Monday, March 26, 2007

Book Review: The First Seal

Author: Sean Harris
Publisher: BookSurge, LLC
ISBN: 1-4196-4953-1

When archaeologists in New Mexico discover 16th century British armor hidden in a Navajo burial ground, Jim O’Neal joins the search to uncover the meaning of this unexpected find. Shortly afterwards, he learns that another artifact of much greater significance, an engraved stone tablet, was also discovered. Jim, needing to jumpstart his stagnant career, envisions these finds as his keys to academic acclaim. When an archaeologist is killed and Jim is framed for the murder, he realizes that, in order to prove his innocence, he must solve the mystery of the tablet and find its companion, which is buried in another site. His allies in this quest are Frank, a Navajo graduate student, and Marji, a mysterious newcomer whose interest in the discovery adds another layer of intrigue to the adventure.

Two other groups, in addition to Jim, Frank and Marji, want to claim the tablets for their own purposes. One group is determined use the tablets to set cataclysmic events into motion. The other, composed of descendants of the ancient Knights Templar, wants to ensure that the mysteries of the tablets remain unsolved and, in so doing, maintain international stability. All three groups follow trails across New Mexico and into the mountains of Colorado, where the ultimate showdown takes place in ancient Navajo territory.

A second story that develops throughout the book is the tale of how the tablets arrived in the New World. The main character of this story is Thomas Wyclyffe, a sixteenth century Templar Knight who has traveled from Britain to hide tablets. The parallel between the two stories is clever. The reader simultaneously follows the twenty-first century adventurers as they uncover the artifacts and the sixteenth century adventurer as he buries his goods. The transitions between the stories are smooth and both stories climax at appropriate points in their respective narratives.

Generally speaking, The First Seal is well-written and fun to read. The plot is clever and coherent. Harris draws on several historical strands, such as Navajo culture and lore and the story of the Knights Templar, to weave a very engaging story. The only plot weakness comes in the final scene, which unfortunately draws on a device that is quickly becoming a cliché in twenty-first century American literature. With regard to the book’s characters, most of them are interesting. Readers will empathize with the heroes and be intrigued by the demonic duo. The only character who seems to be cut from a cardboard mold is Jesse, the twisted twentieth century Templar Knight. The only other critical issue I have with the book is that it needs one more round of editing, as there are several points at which sloppy grammar becomes annoying. Since these shortcomings are few in number and generally minor in effect, I highly recommend The First Seal to readers who like adventure stories with historical flavors and I look forward to reading more of this author’s work in the future.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Book Review: Trash Talk

Author: Robert Gussin
Publisher: Oceanview Publishing
ISBN: 1-933515-04-X

Violence in major league sports is not unusual. Athletes fight each other. Fans fight each other. Athletes and fans fight each other. Is there a feasible way to reform the culture of sports and eliminate all of this violence? In Trash Talk, Robert Gussin offers a humorous solution by imagining what could happen if several hundred professional athletes spent four days with several hundred environmentalists.

This meeting of brains and brawn is brought about through a hilarious coincidence. The commissioners of the four major American professional sports (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) have declared that all major league athletes must attend at least one educational seminar each year. When an athlete discovers an advertisement for a conference entitled, Trash Talk, he thinks he’s found the perfect solution. Expecting to learn more about the art of trash talking their opponents, hundreds of athletes register for the conference. They are baffled and angry when they find themselves amidst hundreds of environmentalists who intend to discuss the dilemmas of rubbish management. A joint committee of athletes and environmentalists imaginatively resolves the conflicting agendas of the two groups.

While I found Gussin’s book entertaining, I was disappointed by a couple aspects of the story. First, Gussin builds his dilemma by catering to stereotypes. The athletes are portrayed as dumb jocks and the environmentalists are portrayed as geeks. While these stereotypes lend themselves to some humorous scenarios, they are shallow and they do not render the characters believable.

Second, Gussin mentions a number of substantial environmental concerns but does not provide insight into any of them. If Gussin had focused more deeply on some of these issues, the book would have been more engaging. Since Gussin’s stated intention was to “[infuse] humor into stories about serious topics,” I assume he had hoped to educate, as well as entertain, his readers. He succeeds in entertaining but misses the mark on education.

