September 2007

Mead, Rebecca. One Perfect Day. New York: Penguin Press, 2007. ISBN 1-59420-088-2.
This book does for for the wedding industry what Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death did for that equally emotion-exploiting industry which preys upon the other end of adult life. According to the American Wedding Study, published annually by the Condé Nast Bridal Group, the average cost of a wedding in the United States in 2006 was US$27,852. Now, as the author points out on p. 25, this number, without any doubt, is overstated—it is compiled by the publisher of three bridal magazines which has every incentive to show the market they reach to be as large as possible, and is based upon a survey of those already in contact in one way or another with the wedding industry; those who skip all of the theatrics and expense and simply go to City Hall or have a quiet ceremony with close family at home or at the local church are “off the radar” in a survey of this kind and would, if included, bring down the average cost. Still, it's the only figure available, and it is representative of what the wedding industry manages to extract from those who engage (if I may use the word) with it.

To folks who have a sense of the time value of money, this is a stunning figure. The average age at which Americans marry has been increasing for decades and now stands at around 26 years for women and 27 years for men. So let's take US$27,000 and, instead of blowing it out on a wedding, assume the couple uses it to open an investment account at age 27, and that they simply leave the money in the account to compound, depositing nothing more until they retire at age 65. If the account has a compounded rate of return of 10% per annum (which is comparable to the long-term return of the U.S. stock market as a whole), then at age 65, that US$27,000 will have grown to just a bit over a million dollars—a pretty nice retirement nest egg as the couple embarks upon their next big change of life, especially since government Ponzi scheme retirement programs are likely to have collapsed by then. (The OpenOffice spreadsheet I used to make this calculation is available for downloading. It also allows you to forecast the alternative of opting for an inexpensive education and depositing the US$19,000 average student loan burden into an account at age 21—that ends up yielding more than 1.2 million at age 65. The idea for this analysis came from Richard Russell's “Rich Man, Poor Man”, which is the single most lucid and important document on lifetime financial planning I have ever read.) The computation assumes the wedding costs are paid in cash by the couple and/or their families. If they're funded by debt, the financial consequences are even more dire, as the couple finds itself servicing a debt in the very years where saving for retirement has the largest ultimate payoff. Ever helpful, in this book we find the Bank of America marketing home equity loans to finance wedding blow-outs.

So how do you manage to spend twenty-seven thousand bucks on a one day party? Well, as the author documents, writing with a wry sense of irony which never descends into snarkiness, the resourceful wedding business makes it downright easy, and is continually inventing new ways to extract even more money from their customers. We learn the ways of the wedding planner, the bridal shop operator, the wedding media, resorts, photographers and videographers, à la carte “multi-faith” ministers, drive-through Las Vegas wedding chapels, and the bridal apparel industry, including a fascinating look inside one of the Chinese factories where “the product” is made. (Most Chinese factory workers are paid on a piecework basis. So how do you pay the person who removes the pins after lace has been sewed in place? By the weight of pins removed—US$2 per kilogram.)

With a majority of U.S. couples who marry already living together, some having one or more children attending the wedding, the ceremony and celebration, which once marked a major rite of passage and change in status within the community now means…precisely what? Well, not to worry, because the wedding industry has any number of “traditions” for sale to fill the void. The author tracks down the origins of a number of them: the expensive diamond engagement ring (invented by the N. W. Ayer advertising agency in the 1930s for their client, De Beers), the Unity Candle ceremony (apparently owing its popularity to a television soap opera in the 1970s), and the “Apache Indian Prayer”, a favourite of the culturally eclectic, which was actually penned by a Hollywood screenwriter for the 1950 film Broken Arrow.

The bottom line (and this book is very much about that) is that in the eyes of the wedding industry, and in the words of Condé Nast executive Peter K. Hunsinger, the bride is not so much a princess preparing for a magic day and embarking upon the lifetime adventure of matrimony, but (p. 31) “kind of the ultimate consumer, the drunken sailor. Everyone is trying to get to her.” There is an index, but no source citations; you'll have to find the background information on your own.


