Review: World Without Mind

I finished reading World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech last week.  Given the Zuckerberg hearings in the past fortnight…this book is certainly of-the-moment, which means that (among other things) it’s overdue at the library.

In some respects, Franklin Foer strikes me as Neil Postman’s heir.  As Technopoly warned, technology has changed and expanded (and continues to do so) so quickly that it is difficult for anyone to be certain exactly what ideas, mores, or other cultural artifacts might be jettisoned as a matter of course.  There is no time to appreciate, much less anticipate, all the changes technology can wreak.

Foer alternates his attention between the tech itself and those who wield it.   GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), he says, have “imperiled the way we think” by leveraging their “intoxicating convenience” to “press [people] into conformity.”  He discusses the power of GAFA’s curation as manipulation of knowledge and an erasure of free will, but I’m convinced that Amazon making it easy to click on a book does not mean Amazon has forced me to buy it.  The gap between consideration and action is still, thankfully, large.

Among Foer’s other concerns is the fact that, increasingly, decision-making – and, perhaps, more creative work – is being given over to algorithms instead of humans.  Given his profession (staff writer/editor), one can understand why he’d feel threatened by the specter of automatically-composed reports.  He also seems somewhat concerned by Google’s pursuit of AI.  I don’t believe AI is actually possible, despite what Descartes thinks about humans as complex organic machines, so it seems to me that the bigger problem is Google’s tendency to ignore copyright law in its quest to digitize all published books as grist for the AI mill.

Foer is also Postman’s heir in that the solutions he proffers are weak in the face of the huge problems he diagnoses.  He describes how much these corporations lobby in Washington, details some of the strategies they’ve used to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, notes how the overlap of data and personal transparency is three steps away from a certain sort of authoritarianism, and notes again the ascendancy of algorithms – then states a need for antitrust legislation to break up this new type of monopoly, and a Data Protection Agency to force GAFA to give consumers a way to purge their data.

I don’t know enough about the industry to know whether this is even possible, much less likely.  If these corporations are already guilty of tax evasion on a huge scale, how would you force them to play nice with data, and why would you expect them to obey new laws about it?  “Google’s leadership doesn’t care terribly much about precedent or law,” according to one of the company’s attorneys (regarding the book digitizing effort in particular, but surely it applies more broadly).  Wired’s writeup of the hearings seems to agree: “Because these businesses operate differently from those in more traditional industries, they must be regulated differently. Congress, and by extension regulators, don’t understand enough about these businesses to regulate them, and risk further entrenching their power by attempting.”

Silicon Valley apparently believes that regulations or anti-trust efforts can’t threaten Facebook’s dominance, that privacy controls won’t make Facebook more appealing to consumers, and that those currently at the helm have good intentions.

I’m skeptical as to that last point.  As Lewis put it:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

So, what do we do about this, aside from government-based solutions that will probably fail in the face of an army of attorneys?  Foer has some recommendations for fighting at the grassroots level.  The popularity of organic, whole foods (and similar food-based trends) gives him hope that people who care about what they put in their mouths will also come to care about what they put in their brains, and where it came from.

He also proposes that “cultivated” people pay to keep journalism alive, that the pursuit of objectified cultural capital would draw sufficient funding to support journalism as a livelihood.  I rather think he conflates journalism with any and all writing or publishing, but either way the point stands.

(An aside: reading this book in between movements of Verdi’s Requiem was curiously appropriate and beneficial.  It gives one hope for the continuation of the arts; it reminds the soul of God, of religion, of miracles; and it also grants some perspective: no wonder how much control these companies have, they cannot destroy my inheritance.)

 

Some may find Foer too liberal for their taste; others might long for an orderly history of technological development that reads less like an old boys’ club.  Some, like me, might find Foer unable or unwilling to discuss humans as humans: interested in convenience until the tipping point where other considerations take precedence; stubborn; guided by the intangible and the numinous, not merely by what Big Tech serves up.  But overall, World Without Mind is a warning well worth reading, illuminating how privacy is all too often the price paid for convenient consumption.  Hopefully it is a timely admonition, rather than a moment too late.

