March 2006

Ferrigno, Robert. Prayers for the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7289-7.
The year is 2040. The former United States have fissioned into the coast-to-coast Islamic Republic in the north and the Bible Belt from Texas eastward to the Atlantic, with the anything-goes Nevada Free State acting as a broker between them, pressure relief valve, and window to the outside world. The collapse of the old decadent order was triggered by the nuclear destruction of New York and Washington, and the radioactive poisoning of Mecca by a dirty bomb in 2015, confessed to by an agent of the Mossad, who revealed a plot to set the Islamic world and the West against one another. In the aftermath, a wave of Islamic conversion swept the West, led by the glitterati and opinion leaders, with hold-outs fleeing to the Bible Belt, which co-exists with the Islamic Republic in a state of low intensity warfare. China has become the world's sole superpower, with Russia, reaping the benefit of refugees from overrun Israel, the high-technology centre.

This novel is set in the Islamic Republic, largely in the capital of Seattle (no surprise—even pre-transition, that's where the airheads seem to accrete, and whence bad ideas and flawed technologies seep out to despoil the heartland). The society sketched is believably rich and ambiguous: Muslims are divided into “modern”, “moderate”, and “fundamentalist” communities which more or less co-exist, like the secular, religious, and orthodox communities in present-day Israel. Many Catholics have remained in the Islamic Republic, reduced to dhimmitude and limited in their career aspirations, but largely left alone as long as they keep to themselves. The Southwest, with its largely Catholic hispanic population, is a zone of relative personal liberty within the Islamic Republic, much like Kish Island in Iran. Power in the Islamic Republic, as in Iran, is under constant contention among national security, religious police, the military, fanatic “fedayeen”, and civil authority, whose scheming against one another leaves cracks in which the clever can find a modicum of freedom.

But the historical events upon which the Islamic Republic is founded may not be what they seem, and the protagonists, the adopted but estranged son and daughter of the shadowy head of state security, must untangle decades of intrigue and misdirection to find the truth and make it public. There are some thoughtful and authentic touches in the world sketched in this novel: San Francisco has become a hotbed of extremist fundamentalism, which might seem odd until you reflect that moonbat collectivism and environmentalism share much of the same desire to make the individual submit to externally imposed virtue which suffuses radical Islam. Properly packaged and marketed, Islam can be highly attractive to disillusioned leftists, as the conversion of Carlos “the Jackal” from fanatic Marxist to “revolutionary Islam” demonstrates.

There are a few goofs. Authors who include nuclear weapons in their stories really ought seek the advice of somebody who knows about them, or at least research them in the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. The “fissionable fuel rods from a new Tajik reactor…made from a rare isotope, supposedly much more powerful than plutonium” on p. 212, purportedly used to fabricate a five megaton bomb, is the purest nonsense in about every way imaginable. First of all, there are no isotopes, rare or otherwise, which are better than highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium for fission weapons. Second, there's no way you could possibly make a five megaton fission bomb, regardless of the isotope you used—to get such a yield you'd need so much fission fuel that it would be much more than a critical mass and predetonate, which would ruin your whole day. The highest yield fission bomb ever built was Ted Taylor's Mk 18F Super Oralloy Bomb (SOB), which contained about four critical masses of U-235, and depended upon the very low neutron background of HEU to permit implosion assembly before predetonation. The SOB had a yield of about 500 kt; with all the short half-life junk in fuel rods, there's no way you could possibly approach that yield, not to speak of something ten times as great. If you need high yield, tritium boosting or a full-fledged two stage Teller-Ulam fusion design is the only way to go. The author also shares the common misconception in thrillers that radiation is something like an infectuous disease which permanently contaminates everything it touches. Unfortunately, this fallacy plays a significant part in the story.

Still, this is a well-crafted page-turner which, like the best alternative history, is not only entertaining but will make you think. The blogosphere has been chattering about this book (that's where I came across it), and they're justified in recommending it. The Web site for the book, complete with Flash animation and an annoying sound track, includes background information and the author's own blog with links to various reviews.

