Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction: A Novel of the Old Republic
Drew Karpyshyn 2006
324 pages

The Star Wars story is not limited to the two trilogies: books, video games, and other media create an Extended Universe deemed canon by LucasArts. People have been writing books and fleshing out the history of the Star Wars universe. This book is set -- according to Wookiepedia, a Star Wars wiki -- a thousand years before Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star in A New Hope. That action ("The Battle of Yavin") is the Star Wars universe's calendar's origin: events are labeled as being B- and A- BY, or "Before" and "After" the Battle of Yavin. In that time, according to the intro flap of the book, the Sith numbered in the thousands and they fought the Republic and its guardians, the Jedi, for control of the Galaxy.

The book is set during that battle, although for the first third of the book it is pure background. The first third of the book takes place on a small mining moon. Its lone settlement is the Star Wars equivalent of a Pullman town: the workers work all day for Pullman, they sleep in Pullman homes, they buy their supplies at the company store. The company uses its power to its advantage, and workers often become deeply indebted to the company and become literal wage-slaves. This is a man called Des' spot in life: thanks to his father's gambling debts, he works all day in abysmal conditions, with no hope of escape. Republic transports come through and ocassionally lure the miners into joining the Army of the Republic, but little do they know that their wages will be garnished to pay the SW-Pullman company. The Jedi are not concerned with the plight of the workers, and it is this that makes Des resentful and contemptuous of both the Republic and the Jedi.

Circumstances beyond his control turn Des into an outlaw, and he seeks refuge in the armies of the Sith, who are fighting a war against the Republic. His ability to use the Force is strong, and is quickly noticed by Sith lords, who reccommend him to the academy of the Sith Masters. There, he learns the ways of the Dark Side and begins to forge his own destiny. This book and the book that follows is his story. He adopts his father's contemptous name for him -- Bane -- as his own name. The story woven is rather captivating. This is a different universe, almost, than the one we see in the trilogies. The Sith here are not the sophisticated masters of evil that Palpatine and Darth Maul are: they're unrefined, crude almost. They struggle to recreate themselves in hopes of gaining more power.

The author shows Darth Bane's progession from a bitter, abused, but socially healthy miner to a Master of the Dark Side, capable of murdering whoever gets in his way. It took three movies to do this for Darth Vader, but here the author is limited to one book. He succeeds, though, and fairly well. The journey to the dark side is not a smoothly-running one: Bane will moralize with himself, attempting to figure out what is happening to him. The author does a fairly good job of building his character, but of course the readers know where it will lead. Along the way we meet interesting characters, which of whom are struggling with their own issues. The various personal and political struggles meet their climax in the Battle for Rusan, where an army of Jedi and an army of Sith fight a bitter battle to the end, where both sides are beginning to lose track of the ideologies that bring them there.

In sum, a captivating story that is well written and a worthy contribution to the Star Wars universe. I enjoyed it more than I have many other SW novels.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Four Agreements

The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book
© 1997 Don Miguel Ruiz
15o pages

The Four Agreements is one of those books I discovered rather randomly while clicking about in my public library's category system. My curiosity was piqued by the TOLTEC PHILOSOPHY description. Being interested in both Mesoamerican history and philosophy, I decided to get it a go. The book begins by describing the Toltecs*, who were according to the author a society of a scientists and artists who got together to preserve the knowledge of the ancients. Fearing abuse of it, however, they deliberately kept it hidden, teaching it only to their sons who would then pass it on to their sons. Prophecies said that one day the time would come when the wisdom of the Toltecs could be shared freely. Fortunately for the reader, "Don Miguel Ruiz" happens to come from that line of priests. Aren't we lucky?

What follows is a lengthy introduction and a chapter of New Age cosmology. All is God, God is all, we are all God, etc. I don't have a bastard clue as to how it's supposed to fit into the rest of the book. In the first chapter, Ruiz lays out his central idea: everything is a dream. We're constantly dreaming, even when we're awake. All that we call reality is in fact a dream. This entire chapter appears to me to be an explanation of how socialization works, wrapped -- smothered -- in New Age garb. After this is a bit of New Age psychology, which explains the effect of this socialization, or "human domestication" as Ruiz terms it. According to him, our minds have a Judge and a Victim: our Judge judges us based on our Book of Law, the summation of all our learned behavior, and determines that we are to feel bad when we break the rules. The Victim is the part of our psyche that "carries the blame, the guilt, and the shame" and detracts from our self image. The result, Ruiz says, is that we create hell for ourselves and others: our judges are constantly criticizing ourselves and others while their judges criticize us. Everyone is miserable because they're ruled by fear of not being who they're "supposed" to be. The foundation for this is that people agree that this is the way this ought to be, and Ruiz writes that what we need to do is disregard these old agreements and replace them with new ones: the Four Agreements.

The First Agreement is "Be impeccable with your word". Ruiz reads a lot into the power of words: "Every human is a magician, and we can either put a spell on someone with our word or we can release someone from a spell. We cast spells all the time with our opinions. An example: I see a friend and give him an opinion that just popped into my mind. I say, "Hmm! I see that kind of color in your face in people who are going to get cancer." If he listens to the word, and if he agrees, he will have cancer in less than one year." Ruiz' opinion is that our word is super-powerful and that we should use it very carefully -- use it to cast "white magic" and not "black magic". If you boil away all of the mysticism, you can arrive at an agreeable principle: what we say does impact other people and we should be mindful of what we say. Not that we'll cast a "spell" on them, but we can cause pain.

The Second Agreement is "Don't take it personally", in which Ruiz states that anything anyone does to you is done for them: if they compliment you, it's because they're happy. If they tear you down, it's because they're angry. Because they are doing this for their sake and not for yours, you should not take it personally, even if -- and he uses this example -- someone shoots you in the head. This chapter is quite short.

The Third Agreement is "Don't make assumptions". This is valid advice, I think, and he makes the point that many problems can be avoided if people stick to operating on what they know instead of what they're reading into a situation. This chapter is about clear communication, for the most part.

The Fourth Agreement is "Do your best", in which he advocates living in the moment and doing your best to excel in what you do. Oddly, the amount of newage language fades as we go through the Agreements to the point where this chapter is practically bereft of them. There is a thoughtful anecdote in this one, though:

There was a man who wanted to transcend his suffering so he went to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help him. He went to the Master and asked, "Master, if I meditate for four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?"
The master looked at him and said, "If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years."
Thinking he could do better, the man then said, "Oh, Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day., how long will it take me to transcend?"
The Master looked at him and said, "If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years."
"But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?" the man asked.
The Master replied, "You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy, and to love. If you can do yoru best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won't enjoy your life. Do your best, and pehaps you will learn that no matter how long you meditate, you can live, love, and be happy."

Following this is a chapter called "The Toltec Path to Freedom" which involves breaking old agreements and adopting the new Agreements. There are three ways to become a Toltec: the first is to become aware of the dreams (or socialized beliefs) that hold us. The second is the "Mastery of Transformation" in which people become aware of how to change and free themselves from those old beliefs. The third way is to die to the old self, to kill the "parasites" of the old beliefs. The concluding chapter, "Heaven on Earth", sees the author speculating on how people can create heaven on Earth if they practice the Toltec Path. The book ends with a few prayers to the "Creator" and advertisements for Ruiz' other books, to better practice.

If you can strip away all of the New Age coverings, you can find a philosophy here that is similar to Stoicism or Buddhism in some respects. The problem is that there's so much of the newage stuff. This book has been checked out about a dozen times, according to the "Date Due" paper in the back -- and phrases were underlined by previous readers. My mind goes to them, and I wonder -- wherever they are -- if this has helped them. The kind of philosophy under all of the newage soup is good stuff, and is practiced by many people throughout the globe to their betterment. It's an interesting book. If philosophy is your interest and you don't mind wading through a lot of "woo" for some interesting thoughts to ponder, you may want to give it a go.

* The actual identity of the Toltecs is unknown. According to Aztec myths, they were a race of people (the children of the gods) living in northern Mexico who gave birth to the Aztecs.

