BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.

The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.

[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.

Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)

[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.

It’s a masterpiece. Read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of WarDogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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What will it mean when there are other entities that (who) are intelligent on a human scale (e.g. master of technology, complex planning, and long-term planning?) This is a question that science fiction has addressed many times and in many ways. Tchaikovsky’s approach is interesting because it doesn’t just ask what if one produced a computer intelligence or if another biological species became (human-style) intelligent, but – instead – it imagines an entity that combines human and animal intelligence with computer capabilities and protocols?

The protagonist, Rex, is a supersized dog-man optimized and super-powered for warfighting. Rex’s general intelligence is about at an elementary school level, but his instincts, programming, and capacity to process and analyze complex and abundant information make him much more competent than that level of intelligence would suggest. The dog-part of Rex has the simple animal instincts that make dogs both loving pets and devastating predators, with both capacities rolled into one (even if one side often remains latent.) His human capacities include a limited ability to reason and – crucially – the ability to communicate via language. The computer part of Rex, besides giving him the ability to process and respond to multiple information streams at once effectively, keeps him in check by creating a hierarchy of command and by giving feedback by way of a crude proto-emotional system (i.e. feelings of being a “good dog” or “bad dog.”)

Rex is the leader of a squad of creatures of various speciation. There is a giant bear named Honey, who serves as the team’s heavy weapons platform. She’s easy to see but packs a wallop in weapons and strength. There is a reptilian member called “Dragon” that genetically shares certain lizard characteristics. Dragon is a sniper. He is stealthy, and exists to take out particularly designated targets. Staying hidden is essential because Dragon doesn’t have the fantastic durability of Rex or Honey. The final team member is Bees, a swarm intelligence of bees. Bees can go anywhere by flight, can disperse or gather as needed, and can sting with various styles of poison. The individual bees of Bees are fragile. However, losing a few here and there has little effect on Bees capacity, but its intelligence does degrade with continued loses, and the ability to act and think as a unit disappears altogether at some level of loss.

The antagonist throughout most of the book is a man named Murray, who is an overzealous military contractor carrying out a brutal war in Central America using teams like Rex’s, but also laying waste to the Geneva and Chemical Weapons Conventions as he sees fit. (The book imagines a world in which the United Nations and global corporations are strong, but national governments are weak – at least relatively.) To cover up his war crimes, Murray kills a technician named Hartnell who is beloved by Rex (though below Murray – his “Master” – in Rex’s hierarchy,) but not before Hartnell can jettison Rex’s command hierarchy. This puts Rex in a rudderless position of having to make his own decisions. While the hierarchy is gone, Rex still has canine instincts and gets signals from his feedback chip. He doesn’t have to follow orders, though it’s still his inclination to do so. Two classes of individuals sit easy with Rex. Friends are individuals that one protects at any cost. Enemies are individuals that one destroys at any cost. Rex has sufficient intelligence to recognize that not everyone fits smoothly into one of these classes, but he doesn’t know how to respond to such individuals.

After Rex and team go “off-leash,” he is adrift in a world he doesn’t quite understand and there are events going on behind the scenes that he can’t fathom. Left entirely to his own devices, Rex might yield to his instinct to try to return to his Master (Murray) and try to get back to life as usual. However, while in command, Rex has gotten used to taking the advice of Honey because he realizes that she is more intelligent than he. (What he doesn’t recognize is that Honey was accidentally over-engineered and is super-intelligent – i.e. smarter than the smartest humans. She is quietly using that intelligence in the background, including finding allies.) While Rex is an autonomous decision maker, he isn’t at ease with this autonomy, and finds himself processing conflicting arguments to make challenging moral decisions throughout the book. Using the combination of his canine instinct to protect friends and fight enemies and his (albeit limited) human capacity to draw conclusions based on information, Rex tends to make satisfying decisions. Though the author does show Rex making cringe-worthy decisions as well. This way the reader feels the stakes, and recognizes that Rex’s mish-mash of instinct, thought, and programming could lead to a poor moral choice at any moment. (If this internal conflict seems complicated, it’s not so much different from the potential wars between the reptilian, mammalian, and human [prefrontal cortex] brains that we see in human beings.)

