July 2008

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare. London: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-719790-3.
This small, thin (200 page) book contains just about every fact known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare, which isn't very much. In fact, if the book restricted itself only to those facts, and excluded descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Shakespeare's contemporaries, actors and theatres of the time, and the many speculations about Shakespeare and the deliciously eccentric characters who sometimes promoted them, it would probably be a quarter of its present length.

For a figure whose preeminence in English literature is rarely questioned today, and whose work shaped the English language itself—2035 English words appear for the first time in the works of Shakespeare, of which about 800 continue in common use today, including critical, frugal, horrid, vast, excellent, lonely, leapfrog, and zany (pp. 112–113)—very little is known apart from the content of his surviving work. We know the dates of his birth, marriage, and death, something of his parents, siblings, wife, and children, but nothing of his early life, education, travel, reading, or any of the other potential sources of the extraordinary knowledge and insight into the human psyche which informs his work. Between the years 1585 and 1592 he drops entirely from sight: no confirmed historical record has been found, then suddenly he pops up in London, at the peak of his powers, writing, producing, and performing in plays and quickly gaining recognition as one of the preeminent dramatists of his time. We don't even know (although there is no shortage of speculation) which plays were his early works and which were later: there is no documentary evidence for the dates of the plays nor the order in which they were written, apart from a few contemporary references which allow placing a play as no later than the mention of it. We don't even know how he spelt or pronounced his name: of six extant signatures believed to be in his hand, no two spell his name the same way, and none uses the “Shakespeare” spelling in use today.

Shakespeare's plays brought him fame and a substantial fortune during his life, but plays were regarded as ephemeral things at the time, and were the property of the theatrical company which commissioned them, not the author, so no authoritative editions of the plays were published during his life. Had it not been for the efforts of his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, who published the “First Folio” edition of his collected works seven years after his death, it is probable that the eighteen plays which first appeared in print in that edition would have been lost to history, with subsequent generations deeming Shakespeare, based upon surviving quarto editions of uneven (and sometimes laughable) quality of a few plays, one of a number of Elizabethan playwrights but not the towering singular figure he is now considered to be. (One wonders if there were others of Shakespeare's stature who were not as lucky in the dedication of their friends, of whose work we shall never know.) Nobody really knows how many copies of the First Folio were printed, but guesses run between 750 and 1000. Around 300 copies in various states of completeness have survived to the present, and around eighty copies are in a single room at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., about two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Now maybe decades of computer disasters have made me obsessively preoccupied with backup and geographical redundancy, but that just makes me shudder. Is there anybody there who wonders whether this is really a good idea? After all, the last time I was a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I spotted an ACME MISSILE BOMB right in plain sight!

A final chapter is devoted to theories that someone other than the scantily documented William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. The author points out the historical inconsistencies and implausibilities of most frequently proffered claimants, and has a good deal of fun with some of the odder of the theorists, including the exquisitely named J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman, and George M. Battey.

Bill Bryson fans who have come to cherish his lighthearted tone and quirky digressions on curious details and personalities from such works as A Short History of Nearly Everything (November 2007) will not be disappointed. If one leaves the book not knowing a great deal about Shakespeare, because so little is actually known, it is with a rich sense of having been immersed in the England of his time and the golden age of theatre to which he so mightily contributed.

A U.S. edition is available, but at this writing only in hardcover.


Hirshfeld, Alan. The Electric Life of Michael Faraday. New York: Walker and Company, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8027-1470-1.
Of post-Enlightenment societies, one of the most rigidly structured by class and tradition was that of Great Britain. Those aspiring to the life of the mind were overwhelmingly the well-born, educated in the classics at Oxford or Cambridge, with the wealth and leisure to pursue their interests on their own. The career of Michael Faraday stands as a monument to what can be accomplished, even in such a stultifying system, by the pure power of intellect, dogged persistence, relentless rationality, humility, endless fascination with the intricacies of creation, and confidence that it was ultimately knowable through clever investigation.

Faraday was born in 1791, the third child of a blacksmith who had migrated to London earlier that year in search of better prospects, which he never found due to fragile health. In his childhood, Faraday's family occasionally got along only thanks to the charity of members of the fundamentalist church to which they belonged. At age 14, Faraday was apprenticed to a French émigré bookbinder, setting himself on the path to a tradesman's career. But Faraday, while almost entirely unschooled, knew how to read, and read he did—as many of the books which passed through the binder's shop as he could manage. As with many who read widely, Faraday eventually came across a book that changed his life, The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts, and from the pragmatic and inspirational advice in that volume, along with the experimental approach to science he learned from Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry, Faraday developed his own philosophy of scientific investigation and began to do his own experiments with humble apparatus in the bookbinder's shop.

