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Alex Ireland

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Letter To A Christian Nation
Letter To A Christian Nation
by Sam Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

66 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Concise and well put Christian Polemic., 7 Sept. 2008
This book is really suited to someone who wants to get the key arguments against Christianity without having to spend a long time reading something like 'The God Delusion' or 'The End of Faith'. It's very short and could be read in a day or even in a single reading.

Most head-in-the-sand Christians won't read anything that would challenge their faith but I would hope that a simple, short book like this would make that simple task more feasable. By reading this book, a Christians would certainly have some questions and be forced into a bit of thinking. But if their faith is genuine, honest and real why fear this?
Surely they'd come out the other side with a deeper, stronger faith.

I'd certainly applaud Harris for going out of his way for making it as easy as possible for a Christian to challenge their beliefs - a crucial part of any objective thinking.

Harris makes some excellent points. Among them:

1. Four of the most revered Theologians Augustine, Aquainus, Calvin and Luther were mad men who advocated torture and all sorts of hardship.
Does this mean that the Joe average Christian, who one would assume would abhor such perniciousness, can understand scripture better than the most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity?

2. Objections to stem cell research from hardline Christians is preventing research into the most promising science that offers hope to so many cruel and life debilitating ailments.

3. The problem of evil - how could a loving God preside over such a cruel world. Theodicy cannot answer this.

4. The number of world conflicts emanating from regions with disparate religious groups:
- Palestine (Jews V Muslims)
- Balkans (Orthodox Serbians V Catholic Croatians V Bosian Muslims)
- Northern Ireland (Protestants V Catholics)
- Kashmir (Muslim V Hindus)
- Sudan (Muslims V Christians and animists)
- Nigeria (Muslims V Christians)
- Ethiopia (Muslims V Christians)
- Ivory Coast (Muslims V Christians)
- Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists V Tamil Hindus)
- Philippines (Muslims V Christians)
- Iran and Iraq (Shiite V Sunni Muslims)
- Caucasus (Orthodox Russians V Chechen Muslins, Muslims Azerbaijanis V Catholic and Orthodix Armenians).

It can't all be a coincidence. Surely there's something dangerous about religion that any rational person should be able to observe.

Is the Bible a fail safe guide to morality? It certainly has some extremely disturbing passages such as stoning your bride to death if she is not a virgin.

Is Christianity the number one religion for love and compassion? Even a cursory examination of Jainism would show that not to be the case.

But why are so many Christians adamant they have the moral highground, the truth and pretty much everything you need unless you are one of them?

It really is a great little book.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 9, 2012 1:40 PM GMT

One World: The Ethics of Globalization (The Terry Lectures)
One World: The Ethics of Globalization (The Terry Lectures)
by Peter Singer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, 7 Sept. 2008
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
According to many Evolutionary Scientists, the human brain has evolved only to think, work and live in groups of 150 or so people. That's fine if we only live in such groups, but we don't. The evolution of technology has far surpassed anything our instinctive minds can keep up with, so much so that the world we know live in is rather different to what our natural instincts are good at dealing with.

The now interdependent and global world means that worldwide issues such as international trade, environment, ethics mean that we must think globally and universally to find global solutions. That's not an easy thing to do. Not only is it against natural instincts but the problems are of such a complex nature, that the sifting through of endless information and arguments is a difficult task for anyone.

In this book, Singer takes the key issues and presents the key arguments.
He is constantly trying to reason out the right thing to do in an ethical and moral sense using succint and well thought out logic.

Is the structure of the UN fair? What approaches can we use for the Environment? What about the WTO product versus process laws? He explains the background to anything he talks about very well so one wouldn't any sort of esoteric knowledge to understand his points. That really is the sign of a top intellectual, that they can take something complicated and explain it in simple terms. For this Singer must get top marks. He gives interesting examples when explaining the background to his points and some of the problems the world has. I know more about the ethics of Tuna fish catching and the reasons why the EU capitulated in its attempts to ban animal leg traps.

I really have no doubt that it is important that we shift they way we think and realise we are part of one big species that has responsibility to each other. As Singer mentions in the opening of his book, it only takes 25 kilograms of Uranium or 8 Kilograms of plutonium to construct a rudiementary nuclear weapon - it really doesn't alot to reck irrevocable damage, suffering and hardship. Anyone with a moral whif in the body cannot deny it's time we started learning to live globally. The problem is how to do we do that in a rational, reasoned way. This is where Singer and this book comes in.

