Mar 102013

A while back I wrote about free online courses (on more than one occasion). Back then I had somehow managed to find the time to go through not one, but three Stanford courses simultaneously. All three were of very high quality, in many respects.

Around the turn of the century some universities had started making their lectures available to the general public. This was a reasonable and predictable next-step from merely video taping the lectures for the on-campus (paying) students who had missed any or, well, just to make lectures more accessible. The cost of filming and editing these lectures are uncured once, so why not capitalize on it and make them available world-wide? It’d seem that this is how things started, with the possible hope of growing this into an e-learning branch that could make the university money, or, failing that, at least prove a good promotional campaign for more studentship.

The problem with this approach, from the student’s point of view, is that the lecture itself typically assumes in-person attendance. Even with the knowledge of the possibility of someone watching the replay having not personally attended, it was targeted to on-campus students who could meet with TAs or colleagues to get notes and other materials they missed. Also, any copyrighted materials were completely stripped away from these videos, to avoid any legal complications. (This was annoying in a sociology class that I was taking because all the social experiment videos were removed from the lectures.)

Enter Stanford and Coursera. The vision was free education primarily for the online viewer, wherever they may be. This meant a different format altogether. The presenter isn’t just walking about, talking to an audience of coming-and-going students (which I find very distracting even when watching at home,) rather they are prepared with material and equipment to explain theory and, where applicable, demo the concepts with experiments or walk-through. All of which is clear and legible. Coursera, an off-shoot of Stanford took this to the next logical step: a dedicated education platform for generation-next. I do not doubt that they could (if they already don’t) commercialize the platform by licensing to universities to cater for on-campus and online students alike.

As the offerings started to grow, some sites started aggregating online and free education sites. One particular site that was brought to my attention by a member of their team is, which makes hundreds of courses reachable by listing, searching and creating custom course lists with the ability to track one’s progress as well. They also include reputable schools including Stanford, Yale and Harvard, among others. Coursera too has managed to grow their portfolio of subjects greatly as well. From a mere handful at the time of their start to possibly hundreds as I write.

A trait that makes stand out is perhaps that they aggregate not just video lectures, but audio-only and text-only as well, which are differentiated by icons next to each. For someone interested in studying certain subject from reading notes, rather than by taking notes, text-only courses might be more suitable. For those who like to listen while working out or commuting, audio-only might be better suited, as the lecturer presumably would not refer to visual objects that the listener can’t see.

The state of online, free, e-learning resources is an embarrassment of riches. The three Stanford courses that I took, which admittedly required some extra reading and doing homework, took anywhere between 20 to 25 hours/week, including watching the lectures. With subjects spanning art, music and creative writing, to quantum physics and molecular biology, available from numerous universities, in some cases in multiple languages, taught by actual teaching professors, reviewing and choosing which to view (even casually and as a matter of interest) is time consuming (albeit, fun). Not to mention committing and actually putting in the effort and hours necessary to complete them.

It is truly amazing time this one we live in. No longer do we have to wonder about (or regret) the courses we didn’t (or couldn’t) take at school. We can, with the help of technology, visit these virtual classrooms to the content of our hearts. Even a casual, electronic attendance of 30-45 minutes a day can be very rewarding and, hopefully, fun.

Nov 182011

A while back I wrote about Stanford’s online DB course. Many of my friends who expressed interest unfortunately couldn’t afford the time to invest in an online course. Luckily, that wasn’t their last chance. But before I get to the upcoming courses, let me reflect on online courses in general and why Stanford, deservedly, got a wide coverage and following.

