Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: Just After Sunset

This one's Stephen King's collection of recent short stories. I've been hearing for the past decade or so that King has turned into a Serious Writer (albeit one who still likes to freak people out) and I thought a collection of short stories would be the best way to check this out, rather than committing to a 700-page monster novel. And you know what? It was enjoyable enough. The best stories were actually romantic ghost stories (although there's a Lovecraftian psychological thriller that gives those a run for their money): more Ghost than horror movie.

Only a few of the stories had an author as the main character, so King avoided that rut for the most part. And his own author's notes on the origin of each story in the back are priceless, kind of an audio commentary. I like his personal thoughts, like that he feels there must be an afterlife because we're just too incredible and complex creatures to be simply thrown away when we die. That's a statement of natural theology and, you know, it's a good place to start.

Now, I only see glimmers of evidence that King is a Serious Writer here and there: for the most part, these stories are popcorn, and in fact I'm sure some will be turned into movies before too long. But there's some nutrition to this junk food. And my goodness but it's fast fast reading.

Just don't read the last story if you're squeamish AT ALL. That's all I'll say. (Now you're curious, aren't you?)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dusting for Drugs in Fingerprints

If you're a fan of CSI, beware, this may be a spoiler for a future episode. But for the rest of us, it's just news.

A new technique can find drug metabolites in fingerprints. What they do is put drug-specific antibodies onto magnetic dust, they sprinkle the dust on the fingerprint and brush it away like normal. When a solution is applied to the fingerprint, the antibodies will glow if there is, for example, THC in the fingerprint oil. The shape of the fingerprint is retained and it can be traced back to a specific person just like normal.

I wonder what other metabolites would end up in fingerprint oil: would it be possible to read intense emotion from the chemical residue left behind? Or steroid metabolites from a baseball player's locker handle? I'm sure there's some touchy privacy issues here too.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book Review: Home

I should have watched There Will Be Blood before reading Home. But I had no idea one of those would have affected the other, so why would it have stopped me? But the only thing I didn't like about There Will Be Blood was accomplished in spectacularly understated fashion by Home.
Maybe I should explain that.
There Will Be Blood was really a great movie, but, like Citizen Kane, it was focused on just one man and his love of power. Even the second (or third if you count the kid)-most important character, the preacher in the town, is not really explained or given true motivation. Especially in the final scene of that movie, I felt that the preacher, for all the great performance given, was just a prop (and if you doubt that, consider the depiction of the preacher's flock -- they're definitely props).
That's just par for the course. I assume Paul Thomas Anderson (writer and director of the movie) wasn't interested in religion as more than a plot point, so he had no real insight into the religious characters. I guess that's OK -- he nailed the central character, and that's the point of the movie.
But as I watched that movie, I was in the middle of reading Home by Marilynne Robinson, which is primarily about preachers and their families in mid-century Iowa. And the depth and texture she brings to each of the characters -- the old widower ex-preacher, his youngest daughter, and the prodigal older brother who returns home -- is so amazing that it rubbed off on what I expected from what was billed as one of the "movies of the year." So thanks a lot, Marilynne Robinson, you set the bar so high with your characters I may never be able to enjoy a poor characterization again.
Home is the sequel of sorts to Gilead, Robinson's earlier book that won the Pulitzer prize. Gilead focuses on one preacher's family and Home on the other (the two preachers are best friends as well). The stories overlap but are not necessary to each other. Still, the different perspectives when combined give a sort of third dimension to the tale. You understand that the things one character does to deeply hurt another are not intended that way, not quite, at least.
Robinson's books are about the people in them. There's not much interaction with the world at large, and their world seems a bit distant from ours. Which makes it all the more amazing when their inner lives and struggles speak so clearly and well to us 21st-century folks. When you step back, not that much goes on in the course of the book, but it's so richly and lovingly detailed that you realize just how wonderful this ordinary stuff is.
It's not a fast read but it's a very, very good one. Hopefully this one will win some prizes as well.

Monday, December 22, 2008

What Happens When You Fill an Apartment with Copper Sulfate Solution


(This image also from Nature journal's Photos of the Year)

Why You Should Cover Your Mouth When You Cough

(Image from Nature journal's Pictures of the Year)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Copernicus Rests in Peace

A great news article (and a nice confirmation of the historical method) from Science magazine:

Nicolaus Copernicus died in 1543, decades before his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium changed the world with the idea that Earth orbits the sun. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

In 2005, archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in Pultusk, Poland, used church records and ground-penetrating radar to unearth a skeleton from under a medieval cathedral in the Polish town of Frombork whose age matched the 70-year-old Copernicus. Analysis of the bones and a reconstruction of the face supported the identification. But without DNA evidence, the team couldn't be sure--and Copernicus, a Catholic priest, left no known heirs.

