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(via NASA HQ)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is unquestionably one of the best communicators that the scientific community has at the moment. He is an astronomy wonk and all of his talks on the subject are bursting with enthusiasm and passion for his chosen subject. When it comes to public outreach and inspiring new generations of scientists and science fans, I put him up there with Carl Sagan.

He was recently a guest on the Rationally Speaking podcast with Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galaf, and he did not disappoint. In the podcast, Neil talks about Obama’s recent NASA announcement, and how it will shape space exploration in the coming decades.

Tyson states that no humans will be going to Mars any time soon. Major expeditions need major, sustained funding and this can only happen if at least one of three fundamental drivers are in place: the glorification of a deity or king, the search for wealth and the need for self-preservation. In essence, power, money and war. None of these driving reasons can currently be used to justify the landing of humans on the Red Planet.

I would note two honorable exceptions to Tyson’s rule: the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider. Both projects were monumentally expensive, but nevertheless none of the reasons outlined above were in place. Tyson notes that the end of the Cold War caused the US superconducting collider project to be cancelled in 1989, but this doesn’t explain why the EU persisted with the LHC as the end of the Cold War affected Europe to just as great a degree.

At the end of the podcast, Tyson discusses the recent movie Avatar and some of the movie’s more badly executed concepts. It’s a delightful discussion. I had to laugh when he talked about the creatures with their own USB ports..

This is a top-class podcast from a top-class communicator so if you get a chance, have a listen.

Rationally Speaking : Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Need For a Space Program

The Greatest Show on Earth

I’m currently reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth“. The premise of the book is simple. Dawkins presents the case for evolution in the face of those who fervently believe that is it isn’t so. His thesis uses the metaphor of a crime scene to tie together all the clues, and Dawkins comprehensively shows that there is only one suspect in town – evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, with numerous sources such as comparative anatomy, molecular biology, fossil evidence and continental drift, all pointing to evolution through natural selection as the only reasonable explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Evolution has even been witnessed in numerous laboratory experiments. Dawkins leaves no stone unturned in presenting the case for evolution. It’s delivered with the enthusiasm of a child, the simplicity of a teacher and the forcefulness of a barrister who knows he has an open-and-shut case on his hands.

I can’t praise Dawkins’ book highly enough. It’s full of fascinating digressions and factoids and it takes the reader on a rollercoaster trip through space and time as it presents the evidence, often in considerable detail. I don’t personally believe it will matter a jot to the beliefs of ardent creationists, but to the interested layman it will help to explain how intellectually bankrupt their beliefs are.

It was with this frame of mind that I read the transcripts of the Richard Dawkins interview on the Late Late Show (a top chat show on Irish television). I was astounded. As most people know, Dawkins authored a best-selling book on religion in 2006 called The God Delusion. It was a full frontal attack on religion, calling out the nonsense within and attempting to put religion under the microscope and into the sphere of public debate. Ryan Tubridy, the Late Late Show host, interviewed Dawkins a few times about it on radio and it always lead to some lively back-and-forth battles between Dawkins and his detractors. That was in 2006 and 2007. Now in 2009, Dawkins has published a new book on an altogether different subject, yet Tubridy could not resist the temptation to bring the discourse back to his atheism, and to inject sensationalism wherever possible – (“So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?”, “Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?”, etc.). None of these issues are discussed in Dawkins’ latest book, leading me to the conclusion that Ryan Tubridy didn’t even bother to read it.

Personally, I loved Dawkins’ clear, no nonsense answers but I couldn’t help feeling that, on Tubridy’s part, it was an opportunity missed. Is Richard Dawkins so one-dimensional that the only issue worth talking to him about is his atheism? Dawkins has much to say on the subject of evolution and why it is so important that we understand it. He is deeply passionate about science education, about the philosophy of science, about the promotion of science, about legal challenges to science, about critical thinking. In brief, we could have learned something but instead we were treated to a charade, deliberately intended to scandalise the Irish churchgoing public. This is a huge pity. By conflating Dawkins’ views on evolution with his atheism in this way, Ryan Tubridy may have muddied the waters concerning evolution, a topic that is critical to understand as we rehabilitate science and technology within the Irish education system.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” is only controversial if you are a creationist who has been vaccinated from reality. For the rest of us, it’s a rollicking good read on a vitally relevant subject.

It’s been some time since I’ve written about particularly good books for small kids, and I must apologise (especially to Kim) for being somewhat remiss in this area during the last few months.

For me, there is something very gratifying about sharing a compelling book with my kids. It quickly brings me back to my own childhood years by helping me relate to my children on their level. This book ticks all these boxes.

