Monday, November 27, 2017

Building with DNA Origami "Legos"

Here's the last 20 minutes of class today in which I discuss how DNA origami has been used to build tiny structures, cellular armor, and even molecular machines. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Book Review: The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America

This is a book about how the subtle power of consumerism in the 20th century gave way to the crises of the 21st century, written in the style of a 19th-century essayist (down to the emphasis on speaking to America as a nation and quoting Melville repeatedly). It's a challenging and rewarding, important read. This quote near the end gives the best summary of the multiple targets attacked by David Bosworth here -- or, more accurately, the multiple heads of the hydra:

"An anti-imperial imperialism, a conservative avidity, a multicultural illiberalism, a cynical sentimentality, a spiritual materialism, a liberating bondage: together these conceptual, ethical, and emotional nullities have been skewing the compass of our collective judgement. Their internal incoherencies have animated a Virtual America, within whose baffling spaces traditional symbols, beliefs, and rituals have been thinned to masks that conceal, in fact, an accelerating allegiance to their near opposites."

There's a chapter against Disney; a chapter against Reagan; a chapter against pharma; a chapter against NEA-funded artists; and, perhaps most obviously but no less necessarily, a chapter against reality TV. My one complaint is the distribution of the charges. Bosworth's ultimate target is both sides of the political spectrum, and against nostalgia as well as futurism, but he seems to throw more charges at the right than at the left, and more at the future (utopian technologists) than the past (gauzy nostalgists). The worst chapter is near the beginning because it's all about how childhood has changed, when the best is at the end when he moves from diagnosis toward treatment -- but there's not enough of that. His strongest statements are like the one above that draw unexpected, broad, provocative connections, because it's those connections that show the true nature of the problem and might show the way toward its solution.

Ultimately, this is a screed in the best sense of the word and well worth reading slowly and chewing over. Bosworth is onto something.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

This is a 21st-century version of Dante's Inferno centered around Abraham Lincoln as written by an author who made his name writing short stories, George Saunders. It would be fascinating if someone would take the time to compare and contrast the moral universe of Dante to that of George Saunders. There are huge differences but also some core similarities. Both Dante and Saunders are exquisite at describing human emotions; both are clearly writing about bodies as well as souls (Saunders gets downright bawdy); and both are trying to explain something about the nature of being alive. At the beginning of Lincoln in the Bardo, the narrative seems scattered -- this might be related to the fact that I was listening to an audiobook with literally hundreds of voice actors -- and yet near the end it coalesces into deep insights about grief and loss, and how those shaped Lincoln's actions during the Civil War. My favorite parts are the subtle echoes of his Second Inaugural Address that work their way into the thoughts. In a sense, this is a backstory for how that address came about, told as a graveyard fantasy. Not what I was expecting from Saunders's first full-length novel, but all the more impressive for that.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: Ready Player One

I recommend reading this book before the movie. There's no way the movie will be able to replicate the immersive effect of having at least a dozen 80s-geek references on every single page, flying at you like the robot attackers in Robotron. I know the field well enough that the cultural lodestone that this duplicates -- the original video game Easter Egg in the Adventure game on the Atari 2600 -- is something that's always fascinated me, and this is that lodestone in book-quest form. So it's as fun as a ride on Space Mountain and about as meaningful. The book seems to recognize its own hollowness at several points, where it almost gets really interesting, but then the ride starts up again. Those are just points where the roller coaster gets pulled up a secondary lift and nothing more. So don't look for meaning here, but just have fun with it, and learn a little about the games and TV and movies you missed from the 80s. It leaves me feeling like I ate some upper-notch fast food. I knew what I was in for when I started, and at least it delivers on that.

Book Review: Crucible of Faith by Philip Jenkins

This is a detailed, interesting history of an overlooked period time: roughly the period between Malachi and Matthew, which I had described to me as the 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testaments. Yet it was a time of political turmoil and theological innovation as ideas were developed that led to Christianity. What's fascinating to me is how many ideas that look like abrupt innovations were more gradual changes in thought in response to external conditions. Just like human evolution, theological evolution gets more and more complicated the closer you look at it. The standout issue to me at the time is the nature of Adam and the Fall, and surprisingly, the original idea placed the Fall with the Watchers -- in Genesis 6 -- rather than with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. I think this helps, because it shows that the Fall is more than a single event and is at the very least diffused over 9 chapters rather than located in one. How does this change how we talk about it? Of course, Jenkins is a historian and this book has very little interpretation. Also, sometimes he tosses out specific historical references and proper names that get the less historically minded reader lost in the weeds. I want to know what Jenkins thinks, and he seems too careful to say, like a professor wanting his students to develop their own ideas. Another interesting side of this is how the same dualism keeps showing up, first in the Crucible years (as Jenkins calls the few centuries before Christ), then in Gnosticism, and then in the heresy fights for centuries. I want to draw a line between these movements that in my opinion draw too firm a line between matter and spirit. Why do we keep making these mistakes? Lots to think about, and I would like to know where the scholarship is that takes these ideas and thinks about it in a practical Christian context. This book is a great starting point but it leaves me with far more questions than I started with. I certainly appreciate that.