Friday, December 23, 2011
(A) - Audio – I listened to this book
(N) – I have a word document of notes and quotes from this book
(!) – I really liked this book
(X%) – I didn’t finish this book
(Tip for Footnotes: I went a little overboard with footnotes, even for me. I know it is hard to go back and forth. If you are interested in the footnotes it might be helpful to open a second browser.)
Resurrection - Leo Tolstoy (A)
"every man carries within himself the germs of every human quality.”
I love Tolstoy. Anna Kerennena is easily in my top three favorite books. But there is a reason that this is one of his lesser known works. It operates mostly as a tract against the 19th century Russian court  and penal system. I read it with my reading group because we heard that it was Tolstoy’s most explicitly spiritual novel. That might itself be part of the problem. There were some very fruitful spiritual themes. But the book was just too polemical, both politically and ideologically, to work very well as a noel. It lacked the subtle contrast of Leven and Anna that told, essentially, the same story. It also lacked notes of hope that accompanied his more famous (and notoriously tragic) work.
Zombiecorns (!) – John Green
“My regret was immediate, total, and useless.” 
I’ve written a couple times about this ‘zombie apocalypse novella.’ I loved it. I defy you to listen to the author read the first page and not want to read the rest.
An Abundance of Katherines – John Green (A)
"How very odd to think that God gave you your life but not think that life asks more of you than watching TV."
One of the conditions that John put on the free, public distribution of Zombiecors is that we would read one of his actual works so that we wouldn’t judge his writing on a hastily written zombie apocalypse novella that he did not like. I took him up on the condition, checking out two of his other works.  The irony is that I thought Zobicorns was the best of the three by a long shot.
An abundance of Katherines had flourishes of Green’s characteristic wit and insight and deeply appealed to the teenage nerd I once was (as opposed to the adult nerd I now am). I loved the theme of the fear of unfulfilled potential and a world that is gaining on your head start. But it, somehow, did not seem to be the book I knew its author is capable of.
Hunger Games (A) (!) - Suzanne Collins
I have almost no experience with ‘young adult lit.’ It wasn’t a genre when I was a ‘youth’  and honestly, the idea of an adult reading it conjures the images of ‘Twilight mom’ in my mind. But emboldened by my ability to read An Abundance of Katherines without feeling totally creepy, encouraged by no fewer than four adult friends that I admire, and after observing that a lot of the students in our campus ministry loved the book, I finally read the Hunger Games. I am embarrassed to admit I loved it…especially the first half. I cannot remember being as engrossed in a fictional work as I was in the first two hundred pages. Then the book departed from its central premise to set up the series love triangle…and it lost momentum, but it had built enough momentum that the wheels didn’t come off.
I’m not sure I realized how much I vested in these characters until I recently saw the trailer for the film and had trouble viewing part of it through wet eyes.
Will Grayson Will Grayson – David Levitan and John Green (A)
“I never even paid attention to the score. Baseball was just one of those inexplicable things that parents did like Flu Shots and church.”
I know that John Green loves Catcher in the Rye because of he rejects the idea that a successful literary character has to be likable, but most of these characters were just too self absorbed for me to identify with them. I feel like Green’s successful central idea is ‘the aggressive attempt to see life as the other,’  which is kind of the opposite of self absorption.  But this work conspicuously lacked that theme. Maybe it because he only wrote half of it. Levitan’s characters, on the whole, lacked the self skepticism that attend Green’s more successful characters.
Also, this kind of felt like a book by two straight guys about two gay guys…probably because it was.
Anyway, thus ended my experiment in youth lit.
Unill we Have Faces - CS Lewis
I think this is the most difficult and least read of Lewis’ popular works. This explains why it may be the only one I hadn’t read. It was very good. One of the difinitive meditations on the hiddeness of God. But there is a kind of melancholy that attends reading your last Lewis work for the first time. There is a lifetime of productive re-reading ahead of me…but I will never be startled by his clarity and creativity for the first time again.
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut (A)
"Everything there was to know about life can be found in Brother's Karamazov"
“Maggie was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies.”
I have heard much about this being the great early ‘postmodern’ novel (where postmodern mostly means an experiment in non-linear story telling). But I have very little to say about this book. I only even remembered that I read it at the last minute when I found a couple of notes about it in my file. And so it goes.
Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald (A)
"Everyone suspects themselves of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people I have ever known."
"He was one of those men who acheived such an acute limited excellence at 21 that everything afterwards savors of anticlimax."
I revisited GG (a text I read in High School but failed to appreciate even a little) as part of John Green’s club.
It appears that in my mind I had conflated GG and Death of a Salesman. In place of two iconic stories of materialism in early twentieth century, I created a single mental category of ‘Americana tragedy of inauthenticity ’ that held these two together without distinction. As with most of the books I have reread since High School, I did appreciate it more on the second go-around. There are a few great metaphors but when it comes to Fitzgerald I really preferred…
Short Stories - F Scott Fitzgerald (A)
“The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you will have.”
I liked these…more than Gatsby. FSF is a sort of understated virtuoso…simultaneously sublime and realistic. And in lieu of more commentary, I’ll include more a couple more quotes.
“People over 40 can seldom be permanently convinced of anything. At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look. At 45 they are caves in which we hide.”
"You can't shock a monk. He is a professional shock absorber.”
1984 (A) – George Orwell
“Why should one feel it to be intolerable unless one had some ancestral memory that things had once been different?”
I had never read 1984. It was unexpectedly grim. But throughout, I couldn’t help think about Neil Postman’s thesis that in the two classic visions of dystopia (1984 and Brave New World) it is the latter rather than the former that is our undoing. It is Huxley not Orwell who was our cultural profit. If you want to undo our society, it is far more effective to pander to appetites than oppress freedoms. We won’t stand for political oppression, forced restriction of freedoms, but will gladly trade careful, conscientious lives of just action for increasingly refined entertainments.
Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (A) – David Grann
I know this sounds like another zombie narrative…but it isn’t. It is a non-fiction  story of a modern reporter’s attempt to recreate, investigate, and relay the events and back story of the most famous attempt to find a lost city in the unexplored Amazon.
It is a well written book…the kind of book that reveals the ending early but still manages suspense and even a twist ending.  I listened to it while I was doing field work and found the fortitude and courage of the explorers to be a motivational subsidy. Their tireless trudge into the jungles seemed to make my exertion decisions (am I going to hike another mile in to take another set of samples before I call it a day) seem small and my adventure tractable.
Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay - John Gimlette
I read this travel memoir/historical survey of Paraguay while I was there. It was a helpful and highly readable introduction to a country whose complicated and often tragic history helps explain some of the complexities of its present reality . The author was a fine writer and a capable guide…but I could not help but notice that he did not seem to love Paraguay.  I do not a disinterested, ironic observer to guide me into the back-story of a new place and people. I want someone to show me how, despite their complicated story and bed-bug ridden hotels, he or she came to love the people and connect with the place. I wanted Gimlette to be as intoxicated with Paraguay as Grann was with Z.
Film, Television and Music
Since I don’t do a retrospective post on these forms I thought I’d tag my favorites on the end of this since they fit the ‘narrative’ theme.
Never Let Me Go – My new criterion for a good film is ‘am I still thinking about it two days later.’ This beautifly made film was still turning over in my brain weeks later. I love the idea of a period science fiction peice. And the closing lines...
Tree of Life – TOL is a deeply flawed film. It is about 45 minutes longer than it needed to be. I recommended it to a thoughtful and reflective friend who did not like it at all. But it easily fit the criterion I listed above. I am still turning it over in my mind a couple weeks later (and may have to do a post on it).
My television competition was a war of attrition. I found that I only had time to follow a couple 30 minute shows (often just before the latest episode fell off the Hulu cue). But Louie and Community were the runaway winners. I stayed in a hotel last night and flipped through a couple of channels struck by how a bunch of shows I had never seen all kind of looked, felt, and sounded the same. If nothing else, Louie and Community are unique. 
Community - I have to respect a show that keeps trying. Some episodes are hits and others are misses, but every one tries to be special. And I respect that.
Louie – I started watching Louie half way season 2 when Klosterman declared it the most original and successful show ever. I have always like CK. He is one of the crassest comedians out there  but he is also one of the most astute students of human nature that currently has a popular platform and one of the only ones with any semblance of self-skepticism. For example, if you haven’t seen ‘Everything is Awesome and No One is Happy,’ it is characteristic of his voice.
I went back and watched the whole series and it really is fantastic, totally original in format, tone, style, resonance and topical range. Oh, and when he is not busy being observant...he is hilarious...
Sigh No More – Mumford and Sons : I was mildly obsessed with this album this year. There is only one album I own that can rival SNM for the number of times I have listened to it (Catch for Us the Foxes – my favorite album ever). Mumford and Sons share a couple things with mewithoutYou that makes their music defy the standard process of artistic immunity (the process by which a work of art gradually fails to ignite our passions until the only work it can actually do is to occasionally invoke memories of passions). Both albums are stylistically unique, lyrically sublime, artistically excellent and contain spiritually complicated themes.
The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me – Brand New: This is an older album, but I am new to Brand New and really enjoyed them this year.
Next: 2011, A Year in Books Part 2 – Idea Books
This post was written while listening to Deja Entendu by Brand New
 I have been doing this for a couple years since my friend Joel started doing it over on his blog.
 And I’d be happy to e-mail them if you want a summary.
 I watched a couple of old episodes of Ally McBeal while I was reading this and found a surprising similarity in themes…we are at the mercy of legal systems that are capricious and arbitrary and subject to the whims and foibles of peculiar humans.
 In the next post I will write about Miroslov Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace (one of the finest texts I read this year). I thought of this quote when Volf argued that at the center of the human predicament is the icy and unforgiving irreversibility of our actions…making forgiveness the only real resource for negotiating our condition. But my reading group was amused when I made this connection for them…with a straight face.
 The ones my library had on audio, and admittedly, not his best know or liked.
 One of the books I will write about next time surveyed the rise and history of ‘youth culture’ from the 1930’s to the 1960’s…crediting this phenomenon with substantial influence in the development of our economy, culture and social conventions. But it is interesting that ‘youth’ as a subculture continues to segregate itself to the point that literature has been subdivided in just the last dozen years.
 He also deconstructs the centrality of romance to the teenage life, which together might be just about the greatest service youth literature could offer its demographic…and in stark contrast to the pandering that generally typifies this genre on both topics (see Twilight et al).
 There is a great moment in the second season of Louie where CK and a friend are having an argument and then an arguing couple walked by them and they realize the absurdity and self-involvement betrayed by their argument and just kind of giggle and say good bye despite the gravity of the topic. There was no such moment of self awareness leading to self skepticism. I know this is too much to ask of teenagers, but it isn’t too much to ask of thoughtful thirty-somethings writing for teenagers.
 I suppose if Babbit had died (rather than nearly bored me to death) I would have put that book in the same category.
 So I made this hard distinction between narrative and fiction because I include narrative non-fiction in essentially the same category as fiction. But this is the only non-fiction narrative I read.
 In Cold Blood comes to mind as another example of this.
 I have also found that an understanding of the 19th century history of a place gives you entre into more meaningful conversations (which basically boils down to better follow up questions) with those who live there.
 I once sent a short story I wrote to my friend Tiffany who is an English professor. Several of her comments stuck with me, but the one I have thought the most about was ‘you do not seem to love your character.’ I have given a lot of thought to whether you can write successful fiction without loving your character…but I do not think you can write successful non-fiction without that predisposition to find the lovely and good and the comprehensive observation that characterizes the lover.
