Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: Historical Walks in San Francisco

Got two books about walks in SF from the library. Read two pages of one of them, and the other one, read most of its 400 pages because of the fascinating history inside. I didn't get to visit many of the sites (I can thank this book for getting me to the Palace Hotel, however), but I got a feel for SF that I never had before. So I can recommend this one (by Rand Richards in 2001)!

Book Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

G.K. Chesterton's first book was published right after the turn of the century and took place in 1984. In true Chestertonian fashion he was completely uninterested in the technological advances but wrote about the people. And though he write a book glorifying war a few years before the War to End All Wars and Dover Beach, it produces some cognitive dissonance but once you get into it, it works. Chesterton is a bit like Puer'h tea, an acquired taste. He makes sweeping generalizations that just aren't completely right. But then he has sentences like this one (remember, set in 1984 but written 80 years before that):

"When I was young I remember, in the old dreary days, wiseacres used to write books about how trains would get faster, and all the world be one empire, and tram-cars go to the moon. And even as a child I used to say to myself, 'Far more likely that we shall go on the crusades again, or worship the gods of the city.' And so it has been."


And it hits me that I can't completely deny this pseudo-prophecy given the events of the past decade (and the article I read about how cities are more important than states, think of the conflict between Western and Eastern Washington State and think of who "wins"). GKC is wrong in certain ways but right in perhaps a more important way.


"It is of the new things that men tire--of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. … Men live, as I say, rejoicing from age to age in something fresher than progress--in the fact that with every baby a new sun and a new moon are made. If our ancient humanity were a single man, it might perhaps be that he would break down under the memory of so many loyalties, under the burden of so many diverse heroisms, under the load and terror of all the goodness of men. But it has pleased God so to isolate the individual soul that it can only learn of all other souls by hearsay, and to each one goodness and happiness come with the youth and violence of lightning, as momentary and as pure."


Ultimately, the way to read GKC is with wonder. For all the possible arguments, the proper response is to laugh at and with him. When I was delivering the Weter Lecture and quoting scripture next to science I would occasionally hear a few bits of laughter. And I did think at the time, well, GKC wouldn't have a problem with it, why should I? At GKC says near the end of the book:


"... the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect ... Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review: Apparition and Late Fictions

Thomas Lynch has published non-fiction and poetry, and now he adds fiction to that list. Lynch is a Midwestern undertaker and a very good writer. He can talk about his profession with clinical precision but he balances that accuracy with understatement, mystery and what is best called humility. Nothing about his writing is overtly religious, but I can't help reflecting on the religious implications of it. I never regret reading anything by him.

That said, this collection is a bit uneven. I have a clear favorite (the short story "Bloodsport") and a second favorite (the novella "Apparition") that was almost my absolute favorite until the story took a few turns toward the end that I think subverted the main point. But understatement almost requires that the main point be submerged somehow. It definitely is something worth discussing with friends, if only because Lynch is so good at leaving any kind of judgment out of the picture in all his stories except "Bloodsport," actually. Perhaps that makes it the best in my eyes, that he comes closest to "saying something" in that story?

And every story does involve death; that's probably the main reason I follow Lynch's writing, because no one else talks about death quite like he does. (After all, the guy's an undertaker, don't be surprised if so are many of his characters!) He has a truly unique voice.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Chain of Life

This is the last in my series of Boston pictures from last summer. This one was the biggest surprise. Right around the corner from the science history museum, in the atrium of the science building, they have this sculpture, Chain of Life, that represents an amino acid backbone (close to glycine, in fact). I took a close look at the plaque and saw the author of the book I was reading at the time staring back at me: good ol' R.J.P. Williams. How often are you reading a book and come across a sculpture by the author at the same time? It told me I should probably keep reading and thinking about these ideas. It's also a beautiful sculpture, to a biochemist at least. Enjoy the multiple views!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The First Cyclotron

More pictures from the Harvard science history museum. This is the first cyclotron. My favorite part is it uses a Commodore 64 (with disk drive!) to control it. Brings back the memories (although my family went from the Vic-20 to the Commodore 128 without stopping at the most popular computer inbetween the two ...)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Guess the Nation from the Instrument

This picture is from a museum of scientific instruments at Harvard (great small museum, by the way!).It shows three similar scientific instruments from about two centuries ago. One is American, one is British and one is French. Can you tell which is which?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thoughts on Avatar

So I finally saw Avatar. I wasn't surprised my much, partically because I waited so long that general plot points have seeped into the general consciousness and, well, what happens isn't all that surprising. It's even less surprising to people who like the way Cameron directs and have seen all of his previous movies (OK, not the one about pirhana). Avatar is just another James Cameron movie -- spectacle and well-directed action sequences and quick pace and intense characters on all sides. Nobody looks for deep meaning in Terminator 2 or True Lies or even The Abyss (my favorite), for that matter. Theorize away on how the Nav'i are like today's iPod generation or how the portrait of the armed forces aligns with the post-Iraq experience, but don't get too bent out of shape, because at its heart it's about the whirl and creation, not the screenplay or the underlying themes.