Online Lectures

I’ve been watching (and listening) to university lectures since circa 2004. Back then there weren’t too many available. In 2005 I discovered UC Berkeley’s WebCasts. These were RealVideo lectures from early 2000s on many hard sciences and some humanities. The quality of the courses were as expected high. The main issues were that RealVideo only allowed streaming, so there was no way of downloading. Besides that, the video was in rather low-resolution, low-quality and recorded from a single angle and reading the blackboard was unnecessary strain on the eye. Back in 2006 I wrote a python script using MPlayer to parse the pages, play the video with MPlayer and dump the resultant stream to files. The main issue with this was that a single hiccup and the lecture had to be downloaded from start again. Using this slow and painful method I downloaded dozens of courses and filled about 250GB worth of media and shared to colleagues and friends. Berkeley improved this by introducing Mp4 downloadable links in higher resolution starting in 2009 (I think) and now moved completely to iTunes and YouTube as platforms.

During that time I discovered MIT and Yale but neither could equal Berkeley in the number of courses or the topics. Berkeley’s Physics for Future Presidents is perhaps the best example that I can think of to show off what Berkeley had to offer. In 2008/2009 Stanford’s Leonard Susskind’s Modern Physics was available online, which is another top-notch lecture series.

As MIT, Yale, Harvard and Princeton made available more courses, I discovered Academic Earth, which I think at this point is perhaps the single best site for high-quality, diverse and highly usable video lectures.

Why University Lectures?

The process of learning isn’t linear nor comes in one flavor. Different people have different preferences on how they rather best learn or study something. Indeed, different topics might be best learnt in dissimilar methods. From books, tutorials, hands-on examples to demonstrations, labs and homework assignments. But university lectures place one’s mind into the classroom state. With all the students, rigor in subject treatment, questions from students, they all contribute to the state of mind that is very important in taking the information seriously. The lectures are also divided in such a manner that’s expected to be reasonably-paced. There are also review sessions and sometimes quizzes.

At this time I’m enjoying Justice on political philosophy and morality (by Michael Sandel of Harvard) and Physics I: Classical Mechanics (by Walter Lewin of MIT) on Academic Earth, besides Stanford’s DB, ML and AI courses, of course.

With tutorials, books and other forms of teaching most of the above is lost. Not to mention the caliber of the teachers in these universities are expectedly quite high.

The Stanford Model

Stanford introduced 3 “experimental” online courses in Database, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence in the Fall of 2011 (it’s mid-term exam week as I write this). Besides the fact that these courses are highly sought-after, the Artificial Intelligence course is taught by Google rock-star Sebastian Thrun who’s behind the Driverless Google car (video featuring Prof. Thrun).

Unlike all other online courses, Stanford’s approach was more course-like and less of a video recording of a lecture, as all others are. MIT might offer notes, slides and transcripts, but Stanford’s courses have forums where TA’s and teachers participate, sidecasts where teachers do online video chat with students, online and interactive quizzes that pop-up during the lectures, assignments and exams with automated grading. In addition, at the end of a course, the teacher will give a signed statement of accomplishment to the students who participated. This is in addition to prerequisite and preparatory lectures, external resource links, books and reading materials, transcripts and translations, downloadable video and lecture slides.

So there is not only much more interactivity with thousands of other students with study groups gathering in person and online, but also there is interactivity with the teachers and with online tests with immediate feed-back. These features make the courses much more than the sum of its parts. They exploit the internet and multimedia to their true potential and deliver a remarkable package for a globally available learning experience.

For those who can’t, or don’t want to, take up the assignments and exams, they can choose the Basic track. The course material is promised to be available to all during and after the end of the courses.

More Courses!

With the success that the DB, ML and AI classes saw, with well over 300,000 students enrolled in total, it’s no surprise that they are expanding this to other subjects as well.

These courses will start in January or February 2012. I expect they will announce others, most probably Database and (prof. Widom announced that the course will be available next fall) Artificial Intelligence, or so I hope.

Final Thoughts

Needless to say, Stanford’s online courses is a very welcome project and one that will change the face of education, e-learning and especially distance learning and autodidactism by raising the bar and setting new standards. US universities aren’t the only player here. Perhaps the best example is India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) which already has hundreds of courses and plans to expand to over a thousand. Their Artificial Intelligence course, by prof. P. Dasgupta, is highly acclaimed. From the other end of the spectrum there is Khan Academy, which is a not-for-profit educational organization led by a very enthusiastic and charismatic figure, Salman Khan, who’s behind the 2700+ videos on most all topics. Khan Academy also has practice problems with scoring method and graphs tracking progress over time and in each subject.

