miercuri, 31 decembrie 2014

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Finally, I have read the first book in the Harry Potter series. I have fallen in love with the way in which it is written. It is simply captivating. You would think that after seeing the movie series one wouldn’t be so captivated about reading the actual book, but this is one example of those cases in which the book is so entertaining that you simply cannot stop reading it. A wonderful adventure of Harry Potter and his friends Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger is unveiled before your eyes. I have to admit that all the faces of the characters for me where those of the actors in the movies. I just couldn’t imagine any other face to the name.  

This is one piece of literary craftsmanship that you have to read for yourself. I am now bewitched by it and will continue to read through the series. It is just beautiful! more delightful than I have imagined it to be. The way in which Rowling presents the characters and their reactions to the events is just simply natural and it seems to come with an ease that makes you wonder at points whether she has seen the persons in action. I particularly liked the way in which she described Prof. McGonogall’s stern look and her reactions.

There are many other examples in which the book is astonishing but that is left for other readers to discover.

Even though this is not exactly a book review and it is my opinion on it, I still though it is worth mentioning. There are other great reviews of the book and one must not invent the wheel in order to enjoy the movement (a bit of artificial paraphrasing ;)).

vineri, 26 decembrie 2014

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

The book is a beautiful philosophical introduction to planetary astronomy. I like the way in which Sagan presents the arguments for the necessity of exploring the space. We  live in a limited environment. Our confined planet is a pale blue dot in space. This is all that we have and all that we are accustomed to. It gives you a perspective on our struggles as a species in the vast incommensurable Universe.

Humans have come a long way since believing that the Universe was all that we saw and it was created to suit our purposes. Science provided us an objective way of seeing ourselves for who we are: an intelligent life form that is evolving. Our evolution was formerly confined to the exploration of our planet, but as we grow in numbers we are jeopardizing our future. We must find new ways to colonize the space if we are to evolve.

Before reading the book I was aware of the limited resources that we have on the planet. I was also aware of the struggles that scientists had to overcome in order to broadcast their findings and the negative role that religious institutions had on stopping the progress of science and technology. After reading it, I feel like we [the human species] are foolishly thinking that we could circumnavigate the problems that we have created: global warming, the thinning of ozone layer, the overpopulation and the modification of life-threatening viruses. These problems are already taking a toll on how we live. We are more prone to climatic changes and the scarce food resources already determine a struggle for survival. These are important points to consider and problems that Sagan has foreseen more than 20 years ago.

For me, it is  refreshingly encouraging when I see the human species for what it is. It is a species with vast potential for evolution, creation and destruction. The perspective given by the planetary exploration probes Cassini, Voyager I and II, and the Apollo missions, are crude, objective status of what we are. We are a fragile species. We have evolved more in the last 100.000 years than before, and our evolution has pushed other species into extinction.

The search to find new inhabitable places brings hope and sense of purpose into our evolution. Scientists are finding new planets, satellites, asteroids with a chemical composition that would put our ingenuity to the test if we want to make them inhabitable. The terraforming, as Sagan calls it, would create suitable living condition and creation of human outposts on the Moon, large asteroids, and Mars. It would be a new kind of migration and would need the concerted support and involvement of all the nations. We must find solutions and find them fast if we want to secure our place in the universe.

I am optimistic about the future when I see the progress made with colonizing Mars and also the research into safely landing and taking off from asteroids. Maybe there is hope for the human species. Maybe I will see it in my lifetime. Carl Sagan’s book is a beautiful exposition of the reasons which motivate the search for intelligent life and also for places were humans could continue living after Earth has exhausted it resources and the environment in no longer suited for life. 

miercuri, 3 decembrie 2014

Scotland's Stories of Home

This November as I went to Edinburgh for the Graduation Ceremony of my MSc studies I was offered this book with short stories from Scotland. Offered by the Scottish Book Trust as part of the Book Week Scotland it provides a great opportunity to come in contact with beautiful stories about places in Scotland. I am proud and happy to be able to call Edinburgh my home for the last year, and even though I am not Scottish I feel like the magic of the place will forever live in me and also guide my path to going back there.

