Friday, September 21, 2007

This Week at the Library (21/9)

Current Music: "Rock and Roll All Night", KISS

The first book I read last week was River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. The river is a "river of information" -- genetic information. The book doesn't have the focus of The Ancestor's Tale; it strikes me as almost being a collection of essays dealing with questions of biology. From the book's dust cover:

Filled with absorbing, at times alarming, stories about the world of bees and orchids, "designed" eyes and human ancestors, River Out of Eden answers tantalizing questions: Why are forest trees tall -- wouldn't each survive more economically if all were short? Why is the sex ration fifty-fifty when relatively few males are needed to impregnate many females? Why do we inherit genes for fatal illnesses?

The book answers those questions and adequately. The only chapter where my attention began to drift was the chapter on Mitochondrial Eve -- the ancestor of the human race. That was completely about how genes are transferred through sexual reproduction, so I was a little bored. I did find Dawkins' suggestion that our true universal ancestor was an Adam to be intriguing, though. He bases his argument based partially on the fact that male animals often rule over harems of females -- one animal sharing his genes with a larger number of females, and thus increasing his contribution to the gene pool exponentially. Female contribution in humans is still limited to one pregnancy every year, and so an individual female's contribution is negligible compared to the male who rules over the harem -- even considering pregnancies that produce multiple offspring. My favorite chapter was "God's Utility Function" where Dawkins explains why there are so many inefficiencies in living systems -- problems that make no sense if everything was designed by an all-knowing Creator, but that make perfect sense when seen through the eye of gene-driven evolution. "Do Good By Stealth" was also quite interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The second book I read was Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by F.L. Allen. The book's title is spot-on; the book is very informal. It's not written with the historical objectivity that I would like; the author assumes that his reader is an American, and so speaks of "us" and "we". The book was written in 1931, and the language of the book -- the usage of 'Negro", for instance -- dates it. Despite the informality, I did enjoy the book. The 20s and 30s are of particular interest to me; I've been reading about that era for almost four years now. Before, my main area of historical interest shifted year to year; in ninth grade, for instance, I was stuck on the Great War. In tenth grade, I moved on to the Second World War. In eleventh and twelfth grades, I was engrossed in Civil War history. Then in 2004 I began to research the Mafia and here I am years later still reading books about the 1920s and 1930s -- the Prohibition Era. The book increased my appreciation for living in the here and now; I wouldn't want to live in the time of the Red Riots the KKK, and the birth of Christian fundamentalism.

The last book I read was Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali was born in Somalia and raised as a Muslim. Her family moved around a bit because of her father's political activities (resisting the communists), and so she experiences life in different parts of the "Islamic" world. Ali writes of the clan blood feuds and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. She tells of how she threw herself into the religion even while questioning it. The systemic flaws of Islam do not go away with time, and eventually she finds herself in western Europe, having fled there to avoid an arranged marriage. In Germany and Holland, Ali discoverers what humanity is capable of when freed from the fetters of dogma -- civilization. The values of Europe were completely against the values Ali had been handed by her upbringing. Ali writes of her puzzling over the fact that Europe paid no attention to Allah or the Quran, yet was still prosperous and civilized. She enrolled in a university to better understand how such a society could have formed, and was immediately challenged by the western ideas being presented at her through her classes.

"Sometimes I could almost sense a little shutter clicking shut in my brain, so that I could keep reading my textbooks without struggling to align their content with my belief in Islam. Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas."

Ali moves further and further away from the values of her upbringing and begins to become "secularized". She becomes a Dutch citizen, and Dutch values become her values. After 9/11, she decides to examine her faith. It falls apart the minute it is exposed to scrutiny. The last chapters of the book deal with the controversy she involved herself in when she wrote about the instability fundamentalist Muslims were bringing to Holland. The same problems are being caused in the United Kingdom and Canada. Ali summed the conflict up in a brilliant way, but I can't remember the exact wording and can't seemed to find it now. The gist of her statement was that the western European nations were overly tolerant of their Muslim populations in the hope that understanding and reconciliation would be reached --- but there would be no such toleration or understanding from the Muslims toward the unbelievers who were giving them a safe harbor.

I found similarities in the author's departure from religion and my own, although of course her situation is a lot more difficult than mine. I enjoyed the book, and that ends the week's reading.

Pick of the Week: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

This week, I'm going to be reading Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan. I discovered this one a week or so ago in a card catalouge and realized that here was a book by Sagan that I hadn't read. Well, I have to rectify that. After that, I'll be reading The Assault on Reason by Al Gore. I'm not sure what it's about, but I'm going to guess that Gore will be mentioning a "Republican war on science". Lastly, I'll read The End of Faith by Sam Harris. I've read Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and enjoyed it. The summaries of the book that I've read say that it is a book aimed at fundamentalist Islam and Christianity. I'm looking forward to it. Next week my reading will probably drift into history and stay there for a bit as I ready myself for a couple of term papers.

  • Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan
  • The Assault on Reason by Al Gore
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

This Week at the Library (11/9)

This Week at the Library (11/9)

Currently Listening To: "Waking Up in the Universe", Richard Dawkins

" It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. " - Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Last week I checked out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel. I had only half-finished Shelters the week before, and aimed to finish it -- which I did. I also finished The Deathly Hallows, which finishes the Harry Potter series. I had to wait almost an entire week to get it after I finished Half-Blood Prince. (I have been informed by friends who had to wait years between books that I "suck".) If you've not read Half-Blood Prince and plan to do so, kindly close your eyes and scroll down for a few seconds so that your reading experienced is ruined.

I kept thinking of the book as The Deathly Hollows; I thought that one of Harry's friends were going to be killed as he and the rest of Dumbledore's Army fought the forces of Lord Voldemort in some wooded area. As it turns out, the "Deathly Hallows" are three artifacts/relics that all have something to do with death. Actually, only two of them can be sensibly tied to death; associating the Invisibility Cloak with death is a bit of a stretch. In The Deathly Hallows, Harry and friends are supposed to be hunting for Hocruxes that contain bits of Voldemort's soul so that they can kill him off for good. I don't want to reveal too much of the plot, but every thing ties together. I was not particularly surprised by the ending, but I enjoyed it.

As mentioned, I also finished Shelters of Stone. I predicted that Jondolar would have to choose between his community and the woman he loves; well, he doesn't. In The Shelters of Stone, Ayla and Jondolar settle into life among the Zelandonii. Ayla tells the story of her life (the one she told several times in book three and the one she told too many times to count in book four). The reaction among Jondolar's people is pretty much the same as with everyone else; everyone is impressed with the exception of one or two jealous or tradition-bound people. Ayla once again draws some flak when she announces that she was raised by the Clan (the Clan being "primitive" Neanderthals and the Zelandonii being the "intelligent" Cro-Magnons). She makes a few petty enemies, gets mated to Jondolar, and has a baby. That's it. This book's lack of a real plot would be baffling if I didn't know that it's the fifth part of a sixth series. While the rest of the books can stand alone by themselves, though, I don't think this one can. I wouldn't read it without reading some of the others, just so that it makes some sense. It's nice to learn about the customs of these people, but there's no plot-driven story that is developed through the book. Auel simply tells what happens to Ayla once she and Jondolar arrive back at his home; the months recorded here are as uneventful as a few months in an average person's life. I am hoping that Ayla's petty enemies were being introduced in this book to serve some more dramatic purpose in the sixth, final, and yet to be released book.

Finally, I read Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot. I have now officially read every one of his books with the exception of the one on the nuclear winter. While I am morbidly interested in the effects of nuclear winter, I think the only nuclear attacks we'll ever really worry about are those that take place at the hands of Islamists with their addled minds set on dreams of Heaven. I may read it later on, though, just to say that I've read everything written by Carl Sagan. I recently watched an "old" interview (1989) between himself and Ted Turner. The entire interview is on YouTube, and you can begin watching it by clicking here. In the second clip, Turner brings up nuclear winter. While the interview is now nearly twenty years old, ridiculously enough we're still facing the same problems -- global warming, inadequate health care, and a woefully uneducated populace. Sagan even mentions that a sizeable percentage of U.S. students couldn't locate their own country on a map; deja vu, anyone?

I enjoyed Pale Blue Dot enormously. That goes without saying; the book is by Carl Sagan. I think the book might dethrone Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors as my favorite Sagan book; we'll see as time goes by. The book is primarily concerned with humanity's role among the stars. A few weeks ago (before I checked the book out) I added a video onto my MySpace profile. Sagan's words in the video feature in the beginning of the book. Toward the end of the video, he says that astronomy is a "humbling experience". This is how he begins the book, by illustrating through a history of astronomy the various ways that humanity's arrogance has been checked by further knowledge of our cosmic insignificance. Sagan moves on to explain how we started to explore the solar systems and goes into detail on how particular parts of the solar system formed; he talks about the natural history of Venus that can be deduced through the available evidence, for instance. The book covers all manner of subjects, all of them tied in some way to astronomy. While I think the book could be enjoyed by anyone, I would especially recommend it to people interested in astronomy like myself. I also want to recommend another video.

A couple of months back, I somehow encountered Prometheus Music, which produces songs dealing with humanity's adventures in space flight. "Surprise!" is about Sputnik, for instance. My favorite song is "Fire in the Sky". I happened to find a visual history of space flight set to the song -- I hope you enjoy.

Pick of the Week: Despite the fight Deathly Hallows put up, I have to say that my favorite reading for this week was Sagan's Pale Blue Dot.

I also began reading Only Yesterday. I'm not reading it in book form, but online. I can't find a copy of the book in any of the nearby libraries, and I've been wanting to read the book for two years. Because of this, I have overcome my aversion to e-books and started to dig in. So far it's fantastic.

This week, I plan to read Richard Dawkins' The River Out of Eden. Despite my enormous affection for Dawkins, I have actually only read three of his books -- Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor's Tale, and The God Delusion. I've tried twice to read The Selfish Gene, but genetics bores me. With that in mind, it seems ridiculous that I am reading another of his books about genetics. I plan to read the book largely because of the fact that I'm familiar with and enjoy reading Dawkins' works. I love watching interviews with the man, and I'm hoping that this book is as engaging as he is in interviews.

Dawkins was featured in a panel of interviewees that I watched a few days ago. Another of the panelists was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote about her experiences as an ex-Muslim emigrant to Europe in the book Infidel. I'm interested in her story, so I'll be reading the book this week.

So, this week:
- Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen
- The River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins
- Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Saturday, September 1, 2007

This Week at the Library (1/9)

Current Music: "Never There", Cake

I had hoped to delay this week's update until I was able to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but getting my hands on a copy of the final book has been harder than I thought it would be. Most of this week's reading -- well, last week since I'm late -- was Harry Potter-related, but not all of it. There were two non-Harry books I checked out last week -- Storms from the Sun and The Germans. I didn't finish The Germans because I was caught up with the Potter books. Shelters of Stone suffered a similar fate; I was halfway done with it, but Harry interfered.

I found Storms from the Sun to be both informing and entertaining. While I usually enjoy the books I check out, this week was no guarantee given that I picked the book up because of its cover. In effect, I judged the book by its cover. Take that, conventional wisdom. As you can imagine, the book is about how the activity of the Sun affects those of us on Earth. At the beginning of the book, in the second chapter, the author tells a story about Columbus. Columbus' men were relying on the natives for food and supplies, but they soon wore out their welcome by treating the natives in an obnoxious fashion. Being a deeply religious man, Columbus knew just what to do -- sic God on them.

By consulting astronomical tables, Columbus was able to threaten them with a lunar eclipse. He told his hosts that God wasn't very happy that the natives were no longer allowing the Spaniards to treat them like doormats. They would either continue to feed his men and tolerate their boorish behavior, or God would take the moon away. The eclipse showed up as predicted and the Spaniards were able to obtain more free food. I thought this story was funny; it pretty much sums up the best use humanity has found for religion -- exploitation. Most of the book is about solar activity's effect on Earth's electromagnetic field. I found it interesting, but then I like astronomy.

So, two weeks ago when I checked out Storms from the Sun, Shelters of Stone, and The Germans, I planned to return to the library whenever the second and third books of the Harry Potter series were returned. A week later, they were not returned. I had watched the first movie by this point and was quite anxious to resume my reading of the series, so this annoyed me greatly. That Saturday, I came to Montevallo for Spruce-Up day. While I was here, I picked up the second and third books and the third movie. I then drove home and "settled in for a Hogwarts' weekend".

On Saturday, I read Chamber of Secrets and on Sunday I read The Prisoner of Azkaban. The Chamber of Secrets is about Harry's second year at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I have actually read some of this book before, in tenth grade. A friend from school was reading the book and asked me if I had read them. I said no, and she was surprised. She let me read some of the book during class, and I did enjoy what I did read. I read the first two chapters, I think. I remember Dobby quite well. Dobby is this little house-elf, and he shows up to tell Harry not to go back to Hogwart's, because trouble is brewing there. Harry doesn't heed his advice, of course, and goes anyway. As Dobby predicted, trouble starts. The students start showing up "petrified"; they're alive, but not living. They're frozen.

Harry, of course, having his name on the cover, sets out to solve the mystery. I halfway expected Hermione to say "Doesn't it strike you a bit odd that during our second year here, we've encountered a second mystery?". The Boxcar Children did this; every so often they'd say 'You know, mysteries seem to pop up wherever we go!". If you aren't familiar with The Boxcar Children series, you should be. Anyway, back to Harry and his mystery. It seems that one of the founding members of Hogwarts', a fellow named Slytherin, was quite the snob; he only wanted pure-blood wizards to attend the school. The other members (Gryffendor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw) were against this, so Slytherin left the school. Before he did, thought, he built a secret chamber in the school, the "Chamber of Secrets". He said it would unsealed once his heir showed up. When the second year at Hogwarts' starts, a blood-painted message appears on the school walls that says the Chamber has been opened and that the enemies of the Heir should beware. The book is about Harry trying to figure out who the Heir is, where the Chamber is, and who is petrifying the students of Hogwarts'. I was surprised by the answers to the last two questions.

