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The Tyranny of Science
The Tyranny of Science
by Paul Feyerabend
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Greeks Have A Word For It, 9 May 2011
This review is from: The Tyranny of Science (Paperback)
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Paul Feyerabend's last book is based on transcripts of a series of lectures he gave in 1992.

The book is divided up into four sections: 'Conflict and Harmony', 'The Disunity of Science', 'The Abundance of Nature' and 'Dehumanizing Humans'. At the end of each lecture, there is a question and answer session.

What Feyeraband attempts to do over the course of the lectures is unpack the largely unspoken assumptions that go with our conventional view of science. By science here is meant all science - not just sub-atomic physics, but the 'scientific enterprise' as a whole.

The book starts with 'the Divine Plato'. The 'realm of ideas' as an absolute reality is where it all started to go wrong. The world is split in two - one, this ideal realm, the other our imperfect material reality:

'...human affairs and divine affairs, or human lives and the rest of the world, now have very little to do with each other...Later philosophers, Parmenides especially, went much further. They explicitly asserted that compared with Being...human existence is a chimera.' (P18-19)

And science is concerned with this 'higher' world, not the mere epiphenomena that we commonly experience:

'The world at large as seen by scientists is separated from the insignificant events on this planet and even humans, as seen by scientists (molecular biologists in particular) are separated from what they experience themselves as being.' (P19)

So science manages to not only transcend base existence but also the scientists who construct it. It creates laws that are timeless and spaceless:

'Now the laws to be obeyed both by gods and by humans form a perfect abstract order. Again human life and reality are separated by an abyss: stupidity and disorder here, a perfect but inhuman order there.' (P25)

Moving on, we might accept these contradictions because of the 'success' of science:

'Why should a depressing [scientific] reality like this 'command recognition'? Because of 'it's prodigious power of performance'; performance now being defined in terms of scientific results. Science is successful; all we can do is shut up and pay attention to its ideology.' (P35)

Scientists have access to a 'deeper reality' and we should accept this because of the results that this access provides:

'So we have here a philosophy that is entirely up in the air and yet survives and millennia later shows a 'prodigious power of performance'. Are there ideas which have similar features?

There are. Christianity is an example.' (P94)

It seems, then, that science and religion have more than a little in common. Not simply a 'search for truth' or the attempt at identifying 'timeless values' but even possibly ontologically:

'Not uncontrollable changes of the body but clear directives of the mind constitute knowledge and decide about truth and falsehood. Or, to use modern terms,: knowledge comes from theories, not from experience.' (P106)

This is an extremely short summary of some of the ideas that Feyerabend presents here. They are interesting, they are certainly thought-provoking, but, in some ways, they are almost banal. I think most people are aware, even in some sort of superficial relativist sense, that 'science' is not everything.

I have really mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, if you google the title of this book, you will almost certainly find an 'intelligent design' site referring to it in mildly critical terms. On the other, it is difficult to not agree with John Gray when he says:

'Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our enquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.' (The Immortalization Commission, P227)

But it seems to me that science has one thing that no other 'system' has - an overt (ad)mission that, if the observed facts no longer fit the theory, then the theory will unceremoniously be dumped. Science is always provisional. Of course, science is created by human beings, of course it cannot be 'objective' - humans are in and of the universe and cannot abstract themselves from it. But, at its best, it will not be dogmatic.

In his desire to be iconoclastic, Feyerabend perhaps sets himself targets that are not as 'scientific' as he would have us believe. But, there again, I'm neither philosopher nor scientist.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 13, 2011 3:26 PM BST

Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance
Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance
by Nouriel Roubini
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 19.99

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Back to Business, 7 May 2011
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Roubini and Mihm's book is one of the best I have read on the current economic crisis. Particularly lucid, comprehensive and insightful, it not only explains the causes and effects of the crisis, but also places it in an illuminating historical context. The authors show that repeating crises are the normal state of affairs in capitalism and not the exceptional or 'black swan' events that many pundits have suggested. Subsequently, they go on to suggest ways in which the effects of these inevitable crises may be minimised before finally turning to consider the immediate future and the likelihood of their proposed mitigating measures actually being adopted.

The book starts with an explanation of the current crisis and the events leading up to it. The chapter is entitled 'The White Swan' - a deliberate reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'Black Swan' hypothesis. Far from being a one-off ('black swan') event, the current crisis mirrors those in years gone by. Although, since the end of the Second World War, we may have been living through 'The Great Moderation', now we are actually seeing the return of business as usual - the normal capitalist routine of boom/slump and 'Crisis Economics'.