I enjoyed this book tremendously. I found it hard to put down. It does have intense scenes of violence, but that raises the stakes. Because, the book also asks an interesting question about what “someone” like Rex would be considered and what the legal and moral response to it would be. Is Rex a person, with all the the rights and responsibilities of that condition? Is he an animal that faces the same logic we apply to dogs (i.e. no animal cruelty allowed, but dogs that bite must be put down?) Or is he something else, and what does that mean? Can Rex be decommissioned like a bomb or a tank? What is the legal and moral obligation to an intelligent creature that can be [but isn’t necessarily] a killing machine? Is it right to create an intelligent entity and then install a command hierarchy such that it is a slave to the wishes of others?

If you enjoy science fiction, I believe you’ll find this book intense and entertaining.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Faust [Part I] by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This review will cover the first part of the play in verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I start with that statement because there is some potential for confusion, because: 1.) there are many tellings of the Germanic legend loosely-based on Johann Georg Faust; 2.) there are two parts to Goethe’s play and some editions include both and others just one; 3.) Goethe’s play was apparently not written with the intention that it would be in two parts and so the proper title of this isn’t “Faust, Part I” but rather that became a common title, retroactively and after the author’s death. I’ve done my best to link to the same edition as I read (which seems to be sometimes erroneously listed as containing both parts one and two – when it is really just the first.) Part I is said to be more closely based on the myth than is the second.

The gist of the story is so well-known that it will be recognized even by those who’ve not read this play (or works like Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” [written well before Goethe’s play(s).]) The successful but bored Doctor Faust makes a deal with the devil in which Mephistopheles gets Faust’s soul if Faust can ever be made to feel truly satisfied. Goethe’s “Faust” opens with a wager between God and the Devil. The Devil believes he can corrupt God’s favorite (i.e. Dr. Faust) and turn him from a righteous path. Faust’s deal leads to a series of adventures that culminate in an ill-fated love relationship with a woman named Gretchen (a.k.a. Margarete.)

The story and its theme are straightforward. The idea is that there is a ceaseless yearning – be it for pleasure or understanding or whatnot – that is insatiable, and that giving into a desire to quench that yearning can lead even the best of humanity into tragedy.

The play is delivered in rhymed verse, and the translation by Bayard Taylor makes for pleasant reading.

I’d recommend this book for readers of classic literature. It’s an old tale, and is well conveyed in this translation of the play.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This series (Very Short Introductions [VSI]) put out Oxford University Press [OUP] features several books about William Shakespeare and his works. Most of these “Introductions” deal with a subset of Shakespeare’s work, (e.g. the tragedies, the comedies, or his sonnets and other poems.) However, the book most likely to be confused with the one under review is “William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction” by Stanley Wells. Greer’s theme involves how Shakespeare’s philosophy and worldview are reflected in his plays (and to a small extent, his poetry.) While I haven’t yet read Wells’ book, it seems to take a history-centric approach, examining who Shakespeare was and the interaction between the the man and the times in which he lived on the work he produced.

The reason that I open with this distinction is that this is the kind of book that leaves some readers feeling duped. The title and inclusion in the VSI series might suggest to a reader that they are getting a basic overview of the the works of Shakespeare, leaving them surprised to find they are diving into arcane philosophical discussions. If the reader has a background and interest in both philosophy and the literature of Shakespeare, this may be just the book for which one is looking. However, if one is truly looking to be introduced to Shakespeare and his work, it is unlikely to be the book one is seeking. The biggest criticism is therefore about the title and placement of the book in this series, and not about it’s content, which is interesting and insightful.

The six chapters of Greer’s book begin with a brief biographical sketch of the man’s life and times. (This is where Greer’s work presumable overlaps most significantly with that of Wells.) The five remaining chapters each consider an aspect of the Shakespeare’s thinking and philosophy: poetics, ethics, politics, teleology, and sociology, respectively. There are extensive discussions of a few of the Shakespearean works as they pertain to the discipline under discussion, and snippets of text are used throughout to make points, but – again – the presumption is that that the reader has a basic familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.

There are graphics throughout the book, mostly portraits, playbills, and block prints from the era. There is a Further Reading section that is more than the usual bibliographical list, including descriptions of what is covered by the various books. Some will find this approach beneficial, and others may find it needlessly dense.

If one is looking for a book that considers how Shakespeare’s personal philosophy influenced his works, this is a good overview. However, if one hasn’t read Shakespeare’s works, or one has little understanding of philosophy, it’s probably not the book for which one is looking.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever written for public consumption knows that having one’s writing despised is not the worst of fates. While it might be preferable to have a work loved than loathed, it’s far better for it to be loathed than to be greeted with a “meh.” Like many, I read “The Satanic Verses” because any work of fiction that generates an emotional response of murderous intensity must have something going for it. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the release of this novel in 1988 triggered a fatwa (an Islamic decree) ordering the author’s murder. While the Iranian government retracted support for the killing in the late 1990’s, Rushdie lived in hiding for decades.

So, that is my full-disclosure confession, I probably would never have gotten around to reading this novel if not for the response it incurred. It’s not the first work I’ve read by Rushdie, and I’d hazard to say it’s not considered his best (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his best-selling book, though it may not be because it’s banned in India – a huge book market.) If I were more well-acquainted with Islamic mythology, the book probably would have been much more readable, but as things stand it was a bit of a slog. There is a huge cast of characters (a couple names, e.g. Ayesha, are used for multiple characters over different time periods – on purpose, but still….) And the story – far from a clear and readable narrative arc — is a thicket of plot, subplots, and happenings that may have some symbolic purpose but don’t seem germane to the story. Also, some scenes are meant to reflect a dreamlike or surreal quality, and the switching between states requires a high degree of attentiveness in reading. Some of the story is work-a-day realism and some is dreams and transformations. Most of it is present day, but some of it is during the dawn of Islam.

The main plot revolves around two characters who survive falling out of a plane blown up by terrorists over the English Channel. The two characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, play the role of archangel and demon, though there isn’t a clear imprimatur of good and evil to distinguish the two. Of course, rejection of the notion that good and evil are clearly distinguishable opposites is the theme of this novel. (After all, the title refers to a controversial belief that a few of the revelations presented to the prophet Mohammad [renamed “Mahound” in the novel] were the whisperings of the devil.) While one might think angels and demons above the mundane concerns like relationships, we spend a great deal of time learning about Gibreel’s relationship with his mountain-climbing girlfriend and Saladin’s troubles with his adulterous wife.

While I’ve presented the book like it’s a complete morass, I should point out that it has moments of lucidity, and — in those moments — it makes for both evocative and though-provoking reading. I would say the best example of this is the subplot that plays out through the penultimate chapter. This arc involves a woman in India with cancer who is marching to the sea because she strongly believes that when she gets to the coast the waters of the Arabian Sea will part, and she’ll be able to march on to Mecca. Along with this woman are 140 pilgrims led by one of the book’s three Ayeshas. This woman’s husband is a merchant and a secular Muslim. He is more than willing to take his wife to Mecca, but would like to do so by plane. He thinks that she’s a bit off her rocker, owing to the disease, but his love leads him to follow her to the sea (riding along in an automobile.) I got caught up in this story line as it has this tension between believers and non-believers (more accurately secular religious types who belong to religion but don’t buy into the supernatural), and an intrigue about whether the seas will – in deed — part.

If you’re up for a challenging read, I’d recommend this book. It deals with some fascinating questions. It has a mix of humor and drama, and presents interesting characters and conundrums. That said, it isn’t the type of story one get’s lost in. It’s the kind of reading that requires a high degree of attention, and which can be a bit mentally exhausting. As for whether it’s worth reading because some people don’t want you to, my guess would be that the people who wanted to murder Rushdie (and some who still do) never got past the title, probably don’t understand the theological debate that the title references, and definitely didn’t get to the subplot of the book in Chapter 3 that deals in historic events. In other words, the violent response didn’t result from reading the book, but rather from hearing about the title. [In general, I suspect the Venn intersect of “reads books” and “wants to murder people about ideas” is – if not an empty set – pretty slim pickings.]

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BOOK REVIEW: A Song for China by Ange Zhang

A Song for ChinaA Song for China by Ange Zhang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page [Available September 3, 2019]

 

This short biography (under 100 pages) tells the story of the man who wrote the “Yellow River Cantata.” The subject, Guang Weiran, lived through interesting times during the early and middle 20th century when China experienced civil war, Japanese invasion, and post-revolutionary turmoil. Guang Weiran was heavily involved in the arts as a poet and leader in the arts community, but he was also a militant leader during the fight against the Japanese. The author, the subject’s son, wisely sticks to the more intriguing times of Guang Weiran’s life – particularly through his writing of the poem that would become song lyrics – and doesn’t get lost in the mundane.

Besides the short biography, the book also includes a great deal of art as well as a copy of the poem that served as the lyrics for the “Yellow River Cantata” in both English and Mandarin script. There are photos of the subject during some key life events, but the most common graphics are woodblock prints in which red is the only color displayed, which makes for an eye-popping visual effect. There are also some yellow-toned paintings interspersed with the poem / lyrics.

I found this little book to be interesting, and I enjoyed the art as well. If you’re interested in 20th century Chinese history, you might find the book worth a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The End of Killing by Rick Smith

The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest ProblemThe End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem by Rick Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Before one dismisses this book based on its seemingly pollyanna title, I’d suggest one think of it as an opening volley in what promises to be a series of crucial debates that will play out — one way or another — in the years to come. I believe Smith, founder and CEO of TASER and Axon, did a great job of presenting an argument for the pursuit of a range of technologies and policies intended to curb violence, as well as anticipating, presenting, and debating many of the opposing arguments. The book’s tone is more pragmatic than its bold and controversial title might suggest. That said, I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions by any means; though I do agree these questions need to be thoughtfully considered and debated.

I’d put the technologies and policies Smith advocates for into three basic categories. First, those that are nearly inevitable given societal winds of change and the nature of technological development (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary weapons of the law enforcement community, automated systems being deployed to curb violence in schools, and ending the war on drugs.) Second, those which may be laudable, but which are hard to imagine coming to fruition in the world we live in [or are likely to see in the foreseeable future] (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary [or exclusive] weapons of the military.) Third, those which are so full of the peril of unintended consequences as to be, frankly, terrifying – if not dystopian (i.e. the use of surveillance and profiling technologies to ACTIVELY attempt to prevent crimes that haven’t yet happened.)

Instead of describing the contents of the book chapter by chapter, I’ll discuss its ideas through the lens presented in the preceding paragraph – starting with the seemingly inevitable technologies. The central thrust of this book is that nonlethal technology needs to be developed / improved such that nonlethals can take up a progressively greater portion of weapons deployment and usage, with the aim of ultimately replacing firearms (and other lethal weapons) with nonlethal weapons. It’s important to note that Smith doesn’t suggest such a replacement could happen at present. He acknowledges that nonlethals are currently not as effective and reliable at incapacitating a threat as are firearms, and he isn’t advocating that people be put at risk by having to defend themselves with an inferior weapon. However, it seems reasonable, given the tremendous technological advances that have occurred, that nonlethal weaponry could become as or more effective than firearms.

If that doesn’t seem reasonable, I would remind one that firearms aren’t – as a rule — as instantaneously and definitively incapacitating as Hollywood portrays. One can find numerous cases of individuals still moving with a magazine’s worth of bullets in — or having passed through — them. (And that’s not to mention the lack of precision that tends to come with throwing a projectile via a controlled explosion.) The point being, one isn’t competing with perfection – so one doesn’t need to be perfect, only better than an existing [flawed] system.

Smith addresses the many dividends of nonlethal weapon usage over that of the lethal counterparts, and there are many. For one thing, killing isn’t easy on anyone (anyone who’s right in the head any way.) Even when a killing is legally justifiable and morally defensible (or even state-sanctioned) it often still results in traumatic stress. For another, there is the reduced cost of getting it wrong, and the adverse societal impacts (e.g. revenge killings) that result from wrongful deaths. Long story short, if one can produce a nonlethal that’s consistently as effective at incapacitating threat, it’s hard to make a rational argument for not fielding said weapon. The example of an automated system to respond to school shootings is an extension of the nonlethal weapons argument, as it’s ultimately based on nonlethals deployed by drone (or robotic system.) The chapter on the war on drugs (ch. 15) bears little discussion as it’s no news that that “war” has been a failure and a phenomenally ineffective way of addressing a societal problem.

