We went to the moon in 1969. Did we forget that?

Truly lost in the cosmos the moon over Los AngelesForty-seven years ago yesterday, man took the first steps on another planet.

Think of it. Another planet.

They took off in a Saturn V rocket, sitting on 2,740 tons of highly explosive fuel. They flew 238,900 miles in a spacecraft controlled by a computer that pales in comparison to the smartphone you now hold in your hand. The shock absorbers didn’t lock upon landing, leaving the lunar module stairs stopping almost four feet off the surface of the moon (The famous words “One giant leap for mankind” was no exaggeration). They had to use precious take-off fuel to maneuver the module around unexpected boulders before they could land. There were problems with the module door, spacesuits, the drinking water on board, and on and on. And in case the astronauts didn’t return from the trip, a trusted friend would carry autographs of the astronauts to the surviving families that they could sell to ensure support for their wives and children.

Those men had guts. Their wives too. So did the thousands of men and women who worked tirelessly for years to pull off the riskiest venture man had ever taken. No matter how carefully they planned, lives were at stake.

Guts.

In the 47 years since, we seem to have lost our way, forgotten the greatest accomplishment mankind has ever achieved. Once we beat the Soviet Union to the moon, we lost interest. A stingy Congress cut back funding to NASA, the space shuttle siphoned dollars away. And now we’re more than 20 years away from a manned voyage to Mars. Plans are underway. And there’s a lot of talk.

Almost five decades ago, people stopped talking about going to the moon and just did it. And they didn’t count the cost to do it.

Great Podcasts: The Infinite Monkey Cage

science podcastsI listen to a lot of podcasts from the BBC. The World Book Club, In Our Time: Science, In Our Time: Culture, World Book Club, and Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review to name but a few.

But one of my favorites is the Infinite Monkey Cage, a regular program on BBC’s Radio 4. Hosted by physicist Brain Cox and his witty, comic sidekick Robert Ince, this show is a hands-down winner.

The show is billed as an irreverent, witty look at the world through the eyes of a scientist.

Pretty accurate.

The hosts take on a topic for each episode and discuss it with the help of a panel of experts and not-so experts, usually a comedian to keep things entertaining. You learn, you think, you might even laugh. Done as only the British can do.

Well worth the time.

Others think so too, since it has a huge following across the world, attracting some well-known names in the fields of science, entertainment, and people who are just plain well-known. Including Monty Python member Eric Idle, who composed and sings the sign-off song.

Graffiti: The funny writing’s on the wall

funny graffiti truly lost in the cosmosBeing very fond of words and even more fond of them when they’re paired in humorous combinations, I Googled the term funniest graffiti the other day. Try it yourself.

There are some funny people out there. Ingenious. The only disappointing thing is that these witty souls must remain anonymous. Take Banksy, for example, the English-based graffiti artist. His witty, dark humor has made him famous, but the nature of his art guarantees that his identity remains a secret. Oh well.

The history of graffiti goes back a long way. All the way back to ancient Egypt. Of course, back then, graffiti artists didn’t have spray paint or markers to do their subversive deeds. They often scratched their words and pictures into the solid rock on walls or monuments. And the ancient Egyptians could be quite subversive or funny. Or both. You could, for instance, see Cleopatra’s name on a wall and if you scratched two serpents, a scarab and a falcon below it, you would have citizens in Alexandria snickering for weeks.*

The Romans tended to use their graffiti to express thoughts about love or spout political rhetoric, but in Vesuvius, there survives an inscription containing the address of a woman by the name of Novellia Primigenia of Nuceria, a prostitute of great beauty and whose services were in great demand. Okay, not exactly Banksy, but it’s a start. But also found in the buried city was an inscription of a penis, accompanied by the words: mansueta tene (“handle with care”). Things are looking up.

I’m not advocating people going around spray painting on building walls or using a marker in public bathrooms. I lived in New York City in the 1980s and the city—and especially subway cars—were covered in spray paint. It wasn’t pretty. If you have something to say, there’s always Twitter or Tumblr. But if you’re going to be scrawling something on a wall—and people have been doing it for a long, long time—then at least be clever or funny.