The next section looks at the 'Crisis Economists'. From John Stuart Mill, William Stanley Jevons and Karl Marx, the authors arrive at Keynes - '[t]he most important economist to emerge out of the Great Depression'(P47). In relation to Keynes, they then go on to briefly discuss Friedman and the Chicago School, Minsky, Schumpeter, Hayek and the Austrian School. The authors believe that the best approach may be a synthesis of Keynes and Schumpeter. Finally, they take a crucial point from Paul Samuelson:

'A founder and codifier of the neoclassical school, he oversaw his profession's embrace of esoteric mathematical models as a way of describing timeless economic phenomena. But when [an] interviewer innocently asked, "What would you say to someone starting graduate studies in economics?" Samuelson gave an unexpected answer. "Well," he said, "this is probably a change from what I would have said when I was younger. Have a very healthy respect for the study of economic history, because that's the raw material out of which any of your conjectures or testings will come." (P59)

In the following chapters, the authors present a detailed comparison of the development of the current situation with the slumps, recessions and depressions of the past. It is absolutely clear from reading these that anyone who claims that the economy has reached a 'new' form and the old rules no longer apply is seriously mistaken. The only surprising thing is that anyone could have been taken in by such pronouncements (I'm reminded very much of Thomas Frank's excellent polemic 'One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy').

After the historical exposition, the authors go on to present a number of reforms or 'First Steps' (Chapter 8). They consider the bonus culture of Wall Street, the extremely obscure financial products that were concocted, the failure and moral ambiguities of the ratings agencies, the derivatives market and banking rules and the Basel agreements. Within the terms of the system their proposals seem eminently sensible.

From these immediate suggestions, they then move on to more systemic 'radical remedies', looking at 'Enforcement and Coordination' (P215), including taking control of the 'shadow banking industry', the reintroduction of some form of Glass-Steagal Act (introduced in the 1930s to keep commercial and investment banking separate - but finally repealed in 1999 with the disastrous consequences that we have all seen), and a far more active role for central banks in controlling and minimising the development of bubbles. The authors are also very aware of the close links between some of those in the shadow banking industry and the US government:

'...we are by no means counseling [sic] a continuation of the high-level "revolving door" that connected some of the biggest financial firms with the regulatory establishment in Washington. Goldman Sachs is particularly infamous for this practice: several CEOs of that firm have held senior positions in the U.S. Government, while scores of other Goldman executives have held high-level jobs too.' (P221)

Again, I'm very much reminded of Thomas Frank - this time of 'The Wrecking Crew'.

Moving out from these essentially national proposals, the authors consider the international ramifications of the crisis and the obvious need for supra-national agreements to control the global economy, reform of the IMF and other global institutions. But, at the same time, they note that even now, some are calling for a return to 'business as usual'.

Finally, they consider the outlook for both the immediate and longer term future. It is not really a very happy picture. The future really does depend on transnational cooperation and, quite frankly, that does not strike me as likely. Whether the current slump is V, U or W shaped, whether Russia should be considered along with Brazil, India and China as a major developing country (BIC? BRIC? BRICK? P285), the fate of the dollar as the world reserve currency, the possibility of countries defaulting on their debts (the so-called PI(I)GS - Portugal, Italy (Ireland), Greece and Spain), the predictable rise in the price of gold (at the time of writing the book, it was at $1000 per ounce, at the time of writing this review, it stood at $1500 per ounce), whether inflation or deflation poses the greater risk - these are all briefly considered. Finally, in a nice reference to Joseph Stiglitz, they consider 'Globalization and Its Discontents' (P298). The current crisis is, they suggest, a huge opportunity for the introduction of changes that, although unlikely to eliminate the boom/bust cycle, will significantly ameliorate its most destructive effects. Whether this opportunity will be seized is a moot point.

Overall then, this is a fascinating and highly readable account of the current economic crisis. It is interesting to note that, although Roubini embraces an approach based on Keynes and Schumpeter, he is quoted and/or referred to in books by Marxist writers like Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos, as well as the former director of the LSE, Howard Davies. Personally though, I believe that the Goldman Sachs Vampire Squid and the Kleptocracy have got far too firm a hold and we are more likely to see the rise of a new form of feudalism. We are so doomed.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 23, 2012 5:06 PM BST

Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You
Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You
by Julie Sedivy
Edition: Paperback
Price: 16.91

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From Bernays to Obama, 29 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Interestingly, this book starts with a discussion of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's favourite nephew and avid reader of his uncle's work. In this, it is similar to John Pilger's 'The War You Don't See' and Adam Curtis' 'The Century of the Self'. All three relate how Bernays effectively 'invented' public relations and also, as a first demonstration of the power of his uncle's theories, started women smoking in public in the U.S.

So why this interest in Bernays? Because of the effects and effectiveness of the vast advertising and media industries that have grown up in this last century of 'extreme individualism'. This book is an attempt to unpack the mainly linguistic 'tricks of the trade' of these industries and, in doing so, to inoculate us against them.

The books main themes centre around the ways in which we are becoming aware of how our minds work and how they may be manipulated. To start with, the authors consider 'The Unconscious Consumer':

'According to Sigmund Freud...we live in constant danger of having our unconscious memories and longings grab us by the throat and lead us down a path of irrational choices...Freud probed these hidden motivators by having people lie on a couch and relate their dreams and memories. Today, scientists of the mind probe them with clever experimental tasks in labs and use expensive devices to measure the gaze patterns of eyes, and the electrical activity and blood flow in the brain. All this technological proliferation just emphasises how elusive our own minds are to us.' (P15)

The authors are linguists and so the evidence they cite is largely linguistically based - but since we have so much of our being in language, this seems eminently justified. And the experiments are fascinating.

They go on to consider the active role of the unconscious in 'The Attentional Arms Race'. It seems that overt attention is not a prerequisite for successful manipulation - in fact, in many ways, it's what you perceive peripherally that has more effect, as this is absorbed into the unconscious for further processing, while our conscious minds are taken up with the task in hand. Yet more experimental evidence backs up this proposition.

The next chapter - 'We Know What You're Thinking' sounds ominously like an Adam Curtis documentary. The authors concentrate on linguistic formulations that can radically alter perceptions of statements. The use of 'presuppositions', of leading questions, manipulation of memories and 'Mindless Agreement and Unconscious Individualism' (P120) make it appear that we have freedom and independence of action whereas in reality, even our much-vaunted individualism may be subverted.

Slowly the book unpacks many of the tricks, traps and tips of the persuasive industries. It is all told in an informal and readable style, but it still packs a punch. However, much of it seems kind of 'anecdotal'. Apart from the initial references to Freud, there is no outline of a consistent theory here. It's as if this science is still in the 'gathering evidence' stage. It's still very interesting, but slightly frustrating at the same time.

Finally, the authors turn their attention to the growing role of advertising-style practices in politics. This, for me, was by far the most interesting section of the book. Even if, after reading up to here, you think you're aware of the techniques used by advertisers, you can't help but feel that it is far too easy for those 'in the know' to manipulate and control us. Thus, it is no surprise to find the authors discussing Plato's reservations on democracy. They talk of 'Democracy in the Age of the Mackerel Mind' (P250) where the 'mackerel mind' refers, if you like, to a 'herd' or 'collective' mind. They examine the increasingly fragmented tribalism of society, the way that beliefs are perpetuated even in the face of completely contradictory and factual evidence (they don't mention it, but I can't help thinking of Obama's birth certificate). But, at the same time, they start to develop Freud's ideas of the unconscious. What they suggest is that, far from being at the mercy of our unconscious, the interplay between conscious and unconscious mind is a far more active, dynamic and two-way affair. As such - and this is really the crucial point - a conscious recognition of the ways in which the unconscious may be manipulated can go a long way in inoculating us against just this manipulation, making us all, perhaps, Philosopher Kings.

All in all, an illuminating, readable and rewarding book.

Seagate 2TB  BlackArmour 220 Network Attached Storage - NAS
Seagate 2TB BlackArmour 220 Network Attached Storage - NAS

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Setup With MacBook Pro, 26 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I should just maybe preface this review with a note to say that I consider myself 'computer literate' but definitely not a techy.

This Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive is, according to Seagate, designed for small to medium businesses (SMEs). As such, two terabytes (Tb) is the entry-level storage for this device, but it can be upgraded to 4Tb or 6Tb (bear in mind that a terabyte is 1000 gigabytes, which is 1000 megabytes).

It comes with a default configuration of RAID1 (Redundant Array of Inexpensive/Independent Disks), where RAID1 is basic disk-mirroring - in other words, the capacity of the NAS is actually 1Tb as one disk is an exact copy of the other. According to Wikipedia, the chances of both disks failing in a RAID1 set-up is 0.25% in three years. So that should make for a pretty reliable back-up system.

Additionally, the server comes with two USB ports - so you could attached a printer, for example, which would then become accessible to everyone on the network with the appropriate permissions. I have attached a Seagate 1.5Tb HDD.

It is possible to use the NAS as a central repository for your iTunes collection. It is also possible to use it as a Digital Media Server (DMS) and it conforms to DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standards. Unfortunately, the rest of my system does not conform to DLNA standards, so I haven't been able to test this out.

So - although designed for SMEs, it is clear that this NAS will also be of use in the home - which is where I'm using it.

The box comes with a 2 metre network cable, power adaptor with fittings for all the world's sockets, an extremely brief multi-lingual setup manual and a CD with the Seagate BlackArmor [sic] Discovery software and rather more comprehensive pdf manuals.

After connecting the NAS to my Netgear DGN2000 wi-fi router, I put the CD into my MacBook and installed the software. Firing up the software, the NAS was pretty much immediately seen by the MacBook. The Seagate NAS software opened a new tab in my browser (Chrome) with a number of heading across the top (System, Network, Storage, Access, Media), and the relevant options for the selected menu down the left-hand side.

