Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer" - Christopher Hitchens

Having recently listened to "God is not Great" by Christopher Hitchens, "The Portable Atheist" speaks much the same message.  I found "God is not Great" to be more compelling, but that is likely because of the ordering.  As both books cover much of the same material, it is much stronger on first sight than on subsequent re-tellings.

Again, I'd recommend both, or either, to anybody who is firmly religious, or firmly non-religious - it would lack the strength to anybody hovering without strong convictions.  As with "God is not Great", Hitchens takes a very strong anti-religious, and anti-faith stance, considering both harmful to the species, and primarily a vehicle for power and control of some humans over other humans, with very little supporting the "higher" aspects.

If you feel strongly about religion, pro or con, the essays and arguments will be sure to stimulate dialogue, even if it is primarily internal dialogue.  Strongly religious folks should listen/read, just to understand problems with human organizations, and the potential to abuse power, even if they can't question the underlying faith they should be able to evaluate/criticize the human aspects and learn from human problems.

My biggest issue with religion is the mixing of religion and politics - this book should provide some of the necessary cautions, and support the distinction between the government and the church.  Everyone should imagine the most polar-opposite religion from themselves, and consider that group in a society-power position - only if you can consider living in that society should you persist in moving secular governments along your religious lines.  If not, consider the effect your proposed changes would have on other faiths/non-faiths and act accordingly.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood" - Jane Leavy

I knew of Mickey Mantle, mostly as a name - I don't recall any games, or him being an actual ballplayer during my lifetime (though, as a boy he would have).  I think of him like one of the past greats, particularly, past Yankee greats - Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle.

I guess I knew he was a drinker, as I suspect most of the historical ballplayers were (or they were staunch abolitionists), however, until reading "The Last Boy" by Jane Leavy, I didn't know either how great a ballplayer he was, the speculation of how much better he could have been (without early serious knee problems), and how badly and tragically he shortened his career and his life through alcohol abuse.

I was stunned at how openly he kept other women, both one-nighters and long term non-wife relationships, and how inattentive he was to his children.

However, it would be hard to design an icon like Mickey Mantle, because it wouldn't ring true - the life he lived was really larger than a real life, both the ups and down were extreme.

As a book, I really did enjoy the story, though the language was a little odd, and it was occasionally difficult to keep track of the characters, as many appeared for short times, or single recalled episodes.  It was a compelling read -  did want to hear how/if he reconciled with his family, did he find peace at the end?

The book shows some of what a ballplayer's life is about, and how the "lifestyle" of late nights, parties, drinking (and I assume in many cases harder drugs) come about when you have a large population of wealthy, young atheletes, away from home for extended trips, with a ready supply of "opportunities".  There is also insight into how a decent man can become estranged from his own family and lose the "fatherly" connnection, and most other family connections as well.

You come away from the book wanting to be Mick's friend - this was also a key reason he turned out the way he did - everyone (male or female) wanted to be a friend, drinking buddy, or more, of the Mick.  He had a lot more "friends" then he did strong, supportive influences.  You feel both amazed and amused at what he did, and how he did it, an also somewhat saddened by the peculiar loneliness that comes from never being alone.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "God is not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything" - Christopher Hitchen

"Enjoy" is not really the word Hitchen's book "God is not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything" evokes.

I do believe that all strong believers in religion should read or listen to this book, because his criticisms are very strong, and very well researched.  I don't think he makes a case against "faith", though he may believe he has done so, and he speaks against faith.  However, his strongest arguments are against dogmatic religion, and point out severe problems with dogmatic thinking, particularly with respect to enforced dogma on others.

Since his thesis is a pro-atheistic one, or more aptly an anti-religion one, the examples are religion-based, and he plays no favourites (Judaism, Christianity and Islam all take the heat).  However, his examples could be exchanged for other dogmatic belief systems (totalitarian regimes of all kinds), without losing any steam.

It would be difficult for any person of strong religious belief to read Hitchen's book, but it is probably worth the pain, even if it is to understand "the other side".  I made a distinction between "faith" and "religion" purposefully, as I don't think it is really possible to attack, or even criticize "faith" per se, as it is internal and personal.  Religion is the outward expression of faith, even more so if it is following a tract common to others (e.g. organized, or identified religion).

