Archive for March 2012

Why I Love Alpha Centauri   Leave a comment

“Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden. He drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

The Conclave Bible 

I’ve always enjoyed the video game as a medium for ending the tedium of modern life. There is a lot of crap out there, but every once in awhile you find a game that rises above the level of petty entertainment and becomes a work of art in its own right. 

Alpha Centauri is one example of this. The premise is straight-forward enough; in 2060, mankind launches a ship (U.N.S. Unity) to Alpha Centauri with the hopes of finding a habitable planet for colonization. The Earth the Unity leaves behind is an icy world of dwindling resources — the colonists of the Unity leave behind a planet on the edge of all-out nuclear war. The colonists are put into stasis to awaken when the Unity arrives in Alpha Centauri.

Forty years into the trip, the Unity fusion core malfunctions, causing a premature awakening of the crew to fix the problem. The problem gets solved, but someone takes advantage of the situation to assassinate the Unity’s captain. The ensuing chaos of the situation allows seven people to claim leadership of the people aboard the Unity:

CEO Nwabudike Morgan, an ardent industrialist, believes that mankind’s destiny lies in the pursuit of wealth and unfettered capitalism. 

Colonel Corazon Santiago believes that the only real power is the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun. 

Lady Diedre Skye is the Unity’s chief biologist, and she believes that the native ecology of humanity’s new home must be preserved and protected.

Academician Prokhor Zakharov believes that the true expression of the human condition lies in working to understand how the universe and its components work. 

Sister Miriam Godwinson believes that humanity must conduct itself as true children of God.

Chairman Shenji-Yang believes that the common man cannot be trusted with conducting his own affairs and must be tightly controlled. 

Commissioner Pravin Lal strives to uphold the original mission of the Unity — to secure human rights and prevent the continued disintegration of the last vestige of the human race.

The crew of the Unity invariably casts its lot with whoever among these leaders they happen to agree with. These leaders in turn attempt the monumental task of establishing a human presence on a hostile alien world.

“Our first challenge is to create an entire economic infrastructure, from top to bottom, out of whole cloth. No gradual evolution from previous economic systems is possible, because there IS no previous economic system. Each interdependent piece must be materialized simultaneously and in perfect working order; otherwise the system will crash out before it ever gets off the ground.

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Centauri Monopoly” 

Most of the story of Alpha Centauri is told through quotes. Whenever a building is built, a technological breakthrough occurs, or a Secret Project completed (the equivalent of a Wonder for the Civ players out there), there is a small quote or other expression. Taken as a whole, these quotes trace the framework of the game. Over the course of the game, you start to get a feel for the strengths and deficiencies of each faction (and each faction has VERY different styles of play). 

Your faction begins its existence on Planet (as this new world comes to be known) with a simple city. In the style of most triple-X games (eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), you have to grow your empire, fend off its enemies, and work on developing the territory you occupy. 

On that last point, humanity catches a break on Planet:

“Planet’s atmosphere, though a gasping death to humans and most animals, is paradise for Earth plants. The high nitrate content of the soil and the rich yellow sunlight bring an abundant harvest wherever adjustments can be made for the unusual soil conditions.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“A Comparative Biology of Planet” 

Sadly, though Planet is a paradise for Earth plants, it is a finite resource. As such, humans will inevitably clash over it and other pointless bullshit.

“Man has killed man from the beginning of time, and each new frontier has brought new ways and new places to die. Why should the future be different?”

Col. Corazon Santiago
“Planet: A Survivalist’s Guide” 

The game is set up such that certain factions are destined to be enemies. Most factions have a significant other whose ideological concerns are contrary to the core of their own. Diedre and Morgan can’t both pursue their goals for planet without violating the sanctity of what the other believes to be the “right” path. For example, it is very hard to find a middle ground between these statements:

“Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.”

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Ethics of Greed” 

“I shall not confront Planet as an enemy, but shall accept its mysteries as gifts to be cherished. Nor shall I crudely seek to peel the layers away like the skin from an onion. Instead I shall gather them together as the tree gathers the breeze. The wind shall blow and I shall bend. The sky shall open and I shall drink my fill.”

Gaian Acolyte’s Prayer 

So, as Santiago pragmatically puts it, “why should the future be different?” Well, Planet has one ace up its sleeve. 

