Reading Milton’s Paradise Lost

One of the nice things about using an e-reader is the abundance of free Public Domain books. There are a lot of them. I always had access to them even before I got my Kobo, through Project Gutenburg, but really, who wants to read a book off a computer screen?

I chose to tackle Paradise Lost because it’s one of those books that “everyone has read,” which is to say, it’s a book that everyone makes reference to, whether they’ve read it or not and whether they realise it or not. The book is written in the kind of beautiful and florid prose that would be absolutely pretentious if someone tried to copy today, but because it’s Paradise Lost, Milton can get away with it.

The most interesting thing to me was discovering famous clichés in the work that I didn’t know beforehand were famous clichés from Paradise Lost. The most famous example is probably the phrase “all hell broke loose,” which now appears in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction. It’s number six: “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’. This rule doesn’t require an explanation.” An angel is mocking Satan for leaving hell and he asks why the rest of the fallen angels didn’t come with him when he left.

Another unexpected one for me was finding the phrase, “His Dark Materials,” the title for an anti-Christian children’s book trilogy in Paradise Lost. I knew that Pullman had a literary background and that he drew from a number of religious sources to write his books, but it was still a bit of a shock to see that.

One last thing that I noticed: Eve was a Parselmouth. Possibly Adam too. Like they say, “Everyone knows that’s the mark of a dark wizard.”

“The Psychopath Test” applied to evangelical Christianity

Kai Winn is an amazing villain
Kai Winn is an amazing villain

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating book

The Psychopath Test is worth the time to read. Jon Ronson, the author, took Hare’s standardised test (Hare, 1991) comprised of 20 questions, each scored from 0–2, and applied this test to a number of corporate CEO’s and other such leaders. The prevalence of psychopathy is around 1% in the general population (Coid, 2009), but since psychopaths tend to be very goal-driven and often very successful, they show up at even higher rates in the upper echelons of business or politics or other such endeavours.

The author’s idea was that a lot of the bad things that happen in the world are due to a lot of greedy, power-hungry, scary people, and these people suffer from psychopathy. And this becomes apparent when they end up in places like CEO’s offices at major financial institutions, bankrupt them, break the law and yet still demand large bonuses, for example.

This dovetails nicely with some of the things that I’ve recently read in a couple of other books. I just finished reading Harperland (a book about the rise and consolidation of power in Canada under the Harper regime) and The End of Wall Street (a book about the people and policies that brought about the 2008 financial crisis), and I’ll let you make your own guesses about who I suspect of psychopathy now.

Psychopathy and religion and Deep Space Nine

While reading through the book, one of my first reactions (after the obligatory, “I hope I’m not a psychopath!” response) to the descriptions of the psychopaths was that they reminded me of Kai Winn. My apologies for making an obscure Star Trek reference, but Kai Winn is one of the best recurring characters in Deep Space Nine. She’s a power-hungry hypocrite of a religious leader. What’s great about her, is that she’s not a typical villain—there are shades of grey in her character—she can charm and manipulate you at times into thinking she is not the bad guy. But in the end, she’s a pathological liar with a grandiose sense of self-worth, who has no ability to empathise with others or feel remorse or guilt. When she lashes out at her political enemies, it’s not out of the passion of emotion. It’s cold. Calculated. She’s just very good at mimicking certain behaviours to benefit her own self-interest.

Modern evangelicalism would make a great hiding place for a psychopath

I think that psychopaths like Kai Winn exist in real churches in real life. Evangelical Christianity would be a great place for a psychopath to “hide out,” especially at the top of a modern evangelical mega-church. Let me explain.

Item 1 on the psychopath checklist (PCL) is “glibness or superficial charm.” Psychopaths, when you meet them, are very like-able. They have an ability to ape the emotions of normal people, and they are often very successful at speaking publicly and in very endearing ways. They are good at telling jokes and influencing other people. The pulpit would be very attractive to certain psychopaths.

Item 2 on the PCL is “grandiose sense of self-worth.” What better place to have your ego stroked for your entire life than in a church where you can be taken seriously when you say things like, “God placed it on my heart to tell you …” or “God gave me a vision that …” Evangelicals eat that stuff up. Even if it’s ridiculous, if you say something like that at a prayer meeting or Bible study, you’ll never hear anyone say, “God didn’t tell you that. You made that up.” I guarantee it.

