Thursday, December 20, 2012

Finished (Audiobook) - "Killing Kennedy" - Bill O'Reilly

I was pleasantly surprised that "Killing Kennedy" was merely a biography of John F. Kennedy, from war years through the untimely end of his presidency.

Given O'Reilly's position at Fox News, I was expecting a much more lopsided railing against a democratic president.  Instead, it seemed to be a fair overview, not overly critical of aspects of the administration which probably need deeper review (e.g. the Bay of Pigs and even the Cuban Missile Crisis).  O'Reilly even does a good job of mentioning some of the conspiracy theories around the assassination, without giving any undue credibility - he maintains the "magic bullet" and the "lone gunman" explanations, while allowing that there were instances that keep the conspiracy theories alive (e.g. Oswald calling himself a "Patsy", even the odd presence of Ruby in a "secure area", where he killed Oswald).

However, the book does not dwell on these loose ends, maintaining that the total story is never likely to come out, should there be a larger story.

The portrayal of Jackie Kennedy's actions thoroughout the administration, including her handling of the extra-marital affairs, and particularly her handing of the horrific assassination and aftermath were well told, neither straying into high drama, or downplaying the seriousness of the events and the poise which Jackie maintained.

It certainly would have been easy to slide into the world of controversy and speculation, the affairs could have taken more of the book, and any suspicion of Jackie's relationship with Aristotle Onassis, it would have been a fun book, but quickly would have veered away from history into pseudo-history.

A very easy book to listen to, particularly as the story is well known - easy to listen in small snippets.

Finished (Audiobook) - "TTC: The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience" - Andrew Newberg

I had the opportunity for a road trip to Kingston, ON - a six hour drive each way.  I pulled a few books quickly onto my iPod and off I went.

"The Spiritual Brain" is a an audio lecture, not necessarily one of my first choices, but I'm kinda' glad I listened to it.

The topic "missing" from the lecture was any sense of whether or not the actual beliefs underlying "spirituality" or "religion" were actually required for beneficial aspects of those behaviours to manifest.

The research shows that there are differences in brain function among those who spend time in daily contemplation and prayer, but similar effects are noted for "non-religious" relaxation techniques as well.

Social aspects were highlighted as a benefit, along with reductions in tension through religion, but again, this is more related to the social nature, not the "holy" nature of the activities.  They did identify that feeling out of place in your religion, or that God was angry with you had negative effects on health in the same areas that the positive aspects manifested with being aligned and not making God unhappy.  The social belonging also had a counter, in that aligning with your group tends to make people less sympathetic to those outside the group (not limited to religious organizations, it shows up in racial groups, politics etc.), so it is not a "win-win" in all cases.

They mentioned (though didn't identify an explicit way to define) cults versus religions.  If the outcome is "bad" it's a cult, if the outcome is neutral or better, a religion.  A very operational definition, at best, and reliant on another operational definition of "bad".  When a group of folks is under the influence of an individual and drinks poison kool-aid, commits suicide to reach a passing comet, or commits murders, these tend to be defined as cults, which I think would be inarguable.  However, how do you specify what to do with folks who claim to be acting on behalf of a "real" religion?  The 911 hijackers, or those that kill doctors who perform abortions?  They claim to be working for a non-cultish religion, but acting in a cultish manner?

They also pointed out that feeling of "oneness" and "connectedness" often associated with religion or with drug states, can be manipulated in the lab, and can be indicative of damage to certain brain structures.

All in all, there were certainly aspects of religion that were enviable - the ability to let go of stresses, the social connectedness.

The research indicates that "non-religious" can get benefits by mimicking the behaviours (e.g. meditation as a proxy to prayer) but trying to "fake" religion, when it wasn't believed or felt, was not sufficient.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Finished (E-Reader) "Winter of the World" - Ken Follett

Finished the third instalment of the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett.

This story takes place from the depression through the period of resettlement of Europe following WWII. A very easy to read book, with enough historical linkages to make clear the issues and causes of WWII and aftermath. Storylines in Germany, U.S., England and Russia, with forays into the Spanish Civil War, and Vichy France.

Nicely paced, though the chapters tend to be quite long (though there are internal chapter breaks to keep pace). Found it compelling enough to read for long periods, and would recommend.