“The Mind Worms are the natural defenses of the living Planet–the white blood cells, if you will. In a world in which unassimilated thought represents danger, the Mind Worm seeks out concentrations of sentient mental energy and destroys them, ruthlessly and efficiently.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“Mind Worm, Mind Worm” 

So herein is the genius of the game. The human factions each behave like nation-states, pursuing their own agendas, waging wars, and pursuing their own diplomatic initiatives, but all of them share an enemy in the form of Planet’s native life, which can easily over-run entire cities if you aren’t careful. 

However, early research into Planet’s ecology reveals something:

“Observe the Razorbeak as it tends so carefully to the fungal blooms; just the right bit from the yellow, then a swatch from the pink. Follow the Glow Mites as they gather and organize the fallen spores. What higher order guides their work? Mark my words: someone or something is managing the ecology of this planet.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

Meanwhile, you’re still playing this game. And you notice your head starts churning around all these ideas which are subtly working their way into your subconscious. Whether it is the stark pragmatism of Yang, the smug confidence of Morgan, or the contemplative tone of Lal, as you play the game you truly get a feel for what these people are all about.

“The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.”

Sister Miriam Godwinson
“The Blessed Struggle” 

“Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“For I Have Tasted The Fruit” 

“Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant. Need as well as greed have followed us to the stars, and the rewards of wealth still await those wise enough to recognize this deep thrumming of our common pulse.”

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Centauri Monopoly” 

“In the great commons at Gaia’s Landing we have a tall and particularly beautiful stand of white pine, planted at the time of the first colonies. It represents our promise to the people, and to Planet itself, never to repeat the tragedy of Earth.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

“As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“U.N. Declaration of Rights” 

“Learn to overcome the crass demands of flesh and bone, for they warp the matrix through which we perceive the world. Extend your awareness outward, beyond the self of body, to embrace the self of group and the self of humanity. The goals of the group and the greater race are transcendent, and to embrace them is to achieve enlightenment.”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Essays on Mind and Matter” 

“Superior training and superior weaponry have, when taken together, a geometric effect on overall military strength. Well-trained, well-equipped troops can stand up to many more times their lesser brethren than linear arithmetic would seem to indicate.”

Spartan Battle Manual 

As the game continues to develop, the mysteries of Planet start to reveal themselves. 

“I believe Planet will talk to us if we are willing to listen. These fungal stalks behave as multistate relays: taken together, the neural net connectivity must be staggering. Can a planet be said to have achieved sentience?”

Lady Deirdre Skye
Arguments in Council 

“The fungus has been Planet’s dominant lifeform since about the time of the Lower Paleozoic on Earth. But when, once every hundred million years or so, the neural net at last achieves the critical mass necessary to become sentient, the final metamorphosis kills off most of the other life on the planet. It is possible that we humans can help to break this tragic cycle.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

So humanity is left fighting itself and the random attacks of Planet’s native life on this hostile alien world. Somehow, over the decades since Planetfall, some factions have been able to carve a civilization out of the wilderness and establish themselves on Planet. But there’s a twist here:

“The prevalence of anoxic environments rich in organic material, combined with the presence of nitrated compounds has led to an astonishing variety of underground organisms which live in the absence of oxygen and “breathe” nitrate. Likewise, the scarcity of carbon in the environment has forced plants to economize on its use. Thus, all our efforts to return carbon to the biosphere will encourage the native life to proliferate.” 

Lady Deirdre Skye
“The Early Years” 

It becomes something of a cosmic joke — the more entrenched humans become on Planet, the more likely Planet’s native life can suddenly overwhelm the colonists and exterminate them. Eventually, the concept of a plan for dealing with Planet’s native life presents itself. 

“Imagine the entire contents of the planetary datalinks, the sum total of human knowledge, blasted into the Planetmind’s fragile neural network with the full power of every reactor on the planet. Thousands of years of civilization compressed into a single searing burst of revelation. That is our last-ditch attempt to win humanity a reprieve from extinction at the hands of an awakening alien god.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“Planet Speaks” 

Once the Planetmind is “enlightened” to the realization that humans are a sentient species and not an explicitly evil threat to Planet, Planet reigns in its mindworm armies and holds off on exterminating humanity. During this interim, the human factions realize that they have an opportunity to imprint their own ideals into the Planetmind, and essentially merge themselves into Planet itself. 

“No longer mere earthbeings and planetbeings are we, but bright children of the stars! And together we shall dance in and out of ten billion years, celebrating the gift of consciousness until the stars themselves grow cold and weary, and our thoughts turn again to the beginning.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Conversations with Planet” 

On a personal level, I can say that there have been few games which have influenced my overall thinking as much as this one. There is a lot of *deep* material concealed in the game, from the societal impacts of government policy to the more philosophical concerns of the new technological developments. 