He did leave hairs, however. In the archives of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, researchers found several nestled deep in the binding of Copernicus's well-thumbed copy of a standard astronomical reference, Calendarium Romanum Magnum. Uppsala geneticist Marie Allen extracted and amplified mitochondrial DNA from the badly degraded hairs and compared it with mtDNA from the skeleton's tooth. The results, announced last week in Warsaw, were positive.

Pultusk archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski, who led the 2005 excavation, says Copernicus's bones will be reburied in Frombork in 2010.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Free Christmas Rock

(Rock = the musical kind not the geological kind.)

Last year the Violet Burning (one of my favorite bands) put out a Christmas album called Divine, and this year they're making it free to download. Highlights include perhaps my favorite version of "Silent Night" anywhere and a nicely different version of "We Three Kings."

Here's the link:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

I was happy to find out the other day that several of my colleagues have gotten into Neil Gaiman too. He's making inroads into the magic-and-fantasy reading lists started by Tolkien and continued by Robert Jordan and friends. The great thing about Neil Gaiman is that he's just a really good storyteller. His plots, characters, settings, MacGuffins, all if it, is just consistently very good. Rarely is one element far above the others -- in fact, I often don't remember exactly how a story ended or a plot element was resolved after a few months -- but for my money Gaiman is the most consistent craftsman writing fantastic stories today. (The exception is American Gods, in my opinion, Gaiman's truly Great American Novel.)

The Graveyard Book is, what else, consistent with all that. It's the story of a young boy whose family is murdered in the first chapter (yeah, this is Gaiman after all) but who wanders away to a graveyard and is taken in by the, ahem, residents there. Of course, there's a barrow, and an old Roman ghost (I would have liked to see more of him, actually), and enough authentic and funny historical flavor for the different ghosts to make it all work wonderfully. In his acknowledgements, Gaiman credits Kipling first, and that's really right on. I even read Sam some of the "younger boy" chapters and he fell under the spell of Gaiman too.

I may actually prefer Gaiman's "young adult" fiction, like this book, and am now going back to find more of it. His writing is colorful and imaginative enough that often the more "adult" elements seem to get the in way. So, ignore the "young adult" label if it bothers you, it means this book is better, not worse. This book's highly recommended as average Gaiman, which is very good indeed.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Minor Diversion





All for the Gators

Stand up and Holler!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Athens Science Conference Offers an Ambiguous Message

On November 14, the journal Science published an article "Vatican Science Conference Offers an Ambiguous Message." That same week I was studying Acts 17, where Paul talks to philosophers in Athens. In particular, they call him a "seed-picker" at first, which can be translated "babbler." Or, perhaps, a title much like the one above could be placed on Acts 17.

At the 2008 conference, a cardinal from the Vatican named Schönborn presented on the Catholic church's position on evolution (Schönborn's own position has been muddled by a controversial op-ed in the New York Times a few years ago, but the confusion I detect here is in the audience as much as behind the podium):

Schönborn's prepared talk at the conference was not the source of controversy. "It was so very abstract," says Gereon Wolters, a philosopher of science at the University of Konstanz, Germany. "It offered the standard view that evolution is okay" but that "evolutionism"--a term used by religious conservatives for the promotion of atheism through evolutionary biology--"is not." [Now note the mixed response of the scientists:] Some scientists even saw signs of progress in the talk. "I was relieved to hear the cardinal clearly distancing himself from intelligent design," says Francis Collins, former director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research
Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, "referring to that 'school' as having made

The sparks flew when the cardinal fielded questions. "He still expressed reservations about whether evolution can account for all aspects of biology," says Collins, including whether Darwinian evolution can account for the generation of species. "It was preposterous," says Abelson, who says that the meeting took " a step backwards" in the church's relationship with science. Wolters was disappointed, too: "Schönborn has the same intention as the pope has--to fight evolutionism," he says, but "he is
just repeating this creationist gibberish" used by U.S. proponents of
intelligent design. Wolters adds: "Fighting science in this way is a losing

Other scientists at the meeting disagree. The cardinal's doubts about evolution do not represent a conflict between the church and science, says Werner Arber, a geneticist at the University of Basel, Switzerland, who co-organized the meeting. "Relations continue to be good." Schönborn gave "a confused lecture," says Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and a member of the academy, but "the church's position on evolution, insofar as it can be said to have one, is
unchanged. … There is a belief in a creator who existed before the big bang
and set the universe in motion, which is something that cannot be proved or
disproved by science."

My take? The confused response from the scientists does not mean the cardinal was confused. Maybe he was, but I can't tell from the tone of the remarks being made. The commentary echoes the ending of Paul's speech in Acts:

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

So the audience's confusion or lack thereof doesn't imply anything either way about the cardinal's speech. I just can't tell. I can tell that mentioning a creator in the 21st century is kind of like mentioning the resurrection in the 1st century: lots of different responses. I hope the cardinal agrees with my take on things, but the five different scientists seemed to hear five different things in the speech. Maybe I'd hear something else.

Bottom line: the fragmentation and confusion is not just on the church's side. Science has its own conflicting schools of thought and nuances of speech to work out. Words like "babbler" or "confused" are the kind of accusations that easily boomerang back on their speaker. When will we get to the point where we're actually listening to each other and not looking to categorize a speaker based on a few catch-phrases?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tom Clancy Was Right (Again)

I sure hope our counter-terrorism officials are reading Tom Clancy.

Not because his writing is particularly good -- in fact, it's gone into a distinct decline since The Sum of All Fears (which I consider a prime example of science writing as well as of novel-writing). But he has a mind for plot, that is, how things can happen. (On the other hand, he doesn't really have a clue how real people talk or think, but if you can ignore that ... )

With Hunt for Red October, Clancy apparently was so right-on with his reconstruction of how submarines work, using only information from public sources, that some people were sure he had access to classified info. Far as I know, he didn't, he just made the right assumptions for how these things must work.

When I woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001 and saw that two planes had hit the WTC, my first thought was "This is just like the end of Debt of Honor" where a jumbo jet is piloted into the US Capitol, during a joint session of Congress, no less.

Then came the horrific attacks on Mumbai. Those followed the plot of his only post-September 11 novel, The Teeth of the Tiger, in which terrorists coordinate attacks at malls in several American cities using small groups with lots of big guns. The size of the groups, the method of the attacks and the nature of the targets all align with the Mumbai attacks.

Now, of course, Clancy being Clancy, he added a few extra right-wing fluorishes: the terrorists entered the US along an unfenced portion of the Mexican border as illegal immigrants, and one of the attacks was stopped by two brothers carrying concealed weapons! It made for an exciting rescue of innocent civilians, that's for sure.

But if I was charged with stopping these attacks, I'd start by re-reading those books, because (and I say this admirably) Clancy seems to know how a terrorist plan would work.

Book Review: Tried by War

So we turn back to history. McPherson is an accomplished historian who looked around at a Lincoln convention near Gettyburg and noticed that while there were sessions on nearly every aspect of Lincoln's life, there was nothing about how he made his decisions as "commander in chief" of the armed forces. This would be how he chose generals, but even more so, how did he manage the armies and even dictate strategy? How did the public pronouncements like the Emancipation Proclamation fit in to his overall military scheme? Since McPherson kept it down to below 300 pages I thought it would be worth reading this book.

And it was, although once in a while the rush of names involved without contexts made the going pretty woolly. McPherson for the most part keeps things moving and focuses on the war from Lincoln's perspective. For someone whose main Civil War education comes from Ken Burns, I was able to keep up and learned quite a bit about Lincoln's habits and decisions. It always amazes me just how close the Union felt to defeat in mid-1864. I also understand a little more why some people say (wrongly!) that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, not over slavery: for political reasons, at the beginning of the war, states' rights were indeed emphasized, although as the war proceeded, it became more and more clear that it was really about slavery. This came out in 1864 as all sorts of election-year ugliness. The steadfast stubbornness of Lincoln in the face of near-defeat makes 1864 to be as crucial a year as any. Although the tide had turned, it was by no means obvious till Sherman captured Atlanta and Sheridan defeated Jubal Early.

One thing, as an outside observer: why is it that the names of the confederate officers, even relatively minor ones, are so much more familiar than the union officers? On the union side: Grant, Sherman. Maybe McClellan and Burnside. On the confederate side: Lee, Jackson, Early, Forrest, Beauregard, Stuart, Longstreet, Pickett, Hood, Bragg ... I don't think it's all because I have relatives in southern Virginia, and that would just account for Jeb Stuart. The union officers had a systemic failure of will and even personality. Until Grant came along, and he paid a very high price for his success. The price exacted on the country by the Civil War was a high one, but Lincoln was determined to pay it.

This book tends to gloss by the other personalities (because it must to keep its focus), but as insight into Lincoln, the pressures he faced, and how and when he stood up to them, this is a very worthwhile book.

PS: I just remembered another fact that surprised me: the central role of slaves to the deadlock over prisoner exchanges. Because the confederates would consider the slaves property, Lincoln stopped all POW exchanges. Black soldiers were frequently rounded up and shot by the confederates after being taken prisoner. This level of uncompromising hatred is important to remember -- when a side starts doing stuff like that it has clearly started to capitulate to evil. That's something to watch out for in one's own self, too, by the way.