Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: Omega the Unknown

In honor of Free Comic Book Day on Saturday: So what happens when a novelist like Jonathan Lethem makes his name writing literature (and a memoir with the title Fortress of Solitude, a comics reference in itself), and then he returns to writing comics by remaking an obscure 10-issue miniseries about a covert robot war on earth? I guess this is what happens. It's awkward and yes, more than a little strange, and narratively it's strangely paced: after setting up all sorts of mysteries in the first few issues we're given a long didactic explanation for how it all works around issue 7. (Kind of like the fabled "Joop the Monkey" coming onscreen and explaining all Lost's mysteries that its co-creators have threatened us with.) But I have a soft spot for originality and surprising writing fluorishes, and this has those, so I'm glad I checked this one out from the library. But I'm not impressed enough to put Lethem on my reading list yet. That ambivalent enough for you?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine/Mexico Flu

So this flu is so new we don't even know what to call it yet, but it's already spread through our continent all the way to Canada. I'm optimistic that it'll all be OK in the end if we panic a bit now and stop its spread. The pertinent data:
-- It doesn't seem quite that severe, at least in the sense that there are no confirmed US deaths yet.
-- We're not sure if the flu vaccine will protect or not yet, but it's possible it could, because it does contain a similar virus in it.
-- Tamiflu (and another antiviral) works against it. So far -- the farther it spreads the more chance the little bugs will find a way around it.

All told, it could be a lot worse (and viruses mutate fast enough that it might get a lot worse, but I'm still hopeful). So wash, wash, wash hands, and try to stop touching your face! Of course, trying to get 3 little boys to stop that is like telling them to interpret Proust or something.

Personally, I have a bit of something right now but it's not that severe, and may just be lack of sleep, plus I was last in Mexico a year ago. That's the trick, knowing when you've got something and when you haven't.

Oh, and I'm trying not to be too put out at the fact that all these high school students got to fly to Mexico and I had to drive in a car to California on Spring Break! Actually, driving was not that bad, come to think of it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quote from The New Faces of Christianity

The last paragraph in the book:

"Reading the Bible through fresh eyes constantly reminds us of the depths that still remain to be discovered there. At the least, knowing this should provide some kind of defense against the next spurious claim about the real truth of Christianity, the great secret about the authentic sources of the religion, based on documents unaccountably hidden from the world until recently. In reality, the answers in plain sight are quite amazing enough."

Book Review: The New Faces of Christianity

Philip Jenkins wrote this book as a follow-up to The Next Christendom. It has the same topic -- the explosive growth of the church in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia to the extent that there are more Christians there now than in "The West" -- but this is a lot more detailed and a bit drier. Now he actually has time to get into the specifics of how these churches interpret the Bible differently (and usually, more directly), although even here the writing sometimes skitters past very interesting points. The fascinating thing to me is that practically every Bible passage that gives Westerners pause, or that we don't understand, is actually understood well and even loved by the Southern churches. The Parable of the Bad Steward? Check, they understand because it's about a time when loans have HUGE interest rates on them and can be renegotiated face-to-face. Revelation? Check, they live in a world of pestilence and plague and BAD, repressive, corrupt governments. Hebrews/Leviticus? Check, they live in a world that still practices animal sacrifice. With the single exception of the Invasion of Canaan, everything that gives us trouble they understand and get. So for that reason alone it's worth getting this book, to see how the Bible works for them, and to listen to the "Southern family" tell us what they think.

This book does include some of the theologically strange interpretations as well, but I think they're more fringe than mainstream (Jenkins made them seem somewhat mainstream in his last book, when he didn't really describe them or their contexts). Lots of Prosperity Gospel bear traps in those woods but, ahem, we have Joel Osteen, so let's not cast stones.

It seems like the engaging writing got into the last book while the details (some of them at least) got into this one. I think you pretty much have to read them in order, and there's still more of the story to tell after this, but for the sake of listening to voices you didn't know existed, this book is well worth it. The book's about Them, not Us or the author. And it's well worth asking, if they're reading the Bible and they get this understanding out of it, maybe God's saying something to me through that, right?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Another Reason to Like Lost

I'll just follow up yesterday's Lost-related post with another one. Lost name-drops a lot of books on the show, and in a recent interview, the show's creators were asked which of those books may be the most important. Turns out it's the books I've already read:

BE: All right, this one is a little complicated, but it has the potential to be revealing. If you had to pick one book for “Lost” fans to read to understand what’s going on, should it be “Slaughterhouse 5,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” “A Separate Reality,” the “Narnia” chronicles, or “Valis”? And I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the last one.

DL: It’s a Philip K. Dick book. Um…I think my own personal poll would align with Carlton, which would be the “Narnia” books. A, it’s a series of books that sometimes tracks the same characters but sometimes abandons those characters to track entirely different characters, and B) it’s a more epic story that builds toward an equally epic conclusion. There will be many parallels, we feel, between that universe and the “Lost” universe when all is said and done.
CC: Especially when it comes to fauns.
DL: Oh, what a big spoiler!

So not only is it Narnia in the sense of the well-known first volume, but Narnia in the sense of the whole series, up to and including The Last Battle. (It's nice to see someone appreciating that book after Neil Gaiman's taking it to task on a relatively tangential point -- have I posted about that?)

And if C.S. Lewis based Narnia on his Biblical narrative worldview of history as story ... that means Lost is loosely based on the Bible? It would imply at the very least that there is a payoff and summing-up at the end of the show, unlike other mythologies that come from the minds of California-ized worldviews (I'm looking at YOU, Chris Carter!).

See, I told you there's a reason why I love that show.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why I'm Looking Forward to the New Star Trek Movie

... It's because J.J. Abrams is involved in it. Even though some of the trailer looks, well, non-Star-Trekkish in certain ways, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt because he has shown multiple times that he knows what to do with a story (the evidence: Lost, Cloverfield, Mission: Impossible III, although I haven't been able to stand more than a few minutes of Fringe ... ).

Wired magazine allowed Abrams to take over their issue and here's an interview from that issue (PG-13 for language):

This is a storyteller who seems to know what stories are for. Granted, he may mess it up entirely, but I'll wait and see.

PS: Beyond the trailers, there's a film clip from Star Trek on iTunes now that shows promise, if only because there seems to be a cool technological trick to teleporting in warp space ... I'm intrigued, and I like Simon Pegg as the new Scotty too. Not sure about the new Kirk but he's supposed to be a jerk, right?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Protein Folding May Prolong Your Life

So you've seen all those commercials for anti-oxidizing this or that, right? That's because there's a theory that those extra "radical" oxygens that are accidentally produced as you convert oxygen to water in your mitochondria, those radicals fly around your cell damaging things willy-nilly and causing your body to age.

Well, that's a theory, and it has it points. But there's an idea coming down the line that protein folding plays a role in the aging process brought about by oxidative stress.

The interesting point comes when comparing mice to naked mole rats. Mice die after a few years, while Naked Mole Rats could be three decades old (it would be a stretch for one to be older than me right now, but not absolutely impossible!). Both animals start out with similar amounts of oxidized cysteines in their proteins when young, but mice accumulate oxidative damage to their cysteines, while in the rats the cysteines seem to be protected. And the clincher is the rats have much more stable proteins, which seems to protect their cysteines from oxidative damage.

So to live longer you need to have more stable proteins? Funny, my entire research program hinges around stabilizing proteins. So let's just say this particular theory holds "home field advantage" with me. To the protein-folding related diseases of Mad Cow and Alzheimer's, can we now add plain old aging?
Huzzah for proteins!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Haul, April 2009

We did our usual Library Book Sale thing. Got some good books, but the sad news is they decided not to even have records at the sale anymore. How am I going to stock up on Wagner box sets for a dollar now? But highlights include:

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
One of Polkinghorne's books on science and faith
A Sandman book by Neil Gaiman to fill in one of the gaps in my collection
A book on the making of the periodic table
Simply Christian by N.T. Wright
Faster by James Gleick
A book of astronomy art
Cities of God by Rodney Stark
Travel books for Albuquerque, Boston, and the art of New Mexico for upcoming trips
A book of Loren Eiseley's unpublished journals
An old protein chemistry book given to Hans Neurath (his library must have gotten put into the sale)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Britain Has Indeed Got Talent

This is something to watch, an antidote to thousands of half-baked American Idol auditions. Check out the 4 minute mark, at which Simon Cowell wears an expression I thought I'd never see on his face.

