Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Alice, the Caterpillar, and the Serpent

In chapter IV, we see the first evidence that Alice's feistiness grows and shrinks with her size. When Alice is small she rushes off to do the White Rabbit's bidding, so frightened by him that she doesn't bother explaining that he's mistaken her for someone else. But when she "grows up," as she calls it, she confidently attacks first the White Rabbit (through the window) and then Bill (in the chimney). This pattern of fluctuating confidence-with-size continues throughout the book. Such changes are emphasized by a row asterisks that Lewis Carroll included to indicate a transformation in Alice. Alice's frequent metamorphoses could be perceived as symbolizing both the inexplicable changes in a pubescent body and fluctuations in confidence and timidity during puberty.

Chapter V of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland can be split into two sections. The first section is Alice's identity crisis with the caterpillar, and the second section is Alice's mistaken-identity issue with the pigeon. I will discuss how both of these sections play into the puberty allegory.  

Once Alice escapes being eaten by a playful puppy 10 times her size, she finds a Caterpillar who contentedly smokes his hookah while reclining on a mushroom. When he sees Alice he demands "Who are you?" Rather timidly, Alice responds that she doesn't know who she is. 
"I--I hardly know, Sir, just at present--at least, I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."
Thus commences one of the best known conversations in the Alice books. The Caterpillar continues to demand that she identify and explain herself, and she timidly suggests that she can't. Finally, she decides that the Caterpillar is in a rotten mood, and turns away. But the Caterpillar demands she return; so she timidly waits for "some minutes" until the Caterpillar finally tells her something useful--one side of the mushroom will make her grow larger, and the other will make her smaller. 

Caterpillars are well-recognized symbols of metamorphosis--they transform first into a chrysalis and then into a magnificent butterfly. Alice points out that the Caterpillar should feel a little bit "queer" when he's changing, though the Caterpillar insists that he won't. I believe that the Caterpillar represents an alter-ego of the metaphorically pubescent Alice. He's that niggle in the mind of a pubescent girl that questions her identity. He represents the uncertainty in change.

After Alice's Caterpillar-induced identity crisis, she tries a bit of mushroom to modify her size. Throughout Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice refers to growing larger as "growing up." Here, she realizes that one problem of "growing up" is that some body parts (in this case, her neck) may grow out of proportion with the rest of her body. When Alice begins to wind her serpentine neck through the foliage in hopes of reaching her hands (and the size-morphing mushrooms) a pigeon pops out and attacks her with enraged shrieks of "serpent!" Although Alice has already made the association between her neck and a serpent's sinuous body, she insists that she's not a serpent. Remembering all the changes she's been through that day, she's not entirely certain that she's a little girl anymore, but she is quite certain that she's not a serpent. In this "grown up" state, she argues with a confidence that is absent in the first part of the chapter.

There are two ways of viewing a serpent symbolically. We could take the Biblical/Freudian approach and say that Alice has turned into a temptress--a sexual being. Or, we could view a snake as a creature of change--one that sheds its skin and is born again.** Clearly, both of these interpretations fit with the puberty allegory.

My final blog post on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is: The Confidence of Alice.

*Images were taken from: 

**snakeskin metaphor is compliments of Laura Gibbs, whose Coursera blog can be found here: http://courserafantasy.blogspot.com/

Monday, July 30, 2012

TBCN interview with Nora St.Laurent

Hi everyone! Today I'm posting an interview with my friend Nora St.Laurent, the CEO of The Book Club Network (TBCN), which introduces book clubs to fantastic Christian Fiction authors and provides ideas for book club leaders. They're having a huge Birthday Bash this August and will be giving away 10 books a day for the whole month of August! So get yourselves over there and sign up for FREE BOOKS! :)

TBCN INTERVIEW with Nora St.Laurent

Nora Stlaurent’s Bio: Nora is the CEO of The Book Club Network Incorporated. Nora and her husband run The Book Club Network www.bookfun.org She runs two book clubs near Atlanta, Ga., Former ACFW On-Line Book Club. Nora currently writes a Book Club column for the Christian Fiction OnLine Magazine and is a Book Club Talk Columnist for Novel Rocket. You can read author interviews on her Finding Hope Through Fiction blog, located at http://www.psalm516.blogspot.com, and reviews around the web at The Christian Pulse Mag, Title Trakk, Novel Reviews, and Suspense Zone.