Initially, I admit, I really didn't have much of an idea what I was doing. I RTFM-ed (Read The F* Manuals), but they're really not that good. The language is pretty straightforward but often the instructions seemed tautologous - along the lines of 'to set up the media server, go to the set up the media server page and set up the media server' - right, yup, thanks. Yes, o.k. I'm exaggerating but I have to say that while I was working through the manuals I was thinking 'this is heading for a 1 star review' as it did get pretty frustrating at times. However, using Google I managed to unpack most of the TLAs (three letter acronyms), found various user-groups and also navigated my way around Seagate's own web site to figure out pretty much all of it. I think.

Of course, as this is a Mac, you have to 'mount' the various drives. This is easy to do using the BlackArmor software. The NAS comes with a Public and a Download folder already configured. If you want to use the NAS to hold your network accessible iTunes collection, you must set up a folder called 'Our Music' under the Public drive. It must be called 'Our Music'. If you call it Our Music and also enable the NAS as a Media Server (go to the Media tab in the software and tick the box), then copy your iTunes collection to the Our Music folder, anyone on the network with the appropriate permissions will be able to access the collection, assuming they have iTunes installed on their computer. However, I must say that copying my 170Gb iTunes collection over took about 17 hours. It really didn't seem to be any faster whether I copied over via wi-fi or by cable.

With a Mac, you can also set up the NAS as the Time Machine drive. This is very straight forward. Again, the initial copying of 250Gb of data from my MacBook to the NAS took ages and ages, and subsequently it has managed to disconnect itself a couple of times, but it seems to be settling down now and working o.k.

A really nifty feature of the NAS is the ability to use it as an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server. If you register the NAS with Seagate, you can subsequently access it via the web (after setting up access permissions). So, in other words, I can go anywhere in the world with web access and up/download data to/from the NAS. This is a free service and is potentially very useful indeed - it's almost like having your own personal 'cloud drive'.

I have just about got the hang of the thing now. But I do still have one or two issues. Apart from the speed which, now I've moved the bulk of my data over isn't such an issue, the main drawback to this NAS is the noise. Accessing the disks is really quite noisy. And even when you're not copying stuff over, the system just occasionally accesses the disks anyway, so you always have the occasional clunking noise going on in the background. The trouble is, I've got this set up in my living room because that's where my router is and I can't move it. So really, unless I am actually using it, it's going to be switched off. One thing I noticed is that when I do power it down, the attached Seagate external HDD is also automatically powered down too, which is handy.

There are a number of other little features which are also quite handy. It has disk checking utilities (which confirm that even though my disks are noisy, they are o.k.), it will e-mail you with any 'events' (such as when you shut it down), it has a 'power save' mode (although how this works, I have yet to discover), printer management, access control, quota control and so on and so on. So fairly comprehensive really.

All in all, although initially it really didn't seem very friendly or reliable, now I'm getting the hang of it, it's proving to be rather useful. So - 3 stars for now.

Edit: Update 17 June. Been using it for a while now and am finding it increasingly useful. It's proving to be reliable, if still a bit clunky. Have recently acquired a Roberts Stream 83i Stereo DAB/FM/WiFi Internet Radio. If I copy MP3 files (NOT AAC or Apple Lossless) to the 'Our Music' directory on the NAS, I can access them using the Roberts radio via the Wi-Fi router. So everything is starting to get 'plugged together'. Just gone up a star, I think. :-)

Edit: 24 Oct 12. Upgraded MacBook to Mountain Lion OS X 10.8.2 and the NAS is not longer working. It appears, after searching Google, that quite a few other people have encountered the same problem.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 28, 2011 2:30 PM BST

Coltan (PRS - Polity Resources series)
Coltan (PRS - Polity Resources series)
by Michael Wallace Nest
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Blood Mineral, 17 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have to admit I didn't really know very much about coltan before reading this book. I knew it had something to do with mobile phones and came from a war-torn part of Africa and that was about it. But after reading this, I not only know a lot more about coltan, I also know lot more about the role of such substances not just in funding various murderous militias but in global trade - and thus politics - generally.

The term 'coltan' as it is used in this book:

' an abbreviation of columbite-tantalite, a mixture of two mineral ores, and is the common name for these ores in eastern Congo. Tantalum is the name of the metal extracted from tantalite-bearing ores, including coltan, after processing.' (P3)

There are many other parts of the world where tantalite ore may be found, but 'coltan' specifically refers to the ore mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Most tantalite sources are exploited by global mining conglomerates. Coltan is different as it is extracted by 'artisanal' means - by individual miners digging it up wherever they can find it. It is implicated in the funding of the continuing armed struggles in the DRC and is considered a 'blood mineral' in the same sense as 'blood diamonds'.

This book sets about exploring not only the nature of coltan mining in the DRC but all associated issues - the full supply chain, from digging it out of the ground through to its use in mobile phones and laptop computers.

The book consists of just five chapters: 1. Facts, figures and myths, 2. Organization of Production and Markets, 3. Coltan and conflict, 4. Advocacy, campaigns and initiatives and 5. The future of coltan politics.

