Category Archives: Books

TV: Game of Thrones

Are you watching the HBO Original series “Game of Thrones”?

Here is why you may want to watch this series:

GOT is based on the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of adult fantasy books written by George R. R. Martin and named after the first book in the series, “A Game of Thrones”. It is in the same genre as J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, and George Martin has been dubbed “the American Tolkien”. Strangely enough, they both have the two “R”‘s in their names. However, in an interview with Rolling Stone, George said that although he admired Tolkien, he criticised “The Lord of the Rings” for its oversimplication of its themes and Tolkien’s portrayal of power.

“I admire Tolkien greatly. His books had enormous influence on me. And the trope that he sort of established—the idea of the Dark Lord and his Evil Minions—in the hands of lesser writers over the years and decades has not served the genre well. It has been beaten to death. The battle of good and evil is a great subject for any book and certainly for a fantasy book, but I think ultimately the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart and not necessarily between an army of people dressed in white and an army of people dressed in black. When I look at the world, I see that most real living breathing human beings are grey.”

“When I look at the world, I see that most real living breathing human beings are grey.” George R.R. Martin

So if you love the LOTR, you should watch GOT for its contrasting themes and portrayal of power in all shades of grey. Who is “good”, who is “bad”? Neither. You have elements of real-world power-play, politics, seduction, incest, bravery, cowardice, loyalty, treachery and even how religion is often bent and used for Man’s (or Woman’s) own purpose and agenda.

The TV series has ended its Season 4 and all fans are awaiting the debut of Season 5. Who will die next?
And in case you’re wondering, yes, it’s getting unpredictable in the show from the books. Up to now, the 10 biggest changes as identified by Rolling Stone can be found here:

What is Philosophy Anyway?

Philosophy: What the heck is it?

Update: 1-April-2014

My brother recently asked me…is a Zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Here is my reply:
There are two types of Zebras. A white one has black stripes and a black one has white stripes. As with most things in this world. …. Lau Kean Lee, 29-March-2014

399px-Paris_2010_-_Le_Penseur : What is Philosophy
This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, by Daniel Stockman.

Have you at some point in your life waxed lyrical over a seemingly profound statement or article? And did that P word, “Philosophy”, come to mind? In my case, my first brush with a profound idea must have been the time (when I was 12 or 13 years old) I saw a picture of a “thinking man”; a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin of a naked man sitting on a rock with  his chin resting on a hand, deep in thought. The caption on that photo read, “I think therefore I am”, by René Descartes. “Wow, that sounds pretty deep, but what did it really mean?”

“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes

I thought to myself. And that started a life-long journey to understand and make sense of this thing called Philosophy.

Most people, and I am one of those, would just go through life without really digging deeper into Philosophy and just take whatever small doses that may come along in our day-to-day living. Sometimes it comes in the guise of comedy, as when Charles M. Schulz made his Linus character in Peanuts say, “I love Mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!”. Or sometimes it gets splashed in my face as when watching my favourite SciFi, Star Trek and Spock spoke the memorable line, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. And in later life, one finds that spirituality is steeped in profound ideas, as this website’s by-line ascribed to the Buddha, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

I am now making an effort to actually understand what exactly is Philosophy. In my library, I found three books to educate myself on this nebulous subject.

1. The Story Of Philosophy – Bryan Magee

The Story of Philosophy
The Story of Philosophy by Bryan Magee

Prof Bryan Magee from the Oxford University was also a Fellow of the Yale University. He wrote this surprisingly readable book on a difficult subject.
In just four pages, the prelude “An Introduction To Philosophy” pages 6-9, the meaning of Philosophy shone with clarity. In any field of human activity, we can question the fundamentals normally taken for granted. Prof Magee introduced the concept gently by giving simple examples in diversed subjects or disciplines, like when one asks what is Freedom and what is Equality and are they in conflict, as in politics (Political Philosophy); or when one asks what is Justice in law and is that the same as social justice (Philosophy of Law); or when one asks is there perfect health, and if not what is the meaning of cure (Philosophy of Medicine).