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief
© 2005 Rick Riordan
375 pages

I began this week with Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, a recommendation from a friend. The Lightening Thief is work of fantasy-fiction, set in a world where the Greek gods are real and ruling over the affairs of mortals -- and, like in the days of Heracles and Perseus, are ever-busy chasing mortal skirts and siring half-god half-mortal offspring, called (appropriately enough) half-bloods. The book is the first in a series of books for children and young adults called Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Percy Jackson -- Perseus Jackson in full -- is our hero (a term that originally applied to the mortal sons of the gods like Heracles), and when the book begins he has no idea who he is. He will soon find out, though, as he flees from Furies and Minotaurs who want to destroy him. Forced by circumstances beyond their control, the young Percy's protectors are forced to bring him to Camp Half-Blood so that he may learn who he is -- and his destiny.

Young Percy has entered an extraordinary world, but like Harry Potter as entered it at a rather inconvenient time: darkness is stirring, and an epic battle between good -- or at least, not evil -- and evil is about to begin. As Percy learns about his identity as a demigod and his new role in relation to the world, he will be caught up in this struggle, beginning with being tasked with returning Zeus' thunderbolt to him, which someone else has stolen. Percy will engage in his adventure accompanied by Annabeth, a daughter of Athena, and a satyr named Grover. Once they set off, it's hard not to compare the book to Harry Potter: here we have a young protagonist who is constantly in trouble with the "real world" because of his abilities, who is whisked away to his kind's hideaway to learn about his "heritage", who is forced to take an active role in the growing battle because of who his parents were, who is aided by an intellectual girl and an endearing if somewhat clumsy sidekick.

The story was published by a company that does books for older children, although I was told it was a Young Adult book. It's a fun story to read, if not as "sophisticated" as the Harry Potter books. I enjoyed the story, but unlike the Harry Potter books, it did remind me of the books I read as a child. Beyond that, my only real trouble with the book was the idea that all of the gods were involved in accidentally impregnating mortals -- including gods like Athena, who are supposedly virginal. Athena's virginity isn't up for discussion, either: the Greeks built a temple to her and called it the Parthenon (from the Greek word for "virgin") in her honor. Interestingly, the author paints the Greek gods as being deeply involved in western civilization, so much to the point that they move Olympus and Hades every time the heart of western civilization moves. One character says that Olympus has been in Germany, France, Spain (for a time), England (for a long while), and is now in the United States. Despite this, the Pantheon maintains its Greek origins: demigods are dyslexic in all languages but ancient Greek and understand Greek automatically. The currency of choice is Drachmas.

One of the more entertaining aspects of the book is how the gods have changed as western civilization has changed. Zeus dresses in a business suit, Ares as a biker. The gods constantly comment on humans and their relationship to them. One repeated commented is that humans have a spectacular talent for interpreting what happens to them according to what they already believe. There's also a slight environmental message in the book: Grover constantly laments about the way humans are treating the wilderness, and says that these abuses will only cease when Pan (protector of wilderness) is found by the satyrs and wakened from his lengthy sleep.

All in all, a fun little story. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading other books in the series.

This Week at the Library (29/12)

Books this Update:
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible Volume I, Isaac Asimov
  • The Echo of Greece, Edith Hamilton
  • Science Frontiers, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser
  • Where Do We Go From Here?, ed. Isaac Asimov
  • The Pinball Effect, James Burke

Last week's ready was deliberately heavy on nonfiction, done to balance the growing amount of fiction I've been reading, particularly science fiction. Nevertheless, I began with science fiction: namely, Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, the first in his Robot series of books. I've been looking for this book since the beginning of November, and the anticipation heightened my enjoyment of it. The Caves of Steel takes place in 23rd century Earth in which cities have become Cities -- enclosed environments of steel, concrete, and technology. Their structures reach far into the sky and far down below, reminiscent of Asimov's Trantor. is a detective novel set in this environment, in which Elijah Baley must work with a robot partner to sort out who killed a sociologist. The book is written in Asimov's style: simple language focusing on the story. In his Buy Jupiter and Other Stories, Asimov comments that the strength of books is that they allow the reader to use his or her imagination to build a world for themselves -- unlike in television where users are restricted to the producer's imagination. Asimov's own "unadorned" style of writing may be a deliberate way of minimizing his own intrusion into the reader's imagination. This generally works very well, but there's one scene where the logistics of what was happening was lost to me. This is the one dark mark -- and it's not much of one -- against the book.

Next I continued in Asimov, reading the first volume in his Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Asimov maintains that he wrote the book to examine the secular side of the Judeo-Christian bible and its connection to other human thinking: to Sumerian and Babylonian culture, to history, to language, and so on. He does so by using his own strengths (knowledge of history, science, Hebrew, etc.) and by building on the works of others: translations of Assyrian and Egyptian documents, for instance. The book is close to seven hundred pages and so is quite the read. Asimov works through the books of what Christians call the "Old Testament" one by one. The books receive commentary proportional to their length in most cases. There are some exceptions (Joshua and the Psalms are two). To read this book is to become versed in the etymology of various words, to read about the history of the ancient and early classical world, to learn about the history of the early Jewish faith (which Asimov terms "Yahvism", after Yahveh), and to learn about Jewish mythology. Bible literalists would object to that description, but the Bible has giants, "unicorns", angels, and takes seriously astrological tales. I see no problem in dealing with Jewish religious instruction and Jewish mythology as two separate elements of the same culture that subsequently influence one another someway. There's much more to say about the book, and so I urge you to read the more-lengthy commentary I made when I first read the book. The book has evidently upset bible-literalists. I imagine one particular complaint they have with him is that his opinion is that Isaiah and Daniel's "prophecies" refer to events that have already happened and were of only localized concern to the Hebrews -- the rise and fall of various middle-east empires. His description of the prophets is sometimes romanticized, but that's my only real concern. He was careful to point out that his opinions were his own, and not necessarily those of those who make study of these ancient texts their livelihood.

Next I read Edith Hamilton's The Echo of Greece, in which she examines the history of Greece -- and more particularly, Athens -- in the fourth century BCE. Hamilton begins by examining Athens' role as the world's only free city and writes that freedom and moderation were the foundation of the Greek (Athenian) mind. She then writes of Athens' downfall, its promise corrupted by its growing power. Subsequent chapters examine the schools, literature, political life, and historical life to convey to the reader how the Greek mind changes from the fifth to the fourth century. The reader will learn about Plutarch and Demosthenes, about Stoics and Menander. She paints an eloquent picture of Athens, one that is very romanticized. She ends by detailing Greece's absorption into the Roman Empire, then compares the Greek mind and the Roman mind and laments that the Roman Catholic Church -- which eventually subjugates Greece and the Greek mind -- chose to pattern itself after the Roman mind instead of the Greek. Not all is lost, however: she points out that the Greek mind is still with us, echoing in various aspects of western civilization. The book is very readable, very eloquently written, and quite romanticized -- even to a Hellenophile like myself.

Next I turned to science -- to Scientific Frontiers, the last book in Spangenburg and Moser's updated-to-2004 History of Science series. The book tells the story of particle physics, DNA, and the space race. The authors' approach and style are identical to their previous books, and so there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said. I haven't found their latter books as interesting as their books on 18th and 19th century, but the same was true for their previous history of science series and for history-of-science books in general. The 17th an 18th centuries are not as familiar to me as the 20th and 21st century, and so I naturally enjoy reading about those forerunners more.

Next I returned to science fiction with a collection of short stories that Asimov edited: Where Do We Go From Here? Asimov chose the stories on two qualities: one, their value as interesting stories; and two, their value as science fiction that raises questions and interest in their subject matter. At the end of every story, Asimov comments on it, its scientific worth, and its historical context, looking at the assumptions and predictions it works on. He ends by asking questions of the reader to encourage thought about the subject. If the author makes a mistake, Asimov asks the reader to find out why why that mistake is a mistake: if the author makes an assumption, Asimov asks the reader to look up information to see if the assumption might be valid. His experience as a science professor shows through.