After this, I watched the second movie and started on the third book. If I had any doubts about finishing the series, the third book would have completely done away with them. I love the third book; it was a fantastic read. It had all the elements that make for good fiction. It is called The Prisoner of Azkaban. Azkaban is a wizardry prison where bad wizards go. It's an island prison, which doesn't help people who might confuse the title and read it as The Prisoner of Alcatraz. I figured out the basics of the ending well before I got to it, although I didn't anticipate all of the endgame plot developments. One thing that puzzled me was that Ron and Harry were clueless about how Hermione was taking multiple classes during the same hours and apparently missing none of them. During the book, Hermione "pops" into the classroom, surprising people. She insists she's been there the entire time, but Ron and Harry puzzle over her behavior the entire book. Clearly, neither of them has ever watched an episode of Star Trek.

On Monday I checked out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I would be leaving for Montevallo in a few days, but I was quite looking forward to continuing the series. Goblet of Fire is when the series' overreaching arc really begins to unfold, and it is the first "big" novel in the series. I liked Goblet of Fire, but not as much as The Prisoner of Azkaban. In Goblet, Harry is chosen by the Goblet of Fire (a talking goblet) to serve as a "champion" in the Triwizard Tournament, this competition between the three largest European magic schools. Each school is represented by a champion, and they compete in three trials that involve magic. The Goblet picks two champions from Hogwarts -- Harry and a young man from Hufflepuff by the name of Cedric Diggory. Harry's inclusion in the championship results in Harry being isolated from almost everyone in the school, who think he is an attention-seeking brat. The book ends with a newly-alive Lord Voldemort attempting to kill Harry, who (obviously) survives.

The next book is The Order of the Phoenix. By this point, the war between the forces of good and evil has already started. The Order of the Phoenix is an order of wizards and witches who are fighting against Voldemort. They're the only ones fighting, because the Ministry of Magic refuses to see that there is a problem. Harry -- who narrowly escaped death in Goblet -- is seen again as a brat who cooks up wild stories to catch everyone's attention. Dumbledore backs Harry, and this results in his being ousted from the school. A new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (Dolores Umbridge, who I dislike even more than Draco Malfoy) is named Headmistress, and she attempts to undermine all of Dumbledore's and Harry's plans to defeat Lord Voldemort. She's quite wretched. Voldemort in this book is seen as trying to find a prophecy about him and Harry, and he tricks Harry into going to the Department of Secrets at the Ministry of Magic to fetch it. Voldemort's forces then attack Harry. While they do lose, they claim the life of Harry's godfather, Sirus. I thought Order of the Phoenix a good read, but I disliked the parts that included Umbridge.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the sixth book in the series, and the last one I've read at the moment. I think this book's purpose is mainly to prolouge the final book, as there's really not that much conflict. The main characters grow in magical ability and personality and Dumbledore begins training Harry for the inevitable final battle against Voldemort. To kill him, they must locate and destroy four Hocruxes, which are objects that contain some of Voldemort's soul. The book ends with an attack by Voldemort's supporters on the castle. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, more so than I have any book since Prisoner of Azkaban.

Pick of the Week: Prisoner of Azkaban

So that ends last week. This week, I'm reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot and plan to pick up the final Harry Potter book tomorrow. I'll read it over the weekend and hopefully be done on Monday or Tuesday. School studies will probably limit my weekly reading to one or two books a week, depending on how busy I am kept.

I am now a convert to Pottermania -- like C.S. Lewis, "England's most reluctant convert". My conversion started with the first movie and was cemented by the third book. One of my friends is a severe Potterhead, and she has seen fit to introduce me to some elements of Potterfandom -- like Wizard Rock and the Potter Puppet Pals. (I especially enjoy "The Mysterious Ticking Noise".) My conversion to Pottermania was helped by the fact that I'm given to geeky fan behavior anyway. There's no limit to the amount of things I can associate with Star Trek, and when I approach an automatic door I make a "Force Open" gesture a la Obi-Wan Kenobi out of habit. I think maybe that I knew I would be sucked into this and wanted to stave it off for as long as I could.

And so I end. Tomorrow I'll pick up the last book (assuming the library is open, anyway). I'm also interested in reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, which is about her experiences growing up in various Muslim countries and leaving them for Holland, eventually becoming an atheist and a critic of Islam. I'm going to figure out a way to obtain the DVD of The Goblet of Fire, and then await Order of the Phoenix's release on DVD. Pity my friends didn't convince me to start the series a week earlier; I could've caught Phoenix in theatres!