Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: Watership Down

Rather than review this book as a wonderful work of imaginative literature (which it is), I just want to note how it works as a read-aloud book. My six-year-old was not into it -- the occasionally page-long descriptions lost him -- but the 8-, 13-, and 15-year-olds listened well. Then, just when it seemed to be a bit too literary for the kids, Adams would throw in a story about the mythical rabbit El-Ahrairah, all of which are fun and some of which are very funny. It may be the most brilliant use of story-within-a-story I've encountered (and I include Hamlet in my consideration). The best part? A few days after we finished it, I found my 13-year-old reading it again, because he was going to write a speech on it for school. He read the whole thing again in a few days. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Review: But What If We're Wrong?

I'm generally in favor of pop philosophy, because ultimately philosophy is always worth talking about. In this book, essayist Chuck Klosterman tries his hand at actually following the cliché "question everything." If you can take it as the low-key conversation that it's meant to be, it's enjoyable. Klosterman is at his best when he talks about music and movies, which is his wheelhouse -- he used to write for Spin, after all. When he veers into science and history, his status as an outsider means that he's more interviewing others than thinking on his own. Not much original in those sections. The one thing I'd like to propose is that an area that's too overlooked now that may produce works of future importance is an area that Klosterman himself overlooks: theology. It basically gave us Sufjan Stevens and I know there's more artists like him who could be discovered. But my point is that this is an interesting question to ask from anyone's perspective, and if more people ask this same question the way that Klosterman does, or in more depth, I would welcome that.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book Review: Babylon's Ashes (The Expanse Book #6)

(Spoiler-free review) In the six books of The Expanse so far, we've been through every subgenre of sci-fi that I can imagine. Babylon's Ashes mixes in extra doses of political intrigue and genuinely thrilling space battles. It's the details that really make it sing, and the humor. One political chapter is just a minor character going through a series of meetings, but it may be my favorite talky chapter since The Council of Elrond. Another involves a minor scientist character under interrogation whose courage provokes a surprise. The climax is so well-plotted that it takes a scenario that in the hands of another writer might be a letdown, and then turns it into a set of cliffhangers that kept me up hours past my bedtime. This book is mostly concerned with wrapping up the second trilogy of Expanse books, and doesn't have the major turnarounds of most other books, so it's average for the series, which means that somehow, after six books, this story is still excellent and far above comparable fast-reading realistic sci-fi.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

I'm faced with a dilemma: how do I interact on a deep level with a book that challenges a central tenet of theology when I listened to the book as a free audiobook? One thing's for sure: I'm not going to be able to give a coherent contribution to this debate, so I'll settle for bullet points! Better yet, listen to Thomas Oord read his own book for free by downloading the book here, then join the conversation.

-- When I met Tom, I knew right away that he was a theologian to take seriously, because his very manner is not too serious. He exudes grace and life. This aspect of his personality shines through in his book. Tom argues that God's love comes before God's power in everything. Which includes his ability to control the natural world. God's nature of love makes it so that He cannot stop certain evils from happening. Tom makes it clear that God is still "all-mighty" and that miracles happen, but that God's love prevents him from coercing anything created because love comes first in the nature of God.

-- The word study I appreciated most was of the word "kenosis," which literally means "emptying," but Tom's preferred "pouring out" is better. This fits very well with Robert Spaemann's definition of life as being that "which exists in itself and pours itself out." Pouring is a dynamic process and there's lots to unpack for a chemist in that very definition.

-- Chapter 2 is an excellent summary of randomness and chaos. I think I may use it in class someday.

-- Tom's argument is fundamentally that God is near, being active in the very regularities of nature. That the regularity of nature is itself a manifestation of God's faithfulness. This is a fundamental tenet of theology that we have lost somewhere along the way, and this book helps us recover it.

-- I have several "what-about" questions: What about the Trinity (it's more implicit than explicit)? Why is explanation of evil so important when a large majority of evil is explainable, especially if we consider the risks we willingly take on when we move through this regular universe? (Tom refers to an example of a rock through a windshield, but I think this is a consequence of the technology that allows our soft bodies to move so quickly down the road. Expecting God to stop every fatal rock would be "putting God to the test" as much as Jesus flinging himself down from the Temple parapet.) He writes about Scripture and power later on but I think that should come earlier because it is so prevalent a theme that dealing with it feels tacked-on in so short a book. For example, when Jesus says "All authority is given to me in heaven and earth" what does that mean in terms of uncontrolling love? And most of all, what about the resurrection and eschatology?

-- Ultimately I agree that God is near and God is love. Tom's solution may be rooted too much in a modern view of the universe. Justifying evil events involves causation, and causation itself has become a slippery concept, and which makes blame and explanation slippery as well. Tom writes about chaos theory and the unpredictable results of small events, but then he comments that we may soon know more about chaos theory, when chaos theory says these things are by definition unknowable. This is where I wish I could engage exactly with this section, because to me chaos theory is like the uncertainty principle: it's not that we can eventually reduce the uncertainty but that the uncertainty is by definition irreducible. I don't think we'll ever know more about chaos theory in a way that would address that question (but I'm not sure from listening!).