 I think the best movie we actually saw this year was A River Runs Through It, but to list a mid-90’s film in a 2011 retrospective is too embarrassing…even for me. But it should be noted that we also liked The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Henry Ford, which means that three of the top 8 or so movies we saw this year had Brad Pitt in them.
 And their reward for artistic excellence, Community was suspended and Louie could not attract enough advertisers to move from the 10:30 slot to 10:00…on FX. CK told a story that they showed an episode to a mainstream advertiser and the company actually thought that it was a prank – unable to believe a show like this is actually on television. If you show your program to a corporation and it is so original that they think it is fake, you might be onto something.
 So some of my friends will find him unwatchable…and I appreciate and respect that. From time to time students will ask me what I think of The Wire and I have started to respond “It is my favorite show ever and I cannot remotely recommend it.”
 I have started a post on Louie and self skepticism. But regular readers will note that few posts I mention ever make it onto the blog. I have something like a 30% completion rate.
Monday, December 12, 2011
I love playing soccer. I love being part of a team built on unspoken communication and the ability to predict each other’s behavior. I love the finesse and the hard work. I love the thwack of the netting as a well struck ball finds the upper corner of the goal. And mostly I love the contact. I just really like getting hit a couple times a week. It reminds me of a part of myself that lies dormant in the coffee shops, cubicle, class rooms and play grounds that compose most of the rest of my life.
So, it does not occur to me to object to the arbitrary limitations placed on hand usage in the game. The self limitation of our most trusted appendages is part of what makes the game interesting. I love the game and so I play by its rules.
In fact, I have gotten so comfortable with these rules, that I have forgotten how un-natural they are…until I had a second born. My two-year-old refuses to limit the use of her hands when we play soccer to the endless frustration of my four-year-old. But this reminds me of my earliest days playing the game. Youth soccer is plagued by ‘hand balls’ because there is nothing more natural for an eight-year-old in the heat of competition than to reach out and grab a contested ball. Part of the early training in soccer is the discipline of self-limitation of highly useful parts of our self.
And we gladly submit to this self limitation, because, as I have established, I love soccer. The rest of my life is enriched by this activity that requires a measure of self limitation. Chasing a ball in a competitive framework burns about twice as many calories per hour than running and, according to my wife, I have more domestic patience if I get to ‘battle’ other dudes a couple times a week.
But when the buzzer goes off, and the game is over, my hands and arms are immediately employed in their standard useful activity. I pick up my bag…I ice my aging joints…I clean off the blood…I drive home…I hug my wife…I hold my baby. You see, the reason self limitation is useful is because it is restricted to an appropriate arena.
If it wasn’t restricted, it would be disability.
Now there is another game I love. I love science. I love the story. I love the paradox. I love the resolution of paradox. I love that reality is ‘not only strange than we thought but stranger than we could have imagined.’ I love discovery and understanding. I even enjoy the reluctant release of a mistaken hypothesis. And I enjoy much of the technology that the enterprise has generated. I love science.
But in some ways, science is just like soccer. The rules of the game…part of what makes the game fruitful and fun…include counter-intuitive self limitation. Science presumes ‘methodological naturalism.’ It requires a temporary renunciation of metaphysics…the suspension of teleology. And just like youth soccer, this takes some getting used to, because we are fundamentally teleological beings, accustomed to employing our metaphysical faculties and finding them useful.
The lab is a ‘world without windows.’ It presupposes a closed universe. Methodological naturalism focuses us epistemologically to recognize the aspects of our reality that are repeatable and knowable through by measurement and experimentation. But we can make the mistake to think that because these are the only things science can know, that they are the only things that can be know. Soccer is a fantastic game, but it would be a tragic lifestyle. Science is a fantastic method, but it is a tragic world view.
When the ‘buzzer goes off’ in the lab and I walk out into a beautiful evening and I hug my wife and I hold my baby and I play ‘soccer’ with my daughters and I read poetry and let a flat screen of my laptop tell me stories and read ancient texts with insight into reality…it is time to set aside the self limitation of methodological naturalism and experience reality as a person…with my metaphysical faculties engaged. It is time to let science feed teleology and live under the auspices of a broader, more robust epistemology.
The reason self limitation is useful is because it is restricted to an appropriate arena. If it wasn’t restricted, it would be disability.
This post was written while listening to The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine
 In other words, on knowing each other. A soccer team that is also a human community is usually a more competitive team.
 Sadly, not in that order. I have aged as a soccer player much more rapidly than others. I was Varsity captain and a league All Star in high school. But it was all speed, hard work, set pieces and an unexpectedly competent shot from outside the box (for a nerd…the ‘surprise effect’ of being a competent nerd on the pitch is considerable). I ran track and had a rigorous physical conditioning regimen for a high schooler…so I was just in better shape than almost anyone in the league. But none of my soccer coaches ever actually played soccer. So I never learned foot skills or developed an appreciable ‘soccer IQ’. This is a problem in my mid-thirties. The speed and conditioning advantage has been lost in the slow march to senescence (and a schedule that includes actual responsibilities). This shouldn’t be a problem in the over-30 league, because we are all in the same position, left only with our foot skills and whiles…only, I don’t have any. So I watch the competitive gap between myself and an average player widen (in the wrong direction) the older I get.
I once posted a ‘free agent’ announcement that read “hard worker, reliably shows for games, pays on time, good motor, decent shot, mediocre ball skills.” The sad thing is that I was overselling my ball skills. The sadder thing is I got offers.
 I recently took the girls to several UCD volleyball games because one of the senior starters is part of the campus Christian community we are involved in. We love introducing the girls to admirable young women who are kind and strong…who embody the best of grace and power (which describes or friend Katie). Ever since, Aletheia has asked to play ‘volleyball’ instead of soccer because she has realized that sports exist that don’t impose silly hand restrictions.
 Here are some additional, gratuitous, Soccer pics of my 4-year. So far, she is like her daddy. She is an average dribbler, but she’s a hard worker and can drop the hammer. One of the other dads told me his son came home and told him ‘Charis kicks the ball so hard.’
 I went to the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco for the first time this week. It is the biggest conference I have ever been to…and the least practical. I usually go to applied science or engineering conferences. But the pure beauty of the explored earth sings. Pure science is like art in a lot of way. It requires public funding (or rare and generous patronage) to be possible…so getting to do it is a privilege not a right. But I think a society is ennobled by resourcing both.
 There are a number of famous recognitions of this. Most famously Francis Crick argued that “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” Even in my own intro to Ecology class, the venerable Dr Shapiro encouraged us that ‘we have to be ever cautious of teleological thinking.’
 Though, for most labs, this is not only metaphorically, but also literally true.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
In case you are unfamiliar, here are the terms of this particular random number generator: The object of the exercise is for one party to achieve a score of +10. There are seven equally likely outcomes for each random event, including four positive outcomes, a +4, a +3, a +2 and a +1 event. On the negative side, there are two -2 events. So far it seems like a problem that would rapidly converge to a +10 solution. However, it is the seventh outcome (the third negative outcome) that adds the dramatic non-linearity. The ‘bucket spill’ event resets a player’s score to zero, meaning that it can register anywhere between 0 and -9…counteracting the convergent positive bias of the event.
The Results: The ‘bucket spill’ event does, in fact, produce a highly skewed distribution of play time. In 50,000 simulated games the average game lasted 9 turns (18 spins) but the longest game lasted 71 turns (142 spins) and there is a non-trivial probability (~5%) of a game that lasts more than 20 turns (40 spins).
Now, aren’t you glad I’m blogging again? I mean, seriously, where would the internet be without this kind of essential analysis?
This post was finished while listening to The Recluse by Cursive
 And adults, if the popularity of fantasy football is any indication…or the ability of adults to vest in one of those ’racing dots’ on the jumbotron at major sporting events. This, incidentally, is why the ‘sausage race’ (which is as near to literal and as far from ‘disturbing euphemism’ as it possibly could be) is one of the great intermission events in all of sports. The outcome is uncertain and anything can happen (including assault by a player). It is easier to vest and cheer with gusto for the Italian Sausage or Bratwurst. There is an insight here about the theology of election or philosophical determinism or openness theology, but I have committed to make this an entirely un-philosophical post, so I refuse to explore it. (Though, actually, I find the philosophy of time practically impenetrable, so really I am just punting. It’s a blog. I am satisfied to make the connection between sausage racing and election – I don’t necessarily need to analyze it.)
 Besides a few attempts at “Subtle Cheating.”
 The actual length of the game is driven by the difficulty toddlers have in hanging little plastic cherries on cardboard trees. I suspect the pedagogical value is as much in fine motor skills as it is in counting.
 Apparently birds and dogs both consume cherries in pairs. We had cherry trees when I was a kid and I can report that this seriously undervalues the consumptive potential of birds and overvalues canine appetite for fruit. But, back to the statistics…
 Seriously, though, here is the short term plan. I will run short pieces (mostly of more import than this one), a Fragments and Links, and my 2011 books post through the end of the year and then will do a 2-5 part series on campus dating and sexuality (including another nerdy statistical post, some thoughts on Donna Freitas’ Sex and the Soul, and hopefully reflections on Beth Bailey’s From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: A History of Dating – the two most scholarly yet helpful texts I have found on the topic) in January leading up a talk I am going to give on the topic.
 I am actually listening to a play list that is composed of ‘bookmarked’ songs from Pandora that I finally just bought.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Theo-Coleopteraphelia: Actually, “An inordinate fondness for beetles” is precisely what I would expect
There is a famous exchange between the early, flamboyant, population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane and a nameless, religious inquirer. In response to the question “What can we learn about the Creator from biology?”Haldane responded:
“An inordinate fondness for beetles.”
You see, Coleoptera compose nearly a quarter of all described species. So many biologists cite this quote, from this famous, charismatic, atheist, as a sort of snarky shot at all things teleological. If God exists, he is a beetle-fancier. Well, first, that would put him in excellent company:
But upon review, isn’t that exactly what you would expect of the God described in the Christian Scriptures? Doesn’t it seem consistent with a God who said “Blessed are you who hid these things from the wise and revealed them to babes” and “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” and “those who are last will be first” to hide the great pinnacle of his creative glory in an unassuming basal trophic level.
My friend Justin has said something like: “the trajectory of the naturalist invariably gravitates from charismatic species to insects.” I have found this to be true. The deeper I get into the ecology rabbit hole, the more entranced I become with insects. Otters and polar bears are the ‘gateway drug’ to the intoxicating world of biological diversity.
It is precisely this kind of God who would not ‘dance’ for the miracle seekers and who prefers a measure of hiddeness that would make this unassuming organism replete with wonder. It is precisely the kind of God who counter-intuitively embeds his glory in unassuming ‘jars of clay,’ and who chooses particularly unremarkable human institutions (e.g. the wandering Hebrews in the first testament and the church in the second) to make himself know, who builds the best part of reality ‘just beneath the surface’, whose ‘theme and variation’ artistry would center for nearly a quarter of its production on the most unassuming of his makings.
Upon further review, a special fondness for beetles is precisely what I would expect.
This post was written while listening to Major/Minor by Thrice
Beetle image from here
 It is uncited and has been considered apocryphal by some. But Gould devotes an entire essay in Dinosaur in a Haystack to the validation of this quote and generates a compelling body of evidence.
 Haldane is an interesting thinker outside of his early contributions to population genetics. His other famous quote is: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
However, less famously, he provided the raw materials for Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (which I don’t love, but cannot totally dismiss…I’ll do a post on it someday…but until then): “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” -"When I am Dead" in Possible Worlds (1927) This led at least one author to suggest that despite being a Marxist and a materialist, Haldane ‘was an unabashed mystic.’
 If this wasn’t Haldane, it was certainly a ‘deutero-Haldane’, of an ‘editor of the Haldane school’ because it has the right content, tone and vintage. And yes, I am extremely pleased with myself for coining ‘deutero-Haldane.’ That has got to be the best biology IM-sports team name in history.
 Roughly half a dozen of my professors and introductory texts have related this quote.
 What most people don’t know is that the other great, early population geneticist R.F. Fisher, (and a professional as well as personal rival of Haldane) was a devout Christian. None other than Dawkins argued that Fisher was the ‘greatest of Darwin’s successors.’ It is often overlooked that the history of evolution is replete with substantial Christian contributors (particularly plucky Anglicans).
My area of emphasis advisor in the Ecology department gave a lecture where he discussed the complicated relationship between these two men including a widely believed (though, possibly apocryphal story) that Haldane stormed out in protest in the middle of prominent scientific meeting. Only he had stormed out into a closet. But he stayed in the closet until the room had cleared rather than emerging and admitting his mistake.
 This is a favorite verse for people to mock because it is so counterintuitive. My favorite shots at it are a vintage onion article where the Pope revokes the blessed status of the meek and the exchange in Firefly (deleted scene) where Captain Mal says “More than 70 earths spinnin' about the galaxy, and the meek have inherited not a one. ...” (btw, how is that for nerd cred, quoting deleted Firefly scenes.)
 This is a paraphrase. I couldn’t find the quote. But the insight is his.
 Paul’s famous description of the Church in 2 Corinthians 4.
 I am going to see NT Wright speak on Wednesday. I described it to one friend as similar to going to see a band live. I like live shows because they infuse a fundamentally consumerist transaction with a modicum of relationship. They help make art something more human than commerce. Connecting artist and patron in a personal venue enlarges affection and helps the relationship transcend a crass consumer interaction. I feel the same way about authors. In the next year I will probably spend at least another 1,000 pages with Tom. It will help a lot if there is a veneer of relationship there. So I am going to hear our generations most penetrating and affable theologian speak, not as a sort of celebrity chasing, but as a personal subsidy to our already substantial (though asymmetrical) relationship.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Well I went 0 for October on posts. But I’m afraid that occasional black outs are the only way I am going to be able to sustain this blogging thing. October included a stretch of 5 campus talks in 3 weeks…so that is where most of my creative energy went. As always, links to those talks can be found here.
But I have a few things lined up to run in the coming weeks, including a number of short pieces, a mostly music Fragments and Links post, and, eventually, a 2011 in books post. So stay tuned, for a strong (for me) end to 2011.
This post was written while listening to the Thrice channel on Pandora.
 I went to the Thrice concert in Sacramento last Sunday. It was great. And then I found this. Turns out Dustin Kensrue also has three kids abut the same age as mine (all under 4). I love that he can still bring it.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Science has dealt with this problem for decades. We use statistics to evaluate the ‘fit’ of explanatory models, which allows us to evaluate the extent to which the model explains empirical reality, while remaining agnostic with respect to factors causing observations do diverge from the model. We call this ‘goodness of fit’ analysis.
This gets to the problem with our discourse, be it political, theological, or marital. We assume that singular data points can make and break a model, without considering how the model performs in explaining the overall data set. For example, while there are very good Christian approaches to reconcile the Biblical creation narrative and the evolutionary narrative, the materialist, naturalist, and even positivist world views fit that data point better. However, when it comes to two of the most fundamental empirical observations that our models of reality have to explain: existence and consciousness, theistic worldviews outperform the secular options.
The problem with talk about, say ‘the problem of evil’ or ‘the fine tuning of the universe’ is that it divorces a single data point and goes all in on a single observation, when the way to evaluate a world view is on overall goodness of fit. Consider the following cartoon of a data set of empirical observations.
There is no simple, elegant model that will explain all of the variability in this data. Even the best possible fit will do well on certain data points and poorly on others. World view selection should not be a process of precisely explaining all of the variation, but optimizing the goodness of fit and then going to work on the residuals.
Some worldviews will explain individual observations better than the optimal world view but will have a poorer overall ‘goodness of fit.’ Consider the two following models of reality. Both are parsimonious and therefore, both have ‘residuals’ for all data points. Notice, world view 1 is a better overall explanatory model of the observations, but world view 2 provides a better explanation of some of the data (e.g. it generates a smaller residual with the problematic data point highlighted). In the simplest statistical language, we can measure the goodness of fit of a model by its r-squared (where a ‘high’ r-squared corresponds to a good fit and a ‘low’ r-squared corresponds to a poor fit). 
This changes our approach to reasonable discourse; because the ‘best fit’ world view does not have to provide the best explanation for every observation…it just has to provide the best overall explanation of all observations. So it is totally reasonable to say stuff like “Yeah, I think your world view provides a better explanation of this issue. That reduces my goodness of fit (r-squared) but not enough to change my working model of reality.”