Education and learning in general has never been this accessible before. With the internet, Wikipedia, free books and video tutorials and university lectures available to anyone with an internet connection. We no longer have an excuse for ignorance but our lack of will. Not looking up things we don’t know, suspect to know correctly or completely or want to learn more about, is practically inexcusable. Of course with all that information and availability also comes a sizable amount of chaff that one must weed-out from wheat. The signal-to-noise ration can be quite disappointing on some topics. But at least that can be done faster and much easier than it was only a decade or two ago, and not searching for criticism or opponents to get a more balanced picture is as inexcusable as not looking up in the first place. At least now one can also reach experts and hear what they have to say. We can even attend the best universities from the comfort of our armchairs.

I can’t help but wonder if the next generation will look at physically attending lectures as this generation does to putting pen to paper.

Oct 042011

Stanford is giving the world an opportunity to participate in an Introduction to Databases course. There are many online courses, from MIT to UCBerkeley to Yale and Harvard, but this one a bit different. For a start it’s going to be live and not a podcast. Participants will get assignments, quizes and, yes, exams! All of which will be evaluated. There is even a forum and the staff/TAs will participate and the highest voted questions will get responded to by the teacher.

There are no credits or diplomas, but at the end of the course a statement of accomplishment and a grade relative to others will be given. The website is very usable and the videos even have 1.2x and 1.5x versions for the impatient or busy.

The courses start on October 10 through December 12. There are already preview videos that one can wet their appetite with. Enrollment is ongoing and as of October 3rd there are over 42,000 students enrolled. According to an introduce-yourself forum thread, there is a 15 year old and a 71 year old!

If you’ve always wanted to get some solid introduction to databases but didn’t have a chance, Professor Jennifer Widom has just given you one.

Update: Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence courses are also available simultaneously.

(If you know of similar live courses, please share them in the comments.)

Jul 052011

Moses and Monotheism has been the first full-length book that I read by Sigmund Freud. While I did read a number of articles and excepts by Freud, I didn’t have the chance to read a complete work until now. There is a lot to be said about the man and his works, and indeed a lot has been said and debated.
Moses and Monotheism

Freud needs no introduction, or rather he often needs reintroduction. A very controversial and misunderstood person, if there ever was one. The father of psychoanalysis had much to say outside his prime interest and we’re lucky he published some of his more controversial materials. The reason I say this is very much evident in Moses and Monotheism.

The book is an easy read, even though it’s translated from German. The topic, however, is very controversial. In fact, I suspect it’s mostly because of his religious convictions and ideas related to religious figures and history that really condemned him to the evermore hatred of the masses. Even though I was acquainted with his pen and style, I was still very much amused and pleasantly surprised quite a number of times.

The book’s roots are in two articles Freud wrote for Imago, a scientific journal, back in the 1930’s. After escaping to England from invaded Poland, he was encouraged to publish the remaining text with the articles he had already written in a book binding. The idea is to try to analyse the psychology behind the different stories, laws and events written in the old testament. That is, the author is trying to reconstruct as much as possible what really could have happened to the Israelites in Egypt. There is a healthy doze of references to historians and other specialists which give more credit to his views.

Two reasons to really find this book very well worth the read. First and foremost, the author isn’t coy of calling out the limitations and issues with the ideas he puts forth. He’s quick to criticize himself. On so many occasions did he mention how problematic or limited some of his claims are and suggested what could be tested and what is pure guesswork. It’s always refreshing to read such sober and mature author.

Second, on a number of point he did make me pause to reflect on his explanations. I had to remind myself that this was the father of psychoanalysis after all, not a random author. Yet, I was still blown away by some of his points. Take for example a question that I spent countless hours contemplating without progress. Why do many (most?) people sympathize with figures, civilizations, lifestyle and virtually everything historic? That is, why is it almost universally accepted that there has been a great past that our ancestors enjoyed and everything is in constant decline and degeneration since? From people rejecting modern medicine in favor of “natural” and “traditional” medicine all the way to blaming modern cities and urbanization on all evils.

There is something about the past that is universally appealing. Reading Moses and Monotheism yielded a very reasonable explanation: we associate the past with our childhood, which is typically remembered as peaceful and blissful. Sounds like Freud, doesn’t it? He didn’t need to make a strong case for this explanation. Perhaps he or someone else already did that elsewhere, but as it stands, he gives something everyone can experience more or less.

While overall the book was a very good read, an almost complete century of progress in archaeology, history and psychology should have something to say about the then-untested hypotheses that the author puts forth, not to mention new evidence unknown at the time. And while none of these fields are even remotely close to mine, I could tell he’s probably already proven wrong on some of his educated guesses. Still, considering what he had to work from, he did a fascinating job overall. A thought provoking and insightful book.

Jul 042011

The BBC just released 60 years worth of the Reith Lectures. Since 1948, each year (except ’77 and ’92) a prominent speaker is invited to deliver a series of lectures on a relevant and debated topic of the time. The first year’s lecturer was no other than Bertrand Russel who gave 6 lectures on Authority and the Individual.

The series isn’t unlike the Messenger Lectures of Cornell University. Albeit, the latter apparently doesn’t make the lectures publicly available. That is, save of the great lectures delivered by Richard Feynman in 1964 which Microsoft restored to showcase their Silverlight technology and its video features. Project Tuva, as Microsoft calls it, refers to Feynman’s and, his longtime friend, Ralph Leighton‘s attempt to travel to Tuva. The project which the two friends dubbed Tuva or Bust is documented in Ralph’s book by the same name.

There is a wealth of historic and once-in-a-lifetime lectures and public appearances by eminent figures archived away collecting dust. BBC isn’t the first to make freely available what could only be useful and of value the more it proliferates. The topics of the 20th century are by and large the topics of the 21st. This isn’t simply because our most pressing issues have backdrops in the previous century, not just, but also because most issues are fundamentally the same.

Even in the case of Project Tuva, where a commercial institution chose to promote and advertise its product by restoring and releasing to public what could otherwise be buried by time and misc discarded tapes and equipment. For it isn’t at all important how the message is conveyed, so long that it reaches our ears and minds. More and more institutions, organizations and governments should sponsor similar efforts. In fact, donations to start a new web-based series should be well worth the effort. What used to be highly costly to make publicly available in the past, now costs only fractions of cents per person to download from across the globe. Indeed, utilizing peer-based distributed networks such as BitTorrent, the cost could drop to near zero (on average.) TED is perhaps the best example of a similar model, although they rent a real venue with a rather elaborate and fancy stage. At TED the social aspect is as important as the ideas shared, which is enjoyed by a lucky (and wealthy) few. But the more the better.

The Reith Lectures are available for download some including transcripts as well. The list features names from all fields. Most notably are physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1953,) geneticist Steve Jones (1993,) neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran (2003,) and astronomer Martin Rees (2010.) I’m very happy to report that it reads ‘Indefinitely’ next to the availability tag.

Jun 052011
Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade, Newtown...

Image via Wikipedia

To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.
A. C. Grayling

There is hardly any activity that you can both perform on your own and alone, yet simultaneously share the experience with someone else. Paradoxical reading is. Books have been likened to many things, not least a good friend. And indeed a good book is at least as good a friend, but perhaps even more. Reading a well-written book takes you on journeys across the ages and worlds. But that’s not the real magic of books or reading. The magic is in seeing the world anew. Seeing the world from the eyes of a complete stranger… or may be an old and dear friend. For a good book is well worth returning to and reading over and over.

I’ll say it here; one of the dreams that I wish to realize at old(er) age is, having read all the books I wished to read, to reread my favorites. There would be very little to compete with that personal joy of mine but to have all the books I loved to read the first time, to read over again. Like revisiting your childhood playground, like planing a reunion with schoolmates, I’ll look foreword to reopening those old pages again.