Lastly, I read a book called The Pinball Effect, which concerns itself with the "web of knowledge" and focuses on how knowledge tends to advance in random ways, often resulting in curious coincidences. There are eighteen chapters, ranging in subject matter from cathode rays to anthropology, and taken in full they cover just about every aspect of human thought from philosophy to science. The author writes well and presents a lot of interesting (if trivial) information, but the book doesn't seem as focused as it should be for presenting the ideas within. The author seemed to ramble. Beyond this, I don't know what else to add. There is one interesting anecdote in here I like, though. Burke writes about an abolitionist preacher who presented his audience with a book that looked like the Bible, and railed to them that if that their attempt to justify slavery was so contemptible of their Lord that they might as well stab him in the face, just as the preacher does to the book. Little does the audience know that the book is hollowed out, and in the hollow is a kidney filled with blood and tied. When the abolitionist stabs the book, it breaks the bag and splatters blood across the face of onlookers. I thought it very dramatic.

Pick of the Week: Ooh, toughie. There are three instant favorites in this list, but I think I have to go with Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Caves of Steel and The Echo of Greece are the runners-up.

Next Week:
  • The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordian
  • Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, Drew Karpyshyn
  • The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
  • Atom, Isaac Asimov
  • Great Books, David Denby

The Pinball Effect

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible and Other Journeys Through Knowledge
© James Burke 1996
277 pages plus index and bibliography

This latest book is a bit hard to comment on, and harder still to classify. The book concerns itself with the "web of knowledge", and focuses on how knowledge tends to advance in random ways, often resulting in curious coincidences. There are eighteen chapters, ranging in subject matter from cathode rays to anthropology, and taken in full they cover just about every aspect of human thought from philosophy to science. The author writes well and presents a lot of interesting (if trivial) information, but the book doesn't seem as focused as it should be for presenting the ideas within. The author seemed to ramble. Beyond this, I don't know what else to add.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Where Do We Go From Here?

Where Do We Go From Here?
ed. Isaac Asimov, © 1971

Where Do We Go From Here
, a short-story collection assembled by Isaac Asimov, is more than the usual collection of short stories. Asimov introduces it in this way: "I have long maintained that science fiction has potential as an inspiring and useful teaching device. For this anthology, therefore, I have selected seventeen stories which, I think, can inspire curiosity and can lead the students into lines of questioning of his own that may interest and excite him, and may even help determine the future direction of his career. [...] [T]he seventeen stories included are all good ones, clever and exciting in their own right. Anyone who wishes can read them for themselves alone, need make no conscious effort to learn from them, and may totally ignore my own comments after each story. For those who would probe a little deeper, I have placed after each story a few hundred words of commentary in which I talk about the scientific points made in the story, pointing out their validity, or, sometimes, explaining their errors. Finally, after each comment, I have appended a series of suggestions and questions designed to direct the reader's curiosity in fruitful directions."

As said, this is a collection of seventeen science fiction short stories, chosen for both their worth as stories and as science fiction. Asimov believed that good science fiction must have within it good science. The stories come from a variety of authors. A few are well-known names -- Lester del Rey, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke -- but most were new to me. Two stories are by a Hal Clement, and at least one story was written by John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Stories under a pseudonym. After each story, Asimov reveals the year in which the story was published and comments on the author's predictions, assumptions, and so on, ending his commentary with three or four questions that are intended to jog the reader's mind. For instance, at the end of "The Cave of Night", he writes "Gunn has the rescue vessels designed, built, and launched in the space of thirty days. Do you think this is practical? Look up data on the space program and find out how such things take." Another example follows "Dust Rag" : "It is likely that Venus has an iron core, yet it has no magnetic field to speak of. How do we know it has none? Why should it not have one despite the iron core? What about other planets: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn? How do we know?"

Only one story ("Proof") escaped me completely. I was able to enjoy all of the others to varying degrees. The stories seem deliberately chosen to cover the full range of scientific knowledge: in "Omnilingual", the readers join a team of scientists on the surface of Mars as they attempt to learn about a long-dead Martian civilization. This particular chapter concerns language. In "Dust Rag", two men on the surface of the Moon encounter problems with electromagnetism in that their visors become charged and attract lunar dust that is being charged by the Sun. The result is that the visors and the outside of their suits (including air filters) become covered in lunar dust and the astronauts -- in bulky space suits -- have to figure out how to return to their camp or shuttle before they run out of air. In "The Day is Done", we see speculations on human-Neanderthal interaction. Here Asimov posits in his commentary that the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals may have interbred to produce humans, but this is quite dated. (Asimov died nearly twenty years ago, so he can be forgiven for not considering the last two decades of evidence in regards to Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.) One of my favorite stories was "Surface Tension", which shows the results of humans modifying the human genome for life on other planets. The particular planet that the story is set on is covered in water and the largest animals are crayfish, so the humans are designed to be microscopic and interact with amoebas and so forth in a story that is completely implausible but very interesting.

I found the book to be tremendously enjoyable: the stories as well as the questions Asimov probed. I wonder if he did any other projects like this.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Science Frontiers

Science Frontiers: 1945 -
Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser © 2004
246 pages including index

This week I resumed my reading of Spangenburg and Moser's updated "History of Science" series, finishing it off with Science Frontiers, which examines science since 1946. After an introduction on the scientific method, the book is divided into the Physical Sciences, the Life Sciences, and Science in Society, following the same pattern established in their preceding books in this series. The physical sciences are dominated by particle physics and quantum mechanics. The authors didn't seem to do the excellent job they usually do of explaining the topics: perhaps I was off. This first part ends on amuch more easy note, that of the solar system and Earth. Thanks to the satellites projects of the seventies and eighties, we have a wealth of data on the other bodies in the solar system. The last chapter, "Mission to Planet Earth", includes the topics of plate techtonics, dinosaur extinciton theories, ozone depletion, and the greenhouse effect.

In The Life Sciences, one chapter is devoted to the discovery of DNA. The next chapter concerns the origins of life, and examines viruses, AIDs, genetic eingeering, cloning, and the possibility that life arose from clay. The last chapter in this section concerns human evolution. Part 3, "Science and Society", was very interesting. It consists of two chapters. In one, "Hot and Cold on Science", the authors look at a curious situation: while the atomic age create fear and distrust about science and scientists, the space age turned them into heroes. The last chapter concerns the rise of superstition, post-modernism, and the new age.

As usual, the book is concise and presents a very readable narrative, especially beyond the chapters on physics which I thought fell short of their usual superbness.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Echo of Greece

The Echo of Greece
© Edith Hamilton 1957
224 pages

About two years ago I read The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton, which was an exploration of the Greek mind as reflected in law, philosophy, art, and more. The book introduced me to the works of Pindar, and I generally remember the book favorably. While poking around in the classical literature shelves, I spotted another book by Hamilton, and upon seeing that it included a chapter on the Stoics I wanted to read it. The book concerns itself with the twilight of Greece civilization (prior to being absorbed into the Roman Empire): the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. She begins it:

Fourth century Athens is completely overshadowed by Athens of the fifth century, so much so that it is little considered. Any brief history of Greece will more likely than not end with Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian war in 404 B.C.There will be references, perhaps, to Demosthenes and Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, all too important to be omitted, but no account of the time they lived in will be thought necessary. Real interest in Greece ceases with Sparta's victory over Athens. Plato and Aristotle live in a timeless word of philosophy without any local inhabitation, and are hardly thought of us Greeks but as intellectual forces. And yet, their century, the fourth century, has a special claim on our attention apart from the great men it produced, for it is the prelude to the end of Greece, not only of her glory, but of her life historically.

The book is divided into ten chapters. The first two chapters ("Freedom" and "Athens' Failure") concern themselves with events of the fifth century before the birth of Jesus. In "Freedom", Hamilton writes about the Athenian mind and its focus on individualism and moderation, contrasting it to the grandiose and authoritarian ideas of its neighbors. In "Athens' Failure", she addresses the consequences of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, wherein the ideals and freedoms that Athens once stood for are betrayed by its new-found obsession with power.