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Susskind, Leonard. The Cosmic Landscape. New York: Little, Brown, 2006. ISBN 0-316-15579-9.
Leonard Susskind (and, independently, Yoichiro Nambu) co-discovered the original hadronic string theory in 1969. He has been a prominent contributor to a wide variety of topics in theoretical physics over his long career, and is a talented explainer of abstract theoretical concepts to the general reader. This book communicates both the physics and cosmology of the “string landscape” (a term he coined in 2003) revolution which has swiftly become the consensus among string theorists, as well as the intellectual excitement of those exploring this new frontier.

The book is subtitled “String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design” which may be better marketing copy—controversy sells—than descriptive of the contents. There is very little explicit discussion of intelligent design in the book at all except in the first and last pages, and what is meant by “intelligent design” is not what the reader might expect: design arguments in the origin and evolution of life, but rather the apparent fine-tuning of the physical constants of our universe, the cosmological constant in particular, without which life as we know it (and, in many cases, not just life but even atoms, stars, and galaxies) could not exist. Susskind is eloquent in describing why the discovery that the cosmological constant, which virtually every theoretical physicist would have bet had to be precisely zero, is (apparently) a small tiny positive number, seemingly fine tuned to one hundred and twenty decimal places “hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks” (p. 185)—here was a number which, not only did theory suggest should be 120 orders of magnitude greater, but which, had it been slightly larger than its minuscule value, would have precluded structure formation (and hence life) in the universe. One can imagine some as-yet-undiscovered mathematical explanation why a value is precisely zero (and, indeed, physicists did: it's called supersymmetry, and searching for evidence of it is one of the reasons they're spending billions of taxpayer funds to build the Large Hadron Collider), but when you come across a dial set with the almost ridiculous precision of 120 decimal places and it's a requirement for our own existence, thoughts of a benevolent Creator tend to creep into the mind of even the most doctrinaire scientific secularist. This is how the appearance of “intelligent design” (as the author defines it) threatens to get into the act, and the book is an exposition of the argument string theorists and cosmologists have developed to contend that such apparent design is entirely an illusion.

The very title of the book, then invites us to contrast two theories of the origin of the universe: “intelligent design” and the “string landscape”. So, let's accept that challenge and plunge right in, shall we? First of all, permit me to observe that despite frequent claims to the contrary, including some in this book, intelligent design need not presuppose a supernatural being operating outside the laws of science and/or inaccessible to discovery through scientific investigation. The origin of life on Earth due to deliberate seeding with engineered organisms by intelligent extraterrestrials is a theory of intelligent design which has no supernatural component, evidence of which may be discovered by science in the future, and which is sufficiently plausible to have persuaded Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was the most likely explanation. If you observe a watch, you're entitled to infer the existence of a watchmaker, but there's no reason to believe he's a magician, just a craftsman.

If we're to compare these theories, let us begin by stating them both succinctly:

Theory 1: Intelligent Design.   An intelligent being created the universe and chose the initial conditions and physical laws so as to permit the existence of beings like ourselves.

Theory 2: String Landscape.   The laws of physics and initial conditions of the universe are chosen at random from among 10500 possibilities, only a vanishingly small fraction of which (probably no more than one in 10120) can support life. The universe we observe, which is infinite in extent and may contain regions where the laws of physics differ, is one of an infinite number of causally disconnected “pocket universes“ which spontaneously form from quantum fluctuations in the vacuum of parent universes, a process which has been occurring for an infinite time in the past and will continue in the future, time without end. Each of these pocket universes which, together, make up the “megaverse”, has its own randomly selected laws of physics, and hence the overwhelming majority are sterile. We find ourselves in one of the tiny fraction of hospitable universes because if we weren't in such an exceptionally rare universe, we wouldn't exist to make the observation. Since there are an infinite number of universes, however, every possibility not only occurs, but occurs an infinite number of times, so not only are there an infinite number of inhabited universes, there are an infinite number identical to ours, including an infinity of identical copies of yourself wondering if this paragraph will ever end. Not only does the megaverse spawn an infinity of universes, each universe itself splits into two copies every time a quantum measurement occurs. Our own universe will eventually spawn a bubble which will destroy all life within it, probably not for a long, long time, but you never know. Evidence for all of the other universes is hidden behind a cosmic horizon and may remain forever inaccessible to observation.