Straight away, in chapter 1, the author sets about exploding common myths. The DRC does not hold 80% of the world's supply of tantalite, whether as coltan or otherwise. The figure is nearer 30%. The importance of the coltan deposits in the DRC is directly related to the spot price for the ore on global markets. Most suppliers negotiate long-term contracts with customers, but that is not practical in the DRC because the ore is extracted artisanally and not by global mining companies.

This leads on to chapter 2, where the author examines just how the coltan 'business' is organised in the DRC. As he says:

'First, most of the world's tantalum by quantity and value is produced in large industrial mines using modern methods requiring safety and environmental standards...Second, where tantalum is produced by artisanal and small-scale methods, as is the case in the DRC, production is organised. The physicality of artisanal mining - mud, water, dirt and dust - should not be confused with an absence of order.' (P31)

He goes on to explain why the organisation of the industry in the DRC is as it is, and explores the implications of this.

In chapter 3, the author looks at the relationship between coltan mining and the on-going conflicts in the DRC and neighbouring countries. As such, he paints a far more detailed, historically aware and nuanced picture than is ever presented in the majority of the mass-media. With direct reference to mineral exploitation, he points out that:

'...the interests and strategies of armed groups have evolved. At various times, natural resources have been the most important motivating factor for some armed groups . However, armed groups have always been motivated by a combination of factors, not only natural resources...[Coltan's] significance as a factor in violence has fluctuated over time, from location to location, and in general the significance of coltan has been exaggerated. Coltan is not the most important, or even a major, cause of violence.' (P67)

Chapter 4 looks at the global (or at least western) response to the perceived violence and destruction taking place in the DRC. The author analyses various campaigns - those based on human rights, sexual violence and developmental issues through to those arising from environmental and wild-life concerns.

The author suggests that:

'[t]he difficulty in knowing what to do is partly about confusion around the cause-and-effect relationships between coltan, other minerals, armed groups, mobile phones and violence in the DRC, but also partly about there being so many global justice issues in which to get involved and whether involvement can make a difference.' (P153)

However, he does conclude that some campaigns have been successful, particularly those aimed at companies using tantalum in their products. These mainly western corporates are susceptible to consumer, or end-user, pressure and so campaigns aimed at raising awareness among these groups can be effective.

But in the final chapter, he points out that the increasing involvement of Chinese companies in Africa generally might undermine this success. Are Chinese corporations susceptible to the same sorts of pressures as their western, Korean and Japanese counterparts? Although, he suggests, most such Chinese companies are state-run (this is probably not strictly accurate - they are more likely party-run. See 'The Party' by Richard McGregor) and thus their behaviour might seem to directly reflect on perceptions of China itself, this does not seem to have mitigated Chinese involvement in some fairly unsavoury regimes around the world.

In conclusion, the author states that:

'[t]he issues that define coltan politics - armed groups' efforts to control and tax production and trade in the DRC and international contestation between activists and corporations over the global supply chain - are a story of globalisation.' (P181)

It is not possible to extract the problems in the DRC from a wider context; it is really important to recognise the interconnectedness of the whole coltan chain.

'But let us get to the heart of the matter. What can and should a concerned person do to end the relationship between coltan and war in eastern DRC? The most important step is to learn the facts about natural resources and conflict, so any actions and decisions are taken from an informed position.' (P184)

This book goes a very long way in helping to establish that position. Overall then, this is a highly readable, detailed, calm but committed examination of the relationship between a mineral ore and the social, economic and political turmoil that it can cause.

The Information
The Information
by James Gleick
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 21.20

20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The New Librarians, 9 April 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Information (Hardcover)
By naming the book 'The Information' rather than just 'Information', Gleick is raising an abstract, ubiquitous and banal concept into something far more important. It is a truism to say that we live in the Information Age. But now we live in the Age of The Information. Our whole lives and consciousnesses are steeped in an all-pervasive, inescapable field of information. But it turns out that Information may be even more fundamental than that. This book explores the development of Information - both as theory and history - and in doing so questions our notions of a material reality.

The sub-title of the book - 'A History, a Theory, a Flood' outlines the approach. Starting with a brief exposition of theory, he goes on to relate a history of information before returning to review just where we may be now - and, indeed, just what we may be now.

To start with then, it seems almost as if the history of civilisation since at least Plato has been a process of purification, the removal of extraneous ideas, superfluous matter to get down to the fundamentals. And the most fundamental of all fundamentals is Information. In the Prologue, Gleick suggests:

' scientists finally come to understand information, they wonder whether it may be primary: more fundamental than matter itself. They suggest that the bit is the irreducible kernel and that information forms the very core of existence. Bridging the physics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, John Archibald Wheeler, the last surviving collaborator of both Einstein and Bohr, put this manifesto in oracular monosyllables: "It from Bit." Information gives rise to "every it - every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself."' (P10)

This history of information starts, surprisingly, with African talking drums (which are fascinating) - not a code, but an unwritten, spoken, language. From there, we move to the defining moment when writing was invented. This allowed humanity to convert:

'...mentally, from a "prose of narrative" to a "prose of ideas"; organizing experience in terms of categories rather than events; embracing the discipline of abstraction...This was the discovery, not just of the self, but of the thinking self - in effect, the true beginning of consciousness.