In the next two chapters ("The Schools of Athens" and "The School Teachers") Hamilton writes on the intellectual life of Athens. It is in this chapter that the reader learns a bit about Greek philosophy, which is focused less on ethics and more on the substance of what is (epistemology) and politics. We are told about Plato's Academy and Isocrates' Lyceum, as well as another school. The next two chapters ("Demosthenes" and "Alexander the Great" are historical in nature and are a narrative of Macedonia's rise, the defense of Greece against the designs of Alexander, his triumph, and the waxing and collapse of his world-empire. Hamilton examines the way Greek philosophy (through Aristotle) shaped Alexander's mind, how his actions impacted the Greek and Athenian mindset, and how his actions transmitted Greek thought across a wider portion of the map. The next chapter, "Menander", uses the life of a playwright to observe how Greek culture is changing in response to the various political changes that Greece is going through.

The next chapter is on the Stoics, and I enjoyed it immensely. While Hamilton writes about many of of the known Stoics, the three she concentrates on are Zeno (the founder), Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Hamilton's narrative has Stoicism and the other new schools of thought being created because of Greece's newfound domination by Alexander (and later, Rome):

The people who listened to Zeno were afraid and very evil things kept happening to them. [...] the great majority were in a state of confusion and fear, thrown off their base by events never dreamed of before by any Athenian. Their city, the only place in the world where they could look to any well-being, which had been the freest city and the proudest, and suddenly been cast down helpless. [...] To the Athenians [Stoicism] was a message of hope to the despairing, of liberty to the conquered, of courage and self-reliance.

Hamilton writes at-length about the Stoics, often comparing it to Christianity -- which came three hundred years later. On page 166, she writes 'Stoic sayings again and again recall Christ's teachings. He too preached a hard doctrine and disregarded nonessentials". Given the chronology, that might be better worded "Christ's teachings again and again recall Stoic sayings".  In the next chapter, "Plutarch", Hamilton looks at the historical books of Plutarch and at his way of looking at things to get an insight as to how the Greeks perceived their own history.

In the last chapter, "The Greek Way and the Roman Way", she compares the Greek/Athenian mind to the Roman mind: individualism and idealism compared to authoritarianism, a contemptuous attitude toward the public, and a penchant for brutalism. She then laments that the Catholic church choose the Roman way rather than the Greek way, and attributes the cruelties and dogma of the Roman Catholic Church to its adopting that viewpoint. In her view, it was the Greek way that was closest to the teachings of Christ.

"In all Athens' history, Socrates was the only man put to death for his opinions. His executioners killed him by giving him a poison that made him die with no pain. They were Greeks. The Romans hung Christ upon a cross."

All in all, I enjoyed the book immensely. She uses primary sources materials extensively, giving the reader the opportunity to sample quotations from plays, lectures, and so on. Hamilton is a gifted writer, I think. Some of her phrasings border on poetic, at least in my estimation. I do have three objections:
  • Firstly, her narrative seems to be to be very romanticized. I like the classical Greeks and I will praise and defend them when appropriate. I do not, however, believe that the Greeks were as exquisite examples of humanities as they are painted here. While there is much to be admired about the classical Greeks (more than their contemparies, fans like myself would argue), they were people and they were undoubtedly given to the same mistakes as everyone else.
  • Secondly, while this book is about Greece, it is Athens that features most promimently and I am concerned that the casual reader might be given the impression that the Athenian mind and the Greek mind were identical. They were not, and couldn't be. While there were undoubtedly shared cultural norms, Hamilton herself points out the extreme differences between Athens and the rest of the poleis in "Athens' Failure".
  • Thirdly, I think Hamilton's translation of various Greek phrases into "God" is slightly misleading, in that depending on the source they could be referring to deities, a sense of Cosmic Order, or a monotheistic supreme being.
That said, I reccommend the book to any who are interested in the subject at hand.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Asimov's Guide to the Bible

Asimov's Guide to the Bible - Volume I
© Isaac Asimov 1968
677 pages plus indices

This week I read volume one of Isaac Asimov's two-volume guide to the bible. The first volume is on what Christians call the "Old Testament". The books Asimov uses come directly from the Protestant tradition: there are no books of the Maccabees here. Given the religious importance of the Hebrew scriptures in various religions, an introduction to the author and his religious views is in order. Although Asimov is technically Jewish, his parents were completely secular. According to Asimov, his only exposure to Judaism came through interaction with other Jews and in learning Hebrew, which he did when his father took up a position in a Hebrew school. Because he was not really segregated from the rest of American society (as he would have been had he been raised as Orthodox), he was shaped by the Christian-influenced culture of the early-mid-20th century. He acknowledges that some Christian mythology worked its way into his Foundation series when he created a religion there. In his biography, Asimov commented that his two-volume set on the Bible was written with the perspective of a "secular humanist". In the introduction of the volume I read this week, he describes the series as 'a consideration of the secular aspects of the Bible.' He maintains that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have secular worth in that they contain history, literature, and so on.

This is a view I agree with, although until this week I have never regarded the Hebrew writings as reliable history -- wholly because I had never read an account like this, where the history as recorded in the Hebrew (I use that term in lieu of Jewish: our ideas of what Jewishness is are western, and the people of the "Old Testament" are not western.) scriptures was compared to other historical accounts. I was raised in a strict Christian tradition wherein the Bible was taken as literal fact, but even as a believing child I always found myself surprised when I spotted shreds of "real" history in the Bible history -- and felt vindicated when history books referenced the Bible. The first time this happened was in sixth grade, when Moses appeared in my world history book.

Asimov works his way through the "Old Testament" (a term I don't like using, but one which is more convenient than "the Hebrew scriptures", and is more easily understood by the reader), beginning with Genesis and ending with the last so-called prophet, Malachi. Because Biblical Hebrew serves as the international language of Jews, Asimov -- thanks to being forced to learn Hebrew as an older child -- can convey the meanings of the actual Hebrew words instead of relying on their significantly biased English translations. Asimov is not exempt from allowing his biases to impact his interpretation of what a word might mean, but unlike King James, he is not creating a Bible that will justify a particular religious domination's dogmas. I am acutely aware of humanistic viewpoints when I spot them, and this book -- while focusing on the secular aspects of the Old Testament -- doesn't scream "humanist bias" to me. It did probably infuriate Bible literalists, but then again those who chuckle at the idea of a talking snake infuriate the literalists.

Asimov relies on his knowledge of Hebrew, his knowledge of world history, and the work of others gone before him (those who have located and translated Assyrian and Egyptian documents, for instance). He uses that knowledge and the records of the empires surrounding Palestine to fit the historical happenings of the Bible into the historical events recorded in other accounts. Generally, the amount he writes is proportional to the length of the book. Genesis and Isaiah are long "books", and the time he spends on them is appropriatly long. Some books are quite short (like Habbukkuk) and only merit a page or two. Habbukkuk got a paragraph. Some books are lengthy but deal with the same material over and over. Levitucis, for instance, is a book of rituals and describes in great detail the minituia of Hebrew law, most of which is incomprehensible to the modern mind. The Hebrews were like the people surrounding them fairly primitive by our standards, and their laws are bizaare. Other books, while lengthy, don't get a lot of commentary: Psalms and Proverbs are examples. The Book of Proverbs is compared to other "Wisdom Books" of the Hebrews and other cultures.

Each book of the Old Testament merits a chapter, and in each Asimov sums up the time period the book concerns, when it was probably written, when it worked its way into the canon, and what the book concerns. He spends a lot of time investigating what particular words mean. One book might contain a name-reference that is not mentioned in another book, but Asimov will glean the meaning of it by looking at the original Hebrew word and commenting on the way it might have been a mistranslated form of another word that makes sense. There are no great leaps of faith here -- the overwhelming majority of these place-names do look like common mistake in the original writing or in the translating process: compare Nebuchadnezzer to Nebuchadrezzer, for instance.

One technique of Asimov is to date books by the references within them, and this sometimes brings him to the conclusion that the date given by the author is misleading. For instance, in the book of Jonah, the author describes the stoy as being set during the reign of Jeroboam II, but at the same time references that Nineveh was the great city of the mighty Assyrian empire. The problem is that during the reign of Jeroboam, the Assyrian empire was nonexistant, and Nineveh was a podunk town of no significance. He often looks for anachronisms.