There’s No Such Thing as a Ghostie (Cressida Cowell and Holly Swain)

“But when they turned round… THERE WAS NOBODY THERE”

In this book, a young queen and her best friend do battle with the arrogant Sergeant Rock-Hard of Her Majesty’s Guard as he leads them through the castle in an effort to convince them that there’s no such thing as a ghostie. Little does he know… It’s full of delightfully poetic snippets: a Prime Minister that bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain 1980’s British PM; regular alliteration – “ghostly, ghastly feet”, “creepy, creaky staircase”, very accessible colourful drawings, and (of course) plenty of ghosties hanging around in the background. Near the end of the book, the reader is enjoined to open a trunk bearing an alarming secret. It’s one of those books in which you and your kids discover something new every time you re-read it for them.

If you know of other children’s books that really deserve a read, please let me know.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali - Infidel

It didn’t take long for me to appreciate that this is a biography like no other. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has had an extraordinary life. Coming from rural Somalia, she has been circumcised, assaulted, betrayed, cursed and threatened with death. She has witnessed famine, family breakdown, forced marriage, misogeny, madness and hardline religious intolerance. A close friends of hers has been assassinated. And yet, despite this she managed to get elected to political office in the Netherlands, with her story playing a central role in the downfall of its government in 2006. She was regarded recently as one of the world’s most influential people.

Ayaan’s story is one of great courage: as a child she was ridiculed as dull and stupid, and yet over time she managed to assert herself: rejecting the spouse chosen by her father and in so doing, leaving Africa for Holland. From there, she saught an education for herself. Over time, she rejected Islam and the deeply held cultural traditions of her people, embracing instead the great freedoms that we in the developed world often take for granted. Despite an ongoing threat against her by extremist groups, she continues to campaign uncompromisingly against Islamic fundamentalism.

The story that she paints from her time in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia is not pretty. Cultural, traditional and religious factors still hold sway to an extent unimaginable in the West. To many, simplistic edicts from the distant past are far more important than the complex accomodations and hard-won understandings of modern society. Women and children are treated as second-class citizens. The law of Allah holds absolute sway, brooking no opposition, promising a nirvana that fails even the most cursory empirical test.

She casts a critical eye on Muslims in Europe, asking why it is that so many of them have failed to properly integrate into Western society. To her, the future must be one of integration, not multiculturalism. She has no time for those who believe that coexistence without challenge is necessary for European societies. In her opinion, traditionalism is not on an equal footing with modernity: those who stand up for the traditionalists serve only to delay and frustrate the cause of human rights for those whom they purport to represent. It is a compelling argument.

Many sections in the book are heart-rending. It is excruciating to read about how she and her siblings were subjected to the horrors of genital mutilation; how her weary and depressed mother inflicted all her frustrations on her daughters through unrelenting physical abuse; how her father rejected her and cursed her; and how her sister succumbed to the misery of mental illness. All these stories are told with much sadness and little malice. It is clear that her family remain close to her heart, despite everything she has been through.

This is a powerful, uncompromising book that has that rare quality of being difficult to put down.

I’ve been listening to the excellent “Whistleblowers” series on RTE Radio 1. In the past it has featured interviews with Jeffrey Wigand (Brown and Williamson tobacco), Sherron Watkins (Enron) and Craig Murray (British Ambassador to Uzbekistan). Today the subject was Harry Templeton, a Glasgow printer who stood up to Robert Maxwell in the late 1980’s, and got duly shafted for his troubles.

Another story worth listening to is the tale of David Kaczynski, who discovered that his brother, Ted, was the Unabomber.

You need Real Player installed to listen to these programmes.

Crucial Conversations; (2002); Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler; (McGraw Hill)

I’ve just finished a reading a book called “Crucial Conversations“. I’m not a big fan of self-help books, but this one did provide quite a number of useful and practical insights. Crucial conversations refer to those conversations we have – with family members, friends, work colleagues, bosses, anyone – that have a high potential to end in acrimony and bitterness.

A number of concepts jumped out at me, but I’ll mention just two: safety and stories.

Safety

A core message of the book is that progress can only happen when people are in dialogue with each other. When one or more parties feel threatened, dialogue ceases immediately. Threatened people usually adopt one of two modes of behaviour – a mental withdrawal from the conversation (silence) or some sort of verbal attack (violence). Both responses are easily recognised and when they occur, further progress is impossible. A sense of safety must be reinstated first of all. People have to feel safe to continue in dialogue. If you are holding a discussion with someone and the other person’s expressions or actions indicate a strong degree of insecurity, then you need to restore safety before you can proceed.