Faraday seemed to be on a trajectory which would frustrate his curiosity forever amongst the hammers, glue, and stitches of bookbindery when, thanks to his assiduous note-taking at science lectures, his employer passing on his notes, and a providential vacancy, he found himself hired as the assistant to the eminent Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in London. Learning chemistry and the emerging field of electrochemistry at the side of the master, he developed the empirical experimental approach which would inform all of his subsequent work.

Faraday originally existed very much in Davy's shadow, even serving as his personal valet as well as scientific assistant on an extended tour of the Continent, but slowly (and over Davy's opposition) rose to become a Fellow of the Royal Institution and director of its laboratory. Seeking to shore up the shaky finances of the Institution, in 1827 he launched the Friday Evening Discourses, public lectures on a multitude of scientific topics by Faraday and other eminent scientists, which he would continue to supervise until 1862.

Although trained as a chemist, and having made his reputation in that field, his electrochemical investigations with Davy had planted in his mind the idea that electricity was not a curious phenomenon demonstrated in public lectures involving mysterious “fluids”, but an essential component in understanding the behaviour of matter. In 1831, he turned his methodical experimental attention to the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and within months had discovered electromagnetic induction: that an electric current was induced in a conductor only by a changing magnetic field: the principle used by every electrical generator and transformer in use today. He built the first dynamo, using a spinning copper disc between the poles of a strong magnet, and thereby demonstrated the conversion of mechanical energy into electricity for the first time. Faraday's methodical, indefatigable investigations, failures along with successes, were chronicled in a series of papers eventually collected into the volume Experimental Researches in Electricity, which is considered to be one of the best narratives ever written of science as it is done.

Knowing little mathematics, Faraday expressed the concepts he discovered in elegant prose. His philosophy of science presaged that of Karl Popper and the positivists of the next century—he considered all theories as tentative, advocated continued testing of existing theories in an effort to falsify them and thereby discover new science beyond them, and he had no use whatsoever for the unobservable: he detested concepts such as “action at a distance”, which he considered mystical obfuscation. If some action occurred, there must be some physical mechanism which causes it, and this led him to formulate what we would now call field theory: that physical lines of force extend from electrically charged objects and magnets through apparently empty space, and it is the interaction of objects with these lines of force which produces the various effects he had investigated. This flew in the face of the scientific consensus of the time, and while universally admired for his experimental prowess, many regarded Faraday's wordy arguments as verging on the work of a crank. It wasn't until 1857 that the ageing Faraday made the acquaintance of the young James Clerk Maxwell, who had sent him a copy of a paper in which Maxwell made his first attempt to express Faraday's lines of force in rigorous mathematical form. By 1864 Maxwell had refined his model into his monumental field theory, which demonstrated that light was simply a manifestation of the electromagnetic field, something that Faraday had long suspected (he wrote repeatedly of “ray-vibrations”) but had been unable to prove.

The publication of Maxwell's theory marked a great inflection point between the old physics of Faraday and the new, emerging, highly mathematical style of Maxwell and his successors. While discovering the mechanism through experiment was everything to Faraday, correctly describing the behaviour and correctly predicting the outcome of experiments with a set of equations was all that mattered in the new style, which made no effort to explain why the equations worked. As Heinrich Hertz said, “Maxwell's theory is Maxwell's equations” (p. 190). Michael Faraday lived in an era in which a humble-born person with no formal education or knowledge of advanced mathematics could, purely through intelligence, assiduous self-study, clever and tireless experimentation with simple apparatus he made with his own hands, make fundamental discoveries about the universe and rise to the top rank of scientists. Those days are now forever gone, and while we now know vastly more than those of Faraday's time, one also feels we've lost something. Aldous Huxley once remarked, “Even if I could be Shakespeare, I think I should still choose to be Faraday.” This book is an excellent way to appreciate how science felt when it was all new and mysterious, acquaint yourself with one of the most admirable characters in its history, and understand why Huxley felt as he did.


Gurstelle, William. Backyard Ballistics. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-55652-375-5
Responsible adults who have a compelling need to launch potatoes 200 metres downrange at high velocity, turn common paper matches into solid rockets, fire tennis balls high into the sky with duct taped together potato chip cans (potatoes again!) and a few drops of lighter fluid, launch water balloons against the aggressor with nothing more than surgical tubing and a little muscle power, engender UFO reports with shimmering dry cleaner bag hot air balloons, and more, will find the detailed instructions they need for such diversions in this book. As in his subsequent Whoosh Boom Splat (December 2007), the author provides detailed directions for fabricating these engines of entertainment from, in most cases, PVC pipe, and the scientific background for each device and suggestions for further study by the intrepid investigator who combines the curiosity of the intuitive experimentalist with the native fascination of the third chimpanzee for things that go flash and bang.