Overall, Trash Talk is amusing and may be suitable as a book to read at the beach or by the poolside.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Book Review: Napoleon's Pyramids

Author: William Dietrich
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-06-084832-3

For Ethan Gage, an American adventurer living in Paris, winning a gold medallion in a card game was not a turn of good luck. There are people who will go to great lengths, including murder, to wrest the medallion from him. Accused of a murder he did not commit, and needing to escape France as quickly as possible, Gage joins Napoleon’s campaign to conquer Egypt and gain French control of the trade routes to India. Napoleon, aware of Gage’s medallion and hoping to harness its power for his own purposes, accepts Gage into his entourage and strikes up a friendship with him.

Napoleon, his army and an assortment of scholars and scientists, including Gage, set sail in May 1798. The ease with which they conquer Malta seems to portend good fortune for their mission. Upon arriving in Alexandria in July, however, they face resistance from the Muslim army that controls Egypt and much of the Middle East. The French, with superior technology, defeat the Muslim army at Alexandria and occupy the city, and Gage acquires a slave whose master was killed in the battle.

Napoleon’s army continues its march to Cairo and wins a bloody victory at the Battle of the Pyramids. Upon arriving in Cairo, Napoleon strives futilely to win the trust and goodwill of the Egyptians, and Gage contacts an Egyptian scholar for help in revealing the mystery of his medallion. He also falls in love with Astiza, his slave who, it turns out, is not a slave at all; she is, in fact, a devotee of the ancient Egyptian culture and religion. She has substantial knowledge about Egyptian and Muslim ways and she guides Gage as he discovers more about his own character and beliefs. As Napoleon’s struggles to secure his conquest increase, his friendship with Gage becomes strained. Gage, in turn, is alarmed by Napoleon’s increasingly apparent megalomania.

Eventually, the French naval force moored on the outskirts of Alexandria is demolished by the British navy in an epic sea battle (the Battle of the Nile), a defeat that squelches Napoleon’s dreams of controlling the Mediterranean trade routes. Gage, having uncovered the mystery of the medallion, does not want to reveal his findings to the tyrannical Napoleon. As Gage and Astiza flee from Napoleon and his army, they become separated. Gage continues his escape and eventually contacts the British navy. The book closes with the promise of a new adventure for Gage, in the company of the British this time around, that will include a search for his lost love.

Napoleon’s Pyramids is based on Napoleon’s actual escapades in Egypt. Many of the book’s characters were real people and many of the book’s military and political details are accurate. The book is lush with minutiae about the architecture and mathematical mysteries of the pyramids and the rich history and culture of Egypt. The storyline is engrossing yet not convoluted and the characters are complex yet credible. Dietrich’s careful attention to details of plotting, character and pace is evident throughout the book. The result is a finely crafted historical adventure tale that will keep readers turning pages through the night.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Book Review: The Last Secret

Authors: Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore
Publisher: Midnight Ink
ISBN: 0-7387-0931-X

The Last Secret is the second installment of a new series featuring a heroine with the distinctive name of Cotten Stone. In addition to her idiosyncratic name, Stone carries a unique heritage: she is half-human and half-Nephilim.

The Nephilim are a legendary race of giants featured in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Having cast their lot with Lucifer, they were condemned by God to roam the earth forever, unable either to die or re-enter heaven. They seek to avenge themselves by corrupting God’s favorite creatures, humankind. Notwithstanding her Nephilim blood, Cotten Stone identifies with humanity and fights for its survival in the eternal war between the forces of iniquity and purity.

In The Last Secret, Stone is engaged in a race against the Nephilim. The prize they seek is an ancient crystal tablet engraved – perhaps by the hand of God himself – with mysterious glyphs. Stone wants to uncover its message, which is vital to humanity’s survival, and the Nephilim want to destroy the tablet before its message can be revealed. Although Stone’s encounters with the Nephilim are sinister and deadly, she ultimately prevails in this struggle. She finds the tablet, translates its message and leads many humans to safety. Stone knows, however, that she has merely won one battle against the Nephilim. Many more people need her help if they are going to have any hopes of winning the war against evil. Thus, the book closes with Stone preparing for the next stage of her war against her ancient foes.