Paging Friar Ockham! If unnecessarily multiplying hypotheses are stubble indicating a fuzzy theory, it's pretty clear which of these is in need of the razor! Further, while one can imagine scientific investigation discovering evidence for Theory 1, almost all of the mechanisms which underlie Theory 2 remain, barring some conceptual breakthrough equivalent to looking inside a black hole, forever hidden from science by an impenetrable horizon through which no causal influence can propagate. So severe is this problem that chapter 9 of the book is devoted to the question of how far theoretical physics can go in the total absence of experimental evidence. What's more, unlike virtually every theory in the history of science, which attempted to describe the world we observe as accurately and uniquely as possible, Theory 2 predicts every conceivable universe and says, hey, since we do, after all, inhabit a conceivable universe, it's consistent with the theory. To one accustomed to the crystalline inevitability of Newtonian gravitation, general relativity, quantum electrodynamics, or the laws of thermodynamics, this seems by comparison like a California blonde saying “whatever”—the cosmology of despair.

Scientists will, of course, immediately rush to attack Theory 1, arguing that a being such as that it posits would necessarily be “indistinguishable from magic”, capable of explaining anything, and hence unfalsifiable and beyond the purview of science. (Although note that on pp. 192–197 Susskind argues that Popperian falsifiability should not be a rigid requirement for a theory to be deemed scientific. See Lee Smolin's Scientific Alternatives to the Anthropic Principle for the argument against the string landscape theory on the grounds of falsifiability, and the 2004 Smolin/Susskind debate for a more detailed discussion of this question.) But let us look more deeply at the attributes of what might be called the First Cause of Theory 2. It not only permeates all of our universe, potentially spawning a bubble which may destroy it and replace it with something different, it pervades the abstract landscape of all possible universes, populating them with an infinity of independent and diverse universes over an eternity of time: omnipresent in spacetime. When a universe is created, all the parameters which ultimately govern its ultimate evolution (under the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics, to be sure) are fixed at the moment of creation: omnipotent to create any possibility, perhaps even varying the mathematical structures underlying the laws of physics. As a budded off universe evolves, whether a sterile formless void or teeming with intelligent life, no information is ever lost in its quantum evolution, not even down a black hole or across a cosmic horizon, and every quantum event splits the universe and preserves all possible outcomes. The ensemble of universes is thus omniscient of all its contents. Throw in intelligent and benevolent, and you've got the typical deity, and since you can't observe the parallel universes where the action takes place, you pretty much have to take it on faith. Where have we heard that before?

Lest I be accused of taking a cheap shot at string theory, or advocating a deistic view of the universe, consider the following creation story which, after John A. Wheeler, I shall call “Creation without the Creator”. Many extrapolations of continued exponential growth in computing power envision a technological singularity in which super-intelligent computers designing their own successors rapidly approach the ultimate physical limits on computation. Such computers would be sufficiently powerful to run highly faithful simulations of complex worlds, including intelligent beings living within them which need not be aware they were inhabiting a simulation, but thought they were living at the “top level”, who eventually passed through their own technological singularity, created their own simulated universes, populated them with intelligent beings who, in turn,…world without end. Of course, each level of simulation imposes a speed penalty (though, perhaps not much in the case of quantum computation), but it's not apparent to the inhabitants of the simulation since their own perceived time scale is in units of the “clock rate” of the simulation.

If an intelligent civilisation develops to the point where it can build these simulated universes, will it do so? Of course it will—just look at the fascination crude video game simulations have for people today. Now imagine a simulation as rich as reality and unpredictable as tomorrow, actually creating an inhabited universe—who could resist? As unlimited computing power becomes commonplace, kids will create innovative universes and evolve them for billions of simulated years for science fair projects. Call the mean number of simulated universes created by intelligent civilisations in a given universe (whether top-level or itself simulated) the branching factor. If this is greater than one, and there is a single top-level non-simulated universe, then it will be outnumbered by simulated universes which grow exponentially in numbers with the depth of the simulation. Hence, by the Copernican principle, or principle of mediocrity, we should expect to find ourselves in a simulated universe, since they vastly outnumber the single top-level one, which would be an exceptional place in the ensemble of real and simulated universes. Now here's the point: if, as we should expect from this argument, we do live in a simulated universe, then our universe is the product of intelligent design and Theory 1 is an absolutely correct description of its origin.

