Tag Archives: Books

Our MacLean Revival

MacLean“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”

Grabs your interest doesn’t it? That was the opening line of The Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean. I first devoured this and other adventure novels by MacLean while in High School back in the 70’s. Recently, my wife and I have taken to reading his books out loud to each other and – even in this high-tech era of blockbuster 3D adventure movies – MacLean’s novels continue to be singularly engaging adventures. We can’t wait to take up where we left off reading and we spend much of our time between sessions discussing the implications of whatever bits and pieces MacLean has revealed thus far.

Beyond the marvelous storytelling, MacLean was technically and aesthetically the most gifted author I have ever read. One part of what he achieved with seemingly effortless nonchalance was to deliver the catchiest openings ever. From them his stories flowed, briskly gushing and careening, like rivers of words through the coldly entrancing arctic landscape that was his favored setting. So daunting are his prose, that just taking on the challenge of reading them out-loud has made us both infinitely more fluid and polished readers.

His writing characteristically flows on in methodical rambling, like a symphony put to words, each sentence sometimes strung together over the course of a page or more, leaving the reader as breathless and exhilarated as after a hard swim, only to snatch a quick breath before diving into the next incoming wave.

“My red rose has turned to white.”

His plot lines are so tight, so carefully constructed with milimetric attention to detail, that when his protagonist laments in the prologue of Fear is the Key that his red rose has turned to white, you presage that MacLean will inevitably return to that same powerful imagery in his epilogue.

While his general storytelling elements recur in every book, MacLean’s writing does not feel overly formulaic. Within his general adventure fiction structure, MacLean paints distinctive characters and settings for each book. Unlike other authors, he doesn’t have one main character, no James Bond or Jason Bourne, but he does invariably feature smart but fallible male protagonists who face opponents who are far smarter and much less fallible in their utter ruthlessness.

MacLean also knew how to create a strong supporting cast with whom you engage every bit as much as his protagonist. In fact, I think that one of the reasons I went into chemistry was the inspiring moment in Night Without End when that frail little chemist Theodore Mahler used his knowledge to save the desperate survivors of the plane crash from the grasp of icy death in the deadly and merciless arctic. In that same book, the climax was not when the main hero saved the day, but when boxer Johnny Zagaro, hands rendered useless by crippling frostbite, finally had his inevitable bloody, brutal battle on the ice with the cold-blooded Nick Corazzini.

In MacLean’s novels, nature is invariably the most implacable enemy of all – whether it be the frigid clutch of the arctic, the unforgiving cliffs of Navarone, or torrential storms of the Adriatic. His books are typically light on romance, and in fact MacLean isn’t averse to nipping a budding romance with tragedy. Another distinctive quirk of MacLean is that he does tend to use certain words over and over again. My wife and I play a game to see who will be the first to encounter “milimetric” or “threnody” or “St. Vitus’s Dance” when we take turns reading a book. And be assured that in most every book, teeth will be lost, frostbite will claim fingers, and cigarettes will be burned in liberal quantities.

I find MacLean’s writing particularly noteworthy in how unlike conventional writing it is. He routinely devotes little more than a few short sentences to masterfully describe people and settings, for he needs no more than that, so powerfully potent are his descriptions. But then he is just as likely to go on in excruciating detail about how to wire the detonator for an explosive bobby trap. You have the feeling that he really did have the whole thing wired up and even tested in his office next to his typewriter. In fact all of his writing conveys a particularly strong sense that the author has actually been there and done that. MacLean’s actual background as a seaman and torpedo operator in the Royal Navy is keenly evident in all his writing.

Beyond his astounding gift for writing, I also admire the tone, the characteristic humanity of his works. Throughout his yarns, he weaves in his passion for humanity, for peace amidst cold-war intrigue and violence. Indeed, it was his clearly heretical defense of people, particularly Communists, and his cosmopolitan skepticism toward politics and religion, that caused such negative backlash to his book “The Last Frontier.” It was bold and provocative writing back in 1959, too much for the times he lived in.

“Jansci spoke of himself not at all, and of his organization and its methods of operation only where necessary … He talked instead of people … of their hopes and fears and terrors of this world. He talked of peace, of his hope for the world, of his conviction that that peace would ultimately come for the world if only one good man in a thousand worked for it … He spoke of Communists and non-Communists, and of the distinctions between them that existed only in the tiny minds of men, of the intolerance and the infinite littleness of minds that knew beyond question that all men were inescapably different by virtue of their births and beliefs, their creeds and religions, and that the God that said that every man was the brother of the next man was really a poor judge of these things. He spoke of the tragedies of the creed that knew beyond doubt that theirs was the only way that was the right way, of the religious sects that usurped the gates of heaven against all comers … for there were no gates anyway.”

Though now somewhat anachronistic and dated by patronizing 50’s attitudes toward women (even though his women definitely show great strength) MacLean’s work is still nevertheless as fresh and timelessly potent as the day it was written. My wife and I rather dread the day that we finish up our Alistair MacLean revival. There is very little in the marketplace of literary ideas that match up for us. As just one example, we tried reading Jack Reacher and having been so spoiled by the mastery of MacLean we find the writing and the characters as flat and empty and devoid of life as a cardboard cutout. Are there other authors as gifted as MacLean? Certainly, but it is a very short list indeed.

“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”


Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.