In our world of ingrained literacy, thinking and writing seem scarcely related activities. We can imagine the latter depending on the former, but surely not the other way around: everyone thinks, whether or not they write. But [Eric] Havelock was right. The written word - the persistent word - was a prerequisite for conscious thought as we understand it. It was the trigger for a wholesale, irreversible change in the human psyche - psyche being the word favored by Socrates/Plato as they struggled to understand.' (P37)

We can only have history if we have writing. We can only have deductive reasoning and syllogisms if we have writing. There are no syllogisms in Homer specifically because Homer was passed down by word-of-mouth. Logic, deductive reasoning - all depend on writing. We have/we owe our consciousness (or, at least, its current form) in/to writing.

So this fundamental change, this codification and materialisation of thought, gave us the basis for thinking about 'information' and, really, for creating, communicating and contemplating it too.

From this point, Gleick goes on to outline a comprehensive history of 'information'. At times, it reads almost like a Foucaultian discourse but, as it gets nearer our present times, much of it may be familiar. From Charles Babbage, Morse Code to Alan Turing and on to Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics (see Simon Singh's 'The Code Book' and Katherine Hailes ironically titled 'How We Became Posthuman' - both listed in the extensive bibliography) then to Dawkins' Memes, the appearance of maths in the biological sciences and, inevitably, to Kurt Gödel's 'incompleteness' theorem, we start to move back towards theory. But here, things start getting a little weird. To start with, we see the re-emergence of chaos. Gleick quotes Joseph Ford, a 'physicist studying the behaviour of unpredictable dynamical systems':

'"Chaotic orbits exist but they are Gödel's children, so complex, so overladen with information that humans can never comprehend them. But chaos is ubiquitous in nature; therefore the universe is filled with countless mysteries that man can never understand."'

To which Gleick adds: 'Yet one still tries to take their measure.' (P343-4)

Slowly, it seems that Gleick's concept of Information is becoming the ultimate in reification - an abstract concept that is taking on a physical presence. Gleick quotes Landauer (an exile from Nazi Germany working for IBM):

'Landauer devoted his career to establishing the physical basis of information. "Information Is Physical" was the title of one famous paper, meant to remind the community that computation requires physical objects and obeys the laws of physics...Whether a bit is a mark on a stone tablet or a hole in a punched card or a particle with spin up or down, he insisted that it could not exist without some embodiment.' (P361)

Yet a few pages later, Gleick is quoting from Borges' 'Library of Babel' and suggesting Wikipedia's Sisyphean task has an essentially Gödel-like eternal recursiveness as information grows, Gleick suggests, 'dendritically'.

So maybe, then, this reification is a two-way street. 'The Information' becomes the final, biggest reification where information and material reality become one and the same, as in Lewis Carroll's 1:1 scale map (P384). Are we finally heading for Kurtzweil's 'Singularity'? In some ways, this just seems like some kind of post-modernist manifesto:

'...a world where all bits are equal and information is divorced from meaning.' (P403-4)

In the end, Gleick draws back from this. In the Epilogue (The Return of Meaning), he says that the Infinite Library is now the universe but we are not phantoms in this universe; we are perhaps the librarians, cataloguing, categorising, searching for, and finding, meaning.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 10, 2011 5:24 PM BST

Music Watching Over Me
Music Watching Over Me
Offered by davidw_1212
Price: 10.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New NY Cool, 6 April 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Music Watching Over Me (Audio CD)
The first, and lasting, impression I got when listening to this was of space. A cool, electro-mechanical space.

There's nothing frantic or hurried about these pieces. They seem almost clinical. Drum machines, strict rhythms, treated vocals, simple melodies - kind of somewhere between David Byrne and Brian Eno's 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts' and Danny Tenaglia's 'Futurism' - so complex loops, effects, syncopation and treatments but all mixing down into a really minimal soundscape.

It sounds like it might have evolved from the classic 'Last Night (a Dj Saved My Life)', and the intervening 30 years have not fleshed out the sound, but added textures and technology. There is a certain R'n'B/Soul feel to some of the tracks, but then others start building into a more clearly electro-techno sound ('The L Word').

It really sounds, well, Modernist, like a kind of musical Bauhaus, plus loads of New York multicultural influences. But then you get a track 'Vagabond' with staccato electric guitars, synths, could almost be a sort of Kraftwerk. And maybe Turkish, eastern, influences in there too.