In this way, a psychopath could claim the authority of God Himself and it wouldn’t even seem strange to anyone else there. I know I have personally witnessed a great many people saying things like that (none of whom I would suspect to be psychopaths), but many examples of such behaviour I would have called manipulative (which turns out to be item 5 on the PCL). Even stranger claims—that God has given explicit instructions, foresight or the like—have been made by evangelical Christians in high positions of leadership, and sometimes more famously (e.g. Harold Camping) and sometimes less famously, these turn out to be lies. (Pathological lying is item 4 on the PCL.)

Item 13 is “lack of realistic long-term goals.” A psychopath who said that he wanted to “change the world for Christ,” or that he was “sent by God to call the nation back to Him” would not raise any eyebrows among evangelicals.

Item 6 is “lack of remorse or guilt,” item 7 is “shallow affect,” and item 16 is “failure to accept responsibility for own actions.” If you want a good excuse for not feeling remorse or guilt and for not taking responsibility, you can hardly do better than “Jesus died for my sins, so I shouldn’t feel guilty about them.” A spiritual leader who skips over his own personal failures without missing a beat could attribute it all to the grace of God, and this wouldn’t raise suspicion in the slightest.

Item 8 is “callous / lack of empathy.” You might not think this would go very well with Christianity, but modern evangelical Christianity can have a very pronounced mean streak. Just talk to one of today’s neo-Calvinists—a disciple of Piper’s or Driscoll’s—and I can guarantee you that they will all-too-gladly be able to explain why it is very good news that a literal physical hell of eternal conscious torment awaits those who do not accept Christ. Or think about the drive to “win” people through evangelism—it is highly praised among evangelical Christians. Imagine a psychopath who goes around telling complete strangers that they’re going to hell unless they say a prayer, and more-or-less treats them as objects to be collected and scared into submission, in a display of a complete lack of empathy. If the psychopath was able to do it with the requisite amount of charm and sophistication, this person would likely become a superstar in a local evangelical church in short order.

Item 9 is “parasitic lifestyle.” Among young evangelical males looking for a potential wife, one of the most often cited criteria is that the wife must have “a servant’s heart.” When you ask most evangelicals what they mean by that, they usually don’t have anything quite as misogynist as this initially sounds like it would mean. That said, if there was a psychopath hiding among evangelicals, he could honestly say, “I want a wife who has a servant’s heart,” and mean that he plans to take advantage of her for her entire life.

Item 11 is “promiscuous sexual behaviour”, item 17 is “many short-term marital relationships,” item 12 is “early behaviour problems,” item 18 is “juvenile delinquency,” and item 20 is “criminal versatility.” These four might seem difficult for a psychopath hiding among Christians to mask, but then there’s nothing an evangelical likes more than a shocking conversion story. Evangelicals teach their children from a young age to polish and prepare their “testimonials” (story of how one became a Christian), and visiting guest speakers at a church often begin their testimonials by waxing eloquent over the depths of their depravity before their conversion. What this means is that for an evangelical, a history of sin and evil can be spun into the mark of a great dispensation of the grace of God. A clever psychopath could very easily convert a fairly clear mark of their mental illness, “early behavioural problems,” into a compelling part of his conversion story.

All you have to do is find a person who has all the character traits I described above, and you’re already at a score of 28 out of 40 on the PCL. Generally speaking, 30 is the “cut-off” that’s generally used for research purposes to say that someone is likely to be a psychopath, although pretty much everyone agrees that psychopathy occurs along a spectrum, and every case is, of course unique. But it’s remarkable to think that a person could not only get away with having all these classic marks of psychopathy, but actually use them to his advantage and rise to considerable influence within a church because of them.

An exercise for the reader

  1. Choose a public figure. Here’s a few suggestions:
    • Steve Jobs
    • Mark Driscoll
    • Mitt Romney
  2. Look up Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (it’s on Wikipedia, I think)
  3. Using quotes from the figure you choose, make your best argument that the public figure in question is, in fact, a psychopath
  4. Post what you find in the comments, if you like!
  5. For bonus points: what are the dangers/downsides that might be associated with using a psychopathy checklist to decide who is a psychopath and who isn’t?

