Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Hard is This Really?

I mean, just talk to your kids. They're kind of important. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as them. And they make funny noises when you blow raspberries on them.

Here's the article that prompted this thought, although I just read the first part before mentally throwing up my hands in dismay:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Call of the Year

This is too funny. Usually I find Mariners' announcer Mike Blowers annoying but apparently on Sunday he turned clairvoyant. You need to listen to both audio clips in order to understand what's going on. Oh ... and make sure your volume's turned down for the second clip ...

Friday, September 25, 2009

TV Review: The Lost Room

The Lost Room is a 6-part miniseries that showed on SciFi (now SyFy) network, and its real title should be Lost for People Who Don't Have Time for Lost. It's got a similarly interesting premise and of course isn't nearly so convoluted or referential as Lost but in the wait till January for the final season, this miniseries fills in the "weird TV show" slot nicely. And it's only 4-5 hours of watching to commit to. The first hour is actually a bit weak but it really picks up steam with the second hour, when the "rules" by which the several "objects" operate begin to be combined in really interesting ways. The show was like a good comic book, very plot-driven and if anything a little thin on the characters but if it took more time on characters it'd be more than 6 hours long, now, wouldn't it?

Some have complained that it's great till the very end and I can't figure out quite why. The end is a little bit stock, but there's some things about it that are different that I liked. The ultimate "reason" for the strange happenings isn't explained, but it's an open universe. The character arcs are all nicely tidied up, which is really all you should expect.

So -- it takes about as much time as watching 2 long movies, and it's more inventive than most. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: Empire of Illusion

All through this book I was trying to think of where I had heard of its author before. Then in the final chapter he admits, "As I was writing my book American Fascists on the Christian Right ... " and everything fell into place. This screed, at times spot on but just as often over the top and vague, was written by the same fellow who used to be a foreign correspondent and now likens conservative Christians to fascists. I'm glad it took me that long to figure out why his views were so extreme, because I'm well aware of his previous work and I may have listened a bit less if I knew he was the type not to really listen to conservative Christians. I'm not all that conservative myself but I am tired of those on the left who will not really listen to them/us. And Hedges is one of those.

So this book is a mixture of easy targets, good honest jeremiads, and old liberal tropes dressed up in the latest news of Spring 2009 when the book apparently went to press. In the past few months things have turned around enough -- while they are still shaky -- that the apocalyptic pronouncements in the last chapter about the coming systemic collapse ring hollow, although, he's right, you never know. I just find the book format to be too unresponsive, and the last chapter itself colors the rest of the book as not taking the long view.

An outline of the criticized institutions:
1.) Wrestling/television/celebrity culture: I thought the comparison of celebrity worship to ancient gods is actually useful and helpful, and there were some things I didn't know about wrestling, but you know, I really don't think the "uncensored" episodes of Jerry Springer are anything but the most extreme edge of TV ...
2.) Pornography: The thrown-away too-old actresses are the angle here, and the absolute abuse that is endemic to the industry. Probably the most-agreed with chapter on my part, although the repetition does get absolutely sickening. I think a stronger theology of sin and the body would strengthen this chapter.
3.) College: Even Berkeley's too hung up on football. Well, there is a reorganization of priorities going on right now, and if it's not a real re-org, colleges will go the way of the newspapers. But I have hope that there's lots of things we do better than anyone else in this area.
4.) Positive thinking: Now that Dan Brown has revealed he is on the side of the "positive thinkers" I am absolutely sure I'm against it. Some useful observations in Hedges chapter but also an easy target.
5.) Politics: By the time he started quoting Nader extensively I started reaching for my David Brooks as an antidote. The good-to-not ratio was way down in this chapter and the citations of Spring 2009 data way up.

So Jeremiads are always readable, but not always right. I really wish this had more about where to go with all this beyond three pages about love tacked on the end. Too many times it doesn't offer an alternative after trashing what rightfully should be trashed and the end is downright alarmist. Hedges, you had me for the first half but then you lost me. Too bad, because I think if you'd stop calling them fascists that the church would agree with you on quite a bit. Up until you get to decrying elites while at the same time deploring pretty much everyone else in politics. Isn't that a bit elitist?

