Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lots of Book Reviews

So when going (by yourself) to the City of the English Language, you might as well immerse yourself in the English Language. That and what else are you gonna do when the entire in-flight entertainment system shorts out 5 miutes after takeoff for a 9-hour flight? So over the past week I polished off:

Sacrifice by Eric Shanower (Part 2 of the Age of Bronze)
Betrayal Part One by Eric Shanower (Part 2 of the Age of Bronze)
The Professor and the Madman (The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary) by Simon Winchester
Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans are Looking Forward to the End of the World by Nicholas Guyatt

That last one was particularly interesting. A Brit from Simon Frasier University who's a historian turns his research questions to current America, asking what exactly and why evangelicals believe about the apocalypse. Of course, he pretty much interviews the lunatic fringe and those making lots of money of it, but because he actually talks to them, his portrayal has an impressive amount of sympathy and context (though he still doesn't seem to like John Hagee and I don't blame him at all for that). Once in a chapter or so he gets a theological point just plain wrong, but then again, he's reporting on people who do that for a living, so can't get too bothered. I found it surprisingly readable and relatively nuanced. It even helped me in conversations at my convention about my own country, so there ya go.

Oh, and as for the convention? The only one I've ever been to where a music/history/theology talk was followed by an art talk was followed by a clinical psychology talk. For that reason alone I hope more conventions like that take place.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

N.T. Wright on the Colbert Report June 19

So I'm flying to London the night of my anniversary (by myself, unfortunately), and as if that's not bad enough, I just found out that same night is when N.T. Wright will be a guest on the Colbert Report.

Let's see, so not only will it be the ninth full year since the best decision I've made in my life (nine years with my favorite person), I also won't be able to see my favorite theologian and one of my favorite comedians together on TV.

On the plus side, I hear British Air isn't yet charging $15 to check a bag. That's gotta count for something.

(And yes, this means I am more excited about fake news than I am about real news.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Book Review: Arthur and George

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes is a novel that quotes real-life. The real-life incident it recounts is when Arthur Conan Doyle helped clear the name of an Englishman of Indian descent who had been injustly accused of a series of crimes (and his name was, yes, George). A good book, with just a few complaints. It was too self-indulgent in spelling out the thoughts of many characters at length, and many times it wouldn't really sound like a 19th-century Englishman but rather an early-21st-century one (namely, the author). These two faults often went together: I would have preferred something more like GK Chesterton (a product of this exact era of history), but what I got sometimes verged on Oprah. That said, whenever possible the historial documents and records are used, and it is a lot more entertaining than the average biography. It probably could have been half the length, but it does detail the entire lives of each of the protagonists, and does a fairly good job of translating some odd details like the prevalence of Spritualism in Arthur's life, as well as the kind of solicitor George turned out to be. The frustrating nature of the local police force is also well described, although it's hard to think of characters that frustrating as being real and not distortions. Given the contents of the accusations made against George, I'll have to conclude that the author got that one right and it's the real people from 100 years ago who are frustrating, not the author's version of those people!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Book Review: God's Secretaries

Now we enter the "preparing for London/Oxford" section of my summer reading. First up is Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries, an account of how the King James Bible was translated. The basic message is that good things can come from committees. The translation process was so communal and anonymous that it's very difficult to reconstruct. It came from a society that was truly steeped in words, spoken and written, and that was the single most important factor in making this whole thing work. That and a less-than-strict adherence to literalism, interestingly enough.

The book is enjoyable but the writing seems strangely dense at times -- you're enjoying it and you want to keep finding out about that word and that translation process, but you also want to put it down because you feel vaguely tired by the author's style. I'm not sure how that happened, but it's not just me, I confirmed it with a colleague who's also read the book (or, more precisely, the first part of the book!).

The last part of the book holds the KJV up to more modern translations, which are also communal efforts but focus on getting it to be right rather than getting it to sound right. Some good criticisms in there, although I'm concerned that the deck has been intentially stacked by the author, and I'd like to know what happens with two other translations in particular: The Jerusalem Bible, which I think navigates literalism and beauty particularly well; and The Revised Standard Version, which purports to be derived from the KJV and is the most commonly used by scholars (at least the scholars I read). There are lots of problems with current translations, mostly along the line of "you get what you ask for" and the fact that the Bible is just not read as much, whether singly or communally.

Shakespeare was also a product of this same word-drenched period. So will that time never come again? Can there be no more Shakespeares? I like to think we've gained something with scholarly accuracy, but I do admit that there's something more to the KJV. Reading this book has convinced me to stick with KJV for personal reading for another year or two at least. After all, if it was good enough for Paul and Timothy, it's good enough for me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Review: A Thousand Ships

I'm a sucker for sugar-coated culture. If there's a sub-par thriller with interesting science behind it, I'm there. Michael Crichton used to fulfill part of this for me (although lately he's gone a little off the deep end, and by lately I mean in the past decade). Now it's the occasional cultural comic boo ... I mean, graphic novel. Age of Bronze Volume 1: A Thousand Ships is the first of seven books projected to cover the stories surrounding the Trojan War, and it's even better than I hoped.

This first book follows the abduction of Helen, the assembling of armies, the hiding and discovery of Achilles, and Agamemnon and Menelaus setting sail for Troy. The gods are offstage: prophecies and dreams are very important to the story, but all the action and true motivators are human. In doing so this makes it much more immediate, because it's easy to relate to the common impulses that the Greeks classified as deities, and not so easy to relate to the idea of those impulses being related to a powerful but flawed collection of deities.

My favorite character so far is easily Odysseus. The sequence in which he is ... well, "convinced" is not quite the right word, it's more outwitted ... to join the fleet is expertly told. The sites look like the archaeologists say they should, and the hairstyles and faces look like the human version of what's on ancient Greek pottery.

I've already got books 2 and 3 on hold from the library (I think I'm not the first who's stayed up way too late at night reading about the Trojan War), and the only disappointment is that books 4-7 aren't out yet and only come out once every 3-4 years. After 2500 years, what's another decade or two?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Through Electrical Signals from Your Brain You Can Move Mountains (But Only Online)

By Christmastime, you'll be able to purchase a headset that connects to your video game console. By thinking a command, you'll be able to tell that videogame to lift a rock or defeat an enemy or whatever: without lifting a finger, by only thinking and moving muscles in your face.

My question is, does this surprise you? More to the point, does it bother you that your PlayStation may be able to hear your thoughts?

This technology has actually been a long time in coming. Monkeys can move robot arms with their thoughts, parapelegics can move cursors on computer screens the same way, and now this, the commercially available alternative.

What's next is that this technology should get smaller and more nimble. I wouldn't be surprised if an option soon comes to install it inside you somehow, permanently attached (although I can see some anatomical limitations on the possibilities there, and if you're worried about a cell phone causing brain cancer, well, you won't even want to install a cellphone inside your skull). What it would be is a way to "throw your voice" to electronic devices by thinking.

This makes sense to me because I teach (for two lectures every winter) the exact mechanism of how a neuron works. The fact is that what you're thinking right now has a physical correlate. As you concentrate on something, tiny floodgates in your neurons open and close, making a wave of +-charged ions flow down the long, thin cell. (That's what the animation I mentioned last month was all about, actually.) Thoughts are physical, electrical events that can be detected with a physical, electrical device.

But while the thought is physical, the interesting thing about this applications (beyond their frivolity at first) is that they are centered around detecting your choice. In a sense, not subjugating free will but sensing and amplifying it. The TV remote or xBox controller detects your choice through the actions of your fingers. This headset detects it through the charges of your neurons. What's passive and active here is intensely important: the detector is passive, your will is active.

It's very important to watch out for technologies that may be active, not just passive, but I don't know of a way to change the brain signals electrically -- that's a much harder thing and may be physically impossible without invasive technology. This is just a way to detect them, and as such, it's a neat little gimmick and might help people without muscle function. It ultimately does not diminish your choice but amplifies it. And so it doesn't worry me, and I think it's kind of neat, with a little bit of wariness mixed in. Kind of like thinking about electronic voting machines ... wait, that might be a poor comparison ...

Here's the article about the technology:

Friday, June 6, 2008

Two Roads for College Graduates

One thing graduation ceremonies give you is a chance to take a breath, look back, and then look forward. In the past week I've seen two contrasting views of today's graduates. On the one hand, the recent report I read by an investment-banker type notes how the "cream of the crop" from elite universities is clamoring to get into hedge funds, the quickest way to make a buck (or 20 million) and be set for life. The problem for the rest of us is that these hedge funds speculate on things like food and oil, things we non-hedge-fund-investing types actually have to pay for when prices go up, things that are of inelastic demand. So from that one account you'd think the next generation is ready to make a million on our backs and retire to some peaceful place out of the way. (Of course, it won't work out like that for most of them even if they get what they want!)

But on the other hand, there's the fact that this generation is more than ever focused on the idea of service, and the idea of not charging too much for that service. Think Teach for America (I know graduated students doing that now). And the encouraging twist I see on this service-oriented generation is the degree to which they know that technology can be pressed into their projects to serve people.

This afternoon I saw an honors project presentation about creating a web site for low-income families to serve as an investment hub. Then another one about using simple generator technology to provide electricity to Africans "off the grid" in Rwanda. And I'm reminded of the "open source" textbook movement that is writing textbooks for free online, of Larry Wall's Perl project and how he provides that to everyone free of charge, of (another SPU project), and of Wikipedia (which I like more every day), and of Lostpedia (well, now we're getting off topic) ...

The point is that these graduates have a choice, one that seems to be increasingly stark: who are you gonna live for? You can't serve both God and mammon. As food and oil get more expensive, the choice becomes harder, but also there's this new technology that we've brought you up with, and it's good for more than just text messaging.

The potential of the internet in this case is just beginning to be tapped. The importance of keeping these networks up and running is increasing, because they can be used, for free, for some pretty good things, if we give these student projects a chance to bear fruit. The graduates are choosing as we speak which way they'll go, and after sitting through presentations and speeches today, I have more hope than I did this morning that enough will choose the right to keep us all above water.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hey Batter Batter ... Don't Swing!

Lookout Landing (Mariners blog) posted this picture of last night's final at-bat in the Mariners game, Yuniesky Betancourt vs. Frankie "The-White-Stuff-Under-The-Bill-of-my-Cap-is-just-a-Fashion-Statment" Rodriguez. Amazingly enough, he didn't swing at pitch 1, which was called a ball. Then the next three IDENTICAL pitches were swung at, ending the game with a strikeout in a one-run loss. He would have been better off just standing there.

The scary part? This guy's one of our BETTER hitters this year. How bad is it this year? I cheer when the Mariners DON'T swing. (I actually saw Richie Sexson take a walk in a critical situation once. That was cool.)

The great thing about baseball is that even when your team is historically bad you can still analyze precisely how historically bad they are.