August 29, 2004
from - smijer
I purchased my copy used. Had I looked inside first, I might have left it on the shelf. The previous owner marked up the entire book in pen: mainly marginal notes and underlining. But, I had paged through a new copy before and I already knew that I wanted to buy the book, so I took it home, marks and all. Interestingly, the inside cover bore the note "Scientist's C.S. Lewis". In some ways, I suppose, the characterization is fair. This book certainly does a wonderful job of presenting science as a glorious way of knowing. So, if the measure is dedication to the subject, Raymo compares very favorably in his appreciation of scientific reality with Lewis' devotion to the Christian religion. However, the comparison must end there. Lewis seems eager to bolster his cherished faith by finding any means, be it question begging or proposition of false dilemmas, to tie it to objective reality. Raymo, on the other hand, asks us to let our knowledge and beliefs start with objective reality as it is revealed through the methods of science and to build our most deeply cherished beliefs up from it.
Raymo is critical of pseudoscience, superstition, and reactionary fundamentalism as elements of religion, but he doesn't go too hard on the institutions and doctrines of religion generally. He certainly never rebukes the moral witness of contemporary religion, with its peurile fantasies of a fiery hell and redemption through blood sacrifice. And, while he stresses religion's role in providing a cohesive social structure (quoting the words "there can be no community without a community story"), he doesn't mention religion's program for subversion of the individual human will. He speaks approvingly of worship and adulation, and he is properly critical of credulity and gullibility, but he remains silent on the irrational fears that are bred in the minds of True Believers to be sure they never venture too close to a healthy skepticism of such human institutions as the church. He could have and should have spared a chapter in the book to offer his audience relief of such fears. Doing so might have furthered his agenda of evangelizing the scientific way of knowing as much as his presentation of its attractive power.
Raymo also takes issue with scientists whom he terms "strong" reductionists: namely Weinberg and Hawkins. He rightly criticizes the hubris of Hawking who would name the most fundamental description of physical law "the mind of God", but I think he mistakes Weinberg's reductionistic program. It is not merely faith that causes the scientist to seek the more fundamental reality reductionistically. It is a time-tested truth that the search for the basic building blocks requires examination of physical processes at finer and finer scales. That isn't to say that ultimate reality is best understood at its most fundamental level: it is only to say that we wish to see and know of that level.
Raymo does a better than average job of giving an overview of scientific skepticism and how it works, though he unfortunately doesn't really get into the nuts and bolts of critical thinking. But, the purpose of his book is to build a scientific foundation for the realization of the sublime. I can only say that I admire his ability to give substance to religious devotion without falling victim to the pitfalls of religious and pseudoscientific quackery. Such an effort is a tightrope that Raymo walks with true grace.
The true power of Skeptics... is that it whets the appetite for both knowledge and mystery. Upon turning the last page, you will be eager to get back into the world and explore it as directly as your physical circumstances will allow. This is a highly recommended book.
Update: I updated the Book Sense link, in case anyone was trying to use the service and wondering why they landed on the wrong book!
March 21, 2004
from - smijer
Normally, I am the last to go in for corny pop-philosophy and its intellectual cousins. Matter of fact, I usually leave all the philosophy (and most other humanities) for people with a better temperament for them. But...
I was browsing the bookstore Saturday and found "Astonish Yourself! 101 Experiments in the philosophy of everyday life". I picked it up because of the word "experiments". It's not often that a pop-philosopher is willing to get his hands dirty. I bought it because of the material I am about to shamelessly plagiarize, #20 Imagine Your Imminent Death:
At any moment we can die suddenly... [snip]... Try to visualize your deathbed agony, your corpse, your burial, your rotting body, your skeleton. Visualize the tomb with its horrible liquids. Understand that you will never see the light or the curving earth again. You'll have finished forever with its warm winds, its wetness, its flashes of color, its scents. You'll know nothing of flesh, to caress or bite into.
It may be that you find these ideas upsetting. You will doubtless be relieved to know that your distress is absurd and, in fact, without foundation. You are dead, otherwise you wouldn't be buried and in the porcess of rotting. At the same time you're alive, and capable of being affected by feelings and emotions. Therein resides your error. These images exist in your head now, and in your living body. When you're dead, they'll no longer exist...
Not all of the books' experiments carry such a fine literary quality, building up a psychological frame of reference, then pulling the rug out from under it with a delicate turn of almost-too-obvious logic. Matter of fact, some of the books' experiments are just plain banal, or corny in that pop-philosophy way. (You might think that this one is, too!) But the author had the sense, at least on these two pages, two take a train of thought that surely everybody has followed once or twice, and promote it from the easily-dismissed "idle fancy" rung, a few notches upward on the ladder of increasing profundity.
If I come across any more experiments worth reporting on, I will let you know. I won't patronize you with this disclaimer every time, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention at least once that these are not the sorts of experiments from which an empiricist would feel comfortable drawing rational conclusions. They are called experiments because one does a thing in order to elicit an experience. The methodology isn't one that would allow a person to draw rational or factual conclusions about the object of study. So, they are almost without real "philosophical" or scientific value. Still they provide at least as much new perspective as a parlor game like "Charades" might, without all the extra excercise.
