Tuesday, December 28, 2010
One of my favorite paragraphs:
Churchill’s real legacy lies elsewhere. He is, with de Gaulle, the greatest instance in modern times of the romantic-conservative temperament in power. The curious thing is that this temperament can at moments be more practical than its liberal opposite, or than its pragmatic-conservative twin, since it rightly concedes the primacy of ideas and passions, rather than interests and practicalities, in men’s minds. Churchill was a student of history, but one whose reading allowed him to grasp when a new thing in history happened.
Is that why the "What's Wrong with Kansas" crowd are mistaken -- that ideas and passions more primary than interests and practicalities?
Read more at http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/08/30/100830crat_atlarge_gopnik#ixzz19RGS8N5B
Monday, December 27, 2010
EARTH AS ART Greenish phytoplankton swirl in the water around Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Originally taken in 2005 by the Landsat 7 satellite, this picture was recoloured by the US Geological Survey for its ‘Earth as art’ online exhibition this year.
Of course, with Tad Williams, there's rarely any doubt that it will come together in the end, just like there shouldn't be any doubt that the "third and final" book will grow so huge it'll spawn a fourth book. Williams always seems to have a good germ of an idea driving each of his big series that you don't really expect. He's matured in his craft with this series, although I still feel like many plot points are made just to tweak the legacy of Tolkien in certain areas: for example, all families are dysfunctional in some way so let's make the central family dysfunctional in some 21st-century way. In many cases it's a nice chance of pace but sometimes it just seems gratuitous, change for change's sake. But really, every author in this genre is forced to keep some orthdoxies while choosing certain heterodoxies, and which should be which is ultimately a matter of taste.
The one thing that bugs me about the series is its theology. It's a polytheistic universe with at least three major cultures. In fact, one of the most confusing things about the series is that the gods all have three different names and the myths are all slightly different, so it's very hard to keep track of when all you have are fragments in the first place. I like the concept and find it an interesting take on our three faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Unfortunately, the underlying reality of it all reads as poorly thought out. Williams seems interested only in the question of whether the gods are, or are not. Not to spoil too much, but it turns out the gods are (in a 21st-century kind of way, but really, they are). And pretty much this is the extent at which you're left at the end of the book (with some hints as to how gods, ahem, resolve conflicts, that is, fight). Only one god really speaks, although there are hints of others, and those hints may be my favorite part of the series, especially near the end. You know, if you're gonna be polytheistic, go and be polytheistic and show us what it's like and how it works. In this sense American Gods by Neil Gaiman still wins my award for "excellence in polytheology." Williams just isn't interested in that aspect of his universe, although it drives everything else, or maybe it got edited out.
Despite this, Williams puts on a writing clinic showing how to juggle at least a dozen different major characters and plotlines, and how to shift scenes and (mostly) keep the story moving. He introduces some good ambuguity and true tragedy into a genre that desperately needs it. This is undoubtedly the best-written of all his books, and it's as well-plotted as any.
I suppose it ends up a bit like LOST for me: excellent at juggling multiple lines and telling a story, but what story is being told ends up not being fleshed out as much as you want. Regardless, I'll happily take it.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
Lilly Ann asked me to comment on Psalms 121 to 134, which were important to her and Herb in the last weeks of his life. These are the “Psalms of Ascent,” short poems that the Judaeans would sing as they took the long, hard pilgrimage to worship at the Temple on Mount Moriah. The first Psalm of Ascent begins by looking at the countryside that Herb loves so much and calling on the creator of the hills to be our personal help: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalms 121:1-2)
Herb was not walking to mount Moriah, but he was ascending to heaven. One of the main points of the book of Hebrews is that an earthly temple is no longer our destination; instead, God has better things waiting in heaven for us. This was Herb’s ascent. In Hebrews, our pilgrimage is to “a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made of hands … “ (Hebrews 9:11). The earthly Temple, the most beautiful building in the world, was but a “shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5) and “a shadow of good things to come. “ (Hebrews 10:1) Herb had the faith to know he was on the road to the heavenly temple and his new heavenly body. Herb knows that the God of creation is the God of his help, the God of the new creation to come.
Paul also knew this. In 2 Corinthians, he encouraged a group of confused, sad, and imperfect Christians, reminding them that the power that created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is at work even in suffering, even as bodies and minds fall apart:
“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of the darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; … Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise UP US also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.” (2 Cor 4:6-8)
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. … For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life.” (2 Cor 4:17-18; 5:1, 4)
Herb’s body in his casket was a shadow of his former self, but that is not him. Herb’s resurrection body will be so vivid and real that we will say Herb in his earthly prime was just a shadow of his true self. Herb knew this and I have to think that’s why the Psalms of Ascent spoke so clearly, describing the mountains and valleys of life, from the joy of family to the pain and fear of a broken world.