Stories

When people display aggressive or passive aggressive behaviours, what we are seeing is the end result of a process: usually initiated by a factual occurrence, then by a story used to interpret these facts, then by emotion, and finally a response. The story is the most critical piece in this process. It is the amplifier that takes a tiny signal of information (often mis-information), and turns it instantly into a blisteringly hot, out of control, current. Because different people can display a wide range of responses to the same occurrence, the conclusion must be that very often, stories are just that: works of fiction. Merely saying to oneself “this may be a story” when getting riled up is sometimes enough to blunt the edge off one’s anger. Distinguishing facts from the stories that result, helps to ease pent-up emotions.

That’s all very well..

Sure, sure, there are books and then there’s the real world. I’m not expecting any hugely dramatic changes in my behaviour overnight, but I have to say the book has given me a lot of room for thought. Already I have tried to use some of these skills during interactions with my kids, while also observing more carefully how other people manage potentially difficult conversations.

Some time ago, I wrote about five books for small children that my kids and I absolutely love. I now would like to add another book to this list.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury)

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

Oh no! We forgot to shut the door!

The premise of the book is quite simple. A dad brings his three kids into the countryside with the aim of finding a bear. The group are totally unprepared for what lies ahead as they clamber past all sorts of obstacles during their quest. (I can relate very much to the dad in this book). Much to their surprise, they find a bear, and what follows is an exiting race back home with the grizzly on their tail. It’s got everything: repetition, actions, fear and humour. The drawings are superb, particularly as the kids reach the entrance to the cave. I was amazed by how quickly my toddler kids picked up the narrative and were able to recite the whole story verbatim.

Here’s an additional treat: in the following video, Michael Rosen himself plays out the tale. It’s interesting to watch as I use a very different style when reading the story to my kids.

If you know of other small children’s books that really deserve a read, please let me know.

Shrek the Third

Just before I left Canada, I went to see “Shrek the Third” with my son and nephew.

Let me ask this – why do sequels (and, in this case, sequels of sequels) always become so lame? I mean, the characters of Shrek, Fiona and Donkey are well developed enough for a hundred Shrek movies, but the plot – AAAARGH. It’s now becoming a question of “how long can we string together enough one-liners to make a full movie?”.

Not that the one-liners or humorous scenes were particularly bad – they were often quite good – especially Puss in Boots’ helpful advice to Shrek on him realising that Fiona was pregnant (and no – I haven’t spoilt it yet – what did you expect after Shrek II? A divorce? Wait ’til Shrek IV..), it’s just that the story was so flimsy it could have been invented by a five-year old. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why my movie companions enjoyed it a bit more that me..

What I particularly enjoyed about the first Shrek was the black humour. Who can forget the scene with the exploding bird? Nothing of the sort sullies this screenplay, so we are left with a rather “safe” movie that the whole family can enjoy – aaaah. In this movie all the bad guys are seen as misunderstood and more interested in gardening than being evil. Oh diddums.

I’m beginning to think that Pixar have it right. Produce a kick-ass animated movie like Monsters Inc., or The Incredibles and then leave it alone! If you really want to extend the franchise with lame plots and one-liners, then TV’s your only man.

I’ve gone on far too long. I have. This is the reason I wrote it. I’ll finish now.

One of the great things about being a parent is that every evening I get a chance to read night-time stories to young children. These books vary greatly in quality. Many children’s books (particularly the ones with toys and teddy-bears on the cover) are insipid, formulaic, manufactured and quite forgettable . Kids get bored by them just as much as we grown ups do. However there are some books that I still love reading to my younger ones whenever I get a chance.

So, in no particular order, here goes:

1) Hairy Mclary from Donaldson’s Dairy (Lynley Dodd)

Hairy McLary from Donaldson’s Dairy

“Out of the gate and off for a walk went Hairy Mclary from Donaldson’s Dairy”

This is a terrific little book about a gang of dogs who get more than they bargained for when they all head off for a walk down town. The drawings are superb, the rhythm in the lines is mesmerising and the “MEEEOOOWFFZZZZ” twist in the end has kids jumping with delight. Very soon, even small kids can recite the lines of the book along with you. Superb. (I am indebted to Teuchter for introducing me to this book..)

2) The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson)

The Gruffalo

“Silly old snake, doesn’t he know, there’s no such thing as a Gruffal…”

This extremely well-illustrated book recounts the adventures of a clever little mouse, beset on all sides by predators, and how he manages to outwit them all. The book is written in a gentle, rhythmic verse that is a pleasure to read out loud. Three quite similar stories are recounted before the plot twists and the mouse is confronted with the monster of his nightmares. What happens after this is an act of genius on the part of the mouse. I always shout out the Gruffalo’s lines in a very angry gruff voice – my kids love it.

