a graphic novel

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua

Amazon link here; link to abbreviated webcomics here.

 

Let me start by saying how much I completely adored this graphic novel. It’s witty; I enjoyed the art; the author conveys her love of the topic in every panel; and I never knew that footnotes and endnotes could be so entertaining. To put things in context, I may have uttered the words “I want to have sex with Sydney Padua’s brain”. (I know, ick, right?) But The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (or Thrilling Adventures) gets an A* from me.

So. Babbage and Lovelace lived in Victorian England. Charles Babbage read Maths at Cambridge, and although he was disappointed by the quality of teaching at undergrad ( O_o), he later became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He was an eminent engineer and contributed to a number of fields such as cryptography, but nowadays he’s best known as the father of modern computing. He drew up plans for the famous ‘Difference Engine’, which was designed to automatically generate series from polynomial functions, but abandoned this design before a model was ever successfully completed to begin work on his ‘Analytical Engine’, which was more complex and designed for general computing. Neither machine was ever completed.

As a side note, hubby and I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View a couple of years ago, and walked in partway through the demonstration of a recreation of the Difference Engine. Hubby was quite interested, but I had absolutely no idea about what was going on. I’m pretty sad that I missed out on viewing it with any degree of understanding!

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron, and from an early age had a keen interest in mathematics (which her family steered her towards in the hope of offsetting any Romantical Tendencies she might have inherited from her father). In Victorian times, women could not write and publish scientific papers; however Ada used a workaround to publish her translation of an account of one of Babbage’s presentations on his Analytical Engine; only she added many pages of footnotes (three times as many pages as the translated article), which included a computer program for the Engine.

While historical records claim that Ada Lovelace died shortly afterwards, Thrilling Adventures enlightens the reader to the existence of a Pocket Universe, in which Lovelace and Babbage lived on to build the Analytical Engine and fight crime. Which is the opening premise for the novel. (See an abridged version of this comic here).

Why select The Thrilling Adventures?

Basically, because I’m a giant nerd. I know a very little about Turing machines, and wanted to see how the Difference Engine fitted in. One of the Appendices to the novel includes an simplified illustration of how the Engine worked, and I found it fascinating.

Incidentally, I’ve also started playing a game called ‘Human Resources’, which teaches you basic assembly-programming (I think), which is super fun. But a lot of the concepts used in the game correlate to the design for the Analytical Engine. This excited me a lot!

What kind of crime do Lovelace and Babbage fight?

This is a little controversial. Queen Victoria is very keen that they Fight Crime, whereas Lovelace and Babbage originally planned to produce log tables, charts for navigators… But they compromise and prevent Financial Collapse! And Proof-Read Novels for Spelling Errors! And there is a fantabulous comic of Ada Lovelace reading about imaginary numbers and then having a dream about them a la Alice through the Looking Glass. 

You mentioned footnotes?

Yes! Typically there are 3-4 footnotes per page, giving the historical background to the panel. This may sound dry, but they add in any number of small, human details – for example, although Lovelace was steered towards mathematics by her family to keep her poetical tendencies in check, her tutors had serious concerns over whether her frail, female body could sustain the immense intellectual effort of doing advanced mathematics. (They also advised that she steered away from areas such as imaginary numbers, which could bring forth her hidden romantic nature!)

Sydney Padua did a huge amount of research on Babbage and Lovelace, and she references correspondence and other source materials. Extracts from a number of these are included in one of the Appendices. And she talks about the process of doing the research, and how excited she was when she made any significant discoveries – proper geeking out. Love it!

What else?

I loved the tongue-in-cheek nature of this webcomic. The relationship between Babbage and Lovelace is a little Wallace and Gromit-esque (Ada is positioned as Gromit, obviously), though in a loving, respectful way. There are a number of witty anachronisms (a shop-sign ‘Google’ with pairs of spectacles in the window; cat memes delighting Queen Victoria).

So you would recommend Thrilling Adventures?

Absolutely! To quote a friend, if you don’t enjoy this book, you’re a bad person and can’t be my friend. Even if you’ve read the webcomic, you should buy the book because a) it expands on the original webcomic (more detail and frames); b) you’ll enjoy re-reading it; c) you can lend it to all your friends and delight them too; and d) it would be smashing to give Sydney Padua some money because not only is she awesome, but doing so might encourage her to write a sequel.