(We saw this combination of joy and sadness at work when, just a week ago Friday, we were able to bring Herb’s 12th grandchild and 7th grandson, Benjamin Arthur McFarland, just three days old, to spend a few short minutes in Herb’s arms before Herb continued upward.)
After surveying all of life, The Psalms of Ascent end with worship in Psalm 134: “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.” (134:2) After 45 years worshiping with the choir here, Herb has climbed the mountain to the better tabernacle not made with hands, and now he is worshiping in a light that will never fade, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Let us persevere as he did until we meet again.
Monday, December 6, 2010
2.) The same student told me his dad was sitting on a plane next to a medical student from a big state university in the midwest, and they started talking about how his son was taking biochemistry, and the med student mentioned he was listening to some biochem lectures from iTunesU ... and turns out the med student was listening to my lectures! A good reminder that I have no idea what work the iTunesU lectures are doing while I'm otherwise occupied.
Now, I don't think this particular student who told me these stories was angling for a better grade on the final that I'm going to start grading any minute now ... but you gotta admit these are some good stories!
The title of the book says it all. The thing is, the first chapter quotes Rodney Stark extensively and I kept thinking throughout that Stark would've done it better. However, I welcome actual data applied to actual problems however I can get it. I'm glad it's out there because many of the things the author discusses are cases where the media has distorted some sociological data. However, it just doesn't do enough to avoid being a disappointment. My favorite part of the book was actually a chart from a blog that shows conversion rates from one denomination to another, which tells me that 75% of evangelical youth remain evangelical when they grow up. If that stat surprises you (because many people who have youth-group seminars to sell trumpet stats that are much lower than that, probably to sell tickets to their seminars) then you may want to check out this book.
It also doesn't help that, you know, everyone's a hypocrite in one way or another, so the accusation that Christians are hypocrites doesn't surprise or shock me, or even strike me as needing defending. However, some of the other assertions -- like that church doesn't affect divore rate -- are rightly put to rest in this book. I just wish there had been more of a focus on that, rather than measuring "warmth of feeling" toward other groups in the last half, which I don't find particularly helpful. Oh well.
However, Jordan prepared for this possibility by keeping copious notes and eventually his estate gave the project to another fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, who promptly promised that there was no way all that plot could be fit into 1 book and that he would instead write 3 books to finish the series. Towers of Midnight is the second of the jointly authored trilogy, meaning there better actually be just one book left. The good news is all the threads seem to be weaving together and there very well may be an end to the story in sight.
Towers of Midnight moves along at a positively sprightly pace relative to some of the mid-to-late Jordan-written titles, although even so the beginning of the book felt a little padded. Many times character progressions are told to the reader rather than shown, and I have to think Jordan wouldn't have been quite so forthcoming -- it reads more like Jordan's notes than Jordan's writing sometime. However, my major reaction is a sigh of relief that this saga is finally wrapping up and Jordan's plans are being revealed. Sanderson is competent and that's all I need from this series right now.
In fact, there are a few scenes that are beyond competent and are some of my favorites of the series. For one, there's a place about two-thirds of the way through where three or four conflicts come to climactic fights all at once, and actually overlap and intersect. This is brilliant and one of the things that only a series of this complexity could do. There's another scene in which a magical artifact is used to look forward in time rather than backward, and it shows some very unhappy endings, with some of the most poignant and affecting writing in the series, even presented in a creative narrative fashion. Finally, there's a climactic scene that you know is coming through the whole book because it's on the cover (and it's been coming for about six books now, fer-petes-sake), and it is pretty much what I hoped for, with a very clever twist at the very end that everyone should have seen but no one did (kind of like LOST Season 6). Overall, as a fan but not a super-fan of the series, I'm glad it's continuing the way it is and am looking forward to more of this in book fourteen. Including the words "The End" at the end -- right?
1.) Check out about 7 or 8 commentaries from the SPU library.
2.) Read/skim the first section of the most recent ones.
3.) Keep using the ones I find useful; don't use the ones I don't.
In this manner the 7 or 8 become 3 pretty fast, and that's usually more than enough information for each Sunday class. I taught a Gospel of John class from September to November this year and the winning commentaries were (in order in which I'd read them):
1.) N.T. Wright's John for Everyone (200something)
2.) G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson's Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (2007)
3.) Craig S. Keener's The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2003)
4.) D.A. Carsons's The Gospel According to John (1990)
With the exception being that often Keener would quote Carson and put him into context, so often I could stop with Keener, while agreeing with much of Carson's work.