*If you read hieroglyphics, this joke loses a little in the translation.

Great bookstores: The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles

Truly lost in the cosmos the last bookstore desk of booksLocated in the the first two stories of an old bank space in downtown Los Angeles, The Last Bookstore isn’t just a place to pick up a classic or the latest best seller. It’s also theater—in a quasi-Victorian, steam-punk skin. Books have been turned into cashier’s desks, wall sculptures and even a tunnel on the second floor. To the left as you enter, art and photography books have their own section, located in a soaring white space whose walls are covered head-to-toe in paintings of every size and and containing just about every subject matter you can think of.

The main space contains most of their fiction collection. Upstairs is everything else: science ficton/fantasy, mystery, crime, travel and history.

Once you leave the spacious first floor main space and venture up into the mezzanine, hallways jog this way and that, letting you get lost in nooks and crannies filled with books (and a few tiny booths selling handmade crafts). There are comfortable chairs for sitting and reading scattered everywhere. The Last Bookstore apparently wants you to come in, look and stay a while. No argument there.

It’s a wonderful counterpoint to the sterile, one-size-fits all mall esthetic you find in the typical Barnes & Noble store.

The store says it buys lots of books and records, but I had trouble locating the used books. All I found was a tiny used-books section toward the stairway at the back of the main space. No matter.

That, I can overlook because this place is so unlike any other bookstore I’ve seen. So successful is the look and feel of this store, it’s become a must-stop for hip tourists visiting the resurgent downtown.

So get on the Metro, head downtown and go back in time. This might be the look of future bookstores.

The Last Bookstore, 453 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013, phone (213) 488-0599

Truly Lost in the Cosmos The Last Bookstore tunnel of books

truly lost in the cosmos the last bookstore art book room

Truly lost in the cosmos The last Bookstore book sculpture

The message

Truly lost in the cosmos you are perfectA few years ago, I was hiking in Hollywood’s Runyon Canyon and I came upon this woman sitting on a bench, holding the sign you see here. I didn’t know if it was a religious thing, an affirmation thing, a dare or whether she was a part of an art project or social experiment by a psychologist hiding in nearby bushes.

Her message: You are perfect.

Other hikers, reaching this first plateau in the hills, looked at the woman, read her sign and reacted to her like she was something to be scraped off their shoes.

Me, I was intrigued. I didn’t ask her to explain what her sign meant, but I thought to myself how nice that someone would sit there sending a positive message like that. Who cares what the purpose was? The important thing isn’t always why something is being said. The key is just that it was said in the first place.

Do superheroes wear underwear?

superhero underwearI bought some Calvin Klein Intense Power underwear and put them on one morning. I smiled when I admired them in a mirror. I would have the power of a superhero.

On the way to work, a Range Rover cut me off on Melrose Avenue. I held up my hand, pointed it in the direction of the offending vehicle and waited for all four tires to go flat.

Nothing.

At work, I dropped a pen on the floor. I focused my mind on it and pictured it flying into my open hand with a satisfying slap. Like it was attached with an invisible rubber band.

Nothing.

I gave the underwear one more chance to prove its power. At home after dinner, I squinted my eyes, waiting for the dishes to wash themselves.

Nothing.

Before I went to bed, I took off the Intense Power underwear and tossed the pair into the dirty clothes hamper.

Perhaps it’s just underwear, I told myself. Nothing more.

They were comfortable, though.

Cary Grant, meet C-3PO: Darth by Darthwest

I chanced upon this the other day. Some enterprising person has seamlessly put Star Wars characters into Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, North by Northwest, all revolving around the cornfield scene. The only thing missing is Eva Marie Saint with a light saber. Very clever. Funny if you’re really familiar with the original.

I THINK ABOUT STUFF LIKE THIS

truly lost in the cosmos seismic forces copy 2See those rocks in the picture above? The round ones sitting there stuffed sideways into the hillside above Ventura, California. Up there all by themselves?

I noticed them. I then wondered how did they get there hundreds of feet above the ocean, half a mile inland? Uplifted, no doubt since the area is in a seismic zone. But how did they get to be so round when all the other rocks in nearby cliffs were not? They must have once been sitting on an ancient shoreline or, they were in a riverbed that once drained the mountains to the north.

