Thursday, July 30, 2009

Two Book Reviews: The Truth about God and Hebrews for Everyone

So I got a lot of reading done on the trip and on the plane last night, and polished off the last of my NT Wright Commentaries (Hebrews -- and by the way, my birthday IS coming up sooner than you may think for the other ones I don't have yet!), and also The Truth About God, a book by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon about the Ten Commandments.

1.) The Truth About God -- I need to read their book previous to this one about the Lord's Prayer. The beauty of this format is that you get all of Hauerwas's trademark mind-blowing wit and connections he makes that you never made before, but it's very short (<150 pgs) and written for people who don't care about the long philosophical arguments and backs and forths that Hauerwas spends SO much time on. Very challenging, very formative, and the best part is, even though NT Wright and Hauerwas have such different perspectives, there's a considerable "mere Christianity" overlap so that reading it alongside the Hebrews book strengthened both of them by resonance.

2.) Hebrews for Everyone -- More of the same from NT Wright, which is good indeed. Near the end it struck me that the author of Hebrews is clearly different from Paul, because there's none of Paul's trademark mixed-metaphor onslaughts, and instead there's a building, more linear use of metaphors about the Holy City, for instance. Could it be Apollos? Whoever it was, was indeed concerned with the Temple, and I don't see how it could have been written after the Temple's destruction in A.D. 70. I really do think most of the New Testament dates from before that event. There's even some fascinating parallels with Jesus' statements near the end of Luke, for example, about how his followers should head for the hills when they see judgment approaching. I love how it all fits together.

Hebrews itself is about the long hard perseverance and faithfulness. This is even reflected in the final chapter (the ethical one, with the do this don't do that motif). Its placement in the canon right before James makes it the perfect bridge from Pauline Letters to the Catholic Letters, it's really a little of both.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Monstah at the End of this Post

This is where I was tonight. The seats date back to 1912 and are much narrower than the seats I'm used to. A big iron post (seen on the left of the picture) blocked my view of third base. And the place was packed of course, so I got to hear about 35,000 people singing "Sweet Caroline" at the tops of their lungs. I abstained because I don't know the words and prefer to keep it that way. By the time time the first inning was over I already got to see the canonical sight: a small white ball going over that 4-story green wall for a home run.

Don't worry, I'm still a Seattle Mariners fan first and foremost. Red Sox Nation does have its annoying parts. But for the baseball historian in me, this was a unique and very much worth it experience.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Review: The Hobbit

So I just read The Hobbit aloud to Sam. It took us just a little over a week to complete, and he got into it. It absolutely cracked him up when, upon arrival at Lake-Town, Bilbo catches a cold and can only say "Thag you very buch." I mean, he had me read it about 5 times in a row and then he wrote a note to himself "Funny part in The Hobbit on page 183," which I then used as a bookmark, despite the fact that he objected because it was a note, not a bookmark.

The version of the book had several full-color illustrations and it was also BIG and widely space type. Sam likes to follow along as you read, and that helps him pay attention.

As an introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien it was perfect. Sometimes it's surprising just how procedural he gets about certain things, and then the major leaps of imagination, like having hobbit doors be round, are mentioned so quickly that you might miss them. Yet that serves to make the world that much more real. It was clearly real to Tolkien.

Reading it aloud, suddenly the poems and songs are things to look forward to rather than skim (although I was much younger when I first skimmed them!). Also, Tolkien's use of alliteration jumps out at you as you read, and that's something he got from his translations of old English and Norse poetry. I never noticed that before.

Mostly, it's just a well-constructed tale and reaffirms to me why Tolkien is one of my favorite authors. I hope the movie does justice to the book.

Now I have to explain to Sam why we have to wait to read Lord of the Rings. But there's always "Farmer Giles of Ham"!

[Update: here is the review from the next time I read the hobbit in 2012!]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ah, Venice!

We only spent a few hours in Venice, but I put the tourist map up on my wall for a few years afterwards, and would watch it, wondering what it was like to live there -- really wondering what the ups and downs are, not dreaming of how perfect it must all be. Here's an article that answers some of my questions, with nice pictures to boot:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fancy Fast Food

You know, I've always wondered if they could do a cooking show on the Food Network where the chefs would have to whip up a dish starting only with readily available pre-cooked fast food. This website basically takes that idea, and then puts the dishes that result on fancy plates so they look like they came from a fancy restaurant. It's very funny ... and who knows, might be useful.

Here's the site so you can see for yourself. The Burger King quiche looks good enough to try.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A New Publication

My latest paper has just been published at BMC Research Notes, an open-access journal, which means anybody can click on it and read it. The best thing about this paper is that it has five student co-authors who helped me get it ready (nice work, colleagues!). I first submitted it in mid-March, then heard back from the referees, resubmitted it in mid-June, and now in mid-July it's published. I wanted to publish it open access, because I think it's most useful to biochemists working with undergraduates, and that often means no money for fancy equipment or fancy subscriptions. So now it's out there for the world to see, and who knows, maybe some undergrad lab out there will use it someday.