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2¢ on AI

Before I begin, let me put a disclaimer here: these are hastily assembled thoughts, engaging with the subject at hand before spending hours or days reading up on it, pondering it, and defining all my terms more effectively.  If you like, consider this whole post a placeholder for later thought.

Personality, the will, sentience is solely a product of the breath of life, given by God, rendering wholly artificial intelligence impossible to create.

If you took a human person, replaced his limbs with prosthetics, compensated for the destruction of his nerves with some manner of electronic signals, gave him other replacements for his original organs or viscera, rigged up an elaborate support system for his brain: all this still would not make the intelligence itself, the person, artificial.  It isn’t all mechanical.  I disbelieve in a mechanical mind (though certain aspects of a generic human brain, to a certain extent, give physical or mechanical evidence of the processes occurring therein).

If a neural network produces anything, it does so through training.  It doesn’t actually have its own intelligence to go on, just the promptings of an actual human (or, perhaps, a whole lot of data gleaned from a great many actual humans).

Can it, per se, ever recognize humor?  Consider the InspiroBot Inspirational Images Generator.  The generator generates; the human looks at the image and caption together, and that interaction is where the humor happens.  It is humorous because the human mind recognizes the absurdity.  It is humorous because of the human mind being struck by the unexpected.

I suppose you could argue that the generator creates the humor by presenting the unexpected.  But I would then argue that the generator generates as it is trained to generate, making this ultimately a human creation.

5000 Catholic Items Your Faith Life Definitely Needs

The other day, my law firm received a catalog of Catholic items addressed to a former employee.  My boss and I idly flipped through it, and were bemused by page 8’s Crown of Thorns – not so much because of the crown itself, but because of the breathless legend “Imported directly from Jerusalem” and the even bolder “Customer Favorite!”

I brought it home to share with my roommate.  The following is a partial transcription.

Cecilia:  I could get you ashes.  “Serves 500 people!”

Cecilia:  I could get you a coffee mug that says “Serve with a heart like Jesus.”
Joy:  Does the other side say “Wash my feet”?  …“100% Catholic” mug?  What does that even mean?
Cecilia:  I’m 50% Catholic and 50% Druid.

Cecilia:  I could get you a mug that says “To get through today, I’m gonna need a bit of coffee and a whole lot of Jesus!”
Joy:  That just makes it sound like I’m hogging all the Communion hosts.  Gobbling them like a hobbit.

Cecilia:  I could get you a cross pendant that my 12-year-old self thought was so cool.
Joy:  Honestly, that’s a better recommendation than most other things from this catalog are getting.

Cecilia:  Do you want a St. Peregrin medal?
Joy:  Does he wander?  He’d better wander.

Joy:  Hey, Cecilia.  Do you want a Proverbs 31 tote bag?  And wallet?  And mug?  I’m sure you need them.
Cecilia:  Hey, Joy.  Do you want a “In Christ, all things are possible” tote bag?
Joy:  “So jot that down…”

Cecilia:  I could get you a modern chapel veil.
Joy:  What’s modern about it?
Cecilia:  Looks like it’s shorter.  Do you want a statue Therese of the Holy Face?
Joy:  Wait, is Therese of the Holy Face different from –
Cecilia:  That’s Therese of the Child Jesus.
Joy:  Oh, okay.  ….wait, is Therese of Lisieux –
Cecilia:  Therese of Jesus is Therese of Avila.  Therese of the Child Jesus is Therese of Lisieux.  Edith Stein is Theresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Joy:  That was nice of her, to mix it up a bit.

Cecilia:  I could get you a St. Benedict fancy pendant, zinc alloy.  I don’t have any other argument for it, but it’s fancy!
Joy:  That is an argument for ketchup.

Cecilia:  I can get you a sleeping St. Joseph statue.  I know that’s what you’ve always wanted.

