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R. J. Farrer (London)

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Black & Decker BDS200 Pipe and Live Wire Detector
Black & Decker BDS200 Pipe and Live Wire Detector
Price: £19.48

2.0 out of 5 stars Cute but ineffective., 2 July 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I had bought a 'first generation' cable and pipe detector about 30 years ago, so assumed that technology would have come on by leaps and bounds since. Not a bit of it. This is as naff as the first one and seems to to have exactly the same old problems:

1) Depth of scan is too shallow to find anything below 3.5 cm

2) 'False positives' (strong signals reporting non-existent threats) remain as frequent as ever.

3) When scanning for AC wires, there tends to be an apparent displacement of the target line by as much as 5 cm from the actual position. This consistent error could be safety critical if trying to drill deep fixings, for bookshelves, say.

4) The device is great for confirming the existence of something you know is there but not much help in a 'blind control test' where there is actual uncertainty, the only test that matters in the real world.

5) The discrimination ability fades with distance/depth on a logarithmic basis, not a gentle, intuitive, linear 'fade'. This makes the assessment of the depth of any true hazard extremely uncertain. The warning 'whine' can go from full-on to absent in the space of 3mm.
Are your hands that steady?
No, nor are mine.

Shame, it is a nice toy but has little utility.

An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam
An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam
by Taner Edis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.89

5.0 out of 5 stars A bold and important book., 9 Jun 2014
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'An Illusion of Harmony'. Science and Religion in Islam

By Taner Edis (2007)

The author was brought up in Turkey but is now Professor of Physics at Truman University in the US.

His background gives him a close understanding of the role of science in a Sunni culture. He is also knowledgeable about Quranic scholarship and the trend towards re-Islamisation in modern Turkey.
Marwa Elshakry’s recent book “Reading Darwin in Arabic” (2013) covers many of the same topics but her book focuses on the reception of modern biological science in the Arab-speaking parts of Syria, Lebanon and the wider ‘Levant’, from the end of the Ottoman period to modern times. I have found reading the two texts together most helpful. Each complements the other.

Islamic scholarship made important contributions to early science and mathematics but Taner Edis shows that there were always tensions within Islam as western science and technology gained power and influence. The author demonstrates that Muslim cultures welcome, exploit and further develop western technology but are often uneasy about broader basic science research, where it reaches conclusions which might directly confront the ‘core beliefs’ and revealed ‘truths’ of Islam.

All three Abrahamic faiths have fundamentalist and “creationist” streams that resist modern science teaching and research, to some extent. American Christian fundamentalists demand that “Intelligent design”, a pseudo-science version of ‘creationism’, be taught alongside evidential evolutionary biology. The US National Centre for Science Education has constantly to ensure that evolution is properly taught in US schools, despite the 1968 Supreme Court ruling that evolution is a central tenet of modern biology and genetics.
Some orthodox Jewish schools in London still redact questions about Darwinian evolution from the national GCSE and A level biology exams taken by their pupils. (See Times Educational Supplement 25-04-2014). Likewise, Muslims worldwide take issue with the notion that humans have evolved from common ancestors shared with extant other primates, as such a notion runs counter to the Quran.

Taner Edis notes that there is a strong current within Islam which seeks to demonstrate that the Quran, regarded by Muslims as a sacred, perfect and thus an un-modifiable text, prefigures much of modern science. These “Nurcu-style themes” combine with relics of Sufi numerology to show that the Quran predicts, inter alia, the ‘space-matter-time continuum’, ‘radio transmission’ and ‘matter transfer’. Alas, when the relevant Quranic verses are examined they appear vague, tangential and un-testable. They appear to be little more than poetic metaphors. This ‘Quran-centred’ selection of ‘special pleadings’ means that while the faith of the typical believer is perhaps strengthened, innovation, debate and reasoned discovery tend to become inwardly suppressed. The exception would be any such research that can demonstrate that it is congruent with the ‘perfection’ of the Quran (see pages106-111).

Edis notes that this absolutism (my term) derives from the Islamic notion that ‘we are all born submitters to the One God, and hence Muslim’. So those who convert to Islam are not 'finding it for the first time' but merely “reverting” to the acceptance of what they always were, but had failed to comprehend. (pages 144-5). Needless to say, the many Muslims who hold this opinion about ‘reversion’, and hence the unassailable primary position of Islam within the realm of revealed faiths, tend not openly to propagate the notion to large groups of their non-Muslim friends and contacts, lest it might give offence.
It follows that while becoming a Muslim is easy, leaving Islam is a most grave decision, as the sin of ‘apostasy’ is a capital offence in the more traditionalist Muslim cultures. (See the case of Meriam Ibrahim, BBC News, 31-5-2014).