Scotland reveals itself as a welcoming place, full of international people that bring flavour to the place and also place their dreams in the service of their adoptive country. It distinguishes itself through its rich history, an amazing place to live and learn and also for offering you a sense of community. Reading the short stories you are transported in place you wish to go, to feel joys and share the sorrows of the Scottish people. This small book achieved a great mission as Scotland’s emissary.  

joi, 20 noiembrie 2014

The Sleepwalkers - How Europe went to war in 1914

I am always amazed at how decisions taken by a handful of powerful figures can alter the course of humanity. The story of how the First World War started in 1914 fits perfectly in the setting of the early 20th century Europe, when great monarchies struggle to manage vast empires. The Austro-Hungary Empire appears as the main character in the story, with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on the 28th June 1914 igniting a diplomatic and military mobilization. Another important role is played by Serbia, which foster the terrorist movement for the unification of all Serbs and was responsible for the assassination.

Christopher Clark brilliantly presents the course of events that lead to the murder of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, while detailing the background conflict between alliances forged in the pre-war wars. Great Britain’s alliance with both France and Russia allowed her to maintain vast colonies in Asia and Africa, while not endangering its North African stronghold from France and Germany military advances. On the other hand, the Russian Empire wanted to obtain control in the Bosporus straight and also suzerainty over the newly formed Balkan states: Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Serbia. Germany was advancing both technologically and economically in the world stage and this enabled the empire to provide assistance for African States in the independence struggle against France and Great Britain. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was ethnically too vast to be united and also employed a slow bureaucratic system that would prove to be a premise of its demise.

When you read about these economic and political subtleties, you cannot stop and be amazed with the way in which the emperor and kings played such an important role in both maintain peace and also engaging in war. Austrian-Hungarian Empire was portrayed by the international press as an oppressor of the newly independent Balkan states and as a dying empire, with Germany as the main supporter for its external policies.

The book is a monumental work on how the First World War broke in the summer of 1914, and after reading it I gained more knowledge about the intricate political work of empires and states. The external affair cabinets were powerful in dictating directions for alliances and the influence with which the ministers exerted this is astounding. Even though I cannot claim to understand all the reasons for which Europe engaged in a global war, it is clear that all the key decisional figures were ready and anticipating the war as necessary for the establishment of new order. Looking back through the lenses offered by knowing past events it is hard to imagine how such a war was necessary. Sadly it happened and was the deadliest conflict in human history. 100 years later it is necessary to understand how WW1 started, in the hope of preventing such catastrophes from ever happening again. 

marți, 30 septembrie 2014

Wine: A Cultural History

Having a little more time after finishing my dissertation studies I decided to start cultivating my love of wine and what better way to start than reading about its history? And what a history wine has! It starts sometime between 8500 BC at the earliest and 4000 BC at the latest (p.11). The book is perfect for afternoon readings, especially if you have a glass of nice wine to accompany it.

John Varriano carefully selects historical sources to carry you through the journey of wine making and consumption, from ancient times to modern day times. It is beautifully illustrated with works of art: sculpture, pottery, paintings and lithographs, all thoughtfully inserted to make the reading more enjoyable. It made me aware of the importance of wine in all rituals and aspects of life, in ancient Greece, where the drank wine mixed with water, than in ancient Rome, where members of high class used to feast on wine taking it as a reminder of momento mori and carpe diem, whilst also encouraging the people to drink it for medicinal purposes. Often time throughout the history wine was used to cure various ailments both topically and internally.

Galen’s account of wine usage for treating wounds is one of the most vast and attentively constructed medical books of those times, widely used until late 17th century, describes mixes of herbs with wine and even usage of wine as a disinfectant for open wounds. It really made me think twice about what natural medicine can do in order to cure diseases, especially those linked to mineral deficiencies.

The story of wine and how it became widely enjoyed by all people also describes the first wine with controlled denomination, Château Haut-Brion – founded by Jean de Pontac- 1550, to be named by the region where it was made. Wine continued to be enjoyed by members of high class, royalties and popes (Châteauneuf “Vin du Pape” – 1316-1334) (p. 103). The pleasure and rituals associated with wine are depicted beautifully in art. Works of art: painting of Michellangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Bellini and Titian, Rubens, Poussins, Vermeer, and sculptures and lithographs embroider the story and make you wish you could see them all first hand.

Modern time abounds with pictures, descriptions and studies all hailing the benefits of moderate wine consumption. Starting with wine’s effect as a means of aiding people suffering from minor social inhibition and continuing with recent studies suggesting that by drinking wine we attain longevity and better health, the list is vast. It makes you wonder why with every meal you don’t appreciate the curative and pleasurable effects of moderate wine consumption. It definitely makes me want to know more about wine and cultivate my taste so I can enjoy both the health benefits and also the small pleasures of life.  

luni, 15 septembrie 2014

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Since ancient times the nature and behaviour of people taking psychic altering drugs has been surrounded by a lot of preconceptions. When reading Tomas de Quincey’s book you are transported into the 19th century English society and discover the stereotypes and preconceptions regarding drug use.  de Quincey starts in a more descriptive and apologetic note just to make sure that he appeals to his readers. At first this style seems a little too contrived in 21st century biographic writing, but one must keep in mind that when this book appeared it stirred the high circles of society and created a new awareness regarding the use of opium.

