Monday, 23 September 2013

Stop pretending you can't see the elephant, Mr Cameron

The past weekend has been a bad one, even by the standards of Islamist extremists.  We don't yet know exactly how many innocent people have been slaughtered in a shopping centre in Nairobi, or how many were murdered by suicide bombers leaving church in Peshawar; the total, by current estimates, is probably around the 150 mark so far.

We learned today that four Brits were among those killed in Nairobi, having presumably been unable to answer the question "what was the name of Mohammed's mother?".

And what has been David Cameron's response?

"These appalling terrorist attacks that take place, where the perpetrators claim they do it in the name of religion - they don't. They do it in the name of terror, violence and extremism, and their warped view of the world."

Are you FUCKING kidding me, Cameron?!  You're going to sit there and pretend this mass slaughter had nothing to do with religion?  The murderers selected who would die and who would live based on a question only a Muslim would be expected to be able to answer.  Yes, these lunatics have a deeply "warped view of the world" - and why the fuck do you think that might be?  You honestly think that has nothing at all to do with their belief in the holiness and divine mandate of a religious doctrine notoriously heavy on murdering unbelievers (apostates, gay people, women, adulterers, people who draw pictures of Muhammed...)? You don't think a person's faith - a faith so strong they are willing to die for it - in a violent and barbaric religious doctrine might be in any way to blame when that person acts violently and barbarically?!

Of course these despicable, murderous lunatics do not represent all Muslims, or what most people would recognise as Islam.  But to try to pretend their actions had nothing to do with their religion is just... I mean, it's not even wrong, it's bizarre, it's nonsense of the most baffling order.  This isn't an elephant in the room, it's an entire herd of pachyderms squashed into an airing cupboard.

I'm so fucking sick of this cowardice.  And before anyone says it, no - I'm not picking on Muslims.  We all know various religions have been the cause of endless horrors throughout history, from the Inquisition to the "Troubles" in Ireland to the Vatican contribution to the HIV epidemic in Africa and the Philippines.  I don't actually care which religion is causing the problem because they're all just as ridiculous as each other.  But anybody who tries to pretend Islam is not, right now, the most dangerous religion in the world is not paying attention - or they're hiding behind an ink cloud of paternalistic politically correct affronted liberalism.

And I am a liberal; Cameron hasn't lost my vote over this because I'd never have voted Tory anyway.  But we liberals seem to be just as bad, or even worse; nobody can criticise Islam without being called "Islamophobic" or racist (as if all of Islam, from Indonesia to Somalia, were a race) by well-meaning people who are often, where the religion in question is not Islam, also outspoken against the privileged place religion holds in society.

We've no problem with blaming a person or a group's crimes on their political ideology; nobody worries about being thought racist or bigoted when they say Stalin or Hitler did what they did because of their insane and deeply nasty political beliefs.  Why do we worry about pointing it out when it's clear that a person's lunatic beliefs have led them to commit crimes - just because those beliefs are religious rather than political?  It's pathetic and cowardly and I'm sick of it.  You don't pretend you can't see the elephant when it's trampling around killing people.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

As if my reading pile (...well - heap, really) weren't big enough already

As a few people on Twitter have pointed out, I have been seriously neglecting my blog of late.  I mean to remedy that, starting now.

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on the sciences, but I find that my lack of any formal education in any scientific discipline gives me real problems with knowing where to go for good information.  Lacking any sort of grounding in the basics, I dip in and out of subjects with various books, and never really know how broad a scope I gain from doing so.  I can't be the only layperson to be frustrated by this problem, so I asked people on Twitter for their suggestions.  I'm going to list these recommendations here along with some of my own, and I intend to keep updating this post in the hope that it might serve as a useful resource for people in a similar situation to my own.  I've linked all the kind Tweeps who contributed below; please follow and show some love!  Oh, and as always - comment below if you've any suggestions of your own, or comments on any of the books here recommended.

There is a (sort of) system here; if it's in bold I've read it; if it's not I haven't (yet!) and I'm passing it on based on somebody else's recommendation.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Great grounding in the basics and history of science, although upon rereading about a year ago I noticed a few bits among the physics stuff that's now out of date. Recommended by lots of people!

