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The Brendan Voyage

A few weeks ago I finished reading The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin. I actually stayed up late into the night to finish, I really couldn't put the book down.

It's an amazing story of Tim Severin's recreation of the 6th century voyage of St. Brendan from Ireland to North America. Yes, 6th century! The tale of the original voyage is told in the Voyage of Saint Brendan, which dates back to around 900AD.

The book begins with the author's quest to re-create the original boat as closely as possible to what would have been available to a 6th century Irish monk, also following details recorded in the original text. It turns out that this means a boat made out of wood with a leather hull. This is followed by much discussion and research into how well a leather boat could possibly survive years at sea, if at all! I found it really fascinating how Severin finds over and over again how traditional methods and materials actually perform quite well in the harsh environment of the North Atlantic. In fact, over the course of his voyage much of his more modern equipment breaks down with the constant exposure to salt water, where the traditional materials fare quite well.

Severin's planned voyage begins from the coast of Ireland, then continues north past Scotland, passing by the Faroe Islands on the way to Iceland. I found the passages describing the life of people living on these remote islands fascinating. It seems impossible that 6th century Irish monks had sought out and established monasteries on many of these lonely pillars of stone in the sea.

Tim Severin makes a really convincing case that not only was Saint Brendan's voyage possible, but that he wasn't the first Irish sailor to visit Iceland, Greenland, and possibly even North America.

The book was recommended on an episode of the Catholic Stuff You Should Know podcast, The First Saint in North America

I gave it 5 stars on goodreads. Highly, highly recommended book.

Book review: PHP and MongoDB Web Development

I've been interested in mongodb for quite some time now, so when a co-worker of mine asked if I was interested in reviewing a book about mongodb, I of course said yes! She put me in touch with the publisher of a book on MongoDB and web development entitled, "PHP and MongoDB Web Development". I was given a electronic copy of the book to review, and so here are my thoughts after spending a few weeks reading it and playing around with mongodb independently. This book is subtitled "Beginner's Guide", and I think it achieves its goal of being a good introduction to mongodb for beginners. That being said, my primary criticism of the book is that it should include more information on some more advanced features like sharding and replica sets. It's easy to create web applications for small scales, or that don't need to be up 99.99% of the time. It's much harder to design applications that are robust to bursts in load, and to various kinds of network or hardware failures. Without much discussion on these points, it's hard to form an opinion on whether mongodb would be a suitable choice for developing large scale web applications given the information in this book alone. Other than that, I quite enjoyed the book and found it filled in quite a few gaps in my (limited) knowledge. Seeing full examples of working code on more complex topics like map reduce, GridFS and geospacial indexing is very helpful to understanding how these features of mongodb could be used in a real application. I found the examples to be a bit verbose at times, although that's more a fault of PHP than of the book I think, and the formatting in the examples was inconsistent at times. Fortunately all the examples can be downloaded from the publisher's web site, saving you from having to type it all in! The book also covers topics like integrating applications with traditional RDBMS like MySQL, and offers some practical examples of how mongodb could be used to augment an application which already is using SQL. It also includes helpful real world examples of how mongodb is used for web analytics, or by foursquare for 2d geospacial indexing. In summary, the book is a good introduction to mongodb, especially if you're familiar with php. If you're looking for more in-depth information about optimizing your queries, or scaling mongodb, or if your language of choice isn't php, this probably isn't a good book for you.

Book Review: A Meaningful World

A Meaningful World: How the Arts And Sciences Reveal the Genius of NatureA Meaningful World: How the Arts And Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. My rating: 4 of 5 stars A Meaningful World shows how our universe is fundamentally meaningful. Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt demonstrate this by exploring various aspects of the human experience and human genius. The chapters dealing with Shakespeare, Euclid as well as the chapters about the history of the periodic table of elements were particularly enjoyable. One great side benefit of reading this book is a wealth of references to other great books to read! View all my reviews

Re: Tolkien didn't like Narnia?