I hope you enjoyed this unbiased summary which in no way resembled a squeefest.

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that

Reading challenge book No. x – A non-fiction  book

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that, by Ben Goldacre 

Amazon link here

I’m quite a big Ben Goldacre fan. I never read his Guardian column while it was being published as I was reading The Times back then, but I really enjoyed Big Pharma (while being horrified, obviously). Some of his insights about drug testing were probably pretty obvious – for example, that it’s more useful for physicians that drugs under development are tested for effectiveness against rival drugs, rather than placebos – but were eye-opening to me as they were issues that I hadn’t really thought about before. I like to think that I have a reasonably critical mindset, but Big Pharma sharpened my focus, which can only be a good thing.

On a side-note, I vaguely remember school science having more of a fact and rule focus rather than necessarily teaching the scientific method. Maybe that’s unfair to my teachers, maybe it’s something I don’t remember because it was taught by not examined, but that doesn’t necessarily seem like the best focus to me.

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that (hence to be referred to as Complicated) is a collection of some of Ben Goldacre’s columns from the Guardian that were published over roughly five years (I think, my copy of the book is at home). In these columns he applies a critical, scientific mindset to newly-published research and articles that (badly) summarise said research. Papers which came in for significant criticism included The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Independent. (From memory, The Times wasn’t really referred to. Good for them.)

Complicated is arranged into sections by topic, which was helpful for locating articles you might find interesting, particularly for those readers adopting a ‘dipping in’ approach. The individual articles are very entertaining (yes, nerd alert sounding), but due to the original column’s nature and word limit there is repetition of the same overall theme without a deeper dive or significant continuity between topics. As such, this is probably better for dipping into than sitting down and reading cover to cover. (I did some of the latter but I don’t remember much of the detail, just the overriding concepts). A lavatory book, perhaps?

I think that this book is great for exposing people to just how bad scientific reporting can be, and I would strongly recommend it for people who tend to read the aforementioned publications and quote them verbatim. It’s the kind of thing I can imagine giving to a not-so-scientifically-inclined relative, with the hope of opening their eyes a little. One of my key take-aways is basically not to believe any science that I read in the papers. (Depressing, yes. But worth knowing).

One of my favourite columns came from 2009, and can be found here.

In a week where our dear Daily Mail ran How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk of Cancer, I will exercise some self-control, and write about drugs instead. “Seven hundred British troops seized four Taliban narcotics factories containing £50m of drugs,” said the Guardian on Wednesday. “Troops recovered more than 400kg [882lb] of raw opium in one drug factory and nearly 800kg of heroin in another.” Lordy, that is good.

Spoiler, it wasn’t worth £50m. Ben Goldacre estimates the worth of the raw opium seized to the Taliban (no heroin was seized, incidentally) was actually $126k. That’s a fairly significant variance. But hey, that’s still a super blow to the forces of bad guys. Put your hands together for Team Britain!

 

Christmas in the Snow

Reading Challenge Book 39 – a book set during Christmas

Christmas in the Snow, by Karen Swan

Amazon link here

I was strongly recommended Christmas in the Snow by my mother, which is why I chose it for this challenge. Our reading tastes don’t always completely coincide, but I really enjoyed this book. Although CitS has romantic elements, I see it as first and foremost being a book for women about women .

I was originally a little sceptical about the overall set-up. Allegra Fisher is a highly successful fund manager who is pitching to close a deal that will win her a highly -oveted place on the board of the company she works for. She’s a proper city girl – a workaholic who regularly stays late enough at work to stay at a local hotel; she has a personal shopper who comes to her office to make sure that she has the right dress for every social event; she has no significant other and rarely spends time with her family; she is a known regular at London City airport where she flies out multiple times a week.

So when Allegra uncharacteristically has a one-night stand, and then finds out that the man she slept with is her competitor for the position on the board? Dot dot dot, insert cut-out romance here, right?

Actually, no. The framework is clichéd, but Christmas in the Snow isn’t a flimsy shell pasted onto a generic romance. Allegra’s work-life felt real to me. I work in a business where a lot of men are driven to push for professional success and make partner, but not so many women choose to take that same path. The hours required don’t permit aggressive career progression and family; when you’re working 100 hour weeks and have an active social life entertaining clients, a personal shopper is a necessity, not a status symbol. The difficulties Allegra faces felt real me : a misogynistic mentor who has stood behind her all the way till her final promotion, but just doesn’t see a woman as being partner material; the scrutiny (particularly at social events) that accompanies being the only senior woman in the business; the horror of gradually developing and nurturing a business relationship with a Chinese contingent, only to find out that the man-in-charge won’t seriously consider negotiating with a woman. I wouldn’t choose to make the choices that Allegra did, but I do understand that to achieve absolute professional success in so challenge an industry, those are choices that you have to make.