It seems a courageous move to describe and expose publicly a private behaviour, such as drug usage. Whether the reason was to make the public aware of this or simply the book emerged as a result of de Quincey’s belief that preconceptions must be changed is a matter of historical hypothesising. Needless to say, you come into first contact with the exhilaration of the drugs effect but also with the negative effects that it can have on the consumer and his family.

I enjoyed reading this book simply because it was a way to gain access into a world of sealed doors and social stigma. I applaud his heroic act of describing his behaviour and by doing so exposing himself to public criticism. A lot has changed since that time, but the stigma surrounding the drug consumption still remains. Even the author warns against opium usage and argues that better medical care or better living conditions should be a necessary condition for all those who wish not to take the drug or be tempted by other psychedelic drugs. At one point de Quincey presents his hypothesis stating that opium might alleviate the symptoms of Consumptions or other grave medical condition that affected British Society at that time, but tones down his tone to include a cautionary message that the drugs early positive effects should not be abused and care must be taken when measuring the dosage. Another noteworthy hypothesis is that a life that includes regular exercise and a balanced diet could provide more positive effects on overall health rather than subsiding to drug use.

Taken together the messages that de Quincey sends to his readers are worthy of consideration and admirable, especially when thinking that this is the first biographic book to expose opium usage.

sâmbătă, 30 august 2014

Too Far

Robbie, a small boy of six-seven years moves to Alaska with his family. There he discovers a world of great and incommensurable meaning. Shapero describes this transformation by following his main character through the journey of growing up and letting go of small boys mystical fantasies. Robbie learns to explore the surrounding forest, befriends Fristeen and together they form a bond that helps them both overlook the dramas unfolding in the adult world. Robbie’s parents are emotionally crippled by relationship issues: his father is enmeshed in his studies and his mother is battling depression. Fighting often, they neglect Robbie and this constant bickering pushes their son in to the arms of an imaginary world, ruled by the Dream Man and Shawn, under constant threat of being captured by Shivers.

Fristeen’s world is even less structured than Robbie’s. Without knowing her father and with no involvement from her mother, a drug addict, she is often left to herself, and sometimes the only food that she gets is Robbie’s sandwiches. Together the children set forward in an adventure through the woods and try to make sense of the world around them. They are very careful when exploring, and also are under constant threat by the imminence of Shivers power. (Apparently living in Alaska means that one must always be prepared to face a sudden freeze.)

Throughout the brief Alaskan summer the drama in their houses unfolds, to the point that at the start of the autumn Robbie’s parents decide to separate and Fristeen’s mom decide to get back with an abusive partner. The children decide to run in the forest and hide, thinking they will manage to survive independent, but a sudden freeze, Shivers, puts them in grave danger. The rescue team finds them in time. This last adventure concludes their initiation into a different stage of existence, marked by an absence of magic and fantastical beings.

Too Far is an enjoyable book, one that emphasizes the human power to search for meaning in the surroundings and also pinpoints to the mental characteristics that led early humans to construct gods endorsed with magical powers.  

duminică, 24 august 2014

“De ce este Romania altfel?” (Why is Romania different?)

Lucian Boia’s historical account on the causes and political context that influenced current day Romania is insightful and well-written. Browsing through topics, this essay is definitely a piece of history that especially Romanians must be aware. 

It starts with the Dacians - an ancient tribe that was attested here before the Roman Empire expansion in the first and second century, continues with the Great Migration of the Huns and the political and economic reign of the Otoman Empire. Throughout his discourse one can feel that the great things that make up the Romanians: adaptability, cunning determination to stick to their land, and industrious spirit were exactly the key pieces which together kept Romanians on a different route than its neighbouring countries. Boia refutes the claims that only the Communist Regime had a detrimental effect on the modernization of Romania, or that the socialist administration is solely to blame for a lack of political reorganization following the 1989 Revolution. One stringent need that was never prioritized by any Administration, ancient or current, is Education. This is precisely the reason why so many good ideas felt short of achieving success due to a chronic deficit in middle and long term vision of development. Without a vision for a country or without a healthy class a country can never escape some ancient frustration or achieve to stand at the same table with other European countries. Even though Romania joined the European Union in 2007, only this year were the bans of free access to labour market lifted. This is in striking contrast with other countries that have previously joined EU, namely Hungary and Poland. What makes Romania’s case different?