Weird thing about the copy of The Psychopath Test that I borrowed from the Bibliothèque Nationale

The ebook was formatted weirdly. I think that every single page in the book was an image—a picture of the published book, rather than a text file. I couldn’t increase the font size, and I couldn’t select text on the page, which would make sense if it was actually just a series of images of text. It was a little hard to read on the Kobo due to the tiny font, but zooming in on every page on my Kobo was a frustrating and terrible prospect, so I just sucked it up and read the tiny text on each page.

Just weird is all.

Works cited

  • Ronson, Jon (2011). The Psychopath Test. United Kingdom: Picador.
  • Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.
  • Coid, Jeremy et al (2009). Prevalence and correlates of psychopathic traits in the household population of Great Britain. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32:2, pp.. 65–73.

Book review: “The End of Wall Street” by Roger Lowenstein

I just finished my latest library book, The End of Wall Street, by Roger Lowenstein. I would describe this book as a good medium-level description of the economic factors that led to the financial crisis of 2008. The author does a good job of not getting bogged down in the boring mathematical details (it’s short—only 358 pages, after all), while steering away from becoming such a high-level description that it’s inaccurate or un-informative. The focus is on the motivations of the major actors, and the policies that brought about the crisis of 2008.

While the author criticizes the laissez-faire policies and regulatory practices that brought about 2008, it’s pretty balanced, based in evidence and well-cited facts, and he never becomes preachy. He’s critical, but then, given what happened, it would be difficult (and probably inaccurate) to be otherwise while writing about this material.

If you’re like me, you’ll need to keep a sticky note handy where you can write the meanings of acronyms you come across. (Wait, what’s a CDO again?) The book is fairly quick-paced, and even though I don’t have any formal training economics, I was glad to have read it.

Borrowing e-books from the library

I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I borrowed the e-book from the Québec National Library. Just the process of borrowing an e-book has been fascinating. When an e-book is borrowed from the library, it is no longer available for other users to borrow, because the library uses a particular kind of DRM software.

This is interesting to me because traditional borrowing of library books had the “scarcity” of the books (and thus the protection of the author/publisher’s rights) built-in to the “hardware” itself. That is to say, by the nature of the physical book itself, two people could not be borrowing it from the library at the same time.

This is manifestly not true of digital materials. Much to the chagrin of publishers of all types, it’s difficult to stop people from sharing media if it’s digital, and in fact it takes a good deal of effort to stop people from doing so, while still allowing for legitimate uses of the media in question.

I’m 67% of the way through, and I’ve come across a couple typos. Nothing major—nothing that changes the content of the book, or even makes it much more difficult to read. I don’t know why, but I can’t resist keeping a record of when I find typos.

  • “It isn’t the sort ofthing you ask questions about …” p. 29
  • “I press my hands against the sides of my thighs, breath in, set out along the hall …” p. 142

Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines here, but when I saw these typos, I started thinking about maps. Stay with me, here. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but it used to be said that map-makers would put fake streets—small ones that no one would notice—into their maps, so that if someone copied their work, they would know that it was copied.

I’m sure it’s possible to find software that will strip an e-book of its DRM, and so I wonder if these typos are like that—little “fake streets” that the publisher has inserted into the e-book, so that if it’s copied, they’ll know. If they were sophisticated about it, they could probably even make up a way of encoding which library and even which user stripped the DRM by inserting particular “typos” into the borrowed e-book.

So here’s my question for all you Margaret Atwood fans out there: Does anyone have a physical copy of The Handmaid’s Tale? If you do, can you tell me if the typos are there in your copy? Also, does anyone else feel like borrowing the e-book from the library to see if the typos are there (or in the same place)?

Side-note: How long before we drop the hyphen from “e-book” and “e-reader” the way we dropped the hyphen from e-mail?

Review of the Kobo Touch e-reader

I recently bought a Kobo Touch, which is not a new piece of technology. Here, I review it anyway, since it’s new to me. I’ll start with the negative and work my way to the positive.

For the non-initiates out there, a Kobo is an “e-reader.” That means it’s a handheld piece of electronics for consuming media—mostly books/magazines/things that would have otherwise been print media. A Kindle is also an e-reader, but made by a different company. I refuse to get a Kindle because of the sorts of things that Amazon does to customers who own Kindles. You could also put the iPad into this category, but it’s more of a tablet than an e-reader, I think. Anyway, a Kobo is a kind of e-reader that doesn’t have a back-lit display.