What inspired you start TBCN?
The Book Club Network was born out of a desire to share Christian Fiction authors with other book clubs, share book club ideas with other leaders and to encourage the authors who are writing such amazing books. The economy has been really tough for a few years and people are not parting with money like they used to. Through TBCN they can take their time and find the right book or win it. We have give away opportunities each month. ALL of our contests are from the 19th – 21st of the month.

I run two face to face book clubs one at the Christian Book Store I work at and the other at the church I attend. It’s a position I never imagined I’d be in since I didn’t read for pleasure much before I started working in a Christian book store 11 years ago.

But since I love talking with people and the main thing to talk about in a book store is books I started reading Christian Fiction (publishers sent ARC copies to our store and I started checking them out) The first book that rocked my world and got me hooked in Christian Fiction was a book by Linda Nichols called Not a Sparrow Falls her next book did me in and I couldn’t stop talking about it, At the Scent of Water was her next book that prompted me to contact the author and let her know how much her book touched my spirit.

After reading these two books and telling customers about these reads I had a reason to read.  These books spoke to me because I wasn’t expecting it. It reminded me of the stories in the bible. Jesus is the greatest story teller and He knew a story could change a life or prick our spirit and move us in a direction we never thought we’d be in.

I tell you all that to say I’m dyslexic and I have not been a fan of reading. Movies were more my thing. I could watch a movie of a book and have a lot more fun. Reading Christian Fiction changed my life in more ways than one.  I wanted to tell everyone about the greatest book I read, and I’d do that at the book store.  It was possible to talk about the new book I read and loved for about a month or more but when At the Scent of Water and Not a Sparrow Falls were not on the shelf anymore, I had to find some other books to talk about at work.  I’m not a very fast reader so; discovering the next new book was a challenge. Would I get the book read before it disappeared from the shelf?  How long do books live on a book shelf? The shelf life of a book was a mystery to me and still is.

I was whining to my husband Fred about my problem. How can I get the word out about great books for a very long period of time??? Being a man who likes to face challenges head we began to talk about how we could do this and the fact that I can’t read books fast enough to keep up with it’s shelf life at the store.

I also told him as a book club leader I wanted to promote great books and share them with other groups. Not everyone has the advantage of working at a book store and see what new books hit the shelves each week. Another struggle I had was if I had an author speaking at my book club I wanted to share them with other book clubs in the area. How could I do that? Where are book clubs meeting?

Our answer to many of these questions and more was the birth of The Book Club Network - TBCN. Connecting authors to book clubs and readers to their books; it’s also a network of book clubs as they post what they’ve read and how the meeting turned out.

It’s a place to find where a book club is located. We have a member map where you can find a book club near you. Message them and see if they are accepting new members. I envision it to be similar to be similar to the Weight Watchers program (don’t laugh Grin) you can go to a meeting anywhere in the country right? All you have to do is look on line and get connected. This is my hope for the future of TBCN.

Have there been any surprises for you @TBCN? What benefits have you seen by bringing readers and authors together?
I’ve been encouraged and fascinated by our growth. I can see there were other people out there like me wanting to connect with other book club members.

I’ll tell you what has surprised me is the author/reader interaction each month. This is something I didn’t foresee as I’ve watch the authors are having a blast interacting with the readers and visa/versa. The beauty of this discussion is it’s there forever for all to read no matter when you join TBCN.

The authors have done a great job coming up with questions for reader to answer that give them a peek into their book – create interest and then the discussion helps book club leaders connect with the author. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of authors that want to be featured @The Book Club Network. It’s been a great thing.

The interaction with the authors is almost like having a book club meeting on line. It’s a huge benefit for both the authors who’ve wanted to ask clubs questions and readers who want to get to know authors. The authors are catching on. Our sponsors have loved the interaction as well. Members have told me that they love the author interaction from the 19th-21st as much as having a chance to win all these books. It’s hard to know if a book will be a fit for your group so these interaction times are helpful for that and so much more. Another thing I love about TBCN members is the fact they are not afraid to share what they think in a good way. I’ve learned so much and laughed out loud in some discussion where the questions lead to sharing funny moments.