Cecilia:  I could get you rosary pliers.
Joy:  What the actual.
Cecilia:  Would you like a St. Jude rosary?
Joy:  What are you trying to say.
Cecilia:  Would you like a tiger’s eye rosary?
Joy:  Honestly, I used to collect tiger’s eyes, so like.  If you *must.*
Cecilia:  A men’s hematite rosary.  But there’s no women’s hematite rosary….!!

Cecilia:  I could get you the Catholic Book of Facts.
Joy:  How many pages is it?  Wouldn’t that include, like, the entire Summa Theologica?
Cecilia:  …98 pages.

Cecilia:  “Dead Savior statue.”
Joy:  Umm.  Excuse me?!
Cecilia: “Risen and Crucified Christ”?  I’m sure that’s heretical.  Alright, this is the crucifix section.  This better not piss me off.  …a luminous wall crucifix?
Joy:  “Luminous”?
Cecilia:  I think that means it glows in the dark.  Ooh, I could get you the wall plaque that says “This is a Catholic home!”

Cecilia:  Why is St. Stephen wearing modern deacon’s garb?
Joy:  Probably so you know it’s St. Stephen.

Cecilia:  Would you like to spend the low, low price of $695 on a statue of St. Michael for me?
Joy:  …is that a thing you want?
Cecilia:  No, but maybe I could use a flower stand.  Oooh, candle stands!  They’re only $129.95.  Candle not included.  “Cemetery holy water pot travel kit.”  Pastoral call set… “Host sold separately.”  Mass kit replacement items…
Joy:  Does that include the host?
Cecilia:  No.  Where do I get the hosts from?  Ooh, let’s get a reliquary.  Joy, let’s get altar bells!  There’s a lot of variety.
Joy:  Those were surprisingly expensive!
Cecilia:  This one’s only $50.  We could get a censor!  And a censor stand.
Joy:  Wait, that’s different from a thurible, right?

Cecilia:  I can’t find hosts and I can’t find Paschal candles; what use is this to me?!  …… I FOUND THE HOSTS.  “Save 25% with these exclusive, top quality hosts.  …Sealed to ensure freshness, untouched by human hands.”  Who baked them?  Angels?  Cats?

Cecilia: “Self-fitting albs.”
Joy:  Are those from Madame Malkin?!  Or Gladrags?
Cecilia:  The model for the front-wrap alb is a little attractive.  Let’s turn the page.

Cecilia:  You could get a funeral pall!  Never know when you might need one!   Hmm.  These robes are for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, but they mostly just look like Harry Potter capes.

Cecilia:  YES.  THE BEST PART.  “Children of the world” tapestry stoles.

Cecilia:  Who would put these banners up in church?  Are these for Catholics or non-denominational Protestants?

Cecilia:  This guy just reminds me of Buddy Jesus.

 

ALL THAT BEING SAID.  If you’ve ever wanted, say, a St. Dymphna statue, a rosary auto decal, or a stretchy candy cross bracelet, and had no idea where to purchase them?  These folks have you covered.

Rabbit Holes: Historicism

It’s Lent.  I meant to talk about the simultaneity of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, but this column is a better treatment of the topic than I could give.

So.  It’s Lent, time of penitence and discipline and observances.  One of my disciplines for this Lent is the study of Isaiah.  I hope to find and commit to a particular theologian’s commentary on it (please leave any suggestions or recommendations in the comments), but in the meantime, there’s the simple act of reading it, of pondering the text itself.

Isaiah’s prophecy and visions regarding the nation of Israel being taken into captivity concern a specific event (or events, as sections of the prophecy point directly to Christ’s birth and his death).  I haven’t actually studied theology in great enough depth to tell you much more than that.

In my reading about God’s judgment of Judah, I came on this verse:

Isaiah 5:7:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry!

When you read this in the wake of children being shot at a school in Florida, the bloodshed and outcry of the present day seem inextricable from what war and wickedness went on in Judah.

I got a bit concerned about myself, and whether I was being heretical by applying this scripture to the present concerns – concerned enough to try categorizing it, which meant my brother got a charming e-mail with the subject line “Heresy question.”

