Friday, May 30, 2008

Oliver Cromwell Sacked My Castle!

In today's "proof that you can find anything on the web," I give the following example: MacFarlane castle. Sure, we were a small, pugnacious clan, and nobody liked us, and we stole cows, but we had our own castle. That is, until Oliver Cromwell came and destroyed it in the 17th century.

(This is a picture of it in the 19th century, ruined as can be. Alas and alack.)

I'm sure there's more to the story, but I now know enough to take drastic action. I'm going to write a vicious "Letter to the Editor" about this. But the postage to Scotland is so expensive ... I'll compose a stinging e-mail instead.

Anybody know Oliver Cromwell's email addy?

For more information on MacFarlane castle:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

June is Bustin' Out All Over (One Mile Deep)

Scientists drilling into the ocean floor off the coast of Newfoundland have found evidence of life (little blobby life, but life nonetheless) more than one mile underground. This is where the Earth's crust starts to heat up, and temperatures can be close to boiling.

To me, yet another chapter in the book of life -- that is, the book of how living things can persist and grow even where it looks like they can't. A sign of hope, like a snowdrop through the snow, tiny bacteria spelling out the angel's message on Christmas day: "Fear not."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Movie Review: Sero Hiki no Goushu ("Gauche the Cellist")

This is one of my favorite movies -- we just watched it with Sam and Aidan for the first time. It's an hour-long Japanese animated movie about a cellist who's struggling to find the heart of music. Let's just say he does, and you have to see how. Along the way, you get Beethoven's Sixth (and it really does sound like a rehearsal when it's being reheased), some more obscure cello pieces of music, a cranky damanding conductor, lots of animals, and the healing of creation. It's about tying your shoes, working hard at something emotional, and giving yourself to others, quirks and all.

I've been thinking a lot about music lately, and when I see this film I think of St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds, and I know that the time spent in rehearsing and polishing music is well worth it. It takes discipline and heart, and it speaks to everyone. God gave us music so we could have films like this, and he gave us films like this so we could understand music -- or understand that we don't understand it, but it is good.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Seven Deadly Sins of that New York Article

To follow up on the previous post, I'm finding quite a few other references to that same New York magazine article online, on for example. Many are written from a feminist or post-feminist perspective. It occurred to me that my previous reference to the explanation for cheating as sin may have been a little glib. And if you're going to be a little glib, might as well be a lot glib, so in that spirit, here are the Seven Deadly Sins of that article:

I. Lust: Start with the gimme.

II. Greed: He argues that the hyper-rich and powerful actually have it right with their loveless marriages and mistresses on the side.

III. Sloth: His research on the hyper-rich seems to be entirely composed of half-remembered episodes of "Melrose Place." A majority of the piece is personal anecdotes, and even the science quoted can't seem to find numbers or the possibility of a counterargument. I can find more with a single Google scholar search. Then there's the lack of thinking things through on any level from the relational (is your idea of polyamory really frictionless and costless?) to the editorial (really, this is the cover article?!).

IV. Pride: The solipsism of the personal anecdote, and the inability to truly try to imagine what it might be like to be someone else, like, say, a woman. Or a poor person. Or a theist. Or a reader.

V. Envy: "Those Europeans, they're so lucky to be enlightened about marriage." Merci!

VI. Gluttony: This may be the only one under control, because even at a restaurant he's more interested in the waitress than the food.

VII. Wrath: The general reaction this article created across the blogosphere. Hell hath no fury like a woman caricatured.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One Big Reason Why People Resist Evolution

Today in class we talked about the issues of "scientific hate" against creationists and its polar opposite, "anti-science hate" against evolutionists. I keep coming back myself to the deliberate polarization of the issue into, either God or evolution, as if they were two masters. Preachers on both sides of the issue say the two are mutually exclusive (in saying this, I classify Dawkins and co. as secular preachers on the evolution side of the issue). I just find the depth of resistance to science among the evangelical church startling, and we talked a little about why.

Then I read two articles that led me to find one big reason why evangelicals resist evolution: sex.

The first was an article by Tom Wolfe, over 10 years old now, titled "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died..." It's about how advances in neuroscience reinforce the mechanical view of man, that there is no free will, and the solution to problems is to medicate. Wolfe isn't too happy with that, he quotes Nietzsche a lot, and his essay has a strange apocalyptic ending. It is entertaining, at least. Wolfe makes some 2006 predictions and, well, we aren't there yet, but there persists a definite cultural undercurrent that free will is an illusion and we are just machines. For Exhibit A, see article B.

This second article is from the New York Magazine titled "What Makes Married Men Want to Have Affairs?" The three-letter answer (starts with an S and ends with an in) wasn't enough so they turn to evolutionary psychology and discuss findings about how men, even when married, are genetically programmed to stray. This is the article Tom Wolfe was warning would happen 12 years ago. This one has everything: the Eliot Spitzer scandal, the "everyone does it" conspiratorial tone, the part about how advanced the Europeans are compared to us, the men vs. women conflict, and overall a depressing air of inevitability.

This is what Christians rebel against, the mechanism of it all. Since evolution is a mechanism, doesn't that mean we are just mechanisms? Only animals? That's a destructive and easy interpretation that many fall into, whether they swallow it whole or fight against it with all-too-blind faith. So Christians are against evolution because they believe it's possible to abstain from urges, that it's possible to choose to not be an animal. I've got to agree with them on that.

One huge blind spot in the New York article is the question of God. One of the main conclusions of the article is that we have a romantic myth that one person can be enough, and no one person can be enough. So after all that ink the article comes to the same conclusion where many churches start their talks about dating and marriage: no one person is enough. The disagreement comes next: the New York article says, since no one person is enough, you've got to allow men to transgress in some way with a few other people. It's only fair to the poor hardwired brutes. But the church says, since no one person is enough, the marriage has to include a relationship with God as well. No one person is enough, but God is. So the "God-shaped hole" shows up again, reading between the lines, even in The New York Magazine.

So my own creed follows these lines: I see evolution as a demonstration of the closeness of God, and I see in Jesus an example of a life lived without sex, but fully. I see no need to twist science and discount evolution in order to justify my vow to remain faithful to my wife -- both that understanding of creation and that understanding of my promise are integral to my self. And I object when someone else twists science and uses evolution to claim that no one can be monogamous. We're not that kind of animal -- we have the image of God, however defaced it may be.

Here are links to the two articles I'm talking about, although read the second one at your own risk:

Saturday, May 17, 2008

When I Was a Baby Bird, I Thought Like a Baby Bird ...

Zebra finch babies babble, just like human babies. Then, as they grow up, they learn to sing. The simplest hypothesis for how the singing develops from bird brains is that the babbling is an immature form of adult singing, just not refined yet. But the simplest hypothesis is not always the best. Zebra finches actually have a separate network of neurons for babbling, and then they switch to a different network when it's time to "grow up" and sing like an adult.

My first thought upon hearing this one? 1 Corinthians 13: 11-12: "When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways. Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known."

Maybe the point of discipleship and transformation is to switch neural networks, to truly change the way you think, even the way you see.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What's Absent from Absinthe?

(Thujone image from Wikipedia)

Absinthe is the green alcoholic drink that produced rhapsodies in Bohemians from Van Gogh to Poe. I was taught that it contained a hallucinogenic compound derived from wormwood called "thujone." They even had a picture of the compound in the textbook and everything. Had to be true, right?

Unfortunately, that nice little story is wrong. Some analytical chemists reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that they looked and looked for thujone in old bottles of absinthe, and couldn't find hardly any. In fact, there doesn't seem to be much chemically special about absinthe: it's a green, 140-proof liquor. So, for example, when Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn got a bottle for himself and wrote a song as a result ... he was just buzzed.

Genius does not come in bottled form. So much for better life through chemistry!

Here's a blog summary of the findings:

Monday, May 12, 2008

Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Remind me not to start anything by Cormac McCarthy unless I have time set aside to finish it. I started watching No Country for Old Men thinking I would organize papers and grade for completeness while watching it ... thirty minutes into it I put the stack of papers aside, untouched, and stayed up way too late finishing the movie. Then, because I wanted to know more about the writer McCarthy rather than the filmmakers the Coen Bros., I picked up The Road from the SPU library, and had three months to read it. Saturday morning I picked it up as we were going out to ride a railroad in Snoqualmie. Saturday night I was halfway through its 300 pages. Last night I finished it. (And I still made headway on reviewing the Honors Projects this weekend too!) So there's something about McCarthy I find entirely engrossing. It helps that The Road is written in sections each about a page long or less, with lots of white space.

It also helps that it's a story of a journey, with the unexpected cropping up on every side. In this case, it's set in a dead world, one obliterated and burned by nuclear holocaust, where you can walk days without seeing another human (and that's a good thing given the state of most other humans), and where grass, birds, trees, are all dead. A father and son are traveling south to survive as winter comes on.

I don't want to say too much about what happens, because not knowing is a huge driver in this book. Is McCarthy a nihilist? I can understand thinking so. But I don't think so. He knows better than anyone else the potential for pragmatic cruelty that hides in the heart of everyone. Trust and compassion are indeed liabilities in his burnt-out shell of a world. But the love between the father and son gives this another dimension, embossed into the printed despair.

What surprised me was the number of references to cosmology, veiled to be sure, but lots of talk about the indifference of the universe, the image of embers dying out in the cold void, of the earth spinning around its axis oblivious to the suffering on it, to the vast expanse of space ... all issues I've touched on in my Eight Days narrative. The father was well-educated and struggles with the idea of God. In that kind of world, how could you not struggle with it? But then he watches his boy sleeping and checks his heartbeat (which parent among us hasn't done that at least once?) just for the reassuring nature of the boy's life.

In a world where the only thing left alive to eat is other people, and where only two bullets are left in the pistol they carry, that father-son bond is profoundly affecting and wrenching.

I do think the scale of the disaster is a bit much. Even if the sun were blocked by nuclear holocaust, I really think there would be more things alive eight years after the event. After reading The World Without Us, which is about how nature rebounds, and knowing what I've seen in different contexts, I really think something would live. But scientific accuracy is not the point of this novel, the question of how to live in a world where everything else is dead, that is the question.

And of course, the boy has golden hair, just like my Sam, and is about seven or eight years old, so you can imagine I was personally involved in the story.

The overall effect wrings you out. This is an elegaic novel. The first movie that comes to mind is Saving Private Ryan, with about 300% less hope. But there IS some hope, as long as there's love there is hope, and that's what this is about -- not about war or survival or ecological disaster, but about love and hope tested to the breaking point. If you can take it, read it. Just be sure to set aside two days first.

Today Germany ... Tomorrow The World!

I got an email this weekend from someone named Gunther (with a little bit of German thrown into the English) thanking me for my podcasts. If so, this is the first time I've gotten mail from someone with no connection to me whatsoever who nonetheless listens to my podcasts. Apparently he listens while riding his bike. So Gunther, if you're out there, thanks for listening, you are my first truly international student!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Book Review: The World Without Us + Will Smith, GKC, and ZPG

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is ... well, I'm not sure whether to term it fiction or non-fiction, but it's an above-average environmental novel. The idea is to project what would happen if all humans suddenly disappeared from earth. Weisman starts with a deserted New York City with flooded subways and invasive imported trees, and continues to hop through the world to places like the Panama Canal, the Pyramids at Giza, and Mount Rushmore (hint: only one of these will last for a long time, and it might not be what you expect). Without humans cleaning and clearing and keeping the natural world at bay, how long would things last, and what would go first? Did you know that if you abandoned your house, in a few hundred thousand years, all they'd find found be your bathroom tile? It's like a pre-made fossil.
So the chemistry is pretty much spot-on. I love reading about how different building materials or plastics degrade, and as a thought experiment goes, it's pretty fascinating to think about the encroaching entropy of the natural world. Sometimes, when he turns to biology, Weisman follows the environmental party line a bit too easily -- is it really reasonable to project sea levels high enough to overcome the cliffs of Dover? -- and there's a bit too much of the "if we only left it alone, how wonderful it would all be" sense. But then he quickly turns back to the chemistry and it gets fun again.
I should have expected that the ending of this story would be the most predictable. Weisman visits the usual Zero Population Growth suspects, even finding a society advocating self-extinction of the human race. To his credit, Weisman recoils from the prospect of a world without children. However, even with the editorial caveats, ending the book like that gives a bitter aftertaste to the reading experience. It is simply not true that Sam and Aidan aren't worth what they cost. To even hint at it is an affront.
Having just read Eugenics and Other Evils by G.K. Chesterton with my biochemistry class, I'm struck by how easy it is to move from a scientific view of the world to a misanthropic one. How quickly the scientific society of turn-of-the-century Germany becomes the expansionist society of World Wars I and II. A book like Weisman's does a wonderful job of detailing the science, bit by bit, of what would happen to our world and our works if we all just suddenly left. But it doesn't do a good job of allowing for the innovation and joy that these extra humans can provide. It's not just about comsumption, but also production. Some parts of our world are indeed spinning off into environmental oblivion, let's find them and stop them. But I would prefer not to be made to feel guilty for having two wonderful children and wanting more! G.K. Chesterton's Christian liberalism is a strong antidote to the general tide of scientific reductionist pessimism. We can't ignore the science, but we must infuse it with the joy (even joy in debating issues!) of good ol' GKC.
Another point of comparison is to I Am Legend starring Will Smith. In some ways a fancy, glossy, all-too-typical zombie movie (hey, look, the zombies move FAST now, doesn't that change EVERYTHING?!), but not too gross or pessimistic. There's some happiness to the ending, I'll say (without saying what it is). But because of that it doesn't feel like a true zombie movie. In a movie like 28 Weeks Later, the values of love and compassion are shown to be signs of weakness and things that cause whole societies to collapse. That is precisely what I do not like about zombie movies. Because I Am Legend didn't have that, it really was an action movie and a chance for Will Smith to emote a bit, and for special-effects designers to create an overgrown New York City (although, according to Weisman, I think it's not overgrown enough for three years of abandonment). For those purposes it was adequate.
The question comes to, is a movie like, say, No Country for Old Men essentially a violent, pessimistic zombie-movie-like philosophy in modern Western garb, or is it something else? Some people say the former, but I found a lot of good to come from it, after digesting it and thinking about it a lot. But that's probably another post, and I have some comments over at "Pastoral Musings from Rain City" that address that issue.
The End of the World sure is entertaining.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My Very Own Protein Cartoon

So I worked with ITS and animated a complex figure that I always present in second-quarter biochemistry. The credit has to be given to them: I basically said "Make it so" and ITS converted it into a flash animation. They put it online at the following site:

I'm still trying to figure out where they took that picture of me. I don't remember any cameras in my lectures ever ...