I especially want to point out how great Keener's work was. Its deliberate focus was on the social and historical context of the Gospel of John, which means he would talk about how that language or official position or whatever was used in Greek and Roman contexts, as well as Second-Temple Jewish contexts, and even the post-biblical Rabbinic literature. For the historical perspective alone this was far and away the most comprehensive, and Keener had welcome pastoral and theological insights as well. I am thinking I may move on to the Gospel of Matthew just because Keener has written a commentary for that too!
Friday, November 12, 2010
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
The universe is a surprising place. A new gamma-ray observatory has found these sharply defined bubbles of gamma rays to appear to be blown out from each end of the center of the galaxy. We're pretty sure what they're NOT -- dark matter -- but we don't really know what they ARE. Is this part of the reason why the rest of the galaxy might not be so habitable? Too many gamma rays? And we KNOW gamma rays turn mild-mannered Bruce Banner into the Hulk.
At the very least, it's a beautiful picture, and a reminder that even with the best observatories we only see through a glass darkly -- even if what we see is dark matter!
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Friday, October 29, 2010
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
I personally was slightly disappointed as the book wore on and Robinson's main target turned out to be Freud. To each her own, I suppose, but I would prefer that we have arguments against the new parascientific writers because those are the ones that are truly continuing. Freud's influence is complex and problematic, and it seems all too easy for defenders of Freud to jettison one beleaguered part of his work while keeping the rest. Regardless, Robinson's arugments are gems, even if they have been fundamentally stated before and will be stated again, they are polished to a sheen by her lapidary prose. Her insights are profound and the book itself is really a sliver of words relative to the torrent in general on the topic. They're all the more powerful for being so distilled.
Ultimately, this book may be difficult but it's worth it, and it's very enjoyable to catch the thousands of tiny allusions Robinson makes with a well-placed word or phrase. The footnotes are sparse and don't tell the half of what she's actually rebutting. I've definitely never encountered anything else quite like this book.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Monday, October 11, 2010
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Matthew Paul Turner grew up in an ultra-conservative Baptist church and eventually became an editor of CCM, the "Contemporary Christian Music" magazine, and this is a book about that. More accurately, it's a collection of vignettes arranged chronologically that are well-written but don't quite cohere -- perhaps coherence is overrated? In any case, I found I had to finish it once I started, and (although I'm biased because of my own background) I found Turner to be much better at the apt turn of phrase and general likability than Steve Almond (author of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life). However, I want more. This book goes out of its way to detail a terrible incident in which the publisher of CCM forced Turner to interrogate Amy Grant about her divorce and not to leave till he extracted an "apology." The thing is, that's about the only story about Turner being an editor. That incident can't be entirely typical -- if it was, I have a hard time understanding why he was even in that job for any period of time and also how he could survive with his faith intact in any form. His faith is intact at the end of the book, although changed to be sure -- but the book never gets deep enough to let us see what and why. There's moments of deliberate vulnerability that make this book special, but I still feel like I have no idea why Turner lives life the way he does, and what the whole CCM thing means to him, if there's anything good in that industry at all. Another area is the whole way youth groups talk about abstinence and CCM singers are almost forced to be white-washed tombs by the system. That's fascinating and tragic, but the alternative system offered by the mainstream media doesn't seem to be more successful. The thing is, the warts-and-all Christianity you have here is funny and right-on with its depiction, but the alternatives are not put to the same test. I'm sure Turner has this in him, it's just the book seems like it was forced to be "funny vignettes like Blue Like Jazz" and it does not feel complete. Well, Turner has other books out there and I will be reading them -- he has a gift as an author. I just think it's better to think of this book as a long magazine article than as anything approaching a "real" book. It's a blog post, not a manifesto or complete philosophy. I'd just like to know, how DO you put it all together then?
Oh, and Turner's blog "Jesus Needs New PR" is great too, possibly suffering from the same incompleteness, but I don't expect completeness from a blog.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
If you put eggs under a UV light they will glow scarlet. The same pigment is what makes earthworms purplish, and it is very light sensitive, meaning it's why earthworms fry in the sunlight (say, after a good rain when they come out).
More at this link. I sense a future biochemistry demo!
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
-- The Magician's Nephew is surprisingly funny.
-- The Last Battle is ... not.
-- There's a point where an animal dies during the Last Battle that is just so sad that it snuck up on me and choked me up. Lewis was walking quite a line here, in that he was writing about death for kids. I tend to therefore give him a break when my own 21st-century sensibilities think he went a little too far one way or another. One thing about the story is that it certainly moves right along, too.
-- Speaking of balance, you shouldn't mention the depiction of Emeth without the depiction of Tash, nor the depiction of Tash without the depiction of Emeth. Either character by itself is incomplete, you need both, and be skeptical of any critic or pastor who quotes one without the other.