He categorized it as personal judgment, and potentially premillennialism.  Reading up on premillennialism suggested that the doctrine to avoid was historicism, which made me wonder if my favorite Lutheran blog had written anything on the subject.

Searching for the term brought this post to my attention.  It’s not actually focused on historicism, mentioning it once and moving on, but examines several other matters worth rumination.

Trent’s discussion of students properly being eager and earnest, of the proper wonder for the world as God’s creation, and of a joy that is serious, have all highlighted to me how I have lost my own zeal, my own earnestness, and thus my own joy:

Joy is not the opposite of seriousness. Joy is rather its concomitant, arising only from that which seriousness alone affords, for joy is the saved soul’s perception of God in His works, which are the good, the true, and the beautiful. The eye of faith takes joy in the good creation of God which it espies beneath the marring of sin, the good world which the fire of heaven will, at the last trumpet, purge and make new. Joy is the highest transfiguration of wonder. It is a deeply serious affair.

I feel convicted, that in the stead of true joy or delight, I might have instead been merely flippant.  But it is my hope that the study and discipline of Lent will pave the way for a wholly joyful Easter.

 

Rock the Guac!

As a person who has made guacamole for a number of years, to general delight if not outright acclamation, I was surprised to discover something new about preparing it.

I’ve spent years dicing red onion, tomatoes, jalapeno, and cilantro, peeling my garlic, and juicing my limes before finally opening, scooping, and smashing up my avocados (to minimize oxidation time).  I’ve experimented with adding anything from kosher salt to additional dried onion and garlic to cumin to parsley to cayenne.  I knew I didn’t want it to be brown, bland, or overly creamy: it’s best with a few chunks of avocado still recognizable.

Recently, the pantry held a number of properly ripe avocados, perhaps 4, and one rather under-ripe specimen.  I was in a hurry and wanted to use them all, so each half of the under-ripe one was scored horizontally and vertically, then scooped into the bowl with the rest.guacamole ingredients

What follows is alchemy.

Long have I held that the lime juice constitutes a bit of alchemy: it transforms mere mashed avocado into guacamole, transmutes this green lipid into delight.

Cubes of less-ripe, sturdier avocado do something of the same thing, but require less caution to avoid over-mixing.  They prevent utter homogeneity, so that every bite is different in structure and flavor: this one saltier, this one limier, this one hotter, that one with more bite of onion and tang of tomato.  The flavorful spaces contrast with the unflavored avocado itself.  Those chunks are rests, the silences between the power chords of all the other ingredients.

To those of you about to rock some guac, we salute you!guacamole

Obedience to Beauty

I’ve not read much by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, but came across this quotation and thought it worth rumination.  Mention of the inexorable Muse induced me to share it here.

If faith is the attunement and adaptation of the whole of existence to God, then we could just as well call faith obedience, for such indeed it is. But let us not forget the strict obedience exacted even by worldly beauty both from the creating artist and from the re-creating admirer who contemplates and enjoys it.

The artist has an idea which must be realized and which accepts no excuses until the creator has expended his last energies in the service of this coming-into-reality. Service of the beautiful can constitute the hardest kind of asceticism, and so it has been with all the greatest creators.

But all the vital acts of renunciation demanded by the inexorable Muse were directed by the enrapturing impulse to help her enter visibility… In faith, man is at one and the same time artist and artifact. Thus, obedience is not opposed to the beautiful.

– Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord I, “The Experience of Faith”

It’s been a long, grey, quiet while since I’ve encountered (been inspired by? been driven by) an idea, a picture, a Muse which stood unbending until I did the vision justice in my execution.

100! or, 2017 in retrospect

One of my Facebook friends did a 2017-in-retrospect post, and I decided to try imitating him.  Did mine take a fortnight longer to assemble?  Well, yes.  Surely this comes as no surprise to any of you.

In no particular order (but roughly chronological), these are the top 100 things that made my year.  Not all were necessarily happy items or events, but many were.