Things that the Kobo doesn’t do well

  • PDF documents—if the PDF wasn’t formatted for a Kobo or something, you’ll have to zoom and scroll all over, which will get really annoying really fast.
  • Apps—if you want to play games, don’t get a Kobo. You will be disappointed. It doesn’t do apps at all. There’s sort of an app where you can draw with your finger, but it is terrible.
  • Web browsing—there is a browser. No, don’t try it. You’ll be happy you didn’t.
  • Social integration—it keeps trying to post things to my Facebook. I really don’t like Facebook all that much. I would actually be okay if it offered to tweet things, but there’s no Twitter integration on the Kobo.
  • Annotations—entering text using the touch keyboard on a Kobo is slow, inaccurate and frustrating. Highlighting text is similarly difficult, but not as bad as annotating. Selecting text takes a while, and it sometimes can’t figure out where your finger is on the screen.
  • Discoverability of features—it took me a long time to figure out that I can bookmark a page by just tapping the top-right corner of a page. I’m still not sure if there’s a way to know how many pages in a book on my Kobo.
  • Buying books from the Kobo store sucks. It sucks pretty bad. It’s hard to browse for books on the Kobo e-reader, so I tried finding a book on the website and adding it to my “wishlist” so I could buy it. But it turns out that my wishlist doesn’t sync between my Kobo e-reader, the Kobo web store and the Kobo desktop app. Not only that, but it’s hard to get things onto your wishlist from the desktop app in the first place. This is something I hope they figure out soon, because it’s a fairly essential part of their business model—getting people to pay for their content.

Things that the Kobo does really well

  • It’s excellent for reading in direct sunlight. Due to the nature of the e-ink screen, the Kobo is perfect for reading outdoors. I have tested this extensively in the park near my house this summer. It’s wonderful, and it’s something that you can’t really do with an iPad.
  • Further, the Kobo doesn’t cause much eye strain. first off, the Kobo formats EPUB books so that the text is a nice size for reading. Also, the e-ink screen has no back-light, so it’s way easier on the eyes. Reading from a Kobo screen is really no more tiring than reading from a book.
  • There are lots of free books. this is not exclusive to the Kobo. Come to think of it, I always had access to these free books through Project Gutenberg, which you should check out if you haven’t yet. There are thousands of free books to be downloaded. These are largely classic works of literature whose copyright has expired, putting them in the Public Domain. But really, I never read these books before I had an e-reader, because it sucks to sit in front of a computer screen and read, even a laptop.
  • It’s “tossable.” I feel like I can throw it across the room, shove it in my bag, etc. There’s no glass screen, and it’s not very heavy. I feel like if I dropped it, it’s not heavy enough to break itself when it hits the floor.
  • Last thing is battery life, which I regard to be one of the biggest assets of the Kobo. I charged my Kobo for the first time on Tuesday July 24, 2012. Since then, I had the wifi turned off, except on three occasions during which I downloaded new books. It has now been just over four weeks since the last charge, and the battery indicator is around the one-quarter mark.
    To give you an idea of how much use I made of the Kobo during that time, I used it at least twice a day, every day, having taken up the habit of reading while using the stationary bicycle at the gym, and reading before bed each night. And because it was something new and shiny, I used it much more than that, just out of novelty, at the beginning of its life.

Overall assessment

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the thing. It was a fraction of the price of an iPad, and for reading books, at least, I think it does a better job. I’m enjoying it thoroughly and I’ve got about a million books I plan to read on it. Well, no more than 1 GB at a time, anyway.

Great Expectations

I’ve been slowly working my way through Dickens’ Great Expectations as my most recent Metro reading. (The last thing I was reading on the Metro was The Deptford Trilogy, and before that, Nikolski, both of which I recommend.)

Right now, I’m at the point where the escaped convict reveals himself to be the mysterious benefactor of the protagonist. I’ve never read it before, so don’t spoil it for me if you know how it ends!

Here is a list of three fun words whose meanings I have learned while reading this book:

  • Fain
  • Prolix
  • Akimbo

If you legitimately know the meanings of all these words without looking them up, you get three points.