Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Review: The Moviegoer

Perhaps I was a bit premature in my review of The Thanatos Syndrome in suggesting I was starting to "get" Walker Percy. Reading this, his first, most appreciated novel (that won the National Book Award in 1962), I'd come across pages that were brilliant and pages that were opaque, and I attribute that to my own innocence in Southern literature, Southern place in the 60's, and Southern people. I don't really get those three things and so I don't always get Walker Percy. I'm sure he'd have something to say about that too!
The brilliant pages are just that, bringing together history, science, literature, psychology, place, all together in paragraphs that are too well-constructed to be quotable. Some very funny, light passages too. It seems Percy got less funny as he got older, and a little more straightforward in some ways. In other ways, he laid out his reasoning in this, his first book, and sort of assumes you're up to speed in the later books. Note to self: If author's first book won the National Book Award, consider reading it first, not next-to-last.
This novel's also a dark horse for being included in my biochem seminar some year. It does concern research, medical schools, man's place in the universe, etc., but really a minority of the material is directly relevant. But it would be fun to have an actual literature discussion in that biochem class.
I definitely will keep up on my "Percy project." Now that I've read a majority of his published output I'm getting to the point where I can go back and re-read some novels. But first, on to the definitive biography! I want to find out more about this writer. And sometimes he just plain cracks me up.
Surprising Walker Percy Wiki-tidbit: he was instrumental in getting one of my favorite novels, A Confederacy of Dunces, published. You know, I really need to read that again sometime too.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This Must Be Rock Bottom

How bad is this season for the Mariners? So bad we're a punch-line in The Onion:

This literally made me LOL... the sad part is it's true.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Movie Review: Space Chimps

Don't laugh. Or, rather, do laugh, you will if you see this movie. It may not be worth it without a kid tagging along, but let me tell you, with two small easily frightened boys ... it's a good one. Every year one movie comes out of the assembly-line computer-animated studios that puts everything together especially well, well enough to be enjoyable and even a little too short. Last year that movie was Surf's Up and this year it's Space Chimps. Space Chimps is a little too glib on characterization, but it tackles its characters with such enthusiasm that you don't really mind. It's a little too fond of "chimp" puns, but it has really good ones. It has just enough physical comedy to keep Sam in stitches, and wasn't too scary for Aidan. And it has a GREAT visual 2001 reference for Dad. So it was worth a total of $25 for all of us to go to a matinee. At those prices, you want to research your investment, after all.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Free Americana Music

Katy Bowser has just offered to make her EP free online for download. She's got an interesting voice, a vitruoso guitarist for a husband, and some witty lyrics. If that sounds interesting, visit her Myspace page for the entire album for download:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review: Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo

These translations of three medieval poems by J.R.R. Tolkien give a sense of what it must have been like to be his student. I know he would start his course on Beowulf by walking in and shouting out a loud "Hwaet!" (the first word of the poem, loosely, "Listen up!"). Although there's no Tolkien translation of Beowulf, we do have these three works. All I can say is, I recently read the highly acclaimed Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and I think Tolkien is a better translator than Heaney. I can't put my finger on exactly why; after all, I'm not a medieval scholar and am reading for pleasure. But the vitality of Tolkien's translation, his sense of exactly how to alliterate, enough but not too much, his occasional "hard word" that nonetheless fits perfectly, everything about these translations is just right. And the content is great too. Gawain is a complex morality tale with some exciting action, and Pearl is both sad and deeply theological. (Sir Orfeo is the least of the bunch in length and in quality.) This isn't a side project for Tolkien: this was his academic and pedagogical bread and butter. It was well worth it to sit in this class with Professor Tolkien. I just wish I could find his Beowulf!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Why is the Sky Blue?

The Freakonomics blog had a good guest post about Greenland at It's worth reading the whole thing, but I was particularly impressed by a good explanation of the difference between blue and white ice, why the sky is blue, but most importantly, why skim milk is blue. No word yet on if it explains old-lady hair. (You'll have to read the rest of the post to find the part about eating polar bears, and the locals' skepticism about global warming):

Glaciers are rivers of ice, but there are a number of interesting aspects to this. Glacial ice has its origin in snow that falls during a winter storm. As snow continues to fall on the top of the ice cap its weight compresses the bottom layers squeezing out the air.

About 50 feet of snow depth is required to pack the snow into typical glacial ice. That ice is white because it is full of air bubbles and crystal boundaries which scatter the light — what a physicist like me would call Mie scattering.

It’s the same phenomenon that makes milk or clouds white.

Non-fat milk is much less opaque than full-fat milk or cream and has a bluish tinge. This is a different kind of scattering, called Rayleigh scattering, and is why the sky is blue, and why deep water is blue. The difference between Rayleigh and Mie scattering is the size of the particles.
Glaciers often have liquid water in them — called meltwater. This can either be inside the glacier or can appear at the surface. Once a meltwater lake starts it tends to get deeper because it absorbs sunlight more than the surrounding ice. It is intensely blue from Raleigh scattering.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Quotes from The Thanatos Syndrome

p.85: [A doctor thinking about the epidemic of happy people in his area] "Happy is better than unhappy, right? But -- But what? They're somehow -- diminished."

p.89: "It is not for me to say whether one should try to be happy -- though it always struck me as an odd pursuit, like trying to be blue-eyed ... "

p.339: "I realize that I do not have many thoughts about Canada. Reading Stedmann, who mentions the heroic role the Canadians played in World War I, I realize a curious fact about the Canadians: When you hear the word Canada or Canadians, nothing much comes to mind -- unlike hearing the words Frenchman or Englishman or Chinese or Spaniard -- or Yankee. I realize this is an advantage. The Canadian is still free, has not yet been ossified by his word."

p. 364: "Even if the truths of religion could be proved to you one, two, three, it wouldn't make much difference, would it? One hundred percent of astronomers have discovered that the universe was created from nothing. The explanation is obvious but it does not avail. Who can handle it? It does not signify. It is boring to think of. Ninety-seven percent of astronomers are still atheists. Do you blame them? They are also boring. The only more boring thing would be if all ninety-seven percent all converted, right? It follows that there must be some other force at work, right?"

p. 365: "Do you know why this century has seen such terrible events happen? The Turks killing two million Armenians, the Holocaust, Hitler killing most of the Jews in Europe, Stalin killing fifteen million Ukranians, nuclear destruction unleashed, the final war apparently inevitable? It is because God agreed to let the Great Prince Satan to have his way with men for a hundred years -- this hundred years, this twentieth century. And he has. How did he do it? No great evil scenes, no demons -- he's too smart for that. All he had to do was leave us alone. We did it. Reason warred with faith. Science triumphed. The upshot? One hundred million dead. ... Because almost everyone has lost hope. Christians speak of the end time. Jews of the hopelessness of the mounting Arab terror. Even unbelievers, atheists, humanists, TV anchormen have lost hope ... Do you think that there is a secret desire for it? But you must not lose hope ... Because if you keep hope and have a loving heart and do not secretly hope for the death of others, the Great Prince Satan will not succeed in destroying the world. In a few years this dread century will be over. Perhaps the world will end in fire and the Lord will come -- it is not for us to say. But it is for us to say, she said, whether hope and faith will come back into the world."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A 15-Inning All-Star Game

I don't know why, but I was laughing through the All-Star Game. Not that it was a horrible game or anything, it's just that several things struck me as funny. Since the All-Star Game still doesn't really count for much, it's easier to look at the bad/unlucky things that happen and just find them, well, funny:

-- Seeing so much of underrated ex-Mariner George Sherrill
-- Seeing Ichiro's awesome throw to get Albert Pujols at second
-- Poor Dan Uggla with 3 errors in one All-Star Game
-- Every inning from the 9th on ... surely this will be the last ... surely the bases loaded with 1 out will mean a run will score ... nope!

My only disappointment is that I was hoping to see a position player have to get up and pitch. The game definitely had the right entertainment value for me, just not in the way the organizers were hoping.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What to Get For the Protein Chemist Who Has Everything

I am not putting this up just because my birthday is in a few months:

That site is for a business that will take your protein structure coordinates and etch them into a small crystal block. It's awfully pricy at >$100 for a little crystal paperweight. I can't think of any way to justify a grant to get one of those either. But I could do it for my protein ... that's tempting. And the LED-lit rotating base is cool too.

Gives a whole new meaning to the term "crystal structure."

Book Review: The Thanatos Syndrome

I'm finally starting to get Walker Percy. After reading three or four of his previous novels, and one of his non-fiction works, I started in on The Thanatos Syndrome and thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, a first for me. That's not to say it's a perfect work -- it may be the most imperfect of all his novels -- but it's ambitious, dream-like, and a little off. That made me like it more.

You may have heard of psychological thrillers, perhaps? This is a psychiatric thriller. The main action involves what happens to a community when science meddles with brain function to make people happier. There's clandestine plans, government plots, chemicals in the ecosystem and showdowns with guns. But it's not Dan Brown by any stretch of the imagination. It's not really about the action, or about wacky historical theories, it's really about us and how we should look at ourselves.