Sholes and Moore are experienced authors whose expertise is evident in the careful manner in which their plot is revealed and resolved throughout the book. Key pieces hold together throughout the book and no inexplicable threads are left dangling at the end of the story. Moreover, the story closes in a satisfactory manner while successfully setting the stage for the next book in the series.

Additionally, Sholes and Moore’s development of their main character, Cotten Stone is subtle and appealing. In spite of her unusual lineage, Cotten Stone is a surprisingly accessible heroine with whom the reader can identify. She suffers personal and professional setbacks. She is frequently plagued by self-doubt. She is intelligent but not brilliant. Her athletic prowess is average. In short, she is an ordinary person, not a superhero. Achieving this balance in an unusual character like Stone is a notable accomplishment that would have eluded less skilled writers.

Unfortunately, Sholes and Moore did not take similar care in constructing their secondary characters. For example, the mathematician who helps Stone decipher the tablet’s engraving is a stereotypical brilliant nerd with no social life and the personality of a rusty nail. Resorting to this sort of cardboard character cheapens the quality of an otherwise engaging story. Why are so many bland characters across so many books in so many genres cast as mathematicians? Why can’t someone write about a mathematician with sex appeal or a sense of humor? Such mathematicians exist in real life. Surely they can exist in an author’s imagination.

Another weakness is that Stone’s relationships with key characters, such as her mentor and her best friend (a priest with whom she is in love) are undeveloped. I hope that both of these relationships, particularly the latter one with its enticing portent of passionate tension, will be fully cultivated as the series progresses.

Overall, in spite of these weaknesses, The Last Secret is an entertaining book. I recommend it to readers who enjoy fantasy and adventure stories.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Book Review: Why Intelligent Design Fails

Editors: Matt Young & Taner Edis
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
ISBN: 0-8135-3433-X

It has been less than two years since citizens in Kansas and Pennsylvania fought significant political and legal battles regarding public school science curriculum. In both cases, some folks sought to expand the curriculum to include instruction in Intelligent Design alongside of Darwinian evolution as a plausible scientific alternative to that theory. The proponents of Intelligent Design eventually lost both of these battles. Nevertheless, it is likely that similar struggles will erupt again. For this reason,
Why Intelligent Design Fails is a book that deserves a wide audience.

Is Intelligent Design scientific? Is it simply old-style Creationism - or the even older classical Argument by Design for God’s existence - in a hip new designer fashion, complete with culturally appropriate, linguistically sophisticated accessories? Does the theory pose questions that ought to be considered seriously by scientists, or is it primarily of interest to philosophers, theologians and conservative Christians? All of these questions are addressed in Young and Edis’ book.

Young and Edis ignored (as much as possible) Intelligent Design’s political and legal contexts and compiled a book that would examine the theory’s scientific claims solely against the norms of scientific methods and dialog. The authors who contributed to this work come from a wide range of research disciplines: physics, biology, zoology, astronomy, anthropology, paleontology, molecular pharmacology and computer science. At times the subject matter is dense, but, in general, the material is readable and accessible to lay people.

Irreducible Complexity & Specified Complexity
Two of the leading spokespersons for Intelligent Design are Michael Behe, a biochemist, and William Dembski, a mathematician and information theorist. Both of these men are recognized researchers who have published peer-reviewed papers on topics other than Intelligent Design. The only portion of their work that is in question in Young & Edis’ book is that which deals with Intelligent Design theory. Since Behe and Dembski have been the most cogent proponents of the theory, the bulk of Why Intelligent Design Fails is devoted to analyses of their work.

Michael Behe’s principle contribution to Intelligent Design theory is the concept of Irreducible Complexity. Simply stated, an organic structure is irreducibly complex if it consists of three or more essential parts without which it cannot function. According to Behe, such structures could not have arisen by chance assemblage from available organic odds and ends and, therefore, must have been designed. Behe argues that the eye and the flagellum are two examples of such structures. Several of the authors who contributed to this book argue forcefully against Behe’s claims and dismiss the concept of Irreducible Complexity.

William Dembski’s primary contribution to Intelligent Design theory is the concept of Specified Complexity, which he also calls Complex Specified Information. His arguments are based on computer models and calculations of statistical probability intended to demonstrate that randomness and chance couldn’t possibly account for the order that permeates the universe. Several contributors to this volume discuss flaws in Dembski’s computational processes and conclude that Specified Complexity, like Irreducible Complexity, is not a robust concept.

