Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: Just After Sunset

This one's Stephen King's collection of recent short stories. I've been hearing for the past decade or so that King has turned into a Serious Writer (albeit one who still likes to freak people out) and I thought a collection of short stories would be the best way to check this out, rather than committing to a 700-page monster novel. And you know what? It was enjoyable enough. The best stories were actually romantic ghost stories (although there's a Lovecraftian psychological thriller that gives those a run for their money): more Ghost than horror movie.

Only a few of the stories had an author as the main character, so King avoided that rut for the most part. And his own author's notes on the origin of each story in the back are priceless, kind of an audio commentary. I like his personal thoughts, like that he feels there must be an afterlife because we're just too incredible and complex creatures to be simply thrown away when we die. That's a statement of natural theology and, you know, it's a good place to start.

Now, I only see glimmers of evidence that King is a Serious Writer here and there: for the most part, these stories are popcorn, and in fact I'm sure some will be turned into movies before too long. But there's some nutrition to this junk food. And my goodness but it's fast fast reading.

Just don't read the last story if you're squeamish AT ALL. That's all I'll say. (Now you're curious, aren't you?)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dusting for Drugs in Fingerprints

If you're a fan of CSI, beware, this may be a spoiler for a future episode. But for the rest of us, it's just news.

A new technique can find drug metabolites in fingerprints. What they do is put drug-specific antibodies onto magnetic dust, they sprinkle the dust on the fingerprint and brush it away like normal. When a solution is applied to the fingerprint, the antibodies will glow if there is, for example, THC in the fingerprint oil. The shape of the fingerprint is retained and it can be traced back to a specific person just like normal.

I wonder what other metabolites would end up in fingerprint oil: would it be possible to read intense emotion from the chemical residue left behind? Or steroid metabolites from a baseball player's locker handle? I'm sure there's some touchy privacy issues here too.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book Review: Home

I should have watched There Will Be Blood before reading Home. But I had no idea one of those would have affected the other, so why would it have stopped me? But the only thing I didn't like about There Will Be Blood was accomplished in spectacularly understated fashion by Home.
Maybe I should explain that.
There Will Be Blood was really a great movie, but, like Citizen Kane, it was focused on just one man and his love of power. Even the second (or third if you count the kid)-most important character, the preacher in the town, is not really explained or given true motivation. Especially in the final scene of that movie, I felt that the preacher, for all the great performance given, was just a prop (and if you doubt that, consider the depiction of the preacher's flock -- they're definitely props).
That's just par for the course. I assume Paul Thomas Anderson (writer and director of the movie) wasn't interested in religion as more than a plot point, so he had no real insight into the religious characters. I guess that's OK -- he nailed the central character, and that's the point of the movie.
But as I watched that movie, I was in the middle of reading Home by Marilynne Robinson, which is primarily about preachers and their families in mid-century Iowa. And the depth and texture she brings to each of the characters -- the old widower ex-preacher, his youngest daughter, and the prodigal older brother who returns home -- is so amazing that it rubbed off on what I expected from what was billed as one of the "movies of the year." So thanks a lot, Marilynne Robinson, you set the bar so high with your characters I may never be able to enjoy a poor characterization again.
Home is the sequel of sorts to Gilead, Robinson's earlier book that won the Pulitzer prize. Gilead focuses on one preacher's family and Home on the other (the two preachers are best friends as well). The stories overlap but are not necessary to each other. Still, the different perspectives when combined give a sort of third dimension to the tale. You understand that the things one character does to deeply hurt another are not intended that way, not quite, at least.
Robinson's books are about the people in them. There's not much interaction with the world at large, and their world seems a bit distant from ours. Which makes it all the more amazing when their inner lives and struggles speak so clearly and well to us 21st-century folks. When you step back, not that much goes on in the course of the book, but it's so richly and lovingly detailed that you realize just how wonderful this ordinary stuff is.
It's not a fast read but it's a very, very good one. Hopefully this one will win some prizes as well.

Monday, December 22, 2008

What Happens When You Fill an Apartment with Copper Sulfate Solution


(This image also from Nature journal's Photos of the Year)

Why You Should Cover Your Mouth When You Cough

(Image from Nature journal's Pictures of the Year)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Copernicus Rests in Peace

A great news article (and a nice confirmation of the historical method) from Science magazine:

Nicolaus Copernicus died in 1543, decades before his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium changed the world with the idea that Earth orbits the sun. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

In 2005, archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in Pultusk, Poland, used church records and ground-penetrating radar to unearth a skeleton from under a medieval cathedral in the Polish town of Frombork whose age matched the 70-year-old Copernicus. Analysis of the bones and a reconstruction of the face supported the identification. But without DNA evidence, the team couldn't be sure--and Copernicus, a Catholic priest, left no known heirs.

He did leave hairs, however. In the archives of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, researchers found several nestled deep in the binding of Copernicus's well-thumbed copy of a standard astronomical reference, Calendarium Romanum Magnum. Uppsala geneticist Marie Allen extracted and amplified mitochondrial DNA from the badly degraded hairs and compared it with mtDNA from the skeleton's tooth. The results, announced last week in Warsaw, were positive.

Pultusk archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski, who led the 2005 excavation, says Copernicus's bones will be reburied in Frombork in 2010.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Free Christmas Rock

(Rock = the musical kind not the geological kind.)

Last year the Violet Burning (one of my favorite bands) put out a Christmas album called Divine, and this year they're making it free to download. Highlights include perhaps my favorite version of "Silent Night" anywhere and a nicely different version of "We Three Kings."

Here's the link:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

I was happy to find out the other day that several of my colleagues have gotten into Neil Gaiman too. He's making inroads into the magic-and-fantasy reading lists started by Tolkien and continued by Robert Jordan and friends. The great thing about Neil Gaiman is that he's just a really good storyteller. His plots, characters, settings, MacGuffins, all if it, is just consistently very good. Rarely is one element far above the others -- in fact, I often don't remember exactly how a story ended or a plot element was resolved after a few months -- but for my money Gaiman is the most consistent craftsman writing fantastic stories today. (The exception is American Gods, in my opinion, Gaiman's truly Great American Novel.)

The Graveyard Book is, what else, consistent with all that. It's the story of a young boy whose family is murdered in the first chapter (yeah, this is Gaiman after all) but who wanders away to a graveyard and is taken in by the, ahem, residents there. Of course, there's a barrow, and an old Roman ghost (I would have liked to see more of him, actually), and enough authentic and funny historical flavor for the different ghosts to make it all work wonderfully. In his acknowledgements, Gaiman credits Kipling first, and that's really right on. I even read Sam some of the "younger boy" chapters and he fell under the spell of Gaiman too.

I may actually prefer Gaiman's "young adult" fiction, like this book, and am now going back to find more of it. His writing is colorful and imaginative enough that often the more "adult" elements seem to get the in way. So, ignore the "young adult" label if it bothers you, it means this book is better, not worse. This book's highly recommended as average Gaiman, which is very good indeed.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Minor Diversion





All for the Gators

Stand up and Holler!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Athens Science Conference Offers an Ambiguous Message

On November 14, the journal Science published an article "Vatican Science Conference Offers an Ambiguous Message." That same week I was studying Acts 17, where Paul talks to philosophers in Athens. In particular, they call him a "seed-picker" at first, which can be translated "babbler." Or, perhaps, a title much like the one above could be placed on Acts 17.

At the 2008 conference, a cardinal from the Vatican named Schönborn presented on the Catholic church's position on evolution (Schönborn's own position has been muddled by a controversial op-ed in the New York Times a few years ago, but the confusion I detect here is in the audience as much as behind the podium):

Schönborn's prepared talk at the conference was not the source of controversy. "It was so very abstract," says Gereon Wolters, a philosopher of science at the University of Konstanz, Germany. "It offered the standard view that evolution is okay" but that "evolutionism"--a term used by religious conservatives for the promotion of atheism through evolutionary biology--"is not." [Now note the mixed response of the scientists:] Some scientists even saw signs of progress in the talk. "I was relieved to hear the cardinal clearly distancing himself from intelligent design," says Francis Collins, former director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research
Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, "referring to that 'school' as having made

The sparks flew when the cardinal fielded questions. "He still expressed reservations about whether evolution can account for all aspects of biology," says Collins, including whether Darwinian evolution can account for the generation of species. "It was preposterous," says Abelson, who says that the meeting took " a step backwards" in the church's relationship with science. Wolters was disappointed, too: "Schönborn has the same intention as the pope has--to fight evolutionism," he says, but "he is
just repeating this creationist gibberish" used by U.S. proponents of
intelligent design. Wolters adds: "Fighting science in this way is a losing

Other scientists at the meeting disagree. The cardinal's doubts about evolution do not represent a conflict between the church and science, says Werner Arber, a geneticist at the University of Basel, Switzerland, who co-organized the meeting. "Relations continue to be good." Schönborn gave "a confused lecture," says Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and a member of the academy, but "the church's position on evolution, insofar as it can be said to have one, is
unchanged. … There is a belief in a creator who existed before the big bang
and set the universe in motion, which is something that cannot be proved or
disproved by science."

