Tag Archives: Books

A reminder of reality’s magic

This is really a reminder about another sciency book for the kids – especially with Christmas coming up.

Back in May I posted on a new book by Richard Dawkins (see The Magic of Reality for young people). I am posting again on this because the book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, will be released this month in the UK (October 4 in the US).

It’s bound to be excellent, given Richard’s well known literary and science communication skills. And the illustrator, Dave McKean, has illustrated many award-winning books.

And the recommendations are good. Lawrence Krauss describes it as ”
“Exhilarating. The clearest and most beautifully written introduction to science I’ve ever read.” As for Ricky Gervais – he says: “I wanted to write this book but I wasn’t clever enough. Now I’ve read it, I am.”

Looks like the book is aimed at the older child and teenager, and appears suitable for adults as well.

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A secular bible

Here’s something for your winter reading – The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

I purchased it recently and am enjoying browsing through it. It’s a collection of wise sayings, proverbs, etc. Ideal for browsing – just as well as its 600 pages long.

Wisely, A. C. Grayling does not describe himself as the author – rather the book was “made” by him.

The Good Book is a collection of comments – proverbs, songs, parables, etc. – advising on the good life. Secular comments originating as far back as Confucius and the ancient Greeks. As Grayling remarks in his Epistle to the Reader:

“Throughout history the commonwealth of humankind has had master-thinkers whose mighty works are monuments to posterity; it is aspiration enough to be a guide among them, and to take from them resources to promote what is true and good.”

To this end he has made this book:

“consisting in distillations of the wisdom and experience of humankind, to the end that reflecting on them might bring profit and comfort. “

Its secular nature is a tremendous advantage. Grayling describes the book’s purpose as:

“not to demand acceptance of beliefs or obedience to commands, not to impose obligations and threaten with punishments, but to aid and guide, to suggest, inform, warn and console; and above all to hold up the light of the human mind and heart against the shadows of life.”

A.C. Grayling was interviewed about his book by Kim Hill last weekend. You can hear the interview at  Saturday Morning with Kim Hill. Or download the mp3 file.

Here’s an example from the book – a list of proverbs on Books:

1. Something is learned every time a book is opened.
2. A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
3. Books are ships that traverse the seas of time.
4. Books cannot always please, however good; minds are not always craving for food.
5. Books give no wisdom where there was not wisdom before.
6. Rather a study full of books than a purse full of money
7. There is nothing so old as a new book.
8. The best companions are good books.
9. The books that help most are those that prompt most thought.
10. The virtue of books is to be readable.
11. There is no frigate like a book to take us to lands far away.
12. Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
13. The world may know me by my book, and my book by me.
14. Word by word the great books are written.
15. The reader’s fancy makes the fate of books.

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The future of books – and Santa?

There have been three common reactions to the news that theREDgroup Retail – which owns New Zealand’s Whitcoulls, Borders and Bennetts bookstores, has gone into voluntary administration

(This news may not be as bad as it sounds as unlike receivership, the aim of administration is not to sell the business but to try to return it to viability).

1: Shock – what does this mean for book retail in New Zealand? This is a crisis!

2: So what? Whitcoulls’ customer service was poor. They were only pretending to be a book shop. Bring on internet purchases and eBooks. We may even see growth of the independent book sellers.

3: What’s going to happen to Santa? He’s been such an annual fixture on the Whitcoulls’ Queen Street building in Auckland.

Whatever the financial and customer service problems this move does seem to signal significant changes. Inevitably there will be staff losses and closure of at least some shops. But the interesting thing will be how the company accommodates the huge changes in book retailing currently underway globally.

Commenters have already pointed out the Borders and Whitcoulls had not reacted well to the growth in internet book purchasing. And they have been slow to accommodate growth in eBook sales. So any restructuring of these retail outlets will have to take into account the reality that the internet and digital book revolution provides customers with  an alternative of rapid access to almost any book in print or in digital format.

As a recent purchaser of an eBook Reader (see The joys of eBook readers – the Sony PRS-650 Touch) I hope this restructuring will facilitate the lifting of regional restrictions on eBook purchasing.

It’s hard to know what the future of book retail in New Zealand is going to be like. In the last 25 years I have lived through similar upheavals in the music and photographic industries. I guess I have also lived through a similar transformation to digital in financial transactions.

I used to enjoy browsing through records and CDs in music shops. Just as I enjoy browsing through the merchandise in bookshops.

That might change in future. But I will still have the pleasure of browsing through the bottles in a wine shop.

Can’t seen them making that digital.

See also:

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eBook “singles” – and the problems

Electronic books, and devices for reading them, are really taking off. In a way, this is reproducing the effect the digital revolution had on music.

One parallel may be with the purchase of music as “singles” rather than albums. The eBook format seems to be ideal for novels and trade books. But it looks like it may be even better for shorter books – the equivalent of music “singles.” Short books can be provided rapidly and cheaply. And they may be more suited to common reading habits than the longer more detailed books.

Amazon thinks so anyway. They recently launched their Kindle Singles selection. Relative short books  each presenting a compelling idea “expressed at its natural length.” And costing no more than a few dollars.

Enter TED Books

Now TED has taken hold of this idea. Many of you are aware of TED – the outfit which describes itself as “a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.” It promotes conferences, events and prizes. These bring together people from Technology, Education and Design. And the ideas are disseminated by videos of the short and stimulating talks given.

You have probably downloaded and watched some of the videos. If not – I recommend you try them out.

TED have just announced the launch of TED books. The publication of short books as eBooks. Effectively taking their videos into a book format. And they are being release through Amazon in the Kindle format.

So TED Books at Kindle Singles is really a book version of TED videos. Their press release announced the first three TED books published as Kindle Singles (The Happiness ManifestoHomo Evolutis and Beware Dangerism!)

