Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Israel and Palestine Can Move Forward?

A few days ago I read this op-ed and I keep thinking about it:

Before and since that op-ed there have been several others proposing various ways to make peace, but this one strikes me as fundamentally different.

In brief, it proposes that the thing that would really mean something to the Palenstinians would be an apology from Israel. And the thing that would really mean something to Israel would be if Palestinians would recognize Israel's right to exist (and change the textbooks, etc. that deny it).

First off, this comes from actually asking each side, "What would you do if the other side did this, or that?" and picking the most positive response. Actual data and conversations with at least representatives of each side.

Secondly, it is based on forgiveness. Apologies and "right to exist" language can be dismissed as empty words, but how else would forgiveness be expressed? And if the words are empty, then just give it a try, if it doesn't work you haven't lost anything material. I think even an empty recitation of the words can pull dialogue in the right direction.

If saying the words is somehow compromising spiritual values or some kind of idealism, I respond that Jesus' words and actions were condemned for somehow compromising who God was, God's "spiritual values," so to speak. That got him tried for blasphemy.

I may be missing something but this seems like something that's just worth trying. Most likely it smacks of naive idealism. And I still don't see how Israel can give up the West Bank given the constant flow of rockets into (and out of) Gaza. I still keep thinking of Jesus' words. Words are worth trying.

Feel free to disagree in the comments.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lockdown during Class Time

Finally something on a local news site about a major disruption at the entire campus where I work:

The long and short of it is we had a campus-wide lockdown when a man robbed the on-campus U.S. Bank branch and fled on foot. This happened about 10:30am according to the article and the lockdown took part in stages: sometime around 10:45 the emergency coordinator in each building was notified, and at 11:04 a campus-wide email was sent notifying everyone of the lockdown.

The catch was that class let out at 10:50 and started at 11:00. Put those two things together and you have a situation where security was locking doors as students were walking from class to class. The strict lockdown rule of no-one in, no-one out meant hundreds of students were locked outside of the buildings. I don't think they felt safe.

Thankfully a few exceptions to the rule were made. A student saw me and several others standing in the lobby of our class building and let us in. Then the emergency coordinator saw us inside the building, outside of the classroom, and told us to go to our classroom. Through the door that was supposed to remain locked under all circumstances, but it was the only move that made sense at the time. It was a little uncomfortable having two classes in the same room (probably a fire code violation!). But the lockdown was mercifully short, probably because the robber was long gone, and by about 20 after the coordinator let us go on with life.

All in all, it worked out OK. I think the coordinators should be given the duty to usher large groups of students into classrooms. Ours did a good job of that, at least.

I think my six-year-old will be excited to know about my day for once. Or not!

(Can college students help in the CSI-type investigation? Please please please?)

Congratulations to Neil Gaiman...

... whose novel The Graveyard Book (reviewed here recently) just won the Newbery Medal! It's a good one. Even Sam liked what he was allowed to hear of it.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Morality in the Language of Barks

It appears that dogs can detect injustice and be upset about it:

(Note that the article calls this "envy" but I prefer "injustice".)

Remember Jesus' parable in which the workers who only work at the very end of the workday get the same amount as those who worked all day? Well, it should be no surprise that the ones who worked all day were upset. Even a dog can detect that kind of injustice.

Just in the case of the parable, it's a graceful injustice, given as a good gift to those who don't deserve it. Being upset may be a natural reaction, but it's still not right!

Wonder what the dogs would think of that?

[This post cannot yet be translated by Google into "woofs" and "barks" for Man's Best Friend, but I expect that capability to happen soon ... ]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Substance and Shadow

"So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ." (Colossians)

If the events, festivals, and stories that happened in "BC times" were completed and fulfilled in Jesus, then Paul accurately describes them as shadows cast from the figure of the cross. What I never thought about before is the role of light in this metaphor. If the shadow is in the past, and the substance was at the centerpoint of history (that is, 30 AD), then where is the light coming from? It would have to be from God's future, the fulfillment of all things, the light from judgment, finding things out and setting things right.

The negative view of judgment is so prevalent that I'd never seen it this way before. But if the second Advent is about finding things out and revealing the way things really are, I think it's appropriate to think of it as a light shining through history, with the prophets and festivals beforehand being the shadows it casts through the cross.

This must be balanced with the fact that the Day "will be darkness and not light", but I think it's a helpful extension to the image Paul gives to those in Colossae.

