Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Robert Jordan vs. J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 1

Having just finished Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, I can finally look back over the whole thing and compare it to the trilogy that started it all, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (considering The Hobbit as prelude). Lest this seem like simply an "ugliest orc" and "sharpest sword" type comparison, I'm going to focus on the more fundamental aspects of their work. How do the authors see the world? Having the chance to "sub-create" (in Tolkien's terms), how did they craft their worlds? In essence, what is the natural theology of the worlds they have made? It's interesting how I could not make a real comparison between the two until Jordan had finished his story. So much depends on the ending.

Theology is not an accidental or artifically imposed term. Both were commited Christians, Tolkien a Catholic and Jordan a self-described high-church Episcopalian (almost like Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis?). There are distinct differences, the biggest being that Tolkien grew up in the first half of the 20th century while Jordan grew up and wrote in the second half. But they both imagined worlds that are attractive just for the level of detail in them, worlds with magic and swords and evil monsters and heroic deeds.

Sometimes I'm disappointed looking around with the level of detail that is present in, say, an ordinary church built 100 years ago vs. one built (or more likely, repurposed) today. Tolkien and Jordan give evidence that the faithful detailing that used to go into the stone through a craftsman's chisel may now be evident in the interior spaces carved out by our authors. The keyboard as the new chisel. Both worlds are certainly as intricate as a vast mosaic or a cathedral's statuary.

Since I'm convinced that this fantasy genre is indeed valuable (convinced enough to have spent hundreds of hours reading about people and places that don't technically exist), I think it's valuable to dig down into it. Since this introduction is long enough in itself for a blog post, I'll split it up into parts and work my way through the comparisons over the next month.

It should go without saying in huge letters: SPOILER ALERT. Part of the whole tension of waiting for an ending is seeing what it reveals about the author's beliefs, intentions, and view of the world. So, yeah, I'll be talking about how it all ends. The Internet sort of forces immediate consumption of any new media for spoilerphobes at any rate. (But my recent review of the last book is indeed spoiler-free!)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

MOOCs and Egos

Thomas Friedman wrote a recent column in the New York Times on MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), which is good enough, with its emphasis on educating the poorest, but didn't really contribute that much to the discussion, and also downplayed the massive attrition in these massive courses: 2-3% of students at best finish their courses online. The really good technology news from this column was that it seems like the New York Times comment filter and recommend structure is working well, because  the comments are even more worthwhile than the column.

Here's two insightful pro-academia comments I'd like to highlight that emphasize the unique qualities of academia:

zauhar from Philadelphia writes: "It is paradoxical, but as a college prof I agree with many of the remarks above that criticize modern higher ed. College has become an expensive extension of high school. All but the most selective schools admit students who can barely write a coherent paragraph - otherwise there won't be enough tuition coming in to cover the budget (and the bloated budget of the modern university is a story in itself).

"But the commentary I have read largely misses a more important fact - the value of the university is less in teaching, more in supporting research and scholarship. There has to be a "place" for research in theoretical physics and history (to pick two disciplines that our corporate-dominated world as no interest in supporting). More importantly there has to be a place that stands outside of current cultural and political assumptions.

"In fact, what I see happening is this: A few faculty at prestigious schools who see themselves as "stars" are being used by commercial interests happy to undermine the university as we know it. [my emphasis] They can make a big profit, and at the same time eliminate the last places in America not yet totally dominated by free market philosophies and wage slavery. (Edit: the free market philosophy is already here, but as a tenured professor I have the right to criticize it without retribution - for the moment, that is.)"

Frank Bannister from Ireland writes: "We have been before; and not just once.

"In the 1960s there was similar enthusiasm about closed circuit television eliminating the need to employ large numbers of academics.

"In the 1970s there was the Open University in the UK (still around) which had superb lecturers (I even took an OU course in circuit design and it was excellent).

"In the 1980s we had computer based learning (I did that too; taught myself Cobol).

"In the 1990 we had courses on audio tape, then CD, then DVD (and now MP3). Some of them were (and are) great.

"Now we have MOOC.