R. Barker Bausell: Snake Oil Science

George Hrabovsky: The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics

Terry Pratchett (with others): The Science of Discworld series.  This should only be half-bolded since I've only read some of them, but those I've read I enjoyed (and understood!) and you can never have too much Pratchett in your life

Stephen Hawking: The Universe in a Nutshell

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time.  One of those books I read avidly, more or less understood at the time although I had to read some pages twice, and now can't remember very well.  A reminder to me to reread!

Christopher Lloyd: What on Earth Happened? and What on Earth Evolved?

John Gribbin: In Search of Schrodinger's Cat and The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors.

Peter Atkins: Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science

Armand Marie Leroi: Mutants.  A beautifully written book on embryology and evolution, reads like classical literature but full of meaty science (and a few gory bits)

Brian Cox: Wonders of Life, Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.  Lots of recommendations for these!

Thomas S Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Lawrence Krauss: A Universe from Nothing. Brilliant and baffling.  I got about ten pages in before going back to Amazon and ordering Krauss's Fear of Physics to read first

Sherry Seethaler: Lies, Damned Lies, And Science

Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth and Climbing Mount Improbable.  Oh, and The Magic of Reality, which bruised my ego by forcing me to wonder why I hadn't wondered about these things before.

Hugh Aldersley-Williams: Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements

Paul Davies: About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species.  OK, a bit obvious.  And if you're anything like as impressionable as I am you'll speak like a Victorian for a week after finishing it.  But it's fascinating both historically and scientifically, and a model for clarity of reasoning and expression.

Richard Feyman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.  I want to bold this, but can't honestly do so.  It's been on my bookshelf for months, but it's not doing me a lot of good there!

Matt Ridley: The Red Queen.  Another book I need to reread, dense but fascinating.  And it's about sex, so there's that.

Matt Ridley: Genome and The Rational Optimist. Also on my bookshelf.  I'm going to find time to read them, I swear.

Marcia Bartusiak: The Day We Found the Universe

Ben Goldacre: Bad Pharma and Bad Science

Daniel Dennett: Darwin's Dangerous Idea.  Dennett makes my brain hurt, but in a good way.

Ullica Segerstrale: Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W D Hamilton.  Reading this at the moment.  Not wonderfully written, but fascinating and contains lots of weighty science in Hamilton's own words.

Brian Greene: The Fabric of the Cosmos

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years

Murray Gell-Mann: The Quark and the Jaguar

Victor Stenger: God: the Failed Hypothesis.  Hesitated about recommending this one, because for my money it would have been a better book (albeit one with far fewer sales) without the God stuff.  But the science is interesting and accessible, so recommended for that.

Jerry Coyne: Why Evolution is True

Michael Shermer: Why Darwin Matters: The Caste against Intelligent Design.  This one I found to be just a little too basic, although engagingly written; but it's interesting to know what the enemy is thinking...

Donald Prothero: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters

Martin Nowak: Supercooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour

Carl Sagan: Cosmos.  I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read this one!

Steve Jones: Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated.  Clear, easy to read and entertaining.

Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape.  I find Harris heavy going, but his ideas and the information upon which he bases them are interesting so this is worth sticking with.

Adrian Forsyth: A Natural History of Sex: The Ecology and Evolution of Mating Behaviour

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

Stuart Firestein: Ignorance: How it Drives Science

Chris Impey: How It Began: A Time-Traveler's Guide to the Universe

Neil Shubin: The Universe Within

...riiight.  I spend my entire life with my nose in a book.  I read in the shower, FFS.  How can I have read so few of these?!  In my defense, I have neither my bookcase  nor my Kindle in front of me to remind me of books I have read, and I've also read an awful lot of science books I wouldn't recommend.  But still, the paucity of bolded, "read" books in that list is pretty damning, I'm sincerely embarrassed by that.  To Waterstones!

(And I may amend this post later when I've gotten home and looked at my bookcase, to make myself feel better.)

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