Stealing Other People’s Homework: Network theory may explain the vulnerability of medieval human settlements to the Black Death pandemic

No, it has nothing to do with books, but the Black Death has long fascinated me.

Complexity Digest

Epidemics can spread across large regions becoming pandemics by flowing along transportation and social networks. Two network attributes, transitivity (when a node is connected to two other nodes that are also directly connected between them) and centrality (the number and intensity of connections with the other nodes in the network), are widely associated with the dynamics of transmission of pathogens. Here we investigate how network centrality and transitivity influence vulnerability to diseases of human populations by examining one of the most devastating pandemic in human history, the fourteenth century plague pandemic called Black Death. We found that, after controlling for the city spatial location and the disease arrival time, cities with higher values of both centrality and transitivity were more severely affected by the plague. A simulation study indicates that this association was due to central cities with high transitivity undergo more exogenous re-infections. Our study provides an easy method…

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Cosmic Trigger III

The Robert Anton Wilson series concludes.

Raw Feed (2004): Cosmic Trigger III: My Life After Death, Robert Anton Wilson, 1995, 2004.Cosmic Trigger III

This book was as thought provoking and informative as its predecessor and used the same mélange of philosophy, observation, science, and autobiography (though less of that this time).

Here one of the central organizing idea is the championing of multivariant logic (which I was interested to learn predates fuzzy logic and goes back to at least John von Neumann) over true/false Aristotelian logic.

I see a couple of problems with this championing — not the first time I’ve seen this idea proposed, one of the developers of fuzzy logic technology wrote similar silly missionary tracts on its political value though Wilson does delve into the area of politics as deeply here — of multilogic. First, how do you assign value to the values between true and false though, of course, Wilson would argue the same about the values of true and false themselves and, second, in the realm of law and administration, multivalue logic has many problems and little value (though you could argue pardons are a form of multivariant logic in criminal justice).

Other ideas are the Holy Blood, Holy Grail/Priory of Sion conspiracy, the realness of fakes (as in art forgeries) and the fakeness of genuine (fiat money) as exemplified by the Orson Welles’ film F For Fake (Wilson is a fan of Welles), and the value of General Semantics in reorganizing our thinking into realizing there are many mental maps which have different amounts of utility given the context, a context, Wilson argues, that is often culturally induced.

Adherence to E-Prime in writing accounts for Wilson’s fast, effective prose dealing with complicated matters, and General Semantics probably has some useful utility in reminding us of the cognitive traps we can fall in though some of it is banal truth albeit truth that we need reminding of.

Wilson devotes a whole chapter that is somewhat convincing in showing Carl Sagan to being a sloppy, unfair hack in denouncing Immanuel Velikovsky. Even noted astronomer Robert Jastrow notes Velikovsky seems to have understood gravity more than Sagan. He even goes some ways to convincing me that Wilhelm Reich was unfairly libeled. Certainly, I would be against burning his books, which did happen after he was arrested, even if they were crank science. (Though Wilson is somewhat guilty of assuming that just because a person has done good scientific work in a number of areas means that work they were attacked for was valid.)

He does make some valid points about how some professional skeptics engage in bad thinking and name calling and are dogmatic. He is right to point out that science sometimes simply doesn’t even try to confirm outrageous new theories. However, I think there are reasons for that apart from scientific conservatism (a good thing) and government coercion and even fear of not gaining tenure. Time and money are limited. Why waste both disproving a pretty likely false theory? It won’t add to knowledge or your reputation.

Wilson defends Shakespeare against his modern detractors though he, typically for Wilson, refuses to endorse Harold Bloom’s idea that he is the greatest writer ever and only say that he appears to be so given his current mixture of literary knowledge and ignorance. He rightly point out that Shakespeare’s detractors simply hate him because of his race and sex and haven’t shown any heirs to his title.

Wilson seems to largely ignore the question of utility in his philosophy. He talks about it when discussing scientific theories of physics that contradict the world of our senses. He states we all see reality through different masks, masks determined by a variety of factors including culture and biology, and that different masks work in different contexts. Continue reading

Nature’s God

The Robert Anton Wilson continues while I slowly work on getting some new stuff out.

Incidentally, the new cover design is a clue that Wilson burned through two publishers with this series before the third volume of the series was finally put out.

Raw Feed (1992): Nature’s God: Volume 3 of the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, Robert Anton Wilson, 1991.Nature's God.jpg

Each of the three novels in this series has a different emphasis, a different style.

The Earth Will Shake was pretty much a straightforward novel with an emphasis on the various warring Illuminati and the meaning of various occult symbols and initiations. That emphasis on symbology and initiation grew more in The Widow’s Son with less character development and a large element of philosophy and humor (in the footnotes especially).

Nature’s God has large dollops of philosophy, mysticism and humor.