-- The Last Battle becomes a lot better of a book if you don't take it as allegory, but if you take it like Lewis insisted you should take it, as a story of God at work in a different world in a different way. In a world in which God's son is manifest as a lion and physically present, then a deception can be built on that manifestation to destroy and corrupt. Interesting to think about what that means for why God seems so invisible/distant (to modernists, at least).
Friday, September 17, 2010
Peter Barham, a physics instructor and food science lecturer, describes his hobby of combining cooking with science in this book. It explained quite a few things I did not know, and I've been teaching biochemistry for almost a decade. On top of that, it gave me test questions and an idea for a new lower-division course about biochemistry with labs in the kitchen. The book is straightforwardly written and generally does a good job simplifying complex situations. I especially like the way Barham describes the trade-offs that make certain kinds of cooking (puff pastry, souffles, etc.) so tricky, and then he describes how to avoid those trade-offs. An easy souffle? I think I'll have to try that one myself.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
"Christianity has abandoned its intellectual traditions, ceding that ground to anybody in a white coat. Where it has tried to muster courage, it has too often tended to become irrational and shrill. Meanwhile, a great age in true science, an absolute catalog of wonders, passes by unnoticed."
She lists some wonders in the last question and mentions cosmology and the microbiology of gut bacteria. I agree!
Friday, September 10, 2010
Here's a great quote:
The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way. No response was as peculiar as the Greeks’, however: anyone who had spent even a few days talking to people in charge of the place could see that. But to see just how peculiar it was, you had to come to this monastery.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
In particular, Kugel brings out the A-B sentence form of Biblical poetry, and brings out some of the signficance of this particular form. This surprised me in that it has deep ramifications even for the natural theology that's always on the back burner in my reading. Also, I never realized just how deep "wisdom" literature is, which also has impacts on my writing ideas. So, I'll just say "more to come."
Thursday, August 26, 2010
The thing is, the fourteenth century may qualify for the "Worst. Century. Ever." award. The Black Death hit in the middle of the century, the Hundred Years' War was going on, and a whole bunch of kings were in power that quite frankly didn't know what they were doing. The Church was no help, having long since ossified into just another power structure in most places, and splitting into two rival "universal" churches in the Great Schism, each with its own pope. As a Christian I find this history unsettling but also very important -- if the Church made those mistakes then, how do we keep from repeating them?
Tuchman is an expert's expert and one of the best teachers I've come across. If this were a complete review I could go on for paragraphs about what she did right in this book. All the glowing comments made online about this book are true and I can't add much to them. But I'm going to talk about the one thing she missed. In the middle of the book she describes in detail a story related by a 14th-century writer named La Tour Landry about a husband whose wife was mistreated and killed by strangers, and the husband cuts up her body into twelve pieces and sends them to his friends to call them to come and attack the strangers. Tuchman uses this story to typify the 14th century -- and she is right that it tells us a lot about the 14th century -- but the story doesn't come from the 14th century. Its details (down to the twelve pieces) are taken from the story of the Levite's concubine at the end of the book of Judges, and the 14th century author must have derived them from that text, which apparently he knew better than us (I only know it thanks to Frank Spina's Weter lecture about that story a few years back!). The story is wholly appropriate to the societal breakdown and rampant evil in the 14th century -- but it was also appropriate to the time of ancient Israel before the kings, when "every man did what was right in his own eyes." Tuchman doesn't show any sign of recognizing this obscure and violent story as originally scriptural. I just wonder what happens if we realize that the 14th century is a distant mirror of the time of Israel's judges as well as our own time. It actually makes the story of the Levite's concubine make more sense to me, if there are times, awful times, in history when society really gets to that point, and if the 14th century was not entirely unique.
It's not that this book is lacking in those kind of connections, because there simply isn't room for them. This book is an incredible example of how to write history and it's the reader's job to make connections with other centuries. But this story and this type of century was already old when Jesus walked the earth, and I have to think that his life can offer us solution and salvation to even the darkest centuries that humans can devise. So in the end, this gruesome story, because it is retold in the 14th century, paradoxically gives me hope, hope that the horrible things that happen are not new under the sun, and that God is not surprised by man's depravity -- and that somehow these old, old stories and sayings can reshape us into a people who are shaped by that same God and called out from the messes we keep getting into on our own.