In Lucian Boia’s opinion a key element rises to prominence: the lack of intellectual elite that could question tyrannical decision and set an example for the lower working classes. But where and how could Romania forge an intellectual class when across all time only the powerful minorities (Hungarians, Germans, Jews, and Italians) had access to schools? It is paradoxical to think that under the Socialist Regime there were more Schools and Universities built than previously and yet after the Regime fell they valued little to the majority of people. What is even more baffling is the fact that nowadays there is an inflation of university degrees on the job markets in Romania, yet the Education is not valued. We have come to be a nation of poorly educated university degree holders. Most of the talented young people, bright individuals, choose to study abroad and never come back, as to come back and work in a university lab resembles sometimes the titanic work done by the scientist in medieval times. This is a powerful example of wasted potential and a condemnation to an export of intellectual power. Moreover the curse of Romania’s wasted potential doesn’t stop with the small percentage of the elite. On the contrary, the majority of those that lack education are deemed to work as unskilled workers and migrate to countries with better minimum wage (Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Great Britain, just to name a few), leaving in the country those that could not go (children and elders) or those that chose to stay for various other reasons.

The picture is grim: a country lacking long-term political/ administrative vision, which is readily opened to emulate the Western Societies, but deemed to be seen as an exploitable country for both its people and resources. Until Romanian Government prioritizes Education, Health and Agricultural Economy things are only bound to become worse.

In the eve of a new electoral mandate I am left with a century old question: “And me, whom shall I cast my vote?!?” (Paraphrasing I.L. Caragiale, 1884).

duminică, 13 iulie 2014

Think by Simon Blackburn

Think is a great introductory book into some of the most important problems in philosophy. Blackburn introduced his essay with a powerful paragraph: “In the end, it is ideas for which people kill each other. It is because of ideas about what the others are like, or who we are, or what our interests or rights require, that we go to war, or oppress others with a good conscience, or even sometimes acquiesce in our own oppression by others. When these beliefs involve the sleep of reason, critical awakening is the antidote.”(p. 11)

Throughout the book he deals with important issues that define our human nature: the problem of knowledge, mind, free will, the self, god, reasoning, the world, and what to do in the future. I enjoyed this introduction through the ideas that shaped our knowledge: Descartes dualism about mind and nature, its shortcomings and often misinterpretation of the example that he used: about the doubt being the evil in deceiving us. Wittgenstein remark of how our personal knowledge and mind deceives us into thinking about states and things as immutable needs to be addressed. “Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.” (Wittgenstein(1953) in Blackburn, 1999, p. 74). Blackburn brings into attention also the assumption of future being fixed: “Which events unfold from time’s womb depends on what we decide to do- this is what the inside control of a person or a thermostat means. Our choosing models are implicated in the process, unlike those of a mere spectator.” (p.113)

The essay about important thoughts that shaped human thinking continues with the presentation of how we reason about the possibility of things happening in the future or when trying to predict the outcomes of certain decisions. In all do respects any particular musings that our minds might entail in trying to make sense of past events in order to foresee the future can be summed up by the phrase: “The future will be what it will be. Its events are already in time’s womb. So get cracking.” (p. 112)

Indeed with this thought my appetite for philosophy grows even bigger and my wish to comprehend deeper and fundamental problems is expanding by the day. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in having a taste of the problems and concepts dealt in philosophy. 

vineri, 23 mai 2014

Hindsight - The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward by Mark Freeman

Freeman’s book attracted me from the first sight of it. It was a mixture of curiosity with a sense that this book, implicitly its contents, is something that I need in this stage of my life. It proved out to be just that!

Hindsight is rather an essay on the problem of human reconstruction of the self through incorporating and giving meaning to past experiences. Written in a clear concise and yet philosophical style it transports you into a world of thought and guides you through the stories of other real life humans that have sought some peace with the past in order to look at the future in a more positive way. Some of the protagonists in the examples chosen, found their peace and strength to recreate themselves and to embrace the future selves in a more powerful and creative way, whilst others have become prisoners of their own past: regrets and failed expectation leaving them scarred and unable to progress.  