Here's the link to the abstract so you can see for yourself (and if lots of people click on it, maybe it will get the "highly accessed" heading above it??):

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Note to Self: Don't Do This

In an article about the persistent conspiracy theory that the moon landings were staged, the following quote is made about that situation that can be applied to a number of other situations:

Ted Goertzel, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has studied conspiracy theorists, said “there’s a similar kind of logic behind all of these groups, I think.” For the most part, he explained, “They don’t undertake to prove that their view is true” so much as to “find flaws in what the other side is saying.” And so, he said, argument is a matter of accumulation instead of persuasion. “They feel if they’ve got more facts than the other side, that proves they’re right.”

I've seen so much evidence of that particular intellectual strategy that I have to say I know a number of those "other groups." And I think that criterion may be useful for the ordinary person trying to decide what or who to believe. Do they spend all their time attacking others? Is there any positive reason to believe what they say? That's one way to tell science from conspiracy theory.

Book Review: Naming Infinity

Naming Infinity is a work of science history. It's a very interesting book and had the chance to be a great one, but came up short by the author's self-imposed limitations. They wanted it just to be history, and that's all it is -- history. And so it establishes an important point, and I guess it's up to the individual to really take that and run with it.

The point that's so important is that, in the early 20th century, it took God to get math out of a rut. Ok, even making that simple statement, I can hear the authors protesting that's not really what they're saying. But it is what I'll say. That's the beauty of blogging.

The outline of this story is that mathematicians were struggling with how to describe infinity (or, more precisely, different kinds of infinities). French mathematicians had made some advances but ran up against a wall, possibly because their Cartesian realism forced them to think about things they could understand and knew were real and concrete. Their "rationality" (need to make "ratios" of everything) left them without the words to describe different kinds of infinity. The people to make the next step were a set of three Russians, all of whom were Christians and dedicated teachers as well as mathematicians. They also had connections to a practice known as "Name Worshiping," which is repeating the short Jesus prayer or even just the name of Jesus until one reached an ecstatic state. Because of the connection to intuitive mysticism and the ability to "name the infinite," these Russians were able to take the next big step in math, known as Descriptive Set Theory.

The story is a strong and important one. What's frustrating about this book is the authors' decision to describe the actual intellectual advances only in the broadest terms. I still don't understand exactly what intuitive leap led to Descriptive Set Theory. They try to make this book for the general reader and include a lot of interesting and tragic details about the transition to Soviet Russia and how it claimed the lives of two of the three Russians, but there's nothing like Brian Greene's descriptions of string theory, when the book really could use it. Now, it's not easy to describe math when thinking about these things has literally driven people insane. But it can be done. I understood Godel's Incompleteness Theorem after reading Godel, Escher, Bach (GREAT book), so I know it can be done. But it simply wasn't, so the reader is left without a true understanding of just what the advance central to the book actually was.

Another frustrating but more expected point is the authors' studied stance of indifference. If Christianity led to an advance in thinking about the infinite, that doesn't mean everything ever put under the umbrella of Christianity is true, but it does mean the idea of a scientist-Christian cannot be automatically excluded, like is done implicitly even in recent articles about the nomination of Francis Collins to led the NIH and is done explicitly and routinely by demagogues in the science-religion wars. It means faith can assist science and get it to new places. Maybe eventually science would have gotten there anyway -- but the evidence is what happened, and what happened is that faith led the way.

The authors even go out of their way to shoehorn in non-religious examples in the end of the book, and that just feels needless. It would be better to explain your main point more descriptively than to include counter-examples to your point to illustrate your impartiality.

The central message, though, is important, and true. God and science can go together, synergistically, even. And that comes across despite the authors' best efforts!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Review: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

I'll start with what Stephen King said: "Here is a book that does the impossible. It combines Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon, and Little Miss Sunshine. This book is a treasure."
I'd say definitely on the last two, maybe a little less of the first, but that by itself is a minor miracle. This book is narrated by a 12-year-old young science illustrator/mapmaker who jumps on a train and takes a trip to Washington D.C. to receive an award from the Smithsonian (and they have no idea he's 12). The science part is clearly not written for or by someone actually practicing science despite the central role it plays in the plot and the character's musings, and for that matter the parts that involve faith are similarly slightly distorted, but for the most part it's just a lot of fun to read and to look at. This is more literature and story than it is philosophy -- that is to say, it's a map, not the thing itself, which is one of the points. There is a wonderful amount of detailed, beautiful data, little maps and illustrations on just about every sidebar. For example, the narrator charts the effects that McDonald's has on his 12-year-old psyche, analyzing it while succumbing to it. This book has the good humor and surprises of Little Miss Sunshine, so much so that a few shocking mood changes enhance that quality rather than detract from it. Most of all, it's funny enough to make you laugh out loud, and well-paced enough to keep you reading late at night. Highly recommended. That is to say, wow.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cool Business Graph: Are We Coming Out of the Funk?