But Allegra’s life isn’t just about work. She has a sister, Isobel, who she doesn’t spend a lot of time with but has a very close bond with, going back to childhood. Additionally Allegra’s mother suffers from Alzheimers and both her daughters visit her regularly, despite all the heartache that this brings them.

The main plot of Christmas in the Snow relates to Allegra and Isobel’s family. While packing up their mother’s house, after she has moved to a care home, they find a beautiful cuckoo clock and an antique cuckoo clock in the attic. They have never seen either of these before, giving rise to the question of where they’ve come from. Allegra takes the advent calendar, which helps to frame the book – as the story progresses, each day is indirectly linked to the wooden charm found in that day’s drawer of the advent cabinet.

Meanwhile, the remains of Allegra and Isobel’s grandmother are discovered in the Swiss Alps, decades after she was buried alive in an avalanche. Except that Allegra and Isobel thought they knew their grandmother, having grown up to have a loving relationship with her in England; and yet DNA tests prove that the unknown woman was their grandmother. Allegra and Isobel travel to spend a few days in the ski resort of Zermatt to find out who the mysterious woman buried in the Alps was and how she was connected to their family – and in the meantime, seize the opportunity to take in some skiing and have their first trip away together for years.

What I love about CitS is the relationship between Allegra and Isobel, and how it’s central to the story, much more so than the romantic elements. They each have their areas of strength – despite Allegra’s professional success, she lacks Isobel’s easy charm – but they pull together as a team and as family. Isobel delights in spending a few days having girl-time and living the luxurious lifestyle that’s normal to her sister. Allegra has time to focus on the family life she’s neglected for so many years. They are my OTP.

From reading the book jacket, I thought that the mystery elements of CitS sounded cheesy, but they unfolded at a natural pace and were sufficiently well-described to be shocking to the sisters living through the events without jumping the shark. Also, the progression of Allegra’s relationship with Mr One-Night-Stand was very gradual and wasn’t given centre-prominence.

You could probably class CitS as chick-lit, but it’s definitely intelligent chick-lit. I love books written for women which address the challenges for women of balancing careers, families and other interests, and Christmas in the Snow fulfils that in spades. I’ll definitely be checking out some of Karen Swan’s other books

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Reading challenge book 40 – A book written by someone under 30

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

Amazon link here

Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the age of 27, having spent a year working as an orderly in a mental institution. I’ve owned this book for a while but in a horrible edition, so I never pushed through after a couple of pages. I’m glad that now I have. I think I’m also grateful that I read this before seeing the film – Jack Nicholson is such a strong actor that it was good to come to the book with a blank slate.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set in a mental institution, before the days of de-institutionalisation, and is written from the POV of Chief Bromden, a half-American-Indian, who is thought to be deaf and dumb. He can’t cope with everyday life and his disorder manifests in hallucinations; in particular Bromden is very sensitive to his environment and his hallucinations are influenced by other people’s emotions. They are described incredibly vividly, in beautiful language:

As I get closer [to the staff room] I see there’s a light seeping out this peephole, green light, bitter as bile. The staff meeting is about to start in there, is why there’s this green seepage; it’ll be all over the walls and the windows by the time the meeting is halfway through, for me to sponge off and squeeze in my bucket…

Cleaning the staff room is always bad. The things I’ve had to clean up in these meetings nobody’d believe; horrible things, poisons manufactured right out of skin pores and acids in the air strong enough to melt a man. I’ve seen it.

His detachment from reality, particularly when he feels powerless, leads to his hallucinations of a thick fog (detaching him from his surroundings), though he believes the fog is a physical phenomenon that is generated by the Big Nurse who runs his ward.

What does it mean to be a man?

One of the themes of this book is emasculation. The psychiatric ward is ruled by the Big Nurse, who is portrayed at the start of the book as being all powerful. She has connections to the Powers-that-Be in the hospital, she has three black orderlies working for her who are effectively her henchmen in the ward, and she uses electroshock therapy and lobotomies as disciplinary tools (not stopping at threats). With her strength of mind she dominates everyone, even the ward’s doctor.