But why reading? With all the technology we enjoy nowadays, why can’t other media completely replace reading? But of course they have, to a significant extent, replaced books and reading. But I can’t find any other form of media that can present thought as good as the written word can. That is, the best way to preserve and present thoughts is to use language. Whether spoken or written, language is the best tool we have to communicate our thoughts. And while the spoken word can give new depths to the words uttered, primarily by changing the tone, volume and enunciation, writing them gives the audience much more degrees of freedom in consuming the material.

I do acknowledge that there is a whole category of concepts that we can hardly describe by words. We may choose to call these concepts the language singularities; where language as we know it breaks down. All forms of art can be said to have evolved, to lesser or more degrees, to fill this cleft in our language. But even then, art without context is too abstract to communicate unambiguously thoughts and ideas and complex concepts. It does a great job of communicating the aspects of our thoughts that we still can’t speak or write, in only (if you’d forgive the pun) so many words. Art is complimentary to language, but can never replace it. Language is more precise and more rich and, perhaps most importantly, can describe what can’t be. Using words, you can discuss paradoxes and other-worldly what-if scenarios. We can even talk about objects that we can’t create physically because they’re logically impossible or physics as we know it doesn’t allow for such objects to be. Like thinking about something being nowhere. Or a curved path being shorter than a straight one.

Give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a dangerous enemy indeed.
– Anne Rice, The Witching Hour

Books serve more than one purpose. If it weren’t for books civilization as we know it wouldn’t exist. More accurately, I should say that if it weren’t for the written word, passing knowledge across generations would’ve been near impossible. Thanks to the scraps we inherited, we know not only what happened in the past, not only what some thought created, but we also know how some were forged, plagiarized and even distorted. We know how the powerful rewrote history. We even know why many, many texts didn’t survive. In some cases the lifetime of the then-paper technology was as short as a hundred or may be two-hundred years. But we also know that the important texts were copied and recopied by scribes. And indeed, the heretical, competing, unapproved texts were systematically sought and destroyed, and forever perished.

This is precisely what we lose when we don’t read. By not reading, not only we don’t get to know what generations upon generations thought and did, but we also don’t get to know what there isn’t to know. That is, when we read, we know much more than what’s written; we also know what’s not written about. This may sound tautological, but it’s not. It’s easy to assume and guess, say, what the old Egyptians knew and could do. However, it’s a completely different thing to read what they wrote and discover there is not a single word of advanced technology beyond their age and time. It’s sobering to know what’s missing from the historical record. Granted, there have been systematic distortions by rivals left and right, and we can never know for a fact that what’s missing didn’t really exist. However we will know that it’s missing, probably because it didn’t exist. At the very least, when we do make claims, we’ll know how much it’s backed by evidential facts or in many cases, the lack thereof. And this is why books are important. Hardly can one know anything without sharing what others claim to know.

Some hold a single book and revere it as the most important book. The first and the last. The only book worth of reading. They challenge others to find anything comparable to the beauty and wisdom of their book of choice. They challenge others to come up with anything even remotely similar to the words written in their book. Invariantly, I ask them, how do you know? How would you know where that single book stands without reading anything else?

While many powerful social movements were at least in part fueled by fiction (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on racial issues for example,) the fact remains that fiction needs to maintain an entertainment aspect. This quality of being entertaining, to my perception, compromises the integrity of the material. Put differently, to know what’s factual and what’s artistic, one has to work very hard, which will probably rob the book of its fun. I prefer to read fiction for the entertainment value and artistic and cultural characteristics, but I get my info and facts from nonfiction. Indeed, I find fiction disarraying when I’m attempting lucidity.

May 292011

I was looking for a good book that made a good case for the theistic beliefs without being preachy. That is, a book that introduced me to the arguments upon which the world religions build their theologies. The three world religions I speak of are the Abrahamic religions. Abraham, a prophet recognized by the world religions, is considered the first man to have had the honor of being spoken to directly by God. The oldest manuscripts to recognize Abraham’s status and record the encounter can be found in the Bible, or, as the Christians call it, the Old Testament. As such, the Jewish theology seemed to be the most reasonable source to contain the foundations I was looking forward to studying. This is one of the books suggested.