My hope is that book club leaders and/or members participate in the discussions and make that book connection with the author and their book. I want TBCN to be a tool for them in picking out their books. Maybe invite the author to speak to their book club on the phone. It’s my hope. The discussion will be there forever. No worries about a books shelf live here @TBCN. So, everyone has time to get to know each other!! It’s a beautiful thing!

How can readers join in the anniversary celebrations?
It’s easy to sign up to be a member of TBCN.  We ask a few questions for you to answer and for other information that helps us keep spammers and other information seekers out of the network. It’s also FREE. You have opportunities to win lots of books. For our BIRTHDAY BASH we are giving away 10 books a day and announcing winners once a week. You’ll have all week to enter the daily featured contests.

Do you have any other comments for my readers?
 If you are avid reader this is the place for you to learn about the latest in Christian Fiction and interact with the author each month.

Are you a book club leader? Well this is the place for you to find your next book club pick. We’d also love for you to set up your Book club page at our site for others to see. It’s a place to share your latest featured book. Post pictures of your club and the field trips you’ve taken. The authors you’ve met and the book fun you’ve had. Learn from other book clubs that have already set up their pages.

Want to start a book club but felt it was too overwhelming? You can learn from other experienced book club leaders, and you can start right away making your book club list!
Do you like to win books? This is the place for you. You’ll have a chance to get to know the authors and their books and read genre’s you normally wouldn’t. We’ve been giving away about 100 books a month and for our birthday bash it’s going to be 10 books every day; starting August first. Winners are picked weekly and announced each weekly.

THANK YOU! You’ve been a grand host to have me here and let me talk about The Book Club Network and our Birthday Bash!! I hope to see you there @TBCN www.bookfun.org

You are a Blessing!!

Nora :o)
The Book Club Network CEO

Alice's Adventures in the Circle of Life

I read a critique that claims the Alice stories are allegories for puberty--specifically, Freudian analysis suggests that they are about Alice's change from innocence to a sexual being. I'm generally skeptical of Freudian analysis, but was surprised when I read the first two chapters of Alice in Wonderland and found evidence that the book may, indeed, be about puberty. In fact, I noticed possible allusions to the entire life cycle, from birth to death. I don't know if this trend will continue throughout the book, but here's what I have so far:

In the beginning, Alice falls down a rabbit-hole, landing in a room containing a tiny key, a tiny door, and a large table. When she is small, the door is locked--she's not allowed out. But then she grows very large...so large that she can hardly fit into the womb room anymore. Ah! Now she can reach the key! But the way out is so tiny! Luckily, she is taken up by a force outside of her control (a sea of tears) and is thrust into Wonderland. 

Puberty--Between the Age of Innocence and the Age of Reason comes the Age of Nonsense
Even before falling down the rabbit hole, Alice has noticed that she acts like a selfish child but reprimands her own behavior like an older child:
She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; 
In the rabbit hole, Alice feels small and insignificant (understandably, since she has shrunk down to several inches high). She has lost respect for herself and doubts the way she used to do things:
 "But it's no use now," thought poor Alice, "to pretend to be two people! Why, there's hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!"
Furthermore, her body keeps changing in awkward and embarrassing manners. Note the grotesque lengthening of her neck in the picture at the beginning of Chapter 2. Does this remind anyone of the awkward phases of growth, when body parts would suddenly become disproportionately too large or too small seemingly overnight? Even her voice sounded "hoarse and strange" when she recited the crocodile poem. These changes make her question her identity:
I wonder if I have changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I"m not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?'
I know that this question of identity will continue throughout Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Although it may seem strange to suggest that a book about a 7-year-old is an allegory for puberty, remember that Charles Dodgson's friend Alice Liddle, on whom our Alice was modeled, was just reaching the age of puberty at the time that the first book was to be published. Note a diary entry by Dodgson in May 1865:
Met Alice and Miss Prickett in the quadrangle: Alice seems changed a good deal, and hardly for the better--probably going through the usual awkward state of transition.*
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published in November of that year. 

