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“Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”

January 3, 2011 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY ninjanoodles

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the fantastic 1999 film, The Matrix, where Cypher and Neo are chatting about their introduction to life outside the matrix via Morpheus’s offer of a choice between the red and blue pills. Cypher laments that he wished he’d taken the blue pill instead, making it clear he’d have preferred to be living a happy fantasy rather than risking everything by fighting against the machines.

One of the great things about Cypher’s character is that you can empathise with him. Nobody can blame him for wanting a simple, easy life — especially as he’s not The One. At that point in the film we all know that he’s just as likely to end up a smudge on the ground as make old bones.

I mention The Matrix because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. And this is where I may lose you as a reader. Either way, so it goes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been consuming the works of two prolific writers and speakers, both world experts in their fields: Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky (now 82) is regarded by many as “the Einstein” of his field of linguistics and cognition at MIT, though outside the classroom he talks almost exclusively about political science. Zinn was regarded similarly in his field of history at Boston University.

I first encountered Chomsky in the early 2000s via his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [Amazon|UK], a collection of essays and papers focussing mainly on Central American politics and history over the last 40 years. It’s an astounding book that left me truly stunned, wondering about the rest of the world if even half it it was true. He provides full references and consistently avoids a simple answer to, “If the mainstream media is wrong, biased, controlled or corrupt, then where should we turn to get reliable information?” His answer is typically a variation of Ben Goldacre‘s, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” There is no single source, type or medium of reliable, unbiased or uncorrupt information. You need to look at the mainstream, the margins, including sources you may dislike, and analyse what’s going on for yourself.

Damn. I’m going to have to think for myself. And that’s the point.

Zinn is a fairly recent discovery for me, though most people know him via his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present [Amazon|UK], where he included the viewpoints of non-Europeans in the discovery and conquest of North America. I’ve not yet read it, but I understand that it’s a polarising work, and your reaction to it will depend upon whether or not you’re prepared to revise your views on official history. Interestingly, the FBI kept a large file on him, most notably due to his influence on Martin Luther King, Vietnam anti-war campaigning and the McCarthyist hysteria of the time.

And this is where I think many of Chomsky’s and Zinn’s detractors come from: many seem to regard them as un-American or even traitors. Both authors present alternative versions of recorded history, removing the infantile notion of good (us) versus evil (them), and add insult to that injury by presenting other reasons why such things did or are happening in the first place. It’s not as simple as the official version; it’s not even as simple as the counter-accusations or popular conspiracy theories. It’s a complex mix of power, greed, acquisition, control, domination, influence and coercion, and furthering of interests.

The use of past and present tense is deliberate — these things are still happening. Consider the endless stream of major and minor wars in the 20th and present century, the provision of “foreign aid” weapons and training to brutal and sadistic regimes, the quiet growth of internal enforcement agencies into international intelligence agencies (as has just happened with the DEA), the dismantling of union-protected workplaces that made our workers cheaper than those in some developing countries, and national elections of leaders whose candidates can be differentiated only by their party’s logo. To name a few.

Neither Chomsky nor Zinn pretend to be 100% certain about everything they say. Both admit they may be wrong, and are open to evidence-based correction. Nor should you take it from me as fact, an amateur hack who spends his spare time consuming non-mainstream information, wondering about the world and sharing the occasional thought here whenever I’m not playing computer games or socialising with friends. Use, refine and practise your analytical skills and skepticism to examine what these men say, compare it against what you see, know and/or suspect, read the papers and articles to which they refer, and then judge for yourself.

There is no universal truth, and I’m not declaring that this is it — but it makes you think. However, if you’re unwilling to have your perception of world history and current events challenged, you may want to choose the blue pill…

Here are some of Noam Chomsky’s works that you might want to look at:

  • An American Addiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Case Studies In Hypocrisy [Amazon|UK]
  • Class War: The Attack On Working People [Amazon|UK]
  • The Clinton Vision: Old Wine, New Bottles [Amazon|UK]
  • The Emerging Framework Of World Power [watch online]
  • For A Free Humanity [Amazon|UK]
  • Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism In The Real World [Amazon|UK]
  • The Imperial Presidency [Amazon|UK]
  • The New War On Terrorism: Fact And Fiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Propaganda And The Public Mind [Amazon|UK]
  • Prospects For Democracy [Amazon|UK]

Here are some of Howard Zinn’s works that you might want to look at:

(I haven’t read or seen all of these yet). Both have released many more works, but I think that will keep you busy for some time.

On books and TV

October 20, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY linnybinnypix

One of the numerous blogs I read, normally during my lunch break or while cooking dinner, is that of Seth Godin — marketing guru, entrepreneur, public figure and speaker, and populariser and coiner of the term permission marketing (better known in Internet circles as opt-in).

Most of his blog posts are short and to the point, and are normally of relevance well beyond the sphere of marketing. Hence me reading them, averse as I am to marketing in general.

His latest post really struck a chord with me, covering as it does the apparent correlation between book purchases and addiction to television (particularly banal types of reality TV):

Many people in the United States purchase one or fewer books every year.

Many of those people have seen every single episode of American Idol. There is clearly a correlation here.