Cover of "God According to God: A Physici...

Cover via Amazon

Gerald Schroeder‘s book is subtitled “A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along.” I get it, he has a degree in physics. What has that to do with anything? Is that not an attempt at appealing to authority? Should we trust his views, before even reading a single line, just because he has a degree in physics? Or does that show that he knows what he’s talking about any better?

God According to God is well written. The author is clearly not only a good writer, but he’s also well-versed in all the topics he touches upon. Schroeder frequently admits the obvious counter-argument to the points he makes. In chapter 3 “The Unlikely Planet Earth,” where, using Drake’s equation, he calculates the number of Earth-like planets in the visible universe. At the end of the chapter he concludes by saying:

The estimated number of stars in the entire visible universe is in the order of 1022. This indicates that in the entire universe there may be approximately 104, or 10,000, earthlike planets circling a sunlike star. These 10,000 potentially earthlike planets would be distributed among the 1011, or 100,000,000,000, galaxies in the entire visible universe. That comes out to be one earthlike planet for each 10,000,000 galaxies. The probability that any one galaxy would have more than one life-bearing stellar system is slim indeed.

To be honest, at this point I had already read 3 chapters and was a bit surprised that his conclusion wasn’t that Earth was by far the only possible host of life. Part of the reason for this expectation is his obvious bias to demonstrate how unique and rare life on Earth is. Although his assumptions are a bit conservative (for example he doesn’t consider the possibility of life on moons orbiting large planet, such as Titan,) his conclusion is spot on. For what it’s worth, I thought he wasted a good bunch of papers in this chapter, as the conclusion, if anything, convinced me that Earth is just a fluke, with a possible 10,000 more sprinkled around. What is so special about that escapes me.

The book can be divided into two logical domains: Physics and Theology, but of course they don’t share an equal number of pages. The division is so stark, that one might think the respective chapters were written by completely different authors. As a matter of fact, there are contradictions between them. In chapter 2 “The Origins of Life” he writes:

Our cosmic genesis began billions of years ago in our perspective of time, first as beams of energy, then as the heavier elements fashioned within stars and supernovae from the primordial hydrogen and helium, next as stardust remnants expelled in the bursts of supernovae, and finally reaching home as rocks and water and a few simple molecules that became alive on the once molten earth.

Later, in chapter 4 “Nature Rebels”:

In the Garden of Eden, 2,448 years prior to this revelation at Sinai, Adam and Eve were confronted with the identical options.

This caused me so much cognitive dissonance that I went back to find the section where the cosmic origin, what he calls the “Big Bang Creation,” is described. This physicist apparently holds the belief that our planet has billions of years behind it, yet he maintains that Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden exactly 2,448 years before the revelation at Sinai! Considering the era when the Garden of Eden encounters supposedly occurred and the lack of numbers in any biblical or other sources, the above number is extremely precise. Not only that goes unexplained, Schroeder assumes the reader has already agreed to the Garden of Eden events as told in the Bible. In fact, that is my main point here: The author assumes the reader is a believer and well-acquainted to the theology and he’s basically giving scientific backing and, as is apparent in later chapters, throwing his own interpretation and understanding of the nature of God.

Perhaps the title might have given a clue or two as to the conviction of the author regarding his understanding of God’s nature and plan. There is perhaps less color hues in a rainbow than different interpretations and explanations of God’s nature, plan and instructions to the human race. The author of God According to God adds yet another, and it’s not a conventional one, at least it isn’t to me.

In chapter 6 “Arguing with God”:

The sequence of events at and following the binding give compelling force to the supposition that the God of the Bible not only wants a dialogue with us humans, but even more than that. God expects such, and if the situation seems unjust or unjustified, then, beyond a dialogue, God wants us to argue. If our case is strong enough, God will even “give in,” or at least modify the Divine directive. Moses seems to have understood this trait of the Divine.