If you live in Southern California, I'd counsel putting the Cincinnati Fire Kite and Dry Cleaner Bag Balloon experiments on hold until after the next big rain.


Podhoretz, Norman. World War IV. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-52221-2.
Whether you agree with it or not, here is one of the clearest expositions of the “neoconservative” (a term the author, who is one of the type specimens, proudly uses to identify himself) case for the present conflict between Western civilisation and the forces of what he identifies as “Islamofascism”, an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology which is entirely distinct from Islam, the religion. The author considers the Cold War to have been World War III, and hence the present and likely as protracted a conflict, as World War IV. He deems it to be as existential a struggle for civilisation against the forces of tyranny as any of the previous three wars.

If you're sceptical of such claims (as am I, being very much an economic determinist who finds it difficult to believe a region of the world whose exports, apart from natural resources discovered and extracted largely by foreigners, are less than those of Finland, can truly threaten the fountainhead of the technologies and products without which its residents would remain in the seventh century utopia they seem to idolise), read Chapter Two for the contrary view: it is argued that since 1970, a series of increasingly provocative attacks were made against the West, not in response to Western actions but due to unreconcilably different world-views. Each indication of weakness by the West only emboldened the aggressors and escalated the scale of subsequent attacks.

The author argues the West is engaged in a multi-decade conflict with its own survival at stake, in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply campaigns. This war, like the Cold War, will be fought on many levels: not just military, but also proxy conflicts, propaganda, covert action, economic warfare, and promotion of the Western model as the solution to the problems of states imperiled by Islamofascism. There is some discussion in the epilogue of the risk posed to Europe by the radicalisation of its own burgeoning Muslim population while its indigenes are in a demographic death spiral, but for the most part the focus is on democratising the Middle East, not the creeping threat to democracy in the West by an unassimilated militant immigrant population which a feckless, cringing political class is unwilling to confront.

This book is well written and argued, but colour me unpersuaded. Instead of spending decades spilling blood and squandering fortune in a region of the world which has been trouble for every empire foolish enough to try to subdue it over the last twenty centuries, why not develop domestic energy sources to render the slimy black stuff in the ground there impotent and obsolete, secure the borders against immigration from there (except those candidates who demonstrate themselves willing to assimilate to the culture of the West), and build a wall around the place and ignore what happens inside? Works for me.


Gingrich, Newt. Real Change. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59698-053-2.
Conventional wisdom about the political landscape in the United States is that it's split right down the middle (evidenced by the last two extremely close Presidential elections), with partisans of the Left and Right increasingly polarised, unwilling and/or unable to talk to one another, both committed to a “no prisoners” agenda of governance should they gain decisive power. Now, along comes Newt Gingrich who argues persuasively in this book, backed by extensive polling performed on behalf of his American Solutions organisation (results of these polls are freely available to all on the site), that the United States have, in fact, a centre-right majority which agrees on many supposedly controversial issues in excess of 70%, with a vocal hard-left minority using its dominance of the legacy media, academia, and the activist judiciary and trial lawyer cesspits to advance its agenda through non-democratic means.

Say what you want about Newt, but he's one of the brightest intellects to come onto the political stage in any major country in the last few decades. How many politicians can you think of who write what-if alternative history novels? I think Newt is onto something here. Certainly there are genuinely divisive issues upon which the electorate is split down the middle. But on the majority of questions, there is a consensus on the side of common sense which only the legacy media's trying to gin up controversy obscures in a fog of bogus conflict.

In presenting solutions to supposedly intractable problems, the author contrasts “the world that works”: free citizens and free enterprise solving problems for the financial rewards from doing so, with “the world that fails”: bureaucracies seeking to preserve and expand their claim upon the resources of the productive sector of the economy. Government, as it has come to be understood in our foul epoch, exclusively focuses upon the latter. All of this can be seen as consequences of Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which states that in any bureaucratic organisation there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organisation, and those who work for the organisation itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who seek to protect and augment the compensation of all teachers, including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organisation, and will thence write the rules under which the organisation functions, to the detriment of those who are coerced to fund it.

Bureaucracy and bureaucratic government can be extremely efficient and effective, as long as its ends are understood! Gingrich documents how the Detroit school system, for example, delivers taxpayer funds to the administrators, union leaders, and unaccountable teachers who form its political constituency. Educating the kids? Well, that's not on the agenda! The world that fails actually works quite well for those it benefits—the problem is that without the market feedback which obtains in the world that works, the supposed beneficiaries of the system have no voice in obtaining the services they are promised.

This is a book so full of common sense that I'm sure it will be considered “outside the mainstream” in the United States. But those who live there, and residents of other industrialised countries facing comparable challenges as demographics collide with social entitlement programs, should seriously ponder the prescriptions here which, if presented by a political leader willing to engage the population on an intellectual level, might command majorities which remake the political map.