Holly, I've heard this before as well. I came across a much much much longer article earlier this year: Letters to Malcolm and the trouble with Narnia (by way Mark Shea's blog) This hasn't really affected my enjoyment of Lewis' works. Mel and I also love Narnia and we can't wait to see Prince Caspian in the theatres (subject to babysitting too!) It just means that I wouldn't use Narnia as a way to teach concepts about Christianity to somebody. You could still point out ideas in Narnia that draw from Christianity. But I wouldn't use the Narnia stories to draw conclusions about Christianity - I think this could be a natural inclination since in many ways the Narnia stories are very similar to ideas and events from Christianity. So, we enjoy Narnia for what it is, a fantastic set of stories set in a wonderful world with characters that we grow to love.

Review: Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

This post started out as a simple review of a book my parents bought for me for Christmas. However, since I've found my new hero as a result of reading this book (my wife now asks who I like more, Alton Brown, or Chesterton), I feel I have to say a little bit more... My parents bought me Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton for Christmas. I was a few weeks before I was able to get to it, but once I read the first few pages I couldn't put it down. I finished it just a few days later wondering how I could have never read anything by Chesterton before. He has a very unique style, very funny, with deep insights into human nature and society. He uses metaphor extremely effectively, and quite frequently to humorous effect throughout his works. His works have had an influence on other writers I love, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Orthodoxy was written in 1908, 100 years ago now. And yet amazingly it's still relevant today. In the second paragraph of the book he describes how he has always wanted to write a book about an English yachtsman who miscalculated his course and arrives back at England meanwhile believing he has discovered a new island in the South Seas. "What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?" Later he explains why he mentions this: "But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England...I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before." After this, I was most definitely hooked. Orthodoxy is a book that explains Chesterton's reasons for being a Catholic and at the same time is a defence against or a response to the relativism of his day.

All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson, are really quite empty of volition. They cannot will, they can hardly wish. And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found quite easily. It can be found in this fact: that they always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act. Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton. If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon. It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense. For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries of "I will." "I will go to the Lord Mayor's Show, and thou shalt not stop me." Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel.
(emphasis mine here, and in following quotes; quoted from Project Gutenburg's eBook available online.) This newfound fascination with Chesterton lead me to the Internet. There's some good information on G. K. Chesterton's wikipedia page. I also found a great resource at the American Chesterton Society. They've got a bunch of Chesterton's essays and other works online. From his "Why I Am A Catholic" article,
The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.
I like this quote in particular,
[Catholicism] does not, in the conventional phrase, accept the conclusions of science, for the simple reason that science has not concluded. To conclude is to shut up; and the man of science is not at all likely to shut up.
I find this especially relevant. Today there is the widespread belief that science is the sole source of knowledge. Anything that can be known, science can and eventually will discover. This is not to say that Chesterton (or myself) was down on science. It's just important to recognize the limits of what science can tell us. At some level all laws of science are just hypotheses or theories. The universe appears to obey these laws, but the jump between saying these laws are good models for explaining natural phenomena, and saying that natural phenomena occur exactly according to these laws is a jump across an abyss, with nothing connecting either side. This is central to much of the evolution vs. so-called "intelligent design" argument raging in the US right now. I also enjoyed his his essay on A Piece of Chalk,
One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.
I can't wait to get my hands on another Chesterton book!

Chronicles of Narnia

I meant to post this a long time ago, but never quite got around to finishing it off...But better late than never! I finished reading all 7 books in the Chronicles of Narnia. A very enjoyable set of books that I would say everybody should read at least once in their lifetime. I remember going to see a live performance of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I was quite young. I came away with this sense of adventure and mystery surrounding Narnia and the wardrobe in particular. The scene where Lucy first comes through the wardrobe into Narnia was very powerful in my mind from the play, and the book did not disappoint. One thing I particularly enjoyed about the series was the Christian parallel that was present throughout the books. I never realized this as a child, but it was quite evident to me when reading through the books, particularly The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Last Battle. Everything is there: Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Apocalypse. I'm very much looking forward to the movie.