Thursday, November 30, 2017

Multimedia: 4 Reviews

Influx by Daniel Suarez
We all know some of those conspiracy-minded folks who carry on about how the government or corporations are suppressing knowledge of cancer cures or free energy or what-have-you in order to protect profits on pharmaceuticals and petroleum or whatever. The hole in those arguments always has been that the U.S. and the West in general are not the world. All this marvelous tech should be in use wherever their dominance doesn’t extend.

In his science fiction novel Influx, Daniel Suarez asks, “What if they’re right anyway?” Might that explain why, nearly half a century after the Moon landings, instead of Martian colonies we just have better phones? The Bureau of Technology Control (BTC) in his novel is a secret government organization that identifies emerging disruptive technologies and prevents their general introduction, though the BTC members make full use of the tech themselves. The inventions include anti-aging drugs, cold fusion, cancer cures, genetic engineering, hypersonic transport, true artificial intelligence, and much more. Supposedly the tech is being held back while "assessing their social, political, environmental, and economic impacts with the goal of preserving social order," but, predictably, the social order the gatekeepers are most interested in preserving is their own primacy and power. What about the “U.S. and the West in general are not the world” thing? There are other BTCs.

Jon Grady is an eccentric researcher who invents a gravity-mirror with profound implications for industry, defense, and space travel. He is abducted by BTC agents who try to recruit him with specious arguments about the greater good. Authoritarians are always adept at justifying their authority. He doesn’t buy it and consequently finds himself in a prison with other scientists and inventors. With help from fellow prisoners and disaffected BTC members including the genetically enhanced Alexa, can he escape, help expose and bring down the BTC, and let the long-delayed future finally arrive?

In many ways this is an old-fashioned scifi novel with the protagonist battling the odds against an arch-nemesis. But that’s OK. This is recreational reading material and succeeds as being good… well… recreation.

Thumbs Up for what it is: Not high-lit – not even high-scifi-lit – but entertaining.

**** ****

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell was an inventive instant-classic cyber-punk anime in 1995 that inspired numerous animated and live-action films to follow, notably The Matrix. Surprisingly, it took more than 20 years to be adapted directly to the live-action screen. This heavily Americanized (though still set in Japan) version, now out on DVD, starring Scarlett Johansson has suffered from the time lapse. What may have been innovative in 1995 looks derivative today even though ultimately it derives from the ’95 original.

Whether they saw the anime or not, viewers will see little new here. Cityscapes are swappable with those in Blade Runner 2049 right down to the giant hologram advertisements. That said, the movie still looks good. Director Rupert Sanders has handled the material well with the dialogue and action scenes covering all the ground they need to cover coherently and competently. The movie flows well and there are no glaring holes in the final product.

Premise: In the future, humans enhance themselves with cybernetic add-ons. This is taken to the extreme when a young woman’s disembodied brain is implanted in an otherwise fully robotic body. Except for flashes, her memories are missing of her time as a normal human but she is told she is a survivor of a cyberterrorist attack that killed her parents, and that, as a brain in a full cyber body, she is something new. She joins an antiterrorist organization called Section 9 and attains the rank of Major. However, events cause her to question her actual identity, her human status, her real history, and the motives and morals of the defense contractor responsible for her existence.

In 1999, the year that The Matrix was released, this movie would have made more of a splash. In 2017 it is an also-ran, and no amount of Scarlett in skintight attire can change that. If you have a couple free hours some evening, this is entertaining enough, but not much more. Thumbs ever so slightly Up.

**** ****

Black Widow: Deadly Origin by writer Paul Cornell and artists Tom Raney and John Paul Leon
The Black Widow (Natalia Romanova) has been a part of the Marvel Comics universe since 1964, sometimes as villain and sometimes as hero. The appearance of the character played by Scarlett Johansson in recent Marvel movies along with plans for future movies prompted Marvel to reboot the character in its comic books. Black Widow: Deadly Origin successfully does this with a coherent updated origin story that doesn’t totally lose sight of her earlier Marvel history. The story is told in flashbacks grafted onto a contemporary tale.

Born in 1928, Natalia was subject to a Soviet super-soldier program similar (though not identical) to the one in the US that produced Captain America: hence her lack of physical aging. Her loyalties flipped a few times over the years, and still aren’t to be taken for granted as was shown in Captain America: Civil War when she opposed the Cap despite their personal relationship. The comic reveals that much of her evolution as a person has to do with the father figure Ivan who is not what he seems to be.