To read this book is to become versed in the etymology of various words, to read about the history of the ancient and early classical world, to learn about the history of the early Jewish faith (which Asimov terms "Yahvism", after Yahveh), and to learn about Jewish mythology. Bible literalists would object to that description, but the Bible has giants, "unicorns", angels, and takes seriously astrological tales. I see no problem in dealing with Jewish religious instruction and Jewish mythology as two seperate elements of the same culture that subsequently influence one another someway.

My lone complaint about the book is that Asimov tends to romanticize particular elements. I am thinking of his treatment of the prophets in particular, who he persisently describes as religious personalities outside the priesthood who railed against the excesses of the priesthood and who stood up for the poor and oppressed. He compares them to the uncaring priests who are obsessed with ritual. Perhaps prophets like Elisha did stand up the poor, but I am not so much of a romantic that I think that was their only concern. They had their dogmas they wanted to be uniform: these were men who advocated the murder (or killing-of, if you resent that connotation) of people of differening religious faiths. I liken them to people like Lenin: idealists in their speech, but dogmatic and ambitious for power in reality.

All in all, quite an interesting read. The book has limited appeal, of course. Only those interested in the Bible will be interested. I was raised with a strict literalist perspective and had "Sunday school teachers" who taught me the stories -- brutal as they were -- of the Old Testament, so this book was a bit like returning to the days of my childhood, albiet with a much different perspective. Whereas once I read the stories and feared a god, I now read the stories and marvel at the combined beauty and brutality that humanity is capable of.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel
© Isaac Asimov 1953

I finally found a copy of The Caves of Steel this week. I’ve been looking for this book since the beginning of November, but my libraries have been unable to procure a copy that isn’t lost. The Caves of Steel is a detective story set in the future -- roughly around the 23rd century. Earth’s cities have become “Cities”: enclosed structures where people are not exposed to the open here. People move from place to place through moving “strips” -- a la Jetsons ? -- and no longer live and eat as separate families. Suburban sprawl has been replaced by sectional “boxes”. Each sectional building is divided into sections, and each section has apartments for families to live in. These apartments do not include kitchens, laundry room, or bathrooms, though -- those are all communal.

The main character is a man named Elijah Baley, a plainclothes detective working for the City government. His City is New York, and it is now the second-biggest city in the world, the first being Los Angeles. Baley is tasked with finding out who killed a Spacer sociologist. A Spacer is a resident of one of the fifty Spacer worlds -- fifty worlds settled by Earth with very little population density. The Spacers have created for themselves “C/Fe Societies”, wherein humans (carbon-based) and robots (iron-based) work together. The Earthers, being conservative, are very much opposed to robots, and such is the environment that Baley has been raised in.

When Baley is asked to solve this murder, he is also asked to take on a robot partner. We would call this partner an android, for he looks like a human and has been programmed to mimic human behavior. Baley is at first aghast at the prospect of working with his new partner -- R. Daneel Olivaw -- but grows accustomed to him by book’s end. The book is the story of their efforts to find the murderer. Asimov’s writing seems to be even better than I’m used to, but anticipation may have heightened my enjoyment. I enjoyed learning about the world he created, and I think he did a good job. He thinks about the impact living in these apartment-boxes has on people, including taboos and so on. I found the book to be excellent reading, and I will enjoy reading more in the series.

Friday, December 19, 2008

This Week at the Library (19/12)

Books this Update:

I began this week with a large book spanning the social sciences: Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is well-known for connecting the environment of the success of civilization. That book has shaped my thinking, and is probably responsible for making me look for connections between the various social sciences themselves and between they and the 'real' sciences. While in that book Diamond focused on the success of civilizations based on the environment and ecology of the area they were based in, in this he examines the reasons why civilizations decline. While he establishes a five-point framework to deal with the question, the book is overwhelmingly focused on the environmental and subsequently economic reasons they fall. After using Montana as a case-study to show that environmental issues do affect the lives of people in economic ways, he examines various ancient and modern civilizations using the framework he established. He also looks into the reasons why people fail to respond to environmental/economic concerns when they rise and then defends the idea that the lessons from the examples he used can be used to help us. I found the book to be thought-provoking and quite well-written.

Next I read Modern Science by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser in their modern "History of Science" series. This book covers science from 1896 to 1945. As usual, the book is short, clear, and concise. They explain more abstract scientific concepts well while writing a narrative that holds together. As usual, the book is divided into three parts: Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, and Science in Society. In the first part, they examine physics, astronomy, and that sort of thing. In the second part, they look at biology and particularly at the search for human ancestors. They include information on the Piltdown hoax. The last part is the briefest and concerns mainly the rise of women in the sciences.

Lastly I read This I Believe II. It is a second collection of essays in which people write about the beliefs that they live by. The essays concern not religious or philophical disicplines, but singular ideas like "I believe in living in the moment" and "I believe in the power of redemption". I found this collection of essays to be enriching, if not as much as the previous collection -- perhaps because I read this too soon after reading the first collection. I should return to this book later when I'm not quite so full, so to speak. The essays are submitted from people from all walks of life.

Pick of the Week: Collapse: How Socieities Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond

Quotation of the Week:
"What I want more than ever is to appreciate that I have this day, and tomorrow, and hopefully days beyond that. I am experiencing the learning curve of gratitude. I don't want to say 'have a nice day' like a robot. I don't want to get mad at the elderly driver in front of me. I don't want to go crazy when my Internet access is messed up. I don't want to be jealous of someone else's success. You could say that this litany of sins indicates that I don't want to be human. The learning curve of gratitude, however, is showing me exactly how human I am." - Mary Chapin Carpenter

Future Reading:
  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Isaac Asimov
  • Science Frontiers, Spangenburg and Moser
  • The Pinball Effect , James Burke
  • Where Do We Go From Here?, ed. Isaac Asimov
  • The Echo of Greece, Edith Hamilton

Thursday, December 18, 2008

This I Believe II

This I Believe II (also known as This, Too, I Believe*)
© This I Believe, Inc.

Last week I read This I Believe, a collection of eighty essays in which people wrote about their deepest convictions or ideals. While meandering through the philosophy/religion shelves in my local library looking for Asimov's Guide to the Bible, my eyes fell upon This I Believe II. Lo! Fate. I checked it out, of course, and read it throughout the course of the week. The book's layout follows the format of the previous book: the editors (Jay Allison and Dan Gediman) introduce the This I Believe project. This introduction is followed by seventy-five essays. The book concludes with the editors' reflection on the This I Believe project and guidelines for submitting an essay. A year or so ago I wrote an essay titled "This I Believe", but it is too long and too broad for the kind of essay they are requesting.

This collection of essays seems to be composed entirely of contributions to the modern project, unlike the past collection which used essays from the 1950s project. In each essay, a person writes on an idea that shapes them and molds their thinking: "I believe in living with integrity", "I believe in strange blessings", "I believe in doing what I love", "I believe in living in the here and now", "I believe in living what you do every day". The writers use stories from their personal lives to explain why they believe this. I found this collection of essays to be enriching, if not as much as the previous collection -- perhaps because I read this too soon after reading the first collection. I should return to this book later when I'm not quite so full, so to speak.

The essays are submitted by people from all walks of life -- teenagers, old people, the nonreligious, Catholic priests. Many voices come from people who are new to the United States. (This I Believe is an NPR program and thus deals entirely with the stories of Americans.) I noticed that this collection of essays is less religious than the previous one. I am neither exhulting nor complaining: I prefer perspectives that aren't rooted in what I believe to be superstitious ideas, but the religious essays of the last book helped me get a better handle on religion's relationship with helping people to improve their lives.

If this program sounds interesting to you, you can listen to the podcast (updated every Monday with a 2-3 minute spoken essay) here.

* Not really, but I saw an opportunity.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Modern Science

Modern Science 1896 - 1945
© 2004 Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser
206 pages

I continued this week in a series that I began in the summer -- Spangenburg and Moser's "The History of Science" series, which is an update to their "On the Shoulders of Giants" series. As usual, the authors divide the book into two major sections and one minor one: the Physical Sciences, the Life Sciences, and Science and Society. The book's introduction and prologue work well to integrate this book into the rest of the series and to give the reader a broader perspective. There are ten chapters in all.