I was bored by the ceremony where Maria Babcock and Sigismundo Celine mystically meet out of the body. I also was bored by Maria Babcock’s initiation into the craft of women.

The whole misanthropic and iconoclastic chapter called “The Wilderness Diary of Sigismundo Celine” was interesting to read (and reminded me of Marcus Aurelius Meditations or Robert Heinlein’s The Notebook of Lazarus Long) and even had some things worth thinking about but plot and story screech to a halt during this long segment.  Continue reading

When Gravity Fails; Or, Adventures in Reviewer Perspectives

Alternate perspective on this is supplied by Speculiction who was less impressed than I was.

Raw Feed (1988): When Gravity Fails, George Alec Effinger, 1987.when-gravity-fails

An excellent book that makes me want to read its model Raymond Chandler.

While this book does have the elements of cyberpunk: underworld characters and schemes, a hi-tech polyculture, it has much less of an emphasis on tech though the cybernetic “moddies” and “daddies”, brain plug-ins that alter personality or supply knowledge, are standard cyberpunk gear, and something much like them appears in Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers.  Personality modification is used to a different, more probable effect than Swanwick.

Orson Scott Card’s blurb about this book being cyberpunk after it grows up is somewhat valid. There is a good deal more real emotion and characterization than in Gibson or Sterling’s work. Literarily, Effinger’s book is every bit as style conscious as Gibson though it is an imitation style.

Marid’s relationship with his friends and lovers and the other colorful denizens of the Budayeen is well-done and one feel’s Marid’s romanticism, rage, disillusionment and eventual realization of just how sleazy his world is. Continue reading

Little Heroes

Since I just discovered MPorcius Fiction Log and he just did a review of some early Norman Spinrad stories, I thought I’d get out some Spinrad material.

“Bug Man” Spinrad, as a friend who hates his work calls him, is somebody I’ve liked enough to hope to read more of. I also like the long review essays he does for Asimov’s.

Unfortunately, I never wrote a real review of a Spinrad work.

Yes, I know I don’t really have a plot synopsis here. You can find Gerald Jonas New York Times review here.

Raw Feed (1988): Little Heroes, Norman Spinrad, 1987.little-heroes

A fun book that causes me to respect Spinrad’s writing greatly.

The sex may have been tedious at times and the segment dealing with Cyborg Sally and her perverse influence on Paco Monaco dragged on a bit too long but those are the only quibbles I have.

The concerns of Spinrad’s review columns (especially his columns on the themes of the cyberpunks and Neuromantics) on cyborg themes, rebellion, the technosphere, romanticism through technology, and characterization are all here.

Spinrad’s major theme is computer technology cyborged onto humans to produce new insights (the Shunt) and to make up for biological shortcomings (the VoxBox and the Image Organ) in artistic expression.

In fact, a central theme is the nature of reality like Philip K. Dick’s works or Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head (which Spinrad is a fan of). The Shunt seems to be an ideal psychedelic which opens up “doors of perception” and potentialities of a personality. It makes more of people.

Yet, as with his revolutionary anarchism, Spinrad sees the good and bad of the technology. It helps Paco and Bobby Rubin mature and realize hidden potentialities. However, Sally Genaro is trapped in virtual psychosis with Cyborg Sally. Continue reading

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story

Since there seems to be some interest in Clark Ashton Smith (as well there should be), I will continue my series on him.

Actually, I was going to do it anyway.

After reading A Rendezvous in Averoigne, I decided to start buying Night Shade Books The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.

Unfortunately, I was reading like a normal person in 2007 meaning I didn’t make notes on a lot of things, and that includes only partial notes on this volume.

So, it’s a …

Low Res Scan (2007): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2006.end-of-the-story

“Introduction”, Ramsey Campbell — Besides a brief account of Campbell’s youthful delight on reading the titles of a Smith collection — to say nothing of the actual stories, Campbell manages a number of concise one sentence summations of many stories in this collection as well as saying how certain stories pre-figured more famous stories by other authors.

To the Daemon” — Not a story but a prose-poem from something called Acolyte (the date is 1943, many years after most of Smith’s stories here but the work could have been written earlier) in which Smith, in his fine poetic ways, tells, in the space of less than a page, how he is tired of stories “that lies between the bourns of time or the limits of space”. He even mentions the Oriental themes of his earliest fiction — “the isles that are westward of Cathay”.

The Abominations of Yondo” — A very simple plot here: a tortured man is released by his captors into the desert of Yondo where he encounters several disturbing sights including a “monstrous mummy of some ancient king” which cause him to flee back to the comfort of his captivity. There is little here except wonderful language, especially the opening paragraph, no moral except perhaps the cynical, weird idea that even captivity and torture are preferable to some things. Continue reading

Pavane; Or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

The alternate history series continues, but this time with a novel, a famous alternate history at that.