For example:

“My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack’s muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Essays on Mind and Matter” 

How do you argue against this? Sure, there are all kind of moral objections to completely tailoring a person’s genes to suit your desires, but on the same token, if the person involved doesn’t give a shit, who are we to say otherwise?

“In the years since our arrival, we have foolishly disrupted so many of Planet’s ecosystems that entire species may vanish without our ever having understood, or even known them. We must halt this plunder, and halt it immediately, for our own survival as a species depends on our ability to strike a balance on this world.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“Mind Worm, Mind Worm” 

This goes doubly for us, being we don’t even have the ability to travel between the stars like they could. We fuck up this planet, and we sign our own death warrants. 

“We have reached an informational threshold which can only be crossed by harnessing the speed of light directly. The quickest computations require the fastest possible particles moving along the shortest paths. Since the capability now exists to take our information directly from photons traveling molecular distances, the final act of the information revolution will soon be upon us.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“For I Have Tasted The Fruit” 

To me, this is just a very prescient quote. Assuming we last long enough to figure out the important questions between here and there, it seems to me that there would have to come a time at which that barrier HAS to be crossed, allowing the synapses of the human race to “fire” at the fastest speed possible.

So there you have it, my explanation for why I love Alpha Centauri, told through the voices of the game whenever possible. A game which gives you control of a unique faction with real obstacles to overcome. An interesting setting where the stakes are high — fail at your task, and your civilization and the very ideology you expound are wiped from the human experience. A game which broadens the mind and helps explore gray areas of human existence.

If that ain’t art, what is?

Here are some quotes for the road:

“If our society seems more nihilistic than that of previous eras, perhaps this is simply a sign of our maturity as a sentient species. As our collective consciousness expands beyond a crucial point, we are at last ready to accept life’s fundamental truth: that life’s only purpose is life itself.

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Looking God in the Eye” 

“We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?”

Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7
Activity Recorded M.Y. 2302.22467

“There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn nonetheless for the latter.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“Address to the Faculty” 

“Some would ask, how could a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil. They have missed a greater conundrum: why would a perfect God create a universe at all?”

Sister Miriam Godwinson
“But for the Grace of God” 

“Why do you insist that the human genetic code is “sacred” or “taboo”? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter -we- are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Looking God in the Eye” 

“I hold a scrap of paper in the darkness and light it. I watch it burn bright and curl, disappearing into nothingness, and the heat burns my fingers. Where has it gone? What has it become? I cannot shake the feeling that I have witnessed a form of transcendence.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“The Convergence”


Employment: Exit Edition   Leave a comment

I really hated my job.

At first, it had been a job, like any other. Standard office drone, with hierarchies organized to explain when best to eat, shit, smoke and chat. There were people there who were fun, there were people there who were pricks, there were people there I could spend a day laughing with, and one I could picture having a life with. 

But, as time went on, the character of the place began to change. The occasional perks (free lunch, free ice cream etc) became rarer until they vanished altogether. The atmosphere, which had previously been more or less informal, began to stratify into a stifling mess of corporatism (for example, before no one cared if you wore a hat to work, but it became an dischargable offense). New department heads were chosen, apparently based on their unique lack of inter-personal skills. In addition, the highest management seemed to be making directives which created a culture of departmental back-stabbing — I personally witnessed, for example, one of the managers from the third floor coming onto the forth floor (my floor) to steal boxes from other departments. As you can imagine, such actions created a culture of lies, deceit, and antagonism.

For my own part, I knew I was working a dead end job and was more or less able to stay above the fray. I couldn’t care less if the project I was working on was compromised, because they invariably were compromised by mismanagement; I worked on an old scanner, which the company stopped paying maintenance for a long time ago. As a result, through no fault of my own, the thing stopped taking paper correctly. I might scan twenty thousand images one day, though the machine grabbed twenty two thousand papers. The surplus paper was inevitably double-fed into the machine, and disappeared back to the box from which it came. At first I voiced my concerns that things were wrong, but those concerns fell on deaf ears. 

If they didn’t care, why should I?

So it continued. It then became something of a game. Layoffs were happening at this point, and I could NOT WAIT to get one. I endeavored to do as little as possible, and make sure what little I did was fucked up. That didn’t work. I then upped it a notch, beginning to be mildly obstinate to the managers. 