The book review is: excellent work of history, and the connection I made to the book of Judges is only possible because Tuchman did such a good job.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
The first clue that this book would be better than expected is the opening scene. The Book Nobody Read is a story about an academic's work compiling a census of all first and second editions of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus, the book that proposed that it's the earth that moves around the sun despite appearances and scriptures to the contrary. Unexpectedly, it opens in trial like a Law and Order episode in which Gingerich must testify about whether a copy of De Revolutionibus was stolen or not. The epilogue ends the book with a visit from the FBI, also about stolen books. Gingerich is a professor of the history of science, and here he tells the story of compiling his census from the early 70s to the turn of the century. His several visits behind the Iron Curtain add a bit of Cold War history to the 16th-century history of the census and its annotations. Who knew that marginal notes could be so illuminating? From time to time the book veers into the realm of too much detail for someone outside of the field, but on the whole Gingerish expertly weaves the narrative of history with the narrative of the academic's search for truth. More scientists should write books like this, because behind every bit of science or history there is a story of how that science or history was found out. This book is exhibit A in my contention that the best way to teach science is through story. Recommended.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Perceptions of a tattooed college instructor.
128 undergraduates' perceptions of tattoos on a model described as a college instructor were assessed. They viewed one of four photographs of a tattooed or nontattooed female model. Students rated her on nine teaching-related characteristics. Analyses indicated that the presence of tattoos was associated with some positive changes in ratings: students' motivation, being imaginative about assignments, and how likely students were to recommend her as an instructor.
Apparently I should get a tattoo to bolster my student evaluations.
I got the story from:
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Monday, August 9, 2010
Ignoring that hyperbole, how good is the book? Atkins's perspective as a physical chemist is unique, and when he's called upon to explain thermodynamics or other chemical subjects he does an admirable job as should be expected. He also throws in the occasional lapidary vocabulary word to remind the reader that he is A Writer of Great Renown (in case you forgot the blurb), and more often than not you can find a well-turned phrase that works in context on each page. It is well written. The problem with this book is in its organization. It starts with evolution and works backward to mathematics. Clearly Atkins wants to avoid the typical "unfolding of the universe" ordering of the book and there are advantages to his arrangement, but it ultimately doesn't make sense to the reader because ... I'm not sure why he has the chapters in that particular order, and often he has to foreshadow that "we'll talk about that in a later chapter." Without an overarching narrative it seems a collection of essays, or textbook chapters, and not the kind of thing the general reader would stick with. Also, much of the explanation is too dense and not lively enough for the general reader. As a teacher of physical chemistry I got several ideas and examples (and noticed several repeated from his textbook!), but I don't see how a general reader could plow through the complicated molecular biology as explained by a chemist in the first chapter. Often the technically accurate term would be used when what the reader needs is a metaphor.
Another aspect underlying the book is Atkins's general philosophy of materialism and naturalism, a faith which he shares with Dawkins. Thankfully he's more about the science than the "scientific" moralizing, and so there's only a few preachy passages, but in my opinion Atkins is a better writer and clearer thinker than Dawkins, so his critiques of any attitude other than scientific materialism are more on-point. Not that I think he's right or that he surprised me out of my theism with any of his asides, in fact, when he comes to the fine-tuning of the universe and the inadequacy of the multiverse to explain it, he comes right up to the point of acknowledging the limits of his philosophy and then changes the subject.
I can see why this book (published in 2003) hasn't seemed to enter the popular lexicon when a more focused, better organized, more entertaining book like Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe is better known. Sometimes the sales figures (and the Nobel Prize award patterns) actually do reflect reality.
Friday, August 6, 2010
There are two possible audiences for this article: preaching to the choir of fellow scientists convinced of the evolutionary mechanism, and convincing those who may be open to intelligent design and faith (two different things, mind you!). The science is not strong enough to convince someone who's open to an intelligent designer. On this count, Francis Collins's example of how the vitamin-C-making enzyme is messed up in the human genome is much more convincing than a laundry list of maladies caused by genetic mistakes. Avise's argument often seems to be "things aren't perfect and therefore they can't have been designed." But theology has always known that the world isn't perfectly functional, and any design must have been messed up at some point. In fact, you can't get through the third chapter in Genesis without finding some hint of this. Any ID proponent would just lay the blame for imperfection at some other point, probably the Fall. Imperfection is not an argument against design, because "only God is perfect."
Occasionally there's an interesting bit of data buried in the irrelevant catalog of disease, especially in the citation of a paper showing that as human gene complexity (measured as number of introns) goes up, likelihood of that gene causing a disease also goes up. This is the dark side of Behe's "black box": complexity has a cost. How much, where, how? This is the point to emphasize, not the fact that disease can happen. Everyone knows disease can happen, but saying disease MUST happen because of complexity, that's an interesting point.
One of the other points that follows is that cancer may be a direct consequence of complexity. After all, slime molds don't get tumors, and as complexity builds, so does cancer. (By the way, sharks do get cancer, so don't go for all those shark anti-cancer claims; but I wonder if they get cancer less than humans, and if so, if cancer susceptibility may be correlated with biological complexity. Just a thought.) If biological complexity causes imperfection then that fact should be talked about in light of theological doctrines like the Fall.
The underlying point of this article is subjective, and ID proponents will be all over that subjectivity. It's not that there are flaws, according to Avise, it's that there are "so many" flaws. Yet there's few enough flaws that humans continue to survive, live, love, etc. How many is "so many"? Is the genomic glass half-empty or half-full? "Approximately 0.1% of humans who survive to birth carry a duplicon-related disability," writes Avise, but that doesn't sound like a debilitating, unexplainable imperfection. It sounds like common experience, or actually a bit better than common experience.
The similarity of bacteria to mitochondria is hit upon late in the article. I think that's a much stronger point but it's submerged beneath the easily deflected points. That point gets its strength from the fact that God is not deceptive, and that's an excellent point to make. It convinces me. The main point Avise makes is much weaker: that God made some things that aren't perfect, and, well, that should be kind of obvious to anyone and therefore it will not change anyone's mind.
The big underlying problem with this article is its definition of health. Apparently any disease, suffering, or imperfection is an argument against God, and wouldn't it be nice if we could blame evolution instead? This is the modern cop-out; instead of "the devil made me do it," it's "I'm a victim of chance." Christians who worship a God who came to Earth in order to suffer in this imperfect world have a ready-made defense for this, that imperfect is solved not only by us "fixing" it to make it perfect, but also, even moreso, by compassion, with its root of "passion"/pain, feeling the pain with the other, not eliminating imperfection but somehow participating in it as you're praying against it. Sickness is evil and when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away, but in the meantime, we're in a clearly imperfect world. Avise offers to solve that imperfection by pushing God out of the system, replacing Him with a cosmic casino of blind chance, and that will not fly with either Christians or ID proponents (again, not necessarily one and the same!).
The article ends with a proposal to "return religion to its rightful realm," just another in a long string of "get off my lawn!" comments by scientists who claim to be accommodating faith while arguing that it doesn't really matter. Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria live.
To be clear, I am intrigued by the hints of new scientific arguments in this article. If it can be shown that complexity necessarily correlates with disease (especially a horrible disease like cancer), then that has a real contribution to make to this discussion. But such strong points are too submerged beneath an exterior that appears conciliatory but is actually theologically unsophisticated and a case of deism in sheep's clothing. Come on, fellow scientists, we've got to do better than this.
Friday, July 30, 2010
As an aside about the WWII memorial, it is incoherent and jumbled, but I think that just makes the architecture of the moment more suitable for a truly global conflict. I don't think it throws off the emptiness of the Mall. The Mall's still really big. (Rule for DC: Always allow 15 extra minutes for walking anywhere.)
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Gospel of John is obviously different from the Synoptic Gospels, written as if the others were already known to the reader, with long discourses and detailed dialogues. A lot of scholars of the historical Jesus variety are skeptical of John in particular as a result, but I'm reading a book by Richard Bauckham now that turns such thinking on its head. He points out that John is the only gospel that contains direct eyewitness claims by the author. It's also the only gospel with a prominent anonymous disciple, the disciple who Jesus loved, who is pretty clearly the author. One of Bauckham's claims is that the John who wrote this gospel was actually John the Elder, not John son of Zebedee, and I'll review that argument when I finish the book. But the striking thing that deserves its own blog post is Bauckham's point that, if anything, John makes more claims to eyewitness account than the supposedly more historical gospels, and beyond that, at two crucial points, the author steps out and directly addresses the reader, both at the crucifixion and near the end of the book:
34 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. (John 19)
30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20)
Compare this anonymous author directly addressing the reader in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, and note how different it feels:
"Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over.  But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home.  But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord ... " [Raymond Brown's translation]
One of the questions is, whichever John wrote this book, why did he keep himself anonymous if speaking as an eyewitness was so important to him?
(And it was important, consider John 1: 14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." and 1 John 1:1 "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life." From a certain angle, these verses reflect a historian's and scientist's desire for touching and knowing directly. It is integral to the message of the gospel and can’t be explained as a superficial apologetic maneuver.)
The anonymity of the author seems to be the only way to show how he was there without drawing attention away from Jesus. “He must increase, I must decrease,” put into action in the very writing of the gospel. At two crucial points John steps out and (still anonymously) emphasizes his role as witness – not to magnify himself as author, but to put the question to YOU, the reader. John is saying “He is why I'm doing this and you are why I’m doing this” without using the I (like I so clumsily did just now!). Maybe the pale-imitation gnostic gospels can get away with using “I” and “me,” but the author who wants to say “It’s all about Jesus, not me,” does so most effectively by avoiding the first person (except in plural at the beginning and end of John) and, sparingly but effectively, employing the second person to say, this is about you and Jesus. It’s not about me.
