Friday, September 25, 2015

Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (Author's Preferred Text)

I had read this back in the late 90's when it came out, but I've always wanted to re-read it aloud for the boys, and when I saw that a Director's Cut (really "Author's Preferred Edition") came out, I leapt at the chance. I'm not sure what differences there were in the story itself. It may have taken a little longer to get going. But the boys didn't seem to mind. Both of them were as enthralled with the strange parallel world of London Below as I was, and now that I've been to London and, for example, know exactly what the scene that takes place on the fragment of the London Wall looks like, I enjoyed this book all the more. A weird, and wonderful, and at heart old-fashioned book about how this isn't all there is. I liked it even more the second time. The short story appended to the end is also wonderful and allows me to keep voicing the Marquis, who may be my favorite character to read -- although for some reason I kept thinking of the Gaiman Doctor Who episodes as I read it. As a read-aloud book, it was even better than I thought I would be for that, and I was able to easily edit it down from a PG13 rating to a PG for the kids (and to mitigate my own blushing). Love this book.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

This may be the best Star Trek novel I've read, and it's not really a Star Trek novel. It's clearly derived from Star Trek (a debt made explicit as the plot unfolds), in that the plot follows a group of red-shirted ensigns on a starship who have figured out that something very bad always happens to their type on away missions. How they find out and then what they do about it is a hilarious and even touching journey. This is like Star Trek IV if that movie was funnier, more self-aware, and more deeply moving. The audio book is even read by Wil Wheaton of all people! It really shines in the few moments of melancholy, and it's just sweet enough to balance the satire. My only real complaint is that many things are never explained that I thought would be possible to explain/not-explain in yet another homage to Star Trek, so to me the book didn't feel tied together, but that's also part of its charm. File this one under "better than I thought it would be."

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review: Dante's Purgatory translated by Dorothy Sayers

I don't feel it's my place to review this book in the normal way. But I can say, as someone mid-way through life, I found that Dante's mid-way through life story to be what I needed to hear. Dante's poetry as translated by Sayers is surprisingly vivid and affecting. After reading Charles Williams' The Figure of Beatrice, I could see how the poem works on four levels at once (which Sayers sometimes spells out in her commentary, because she was inspired by Williams too). I still find the history somewhat dry but there seems to be less of it in Purgatory than in Hell, while the philosophical discourses on free will and love are timeless. Dante makes abstract concepts concrete in a way that every teacher can learn from. The medieval science is not as disconcerting as I thought it would be -- really only one passage was different enough that it threw me out of the narrative with its inaccuracies. But on the whole, those tempted to stereotype the Middle Ages as anti-science and pro-blind faith need to read Dante. He assumes that the reader can keep track of complicated astronomy, for instance, which he reproduces accurately. He also castigates the Church for not fulfilling its role in terms that might give Richard Dawkins a few ideas for new invective. I heard Dante's voice across the centuries -- and I found out that I genuinely LIKE him. His path resonates with my path. I found this book fresh and lively, and worth plowing through the occasional thicket for the overall journey.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Finding Burgess Shale Fossils with Kids, Part 3: The Science

We found a great family day hike in Kootenay National Park in Canada and found small but important fossils. It worked well for our kids, and also for me -- I dug up some of the scientific literature describing this find after the fact. I'll describe what we found in three parts: The Prep, The Hike, and The Science.

So after our hike we found fossils. Or at least what I could pass off to the kids as possibly fossils? We took pictures of our putative fossils and left them in the field.

This looks like a leaf-shaped form with fuzzy appendages flowing out from it (found by my wife):

This looks like a bean with legs:

And these might be trails of something wormy (found by my 12-year-old):

Notice how, at least, these are all in a similar type of rock. This is the shale that used to be sandy seafloor. I think they might actually be something.

Finally, I looked up a little on the science of the area and pieced together some interesting leads for further study in the academic literature. First off, this appears to be a newer site than the others. At least two major sites are located north a few dozen kilometers, close to the town of Field and Kicking Horse Pass, including the Wolcott Quarry and the area where the first specimens were found.

It wasn't until 2010 that a paper came out describing the Stanley Glacier site. This paper discusses how the previous sites were part of a "thick" formation but the Stanley Glacier rock is part of a "thin" part of the formation. Previously scientists had thought the thin part wouldn't preserve specimens, but from our own exploration we can confirm that it did.

I imagine that someone may have been hiking the trail to the glacier, noticed the black-stained layered cliffs on the west end of the valley, and crossed over to the waterfall to check for fossils. Maybe other sites can be found by similar cliffs. We caught a glimpse of some in the area of Kicking Horse Pass, for example, where the older sites are located. Seems to be a good excuse for more hiking in the area.

Here is the map from the paper showing the site and how it relates to the other sites near Field, which are part of the Cathedral Escarpment:

In 2014, word got out that yet another site was found north of the Stanley Glacier site, across the road near Marble Canyon. This was a major find with many diverse new shapes, showing that buried in those rocks there are many, many lifeforms waiting to be discovered. Connecting the dots (or the "F's" in the map above), perhaps there are other sites located along this line. How many unknown shapes are stacked up in those black-stained cliffs?

I believe the other sites are rightfully kept off-limits to the public, so the Stanley Glacier may be the easiest way to play paleontologist and see for yourself what this kind of discovery is like. As we showed, even a four-year-old, with some help, can do it. There's nothing like a treasure hunt to motivate small legs to keep moving, and the likelihood of finding fossils seems amazingly high.

Finding Burgess Shale Fossils with Kids, Part 2: The Hike

We found a great family day hike in Kootenay National Park in Canada and found small but important fossils. It worked well for our kids, and also for me -- I dug up some of the scientific literature describing this find after the fact. I'll describe what we found in three parts: The Prep, The Hike, and The Science.

The trailhead for the hike is only about fifteen minutes west of the main highway through Banff, along Highway 93, just across into Alberta, so it's central and easy to get to from either the towns of Lake Louise or Banff. (We came in from Calgary and spent a couple hours in Banff, including a stop at the rock store to show the boys what fossils look like, before grabbing lunch from the supermarket and driving to the trailhead while eating on the way.) We left Banff at 1:15, started the hike at 2pm and got back to the car at 6:30. From there it was a quick hour's drive to Golden, BC for our next hotel stay.

The trail runs south from the trailhead, up to a hanging valley between ridges that you can see from the beginning. You proceed through very different stages, which can be used as goals to motivate the little ones. First you climb up through a landscape recovering from a fire maybe a decade ago:

You're climbing up a hill, and the grade is taxing on little legs, but actually easier than the grade on the Lake Agnes Tea House trail in Lake Louise that we had done the previous day. There's little shade on the slope, so an early afternoon start meant that the sun was getting easier to take as we went.

Early on there's a stream running to the east as you switch back and forth:
The top of the stream is about where this first stage ends. At our pace it's about an hour, and you can tell the kids that the hardest part is first.

Once you get to the top of that slope, the trail flattens out and turns toward the valley. Soon you cross a stream that used to be spanned with just a two-log bridge but now has a wider bridge that you could cartwheel across if you like:

This is a view heading south into the valley. The glacier is ahead and up to the right. Closer on the right is a sheer wall of layers of tan and brown rock smeared with black. This contains the shale of the Burgess shale and forms the backdrop of most of our pictures. There's a waterfall running down it at the south end that had helped to pull down some rocks from the cliff for little fossil hunters.

The flat part lets you catch your breath until the trail starts to climb again. It's not nearly as steep as before but much more rocky. At some point you'll feel a wave of chilly air blowing in your face from the valley, definitely cooler than the air on the sunlit hill. We also crossed into shade and at this point, were more certain that we could actually do this thing.

When you see this rocky staircase, you know you're maybe half an hour from your goal (and if you have a four-year-old you're probably going to have to carry him):

The trail is rougher from this point on. As you get closer to the glacier, you will soon be able to make out the waterfall, tiny against the huge cliffs of rock. This is your goal.

The glacier is just beyond it. If you have the energy you can hike all the way up to it, but for us, turning off at the waterfall was certainly enough. Here you can see the glacier peeking out on the left.

Stay on the trail until you are almost directly across from the waterfall on your right. There's a place where it looks like the trail branches, and stay on the rightward, downward branch. This takes you right next to a rock field in the center of the valley that is your final challenge. Scramble across to the base of the waterfall and you're there. I think the littler ones had an easier time with scrambling than we did, but we all had to watch out for shifty rocks.

Once  across (and even before), look for tan or beige flat ones with multiple layers, about the size of a dessert plate or a dinner plate (I may have been getting hungry by this point). Flip these rocks over and examine them closely. Just from a few minutes of searching ,we were able to find several tiny fossils.

The nice part about mountain hikes is that down is faster than up. It took us an easy 90 minutes to get back to the car.

In the next post, I'll show what our "fossils" looked like and describe some of the scientific literature about this particular site.

Finding Burgess Shale Fossils with Kids, Part 1: The Prep

We found a great family day hike in Kootenay National Park in Canada and found small but important fossils. It worked well for our kids, and also for me -- I dug up some of the scientific literature describing this find after the fact. I'll describe what we found in three parts: The Prep, The Hike, and The Science.

Right after Labor Day, we wanted to take a quick vacation that would take advantage of the fact that under the quarter system, school doesn't start till the last week in September. So we drove from Seattle to the Canadian Rockies for a five-day vacation.

Since I've written about the Burgess Shale fossils, I wanted to take the family to hike up and see a place where those fossils were found. The Burgess Shale contains evidence of life's Cambrian explosion, where  diverse forms most wonderful suddenly appear in the rocks a little more than half a billion years ago. I wondered if there was anything special about the rocks up there and wanted to feel what it would have been like to find these fossils.

Before we went I found an official site for this hike and several trip reports indicating that it would work for older kids, such as this one. We also found the guided tours offered to the two other official Burgess Shale sites, but we were too late to sign up, had kids below the age cut-off, and wanted to be able to go at our own pace (and turn back if need be). The Stanley Glacier hike looked like the one we could do, and it's a public hike that we can try on our own.

We have four boys, age 12 (going on 30), 11, 6, and 4. I wasn't sure that we'd make it, but I promised them if we did, they might find their own fossils. And it worked -- here's the proof, with the fossil area in the background:

I'll describe the hike in detail in the next post, so you can decide if your kids will make it. Most kids ages 10 and up should have no problem with this hike. It was a challenge for our little ones, but it actually got a bit easier as we went along. I want to publish that it worked for us, so it might work for you.

We spent four and a half hours total on this hike: 2 hours up, maybe an hour looking for fossils, and 1.5 hours back. To get to the fossils, you don't go all the way to Stanley Glacier, but turn off after about three miles. The first mile or so is a medium-grade upward climb that went the slowest for us, then there was a flat, fast part before the trail roughened and climbed again for the last half mile (ish). Then you turn off toward a waterfall on your right, scramble over some rocks, and there are the fossils.

Next I'll describe the hike in detail and how to find the fossil site.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Book Review: What Coleridge Thought by Owen Barfield

This may be the best of Barfield's books, or at least the most grounded and therefore far-reaching, but I really think that unless you're a Coleridge scholar, you're better off reading up to it with Barfield's previous works. In particular, Saving the Appearances seems to be a pre-requisite, and I've always thought it was hard to jump into that book without reading Poetic Diction first. The other works by Barfield are OK but I'd say these three are the most worthwhile, in this order.

The other examples of "late Barfield" I've read were too much influenced by Steiner and anthroposophy, but this one manages to avoid those topics (except for a few mentions). Also, Barfield is not focusing on Barfield's ideas so much as Coleridge's, filtered through Barfield, to be sure. I got the sense that the two are enough on the same wavelength that Barfield's filter is more a good teacher teaching than it is a partisan lobbying. I feel like I "get" Coleridge more after this book and that strengthens my estimation of both Coleridge and Barfield. This also fits with the picture of Coleridge from the wonderful history Age of Wonder.

To be sure, Barfield can't get through a whole book without making some annoying absolute and contrarian statements about modern science. I do think that my reading of Barfield can accommodate most of his intellectual puckishness by interpreting Barfield's "matter before mind didn't exist" to become "matter before mind didn't MATTER" (not in the same way as it matters now). It all comes down to what you mean by "exist," see?

But in this book that move of "translation" doesn't have to be made that often. It makes sense that Coleridge and Barfield are sympatico given the influence of German philosophy on Coleridge, which goes right along with Barfield's love for Goethe (which I'm OK with) and Steiner (which I'm not).

In the end, I think Coleridge's "polar logic" as described by Barfield may offer a way to interpret Barfield's philosophy in a way that throws light on modern experience without throwing out all of modern natural history. In fact, polar logic may be incorporated into a narrative interpretation of natural history. Barfield's own statements about the natural fit between evolution and Christianity imply that this should be possible, even when his sweeping dismissal of science of the past seems to get in the way.

Overall, a fascinating and helpful book that I'm working on integrating, but not for the faint of heart. I'm not sure how that interprets into a star rating, but Barfield's against quantitation anyway, so I'm sure he won't mind my avoiding the five stars on this one, even though I think it may be stronger on the whole than previous works I've given five stars to. This is definitely worth working your way up to.

Book Review: Annihiliation by Jeff VanderMeer

LOST meets Lovecraft meets Crichton. That's what this book is, and if that doesn't draw you in, it's probably not for you. It certainly drew me in. Since this is the first of a trilogy, many more questions are raised than are answered, and if you don't like that, it's probably not for you. (Although I think the mysteries will be resolved in a way that satisfies those frustrated by LOST's ending.) The biologist mostly acts like a biologist -- I would have liked to see her hypothesize more. Also, the plot gives hypnosis too much power, but this may be explained later. Overall, it's incredibly brisk, and manages to be both creative and realistic. I have quibbles about how things are done but again, it's hard to judge on the first book, and the overall story is compelling and interesting. My only dilemma now is how long to wait before reading book 2.