The company believed in “town-hall” style meetings. These were meetings where the company would assemble in the art gallery on the first floor, and a top manager would conduct a meeting talking about new directives and other bullshit. At one such meeting, the manager Steve Boudihas (the architect of many inter-department feuds), introduced a new schedule for bonuses, which was a sore topic among many employees who hadn’t received a raise in 2+ years. At the meeting, he introduced this new two-part bonus series. If departments made their quality goals for the month, employees were eligible for a TEN DOLLAR BONUS. If departments made their productivity goals, employees were eligible for a further bonus of TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS. This was also on top of him suggesting, straight-faced, that if you see a temp isn’t needed on a particular job, to alert a manager to send them home early to save the company money. 

During this particular meeting he made slight mention that he himself would receive a bonus if the other departments got their bonus. I raised my hand.

“So, if I understand you right, you said you get a bonus if we get a bonus.”
“That’s right!”
“Is your bonus more than $35?”

That question made the town hall erupt in laughter. In fact, there were only two people who weren’t laughing or smirking, and those two people were me and him. After a brief recovery, he immediately dismissed the meeting. The rest of the day was spent receiving compliments on the power of my question, as well as the generous size of my balls.

But even these efforts at obstinacy delivered no reward. Instead, months dragged on, and eventually Steve himself was fired. I continued to walk the path of apathy, essentially creating a cushy position for myself where I had no set schedule, no real job duties, nor any set hours. In fact, one of the dumbest things the company did was to outsource their time clock to a web-based company. I don’t think the general body of employees understood the ramifications of that, because it allowed you to punch in and out from the comfort of your smartphone or wherever you had an internet connection. I took advantage of that, though not to the extreme of others, some of which earned ample over-time from the comfort of their home. 

Earlier in the week, I learned via the web time card that my supervisor had changed. The next day the new guy came over to tell me about the change: in short, he worked document destruction, and my new job would be to move boxes around. I could finish my normal duties for the day, but the next day we’d start doing the warehouse work.

The next day came, and I greeted it with a button-down shirt and tie. I read once that Hitler said that, at the negotiating table, every price should be paid to pomp and vanity to placate people’s egos, to make them more pliable to your demands. As the day started, I found the new guy and asked for a sit down. I complimented him on his straight shooting the day before, and asked if the new position offered any additional money incentives. He heard me out, and said he needed to take it to his people. I went back to my standard duties.

A few hours later, his boss came down with him and sat me down. They told me that they couldn’t offer me more money, nor could they continue to have me at my current position. If I refused to work the warehouse job, I would be terminated. They said the warehouse work, and the work I did, were essentially the same, which is why there wasn’t any bonus bucks attached. I respectfully replied that calling a cat’s legs tails doesn’t give a cat five tails. I was working a clerical job, at a computer with a desk and chair, and the other requires standing for long periods slugging heavy boxes around. 

“The jobs are the same. If you don’t accept the new position, we consider it a termination.”
“I will happily go back to my standard duties. If I’m leaving, it’s because I’m being forced out.”
“Your old position is terminated.”

I was then escorted from the building. I gathered my things, said goodbyes to my friends on the floor, and walked into the world. Sunshine rarely feels so sweet. 

Posted March 29, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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More Reviews   Leave a comment

Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Patriot by Charles Cerami

I was in the library, fresh from dropping off my newest slate of returns, when I took the chance to wander through the biography section. It’s rare that I ever go to the library with any specific intent on what I’m going to pick up (I believe the last time I did that was to pick up a copy of Cesar Milan’s Be A Pack Leader, which was excellent), and this time was no different. I was rummaging through the shelves, and nothing in particular was catching my eye. I was about to pack it in when my eyes finally fell on Banneker. I had no specific memory of the name, but it rang a bell. A cursory glance of the inside cover told me all I needed to know, “… he humiliated Jefferson…” SOLD!

Benjamin Banneker was born a free man in Maryland in the early 1730s. From an early age he was regarded as something of a whiz, and local people from all over town were asking him for his help with their accounts at the tender age of six. His family wasn’t well-off, but nor were they destitute. His parents ran a small but growing tobacco farm and instilled in him a healthy respect for work, and allowed him to pursue his intellectual pursuits so long as he still did his work on the farm. His mother was a freed indentured servant, and made sure that her children would be able to read.