Marvel has produced many fine comics and graphic novels. This isn’t one of them. It doesn’t have an engrossing standalone story-arc and so it fails as a graphic novel. However, it succeeds at doing what it was intended to do, which is to flesh out the history and character profile of one of the more interesting Marvel universe characters. This is the publication for you if you watched the The Avengers movie and asked yourself, “Who is this woman anyway?” Black Widow: Deadly Origin tells you what you need to know and more. The comic is well-drawn and is aimed at an adult (or at least young adult) readership, not kids.

Dual Score: Thumbs Down as a standalone comic. Thumbs Up as a movie character bio.

**** ****

Samantha Fish – Belle of the West (2017)
Regular readers (there are a few out there) may recall that Samantha Fish is one of the current crop of musicians whose gigs I try to catch when she is in the area. She is an exceptional blues guitarist with an appealing voice and a good stage presence. In March of this year she released Chills and Fever in which she enriched her earlier basic three-piece sound with horns, keyboard, and a wider range of song styles. This is still the album I’d recommend for anyone unfamiliar with her work.

Belle of the West, her second album of 2017, is a worthwhile addition for those who already are fans even though (or because) it is not more of the same. “You should always get outside of the box,” she said, and in this album she did. The tracks, including originals and covers, with a few exceptions are much more country than blues. That’s not normally my first (or second or third) choice of genres, but this album works, and it’s hard not to give credit for trying something different. Once again, if you’re new to Samantha, this atypical (and possibly one-off) album might not be the place to start; pick up Chills and Fever or, better yet, see her live ( But if you already have other tunes of hers on your cd shelf or in whatever digital format you prefer, Belle of the West should join them.

A qualified Thumbs Up.

Samantha Fish – Blood in the Water 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


By pure happenstance of the calendar I always remembered my parents’ anniversary; it is November 29th, the day after my birthday. In some years Thanksgiving, my birthday, and their anniversary fall three days in a row. That tends to impress itself on a child’s memory. I remember it still. So, my birthday yesterday immediately made me think of their anniversary today, and I realized that this one would be their 70th. Somehow that seems improbable, though doubtless not as improbable as it would seem to them were they here to contemplate it. My dad died in 2000 and my mom in 2001.

The note on back says
"age 15 and 17"
Needless to say, it was a different world in 1947. My mom Robina was 19 and my dad Richard (almost always Dick) was 21. Today we actively and loudly discourage people that young from getting married, but back then nearly half of all marriages were among women and men those ages or younger. They were on the tail end of the GI Generation, but still a part of it. As a matter of definition, the GI Generation comprises those old enough to have served in WW2 (even if in fact they didn’t) but too young also to have served in WW1 or for it to have been their formative experience: i.e. the birth years 1905 to 1928. (The GIs were preceded by the so-called Lost Generation [roughly 1884 to 1904] and followed by the so-called Silent Generation [1929-1945].) My father was born in 1926 and my mother in 1928. They met in Morristown High School. During the war my dad served in the USMS, aka Merchant Marine; he and my mom continued to date whenever his ship was in a nearby port. He was discharged in ’46 and they married a year later. My sister was born the day before North Korea invaded the South in 1950, which fortuitously gave my dad an exemption from being recalled to military service.

There are always exceptions to broad generalizations, of course, but the GI Gens tended to be flawed in characteristic ways that their kids (Boomers) were all too eager to point out to them. Whatever their flaws, however, they also commonly had virtues that are sadly uncommon today, such as the blending of stern values with a ready willingness to give second chances. An example: my dad was a builder, and one time in the ‘60s some neighborhood teens slashed tires on construction vehicles on his job site. The damage was $800, which was a substantial sum at the time. A neighbor had seen the boys and reported their names to my dad. Today, teens vandalizing a job site this way almost certainly would be reported to the police in “by-the-book” fashion. Instead, my dad called their fathers. He didn’t want the kids’ parents to pay for the tires; he wanted the boys to pay for them from summer jobs. They did, too, and their parents backed my dad up. No police ever heard a word about it. My dad shook hands with each of the boys when the debt was paid off, and he truly regarded the matter as closed. It is so hard to imagine this happening today; almost certainly there would be cops called, there would be lawyers hired, and there would be parents vociferously defending their teens regardless of what they thought the truth might be.