Barrow, John D. The Infinite Book. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-3224-5.
Don't panic—despite the title, this book is only 330 pages! Having written an entire book about nothing (The Book of Nothing, May 2001), I suppose it's only natural the author would take on the other end of the scale. Unlike Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind, long the standard popular work on the topic, Barrow spends only about half of the book on the mathematics of infinity. Philosophical, metaphysical, and theological views of the infinite in a variety of cultures are discussed, as well as the history of the infinite in mathematics, including a biographical portrait of the ultimately tragic life of Georg Cantor. The physics of an infinite universe (and whether we can ever determine if our own universe is infinite), the paradoxes of an infinite number of identical copies of ourselves necessarily existing in an infinite universe, the possibility of machines which perform an infinite number of tasks in finite time, whether we're living in a simulation (and how we might discover we are), and the practical and moral consequences of immortality and time travel are also explored.

Mathematicians and scientists have traditionally been very wary of the infinite (indeed, the appearance of infinities is considered an indication of the limitations of theories in modern physics), and Barrow presents any number of paradoxes which illustrate that, as he titles chapter four, “infinity is not a big number”: it is fundamentally different and requires a distinct kind of intuition if nonsensical results are to be avoided. One of the most delightful examples is Zhihong Xia's five-body configuration of point masses which, under Newtonian gravitation, expands to infinite size in finite time. (Don't worry: the finite speed of light, formation of an horizon if two bodies approach too closely, and the emission of gravitational radiation keep this from working in the relativistic universe we inhabit. As the author says [p. 236], “Black holes might seem bad but, like growing old, they are really not so bad when you consider the alternatives.”)

This is an enjoyable and enlightening read, but I found it didn't come up to the standard set by The Book of Nothing and The Constants of Nature (June 2003). Like the latter book, this one is set in a hideously inappropriate font for a work on mathematics: the digit “1” is almost indistinguishable from the letter “I”. If you look very closely at the top serif on the “1” you'll note that it rises toward the right while the “I” has a horizontal top serif. But why go to the trouble of distinguishing the two characters and then making the two glyphs so nearly identical you can't tell them apart without a magnifying glass? In addition, the horizontal bar of the plus sign doesn't line up with the minus sign, which makes equations look awful.

This isn't the author's only work on infinity; he's also written a stage play, Infinities, which was performed in Milan in 2002 and 2003.


[Audiobook] Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1859] 2005. ISBN 9-62634-359-1.
Like many people whose high school years predated the abolition of western civilisation from the curriculum, I was compelled to read an abridgement of this work for English class, and only revisited it in this audiobook edition let's say…some years afterward. My rather dim memories of the first read was that it was one of the better novels I was forced to read, but my memory of it was tarnished by my life-long aversion to compulsion of every kind. What I only realise now, after fourteen hours and forty-five minutes of listening to this superb unabridged audio edition, is how much injury is done to the masterful prose of Dickens by abridgement. Dickens frequently uses repetition as a literary device, acting like a basso continuo to set a tone of the inexorable playing out of fate. That very repetition is the first thing to go in abridgement, along with lengthy mood-setting descriptive passages, and they are sorely missed. Having now listened to every word Dickens wrote, I don't begrudge a moment I spent doing so—it's worth it.

The novel is narrated or, one might say, performed by British actor Anton Lesser, who adopts different dialects and voice pitches for each character's dialogue. It's a little odd at first to hear French paysans speaking in the accents of rustic Britons, but you quickly get accustomed to it and recognise who's speaking from the voice.

The download edition is sold in two separate “volumes”: volume 1 (7 hours 17 minutes) and volume 2 (7 hours 28 minutes), each about a 100 megabyte download at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition (12 discs!) is available.


Lindley, David. Degrees Kelvin. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2004. ISBN 0-309-09618-9.
When 17 year old William Thomson arrived at Cambridge University to study mathematics, Britain had become a backwater of research in science and mathematics—despite the technologically-driven industrial revolution being in full force, little had been done to build upon the towering legacy of Newton, and cutting edge work had shifted to the Continent, principally France and Germany. Before beginning his studies at Cambridge, Thomson had already published three research papers in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal, one of which introduced Fourier's mathematical theory of heat to English speaking readers, defending it against criticism from those opposed to the highly analytical French style of science which Thomson found congenial to his way of thinking.

Thus began a career which, by the end of the 19th century, made Thomson widely regarded as the preeminent scientist in the world: a genuine scientific celebrity. Over his long career Thomson fused the mathematical rigour of the Continental style of research with the empirical British attitude and made fundamental progress in the kinetic theory of heat, translated Michael Faraday's intuitive view of electricity and magnetism into a mathematical framework which set the stage for Maxwell's formal unification of the two in electromagnetic field theory, and calculated the age of the Earth based upon heat flow from the interior. The latter calculation, in which he estimated only 20 to 40 million years, proved to be wrong, but was so because he had no way to know about radioactive decay as the source of Earth's internal heat: he was explicit in stating that his result assumed no then-unknown source of heat or, as we'd now say, “no new physics”. Such was his prestige that few biologists and geologists whose own investigations argued for a far more ancient Earth stepped up and said, “Fine—so start looking for the new physics!” With Peter Tait, he wrote the Treatise on Natural Philosophy, the first unified exposition of what we would now call classical physics.