Atheism can have a better explanation of the problem of evil and origins but has higher residuals on the ‘anthropic principle,’ contingency, universal impulses for justice and beauty, existence and consciousness. Being explicit about the requirement to fit multiple, diverse data points with a world view adds context to the discussion of any one. Atheism is coherent, credible, and compelling, but, from my perspective, Christianity has a higher r-squared. Same with Islam, which has lower residuals on a few observations (different ones than Atheism) but overall has a lower r-squared as I compute the sum of the residuals:
And this is where confirmation bias can be so powerful. By focusing our attention (and the attention of others) on observations that our world view explains well, we can create the illusion of a best fit. This is one of the reasons I try to read and study broadly and outside of my tradition. By reading secular literature and residing in academic disciplines that tend to be antagonistic to my world view, I can honestly identify the places where my world view returns high residuals. But I have also come to believe that Christianity offers the ‘best fit’ to my empirical, psychological and mystical experience.
An alternative to this is to go with a more complicated model that explains more of the data. This is where pluralism has been so successful. Pluralism complicates the model to explain more of the data and decrease the residuals. However, it is not a parsimonious model and so it does not add much explanatory information to the data. It has no generality. It is just a restatement of the data. This decreases the residuals, but is too contrived to be likely.
Additionally, it has been popular for the ‘new Atheists’ to compare Christianity to ‘extinct’ ancient relations (like Egyptian or Babylonian religious systems) or, and arbitrary imaginary one (they enjoy ‘the church of the flying spaghetti monster’).
But this is not a useful argument. Those world views have no serious contemporary adherents because, they not only have dismal r-squared, but they do not provide a superior explanation of a single observation. Their residual is higher than serious contemporary world views on EVERY observation.
This process of evaluating the goodness of fit is something everyone does either implicitly or explicitly. This is why world view allegiances change so infrequently. World view adherence has inertia of past residual computation. So even if a conversation or a book changes you residual on one or two observations, overall goodness of fit only changes over time. ‘Sudden’ world view changes (like Updike’s patriarch in Lilies of the Valley who loses his faith while walking down the stairs in one day, or CS Lewis’ motorcycle ride where he reports that at the beginning he wasn’t a Christian and at the end he was) are really the result of a process of the long term evaluation of residuals finally shifting the balance to a different model.
This post was written while listening to The Animal Years by Josh Ritter
 Re: the famous maxim that a culture that is data rich is attention starved.
 There are three major ways that emerging generations deal with this cognitive dissonance. (1) Uncritically adopt the prevailing model and stop taking data to assess it. This leaves more time for economic pursuits, video games or hooking up. This seems to be the most popular approach. (2) Adopt pieces of classical and innovative models ad hoc. It is pretty common for us to maintain compartmentalized and contradictory models of reality and apply them to different problems in our lives. (3)Adopt a well attested, historical metanarrative (e.g. positivism, Christianity, Islam, existentialism**) and either ignore or actively work to resolve the cognitive dissonance that it generates with data that doesn’t fit well, making adjustments where necessary, but keeping the central assertions intact.
**footnote to footnote: Anyone who has read this blog for very long knows that existentialism has been employed effectively by Christians and atheists. Most of my favorite nineteenth century Christian thinkers (Kierkegaard, Pascal and Dostoevsky) are counted as proto-existentialists. And most of my favorite atheists (Camus, Sartre, Foucault) were existentialists. But I am using it here in the later sense as a non-theistic alternative to positivism (because despite the recent popularity of positivism, I just don’t find it credible enough to afford it the status of a ‘credible historic metanarrative’). In my opinion existentialism is, by far, the most workable form of atheism. I have found positivism entirely useless in moving from ‘how things are’ to ‘how should I live,’ which a world view absolutely must do.
 I am doing a seminar that will cover at least a dozen such attempts in a couple weeks. Look for an MP3 to show up on this site and/or the preaching site.
 Why is there something instead of nothing? And why do we, as loosely bound collections of elements, cohere as a ‘self’?
 A residual is a quantification of the deviation between the observation and the model. For example, linear regression optimizes the ‘best fit’ model by minimizing the mean square of the residuals.
 Lower sum of the square of the residuals.
 I am using linear regression here as a heuristic which, of course, is an absurd analogy…but it is intuitive and makes the case I am trying to make.
 We live in a vacant, uncaring universe and only exist as individuals because every generation that donated genetic material to our collection got that genetic material into future generations primarily through violence, seduction or deception…so of course that is how we treat each other.
 Seriously, Dennitt, Dawkins et al. seem a little absurd mounting such a virulent assault on theism from their self-declared empirical high ground only to invoke the entirely non-falsifiable (and empirically unattested) Smolinian parallel universes to respond to ‘fine tuning’ arguments. The anthropic principle isn't a slam dunk for theism. But our interlocutors ought to have the courage to cede the lower residual to Christianity and then try to claim the better overall fit. It would be a more honest conversation.
 Than both, in my opinion.
 It is confirmation bias for atheists to restrict observations to those that are measurable. Our experiences of consciousness and what sociologists call the broad human experience of transcendence (in various forms) are observations the model has to account for. Those of us who have had limited direct experiences of transcendence tend to have a higher tolerance for substantial residuals on the mystical data. But a model still has to account for them.
 This is not philosophy, or even rhetoric…this is bullying. To compare Christianity to ancient Egyptian religions may not be accurate, but at least it is fair. The ‘flying spaghetti monster’ stuff is just douchey. It is an example of a common tactic in this literature to shame or ridicule rather than argue. It is an appeal to vanity (you are dumb, you don’t want be dumb do you, be smart) rather than reason. The rhetorical term for this is ‘horse laugh’ and it is effective for changing minds (because of its appeal to vanity) but is an example of precisely the kind of argument outside of the arena of ‘reasonable discourse’ that they accuse theistic proponents of.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
And that’s why Revelation chapter 12 is works in the narrative structure of the Christian Scriptures like the penultimate episode of Lost.
In episode 15 of the final season of Lost, 117 episodes into the story, with scarcely 2.5 hours of narrative remaining, the story went off timeline. It told the story of the ancient history of the island and the cryptic origin of the good and evil characters. As the narrative was building to a climax, JJ took an entire episode to finally let us in on the back story…because the ending would be more meaningful in light of the back story. Back story is tedious until we care about the story. Jacob’s origin only mattered to us because we cared about Jack, Kate and Hurley. This seems like a pretty good parallel for why the pre-Genesis material in the Bible lands 99.4% of the way into the book.
The stuff in Revelation about the angelic fall is temporally situated before the rest of the story. But that is kind of the point. The Bible is a story of God’s protracted rescue of our wayward species…his inversion of the human predicament. Pre-historic cosmic warfare is not the point of the story. It is a different story. And it is only revealed near the end of the narrative where it casts light on the climactic scene of the story being told.
 Generally I ascribe to a preterist interpretation of Revelation (i.e. most of it was apocalyptic code about the Nero persecutions and is neither about the distant past or distant future) but I kind of think Revelation 12 is an exception.
 I am considering episodes 16 and 17/18 a single narrative whole, making 15 the penultimate episode.
 Which is an odd thing to say about a show that played so much with timelines.
 So, I really like JJ. We were into Alias and really liked Lost. But the guy makes things up as he goes along. This is how the Bible is different than Lost. The Bible knows where it is going from the beginning. Genesis points elegantly towards Revelation, through the lens of the gospels. Lost had to add previously unintroduced characters several seasons in just to escalate the narrative enough to sustain a ratings cash cow.
 I mean, who would voluntarily sit down and read the Similarion as a stand alone work.
 Frankly, mostly Hurley.
 I was going to write pre-paleozoic…but I’m not sure I can place it temporally with that kind of accuracy. In City of God, Augustine places the whole angelic narrative in Genesis 1:1. But depending on how you read Genesis 1-3 (something I will be talking about in the fall and, so, will probably trickle into this blog) it is conceivable that these events could have occurred during some era of earth paleo-history.
 One I look forward to hearing, but mostly do not know. But it is worth noting, if there is another grand story that we only have hints at, how many other stories are there for us to hear and tell in an eschatological existence. Reality is likely far more drama rich than we know.
 Um, there is a bad pun here given that the whole Lost series was about some light in the middle of the Island. I am reserving my thoughts on the Lost finale for another post (in which I’ll argue that the Lost finale left me with precisely the same senses of satisfaction and disappointment as the Battlestar Galacitca finale). This post should come out with my characteristic relevance…which is to say, within a decade of airing.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
The ‘Ideal Free Distribution’ of Professional Incompetence: Applying Patch Dynamics to the Workplace
The longer I work, the more I think that this is similar to how the workplace operates. I call it my theory of the equilibrium of workplace incompetence. Any workplace is composed of individuals of varying capability and capacity. Every organization has high capacity people and others that are not so much. But if an organization is looking to optimize total performance, rather than individual performance the high capacity people, with a track record for finishing difficult tasks efficiently, will attract more and harder tasks until their capacity is exceeded, relegating them to a level of incompetence comparable to a low capacity worker muddling through a couple projects.
So, regardless of our capability and capacity, we all go home at night feeling overwhelmed and outmatched. This is part of what Genesis 3 calls the ‘toilsome’ nature of work. But it is also what makes work such an intoxicating and devastating ‘god’. Working harder and building your capacity only make you available for more and harder work. The quest to transcend incompetence has inescapable negative feedbacks.
Post Script: Implications for Sabbath
I am convinced that this ‘ideal distribution of workplace incompetence’ is just one of the reasons why we have to build a stopgap of Sabbath and rest into our lives and refuse to allow our vocation to define our value. I love my job, but it does not love me. It makes a vicious god. It needs to be carefully ‘bounded’ by the discipline of Sabbath. But I think one of the reasons Sabbath is underrated is that it is poorly executed.
In John Walton’s commentary on the opening verses of Genesis 2 he argues that “Both roots (of the word Sabbath) sbt and nwh, move away from the all-too-common misconception of rest and relaxation…The idea of refreshment is most likely.”
We tend to equate the idea of a cessation of work with a commencement of entertainment. The common idea is that “I’ve worked hard, now I just want to veg.” But the discipline of Sabbath is meant to create a boundary around your work to keep it from rising to the level of idolatry and to fill the other time with activities that ennoble and rehabilitate our human capacities that the toils of work deaden. By bounding our work with deliberate and purposeful refreshing we might be able to destabilize the incompetence feedbacks…or at least, we can break their psychological power over us.
This blog was written while listening to Sigh no More by Mumford and Sons
 Fretwell and Lucas 1970
 If there is not a sociology study that tests this model with the Friday/Saturday evening bar scene there should be.
 And, ecology, like economics, is mostly a study of where, when and how the assumptions don’t hold. The interesting thing about patch dynamics is that it is built on an economic model, so many of the assumptions violated are the same assumptions violated in economics (e.g. rational actors).
 Note: I did not come up with this theory initially by observing my own career, but the career of one of my co-workers who is the highest capacity engineer I know, and always has more work than he can execute.
 Engineering (and other professional) offices try to individualize productivity and build in accountability with ‘billable hours’. But at the end of the day, you have to pay everyone (especially if you refuse to get rid of poor performers – or even – in the case of federal organizations - non-tryers) so project funds end up spread around at the managerial level. This is an inter-cubicle performance subsidy. It is a helpful way to distribute risk (e.g. sometimes projects run into trouble and take longer than expected and sometimes you bang them out more quickly than expected)…but in most offices there are consistent ‘givers’ and ‘receivers.’
 A pole around which we center our lives and derive our meaning and value.
 Frequent readers of this blog know (1) that most of my favorite content is in the footnotes and (2) if I add a post script it was probably the point of the post all along.
 I really think this is what the Scriptures mean by an ‘idol’. Something that we love that does not love us back. Unrequited love creates a situation of asymmetrical relational power which can diminish the dignity of the lover. In the language of the Bible ‘God’ is different from an idol because he is into the relationship for more love than we are. He subverts the standard power relations of asymmetrical affection by holding all the power but also most of the affection. This allows us to totally vest in him without doing violence to our dignity.
 I love this album. I don’t care if everyone else does too. Isn’t it interesting that in most things you have to apologize for loving something people hate, but in music the more popular something is the more embarrassed you are to admit you love it.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
I traveled to Kansas City last winter and wrote a post about it despite spending less than 48 hours in the city. So when I returned there last week, I figured it was worth a brief follow up travel post.
The first thing of note is that in the 6 days I have spent in Kansas City in my life, I have been there for near record highs and near record lows. It was 109 on Wednesday and was well into the negative double digits when I visited in February. That is a 120 degree swing. I left an apple in my car on Wednesday and when I came back it was literally baked. Which was delicious – I love baked apples. I’m just sayin…
But Kansas City really is a surprisingly fun place…with enough stuff for a second (mostly picture) post.
I was teaching a joint sediment workshop with another sediment specialist. His material included a field day at the Blue River.
This was an urban river which was the site of the biggest civil war battle west of the Mississippi (adding archeological issues to the standard economic, statistical, hydrological, hydraulic and ecological complexities). There are severe flooding and channel degradation issues and we did some cool hydro-geotech testing.
I went running at night when it cooled to a mere 96 degrees. Usually I ran along Brush Creek, which has a really nice running trail along it and is surrounded by classic hotels and one of the higher end shopping and cultural districts. There is even a gondola.
But my last day in town, I went running early in the morning
around the World War I museum.
I also made it to a Royals Game. I love going to ballparks. Especially nice ones. And Kaufman field is a really nice one.
One of the reason I enjoy going to sporting events when visiting a city, is that it is one of the few things you can do with 20,000 to 40,000 of the cities inhabitants. It is a social experience of the place. Unfortunately, the Royals are terrible…only they are better than the hapless Orioles who they were playing…so 20,000 Kansas Cityans is a little on the generous side.
But there was a hilarious moment. Before the game teams often play a montage of the team highlights. So before the game they flashed up this graphic on the big screen.
I thought it was hilarious that they would call their highlight reel ‘Major League Moments’ as if that is the best they can hope for. Even better, they left the screen up there for about 3 minutes…and then just took it down. No highlights. Apparently, the Royals were not even able to clear the bar of moments that seem characteristic of the Major Leagues.
Then there was this building.
I heard a rumor that it was the building used for the climactic scene of Ghostbusters. I didn’t bother to verify this, because it seems like the sort of thing that makes a better story in rumor form. But that is pretty cool and highlights the eclectic nature of Kansas City architecture.
This post was written while listening to the Mumford and Sons channel on Pandora
 It also runs through the zoo, near the ‘Lagoons of Africa’ which led to a number of jokes about it being a unique ‘habitat enhancement’ project…for hippos.
 At the base of the tower is a mural that I found pretty moving, with soldiers and civilians, some antagonistic, others battered by war, all converging on a strong angelic figure in the center and four verses from the Bible:
“Behold a pale horse and his name that sat on him was death and hell followed with him.”
“Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders.”
“What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
“Then shall the earth yield her increase and God even our own God shall bless us.”
 Apparently it was the biggest screen in the country until the cowboys put their monstrosity in.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
I would like to see a Broadway show that tells the story of western intellectual history based totally on Youtube musical numbers. It could start with the Declaration of Independence:
Then it could move on to the great economic debate of the last century.
And then could move on to the history of science with one of the epic rap battles. This one is my favorite (though it contains entirely too much focus on Hawkning’s disability).
“There are one million…million, million, particles in the universe that we can observe
Your mom took the ugliest ones and put them together into one nerd.”
And while I am punting on a blog post with clips, I might as well make it worth your while. This is one of the finest deconstructions of western plausibility structures I have seen in some time:
“If they eat glitter”
And finally, here are two videos our resident film maker made for our campus ministry. The first one is just fun featuring phenomenal steady cam work:
And, finally, these are just the credits of a telanovella he did to promote one of our events.
And yes, that is our half-wit bunny that Frank is stroking.
For the second year in a row, a promotional piece he did for us made it into the UC Davis film festival, and, on top of that, a cynical reviewer from the campus newspaper (who panned many of the entries) kind of went on and on about how much he enjoyed this.
This post was written while listening to the Brand New channel on Pandora
 Note: don’t lose patience with this clip in the first 2 minutes. Once they start throwing down, its transcendent. Also, I’d like to say, that the film makers declare Hayek the winner, but portray Keynes so fairly, that I am not sure that they are even justified calling the match based on their own arguments.
 Incidentally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I think the exchange actually demonstrates the difficulty of the choice. I did not understand the stimulus solution and am not sure it was a solution…but can’t refute those who say that we would be catastrophically worse off without it. But I guess that is the point for me. The modern supporters of Hayek (including his rapping self in the video) seem to present their position as an all or nothing alternative...while the Keynesian alternative seems to fit well into an economic ‘toolbox’ where one solution does not fit every problem. The bust/boom cycle is a problem, but I’m not sure that Hayekian models make it better – it seems like they could make it worse.
Incidentally, the bottom-up/top-down processes are at the heart of a lot of the debate about ecological processes over the last 5 decades and, surprise, you cannot account for ecological processes without both.
 These epic rap battles are kind of crass, and the earlier ones are better in content than the later ones (thought the production is better in the later ones). But ‘Nice Peter’s’ other stuff is pretty great too. I recommend his picture songs, especially nom, nom, nom, babies.
 Matt Pye, a PhD student in plant physiology.
 I have asked him to consider to bring this genre back to tell the story of Joseph and Potipher’s wife when we teach Genesis this year.