My mom, like my dad, was hardworking, versatile, and competent without intending any social statement by it. She worked as an executive secretary (the term was not yet verboten) on Wall Street in the ‘40s, was a stay-at-home mom in the 50s, and opened her own real estate brokerage in the ‘60s. A bubbly persona often led people to underestimate her, which always was a mistake. Despite his tough façade, my dad was a soft touch, while my mom was anything but.

The combination worked well throughout their marriage as a small incident illustrates. In 1998 it was their habit to have breakfast at the nearby Chester Diner. One morning they were chatting away in their usual fashion when a couple in a neighboring booth got their attention. “Excuse me,” said the woman in the booth, “but are you two married?” “51 years,” my mom answered. “Really? We ran out of things to say to each other 30 years ago,” was the reply. They never did run out of things to say.

The stone chapel off of Bernardsville-Mendham Road where the wedding took place in 1947 still exists. However, back then it was an unassuming little structure in the middle of the woods in a municipality not known for being upscale. Today it is a secondary building on a private 9-acre estate with a mansion built in 2002. The property happens to be on the market at this time, but at a price of $4,495,000 and with annual property taxes of over $83,000 I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. It’s a tad out of my range. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Doing the League Justice

The first wave of comic book superheroes and their screen adaptations (often as serials) was in the 1930s and 40s when economic upheaval and the spread of tyranny left ordinary individuals feeling anything but empowered. It’s hard not to think something similar is behind the surge in the genre’s popularity in the 21st century; even though the obstacles and imminent threats (most of them anyway) are less existential now than 80 years ago, they seem even less tractable. The heroes and antiheroes of our fantasies tell more about us than perhaps we really want to know. The latest big budget production in theaters is Justice League.

The majority of critics have not been kind to Justice League. The film undoubtedly has shortcomings, and I’ll address a big one before briefly explaining why I like it anyway.

In ancient Western culture the longest-running philosophical war (fought with true rancor) was between the Epicureans and the Stoics, the former identifying pleasure as the core value and the latter duty. In reality, the practical life prescriptions of both were nearly identical. The Epicureans advised moderation and doing the right thing, for in the long run those are the most pleasurable; overindulgence and bad behavior lead to pain rather than pleasure. The Stoics advised the same thing but because it’s your duty, damn it, whether it’s pleasurable or not. The Epicureans regarded Stoics as joyless and hypocritical. The Stoics regarded the Epicureans as decadent; they feared that enshrining pleasure as the highest goal posed a threat to civilization. Neither ever did quite get the hang of the other, for they had fundamentally different ways of thinking even though they arrived in the same place.

What on earth has any of this to do with a comic book superhero movie? The ancient feud links oddly to two ways to arrive at being a committed hero or villain (or bystander for that matter) whether in life or the movies. The choice can be made and pursued earnestly, taking oneself seriously (stoically) along the way. Characters in Zack Snyder’s films (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, et al.) take themselves very very seriously even when they joke, which they do only sparingly. Alternatively, one can pick a side for fundamentally aesthetic reasons (in epicurean fashion) without taking oneself seriously or losing a sense of the absurd. Characters in Joss Whedon movies (The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, et al.) are very much of this type. The two types tend to regard each other respectively as coldly uptight and dangerously frivolous – unfairly in both cases. Director Zack Snyder developed Justice League but left for personal reasons before finishing; the movie then was handed to Joss Whedon to carry over the goal line. The whole movie in consequence has a split personality. True, the Flash is very much a Joss character and Superman very much a Zack, but the others waver back and forth discordantly.

That caveat notwithstanding (and we even can allow that real personalities are not always consistent), the movie gives as much backstory and motivation as one reasonably can expect in two hours for a sizable ensemble of characters. The film even manages to make Aquaman cool, which is no small feat in itself.

Plot in a nutshell: an ancient enemy named Steppenwolf in the distant past was defeated by an alliance of Atlanteans, Amazons, and mankind (with some help from the old gods). He is back and still holds a grudge. He plans to recover three hidden artifacts that he can use to turn earth into his kind of place, which isn’t a place healthy for ordinary folks. If this sounds similar to General Zod’s plan in Man of Steel, you’re right. To stop them, Batman, who is on a guilt trip over his actions in Batman v Superman that led to the death of Superman, teams with Wonder Woman and they recruit the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. They get a notion about using one of the artifacts to try to restore life to Superman.