Meanwhile, the inmates are initially shown as ‘weak rabbits’. Harding, one of the saner inmates, has a smoking-hot wife, but it’s implied that he can’t get it up for her and his impotence is a topic of conversation in group therapy. Billy Bibbit, a 31 year-old inmate, is completely dominated by his mother; on a visit to the ward, he talks about finding a wife and going to college but she laughs at him and basically tells him not to worry his pretty little head about such things. Bromden’s American mother is also shown as overshadowing his father, and ultimately plays a part in facilitating the sale of the tribe’s land.

The inmates hate their life in the ward, but feel powerless and unable to function in the real world. Their fear and lack of strength couldn’t be illustrated more strongly than by the fact that while most of them are not forcibly committed and could leave the ward at any time, they are too afraid to do so.

Into this stalks McMurphy, a man diagnosed (incorrectly, I think) as a psychopath. He’s a tattooed caricature of a real man – he gambles, smokes, and during the course of his first morning on the ward, declares his intention to be the bull goose loony. (I love that phrase!) He doesn’t understand what he sees on the ward: why the other inmates are afraid to laugh, or speak up, or act as men. So he decides to help them be men, despite the cost to himself. In that decision and McMurphy’s subsequent actions, I see Ken Kesey showing the reader what being a man really is.

Part of the inmates’ journey to regaining their courage is their (re)discovery of their sexuality, which happens to involves hi-jinx with prostitutes, etc. This doesn’t bother me at all, but McMurphy uses sexual aggression against women to spur them on, and that’s something I’m really not comfortable with as a message. The use of sexual violence to subjugate is all too prevalent in the wider world, even though its use fits well into the context of the book.

Institutionalisation

My knowledge of institutionalisation and incarceration is limited, based on Girl, InterruptedOrange is the New Black and The Noonday Demon (okay, that’s a little more scientific). To me, it seems undeniable that for someone with mental difficulties to be incarcerated in a group of other people with mental health issues must be terrifying. Even if this gives a patient close attention, allowing a more intense treatment plan and providing carers to prevent self-harm, it’s difficult for me to see how for the majority of patients, this is worth the loss of normality.

Institutionalisation carries the same pitfalls that are present when any group of people holds power over another: the temptation to abuse that power (think the Stanford Prison Experiment.)  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest couldn’t demonstrate this more clearly than the Big Nurse’s threat to lobotomise patients who don’t comply with ward rules. The patients  are prevented from taking ownership of their recovery in any way other than that prescribed:

It is a Catch-22: only a sane man would question an irrational system, but the act of questioning means his sanity will inevitably be compromised.

In summary…

It took me some time to immerse into One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest -the language is a little tricky and there was a fair bit of world-building to start – but after 50 pages or so I was completely drawn in. This is an incredibly though-provoking book, with some truly horrifying elements. It makes me so grateful to be living in the 21st century, where mental health isn’t the bogey-man that it once was, and lends hope that we’ll see similar progress in the next 100 years to that we’ve already experienced.

The Psychopath Inside

Reading Challenge Book 38 – a Memoir

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, by James Fallon

Amazon link here

For this category in the challenge, I started off reading Hillary Clinton’s Living History, but it was pretty plastic and suffered hugely from telling, not showing. Deciding that life was too short and that I wanted to read a memoir that I would actually be interested in, I found The Psychopath Inside. Incidentally, in his memoir, James Fallon happened to hypothesise at one point that Bill Clinton is a psychopath. Convenient linkage.

Anyway, the opening story behind this memoir is amazing. James Fallon is a neuroscientist, who assisted in a number of scientific studies by analysing human brain scans. He was working on two studies  – one looking for psychopathic traits in the brains of convicted felons, and another analysing the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimers – when he found that one of the felons’ brain scans had accidentally ended up in the Alzheimers’ pile. Except it wasn’t in the wrong pile; James himself had been a member of the control group for the Alzheimers study, and the scan was his.

This incident a) makes a wonderful story, and b) initiated his interest in psychopathy.

How is psychopathy defined?