Thomson believed that science had to be founded in observations of phenomena, then systematised into formal mathematics and tested by predictions and experiments. To him, understanding the mechanism, ideally based upon a mechanical model, was the ultimate goal. Although acknowledging that Maxwell's equations correctly predicted electromagnetic phenomena, he considered them incomplete because they didn't explain how or why electricity and magnetism behaved that way. Heaven knows what he would have thought of quantum mechanics (which was elaborated after his death in 1907).

He'd probably have been a big fan of string theory, though. Never afraid to add complexity to his mechanical models, he spent two decades searching for a set of 21 parameters which would describe the mechanical properties of the luminiferous ether—what string “landscape” believers might call the moduli and fluxes of the vacuum, and argued for a “vortex atom” model in which extended vortex loops replaced pointlike billiard ball atoms to explain spectrographic results. These speculations proved, as they say, not even wrong.

Thomson was not an ivory tower theorist. He viewed the occupation of the natural philosopher (he disliked the word “physicist”) as that of a problem solver, with the domain of problems encompassing the practical as well as fundamental theory. He was a central figure in the development of the first transatlantic telegraphic cable and invented the mirror galvanometer which made telegraphy over such long distances possible. He was instrumental in defining the units of electricity we still use today. He invented a mechanical analogue computer for computation of tide tables, and a compass compensated for the magnetic distortion of iron and steel warships which became the standard for the Royal Navy. These inventions made him wealthy, and he indulged his love of the sea by buying a 126 ton schooner and inviting his friends and colleagues on voyages.

In 1892, he was elevated to a peerage by Queen Victoria, made Baron Kelvin of Largs, the first scientist ever so honoured. (Numerous scientists, including Newton and Thomson himself in 1866 had been knighted, but the award of a peerage is an honour of an entirely different order.) When he died in 1907 at age 83, he was buried in Westminster Abbey next to the grave of Isaac Newton. For one who accomplished so much, and was so celebrated in his lifetime, Lord Kelvin is largely forgotten today, remembered mostly for the absolute temperature scale named in his honour and, perhaps, for the Kelvinator company of Detroit, Michigan which used his still-celebrated name to promote their ice-boxes and refrigerators. While Thomson had his hand in much of the creation of the edifice of classical physics in the 19th century, there isn't a single enduring piece of work you can point to which is entirely his. This isn't indicative of any shortcoming on his part, but rather of the maturation of science from rare leaps of insight by isolated geniuses to a collective endeavour by an international community reading each other's papers and building a theory by the collaborative effort of many minds. Science was growing up, and Kelvin's reputation has suffered, perhaps, not due to any shortcomings in his contributions, but because they were so broad, as opposed to being identified with a single discovery which was entirely his own.

This is a delightful biography of a figure whose contributions to our knowledge of the world we live in are little remembered. Lord Kelvin never wavered from his belief that science consisted in collecting the data, developing a model and theory to explain what was observed, and following the implications of that theory to their logical conclusions. In doing so, he was often presciently right and occasionally spectacularly wrong, but he was always true to science as he saw it, which is how most scientists see their profession today.

Amusingly, the chapter titles are:

  1. Cambridge
  2. Conundrums
  3. Cable
  4. Controversies
  5. Compass
  6. Kelvin


Phares, Walid. Future Jihad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, [2005] 2006. ISBN 1-4039-7511-6.
It seems to me that at the root of the divisive and rancorous dispute over the war on terrorism (or whatever you choose to call it), is an individual's belief in one of the following two mutually exclusive propositions.

  1. There is a broad-based, highly aggressive, well-funded, and effective jihadist movement which poses a dire threat not just to secular and pluralist societies in the Muslim world, but to civil societies in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
  2. There isn't.

In this book, Walid Phares makes the case for the first of these two statements. Born in Lebanon, after immigrating to the United States in 1990, he taught Middle East studies at several universities, and is currently a professor at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books on Middle East history, and appears as a commentator on media outlets ranging from Fox News to Al Jazeera.