Have we seen all the CGI wiz-bang before? Yes. In broad outlines, is the plot original? No. But the elements are handled competently and the characters are better motivated (and better conflicted) than in the Marvel ensemble movies – though for reasons not relevant to this review I still give the edge to the Marvel movies. No one expects a comic book movie to be Shakespeare, but the dialogue has wit, the action paces well, the plot follows a comprehensible arc, and the imperfect heroes do what they have to do. Further, in an era when the news is dominated by the transgressions of dirty old men and naughty teachers, the script isn’t afraid to acknowledge adult sensuality as not being inherently offensive and perverse. (When did that become brave?) In short, while not a great film, it is good for its type. In the DC movie-verse since Nolan’s Batman trilogy, only Wonder Woman is better.

It remains to be seen if audiences take to it. Ticket sales for the opening weekend are disappointing. My own experience wasn’t encouraging. While I caught a far-from-prime-time 10 PM showing on Sunday night, it was nonetheless spooky that I was – no kidding – the only one in the theater. There were quite a few cars in the lot when I left so presumably other screens in the multiplex had viewers.

Thumbs up – with reservations, but up.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Fest Finale: Recap NJRD vs GSR

Yesterday the New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) went the extra mile – or perhaps 26.2 – and hosted an all-day derby event at their home track in Morristown including various mixers, a Junior Division exhibition bout, a men’s match, and their own regularly scheduled bout. Even a dedicated derby fan doesn’t always have a full day to commit to spectating derby, so I arrived in the evening in time for the last minutes of the men’s match in which the New York Shock Exchange (in this context the “home” team) handily defeated the Quadfathers 280-67, and then remained for the final regular bout of the day.

Recap – New Jersey Roller Derby All Stars (NJRD) vs. Garden State Rollergirls Jersey City Bridge and Pummel (GSR):

The two teams have very similar styles and defensive tactics, which showed in a point spread that was never safe at any point. (Two of the GSR skaters, Voldeloxx and Bitty Boom Boom, formerly skated for Morristown teams.) In the first jam #44 Maulin Rouge overcame stiff resistance with her usual élan and put the first 9 points on the board for NJRD. #394 Voldeloxx scored first for GSR. Both teams were very good at maintaining blocking walls and breaking up the opponent’s formations. Rarely did jammers find any holes simply to slip through, though fancy footwork by #11 Tuff Crust Pizza for NJRD and #1865 Ivy Lethal for GSR more than once got them past on the outside or inside line. More often jammers had to slog through firm blocking and pick themselves up from knockdowns. In the first half hour NJRD built and continuously maintained a lead that wavered around 20 points, with the half-time score at 72-56.

In the second half, GSR chipped at the NJRD lead with “hit it and quit it” jams until a game-changer power jam by #12 Tess T Rossa tightened up the score to 89-84. #14 Ragna Rok took NJRD over the 100 mark and Tess T Rossa did the same for GSR with NJRD keeping a few point lead. The reversal came when a 14 point jam by Ivy Lethal put GSR in the lead 122-116 for the first time with 9 minutes left in the game. GSR added points in hit-and-quit jams. A 20 point by Tess T Rossa seemed to seal the match, but then was countered by a 22 point jam by Tuff Crust Pizza. It wasn’t enough to catch up as the clock ran down. GSR took the win 139-153.

MVPs –
Tess T Rossa (jammer)
Ozzie Clobberpot (blocker)

Tuff Crust Pizza (jammer)
Slam Hathaway (blocker)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Cat Wars

There always were pets in and around the house when I was growing up: dogs, cats, even a skunk. During the few years of my ill-fated marriage the pet population reached a peak of two dogs, two cats, one parrot, and six horses, though strictly speaking the horses weren’t in and around the house. However, none of the animals in my childhood was mine per se: they were family pets. Of the marital pets, only one cat was mine: all the other animals were quite thoroughly hers. Nor did I seek a pet at any time during the long single stretches of adulthood. While I like domestic animals well enough, they struck me from the beginning as an unnecessary restraint on spontaneity; the needs of a pet must be taken into account before making any other plans and I figured I had responsibilities enough. Yet, despite this predisposition, I have owned one or more cats (to the extent one ever owns cats) continuously since 1985. One thing just led to another, as so many things in life do, and there they were.