Benjamin’s first love was the mystery of space and the stars. Until racial prejudices became more extreme, it was common for young Benjamin to do his farm work, sneak a quick nap, and then spend most of the night making observations about the stars and later, notes about movements and his personal theories about what was what.

As Benjamin grew older, his family came to depend on him more and more. By this point he was somewhat obviously a prodigy (he had hand-crafted a clock with wooden gears), and perhaps with an eye toward exposing their son to greater horizons, they sent him to Baltimore one summer to sell the family’s tobacco at market. This trip would bring both tragedy and salvation to young Benjamin.

The tragedy would occur in the form of being truly exposed to the wide world of racism. To help with the wagon and animals, Benjamin’s uncle came along with him on the trip. In an episode whose horror I can’t begin to imagine, they’re beset by slave catchers. Now, Benjamin is able to convince them that he’s free and that his papers are genuine — but his uncle isn’t so lucky. His uncle is beaten and taken away by the slave catchers, never to be seen by Benjamin or anyone in his family ever again. As if that wasn’t enough, upon bringing his tobacco to the Baltimore market, the merchant more or less says he’d be within his rights to throw Benjamin in irons for stealing such excellent tobacco. As a result, Benjamin is forced to sell the crop at a fraction of its value to avoid imprisonment. 

Understandably, for the rest of his life Banneker seemed riddled with fears that everything could be taken away from him at any time.

But, it was in Baltimore that Banneker made a connection whose impact would forever change his life… it was here he was introduced to the Ellicotts, a prosperous family of Quakers whose sons had an interest in everything scientific and mechanical. This family became something of a surrogate sponsor for Benjamin’s education, as they were constantly lending him their books, and their old equipment (such as old telescopes), and these things would allow him to achieve a depth of understanding that seems absolutely impossible for such a humble scientist in the early 19th century.

As Benjamin grew older, he seemed to embody the idea of the absent-minded professor. He toiled on his farm only as long as needed to assure his survival, and then spend the rest of his time reading books, following planetary movements, watching the Ellicotts build water mills, and writing what notes he could. 

His big break occurred when he was drafted by the Ellicotts to assist in the surveying of what would become Washington, D.C. The idea that a black man would be part of such an important undertaking certainly produced a lot of uncertainty, but Ellicott had complete faith in Banneker as his chief assistant. Banneker apparently had the most important job — the job of making sure that the lines struck the day before were continued exactly the next day. In order to do it, in once again required staying up late hours into the night to make sure that the measurements of the stars were where they should be and that the work could proceed apace the next day.

After the surveying of the Washington grid, Banneker decided to follow one of his lifelong dreams, again with the helping influence of his friends the Ellicotts. Banneker long desired to make his own almanac, complete with tide charts and other astronomical information. He had spent most of his life compiling the data, and with the Ellicotts willing to go to bat to secure some printers, Banneker decides to go ahead and write the damn thing. The Almanac becomes a surprise bestseller, in large part because of the uniqueness of the author. He almost instantly becomes something of an abolitionist hero, and Banneker is suddenly inundated with visitors and letters. It is also around this time that he starts hearing gunshots right outside his door in the middle of the night.

Perhaps it was something about Jefferson’s hypocrisy that made Banneker write a letter to him. Perhaps it was a new-found pride from the success of his Almanac. Perhaps it was simply a reaction to the constant racism he’d experienced that finally needed expression; whatever the case, he sent Jefferson a handwritten copy of his almanac with a note which said in part:

“…although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” 

Jefferson, with his standard two-face, welcomes the letter and forwards it to a friend in Paris while later writing about how much of Banneker’s “achievements” were probably just Ellicotts’.

I alluded earlier to Banneker’s uncanny knowledge of the cosmos. It’s absolutely impossible to know how much knowledge Banneker was able to accumulate, because shortly after his death his cabin was burned down, taking with it everything he’d written that hadn’t been on loan to Ellicott at the time. I, for one, find it absolutely incredible that he had correctly deduced that most stars likely had planets around them, and that there could even be life on those other planets. That is some serious out-of-the-box thinking for a humble astronomer farmer. I only wish we could have had a deeper look into the life’s work of a man who was so capable of rising above the conventional expectations to see what might be.

Four Stars

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I grabbed this book the same day I picked up Banneker as it was actually a featured bookend at the edge of the young adult section. I was actually shocked at how faithfully the book followed the movie (previously reviewed). It did have the welcome addition of fleshing out the character of Harry Wotten, but otherwise was more or less exactly as depicted in the movie.