Our Fragile Internet

Once upon a time not so long ago we relied upon books as our information storage media. Those rectangular bundles of paper and ink were fragile and ephemeral. But in comparison to today’s digital media, they were etched in granite. Even when formidable powers-that-be expended considerable energy to erase them from existence, it was often still impossible to completely confiscate and destroy every copy in every library and every home. The precious knowledge they held often survived.

Today however, knowledge can be instantly erased with a single press of a button located on an Internet server sitting in some undisclosed location somewhere on the World Wide Web. Certainly the things we see done in movies is pure Hollywood fiction. No one can just hit a button and magically erase all trace of your existence from all computers in the world. We have redundancy and not all of those redundant systems would be accessible by such a purge. And even if some super virus could crawl through every server everywhere deleting all trace of us, there are still backups.

But our information is incredibly fragile nonetheless. If and when the people hosting servers find that it is insufficiently profitable to continue to store and provide access to the information, it is wiped without nary any effort at all. Even if data is hosted by dedicated enthusiasts, they go bankrupt or die or move on. The reality is that despite redundancy and backups, any information located in or accessed through the cloud can simply go poof at any time.

Yes individuals or institutions may have copies of files. But we lose our local files all the time. We accidently delete them, our drive fails, or the software that accessed them becomes obsolete. And because local storage is so fragile, it is becoming increasingly rare to store anything locally. More and more we are relying data hosted “securely” in the cloud. And, like a real cloud, that information can simply evaporate at any time.

This isn’t a theoretical worry. It happens all the time. Here’s just one case study. In 1999, the online gaming universe of Everquest was released. By 2004, there were nearly a half million part-time residents living in the world of Norrath. They filled the Internet with thousands of informational sites, huge databases of information, and literal volumes full of essential stuff. But after a few years, other lands like the World of Warcraft lured players away. When the Everquest player base dropped off, ad revenue to these sites dropped off as well.  When it did, their hosting servers disappeared one by one in rapid succession. Today although many still play Everquest, much of that valuable information is simply gone. In 2004 one would have assumed all that knowledge was carved in stone, enshrined forever in the Internet, eternally available whenever it might be called upon once more by new players or gaming historians. One would have been wrong. All of that information went poof, lost, gone without so much as the warm glow of a book-burning.

You may not care that the walkthroughs, guides, lore, and history documenting the Everquest world are essentially lost to us already. Just as others will probably not care about whatever particular body of knowledge you hold dear. But if we don’t care about all knowledge then no knowledge is secure.

This one case study illustrates the fragility of all information in our Internet-based information age. Yes, there is SO much information out there, but at the same time it is no more enduring than a soap bubble floating on the wind. It can all disappear into thin air just as quickly. The solid permanence of the Internet is illusory.

Consider what this warns us about more important bodies of knowledge like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is arguably the most ambitious and successful accumulation and redistribution of knowledge in the history of mankind. It is a triumph of the Internet Age every bit as marvelous as the Great Library of Alexandria was during the Classical Age.

Yet, like Everquest lore, Wikipedia could disappear in a moment. All it would take is the flip of a switch. This could happen for many reasons. Their resources could dry up or their core team could simply grow old and weary of the effort. If and when this happens, the collective efforts of thousands upon thousands of expert contributors could simply vanish. Poof. This unprecedented compendium of the collective knowledge of mankind could be gone in a wink.

But even more frightening would be if Wikipedia did not simply disappear but was rather corrupted to live on as an unholy shadow of itself. It could be acquired and corrupted and commercialized by a self-interested corporation. It could be censored or even shut down by paranoid politicians. If that were to happen, and it easily could, it would be worse than dead and gone, it would become a tool of profit or propaganda.

As they say “knowledge is power” and the Internet is the portal through which all knowledge now flows. And one does not even need to control sources of information like Wikipedia anymore. They can simply take control of the doors through which information is accessed. Our fragile information age offers that almost irresistible opportunity to control knowledge, to take power. China, UAE, and other countries work to police and censor their doorways to the Internet. The United States struggles against power political and corporate forces that would like to take control of the Internet for financial gain or ideology. Donald Trump just recently talked about how he as President would take control of the Internet. Companies vie and maneuver constantly to take control of the doors to knowledge (and profit) in the Information Age.

This would be unimaginably easy. Those who would control information don’t need to rewrite or censor every web page on the Internet. Rather if they control the supply lines, they can simply switch on software filters or real-time automated editors that can automatically blot out competing information insert alternative viewpoints as easily as they can filter out pornography or spam. The doormen don’t even need to block sites since they can simply drop them down in search engine results until few will ever find them. Even worse, they don’t need to even block or restrict access. Using the justification of protecting us against “dangerous material” they can gain the authority to modify the text, to redact or insert key information without leaving any trace that the source material had been modified.

RedactedIf that knowledge were still printed in physical books, those who wish to rewrite history would leave traces of their censorship by marking out text or ripping out pages. We could at least tell changes were made. We have no such guarantees or indications when it comes to any information we receive in our browser.

If we don’t understand this, if we fail to protect the integrity of data flowing through the Internet, we not only risk losing it all, but we risk becoming, each and every one of us personally, the helpless targets of corporate greed and political propaganda. Our great information age could be corrupted overnight into a new Dark Age. During the last Dark Age the Catholic Church seized control of all knowledge and became the sole arbiters of what would be communicated and how. They would find the control of information infinitely easier today in our Information Age.

We must not let information become just another disposable, devalued, manipulated commodity in a throw-away culture. Our digital information is both a great asset and a great risk.