Hitchens does acknowledge that there is a distinction between personal actions and those driven by following a doctrine, so there would probably be little argument from him that it is possible, even in the most dogmatic religion, for individuals to act in universally admired ways.  However, he is very clear when he perceives acts he deems inappropriate being done to those who either are too young to have a say (such as circumcision or even baptism to infants), or against the will of those at or beyond the age of reason (edicts of death for changing religion, wars over icons) which he deems to have been driven by religious doctrine.

As a contrast, Richard Dawkins, who also is becoming an "atheist preacher", comes across as much more offended when religion comes into contact with science and education.  Hitchens seems a whole notch more driven to demonize the entire practice of religion as an unnecessary evil.

Again, the book is harsh, but those of faith, and those with strong religious beliefs, should be aware of the arguments, and learn from them - there have been events in all religions' histories that even believers wish had gone otherwise.

With changes to media, and the growing movement of the U.S. to the religious right, it is worth reading criticisms of religion with an open mind, even to help understand why the founders of the U.S. wanted separation of church and state.  Imagine the critical reviews of actions of religion X (even if you discount the critical reviews of your favoured religion) being enacted by the state, and you, with your equally strong beliefs being marginalized/vilified/criminalized/tortured/killed and you get some idea of why separation is a good thing, even if your views would happen to place you on the "power" side of the arrangement in your particular area.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Steve Jobs" - Walter Isaacson

I really liked the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.  I certainly knew of Jobs and Wozniak starting Apple in the garage story, but didn't realize to any depth the rise and fall and rise of Apple over time.  I knew Woz was the engineer brain behind Apple at the start, and always had an impression that Jobs milked Woz and took credit.  There certainly might have been an element of that at the start, but Jobs return to a failing Apple later in his career cemented his place as a visionary leader.

That being said, I was certainly surprised how awful he would have been to work for - very hot and cold, even to his closest confidants, public tirades were not unusual, and I would have had lots of trouble dealing with the hypocrisy of somebody publicly calling me an idiot, then coming back with my same ideas from their mouth as works of genius.

I was also surprised at the scope of Jobs' "reality distortion field" - he was able to get people to go to great lengths, far beyond what they deemed possible, just by ignoring the realities of engineering, planning etc. and setting goals and timelines on a more esoteric plane.  To some degree, I've seen that before, but his inability to handle social situations (including becoming a father) because they didn't match his self-image, shows that the distortion goes to a core of Jobs, it's not an artifact of his management style.  In fact, as a younger man, it was told repeatedly in stories from the time, that he was convinced that his healthy diet didn't allow his body to be malodorous, thus, he didn't need to shower very often (not true, according to the nostrils of others), which actually led him to be assigned to night shifts at Atari, and may have caused Apple to not be a product of Commodore (a big player at the time) as Jobs bare feet and odour caused him to be kicked out of a meeting at Commodore where he was presenting the Apple.

When it comes to design and form factor, Jobs shines.  It's difficult to imagine a non-iPod world, it's become such a standard piece of equipment, with the iPad and iPhone making similar world-altering impacts on hand-held phones and tabled devices.

I really like his product design concept - make something the world will want when they see it, not build to current ideas and standards.  The iPod was a significant step beyond what was available on the market - not an incremental market-research designed improvement to pick up a few market share points.  Even the price-points on Apple devices show the added value only Jobs could forsee - how can a several hundred dollar device (iPod) trounce the much cheaper alternatives in the marketplace already, which sold for less than half? and didn't require specialized software? and didn't care about piracy? and didn't force you to use the company store??  It certainly supports the idea that Jobs really had a revolutionary outlook.

I think it pays dividends to look at even the advertising, Apple Store design, and other aspects that might be somewhat of an afterthought for many businesses - here Jobs input shines.

The "Think Different" campaign perhaps summarizes Jobs outlook, and perhaps his image of himself.

Here is the campaign text from the original posters of the campaign (as found on Google Answers.com) :

Here's to the Crazy Ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing that you can't do, is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or, sit in silence and hear a song that hasn't been written?
Or, gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world,
are the ones who do.