“What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?” “How, if at all, can we know?”

While this demonstrates that there can be a philosophical discourse in any subject, the greatest philosophers go deeper than that and questioned the most fundamental aspects of our existence and our experience. The two fundamental questions at the heart of Philosophy are: “What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?”  (ontology) and “How, if at all, can we know?” (epistemology). Prof Magee then rounds off his introduction to philosophy by stressing that Philosophy, Science and Art are not at odds with one another. All three confront the mystery posed by the two fundamental questions to try to achieve a deeper understanding. All three rely on inspiration and criticism and make their findings public to be shared. And yet because they follow different methods and different paths, they appeal to different temperaments. (Note: this last word, “temperament” makes for interesting reading by itself… ref: The rest of the book then delves into the different great philosophers and their respective era.

2.  The Dream of Reason – Anthony Gottlieb

A History of Philosophy
The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb

Anthony Gottlieb was from Cambridge University but he was a professional journalist having served as Science Editor and Executive Editor of The Economist even though he was also a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. So it is interesting to read Anthony’s take on Philosophy from a journalist’s approach, viz. “…to rely only on primary sources, whenever they still exist, to question conventional wisdom, and … to explain it as clearly as possible.”

And so you find in “The Dream of Reason” (A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance), a readable journalistic account of philosophers’ stubborn or obstinate effort to think clearly.

I found his Part 3, Chapter 13, “Three Roads to Tranquillity: Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics” particularly interesting.  Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC marks the start of a new era, the “Hellenistic age”.  It means that Alexander’s former domain became Greek-ish rather than purely Greek. It brought a new era in philosophy as well, with three main schools of thought; the Epicureans, the Stoics and the Sceptics. If an Epicurean said one thing, a Stoic would say the opposite and a Sceptic would refuse to commit either way. How interesting!

In the final Chapter 14, we learn that in AD 529, a Christian emperor, Justinian, put an end to the philosophical squabbles by closing down the philosophical schools in Athens in favour of his own imperial university in Constantinople and wanted to ban non-Christian philosophy throughout the Roman Empire. And so philosophy languished in the “haven of piety” for the next thousand years.

“I was struck by the large number of falsehoods I had accepted as true in my childhood.” – René Descartes

Enter the French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes (1596-1650), who developed the rigorous mechanistic model where he “consider(s) false any belief that falls prey to even the slightest doubt”. This is considered “Rationalism” and Descartes earned the title, “Father of Modern Philosophy”.

Gottlieb intended to write a second volume to continue the tale from Descartes to the present day, but as far as I know, it has not been published until today. Hopefully, it will be witten and published in due course.

3.  Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

The History of Philosophy
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Jostein Gaarder was a Norwegian high-school teacher of Philosophy. He used his teaching capability to write a popular novel which effectively covers the 3,000 years history of philosophy from Socrates to Sartre. Very much like how modern-day management books are written as business fables, Gaarder first published his novel in his native Norwegian in 1991, revolving around a 14-year old girl, Sophie, who progressively learnt Philosophy through a prolonged correspondence with a fifty-year-old philosopher, Alberto Knox. The novel begins with Sophie receiving a mysterious letter with a question,  “Who are you?” and then a second letter with an equally intriguing question, “Where does the world come from?” The third mail came in the form of a postcard addressed to another girl, Hilde, c/o Sophie.

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” – Francis Bacon

What followed were a series of philosophical lessons taught to Sophie by Alberto. How Hilde fit into this story, if told here, would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that in the course of the novel, Sophie and Hilde (and thus we the readers) are taken on a grand tour of the history of Western Philosophy.

Where Gottlieb left off, Gaarder continued from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and others to The Enlightenment  (the Renaissance) and Romanticism until the Present.