-- What if this theology makes us more fearful? There is no fear in love. But uncontrolling love at first blush makes me more afraid. Is that my failing or that of the theology?

This is a thought-provoking book that is good for Christians to talk about, as long as we keep all our conversations grounded in the truth of both books (nature and scripture) and as always permeated with love. If we do that God will be there among the two or three gathered. In that spirit I look forward to the conversations that will result.

Movie Review: Song to Song

I almost didn't watch Song to Song last night. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is one of my top-10 films, but To the Wonder and Knight of Cups tested my patience too much between their moments of transcendence. The only thing I really remember from Knight of Cups is Natalie Portman's searing performance and that was about 10 minutes of the movie. I remember nothing from To the Wonder except a few images. (I enjoyed the IMAX Voyage of Time but in an entirely different way -- mostly because I could take my kids to a Terrence Malick film!). So, I had Song to Song from the library for two weeks and I almost didn't watch it.
I'm glad I did. Song to Song is not the masterpiece that The Tree of Life is, but it doesn't try to be. It has a strong enough plot and more importantly strong enough performances from all four leads to carry it through. There's enough similarities between the "post-Tree" films that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups seem like rough drafts, pointing toward Song to Song as the finished product.
The cameos from various musicians and the songs from all types of genres help color in the corners, too. The musicians are more real than the actors sometimes. The real center of the movie to me was Patti Smith, who tells her story of loss and sings a beautiful song about God.
Ultimately, this movie is a scattered journey through a moral universe. In fact, I feel like the morality is a little too open-and-shut, but I much prefer that to the wandering solipsism of Knight of Cups.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 3/3)

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing Lucy count so many things and ask the question why they happen. She won the science fair by counting and writing down what she saw, after all. She’s good at it.

But sometimes Lucy goes too far and says things that sound pretty ridiculous! Here’s one example:

(It might help to know that today we call a “man-made moon” a “satellite”, so Lucy is talking about satellites. I was confused myself on this at first!)
Q: What’s wrong with what Lucy is thinking here?

A: Here’s my list:

1.) The satellite isn’t falling toward the Earth (it actually is falling, but the Earth is falling too – it’s a long story for another time!).

2.) It’s so small that it would burn up if it did start to fall toward the Earth.

3.) It’s so big that it would cause a problem for more than just one poor little dog if it did make it to the Earth!

You can tell Charlie Brown is thinking at least one of these things.

Here’s another one where Lucy makes a different kind of mistake. 

Q: What is Lucy’s mistake?

A: Lucy knows what a lava formation is and what one looks like, but again, she chooses a complex explanation when a simple one will do. If Lucy wanted to test her driveway, she’s find out soon that it’s only a little bit like an ancient lava flow.

At this point I wonder what tests Linus could do to show Lucy that their driveway is not an ancient lava flow. If you start thinking about these things, that’s thinking like a scientist. It’s all about arguing based on evidence of the things you can take apart.

(Or you could just decide to laugh at the comic strip and move on. That’s good too!)

Here’s a third kind of mistake that’s different from the last two. 

Q: What is Lucy doing wrong here?

A: The Earth does not revolve around Lucy! It’s not a good idea to put yourself at the center of anything. But sometimes it’s simpler to talk as if the sun rises rather than the earth spins. Or you can talk like Sally in this strip:

This next strip may be my favorite. Lucy is wrong, wrong, wrong, in every single panel. You’ll recognize these from the song “Little Known Facts” in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

But here’s my main point: Even when Lucy is wrong, she’s always thinking like a scientist. That means she can be proved wrong and learn the right thing!

Since Lucy is a fussbudget, she’s making it up and enjoying the “authority” of science for a second. Once Linus is older, he starts to take things apart and put them together for himself, and he thinks more like a scientist too. Then he joins Charlie Brown in realizing when Lucy’s explanations don’t add up.

This works even when the cartoonist, Charles Schulz, thought the wrong thing. What do you think of these comic strips?

Schulz heard in school that no two snowflakes are alike. For many decades, that’s what scientists said and what students learned.

But recently a scientist at Cal Tech named Kenneth G. Libbrecht found a way to grow identical snowflakes in the lab. So much for that idea. Also, as that last strip shows, even if two snowflakes were alike, how would you know?

The story that “no two snowflakes are alike” is probably not true, but when Charles Schulz wrote his comic strips, it was something “everyone knew.” Charlie Brown says “it’s the truth” but, actually, Lucy’s right. It’s more of a legend.

So, you see that thinking like a scientist isn’t so simple, and you have to do it differently at different times. It’s not a simple game like checkers, it’s more of a complex game like chess.

Scientists say a lot of things. Once in a while, like Lucy, they go too far. But in those cases, you can be a scientist yourself by asking three right questions.