The most interesting section of the book for me was chapter 4, “Created Nature”, which deals with the difficulties posed for Muslims by the science of evolutionary biology. Islam is neither as hostile to, nor as challenged by, the findings of modern ‘old earth’ palaeontology, as are Christian and orthodox Judaic versions of ‘new earth’ creationism. Yet there is a clear and unavoidable clash between Quranic accounts of the origin of humans (‘made from clay, by God’) and the modern scientific finding that hominids have a long evolutionary history stretching back several million years.

Northern Europeans, like me, actually possess 2-4% Neanderthal DNA (see work of Prof. Chris Stringer, “The Origin of Our Species”. 2011). Chris Stringer has also shown that some Neanderthal humans buried their dead 90,000 years ago at Qafzeh near Nazareth. (see Stringer p42-43). Somehow the notion of a deliberate hominid ‘burial’, so long ago, cuts to the heart of this problem. We are a much older species than the Abrahamic religions tell us. This recent finding from Stringer would simply be unacceptable, even ludicrous, as an account of human origins to most mainstream Muslims. Yet to scientists in secular Western Europe this ancient ‘gene-mixing’ is an accepted, value-free, fact.

As Taner Edis says, huge resources have been wasted looking for Noah’s Ark somewhere in Turkey. To which I would add, much effort has been wasted, by the Abrahamic literalists, to show that we suddenly arrived on the earth, as we are now, about 7,000 years ago. The truth is so much more interesting.

The author goes on to show (chp.5) how modern social science has caused different concerns to Muslims but because I have little knowledge of post-modernism or the writings of Foucault, I found this section harder to follow. The fault is mine.

Taner Edis reminds us that there are multiple world views and numerous cultures. Most hold science and the scientific method in high regard but certain topics produce head-on clashes between secular and sacred understandings. If the primary source of one’s ‘truths’ is revelation rather than evidential empirical science, there will inevitably be a struggle for harmony between the two epistemologies. In Western Europe science and secularism are currently in the ascendant. But in America and much of the developing world, strong anti-science themes dominate the popular imagination. There the primacy of science cannot be taken as a given outside the universities.

I recommend this book as a stimulating and well-written guide to a most important current issue.

Locke [DVD]
Locke [DVD]
Dvd ~ Tom Hardy
Price: £10.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Civil engineer drives down M1., 23 May 2014
This review is from: Locke [DVD] (DVD)
And it all happens at night...
Doesn't sound that interesting as a "pitch" to the producer but this gripping film works very well because of excellent acting from Tom Hardy and a believable script.
Locke's work and domestic life unravels as he drives south to be at the birth of his child from a brief affair. We share his tension and come to recognise that he is trying to 'do that right thing' at great cost to himself and family.
A most original and dramatic film.

Noah [DVD]
Noah [DVD]
Dvd ~ Russell Crowe
Price: £10.00

9 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Turkey drowns., 5 May 2014
This review is from: Noah [DVD] (DVD)
Ever wondered who built the ark? Such a massive structure for a DIY project, must have taken ages? All is explained here. We learn that Noah had lots of help from a group of silica-encrusted hyper-dexterous fallen angels with glowing 'volcanic' eyes.
This complete turkey of a film is so bad it will probably attract a huge cult following in about twenty years.
The special effects are fun, the arrival of thousands of slithering snakes was impressive. Less so was Ray Winston's familiar 'east-end villain' turning up East of Eden with a strangely waxed and bifurcated beard. This role plumbed new depths in ham-acting stereotypes. As for Ham himself, poor chap has a terrible time.

The script is absurd and internally inconsistent. Is Noah trying to save humanity or wipe us all out to save all other fauna? It does not really matter since the ark fetches-up on a wind-swept island somewhere in the Outer Hebrides and it is soon clear that Mr. and Mrs. Noah lack the necessary allotment-tending skills for survival.
We are all doomed.

The Age of Global Warming: A History
The Age of Global Warming: A History
by Rupert Darwall
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.88

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting history of the debate., 3 May 2014
Rupert Darwall writes well and his argument is consistent. But this book is primarily a history of the politics of the climate change debate. I would have liked a stronger grip on the recent science.
No peer-reviewed modern scientific text would dare add 'guesstimate' graphs from the 1920's as page fillers. 90 year old historical data on coal production only makes sense if the figures are global, not local, since we all share the same atmosphere.
It is true that we live in an inter-glacial period but who can tell when the next glaciation will happen? Darwall certainly does not know. While we wait for the new ice-age to cool us the existing ice sheets keep melting. Should we not try to respond if the rising level of biogenic CO2 is correlated with this change?
The book has won plaudits from the Daily Mail and politicians of the right but there has been little support from the researchers and those collecting the meta-data.
The book is not intended to provide succour to the climate change 'deniers' but they will certainly enjoy Darwall's cynicism about the whole debate.

Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950
by Marwa Elshakry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £31.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes lost in translation., 27 April 2014
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Reading Darwin in Arabic by Marwa Elshakry

When Charles Darwin published his “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, both lay and scientific readers immediately realised the significance of the publication for biology and theology. Darwin had delayed publication because of concerns about its impact on society and faith.
Biologists saw it as a rich and well-evidenced explanation of the sheer diversity of life forms while theologians and those committed to a literalist Biblical account of creation saw the theory as a huge and worrying threat. In the 150 years since publication western science has accepted Darwin’s account of evolution as broadly true. European and progressive Christian theologies have accepted the idea of an evolved flora and fauna, contrary to creationist views. Fundamentalist Christians (in the USA and Africa) and Muslims (especially of the Sunni Wahabi tradition) remain strongly opposed to any theory of human evolution which sees humans as merely a recent development of a long evolutionary lineage.

Marwa Elshakry’s book needs to be read in this context. The context needs to be further narrowed in both place and time. To be specific, and the author is highly specific, we are dealing with the reception of Darwinian ideas as they were modified and transmitted to an Arab-speaking audience in the Levant, and wider middle east, from 1860 to 1950. It is obvious that this book is aimed at a very specialist readership of historians of ideas and of science. A readership which might be interested in the impact of evolutionary thought in Arab scholarship from the end of the Ottoman era to the start of the anti-colonial struggle.

Dr Elshakry points out that by 1870 Arab science in Syria and the Levant was beginning to recognise the strengths of northern European science and polity and noting its attendant power and influence. With Ottoman influence clearly waning, the local Arab-speaking elites began to show interest in reviews of western scientific and technical discoveries published in the local language. The most influential journal of the day was Al Muqtataf, (The Digest) which started in 1876. This reached a rarefied elite of mostly young men who were literate. About 95% of the population of the Levant was then illiterate. Those who read the early issues were both Muslim and Christian and some were probably agnostic materialists. They studied in the new Colleges and Universities of Beirut and Syria, many of these institutions were funded or influenced by American Christian missions or French Colonialists.

Elshakry shows how ideological conflicts, that still exist in the middle east today, had their origin in heated debates amongst an intellectual elite of the 1880’s. The same discussions between mystical and materialist thinkers span the last150 years. The author makes clear that early debates, even within this tiny elite, were distorted and hopelessly confused by the poverty of the various translations into Arabic from English and German originals and the more fundamental problem that there is no Arabic equivalent of the word ‘species’, a significant term essential for a grasp of Darwin’s theory.
In fact the first verbatim translation of the whole of ‘On the Origin of Species’ into Arabic was in 1918, by which time the local pro and anti-Darwin debate had already become bitter and stylised.

Why would an English idea, on a subject at the very fringe of Arab scientific interest, matter so much to Arabs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Elshakry says that the clue is to be found in a desire to modernise Arab thought and thus mimic northern European “progress and power”. But the debate was never firmly grounded because of two essential problems:

1) the special difficulty of trying to construct an interpretation of Darwin’s theory which would be congruent with the sacred teachings of the Koran.

2) A completely bowdlerised and distorted understanding of Darwin which went far beyond biology to attempt to embrace both the concept of ‘evolution’ and the wish for social progress. (Or ‘social Darwinism’)

As the biological understanding of Darwin faded or became incomprehensible because of poor translation and syntactic disputes, the metaphorical Darwin of ‘Social Progress’ came to be a powerful force for Arab independence and revolutionary change.
Elsewhere, Taner Edis, the writer on Islamic science, ( ‘The Illusion of Harmony’, 2007) has described this futile pattern of argument as a form of “Obscurantist cultural apologestics”.

There is an obvious problem with the thesis set out in “Reading Darwin in Arabic”. Given that the geographical area chosen by Elshakry has undergone cataclysmic change in the period discussed, it is extremely hard to determine what, if any, influence Darwin’s writings might have had for the populace as a whole. Firstly, the vast majority of Arabs in the Levant at this time would have been illiterate. They certainly would not have been reading Darwin in English or any other language. Nor is it obvious that the tiny elite that had read poorly translated versions of Darwin had much impact on the mass who could not. As Elshakry herself adds, it is unlikely that even the Arab elite shared the English obsession with the heritability of canine behavioural characteristics which so interested Darwin and the gentlemen of his class.