For me, this is the reminder that a Christian's focus should be on Christ: not on models of creation by the father, or questions of history of geneologies, or details of which festivals and how long and budgets and the like, all things that have their place, but the real substance is the life that was lived, ended, and transformed at the turning-point of history.

To continue this line of thought, should the Gospels be read more often than other books? They are the real description of the centerpoint of history. Does the church become unbalanced when it focuses on another part of the Bible: say, Genesis, or Romans, or Revelation? Or does grace keep things balanced even so?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thoughts on Having a Baby

Everyone talks about how a baby is a gift. Having one just at or after Christmas just cements the idea that this is like a present, unwrapped, tiny, new and untouched. I've heard it so often that the "gift" word almost skates past my ear. But this time it's a little different. We've been waiting a long time for this gift -- 5 years, in fact. And it's possible (nothing's certain) that this is the last time we'll be opening a gift like this. More than anything, I've learned a lot about medicine from teaching biochemistry for six years (rather than just one when Aidan was born). I used to revere doctors more before I taught them (don't take this the wrong way!). I just had to learn about tests and how the body works and what we're able to do and what we're not able to do. Learning more about the medical profession taught me about how powerless it really is in some situations. I mean, most of what happens inside the womb happens automatically, without our input. We can watch and maybe push one way or the other with treatments, but so many systems and organs are being implemented every day, completely beyond our control. I didn't and my doctor didn't sculpt that nose, or that wrinkly forehead, or that flat little ears. I didn't put that placenta into place or carve the channels in it where mother and son meet, or form that yellow hose connecting it to the child -- all I did was cut it with some scissors. I didn't form those kidneys that filter that waste, or the stomach that takes in the milk, or the rooting reflex that brings the milk in. I didn't do any of these things, and neither did my doctor. These were given to me. The body, even this little body that 9+ months ago only existed as two half-cells, is too complex to even think about. My response to this before birth is to worry. My response after birth is to say, wow, it pretty much works after all.

I was amazed at the large Lego sets that Sam got for Christmas, how they always had exactly the right number of pieces. Sometimes I thought they left one out, but that was my mistake, I eventually found it after more searching. Lego can do a good job, but the giver of babies does it one better, a thousand times better. Not least: no assembly required.

Hmmm ... from the smell coming next to me , it's time to go change the gift ...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Second Sightings

Ok, so Mary's awesome and she emailed some pictures tonight so everyone can see that there's a really cute baby there and not some blurry blob. World, here he is! More to come ...

First Sighting

We won't have our camera cable till tomorrow, but I couldn't wait to post a picture of Brendan Scott McFarland, so I took one in a dark room with my cell phone as he was sleeping. The quality is about on the level of those old Nessie pics, but it'll do for now. I'll put a lot more up tomorrow!

Here's the vitals:

Born 1-13-09 @6:31pm

8 lbs 2 oz

20" long

38-cm head (Thank goodness, says Laurie, that it wasn't any bigger...)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell's third book, if you project it onto literary/pop-culture trilogies of the past, is more "Alien 3" than "Return of the King." I liked "Tipping Point" and "Blink" quite a bit, and you know, I alternately liked and disliked this one, but at the end, there's so many self-contridictions and fuzzy analogies that I just throw up my hands and ask, "What's the point?"

The basic thesis of this book is that many things count for success, and most of them are external to the individual's drive for success. Until of course the last chapter recommends abolishing summer vacation and making kids work in school from 7 to 5 to help them succeed more (doesn't that depend on the individual's discipline and drive for success?). And then there's this recent article by Gladwell about teaching, which clearly states that the best teachers are those who teach a year and a half of material in a year's time. Ok, we should identify and support efficient teachers (not make students work harder). But I thought that we should abolish summer vacation? Which is it? And don't say it's both -- the two arguments seem to happen in entirely different worlds.

One of the chapters is about how Korean Air turned around from a company with a reputation for accidents, by working on the air crew's communication, not technical skills. That's taken apart in this article. The problem is, very few people have the background to take apart all of the nine chapters here ... but I'm guessing each of them can be taken apart. The subject (success) is just too broad and the argument is just too sketchy and anecdotal. I'm sure counter-examples can be found in spades for every chapter.

And yet, and yet ... I'm very enamoured with one of his central theses, which is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at anything, and the "innate talents" we see are those who have had the chances to get their 10,000 hours in first. That's worth repeating. But it's not everything.