My take? The confused response from the scientists does not mean the cardinal was confused. Maybe he was, but I can't tell from the tone of the remarks being made. The commentary echoes the ending of Paul's speech in Acts:

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

So the audience's confusion or lack thereof doesn't imply anything either way about the cardinal's speech. I just can't tell. I can tell that mentioning a creator in the 21st century is kind of like mentioning the resurrection in the 1st century: lots of different responses. I hope the cardinal agrees with my take on things, but the five different scientists seemed to hear five different things in the speech. Maybe I'd hear something else.

Bottom line: the fragmentation and confusion is not just on the church's side. Science has its own conflicting schools of thought and nuances of speech to work out. Words like "babbler" or "confused" are the kind of accusations that easily boomerang back on their speaker. When will we get to the point where we're actually listening to each other and not looking to categorize a speaker based on a few catch-phrases?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tom Clancy Was Right (Again)

I sure hope our counter-terrorism officials are reading Tom Clancy.

Not because his writing is particularly good -- in fact, it's gone into a distinct decline since The Sum of All Fears (which I consider a prime example of science writing as well as of novel-writing). But he has a mind for plot, that is, how things can happen. (On the other hand, he doesn't really have a clue how real people talk or think, but if you can ignore that ... )

With Hunt for Red October, Clancy apparently was so right-on with his reconstruction of how submarines work, using only information from public sources, that some people were sure he had access to classified info. Far as I know, he didn't, he just made the right assumptions for how these things must work.

When I woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001 and saw that two planes had hit the WTC, my first thought was "This is just like the end of Debt of Honor" where a jumbo jet is piloted into the US Capitol, during a joint session of Congress, no less.

Then came the horrific attacks on Mumbai. Those followed the plot of his only post-September 11 novel, The Teeth of the Tiger, in which terrorists coordinate attacks at malls in several American cities using small groups with lots of big guns. The size of the groups, the method of the attacks and the nature of the targets all align with the Mumbai attacks.

Now, of course, Clancy being Clancy, he added a few extra right-wing fluorishes: the terrorists entered the US along an unfenced portion of the Mexican border as illegal immigrants, and one of the attacks was stopped by two brothers carrying concealed weapons! It made for an exciting rescue of innocent civilians, that's for sure.

But if I was charged with stopping these attacks, I'd start by re-reading those books, because (and I say this admirably) Clancy seems to know how a terrorist plan would work.

Book Review: Tried by War

So we turn back to history. McPherson is an accomplished historian who looked around at a Lincoln convention near Gettyburg and noticed that while there were sessions on nearly every aspect of Lincoln's life, there was nothing about how he made his decisions as "commander in chief" of the armed forces. This would be how he chose generals, but even more so, how did he manage the armies and even dictate strategy? How did the public pronouncements like the Emancipation Proclamation fit in to his overall military scheme? Since McPherson kept it down to below 300 pages I thought it would be worth reading this book.

And it was, although once in a while the rush of names involved without contexts made the going pretty woolly. McPherson for the most part keeps things moving and focuses on the war from Lincoln's perspective. For someone whose main Civil War education comes from Ken Burns, I was able to keep up and learned quite a bit about Lincoln's habits and decisions. It always amazes me just how close the Union felt to defeat in mid-1864. I also understand a little more why some people say (wrongly!) that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, not over slavery: for political reasons, at the beginning of the war, states' rights were indeed emphasized, although as the war proceeded, it became more and more clear that it was really about slavery. This came out in 1864 as all sorts of election-year ugliness. The steadfast stubbornness of Lincoln in the face of near-defeat makes 1864 to be as crucial a year as any. Although the tide had turned, it was by no means obvious till Sherman captured Atlanta and Sheridan defeated Jubal Early.

One thing, as an outside observer: why is it that the names of the confederate officers, even relatively minor ones, are so much more familiar than the union officers? On the union side: Grant, Sherman. Maybe McClellan and Burnside. On the confederate side: Lee, Jackson, Early, Forrest, Beauregard, Stuart, Longstreet, Pickett, Hood, Bragg ... I don't think it's all because I have relatives in southern Virginia, and that would just account for Jeb Stuart. The union officers had a systemic failure of will and even personality. Until Grant came along, and he paid a very high price for his success. The price exacted on the country by the Civil War was a high one, but Lincoln was determined to pay it.

This book tends to gloss by the other personalities (because it must to keep its focus), but as insight into Lincoln, the pressures he faced, and how and when he stood up to them, this is a very worthwhile book.

PS: I just remembered another fact that surprised me: the central role of slaves to the deadlock over prisoner exchanges. Because the confederates would consider the slaves property, Lincoln stopped all POW exchanges. Black soldiers were frequently rounded up and shot by the confederates after being taken prisoner. This level of uncompromising hatred is important to remember -- when a side starts doing stuff like that it has clearly started to capitulate to evil. That's something to watch out for in one's own self, too, by the way.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What Does Acts Say About How to 'Do Church'?

Not much time for details, but if I'm thinking about something I find it helpful to blog about it.

Acts 6 tells us even the early church had fissures in its community. The fissures broke along "language lines": in that time, did you speak Greek or did you speak Aramaic? Some reflection of this is in the "language denominations" and it makes sense: one should be able to hear the gospel in one's native tongue (else what's a Pentecost for?). But today the fissures can be along the lines of personal languages, what "speaks" to you personally: do you listen to the words of the song and the words of the preacher? Or does the music speak to you in a way that neither of those can? I think we have native "music" speakers and native "non-music" speakers, and fissures can ... and have ... formed between those people. One of the things I appreciate about my home church is that there is a strong music ministry that speaks lots of "dialects" of "music-ese" to lots of different people. But for others, music in general, or maybe some music in specific, simply doesn't speak to them. To which I say: that's where fissures can form. We've got to get along with each other, allow for both languages in our love for each other.

Acts 5, Acts 11, and Acts 15 actually combine in a weird sort of way to make a related argument about "what is the church supposed to DO?" In short, the question is wrong: the question should be, "what is God doing?" Peter reframed his experience in God terms: God did this, then God did that, and God's doing this thing so let's stop "testing" him. The church is supposed to look for God, see where God's working, and go along with that. I lose sight of this all the time. I lost sight of it when I was on council. It's always easier to talk about numbers rather than the movement of the spirit. But when the spirit goes, you follow. And the important thing about the spirit (shown in Acts 15 in particular) is that this spirit is consistent over time, which means the spirit works in parallel with the scriptures and old words, and also the spirit prepares you for the work you're called to do. So if you look around you see, hey, I've got this unused basement in my church and this calling to serve the homeless, you open up a homeless shelter. When I said to myself, you know, I'm really interested in the speeches of Acts for some reason and I think the church needs a Sunday School class on this, I went and did it, based on this sense of preparedness, and also, it wasn't really my thing so if it failed miserably it'd be God's fault. Or if you've got staff and people with musical skills, and a mixed congregation that wants to listen to those, you've got yourself a direction for your music ministry. What it does not mean is that you hold an American Idol-like audition to determine the content of that music ministry. You do what you're called to, all of you, staff, congregation, choir, all together listening to each other, being challenged, and deciding where to go as a community.

Deciding where to go involves money. In the New Testament, money is a big deal, not so much in somebody central allocating it according to a budget, but in the churches or groups within churches giving it to each other. Look at Paul's collections, it was one of the main modes of communication from church to church. This is one of the ways you talk, you put your money where your mouth is. If you want to promote unity between groups offer the chance for them to give to each other. God actually works through that. This is one of the reasons why love of money may be the root of all evil, but money in love can be a great good.