It's extremly thought provoking, informative, educational - up there with the best I have read.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything
A Short History Of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars There are much better pop Science Books., 7 Sept. 2008
I am skeptical of journalists or writers who think they can write a book about anything. Yeah sure they've a great gift for writing but that doesn't mean they have a great gift for understanding! All too often, they think they understand something when they simply don't.

I really can't fathom that in a very long book which is supposed to be a "all you need to know" about the science, the scientific method itself isn't even explained. This means the mechanism which establishes science as most objective and reliable paradigm we have for establishing objective truth about the universe is omitted. Now, there's a countless amount of facts, dates, figures and 'imagine this' type stuff all there with the intent to make a reader go wow. All very well, some of it will fuse the imagination, but without the scientific method there is no differentiation between science and pseudo-science. What's the point of wow wow wow when there is no clear understanding of the principles and concepts involved in anything without which we have no way of differentiating the reliability between the big bang theory and crystal healers.

Science to me is all about discovery and understanding. It really doesn't matter if it was 1915, 1916, or 1917 when Einstein published his theory on general relativity what matters is what it is saying, the concepts that underpin it and why we can be confident it's correct. In this regard, Byrson comes up well short. Someone like Simon Singh, Stephen Hawking, just about anyone with scientific training does a much better job.

At times, Bryson lists so many facts about a scientist: when they were born, when they went to University, when they met so and so, I felt it was more like a book about famous scientists rather than famous science.

He does make reasonable attempts at describing many of the Scientific theories, but there are times when his understanding is just way off the radar.

For example, when he discusses the theory of evolution his shabby understanding almost casts doubt on it. But that theory is just as sound as the theory of gravity in terms of the scientific method! Both are testifiable, falsifiable, have huge amounts of evidence (one billion+ fossils and infinite amount of DNA evidence), countless amount of peer reviewed etc. etc. So in scientific terms doubting evolution is like doubting gravity. It's just stupid. Perhaps Bryson should think about that the next time he gets on a plane.

His poor understanding insinutates that the lack of fossils found in human evolution may cast doubt on the theory. He sounds like a scientifically illiterate ignoramus who has just sifted their way through some intelligent design propaganda.

Why doesn't he point out the probability of fossilation is only about 1 / million and the probability of finding one about the same, which by simple mathematics make finding a fossil in our or our ancestors species a miracle in statistical terms? Why doesn't he go through the simple mathematics in DNA which have confirmed evolution an infinite amount of times and provide even stronger evidence than fossils?

If you want a pop Science book so that you can understand science just skip this book. Science is a very area broad area now. Experts in Physics are not experts in Biology. Experts in Biology are not experts in Physics. A writer with no scientific expertise is certainly not an expert in anything scientific. If you really want to understand science, pick a branch of science and then pick the appropriate expert. Someone like Feymen for Physics, Dawkins for Biology or Hawking for the Universe.

Before you do any of that, make sure you understand the scientific method as described by Karl Popper. This is the framework that underpins all science and what makes science an exceptionally reliable paradigm. It's why planes fly and why we know the origins of all species on our planet.

If you couldn't give a monkeys about understanding and just want lots of scientific trivial, dates and names rather than any real understanding, yes sadly this book could be a runner.

Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People
Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People
by Susan McKay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting., 25 Aug. 2008
I am from Dublin. The proverbial 'so near but yet so far' takes on a very literal meaning when it comes to the North. We like to think we understand it, simply because of its proximity and because it's an emotive subject, but we usually don't see our simplifications and biases that skew our opinions. So reading a respected account is welcomed.

McKay's book is a large collection of anecdotes from people from the various Protestants traditions in Northern Ireland. Most of them are confused, insecure and fearful. Many of them are insular and bigoted in their views towards anything that has a trace of the Roman Catholism. Those that veer towards the 'staunch' end of the spectrum are perhaps over-represented, but it's difficult to say - it's not as if objective data on such matters exists!

Some of the stories verge on the simply surreal. For example, the poor lady from the Brethren who was kicked out when a co-member saw her listening to her car radio! More mind boggling is her admission that her parents were so ashamed of her that they disowned her and never to spoke to her again.

Even if they may be under-representated, McKay does include some good Protestant folk but alas most of them seem so succumbed by fear they are terrified to speak out and challenge the bigots. Their feelings are so vivid and palpable, at times I felt I was reading 1984 again and the thought police were about to show up!

Some of the liberal Protestants people even favour a United Ireland (usually for economice reasons) or would sympathise with some of the social values of the SDLP but they dare not speak a word. It's as if they feel there would be rejection from their own community, followed by an ignominious life as a labelled lundy.