"And with each new technology, the same hyperbole, the same evangelism. On-line education is great. MOOC is a wonderful concept. But most of the institutions in the world that are over 400 years old are universities and there is a reason for that. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the impending demise of the traditional university may be much exaggerated."

Myself, I'm not one to see a corporate conspiracy behind every MOOC, but I do see a lot of value in the particular highlighted sentence above. Just like all Americans are above-average drivers and all American kids are above-average students, all professors see themselves as above-average teachers, except for the few research profs who truly do dislike teaching. (None of those work at a small liberal arts university like mine, by the way.) Why is the pitch for a MOOC always "you can take a course from Stanford/MIT/Harvard!"? I know that the way I teach, for example, is unique, and after putting my courses online I've gotten some nice comments from around the world that reinforce that impression. This is one of the ways profs get inflated egos (although required online evaluation comments have a way of taking the wind out of your sails -- it's a boom or bust thing). What if Coursera and other companies are trying to make money by playing on "star professors"'s own puffed-up views of themselves and also our society's puffed-up view of Ivy League schools? Is the MIT lecture really that much more valuable than mine? (Of course, I think mine's more valuable, but what's most important is that it's my personal product.)

This very human factor must be considered when discussing MOOCs. I predict that there's a niche for MOOCs but it is a niche that expands, rather than contracts, the value of a true college experience. My job is to make sure that the experience I offer is worth it, and not to be distracted by the whispers that a "star teacher" can mass produce teaching on a computer screen, so I might as well let the "star" teach. Who made this person the star anyway? I get to make my teaching worth it by doing a local, unique research project with my students, and by looking them in the eye and grading their exams by hand. I get to practice a craft. If someone else wants to try to televise something similar, more power to them, but I am convinced that in person, in the lab, with the ideas of both teacher and student together driving real research, we can do something local, unique, and valuable.

So is the small liberal arts university like the "organic", local aisle at the supermarket? If so, my institution is closer to being Whole Foods than it is to being Amazon. Good for it.

For more on the value of keeping education local, see Stanley Haurwas's book on university education.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: A Memory of Light

[This is the Book 14 Review, and it's mostly spoiler-free. Book 12 is reviewed here and Book 13 here.]

More than 20 years ago, on the strong recommendation of my friend Adam, I picked up The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, which seemed like a standard coming of age fantasy novel but led off with a volcanic prologue and contained many hints that this was going to be far better than your average Joseph Campbell/J.R.R. Tolkien mashup. Fourteen books later those hints are confirmed. This is THE turn-of-the-21st-century fantasy epic, the story shaped by Vietnam the same way that The Lord of the Rings was shaped by the World Wars.

After Jordan died, Brandon Sanderson took up the pen for the last three books from Jordan's files. I'm a bit ambivalent, especially in this book, because the cracks between his and Jordan's styles show up more and more frequently. Every few pages there's a line of dialogue or metaphor that pulls me up short -- something I am sure Jordan would not have done. Actually, it was worst for me at the very end, because there I know Jordan wrote the epilogue, and I could tell, because every page there was a detail or moment that sparkled rather than thudded. Ultimately, though, this book is about the plot and finding out what happens, and I really don't know if there's anyone alive that could do that better than Sanderson. He definitely put his hours in. Sanderson can't help it if when Jordan died something unique was lost. Finishing Jordan's series (even with copious notes) was a thankless task that I'm very glad Sanderson did, and it could have been a lot worse. He managed to spin together a last half of a book that was as consistently thrilling as anything I've read, and I mean anything. It was a true payoff for what I calculate must be at least 250 hours of reading. This may be the most time I've spent with any band of fictional characters.

With great reluctance I have to say that Robert Jordan has become in my opinion better than Tad Williams. Now that I've seen how all his plots come together, it really does pay off in the end. All these seemingly extraneous events and items fit together into a 900-page book that is one big climax. They fit together in the big ways, sure, but even more in the small ways. The resolution of the smallest, youngest regular character's story (Olver) was my personal favorite, and it's only a handful of pages, but it was such a surprising joy that it's what I remember most.

Still, there are shortcomings in the story that I believe are Jordan's, often at the philosophical level. I've got a whole new appreciation for the solidity of Tolkien's philosophy, and that is what will endure longest. Jordan does not eclipse Tolkien. There's a whole spoiler-filled Jordan vs. Tolkien post I've got rolling like dice in my head right now. But that's enough for today. I've just read a compelling account of The Last Battle. Now I need to go rest my eyes.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies is the book that you wished your doctor would write to you about cancer. If your doctor were a cancer expert and a bit of a poet at heart. In this book, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes a book that is both sprawling and focused at the same time as he traces the course of our understanding and treatment of cancer from the coining of the word to 2009's genomic studies of cancer cells. This won the Pulitzer Prize for good reason -- it's almost perfectly calibrated to include the human element with the scientific studies, the past with the present and a little of the future. Only in a few spots did I feel Mukherjee was going on too long, in particular with a stretch about the economics of fundraising for cancer. But once you get past that spot early on he tends to spend the exact right amount of time on topic after topic. I'm impressed with how he mixes in the technical word for a procedure or cell type but also takes care to explain so those unfamiliar with the technical word can understand. Being familiar with these words, I'm not sure how this reads for someone unfamiliar with them, but it seems to me that he explains without talking down very successfully. Can this type of book exist for a topic that is not as inherently compelling as cancer? I hope so. Its size may be daunting, but this book wins the best seal of approval for science writing I can give: I will assign it to students to read in biochemistry seminar this spring.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Climbing on Carbon

Not only do regular chemical structures have a certain crystalline beauty about them, they also look like playground equipment. The Carbon Playground at the Discovery Center Museum in Rockville, IL illustrates this concept perfectly. There kids can climb on a buckyball/jungle-gym, a graphene/climbing-wall, and a nanotube/robe-climb. I thought about putting up some stills but the best way to show it is to see children playing on it. Now carbon's nice, but I want to see other elements too ... like a caffeine rocking-horse? Enjoy:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Neutrophils to the Rescue

Just a nice video of innate immune cells attacking laser damage. You can almost imagine little thought bubbles above each one. Notice how a few sort of amble off after the "party" gets underway -- I wonder what their function is, is it to alert the rest of the system? Or are they just bored?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: History in English Words

I wish I had read this book earlier. Throughout all my reading of Owen Barfield, I wanted to know more about the philology that shaped his thoughts. I got a taste of that in Poetic Diction, but that was more about how poets use words than the words themselves. He always asserted that we could trace history through words but I only got glimpses of exactly how. History in English Words, then, shows how. It is a story of how words have changed, sometimes even flipping their meanings, and Barfield has an idea or two as to why they changed in that way.

Like most of Barfield, it has its pedantic or frustratingly obtuse moments but is at least five-sixths brilliant. This may be the best book to start on for someone looking to get into his work (perhaps this is for the historians, while Poetic Diction is for the poets?). There's one chapter in which he goes on about the stifling early church authorities in a manner that shows why C.S. Lewis and Barfield had their tiffs. Lewis would never take the Gnostic gospels as seriously as Barfield. Then there's the last chapter which sounds almost exactly like Tolkien's famous Fairy Stories writings at points. Tolkien fans, make sure to stick around for that last chapter.

If nothing else, this shows what you can do with an Oxford English Dictionary and a passion for words. Now that we have the technology to test some of these assertions about how, when, and why words changed to a degree unthinkable in Barfield's time, I think this little book could provide several theses's worth of hypotheses that Google lit searches could illuminate. I would like to see where Barfield's wrong, mostly because I have a hunch that more often than not he's right, and if so, then he's onto something. I'd like to trust but verify, and this book is about the original data Barfield's working from, so this has inside it a way to reproduce his assertions. Do words really internalize over time, swtiching from us being worked upon to us doing the working? Are Roman words really as external/concrete as Greek words are internal/abstract? What kind of shifts in meaning did the Septuagint's translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek force upon the Second-Temple thought and theology? So many questions, so little time.

The limiting reagent for me is the time. And the knowledge. And the background. And ... let's stop there before I delete this post in despair.

At any rate, this book will let you see depths and layers of meaning in most every word you see (and choose to use). If sitting in a Philology class taught by Barfield sounds like a good idea to you, don't wait for the MOOC. Read the book.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stained-Glass Cells


It may look like Lewis Tiffany but, surprise, it's a plant. Is there a cathedral inside every blade of grass? More pictures in the Scientific American slide show Small Wonders found here.

Here's how the picture was taken:


Botanist Anatoly I. Mikhaltsov of the Children's Ecological and Biological Center in Omsk, Russia, was studying the anatomy of Aloe erinacea, an endangered species of aloe endemic to Namibia, when he captured this image of the plant's aloin cells (blue)—which secrete a component of the gel-like sap that oozes from an aloe's severed leaf—using a coloring method that he developed. The cluster of aloin cells is 300 microns wide.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You are a Transformer

You know how there's always this character on the comic-book superhero teams, the character who can change the shape of his or her body, and they make these cool shapes out of their hands to whack supervillains with? Well, in a small way, you can do that. Change the shape of your fingers to accomplish a certain task, that is. Not whack supervillains. But that's OK as long as you aren't presently being harrassed by supervillains.

All this from the humble beginnings of wrinkly, bath-soaked fingers. It used to be described as an accident -- that your outer skin would swell up by absorbing more water, making wrinkles. This is wrong. It is actually a specific, encoded, nerve-driven response, not a swelling accident at all. Now the purpose of this specific response has been made clear. This paper shows that winkled fingers can grip wet, slippery things much better, and so you can hold onto surfaces and tools without losing them in the mire.

Ergo, you have your own superpower. Soak your fingertips in water and non-slip pads develop. That's not quite Mr. Fantastic but it's a lot more interesting that an accidental swelling of the skin. The moral of the story: wait a little while before calling something an accident. Purpose is still purpose even if it's unseen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Mystery of Re-Purposed Trees

Imagine a quiet library day. You're studying away amongst the stacks, with only the occasional figure browsing in your peripheral vision. Then you look up at the next table over, which had been empty just a minute ago, and you see this:

No author's signature or credit taken, just a paper sculpture and a Twitter address. Soon other miniature sculptures are popping up, perpetrators unseen, in other places around the city, all made from books, all exquisitely detailed, and all part of a large mystery of who would do this and why. Ten sculptures waiting to be found.

Read the whole story here. And then part II here. Like they say, almost impossible to imagine this happening in America (and without someone making money off it as a viral campaign for an energy drink or something). Clandestine art as gratitude. A still small voice.

So keep your eyes open -- you never know when this might happen to you.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Water Tables (Literally)

No, this isn't about the level of underground water. It's actually about water tables. Maybe you should just take a look. It's time to play "one of these things is not like the others" again. Here's a set of beautiful tables by Gaetano Pesce that recreate bodies of water ... beautifully:




My instinctive response to the first three is that they are stunning and fascinating. The fourth (river) is just kinda neat. Is that because it is more artificial than the others and looks like a canal rather than a river? What is it about simply mirroring nature accurately that produces such beauty? (Creatively, in putting it on the table, and with great skill in choosing materials and shaping them to mirror so very well ... but the ones that are more natural mirrors are the ones that are more beautiful.)

There's something extraordinary about depicting the ordinary with artful accuracy.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Drake Equation: Easy to Calculate but Hard to Solve

The Drake equation was put together to estimate the probability of (detectable) extraterrestrial life. That is, the number of planets who might be able to talk to us. As equations go, the math's not hard. All you need to do is multiply seven probabilities together:

N = R* * fp *ne * fl * fi * fc * L

Straight outta Wikipedia:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
The trouble is that the farther you go to the right, the murkier the numbers become. Two months ago I posted on how we got surprising news that the first variable, star formation (R*), may be lower than expected. (for the universe at least). On top of that, we just got a better fix on the number of stars per planet (the second and third terms in a sense). Each star in our galaxy probably has 1 or 2 planets on average.  That means there are over 100 billion planets in the Milky Way. That's ... a lot.

But the story doesn't end there. Notice that term three includes the phrase "that can potentially support life." Our best guess is that this requires liquid water and temperatures between 0 and 100C. Our system does this but the other systems don't look like our system:

"... according to Johnson ... our solar system is extremely rare. 'It's just a weirdo,' he says."

Of course, these other systems are around cooler stars, and so the liquid-water zone will be closer to the planet, and we know at least some planets are in the right zone. So there's hope yet for alien life, but it's worth noting that we live in a weird solar system (on galactic terms). How necessary is the weirdness? Is it possible that being too close to a cooler star could doom the prospects of life for some reason, even if liquid water persists? (I'm thinking radiation damage may be greater closer in?)

At any rate, we're closer to getting more parameters fixed but I'm not sure how much closer to solving the Drake equation we actually are. The bootom line is that our solar system appears exceptional -- but is it unique? Still don't know.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

To Boldly Tweet Where No Man Has Tweeted Before

When you read the address for this link you may be skeptical. But after reading it I would at least nominate it for best thread of the month. What happens when real astronauts in space and Star Trek cast members start tweeting back and forth? Read and find out:

(My favorite involves the Nanites but that's because I remember the Nanites ... )

A Home Experiment with Hot Chocolate

Do indeed try this at home: Make some hot chocolate, and put some in an orange cup and another in a white cup. The orange cup should taste better. Now, I've heard this in a recent report, but you should be skeptical. Don't take my word for it. Try it for yourself. And remember, repeated trials are the only way to be truly scientific about it. I think a few dozen should get your error bars down to a reasonable level.

If all science labs were like this we would have quite a few more students.

(I do wonder about the studies reported in which blue drinks quench thirst better than red ones ... are we talking a light blue or the Tid-y-Bowl blue of certain Gatorade flavors? Because I cannot abide the latter, even if it will quench thirst more efficiently. Just not natural.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: The Return of the King

Just finished the Lord of the Rings read aloud to a 10-year-old -- although he was 9 when we started Fellowship. It is really a remarkable book, and much easier to understand if you actually read the whole thing through the Appendices. It becomes clear that Tolkien intends this to be a saga like Beowulf more than a novel like Henry James or whoever would write. If we'd all take that as a starting point, a lot of the ordinary criticisms of this work would be blunted. And it survives despite the criticisms, even perhaps improving its look like the walls of an old castle improve with battle scars and lichen.

For all my Tolkien fandom, this is the first time I've read the appendices. It should be clear to anyone who's done this that Peter Jackson's new Hobbit movie hews about as close to this text as the Fellowship of the Ring movie did to its book. The supposedly "tacked-on" goblin vengeance subplot is actually Tolkien's, in Appendix A under Durin's Folk (look it up!). This vendetta is even attributed to the dwarvish Ring owned by Thorin's father, you know, "seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone." Sure, Jackson conflates a few characters, spices up the action too much with his horror movie sensibility and evil albinos, and makes a huge, huge tonal error in his depiction of Radagast. But he did this in the previous movies! Compare Denethor of the books, who is a compelling, tragic character, to Denethor of the movie, who is a storybook, boring bad guy. That's as bad as Radagast, and with a more central character. I'll go so far as to say that nothing that Jackson does is a betrayal of Tolkien any more than he has already betrayed him in the previous movies. So if we're going to attack Jackson, let's attack him for his consistency to himself in continuing his mild philosophical betrayal of Tolkien, but commend him for a richly enfleshed Middle Earth. And hope that he stops the stupid Radagast stuff and the "modern" dwarf-songs over the credits. Yeesh.

Getting back to Tolkien's genius, this is the first time that The Scouring of the Shire really felt necessary to me, as in I can't imagine the story without it now. I believe Tolkien when he said it couldn't be a post-WWII allegory because he knew it was needed in the story before WWII even started.

Reading the Grey Havens part aloud, especially the description of the far western shores, is utterly impossible without tears. I imagine that will get worse as the years go on and my personal brushes with tragedy and death continue to accumulate. Tolkien's right: some wounds never heal. But his depiction of that distant shore rings so true that now it is part of my own imaginings. That is what a writer can do with mere words. Someone read that at my funeral please.

So read these books, read them again and again, and don't skip Appendices A or B. (As for C and later? I won't tell if you won't.) Read them before seeing the movies, but go ahead and see the movies, even if they're not quite up to it. I find that the echo of truth is still worthwhile.