This period isn't my favorite period of science -- that probably goes to the 19th century -- but I found the book's content to be interesting. In the physical sciences, we learn about the beginnings of modern physics, starting with the discovery of X-rays and moving on from there -- to radiation and quantum theory and to all they entail. The author organize the Physical Sciences chapter along structural lines: its chapters include "The New Atom", "The New Universe, Part One", "The New Universe, Part Two", and then go into more particulars with "New Observations of the Universe" and "The Atom Split Asunder".

In the life sciences, we see the rise of antibiotics and insulin. Mendel's work is rediscovered and is applied toward Darwinian evolution. The eighth chapter concerns the search for ancestral historeis, including information on the various hoaxes like Piltdown. The third part of the book is new to this series, and focuses on Science and Society. In this particular book, the authors continue to look at medical quacks but also shine a light on the growing rise of women in science. Miniture biographies are woven throughout the book, and many are of women.

In essence, what I've come to expect of the authors: the book is short, concise, interesting, and informative. It may be geared toward a younger age-group than adults, but I find it useful to keep me apprised of the basics.


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
© 2005 Jared Diamond
560 pages plus index

A few years ago, I read Guns, Germs, and Steel by this same author, who put forth the idea that the success of world civilizations owes much to the surrounding natural environment. While this is obvious in some cases -- a dependence on water, for instance -- Diamond extends the hypothesis to the effect that the uses to which local flora and fauna could put by human civilizations, and examined the possible results. The book was stimulating, and I suspect that it began my habit of looking for connections between the social sciences and the "real" or physical sciences. I enjoyed the book very much, and so I looked forward to reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

While in Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond examined the growth of civilizations, in this book he examines factors relating to their collapse. He begins with a set of five factors that he believes all collapses share in common:

  1. damage done to the environment by humans
  2. climate change (owing to non-human factors, historically)
  3. the presence or ability of hostile neighbors
  4. decreased support of friendly neighbors
  5. society's responses to the above issues.
This constitutes his introduction. He then moves into the book proper by looking at Montana. He does this to examine the way environmental factors change the way people live today and how their actions work on their environment. His goal seems to be two-fold: one, to show that humans and the environment do shape one another, and two, to put a human face on economic problems by examining individuals living in Montana.

In part two, Diamond examines past societies: their rise and fall. The evidence that Diamond is forced to draw from is usually indirect: using historic trash to come to conclusions about the people who lived there -- their numbers and their economic situation. He also uses natural evidence likes tree rings and ice "cores" to track the natural health of the environment through the years that these societies were in existence. The historic societies he examines range from small villages in Greenland to the grand civilization of the Maya. He begins with Easter Island and moves to more recent societies like shogunate Japan. Not all societies represent failures: Japan is used as an example of how societies can learn to deal with their situations.

In part three, Diamond looks at modern societies. In chapter ten, he examines Rwanda: in chapter eleven he contrasts the Dominican Republic and Haiti: in chapters twelve and thirteen he focuses on the growth of China and the woes of Australia, in each examining their relationship to the natural world and its condition. He concludes the book with Part IV, "Practical Lessons". In this last part, he examines various reasons why societies make bad economic decisions. He lists a few --
  • failure to anticipate problems
  • failures to perceive problems that already exist
  • rationalizing bad behavior
  • possessing values systems that run contrary to doing what's necessary
  • being discouraged by unscceessful attempts at solution

There are a few others, but those are the ones that stuck out. The above constitutes chapter fourteen. In chapter fifteen he looks at the relationship between big business and the enviroment, examining ways that modern industries -- oil, logging, mining, fishing -- are dealing with environmental problems and increasing public awareness. Last, he deals with potential objections to ideas in the book and looks at reasons for hope.

All in all, I found the book to be very well-written. The conclusions that Diamond comes to from the available evidence in the the part on past civilizations where little written information is available seem fairly valid to me. Diamond explains environmental problems and their connection to human history with great detail and with a knack for getting the essence of his idea across. It is a good read -- taking me several days to work my way through it -- but if you're interested in history, economics, ecology, and the relationship between the three, I'd recommend the book to you.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

This Week at the Library (11/12)

Books this Update:

It took an entire semester, but circumstances finally got the better of me and disrupted my weekly cycle. I began with a book on skepticism by Michael Shermer entitled Why People Believe Weird Things. The book addresses the scientific method: its origins, its premises, and its usefulness. After examining a score or so of number fallacies, Shermer then examines "pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time". That phrase covers UFOs, Objectivisim, holocaust denial, evolution denial, and so on. He wraps the book up by looking at the basic biological and sociology reasons why people believe these things. I enjoyed it enormously.

Next I read The Knight in History by Frances Gies, which examines -- as you might expect -- the development of the mounted knight and its influence on European history. Gies does a good job of fitting the knight into its proper social, historical, and economic contexts. She does this week background chapters and then illustrates the various developments of knighthood through case-studies. I didn't expect much from this book (I have no real military interest) but found it very enjoyable.

Lastly I read a collection of essays from the This I Believe program. In said program, ordinary individuals share their personal beliefs -- the beliefs that tie their life together -- in a short essay. 80 essays are in this first collection. The worldviews range widely, and there were a number I disagreed with. Yet the book helped me. There were many insightful and touching essays that moved me, and I am very glad that I took the time to read it. I reccommend it.

Pick of the Week: This I Believe

Quotation of the Week: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." - Spinoza

Next Week
- I don't know. I will probably resume the Colonization series and perhaps begin Asimov's Empire series.

This I Believe

This I Believe: the Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women
Various authors, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
© 2006

For a few years now I've listened to an NPR feature called "This I Believe", wherein a variety of individuals present a personal belief that guides their lives. I almost always find that listening to this enriches my own life, giving me insights that I've never before had. As such, I was quite excited when I learned that some of the essays had been released in book collections. This week I read the first collection, and it was very enjoyable. The book consists of eighty such essays, with forewords and afterwords at the beginning and end of the book to introduce the series and explain the purpose of the books -- to share the personal beliefs of ordinary people.

This I Believe
has existed in two distinct periods: the original program ran in the 1950s, and the current one runs still today. The book uses essays from both the 1950s and from the current program. While most of the stories do come from ordinary people, some essays come from more well-known personalities like Helen Keller, John McCain, Jackie Robinson, William Buckley Jr. , Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, and so on. While some people view NPR as a bastion of liberality, you can see by some of the names cited that this collection that the range of worldviews is quite wide. There are eighty very distinct people here. I didn't agree with everything that was said, and I'm glad I didn't. The book would have been less useful, less enriching, if that had been the case.

The book is enormously, tremendously touching. Many essays brought tears to my eyes. This is a book I want in my personal library. I'm glad I had the chance to read it, and I recommend it to you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Knight in History

The Knight in History
254 pages
Frances Gies

This week I read The Knight in History, written by France Gies. Typically she and her husband co-author novels, but not in this case. I was somewhat wary about this particular book because military history is not my interest, but Gies surprised me (very pleasantly so) by treating the knight in a broader social and political context. The book is divided into background chapters, intermixed with case-studies. The individual cases are from both English and French knighthood.

For background, Gies examines the transofrmation of Roman society into medieval society, charts the rise of feudalism and manorialism, examines the Crusades, and finally looks at the "long twilight of chilvary". Per persctive is that the knights were wealthy freemen who were charged by the Church to protect the peace, and that they developed into a class of their own that was connected to the lower nobility. The case-studies are generally military history, but do a fairly good job of connecting the historical narrative to reality.

As usual, the book is well-written and uses primary sources exhaustively, especially in the chapter on the troubadours. There's a lot to this book, and I reccommend it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why People Believe Weird Things

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
2nd edition © 2002, Michael Shermer
313 pages, plus extended bibliography and index

Having been a skeptic for a few years now, I've heard this book referenced a lot in conversations with fellow skeptics -- but I just recently found it while browsing in a book store. Michael Shermer is the founder of Skeptic magazine and the director of the Skeptics Society, so his is a name I've heard a lot about. He also lectures for the Science Network.