Suppose this is the case: we're inside a simulation designed by a freckle-faced superkid for extra credit in her fifth grade science class. Is this something we could discover, or must it, like so many aspects of Theory 2, be forever hidden from our scientific investigation? Surprisingly, this variety of Theory 1 is quite amenable to experiment: neither revelation nor faith is required. What would we expect to see if we inhabited a simulation? Well, there would probably be a discrete time step and granularity in position fixed by the time and position resolution of the simulation—check, and check: the Planck time and distance appear to behave this way in our universe. There would probably be an absolute speed limit to constrain the extent we could directly explore and impose a locality constraint on propagating updates throughout the simulation—check: speed of light. There would be a limit on the extent of the universe we could observe—check: the Hubble radius is an absolute horizon we cannot penetrate, and the last scattering surface of the cosmic background radiation limits electromagnetic observation to a still smaller radius. There would be a limit on the accuracy of physical measurements due to the finite precision of the computation in the simulation—check: Heisenberg uncertainty principle—and, as in games, randomness would be used as a fudge when precision limits were hit—check: quantum mechanics.

Might we expect surprises as we subject our simulated universe to ever more precise scrutiny, perhaps even astonishing the being which programmed it with our cunning and deviousness (as the author of any software package has experienced at the hands of real-world users)? Who knows, we might run into round-off errors which “hit us like a ton of bricks”! Suppose there were some quantity, say, that was supposed to be exactly zero but, if you went and actually measured the geometry way out there near the edge and crunched the numbers, you found out it differed from zero in the 120th decimal place. Why, you might be as shocked as the na´ve Perl programmer who ran the program “printf("%.18f", 0.2)” and was aghast when it printed “0.200000000000000011” until somebody explained that with about 56 bits of mantissa in IEEE double precision floating point, you only get about 17 decimal digits (log10 256) of precision. So, what does a round-off in the 120th digit imply? Not Theory 2, with its infinite number of infinitely reproducing infinite universes, but simply that our Theory 1 intelligent designer used 400 bit numbers (log2 10120) in the simulation and didn't count on our noticing—remember you heard it here first, and if pointing this out causes the simulation to be turned off, sorry about that, folks! Surprises from future experiments which would be suggestive (though not probative) that we're in a simulated universe would include failure to find any experimental signature of quantum gravity (general relativity could be classical in the simulation, since potential conflicts with quantum mechanics would be hidden behind event horizons in the present-day universe, and extrapolating backward to the big bang would be meaningless if the simulation were started at a later stage, say at the time of big bang nucleosynthesis), and discovery of limits on the ability to superpose wave functions for quantum computation which could result from limited precision in the simulation as opposed to the continuous complex values assumed by quantum mechanics. An interesting theoretical program would be to investigate feasible experiments which, by magnifying physical effects similar to proposed searches for quantum gravity signals, would detect round-off errors of magnitude comparable to the cosmological constant.

But seriously, this is an excellent book and anybody who's interested in the strange direction in which the string theorists are veering these days ought to read it; it's well-written, authoritative, reasonably fair to opposing viewpoints (although I'm surprised the author didn't address the background spacetime criticism of string theory raised so eloquently by Lee Smolin), and provides a roadmap of how string theory may develop in the coming years. The only nagging question you're left with after finishing the book is whether after thirty years of theorising which comes to the conclusion that everything is predicted and nothing can be observed, it's about science any more.

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Freeh, Louis J. with Howard Means. My FBI. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 0-312-32189-9.
This may be one of the most sanctimonious and self-congratulatory books ever written by a major U.S. public figure who is not Jimmy Carter. Not only is the book titled “My FBI” (gee, I always thought it was supposed to belong to the U.S. taxpayers who pay the G-men's salaries and buy the ammunition they expend), in the preface, where the author explains why he reversed his original decision not to write a memoir of his time at the FBI, he uses the words “I”, “me”, “my”, and “myself” a total of 91 times in four pages.