A few pages down:

Argument seems to be the standard and the expected biblical operating procedure in our encounters with the Divine. The surprise is that, having designed and created our universe with all its magnificence and granted us the freedom of choice, God wants us, expects us, to interact with the Divine about how to run the universe.

In the next chapter “In Defense of God”:

As I read the events of the Bible, in human terms I see God in a sort of emotional bind. God desperately wants us to choose life, a dynamic, purposeful existence, but doesn’t want to force us along that line. Hence we are granted the liberating tzimtzum of creation. God has to hold back and let us try. When we really mess up, God steps in. It’s so human. Mom teaches junior to play chess. Looking over his shoulder as her son makes his moves on the board, she sees a trap developing. He is about to lose his queen. If she wants her kid to learn to think ahead, to envision the distant outcome of the initial move before that move is made, she will do well to keep her hands in her pockets and let him make the error or at most give a few very general suggestions, as God through the Bible gives to us. It’s frustrating, even painful, but it is part of the learning process, Divine as well as human.

The above quotes are not the only cases that made me stop reading, and pause… for a while. It might have been that I had expected the run of the mill explanations and arguments. Instead, I found radically new concepts. Ideas I hadn’t encountered before. I can see that some of these ideas could be called heretical. If we make a strong case arguing with God, “God will even “give in,”” and “[…] God wants us, expects us, to interact with the Divine about how to run the universe.” And apparently, there is a “Divine as well as human” learning process!

Whatever your stance on God and religion, God According to God isn’t a rehash of age-old arguments. Nor is it the typical “science proves the existence of God” kind of book. Gerald Schroeder is very well read on ancient Jewish texts. His Hebrew skills are of the translator caliber. His science is, as far as I can tell, solid. Overall, I learned quite a bit from the historical writings and the ancient Jewish theology that is blended in with the science and God’s strive to learn as we go. It’s just that I didn’t get what I paid for.

Apr 292011
Cover of "I Am America (And So Can You!)&...

Cover of I Am America (And So Can You!)

Satire and sarcasm are two tools Stephen Colbert can’t stop using to give his otherwise very funny and sometimes hysterical skits some serious meat and subject. And I can’t seem to get enough of it.

I Am America is a brilliant exercise in looking at the world upside down. The topics are contemporary and hotly debated in the public arena. Cobert’s take is narcissistic, self-centered, indifferent, proud and downright obnoxious. At least, that’s the character he pretends to be. A very ignorant yet opinionated pundit of the most annoying type. Indeed, if it weren’t for his humor and sarcasm, non of it would fly.

Colbert sometimes downplays his words so much so that you may miss them if you’re not too careful. Like the homosexuals who want to have their rainbow colors everywhere, even on white flags. Very subtle, if you caught the drift. (Hint: white-light through a prism.)

I’ve had quite a few laughs listening to the audio book version of I Am America. On a few occasions I even caught the attention of others seeing me seemingly bursting into laughter for no apparent reason, except for a pair of ear-buds, that is.

Perhaps of the more memorable pieces are those on old people, family, religion and homosexuals. The part about pets didn’t resonate with me, but then again, I don’t have a pet. However, his wise words about his one issue with children, that he doesn’t like them, and his “rationale” were really sidesplitting. There was a cast who performed small skits at the end of each chapter which I was afraid would turn out to be dull, but on the contrary it wasn’t. They did a good job picking the right voices and actors. Apparently, Martin Luther King was worried that after he wins his cause, he’d find the pastorate leaving him wanting. To make up for it, he was available for hire to lead marches and protests. This was presented by a voice almost identical to King’s own, yet, the actor mentioned that he walked next to King (among others.) So while you shouldn’t think it’s King speaking, your brain can’t help but take the voice to be his. Amusing trickery.