That brings us to the laudable but unlikely category in which I put military use of nonlethals as primary (or exclusive) weapons. I’m not saying that military nonlethal weapon systems won’t continue to be developed, improved, and deployed. Given the degree to which war of late features non-state actors and unconventional warfare, it’s possible to imagine such weapons playing a dominant role in specific operations. After all, military members aren’t exempt from the psychological costs of killing. However, military forces deploying into a war zone with nonlethals as their primary weapons is almost impossible to imagine, especially considering the diversity of conditions and opponents for which a military needs to be ready.

In warfare, there is something called the “force multiplier” effect of wounding an enemy over killing an enemy. That is, if you wound someone, it takes two people to carry him or her, plus a chunk of a medic’s time. So, one can imagine four people being out of the fight because one person is severely wounded, versus the one person who would be out of commission (the dead person) if the individual were wounded. To be fair, Smith imagines technology (drones and robots) doing the heavy lifting. Still, it’s hard to imagine how one side in a conflict wins if they have to transport, warehouse, feed, and care for every enemy that is incapacitated while the other side is just killing away. Even if that one side is much more automated, it seems tremendously expensive – even for a relatively small-scale war.

That brings to me chapter five, which I found chilling. That chapter considers how artificial intelligence and surveillance programs (albeit with judicial oversight and other protections) could be used to anticipate crimes so that law enforcement could actively go forth to try to prevent them. (If this sounds a lot like the Tom Cruise movie loosely based on a PKD story, “Minority Report,” it’s because it essentially replaces the three pasty precognitives with computers and offers a bit more oversight. While Smith cautions against taking fictional stories too seriously, he employs some fictional scenarios that I believe might be as a pollyanna as the Spielberg film is dark.) At any rate, the word “actively” is crucial to my concern. I’m all in favor of what has historically been known as “preventive law enforcement” — activities such as putting more patrols in high crime areas, youth mentoring programs, and programs that inform people and businesses about how to be harder targets. However, the idea of police going out and engaging people as though a crime has been committed when none has been conjures images of cities on fire.

First, such an approach is predicated on watching everybody – at least everybody’s online activity – all the time. Which seems both dystopian and of limited effectiveness. [What percentage of people who post on FB that they want to shoot someone are likely to do so?] What about the judicial oversight and related protections? When is a warrant issued to surveil or arrest a person? The warrant is issued based on something an artificial intelligence system already flagged, meaning a government entity is watching everybody’s behavior on a constant fishing expedition. I’m not fond of that idea at all.

Second, we aren’t nearly as good at forecasting the future as we think. Violent crimes are rare and often spontaneous events, and that puts them in classes of behavior we are particularly bad at making predictions about. And, we haven’t eliminated the trade-off between type I and type II error. Imagine there is a question about whether individual X is to be detained based on what the AI spit out. X either was or wasn’t going to commit a crime. We can imagine a four-way matrix in which two of the solutions are correct (i.e. 1.) X was detained and was going to commit a crime; 2.) X wasn’t detained and he wasn’t going to commit a crime.) However, since we can’t know the future [like, at all] the potential remains for mis-estimating whether X was going to commit a crime. So, we have two potential errors (i.e. 1.) X wasn’t detained but he was going to commit a crime [and thus did]; 2.) X was detained but he wasn’t going to commit a crime [wrongful detention].) So, we want to minimize the first error because any violent crime is unacceptable? We go out and shake down more high risk individuals. While we succeed in preventing crimes, we also end up with more wrongful detention. Our legal system’s requirements with regards evidence suggest that as a society we are averse to wrongful disruption of a person’s freedom. Hence, while a “preponderance of evidence” is sufficient for cases where one might lose money in a civil case, if one might be imprisoned, the standard becomes “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Wrongfully detaining an individual when a crime was committed may be sad, but doing it when there is only a suspicion that a crime might likely be committed is tragic.