Only about half of the book covers Freeh's 1993–2001 tenure as FBI director; the rest is a straightforward autohagiography of his years as an altar boy, Eagle Scout, idealistic but apolitical law student during the turbulent early 1970s, FBI agent, crusading anti-Mafia federal prosecutor in New York City, and hard-working U.S. district judge, before bring appointed to the FBI job by Bill Clinton, who promised him independence and freedom from political interference in the work of the Bureau. Little did Freeh expect, when accepting the job, that he would spend much of his time in the coming years investigating the Clintons and their cronies. The tawdry and occasionally bizarre stories of those events as seen from the FBI fills a chapter and sets the background for the tense relations between the White House and FBI on other matters such as terrorism and counter-intelligence. The Oklahoma City and Saudi Arabian Khobar Towers bombings, the Atlanta Olympics bomb, the identification and arrest of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and the discovery of long-term Soviet mole Robert Hanssen in the FBI all occurred on Freeh's watch; he provides a view of these events and the governmental turf battles they engendered from the perspective of the big office in the Hoover Building, but there's little or no new information about the events themselves. Freeh resigned the FBI directorship in June 2001, and September 11th of that year was the first day at his new job. (What do you do after nine years running the FBI? Go to work for a credit card company!) In a final chapter, he provides a largely exculpatory account of the FBI's involvement in counter-terrorism and what might have been done to prevent such terrorist strikes. He directly attacks Richard A. Clarke and his book Against All Enemies as a self-aggrandising account by a minor player including some outright fabrications.

Freeh's book provides a peek into the mind of a self-consciously virtuous top cop—if only those foolish politicians and their paranoid constituents would sign over the last shreds of their liberties and privacy (on p. 304 he explicitly pitches for key escrow and back doors in encryption products, arguing “there's no need for this technology to be any more intrusive than a wiretap on a phone line”—indeed!), the righteous and incorruptible enforcers of the law and impartial arbiters of justice could make their lives ever so much safer and fret-free. And perhaps if the human beings in possession of those awesome powers were, in fact, as righteous as Mr. Freeh seems to believe himself to be, then there would nothing to worry about. But evidence suggests cause for concern. On the next to last page of the book, p. 324, near the end of six pages of acknowledgements set in small type with narrow leading (didn't think we'd read that far, Mr. Freeh?), we find the author naming, as an exemplar of one of the “courageous and honorable men who serve us”, who “deserve the nation's praise and lasting gratitude”, one Lon Horiuchi, the FBI sniper who shot and killed Vicki Weaver (who was accused of no crime) while she was holding her baby in her hands during the Ruby Ridge siege in August of 1992. Horiuchi later pled the Fifth Amendment in testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1995, ten years prior to Freeh's commendation of him here.

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O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Dalkey Archive. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1964] 1993. ISBN 1-56478-172-0.
What a fine book to be reading on Saint Patrick's Day! Flann O'Brien (a nom de plume of Brian O'Nolan, who also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, among others) is considered one of the greatest Irish authors of humor and satire in the twentieth century; James Joyce called him “A real writer, with the true comic spirit.” In addition to his novels, he wrote short stories, plays, and a multitude of newspaper columns in both the Irish and English languages. The Dalkey Archive is a story of mind-bending fantasy and linguistic acrobatics yet so accessible it sucks the reader into its alternative reality almost unsuspecting. A substantial part of the material is recycled from The Third Policeman (January 2004) which, although completed in 1940, the author despaired of ever seeing published (it was eventually published posthumously in 1967). Both novels are works of surreal fantasy, but The Dalkey Archive is more conventionally structured and easier to get into, much as John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit stands in relation to his own earlier and more experimental Stand on Zanzibar.

The mad scientist De Selby, who appears offstage and in extensive and highly eccentric footnotes in The Third Policeman, is a key character here, joined by Saint Augustine and James Joyce. The master of malaprop, Sergeant Fottrell and his curious “mollycule” theory about people and bicycles is here as well, providing a stolid counterpoint to De Selby's relativistic pneumatic theology and diabolical designs. It takes a special kind of genius to pack this much weirdness into only two hundred pages. If you're interested in O'Brien's curious career, this biography is an excellent starting point which contains no spoilers for any of his fiction.