Although “psychopath” is a term which is frequently used, it lacks a formal psychiatric definition. However, there is a formally defined test (the PCL-R, or Psychopathy Checklist, Revised) which is used for the purposes of diagnosis. It interrogates four personality factors:

  • The interpersonal factor (including traits of superficiality, grandiosity and deceitfulness);
  • The affective factor (including lack of remorse, lack of empathy, and refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions);
  • The behavioural factor (including impulsivity, lack of goals and unreliability); and
  • The antisocial factor (including hotheadedness; a history of juvenile delinquency, and a criminal record).

One of the manifestations of psychopathy is a difficult or inability to connect with others.

Does that mean that there are similarities between psychopath and autism?

Although superficially there is a common factor between the conditions- a difficulty or inability to connect with others – it manifests in very different ways.

People with autism are able to feel empathy, the fundamental connection with the pain of others, but cannot consider the thoughts and beliefs of other people. A while ago, I watched a documentary about people on the autistic spectrum and they filmed a situation where a toy was hidden from a boy and his mother. After the mother left the room, the child was shown the toy’s hiding place. When the mother returned, it was clear that the boy expected the mother to be able to find the toy. He did not understand that a different individual had a different point of view, and didn’t automatically share his knowledge.

In comparison, someone with psychopathic tendencies can connect with other people’s thoughts and beliefs, but won’t feel any empathy toward them. It’s chilling to try and comprehend that someone can know they’re causing extreme pain to someone else but still not care.

What does a psychopath’s brain look like?

In short, switched off. Specifically, it is likely to present reduced activity in areas responsible for empathy, ethics and preventing impulsivity. This probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but The Psychopath Inside included several comparisons of ‘normal’ brain scans to those of psychopaths and visually I found the differences shocking. You can see the scans, as reproduced in a Business Insider article, here. In black and white, the image of a psychopath’s brain appears as if the frontal cortex has been completely scooped out.

The Psychopath Inside includes some high-level explanation of the functions of different parts of the brain, mapping it as a ‘rubix cube’ in segments of 3x3x3. With my GCSE biology and ignorance about the names of areas of the brain, I found this really difficult to follow, but following this in detail isn’t a pre-requisite for the rest of the content.

Is psychopathy hereditary?

Certain genes are associated with aggressive behaviour (including one known as the ‘warrior gene’), and these are commonly found in people with psychopathic traits.

James Fallon and and his family consented to genetic testing to look for the warrior genes and other aggression-related genes. It was found that his family members had around half the full complement of identified-aggressive genes, whereas James himself had almost the full set.

Other research implied a hereditary link: Research into JF’s patrilineal line included a handful of murderers and suspected murderers, all of whom had been accused or convicted of killing a close family member.

This led to a really interesting discussion of nature v.s. nurture. One concept I found intriguing was a genotype-environment correlation, and how interpretation of behaviour can be strongly influenced by bias. Imagine observing a household where the father is belligerent and hostile and his son shows aggressive behaviour. What’s the cause and what’s the consequence?

Possibly there are no apparent reasons for the son’s aggressive behaviour, and the father’s own belligerence is a direct response to living with his son’s aggressive behaviour, which he can’t influence.

But there’s another possibility. Suppose that the father has genes which predispose him to hostile and aggressive behaviour and that he has passed these on to his son. The father acts in line with his genetic predisposition and creates a hostile home environment. This hostile environment exacerbates his son’s own tendencies to aggressive behaviour. This would be a genotype-environment correlation. There’s a good chance that if the son has his own children in the future, the cycle will continue down another generation.

This leads very neatly into a discussion of epigenetics, which is something I was completely unaware of, but found really fascinating and, yes, really difficult to follow. Wikipedia is my friend. My dodgy summary is that at a really high level, in addition to having genes, we have random ‘tags’ floating around our chromosomes. In certain environmental conditions, these tags attach to our genes and affect the way that our cells read the genes. Therefore although two identical twins have identical genes, if they grow up in different environments this may affect how their cells read their genes and therefore may have a biological impact on their behaviour.

James Fallon himself had always been a strong believer that one’s genetic code influenced personality and behaviour far more than environment. It was very interesting during the course of this book to see JF become more self-aware. He went through a process of self-discovery, where the results of testing he undertook led him to accept elements of his behaviour, but also he then managed to use his knowledge of his past and behaviour to predict genetic abnormalities.