  1. Singing at church, either as part of the choir, a trio, or solo
  2. Learning to use Noteflight, both to create my own sheet music (!!!), and to rehearse difficult pieces without a piano
  3. Making a point of using my favorite tiny teacup
  4. Visiting George, Amanda, and their daughters throughout the year: gathering violets, eating sushi, making coasters, playing board games, sledding, reading about Wee Gillis, etc.
  5. Keeping a list of daily to-dos/accomplishments for later review at work
  6. Following proper channels to address a dangerous situation in my apartment building, with eventual results.
  7. Helping my brother with his corned beef feast fundraiser.
  8. Asserting some style with regard to luggage, aka buying a cuter duffle bag in an attempt to stop overpacking on short trips.
  9. Rediscovering audio books
  10. Visiting Hanners in VA and being able to join her other friends for her baby shower
  11. Having monthly dinners with my brother Mark,
  12. and using them to check in with each other about our goals.
  13. Attending absolutely zero weddings.
  14. Celebrating my first niece’s first birthday
  15. Reading a lot of fluffy books: Flavia de Luce, Trenton Stewart, Maryrose Wood, and (okay, less fluffy) Fredrik Backman
  16. Playing Pokemon Go – which, every once in a while, causes you to meet a 60-something-year-old professor who shows you how she’s walked 1000 kilometers playing it.
  17. Helping with a cocktail class – thus being behind the bar at The Last Word.
  18. Getting out my paint to make some pretty vibrant watercolors.
  19. Writing a whopping 14 blog posts for EC. Which is still more than anyone else *gives other muses shifty eyes*
  20. Making homemade vegan Nutella.
  21. Winning a GoodReads giveaway!  Even though I haven’t finished The Benedict Option yet.
  22. Celebrating Shrove Tuesday with folks. We were fully prepared to have a pancake-flipping race, but then it rained.
  23. Being mildly useful at my brother Mark’s house.
  24. Making Deb’s rhubarb chevron bars.
  25. Learning all manner of things from the AADL Summer Game (and going some places I wouldn’t have gone without it!)
  26. Getting some amount of vegetables, and lots of dill, from my brothers’ gardens
  27. Learning the recipe for this chickpea salad to use said dill.
  28. Getting more fish in my diet (also to use said dill, some of the time).
  29. Continuing to be a person who reads fanfiction.
  30. Experimenting with using aquafaba (both for vegan chocolate mousse, and for cocktail fizzes).
  31. Singing Missa Solemnis in Detroit and Toledo.
  32. Laughing with Em over Beer and Board Games.  Also, watching the fabulously awful Crimson Peak.  And Psycho, for the first time ever.
  33. Visiting Dad’s side of the family in June at the JAS III Memorial.
  34. Hang out with Jem and Maddie.
  35. Keeping up with various friends by going to brunch together.
  36. Buying a MacBook Pro.
  37. Combining bourbon, Carpano Antica, and Benedictine without seeing someone else do it first.  Which might mean I accidentally made a Preakness?
  38. Taking some lackluster marketing materials at my firm and improving them substantially
  39. Sharing Dorothy Sayers with more people
  40. Watching The Tempest at this year’s Shakespeare in the Arb.
  41. Encouraging others to sign up for library cards
  42. Visiting Mom’s side of the family in May and July
  43. Watching a lot of the Great British Bakeoff.
  44. Started listening to 90.9, the classical station, in order to be less heartbroken.
  45. Utilizing InfiniteLooper during work or workouts or cleaning marathons.
  46. Improving my approach to eyebrow makeup, if slightly.
  47. Going to Stratford, Canada with my friends to see Guys and Dolls (for the first time), 12thNight, and HMS Pinafore.
  48. Starting to get Mum and Dad ready to move out of Warwick
  49. Learning some Gaelic (or, well. Faking it convincingly) in honor of Bob
  50. Finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale
  51. Taking charge of preparing music for the Tolkien feast, including a book of popular pub tunes for everyone to sing
  52. Learning some fundamentals of CSS and HTML with CodeAcademy
  53. Getting into Rundle D on LearnedLeague (when I’d previously been in E) and not being immediately kicked back out