There even a moment when Alice contemplates death: 
"for it might end, you know," said Alice to herself, "in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?" And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.
Later, Alice terrifies the mouse by mentioning her kitten, Dinah, and how great Dinah is at catching mice. When Alice realizes her mistake, she quickly changes topics to a dog she knows...as she chatters on, she again blunders by mentioning what a fantastic ratter the dog is. Apparently this Darwinian eat-or-be-eaten philosophy continues throughout the two books. Darwin's book On the Origin of Species just been published in 1859, and Natural Selection was the talk of the town. I will watch for Natural Selection allusions while I read; though, apparently, some of them were taken out of the original story and can't be found in the published book.  

A continuation of this theme can be found here.

Image taken from http://www.mymodernmet.com/photo/the-circle-of-life

*From The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green, quoted in Alice in Wonderland: Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1992) p279.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Renegade, by Ted Dekker

2012 Book 116: Renegade, by Ted Dekker (7/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: I want to finish up this series because it's related to a set of books that I have been really appreicating

My Review
When Bilos betrays the team and disappears into the Books, Johnis, Silvie, and Darsal must rescue him. This is a really difficult book for me to review. I’m a huge fan of Ted Dekker, and I’m reading these books because they seem to be the glue that holds together his loosely related books: The Circle Trilogy, The Paradise Trilogy, and the stand-alone book Skin. However, I feel that this series of books suffers from two fatal flaws: 1) Dekker’s trying to be too clever and 2) Dekker’s hammering us over the head with a Message. The other series make sense on their own, this series does not. It’s wildly jumping around from unreal concept to unreal concept, without enough explanation or continuity. The ONLY reason I have an inkling of what’s going on is because I’ve read the other books. And that’s not as it should be. Furthermore, Dekker’s Message is much less subtle in this book than it is in his other works (possibly since this one was meant for teenagers), and the story gets lost in its Message at time. I will continue through this series because I want to know what happens for the sake of the other series. But I’m no longer enjoying it.

The Brothers Grimm Household Stories

2012 Book 115: Grimm's Household Stories, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm; Lucy Crane translation (7/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: Fantasy and Science fiction Coursera text: week 1

My Review 
This is a short, illustrated collection of Grimm’s folktales. All of the most famous of Grimm’s tales are in there, without too many of the redundant same-story-but-slightly-different tales that you’ll inevitably come across in a longer collection. The illustrations are enjoyable. The translation has a few small errors (apparently), but overall I think it’s a good place to start with the Grimm brothers.

Essay for Coursera
Many critics claim that the Brothers Grimm had sexist portrayal of women in their stories. These critics ignore the negative portrayal of men that is also endemic in the tales. 

Despite misgivings, Hansel and Grethel's father leads them into the forest to die. When they return, he leads them back out again because "when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time." In other stories, like Aschenputtel or The Three Little Men in the Wood, the father conveys not one moment of disquietude at the injustice done to his daughter. Many men in the tales are spineless. In The Fisherman and his Wife, the husband returns time and again to ask the princely fish for favors for his wife—favors he does not wish for, and that he is terrified to request. In The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats, the wolf orders the miller to help disguise him. Despite the fact that the miller suspects the wolf, the miller "was afraid and did what he was told. And that just shows how men are." The worst man, though, is the father in The Twelve Brothers. He’s willing to kill 12 of his boys to provide his newborn daughter with a larger inheritance!

These stories caricaturize the weaknesses of humans--both male and female. As the German-Swiss Nobel Laureate Hermann Hess said: "The literature of the tales and the legends refers us, often with frightening agreement, to something transcendent, to the very concept of the human race.”1 These stories refer us to a deep-rooted fear of our own flaws, and they resonate throughout the ages because the most abhorred flaws of human nature have remained, in essence, the same throughout time.

1. Quoted on page 15 of: Bottigneimer, Ruth (1987). Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys. New Haven: Yale University.

It was really hard to get this down to the correct word length! I had to leave out so many fantastic examples of horrible snake-like men! As well as examples of brave women. After reading these tales, I've decided I don't agree with the feminist analysis of these stories. Though I probably already had a skeptical bias.