McKay herself is from a Protestant background. This means that she is looking at her own roots critically. That's a very hard thing for anyone to do and it gives her and this book a lot of credibility. She also let's the people tell their stories in their words, quoting them directly rather than paraphrasing. This style works very well as one would assume that many who read this book will never meet any of these people, or their like and hence she is opening an inaccesible but very real world for people who are quite aloof from it all.

Kudos aside, I would have liked if she divided up the book by the various Protestant traditions rather than geographical regions as she has done. It would have been nice to have the distinctness between the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists etc emphasised. I feel the word Protestant, although a valid umbrella term is used by the media to dumb the complexities of the North. She does dip into this pertinent point now and again but the differences between the various Protestant faiths, not only in terms of their political and social views seem almost categorical so perhaps merited more exploration.

Overall, it's a very good book. But I'd still love to know if more people, especially religious and political leaders, read Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell would things have ever got as messy up the North as they unfortunately did.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
by John Gray
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Overrated, 12 Aug. 2008
This polemic is an attack on humanism. Is it just another deluded philosophy? Nothing more than the various religions it tries so hard to differentiate itself from?

If you are going to constructively criticise something, you need to be sure you understand what it is you are criticising. Does Gray? Most religions use scripture as some sort of starting point to define their belief system. Christianity has the Bible, Islam the Koran, Hindu has - amongst others - the Upanishads. Each religion then tries to interpret their respective scripture. They may disagree on the details but the basis of the belief system is defined. Humanism, has no scripture. So is it just a subjective philosophy?

The closest we have to an objective and consensual understanding of humanism would be the Amsterdam Declaration issued by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Most Humanist associations would ascribe to this. Gray doesn't reference this at all. Instead he uses his own ideas for what humanism is and attacks that. I really think this is the book's major short coming. "Straw Dogs" veers very closely to nothing more than "Straw man" arguments.

In a nutshell, Gray's hypothesis is that, what he sees as the central tenants of humanism - the concept of salvation in knowledge and progress in Science - seem very questionable. But are humanists really looking for salvation? Why use religious notions in an irreligious paradigm? And surely we have unquestionably made progress on some issues through Science? Are we better off not taking pain killers and boycotting our Doctors?

There are plenty of arguments, with flashy turns of phrases and references to leading thinkers, but I thought many of them, when examined, had very little substance to them.
Some examples:
1. In the opening Chapter he says that Darwin and Einsteins discovery's contradicted Scientific evidence at the time.
Now that's an exceptionally audacious and questionable claim to make. Instead of substantiating it, he moves on to other points.

2. The idea that technological progress always damages the environment or humans. Not sure if that applies to solar panels, wind turbines or hydro electric power?

3. At several points in the book, he seemed to think that the humanism consider humans better than animals. A little bit of research would have told him that many humanists consider themselves no better than any animals and hence are vegetarians and / or would be extremly sensitive to the plight of their cousins.

He does make some interesting points. George Bernard Shaw's liking of social Darwinism and his point that the human disdain of inevitable boredom is something which drives capitalism. But overall, as intellectual book, it doesn't offer much. Gray is a very good writer, good turn of phrases, but overall there's not enough substance and originality to any of his arguments.

by Mikael Niemi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Wacky but too disjointed, 29 July 2008
This review is from: Astrotruckers (Hardcover)
This book is very very funny. It's a collection of wacky, surreal and off the wall stories about space ship adventurers - many of which are parodies about habbits and features of human life!

While the author deserves kudos for the imagination, where the book falls short is that there is no real conventional beginning - middle - end per se. Each chapter is it's own independent story. When a chapter is read alone, this is ok. But in the context of a book, the imagination would have had much more substance, if the chapters were somehow linked together. As a book, it comes across as directionless and a bit haphazard.

by Anthony Horowitz
Edition: Paperback

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic!, 17 July 2008
This review is from: Granny (Paperback)
Got a zany sense of humour? Yeah? You'll love this book. Doesn't matter what age you are, this book is hilarious. It has a writing style that teenagers and below could keep up with. But don't fret adults! Any adult who can appreciate the wacky genius in some good off the wall humour will enjoy this litlle gem.

It's both dark and daft. It's Cable Guy meeting Scary movie. Granny is a harebrained old woman, sinister in her motives. She's on the prowl, terrorising young Joe. Can he uncover her unscrupulous agenda? Or will her constant provoking finish him off?