Mostly, I want to think about these passages but I have to be careful how I present them to others, lest I use them as a club. I've been known to do so. So I'll throw together these interim thoughts on my blog and let it sit. Let those with ears to hear listen. And I promise I'll blog more about science in the future (although did I tell you how Acts relates to the current science-religion debates? [ducking thrown tomatoes])...

Book Not Reviews: Acts Reading

So I've tried to at least put up a paragraph or two for every book I've read, mostly for myself, to keep a record of what I read over the year (and out of curiousity to go back sometime and count up how many and what kind of books I read!).

With this Acts class I've been reading out of several books, and I'm just going to put them down without review to say, these books were read. Consider this the class bibliography!

The Acts of the Apostles, by I.H. Marshall
Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, by Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall
The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary on Acts by Rob Wall
Acts for Everyone by N.T. Wright, Parts 1 and 2

Other books were valuble references, but these 5 were the ones I read pretty much cover to cover, so I can add them to my year-end books-read tally!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Book Review: Unholy Business

The author, Nina Burleigh, of this book sounded familiar when I checked this book out but I didn't place her until, a few pages in, she had the chance to drop an event-name: Napoleon's ill-fated excursion into the Egyptian desert. That reminded me of her other book I read earlier, Mirage, about this excursion. This book's about like that book. Events told briskly with a journalistic bent -- in this case it works better because it actually is present-day journalism, but it works worse because it is painfully obvious we're only getting half of the story.

The good news is the half of the story we're getting is still good. The James Ossuary found in the early part of this decade does appear to be a hoax. This book is the story of how it's a hoax ... or at least the official Israeli Antiquities Agency's version of the story. The characters are drawn so 2-dimensionally it's hard to believe this is all there is to it.

In this case, what's here is damning. But when every supporter is painted as a buffoon and every prosecutor is presented as an enlightened crusader against forgery, even before the case is finished (it's still under deliberation!), it's hard to feel like you have the complete story. Let me be clear, I think the thing was faked. But this is such a one-sided argument for the prosecution I actually wonder why it sounds so defeated in the final chapters, essentially conceding that the trial will find that it's not necessarily a fake after all because of the slick legal defense and the inherent incompatability of science and law.

The thing that bothers me most is that the religious people who are interested in whether this ossuary is real or not are conflated without discrimination with the slimy people who make the hoaxes and collect them illegally in their apartments. The book purports to be about people "who want to believe" and are fooled, but then it's all about the people who are doing the fooling and the police and scientists who catch them. The collectors and hoaxers are clearly shown by their own statements to be agnostic or atheistic, and more interested in Israel the country than Israel the people of YHWH. There's something interesting there in how these collectors are substituting faith for pieces of rock. They come out and say it -- their lives revolve around these little idols, that have become literal idols again for them. And yet Burleigh misses the point because she's so convinced this is about faith vs. reason. (The blurb by Christopher Hitchens assuming the same thing on the back cover was my first indication something was lopsided about this story.)

Just like with the Da Vinci Code, strangely bad copyediting mistakes accompany the deeper problems. Did you know Jesus died for you on "Calgary"? Or one of my favorite verses is quoted from Zechariah 22 ... but Zechariah only has 12 chapters. Burleigh misquotes a guide saying theives broke Jesus' legs on the cross (maybe the guide got it wrong but I doubt it).

Again near the end of the book, one of the characters remarks that Jerusalem is a unique city, that "the air is different here." There's hints of more going on outside the pages of this book throughout the story. Then the air is cut off again: "All good things come by chance" remarks a head policeman regarding one of the big breaks in the case. That appears to reflect the author's bias as well, placing her firmly in the Greek philosophy camp of Epicureanism. Unfortunately that philosophy pulls a shroud over most of the motivations of the characters in this story. I wish this book was written better, because if the ossuary is the hoax I suspect it is, it needs to be denounced with more rigor than this.

PS: The "Jesus Tomb" figures in this story and is presented with appropriate skepticism. James Tabor (along with James Cameron and that Canadian guy with the hard to spell name) is behind "much of the current crop of Biblical hype." Hmmm... Where have I heard that before?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

So I'm Only 2/3 Male? uses AI to guess whether a blog is written by a man or a woman. Here's the results for this blog:
We think is written by a man (64%).

And for Deanna's Corner:
We think is written by a man (69%).

Um... so I guess I have to challenge Deanna to an arm-wrestle or something.

My friend Eric's (Deanna's husband) blog:
We think is written by a man (75%).

My friend Juliet's blog:
We guess is written by a man (54%), however it's quite gender neutral.

My pastor Richard's blog:
We guess is written by a woman (58%), however it's quite gender neutral.

Ok, we're 2 for 5 (really 2 for 3 with 2 abstentions). I'll quit while I'm ahead. Or behind.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

CD = M.D.?

So they're making a disc that can fit in your CD player and will run medical tests for you. The key is to have antibodies bound to gold nanoparticles (see above) that scatter the laser light enough for a CD player to detect. From what I understand there's still a lot to do to fit all the microfluidics on there and make it robust enough, but this demonstration of possibility means someday you could run a test on a CD, put the CD into your CD-ROM drive, and have your computer tell you if you've got a disease or condition or something.
Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Invest in CD's", doesn't it?

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Liar's Poker Author Takes on the Current Financial Crisis

I haven't had time to read this in detail but I've read enough to think this guy's onto something about how we got where we are today, financially:
[NOTE: Rated TV-M for coarse language and financial carnage]

The author of this piece is Michael Lewis, who penned Liar's Poker in 1989 at the end of the Gordon Gekko 80's. He's got the "science writer's" flair, as in he can summarize well, although whether he's right or wrong is harder to judge (as in the writing of the late Michael Crichton). Lewis talks about how he sees this crisis as being an extension of those policies, with a sentence I know I can agree with:

"[After the 80's ...] The changes were camouflage. They helped distract outsiders from the truly profane event: the growing misalignment of interests between the people who trafficked in financial risk and the wider culture."

Notably missing: What to do about it apart from a massive societal attitude adjustment. As Suzie Orman says, we're moving from a credit society to a pay-as-you-go society. Which is why, as in my previous post about these things, I doubt that the market will rebound quickly, and think a philosophical shift may be in order. But what happens then?

Dangit Jim, I'm a biochemist, not a banker ...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Phil Vischer, co-creator of VeggieTales (and author of a very good memoir), has started something new: JellyTelly. It's an all-internet "TV channel" that offers about 20 minutes of new programming a day. The strategy is to use puppets a lot and combine it with cheap (but nice-looking!) computer/traditional animation. There's hits and misses so far but I hope this will become something, and my kids are watching it and getting into it. No advertising, $2.99/month subscription, first month trial for free.

I also enjoy watching it to see how they're putting together a nice-looking and unique show "on the cheap" in some ways: American history doesn't require royalties, for instance. It's very clever underneath in that way, as well as on the surface. It's really for 5+ years old so far, from the kind of kids I've seen show interest.

It's still in "beta," but looking back to the first few episodes of the Muppet Show, I see similarities, and I think this just might be able to pull it off. My kids are watching it, that's for sure.

Here's Phil Vischer's thoughts from his blog on why he's doing it:

The problem with kids media today isn't that it is evil, it is that it is vapid. Empty. Pointless. It is empty calories. Frosting. Creme filling. Glaze. It has nothing to say to our kids about life on this earth or the God that made them special and loves them very much. And our kids consume it endlessly, on average, three hours per day.

We can do better.

Kids media can inform and shape while it entertains. Heck, Sesame Street figured that out. Mr. Rogers figured that out. But that was forty years ago. Kids media today lacks the will to teach kids anything. Yes, the shows on Nick and Disney are racially diverse. The characters recycle. But beyond that, they are mute.

We can do better. We can show kids the real world - a world where God exists and has something to say to us, if we will just stop and listen. A world where amazing people commit their lives to the work of the church and the benefit of others. A world where celebrity pales in comparison to generosity.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Acts Class Week 5 Overheads

Here are the overheads I put up in class this morning covering Acts 9-11. They're scans but I think they're readable. I can also put up my notes (like I did for Week 2) and/or the pictures (the one of Joppa's harbor and the painting of Peter's vision). Let me know -- it will help me meet my personally imposed post quota for the month! Also, if anyone has any follow-up thoughts or comments on the topic of "going beyond tolerance" or other things we talked about, please comment below.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Against Temples Made By Hands

Last week in Acts class, we covered chapter 7, Stephen's court defense that led to his martyrdom. It's really an amazing speech, that shows precisely why he was so hard to argue against, because he brought up foundational events from Israel's history that showed when God had sent someone to save or deliver Israel, and that person had been rejected. Then he went about talking about how God's holy ground moved around a lot, and implied that the tabernacle was a better and older picture of God's presence than a Temple built by human hands. He drew out the constant temptation to idolatry that plagued Israel throughout its history, implied that it had taken place even in the tabernacle times, and then told them it was still happening that very day, with the Temple made by human hands taking the place of the calf made by human hands.

They weren't too happy with that conclusion (although the real capital charge came a little later, when he saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he told everyone about it. Then he finally was really convicted of blasphemy).

It's easy to push that Temple worship issue off on someone else, just like it's all too easy to consider idolatry as something that we've gotten over. But if Israel had an idolatry problem with the Temple, even when the Temple was good and a place where God met people, then really, anything "made by hands" can be an idol. And that should bother us, because that means idols surround us and we just plain don't see it. It means our new church building could be an idol. Or our music program. Or Sunday School.

I hope when I talk about present-day idolatry that I don't sound too much like an old-timey preacher. This is something I struggle with identifying, and realize that anything, even the process of identifying idols, may become an idol. I think about it not because it's other people's problem, but because it is my own.

What structures "made by hands" do we worship? Ideologies are an easy target (again, very easy to identify in others!), in which a set of assumptions gets built up politically and then you conclude that the standard-bearer of that set of assumptions is either the Messiah (if you agree) or the Antichrist (if you don't). The Romans deified their Emperors, and you can still detect in current political discourse the same tendency to worship power, just a little less overtly. Think of the focus on the Supreme Court justices before the election on the right, an emphasis that implied that because justices hold so much power you should never elect someone from the left who will nominate a different kind of justice. Never mind that the two oldest justices are already the most liberal, or that the right-wing justices are the youngest and numerous... because that position carries great power it should be protected at all costs.

What about something that hits a little closer to home for me? Stephen quoted a passage from Amos in which it was implied that Israel fell into idolatry even during the "Tabernacle Days," and identifies the gods they worshipped: one of which was an Akkadian God that we now know as the planet Saturn. No one worships Saturn today, right? I read in my research that part of the pattern of star-god worship was to carefully measure and calculate the path of the planet-god. So star-god priests were the first astronomers (think of the calculations needed to get up, say, Stonehenge), and science may have been tied up in of the first idolatries.

As someone who juggles the demands of various "good things" that are "made by hands" (teaching, research, service, politics, theology, yes, theology), I'm struck by the fact that working for a job that demands so much of your time that you might as well be worshiping it ... that's not a new thing.

This has more implications I'll have to think about as study continues.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

We Are None of Us Scientists

Listening to a talk on the way in by Bill Newsome from the ASA meeting this Spring. You can find the talk itself on the ASA website if you wish: Newsome is a Stanford neurobiologist who talks about the questions people have brought to him about his faith. (And in the question and answer session, part 2, he recommends an essay by my friend and colleague Rick Steele from our School of Theology!)

In any case, what really struck me was his response to his post-doc, who was flabbergasted that this same professor who was so tough on published papers in lab meetings could believe in this Christianity stuff. The post-doc asked how the same person who was so skeptical of papers and insistent on running controls could believe in God, purpose, meaning, Jesus, etc.

Newsome's response was that actually, the most important decisions any of us make are actually not scientific, and never can be. (He went so far as to say the more important the question, the less scientific it must be.) He used the example of taking a new job. When is it worth it to accept a new position, with all the uncertainties at the new location, and the known costs of having to uproot your family, take your kids out of school, learn a new area, etc.? You don't really know, and you can't run a replicable experiment for it. Life has no controls. Also, the question, should I marry this person or not is also in this category.

So leaps of faith are pretty common for all of us because we're limited by our lives embedded in time. This doesn't mean we can't or don't think about which way we should go or weigh our options. We use our minds even more for those decisions. But we can't run an experiment on the big questions.

This has implications for history and theology, but let me just mention one right now: the story of Abraham, the father of faith, is the mother of all "job relocation" decisions. All we're told is God told him to move away from his land and take his family with him. He did so by faith. Everyone makes decisions like that; the question is why do you do it, and what's your faith in?So believing is kind of like taking a new job, or marrying someone. You've only got one life and you decide with the way you spend it.

Seriously, go listen to the talk, both parts, it's good stuff.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

I will try to write this review without giving too much away about this book. Tons of people have read it already. It's about a family tragedy that happens to a father who's a Christian but has trouble with "God questions." He receives a note in his mailbox that appears to be from God and responds by going to a shack in the wilderness, associated with that tragedy. There he meets God in surprising forms and has lots of long conversations. Suffice it to say he learns something about how to get past tragedy, I hope you can see that coming from the cover (or the type of store it's sold in).

It was good. I found the occasional paragraph to be very well put, and for a book that's basically all talk, Will Young finds ways to keep it moving and vary the setting from chapter to chapter. This book isn't big on nuance. The tragedy is something that is so stark and black-and-white that even Lifetime wouldn't build a movie around it. Also, the father's family history is similarly just a bit too over the top. I'm ambivalent about whether the author should have "toned down" the evil. On the one hand, he's making a point about true evil in the face of innocence. On the other hand, it is drawn so starkly that I had trouble relating to it -- it always seemed just this side of a "this is evil" kind of conversation. But by the end of the book, when he demonstrates how to deal with that evil, I think I return to his side of things, and like Stephen King he knows how to pull heartstrings.

Yes, I typed that correctly. Young has the same easy way with prose and fast-reading, clear style that bestselling authors like Stephen King has.

Now, some of the theological points he makes with that easy, fast prose are debatable, and theo-blogs get up in arms over parts of them, as if it's not clear from the start that this is fiction and one man's perspective. Debate if you must, but I'd prefer that you answer in kind, with your own talky story, not with a point by point blog post. I find his vivid characterization to be more important than the fine points of his theology of the Fall.

Actually, the points that bother me the most aren't theological so much as philosophical. In particular, rules and hierarchies in general get condemned. I'm ambivalent about that as well. I think some of what he says in this regard makes it a lot easier to "get" Jesus (and therefore to "get" God). Bully for him on that count. But I don't think God eliminates hierarchies as much as he turns them upside down. See the Magnificat. Also he doesn't eliminate rules, he enlivens and uses them. I think Young's actually a little too traditional in his take on Paul and the epistle to the Romans and all that: the Law is good and bad, not just bad (to put it WAY too simplistically). If Rules aren't what it's all about why did Jesus make a point of fulfilling the Law? Rules are something ... we just get what they are wrong. Maybe there's a "flipping over" to be done with those as well. (If rules and hierarchy are so out of order what does that say about the mechanism of justice depicted in this book?)

So some of those points come off as typically Northwest Emergent-Church Theology gone a little too far. But they're not the point. The point is talking to God and seeing him as surprising and loving characters. The point of this book is to write the Trinity on your heart in images, and to give images of forgiveness and the beauty of what looks like a mess (without explaining it away). This book succeeds admirably at that.

Eugene Peterson's cover blurb compares this to Pilgrim's Progress. As someone who's never read Pilgrim's Progress I'm inclined to agree. There's schematic tendencies to the plot and over-talkiness and probably theology that will look dated in 20 years in both of the books, and God speaks through both of them. I'm more inclined to compare it to Perelandra by CS Lewis, another talky but interesting book. Either way, it's worth a read.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Why Pianists Will Not Be Replaced by Computers Anytime Soon

This is apparently true even if you don't know anything about piano sonatas: if a person plays a sonata for you, your central nervous system activates and you sweat a little. If a computer plays the same sonata, you do not react, and you don't sweat. Score one for humans.

No word on if this explains the showering tendencies of pianists. :)

The Banana Thing Works!

I have a keychain LCD UV lamp, and I got it out yesterday and tried it on a ripe banana -- and it glowed blue! Now, the interesting thing is the blue was distinctly arranged around each brown spot and I couldn't observe it elsewhere, unlike the pictures in which the whole banana seems to be glowing. This makes me think that my LCD UV lamp, which only covers a portion of the spectrum a true UV lamp does, only selectively illuminates a certain kind of molecule. Perhaps it's a later breakdown product? Oh, the discoveries I could make if I only had the time -- and a few tons of bananas ...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ripe Bananas Glow Blue Under UV Light

In the "why didn't anybody think of this before" file, some researchers shone a UV light on yellow ripe bananas and they glowed bright blue. When they shined the light on green bananas they didn't glow at all. And this glow can be traced to a single compound. The green chlorophyll in unripe bananas breaks down when they ripen into this UV-fluorescent compound (shown on the right in the picture above). Animals may have UV-sensitive vision that can see this and so the ripe bananas may actually glow to their eyes. We may be able to use this in banana processing plants to determine ripeness quantitatively.
Personally, I'm thinking I want to isolate this stuff in a test tube. Who's with me? BYOB: Bring Your Own Bananas.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Acts and New Creation

Ok, so remember when I first started writing this blog and everything was about 1 Corinthians? Well, now everything's about Acts. Because I've started teaching a Sunday class about Acts instead of Corinthians.

In any case, the image of Pentecost came to mind: the tongues of fire at Pentecost starting at a single point and fanning out to rest on each believer. This is parallel to the general action of the book: Acts is about starting at a single point (the resurrection of Jesus) and fanning out, person to person, from Jerusalem to Rome, the world catching fire from a storm of winds.

And why stop there? The universe itself started that way: a single point so small it didn't even have dimensions, a Big Bang, space and time fanning out, overflowing and catching fire. Life started that way: a single organism that's a complex set of chemical reactions, on fire with the energy of metabolism, reproducing, begetting, spreading out, filling every available niche. The chemical reaction running life is the exact same overall reaction of a candle burning: hydrogen and carbon meet oxygen and burn. Your mitochondria are on fire.

This is the "fire-works" model of creation, and it's true for the universe, true for biological life, true for the church on Pentecost, and true for the church after Pentecost. Because all four are acts of creation, of God breathing new life and energy into this universe.

God made sky and soil,

sea and all the fish in it.

He always does what he says—

he defends the wronged,

he feeds the hungry.

God frees prisoners—

he gives sight to the blind,

he lifts up the fallen.

Psalm 146 (Excerpt, The Message trans.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Acts Class Week 2 Summary

Ok, I don't plan on doing this every week but some people in the Acts class for week 1 were out of town Sunday and were wondering if I could post an outline or something so they could catch up. So he's my general notes for Week 2. I made them small font so they wouldn't take up too much room and if you need to expand the font size I suppose you can select the text and copy it to a word processor and enlarge the font. We didn't cover all of this but I always have more than I can fit into an hour so I'm forced to go a little fast!

I'll just do this on request, so if someone wants another week, let me know. Also, if you were in the class and would like to discuss something in more detail, go ahead and comment below!

I do have just the first 15 minutes of class recorded as an mp3 because my recorder batteries gave out then. I will post that FWIW if requested -- I just have to find a hosting site for it.

10-19 Peter’s Speech at Pentecost in Acts 2:14-40
(Reading the Psalms and finding resurrection)

Pentecost/”Feast of Weeks” was one of three pilgrimage feasts in the second-Temple period
Celebrated the first bushel of wheat brought in, offered it to God
Later à Noah/Moses times of covenant renewal (feast of the second chance)
à by second century feast of giving the Law on Sinai 50 days after Passover

Show Jacob Lawrence picture. JL grew up Abyssinian Baptist in NYC a Pentecostal church. He was commissioned to make this lithograph before he was famous for an adult Sunday School curriculum.
Q: How is this picture different from other depictions? What do you see in it?
“Fire-Works” A dangerous Spirit, contorted expressions, taking over.
Disturbing image: hurricane winds, people on fire, caught up.
YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL (when waiting or after waiting!).
Not really a sign/wonder/proof of God but a shattering force that leaves you shaken, changed

Read Acts 2:1-4. We want description but are given simile “like”
“Wind” ~ “spirit” (pneuma) in Hebrew and Greek
“Fire” = judgment (Luke 3 John the Baptist, 1 Corinthians house)
Wind & fire // Sound & Vision // cloud by day & fire by night // both GROWING forces
Fleet of ships lauched by wind // forest fire started by a spark

Q: When did the Spirit come on people before this (OT, Gospels)? What is different this time?
OT on single prophets – here on a group of 120!

Q: Before giving of Law/Torah, now giving of Spirit. What does that mean?
Way of life, Law written on hearts. Spirit fulfills the Law. The energy/purpose of the Law.
Moses went up the mountain and came down with the Law.
Jesus ascended and gave gifts from on high of the Spirit.
Jesus’ body is a bit of earth in heaven. The Spirit is a bit of heaven on earth. Interlocking spheres.

Read Acts 2:5-13. xenolalia vs. glossalalia (see 1 Cor. 12, distinct but there is overlap)
Show map. World list is centered on Jerusalem, ends on Rome.
Galilean accent/looks are still fully recognizable – the person is controlled but not subsumed, the inspired speech is neither “perfect” nor “neutral.” Sometimes, being controlled by God will make you look drunk. v.13 First opposition, Peter stands up who wouldn’t talk to a servant at midnight

Read Acts 2:14-21. These speeches are EVENTS that move the action forward, like in a good musical. Peter responds to the THEOLOGICAL challenge with a speech about God. He shows that he’s not drunk with rational, spirit-filled appeal to Scripture. Those steeped in Scripture will respond like this when challenged (quoting Deut to the Devil) “Let me put it in your ears” = “enotimazoi” = “listen” = Biblical language (Exodus 15:26)
Quotes Joel 2. Peter changes the quote from “after these things” to “in the Last Days”
This answers the question “What does this mean?” or “What’s going on?” with the TIME it is.
They knew Daniel and were longing for the 490 “weeks” to be over
“We are in the Last Days” vs. “the Day of the Lord is coming”

Pattern of speeches: 1.) The Kingdom of God/last days are here. 2.) They came in by the death and resurrection of Jesus 3.) Jesus is now exalted to God’s right hand 4.) He has given the Holy Spirit 5.) He will come again and judge in the “Day of the Lord” 6.) Change and you will receive the HS/forgiveness/salvation

v.19-20 signs and wonders = semeia kai terata, echoing Moses, prefiguring v.43
moon to blood, smoke = loose allusion to Sinai? There was an eclipse in Jerusalem in 33AD

v.21 “everyone who calls” foreshadows the rest of Acts, though here addressed to Jews
“Lord” = kyrios, LXX word for God, Peter’s word for Jesus. Hebrew = YHWH à “adonai” (my Lord)
Peter cuts off the verse before the judgment part, like Jesus in Luke 4. Is positive aspect of judgment, setting things right, restoring to Israel, in mind? Including more people?
Next question: Who is this “Lord” to call on?

Read Acts 2:22-36. v.23 “plan” like “dei” from last week, similar intro to Psalm prophecy. Also “wicked” ~ “people outside the law”. Jesus’ path to death had been marked with every kind of evil, doing its worst. In the light of the resurrection this suddenly became clear as God’s plan.

Psalm 16:8-11: God made promises to David that he kept to Jesus. Follow the logic: because Jesus rose from the dead he must be this person, he must be the world’s true ruler.

“The anointed king would come to the place where evil was reaching its height, where the greatest human systems would reveal their greatest corruption (Rome, with its much-vaunted system of justice revealing itself rotten at the core; Israel, with its celebrated Temple and hierarchy, revealing itself hollow at its heart), and where this accumulated evil would blow itself out on one great act of unwarranted violence against the one who, of all, had done nothing to deserve it. That, the early Christians believed, is what God had always intended. … God, knowing how powerful that wickedness was, had long planned to nullify its power by taking its full force upon himself, in the person of his Messiah, the man in whom God himself would be embodied.” – NTWright Acts for All p. 38-9.

v.34 = Ps. 110. Early church LOVED this Psalm (Corinthians, Eph., Col., Heb., Gospels). What looks like metaphor is becoming LITERAL. God is truer than anyone imagined.

v.36 Lord and Christ = two political categories, King of Gentiles and of Jews.

Read Acts 2:37-41. This is not a “safe” sermon. “cut to the heart” a Ps. 110 ref? the Spirit is the 2nd chance Judas never had, Peter did have, and offered to the Jews in the crowd: the restoration of Israel.
Compare Lk. 3:10 to Acts 2:37. Q: What does Peter have that John the Baptist didn’t? (upside-down model of Jesus is what you’re repenting towards. Cf. Romans 12:1-2. Convert means CHANGE, something everybody seems to want right now…) We are “turn back and be rescued” people.

Holy Spirit as gift Luke 11:13
Gift (dorea) of the Holy Spirit: OT prophetic power to do God’s will. Psalm 68:18: Ascended/captivity/ gifts. Psalm 68 is about the giving of the LAW in Rabbinic lit. Here, giving of SPIRIT.

Promise “for all who are far” echoes Isaiah 57:19. Spirit/wind shall gather exiled Jews back.
This means the rest of us.

Lord calls (kaleo) here. Joel said everyone who calls upon (epikaleo) the Lord. Nice balance!

Read Acts 2:42-47. This is WHAT SALVATION LOOKS LIKE. Only AFTER Jesus is raised and the Spirit is given we see this community.
What does this church do? 1.) Teaching 2.) Eating (communion or meals? Eating after church? Somehow SHARING food and time) 3.) Gathering/fellowship/property in common (SHARING houses and money) 4.) Prayer

The Twelve had a common purse (Luke 8:1-3). In Acts 2 we don’t see the selling of all the houses, because they continued to meet, but the selling of extra property, the LAND they lived on, which means even MORE to Jews looking forward to the redemption of the LAND, part of God’s promised inheritance.

v.44 = only “koin-O-nia” in Acts! Lots in Paul. “All in common” = Qumran and this: purification of people FORMS a community of the set-apart (holy)

Spent time in Temple like the good Jews they remained to be.

A simple message at heart: God is going to make you share as you follow Him.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Preparing for Pentecost

I'll be teaching Acts 2 this Sunday in the morning adult class. I like to find a visual introduction for each passage that surprises and sums up, basically, something that does what art's supposed to do. But I didn't know of any Pentecost pictures, I was just thinking, maybe there's an old masters kind of oil painting of people in robes with little candle-flames above their head or something. Then, by chance, I was sitting at the lunch table on Wednesday with Rob Wall, who has written one of the Acts commentaries I'm currently going through week by week, and before I even mentioned the class he started talking about a Jacob Lawrence lithograph he has in his home -- of the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2! So here it is. All I can say is it's PERFECT. I'll probably post audio of my class after Sunday to follow up on this. In the meantime, what do you notice about it?

Thursday, October 16, 2008


SPU's Day of Common Learning yesterday hosted Nicholas Wolterstorff, philosopher previously from Calvin College, now from Yale, to speak on "Beauty, Love, Worship, and Justice" (not necessarily in that order). In inimitable philosopher fashion, he boiled down those four words to measures of worth (and didn't even have to mention the low-hanging fruit that is the etymology of the word "worship" which INCLUDES the word "worth"!). We implicitly judge worth with spending in the four dimensions: in space (with money) and in time. Whether you like it or not. And we're limited in what we can give. It's easy to forget the worth of invisible things. Recent advertising, the realms of the visible, is tuned to trumpet the worth of the immediate, to make watching five more minutes of that show seem to be worth so much, when the silence of turning it off would be worth much more. I write this blog because it's worth it to react and record, and to make it public. The action of writing is the end, not the means.

I've served on lots of committees and boards lately where financial questions are asked, and as a globe we're asking financial questions, obviously. Those questions are directly related to Wolterstorff's talk, it's what I found myself thinking of as he spoke. What's a organ worth to the congregation of the church if it only gets played twice a month? What's worship worth? What's a playground worth? General education requirements? An expensive instrument for a new class? A conference in Switzerland? A time investment in a Sunday class about Acts, what's that worth?

What will you give in exchange for your soul? What's that worth?

And then there's the time you respond to those questions in love, under material limits to be sure, but with the gratitude of being able to do any of it. Love is the most expensive thing in the world. Costly, yes -- but free.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why I Made Students Sign a Silly Form

When my students sat down to take their first test today, I handed out a piece of paper for them to sign and use as scratch paper. It said:

I certify that this test represents my own work and thought processes, and that I did not refer to or use answers from another person.

... and it had a line for signature. Why did I make junior-level biochemistry students at a Christian liberal-arts college sign this? One reason is we're 50 students crammed into a classroom elbow-to-elbow. Another reason is I had a particular problem with this last year. But the prime reason is when I read Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely this summer, he gave the results of an experiment that shows that just being reminded of a moral code, whether the Ten Commandments or a non-existent school honor code, brought cheating on a test way down.

So, to my students, I realize it's a silly reminder. I trust you. But I can't watch everyone at every moment, and if I can do something simple that makes my evaluation of you more accurate, it's better in the long run.

At least I'm counting on that fact. I wonder if the fact of handing out a "contract" like that makes my relationship with the students more economic/transactional and may have unintended consequences?

Yes, I do some experiments in the lab, but the experiments in the classroom (like this) are just as important and the outcomes just as unknown.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Confused Biochemist's Theory about the Economy

So I'm as puzzled as anyone else as to why suddenly everything is worth less today than a month ago, and why suddenly no one can be trusted with money or credit. But I have some ideas, mostly tied to aspects of the economy that I've always thought were irrational, or at least unsustainable.

For what it's worth, I'm thinking we may be seeing the end of a certain style of thinking on Wall Street. The current huge correction we're seeing is on the order of a philosophical shift, and I'm thinking an old broken philosophy needs to be left behind. That old philosophy would be the idea that for a company to be valuable, for its stock to go up, not only must it be profitable but it must be increasing in profitability. That is, the idea that a linearly growing company isn't growing enough but all companies should grow exponentially in order to succeed/drive values up. And that is simply not sustainable in the long run. People intent on making money placed a lot of bets that come down to that one assumption, and borrowed money to keep placing bets because their philosophy told them it must be true. And we Americans have been working harder and harder to make our companies grow exponentially because if we don't someone else will. We think "The Secret" is that we haven't thought positively enough or put in enough hours. And we're finding out we are inadequate to the task.

If we have to correct from an assumption of exponential growth back to linear growth, it's going to be very painful for people who've assumed the former. Especially for those with retirement accounts that are built on the idea that the stock market will always go up, given a long enough period. That has been true for America for the past 50 years, but I'm not sure it will always be true, especially if the stock growth is based on unsustainable trends and a bad assumption of permanent exponential growth. Look at Japan -- stock markets don't always go up if you wait even 20 years.

I just hope the credit crisis will not be so bad that it forces students to stay away from college because they can't get loans -- that's my personal stake in this! Of course I have a suspicion that we in the college business can respond by making tuition growth more normal. Well, we'll have to respond that way if things keep going like this, and you know, that's another correction that will bring a long-term trend back to sustainable levels. Tuition rising faster than inflation is not right, and we've got to bring that exponential growth down.

Growing is fine. But having to grow upon growing or you don't survive? That's wrong.

Part of this comes from a very insightful (and even Disney-related) blog post by Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales. He posted this in July, back when oil was $140 a barrel and the Dow was 14,000, and I still think about it now several months later:

We have to help each other more now, more than ever. I see a lot of silver linings, but that's also because there's a lot of clouds. In the Bible the clouds are a sign of God's presence. Let's see how that works out -- because God often has things to say we may not want to hear.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Modified URL for iTunesU Podcasts

We made a new page for my new podcasts. Find it here (instead of the address given previously):

2008 Cool Science Pictures

Science magazine just put out the winners of its visual challenge. This is an especially good crop of pictures this year!

This is a mixture of 2 polymers that don't appear to dissolve:

This is the interconnectedness of the books of the Bible. Each white bar is a chapter, in order (you can see Psalm 119, it's the big bar in the middle). The connections, quotations and allusions back and forth are shown by the curved lines. As the researchers said, "It looks like one big book.":

This is a melanoma cell imaged by a new microscopy technique. The nucleus is the dark blob in the back, the pink is mitochondria, and the gold is the endoplasmic reticulum.