Access to knowledge, for the first time in history, is largely unimpeded for the middle class. Without effort or expense, it’s possible to become informed if you choose. For less than your cable TV bill, you can buy and read an important book every week. Share the buying with six friends and it costs far less than coffee.

Or you can watch TV.

The thing is, watching TV has its benefits. It excuses you from the responsibility of having an informed opinion about things that matter. It gives you shallow opinions or false ‘facts’ that you can easily parrot to others that watch what you watch. It rarely unsettles our carefully self-induced calm and isolation from the world.

I recommend reading the whole post: Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so [a rant]

Like Seth did not, I am not going to try to suggest that you do away with your television. It’s here to stay, in one form or another, and these days it has multiple roles as the display device of television, games console screen and home theatre display.

This is also because I’m rather fond of it myself — perhaps a little too fond. Some time ago I realised that I was getting home from work, switching the TV when I got in the door, and would sit and watch it until I went to bed.

So what?

Life’s not meant to be lived in front of a TV any more than it’s meant to be lived playing video games (also something I’m a little too fond of). There’s more to life than consumption of passive entertainment to fill in the time between work and sleep (or birth and death, perhaps). I am, of course, limiting the context of this post to the developed world.

We’ve never lived in an age where information has been more readily accessible (nor, paradoxically, in an age where we’ve trusted it less). We have the majority of the wealth of human knowledge no more than a few keystrokes and milliseconds away. Yet it’s been argued that we’re slowly developing a population who could never design something like the Internet: science and engineering uptake in schools and universities is dropping, literacy rates are dropping, people are losing the ability to write and communicate, and voluntary ignorance is increasingly prized above intelligence.

As Seth says, it’s not a new problem, but it got me wondering about how it affects my own life. In my own little microcosm, I realised that hours in front of a television was time not well spent. There’s never a shortage of interesting things to watch on TV, and you can’t watch it all. Not even all the stuff that specifically interests you (I could watch crime shows, science shows, documentaries and world cinema all day — and with satellite TV it’s possible to do that 24×7). And let’s not forget the cost of satellite or cable TV — many are on contracts that cost a small fortune, so we want our money’s worth, whatever that means.

Too much intellectually passive entertainment prevents me from doing the intellectually active things I very much enjoy, particularly reading and writing. From self-education in science, finance, skepticism, history and biographies to the escapism of well-written fiction and exploring different genres, I can read all day often with no sound in the house but for my cat gently snoring in the corner. Providing I keep the TV off. And as for being creative, it just doesn’t happen if I even look at the remote control — procrastination takes over and the small voice in my head always says that if I just watch this one show, it may give me some ideas on the story I’m writing. It lies. Not about the ideas, but that I’ll then get writing.

I self-experimented for some time by allowing myself to watch TV or play games until 9pm and then switch it off regardless of what was on (much easier with modern DVR systems such as Sky+), leaving the rest of the evening for creativity. While it did result it wonderful productivity, the downsides are that the time is limited and I quickly realised that once I got going, I couldn’t stop my brain. At all. Every time I tried it and got to bed at a normal time, I’d lay wide awake in bed until 3am or so, wrecking me the next day.

End result: I don’t read or write anywhere near as much as I’d like to, even though I usually read a chapter of a book in bed before switching off the light.

So how can one strike a balance between the passive couch-potato and the (often smug) “I don’t own a TV, actually!” people we all know? Pick nights of the week during which the TV stays off? Set a specific time in the evening at which the TV can be turned on or must be turned off? Something else?

I’m genuinely curious.

Categories: media Tags: , , ,

Welcome to Reality

May 4, 2009 Comments off

I’d like to start this post with a welcome to those who have found me via The Global Atheist, and to pass my thanks to Doug for adding me to the aggregator. He seemed to find something interesting in my ramblings (and this is one of them), so I hope you do, too. Fingers crossed?

This weekend I attended the marriage of a friend and work colleague near the ancient and amazingly beautiful city of Bath, in south-western England. He is most definitely what many term a New Atheist and his lovely wife is most definitely an evangelical Christian. It makes for some interesting conversations and — as they are both mature, intelligent people — it will mean that they’re never stuck for conversation when a storm knocks out the power. It may also explain why the wedding took place at a beautiful old hotel in a picturesque rural setting, rather than in a church. I felt honoured to have been invited to the actual ceremony, rather than just the reception in the evening — though when invited, I did jokingly ask who had pulled out at the last minute…

Of course all the extended family were in attendance — many of whom were continental Europeans and antipodean, mostly from the bride’s side of the family — so many had at least crossed the Channel to get here, while others had crossed the equator. Parents, step-parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles — the usual suspects. It made for a marvellously diverse experience with people from various walks of life all united for the common purpose of wishing the Bride and Groom the very best on their promises to each other and themselves. It was, of course, a beautiful day.