The novel is reputed to have been translated into fifty-three languages, with over thirty million copies in print. In 1997, Jostein Gaarder and his wife, Siri Dannevig, established the Sophie Prize (named after the book), a USD100,000 annual international award for environment and development. Unfortunately, Gaarder found himself embroiled in allegations of anti-Semitism  after he wrote an article in 2006 criticising and condemning certain aspects of Israeli politics and Judaism.

I was intrigued by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and read up on him on Wikipedia.

“Bacon has been called the creator of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.”

As it turns out, while Descartes and Rationalism were widely populart in Europe, Francis Bacon’s Empiricism in England can be seen as a counter-point to Rationalism.
Leibniz, a rationalist, said “There are two kinds of truths: truths of reasoning and truths of fact.” While John Locke, an empiricist, said “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. It must be noted that Prof Magee wrote that Locke is considered the chief founding father of empiricism.

Related reading:
Rationalism vs. Empiricism

What do Hawking, Bryson, Lloyd have in common?

bryson100x133 hawking100x133 lloyd100x133

What do Hawking, Bryson, Lloyd have in common? From their biographies, it would appear that they have nothing in common at all.  Except that they all call the UK their home ( Bryson was born in America, but mostly stayed in UK), and both Bill Bryson and Christopher Lloyd were successful journalists at some point in their lives.

STEPHEN HAWKING is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.  Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge between 1979 and 2009.

BILL BRYSON does not have such an illustrious academic background, having initially dropped out of university to go backpacking and only finished his formal college degree circa 1975. But nevertheless, his writings and various books showed a complete mastery of the language and the unique ability to render arcane subjects into a comprehensible read for ordinary folks like me.  He excelled in his career as a journalist par excellent, rising to chief copy editor of the business section of The Times and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent. In 2005 Bryson was appointed chancellor of University of Dunham.

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD has had a broad and comprehensive career both as a journalist, writer and as a general manager in the education business. After graduating from Peterhouse, Cambridge in 1991 with two scholarships and a double first-class degree in History, he became a graduate trainee journalist on The Sunday Times newspaper and was trained at the City University where he gained a diploma in newspaper journalism . Christopher Lloyd now divides his time between writing books and delivering interactive lectures / workshops to schools, societies, literary festivals and other organisations.

So what do they have in common? Or more correctly, what do the three books,  A Brief History of Time (S. Hawking),  A  Short History of Nearly Everything (B. Bryson), and What on Earth Happened? (C. Lloyd) have in common?

All three of them start with the Big Bang, the story of how our known Universe began; from a singularity of infinite mass that “exploded” into an expanding Universe that we know today. That’s the common ground for all three books.

While ABHOT went on to  describe the concepts of Space-Time, Black Holes, Worm Holes, Time Travel and the possible Unification of Physics, ASHONE describes our lonely Earth and Life and finally how we came to be.  WOEH takes it further from there and goes on to describe our endeavours leading to the eventual “fates of human civilisations and the natural world fused into a global whole.”

bryson360x480Of the three books, ASHONE describes the Big Bang, the formation of the Universe, the Solar System and gentle introduction to quantum mechanics, the best, in a highly readable and comprehensible manner. In 2004 Bryson won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book with A Short History of Nearly Everything. In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication.

hawking360x480On the other hand, ABHOT has sold more than 10 million copies. It was also on the London Sunday Times best-seller list for more than four years. ABHOT remains a “must-read” for any non-physicist who wishes to acquaint himself/herself with the origins of our Universe and all the peculiarities of quantum mechanics with its unusual ensemble of quarks, mesons, bosons and fermions (in his follow-up books, “The Universe in a Nutshell” and “The Grand Design” with Leonard Mlodinow).

lloyd360x480WOEH continues the story by painting the big picture of the Universe, Earth,  Nature, Life and human civilisations  to present-day. It is written in such a way that you can jump  in at  any point. In the end, as the big picture unfurls, you will see the connecting together of the dots of the past giving them meaning and making them memorable through visualization, context, cause and effect.  In 1994 Christopher Lloyd won the Texaco award for the Science Journalist of the Year.

“The oldest books are only just out to those who have not read them.”  – Samuel Butler