Human beings need to have a feeling of narrative self, the integrative part of us that is unique but as a whole represents us, becomes a part of our identity. In light of present knowledge we tend to evaluate past experiences and seek to amend them in order to create an acceptable image of ourselves. It made me think a lot about the power of our understanding and the frailties of our expectations about the future when anchored in the present and also the disappointment of the realization that, what we thought will be a sure course of our developmental trajectory did not happen. Stopping to re-evaluate our personal history can be a source of immense growth and also the crossing-point to new avenues for future enterprises. It can also be a source of regret and resentment when we realise that what we set up to do was never achieved or we perceive as failing to meet our hopes and expectations. No matter what the result will be, it is important for us to reconsider from time to time our values, our expectations, our past decisions, just to be aware of the direction I which we are heading.

I loved the book and especially the way in which I found the opportunity to think of my own journey of growth and to reconsider the expectations that I hold and how to let go of regret and of un-necessary worries about the future. 

marți, 18 martie 2014

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

Allan Karlsson, a hundred-year-old man sets on another adventure.

The book is a fascinating account of adventures and happenings in Allan’s life. It all fits with the perfect twists of occurrences, fate, whatever you want to call it. Reading the book, I had a feeling that Allan’s life is magnificent, but I guess every life in which you have no expectations other than: nice food, a place above your head, and something to drink is the dream. Given the strange context in which Allan live, it appears that only by constantly wanting to live he sets himself yet on another adventure.

During his 100 year life he has become a bomb specialist, helped create the most deadly bomb, be-friended presidents, and also spend a nice long vacation on the beach (more than a decade), and during the whole time he was an honest, open-minded and completely apolitical person. On the celebration of his 100 year birthday he decides to do something new, other than spending his day in the senior house, so he climbs out the window and just goes off to another place/ adventure.

In a fantastic twist of randomly circumstances, just as anyone would know to expect from an ordinary life, he comes in the possession of a troller full of money, than pursued by the rightful Swedish mafia proprietors, and by the police, suspected of kidnap and manslaughter. While taking part in this exciting adventure the author carefully portrays Allan’s previous history, just to make the reader clear that when we come to know this person we will see how all the things make sense, and culminate in this adventure that started on his 100th birthday.  It is really a beautifully written account of the story of a man who is true to himself, his morals, his beliefs, and constructs his sense of self-coherence by reflecting on the issues bigger than himself, thus being genuinely open to people, to happenings, to revise his actions and construct his life in accordance to his beliefs. Although the author or the main character doesn’t state the beliefs plainly, by the end of the book I had the feeling that Allan’s main belief is in the power of people accepting themselves and others as they are, without imposing external morals, ideas, or political agendas.

This fantastic story made me reflect on the ways in which I too construct the story of my life. The way in which I can revise what I am living and what I am experiencing, to make sure I spot the difference between unrealistic expectation of events going the way I want them to go, or happening in the putative way that I can imagine them to take place. It is indeed a liberating feeling to know that I will not come to understand all the potential outcome of a decision, situation, and my best action is just to act the way that my morals and beliefs dictate me. Keeping in mind that I cannot envisage all the potential situations is the best feeling, but that doesn’t mean I should be paralysed by inaction; on the contrary that means I am more responsible for how I act and react to everything that comes in my life, thus I will take a step closer to having and behaving in accordance to my free will – because, you see, whenever I know there are multiple course of action, what I choose to do becomes my decision, even is the setting is not in my control, the decision, reaction, action Is.

miercuri, 8 ianuarie 2014

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Ever wonder how great scientific minds had their insights? How history was shaped by events ignited by great ideas? Have you ever wonder how we, as human tend to still be here, on the planet? Or how the planet in itself exists? This and many other questions are the foundation for one of the most enjoyable popular science books out there.

Bill Bryson gives you a tour of the most fundamental ideas, which change our thinking and understanding of life, evolution and our place in all this. Due to his meticulously combination of scientific facts with murky historical events it is a great pleasure to read the book. Although at some point you might feel overwhelm by all the facts presented you begin to see science at what it is, a build-up of knowledge, with credit for discoveries, being most often given to the few who were lucky enough to speak and international language (read as English), lucky to have the material means to pursue their interest in their own time, and lucky to have the connections that could help popularize their findings. All of these are extremely similar to how science is made today. Wherever  the money goes, some discoveries in that field are bound to take place. This is not to say that great minds are not born every decade and are not capable of great insights, merely the fact that most often being a genius and not having the right connections or luck, means that your genius might be acknowledge well past your lifetime.

One of my personal favorite past time book, I enjoyed taking the tour through the history of many great discoveries, and must confess that at the end of it I was left with a taste of wanting to find out more about scientific discoveries in all fields of knowledge. As it turns out, this is the effect of great books and wonderful writers, they keep you hooked, wanting and longing for more.