 

On a personal note, improving my toe-deep knowledge of genetics and anatomy has given me food for thought. I always used to believe in the supremacy of willpower and, simplistically, that determination was a quality that anyone could develop. Between what I’ve read about brain chemistry and behaviour in The Psychopath Inside, and certain well-being webinars run my behaviour, which made connections from nutrition to brain chemistry, my viewpoint is now a little less binary. (I want to say it’s more sophisticated than it was, but that’s possibility overstating things!)

I still believe that willpower and resilience are qualities that you can nurture and develop, but for me, your brain chemistry is another piece of the puzzle as it influences your predisposition to certain behaviours. That doesn’t that I think individuals don’t have responsibility for their behaviour; but I think that recognizing and accepting your innate biases and behavioural tendencies is fundamental to making any lasting change.

Could it be that this was one of my blind spots: a revelation that was really striking to me, but obvious to everyone else? I think so. Let’s move on!

How can a psychopath have a family?

James Fallon married his high-school sweetheart. He describes how, at the age of twelve, he felt an instant attraction to her, for her confidence, wit and intelligence. They dated for part of college, he hitch-hiked 400 miles (each way) to see her every weekend, and they had common interests and viewpoints. But. The next paragraph, where JF wrote how he really feels, socked me in the jaw:

You might be wondering how this story gels with someone who ostensibly lacks empathy or the ability to connect emotionally with others. The truth is, I say “in love,” but I’ve never truly felt fully emotionally connected to Diane. My connection with her emerged partially because I didn’t connect empathetically. I never understood her. She was fascinating to me, and still is. We have common goals and values – family, Libertarianism, agnosticism – so there’s a like-mindedness, but she always felt like someone from outer space. Fortunately, that has always been more than enough for me.

JF’s comments on his relationships with his family are equally disturbing.

I feel massive sympathy for his wife, as I can’t imagine having a  relationship with someone on the premise that he’s described. It’s hard for me to conceive, despite all of JF’s intelligence and sociability and other great qualities, that when Diane married James, she did anything other than settle.

Does a psychopath know that he or she is a psychopath?

This is a question that my husband and I discussed when I told him that I was reading this book. The answer seems to be no, not necessarily.

James Fallon was not aware of his own psychopathic tendencies. He worked closely with neuroscientists and psychiatrists during his career, and over the years a number told him that he was a sociopath (for example, after he blew off a presentation to go partying). He automatically dismissed what they were saying, assuming that they were joking.

A key question becomes: How does one know if one lacks empathy? If you lack it, there’s a good chance you have no idea you lack it, because you don’t know what “it” is…

For the first sixty-plus years of my life, I never thought I lacked empathy at all.

In the course of the research which underpinned this book, and after discovering that he had bipolar disorder, JF started to ask friends, family and colleagues exactly what they thought of him and how he treated people, and he asked them not to pull their punches. The responses were beyond blunt. JF’s description of his reaction on this feedback fascinated me:

After a year of hearing what my family and colleagues thought of me, I said to myself for the first time in my life, “What the hell have I done?” I wasn’t despairing, just coming to terms with my cluelessness… About three minutes later another, different feeling took over. And with all the honesty I am capable of, I admitted to myself, “I don’t care.” That’s right, “I DON’T CARE.” At that moment, I realized for the first time in my life that what they had been intimating, then whispering, then yelling to me all along, for all those years, was true.

 

In summary…

I found this a really interesting read – mostly very easy to follow, with the occasional detour into ‘hard’ biology. Psychopathy strikes me as being one of those topics that shares similarities to ‘tragiporn’ – it’s highly removed from the average person’s day-to-day life, creating a fascination that would be lost if it was something we seriously expected to come face-to-face with.

The prologue to The Psychopath Inside reminds me of long gone-by English lessons – it very much says what the rest of the book will say. From a marketing point of view, this must be successful – reading the introduction in isolation draws you in – but I found this slightly off-putting at times. In some chapters, an explanation of how JF’s biological traits influenced his behaviour was presented as a big reveal… but I’d already had the reveal in the prologue. This was however less of an issue in the second half of the book.

A question I’m left with is how honest a memoir was The Psychopath InsideThat’s hard to answer. Psychopaths are, according to JF, ‘champion liars’. He also says ‘I can monitor what’s right and wrong, but I don’t feel it and I don’t care about it, and it doesn’t change my behavior’. Therefore I definitely believe that he’d be fully capable of manipulating the reader and wouldn’t suffer any ethical qualm at doing so. However, the book ties into his professional field, where he’s extremely high-achieving. There’s no immediately apparent reason for him to misrepresent his own experiences and research, particularly in this area. But, who knows? Maybe that’s part of what makes The Psychopath Inside interesting.

In case I haven’t been explicit enough, The Psychopath Inside was total catnip for me. I have a number of topics to mull over and to research. I do think that it wouldn’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, but as one of my friends used to say, if it’s not, then that must mean you’re a bad person. Sorry.

Digital Fortress

Reading challenge book 9 – a book with bad reviews

Digital Fortress, by Dan Brown

Amazon link here

Choosing a book with bad reviews to read is a challenge, assuming that you don’t just want to waste hours of your life (I’m looking at you, Stalking Sapphire). I considered reading a classic that got really bad reviews on release, like Lolita or Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, I had already read most of the books on recommendation lists that I’d found, and BFF begged me not to read James Joyces’ Ulysses, so I needed a new plan.

Some books are so bad that they’re funny, a la Twilight, but finding these can be a challenge.  Sites such as Amazon or Goodreads tend not to be particularly helpful unless you deeper-dive into all the review, as these books tend to get a whole bunch of good reviews too, increasing their average ratings. But then a friend suggested Dan Brown. I have a mild interest in crypto, so when I saw Digital Fortress I knew what I was going to read next.

I’m going to pause for a moment here to apologise to any Dan Brown fans still reading this and suggest that you go elsewhere. It’s possible that this review is biased by my core belief that Dan Brown is a bad author.

Let’s talk about some Dan Brown reviews. Firstly, his website. There are a couple of glowing reviews, including a claim that US intelligence analysts are calling Digital Fortress ‘entirely plausible’ (really? who said that?), but they’re not exactly from well-known publications. Or is it just me who has never followed the Midwest Book Review?

(For the sake of trying to be moderately unbiased, I should state that I did find some several positive reviews posted online, but I’m ignoring them in this review because a) they’re not funny and b) I disagree with them.)

One great review I found (great in the sense of entertaining – it totally panned the book) was on blog.cryptographyengineering.com, titled Digital Fortress – I read it so you don’t have to. My favourite quote is:

“[Digital Fortress] may be a practical joke. I’m hoping so, anyway, because the alternative – that Dan Brown spent time learning about cryptography and this is what came out – is too terrible to contemplate.”

Another that I enjoyed was from eli.thegreenplace.net – “the gross inaccuracies, exaggerations and the amount of plain rubbish in Digital Fortress is astounding.” Then there was Geoffrey K. Pullum – see quotes below.

There’s also an amusing summary of Digital Fortress on the Guardian website, written in the style of Dan Brown novel, something that’s very popular among reviewers these days.

So what did I think about the book?

I’ve already said that I have a mild interest in crypto. Sadly, I felt like I knew less about crypto after reading this book than before going in, although I did know enough to call bullshit in several places. Luckily, I have several pop-science books about crypto on my bookshelves, so I plan to make up for my ignorance by doing some more reading later this year.

Because I’m not a subject-matter expert, I’m going to quote  a portion of Geoffrey’s review, which I referred to above:

“… the truly depressing thing about Digital Fortress is that its research is so feeble and its puzzles are so stupid. Dan Brown literally does not know bits from bytes (he thinks an encoded message presented in groups of four letters separated by spaces can be called a “four-bit code”). He doesn’t understand the difference between source code and compiled programs. He thinks there are 256 ASCII characters. His figures for time taken to break encryption keys on a parallel machine make no sense (the problem is exponential increase in difficulty, and you don’t fix that by setting up some fixed number of processors to run in parallel). He thinks once a “virus” has been disabled in a “data bank” that it has crawled into, a chief technician has to shout shout “Upload the firewalls!” (he doesn’t know the difference between loading a program into core and uploading a file from one computer to another). Just about everything he says about computers, processors (“titanium-strontium”??), data banks, viruses, algorithms, codes, ciphers, decryption, and everything else technical is nonsense”

Yep, the computer-science makes no sense. There’s also a lame bit where a pass-key is based on the elements used to create the atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and everyone is completely confounded by the puzzle – and the science is wrong. Again, Digital Fortress  made me doubt myself – Wikipedia was checked – and this made me sad. 