To be honest, I'm still not sure whether I like it. But it is fascinating and I keep listening to it. :-)

The Idea of Communism
The Idea of Communism
by Slavoj Zizek
Edition: Paperback
Price: 13.29

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ...not to merely interpret the world, but to change it. ..., 26 Mar 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Idea of Communism (Paperback)
This book is a collection of essays delivered as presentations at 'The Idea of Communism' conference held by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in March 2009.

There are a total of fifteen papers:

The Idea of Communism - Alain Badiou
To Present Oneself to the Present. The Communist Hypothesis: a Possible Hypothesis for Philosophy, an Impossible Name for Politics? - Judith Balso
The Leftist Hypothesis: Communism in the Age of Terror - Bruno Bosteels
The Second Time as Farce... Historical Pragmatics and the Untimely Present - Susan Buck-Morss
Adikia: On Communism and Rights - Costas Douzinas
Communism: Lear or Gonzalo? - Terry Eagleton
'Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will' - Peter Hallward
The Common in Communism - Michael Hardt
Communism, the Word - Jean-Luc Nancy
Communism: Some thoughts on the Concept and Practice - Antonio Negri
Communists Without Communism? - Jacques Rancière
Did the Cultural Revolution End Communism? Eight Remarks on Philosophy and Politics Today - Alessandro Russo
The Politics of Abstraction: Communism and Philosophy - Alberto Toscano
Weak Communism? - Gianni Vattimo
How to Begin From the Beginning - Slavoj Zizek

So, I think you can probably deduce from the titles that these essays really are part of a serious philosophical debate around the concept of 'communism'. Inevitably linking to Marx and Engels but in no way constrained simply to Marxism, the essays broaden out the central concept in some surprising ways. However, overall, these essays are clearly aimed at philosophers and thus, as a 'common reader' I found many of them extremely hard work.

Saying that, some are genuinely thought-provoking. Douzinas' 'On Communism and Rights' is an interesting discussion of the way in which 'rights' (human etc) have been subverted/inverted to become pretty much the opposite of what they purport to be.

Michael Hardt's essay 'The Common in Communism' on the ways in which the 'commons' (i.e. 'common property' in a digital age) and 'property' are changing is not only interesting but directly relevant to current technological developments.

The other essay that I found particularly interesting - and surprisingly intelligible - was 'How to Begin From the Beginning' by Zizek. Here, Zizek also looks at the role of the 'commons' but links this with a process of 'proletarianization'. For example:

'The ongoing enclosure of the commons concerns the relations of people to the objective conditions of their life-process, as well as relations between people: the commons are privatized at the expense of the proletarianized majority.' (P214)


'In 'post-modern' capitalism, the market is invading new spheres which were hitherto considered the privileged domain of the State, from education to prisons and security. When 'immaterial' work (education, therapy, etc.) is celebrated as the kind of work which directly produces social relations, one should not forget what this means within a commodity-economy: that the new domains, hitherto excluded from the market, are now commodified - when in trouble, we no longer talk to a friend but pay a psychiatrist or counsellor to take care of the problem; not parents but paid babysitters or educators take care of children, etc. We are thus in the midst of a new process of the privatization of the social, of establishing new enclosures.' (P224)

The concept of 'proletarianization' I found particularly interesting. It seems that, with the new technologies appearing in more developed countries (not just 'The West'), new classes are emerging but, suggests Zizek, these are:

'precisely not classes but three fractions of the working class: intellectual labourers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts (unemployed, or living in slums and other interstices of the public space).' (P226)

And that certainly coincides with my personal experiences over the last few years.

So, yes, there is some very interesting and novel stuff here. But these are philosophical essays and, as such, demand a fairly high degree of specialised knowledge. As an 'ordinary reader', I found much of it, er, let's say 'challenging.' But still occasionally rewarding. :-)

Vax S4 Grime Master Handheld Steam Cleaner
Vax S4 Grime Master Handheld Steam Cleaner
Offered by Alex Shanks Ltd
Price: 32.77

293 of 310 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I Got Steam Heat!, 9 Mar 2011
I've seen steam cleaners advertised around the place and they seem like a good idea. So I was happy to get an opportunity to try one out. O.k. so - it is good, it is useful, but it's not going to suddenly turn your home into a gleaming germ-free palace. A little elbow grease is still going to be required and it's not going to take over every cleaning job in the house. But for some jobs, it has quickly made itself pretty well indispensable.

What do you get for your money? A 3metre/10ft mains cable. That is a sensible length, I think. Long enough to give you flexibility to move around, not so long that you'll be tripping over it. A range of attachments - these include a simple 15cm long nozzle, a small, stiff brush that fits on the end of the long nozzle, a window-cleaning attachment and a couple of elasticated flannel covers that fit into the window cleaner for use on furniture. Of course, you can also use the thing with no attachments at all. And a plastic beaker for measuring the correct amount of water that you can pour in at one time (260ml).