I did like the portrayal of scientists (almost ingratiating at times) and thought the way 20th-century labware kept looking the same several centuries later was kind of funny. I don't think Kimax bottles will still be in use that far in the future, but hey, who knows? The world itself was superficially and anatomically interesting and a good example of what people can come up with when they spend a lot of time on it. I do wonder if such creatures could actually develop and how. I'm more convinced of convergence than divergence, but that's my own philosophical blinders talking. (They do still bleed red, which means iron is still used for oxygen transport -- convergence!!)

Some local preacher has gone on record calling this movie "satanic." I think he misspoke, he MUST have meant it was "stoic" in the ancient Greek sense. (All life is connected, seek balance in all things, etc.) On Mars Hill, Paul spoke to and challenged both stoic and epicurean philosophers. He didn't call them satanic, he found what they agreed on and then brought the Jewish messiah into it. If you're going to name your church Mars Hill you should emulate Paul in this, I'd think. Ok, I'll get off the soapbox now.

One last thing: you've got floating mountains. A.) How? B.) Why don't you use THEM as weapons in the final fight scene? I was waiting and waiting for a mountain to squish a helicopter and it never happened. James Cameron, you know where my blog is if you want advice for your next movie.

Is Life Simple or Complex? (The Answer is Yes.)

I've read four interesting papers over the last week or so that I keep thinking about. I don't actually have them in front of me but I think together they show what is so great about science.

Paper #1 maps all the genes from a small microbe with compartments. From this it concludes that the first microbe with compartments must have been really complex, more complex than previously believed.

Paper #2 finds that a simple element (silicon) can help piece carbon together to make small sugars, some of the building blocks of life.

Paper #3 addresses a problem in making DNA: because DNA is a long line, it's much easier for it when forming to make small circles rather than large lines. The problem is that large lines are needed to store a reasonable amount of information. By itself, DNA will make small circles. But add a small simple carbon molecule and it lines up in the DNA to push it into a long line, something that can hold enough information to support life. A small molecule makes a big difference and lets DNA fulfill its potential.

Paper #4 finds that the complex molecule tRNA that we use to make proteins might still work if it's reduced to just five RNA bases in a row, much more simple then I would have thought.

Paper #1 = life is complex and wonderful.
Papers #2-4 = some parts of life might be simple (or simplifiable) and wonderful.

If creation is a gift then I want to see that gift clearly and truly. If you're tempted to ignore any of these papers by preconceived notions of how simple (or how complex) life must be, I encourage you to take them on, debate them, and doubt them, as you doubt your jumping to conclusions about them. The one thing I ask is that you don't ignore them. They're just too interesting on multiple levels.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review: The Last Day

The Last Day by Nicholas Shandy is not worth reading -- it's barely worth reviewing but this sense of duty compels me. Actually, the history is fairly interesting and you learn a few things about Portugal and the All Saints' Day earthquake of 1755. However, Shandy is more interested in taking sides with the modern nation-state tyrant against the tyranny of the Inquisition and making long lists at inopportune times than he is in really telling the story of what went on and what changed 250 years ago. You'll get about at much useful information out of reading the Wikipedia entry on the Lisbon earthquake as you'll get from this book and without all the "state-good/church-bad" moralizing (or would that be secularizing?). This book may actually be instructive someday as an example of where idolatry of the nation-state system can get you, a study of the blinders of the historian rather than the history.

Just in case you're wondering, no, I don't like every book I read. Bleh.

Book Review: Shadowrise

A few things about Tad Williams that I shoulda already known, just reinforced by this latest book:
1.) He is incapable of putting out a trilogy, even if he says he will. All three of his "trilogies" are really four books long. The only drawback to that is if you get to the third book (like this one) out of four and the narrative is driving faster and faster and then, without a real substantial stopping point for any storyline but one, it ends. And you have to wait till November to find out the ending.
2.) His mastery of narrative and pacing is getting increasingly good. This makes point 1 even more painful.
3.) He's still working out his Tolkien issues with deliberately mirroring some plot points and contradicting others. (All the best cowboys have daddy issues, as the LOST episode title goes ...)
4.) This one does seem a bit more conventional than the previous ones because Williams' real creativity will come in one or two really great plot twists, and since little comes to a conclusion here, you don't really get the benefit of those twists. However, a lot of a mystery of the last three books is cleared up well enough. This one almost has elements of a Western but no spoilers here.

In any case, if he can't bother to publish the whole book I can't be bothered to publish the whole review. I'll report back in November.

(Half my life is spent waiting for the resolution of cliffhangers.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Moonlight" on an Old Piano

Ever wondered what the Moonlight Sonata would have sounded like on the piano Beethoven used for composing? More than a little different, and possibly more haunting. You can hear this and other examples are in this article from Slate magazine. (Of course, as the part-owner of a Steinway piano I shouldn't be posting an article that questions the value of my most valuable household item ... but self-interest is not the only interest!)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Science Fair FAIL

I have been meaning to post this for some time now, so long that I forgot the piclink, but it's easily traceable to the FAIL Blog. I think the kid shows some promise (if not empathy ... ):