And now I will use the first person too much again.
It’s very easy as a blog post to put myself into it. After all, these are personal reflections, and it goes along with the genre to do so. There’s possibly nothing inherently wrong with that. I just want to note that it’s very easy to make it “all about me” and perhaps that is the greatest temptation of the author.
It’s not just the gospel of John. The other gospels are third person, and most of the stories in the Bible are third person. Off the top of my head, I think of prominent first-person usage (outside of quoted dialogue) in poetry (the Psalms, the Song of Solomon), and in the letters (Paul’s and others’, although I’ll have to think about 1-3 John in this light and the beginning of Revelation). First person is OK, but sometimes there’s a point to be made by avoiding it.
It looks like John did just that, and very effectively so. It’s all about Jesus, not John. “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Thanks to Francis Lam for the heads up.
Monday, July 19, 2010
(Interesting PS: What do we do WHEN a topic gets to big for one person, or at least one book, to handle? How do we have a fair debate in that case?)
Let me reiterate: I think Evans is right. It's just that I think he's right from what others have written more than what's in this particular book.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Monday, July 12, 2010
The newspaper-article level is about the level at which I can understand this, or understand enough to know I don't understand it. It's not a mathematically rigorous theory, which bugs me. But there's one reason I'm interested. According to my recent reading including RJP Williams, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy!) drives the development of life of earth. If I am intrigued by that idea, I'm also open to the idea that entropy drives gravity as well.
Here's my question: how does "spreading out" bring things together? Isn't gravity "negative entropy"?
Obviously this is still on the level of physics, but when it can be discussed on the level of physical chemistry I could be very interested. I may start poking around the literature on this.
You have to pinch yourself every few pages to remind yourself that this really happened. You couldn't make this stuff up. The serial killer is truly frightening and if you're bothered by real crime novels, YOU WILL BE BOTHERED by this.
On a side note, I really wonder what is the point of the cultural fascination with the serial killer. When you look close enough at one to figure out how he ticks, you find a blank abyss looking back at you. You find evil. For all this book's detail, I still don't feel like I know what made the killer tick, why he did things, expect perhaps as a very base form of idolatry. It didn't provide many new insights on evil, except to remind that it is very, very real.
The shortcoming of this book is that, at 400 pages, it still feels short. Larson wrote it just right, but I want to know more about what it was like at the fair. More pictures, more on the exhibits!
If you can take the description of pure evil, this book has unique rewards and the Museum of Science and Industry will never look the same to me again.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Book 3 of 4 in The Auralia Thread is good. Really good. The one thing about Book 2 is that you could sort of expect a lot of what would happen, because that's what happens when you deal with an archtypical story like beauty and the beast. Raven's Ladder, on the other hand, has surprises and twists that I'd love to talk about but instead want people to discover them on their own. I am really looking forward to Book 4, which I know Jeffrey is writing right now.
There are four houses and each of the books so far has focused on one of them: this one focuses on House Bel Amica (which has some uncanny resemblances to Seattle itself). Before we had glimpsed some of the belief-system of this house and it struck me as absurd yet appropriate, a social critique on a level you don't ever find in this genre. Now that we see all the aspects of House Bel Amica, the people in charge have become quite a bit scarier. There's one particular dark scene ("Auralia's Followers") that takes the experience to a whole new level. The amazing thing is with all this going on, the people of Bel Amica are never exactly demonized, they remain tangible and nuanced throughout. Now, as for those mysterious string-pullers and scientists in charge ... well, we're just starting to see what kind of no good they're up to.
More than anything, I like what Jeffrey does with the expectations of the reader in this one, and that's why it's so hard to write about, because if I tell you your expectations will be challenged and possibly overturned, you'll be wondering how. One thing I can tell you: you'll be kicking yourself for not catching the clues. And that's all I'm saying.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Jonah's problem is his picture of YHWH is too typical; he thinks that by getting outside of YHWH's jurisdiction he can dodge the sentence. Since he's asleep when the storm comes, we get to see him the moment that he realizes that YHWH is still there (even in international waters). What does he say?
“I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
I think that Jonah realizes at just this point that the message he's been preaching all his life is true. As a prophet of YHWH he undoubtedly teaches that YHWH made everything. At this moment he unpacks that abstract theology to find the practical upshot inside: if YHWH made everything, he is in charge of everything too, and he is everywhere. And it's kind of stupid to try to get away from the creator of everything on a little ship.
At this moment we see Jonah make the move from creation to omnipresence (and omnipotence). He moves to a position of absurd trust, telling the sailors to toss him overboard, which seems like a death sentence. Who knows whether he expects to be saved or not at this point? He trusts that God made the sea, certainly, and he probably just wants to get away from the sailors so they aren't collateral damage when he's taken out. I have to wonder if there's a glimmer of possibility in his mind, if he's wondering whether he'll be saved to fulfill his calling somehow. One thing's for sure -- I'll bet he doesn't expect a fish. (No one expects a fish. Or a talking donkey. But again, that's another story.)
This practical change of direction is what a doctrine of creation is for. Not to prove God's existence by prefiguring a physical correlate of the ancient Hebrew story, but to provide a foundation from which the rest of theology logically follows, from the "omni" words all the way to the specific person of the Messiah. Not to give you something to argue about while others yawn -- something to make you realize that you're wasting your time if you try to run away from YHWH's call. This YHWH is no provincial god. The proof that he is creator of all is not buried in the rocks, it's evident in the events of your life, through which he will pursue you until you make the choice to trust that He will save you, whatever your circumstances.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
The treatment of Rahab in particular, when contrasted with the insider Achan, helps the whole book of Joshua to make sense to me. It's all too easy to caricature Joshua as a military, genocidal book, when the focus on Rahab and Achan shows that Israel isn't about race or ethnicity. Spina brought Joshua back to me. (By the way, his Weter Lecture from a few years back is an excellent and absorbing treatment of "the war of the concubine" at the end of Judges. Most people don't even know about that story because it's one of the darkest in the canon. But Spina shows what that story does in his talk.)
I'm genuinely surprised to see some bad reviews for this book out there, like on the Publisher's Weekly blurb. It is so obviously a good book to me that all I can say is, those reviewers must've had some bone to pick. Most of the reviews are good, and most of the reviews are right.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Anybody want to go there? I'd love for a biochemist to travel to Titan, it would only take a few years. Ok, maybe a decade. And there would be no feasible way to return. If life could happen that looks very different from water-based life on earth, it still almost certainly would have to take place in a liquid environment, and Titan provides that. My hunch is that even simple life could not exist on Titan, but I'm not sure. Who wants to go take a look?
Monday, June 28, 2010
Then the grant came in, and we started to work on the project, and ... it didn't work. What was supposed to be working was just giving us more of the same. The second summer of research, I spent about half of it puzzling over strange results of things that would work for other, novel reasons, until we figured out we were stupidly using spoiled antibiotics. Entirely my fault, too.
At points like this you have to have faith that something will work out eventually. The zeitgeist would say "you have to have faith in yourself." But that's not really a scientist's faith. Sure, you can make some brilliant connection, maybe, and you can work hard and get successful results, usually, but a scientist does not have faith in the self. Having faith in myself would have meant that I kept using spoiled antibiotics over and over again. Rather, the scientist has faith that at some level, the world is an ordered place. The faith I'm talking about is faith that what's wrong with the situation is not nature but the experiment.
On the surface, experiments mess up all the time. Undergraduate research is an exercise in frustration, because by definition you are doing something new and so when something goes wrong, is it because of your technique or the controls or the fact that you're doing something new? The scientist sticks with it at that point and trusts that there is an order to find and that the right experiment done well will reveal that order.
This is why monotheism led to science. The polytheistic world was unpredictable and chaotic, rolls of the dice and competing gods determining whether your family would have food or whether you'd win in battle. But one God who made everything in six orderly days meant that nature obeyed God when he spoke. If God gave humans some of that authority, then we humans could also interrogate nature and eventually get an ordered, sensible answer back. And that's worked out pretty well for us as far as iPods and polio vaccines go. On the other hand, thermonuclear war. But I digress.
Scientists sometimes pretend it's easy, as if it's our unparalleled brilliance that squeezes the answers out of nature. But if nature didn't have an underlying order in the first place, organized experiments could never get consistent answers, and we'd be better off figuring out which powerful being was ticked off today and bribing that god with a sacrifice. In fact, that exact polytheistic system developed many times over.
The scientist's livelihood depends on an ordered, responsive, knowable universe. Every scientist knows that most experiments don't work, but that's not that universe's fault. It's ours. And then, once in a while, you figure out the order of the universe, and then you can do whatever you figured out seven hundred times and you'll get the same result. I don't know about you, but I'd look at that fact and call it good.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Go ahead and skip the comments, however. Something about comments brings out the people who get pleasure out of typing "LOST was bad"; at the same time, few comments are made about why so many people watched it for so long. Remember how a few posts back I mentioned that the comments were an example of the Internet working like it should? Well, this is the opposite.
Was Harry Potter this way? Because I feel like Harry Potter explained things about as well as LOST, and I don't remember this general vitriol toward the series after it ended.