The instructions are all in pictures - no multiple languages. They are straight-forward. Unscrew the large grey nob and pour in 260ml of tap water. Screw down the nob, plug in, switch on - make sure the safety catch is set to ON while it is heating up. A red light shows that the power is on and a green light signifies when the machine has reached a working temperature. There is also a calibrated switch which allows you to select the power of the steam jet.

Once the green light is on, flick the safety switch to OFF and press the trigger. That's it really. It takes about 2.5 to 3 minutes to heat up. 260ml of water doesn't seem a huge capacity but it lasts for long enough. I didn't time it but I'd estimate between 5 and 10 minutes at 'full throttle'. Once it's empty, I think it is a good idea to let it cool down before you refill it. I didn't and as I poured in more cold water, it spat at me.

So does it work? Well, as I mentioned, it depends. It is absolutely brilliant for cleaning nooks and crannies. For example, the joins in my white uPVC double glazing seem to attract particularly stubborn dirt and this just blasts it out wonderfully. It is also excellent for cleaning the cast iron grill tops on my cooker (the little brush attachment is quite useful here). It is rather less useful for cleaning the oven. For a start, in a confined area, you quickly can't see a thing through the clouds of steam, especially if you forget to take your glasses off (yes, I know that's obvious now, but it didn't occur to me then). It also didn't make a great impact on the (formerly white) grouting between my (black) kitchen tiles - but I suspect that the grouting has perhaps yellowed with age, rather than dirt.

I tried the window cleaning attachment. I didn't really hold out much hope for it, but was very pleasantly surprised. It did tend to drip rather a lot, but it really cleaned my greasy kitchen window a treat. So that, in conjunction with blasting the seams in the window frames, makes for a Job Well Done! Generally, though, it seems to work best on small areas rather than over large work tops. It does work on large work tops, but clearly the effects are rather more diffuse.

Before you empty it, let it cool. Basically, this is a hand-held steam cooker. If you take the filling nob off before it cools, steam shoots out under pressure from both sides. It probably says that somewhere in the instructions but, well, you know...:-)

So - all in all, a very useful addition to my armoury of cleaning products. It is, perhaps, a little specialised - i.e. nooks and crannies - but I have no other tool as good at doing what this does as well as this does what it does well. If you see what I mean. I haven't tried the furniture attachment as most of my furniture is covered in throws, so it's a bit superfluous. But, on top of doing what it does etc., it also does it with no chemicals (aside from H2O), no abrasives and no detergents. Yes, so now I've got Steam Heat!.. (Sorry - just couldn't resist it :-)).
Comment Comments (9) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 12, 2012 4:26 PM GMT

Lucy and David and the God Equation
Lucy and David and the God Equation
by Alan McKenzie
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Match Made in Metamathematics, 5 Mar 2011
I don't think I've read a book quite like this before. A mixture of theology, romance, mathematics and metaphysics is an unlikely recipe for a novel, but it just about works, I think.

Ostensibly, the story centres around the alarmingly smart first year undergraduate physics student Lucy Darling and the PhD student tutor David. She admits to a belief in a god, he does not. Neither are fanatical in their beliefs - this isn't some kind of Lennox/Dawkins debate. But really, although their growing love for each other provides one of the threads in this novel, the real story is the maths. And that is fascinating.

I am not a mathematician. I have certainly heard of Kurt Gödel but I really don't know anything about his theories. But you don't need to in order to still enjoy the ideas in this book. There are no equations, not even any mathematical symbols (apart from one mention of Euler's constant 'e') - all the ideas are explained in conversations between Lucy and David, almost like a kind of Socratic dialogue.

I'm not going to try to explain the maths ideas - I don't know whether they are realistic or not, but if you are familiar with Benoit Mandelbrot, the reflexive and self-referential writings of Jorge Luis Borges and maybe the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, Adam Roberts' Polystom, Ken Macleod's The Restoration Game, even Iain M Banks' idea of an Outside Context Problem (and, of course, Kurt Gödel), then you're in with a good chance. It's a bit like watching one of the rather more demanding BBC Horizon documentaries - and equally rewarding. In fact, at one point, the novel touched on the relationship between mathematics and reality - something I had seen recently on Horizon - and it really made me think about it in a new way. It very much reminded me of that story by Borges of a map that is so accurate that it ends up being on a scale of 1:1, indistinguishable from the reality it seeks to represent.

At first, I found the human side a bit undemanding really, perhaps in contrast. Although there are references and even parallels to Jane Austen, the story doesn't really have that sort of depth. But I did find myself caring about the two central characters. There's also a bit of academic rivalry and skullduggery centred around David's PhD supervisor Professor Wilgoss. And it turns out that this ties in neatly, if rather sadly, with the main mathematical theme of the novel.

The writing is a bit clunky in places, the relationships and characters perhaps not as fully fleshed out as they might be - but really this is a novel of ideas, and they are loads of fun. :-)

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