Anthropic Principle
Some proponents of Intelligent Design argue that the Anthropic Principle supports their claim. This principle suggests that, since life could not exist in the absence of a host of specific conditions, the presence, confluence and precise balance of the conditions that currently prevail could not have happened by chance. They must have been designed explicitly for the purpose of nurturing and sustaining life. This argument is, at best, an exemplar of the moralistic fallacy: the universe in its current form is exactly as it should be. At worst, the argument is an example of circular reasoning: restating an argument's conclusion (there is a Designer) as one of its premises (the universe appears to have been designed).

It is possible that the universe could have developed differently than it has. Had that been the case, forms of life other than those familiar to us could have developed. Moreover, given the vastness of the universe, it is entirely possible (perhaps even probable) that life, perhaps similar to that on earth or perhaps vastly distinct from it, exists in other galaxies. Obviously, such suppositions cannot be proven via current technologies. Nevertheless, until the technologies to examine such questions develop (as they probably will), these possibilities cannot be dismissed. Currently, there is no scientific reason to assume that the universe in its present state is as it had to be.

Is ID Science?
The book’s final chapter investigates whether Intelligent Design is science. The authors of this chapter do not dismiss Intelligent Design as an indefensible scientific theory. Rather, they note that the theory in its current form has significant flaws and is not yet as scientifically robust as its proponents claim it is. The greatest shortcoming of current Intelligent Design theorists is that they operate in a backwards manner from most researchers. Broadly speaking, normative scientific inquiry requires formulating hypotheses and establishing procedures that will determine whether or not those hypotheses are correct. These hypotheses can be, and often are, proven wrong. In contrast to this method, Intelligent Design theorists set out to find evidence that supports their belief in a Designer. They start with an answer rather than a question, and they will not accept or engage with any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This is not an acceptable research method in either the natural or social sciences.

Two other significant shortcomings of Intelligent Design are that its proponents have not developed coherent research programs and they have not published any findings in juried scientific journals. If Intelligent Design theorists want to be taken seriously as scientists, they need to start behaving more like scientists and less like political activists. This entails, for one thing, entering into dialog with other scientists in scientific conferences and journals. It also entails subjecting Intelligent Design hypotheses to normative research processes of observation, testing, revision and refinement. Until Intelligent Design theorists begin meeting such expectations, which are normative for all researchers, their theory will languish on the edges of science rather than at its center. And as long as Intelligent Design remains on science’s fringe, it should not be included in public school science curriculum.

On the other hand, Taner Edis points out that scientists must remember that there are many valid methods of gathering data. Historical, archaeological and anthropological inquiries, for example, require methods that differ substantially from those of natural scientific research. The laboratory is not the only venue in which scientific inquiry occurs. Thus, Intelligent Design should not be dismissed out of hand simply because it may not always apply a particular method of natural scientific research.

Why Intelligent Design Fails is a well-written book that does not descend into dogma or ad hominem attacks. The authors who contributed to this book wrote in the best spirit of scientific dialog and criticized ideas rather than theorists. If Intelligent Design proponents want to be accepted into the scientific community, they would do well to address the issues raised in this book. Readers interested in questions about the relationships between science, religion, education and culture will find that the time they invest in reading this book will be time well spent.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Quickie Comment: The Trouble With Physics

Once upon a time, when I inhabited the world of academia, I published papers dealing with such matters as epistemology and the philosophy of science. That being the case, I was intrigued by Michael Riordan’s recent review of a book entitled The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science and What Comes Next, by Lee Smolin. That review can be found here.

Since my academic qualifications are in the social (or “soft”) sciences rather than the physical (or “hard”) ones, I generally approach “hard” scientific texts from a philosophical perspective. One of the first things I seek to do is to understand the author’s epistemological orientation: is the author a realist, an empiricist, a dualist, a constructivist, etc.? As I do that, I also seek to examine the logical integrity and validity of the author’s arguments: are the analogies strong or weak, are the arguments technically sound, etc.? The final set of questions I ask focuses on the experimental design. Was the sample sufficient, was there one control group or were there multiple controls, are the dependent and independent variables clear, etc.? The answers to these three sets of questions are generally enough to allow me to wade through “hard” scientific documents comfortably.