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Reynolds, Glenn. An Army of Davids. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006. ISBN 1-5955-5054-2.
In this book, law professor and Řber blogger (InstaPundit.com) Glenn Reynolds explores how present and near-future technology is empowering individuals at the comparative expense of large organisations in fields as diverse as retailing, music and motion picture production, national security, news gathering, opinion journalism, and, looking further out, nanotechnology and desktop manufacturing, human longevity and augmentation, and space exploration and development (including Project Orion [pp. 228–233]—now there's a garage start-up I'd love to work on!). Individual empowerment is, like the technology which creates it, morally neutral: good people can do more good, and bad people can wreak more havoc. Reynolds is relentlessly optimistic, and I believe justifiably so; good people outnumber bad people by a large majority, and in a society which encourages them to be “a pack, not a herd” (the title of chapter 5), they will have the means in their hands to act as a societal immune system against hyper-empowered malefactors far more effective than heavy-handed top-down repression and fear-motivated technological relinquishment.

Anybody who's seeking “the next big thing” couldn't find a better place to start than this book. Chapters 2, 3 and 7, taken together, provide a roadmap for the devolution of work from downtown office towers to individual entrepreneurs working at home and in whatever environments attract them, and the emergence of “horizontal knowledge”, supplanting the top-down one-to-many model of the legacy media. There are probably a dozen ideas for start-ups with the potential of eBay and Amazon lurking in these chapters if you read them with the right kind of eyes. If the business and social model of the twenty-first century indeed comes to resemble that of the eighteenth, all of those self-reliant independent people are going to need lots of products and services they will find indispensable just as soon as somebody manages to think of them. Discovering and meeting these needs will pay well.

The “every person an entrepreneur” world sketched here raises the same concerns I expressed in regard to David Bolchover's The Living Dead (January 2006): this will be a wonderful world, indeed, for the intelligent and self-motivated people who will prosper once liberated from corporate cubicle indenture. But not everybody is like that: in particular, those people tend to be found on the right side of the bell curve, and for every one on the right, there's one equally far to the left. We have already made entire categories of employment for individuals with average or below-average intelligence redundant. In the eighteenth century, there were many ways in which such people could lead productive and fulfilling lives; what will they do in the twenty-first? Further, ever since Bismarck, government schools have been manufacturing worker-bees with little initiative, and essentially no concept of personal autonomy. As I write this, the Úlite of French youth is rioting over a proposal to remove what amounts to a guarantee of lifetime employment in a first job. How will people so thoroughly indoctrinated in collectivism fare in an individualist renaissance? As a law professor, the author spends much of his professional life in the company of high-intelligence, strongly-motivated students, many of whom contemplate an entrepreneurial career and in any case expect to be judged on their merits in a fiercely competitive environment. One wonders if his optimism might be tempered were he to spend comparable time with denizens of, say, the school of education. But the fact that there will be problems in the future shouldn't make us fear it—heaven knows there are problems enough in the present, and the last century was kind of a colossal monument to disaster and tragedy; whatever the future holds, the prescription of more freedom, more information, greater wealth and health, and less coercion presented here is certain to make it a better place to live.

The individualist future envisioned here has much in common with that foreseen in the 1970s by Timothy Leary, who coined the acronym “SMIILE” for “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension”. The “II” is alluded to in chapter 12 as part of the merging of human and machine intelligence in the singularity, but mightn't it make sense, as Leary advocated, to supplement longevity research with investigation of the nature of human intelligence and near-term means to increase it? Realising the promise and avoiding the risks of the demanding technologies of the future are going to require both intelligence and wisdom; shifting the entire bell curve to the right, combined with the wisdom of longer lives may be key in achieving the much to be desired future foreseen here.

InstaPundit visitors will be familiar with the writing style, which consists of relatively brief discussion of a multitude of topics, each with one or more references for those who wish to “read the whole thing” in more depth. One drawback of the print medium is that although many of these citations are Web pages, to get there you have to type in lengthy URLs for each one. An on-line edition of the end notes with all the on-line references as clickable links would be a great service to readers.