Ever since the early 1990s, the author has been warning of what he argued was a constantly growing jihadist threat, which was being overlooked and minimised by the academic experts to whom policy makers turn for advice, largely due to Saudi-funded and -indoctrinated Middle East Studies programmes at major universities. Meanwhile, Saudi funding also financed the radicalisation of Muslim communities around the world, particularly the large immigrant populations in many Western European countries. In parallel to this top-down approach by the Wahabi Saudis, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups, including Hamas and the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria, pursued a bottom-up strategy of radicalising the population and building a political movement seeking to take power and impose an Islamic state. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, a third stream of jihadism has arisen, principally within Shiite communities, promoted and funded by Iran, including groups such as Hezbollah.

The present-day situation is placed in historical content dating back to the original conquests of Mohammed and the spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula across three continents, and subsequent disasters at the hands of the Mongols and Crusaders, the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, and the ultimate collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate following World War I. This allows the reader to grasp the world-view of the modern jihadist which, while seemingly bizarre from a Western standpoint, is entirely self-consistent from the premises whence the believers proceed.

Phares stresses that modern jihadism (which he dates from the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, an event which permitted free-lance, non-state actors to launch jihad unconstrained by the central authority of a caliph), is a political ideology with imperial ambitions: the establishment of a new caliphate and its expansion around the globe. He argues that this is only incidentally a religious conflict: although the jihadists are Islamic, their goals and methods are much the same as believers in atheistic ideologies such as communism. And just as one could be an ardent Marxist without supporting Soviet imperialism, one can be a devout Muslim and oppose the jihadists and intolerant fundamentalists. Conversely, this may explain the curious convergence of the extreme collectivist left and puritanical jihadists: red diaper baby and notorious terrorist Carlos “the Jackal” now styles himself an Islamic revolutionary, and the corpulent caudillo of Caracas has been buddying up with the squinty dwarf of Tehran.

The author believes that since the terrorist strikes against the United States in September 2001, the West has begun to wake up to the threat and begin to act against it, but that far more, both in realising the scope of the problem and acting to avert it, remains to be done. He argues, and documents from post-2001 events, that the perpetrators of future jihadist strikes against the West are likely to be home-grown second generation jihadists radicalised and recruited among Muslim communities within their own countries, aided by Saudi financed networks. He worries that the emergence of a nuclear armed jihadist state (most likely due to an Islamist takeover of Pakistan or Iran developing its own bomb) would create a base of operations for jihad against the West which could deter reprisal against it.

Chapter thirteen presents a chilling scenario of what might have happened had the West not had the wake-up call of the 2001 attacks and begun to mobilise against the threat. The scary thing is that events could still go this way should the threat be real and the West, through fatigue, ignorance, or fear, cease to counter it. While defensive measures at home and direct action against terrorist groups are required, the author believes that only the promotion of democratic and pluralistic civil societies in the Muslim world can ultimately put an end to the jihadist threat. Toward this end, a good first step would be, he argues, for the societies at risk to recognise that they are not at war with “terrorism” or with Islam, but rather with an expansionist ideology with a political agenda which attacks targets of opportunity and adapts quickly to countermeasures.

In all, I found the arguments somewhat over the top, but then, unlike the author, I haven't spent most of my career studying the jihadists, nor read their publications and Web sites in the original Arabic as he has. His warnings of cultural penetration of the West, misdirection by artful propaganda, and infiltration of policy making, security, and military institutions by jihadist covert agents read something like J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit, but then history, in particular the Venona decrypts, has borne out many of Hoover's claims which were scoffed at when the book was published in 1958. But still, one wonders how a “movement” composed of disparate threads many of whom hate one another (for example, while the Saudis fund propaganda promoting the jihadists, most of the latter seek to eventually depose the Saudi royal family and replace it with a Taliban-like regime; Sunni and Shiite extremists view each other as heretics) can effectively co-ordinate complex operations against their enemies.

A thirty page afterword in this paperback edition provides updates on events through mid-2006. There are some curious things: while transliteration of Arabic and Farsi into English involves a degree of discretion, the author seems very fond of the letter “u”. He writes the name of the leader of the Iranian revolution as “Khumeini”, for example, which I've never seen elsewhere. The book is not well-edited: occasionally he used “Khomeini”, spells Sayid Qutb's last name as “Kutb” on p. 64, and on p. 287 refers to “Hezbollah” and “Hizbollah” in the same sentence.

The author maintains a Web site devoted to the book, as well as a personal Web site which links to all of his work.