My cabin in the woods 1985: rather less
scary than The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Once again, it wasn’t my plan to be a cat person. Back in the spring of ’85 I was living in my cabin in the woods. It wasn’t much, but it was mine; it was the first real estate that was in my own name. Meanwhile, my sister Sharon recently had moved back from California and had rented a little place on a side street in Randolph. A stray cat showed up at her door in midwinter and she took it in. Sharon’s hippie days were gone but not forgotten, so she named the cat Dandelion. Two months later when the cat had four kittens she struggled to find homes for them. She kept one (Tiger Lily) but found a taker only for one more; so, I pitched in and took two. (I wasn’t the best of brothers, but I was occasionally not terrible.) So, I became a cat person. One of those two, a Sylvester-lookalike named Succotash, was with me for 20 years.

In 1998 my parents were gifted two kittens, also from a rescued stray. They named the kittens Maxi and Mini. My dad died in 2000 and my mom in 2001 so the cats became mine. I flirted with renaming them Charm and Strange just so I could say “We all have our little quarks,” but in the end I stuck with Maxi and Mini since the names had become pleasantly ironic: Mini had grown huge while Maxi remained small and lanky. A miniature table with feeding bowls still says “the three cats” on it, though Succotash died in 2005 and Mini in 2015. Maxi endures. If he recovers from his current troubles, he has a good chance of reaching his 20th birthday next spring.

Return of the hunter
For most of his life Maxi was the least affectionate cat I’ve ever owned. He would tolerate without fuss being picked up or petted, but he never sought it out and would strut off as soon as you let him go; he wouldn’t run away, but he would go away. He was just barely tame and would disappear into the woods for up to three days at a time. (Mini, by contrast, never in her life wandered out of sight of the house.) More than once I gave him up for lost only to see him trotting back toward the house carrying a chipmunk or dragging a rabbit. He had a special fondness for rabbits, some of them almost as big as himself. (Yes, he gets his regular shots.) As he grew older his disappearances grew shorter. Only once in the past year did he vanish for a full day, and it has been four years since he brought back anything bigger than a mouse. It has been two since he brought back anything at all. He liked to nap next to Mini (who was an expert napper), and when she died he became much more personable to humans: particularly to me. Since 2015 he daily has sought out attention.

The troublemaker I've nicknamed Ragamuffin
At 19 he is an old cat – the average lifespan for a housecat is 16 years – but he doesn’t know it, which causes him trouble when he encounters other cats. Trouble happened a few days ago when I left the door open behind me while carrying a bag of trash to the bin next to the garage. Nothing seemed amiss when I came back in, so I grabbed my keys and went out to lunch. When I came back, bowls of cat food and water were spilled on the kitchen floor; I looked for Maxi and found him in a bedroom. When I returned to the kitchen a (seemingly well-fed) calico cat was standing there; she apparently had come in during the garbage run. I opened the back door and let her out, but some drama had occurred around the bowls. I didn’t think much about it until yesterday when Maxi plainly had an infection from a fight wound above his left eye. I received a few minor fight wounds in turn while getting him into the carrying case for the trip to the veterinarian, who drained the infection. I’m still hot-packing it regularly and Maxi still is lethargic, but he has been through worse in the past.
Maxi after the vet

I’m hoping Maxi recovers and shares my company for a good while longer. However, while the felines in my life have given me more pleasure than pain, I won’t be getting another. After all, were there a “next one” he might outlive me. Of course, so might Maxi. One never knows for sure about such things.

Opening sequence: Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12, 2017 Recap: Jerzey Derby Brigade vs. Suburbia Roller Derby Backyard Bullies

Last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted long-time adversaries the Backyard Bullies, hailing from Westchester County NY, at JDB’s home track in Morristown NJ.

JDB scored the first points with jams by #235 A-Bomb and #3684 Californikate. #1952 Queen Elizadeath II, skating with exceptional speed, put the first points on the board for the Bullies. From the beginning blocking was strong on both teams with a noticeable difference in styles: JDB somewhat more often held its formations and the Bullies were somewhat more often flexible – but only somewhat in each case. JDB gained a substantial, but still vulnerable, lead thanks to a 15 point power jam by Californikate followed by a 13 point jam by #8 Lil Mo Peep bringing the score to 50-4. The points were gained against stiff opposition with #1234 Revengela taking down Lil Mo Peep and solid double-teaming by #5 Aldanamite and #555 Aya Yai. The Bullies added points of their own with #84 Moonie Sweets scoring against hard blocking. The first half ended with JDB leading 101-32.

The second half began with A-bomb adding 20 points for JDB in a power jam. Effective blocking on both sides led to take-downs, pile-ups, and at least one injury. #92 Partygirl Accelerator repeatedly had successful jams for the Bullies as did #1952, which finally began to chip at the nearly 100 point lead built up by JDB. Queen Elizadeath II put the Bullies over the century mark to 190-105. Californikate, despite a hard takedown, then took JDB over 200 at 206-110. Neither team let up as the clock ran down. In the final jam of the game #1952 Queen Elizadeath II broke out to be lead jammer but #8 Lil Mo Peep was close behind; both scored points against stiff blocking with Lil Mo Peep putting the last points on the board. Final Score: 254-161 in favor of JDB.

MVPs –
Backyard Bullies:
#1952 Queen Elizadeath II (jammer)
#555 Aya Yai (blocker)

#8 Lil Mo Peep (jammer)
#93 Freudian Slap (blocker)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Romans, Levelers, and Wicked Thoughts

Nonfiction occupied my bedside table the past couple of weeks. Brief reviews are below of four that are worth a read:

**** ****

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper

What is there to say about the fate of Rome that hasn’t been said before? Didn’t Gibbon say it all more than 200 years ago? He surely said a lot, but not quite all. (The six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is still a superb read though.) Gibbon and two centuries of historians after him focused on internal social, political, and economic factors in combination with a rising barbarian threat. Those were indeed crucial ingredients in the slow-motion collapse, but in 1976 William H. McNeil in Plagues and Peoples argued that microbes gave a final push over the edge. In the pre-vaccine/pre-antibiotic ancient world, diseases were demographically devastating.

Kyle Harper reports on recent DNA sequencing from Roman graves that confirms most of McNeil’s suspicions about the identity of various ancient epidemics. The Antonine Plague was indeed smallpox and it ravaged the Empire (Marcus Aurelius himself died of it) at a time when the barbarians on the Rhine and Danube were on the offensive. Even more devastating was the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, which has been identified as bubonic plague and which killed half the population. Bubonic plague was particularly deadly because the primary vector was not person to person but from flea-bearing rats to people. Rats were as prevalent in the countryside where most of the population lived as in the cities, so the plague was not, as most plagues were, mostly an urban event. (The lethality was demonstrated again and for the same reason when it returned as the Black Death 800 years later.) The demographic and economic destruction wreaked by it put a permanent end to hopes of recovering the Western provinces.

As his own contribution to the literature, Harper then tells us that one more pressure on the Empire has been much overlooked: climate change. The Roman Empire’s great centuries (1st century BCE through 2nd century CE) were during the Roman Climatic Optimum, an unusually warm and wet period ideal for expansive agriculture. Climate then swung erratically due to natural causes (volcanoes, solar variability, ocean currents, etc.) before settling into the Antique Little Ice Age after 450 CE. This curtailed agriculture and interacted unexpectedly with diseases: fleas that died in hot summers, for example, survived when summers were cooler. Harper explains the various methods including soil, plant, and ice samples by which ancient climate can be reconstructed. Harper doesn’t make the mistake of attributing Rome’s decline specifically to climate just because it is his own special interest, but he tells us it was one more nail in the coffin.

**** ****

Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day by Philip Matyszak

The Roman Empire ended as all things do but it had a good run. What was it like actually to live there? Books purporting to explain everyday life in ancient Rome have been around for centuries, but they typically are such dry reading that it’s easy for one’s eyes to glaze over. Matyszak gets around this with his travel guide aimed at a 21st century reader who presumably has access to a time machine. He starts us off not in Rome but in Alexandria in order to experience the trip to the city. We get all-important practical advice, such as to use traveler’s checks instead of cash. Yes, really. Shipping companies doubled as banks: their reps in Alexandria would give you scrip in exchange for your coins and this could be exchanged for gold at the company’s office in Ostia (Rome’s port city), thereby making you less of a target for thieves on the trip.