Secondly, I wasn’t a fan of the heroine, Susan Fletcher – a hot, genius with an IQ of 170. Given that she has a top job in NASA – who no one has ever heard of in the late 90s, because it’s so top secret – she’s annoyed about having to go to work on the weekend. The words ‘get over it’ spring to mind. Also, she is surprised and confused by every twist and gasp of the plot – I think she gasps a lot, but I don’t still have a copy of the book to check so it’s possible I’m making this up. Assume that I’ve said something nasty here about what Dan Brown’s portrayal of a genius implies about his own intelligence.

Then, there’s the initial description of her appearance from the point of view of a security guard:

“The guard admired Susan as she began her walk down the cement causeway. He noticed that her strong hazel eyes seemed distant today, but her cheeks had a flushed freshness, and her shoulder-length, auburn hair looked newly blown dry. Trailing her was the faint scent of Johnson’s Baby Powder. His eyes fell the length of her slender torso – to the white blouse with her bra nearly visible beneath, to her knee-length khaki skirt, and finally to her legs… Susan Fletcher’s legs.

Hard to imagine they support a 170 IQ, he mused to himself.”

I’m still astounded by this. The security guard’s only role in the book is to describe Susan’s appearance. The level of detail… and comments on her bra… I find this seriously creepy, please-do-a-CRB- check creepy. Plus, from my admittedly limited insight into how the male mind work, I just don’t think that blokes would describe a woman like that. Dan Brown, why?

My last complaint about Digital Fortress is that it was written by Dan Brown. (This is maybe a little unfair, given that I specifically chose a book written by him, but clearly I’ve thrown all appearances of fairness and impartiality out the window by this point). It therefore has ultra-short chapters, high levels of description that I didn’t care about (see above), and an action plot where Susan’s boyfriend is inexplicably assigned to hunt down a signet ring while being chased by a killer. Yawn.

Do not read this book. The science is bad, the style is mediocre, and the ending comes out of nowhere so that it turns out the whole book was a wild goose-chase. Having said that, at least this was light relief after The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Smoke & Mirrors

Reading Challenge book 10 – A book of short stories

Smoke and Mirrors, by Neil Gaiman

Amazon link here

Selecting a volume of short stories to read was hard. To write a good short story takes a lot of skill, and I think it’s a different skill to writing a full-length book. While volumes of short stories typically have some gems, there are often a lot of duds as well.

My first choice was one of hubby’s books, a collection of apocalyptic short stories. I read the first and enjoyed it, but it left me feeling pretty cruddy. In a flash of insight, I decided that reading about the world ending in different depressing ways over and over again might accelerate my mood from cruddy to miserable, so I parked it.

Choice no. 2 was Truth and Dare, a collection of short stories confirming the truth we all know – high school is painful -and written for those who dare to be different. The premise sounds lame, but I selected this anthology because it included a short story by one of my favourite authors, Sarah Rees Brennan (check out Queen of Atlantis – it’s free and I think it’s excellent). In the past when I’ve bought anthologies that she’s been included in I really enjoyed them, but this collection lacked oomph and didn’t do it for me. Even Sarah Rees Brennan’s short story was cute but lacking bite. Maybe I’m just too old for books about high-school age kids!

So we came to choice 3. Controversially I’ve never particularly got on with the little Neil Gaiman I’ve tried, but I read a sample of Smoke and Mirrors and I really enjoyed it. Thanks Amazon.

Smoke and Mirrors is a collection of short stories that all include magic somehow. For me, there were a few memorable stories, but the majority were filler – I’d describe them as ‘real-life grit’. You know, the kind of contemporary fiction that shows life without a rose-tinted filter; instead life is gritty and depressing and often meaningless, and the books have an indecisive ending. This is never something I’ve really appreciated, or understood – it’s a massive hole in my understanding of literature. Anyway, I think that these stories were well-written, but not at all to my taste.

Highlights of the anthology were:

  • Snow, Glass, Apples (a retelling of Snow White from the step-mother’s point of view, very very cleverly-done);
  • The Wedding Present (a sekrit short story hidden in the introduction, about a letter describing the bride and groom’s life from an AU; it’s better than I made it sound);
  • Chivalry (a charming tale of a knight on a quest to win the Holy Grail from its prized place on an old lady’s mantelpiece);
  • The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories (outlining concisely why movies based on books are not that similar at all).

 

Hrm, I feel churlish as that’s not that many highlights. I’d be interested in knowing how Neil Gaiman fans got on with this collection. I’m still not sure if I’m just not a fan of his, or because his short-story writing just isn’t all that.