The average person wouldn’t have even noticed these rocks. Or cared, even if they had.

This article is dedicated to those people who are not average. The ones who see the world in a completely different way from the rest of humanity.

People like my favorite sci-fi author, Douglas Adams. To his daughter, a light switch was just something she flicked on to produce light. To him, it was much more. He marveled that the switch was connected to two wires. One was short, going from the switch to the light. But the other wire effectively ran back through miles of copper all the way to the power station. He marveled at the idea, appreciating its complexity and its strangeness.

Richard Feynman was another fascinating person who saw the amazing masquerading in the commonplace. One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, he could look at a simple tree and see much more than some roots, a trunk, branches and leaves. He understood and marveled at where they came from. The answer isn’t what you think.

Feynman said that trees come mostly out of the air.

Before you sputter in laughter and ridicule, you need to know that he’s correct. Ninety-five percent of a tree comes from atoms in the air.

Most of the matter that makes up a tree is made of carbon. The tree gets that material from the carbon dioxide in the air. With a little help from the sun, it splits the CO2 in photosynthesis, exhaling oxygen as a waste product. It gets some water and minerals from the soil, but it’s a tiny amount by comparison. That’s why there isn’t a huge hole in the ground around a tree trunk, the soil exhausted from being sucked up by the roots. Here’s proof: click here to see the video. Feynman wouldn’t stop there. He would also see that the wood in the tree is extremely flammable.

So why doesn’t it just burst into flames?

After all, the oxygen atoms in the air like to snap together with the carbon atoms in the tree. There is one caveat: as long as conditions are right. Normally, neither the carbon atoms in the tree nor the oxygen atoms in the air are moving fast enough to stick to each other—they mostly repel. But add a flame from a match and the atoms begin moving so fast, they can collide and stick with each other. And those atoms jostle neighboring atoms that snap together with other oxygen atoms and before you know it, you have a runaway reaction.

It’s called fire.

Don’t get me started about Einstein because I’ll go on and on for pages.

So am I advocating that only geeks can appreciate the world around them?

No.

But I’m grateful that they’re around to give us such blazing, startling insights. If it weren’t for them, the next time I looked at a tree, I’d miss so much if I thought it just came out of the ground.

 

(I find Richard Feynman so fascinating, here’s a link to a video where he discusses everything from, yes, where trees comes from, to how rubber bands work: click here.)

 

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared is like Forrest Gump with explosives

the hundred-year-old man who climbed out of a window and disappearedI have a new favorite absurdist movie: The Man Who  Climbed Out  the Window and Disappeared. This Swedish farce, adapted from the book by Jonas Jonasson, was a huge hit in its home country, then proceeded to take the rest of Europe by storm. It didn’t make much of a splash here in the U.S. (yet), but of course movie studios were falling all over themselves to get the rights to it and they will, of course, make it with American actors and adapt the script where it will never be as good as the original.

I saw it on Apple TV, but I’m sure it’s rentable all over the place.

Anyway, on to the movie.

The premise is, on his 100th birthday in a senior-care facility, Allan Karlsson just gets up and leaves the facility, picks up a suitcase full of ill-gotten drug money, and is chased by those tasked with recovering the suitcase and the money intact.

Sounds like a typical Hollywood formula movie, huh?

Not so fast.

It gets weirder and funnier. The 100-year-old man runs into a bevy of odd–but lovable–friends, experiences some very funny flashbacks where he plays pivotal historical roles with Franco of Spain, Robert Oppenheimer at the Manhattan Project, and even runs into Albert Einstein’s dim-witted brother, Herbert. Along the way, Allan blows up a lot of Russian nesting dolls, bridges, a treacherous local merchant urinating in a field, and even a ravenous fox that that kills his favorite cat, Molotov. And the bad guys (and a few good, but misguided ones) die in scenes that had me roaring with laughter.

Great science-fiction films: Ex Machina

Truly lost in the cosmos ex machinaThere are no explosions in Ex Machina. No battling armies firing high-tech weaponry. No viral agents being released into Earth’s atmosphere. No gloomy post-apocalyptic landscapes decimated by nuclear wars or android invasions.

