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March 24th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The NumeratiThe Numerati , by Stephen Baker (Houghton Mifflin 2008) [B&T Books] QA410.B35 2008.

Lent is a good time for mortification. So try this: google yourself and see just what really embarrassing, stupid, or perhaps criminal thing you’ve put out on display for God and everyone to see. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back now? Now, here’s the scary bit: Google only scratches the surface.

Stephen Baker, in this highly readable little book, surveys the economic, political and social forces which have led us to both collect and reveal more about ourselves than at anytime in history, the methods by which people of fields as diverse as mathematics, anthropology, and psychology collaborate to find patterns and sense out of vast ocean of data we produce, and the perils and even the promises that all these endeavors. These people Baker dubs the Numerati. For some the term itself may conjure up some vast conspiracy (as in the Illumnati) or perhaps something more neutral but just as elitist (say glitterati, literati, or culturati). The ambiguity is likely intentional. What Baker brings across is that with every keystroke, every swipe of a credit or debit card, virtually any transaction or interaction we are providing information, but information that is so diverse and seemingly free-form that only those with with highly polished skill yet diverse skill sets can bring to any useful order. These new elites may shape our future, but Baker argues that they by no means control it. Read the rest of this entry »

Faith and Politics

February 20th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Faith and PoliticsFaith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together by John C. Danforth (Viking 2006).

For those who do not not follow such things, the three-term former senator from Missouri is a conservative Republican of the Old School. That is to say, he of the live-and-let-live variety who believes folks are at their best when left alone, that political power should be distributed and held closest to citizenry rather at the federal level, that encouraging business is generally a good thing in that it empowers individuals, that federal budget deficits are generally bad things, and each branch of three branches of government should uphold its own integrity without imposing itself on the other two. For those who follow politics only to a slight degree, one might remember John Danforth as the senator who sponsored Clarence Thomas’ appointment by George H. W. Bush to the Supreme Court—and so earning praise from the very people he would now criticize and scorn from those whom he would now enlist. After the Clarence Thomas affair, Mr. Danforth set down his recollections of the events in his book The Resurrection of Clarence Thomas. That he should have so titled the book is not entirely surprising since Senator Danforth is also an Episcopalian priest and is generally seen as a religious moderate. One might presume by “moderate” that Mr. Danforth is an orthodox Nicene Christian (as he himself declares) without being a biblicist. As one might expect then, Faith and Politics is part memoir and part sermon fused into a tame manifesto. Read the rest of this entry »

Cult of the Amateur

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen (Doubleday/Currency, 2007)

Librarians are rarely seen as being on the leading of anything. It is refreshing to find a book on a topic ZDNet describes as “Very engaging, and quite controversial and provocative,” that librarians have debated, hashed, implemented, abandoned, rehashed, and re-implemented for at least the past twenty-five years. For instance, long before the web gave so-called visionaries the idea of amalgamating all literature into a single hypertext library (see pp. 57-60), Wilfred Lancaster was advocating that his fellow librarians abandon the book and place all human knowledge into databases. That and other examples are enough to warm librarian’ hearts to know that the rest of the world is finally catching up to them. But enough gloating.

Keen’s thesis is that the phenomena some are calling Web 2.0 is one of radical participation where the differences between actor and audience, writer and reader, performer and audience, and expert and layman are either blurred or obliterated. By the way, this is a bad thing. He dubs this mentality “the myth of the noble amateur,” a mentality freed from the socializing effects of professionalization. So that there is no mistake, Keen thinks that experts and professional are good things that no advanced society can long do without. Keen likens our situation to T. H. Huxley’s evolutionary analogy of an infinite number of monkeys typing away over an infinite number years to come up with Hamlet. The upshot is that the preponderance of drivel that spews from the web makes it well nigh impossible to find anything of worth. The implication is not only is the proportion of precious metal to dross way out of line in Web 2.0 but also that there are far more efficient ways of creating cultural items then setting everyone loose to create them. The result is that the Web 2.0 is undercutting its own existence and debases the culture from which it arose. Read the rest of this entry »

The Year of Living Biblically

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Year of Living BiblicallyThe Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster 2007) BS511.3.J33 2007

I have just finished reading this book and it was most definitely a page turner. I am no theologian or a biblical scholar. However I was drawn to this book due to my own recent (on-going) explorations with Christianity. This works out well since A. J. Jacobs is about as secular as they come. His previous work, The Know it All, was about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Needless to say he finds pleasure in weird assignments along with his day job of writing at Esquire magazine. He undertakes the project after a discussion with his aunt, Orthodox Jew, about his ex-uncle Gil.

