2006 Reviews

It is always good to think critically about that which our minds ingest.

4 December 2006

Richard Dawkins is a biologist, meaning that, while he is a scientifically minded fellow, Dawkins long ago decided mathematics was too difficult. His logical skills have not surprisingly remained underdeveloped. This is most event in his impressedness by the anthropic principle with its cognito ergo sum like sophistry. Why is the universe the way it is? Dawkins would have us believe that "because if it wasn't then we wouldn't be here to ask the question" is somehow a better answer than "because God made it that way". Yet both are mere dodges, adding nothing to our understanding and then he goes on to insult physicists for not seeing it his way, rather effectively demonstrating the negative effects of the current compartmentalization of knowledge.

Dawkins also fails to understand the distinction between "how" and "why" questions, while correctly realizing our propensity to assign to all causes an agent. In the English language "why" question often implicitly includes a cogniscent agent whereas one must explicitly include the agent in a how question. For example, the classic question question "why is the sky blue?" begs for the uniformed parent to provide the answer "because God made it that way" whereas the question, "how does sunlight scatter in the atmosphere?" is much more difficult to answer so tritely. But, one might say, the latter question already demonstrates a significant understanding of the the form of the answer. Exactly! Wellposedness of questions is of no small importance in science.

One cannot help but cringe claims that natural selection is "the process which, as far as we know, is the only process ultimately capable of generating complexity out of simplicity." What exactly have Mandelbrot and other chaoticians been studying for the past few decades? Do fractals, turbulent flow, the butterfly effect, etc. all require natural selection to explain them? Here again Dawkins is demonstrating the narrowness of his knowledge base and the absence of mathematics in it.

Couldn't atheism find someone with a little bit broader knowledge base to be its spokesperson?

Nevertheless, when discussing evolutionary biology and religion Dawkins is clearly in his element. If you can get past some of his kookier views (Pedophilia is all that bad, animals should have rights but not unborn children, tons of famous people were really atheists, etc), the discussion of why humans developed religion from an evolutionary perspective is the best I've read. It makes quite a bit of sense that those children who accepted unquestioningly the what they were told by their parents would have a higher survival probability. Of course, his conclusion that modern children should therefore be protected from their parents education again falls into the kooky category. The state has done little better in most countries, and parents have more of genetic interest than the state does in their offspring. The most odius example of this being Sparta in ancient Greece, which forceably removed all Spartan boys from their families for training to be Spartan men. While legendarily successful in battle, the Spartan state bred itself out of existance.

Criticism aside I would say Dawkins book is important because of its advocacy for closet atheists to stand up against religion instead of hiding to avoid the social stigma. Considering that most people in the US consider atheists to be more dangerous than muslims in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Dawkins book will hopefully be an awareness raiser among believers.

27 November 2006

These days one cannot read a tale of the fall of Constantinople without evoking images of the defense of Tolkien's mythical Minas Tirith, which was in no small part based on the truly historic events. In the age of jihadding terrorists it is also hard not see the Muslim conquerors as the Christians of the day did - evil and barbaric. This is magnified by the paucity of Ottoman sources. As Crowley puts it, 1453 is unusual in being history largely written by the losers. Nevertheless, his attempt at telling the tale of 1453 is balanced without omitting greusome details of the medieval warfare. Crowley paints the conquest of Istanbul alongside the fall of Constantinopolis with Sultan Mehmet squaring off against Emperor Constantine. If there can be any complaint about this book, one might say that it is a bit short. Crowley sacrifices details that would be interesting to the historian to maintain the flow of an exciting narrative.

11 October 2006

I must admit that I admire Arthur C. Clarke above all other fiction writers. When I heard he had dueled in letters with the witty if slavish C. S. Lewis I could not resist the temptation of purchasing From Narnia to a Space Odyssey. Alas, their correspondence makes up less than twenty pages of this book, which is mainly a compilation of stories of the two authors. It was good to reread some of Clarke's stories, but I was disappointed with Lewis, who boldly stated "man can not be trusted with knowledge". Perhaps it is merely the classic encounter of an optimist and a pessimist. I would only recommend this book to demystify those who see Lewis as the great 20th century Christian apologist.