Embedding is disabled but this is the most complete version I've found, so click through to see what I'm talking about:

Friday, April 10, 2009

Darkness Upon Darkness

Mark Rothko is my favorite artist. His works have often been domesticated by being reproduced in small versions (like, say, on a computer monitor) that don't capture that these pieces of canvas are bigger than your front door and full of multiple layers and washes and bits of surprising color. Tonight at the Good Friday service our pastor used the phrase "darkness upon darkness" to describe our time. It brought to mind the troubled life of Rothko, one illustrated simply by viewing his paintings in order. By the end of his life he was painting canvases all black, it was "darkness upon darkness." So for the Holy Weekend here are representations of Rothko's work, in chronological order:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Don't Believe the Cover

The Newsweek cover this week claims to describe "The Decine and Fall of Christian America." I would find this very interesting if I were convinced it is actually happening. There are many aspects of "Christian America" that deserve to decline and fall, so part of me hoped that the article would be about that. But it's not, it's about the increase of "secular mindsets" and things that have been around for years. The problem is the article starts from a faulty (or at least incomplete) reading of data and builds a house of cards on that. It is built on the premise that people are changing their beliefs about God, when what's happening is they're changing what box they check for overall affiliation -- they are not significantly changing behavior.

Here is the misleading paragraph, early in the story (and one of the few parts with actual relevant numbers):

According to the American Religious Identification Survey that got Mohler's attention, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent. The Jewish population is 1.2 percent; the Muslim, 0.6 percent. A separate Pew Forum poll echoed the ARIS finding, reporting that the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008—roughly the same percentage of the electorate as African-Americans. (Seventy-five percent of unaffiliated voters chose Barack Obama, a Christian.) Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

Did you notice how in the second half of the paragraph there's a shift from percentages to numbers? I hunted down some of the actual numbers to check and, you know, Rodney Stark is right: the numbers that are actually growing significantly are mostly "no affiliation" people, not really atheists, which are such a small relatively constant percentage that they don't have much of an affect on the big picture (apparently they just buy their militant-atheist canon books a lot). But, look at Stark's book, when you ask these no affiliation people what they believe you find pretty similar numbers to the mainstream of Christianity! (Maybe this points out that "fuzziness" extends into Christianity, but it does not imply that there's a major sociological shift going on.) These people pray, they believe in God, they just haven't gone to any church for years and don't see its relevance or purpose. These people have been like this for a long time, only now they're changing the box they check from "Christian" to "no affiliation."
The funny thing is, articles like this one are powerful; if they repeat a distortion enough times people start to believe it. Quick, take a guess, what's the percentage of atheists in France? A.) 30% B.) 50% C.) 70% ?
Oops, I wrote that question poorly, because, France is actually only 14% atheist. And most of the other European countries aren't even in the double digits.
So that's where the real challenge is, not convincing people that there's a God, or even telling them about Jesus, they know, but think it doesn't change things for them. I think the proof is in the pudding, with evidence: showing how Jesus can change lives and communities, how it matters beyond just "checking off a box." The demographic shift is not from belief to non-belief: it's from community structure to lack of structure (for those who are changing to "no affiliation" at least). And there are ways the Spirit can move in that if we listen to the true data, not to someone else's facile interpretation of it.
PS: And if "Christian America" is really declining and becomes a minority, then bully for that and Thy will be done. Read Stanley Hauerwas' Resident Aliens for the reasons why. A "Christian America" that follows Christ would look very, very different in any case.