Monday, January 29, 2018

The Lucifer Effect

Since I was in high school, I have been a big fan of Phillip Zimbardo, his work with the Stanford Prison Experiment sounded so fascinating and troubling (despite replication issues etc).  Therefore, his book, The Lucifer Effect, had been on my to read list for a while.

The majority of the book was a discussion of the aforementioned Stanford Prison Experiment.  It goes into all the details about how even he, nominally a neutral observer, started to get sucked in to all the terrible things the students were doing to each other.  As the general lesson of the experiment is that it doesn't matter what kind of people you have, if you put them into a bad situation, they will act badly, he spends a lot of time emphasizing how it was all random and anyone could have been on either side. 

As someone who had read about the experiment somewhat extensively, this felt like preaching to the choir. Sure, it was interesting to get some intimate details about how the experiment worked, but I already got the core thesis and spending half of the book on this one thing felt like overkill.

The second large chunk of the book was on Abu Ghraib. The parallels to Zimbardo's experiment are obvious.  So obvious, that was the context of most of the discussions I had heard about his work were about how it related to Abu Ghraib.  Zimbardo spends time going into the history and actions of each soldier there and really makes you feel that it wasn't their fault, that it could have been you torturing those inmates if you had been there.

I'll be honest, I didn't finish this section. I skipped over some of the profiles because they seemed redundant given everything I already understood and believed.  I get it, these kids were put in a bad situation.  I get it, they could have been good kids if this hadn't ruined their lives. (Quick aside: neither this book nor I want to trivialize the horrors that happened in this prison.  The American soldiers' lives may have been ruined but something far worse happened to the inmates).  Maybe this section was more poignant when Abu Ghraib was younger but at 10 years past, I think I have seen and absorbed basically every take on Abu Ghraib before I read this.

The last section is the best section of the book and the most interesting to me.  It is about how you can combat the titular Lucifer effect and learn how to be heroic in the situations presented in this book.  Not to give too much away, but he founded a non-profit with the goal of spreading this idea called the Heroic Imagination Project.

I was sad that these very important ideas occupied such a small percentage of the book.  I wish he would have spent more time on this rather than profiling every person charged at Abu Ghraib. 

Overall, I would give this book an 81%.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Phillip K. Dick Reader

The Phillip K. Dick Reader is a selection of 24 Phillip K. Dick stories.  It collects mostly earlier stories from the mid 1950's with the exception of the inspiration for Total Recall (which was published in the 60's).  As with many short story collections, the quality varies, especially for a collection early in an author's career.

All of the stories have the seed in an interesting idea.  One that is particularly memorable to me is  about aliens fishing for humans and what sort of lures they would use.  Other ideas include marketing bomb shelters and robots that try to sell themselves, various post apocalyptic situations, and questioning mental states.  A short story collection like this is a great way to experience the author's work because he had so many interesting and unique ideas, even if they weren't always executed perfectly.

My favorite story in the book is the basis for the movie Paycheck (which I didn't know until I started writing this blog post), which I haven't seen (and from the rotten tomatoes rating, maybe I shouldn't).  It follows a man who has lost his memory and put himself in a perilous situation. However, he has mailed himself a few items which are all critical in the present time.  It's a fun deduction game to determine how the pieces are going to be used to help the protagonist.

Overall, I would give this collection an 89%.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Art of Manliness

The Art of Manliness was a gift and is probably not something I would have picked up on my own, but since it was on my shelf, I decided to give it a read.  With that title, you may be worried that it is some awful Men's Rights propaganda, I promise it isn't.  What it actually is is sort of an brief exploration into a variety of skills deemed manly (and some that aren't now that used to be).

There are some interesting skills in here like how to shave with a straight razor (I've stuck with my electric), how to rock a pocket square (forgot that this was in this book and the one time I've needed a pocket square since reading this, I've googled it), and a fireman's carry (already knew how to do this before reading this book but I've still never done it in practice).  That isn't to say that all the skills are useless but the book is too large to be a pocket handbook and not detailed enough to really give you the knowledge you need on how to do most of these things just by reading it.

The book blends an interesting mix of skills from the Victorian days (like how to generate an appropriate bouquet for your apology) and modern things that "men" should know how to do (like how to land a plane without a pilot) and some of the book is interesting reading solely to learn about some of those historical "skills".  Unfortunately, the modern manly skills I'd like to learn, like how to fix a poorly plumbed two sink set up, are not present in this book and I probably won't have this book with me on a crashing plane.

The book also contains some meditations on manliness and one of those includes a quote that jives really well with my general ethos.  
A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around. E. W. Howe
Read more at:
 A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around. - E.W. Howe.
 Obviously, if everyone followed this quote, no one gets any pie and everyone is sad heroes.  But I think it does encompass a spirit of everyday self-sacrifice that can be missing in many people's lives.

In sum, I'm not sure I learned that much practical stuff from this book, but it was an interesting read.  If this sounds interesting to you they have a website and podcast and other media:

Overall, I would give this book an 84%.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Golden Age

Warning: While I try to keep these posts as spoiler free as possible, when discussing the later books in a series, it is difficult to avoid spoiling details of the earlier ones (though with Narratives of Empire you will probably get more spoilers from a passable knowledge of American history).

The Golden Age is the last book in the Narratives of Empire series, both chronologically and in publication order and closes out the series in a somber note.  However, much of the book takes place concurrently with Washington D.C.  following the adventures of some of the characters that he added in books later in the publication order.  However, it then continues past that through the end of the 20th century.

While wrapping up the stories of all the characters with varying degrees of satisfaction, this book also enhances and continues the cynical bent of the latter book and basically flat our accuses FDR of warmongering.  The title is, as you may expect, also a cynical slant on American history.

The Golden Age also has a fair amount of discussion of America's growth as a cultural epicenter, following up on many of the threads in Hollywood.  Gore Vidal himself makes an appearance within the pages of the book, more than once no less.

I think if you don't like FDR that much or if you like unpopular historical takes, these books will be fascinating.  I know I was very interested to see the way that FDR was portrayed continue as the modern world is so effusive in its praise of him.  However, it also makes you wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is dramatized and how much of it the author wishes were true.

Bringing the series to a close, it is somewhat depressing to do it on this note, I wish he had continued further into the cold war rather than dig so deeply into FDR for two books.  I think it leaves the series somewhat unbalanced (two books of focus on FDR, George Washington barely above a cameo in Burr). I think the years between ~1960 and 2000 could have benefited from a more detailed viewing.

However, this book is what it is and while I think the author could have picked better subject matter, it does provide some interesting views (though one has to wonder what the series would have been like if he had his ideas for the whole thing when he was writing Washington D.C. originally).  The fictional characters are all vividly imagined and the historical figures seem like they could have stepped right out of a history book.

Overall, I would give this book an 88%.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Washington DC

Warning: While I try to keep these posts as spoiler free as possible, when discussing the later books in a series, it is difficult to avoid spoiling details of the earlier ones (though with Narratives of Empire you will probably get more spoilers from a passable knowledge of American history).

Washington D.C. is the penultimate novel in the chronological reading of Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire but the first one published.  Unfortunately, the fact that it is the first published is not as well disguised as other series where the chronological order and published order are different.

Caroline Sanford, primary protagonist of the last two books, has vanished.  And I don't mean like Luke at the beginning of The Force Awakens, it becomes clear that Gore Vidal didn't come up with her until he was writing Empire.  The final book in the series, The Golden Age, takes place concurrently with this book but I am not sure that there is a reading that interleaves the chapters in true chronological order.

This book covers the depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War and it is definitely more novelized and dramatic than some of the other books in the series.  It is also pretty cynical, basically stating straight out that FDR got us in to WW II deliberately and takes an overall fairly negative view on some people who are today considered icons.  I'm not sure if there was a large contingent of people with beliefs like that at the time and we are blinded by nostalgia or if Vidal was cynical even for his own time.

However, all of these complaints are not to say the book is unenjoyable.  There is a lot to like here and seeing the 40's through a different lens makes it different than most history books I have read.  Perhaps if I had started here, it might have been more of a turn off but with the investment in the characters and reading the lead up to how they got to this point, it was interesting to see how he is maneuvering everyone towards a conclusion.

Overall, I would give this book an 86%.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Warning: While I try to keep these posts as spoiler free as possible, when discussing the later books in a series, it is difficult to avoid spoiling details of the earlier ones (though with Narratives of Empire you will probably get more spoilers from a passable knowledge of American history).

Hollywood is our fifth stop on our journey through the Narratives of Empire series (it would be the sixth if I was reading in publication order).  It is also, unfortunately, my least favorite volume in the series.  This is not to say it is bad but I think it is a clear outlier considering how much I enjoyed the rest of the series.

Caroline Sanford, who spent the last book assertively establishing a newspaper empire and competing with her brother now throws it all away to move to Hollywood and work in the movie business with William Randolph Hearst from the last book. 

While this book covers the United States' entry into World War I and the aftermath, splitting the action between Hollywood and DC doesn't do the pacing any favors.  I also found the Hollywood parts of the book just less compelling.  Perhaps someone with a greater appreciation for film history would enjoy it more, but I found it lacking.

I can understand that it kind of follows a similar format to Empire in that it takes a more social perspective to formative events in American history but it doesn't feel like it works as well.  Also, Caroline Sanford being a producer and an actor and being willing to give up her newspapers seems like an unrealistic character change.

Overall, I would give this book an 81%.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Warning: While I try to keep these posts as spoiler free as possible, when discussing the later books in a series, it is difficult to avoid spoiling details of the earlier ones (though with Narratives of Empire you will probably get more spoilers from a passable knowledge of American history).

Empire by Gore Vidal is the fourth volume in his Narratives of Empire series chronologically and the fifth published.  At this point, publication order and chronological order will line up for all but the penultimate volume and you can tell that this sets up a little more world building than previous volumes.

Empire is a strong contender for my favorite volume in the series (Lincoln being its strongest competitor) but it introduces my favorite character, Caroline Sanford. She and her brother are the latest descendants of the Schulyer family and they are pitted against each other in the age of yellow journalism.  Her ambition is most of the driving force in the novel and Vidal manages to make her triumphs feel appropriately hard fought.

This volume interested me more because it focused less on the global events at the beginning of the 20th century (though still a fair amount, "Empire" is the title) and more on the social, with which I was less familiar.  I didn't really know much about the Hearst news empire (owned by the child of the villain of Deadwood) and the social struggles around McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt's presidential runs.

As with all the books in the series, you could probably pick it up and start here. However, this one has more connections to the previous volumes than some of the others.  Like the others though, it is a highly enjoyable read steeped in the characters and politics of the time.

Overall, I would give this book a 90%.