Beyond the introductions and prologue, the book is divided into five principle sections, each section containing a number of individual chapters: Science and Skepticism, Pseudoscience and Superstition, Evolution and Creationism,History and Pseudohistory, and Hope Springs Eternal. In the first part, Shermer introduces skepticism and the scientific method: he details how he became a skeptic, and then examines twenty-five logical fallacies that result in people believing odd things as well as probing errors in scientific thinking.

In the next chapter, he deals with the paranormal, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, "immortality" science, alien abductions, witch crazes, and the the cult of personality surrounding Ayn Rand and Objectivisim. I don't know much about Rand, although I heard her speak on NPR and disagreed with what she said regarding suicide and selfishness. (The interviewer asked her why she thought giving to other people was wrong, and she retorted with "What's wrong with suicide?" I don't think there's anything wrong with either.)

The next two chapters are more cohesive, in that each deals with the same central topic: evolution denial in one and Holocaust denial in the other. In each, Shermer introduces the conflict, explores why people deny it, and then counters their arguments and explores why they believe the way they do. The section on Holocaust denial provided miniature biographies of various deniers, including David Irving. Last year while doing a paper on the Luftwaffe, I accidently picked up an Irving book before becoming aware of his reputation. Fortunately, the book I took notes from was published before he started his denial business.

Lastly, Shermer looks as why people believe weird things -- he looks at their motives. Some petential reasons he points out are immediate gratification and the power and immortality of hope and its influence on the human psyche. The book is well-written and well-organized in my estimation. Shermer never confuses me, even when he's writing on abstract or complicated ideas. I wouldn't try reading it all at once, though: I think it's a book that deserves slow and gradual consideration. I read it over a period of days, mulling over the ideas therein. I must reccommend it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

This Week at the Library (3/12)

Books this Update:

This past week encompassed Thanksgiving, and so during the holiday I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I love the story, and enjoy a tradition of watching the movie adaption with Patrick Stewart every Christmas -- or whenever I feel like watching it. Everyone in the west knows the story -- a selfish old miser who retorts "Bah, humbug!" at every "Merry Christmas!" who is visited by spirits and experiences a change of heart. That's a simplistic rendition of an extraordinarily well-written story -- a story that never fails to move me when I read it or watch the Stewart movie. Dickens' reputation is well-deserved. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come force Scrooge to realize the effects his actions have had on him and others. The story is a triumphant story of human redemption.

Next I continued in the Colonization series with Down to Earth. Down to Earth continues showing the effects long-term Lizard occupation has had on the Earth, as well as showing the effects of the colonization fleet's recent arrival. The fleet brings with it animals from Home, which interact with Earth's environment and native species. Meanwhile, political strife between the humans and the Lizards -- particularly in regard to Nazi Germany -- increases. This book is heavy on characterization, something I sometimes fail to comment on while focused on the story. I thought it excellent.

Next up was a series of writings by Kurt Vonnegut -- a speech, a letter, an essay, and a number of short stories. All had something to do with war and peace after war. Many of the stories were directly tied to World War 2, in which Vonnegut fought. I enjoyed most of the stories, with a couple of exceptions. As it usual with Vonnegut, I'm at a loss as to how to summarize the book.

Following this I read Almost Everyone's Guide to Science, a science book that provides the reader with a basic understanding of everything from atoms to evolution to the universe. The author begins with the atom and then moves up -- atoms to the molecules of life, the Sun to the solar system, the solar system to the universe -- and ties chapters neatly together at the end with a brief summary that doubles as a lead-in to the next chapter. I think the book is well-done.

Lastly, I read Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies. The book is typical of the Gies in that it is a short, well-written historical narrative that quotes generous from primary sources and employs medieval art to illustrate its points. The book is divided into background chapters -- which examine women in the context of feudalism and theology -- and case-study chapters that focus on individual women to show what life was like for other women in their position. The case-study women range from working-class to nuns to noblewomen. I think Women in the Middle Ages may be one of the Gies' better works.

Pick of the Week: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Quotation of the Week
: "Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. The world is a slightly difference place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that." - Mark Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect

Next Week:
  • The Knight in History, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • The Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes
  • Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer

Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages
Frances and Joseph Gies 1978
236 pages, plus index, notes, and bibliography.

Again this week I read from Frances and Joseph Gies' series on daily life in the medieval era. The book is divided smartly into two parts: background and women. The four background chapters detail the roles that social and other institutions shaped for women, beginning with a short summary of "Women in History". The two institution looked at in particular are the church and the feudal system. "Eve and Mary" focuses more on the theology backed by the church rather than the church itself.

The second part of the book consists of a series of seven case-studies. Each chapter focuses on one woman in particular, using her story to establish what kind of life other women in her situation lived. The women range in class and time -- the Gies relate the stories of an abbess (to explore female monasteries), an old noble (Blanche of Castile), bourgeoisie's women during the beginning and height of Europe's economic revival, peasants, and others in between.

The book ends with a summary, one that begins this way:

During the thousand years of the Middle Ages, Western society made historic strides, technological, commercial, political. Medieval innovations revolutionized industry, architecture, agriculture and intellectual life, while alleviating and enhancing daily living with the spinning wheel, water mill, windmill, wheelbarrow, crank, cam, flywheel, lateen sail, rudder, compass, stirrup, gunpowder, padded horse collar, nailed horse-shoe, three-field system, Gothic engineering, distillation, universities, rhymed verse, Hindu-Arabic numbers, the modern theater, movable type, and the printing press. The Commercial Revolution of the high Middle Ages, led by merchants like Francesco Datini, opened the new age of capitalism, as feudal political fragmentation gave way to new national states.

The technological, economic, and political surge could not fail to have its impact on women -- on the work they did, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the houses they lived in; the health, security, stability, and intellectual enrichment of their lives.

Some parts of the book are mildly repetitive of Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, but that's to be expected. As usual, the Gies write a relaxed and informative narrative that incorporates quotations from primary sources, resulting in a thoroughly interesting and informative read. I would probably say this is my third or fourth-favorite Gies novel (the first and second being Life in a Medieval City and Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel) One chapter mentions "Rose the Regrater", which was amusing.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens

For a number of years now, I have made a tradition of watching A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart. I do not recall the first time I watched the movie, but it became an instant favorite. I will go so far as to say that the movie changed my life for the better in that through it I was able to gain the will to redeem my own self. I watched it during a troubled time in my life where I needed it. It is to me a powerful story about the ability of human beings to change themselves for the better. Although I have watched movie numberless times -- through several Christmases and during the year, even when Christmas was far away -- I have never read the story that inspired it. I decided to amend that this year.

The story is a familiar one: I would wager most people in the west have heard of it. They have at least heard the name Scrooge, and many people might remember that he was visited by ghosts and realized the "true meaning" of Christmas (as if there's only one). I remember as a child that Dickens "A Christmas Ghost Story" did spook me as a ghost story -- what with its doorknobs changing into the howling faces of dead people and spirits wandering about. During this past Thanksgiving break, I sat down and read the story -- and oh, what a story!

Old Marley was as dead a doornail. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile, and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country's done for.

A Christmas Carol is the story of one Ebeneezer Scrooge, the partner of the late Jacob Marley and something of a miser. Dickens writes that his heart was so cold that the winter wind did not bother him and the summer sun didn't warm him up -- so cold that everyone around him avoided his company. John Irving introduced the story in the copy I had, and he writes that although we see Scrooge as a caricature that Dickens was attempting to convey an accurate depiction of Dickensian England's heartless "robber barons". Scrooge likes profit -- so much that he doesn't bother repainting his firm's sign after the death of Marley, and snaps at his clerk (Bob Crachit) for attempting to burn coal.

Having introduced Scrooge as a selfish, spiteful old miser, Dickens begins his "Christmas ghost story" with peculiar things happening to him. A spectre of a hearse goes before him; his door-knob changes into the face of his late partner, howling at him; the portraits on his fireplace change into portraits of Marley. Finally a ghost appears -- the image of Marley, transparent and clothed in his funeral apparel -- but with additional elements, that of cash-boxes and money registers trained to him. Scrooge is at first skeptical, maintaining that he could be seeing things -- his senses could be fooled by undercooked food -- "A blot of mustard, a bit of moldy cheese...there's more of gravy than grave about you, friend".