It’s an easy read, and an entertaining one at that. Four Stars, same as the movie which it spawned

Hamilton by Ron Chernow

As a starter, if you could only read one book about Alexander Hamilton, this is the one you want to pick up.

Having covered a good cross-section of Hamilton’s life in the previous review, I’ll only add a couple salient points here.

The book does an exquisite job of establishing the team of Washington and Hamilton as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. During the Revolution, Washington routinely trusts Hamilton to get jobs done, going so far as to allow Hamilton to issue orders on his own initiative as if they came from the hand of Washington himself. As the French become more involved in the war, Hamilton acts as the prime translator between Washington and the French, also being sure to communicate the spirit of the meaning of the words and not just the rote translation. There is such a multitude of uses that Washington trusts to Hamilton, and no other, that when Hamilton decides to leave, Washington goes almost to the point of saying the war might be lost without him. But Hamilton is young, eager to prove himself, and desiring a chance to prove himself in battle, not work a desk for the war. Washington reluctantly releases him from his service, and they begin a largely benign estrangement which lasted a few years.

One thing that the Revolution taught to both men was the complete inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation. Wars take a lot of logistical support, and so much of Washington and Hamilton’s time was spent begging for supplies and money that they became, in my words, hateful of the government as it stood. Wars are tough enough, but then combine those difficulties with a government incapable of providing more troops, furnishing supplies, or paying their soldiers, and it becomes no wonder they might harbor negative feelings about the sovereign.

One thing that constantly astounds me reading books on Hamilton is how prolific he was. He was, for example, running a thriving law practice, and organizing the Federalists in New York when he wrote his share of The Federalist Papers. As the Secretary of the Treasury, he managed to organize his department from scratch into a functioning whole seemingly overnight (interesting side note: Washington had an aid as President, Jefferson had four secretaries at the State Department, Hamilton had over 200 employees). In addition, Chernow describes Hamilton as, essentially, Washington’s Prime Minister, because Hamilton certainly had the President’s ear, but seemed to have his hands involved in absolutely everything. 

One thing I want to add here is that Hamilton’s time at the Treasury seems to be above reproach. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, and the Republicans in Congress got it in their heads that he was stealing from the Treasury. They ran several investigations against him (at one point trying to get him dismissed by making him do a full audit in a tiny deadline, which he managed to do with no trouble), and never once found him guilty of any wrong-doing. In fact, his time in public service only served to bankrupt him, because he felt that continuing to work while working in public service would only lead to compromising conflicts of interest. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own pension to avoid having a conflict regarding the Revolutionary War debt speculators.

Also, and I know I beat this poor horse to death, but Jefferson is a piece of shit. Again, this book laid out loads of hypocrisy by Jefferson — as Governor of Virginia during the war, he abandoned office and ran from the British, yet calls Hamilton a coward. Jefferson owns slaves, yet calls Hamilton lazy! He hates everything Washington is doing in foreign policy, but he won’t resign his job at State, and pays State funds to a publisher to talk trash on Washington… There’s plenty more, and a lot of them seem completely petty, but I’d like to move on to a few closing points.

When Jefferson becomes President, he still hates the Bank and the Treasury, and appoints his friend Albert Gallatin as Treasurer and tells him to look into things and see how corrupt Hamilton made it. Gallatin was no friend to the Bank, nor Hamilton, but his final report should remove any doubt about the corruption charges:

” [this is the most amazing department in government]… Hamilton did such a perfect job organizing the Treasury that it will be a sinecure ever after for whoever holds it.” 

This book was easily a five star masterpiece. Eminently readable, with a great cross-section of stories about many different Founders, it does wonders to make the wide cast of characters seem knowable on a personal level. We still might not be able to understand why a genius like Hamilton would allow himself to be blackmailed and destroyed by a whore, but no one knows anyone well enough to understand every impulse that goes through their head. In the end, it’s a great biography that shows a man all too human.

One final anecdote that made me do a genuine laugh out loud.

Hamilton, in his final years, is designing his dream home. As he so often does, he goes into exact details of minutia, from number of bricks for the walkway and number of trees for the yard. In his customary thoroughness, he writes to a botany professor for advice:

“… I admit, I am as unfit on this topic as Jefferson is to helm the nation.”

Thanks for reading, next up we’ll have The Guns of August and Clarence Darrow.

Posted March 21, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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