Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: The Arrival

This book I read in an hour, but it's my nominee for best book read so far this year. It's a graphic novel, without words, about immigration in a world that really is unlike anything you've seen. I know, a lot of things say that, but this truly delivers. I don't want to give too much away about how the author does it, because half of the fun is the discovery, but I will say this is the Perfect Graphic Novel: the story literally cannot be told any other way than in this format. In a book like this, I expect imagination, but another aspect that surprised me is the subtle emotion captured in the characters' faces at certain points. The first example is a sad goodbye near the beginning: look at the faces and you can feel all the nuances of a painful but necessary departure.
The only drawback to this book is you do read it so fast that you may be left wondering why you paid 15 bucks for it, but that's what libraries are for and it's how I got my copy. I'm just sad that I had to give it back this morning. I think I kept it for the full three weeks just because I liked it so much (plus I wanted to wait for Laurie to have time to read it too!). (Oh yeah, Laurie liked it, too.)

Book Review: Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris took me a while to finish because I merely expected it to be funny. I think the review that led me to it mentioned The Office and that got stuck in my head. But, while it is very funny, it is not like The Office very much, except for the fact that it's set in one. The Office gets laughs out of being uncomfortable in the workplace, while this book deals with life and death. Some incredibly sad things happen in it, but somehow it fits with the tone of the book because those things are never mocked, but they make the characters that much more real. This book seems like Catch-22 set in a turn-of-the-millenium Chicago office tower. One of the things about "funny" books is it's hard to actually care about the characters in them, because they seem like characters, not like people. Both Then We Came to the End and Catch-22 succeed in being occasionally funny but more often telling perceptive stories about three-dimensional people. A different kind of funny. It took me a long time to finish it because I had to deal with different results from my expectations, plus I've been plain busy, but it was overall a good read and I can see why some people are calling it one of the best books of the past year.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Beautiful Blood

Check out this image of red blood cells, part of this year's Wellcome science image awards gallery:

Here's a picture of the ribosome, the machine that makes proteins:

And this is HIV:

Well, It Definitely Works for Our Boys

[There's not really a "Spolier Alert" for this post, but it's a little gross, so let's call it a "Spoiled Alert."]

I've found that when teaching Sam and Aidan to go potty, I taught them to think of the toilet as a target. Well, apparently that works for any age (from "Slate's What's New In..." column):

"A piece in the New Republic reveals that after an economist proposed etching a black fly near the drain of toilet bowls in a men's restroom at an Amsterdam airport, "spillage" was reduced by 80 percent—"It turns out that, if you give men a target, they can't help but aim at it." "

Personally, I prefer those little plastic mats that look like a dartboard, but to each his own.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Snow After Easter

Our new church santuary has windows. That means we could see out tonight, during our post-Easter rehearsal, to see the large white flakes falling from the sky. This must be the latest I've ever seen snow in Seattle, and since Easter came so early this year, it might be the first time in recorded history it's snowed in Seattle after Easter?

Also, Aidan's birthday came after Easter this year. That's unusual too.

Easter won't come this early again for more than 200 years, Lord willing.

All this reminds me of our first Easter with a baby, so here's a picture of Sam from Easter five years ago:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Two Disconcerting Moments

So I've had two disconcerting moments in the past 24 hours:

1.) I was watching American Idol (half-watching while doing the crossword puzzle and helping Sam with Legoland on the computer), feeling a familiar spark of deja vu, and just like that I finally realized where that spark came from:
Jason Castro
looks like John Travolta

2.) On a more serious note, I was reading Obama's speech on race and his pastor (still thinking about it but I think it's very good from a first reading), and I was noting that not a lot of the negative detractors in the media fail to understand just how hard it would be to repudiate your own pastor, especially one who brought you to Jesus (however distorted some would argue that picture may be). This isn't like reversing your membership in the 4-H club, people.

Another weird thing is that I've just been reading through Jeremiah, and noted how his pessimistic outlook clashed with that of the optimistic false prophets and the powers that be. As I think about Rev. Wright's undoubtedly inflammatory and wrong statements, I also have to ask myself how I can tell a Jeremiah from a false "regime-booster" prophet. And then I'm looking at a blog today about the speech and notice that Rev. Wright's first name is Jeremiah. Like I said, weird.

Of course, all who are named Jeremiah are not Jeremiahs. But it takes me back a bit.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Marine's View

Why is it that it's taken half a decade to progress in Iraq? This marine has one of the best answers:

Note that this isn't "Bush lied, people died." Even the Iraqis thought they'd be gassed by their own leader. Saddam lied, we bought it.