Friday, September 18, 2009

St. Elmo's Fire 30K Feet Up

Patrick Smith in his airplane column on posted a link to this picture of what St. Elmo's Fire looks like to an airplane pilot. Check it out!

(He reiterates that, yes, it does actually look like that.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Lost Symbol Spoiler of All Spoilers

So I haven't read Dan Brown's new one, The Lost Symbol, but I've read several reviews and can tell you it's probably a valiant effort but will not match The Da Vinci Code in societal impact. Which, um, I also have not read. But in my field you trust others to run experiments and report the results. I've read the reviews of three different reviewers and also the Wikipedia plot summary and that's amusing enough for me.

By the way, Laura Miller's review in is by far the best review as in most informative and most appropriately skeptical of Brown's entire philosophy.

Since I think any readers of this blog have better things to do than to read 500 pages of Dan Brown's writing, I just have to pass on the cornerstone of Brown's theory this time, the secret Word of Power that characters are pursuing through Washington DC. So don't read if you don't wanna know. Straight from Wikipedia, here is the Word:

With the night's events over, Peter decides to show Langdon the true Word. He shows Langdon that it is hidden in the cornerstorne of the Washington Monument, and that the Word is actually the Bible. Peter reveals that the true Ancient Mystery is in fact the realization that people are not God's subjects, but in fact possess the capability to be gods themselves. Once they realize this fact, they will open the gateway to a magnficent future.

So Dan Brown reveals his Gnostic roots again. "Go ahead, eat that fruit, you surely won't die, you will know good and evil and will be like him!" This is just as wrong as the Da Vinci Code, but it appears to be hidden so deep this time that hopefully most people will just skate on by it. Still ... sigh ...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Book Quotes: GKC on Science and History

I just finished G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, which I've been meaning to read for a long time. It's a response to H.G. Wells's own science-based history of the universe and man. G.K. Chesterton aims to show how man stands out among nature and how Christ stands out among religions. Some good quotes in there, and instead of a review I just went through the trouble of typing them all out (hoping some of the wit will rub off through the keyboard), and so here's my greatest hits:

“I do not believe in dwelling on the distances that are supposed to dwarf the world; I think there is even something a trifle vulgar about this idea of trying to rebuke spirit by size. And as the first idea is not feasible, that of making the earth a strange planet so as to make it significant, I will not stoop to the other trick of making it a small planet in order to make it insignificant.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 1


“Nobody can imagine how nothing can turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else. It is really far more logical to start by saying ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’ even if you only mean ‘In the beginning an unthinkable power began some unthinkable process.’” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 1


“The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 1


“For clothes are literally vestments and man wears them because he is a priest.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 1


“Among the more ignorant of the enlightened there was indeed a convention of saying that priests had obstructed progress in all ages; and a politician once told me in a debate that I was resisting modern reforms exactly as some ancient priest probably resisted the discovery of wheels. I pointed out, in reply, that it was far more likely that the ancient priest made the discovery of the wheels. It is overwhelmingly probable that the ancient priest had a great deal to do with the discovery of the art of writing. It is obvious enough in the fact that the very work hieroglyphic is akin to the word hierarchy.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 1


“Indeed the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein is indeed a ‘type,’ in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say ‘I do not understand,’ it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat ‘You do not understand.’ And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch.4 p. 230


“Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative. But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch.4 p. 237


“The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion. There had never before been any such union of the priests and the philosophers.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch.5 p. 243


“I mean the primary and overpowering yet palpable impression that the universe after all has one origin and one aim; and because it has an aim must have an author. … Atheism only became possible in that abnormal time; for atheism is abnormality. It is not merely the denial of a dogma. It is the reversal of a subconscious assumption in the soul; the sense that there is a meaning and direction in the world it sees. Lucretius, the first evolutionist who endeavored to substitute Evolution for God, had already dangled before men’s eyes his dance of glittering atoms, by which he conceived cosmos as created by chaos.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 6 p. 294-5.