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Buckley, Christopher. Florence of Arabia. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-8129-7226-0.
This is a very funny novel, and thought-provoking as well. Some speak of a “clash of civilisations” or “culture war” between the Western and Islamic worlds, but with few exceptions the battle has been waged inadvertently by the West, through diffusion of its culture through mass media and globalised business, and indirectly by Islam, through immigration without assimilation into Western countries. Suppose the West were to say, “OK, you want a culture war? Here's a culture war!” and target one of fundamentalist Islam's greatest vulnerabilities: its subjugation and oppression of women?

In this story, the stuck-on-savage petroleum superpower Royal Kingdom of Wasabia cuts off one head too many when they execute a woman who had been befriended by Foreign Service staffer Florence Farfaletti, herself an escapee from trophy wife status in the desert kingdom, who hammers out a fifty-page proposal titled “Female Emancipation as a Means of Achieving Long-Term Political Stability in the Near East” and, undiplomatically vaulting over heaven knows how many levels of bureaucrats and pay grades, bungs it into the Secretary of State's in-box. Bold initiatives of this kind are not in keeping with what State does best, which is nothing, but Florence's plan comes to the attention of the mysterious “Uncle Sam” who appears to have unlimited financial resources at his command and the Washington connections to make just about anything happen.

This sets things in motion, and soon Florence and her team, including a good ole' boy ex-CIA killer, Foreign Service officer who detests travel, and public relations wizard so amoral his slime almost qualifies him for OPEC membership, are set up in the Emirate of Matar, “Switzerland of the Gulf”, famed for its duty-free shopping, offshore pleasure domes at “Infidel Land”, and laid-back approach to Islam by clergy so well-compensated for their tolerance they're nicknamed “moolahs”. The mission? To launch TVMatar, a satellite network targeting Arab women, headed by the wife of the Emir, who was a British TV presenter before marrying the randy royal.

TVMatar's programming is, shall we say, highly innovative, and before long things are bubbling on both sides of the Wasabi/Matar border, with intrigue afoot on all sides, including Machiavellian misdirection by those masters of perfidy, the French. And, of course (p. 113), “This is the Middle East! … Don't you understand that since the start of time, startin' with the Garden of Eden, nothing has ever gone right here?” Indeed, before long, a great many things go all pear-shaped, with attendant action, suspense, laughs, and occasional tragedy. As befits a comic novel, in the end all is resolved, but many are the twists and turns to get there which will keep you turning pages, and there are delightful turns of phrase throughout, from CIA headquarters christened the “George Bush Center for Intelligence” in the prologue to Shem, the Camel Royal…but I mustn't spoil that for you.

This is a delightful read, laugh out loud funny, and enjoyable purely on that level. But in a world where mobs riot, burn embassies, and murder people over cartoons, while pusillanimous European politicians cower before barbarism and contemplate constraining liberties their ancestors bequeathed to humanity in the Enlightenment, one cannot help but muse, “OK, you want a culture war?”

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Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-72560-1.
It's conventional wisdom in the publishing business that you never want a book to “fall into the crack” between two categories: booksellers won't know where to shelve it, promotional campaigns have to convey a complicated mixed message, and you run the risk of irritating readers who bought it solely for one of the two topics. Here we have a book which evokes the best and the worst of the Gilded Age of the 1890s in Chicago by interleaving the contemporary stories of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the depraved series of murders committed just a few miles from the fairgrounds by the archetypal American psychopathic serial killer, the chillingly diabolical Dr. H. H. Holmes (the principal alias among many used by a man whose given name was Herman Webster Mudgett; his doctorate was a legitimate medical degree from the University of Michigan). Architectural and industrial history and true crime are two genres you might think wouldn't mix, but in the hands of the author they result in a compelling narrative which I found as difficult to put down as any book I have read in the last several years. For once, this is not just my eccentric opinion; at this writing the book has been on The New York Times Best-Seller list for more than two consecutive years and won the Edgar award for best fact crime in 2004. As I rarely frequent best-seller lists, it went right under my radar. Special thanks to the visitor to this page who recommended I read it!

