Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Alan Lightman on Faith

"And here we come to the fascinating irony of the fine-tuning problem. Both the theological explanation and the scientific explanation require faith. To be sure, there are huge differences between science and religion. Religion knows about the transcendent experience. Science knows about the structure of DNA and the orbits of planets. Religion gathers its knowledge largely by personal testament. Science gathers its knowledge by repeated experiments and mathematical calculations, and has been enormously successful in explaining much of the physical universe. But, in the manner I have described, faith enters into both enterprises." -- Alan Lightman (physicist, science writer, atheist) in a book review of Why Science Does Not Disprove God

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

The book that this biography of Jim Henson reminds me of most is one I just read, Furious Cool (a biography of Richard Pryor). Although the Henson biography is longer and more focused on the procedure of showbiz, it feels like Furious Cool in that the biographer drops away and the subject of the biography takes center stage in a thoroughly entertaining telling of the story of someone's life. Brian Jay Jones hits exactly the right level of detail and pacing. Like Furious Cool, Jim Henson: The Biography tends toward the hagiographic at times and ultimately is mostly about the surface of things. It doesn't reach the heights of surprising you with what Henson's life means. But it covers all the bases and does exactly what it's supposed to.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Coffee Bean Wall Shows the Science and Color of Coffee

If you're vacationing in Orlando at the newly opened Cabana Bay Hotel (Universal Studios), you might accidentally run across some colorful science in the Starbucks there. They have a "coffee bean wall" that shows the progression of beans, from green to red (peeled) to light and dark brown (roasted less vs. more). It makes for a nice-looking wall but the science of coffee is behind it. Well, I don't know what's actually behind it because I haven't been there but maybe I'll fix that on a future vacation. For example, the dark-roast beans have less caffiene because the heat has burned the caffiene right out of them. [Thanks to Theme Park Insider for the photo tour that showed this.]

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Review: Many Dimensions by Charles Williams

The second book by Charles Williams shows many of the unique qualities that stood out in the first, and it is better written and easier to read, yet it just gets three stars from me while the first got four. There's a lot to like here: a supernatural artifact that is a character rather than a MacGuffin; a resolution that is more along the lines of virtue and spirit than it is about cleverness and brawn, in fact, that is more about weakness than it is about strength; and some very interesting theology to chew on behind the typical thriller twists and turns, so that it feels more like George MacDonald than anyone else despite some superficial differences. But it's not as much of a step forward from the last book as I feel like it should be, and so for all the plusses I just listed it seems like Williams's sophomore slump. (Complicating all this is that I haven't been able to read like I should for a few weeks and that fragmented my appreciation of the narrative, which can't be helped.)

Behind all this is a fascinating story that I'm convinced, in the right hands, could make a great movie that has many ordinary Hollywood aspects but is done differently, in ways that make the cliches fresh again. But I can't see Hollywood ending it like this ends (and I like very much how this book ends). Still, in the right hands, Charles Williams may be able to enjoy a movie renaissance. For now, the books will remain our little secret.

In addition: Owen Barfield's ideas show up very clearly in one passage identified with Lord Arglay (a protagonist). There's some deep thinking to be done about the evolution of ideas among the Inklings and Williams may have played a central role in that.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: Mockingjay

The final volume of the Hunger Games was aboout what I expected, and it was nothing like I expected. In the arc of the trilogy, this is the time that the rebels try to take the Empire down. I expected the Empire to be despicable, and I expected some "maybe the rebels are just as bad" rhetoric. What I didn't expect is the intensity. Collins makes the ending so dark and disturbing that I was seriously thinking near the end that some parts would end up being hallucinations. I don't know how they're going to film some of the struggle at the end, because it seems to point toward an R rating no matter how you slice it.

This is not a Young Adult book by the end, and to her credit, I was genuinely disturbed in a way that I haven't been disturbed by even writers like Stephen King. But again, the moral backbone usually to be found in King is very difficult to find here. Katniss finally gets to be truly heroic (after spending some of the early chapters moping way too much), but in the plot's resolution, I'm not sure what her heroism actually achieves. Again,Katniss runs around and does her thing but the real power resides and real "progress" is made elsewhere.

I give Collins credit for taking the story to the horrible places that a story about making teenagers kill each other should go, but personally, I'd like a little more "what does this do to the people in general" rather than "which boy will she choose?" drama. I could have told you that going in, too, so I'll just chalk that one up to the fact that I'm not a teenage girl and move on. But the lack of moral reflection after all the horrible events does trouble me a bit. Another way in which this book is genuinely disturbing.

When I picked up The Hunger Games I was wondering if I'd recommend it to my 11-year-old boy. When I finished Mockingjay I was wondering if I'd even recommend it for an 18-year-old, not because of quality or originality, but simply because of intensity, and intensity that I'm not entirely convinced is worth it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Comedians Show Us Why MOOCs are Doomed

I just finished Furious Cool, a book that argues that Richard Pryor was a genius. Before I read the book I knew he was funny, and a brilliant performer, but a genius? The guy from Superman III and Brewster's Millions?

But he was a genius, and the book shows how, as well as a book can for demonstrating the genius of a live art like stand-up. (Surprisingly well because stand-up is about words.) The fact that Pryor's work didn't translate to Hollywood is a general rule. The best stand-up comedians have always had a hard time transitioning to TV and movie screens, and this is true for this century's comedians as well.

The Procrustean box of the screen doesn't just cut off the top, bottom, and sides of the comedian's act. It is a Procrustean cube that erects an impenetrable 4th wall between the performer and audience, severing the ties and feedback loops between the two. Because TV is sanitized, you know that it's not true that anything can happen, and the best comics like Pryor and the others mentioned in that article thrive on that unpredictability and connection to the audience. The best comedy is a relationship, even if the direct manifestation of that relationship is the duration of the laughs and the occasional heckler. The audience is always in on the joke.

TV desperately tries to compensate for this disconnect with laugh tracks and live stunts like Carrie Underwood's Sound of Music -- viewers tuned in not for the perfection, but for the imperfection of a stumble or stutter. Audience voting in something like American Idol also attempts to break down the wall of the Procrustean cube, but the more successful the show, the more the 4th wall slams shut against any illusion that you have an actual say in what happens next.

The most successful TV compensates for the impenetrable 4th wall not through comedy but through drama. A long story arc can show a character developing (like Breaking Bad or George Clooney back when ER was good). Even more, it can set up long philosophical mysteries like those on LOST, even if delivering on those mysteries is a debatable point (which I have debated earlier on this blog, I'm mostly in the pro-LOST camp). The audience participates when it empathizes with the growth of the characters, and chatters about what might happen on next week's episode. This is what an episodic form of spectacle like TV can do.

And this is why MOOCs are doomed if they intend to become anything but supplemental, vocational education.

Teaching is like stand-up. Even on a day when the lecturer is lecturing non-stop, there is still student participation and feedback. I even get a laugh once in while, and I can tell you that the best jokes are not the ones that are deliberately funny, but the personal ones or the ones that personalize something else (like giving emotions to a protein). This is what Richard Pryor did so well, and why no one could steal his jokes. He wasn't about jokes, he was about observing and inhabiting everything else around him. A teaching professor should do that, too, but focused on a single subject and bringing centuries of knowledge together to intensely dissect that subject and challenge the students to a new level.

So taking a teacher and putting her in a screen for a MOOC is like throwing a script at Richard Pryor and expecting him to rekindle his stand-up magic on a screen. It can happen, but it takes more than a camera and a routine and a genius. It takes specific work to make the MOOC work for that medium, and even then, I'm convineced that real learning, like real laughter, requires a real connection that cannot be replicated through a screen. Online comments are different from conversation. Even multiple choice testing is different in person.

 I think MOOCs are very useful for topics where the student has a direct interest in making money from the information given, or for direct low-level instruction that can be reduced to the resolution of a video screen. I hope to use them myself to expand my knowledge in a few fields. But lasting upper-division education is about the person and about the relationship, just like stand-up is about the whole environment and music is about the performance. MOOCs have their place but they can never supplant the Biochemistry class.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Furious Cool by David and Joe Henry

This is an excellent book about Richard Pryor, one that describes his genius and his work about as well as can be described, tying it to the larger changes of the 60s and 70s. The language is lush and the scenes are well-selected so that it's on the short side rather than the long side. It doesn't hurt that one of the authors (Joe Henry) is an excellent musician as well, which lends itself to an especially haunting final scene.

The real puzzle for me is Richard Pryor himself. The book lays out how his comic genius coincided with, and probably caused, his extreme meanness and insecurity. Why does such incredible performance and on-stage empathy cause off-stage antipathy? Must it? The book only lays out what this looked like but leaves it to the reader to go deeper.

By the way, I was a little wary of listening to this as an audiobook, but Dion Graham does as good of a job at projecting Richard Pryor as Richard Pryor did of ... everyone else. I listened to some of the Pryor routines that Graham read through and heard what Dion said -- he really captured Pryor's delivery. The audiobook is what truly elevated this book for me.