At first glance I thought this book would be a humorous look at the out-datedness of the Bible and its laws; and yes there are liberal amounts of humor sprinkled throughout this book, but I believe it is balanced with reflection and insight from the author. As he follows the laws of the Bible he reflects on why they are there and also looks for help finding out. AJ spends a lot of time researching and does his best to take this project seriously, including having spiritual advisors, who range from retired pastors to Hasidic rabbis and one eccentric “ex-uncle” living in Jerusalem and a whole multitude in between. He comes into plenty of problems trying to follow the laws literally. Being a New Yorker he is not in the most religious of places, certainly not the Bible-belt buckle we are used to. He has plenty of excursions to visit holy places and churches/temples and even a trip to the Creationist Museum, yes there is one.

AJ’s journey is inspiring and thought provoking. He borders on a truly spiritual experience at various points throughout the book but manages to restrain himself. It is worth a read to see all of the conflicts that arise with his wife and son as well as the secular world that seems to be working against him, constantly tempting him to fail at his year long mission. In the end though he is able to make it through and finishes with some very strong insights from his year spent living Biblically.

Greg Iacovelli

Travels in the Scriptorium

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Travels in the ScriptoriumTravels in the Scriptorium: A Novel, by Paul Auster (Henry Holt and Company, 2007)

Paul Auster is better known in Europe than in his native United States, which is a shame. Travels in the Scriptorium is also my first encounter with Auster, which is also a shame. If Travels is any indication, I missed out on a great deal of superb and thought-provoking writing. As a bonus, this book, which is bound to remain with the reader long after the particulars will grow dim, weighs in at a mere 145 pages.

Imagine that you awake with no notion of who you are in a bare room that may be locked, but you don’t recall and are afraid to find out. You find a stack of photographs and a manuscript. From this and a few visitors you are to piece together your life. Now imagine that whatever else you have pieced together, you have concluded that you will forget it all sometime after falling asleep. This is the day in the life of Auster’s protagonist, known only as “Mr. Blank.” Read the rest of this entry »

Thy Kingdom Come

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Thy Kingdom ComeThy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, An Evangelical’s Lament by Randall Balmer (Basic Books 2006)

Given the continuing disputes within Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, a book that attempts to provide a persuasive history of how American Evangelicalism came to its present state might indeed be timely. That state, as Balmer might put it, is one where Evangelicals are seen (and many see themselves) as part of more conservative wing of the American political spectrum and so tend to take up the [now dominate] right wing of  the Republican Party. Evangelicals of a more moderate political persuasion are either placed with the Religious Right by those on the left-hand side of the political spectrum or are seen as unfaithful to their evangelical heritage. Balmer attempts to present how Evangelicalism arrived at this present state of affairs and what alternatives there are within Evangelicalism—alternatives that he sees as more faithful to that tradition and more hopeful to the body politic. What could have been the basis of a fruitful discussion of any larger picture of Evangelicalism is marred by his presentation of how it became what it is. Read the rest of this entry »

Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and CreationismScientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, edited by Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey (W. W. Norton & Company 2007) QH366.2 S43 2007.

For all of its nearly four-hundred pages of dense reading (at least for a layperson such as myself) Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism is akin to four movements that don’t makeup a symphony. As one of the contributing authors noted, it takes more than semester at the undergraduate level for one to really understand the science behind evolutionary theory, let alone sort of presentations most of are exposed to after high school. As collection of essays, one might think of Scientists Confront as a series of presentations.