This is great and I look forward to many more TED Books.  Well, I would if I could only read them on my Sony eBook reader!

My complaints

So here is my bitch. When the hell are book publishers going to get themselves sorted out? When are they going to overcome the problems presented by different formats and digital rights management?

Why can’t I read kindle books on my eBook reader? (It already accepts ePub and pdf).

Why should I have to purchase another reader (a Kindle) which may not be as good as my Sony Reader Touch, or less suitable for my purposes, just because of the format difference?

Of course I could use a Kindle app on an iPad. But why should I be forced to buy an expensive iPad just to do this? (And don’t tell me about iPods. I have one of these and, No, they are not suitable for comfortably reading eBooks. Nor is reading from a PC monitor comfortable).

Why can’t publishers produce their books in multiple formats? Some already do, but why don’t Amazon make available multiple formats (Kindle, ePub and pdf)?

I hope we are in a transitional phase and these problems will soon be resolved. But if they aren’t it will only encourage production of software which eBook buyers can use to convert formats. This will inevitably mean software for removing digital right management from eBooks to enable conversion.

And that will make eBook piracy a dream – something the publishers surely don’t want.

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Some pesky delusions

Book review: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, editors John W. Loftus and Dan Barker


Price:
US$14.28; NZ$44.97

Paperback: 422 pages
Publisher:
Prometheus Books (March 31, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
1616141689
ISBN-13:
978-1616141684

As the title indicates this book is about delusions often promoted by Christians. These are many and varied. The show up in areas such as the history of science, cosmology, morality/ethics, history, culture and anthropology, the nature of the mind and consciousness, ideas of gods, the Christian bible and the historically authenticity of biblical history. Religious leaders and theologians promote them and congregations uncritically accept them. That is the nature of faith and is Why Faith Fails, as the book’s subtitle says.

It is a collection of articles by nine different authors. The advantage – most readers will find some articles which specifically interest them. The disadvantage – few readers will have the same interest in all the articles.

Another advantage of different authors is that they are all experts in their own fields and write authoritatively on the subjects of their articles.

So I should declare my interests.  Part I: Why Faith Fails and Part 5: Why Society Does not depend on Christian Faith specifically interested me. Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good and Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God would interest those with a background or interest in theology. Readers interested in biblical history and analysis might prefer Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word.

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An unnecessary being?

Have a look at this brief interview of Leonard Mlodinow – the co-author with Stephen Hawking of the just published book The Grand Design

The extreme media reaction to this book was based on the simple sentence:  “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Apparently some theologians were so bent out of shape by the “audacity” of the claim they just had to attack a number of straw men, and assist the book up the best seller list in the process*. You would think they would be used to this by now. As far back as 1878 George Romanes, a biologist and lapsed catholic, wrote  “There can no longer be any doubt that the existence of God is wholly unnecessary to explain any of the phenomena of the universe.”

In this interview Mlodinow expands a little on the extract and helps bring some sense into the discussion.

YouTube – Leonard Mlodinow: God Is Unnecessary.

* One of the worst comments I read was by Mike Bara (see Hawking’s Latest Absurdity Spells the Death Knell for Scientific Materialism). He called Hawking “arrogant and ignorant”, a “self-appointed academic elite”, “deluded”, “a broken, ill and crippled man”, “narcissist” and a victim of “the Darwinian delusion”. He added, for good measure, that “science is an empty path bereft of meaning” and “the scientific materialists day is over, and Hawking, their champion, deserves not our wrath, but our pity.”

Move over Dawkins – we have another demon to stick pins in.

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Evolution of gods, morals and violence

Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.

Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405183810
ISBN-13: 978-1405183819

In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.

Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, “this view of human nature – the very idea that there might be a human nature – smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.”

However, the time is right. “It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.” One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.

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Understanding the “multiverse”

Book review: In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin

Price: NZ$55
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Allen Lane (August 27, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1846141133
ISBN-13: 978-1846141133

These days when people talk about the “multiverse” they usually mean the idea that our “universe” is just part of a larger, perhaps unending, collection of “universes.” And that these different universes may have different characteristics, different values of physical constants, for example.

So, I was a little surprised to find John Gribbin beginning his book with the “many worlds’ idea of Hugh Everett. The idea that the different possibilities inherent in quantum-mechanical descriptions leads to formation of many words as events lead to multiple quantum-mechanical choices. A little disappointing as I wanted to learn about the origin of multiple universes in inflationary “big bang” theory. He discussed this only in the second half of the book.

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Book recommendations?

Ever wondered about those short recommendations featured on the covers of books. Sometimes  I am shocked to see a recommendation from someone I respect for a book I know is rubbish.

Well, this exchange of letters (see But will they come when you do call for them?) over a “recommendation” of Murray Gell-Mann for a book by Stuart Pivar provides an insight. It seems that we can’t always believe what is written on book covers – let alone what’s between them.

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The Atheist Camel Chronicles

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Book Review: The Atheist Camel Chronicles: Debate Themes & Arguments for the Non-Believer (and those who think they might be) by Dromedary Hump

Paperback: 324 pages
Publisher: BookSurge Publishing (June 18, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439236976
ISBN-13: 978-1439236970
US15.99

(All international orders via  amazon.com Atheist Camel Chron )

I think there is some great writing on the internet these days. Often in the places you least expect it. Sure there is a lot of crap – but there’s something about the lack of editing and ease of expression in blogs and discussion forums. Writers often have strong feelings on their subjects and they can communicate this in forceful and colourful language. When people feel strongly about something they often write well.

Another fact may be the crap itself. When people make stupid assertions, or descend into fanciful positions or diversions, sometimes the only sensible way to respond is with sarcasm or ridicule. It’s often then the best writing shows.

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