Note also that the invasion of Iraq is noted for two things: the speed with which it happened and the lack of planning for what happened later. This account explains both of these, and it fits with other "on the ground" accounts I've read. The other accounts of driving to Baghdad all emphasize how everyone was pushing to go faster, faster, faster. When you push that much you don't plan for the "what if," even the "what if this works?" possibility. Combine this with Rumsfeld & co.'s inherent predisposition against planning the what if, and with their inability to imagine other American viewpoints, much less Iraqi ones ... and you get a long fight.

I do hope things can work out over there and that the families can be put together again, those that still can. Like everyone else, I am tired of this. But as far as "what went wrong in 2003," this is a pretty good example, and it doesn't require conspiracy theories. Just human nature.

Note to self: you can go too fast, even if things appear to be going according to plan. Slowing down is a good idea sometimes. Not the most unexpected conclusion, but still important.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tad Williams' Shadowplay

For the baseball-prone, that title is not a typo. We're talking TAD Williams, the author of perhaps my favorite fantasy trilogy (but only if you count Lord of the Rings as a four- or five-book collection). He's also the author of the only fantasy novel I'm aware of that is cast with cats (Tailchaser's Song). I'm not kidding. And it's very good.

My boys ask me for "Three Little Kittens" stories every night. Maybe that's where they come from?

TED Williams is the last man to hit .400 and also is frozen right now. That's another topic.

In any case, TAD Williams is publishing a second fantasy trilogy, set in a new world with new characters and magic schemes and everything. The first book in 2003 was Shadowmarch and the second book was published last year as Shadowplay. I just finished it, so here's my review:

Occasional flashes of brilliance and cleverness that you really only get from Williams. What I like about Williams is his ability to surprise you in the plot, but in a way that seems very natural. So I like his stories best of all. There's enough of that in these two books that it's as much fun as it should be.

However, one of his other strengths is also a weakness. Williams has a habit of making all of his characters believable, rational, and multi-sided. This is a good thing, don't get me wrong. The biggest problem is that these characters are so immediately drawn that they feel contemporary. They seem like 21st-century people and they seem to have 21st-century priorities in a 16th-century world (yes, 16th-century, because we have gunpowder and muskets and such in this book, along with fairies and magic mirrors and such).

Much of Williams' writing is a deliberate response to Tolkien, both homage and rebellion. He's said as much in interviews, so I know I'm not making this up! Tolkien's stiltedness and notions of honor actually work to his advantage, especially once you have the humanizing figures of the hobbits thrown into the mix. But here's the point: hobbits are hobbits and somehow are a convincing part of that world. Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar who lived through WWI and WWII, so his writing was that of a combination of the 8th and 20th centuries. The thing is he got both those centuries right. Tad Williams gets the 21st century right, but I'm not so sure about the 16th. He even puts in some aspects of medieval history that I've never seen put into a fantasy trilogy before, but that I know were common "back in the day": holding kings for ransom, complicated royal family structures, different races interacting, etc. The details are there but the characters think like we do. And that's a problem. Beowulf didn't think like we do, that's part of the point of the genre. Making Beowulf think like we do results in the recent motion picture, which also had his moments but I'm ambivalent about the whole thing put together. Again, like Williams, very clever, perhaps a little too much so.

So is Williams' problem that he's too good of a writer? I think good in some ways but not good enough in others.

Another minor annoyance is it took me until 2/3 of the way through the second book of the trilogy to find out the events that were actually moving everything else. I think that should be first-book material at the very least. Lots of events that seemed discordant and hodgepodge suddenly made sense and tied together after that revelation. Since "tying things together" is what I think Williams' plots do best, I'd rather know the main theme earlier and then work out how the pieces fit into it as I go along. It's like a symphony where you don't hear the main theme until 2/3 of the way through. Too long.

Regardless, I ate it up and I have to recommend this as well as anything by Williams. For all his faults, his books and fun and inventive, and I can't wait for the third one to come out. Especially after I've finally found out the points of the trilogy!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Long Live MSG!

I've always heard that the MSG (monosodium glutamate) scare is overblown. Here's an article that nicely summarizes the source of the hype and talks about the many, many places where you eat glutamate, yea, even with a sodium ion or two:

Since glutamate is one of the 20 natural amino acids (and sodium ion's even more common) you aren't going to get away from salt+glutamate very easily. I know I like MSG. It's one of the few molecules we have a taste receptor specifically for, after all. If anything, the whole Chinese Restaurant Syndrome thing should be a mild warning that purified chemicals like MSG might be able to be used in wrong proportions. Is that phrased mildly enough? It's nothing to worry about.

So bring on the MSG. It's good stuff.

I doubt this will cause any Asian restaurants to take down their "No MSG" signs anytime soon. However, if I see one advertising the use of MSG, I would be intrigued enough to go out of my way to try it. What does that say about me?

