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.

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

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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...

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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.

Nov 072010

Jerry A. Coyne does a brilliant job in Why Evolution Is True. This is certainly one of the very best books on the evidence for evolution. Perhaps it’s only counterpart is Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.

Coyne takes the reader step by step from the hypothesis to testability to evidence in clear and concise progression. The book covers historic, geologic, molecular and fossil evidence, to name but a few. It’s full of interesting stories and factoids. Oddities that can hardly be explained without evolutionary theory is one of my favorite themes in the book.

For a topic this broad and complex, the author did a brilliant job in presenting the material in a half-digested form, ready for consumption by virtually anyone with little background. The book never gets boring. This is a page turner to recommend to anyone who wants to get familiarized with evolutionary biology being entertaining.

Type: Nonfiction.
Categories: Evolutionary biology.
Edition(s): Audio.
Rating: 5/5.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for all.

Nov 072010

Dawkins takes the topic of evidence for evolution head on in The Greatest Show on Earth. The book starts off by explaining that fossils are not even necessary to demonstrate the validity of biological evolution. Dawkins likens this to a murderer to flees the sentence even when all the evidence mount to definitive incrimination because of new video evidence, that while supporting all previous evidences, contains a gap and is put in the shadows of doubt by the lawyer in defense of the accused. The gap in the evidence video is very similar to the gap in the fossil record.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for E...
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The book explores all the different hypotheses and expectation that follow from the hypothesis put forward by Darwin over 150 years ago. In deed, Darwin himself did state how his hypothesis could easily be discredit, if certain easily verifiable conditions turned out to be true. One such condition is the order of the fossils in the different strata or layer of earth. So while there is no expectation for the fossil record to be complete, a single misplaced bone would easily turn the whole biological evolution theory on its head.

Dawkins discusses the evidence from molecular biology and genetics as well as many other sciences. He explains how a seemingly complex organ or biological feature may have come to evolve while serving a functional purpose along its different stages.

There are many things to like about this book, not least the mountain of facts and tidbits that the author enriched the book by. However what I personally like about the book is how it explains that the concept of species is man-made. It’s a labeling system that has no counterpart in nature. In fact, he goes on to explain that each generation is a unique stage in the evolutionary history. We only get to group them when a specific group have significantly drifted from another closely related group. Where significant drift is typically defined to mean the two groups can no longer interbreed.

Overall, The Greatest Show on Earth and Jerry A. Coyne‘s Why Evolution Is True are my two most favorite evolutionary biology books, yet.

Type: Nonfiction.
Categories: Evolutionary biology.
Edition(s): Audio.
Rating: 5/5.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for all.

Oct 032010

Richard Feynman needs no introduction. A great teacher and an admirable personality above all. Feynman was not an ordinary person by any measure. As a physicist his methods and reasoning amazed his peers. As a teacher he put fun back into the subject and made learning a whole new experience, packed with interest, imagination and excitement. As a popular person, he denounced authority and accolades, stating that decoration doesn’t change the man underneath, it’s all a facade.

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beate...
Image by TaranRampersad via Flickr

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track is a collection of Feynman’s letters and correspondences throughout his career. No other book can come even close to showing the real character of this brilliant man. From his patient and generous responses to wanna-be scientists with flawed ideas, and those who have some interest in a minor oddity that discuss with Feynman, to those who seek advice for themselves or their offspring, to those who have a few harsh things to tell Feynman. The collection includes some of his personal family mails as well as his very emotional and moving exchange with his first wife before and during her illness and final departure.

Feynman enjoyed the scientific endeavor more than anything. He rejected honorary degrees and other prizes. A very humble character who always accepted his flaws right off the bat. A fascinating read with notes and comments by his half-sister.

This is a gem for all Feynman fans and anyone who’s interested in learning about a great man with a character to awe and inspire.

Type: Nonfiction.
Categories: Letters and correspondences.
Edition(s): Audio.
Rating: 4/5.
Recommendation: Recommended for Feynman fans.

Oct 022010

Slaughterhouse 5; the saddest book I’ve ever read. By far.

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What Kurt Vonnegut does with his words is not humane. Slaughterhouse 5 takes you from scene to scene, jumping through worlds of feelings that intermingle and dissolve. The pain of war. The indifference of everyone and everything. Lost souls children of war.

Billy, the protagonist, tells his story during the second world war who gets captured. His mind is torn between logic and reality. His feelings torn between past, present and the future. He’s constantly fading in and out of time as Billy got “unstuck in time”.

Slaughterhouse 5 is not a story of soul-searching or sanity. It’s a story of chaos and indifference. A story of a lost child sent to witness the horrors of human achievement.

Type: Fiction.
Category: Science-fiction.
Edition(s) read: Audio.
Rating: 4.5/5.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for everyone.

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