The action that takes place in this thrilling science-fiction film occurs in your head. Well, and in a drop-dead gorgeous and sleek modernist home deep in the mountains of Norway. (Those parts that aren’t on a movie set, that is.)

If you haven’t yet seen this film, it’s astounding. The actors, the sets, the cinematography, the plot and the music all come together to create a tell a gripping story of Artificial Intelligence where it’s difficult to know who to trust.

I won’t throw in any plot spoilers, but as I watched this movie a second time (on Apple TV…just $5.99), I realized what a classic science-fiction movie this will become. If you haven’t seen it yet, go rent it. Or buy it. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. I picked up even more the second time around.

Great science fiction and fantasy authors: Terry Pratchett

220px-10.12.12TerryPratchettByLuigiNovi1

Terry Pratchett is the best-selling fantasy author many people have never heard of. By the time he died in 2015, he had sold over 85 million books (based mostly on his Discworld series), and until JK Rowling rolled around, he was the best-selling author in Britain. Including his last book, The Shepherd’s Crown, he published over 41 Discworld books. Not to mention dozens of others in different genres and subgenres.

So who was this guy?

First, he wrote fantasy books. With a comic twist.

Now before some of you start groaning, these fantasy characters aren’t like anything you’ve ever read. First of all, they’re funny. There are dwarfs six feet high, vampires who’ve taken a pledge not to drink blood, and a witch who hates riding brooms.

Secondly, they have real depth. They come alive. They have idiosyncrasies and flaws, but what makes them so endearing is that we can see ourselves in them. They’re us. Granted, they’re us if we lived on a flat world supported by four elephants standing on an enormous tortoise that soars through the cosmos.

And they’re likable, including Death, which became one of his most beloved characters.

Are you still with me?

It’s not just the characters that draw fans to his series. In each novel, he managed to slip in some wry social commentary, allowing us to see our world reflected in his.

In Thud!, he draws attention to racial prejudices, taking aim at those who fan the flames of hatred against particular groups. In Equal Rites, he makes a case for equal opportunities for women way back in 1978. And in Small Gods, he has something to say about the misuse of religion for political (or personal) gains.

Besides everything mentioned above, few authors could mix science and fantasy with such flair. Of course on Discworld, science became magic. Tiny ants build sugar pyramids to their dead queen under the flagstones of the Unseen University. Magic causes light to slow down and take its time crossing Discworld, sometimes piling up at the foot of mountain ranges. And tantric sex magic books have to be stored under cold water to keep them from bursting into flames and “scorching their severely plain covers.”

These are not just silly, harmless fantasy romps. They make us think. And wonder. And laugh. All at the same time.

That’s an amazing legacy to leave behind.

Truly lost in the cosmos terry pratchett books copy

Great Podcasts: Studio 360

great podcasts trulylostinthecosmos

I chanced on this great website while looking for, as usual, all things scientific. Besides great podcasts (the one that led me here was about parallel universes…a subject near and dear to a sci-fi writer’s heart), studio 360 has articles, videos and blogs about current music, books, movies, and other pop culture happenings with a good dose of comedy thrown in (another subject near and dear to my heart as a comedy writer). It’s kind of like an alter-ego to another podcast favorite, Radiolab. Best of all: it has a separate page for science and technology, containing for example, videos of Darth Trump, artists at CERN, and what dark matter would look like if you could draw it.

Enjoy.

Hey Dude, Your Use of Bernoulli’s Equation and Euler’s Equation for Streamline Curvature Effect is Really Rad

truly lost in the cosmos kite hydrofoil board

hydrofoil 2

Human ingenuity will never cease to amaze me. And neither will the way that science makes its way into nearly every facet of our daily lives.

Especially when it comes to extreme sports. In fact, from wingsuit base jumping to ice climbing, these unbelievable sports wouldn’t exist without making use of scientific principles.

Take what I’ve been seeing more and more off the coast of California in the last year.

Kite surfing is nothing new. You combine a huge inflatable, curved kite and a short surfboard and you go sailing across the top of the water.