  54. Trying Blue Apron for free, so as to have Opinions about it, and actually cancelling timely
  55. Trying a jackfruit (they really are the party fruit!), passionfruit, and mirto.
  56. Celebrating St. Augustine with readings and poires St. Helene.
  57. Taking a winery tour of the Old Mission Peninsula to celebrate my roommate’s finishing grad school
  58. Hanging paper and tea towels to liven up the walls.
  59. Taking care of certain aspects of home maintenance; tightening screws on closet doors and saucepan handles is very satisfying.
  60. Starting a ketogenic diet.
  61. Catching Carbon Leaf at The Ark.
  62. Tugging a friend onto Tumblr *steeples fingers wickedly*
  63. Joining the St. Paul Young Adult Bible study (after years of frustration that every Bible study seemed to meet during the workday)
  64. Using Google Calendar more than I had been, to some effect
  65. Buying ice skates, and actually going skating with them at least once.
  66. Discovering the musical stylings of Lizzy Shell! I meant to blog about this woman for you – suffice it to say that I love her lyrics a lot.
  67. Celebrating the feast of Crispin Crispian with French food and Henry V excerpts.
  68. Figuring out an apartment-friendly Quiet Workout, and doing it somewhat regularly.
  69. Measuring self and keeping keto for two months.
  70. Utilizing Google Doc of tracking/rewards/goals to encourage myself,
  71. and checking in on a daily subreddit as well.
  72. Walking through my first corn maze!
  73. Bidding farewell to my brother from the firm we’ve both worked at since 2009.
  74. Celebrating the feast of St. Bruno at Chartreuse, which restaurant we’ve been wanting to visit for years.
  75. Losing twenty pounds and fitting into things I hadn’t fit in, and buying smaller jeans: a thing that has not happened in the past decade.
  76. Drinking tea/coffee without sugar and liking it, and similarly, doctoring my soda water with Regan’s No. 6 orange bitters and not missing potables.  For the first time ever, I’ve used an entire bottle of bitters!
  77. Adding Glitter and Gold to my list of Songs That Make Most Any Task Possible.
  78. Attempting a bodyweight fitness routine – I’ve a long way to go, but the idea of potentially being able to do a handstand eventually…it beckons.
  79. Finally reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  80. Singing in a 300-person celebration chorus for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
  81. Actually hitting the unsubscribe button on some things.  Doubtless I should hit it a few more times, but still.  Progress.
  82. Facilitating my roommate meeting one of my co-workers, as well as my friend Ruth.
  83. Buying new blush for the first time in a very long while.
  84. Roasting radishes and spaghetti squash, to my own enjoyment.
  85. Finally reading Macbeth.
  86. Hearing and seeing Chanticleer with friends.
  87. Singing Bernstein’s 3rd symphony with the NY Philharmonic and Jeremy Irons.
  88. Meeting my second niece, Lucy Rose.
  89. Buying winter boots that actually cover a part of my calves and fit.
  90.  Watching my nieces (while at least one parent went on a hunting trip)
  91. Celebrating my 30thbirthday with my roommate and friends
  92. Finishing Frankenstein, which has plagued my “currently reading” on GoodReads for 3 years.
  93. Joining George in a December writing challenge, even if I didn’t write much.
  94. Observing Our Lady of Guadalupe and my roommate’s explication of why tequila is a second-class relic.
  95. Watching Stranger Things (and part of ST2).
  96. Sending out Christmas cards. Have I had some of said cards since 2011?  Yes.
  97. Negotiating various new systems: new attorneys, new phones, new court sites, and so on.
  98. Receiving my first ever live Christmas tree.  Did it still have needles by Christmas?  Well, a few.
  99. Assisting my roommate with yarn (having gotten better at using the swift and having improved my detangling strategy).
  100. Hearing the Boys Choir of Ann Arbor and thus discovering a deep fondness for “Carol of the Stranger.”

What were the highlights of your past year?  Here’s hoping that 2018 includes just as much learning and growing!

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.