The imagination in this book is just stupendous. The author creates a surreal plot which is so barmy it will make you laugh and resonate with those cringy nerves that need a good old rattle every now and again.

by Robert Harris
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars It's just ok., 16 July 2008
This review is from: Pompeii (Paperback)
I prefer fact to fiction, so I approached Pompeii, thinking it was a compromise and an opportunity to broaden my tastes. While some of the writing is descriptive and colourful, the characters I found to be rather bland and rigid. Rarely, do any of them do anything that is unpredictable, challenging or thought provoking.

By all accounts, Harris's Roman research is accurate but because the story is really a plot between mainly fictitious characters, the research and the ensuing presentation of facts, is really only for a backdrop to form an outer context for the plot.

One character, Pliny of course, is historic and did exist, but I found his role in the plot irritating because the role was obviously fictitious. In fact, I find a lot of "based on fact" stories, books, films irritating because there is always poetic license taken with bits here and there. The distortion of the truth - if you take your truth and fact seriously - can make it even harder to achieve suspension of disbelief which of course is necessary to enjoy any work of fiction.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 26, 2009 2:54 PM BST

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
by Sean B. Carroll
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, 22 Jun. 2008
All species' lifeforms are encoded in DNA sequences. In Humans this is 7 billion characters long. During replication, not all characters are copied correctly. For example, in humans it is estimated 125 or so are copied incorrectly. In certain cases this can mean the resultant amino acids and proteins, which the DNA encodes will be different. This is a mutation. If the mutation provides an advantage, natural selection will mean it is probable it will propagate throughout the species.

DNA provides detail of the mirco mechanisms and strong evidence when critical events happened in evolutionary history. We don't actually need a fossil record to explain evolution. This is the main theisis in this book.

For example, Old World Monkeys and Apes have trichromatic vision whereas New World monkeys are just dichromats. Why? When? How? Carroll explains all in succinct detail by locating the exact location of the relevant gene and then working through the sequence of events.

He uses simple mathematics, running through some probability examples and statistics analysis to the point that one has a full understand of the mirco details, feeling there are no "missing links". It's reductionism at its very best.

He then shows why understanding infectious diseases requires understanding evolution. We are involved in germ warfare. For example, in areas where malaria or typhoid fever is endemic, the genetic profiles of humans shows that they have evolved genes which provide resistance to some forms of these diseases. The problem of course is that these diseases are also evolving (not just to human resistance but to the antibiotics that are used to treat them). Our hole approach to combating these diseases is shaped by our understanding of evolution - right at the level of DNA. For example, it is the reason why triple antiretroviral drugs are used in treating HIV AIDS.

Carroll is superb at explaining micro details. The only criticism I would have is a quick run through speciation and the Popperian scientific method would have helped many who do not understand the big picture, how evolution explains new species being created and how the scientific method validates that explaination. Even though 20 minutes on google will give all that, it would have been helpful for those who do not have any scientific acumen.

The book concludes with some of the challenges facing Science. This may manifest in many forms from political circles to religious fundamentalists. When one factors in pertinent realities such as climate change it only becomes all too obvious how important it is we have a scientific understanding of the world and we make the best judgments from that.

I have read several books on evolution and this right up there with the best. It's just as good as anything I have read from Dawkins and doesn't have any of the caustic anti-religion undertones. He explicitly states that the Pope John Paul II publicly accepted evolution as do most Protestants Churches; Christian creationists and fundamentalists are really only a minority.

It is a book which contains superb explanations of the micro details of evolution. It is full of helpful diagrams, charts and graphs which really help understand the concepts being explained. Don't get it from the library, buy it because you'll want to keep it.

The Road
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too uneventful., 22 Jun. 2008
This review is from: The Road (Paperback)
It's always hard to criticise something which has so much praise. So with that in mind let me attempt to write something constructive and meaningful. This book was just too uneventful for me. It's one long chronicle with no chapters, no character names, no background, no future. It's premise is the relationship between father and son in a post apocalyptic setting. Their lives are bleak and miserable as they go from one day to the next scavaging for food and survival. At times, I felt they were just like stray dogs, nomadic but miserable and hungry.

Why is it post apocalyptic or how did they end up in this mess? Well we don't know. Does it matter? Well I think McCarthy is deliberately leaving out these pieces of the jigsaw. It triggers the imagination and it gives their suffering more gravitas as it becomes the sole focus of the story.

McCarthy's writing style is certainly original and descriptive. The short sentences and paragraphs are almost like little poems, each with a message or an imaginative description of the environment the father and son find themselves in. For all that he deserves kudos. But, ultimately for me there where just too many missing jigsaw pieces and a lack of critical events in this story.

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