This is a VERY cool graph from the New York Times that manages to show both the severity of the current slump and the signs that we may be pulling out of it. Put the emphasis on "may" and "long time to get out." I'm personally holding off on both refinancing and buying airline tickets because I think things will get a little worse before they get better (or at least the rates will drop and oil prices will drop) ... but for now this is a VERY cool graph!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The British and Bicarbonate

A biology colleague asked me yesterday if I knew why the British put sodium bicarbonate in the water when they boil their veggies. Leaving aside the question of why anyone would want to emulate the British when it comes to cooking, he thought it would have something to do with keeping the chlorophyll green. Chlorophyll is a little net with four nitrogens on the inside that grab hold of magnesium, which gives it the green color that lets it absorb light from our yellow sun so effectively. When you boil vegetables and jostle that magnesium around, sometimes it falls out. How does bicarbonate prevent that?

Well, I didn't know, but I had a book that did: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. This is a wonderful reference that I really need to read cover to cover sometime. But it had a whole section on this.

It turns out acid (positively charged) can displace the magnesium (positively charged), and it leaves a big hole in the chlorophyll, making it yellow. Extra bicarbonate absorbs extra acid and the magnesium stays put, and the chlorophyll stays green. An interesting twist is that copper can displace magnesium too, but because copper's a metal the chlorophyll stays nice and green, so some old cookbooks say you can keep your veggies green by boiling them in copper pots. Very cool and it does work ... except for the fact that copper is a poison!

So there you have it, British cooking is poisonous. (Well, the copper pot version. Actually, I shouldn't make fun of British cooking so much -- I absolutely love tea and bangers and mash!)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Book Review: The Dragons of Ordinary Farm

It's not every day you find one of your favorite authors is trying to be J.K. Rowling. The Dragons of Ordinary Farm is a novel for young adults and a sequel is already in the works. It is set in a remote Californian valley, not a British glen, and it involves a brother and sister with a divorced mom, not an orphan with a scar. But in each case there is a world of fantastic creatures to explore, here, a herd of unicorns and a dragon or two. I know this is written in part as a response and perhaps corrective to Harry Potter, because Williams has admitted that his own first fantasy trilogy (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn) was written in both homage and protest to Tolkien. I know Willams' writing well enough that I can spot the same trends here.

So what to say? It was highly enjoyable and, as always with Williams, very well-plotted toward the end (and, also, a little slow to get going). Some of the siblings-with-divorced-mom seems to be to be trying a bit too hard to be relevant. But I will say that there is a real sense of peril in this book (an exciting sense of peril) which is completely missing (for me at least) until the end of the fourth Harry Potter book. It's a sense that the author just might come out and shock you with a tragic twist ... I never felt like J.K.Rowling could bear to do something truly bad to our main characters (until the climax of the final book or two), so I wasn't ever truly excited by them. This one, I didn't know, despite the fact that I know the author better, and it kept me up more than a Harry Potter book ever did.

So, I always enjoy a Tad Williams plot. The world is not quite as rich as Harry Potter's universe ... but then again, what is? This is a California book, and as such, it simply can't be as "rich" as a British series.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Summer Post about Canadian Snow

In honor (oops, that's "honour") of Canada Day, the New York Times published a bunch of paragraphs from Canadian expatriates asking them what they miss about Canada. I like this one, from one of the writers of the Simpsons:

I miss the snow. Yes, I know the United States gets snow, but to my Canadian eye, American snow is like American health care: sporadic, unreliable and distributed unevenly among the population. In my hometown, Exeter, in the heart of Ontario’s snow belt, punishing squalls were a fact of life from November through mid-April. One time, 39 inches fell on the town in three days — and school wasn’t even canceled. And it wasn’t just the quantity of snow — it’s the speed with which it arrived.

When I was a child, it wasn’t unusual for my 15-minute walk home from school to begin under clear skies and end in a blizzard. I remember once, when I was 8 years old, stumbling into my house, my hair covered in powder and my eyelashes frozen together, and screaming, “Why do we live here?!” My mother took my face in her warm hands and said, “Because it’s where people love you.”

At the time, that struck me as the lamest statement ever uttered by a human being. But today, as I sit under the California sun, it only strikes me as halfway lame, and maybe even less than that.
— TIM LONG, a writer for “The Simpsons”