Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: Carl Sagan

The Varieties of Scientific Experience
Carl Sagan

The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a printed version of Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures, originally presented in 1985.  In them he discusses his views on religion, science, the search for extra-terrestrial life, and philosophy.

These are engaging, and quite possibly very useful to someone without a deep training in atheism.  Sagan's sense of wonder at the natural world comes through, as does his openness to many things, even as he indirectly points out the problems and contradictions with much of modern religion.

A good read, particularly for those wondering about their religious faith.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Entire Harry Potter Series: J. K. Rowling

The Entire Harry Potter Series
J. K. Rowling

The final Harry Potter movie has shipped on DVD and will be here soon, which means it was time to reread the entire series as part of my ongoing interest in how books are changed as they become movies.

As you might expect, the earlier books in this series suffer less change than the later ones, where Rowling had the ability to ship 800 page books without fear.  Getting such monsters into a single movie - or even two - is tough.

Overall I think the screen writer did a pretty good job.  In many cases entire sub plots are dropped out, and other things are re-ordered and/or simplified to make them work better on the screen.  I found the number of times that lines or actions given to one character in the books are given to someone else in the movies amusing, but it makes sense since hard core fans will recognize those kinds of things.

There are a few places in the movies where things are simply not explained.  They're pretty subtle, but there.  A simple example: the kids take the Hogwarts Express train from London to the school.  Clearly that trip takes a few hours, based on how it is described.  But when they fly to London on thestrals, the movie glosses over the time required, whereas the books tell you that thestrals fly really fast, apparently much faster than the train.  Other small stuff is like that.  The movie doesn't explicitly say Draco repaired the vanishing cabinet, nor why it needed repair in the first place, but the books tell you that, and so on.

If I have a beef with these books, it's the King's Cross bit towards the end of Deathly Hallows.  Harry desperately wanted to see is godfather again, but that didn't happen.  There's some indication that he will meet him again - when he (Harry) dies - but clearly no way to talk to him now.  Then, however, we have a long discussion with Dumbledore in Harry's imagined King's Cross station.  Why?  How?  Rowling doesn't explain that well enough for me, nor why Harry didn't meet Sirius, Lupin, and Tonks there too.   Others might not have minded, but it bugged me as I read it.

Still, these are fun books.  They keep readers of any age interested and wondering what is going to happen.  Rowling's world is deep enough and complex enough that it feels real, which is the sign of a good author in my mind.

I'll read these again at some point.  Good stuff.

Sleeping With The Devil: Robert Baer

Sleeping With The Devil
Robert Baer

Sleeping With The Devil is Robert Baer's book about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.  While it is profoundly disturbing at times, there are places where I don't think he fully supports his arguments.  In addition, events have surpassed his vision of reality.

Published in 2003, Baer worries about the affect of very high oil prices on the US economy that might result from instabilities and problems within Saudi Arabia.  He worries about oil getting up to or over $100 per barrel, but that has already happened.  See, for example:

I am sure that the price of oil has deepened our economic problems, but it, singly, has not brought down the world's economy as Baer seemed to fear.

In any case, the issues Baer highlights about the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia - mostly in the form of our relationship with the Saudi royal family - are troubling.  Any number of great arguments for energy independence can be made starting from concerns about oil, and I think there is a lot of truth there.

In short, an interesting book, but how much it reflects reality now I am not sure.