At some point, someone must have said to themselves: “This is really great, but I want to go faster. And I want to take advantage of really windy days, but not put up with the choppy surf that high winds create.

Someone, somewhere, must have seen—or ridden—on a hydrofoil boat and noticed that it provides a smooth ride even on choppy seas, it cruises much faster, and turns quicker.

Some smart person attached a hydrofoil to a surfboard and a new sport was born. It makes you do a double take, watching a person sailing three or four feet above the water.

Amazing.

So what’s next?

Once we humans make traveling into space an everyday thing, it wouldn’t be out of the question  to see someone whizzing by at a million miles an hour on solar wind sail.

And after that? It’s anyone’s guess. Black hole base jumping? Pulsar catapults?

(If you’re really interesting in the principle of using foils to lift a boat, here’s what MIT says about it: hydrofoils

Let’s Get Serious About Being Funny

I’m a comic writer. I write funny things. Books, essays, tweets and short videos. Mostly because I like to laugh. And I like to get laughs. It makes me feel like I’ve made the world a nicer place to live. Just a teensy bit.

There’s a second, but equally important reason I write things that are funny: I can’t help it. It’s my way of coping with the fact that I just can’t make sense of this planet. The people on it. The funny, bizarre and sometimes cruel things they do to each other. Even the way the universe is constructed. Bosons, leptons, quarks, gravitons, dark energy, dark matter, black holes, white holes, parallel universes, sheesh! The universe seems not only to be run by a bunch of maniacs, to quote sci-fi great Douglas Adams, but designed by one as well. It’s all wildly, entertainingly, hysterically insane. Making fun of it all seems like a natural.

I suppose I could make a placard and march up and down the street, screaming my dissatisfaction with the way things are. Or break some store windows or throw Molotov Cocktails into businesses along Sunset Boulevard.

I’m just not the violent type.

So instead of getting nihilistic, angry or bewildered about it all, I take another tack. I draw attention to whatever craziness I see by exposing it with exaggeration and humor. It’s called satire.

The problem is that most people don’t take comedy seriously. They hear the joke, utter a quick laugh, and assume that’s the end of it.

Harmless.

No real lasting change, right? Only drama can do that.

The pen isn’t mightier than the sword, is it?

Comedy can be a powerful instrument for change, but we humans fail to see the subtle change in our thinking because we’re too busy laughing.

Consider this. Comedian John Cleese says that when people saw Beyond the Fringe, the early 1960s London comedy stage review, the audience screamed with laughter. “It was a liberation!” Decades of stuffy protocol dissolved in a matter of minutes. Indeed, until that point, comedians rarely made public fun of the Queen, the clergy, the Prime Minister or members of Parliament. Things started to change and it all started with humor.

Since I’m on the subject of British humor, take what I noticed while watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail recently. The scene: two peasants challenge King Arthur’s authority by flatly stating that they didn’t vote for him. Arthur counters by saying that a lady of the lake held forth a sacred sword, Excalibur, for him to carry, signifying his rule by divine right. The peasants still weren’t buying it. “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

Ba-zing!

While I find this scene very funny, it’s also making a very serious point about the insane methods royalty used to justify their power. Divine right is up there at the top of crazy thinking, but it has plenty of company with prophesies, omens, bloodlines or familial assassinations.

So am I advocating that this scene is going to make people in the Middle East or Southeast Asia rise up and overthrow their ridiculous monarchs or totalitarian regimes?

Hardly. But like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples fan out, causing waves on the shore. Little by little, splash by splash, the shoreline is changed. Watch a few episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, or Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal and you’ll understand how you can laugh and be angry at the same time.

In ending, I’d like to see comedies taken more seriously. To point, in the 86 years that the Academy Awards have been given out, only six Best Picture awards have been given to pure comedies.* Just because the messages in a comedy come in on little cat feet, doesn’t mean they don’t have impact. It’s just that we lovers of really great comedy prefer our messages served up with a few good laughs.

*Dramadies not included in this figure.