9 October 2006

I recently read William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and I have to say I still enjoy reading this guy. In addition to my fascination with the language as it stood several centuries past, I find the comlexity of Twelfth Night indicative of a human mind as developed as the best of today. One thing that has been lost as cinema has replaced theater is audience participation, of which Shakepeare was a master. Asides to the audience like Sir Toby's "Marry, I'll ride your horse as well as I ride you." left little doubt as to what happened in the partsof the story which couldn't be acted out on stage.

Being something of a master heckler myself (I once caused a player to commit 2 errors in a baseball game), I would love to have seen how the actors of the day reacted to guys like me in the Globe Theater. From what I've seen of Parliment it must have been a finely developed English artform indeed.

As for the particulars of Twelfth Night, it starts off with a shipwreck and then the characters contruct a web of half-truths which lead to a multitude of hilarious circumstances. The tale is dominated by Olivia, a rich woman, and Viola, who spends most of the time pretending to be a man. The real men of the story are either drunk or hopelessly 1-dimensional characters whose lives are shaped by the actions of these two women.

2 October 2006

When Lao Tzu (老子) wrote the Tao Teh Ching several centuries BC, imperial rulership was already well established in China. Much of the Tao is thus addressing rulers on how best to rule, as they were more likely to be able to read than those they ruled. Lao Tzu's approach to good government has often been described as libertarian because, as he wrote, "The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware." The darker side of this is that much of the Tao asserts that everyone has their place in society, and to not accept that or try to change it is against the Tao. Much of the book not devoted specifically to ruling focuses on opposites, explore the ying-yang nature of reality. However, statements like "When all the world recognizes good as good, this in itself is evil" are pure nonsense and one hopes that perhaps something has been lost in John Wu's translation. More likely it is an expression of a member of the learned class trying to protect his profession through obfuscation.
Ingrained as this text is in Chinese culture I would still say reading it is as important as reading Aristotle's Politics is in understanding European civilization. Oddly, many regard the Tao instead as a religous text because of its more philisophical musings. Doubtless it also presents a single cohesive theory of government rather than Aristotle's survey which may have led to this misclassification.

24 September 2006

Being that I am now at the forefront of particle physics most of the literature I read is in the form of journal papers. However, every so often it behooves me to pick up a monograph like J.V. Jelley's Čerenkov Radiation and its Applications from 1958. Working on a sixth and seventh generation Cherenkov detectors at SLAC (DIRCs) I decided it would be a good idea to take a survey of the field from its origins. Jelley's book is by far the most complete reference of the first two decades of this research not written in Russian. The theoretical introduction to the subject is fairly clear and he gives and exhaustive accounting of the western experiments with Cherenkov detectors. However Jelley mostly ignores the Russian work after Frank & Tamm's theory came out in the late 1930's, no doubt not through his own fault but because of the inaccessability of it. We now know that the Russians were not idle. Nevertheless, Jelley's work remains important not just for historical purposes because there has never been a replacement! Here also the Russians have not been idle but post Cold War they are much more accessible, even coming to share an office with me while visiting SLAC.

15 September 2006

Older science fiction is often harder to read because our knowledge increases with time. Mars, whereas clearly uninhabited today, was not so a few decades about when Robert Heinlein penned Stranger in a Strange Land. Bob recommended this to me as one of the best of the genre last we were in Tahoe, so I decided to put aside my anti-fiction prejudice and give it a try. Sadly, it only made that prejudice stronger. Sure, the story started strong enough with interesting characters and deep plot, but halfway through degenerated into a hippie dreamworld with mindreading, levitation, free love, and angels discussing matters in heaven. I don't think I would classify this as science fiction because there is very little science in it; it seems only to have been placed in this catagory because the main character is a man from Mars.

Many place Heinlein the triumvirate of great 20th century science fiction writers alongside Clarke and Asimov. This book left me wondering, so I tried harder to grok it fearing I had missed something. It is a tale as old as civilization itself - the establishment of a religion. Many real ones have been much more pornographic or violent than the one Heinlein imagines, and all rest on the same foundation: a promise of something after death. Of course religions also sort out a culture's worldview, that is in what direction people guess in without having all the facts. This was true of astrologers in Babylon, augers in Rome, or scientists in the United States. Have we not always looked to the stars to understand our universe?

Unfortunately, Heinlein's book did not appear to be critical of this trend and even his straight and narrow representative of logic eventually joins in the orgy. No, Stranger is merely a symptom of Heinlein's time, as an American when that honest and virile society had experienced unmitigated success, conquered the old world, and discovered decadence in the process. Such has been the case since the first men from the hills came down to conquer and rule the cities; they defeated decadent leaders only to become them. Read in the mindset of the period I can see how it might have appealled to some back in the day, but my mind is clogged with too much history to believe so naïve a notion.

My only other encounter with Heinlein has been through the film version of Starship Troopers which I always thought was a parody of the future. Now I realize he was dead serious. This novel makes clear that Heinlein apparently never gave up on socialism as an ideal, he just believed that a libertarian (as well as libertine) road was the best path to it. Don't waste your time reading his fiction.

12 September 2006

If you are interested in French geology, specifically that under vineyards, then this is the book for you. Great Wine Terroirs is a great coffee table book for the francophilic oenophile, with spectacular pictures to showcase the beauty of the French countryside and diagrams to explain the geology. Jacques Fanet takes us on a trip through the different types of geologic regions in France and the vines that grow on them. However, it is a just geology book. Fanet fails to tells us except in trifles how the humans interact with the land to create a great terroir, an integral part of our symbiosis with the soil. He also fails to let his gaze wander far from France, deliberately snubbing California by ignoring it's very complex geology and lumping it into a single section smaller than that of Chile or Argentina.

The English translator, Florence Brutton, is also annoyingly ignorant of geology. This can be confusing for example when she uses French terms rather than the usual Hawaiian ones to describe different types of lava flows. Nevertheless, if one is interested in the geologic strata underpinning France's fabulous viticulture, then Fanet's work is detailed and exhaustive.

28 August 2006

This past weekend for a change of pace I read Fred Bruemmer's The Artic, a pretty picture book indeed. The text was not surprisingly lacking, sinking to preachiness at some points, but then again the focus of the book was the stunning photography. Even though it was over 20 years old there was little in the photgraphs to date them; rather timeless.

23 August 2006

Most people when they write their memoirs cast themselves in a starring role. Jack Matlock, however, has written Reagan and Gorbachev in a different mould. While he is clearly an important figure in the story, Matlock does not over state his role. On the other hand Matlock does not shy away from lauding his own brilliance, pointing out the errors of others but failing to mention any misteps he might have taken. Any axes he had left to grind because of others ignoring his advice are well ground in this book. From his point of view it seems that if they Reagan administration had only followed his wisdom, they would have avoided many setbacks. Such arguementation adds a negative flavor to what otherwise must be classified a good read.

Reagan and Gorbachev begins with the tale of the former character's early years and at first appears to be a one-sided tale, but soon Gorbachev appears on the scene and the narrative blossoms open. Matlock clearly sees both protagonists as heros in this tale and interweaves Politburo meetings with stories of infighting between the US Departments of State and Defense. Avoiding stereotypes, the Soviets are not demonized and the Americans do not always have pure motives. Unlike many historians of the period, Matlock also understands what details are important and this keeps the story interesting rather than becoming bogged down in footnotes or the minutiae of treaty negotiations. There are many books on the period, but Matlock's telling is not a bad place to begin.

2 August 2006

Here's a nice bit of Polemic evangelized by one Gavin Menzies: Chinese sailors visited America in 1421. While some of his evidence requires the faith of a true believer, Menzies' weaving together of the histories of eastern and western Eurasia definitely fills in some gaps rather nicely. That is too say I like the idea alot, but the historical record does not yet provide unequivocable evidence either way so far as I can tell. Something like the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows would do nicely to support Menzies, but I fear if he is wrong the best criticism ever offerable will be that his evidence is merely circumstantial. www.1421.tv

Menzies' greatest flaw is that he ignores information which does not support his hypothesis. For example on p. 169 of 1421 Menzies claims results of genetic testing of the warrah will be posted on his website. The book was published in 2002, so this testing must now be complete, and yet searching the website one cannot find any information about the warrah. One can only surmise that the warrah's DNA was not similar to Chinese dogs as Menzies had hypothesized. And this on a site where every sort of heresay is presented as "evidence"! Men with crazier single-mindedness have been vindicated though (think Schliemann), so scholars of the Ming China ought to probe this idea to resolution none the less.

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Last Modified: 31 December 2006 by Bradley James Wogsland .