And last is a "Mad Hatter's Tea Party" illustration with very small things. Can't wait to see the children's book these people are working on:

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The 2nd-to-Last Temptations of the Candidates

I only got to listen to part of the 2nd debate in the car and the very end after dinner. Some of it seemed awful familiar (at least there wasn't an interminable What-Would-Kissinger-Do debate this time). But thinking on it afterwards (and correct me if I missed something), I'm impressed. Both candidates have resisted considerable temptations, and I mean that straightforwardly.

McCain resisted the temptation tonight to "take the gloves off" and go after Obama's associations with Wright and Ayers. Maybe that will even cost him the election. But he kept his attacks on-topic and current, and I'm convinced he did it because it was the honorable, high-road thing to do. (Also, that is what Palin's for, right?)

Obama has resisted the temptation to talk like he can solve every problem, to give in to the more fawning end of his advisor spectrum. People have been complaining about how "cool"/"cold" he's been lately, but it's because he's admirably kept away from salvation-language and acting like he'd solve everything automatically, just by being him. No more swooning fans in the audience. The "pop star" label just doesn't stick as well anymore as a consequence.

So McCain resists the mud-slinging temptation (wrath?), and Obama resists pride.

Now they can go and prove me wrong tomorrow. On a positive note, what I'd like to see is a creative proposal to address the current economic crisis. McCain's mortgage plan may be a step in the right direction, but I'd like to hear more before concluding. Obama, what is that "economic dream team" telling you? Nothing about Charles Keating, please ...

Monday, October 6, 2008

How You Know You Belong in Seattle

... You're walking along the third-floor science building walkway toward the window at the end of the hall, and all you can see is miles of flat gray sky, with a light, even rain coming down and pooling on the tar roof of the Student Union Building below, a black expanse dotted with a few yellow leaves and punctuated by thousands of circular ripples, and as you walk, the thought that comes automatically to your mind is, "What a beautiful day."

Friday, October 3, 2008

A New Quarter at iTunesU

Since the new quarter is well underway, I've started posting the audio of my lectures at iTunesU. If you want to start the story of biochemistry from the beginning, now you can do so!

(And yes, we do start with Lecture 2 because Lecture 1 is so much review it's pretty non-podcastable.)

Here's the link:

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Not Just For Bears Anymore

A company called Plantware and a team from Tel Aviv University are working to make a "living house" grown out of a tree. They call it ecoarchitecture. Here's a picture:

Oh, wait, that's wrong. HERE's the real picture:

Oops, I did it again. That's actually Alan Lee's depiction of the tree Hunding's Hall is built from in Wagner's Ring Cycle. (Note to self: find more of Alan Lee's pictures of Wagner.)

No, this is really it:

I can think of several pros and cons of the situation. What if you made it out of a fruit tree? Would you then be able to eat yourself out of house and home?

Monday, September 29, 2008

More Walker Percy Quotes from Pilgrim in the Ruins

p. 177: More than thirty years later he described how this discovery dawned upon him at Saranac: "I gradually began to realize that as a scientist -- a doctor, a pathologist -- I know so very much about man, but had little idea what man is."

p. 297 (from his National Book Award acceptance speech): "But since it seems appropriate to say a word about The Moviegoer, it is perhaps not too farfetched to compare it in one respect with the science of pathology. Its posture is the posture of the pathologist with his suspicion that something is wrong. There is time for me to say only this: that the pathology in this case had to do with the loss of individuality and the loss of identity at the very time when words like the 'dignity of the individual' and 'self-realization' are being heard more frequently than ever. ... In short, this book attempts a modest restatement of the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim."

p.301: "When the holy has disappeared, how in the blazes can a novelist expect to make use of it? Holderlin said that God had left us and I think that one can give a Catholic reading that though he has not left us, his name is used in vain so often that there remains only one way to speak of him: in silence. Perhaps the craft of the religious novelist nowadays consists mainly in learning how to shout in silence."

p.344: "The Southern writer now finds himself in the middle of somewhere and not quite knowing where. He's caught between the right in the South and the intellectual herd in the North who profess to be free creative spirits, and yet, all conforming to the same lines, the same hatred and abuse of the things they oppose." (This one reminds me of Juliet's recent posts on Palin hatred on her blog, or Camille Paglia's comments on the same, or the general phenomenon of Bush hatred.)

p.478: "... it is only through, first, the love of the scientific method and second, through its elevation and exhaustion as the ultimate method of knowing that one becomes open to other forms of knowing -- sciencing in the root sense of the word -- and accordingly, at least I think so, to a new kind of revival of Western humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition -- if we survive."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Book Review: O2: Breathing New Life into Faith

So after attending Bethany Community Church for 12 years, I calculate that I've listened to Richard Dahlstrom for at least 400 hours of my life. So when he puts out his first book, I put in an order. Near the end, there's a decription of a week including a council meeting I'm sure I was at. But just around the corner from that, he quotes this blog! Specifically he quotes one of the many posts about Scott Becker from a year ago, when Scott passed away.

I was talking to my dentist the other day, who also is a member of Bethany, and let him know he's in the book, too (two times, in fact).

So it was nice to read, although I had heard 95% in another form previously. I can't really review it, it would be like reviewing a book by my brother or something. So I can just say, wow, that's really cool.

I can also say, I'm looking forward to the second book now, if there will indeed be a second book.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review: Pilgrim in the Ruins

I don't read many biographies, mostly because they have become so long that you need several weeks and a dedicated interest in the biographee to make it through one. There's also the occupational hazard that as soon as you devote so much of your life to reading one, you begin bringing it up for every conversation and your friends begin to get sick of it. So I needed a driving force to be able to make it through this 500-page bio of Walker Percy by Jay Tolson. Thankfully, I have an interest in Percy and don't quite understand him, I recently read two of his books, and I was on a long plane flight in which my Nintendo DS, my portable DVD player, and my laptop had all been commandeered and requisitioned away from me.
I'm in no position to evaluate the quality or accuracy of this bio relative to others, but it did provide the one thing I look for in a biography: it explained where the author's coming from and helped me understand how he chose to live his life. Walker Percy was orphaned young (having lost grandfather, father, and possibly mother to suicide), taken in by extended family, became an agnostic med student in New York, had to quit because of TB, went through a crisis, then converted to Roman Catholicism and married, settling down to become an author only around the middle of his life. He had to choose between pathology and psychiatry in med school, and his writing is best understood as a natural extension of his philosophy. (The alliteration is presumably unintentional.) The book is half done before his first novel is published: there may be a bit too much of the family history and not enough of the intellectual history, but I won't quibble. I'm impressed by the way Percy lived his life, and cared for his family, and lived a somewhat hermit-like existence but still spoke his ideas to the world around him. And that made the bio worth reading.
I need to find a way to get his writing in front of my senior pre-med students again. I've used it once but I'm sure this year he'll make a comeback in my class.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Walker Percy Quote for the Day

I'm near the end of a biography of Walker Percy, and will review it soon. But this quote is just too germane to keep to myself:

Perhaps most interesting was his view of the Christian fundamentalists, "who ought," Percy said, "to be reckoned a friend and an ally but in these peculiar times may not be." Percy feared that the influence of fundamentalists was particularly invidious in the South, where they dominated the airwaves and uttered "the name of the Lord loudest and most often ... In my opinion, they do a disservice by cheapening the vocabulary of Christianity and pandering to a crude emotionalism divorced from reason. I know that St. Paul said that the Gospel was a stumbling block to the wise, but it does not follow that to save the faith it is necessary to believe that the universe was created six thousand years ago. And it is not necessary, to save the integrity of man's soul and its likeness to God, to believe that God could not have created man's body through an evolution from lower species."

One of Percy's themes is how using a word too much cheapens it and ultimately empties it of meaning. This is why Christians don't use Jesus' name to swear meaninglessly ... but do some of those same Christians also cheapen the name by using it too much, and too freely, with respect to physical/scientific questions? Does the fundamentalist take the Lord's name in vain by insisting on absolute literalism in Biblical interpretation?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Review: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Imagine going through Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center (this is easy for me because I just returned from there) and "going back in time" to observe, not cavemen painting on walls, but Mesopotamians drinking beer through straws out of a communal cup. If that sounds interesting to you, and it does to me, then this book is for you.