1.) Ask “What did they measure or count?”.

Sometimes, like Lucy counting twelve suns, a scientist can measure carefully, and then get the explanation wrong. But their measurements are usually right.

I trust a geologist who looks at rocks, counts the chemicals in them, and says they are billions of years old. (That’s chemistry and I can check some of it myself.) I trust a paleontologist who measures dinosaur bones and puts them in order. They can also pull DNA out of living animals and read information off of that.

2.) Ask “How many scientists are saying this?”.

If, like Linus and Lucy counting snowflakes, two scientists have found the same thing, you can trust it more. There are times when a lot of scientists are wrong, but the way they find out they’re wrong is by measuring or counting something new, not by arguing over the old measurements.

Thousands of geologists and biologists think that our planet is very old. I agree with them and with the thousands of scientists who think that every living thing is related through evolution. We can talk about all the reasons why when you’re older, but for now, this is what I think after decades of thinking about it. Evolution adds up and makes sense of how animals, plants, and even minerals work.

Through it all, I’ve kept an open mind to God’s sudden action in making life. That’s because I’ve seen His action in my own life – even on the day you were born.

I know God can work any way He wants. It looks like God made us in a way that we can understand, looking back. We can follow along through billions of years of evolution from the evidence, learn how He did it, and even control some parts of it. He gave all of that history and possibility to us.

3.) Ask “Is this a question science can ask?”.

This boils down to asking the question at the beginning of the first letter: “Is it something I can take apart and put together again?”. We can take apart a lot of things: computers, chemicals, bacteria, rocks, even things that were put together long ago, like old fossils or very old DNA. In this way we can take the past apart and put it together again.

But I cannot take you apart and put you together again. Only God can do that. When you were born, after five years of waiting for you, I couldn’t claim that I did very much at all in putting you together. God did that, and then He gave you to us. I thank Him every day for that.

The love God gave me for you on that day is like the love Linus showed to Lucy when she couldn’t count her blessings. Science cannot measure that love.

On your first day, God gave you breath and opened your eyes. He did that on this day, too. He gave you the gift of waking up this morning, of the food you ate today, of the videogames you played, and of the minutes you’re taking to read these words.

I know as a scientist that some of those gifts came through the oxygen in the air and the sugar in the food and the electrons in the electronics, because I can take apart the chemicals in them. Those gifts came through the atoms, but the gifts came from God.

There’s so much more to say, but this is enough for today. We can only think so many thoughts in one day, after all. (Which might be one of the reasons why the story of God creating the whole earth in Genesis 1 is so short!)

I wanted to take some of God’s gifts to me and use them to tell you about His gifts to you. It can get pretty mind-blowing, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple.

Every bit of life is a gift from the Maker of Life.

That means air, food, dinosaurs, DNA, the moon, the sun, others moons and suns around other planets … You can’t put your arms around God’s love. You can’t measure its size, because it’s too big. You can’t measure its speed, because it includes every second of every day.

You can trust in the world to act the same way when you take it apart. That too is a gift from God.

You don’t have to be afraid of what you’ll find when you ask questions about dinosaurs or DNA. Even when we refuse God’s gifts, He forgives us because He is love. So be bold and explore the park by the creek. (Just be safe when crossing the creek!) Take the things apart that you can take apart. Breathe in every bit of air God gives you. When His time for you is done, He will hold you in His arms even then.

Today He’s given me the chance to hold you in my arms. That is the best gift in the world and it is all that I need.

Love, Dad

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 2/3)

Let’s talk more about why I think Lucy is the scientist in the Peanuts gang. In the last letter I showed you how Lucy won the science fair. Can you think of other comic strips where Lucy acts like a scientist?

Of course, since Lucy’s a bit of a fussbudget she can be kind of an annoying big-sister scientist. But I still think she’s a scientist at heart.

Here’s one that shows how much Lucy cares about watching the world around her very closely:

Q: What word did Linus use that probably made Lucy mad?

A: Linus calling the bugs “stupid” didn’t help that conversation start well. I think when Lucy looked at the bugs she was probably counting them.

I say this because there’s many other comic strips where Lucy carefully counts things in the world around her.

Or, at least she tries to. She counts the stars:

Then she counts the raindrops, although she may be a bit over her head with this project:

Then she counts the snowflakes:

Linus can count the snowflakes, too:

Q: Do you think that 13,000,004,003 is the right number of snowflakes?

A: If Lucy said it by herself, I wouldn’t believe her, but Linus got the same number. I wonder if it is the right number?

When two different scientists do the same experiment and get the same result, I’m much more confident that it’s the right result. If they’re both counting snowflakes and they get the same number, then they’re more certain that it is probably the right number. So it’s always important for scientists to talk to each other and see where they agree and disagree. And everyone knows Lucy’s not shy with her opinions.