According to Riordan (the reviewer), Smolin argues that the realm of physics is embracing String Theory at its peril. Near the end of his review, Riordan suggests that String Theory and Intelligent Design suffer from a common flaw: neither hypothesis (or theory, to be more generous) is falsifiable via observation or testing. This pairing, let alone the proposition (which is really the more significant matter), is likely to raise the hackles of more than a few physicists! It should be fun to watch the sparks fly in the coming months.

I haven’t yet read The Trouble With Physics, but I think I will do so soon. In the meantime, I just finished reading a book entitled Why Intelligent Design Fails. The editors of this book sought to remove Intelligent Design from its tangled philosophical, theological and political connections and examine it strictly in terms of its scientific claims and bases. I will be posting my review of the book in the next day or two, so keep your eyes open.

Book Review: Something That Lasts

Author: James David Jordan
Publisher: Integrity Publishers
ISBN: 159145428X

Reverend David Parst has it all: a devoted wife, a loving son, a successful church and community esteem. But all is not enough for David – he wants more. Rather than getting what he wants, however, David loses everything when a member of the congregation reveals David’s adulterous affair with his wife, then commits suicide on the church steps.

David’s adultery shatters his family. David moves south while his wife and son, Sarah and Jack, move north. David eventually constructs a cordial long-distance relationship with Sarah. His bond with Jack, however, remains broken for thirty years. In the meantime, David’s only connection to Jack comes when he skulks in the stands to watch his son play baseball. David and Jack finally reconnect, tenuously, when David is on the brink of death and Jack’s marriage is on the verge of collapse. Shortly before David dies, Jack gains the strength, wisdom and faith, most of it imparted by his long-estranged father, to pick up the pieces of his own marriage and avoid repeating the errors committed by his father. Thus, the book closes with David’s failure being redeemed by his son’s renewed commitment to his family.

In his debut novel, James David Jordan poignantly conveys that adultery never involves just two people. In this case, one disastrous affair resulted in two destroyed marriages, a tragic death and the long-term impairment of family relationships.

The story is well paced and the characters are compelling. They are not perfect but they are basically good people trying to live good, honest lives. Several of them are sincerely religious but they are neither fanatical nor stereotypical. The reader can’t resist hoping that all of them will find happiness and success in their lives.

Mr. Jordan does a good job exploring the complexities of David’s relationship with Jack. Jack’s rejection of his father is plausible, as is David’s desire to reconnect with his son. One cannot help pitying David as he hides in the stands, aching to let Jack know he’s there. The notion that it could take thirty years to rebuild their connection is not far-fetched. Some severed relationships take even longer to rebuild. And sadly, some severed relationships never rebuild. In this case, the relationship is restored but fragile when David dies.

Mr. Jordan’s handling of David and Sarah’s relationship is less convincing. Their first encounter after the affair’s disclosure is powerful. David is repentant. Sarah is angry. Not only is she angry, she is thoroughly repulsed by David, so much so that she cannot tolerate the feel of his hand on her shoulder. The next time David and Sarah interact, however, they have reached a rather amicable relationship. The reader cannot help wondering how the relationship progressed, magically it seems, from revulsion to amiability. Throughout the book there is very little interaction between these two. The relationship frequently is portrayed through third-person accounts rather than actual dialogue between the two characters. Even though David is estranged from Jack throughout most of the book, there is actually far more dialogue between them in the last few months of David’s life than there is between David and Sarah over a thirty-year span.

Mr. Jordan’s apparent desire to explore the complexities of strained or broken father-son relationships is admirable. Heaven knows it’s certainly a topic that needs sensitive examination. In a book for which adultery is the story’s inciting incident, however, it seems reasonable to expect more examination of the marital relationship than is undertaken here. David and Sarah’s relationship raises many questions and leaves them unanswered. Mr. Jordan’s failure to explore these questions is the book’s greatest weakness.

I highly recommend Something That Lasts to readers who are interested in topics related to family life, particularly the topic of fatherhood. Readers interested in Christian literature that avoids cliché characters will find this book refreshing and inspiring. Be forewarned: the story is incredibly moving; keep a box of tissues handy.