“It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 7 p. 302.


“We must grasp from the first this character in the new cosmos; that it was larger than the old cosmos. In that sense Christendom is larger than creation; as creation had been before Christ. It included things that had not been there; it also included the things that had been there.” – GKC Everlasting Man Ch. 7 p. 309.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Best Science-Themed Bar and Grill in Boston

Just up the street from M.I.T., and next to the M.I.T. museum (which expressly forebade me from posting pictures on a blog on the ticket, so sorry about that), there is a small bar and grill called "Miracle of Science." This is its menu. If you have to ask what I ordered then you don't know me very well. OK, one hint: It's near to where rubidium should be. :)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Asphalt and Moses

The Dead Sea is possibly the most unique place on Earth. Not only is it incredibly significant historically, but it is also unique in its chemistry: the high salt levels and low sea levels most people know about, but even more so it has large mats of strange microbes living in it, and it produces asphalt, of all things. In fact, there was a lively trade set up between Canaan and the surrounding countries for the stuff. The cool thing about asphalt is that we can date it and place it, and we can see that this trade is very old. We find asphalt went from the Dead Sea to Egypt in mummies dating back to 200 B.C. and may have be traded long before that. Did trade caravans passing through Canaan pick up asphalt as well as the occasional slave (say, one sold by his eleven brothers)?

Exodus describes how the baby Moses was set out on the river in a basket lined with "heimar," probably asphalt just like this. The Egyptians didn't use asphalt for bricks like the Babylonians did (they used stone, or evidently straw-based clay). In Egypt asphalt was used for waterproofing royal baths and making mummies. It would be just the thing for turning a basket into a tiny boat for a tiny boy. Did it require a royal connection to obtain? Did that royal connection also allow Moses' family to know when and where the princess of Egypt bathed? That would be just a conspiracy theory. The certain thing is that the future of Israel was saved with some special chemistry that could have come from near the Dead Sea, just like Israel itself.

(This story from the book Echoes of Life by Gaines, Eglinton, and Rullkotter, p. 261.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book Review: Planet Narnia

I read a lot of books this past month, and this is the one I enjoyed most. I've known about it but avoided it for a year or two now, because it seemed like a fanboy kind of book, or a blog post (horrors!). To summarize, in this book Michael Ward proposes that the Chronicles of Narnia has a hidden internal structure, almost a "code" behind it all. That sentence raises the hackles and defenses of most scholars/scientists. It makes it sound like there's a Dan Brown-style conspiracy behind this well-known but also polarizing set of children's books, one step removed from the "Bible Code"-type of nonsense. The amazing thing is, after reading this book, I'm convinced he's right.

Ward knows Lewis inside and out, and uses all his knowledge to cram in tons of information to build his case. No stone or poem left unturned. And the key to it all is Lewis's interest in the planets, both the modern and medieval conceptions of them. I agree with Ward, it looks like C.S. Lewis built the seven books of Narnia around the seven medieval planets, just like he built his "Space Trilogy" around three medieval/modern planets. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is Jupiter, Prince Caspian is Mars, Dawn Treader is Sol (the sun), and so on.

What makes this work is how it makes things "fit" that never fit before: Father Christmas showing up in LWW (he is "jovial"), all the death and destruction in the Last Battle (it is "saturnine"), the sets of twins in The Horse and His Boy ("mercurial" reflections), for example. The really cool thing is that his whole point is that science, mythology, and the worship of the true triune God are all fused and used together in C.S. Lewis's work. I did not expect to find much in this book for my Weter lecture, but I found much after all, thoughts that go to the very heart of what I'm trying to do with the lecture. So ... wow.

This book started off with me evaluating the case. It ended up with me re-evaluating (positively) my impression of Lewis. I had always had the impression, compounded by Tolkien's own dismissive quotes, that Lewis threw together the Chronicles in a slapdash fashion. (After all, Father Christmas?!) I had always thought of myself as a "Tolkien" kind of guy more than "Lewis." The best review I can give of this book is that now Lewis makes complete sense to me ... and I'm not sure what "kind of guy" I am any more.