I Saw Mommy Eating Santa Claus

Truly lost in the cosmos the stupidest angelNow that the holidays are upon us, it’s time to deck the halls with boughs of holly and flesh-eating zombies. What better way to celebrate our annual bout of family dysfunction and commercial overconsumption than by reading a comedic tale of a coastal California town overrun by zombies brought to life by an inept angel. Throw in a C-grade movie star, a pot-smoking town sheriff and a repulsive Santa who takes a fatal shovel to the face and you have a heart-warming tale the whole family can enjoy. Brought to you by one of the funniest comic authors around: Christopher Moore. So buy it and curl up next to the fire with this very funny book. Just keep a shotgun by your side. Ho ho ho.

Screw You Edwin Hubble

Truly lost in the cosmos screw you edwin hubble daves stukasA few weekends ago, I made a trip to the Mount Wilson observatory high above Pasadena, California. It’s where some of the greatest discoveries of 20th century astronomy took place.

It’s also where we humans got taken down a peg or two from our lofty, self-awarded importance in the cosmos. Not that Copernicus didn’t give us a well-deserved kick in the ass by putting the sun at the center of our solar system. But it’s at Mount Wilson where we really got a good booting up the rear.

You see, up until the 1920s, most astronomers believed there was only one galaxy in the universe: ours.

The universe was all about us.

Along comes upstart Edwin Hubble working on the newly installed 100-inch telescope and he turns astronomy on its head by discovering that the fuzzy patches in the sky that everyone else had called “spiral nebulae,” weren’t gaseous clouds inside our Milky Way. They were separate galaxies* millions of light years away. And there were billions of them.

Humans had just learned that the universe was a very big place. Far larger than anyone had ever imagined.

Astronomers and cosmologists were thrilled. The human race, however, was beginning to feel a tad unimportant.

As if this finding wasn’t bad enough, Hubble added insult to injury in a paper published in 1929, announcing an even more shocking finding: the universe was expanding.** The idea that the cosmos was eternal, unchanging and reassuringly dull, was dead wrong.

Not only was our conception of the universe wrong, but it threw out another unsettling idea: it seemed to be flying apart. Most galaxies were moving away from each other, and those at the furthest reaches of the known universe were moving away at even higher velocities.

The universe was careening out of control.

There it was in a horrible, little nutshell: the universe was not all about us. In fact, it had nothing whatsoever to do with us. In less than a decade, we had gone from our smug, safe and comfy position in a galaxy that was the center of the universe to nothing more than tiny, insignificant life forms living on a laughably small planet that was no more than a speck of dust, helplessly hurtling through an incomprehensibly large universe that would either rip itself to shreds in the far future, eventually contract back on itself and end in a fiery explosion—or worse—just expand forever until it became a soul-annihilating frozen deadness in lonely, cold blackness.

The human psyche has never been the same since.

It’s probably a good thing that most humans are blissfully unaware of recent theories that say there may be billions of universes. Perhaps an infinite number.

Let’s just keep it our little secret for now.

 

*Even though he proved their existence, Hubble refused to call his discovery galaxies. This was due to the fact that he linked the term to a rival astronomer Harlow Shapley, who also worked atop Mt. Wilson and was kind of a dick to Hubble and his theory of separate galaxies outside ours. Shapley’s taunts may have been sour grapes caused by the fact that he had to work with the 60-inch telescope while Hubble got the sexy 100-inch.

**I know, I know. Georges Lemaître had come to the same conclusion, some say, two years earlier.

Einstein Was a Loser

truly lost in the cosmos dave stukas einstein was a loserThose aren’t my words about the great theoretical physicist. They’re his.

Unable to find work after graduating from the Zürich Polytechnic with a teaching diploma, he wrote to his sister and said that it would have been better had he never been born.

Can you imagine?

The job he eventually got as a lowly clerk at the patent office in Bern gave him what he really needed besides a paycheck: time to think. He put his time there to good use, indulging in his thought experiments, and writing the three papers that changed how we understand the universe. Even after these papers were published, they weren’t universally accepted. It took time. Many years, in fact.

The key thing was, he never gave up.

For those of you still waiting tables or tending bar or working retail, hang in there. If you have talent, the only other thing you need is a belief in yourself. And a little patience.

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