An alternate and more graceful perspective is provided by Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Raw Feed (2004): Pavane, Keith Roberts, 1968.pavane

Stylistically and thematically this reminded me very much of Roberts’ Kiteworld, the only other work of his I’ve read. Both works feature an alternate, pastoral England (I believe Kiteworld was a post-apocalypse book, but I’m not sure). Both are sort of fix-ups with some characters that cross from story to story. Both are fascinated by the details of arcane technology and the men who service that technology. In Kiteworld it was the details of the kites. Here it’s the arcana of the steam tractors (not all that arcane of a technology, after all, my father has personal acquaintance with it from his childhood), the semaphore system run by the Signallers Guild, the lithography done by monks.

Roberts uses the approach of several stories taking place over a long period of time with the descendants of some viewpoint characters being the viewpoint characters of another story. For instance, Jesse Strange of the first story “The Lady Margaret” is the great-uncle of Lady Eleanor of the last story, “Corfe Gate”. (The steam tractor “The Lady Margaret” shows up as a sort of character in both stories as well.)

Despite the classic status of this novel, I think it had two significant failings. First, while Roberts cleverly structured his novel around the musical structure of the six part pavane, some of the stories make little or no contribution to the story. To be sure, not every story makes reference to a member of the Strange family but some are obviously there to give background details to Roberts’ world. Thus “The Signaller” shows the detailed workings of the Signallers Guild. “Brother John” shows the work of the Inquisition in post-1968 England (of course, it’s an alternate England).

“Lords and Ladies” is there to tell the story of the romance and seduction of Lady Eleanor’s mother. At first, it seems like one of the romances/seductions doomed by class distinction since her mother is of the merchant class and her noble father simply infatuated with her. It seems like it’s going to take the usual course: the discarding of the common woman after she finally gives into the blandishments of the noble man. However, he eventually decides he can’t live without her and marries her. Thus this story is justified as having some sort of character continuity.

“Corfe Gate” is obviously essential since it shows the rebellion of Lady Eleanor, a rebellion which triggers a worldwide breaking up of the near universally dominated Catholic world and the freeing of England from Papist rule and return to an older, pagan religion. However, “The White Boat” has no real function. The terribly isolated, boring world of an English fishing village is not terribly interesting or essential to painting a picture of the world though, perhaps, Roberts thought that was what he was doing since he makes reference to smugglers transporting forbidden technology and makes a reference to the legendary martyrdom and disappearance of Brother John.

The book is also marred at the end. After a strong and interesting start in this alternate history — the assassination of Queen Elizabeth just before the Spanish Armada lands and conquers England which leads to a world where all European colonization is done under the auspices of Catholic countries (the Reformation in Germany is destroyed in the Lutheran Wars) — the book ends with totally unexpected and obscure mysticism.

In “The Signaller”, we get the first mention of the mysterious Old Ones, sort of the aboriginal religion of England with Fairies and Celtic myth and Balder as sort of a Christ figure. (For reasons never really explained, one of the People of the Heath, associated with this ancient, pre-Catholic religion, nurses a wounded signaller, and he has a deathbed vision of them.) Brother John, horrified by the Inquisition he documents in his drawings, preaches the faith. Lady Eleanor embraces it when the Church tries to take her land.

All that is fine, until the “Coda” of the book which seems to feature a John unmentioned previously. He reads a letter from a John Falconer which may be the same person as (may because, as I said, the ending is unfortunately obscure) John Falukner, Lady Eleanor’s seneschal and eventual lover who disappears after she is murdered on the king’s orders. In a world where all the technologies of internal combustion engines and electricity and radio (which the Signallers secretly played with), forbidden by Catholic Bulls, are finally unleashed (they even have hovercraft), John reads a message that explains the strange sign that opens each chapter. It is a combination of diverging and converging arrows representing fission and fusion. It seems that

beyond our Time … there was a great civilisation. There was a Coming, a Death, and Resurrection; a Conquest, a Reformation, an Armada. And a burning, an Armageddon.

The inference seems to be that we have been reading one of those irritatingly irrational and implausible circular versions of history where everything has repeated itself down to the names of individual rulers.

Yet even this explanation seems contradicted by other mentions of the People of the Heath and fairies which seem to hint at a sort of cross-dimensional travel. This plot feature greatly negates the inventiveness Roberts shows. As an artist who took up writing, his style is intensely visual which helps when he describes his arcane technology (particularly lithography). Structuring an alternate history of a world that diverges from ours by the circumstances of Elizabeth’s death and using a musical form from that time to do so was clever. And the most interesting thing about the book is that the Church, seen throughout the book as holding England down, suppressing its native religion, imposing foreign rule on a land that loved liberty in our time, a world of deliberately suppressed technology which makes life poorer, a land which feels the terror of the Inquisition, is ultimately seen as sympathetic. The Church suppressed technology because it knew it couldn’t suppress “Progress” but it felt that, if Progress could just be slowed by fifty years from its previous rate of development, man would “reach a little higher toward true Reason”.