Boosters saw the Columbian Exposition not so much as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World but as a brash announcement of the arrival of the United States on the world stage as a major industrial, commercial, financial, and military power. They viewed the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (for which the Eiffel Tower was built) as a throwing down of the gauntlet by the Old World, and vowed to assert the preeminence of the New by topping the French and “out-Eiffeling Eiffel”. Once decided on by Congress, the site of the exposition became a bitterly contested struggle between partisans of New York, Washington, and Chicago, with the latter seeing its victory as marking its own arrival as a peer of the Eastern cities who looked with disdain at what Chicagoans considered the most dynamic city in the nation.

Charged with building the Exposition, a city in itself, from scratch on barren, wind-swept, marshy land was architect Daniel H. Burnham, he who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.” He made no little plans. The exposition was to have more than 200 buildings in a consistent neo-classical style, all in white, including the largest enclosed space ever constructed. While the electric light was still a novelty, the fair was to be illuminated by the the first large-scale application of alternating current. Edison's kinetoscope amazed visitors with moving pictures, and a theatre presented live music played by an orchestra in New York and sent over telephone wires to Chicago. Nikola Tesla amazed fairgoers with huge bolts of electrical fire, and a giant wheel built by a man named George Washington Gale Ferris lifted more than two thousand people at once into the sky to look down upon the fair like gods. One of the army of workers who built the fair was a carpenter named Elias Disney, who later regaled his sons Roy and Walt with tales of the magic city; they must have listened attentively.

The construction of the fair in such a short time seemed miraculous to onlookers (and even more so to those accustomed to how long it takes to get anything built a century later), but the list of disasters, obstacles, obstructions, and outright sabotage which Burnham and his team had to overcome was so monumental you'd have almost thought I was involved in the project! (Although if you've ever set up a trade show booth in Chicago, you've probably gotten a taste of it.) A total of 27.5 million people visited the fair between May and October of 1893, and this in a country whose total population (1890 census) was just 62.6 million. Perhaps even more astonishing to those acquainted with comparable present-day undertakings, the exposition was profitable and retired all of its bank debt.

While the enchanted fair was rising on the shore of Lake Michigan and enthralling visitors from around the world, in a gloomy city block size building not far away, Dr. H. H. Holmes was using his almost preternatural powers to charm the young, attractive, and unattached women who flocked to Chicago from the countryside in search of careers and excitement. He offered them the former in various capacities in the businesses, some legitimate and other bogus, in his “castle”, and the latter in his own person, until he killed them, disposed of their bodies, and in some cases sold their skeletons to medical schools. Were the entire macabre history of Holmes not thoroughly documented in court proceedings, investigators' reports, and reputable contemporary news items, he might seem to be a character from an over-the-top Gothic novel, like Jack the Ripper. But wait—Jack the Ripper was real too. However, Jack the Ripper is only believed to have killed five women; Holmes is known for certain to have killed nine men, women, and children. He confessed to killing 27 in all, but this was the third of three mutually inconsistent confessions all at variance with documented facts (some of those he named in the third confession turned up alive). Estimates ran as high as two hundred, but that seems implausible. In any case, he was a monster the likes of which no American imagined inhabited their cities until his crimes were uncovered. Remarkably, and of interest to libertarians who advocate the replacement of state power by insurance-like private mechanisms, Holmes never even came under suspicion by any government law enforcement agency during the entire time he committed his murder spree, nor did any of his other scams (running out on debts, forging promissory notes, selling bogus remedies) attract the attention of the law. His undoing was when he attempted insurance fraud (one of his favourite activities) and ended up with Nemesis-like private detective Frank Geyer on his trail. Geyer, through tireless tracking and the expenditure of large quantities of shoe leather, got the goods on Holmes, who met his end on the gallows in May of 1896. His jailers considered him charming.

I picked this book up expecting an historical recounting of a rather distant and obscure era. Was I ever wrong—I finished the whole thing in two and half days; the story is that fascinating and the writing that good. More than 25 pages of source citations and bibliography are included, but this is not a dry work of history; it reads like a novel. In places, the author has invented descriptions of events for which no eyewitness account exists; he says that in doing this, his goal is to create a plausible narrative as a prosecutor does at a trial. Most such passages are identified in the end notes and justifications given for the inferences made therein. The descriptions of the Exposition cry out for many more illustrations than are included: there isn't even a picture of the Ferris wheel! If you read this book, you'll probably want to order the Dover Photographic Record of the Fair—I did.

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