One of the examples I really wanted to include was The Wonderful Musician. This guy had a marvelous power over fellow creatures...he played his music and creatures would come to praise him. These creatures would trust and revere him. However, he kept attracting animals that didn't please him: a wolf, a fox, a hare. So he promised to tutor them, but deceived them and left them to die. When he finally found a man, he said: "At last! Here comes the right sort of companion. It was a man I wanted, not wild animals." But the wild animals are more humane than the musician was. The wonderful musician is like a charismatic politician. One that can charm people during the election or important diplomatic meetings, and afterwards he does whatever he wants--essentially stabbing his supporters in the back. I could have written a whole second essay on this subject. :)

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, by Valerie Zenatti

2012 Book 114: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, by Valerie Zenatti (7/26/2012)

Reason for Reading: Reading Globally Middle Eastern Theme Read. 

My Review 
As a method of self-defense against increasing Israeli-Palestinian violence, feisty 17-year-old Israeli Tal writes a note and sticks it in a bottle. She asks her brother to throw the bottle in the Gaza sea, with hopes that she’ll meet a Palestinian girl and somehow put a personality to the people she knows must be behind the fence. What she gets is 20-year-old Naim, a scathingly sarcastic, but nice-under-the-surface Palestinian man. The book is a series of emails between the two, and as their understanding of each other grows, so does their affection for one another. This was a really sweet book. It was silly, as are all teenage romances, but actually believable (if you have faith in coincidence). I was surprised while reading because I’d originally thought the author was Israeli, writing for Israeli teens—but the book is written by a French woman who lived in Israel when she was younger. The target audience is therefore teens who do not necessarily know all the background in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This is something I appreciated, because I felt like I understood what they were talking about when they mentioned political and historical events. This is a quick, enjoyable read.

The Last Guardian, by Eoin Colfer

2012 Book 113: Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian, by Eoin Colfer (7/25/2012)

Reason for Reading: The FINAL book in the Artemis Fowl series. At least it better be. :) I suspect that he's going to write a spin-off series, but that's just my own thoughts on the subject.

My Review 
In this FINAL book of the Artemis Fowl series, Arty, Holly, Butler and friends must save the world from Opal’s last stand. The plot was fun, humorous, and a little silly. Overall, a good ending to a good series. This book isn’t up to scratch with the earlier books, but it’s better than some of the later books in the series. You should certainly read it if you’ve gotten this far in the series already! From the character development in this story, I’m GUESSING (personal theory) that Colfer plans on writing a spin-off series starring Miles & Beckett. If he did, I’d certainly check it out.

I Shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish

2012 Book 112: I Shall Not Hate, by Izzeldin Abuelaish (7/23/2012)

Reason for Reading: Reading Globally Middle Eastern theme read

My Review 
In this heartbreaking (yet strangely uplifting) memoir, Abuelaish relates his life—growing up in poverty in a Palestinian refugee camp, slaving so that he could raise enough money to go to medical school, and his rising career coincident with his growing family. Despite losing 3 daughters and a niece to an Israeli military action, Abuelaish preaches that love, not hate, is required to bring peace. Abuelaish’s story is engrossing and tragic, yet I couldn’t help but think about all of the suffering Palestinians who don’t have a voice. If life is so hard for someone who has powerful connections, what must it be like for those who have no one to help them? This is a must-read for people who think Palestinians are all about terrorism and throwing rocks—people who likely wouldn’t touch the book with a 10-foot pole. It’s also a fantastic read for someone who is sympathetic to both sides of the conflict, but who wants to hear a personal story. I DO wish I could read the story of someone who isn’t highly connected, but this is a fantastic start. And Abuelaish’s enduring message of love make a monumental memoir.

Wildflowers from Winter, Katie Ganshert

2012 Book 111: Wildflowers from Winter, by Katie Ganshert (7/23/2012)

Reason for Reading: It's the ACFW bookclub pick for August. I'm leading the discussion so had to read it a bit in advance to prepare my discussion questions. 