Gladwell explicitly agrees, he says that it's not everything. But then he implies that it is (with his repeated anecdotal examples that are supposed to encapsulate entire cultures).

I appreciate the anecdotes. But they are not strong enough to overturn entire cultural paradigms. In fact, it's not at all clear exactly what, beyond summer vacation, Gladwell wants to overturn.

In all, count me disappointed. I agreed with most of the individual chapters of the book, but it doesn't quite add up, and some of the chapters cancel each other out. Let's hope in the future we look back on this book as an outlier in Gladwell's output, one of the low kind.

Book Review: Runaways: Dead-End Kids

Although I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (at least not yet), and neither have I watched Firefly, I did see Serenity, and that's one thing Joss Whedon has done. I figured this comic book collection would be a second dose. It's really an X-men multiple-superhero team setup, but with a few twists: all are teenagers who have parents who are evil superhero villains. Joss Whedon took over the characters that had already been created and sends them on a time-travel scheme that ends up in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. So he has a chance to create a whole bunch of early-20th-century superheroes (including the "Yellow Kid," just like that old comic strip), and ignite a big ol' war between them all. It's better than most, with some good lines in there -- but the best reason is just to glance at all those superheroes from another era and imagine their backstories and strengths and weaknesses. Also, some nice historical plotting involving child labor and striking workers and sweatshops and the like. Better than most movies.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Go Gators

Two national football championships in three years! And a good game to boot, lots of back and forth and Sam Bradford was very impressive. Hopefully Tim Tebow impressed some others who've never seen him before. (Weird game for him, but gotta love that jump pass!) And I got to see my personal favorite (Hernandez) pull off some crucial plays just like usual. Now I just have to wait for my fingernails to grow back ...

Now, let's hope this quiets down the people who are arguing for USC and/or Utah. That was a national championship game, no doubt in my mind.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

So I Think I'm Tired Now ...

Last night Laurie (who's pregnant with our third child) had relatively mild but regular and frequent contractions. We brought someone over for the kids, Laurie's mom took off work for the next day and came with us, Mary brought her camera, etc. etc., and then ... we got to the hospital and nothing was really progressing. Two hours of "sleep" later and, still no change, ten hours later (now), still no change, although the contractions keep going on like distant thunder in the background.

So I'm moving a little slowly today, but this is just warm-up for the main event. I don't deal with uncertainty well, I like to schedule things. But they won't let me prescribe Pitocin, even though I AM a doctor ... well, not an M.D., but doesn't grad school count for something??

Book Review: Sun in a Bottle

I haven't read anything by Charles Seife, at least in book form. I recognize his name from science journalism by-lines, but didn't place it. But i'm going to have to look for more of his stuff, because he's very good. This book's about fusion: fusion bombs, fusion reactors, and fusion fraud. Seife himself was involved with the journal that published the latest fusion fraud, "bubble fusion." He actually goes into a little too much detail in that chapter for my taste, mainly in a defensive posture, but overall this book was very interesting and a good reminder of why peer reviewers are so, well, mean sometimes. They have to be when frauds or wishful thinking verging on fraud shows up.

The "cold fusion" wishful thinking/fraud in the late 80's came up before I was into the scientific literature, so it was illuminating to follow that story and see just how weird it all was. "Bubble fusion" was something I actually reported on in one of my senior seminar lectures, for just a slide or two, but I had to take it out when it was revealed to be probably wrong as well. This book is fascinating just for showing both sides of science: science being wrong, and science eventually (although painfully) getting it right.

Mostly this helps me as I write the research paper I'm working on right now, to stick to the facts and avoid even editorializing adverbs. But the stories and the characters are very interesting in their own rights, and Seife has some excellent metaphors in this book: how is laser excitement of atoms like an apple tree? Read it to find out.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A New Year and New Essays

Just some quick notes on the retrospective a blog gives to the blogger:

-- I posted 126 times last year, a little bit more than twice a week. I'll take that.

-- I read about 40 books last year. (Maybe a few more because I didn't start reviewing them here till the spring!)

-- David Brooks at the New York Times has a year-end "best long-form essays" column. Usually I find a few good reads there -- but this year I'd already found them! For instance, that Michael Lewis essay on the recent financial turmoil was his top pick.

-- The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the enduring popularity of The Man Who Was Thursday and its author, G.K. Chesterton. It's a good introduction to him, and I'm going to use it in my next biochem seminar when we read Eugenics and Other Evils.

Here's the link: