Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: Mockingjay

The final volume of the Hunger Games was aboout what I expected, and it was nothing like I expected. In the arc of the trilogy, this is the time that the rebels try to take the Empire down. I expected the Empire to be despicable, and I expected some "maybe the rebels are just as bad" rhetoric. What I didn't expect is the intensity. Collins makes the ending so dark and disturbing that I was seriously thinking near the end that some parts would end up being hallucinations. I don't know how they're going to film some of the struggle at the end, because it seems to point toward an R rating no matter how you slice it.

This is not a Young Adult book by the end, and to her credit, I was genuinely disturbed in a way that I haven't been disturbed by even writers like Stephen King. But again, the moral backbone usually to be found in King is very difficult to find here. Katniss finally gets to be truly heroic (after spending some of the early chapters moping way too much), but in the plot's resolution, I'm not sure what her heroism actually achieves. Again,Katniss runs around and does her thing but the real power resides and real "progress" is made elsewhere.

I give Collins credit for taking the story to the horrible places that a story about making teenagers kill each other should go, but personally, I'd like a little more "what does this do to the people in general" rather than "which boy will she choose?" drama. I could have told you that going in, too, so I'll just chalk that one up to the fact that I'm not a teenage girl and move on. But the lack of moral reflection after all the horrible events does trouble me a bit. Another way in which this book is genuinely disturbing.

When I picked up The Hunger Games I was wondering if I'd recommend it to my 11-year-old boy. When I finished Mockingjay I was wondering if I'd even recommend it for an 18-year-old, not because of quality or originality, but simply because of intensity, and intensity that I'm not entirely convinced is worth it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Comedians Show Us Why MOOCs are Doomed

I just finished Furious Cool, a book that argues that Richard Pryor was a genius. Before I read the book I knew he was funny, and a brilliant performer, but a genius? The guy from Superman III and Brewster's Millions?

But he was a genius, and the book shows how, as well as a book can for demonstrating the genius of a live art like stand-up. (Surprisingly well because stand-up is about words.) The fact that Pryor's work didn't translate to Hollywood is a general rule. The best stand-up comedians have always had a hard time transitioning to TV and movie screens, and this is true for this century's comedians as well.

The Procrustean box of the screen doesn't just cut off the top, bottom, and sides of the comedian's act. It is a Procrustean cube that erects an impenetrable 4th wall between the performer and audience, severing the ties and feedback loops between the two. Because TV is sanitized, you know that it's not true that anything can happen, and the best comics like Pryor and the others mentioned in that article thrive on that unpredictability and connection to the audience. The best comedy is a relationship, even if the direct manifestation of that relationship is the duration of the laughs and the occasional heckler. The audience is always in on the joke.

TV desperately tries to compensate for this disconnect with laugh tracks and live stunts like Carrie Underwood's Sound of Music -- viewers tuned in not for the perfection, but for the imperfection of a stumble or stutter. Audience voting in something like American Idol also attempts to break down the wall of the Procrustean cube, but the more successful the show, the more the 4th wall slams shut against any illusion that you have an actual say in what happens next.

The most successful TV compensates for the impenetrable 4th wall not through comedy but through drama. A long story arc can show a character developing (like Breaking Bad or George Clooney back when ER was good). Even more, it can set up long philosophical mysteries like those on LOST, even if delivering on those mysteries is a debatable point (which I have debated earlier on this blog, I'm mostly in the pro-LOST camp). The audience participates when it empathizes with the growth of the characters, and chatters about what might happen on next week's episode. This is what an episodic form of spectacle like TV can do.

And this is why MOOCs are doomed if they intend to become anything but supplemental, vocational education.

Teaching is like stand-up. Even on a day when the lecturer is lecturing non-stop, there is still student participation and feedback. I even get a laugh once in while, and I can tell you that the best jokes are not the ones that are deliberately funny, but the personal ones or the ones that personalize something else (like giving emotions to a protein). This is what Richard Pryor did so well, and why no one could steal his jokes. He wasn't about jokes, he was about observing and inhabiting everything else around him. A teaching professor should do that, too, but focused on a single subject and bringing centuries of knowledge together to intensely dissect that subject and challenge the students to a new level.

So taking a teacher and putting her in a screen for a MOOC is like throwing a script at Richard Pryor and expecting him to rekindle his stand-up magic on a screen. It can happen, but it takes more than a camera and a routine and a genius. It takes specific work to make the MOOC work for that medium, and even then, I'm convineced that real learning, like real laughter, requires a real connection that cannot be replicated through a screen. Online comments are different from conversation. Even multiple choice testing is different in person.

 I think MOOCs are very useful for topics where the student has a direct interest in making money from the information given, or for direct low-level instruction that can be reduced to the resolution of a video screen. I hope to use them myself to expand my knowledge in a few fields. But lasting upper-division education is about the person and about the relationship, just like stand-up is about the whole environment and music is about the performance. MOOCs have their place but they can never supplant the Biochemistry class.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Furious Cool by David and Joe Henry

This is an excellent book about Richard Pryor, one that describes his genius and his work about as well as can be described, tying it to the larger changes of the 60s and 70s. The language is lush and the scenes are well-selected so that it's on the short side rather than the long side. It doesn't hurt that one of the authors (Joe Henry) is an excellent musician as well, which lends itself to an especially haunting final scene.

The real puzzle for me is Richard Pryor himself. The book lays out how his comic genius coincided with, and probably caused, his extreme meanness and insecurity. Why does such incredible performance and on-stage empathy cause off-stage antipathy? Must it? The book only lays out what this looked like but leaves it to the reader to go deeper.

By the way, I was a little wary of listening to this as an audiobook, but Dion Graham does as good of a job at projecting Richard Pryor as Richard Pryor did of ... everyone else. I listened to some of the Pryor routines that Graham read through and heard what Dion said -- he really captured Pryor's delivery. The audiobook is what truly elevated this book for me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Chemistry of Ashes

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

-- Sonnet 73, Shakespeare

Today is Ash Wednesday, in Latin, "dies cinerum," the Day of Cinders.

How long can you sit and watch a fire? The constant motion of the flickering flames fascinates and nearly hypnotizes. The live flames tell a story, whispering kinship. That's true at levels that run as deep as chemistry.

You warm yourself with the same reaction that makes fire burn. Carbon chains + oxygen = steam and carbon dioxide gas. You exhale the exhaust of fire. The structures so carefully built and pieced together in the growing limb are fuel for the flame, vaporized into a gas that slips away like so much vanity. Gas comes from the same root as "chaos." The old order melts away.

Yet there is something left when the fire is complete. Some elemental carbons sit solid in the fireplace, a residue only suitable for marking a line that soils a forehead.

Along with the carbon, if there was anything metal, especially one of the larger metals like iron, nickel, copper, silver, gold, these are too heavy to become gas and would be left behind as well, indistinguishable from the black carbon but assuredly there, broken in tiny bits. The constructed chains, the facade, it all burns away but the heavy metals stay. The elements may melt with the fervent heat but they persist. What is scattered can be gathered and used again.

What can take ashes and put them together into new life? You would need to reverse the reaction, to pull down the heaven above, catching carbon dioxide and water vapor, then shaping it like a potter shapes clay. The second law of thermodynamics says, rightfully, that this is very hard to do.

What you would need to reverse the reaction is an exhaled breath from another life. You would need to take in what another fire breathed out. "Breath" in Hebrew is "nephesh" which also means "soul." You would take in this exhaled soul and you would inhale, and if it was reorganized and reborn in the right configuration, you would live. Exhaust would become new life.

The second law of thermodynamics says that this is very hard to do. It is extremely improbable in a closed system. But it is not impossible. And we do not live in a closed system.

Today we watch the fire burn and draw stick figures with the ashes, crosses, plus signs, made from the elements of lost life. Any life, no matter how well lived, ends in ashes. All intentions, whether selfless or selfish, all the piecing together of the puzzle, all of it burns, igniting from the pressure of its own useless weight. Your mitochondria, where you burn all your carbon chains and run the combustion reaction that warms your skin, are also the direct cause of the poison molecules, the reactive oxygen species and the runaway electrons, that careen out of control and break apart your cells, aging your body and shattering your DNA. All fire has its exhaust. This can be papered over for a day, but it can never be avoided. Thanks be to God.

The next forty days are the age of carbon, of soot and charcoal, of smouldering vapors, a time to wait in the ashes, continuing the slow burn, sitting in the broken pieces, waiting for a breath from above.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Review: Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

This is really a play review, but I read it as a book so I'll review it like a book.

Like most Stoppard plays, Arcadia jams a lot in and seems to be a bit like Pontius Pilate, "always asking what the truth was and never waiting for an answer." (Bill Mallonee's lyrics) After the end, you can provide your own answers, so I have no problem with that, but it's that aspect that keeps this from the top of the list.

The play is set in a single room in an English estate, with half the scenes in the early 19th century and half in the late 20th. There's fractals and Lord Byron and garden history and academic jousting among professor types and affairs and a duel and thermodynamics. I admire how Stoppard mixes it all together, and the point of this play is more the synergy between the disparate components than, say, the hilarious wit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (still my all-time favorite Stoppard).

A few passages say some interesting things about science but I'm still left feeling that the play is not really about science or how things come together, but it's more about how things fall apart. I could wish Stoppard had taken it in another direction but there's enough pieces on the table that the "other direction" is still open to the reader and this could provoke a fascinating conversation if seen as a play rather than read as a book. That's probably the point, but without someone to put it on around here, I'm left with the book.

It is thrilling how the elements whirl around each other by the end of the play, and probably worth a second reading to see more of the structure behind that motion. There's got to be some recurring motifs that serve as fractals in the play itself that I didn't detect the first time through. I would just prefer a play that was definitely worth a second reading to one that was probably worth one, and if you're going to be provocative about the nature of scientific discovery and the heat death of the universe, be provocative and bring that aspect out a little more. More science, less garden.

Book Review: Catching Fire

I hear that the movie of Catching Fire is better than The Hunger Games, but I think it's the other way around for the books.

Because it holds the intermediate place in the trilogy, Catching Fire is Act II of the story, and while the overall plot is satisfying enough in how it points toward Act III, it seems to have structural and pacing issues taken on its own. The main event is not telegraphed until halfway through the book, and the plot depends on Katniss being awfully dense at times to miss things that are blindingly obvious. I understand that she's distracted by a few things (and I also understand that the very title of the third volume gives away some significance to the Mockingjay, which she understandably doesn't know!), but keeping her in ignorance seems to serve suspense while detracting from her as a heroine.

Still, the point of this is to revisit the Games and point the way to the third book, and I have a feeling that the third book will be like the seventh book of Harry Potter, which would be OK if I trusted Collins to be as creative as Rowling in deviating from the expected script. Ultimately I want more of the Games, which have never really seemed game-like to me, but then again, you can only have so many fights to the death in a series. If the third book is like the first half of Catching Fire, I'll be slightly disappointed, but if it's like the second half, I'll be slightly ... what? ... appointed?