March 08, 2004
from - smijer
Ordinarily, I wouldn't review a book that is this old, or that I read so long ago. I make an exception because the first hint of spring arrived last week. I think spring becomes more and more valuable as a person gets older. After a winter inside attached to a computer keyboard, it's a pleasant reminder that outside is good. With that I will review the first book that comes to mind when I start thinking about pulling weeds from the flower beds:
In Second Nature, Michael Pollan breaks tradition with his grandfather's stodgy, old-style gardening, and attempts to build a landscape in the nature-worshipping spirit of Thoreau and the "mod" environmental culture left over from the 1960's.
If you have experimented with gardening without pulling weeds or fencing out herbivores, then you can imagine the sort of defeat Pollan suffered at the hands of nature: "utter."
This defeat led him to modify his understanding of nature's power and man's place in it. Society was born with agriculture: more than the ability for language, laughter, or trigonometry, it is humnity's ability to modify the environment that has made us successful, and it is was through agricultural cooperation that our first great societies were born.
Agriculture, Pollan argues, is man's defining work, and horticulture is that work in miniature, trending toward art. Pollan builds an ethos around horticulture that gives proper caution to humanity's impulse for overreaching and domination of nature, but encourages us to do what we do best: mold nature to suit ourselves, to the benefit of us both.
This is the perfect read for the advent of spring. Pick up a copy from your independent bookseller today:
January 07, 2004
from - smijer
In Code: A Mathematical Journey, by Sarah and David Flannery
I simply cannot say enough good things about this book. Sarah Flannery, with gracefully acknowledged help from her father David, describes for readers her own brush with academic fame and the single-minded research that only comes from a heart-felt passion. It brought her to the pinnacle of scientific success while still a teenager in Dublin, Ireland. The passion is infectious, and Ms Flannery knows just how to tease out the logophile in each of us.
She introduces us to herself and her familiar (if still quirky) family, and the education she received by saturation at home. One cannot help but make comparisons between the Flannery's precise mathematical instruction and the Weasely family's (that's of the Harry Potter line, if you don't know) ubiquitous use of magic. Rigorous, maybe. Boring? Never. A fantasy suitable for youngsters and oldsters alike: yes, but, unlike the Weasely's, a potential reality as well.
After sharing some of the favorite logic puzzles and teasers that she was suckled upon, Sarah moves on. With humility and good humor uncharacteristic of a person of the same age in America, Sarah introduces her readers to the basics of number theory and its application in computer cryptography.
She tells us of her interest in creating a cryptographic method for a regional science competition, and how it dovetailed nicely with the extracurricular studies where she was immersed. She traces the project from its beginnings as a hunch she shared with a collegue in her cooperative education program to its culmination as a mature piece of scientific research and a potentially earth-shaking discovery.
She shares with us the unearthly exhilaration of earning accolades and awards for her work, without ever giving the appearance of unseemly pride or of false modesty.
This book is a fascinating and educational read for anyone - including the "math challenged", and including people you would normally consider might be too young to care much about whether a number is prime.
Buy it. Read it. Leave it out for the youngsters to get their greedy hands upon. This book receives a 10 out of 10. Buy from your local independent book-seller.
January 04, 2004
from - smijer
The Man Who Warned America: The Life and Death of John O'Neill, the FBI's Embattled Counterterror Warrior
I chose this book to be my first on-line review based on a number of expectations I had of it before I read it. I list them:
I had hoped my first blog book review would be a "10", and a must-read for every American. Click to continue reading.
On some points the book was everything I hoped. On others, I was disappointed.
The author, Murray Weiss, is a journalist by trade. To the best of my knowledge, this is his first book as sole author. It is a shame he didn't have better editors for his first book. There were a number of editor's mistakes, including repetition of entire passages verbatim in separate chapters. This also pointed at an over-all problem of construction Weiss seems to have experienced: a difficulty in organizing a coherent whole from the pieces of John O'Neill's life and work.
We learn too much about O'Neill's grooming and dating habits, but receive only a two-dimensional treatment of the character of his relationships. He was "sometimes brusque", but we are left to wonder where and how those sharp edges were manifested. We learn that he had a lot of women in his life, and that they (probably) didn't know about one another. We don't learn much about what he meant to each of them, or what they meant to him - just that he "needed" all of them. We learn about O'Neill's view of the Clinton administration (negative), and we learn of some of Clinton's failings, but we learn nothing about Bush (except that he reacted "boldly" to the events of 9/11). It seems the author was unable to tell the story without allowing his own politics to color it.
Unfortunately, John O'Neill was not part of the story of pre-911 threat assessment, so my hope of getting a clearer picture of that process was not satisfied.
That's the negative. Now the positive:
We do learn, not only about the workings of American Intelligence, but also about how John O'Neill changed those workings. We do hear the compelling personal story of O'Neill, and see his career traced through the major events in American and International terrorism from the early nineties all the way to the September 11 attacks. We discover how much obstructionism a single self-important ambassador overseas is capable of in the investigation of the USS Cole bombing. Weiss deploys a sense of suspense relating the unearthing of the millenium plot.
I'm going to score this book an 8 out of 10. You can learn more about O'Neill by reading this transcript of a Frontline episode about him.
If you choose to purchase the book, please consider shopping at an independent bookseller. Amazon.com is wonderful, but no one thought much of such phenomena as Rupert Murdoch and Clear Channel Communications a few years ago, either. Use your zip code on the form below to find an independent book-seller who stocks The Man Who Warned America: