Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: The Dark is Rising

I last read this book in elementary school but this time I read it aloud to my family. Aidan dropped off after a while and started to play LEGOs but Sam really got into it, just like I remember.

The plot involves an 11-year-old who discovers he has special powers and is charged with collecting six "signs of power" made of elemental materials: iron, bronze, wood, stone, fire, and water. I think some nascent chemical impulse drove me to really like that plot.

Susan Cooper does an excellent job of getting the action going right away and slowly revealing some of what's going on. I say "some of" because a lot of things aren't really explained, and if I have one complaint in re-reading this, the plot itself is rather thin and noisy when you get down to it. If you start asking why -- why must the six signs be joined? what do they actually DO? -- then you often don't get an answer. Cooper avoids this by pretty much keeping the action running so fast that you don't really have time to wonder about how it all fits together. She really is stitching several disparate threads together of old stories and myths, and it works because British history itself is that kind of stitching.

My greatest disappointment is that because Cooper goes out of her way to talk about the balance of dark and light, there's no real reason for the Dark to be stopped; it usually comes down to a "there happens to be a barrier there that stopped the Dark" or "there's no magic in _____ (roads, water, etc.)". And then in the absence of magic, everything just works out, fate comes in like a deus ex machina bringing everything to its right place so that you wonder why there ever was any suspense in the first place. I mean, if the Dark keeps getting stopped by this random stuff then it seems like the universe is against the Dark ... I'd be pretty mad if that were the case for me.

I think it comes down to the fact that the philosophical monism that Cooper attempts to say runs her universe does not actually help her when it comes to telling a story. Nevertheless, the story is told well and has the mythic elements of quest that draw a young boy along. It looks like at least 4 of the 5 books in the series are about the "quest for X." Well, I'll get to see what Cooper's other books are like, because Sam is begging me to read the others. I hope they don't let him down!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Eulogy for a Stupid Cat

Emmett, our 15-year-old gray and white cat, was put down today.

He was a stupid cat. I've lost patience with him for years now, and his kidneys were failing and he was marking the house daily, and for a cat, that's one sign that they're somewhere around life number eight. But as much as I've known this day was approaching for a long time, and for as much as I'm sure it's the right decision now that his old body can't hold up any more, it's still sad.

For one thing, it's the first time the kids will really know the irreversibility of death, and though I know it's inevitable and necessary, I still don't like it. That cat they saw every day won't be seen again. (I'm still not sure how to deal with his frequent cameos in their nightly bedtime stories ... ) Sam's being a little dramatic now ("Dad, two words: 'Emmett' and 'death'."), and Aidan's just sad, but I think they will really start to notice the finality of death in a week or so, a mini-bridge to Terabithia. Better this way than with a close relative, and gentler to be foreseen and known.

I think the hardest part of putting down a pet (even a stupid one) is remembering when they were little cute things and knowing both they and the times they lived in are gone. I never even knew Emmett when he was a kitten -- he's been in Laurie's life longer than I have -- but I remember how before Laurie and I were dating we would meet at Laurie's house for Bible study taught by Scott Becker (also eulogized on this blog). One night as our group was discussing Romans, Emmett came up to me, rubbed against my legs, then jumped on my lap and stretched out on his back. We just kept going on, but Scott kept glacing over (maybe trying to catch the moment when the claws would come out) because Emmett's not exactly an affectionate cat. I had never seen Emmett do that before and I don't recall him doing it since. Within a few weeks his owner and I were dating, so in hindsight I see it as kind of a sweet acceptance, that he was OK with me. And then I became his owner and source of food, so guess it worked out OK for both of us.

The thing is, all life, even a stupid cat, is loved by God. Emmett's atoms are dispersing now and returning to the world, and soon they'll be part of a plant or soil. But when he was alive, he somehow could take in and give out stuff (and believe me, he could give it out ... ) and remain the same cat, basically the same creature that stretched out on my lap in May 1998. Even though he was just a stupid cat, I feel oddly lucky to have known him (and cleaned up after him) for so long. He wasn't anything special, but then again, he was, and he will be missed.

Stupid cat.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Review: Cyndere's Midnight


The thread that began in Auralia's Colors continues through book two, Cyndere's Midnight. Since book three just came out, and since I've finally met the author (who works on campus and was a classmate with my wife back in the 90's) and we've become friends, it was high time to catch up on the series.

The innovative nature of Auralia's Colors continues in this one. Just as Auralia's Colors both was and wasn't an introductory "fantasy" novel, Cyndere's Midnight both is and isn't a "Beauty and the Beast" story set in the same world. Overstreet's writing is very different from the rest of the fantasy genre. The most important thing is the characters (rarely so in other books in which the characters have all been cribbed from Joseph Campbell's notes), and the narrative viewpoint is more episodic and cinematic, sometimes starting in surprising places and leaving more for the reader to figure out on his own. It took me about half of the first book to start to "get" what was going on because of these differences from the genre. Overstreet's voice is richer and demands slower reading than most (all?) other fantasy novels, and even for this one it took me a quarter of the book to remember "how" to read it. (I guess that means I'm finally able to learn.) There's definite improvement and I'd say the sophomore jinx has been avoided. The narrative drive has strengthened, and there's also some very inventive battle scenes near the end.

My favorite part has to be one of the cultures Overstreet created that we really see for the first time here, an incisive depiction of a scary and powerful moon-worshiping cult. There's some subversive wit here in that I found myself laughing at not because it was silly or funny, but because it was so accurate and yet so outlandish -- the best kind of laughter, laughter because the truth hurts. (The author assured me that this culture continues to be important in the next book ... ) I won't say too much because the best way to enjoy this book is not to expect anything and let it surprise you -- and a detailed review might get in the way of that! Also, be sure to start with book one.

From B.C. Cargo to 21st-Century Physics

Twenty years ago an amateur diver discovered an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Sardinia. It was filled with Roman lead ingots. In an ironic historical twist, those lead ingots are more valuable than gold for a scientific purpose.

Lead itself is a great wall because it's so heavy that it shields almost everything out. But freshly mined lead isn't entirely radioactively silent: it has radioactive isotopes in it that emit radiation that confuses scientific detectors. Because these old ingots were left to decay for thousands of years at the bottom of the sea, all the unstable lead in them has already decayed, and they are radioactively inert. Now they're being sent to scientists who are going to melt them down and build lead walls for their detectors -- silent walls that won't produce even the faintest whisper of radiation so the detectors can listen for neutrinos in peace.

Bet the people two thousand years ago who forged those ingots never suspected that they were actually participating in a scientific experiment! Hoepfully they'll get some kind of co-authorship ... or at least an acknowledgement.

More info here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Charlie Brown's Baseball Team Actually Exists ...

... it's just called the Kansas City Royals (currently in 4th place in the AL Central). See the reasons why in this excellent blog post by a Royals fan blog, "Royals and Peanuts Baseball Eerily Similar."

The Pillars of the Earth

"He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world." (1 Samuel 2:8)

No doubt the original readers (listeners!) of this passage thought of actual pillars beneath them holding up the ground they were standing on -- although, I suppose that many of them knew the limits of their knowledge and probably took this as the word-picture it was almost certainly meant to be in the first place. After all, they'd never seen those pillars, and the pillars are not the point of the passage. God's control and creative activity are the point, that as creator he continues to care and rescue the poor and needy.

I have a different word-picture now for the pillars or foundations of the earth. I think of the elements: of carbon with its low-temperature four-bonding ability; of hydrogen as a charged proton skittering from water to water; of oxygen with its electron-gathering ability and propensity for bonding; of magnesium (surrounded by the porphyrin life-preserver) giving a green hue to leaves; of manganese with its high charge state and water-splitting power (the elemental axe?). These are the condensed bits of creation that guide life, the 21st-century pillars of the earth. God set them in place, and they show His power and His care; after all, through them God gave us this arena for choice and love, and so I'd say they are indeed good things. Life rests on these small stones of nuclei and electrons. They might not be what was imagined by Samuel or Joshua, yet they testify to the same truth: we are here as creations dependent, not independent, and each of us reflects the image of God, who rescues those who need it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Taking the Psalms Pseriously

(Hopefully that horrible title doesn't undermine my argument here.)

Last night with friends we got on the topic of biblical literalism and inerrancy (somehow from health care ...) and it occurred to me that the strictest form of literalism forces you to actually downgrade your view of part of the Bible. Basically, if you insist on pure literality for everything, then something that's obviously poetry, like the Psalms, should be taken as "just poetry," or "just a song," mere metaphor. But the New Testament takes the Psalms much more seriously -- Psalms and Isaiah (another musical book) are quoted more than anything else when Paul or Peter or others want to explain who Jesus was, and want to talk about how He's the messiah despite his death and because of his resurrection. The Psalms are not "just songs" to the New Testament authors, they are real and living statements that reveal truth better than anything else about who Jesus is, all the more strong because they were written hundreds of years earlier about the hopes of the Jewish people.

You can take the Bible so literally that you discount its poetry and prophecy. Paul in Romans quotes Psalms and Isaiah as if his readers will immediately recognize the entire passage -- yet after growing up in a Bible-believing church I didn't know those passages well enough to recall the same way 1st-century Christians would. Instead I was worried about how to take the first chapter of the Bible, or whether archaelogical evidence showed the walls of Jericho falling, or whatnot. Therefore, by asking these questions I was NOT asking the questions the early Christians asked: who is Jesus and what has God done through him and how should I therefore live?

Of course, it's not quite that stark. Better to have a literalist belief than a belief that everything's poetry. But better than that is to believe that it's all the real and living word of God, so that even the songs aren't "just songs" but bedrock truth about how God works and who He is, as well as the four reports that the tomb was really empty and Jesus was really there after his death.

(Thanks to Rod Stiling for a great class recently on Romans quoting poetry that led to this conclusion!)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Table of Imaginary Elements

By Russel Walks. This includes all of the made-up elements he could find from sci-fi and TV and games. Personally, I'm still looking for dilithium but it's gotta be there somewhere. I did find adamantium (Wolverine's skeleton coating):

Does Reason Know What It Is Missing?

Stanley Fish's New York Times blog is remarkable: he's a Milton scholar, outspoken on current topics (outspoken enough to get a blog on the NYT site), and he's an academic struggling with faith and reason from the secular side. I know that he's friends with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, his Duke colleague, and I wonder how much that and his Milton scholarship make him hospitable to the contributions of faith to public life. His latest blog about Jurgen Habermas is one of the best. Habermas's argument has echoes of Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magesteria. It's interesting how when the topic moves to reason accommodating faith that different challenges are set up; I think both Habermas and Gould ran into this problem. Still, I'd much rather have that debate with Habermas/Gould than what currently passes for debate with a stark, dogmatic popular atheism:

Friday, April 9, 2010

The River of Five Colors


This is the River of Five Colors in Columbia, only accessible by horse. My colleague, an algae biologist, sent this to our faculty discussion board. Amazing ... click on the piclink for more info.

Friday, April 2, 2010

LOST Theory: Jacob the Scientist

[Spoilers follow for those not caught up to the current episode of LOST!] [Although, if you're not into LOST, none of this will make any sense to you but I think my final paragraph explains why I like it so much.] [So read the last paragraph if you want to know my argument for why you should watch LOST!]

Now that we're halfway through the final season of LOST, some things are actually starting to make sense. Actually, the turning point seems to have been the end of Season 5, when we are finally introduced to Jacob and the Man in Black and everything starts to fall into place. Some have complained that this is a deus ex machina because these are supernatural figures that can do some very unnatural things (although there are clearly rules that limit what they can NOT do as well!). But it's not a deus ex machina. For one thing, the Man in Black has been seen since the very first episode as one of the major mysteries of the island. Also, Jacob has been referred to by name as far back as Season 2. The complaints that the mysteries of LOST are boiling down to a "Jacob did it" kind of explanation are glossing over the whole theme of the show: not faith, but science and faith. The complaints are missing the significance of the Dharma Initiative and the parallels with Jacob.

One major question I've had about Dharma is why they were allowed to stay so long on the Island and do so much when they were obviously exploiting it and feuding with the natives. (And what changed when they were purged after, what, 20 years?) I think a major window of this was opened when Jacob talks about why he brings people to the island: to observe and see what they will do. Obviously, Jacob is a kind of god, but that describes his power, not his motivation. Jacob's motive is to test and experiment (with humans, because he doesn't have to go through an IRB ... ). Jacob is a scientist at heart.

So, Jacob would tolerate the 70's wackiness of the Dharma Initiative, partially because some of them are candidates, but also because he can't exactly condemn them for wanting to experiment when that's what he's doing all along!

A lot of people have been pulling out parallels to Season 1 but I think Season 2 is more parallel. There you have the debate about whether The Numbers in the Swan Station mean anything or are just a cruel trick, an experiment. The answer is they do mean something. After Locke loses faith in the experiment (aided by Ben), Desmond has to step in and save the island with the failsafe key. And now, Desmond has shown up again, just in time for the end of the show.

So does Jacob mean something/can he be trusted? Well, despite Locke's doubts, the Swan Station meant something. So I'm inclined to believe that despite the Man in Black's claims that the Island doesn't mean anything that the Island itself is indeed very important, and that Jacob, for all his hands-off scientific behavior, can be trusted. At least more than the Man in Black!

What this means is the whole show is about knowing and doubt, and about science and faith. The Dharma Initiative is the exploration (and exploitation!) of science, and Jacob is the symbol of faith and trust in the midst of doubts. The thing about LOST is that both Dharma and Jacob are part of the story, just as science and faith are part of life. I've sensed this subliminally for a while but now I think it's coming together. I'm still not sure if the ultimate resolution will be worthwhile -- I suspect that the author's own philosophy may needlessly color the show's conclusion -- but I can say, halfway through Season 6, that there has never been a show like this and probably never will be again: a show that is about an entire philosophy that relates science and faith, a true "mystery" show told as multiple rich narratives with fun sci-fi fluorishes. If you want to know why you should watch LOST, that's why.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This is Not an April Fool's Post

So it's only 9:30 and I've already been taken in by two very good April Fool's hoaxes. Apparently to fool me you need to be an artist I admire and announce some new work of art (a song or a book) that just doesn't make sense when you sit back and think about it. It got me twice in a row this morning, once from The Choir and once from Jeffrey Overstreet.

Of course, the boys this morning woke up trying to fool me with saying there's a penguin in the bathroom or a spider on my back. Or my personal favorite, that I didn't have shoes on. I'm not THAT gullible!

So I can be fooled by artists but not by my own kids.