3) Some Dogs Do (Jez Alborough)

Some Dogs Do

“His paws just lifted off the ground”

This is a rhyming story about a small dog named Sid who discovers one day that he can fly. When he tries to tell his friends in school, nobody will believe him. The miserable pup is comforted by his parents, who let him into a secret. I particularly like the drawings of Sid’s face – the faraway stare – when he is confronted by opposition on all sides. It’s a captivating, delightful tale that the kids want me to read again and again.

4) Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss)

Green Eggs and Ham

“That Sam-I-Am, That Sam-I-Am! I do not like that Sam-I-Am”!

No list of good children’s books would be complete without a title from Dr. Seuss. This story tells the tale of a grown-up creature who is pestered by the much smaller and younger Sam into eating a seemingly disgusting meal of green eggs and ham. Despite his protestations, Sam never gives in and finally the adult takes a bite. The whole tale is a reversal of the usual story where an adult is forcing a child to eat something that the kid doesn’t like the look of. Like many of the tales here, the story is recursive, repetitive, rhythmic and rhyming. Soon the child will be reciting the tale along with you.

5) How to Catch a Star (Oliver Jeffers)

How to catch a star

“Once there was a boy and the boy loved stars very much”

This story concerns a small boy who wants to catch a star from the sky so that they can be friends and have fun together. He tries reaching for it and climbing trees to get it, but to no avail. Eventually he is drawn to the sea-shore where he finds what he is looking for. This is a wonderfully creative tale that talks volumes about the ways small children see the world. The simple cartoons that complement the story genuinely add to the tale. As an adult you can’t but help feeling for the little boy as he tries to understand a mystery of life.

What makes these books special?

All of these stories are quite similar in that they blend poetry, colour, artistic detail and repetition into a coherent whole. All of the storys take about 3 to 5 minutes to recite. Neither are they “fluffy”: They grapple with quite deep topics concerning relations with adults, friendship, fear, disappointment and making sense of the world. If you are a parent of young kids or are wondering what to give your young niece or nephew for their next birthday, I would wholeheartedly recommend all five titles.

Do you know of any other children’s books that you would add to this list?

Now this book is quite amazing. I had heard about it some weeks ago, so I made a special point of attempting to find it when I went shopping in the US.

The Long Tail - Why the future of business is selling less of moreAnderson’s central thesis is this: with the introduction of the internet and new ways of working we now live in a time of abundance and practically infinite choice. And as a result, the rules completely change. No longer are we constrained to think in terms of “hits” or “blockbusters” or “top selling brands”. We can now buy anything we like, and it’s available for us to do so in just a few seconds of clicking or calling someone. And, what’s more, it’s happening all around us today.

What fascinates me most is how it seems to overturn one of the most powerful “laws” of doing business. A long-standing rule of business is the Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80:20 Rule. Put simply, it means that, to make money, companies should only concentrate on their highest selling products or services. The slow movers and niche items are too expensive to store, and so they should be ruthlessly excised. The result, if you haven’t already seen it around you, is uniformity, blandness, lowest-common denominators and a staggering lack of choice.

These days are coming to an end.

The Long Tail hypothesis says that the action in the future will be in the lower selling categories. People are increasingly seeking out those things that they want to buy – the niche music tracks or clothes, the arty Spanish films, the British comics from the 1980’s. Whatever you are in to, you can find it quickly and buy it for a cheap price, thanks to Ebay, Google, Amazon and a host of smaller sites and blogs. The Long Tail idea says that hits will decline in importance as interest in niches grows and grows and grows.

So much choice…This is nothing short of a crisis for traditional big media organisations, whose job it has been for a century to sell a consistent message to as many people as possible. Now, with the explosion of new channels of communication, people are turning off their radios and TV sets, reading blogs instead of newspapers, downloading indie music instead of going to the record store, ordering customised T-shirts, footwear and jewelery over the web instead of accepting the limited offerings in the local shop. The message, loud and clear, is “Blandness and Hobson’s choices? No thanks”.

Mega celebrities, big-name TV shows, best-selling newspapers, hit pop bands, blockbuster movies: all are beginning to show significant drops in their market-worth and the trend is getting more pronounced with each year. The world of mass communications is splintering into a million pieces, and no-body seems to be able to put this Humpty Dumpty together again.

Does this mean that the age of the hit is well and truly over? Of course not. Just look at the recent global racism furore on Celebrity Big Brother for instance. However hits will possibly be more random in the future – arising from anywhere, and disappearing back into obscurity once their time in the spotlight has passed. It’s likely that hits will be much harder to achieve, and more limited in their impact. Marketing’s problem will be in getting their message out to a truly fractionalised audience, with no-one consumer quite using the same channels of communication.

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