Lucy’s always counting something. Like a scientist, Lucy counts how many times she’s “fallen in love” with Schroeder:

Lucy counts the electrical outlets in her house:

Here Lucy counts how many times she beats Charlie Brown at checkers:

But sometimes Lucy makes mistakes in her counting. Here she tries to improve her position to count the stars better:

Q: Can you think of a reason why the chair won’t help Lucy count more stars?

A: I’d say the distance to the stars is so big that the chair doesn’t make any difference.

Here’s another set of strips where Lucy gets an explanation wrong, but I think she’s still thinking like a scientist thinks.

Q: Can you tell what’s wrong with Lucy’s counting in this next series of strips?

A: I think Lucy’s problem is that she’s trusting too much in what her own eyes see! She won’t listen to Charlie Brown, who has a simpler explanation. It’s simpler to have one sun than to have twelve, with a new sun being made every day. After you count and make careful observations, you still have to listen to other people. Lucy still needs to learn to listen, in this area and in many other areas as well. So do I!

There’s one more way that Lucy thinks like a scientist and it gets her into trouble. It’s hard to count the things you can’t see. Think about what Lucy is trying to count in this comic strip:

Q: How does Linus help Lucy count her blessings in this? Does he help her count something she can see?

A: Lucy’s problem isn’t that she needs to count better. She needs to know that her little brother loves her (despite all the fights they have). Linus is right. That is the right thing to say.

When you say this to your brothers, it gives life to my heart too. Lucy needs to see and count her brother, and that’s what really counts here.

So Lucy is a scientist at heart because she likes to look closely at the world and count the things around her. This helped her win a science fair. Lucy is good at counting. She gets the right answer (or least an answer that agrees with Linus’s answer) when counting the snowflakes.

Sometimes she can have the right answer for one question and still get something wrong, like with the sun and Charlie Brown. But she’s wrong because of what happens after she counts. Her counting is still right.

In the last letter, I’ll tell you about some of the strips where Lucy plays the scientist. She usually gets one thing right and other things wrong. Those are some of my favorites, and I think you’ll laugh at them, too.

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 1/3)

Note: This letter is for a first-grade student. Click here to read a similar letter that I wrote for my high-school son last October. (Since I have four sons I have two more chances to get this right!)

Dear Brendan,

I heard your favorite class in first grade is science. I’m so proud that you’re interested in the same type of class I teach. As you learn about scientists, I thought I’d let you learn something from me about what science means to me. If you want to really understand science, you have to know how to listen to scientists. It’s like if you really want to understand how God works, you have to listen to Him (in the many different ways that He speaks!).

So to understand science, first you have to understand the words scientists use. You’re learning the words scientists use in science class. Sometimes the words are long but that can be part of the fun. Then the real fun begins, when you use those words to look at the world around you.

A scientist can take the world apart and put it back together again, like a LEGO set. It’s great fun, but there are some things that you can’t take apart like that. (For example, you can’t take God apart, right?) It’s hard to tell “what you can take apart” from “what you can’t take apart.” I’m not always sure which things are which myself. But this is also part of the fun of science -- you’re never quite sure.

To really understand science, you have to understand scientists. I’ve watched you read through our Fantagraphics Peanuts comic books. I think one of those Peanuts characters is surprisingly close to being a scientist, or at least thinking like a scientist: crabby big sister Lucy, of all people, thinks like a scientist!

It’s OK if you don’t think of Lucy as a scientist. I only just realized it myself. Let me show you why I think this:

For one thing, Lucy plays at being a psychiatrist with her “Psychiatric Help” stand. But she actually does science at one point. Did you know that Lucy is the only Peanuts character to win a science fair?

It’s true! First, she looked at the world around her and decided which part of it to study (click on it to read the whole thing):

Of course, I think you should ask him (and us) before you run any experiments on your little brother. Linus isn’t exactly happy to be Lucy’s science project, but Lucy takes charge:

Then, Lucy starts her experiment and takes careful notes, like a good scientist:

Then Lucy reverses what she did and sees something change. She writes this down, too:

Did you notice how much Lucy is enjoying what she’s doing? Yes, she enjoys annoying her little brother, but, other than that, it seems like she really likes science. Once Lucy finishes her experiment, she makes a poster and presents her project:

Q: What do you see on her project that the other ones don’t have? (Other than a sighing little brother.)

 A: I see more words and squiggly-lined graphs than on the other projects. It looks like good science to me. Notice the ribbon. Lucy won first place!

 On the other hand, Peppermint Patty is not quite the scientist that Lucy is:

Q: Which do you think is the better project? Why?

A: I think Lucy ran a good science project. Peppermint Patty’s wasn’t as good.

But you can make it better!

Q: Maybe you can come up with a better project to run with toast? How could you do that?

I think you could come up with a pretty good project if you did it like Lucy:

-- changing things one by one,

-- watching closely,

-- writing down what you do, and

-- measuring it.

It doesn’t matter so much what part of the world you’re looking at. You could experiment on a piece of toast, or on your little brother, or anything inbetween. (Just be sure to be nice to him, and pay him with candy or something, please?)