Did she oppress? Did she hang and burn? A little, yes. But there was no Belsen. No Buchenwald. No Passchendaele.

I don’t know if Roberts is offering a Catholic apology or not. But it’s a startlingly interesting idea — particularly from a native of a country which regards the defeat of the Armada as a supremely important escape from Papism. However, Roberts intriguing notion is so blunted by the absurd setting he chooses to illustrate it that this work is, at best, an interesting failure.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

Another entry in the alternate history series though this one only has a single story that fits the bill.

Raw Feed (1992): The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, ed. Frederik Pohl,

“Introduction: An Appreciation”, Frederik Pohl — Discussion of C.M. Kornbluth’s career, including many mainstream works, and his work as a journalist (which explains the wide variety of characters in his work as well as a knowledge of the world’s workings and seamier elements), his education, his intellectual traits (showing in the wide knowledge illustrated in these stories), and bursts of writing. He started early, at a high level, and got better.

The Rocket of 1955” Story of the world’s first “moon-shot”, a con put together with blackmail, for money. It fails (in that what seems to be a tragic explosion but is entirely planned), but the plot is uncovered and the perpetrators are executed. It’s main interest is Kornbluth’s characteristic economy even at this young age (18) and a cynical element (a moonshot being a con) which marks many of the stories in this anthology. Continue reading

Alternate Kennedys

No, I am not doing a tie in to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

This will be a set up for a future posting.

Raw Feed (1992): Alternate Kennedys, ed. Mike Resnick, 1992.alternate-kennedys-2

“Introduction”, Mike Resnick — Goes into the myth of the Kennedys and some interesting facts about them: the Kennedy daughters, JFK’s son who died, Bobby Kennedy’s wiretappings, Joe Kennedy Sr’s disgrace as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, the valid contention that the Kennedys were the last politicians (except Ted Kennedy — and even he tries) to control the press.

A Fleeting Wisp of Glory”, Laura Resnick — An amusing and grim post-holocaust fable where the Kennedy Camelot and the Arthurian Camelot are being strangely mingled into a legend that explains the poor state of a post-atomic war future yet gives hope to the survivors by reminding them the world wasn’t always so bad.

In the Stone House”, Barry N. Malzberg — Generally I haven’t liked Malzberg’s stories. But he’s done some good work with the alternate president idea. His “Kingfish” in Mike Resnick’s Alternate Presidents was good and this story is too. I don’t know if Malzberg tapped into some conspiracy theories which have the Kennedy family behind the assassination of JFK (I’ve just seen such publications sold but have never read them), but I liked the bizarre notion of ex-president Joe Kennedy, Sr gunning for his president brother JFK. One can argue with the plausibility of an ex-President with Secret Service protection being able to plan the assassination of another president, but the story seems very realistic from a psychological standpoint. I don’t know how closely Joe Kennedy, Sr.’s actions, attitudes, and motives match the same man in our history, but he seemed a plausible mixture of man obsessed with slights to his family and Irish heritage, a man driven to make his sons presidents, and a domineering, inconsiderate, bullying father. Joe Kennedy, Jr. and his relationship to his father seemed quite believable. Junior goes along with all his father’s requests. He sometimes resents his father’s demands but always complies, seldom rebels. JFK is the rebel, the man who breaks free of his father’s psychological grip to destroy the latter’s plan. And, as Junior realizes, there is ambiguity in his assassination of JFK. It may be to please his father, punish JFK’s betrayal. Or it may be to punish his father by killing his president son. There is something to remark on in this story, common to a lot of alternate history story. Authors seem to feel it necessary (perhaps as an inside joke, perhaps just to provide a reference for the reader) to put alternate historical events in places famous in our time. For example, why have Joe Jr kill JFK in Dallas at the Texas Book Depository? Is it really credible to believe that events would have worked out so neatly in another world, that JFK wouldn’t have been a better target (or Joe Jr. had a better opportunity) somewhere else? I think the obvious answer is no, but the ploy is used in alternate history stories for historical reference and irony and reader identification.

The Kennedy Enterprise”, David Gerrold — A funny story of JFK and Bobby Kennedy in Hollywood and an alternate history of Star Trek or, rather Star Track and those associated with it. We also get alternate versions of some famous movies. Some of the better bits: Harlan Ellison as a laidback, compliant (hardly a word associated with Ellison) writer for Star Track; Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner fired from Star Track and replaced by JFK (and other changes are made to the show which make it like Star Trek: The Next Generation; JFK as a bad actor (who never meets Marilyn Monroe). I also liked the irritable, conversational style of this piece. Continue reading