As the book unfolds, some of the stuff that happens is truly horrible, and though a few sentences made me laugh out loud, there just wasn't enough humor, not as much as usual for Percy. Part of the plot involves separating people from their self-perceptions, resulting in disconnections of the psyche, so it's too bad the novel is also so messy, because you can argue that the plot itself is disconnected. How can you argue against disconnectedness with a disconnected plot? But what makes it work for me is that the author is a Catholic with an interpretive lens for understanding the entire twentieth century and I'm always a sucker for that kind of ambition. I think he deserves to be heard, even in this post-Cold-War, post-post-modern world.

I read this along with Don Miller's book (see previous posts), and that might be why Miller's book seemed a little too simplistic in its view of human nature. Percy's view is as complex as the South itself (the region that formed him). Next to Percy's daring and broad theories, Miller's, for all his caveats, looks doctrinaire, gentle, and surprisingly mundane. That's OK, really -- I just hope to see Miller continue to develop and tilt at more windmills. Percy wrote this book in his seventies (and died in 1990), so Miller's got time to catch up.

It's hard to recommend this book on some levels, but on others, it's impossible for me not to recommend it. It's easier to understand the cultural references from the 80's than those from the 60's/70's in his other books, so it might be a good "starter Percy", but on the other hand, its major flaws mean it may not be!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Art Review: St. John's Bible and Thomas Tallis in Tacoma

Somehow someone sent me an invitation to the Tacoma Art Museum for the opening of a traveling exhibit on the St. John's Bible. This is the first English-language, fully hand-illustrated illuminated manuscript ever commissioned. The basic idea is to do a Bible with medieval methods but a 21st-century sensibility. What resulted was an impressive art museum exhibit (and lots of books you can buy for varying amounts of money!). One thing is sure, seeing it in person is much more impressive than on a computer screen. The gold shines, the details are sharp, the colors are much more vivid, and the art looks great on the vellum, in person. To tell the truth, some of the calligraphy looked a little CCM-ish to me on the screen, but in person, it unfolded all its dimensions. (That's a good thing.) The top picture above is of the seven days of creation, from chaos on the left to man on the right, with a darkened dove above it all. The bottom pictures is of the crucifixion from Luke. You can get a small sense of the raised relief of the Christ figure from the picture above, but its full impact must be observed in person!

In another room, an artist recorded five choirs singing a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis. Each member was recorded individually, and each track is played over its own specific speaker. The speakers are set in a circle and you walk around, hearing the parts differently depending on where you are standing. It was neat, and a great piece of music, but not really relevatory to someone who sings in a choir and is used to having an imbalance of audible parts depending on position!

It's well worth the drive to Tacoma for this combination of exhibits. We're thinking about if there's chance to go again sometime.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Quotes from Searching for God Knows What

Taking a page from a fellow prof's blog, I'm going to retype quotes that hit me in particular from the books I read, so I have a record of them for later and I think about them as I type them. So here are the quotes I'd like to keep from Don Miller's book:

p.108 "... the most selfless thing God could do, that is, the most selfless thing a perfect Being who is perfectly loving could do, would be to create other beings to enjoy Himself."

p. 160 "When the church began to doubt its own integrity after the Darwinian attack on Genesis 1 and 2, we began to answer science, not by appealing to something greater, the realm of beauty and to spirituality, but by attempting to translate spiritual realities through scientific equations, thus justifying ourselves to culture, as if culture had some kind of authority to redeem us in the first place. Terms such as 'absolute truth' and 'inherency' [sic., which is ironic in itself! BJM] (a term only used to describe Scripture in the last hundred years or so) became a battle cry, even though the laws of absolute truth must, by their nature, exclude ideas such as Jesus is the Word, He is both God and man, the Trinity is both three and One, we are united with Him in His death, because these are mysterious ideas, not scientific ideas."

[I really like this paragraph, but I have to say something at some point that redeems the idea of translation! Some translation is necessary.]

p. 190/1: "If we are preaching morality without Christ, and using war rhetoric to communicate a battle mentality, we are fighting on Satan's side. The battle we are in is a battle against the principalities of darkness, not against people who are different from us. In war you shoot the enemy, not the hostage."

[Combining Galatians and Ephesians in one vivid quote. Nice!]

p. 204: "Lately I have been thinking about the verse in Scripture that says to work out your salvation in fear and trembling (see Phil. 2:12): I take this to mean salvation isn't something you go around feeling sure of, they way you might if you had completed a to-do list. I take this to mean working out your salvation involves a very careful searching of the heart, asking time and time again what we really mean by attending church, what we really mean by reading the Bible, what we really mean when we worship God."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Book Review: Searching for God Knows What

To tell you the truth, I only read this book because they were handing it out free on Father's Day at my church (along with Wild at Heart which I've already read), it was very small and paperback so I threw it in my London luggage, and then I got so much reading done in London I actually got it started while I was over there (last book I started), and once I start a book I will almost always finish it. The ending of something just pulls like gravity once I open that front cover.

So how was it? I was pleasantly surprised. It was better than Blue Like Jazz, which I liked alright, but had the distinct feeling that it was the magnum opus of Donald Miller, in the same way that Pulp Fiction was for Quantin Tarantino. His laid-back, self-deprecating style and focus on his particular Portland community didn't convince me there was enough left in the well for a good second book (really third, but I usually read the author's first book last for some reason!). But this is evidence that there is enough in that well, and in many ways Searching is better than the "big hit" book. To tell you the truth, I only remember three things from Blue Like Jazz right now: the description of a bowl-like geographical feature in Portland, the "confessional booth" at Reed College, and some talk about the narrative function of scripture. It didn't seem to "add up" or illuminate much beyond Portland culture and narrative, emergent theology. This book comes much closer to being a coherent, sustained narrative.

The biggest reason it's better is that literally half the book is actually exegesis. Miller writes about Genesis 1-3 (a big passage for me as a scientist), the gospels, and Romeo and Juliet. I don't buy his theory on the last one but it's interesting enough that I'd like to know more about it, and the book seems to end too early, meaning I want more and look forward to his next book. Miller ties everything together with some social theorizing that isn't really that deep or complex, but is apt enough to be worth thinking about in its genuine criticism of "normal life." (His "theory of everything" doesn't really compare with Walker Percy, whose novel I'm reading simultaneously, so I might be a little harsh on that aspect -- very few people have as well-defined and unique a theory of everything as Percy!)

Miller's most poignant stories are pulled from high school, either his or his friends, and he does a good job of bringing in stories from other people in general into the narrative. I think there are several moments in there that will stick with me for a while. So I judged a book by its cover and didn't think it would be a step forward, but it was. Miller is a lot closer to writing like Eugene Peterson in this book than he was previously, and you know, that's where he should be heading.

They should put a label on this book "Now with 50% more Bible!" Then again, that might not make a Miller book sell ...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

That's Not Paisley, It's a Crystal Structure!

On my last day in Britain, I decided to save the $10 for a tube day pass and walk from my hotel near Paddington Station to the British Library (2.5 miles up Marylebone Road, thanks for asking). On the way I passed the Wellcome Centre, and thought it would be worth a stop-by when it opened. Inside was an exhibition about a brief fad in the design world when artists took crystal structures of minerals and proteins and put them on plates, ties, wallpaper, and lineoleum. Above are plates based on aluminum hydroxide and beryl. Imagine, there was wallpaper on a restaurant wall that was a version of insulin, the protein actually being deployed in the patron's bloodstreams in response to the sugar being ingested at those tables. China clay's atomic arrangement is a particularly nice combination of hexagons and triangles. There even was a white evening dress of "Beryl Lace" made for Alice Bragg, wife of Sir Lawrence Bragg, one of the founding fathers of crystallography. At first it looked like a wedding dress, but I don't think even Lady Bragg would have worn that to her wedding ...

I'm sure Laurie thanks her lucky stars (and her pocketbook) that none of those ties or fabric patterns was actually on sale. Instead I spent 20 pounds on a full-color book listing it all! You can find most of the pictures in the Wellcome gallery at the link above.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Science Surprise of the Week: Parents are Less Happy

Here's an article from Newsweek on the latest official study on parenting:

To quote:

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term "bundle of joy" may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. "Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers," says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. "In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."

This study might be important, but not for the obvious reasons. Let's see, you go through 9 months of pain and discomfort, with an apex in childbirth. Then you have a mewling little thing that outputs several pounds of gross stuff per day, your social life is now anchored to that thing, it catches diseases and makes you sick, becomes a teenager and won't talk to you and wrecks your car, and then goes to college and spends $100,000 of your money on four years of sleeping
through class. Then it moves back in with you.

And that doesn't sound like it will make you happy?

Come on, people should know that if you want to be happy, the best person to do it is you and the best way to do it is to live your life focused on maximizing your happiness. The whole point of having kids is that they're autonomous, which means, surprise, they're not focused on your happiness all the time. So of course I'll do a better job of keeping myself happy than my child will!

This is bad news if life is about accruing a commodity called happiness. So a childless person will report more happiness and well-being. Children wear you out and screw up your life. But is life really about maximization of the Maslow hierarchy? If you're all about self-actualization, you probably shouldn't bring non-selves into the picture. Yet you have a need to do it, despite the occasional resulting unhappiness.

Looking at the paragraph above, remove the pronoun "it" and replace it with "he"/"she"/"him"/"her." All of the sudden it looks different, a less "modest proposal." It looks more possible and more reasonable because kids aren't "its," they're other selves. The benefits of having another person around who is independent of your own desires, these benefits are not measured in surveys of well-being. Parents specifically sacrifice happiness, knowingly (or it should be knowingly), when they have kids.

The point is that real life is centered around sacrifice and not happiness. And this doesn't mean childless people can't be part of "real life," either. I offer the church as an example for how childless people can have family, with all the accompanying happiness-sapping relationships. St. Paul never had kids, but his family was the church. He wasn't necessarily self-actualized or even happy all the time. One day he was singing hymns in prison, but the next he was writing in tears to his Corinithian church because his family -- his source of happiness -- was hurting him. So you don't need to have children to have a full life, but you do need other people. And not to make you happy. You just need 'em.

It's just not about the happy-meter, and the sooner we get over that idea the better off -- even happier -- we'll be.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Book Review: Longitude

Dava Sobel is good at telling scientific stories. This particular one may have been her breakthrough, and it's a good one, about John Harrison's 18th-century quest to build a clock that would keep time accurately on board a ship. Why this was important, and why it was hard, and why at times it seemed that the entire scientific establishment was against it, are all covered colorfully and efficiently in this book.

When I was in Westminster Abbey leaving a Sunday service a few weeks ago (and you know there's only a few times in my life when I'll be able to use that introductory phrase), I looked down and saw a memorial to John Harrison in the stones under my feet. A gold line was etched on that stone, with the exact longitude of that position. The integration of science with that building of faith is one of my favorite things about the U.K. I was just a few steps away from Isaac Newton, to boot.

Sobel's account occasionaly omits part of the human story. I completely missed how and when Harrison passed away, for instance. But she makes the best of a complex situation and a somewhat opaque main character, and so I recommend this book.

The "Lone Genius" of the title is what gets me thinking about broader implications. Harrison did have to fight against a lot of institutional barriers. The lunar-calculation method promoted by the establishment wasn't really wrong, it was just unwieldy. That groupthink stood in his way for about 50 years of unnecessary testing and refinement. Once sailors had a chance to use Harrison's clocks or the establishment's tables, they quickly chose Harrison's clocks.

Try as I might I can't find a close parallel to this situation in current science. If I did I could make some money off it. How and where is the "establishment" wrong? When is someone a lone genius or just a quack? As an American, I can say we're all born and bred to think of ourselves as potential "lone geniuses" (or, failing that, potential American Idol winners). But the proof is in the pudding, to continue the British metaphors. Lone geniuses are few and far between. The freedom to communicate and sell your stuff is crucial to letting lone geniuses succeed -- but it sure does lead to a lot of "noise" in the signal of all sorts of people who think they're lone geniuses but are really just lone.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Book Review: Predictably Irrational

Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist. This means, rather than assuming people always behave in their own dispassionate self-interest, he looks for the ways in which people behave irrationally. His book is called Predictably Irrational because his research attempts to predict irrationality.
This aspires to be a book on the level of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (in fact, at one point it also mentions the Pepsi Challenge, and Ariely's take conflicts with Gladwell's). Although it doesn't quite reach the counterintuitive heights found in Gladwell's books, it's a very easy read and there's a good nugget or so in each chapter. Many of Ariely's experiments take place in the classroom or with students, so I found several points of real-life application. For one, to eliminate cheating, it's best to ask students to sign something that simply says an Honor Code exists (even if an Honor Code does not exist for your institution!). The Ten Commandments will also suffice as a cheating deterrent. Also, you overvalue what you personally own: this is why so many eBay prices are ridiculous.
A few times connections to current morality structures are glossed over. Anyone who reads the Old or New Testament should know that you make decisions differently (and worse) in the heat of passion. The "reptilian nature" of behavioral economists seems a lot like the "flesh" of St. Paul.
The most illuminating chapter in my view was the one about choices, which describes how we will irrationally hold on to "lesser options" and make our lives worse, just for the sake of keeping our options open. Decide and commit -- that's another virtue that comes out of this book.
In fact, this book reads surprisingly like a book of virtues. Not in every case, but close enough, I find that the structures offered by St. Paul or Jesus already incorporate an understanding of the predictable irrationality of us fleshly humans.
"But Jesus did not commit himself unto them / because he knew all men /
And needed not that any should testify of man / for he knew what was in man."