Of course, under present standards one can’t detain a person for very long. So you let them go, and maybe they do the crime – whether or not they intended to in the first place (ever heard someone say, “if you’re going to treat me like _______, I’m going to act like _______?” I’ll admit that it’s a bit far-fetched but if the system spurs one crime in a million subjects detained that wasn’t going to happen, is that acceptable?) Alternatively, one could place surveillance on the individual. In which case, one is essentially living in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Congratulations. It seems to me this approach offers either huge costs for a marginal gain, or you go full dystopia and knock out crime at a horrifying cost. Neither way seems appealing, but – then again – I am not willing to pay any price to keep anything bad from ever happening to anyone.

I found this book to have some fascinating ideas and to spur my thinking on subjects I might not otherwise have considered. While there was a significant bit that I found unsavory, I also discovered some ideas that were intriguing and worth pursuing. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in issues of technology and policy.

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BOOK REVIEW: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This clever novel revolves around two sisters who seemingly couldn’t be more different, but who are never-the-less bound by blood and fate. The protagonist, Korede, is a diligent nurse who is respected for her rock steady and no-nonsense nature. She’s precise, meticulous, hardworking, but plain looking. The relevance of that latter bit is that her sister, Ayoola, is stupid beautiful (i.e. the kind of pretty that turns people into blithering idiots in her presence), is a little flighty, and is a serial killer.

While Korede is too smart to fall for Ayoola’s self-defense explanations for deceased boyfriends completely, Korede never-the-less assists Ayoola with disposing of bodies while trying to let Ayoola’s explanations soothe her conscience. But while Korede is morally-conflicted and guilt-ridden, the blood bond is such that her stance is never in question. That is until a handsome young doctor that Korede has a crush on and a friendship with becomes infatuated with Ayoola. This development sets up the ultimate test of the sisters’ bond.

Braithwaite does a great job of peeling away the layers of the characters. The beautiful sister / serial killer is only the most obvious example of the risk of taking people at skin depth. We learn that other characters aren’t as they appear when we can see them more fully. And as the morality tale is playing out, we are offered a lesson in how beauty (as with any other envied trait) can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

I found this book to be gripping and highly readable. The story is strong and the character development is well done. If you’re looking for an entertaining read in a strong story, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Topographies by Stephen Benz

TopographiesTopographies by Stephen Connely Benz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of travel essays exploring locales within America and abroad. The fifteen essays collected are reprints of periodical publications.

As Benz describes destinations and tells travel tales, he often presents local history such as a murder mystery in the Everglades, the fate of the Donner Party, the truth about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and the nuclear test at Trinity, New Mexico. But not all of the essays mix history lessons into the travelogue, and some of the most evocative pieces touch on the local landscape in interesting ways such as walking a postman’s route in Havana or camping in Wyoming.

Some travel writing drills down on a single destination and other works spread out over a diverse set of locations. Benz’s approach is somewhere in between. While, except for a couple chapters set in Havana, the essays are about varied locations, only a couple (i.e. the ones on the Everglades and Moldova) stand out as far afield of the rest. Of the seven international essays, three feature Cuba and two Guatemala, and of the eight US essays, all but one is set in the West and three present Wyoming.

The essay collection is divided into two parts. The first eight essays are about locations within the United States, and the last seven describe foreign travels. I found the organization to be smartly arranged, with each of the two parts beginning an ending on essays that are among the strongest in the collection. In the case of Part I, the collection starts with a piece set in the Everglades which brings to life a historical murder, and it ends with a visit to the Trinity Site where the first nuclear test detonation took place.

With respect to the international chapters, they open with a visit to Moldova. The last travel essay I read about Moldova was in Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss.” If you’re wondering why a book on the happiest places on Earth would feature Moldova, it’s for the perhaps ironic but definitely instructive reason that Moldova often comes up as among the LEAST happy countries. Benz presents a similar portrait of Moldova without explicitly taking the dismal nature of the country as his theme. The last two chapters discuss the author’s time in Guatemala, and the last discusses the poetry scene in a country in a country under political upheaval.

The book has a prologue in verse and an extended epilogue in prose.

I’d recommend this book for readers of travel writing, particularly those interested in the American West and Central America. I found the writing to be both skillful and readable, and that the author recognized the value of an intriguing story.

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