My only issue with this book is that the last one-third seemed more dry and somewhat serious than the rest. I found that a bit confusing, as the whole point of the character he’s playing is the satire and sarcasm. Once that waned, I found myself taking his words seriously and that’s dangerous when you know you’re listening to satire. I had to snap myself out of it a few times, to make sure I don’t take anything as fact when he’s clearly making stuff up as he goes. Like the “fact” that bathroom tiles are the cause of 80% of domestic fatalities. It may very well be true, but, it probably isn’t.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit and found it very up-lifting. I’m just dumbfound for not recognizing Jon Stewart‘s voice in the audiobook.

Apr 172011

The topic covered by Malise Ruthven is not free from controversy, to put it mildly. When I approach any work on a religious topic, I automatically become self-conscious and on the lookout. This is of course an understatement when it comes to Islam.

The pressure, whether real or perceived, on any author approaching this topic should already cast doubts as to whether or not the product is biased. I do not mean to imply that there is pressure one way or the other. It works both ways. On the one side there are those who think there is every reason to be aware of the threat caused by the rise of Islam and the progressing Islamization, and on the other those who call the first party Islamophobes and racist. It is therefore no surprise that the book had some very negative reviews. Perhaps another reason is that the topic is one that no two seem to completely agree on. In hindsight, this is reasonable. Scarcely can one find a topic as polarizing as religion.

Islam: A Very Short Introduction is unsurprisingly a short text on a complex and loaded topic. The author seems to be very capable and well-versed. Ruthven covers a large number of topics in a dense space. However, he also wastes some very valuable pages reflecting on the topic rather than presenting it. This would have been very welcome, if you asked me, if it wasn’t at the cost of core material.

This isn’t to say the book isn’t worth reading, far from it. The author does a good job of taking the reader on a tour of the religion from historic, cultural and traditional points to popular-opinion, controversies and even contemporary topics. However, it must be said that as prominent as the author is on the subject matter, he often fails to give the reader background on what he discusses. This might be the unintentional side-effect of trying to make the text interesting and non-linear. As an example, if any book should give a good introduction on Sunni and Shia and their differences, it should’ve been this book. Unfortunately, I found myself reading about them without prior introduction. While later in the book historic background shed some light on how these two groups came to be, it was only mentioned in passing and, without careful reading, the reader may feel a bit at loss as to how these two groups ended on opposite sides of an ongoing battle to this day. It may be the case that the author tried to avoid coming out as painting Islam as a polarized and battled religion.

Having been familiar with both the topic and many details of the subject matter, I can also add that the text was even-handed on most controversial topics. The author didn’t indulge in scenarios involving a complete takeover from extremists, rather, after pointing obvious concerns that most people within and without the Islamic hold. He discussed some recent movements towards reform and potential future trends. Of the cases mentioned were the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia for their right to acquire driver’s license (however that ended.)

Overall, the book is what it claims to be, with emphasis on the word very. The reader should be able to dive deeper into any of the many facets of this significant religion, thanks to the wide, albeit paper-thin, coverage done by Ruthven.

Nov 212010

Rarely do short introductory books make any justice to complex and large topics such as history. John Arnold made the exception in History: A Very Short Introduction. The book is a member of the highly renowned series of Very Short Introduction books by the Oxford University Press which has more than of its fair share of great introductory books.

John explores the history of historiography and the emergence of the discipline. He uses quite interesting and amusing tidbits from the past to both entertain the reader and to examine a use-case that demonstrates how historians work.

What I like most in this book is how the authors demonstrates that history and the past are not the same, nor are they equivalent. He stresses the point even further when he differentiates between history with a small h and History. The subjectivity and time-sensitive nature of history is well explained in this book. A point that many miss by a long shot. Some have even maintained that historic facts are equal to scientific facts, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Finally, John writes that history doesn’t tell us how it would have been had we lived in the past, nor does it teaches us lessons for the present and future. Rather, history tells us something about ourselves. By examining others in similar situations and searching about meaning in what happened in the past, we get insight in what we might do in our future.

Type: Nonfiction.
Category: History.
Edition(s) read: Audio.
Rating: 5/5.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for everyone.

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