This is a shame because most of the articles themselves are highly engaging but taken as a whole one is left with the feeling no reader would be inclined to revise any opinion over evolution. Young earth creationists will find some biological or geological anomaly that wasn’t addressed, the intelligent design advocate will insist that aspects of life really are irreducibly complex and those few who haven’t made up their minds will find the case made by the contributors in this volume no more compelling than their opponents. Read the rest of this entry »

Rumpole Misbehaves

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Rumpole MisbehavesRumpole Misbehaves, by John Mortimer (Viking 2007)

Horace Rumpole, the life-time junior barrister of the Old Bailey has been a long acquaintance of mine, first as a regular PBS series, Mystery!, and then only later in the books of his creator, John Mortimer. Like his creation, Mortimer is a lawyer by training and has a wonderful way with words. They both are able to make their opponents look like pompous fools and ninnies in such a way as to allow the reader enjoy their sheer imbecility. One might even forget that she has more in common with naves than they do the protagonist until it is too late. Unlike Rumpole, Mortimer was a successful lawyer–taking silk and earning the title QC (Queen’s Council, or as Rumpole prefers “Queer Customer”), and then becoming a successful writer. It is Rumpole, however, who is the more compelling character by managing to find justice for everyone but himself. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ruins

February 19th, 2009 by Richard Pipes in Reading EKScursions

The RuinsThe Ruins by Scott Smith (Knopf 2006)

The Ruins is a gripping tale in the mode of Stephen King or Michael Crichton. Smith sets up a seemingly simple yet unsolvable situation for his characters and then stirs up the plot, dragging the reader into a living nightmare. The novel is about four American tourists vacationing in Cancun. While at their resort, they meet a German tourist whose brother has ventured into the jungle to join an archaeological dig. Since it is almost time for the brothers to return to Germany, the Americans volunteer to help their new friend find his brother. Along with a Greek tourist, they all follow the map that the brother left behind. When they finally arrive at the site, they find a steep hill covered in a shiny green vine with beautiful blood-red flowers.

The local Mayan villagers beg the newcomers not to climb the hill, but  language differences block them from explaining why. Once the tourists set foot on the hill, the same Mayans won’t allow them to leave, again unable to explain the reason. Trapped on the hill, the six friends begin to make chilling discoveries about the hill and its mysterious vine.

This is a book that’s very hard to put down. You cannot help but feel trapped along with the tourists as you wonder what you would do in such a predicament. One thing’s for sure: you’ll never look at kudzu in quite the same way again.

Richard Pipes

The Ruinsis no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.

Pushing Ice

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Pushing IcePushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds (Ace Books 2006

Reynolds’ novel is a sprawling story in a confined space. Set in the year 2065, the crew of the interplanetary mining ship Rockhopper find themselves in a highly unusual position of having to chase down one of  Saturn’s moons (Juno), which has broken out of orbit and is accelerating out of the solar system. The Rockhopper is, as one might suppose, the only ship in the area with any real hope of intercepting the rouge moon. That Juno is no natural satellite is obvious, as is the reason to intercept it and get a better look—to find out what it is and to its technology. What is broadly hinted in the prologue is this voyage of the Rockhopper is the crucial turning point in human history. Thankfully, how the adventure of the Rockhopper and Juno change human history is not what one would expect and so the reader is led (and misled) by one expectation after another. Better still, the fate of humankind rapidly becomes incidental as it because clear that one of the main themes of this tale the bond of deep friendship, how it can turn to bitter enmity, and finally how—even with all the scars—such bitterness can be resolved, if not entirely healed.

Among Pushing Ice’s virtues is that has enough solid science to be believable without the science itself getting in the way. Reynolds is not interested in displaying his grasp of physics or biology. What he does is tell a human story set in a no-so-distant future, and he has enough of a grasp of how technology might develop to make that future convincing. This is not to say Pushing Ice is not without its defects. The book is almost like a pair of dumb-bells. There are three main sections. The two end sections are tightly woven narratives that propel the reader over the course of a few months. These two narratives are held together by a series of vignettes that drag out so long that Reynolds has to remind us of how much time has actually elapsed. More seriously, the characters—though diverse enough—seem interchangeable depending on the roles they happen to occupy. Reynolds even has his characters stating enough times that they or some other character would have taken some hated action were the table turned that it is hard to believe that the characters are not just so many malleable entities. Finally, in the epilogue, when Reynolds attempts to say something really big, truly profound, he comes of as merely sentimental and so brings the veneer of a satisfactory conclusion while avoiding the emotional and spiritual question he himself introduces. Having said that, Pushing Ice is well worth the few pleasurable hours it will take read and the moments of reflection that will follow.

Jimm Wetherbee

Pushing Ice is no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.

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