Let us consider some of the important historical events in the Levant from 1880 to 1950:
The Collapse of the Ottoman economy
The land transfers to the colonial powers as sureties for loans
The rise of the Zionist project in Palestine
The First World War and the emergence of an Arab fighting force under Lawrence
The post-war mandate, a type of ‘colonial occupation’, under Britain and France
The Second World War and the stark awareness of colonial power
The emergence of pan-Arab nationalism, socialism and Baathism
The rise of Nasser
The birth of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs.

Is it not likely that any one of these events would have had an immediate and dramatic impact on the ideas of the local people, whether literate elite or the landless day-labourer, of far greater significance than the distorted and misunderstood ideas of an obscure but wealthy English amateur biologist?

While Elshakry does describe the Arab weltanschauung with exquisite care and scholarship, I came away with the impression that she might have over-estimated the significance of Darwin’s work as an influence on Arab affairs.

Darwin described how and why some species survived while others became extinct. With the publication by Watson and Crick on the structure and function of DNA we have a perfect extension of Darwin’s theory which links the gene to the adaptation of the animal and its progeny.
But Darwin was a biologist, not a ‘social Darwinist’ nor a theologian or Arabist. At times I thought the book came close to attempting to recruit him into a cause he certainly would not have endorsed.

If You Wait
If You Wait
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding work., 23 Feb 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: If You Wait (Audio CD)
Somehow five stars seem inadequate.
Once in a while a sound style comes along that grabs your attention from the first moment. Florence Welch would be an example, likewise Sade, on Lover's Rock.
Hannah Reid has a truly wonderful voice, strong, precise, emotive and wistful. Dan (guitar) and 'Dot' (keyboards) are more than a 'backing outfit' they design the ambiance which is perfectly recorded here.
Hannah's voice captures the pain of loss, uncertainty and messy real-world love arrangements. She is utterly superb.
This is music for any age group which has longed for the return of emotional authenticity in song.
So they did not win a Brit Award last week? Who cares?
London Grammar speak my language.

Kärcher WV70 Window Vac - Window Cleaning Vacuum Kit
Kärcher WV70 Window Vac - Window Cleaning Vacuum Kit
Price: £90.19

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over-complex and still leaves streaks., 2 Feb 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
We read the positive reviews and a friend who already had one recommended the system.

So we were a little disappointed to find that it does not actually provide streak-free window cleaning. It is far slower than a large squeegee followed by scrim (the method used by professional window cleaners) and seems to have few merits, given the high price. Some people like gadgets and this makes all the right noises, but if you still have to finish the job by hand what is gained?
The cleaning fluid is effective but so too is vinegar and the latter is much cheaper. It has been used twice, now it has been consigned to the loft.

DBR Men's Alloy Mountain Bike
DBR Men's Alloy Mountain Bike
Price: £218.00 - £399.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Reasonable price but plenty of niggles., 1 Feb 2014
Had my good bike stolen while on holiday so I needed a replacement immediately. This seemed to be a bargain at just over £200. Lots of gears, front disc brake, comfortable saddle. The shop in Newcastle was friendly and helpful. They did not pretend it was 'top range'. At that price there were bound to be compromises.

It survived the holiday but there are basic problems that had to be fixed:

1) pedal blocks are of poor quality, bearings soon started to feel 'gritty'.
2) front disc brake lacks sufficient grab and had to be replaced with a proper hydraulic unit.
3) rotating grip gear change feels sloppy and imprecise.
4) bottom bracket needs regular adjustment and tightening.
5) handlebar stem keeps going out of alignment, why?

But it filled a gap and the smallish frame actually makes it very manoeuvrable off-road. It does the job in the short term but I will still be looking for a long-term replacement, if my insurers ever pay-up.

Punchlines: A Crash Course in English with John Prescott
Punchlines: A Crash Course in English with John Prescott
by John Prescott
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars The best joke is on the cover., 18 Jan 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Simon Hoggart died last week. He was a delightful and funny journalist with genuine creativity. This is one of his minor works.
It is simply a collection of the more bizarre gaffs produced by that other passionate wordsmith, John Prescott.
Prescott is an orator of great power who often leaves out significant words (often key nouns) from his speeches. This unusual style sometimes makes his ideas seem brilliant, at other times, indecipherable. Hoggart made a clinical study of Prescott's errors and collated them here. As Hoggart was a political correspondent and Prescott is a politician it is unsurprising that they did not get on.
I must confess that I can usually understand John Prescott when he speaks but when his speech is transcribed it can seem very odd. But ultimately I doubt that mocking someone's language difficulty is really a worthy cause.

The more I read, the less funny this project became.
But at 1p plus postage, it is no great loss.

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