Marley (after convincing Scrooge of his existence) warns Scrooge that unless his heart changes, he is in for a fate like Marley's -- to roam the Earth without rest as punishment for his selfishness. "It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death." Scoorge is perplexed that Marley is being punished -- he was a good businessman. Marley replies (in one of my favorite lines) "Business! Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business!"

Marley informs Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts as part of his reclamation. The next three parts of the story concern the visits of the three ghosts -- the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. Each ghost takes Scrooge places and forces him to examine his life and the consequences of the decisions he has made. The Ghost of Christmas Past particularly upsets Scrooge. Bit by bit, we see Scrooge being slowly changed -- his heart slowly thawing. By the time he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, he is determined to not let certain things happen.

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge, "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!" cries Scrooge as he and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come approach a grave. Upon seeing his own name, Scrooge insists that he is not the man he once was -- "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall shrive within me! I will not shut out the lessons that they teach! Oh, tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

With those words, Scrooge finds himself in his bed -- alive -- on Christmas day, and begins to live with the spirit of Christmas for the first time, making amends to his fellow human beings. It is to be a wonderful story of human redemption -- of the power of the human will to change one's self for the better, to rise above that selfishness that comes to easily and to reach out to one another. Dickens' prose is marvelous, as is his use of symbolism. I highly recommend the story to you -- it's only a little over a hundred pages -- and declare it this week's Pick of the Week.

One quotation -- this from Scrooge's nephew Fred in response to Scrooge calling Christmas a humbug.

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, " returned the nephew [of Scrooge]: "Christmas, among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round [...] as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it!"

Almost Everyone's Guide to Science

Almost Everyone's Guide to Science
© 1998 John Gribbin
200ish pages

What's this? Science? With no history of- or -fiction added to it? Can it be? After so many months? Yes! The Thanksgiving holiday afforded me the opportunity to do more reading than usual, so I was able to find a science book to read. Almost Everyone's Guide to Science is a popular science book intended to give the reader a background in everything from atoms to the universe. I wanted to read a science book, and this was particularly useful because after so long a recess, my grasp on some of the topics I read about during the summer has been slipping.

The book is arranged topically, with the subjects increasing in scope as the book wears on. We begin with the atom and end with the universe. Humans -- via a chapter on evolution -- pop up midway through. The author is a talented writer, I think, one who manages to make abstract ideas easy to understand. He also ties together the entire book smartly. A paragraph at the end of each chapter summarizes the preceding chapter and frames it in such a way as to introduce the next chapter, tying the two topics together.

It was an excellent read, and my thanks go to whichever librarian put it on display, as that's how I found it on my way up to peruse the shelves.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Colonization: Down to Earth

Colonization: Down to Earth
© 2000 Harry Turtledove
618 pages

I continued reading Turtledove's Colonization series this week. "Down to Earth" is the second book in said series, which is about Earth in the 1960s. The Lizards have held the southern hemisphere and China for nearly twenty years, and the newly-arrived colonization fleet is making Earth more Home-like to them. Growing political political strife between the human nation-states and the Lizards -- and between the human nation-states themselves -- was the theme of the last book, and that continues in this. The Lizard version of the internet makes its appearance in this book. I always find that depictions of internet activity -- particularly from the late 1990s -- are always a little awkward. I don't know why.

The characters occupying this book are for the most part veterans of the Worldwar books, although there are a number of newcomers. One of the more interesting newcomers is Kassquit, a human female who has been raised by Lizards as a Lizard. Another element introduced is that of animals from Home -- grazing animals and pets -- being introduced into Earth's ecosystem. It strikes me as odd that the Lizards didn't anticipate what would happen when they did so -- since they boast so often that they are a methodical race that plans things through.

The aforementioned political strife is mostly between Nazi Germany and the Race. While the United States and the Soviet Union both realize that humanity is not yet ready to fight the lizards, the Nazis -- being who they are -- constantly provoke the Race, leading to a war at the end of the book that has the predictable conclusion. I really enjoyed the book, but will be taking a brief break from the series next week.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Armageddon in Retrospect

Armageddon in Retrospect
© 2008 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Trust
232 pages.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that thigns are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. The world is a slightly difference place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that. - Mark Vonnegut

Armageddon in Retrospect, published posthumously, is Kurt Vonnegut's final collection of short stories and essays. A fan of Vonnegut recommended the book to me, although I probably would have read it anyway. (He works in the university library and so was able to check it out before I spotted it.) I had hoped the book is a collection of anti-war essays, but it is closer to a collection of short stories than a collection of essays. The book opens with a letter written from Vonnegut to his family during the war -- he fought during World War 2 for a few minutes before being captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge -- and a speech he gave, and all that follows is short stories.

Vonnegut's short stories tend to be hit and miss for me, although I did enjoy most included in this book. There were a couple that I read through without really understanding them, but they were happy exceptions. Most of the stories deal with the war in some form or another: in "Guns Before Butter", a gang of POWs are obsessed with food recipies, to the annoyance of their German supervisier; in "Brighten Up", Vonnegut tells the story of a prisoner-turned-collaborator; in "The Commandant's Desk", Vonnegut examines Amerian occupation. "The Commandant's Desk" is probably my favorite of the stories.

My favorite piece in the book is "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets", which is a nonfiction essay where Vonnegut describes the Dresdren bombing. All in all, rather interesting. I'm glad I read the book.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This Week at the Library (26/11)

Books this Update:
I began reading Harry Turtledove's Colonization series this week, which is a sequel series to his Worldwar. The Worldwar books, you may remember, featured a race of aliens interrupting the course of World War 2 by invading -- forcing Nazis, Soviets, the Japanese, Chinese nationalists, Chinese communists, and the Allies to work together. The lizards -- who call themselves the Race -- are unable to complete their plans to annex Earth, as they were unprepared to fight humanity, which had industrialized far more quickly than the Lizards anticipated. This series is set twenty years later. Human society and Lizard society co-exist, fairly peacefully, and each influences the other. Some humans -- Chinese nationalists and communists, as well as Muslim fundamentalists -- still fight the Lizards. Human technology has increased dramatically: cars are now hydrogen-powered, and humans have landed on both the Moon and Mars. As the book wears on, we see the increasing strain that the arrival of the Race's colonization fleet -- full of equipment, females, and so on -- is putting on Race-Human relations. Very good stuff: a refreshing change from the military-focused writing of the last books in the Worldwar series.

Next I continued reading the Gies' medieval history series with Life in a Medieval Village. The Gies' approach was similar to previous works -- using a case-studying, quoting heavily from primary sources, and weaving an enjoying and fairly interesting narrative. I didn't find this one qite as captiving as others -- like last week's Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel -- but perhaps those more excellent ones have spoiled me. We'll see.

Next I read a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov called The Winds of Change and Other Stories. There were 21 stories in all, and I found all but one of them to be quite enjoyable. There's humor here as well as Asimov's brand of technological "thriller" stories. Quite enjoyable. Some were repeats, but I don't mind re-reading Asimov's stuff. Even if I know what is going to happen, his stories are such a delight to read for me.

Lastly I read a compilation of two works by Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher. The works were translated into modern English by Sharon Leben. The book is rather short (I finished it in two sittings) but very page is full of wisdom. The discourses are simply worded, quite frank, and exceptionally compelling to the student of philosophy. I was thrilled to read it. Epictetus advocates a life of virtue and self-control, saying that philosophy is a matter of everyday living -- not something that should be limited to religious instructors and professional philosophers. Exceptional stuff, I think.

Pick of the Week: The Art of Living, Epictetus, trans. Sharon Leben
Quotation of the Week: Anything from The Art of Living. Here's a sample: "Those who seek wisdom come to understand that even though the world may reward us for wrong or superficial reasons, such as our physical appearance, the family we come from, and so on, what really matters is who we are inside and what we are becoming. [...] The overvaluation of money, status, and compeetition poisons our personal relations. The flourishing life cannot be acheieved until we moderate our desires and see how superficial and fleeting they are. "

Next Week:
  • Armageddon in Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Women in the Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Colonization: Down to Earth, Harry Turtledove