What matters in science is that you do your experiment back and forth, many times, and measure what happens carefully. In this story, that’s exactly what Lucy did.

Even without this story, you could tell that Lucy’s a scientist at heart from other comics. Did you know that there are many other comic strips where Lucy acts like a scientist? I’ll tell you about those in the next letter.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: A Tale of Seven Scientists and a New Philosophy of Science

I feel like I'm coming late into a discussion already well underway by reading this book, and it's a fascinating subject. How does science work? Here Eric Scerri asks that question in the context of how the periodic table was built (one of his specialties). In freshman chemistry, this is taught through the Great Thoughts of a few Great Thinkers: Planck, Bohr, Fermi, etc. But Scerri tells the story of seven other thinkers who thought other thoughts. The Great Thinkers cobbled their own thoughts together from these other seven scientists, who in some cases were wrong in everything but one creative thought, and in other cases weren't even really scientists. In all cases, the seven scientists of the title were more or less forgotten, to the extent that Scerri had trouble even tracking down a photograph of one of them.

Scerri makes a convincing cases for the unique value of the small contributors, and of the creative potential of being wrong. I want to teach the periodic table this way, but it would only be appropriate for advanced students or an in-depth, focused course at the lower division, because you need more bandwidth to be able to follow the wrong turns and almost-there-but-not-quite theories. If there's a way to do it with students in general, I'd like to figure it out, because it's the way it happened.

The larger implications are what's particularly interesting here. Since the discovery of the periodic table worked this way -- smeared out over decades and dozens of thinkers -- what does that say about how science in general works? One thing's for sure, it's not through abrupt Kuhnian paradigm shifts. Scerri points out early that not even Kuhn proposed the absolute kind of paradigm shifts that are given his name in current discussions. Rather, Scerri enlists Kuhn himself to promote science as a more gradual, evolutionary process. Priority conflicts are manifestations of a convergent evolution of ideas. Since convergent evolution is one of my own personal fascinations, I'm only too happy to apply it to scientific knowledge as well (yes, yes, observer bias, I know!).

This is where I start to feel like I'm missing part of the conversation, having not participated in the "Science Wars" that have apparently raged over the past few decades. I'm with Scerri up to the point that he starts talking about truth:

"Similarly, I suggest, scientific theories evolve in order to adapt to the particular times that they exist in, rather than in order to conform to some objective or 'out there' criteria of eternal truth. To the extent that one can speak of theories describing the 'truth' it would have to be that theories provide the best description of the world as it happens to exist at a particular point in time." (p.191)

This gave me cognitive dissonance because it sounds so much like the ending of C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, which is the part that gave me the most trouble in that book. Both authors sound awfully close to saying we get the truth we ask for, which is very close to saying truth doesn't matter as much as what we ask for. I'm not able to go there.

"Scientific knowledge is never right or wrong, because it is not proceeding toward an external truth. It is driven from within, essentially by evolutionary forces, which look back to past science." (p.196)

I object. Just because we don't know the future doesn't mean we don't hypothesize about what will happen. Such projection into the future is part of what makes us human. I realize that this hardly ever happens in a pure form, but overall results on science are not completely determined by the past + random walks. Some projection and expectation must be taking place, and isn't that expectation more likely to be fulfilled if it is "right"? Some extrapolation must occur, and that implies that something true is "out there" that is being dis-covered by experiment. Of course, on the next page Scerri states "This is not to say that the world does not constrain our theorizing. ... But ... the scope of our theories is not determined by nature in advance of our inquiring about them." (p.197-8)

This is where is starts to sound like the constraints on evolution, like I talk about at length in A World from Dust and which also overlaps with Terrence Deacon's absential knowledge. The question seems to be whether the constraints are to be identified with the truth, and whether they are loose or tight. (I think "yes they are" and "pretty tight", by the way, both for evolution in biology and of scientific knowledge.)

In the end, this book presents a view of science that I like, and that is engaging to talk about and teach. It feels like some arguments go all the way back to the ancient stoics. Science works in some ways like a living thing. We make a lot of mistakes and think a lot of wrong thoughts on the way to getting to the right ones. We do a disservice to history when we turn a few men (and it's usually men) into the Great Thinkers while ignoring the smaller ideas they built from. Not shoulders of giants, but the shoulders of humanity.

I think the crucial difference may be whether the reality inside our heads corresponds exactly to the reality of outside our heads. I think it does, and so I'm comfortable with a lot of truth claims in a way that Scerri is not. I also have a higher view of language than Scerri does, and wonder if our "pre-linguistic" ideas (p. 210) aren't truly ideas until they are codified and communalized with words, if words play a part in the origins of thought and consciousness.

But I don't know if my beliefs in these two areas had a particular negative role to play in the Science Wars. That wasn't my war. Maybe I'm unknowingly wading in where angels fear to tread even now. Whatever, this is fascinating history and fun to think about, let's ask these questions.

The bottom line is that Scerri says that we should study how science works not through analytic philosophy but through the empirical investigation of how particular scientific theories were made. I am fully behind this bottom-up mode of investigation. It's not just more accurate and less prone to observer bias, it's also more interesting to study real people rather than abstract ideas. In general, this is the way forward, and more studies like this will help us figure out these big philosophical questions that we haven't yet figured out. One's reach must exceed one's grasp, after all.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

(Completely spoiler-free review) It's a little unfair of me to give this novel three stars. I enjoyed it as much as the previous four novels in the series, most of which earned four stars. It has the same technical detail, emotional realism, respect for all types of human experience, and surprising blockbuster events as the previous ones. In fact, you could argue that the events in this are bigger and more impactful than anything else that's happened in the series. Actually, that's my complaint. The story has gotten too big, and the sheer size of the story requires some plot convolutions and pacing issues that weren't present previously. Also, so much tragedy occurs in this episode that it's hard to be entertained by it. But you better believe I'm still holding myself back to read the next one ASAP. In the long run, Nemesis Games deftly sets up the last four books in the series and maintains almost everything I liked about the previous ones, so it's pretty miraculous in just doing that. I also like how the politically marginalized are given a detailed psychology and politics of their own in this. If I could give three and a half stars I could, but this is the best I can do to express my very slight disappointment.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Review: St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton

I read this book not because I wanted to know more about St. Francis (that was a bonus), but because I wanted to observe how Chesterton structured his biographical sketch. It's cherry-picking at its best, because you know going in that it's cherry-picked. Chesterton, as always, is best at the big picture and worst at the details. I found Chesterton's sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas to be better, but there were many memorable bits in this one: Chesterton's theory for why the Dark Ages were so dark, his ability to show the real point of the miraculous so you don't get sidetracked arguing what doesn't really matter, and his argument that Francis's mirroring of Christ goes both ways are all worth the price of admission. This seems to be less dense than his other work, which makes it faster reading but also leaves you chewing on his statements a little less . Good middle-of-the-road Chesterton and what it was lacking (slightly) in content it made up in inspiring me to write my own biosketches someday. Maybe you can write your own too?

Book Review: Gwendy's Button Box

This one was over too soon. King and Chizmar (although it must have been King because he started the story) tell a story about a box that is the perfect blend of mystery and power. You want to press the buttons and find out what happens, but you're also afraid of it -- although I want more detail. The central character is believable and grows up convincingly through her interactions with others -- although I want more detail. The whole story is an entertaining contrivance, without much weight to it, like the button box itself. It's also well-crafted -- I had no idea it was co-written till it I found out through an interview at the end. If this is the product of King co-writing, then he should co-write more.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book Review: Real Artists Don't Starve

It's a little hard for me to review this book because it's a little too familiar. As I've worked on writing over the past few years, I've collected stories about original artists and how they made their art (Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules for Writing are still stuck next to my computer). I read about the Inklings and Jim Henson, and Van Gogh and Michelangelo. In this book, I see many of those same stories collected and put together in an engaging, easy-to-read package, and I'm glad to see how much I've forgotten. Goins also adds some other stories I hadn't heard before, especially from the music business. One of the problems with a book like this is that ultimately it's a lot of things that worked for other people, and the exact same thing is never going to work for you. But as far as mildly myth-busting books go, this is a good one. Artists need patrons, and marketing isn't an inherently bad thing. This book is a welcome collection of reminders of those things we should already know but have somehow forgotten.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn is book 4 of the Expanse series, and so much happens in each book that I've learned not to even read the synopsis of the next one till I finish the last one. I'm not sure if this is the best yet but it's certainly in the running, and it's a complex debate because each book is so good. My spoiler-free high points were where evolutionary convergence saves lives (that's a big thing of mine, taking up about a chapter in my own recent book) and how the epilogue turns a satisfying denouement into a harrowing harbinger of future chaos in a way that makes perfect sense but I never saw coming. My only wish is to have the characters be a little deeper: part of this is that the plot is so break-neck and inventive that there's not much time for character, One emotional arc in particular (Elvi's) is so much less than it could be. But I only detect that upon introspection after the fact: while reading/listening, these books are the most substantial fun I've had since the heydays of Michael Crichton's best work.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

I always read books in order, but I would recommend reading the notes at the end first for this book. That's the only place where you find out that this is not really a new Crichton novel, but an old one, about as old as I am (mid-70s from what I can tell). Knowing that would make me more impressed at how developed his style is for such an early work: how fluidly it reads and how rapidly it unspools the plot. It would also be clear why Crichton shelved it, despite its completeness. There's just not quite enough here to justify its publication, despite all the action. Crichton is edutainment, with the emphasis on the "-tainment," but his best books bring out things you never knew and never thought of before. There's nothing here that rises to that level, although cameos by some famous characters are fun. You learn a little more from this than you do taking a ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but it is pretty fun and it's an ultrafast read. I anticipate in a year I'll have trouble remembering if I actually read it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: The Discarded Image

There should be a genre for "Books that are Like Sitting in that Professor's Class." If so, this would be a prime example of the genre. If you want to hear C.S. Lewis speaking about the subject he knows best -- the medieval mindset -- sit in this class, and find out not really what the medievals thought, but more how they thought and what they saw when they looked up into the sky at night. As I was reading this book, I attended a concert of 14th-century Gregorian chantels in Notre Dame. I thought it'd be Gregorian chant, like in that 90's radio song, but rather it was lively music with words as densely packed as the Hamilton concert. It felt more like music by my favorite band than echoey "church music." This sense of life and feeling intensely comingled fits exactly with Lewis's explanation of medieval literature. It's really that mind-opening. At the end, Lewis goes out on a philosophical limb a bit, and makes a very good point about how we see the things we want to see, but honestly, takes it too far. Still, given the liveliness of the period that is so scorned by others, I understand why he wanted to push back. And I'll even go so far as to say he's right, although the way in which he's right is better described by Owen Barfield (speaking at his best) than by Lewis himself. Regardless, this is what education and learning is about, and at the very least, it'll help medieval music concerts feel like present-day music to you, and will give you "medieval-colored glasses" through which to contemplate the world around you.

Book Review: The Spaemann Reader

I picked up this book to read one essay, Spaemann's classic on Nature. Then I read another essay about how art imitates nature. Then another about the end of modernity. And then I just gave in and read the whole thing (I did skip one about Rousseau, I have to confess). This is the kind of philosophy that draws me in because it says interesting and true things about big questions. I found out later that Spaemann may be Pope Benedict's favorite philosopher, and maybe that's a good way to choose who to read. He's definitely high on my list now. Also found out later that Spaemann was quoted extensively in Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern, which I found to be similarly engrossing. So there's a little network of interesting thought, some of it under the umbrella of phenomenology, but whatever it's called, it's good stuff.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: The Fountain and the Furnace by Maggie Ross

Sometimes the right book hits you at the right time. This book, by an Anglican hermit and centered around the experience of tears, was that book for me when I read it a few months ago. I didn't even want to review it publicly because it spoke so deeply, but then I realized that it might help someone else who is receiving the gift of tears. So, if you're that person, check out this book, its words are still rippling through my heart.

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

I knew too much about this book before I started. The general premise is fascinating, and the world-building -- at least the world-building's initial premise -- has always stuck with me. Unfortunately, I read the book, and that's pretty much all there is to it. The book meanders around among several characters, and it ends up settling on a female character that I never found convincing in the least. Part of the problem may be the terrible audiobook version I listened to (it sounded a bit like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons trying to do a female voice), but my overall experience was slogging through internal monologues and business deals I didn't care about to get to some interesting speculation about reality and history and contingency. Then something would happen that wasn't really explained and it would switch to another character. I still have hopes that the TV series could expand on this world with better characters, plots, and politics, because it's a fascinating world. Finally, everyone depends on this Oracle fortune-telling mechanism in a way that just didn't seem realistic, but in the end that dependence may actually make sense. Still, I'm not sure and too many things are left unexplained for me to say I enjoyed this book. I can't even make this review coherent ...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

For a Tolkien fan, this is a lesser piece in the puzzle, but still very interesting. Kullervo's story is a story Tolkien translated and poeticized from a much older original. What's most rewarding is not the story itself but how its tragic themes are developed by the young Tolkien and how they grow into his later work. I found the essays at the end to be even more valuable than the story itself, because here Tolkien analyzes the old story, and it contains an insight about how we worked out puzzles through writing. For example, he was always bothered by why a man would steal a golden cup from the dragon in Beowulf, enraging the dragon and setting part 3 of the story into motion. So that motivated him to write a story about an unassuming hobbit conscripted to steal a cup from a dragon's hoard. That one insight made the book worthwhile for me. But I just told you, so should you read this? Probably only if you are a Tolkien completist or are interested in the process of translation.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This story is set in a Britain before the Norman Conquest but after King Arthur. It has swordfights, ancient knights, ogres, and magical dragons, but its real point is the relationship between an old couple on a journey to visit their son. Part of the point is the way the mists of forgetfulness swirl through the story, so I won't say much about the plot, except to say that you don't get tired of exploring the world, and yet the point is the relationships more than the world itself. Because of the setting and formal language, it evokes Tolkien and Beowulf, but it analyzes a marriage in a way Tolkien himself never approached. This is not epic, it is intimate. Though it's a slow build, it earns an intense, even devastating emotion as it nears the end. This is unlike any other book I've ever read, and its quiet elegance along with its natural groundedness won me over.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

In a book that covers a lifetime, I usually gravitate to the wartime chapters. In Atonement, the opposite is true, due to McEwan's ability to paint even household activities in vivid shades of meaning, and possibly due to his ability to communicate the mundane horror of war. The central character, Briony -- a writer who grows, hopes, then regrets -- is particularly compelling. A few sections of extended conversations involving submerged feelings didn't click for me (I almost put it down in Chapter 2), but that may be the audiobook's fault. Overall, it's an intimate story sumptuously told, and affecting, communicating deepest truths when exploring what drives a writer and how mistakes can overshadow a life.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve

For a book on data analytics, this is very readable and engaging. I'm considering giving it to my freshman science writing class because it analyzes the familiar (authors like J.K. Rowling) using simple word-counting methods to determine interesting things like trends in opening lines, adherence in practice to their own stated rules for writing (most are true to their own advice, especially after they give it!), and, as the title suggests, favorite words. There's a mildly depressing part about how the bestselling books are now written at a 6th-grade level, when in the 1960s they were up around a 10th-grade level. Well, that one is more particularly depressing for a first-time author whose own book clocks in at a tenth-grade level, but I'm not sure if it counts as good news for anybody. This is more about introducing the idea of analysis than it is about really getting into what makes writing work. But for what it is, it's engaging and makes this reader want to do some analysis of his own.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: The Hobbit

So, once again, I went there and back again, reading The Hobbit aloud because my younger two boys are old enough. They were riveted by Tolkien's invention and humor -- it seems like we laughed more this time. Also, Tolkien's writing doesn't follow a three-act shape, but is surprising in how events unfold as well as which events unfold. Alas, if only Peter Jackson had been able to hold back ...

PS: Now my youngest runs around yelling "Attercop!" and "Tomnoddy!". I couldn't be more proud.

Book Review: God Matters by Herbert McCabe

I want to teach like Herbert McCabe writes. He takes the nearly-thousand-year-old ideas of Thomas Aquinas and sharpens them to fine points, then uses them to poke holes in all manner of shoddy thinking. He is a Dominican who writes so clearly about transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception that they make sense to even this Protestant scientist. My understanding of sacraments, Holy Week, creation, even time itself was expanded by this book. The worst part is when other scholars write a chapter or so and he argues back and forth with them. These other scholars are good, but it's like sunspots, they look dark even though they're bright because they are against the backdrop of the sun itself. I find McCabe's politics challenging and (since most of this was written in the 80's) not quite as applicable, but still, it's a genuine loss for us that we don't have him around to comment on today's events.

Book Review: The Image of the City by Charles Williams

As a collection of essays, it's hard to give this a single rating. Three of the essays are as good as anything I've read: "Natural Goodness," "The Cross," and "The Way of Exchange." I assigned the first of the three in class to talk about the Fall and the Problem of Evil; the third of the three deserves to be taken seriously by anyone who thinks relationship and narrative should affect theology (by which I mean it deserved to be taken seriously by everyone). Williams coined the phrase "holy Luck" to describe the chance events that bring people into our spheres of influence, and months later I find myself still thinking of that. His theology of "exchange" may be more relevant now than it was in the 1940's. It's not all this powerful: I find the first section and last section to be least relevant because they are very literary and focused on Williams's Arthurian writing, which I have not read. But as for the high points of this book, there's nothing higher.

Book Review: Outlines of Romantic Theology by Charles Williams

There are two rules for reading Charles Williams: 1.) The later the better and 2.) The more about Dante the better. This book proves them both. The first half is an earlier set of several chapters where he outlines his ideas about "romantic theology." It's fine, but not vintage -- he's still working out his ideas and his Biblical analysis is a distinct angle but seems too constricted. The second half is a later essay that is a distilled version of The Figure of Beatrice and it boils down his insights to a 180-proof version. Probably the most accessible and best combo of pages vs. content that you'll find for this author.

Book Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things

This is a nifty little book that doesn't overstay its welcome. I expect a book like this to have good twists and a genuinely creepy atmosphere, but there's a few character moments and subtle details that make it a cut above the rest. I almost wonder if it would be better if some key information were not deliberately withheld to give it some twists near the end. A good choice for an audiobook, too.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Invisible Power and the Role of the Artist

Fascinating interview with a filmmaker in Artspace that I found inspiring for my own writing. Here's the key quote, which focuses on invisible political power:

"The current system of power is fundamentally pretty invisible to us. It resides in finance, in all sorts of new kinds of management, and within computers and the media, which involves invisible algorithms that shape and manage what information we get. I think one of the most beautiful things artists and journalists can do at this moment in time is to be sympathetic and understanding to the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, and then bring to the fore the invisible power structures that those people feel completely distanced from so that they know where power is. And do it in such a way that isn’t obscure so people like me don’t have to read it three times just to understand it. Do it in a way that really grabs ordinary people’s imaginations."

This is what science writing does, in a way -- it brings to the fore the invisible power structures that shaped our world, although because those power structures are natural and bigger than humans, there's a lot different to the implications than the ones described in this quote or this interview.

As the subtitle to A World from Dust puts it, it tells "how the periodic table shaped life." The periodic table is an invisible power structure! And chemistry is the science of finding it out.