It was while sitting down to the post-wedding meal in the early afternoon that I struck up a conversation with a young couple to my left and an older man to my right and — as is probably natural at such occasions — the topic gradually turned to the greater meaning of the day’s ceremony and all three turned out to be remarkably naturalistic in their view of the event. The consensus between we four was that the underlying importance or motivation of the marriage ceremony is predominately to add some kind of “ultimate seal” to the event, to help the newly-obligated couple understand that they have made a promise to one another in the presence of their loved ones and that it’s not something to be taken lightly. I, like everyone else there, hope they have the maturity, flexibility and friendship to grow old together happily.

Later in the evening I was chatting with the same couple and we chatted more about secular world views, and they seemed interested in my views. We discussed the basics of secular humanism, secularism and the problem of religious privilege, soft/weak atheism and its contrast to strong/hard atheism (often characterised as intolerant of religion), the logical reasoning for admitting ignorance as opposed to declaring a position, and so on.

So it took me completely by surprise when he took out a notebook and asked me for a list of books that I’d recommend. After plenty of Guinness — and through the loud music and flashing lights filtering from the next room — this is what I came up with:

  • The Demon Haunted World [Amazon|UK] by Carl Sagan. The man is my hero, what can I say? The book presents his genuinely compassionate view of supernaturalism and what it’s meant to mankind.
  • Anything and everything else by Carl Sagan — including Contact [Amazon|UK] and especially the Cosmos [Amazon|UK] TV series. All his and Ann Druyan‘s works share the same compassionate, understanding view of the world.
  • God is Not Great [Amazon|UK] by Christopher Hitchens. He may be one of the founders of New Atheism as one of The Four Horseman, hold political views that swing as wildly as a large grandfather clock, and get himself beaten up for insulting thugs on their own turf (and here), but the man is undoubtedly one of the best thinkers of our time. That all of his opinions don’t agree with your own is a good thing — I don’t want to read someone whose words I agree from start to finish, as there’s no critical thinking in that.
  • The God Delusion [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. Many religious people consider this worse than Anton LaVey’s contentious work, The Satanic Bible, but I suspect that’s because the former uses provable facts to justify itself and makes absolutely no room for dogma.
  • The Selfish Gene [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. It may be a little hard going on the majority of us who are “bioscience-challenged,” but it is a classic piece of work that helps illustrate how un-you you actually are. Helps put things into perspective when your ego wants to insist that You Are Special — and perhaps you are… just like everyone else.
  • The Culture series of novels by Iain M. Banks — I started with Look to Windward [Amazon|UK]. I’m only a few books into the series, but I find it fascinating.
  • 1984 [Amazon|UK] by George Orwell. I read this in the year it was set, at the age of 12, and it changed me forever.
  • Watchmen [Amazon|UK] by Alan Moore. It shows that even bad people have redeeming qualities and good people have damning qualities, stripping the infantile false dichotomy of Good and Evil People. But of course without such flawed thinking we can’t possibly justify war and capital punishment, so it remains as valid today as ever before.
  • 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God [Amazon|UK] by Guy P. Harrison. I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s brilliant.
  • The websites of the following organisations:
  • There are also the podcasts and vodcasts listed via the link at the top of the page.

Last but not least, have a read of the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles:

  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
  • We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
  • We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
  • We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

I expect some atheists — and of course theists and deists who find their way here — will disagree with what I’ve said, both in this post and previous ones (please feel free to read through the archive), but I cannot reconcile the concept of belief, or even emphatic or ardent disbelief, with logical reality. While at university some of my peers jokingly nicknamed me Data — the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation — and I then (as now) considered it a sideways compliment, as the character was all about logic and intellectual honesty, and that series of Star Trek was the poster-child of and introduction to the concepts of humanism for millions of people. Sure, I have countless flaws in every aspect of my life, but I try to improve this blink of existence called my life and to help others (and nature) where I can. And I think that’s all any of us can really do.

But I do what I do for humanity, not to try to earn a place in an afterlife. That is, I think, what humanism is all about.

Pretentious book meme

February 16, 2009 Comments off

I thought I’d continue the book meme found at Nullifidian’s site

Apparently the BBC reckons most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here, though the closest BBC reference I can find to it is The Big Read from 2003. Either way, it’s time to find out:

Instructions:

  1. Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read ENTIRELY (and not just seen the film!)
  2. Add a ‘+’ to the ones you LOVE.
  3. Star (*) those you plan on reading.
  4. Tally your total at the bottom.

The BBC reading list:

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien x
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling x
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee x
  6. The Bible x
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell x+
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman *
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens *
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott *
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller x
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare *
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier x
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien x
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger x
  19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens x
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams x+
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll x
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame x
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy *
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis x
  34. Emma – Jane Austen
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis x
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini *
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne x
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell x+
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown x
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy *
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding x
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan *
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel x
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert x
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens x
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley x+
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck x
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov *
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas *
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac *
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding x
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie *
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville x
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens x
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker x
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce *
  76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White x
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle x
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery *
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks *
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams x
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas x
  98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare x+
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl x
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

If I’ve tallied correctly, that’s: 34 x / 5 + / 15 * I’ve not read nearly as much as I’d have liked in recent years, but amusingly I have a number of those “want to read” books sitting in a pile in my living room. So much to do, so little time…

Categories: art Tags: