Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Not Just For Bears Anymore

A company called Plantware and a team from Tel Aviv University are working to make a "living house" grown out of a tree. They call it ecoarchitecture. Here's a picture:


Oh, wait, that's wrong. HERE's the real picture:


Oops, I did it again. That's actually Alan Lee's depiction of the tree Hunding's Hall is built from in Wagner's Ring Cycle. (Note to self: find more of Alan Lee's pictures of Wagner.)

No, this is really it:


I can think of several pros and cons of the situation. What if you made it out of a fruit tree? Would you then be able to eat yourself out of house and home?

Monday, September 29, 2008

More Walker Percy Quotes from Pilgrim in the Ruins

p. 177: More than thirty years later he described how this discovery dawned upon him at Saranac: "I gradually began to realize that as a scientist -- a doctor, a pathologist -- I know so very much about man, but had little idea what man is."

p. 297 (from his National Book Award acceptance speech): "But since it seems appropriate to say a word about The Moviegoer, it is perhaps not too farfetched to compare it in one respect with the science of pathology. Its posture is the posture of the pathologist with his suspicion that something is wrong. There is time for me to say only this: that the pathology in this case had to do with the loss of individuality and the loss of identity at the very time when words like the 'dignity of the individual' and 'self-realization' are being heard more frequently than ever. ... In short, this book attempts a modest restatement of the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim."

p.301: "When the holy has disappeared, how in the blazes can a novelist expect to make use of it? Holderlin said that God had left us and I think that one can give a Catholic reading that though he has not left us, his name is used in vain so often that there remains only one way to speak of him: in silence. Perhaps the craft of the religious novelist nowadays consists mainly in learning how to shout in silence."

p.344: "The Southern writer now finds himself in the middle of somewhere and not quite knowing where. He's caught between the right in the South and the intellectual herd in the North who profess to be free creative spirits, and yet, all conforming to the same lines, the same hatred and abuse of the things they oppose." (This one reminds me of Juliet's recent posts on Palin hatred on her blog, or Camille Paglia's comments on the same, or the general phenomenon of Bush hatred.)

p.478: "... it is only through, first, the love of the scientific method and second, through its elevation and exhaustion as the ultimate method of knowing that one becomes open to other forms of knowing -- sciencing in the root sense of the word -- and accordingly, at least I think so, to a new kind of revival of Western humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition -- if we survive."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Book Review: O2: Breathing New Life into Faith

So after attending Bethany Community Church for 12 years, I calculate that I've listened to Richard Dahlstrom for at least 400 hours of my life. So when he puts out his first book, I put in an order. Near the end, there's a decription of a week including a council meeting I'm sure I was at. But just around the corner from that, he quotes this blog! Specifically he quotes one of the many posts about Scott Becker from a year ago, when Scott passed away.

I was talking to my dentist the other day, who also is a member of Bethany, and let him know he's in the book, too (two times, in fact).

So it was nice to read, although I had heard 95% in another form previously. I can't really review it, it would be like reviewing a book by my brother or something. So I can just say, wow, that's really cool.

I can also say, I'm looking forward to the second book now, if there will indeed be a second book.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review: Pilgrim in the Ruins

I don't read many biographies, mostly because they have become so long that you need several weeks and a dedicated interest in the biographee to make it through one. There's also the occupational hazard that as soon as you devote so much of your life to reading one, you begin bringing it up for every conversation and your friends begin to get sick of it. So I needed a driving force to be able to make it through this 500-page bio of Walker Percy by Jay Tolson. Thankfully, I have an interest in Percy and don't quite understand him, I recently read two of his books, and I was on a long plane flight in which my Nintendo DS, my portable DVD player, and my laptop had all been commandeered and requisitioned away from me.
I'm in no position to evaluate the quality or accuracy of this bio relative to others, but it did provide the one thing I look for in a biography: it explained where the author's coming from and helped me understand how he chose to live his life. Walker Percy was orphaned young (having lost grandfather, father, and possibly mother to suicide), taken in by extended family, became an agnostic med student in New York, had to quit because of TB, went through a crisis, then converted to Roman Catholicism and married, settling down to become an author only around the middle of his life. He had to choose between pathology and psychiatry in med school, and his writing is best understood as a natural extension of his philosophy. (The alliteration is presumably unintentional.) The book is half done before his first novel is published: there may be a bit too much of the family history and not enough of the intellectual history, but I won't quibble. I'm impressed by the way Percy lived his life, and cared for his family, and lived a somewhat hermit-like existence but still spoke his ideas to the world around him. And that made the bio worth reading.
I need to find a way to get his writing in front of my senior pre-med students again. I've used it once but I'm sure this year he'll make a comeback in my class.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Walker Percy Quote for the Day

I'm near the end of a biography of Walker Percy, and will review it soon. But this quote is just too germane to keep to myself:

Perhaps most interesting was his view of the Christian fundamentalists, "who ought," Percy said, "to be reckoned a friend and an ally but in these peculiar times may not be." Percy feared that the influence of fundamentalists was particularly invidious in the South, where they dominated the airwaves and uttered "the name of the Lord loudest and most often ... In my opinion, they do a disservice by cheapening the vocabulary of Christianity and pandering to a crude emotionalism divorced from reason. I know that St. Paul said that the Gospel was a stumbling block to the wise, but it does not follow that to save the faith it is necessary to believe that the universe was created six thousand years ago. And it is not necessary, to save the integrity of man's soul and its likeness to God, to believe that God could not have created man's body through an evolution from lower species."

One of Percy's themes is how using a word too much cheapens it and ultimately empties it of meaning. This is why Christians don't use Jesus' name to swear meaninglessly ... but do some of those same Christians also cheapen the name by using it too much, and too freely, with respect to physical/scientific questions? Does the fundamentalist take the Lord's name in vain by insisting on absolute literalism in Biblical interpretation?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Review: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Imagine going through Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center (this is easy for me because I just returned from there) and "going back in time" to observe, not cavemen painting on walls, but Mesopotamians drinking beer through straws out of a communal cup. If that sounds interesting to you, and it does to me, then this book is for you.

Covering, in order, beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola, this book steps through world history, explains the chemistry of how the drinks are made, and details their impact on world economies and advancements. I liked it, though it necessarily hews a bit close to the theory that technology drives culture, that the invention of these drinks caused rather than was driven by world events. But that's a conceit I'm willing to put up with in a fast-paced, wide-ranging book like this.

I think this might make for a good chemistry course sometime ...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Put Away the Blackberry

This was a good Op-Ed in the New York Times a few days ago, but I haven't had any time to post it till now:

Basically, it's about the fact that it's not so much the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer in America, it's the kind-of rich feeling much poorer than the very-rich. That's the gap that's really expanding, with the result that the middle-class people feel like they have to work 10 times harder, including working on vacations and weekends, to be able to keep up with the very-rich. And yet they can't, and houses get more expensive, and college gets more expensive, and the middle class ends up back farther, partly only by perception, but partly by the reality of market-driven inflation of house prices and other costs.

So this is why everyone around me seems so stressed out. We're working harder to stand still. I'd like to tell myself, just stop comparing yourself to the richer people who are growing exponentially richer. Psychologically that's a very easy trap to fall into, so this is easier said than done. But it is a choice at heart. There's a secret to being content (and it has nothing to do with the book by that title!), and part of it is willful ignorance of the life of the very-rich.

But then there's the time inflation. If a deadline's coming up at work and the boss expects you to sleep in the office to make it, and everyone else is doing it, you kind of have to, right? And this is where wisdom comes in. I have to tell myself, keep an eye out for alternatives. At the bottom line, you can't buy security by working yourself to death. The tired faces and full schedules around me tell me that, at least at some level, we think we can. Sometimes you have to stop and trust that though this job isn't perfect, it's good enough, and it's more important to go home to the kids.

I don't have many answers for this, but I do think part of this problem is illusion and the other part is social dynamics, and I sense very deeply that it doesn't have to be this way. So I'll be doing my best not to bring too much work along on my upcoming Florida vacation. It can wait. (Easy for me to say, I'm a relatively independent university professor! But I feel the pressures much the same.)

So ... guess I should stop being a hypocrite and go home to the kids now. See ya.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Little Green Idols?

Fascinating post on the Freakonomics blog about the correlations between Bigfoot sightings and UFO sightings. Apparently I live in one of the "hotspots" for both reported phenomena (I knew there was a reason I should hike more!). My favorite quote:
Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Colorado — both U.F.O. and Bigfoot hot spots —
are among the least religious states in the country, which might impact [that is, increase] their citizens’ likelihood of “seeing” both phenomena.

So non-religious people are more credulous for aliens and apemen? Does Bigfoot fill the "God-shaped hole"?

Someone needs to tell Richard Dawkins about this, it'll blow his mind ...

Read the rest at

PS: Also interesting/correlative is that the latest X-Files movie had more to do with the Catholic church and stem cell research than it did little green men or monster-of-the-week stuff (man, I wish I had seen more of the one multi-headed creature ...).