Covering, in order, beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola, this book steps through world history, explains the chemistry of how the drinks are made, and details their impact on world economies and advancements. I liked it, though it necessarily hews a bit close to the theory that technology drives culture, that the invention of these drinks caused rather than was driven by world events. But that's a conceit I'm willing to put up with in a fast-paced, wide-ranging book like this.

I think this might make for a good chemistry course sometime ...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Put Away the Blackberry

This was a good Op-Ed in the New York Times a few days ago, but I haven't had any time to post it till now:

Basically, it's about the fact that it's not so much the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer in America, it's the kind-of rich feeling much poorer than the very-rich. That's the gap that's really expanding, with the result that the middle-class people feel like they have to work 10 times harder, including working on vacations and weekends, to be able to keep up with the very-rich. And yet they can't, and houses get more expensive, and college gets more expensive, and the middle class ends up back farther, partly only by perception, but partly by the reality of market-driven inflation of house prices and other costs.

So this is why everyone around me seems so stressed out. We're working harder to stand still. I'd like to tell myself, just stop comparing yourself to the richer people who are growing exponentially richer. Psychologically that's a very easy trap to fall into, so this is easier said than done. But it is a choice at heart. There's a secret to being content (and it has nothing to do with the book by that title!), and part of it is willful ignorance of the life of the very-rich.

But then there's the time inflation. If a deadline's coming up at work and the boss expects you to sleep in the office to make it, and everyone else is doing it, you kind of have to, right? And this is where wisdom comes in. I have to tell myself, keep an eye out for alternatives. At the bottom line, you can't buy security by working yourself to death. The tired faces and full schedules around me tell me that, at least at some level, we think we can. Sometimes you have to stop and trust that though this job isn't perfect, it's good enough, and it's more important to go home to the kids.

I don't have many answers for this, but I do think part of this problem is illusion and the other part is social dynamics, and I sense very deeply that it doesn't have to be this way. So I'll be doing my best not to bring too much work along on my upcoming Florida vacation. It can wait. (Easy for me to say, I'm a relatively independent university professor! But I feel the pressures much the same.)

So ... guess I should stop being a hypocrite and go home to the kids now. See ya.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Little Green Idols?

Fascinating post on the Freakonomics blog about the correlations between Bigfoot sightings and UFO sightings. Apparently I live in one of the "hotspots" for both reported phenomena (I knew there was a reason I should hike more!). My favorite quote:
Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Colorado — both U.F.O. and Bigfoot hot spots —
are among the least religious states in the country, which might impact [that is, increase] their citizens’ likelihood of “seeing” both phenomena.

So non-religious people are more credulous for aliens and apemen? Does Bigfoot fill the "God-shaped hole"?

Someone needs to tell Richard Dawkins about this, it'll blow his mind ...

Read the rest at

PS: Also interesting/correlative is that the latest X-Files movie had more to do with the Catholic church and stem cell research than it did little green men or monster-of-the-week stuff (man, I wish I had seen more of the one multi-headed creature ...).

Friday, August 29, 2008

Science Myths

History is starting to frustrate me. That's because for every easily told story about science history there seems to be a deeper, more confusing, less scientifically orthodox explanation. And this is for four major personalities in the history of science discussion.

I've heard:

1.) Galileo's imprisonment was more about politics than geocentrism. Galileo also remained faithful to his idea of God, in his way.

2.) The debate between "Darwin's Bulldog," Thomas Huxley, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce about evolution did not include many of the most quotable parts to it -- those were made up or exaggerated after the fact for effect. (Side note: I was able to visit the room where this debate took place, which is now a storage room at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. It wasn't as big as I had imagined, meaning I had probably exaggerated it in my own mind!) Huxley may have wanted to promote warfare between science and religion because there were too many of the clergy doing science! Back then before grants and all, if you wanted to do science you needed someone to give you money to live on. A few rich patrons supported science, but the biggest patron of them all, the one that gave people money and time that allowed them to ask questions about the natural world? It was the church. Huxley wanted to sever that connection so he could be a scientist without being supported by the church. Looks like it worked.

3.) When Copernicus placed the sun at the center of the universe, it did not imply to everyone that humanity was dethroned. The center of the universe wasn't considered the best place to be -- after all, it's precisely where Dante placed Hell. At the time people were worried because placing the sun at the center of the universe dethroned the SUN! (An excellent talk on this topic, one of the best I've heard all year, is available here in mp3 format or as text here.)

4.) And now, there's even footnotes to the story of Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who was (according to CW) burned at the stake for suggesting the universe was infinite and that there were other worlds. A book reviewed here says he too was more a victim of politics and bad personal choices than scientific censorship. The description of the character from the book sounds like some people I've met: someone who's looking for a fight and then uses science as the weapon. That some of the science ended up being right is actually beside the point. He wasn't burned at the stake for having heretical ideas; he had heretical ideas because he was a misanthrope and was burned at the stake for that.

So, not being a historian and being unable to fully investigate these four claims, I'm left with the sense that some of them are right and some of them are wrong. But even if only half of these are right, there's still some major myths being taught as truth in science class. I'm not talking about evolution, I'm talking about the place of science in the history of ideas, and I think that is more important than the specific biological mechanism of creation.

Chili Peppers are Good for You

Not only is the capsaicin in chili peppers anti-bacterial, it's also anti-fungal and can increase metabolism by changing the shape of a protein pump in the muscles, making it release energy as heat instead of pumping calcium. Is there a hot-pepper diet on the horizon?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Review: Ghostwalk

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott is a semi-supernatural semi-thriller about Isaac Newton and alchemy. One of the revelations of the novel is that Isaac Newton spent much of his life being an alchemist, not really being a scientist. I'm fascinated by this man so I was hoping this book could shed light on him. But it's not really about him. It's about a semi-historical argument that someone committed a set of 5 murders in Cambridge at the time Isaac Newton was there. Trying to be all Da Vinci - codish with real history. And it just doesn't fly.

The author's strategy is to try to recreate alchemy by doing what alchemists did in her writing: by juxtaposing things, allowing time and characters to bleed into each other, etc. It ends up doing what most alchemy did: it makes a big mess.
The accuracy of the history is above par for this kind of novel, and the depiction of a 21st-century research scientist is passable, although I really doubt a bigshot research scientist would have the time to do what he does in this novel while keeping a lab running! Some passages actually work well in spots, and I found some insightful connections and vivid images.
But the dialogue can be terrible. What's supposed to be a white-hot clandestine relationship just seems self-absorbed and pretentious to me. The historical mystery is solved not by deduction but by turning to a medium for connections to the spirit world. The point can be made that there are things outside the usual definition of science -- but it needs to be made better than this.
Maybe part of the problem is that Newton's theology is downplayed. Sure, he wrote a lot about alchemy, but he wrote a lot about theology too. It's just as much of a distortion of his character and his history to downplay that as it is to downplay his alchemical interests.
Is Newton just too big of a man for one person to describe? I don't think I've ever read a truly convincing description of his entire life. I just don't "get" Newton, and maybe we never will.
James Gleick's book on Newton is better than this, as is Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle (I've only read the first book but it covers the same timeframe as this). Ultimately Ghostwalk is just a silly story with an unusual historical accuracy that ultimately doesn't change or illuminate anything.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My Three Sons ... What are the Odds?

I finally found an article that doesn't just assume that each time you have a baby there's a 50/50 (or technically 51/49) chance that you'll have the same gender again. This is a tougher search problem than it sounds, because so many science explainers take the easy way out and refer to pregnancy as a coin flip. Obviously the previous coin flips don't inform later ones. But how do you know birth is a coin flip? I suggest that the immune system + reproductive system + parental choice + environmental factors = something more complicated than a coin flip, something with memory potential. SO ... I finally found this article, which references an earlier one done by actual statisticians:

It turns out there may be a slightly increased chance (up 2 to 6%) of having a fourth boy if you already have three. Maybe not the same for girls, interestingly. I'd guess if we have another child, there's a ~55% chance of having a boy, based just on this survey of actual family birth orders. And that sounds about right: nothing too different from the "coin flip" explanation, but something revealing a system that's more complex and interesting. Personally, I wonder if my NKG2D or MICA immunoproteins might not be involved?