By internal evidence, the guide puts us in the time of Severus when the city is at its height. Matyszak tells us how to get a room in Rome, how to buy fast foods, where to find public toilets, how to use the public baths, where the best brothels are, what neighborhoods are dangerous after dark, and so on. And, of course, he tells about the must-see sites, many of them still in existence today in various degrees of repair, such as the baths, aqueducts, and temples. There are a lot of them. We are told what is polite and what is rude in Roman society, how the sexes interact, and how the classes interact. There also is the list of handy phrases.

All-in-all it is a pleasant romp and a painless way to get at least some inkling of what it was like to visit the ancient city. If you do happen to be a time traveler, it will save you many denarii, too.

**** ****

The Great Leveler by Walter Sheidel

Walter Sheidel, professor at Stanford, studies economic inequality from Neolithic times to the present. His book is neither a polemic against inequality nor a defense of it (though his predisposition to “against” is evident), but rather a well-researched examination of it over time. It is full of charts and Gini coefficients. In general, he finds inequality tends to increase over time in any and all types of societies with any and all types of governments provided economic trends are stable or trending upward. This, he contends, has to do with the relative scarcity of capital to labor and with the intertwinement of wealth and the governing elites. The exceptions to the general rule – the times of great leveling – involve “the four horsemen”: total war, Revolution, systems collapse, and plague.

Smallish wars won’t do it. Wars with full mobilization do, for they involve intense labor demand in the military and in industry and intensive taxation to pay for it. Also mass destruction of property in war naturally costs the people who own the property. They have more to lose, so massive destruction has a leveling effect. Revolution on a grand scale as in Russia and China in the last century certainly lowered inequality but at a staggering human cost. Collapses, such as those of the Roman Empire and the Tang Dynasty, wiped out the old aristocracies and thereby increased equality until the new aristocracies built their wealth up. The economic collapse of the Great Depression also was a leveler by destroying the asset values of those who had assets. Plagues, which formerly carried off large percentages of the population (upward of a third of population of Europe in the Black Death) actually lead to increases in median living standards (rather than just killing or bankrupting the rich with no benefit to anyone else) by spreading around the assets of the deceased and increasing the demand for labor. The greatest leveling in history took place in the time spanning the two world wars, the Depression, the accompanying Revolutions, the creation of social welfare states that the crises made possible, and the rebuilding after the wars. Yet, after the rebuilding was done (the 1970s) inequality again ticked upward including in social democracies.

Whether one views inequality as a problem in itself or no problem at all if other incomes are rising or stable, the book provides a treasure trove of data. Sheidel doesn’t anticipate change anytime soon and worries what it might look like if it does arrive: “For thousands of years, history has alternated between long stretches of rising or high and stable inequality interspersed with violent compressions… All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.”

**** ****

A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

Anyone who ever has, say, looked up “2018 Silverado” online only to find Chevy ads on the next five websites he visits knows that Web searches are not secret. In general, only AIs designed for commercial purposes bother to read them, but they are vast data sources for anyone who wants to use them for other purposes.

Neuroscientists Ogas and Gaddam analyzed 55 million sexually oriented search terms compiled by Dogpile, broke them down into categories, and tried to see what these searches tell us about human sexuality. The answers are creepy but intriguing. Some of them are totally unsurprising, such as the conclusions that men overwhelmingly search for visual porn while online romance novels, albeit raunchier than the softcovers sold in stores are almost exclusively accessed by women (though there are female targeted porn sites). The plots of those romances are most commonly fiercely un-PC, and then there are the female-targeted EroRoms about romances of gay men. Porn searches – whether straight or gay oriented – are often counterintuitive to put it gently: Yes, teen cheerleaders are popular searches, but the fifth most popular male search term is “grannies” and the third is “mom?” Beyond the (almost mundane) BDSM searches there are amazingly specific fetishes: the authors only slightly exaggerate when they remark, “Type in ‘Find people who have sex with goats that are on fire’ and the computer will say ‘Specify the kind of goat.’” The findings show a divergence in male and female interests greater than whatever you think it is, and the nuances of straight and gay searches offer material on which to ponder.

Though the reader may have the urge to wash his or her hands after putting down the book, it offers a perspective on and information about our fellow human beings (and perhaps ourselves) that might never be shared in a public forum. Online, in presumed privacy, we reveal our wicked ways and thoughts.

Dorothy – Wicked Ones