Monday, March 3, 2008

8 Days of Creation Debrief: Found in Translation

So it took me a year to get through 8 days of creation (good thing my theology allows me to suppose that the creation process took longer than that). Any large writing project requires you to find out what it's really about as you go along, and this was no exception. So, there, I admit it, I really had no idea why exactly I started to write all this. I did want to get my thoughts and some evidence for them down in one place, and I do hope Sam and Aidan get a chance to read that letter some day, and those two reasons are reason enough. But there's a deeper reason I found as I went through the process: There is great value, for myself, in the simple act of translation.

Biochemistry has its translation too. In the cell, "translation" is the process of turning the information encoded in DNA into a specific protein. Translation is particularly appropriate because it's the process of turning a DNA/RNA language (with 4 letters) into a protein language
(with 20 letters). You are changing words from one format to another, yet if you make a mistake the words don't work anymore. We've got to translate, but we've also got to be faithful to the original template. That's a fine line to walk that I probably veered from a few times during the writing of the 8 days series. But it's my job as a writer to minimize it.

Now, who am I to be talking about translation? After all, I'm no Wycliffe. I can't read Greek or Hebrew. I'm just getting to the point where I can turn Greek letters into English ones ("pi" = "P" for example). After three years of Latin and three semesters of German I can kind of comprehend each, but it takes me a while. And I'm still struggling to keep my Linux box up and running, so I can't even claim fluency in computer language, for that matter. But the most important documents in my life are written in foreign languages, so I'm well aware that reading them requires a shift from one word-idea association to another.

I think the urge to grapple with that is what drove me to spend hours added up putting it all together in what I hope is something like ordinary language. This can't include pretensions of ironing out every mystery or explaining everything as A=B+C with words in the place of variables. The fundamental goal of translation is to be able to read Genesis 1 with the same neurons that read The New York Times or Journal of Biological Chemistry.

So when I read "day" my mind images not a 24-hour period of creation but a long time of prehuman history, maybe with an overlay of a day-long vision given to an original author long ago. When I read "the sea was filled" and then "the sky was filled" I fill in the land with large, lumbering lizards as well. I noted clearly my inability to perfectly translate the fourth day, but I can still read it and imagine something that can be described with those words happening sometime. When I look at the hands doing the forming, I know they're the hands of God.

These hands didn't leave fingerprints in the clay after molding it. These hands were skilled enough to flick atoms back and forth, and deft enough to set up a mechanism that would run and unfold by itself. Make no mistake, those hands are very close. Every time an oxygen molecule latches on to a hemoglobin to swim around your bloodstream, that gives you life, and God is there. He created the stars that crushed simpler atoms into oxygen, and the water which makes up your blood, and the electromagnetic forces that make the oxygen stick to the iron. He made the hemoglobin so it would stick onto the oxygen just right: tight enough to grab, loose enough to let go. And I think the way he made it was to set up an iterative, long-term, fluid process that can make mistakes, but he can give grace even through those mistakes. This understanding is a translation of Genesis 1 into 21st-century biochemistry mind-language. The reader has a slight further translation to make into whatever language is your true native tongue. Words are fluid, but behind them is a reality: God is creator. Later parts of the Bible weave this understanding into the further reality: God is a redeemer as well, or a less loaded 21st-century world is that God is a repairer as well as a maker.

Looking at the rest of the Bible beyond Genesis 1, I see examples of translations in the past, and the need for more translations in the present, faithful to the past but in today's language. Jesus did it with his parables. He spoke to people who worshipped God in a temple, who hated their foreign occupiers, and who had a script to follow with focused actions -- perhaps too focused. Paul translated when he encountered Greek culture, seeing "many gods and many lords" worshipped by the people around him and calling them to the creator God, the real one, looming behind the tangle of stories. I still don't know all of what they meant, but that's what makes Bible study so rewarding, the act of connecting and translating it all into a change in how you think or act. It's a holy act of holistically bringing these things together. What do we long for today? What have we found with our experiments, and what do we still need? We have to connect Scripture to two currents of knowledge: what we find from the past and what we need for the future. The God who’s the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow is the constant in the midst of the tumult from those two great currents. Jesus and Paul made the connections; Jesus paid the price, Paul pointed to Jesus; now we are imitators of those great translators.

There's a lot of other Bible passages that need to be brought closer to where we live, which is where they belong. I don't know if I can even be successful at this, but I've got ideas for further translations. Even the name of this blog (once I get around to explaining it) has something to do with the act of translation. So I'm going to keep doing it and deciding how to translate next. I challenge you to find what God wants to translate into your life and where, and when he wills, his Spirit will provide the power behind the words we can provide. All we have are words and actions. In his hands he holds what is necessary: the life. It's what he made in the first place, so he certainly knows what to do with it.