My Review 
Bethany Quinn is voraciously pushing her way to the top of an architect career in Chicago when she gets an unexpected call from her estranged mother. Bethany’s childhood friend (also estranged) has a family emergency, and Bethany’s grandfather has heart problems. Bethany reluctantly takes time off work to visit her hometown—a place she hoped to never see again. There, with the help of a renewed friendship and a rather grumpy, but handsome, man she learns that the world isn’t as dreary as she once thought it was. I loved this book. I could easily relate to Bethany’s problems and personality, so she seemed so real and personal to me. Evan, the handsome farmer, was annoying and endearing at the same time; therefore, the budding romance had a realistic tension. Bethany’s religious epiphany was a little sudden, granted, but it was set up well. I would recommend this book to anybody who likes Christian romance. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Scientific Funding: Where do we draw the line?

Tall, Dark and Stable*, an article in the science and technology section of The Economist ed. July 14 - 20, 2012, discusses a study by David Kille, Amanda Forest, and Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo, Canada. This team took 47 romantically unattached undergraduates and set half of them on a slightly unstable chair next to a slightly unstable table; the other half sat at identical, though stable, furnishings. They were then given a survey evaluating the perceived stability of various celebrity relationships. The wonky-chaired students perceived others' relationships as less stable than the straight-chaired students did. Furthermore, the wonky-chaired students valued "stable" qualities in potential partners (like being funny or trustworthy) more than "unstable" qualities (like spontaneity and adventurousness). So, apparently, sitting on wonky furniture makes you value stability while enhancing paranoia (i.e. reducing their perception of stability)? 

I was unfortunately unable to find this study in Psychological Science, the journal it will be published in, so I can't evaluate their scientific methods. But I CAN say that I am generally pretty skeptical of such experiments. I'm sure their data turned out exactly as they said it did, but is it repeatable with another set of students from another place? Is it repeatable with non-student volunteers? Did they balance people's opinions out by giving the survey before and after placement on the wonky chair?

Furthermore, this article in The Economist mentions (without reference to the actual study) that people who are sitting in chairs leaning slightly to the left tend to be more receptive to liberal ideas. REALLY?! You mean Obama could rig the election by sending out his supporters on "night patrol" to break into people's homes and sandpaper off a couple millimeters on the left of their chairs? Do right-leaning chairs make people more conservative? I see a huge scandal in the making.

In my search for Kille's study in Psychology Today, I found another study by him: When Social Networking is Not Working (Psychological Sciencevol. 23 no. 3 295-302). In this study, they were trying to determine whether social networks like Facebook were generally beneficial to people with low self-esteem--people who normally feel inhibited about providing personal information, and who therefore have unfulfilled social lives. They found that people with low self esteems generally posted comments with low positivity or high negativity, eliciting "undesirable responses."

I found this interesting, because I have just finished a discussion about "real life" persona versus internet persona on a social network for book-lovers called LibraryThing. One of my online friends on LibraryThing is a very active member of the group and is well-liked. However, he doesn't hide the fact that in "real life" he is anxious in society and is horribly shy. So, again, I have to wonder about the study...how meaningful is it? Certainly, I can see how the study's conclusions would be true of some people, and not of others...but how much should we really trust psychology studies like this? Do they really add something helpful our sociological table? How much of our tax money is going in to paying for these studies?

The House has passed an amendment to cut the NSF funding to political science because they feel that political scientists are generally unsuccessful in predicting huge political changes in the world. (There's a  recent New York Times opinion article by Jacqueline Stevens on this subject.) And I'm sort of starting to agree...perhaps we DO need to be a little more careful about what kind of studies our tax money is going towards. Perhaps we should use some of our money to create a study to determine criteria for potentially useful areas of research, versus potential dead ends.

It hurts me to say that, because I know the pain of trying to get funding for a project that has no immediate medical value. (I DID work in hibernation research for 4 years!) And I certainly don't think huge cuts in scientific funding is what our economy needs right now. And I TOTALLY understand that sometimes studies that don't have much potential (as gauged by the critical eye) serendipitously stumble upon the world's greatest breakthroughs. So where do we draw the line? I don't know, because I'm not an economist. I'm a scientist who really WANTS everyone to be funded...but is that really for the best? 

Ah! The torture of ambivalence! :(

*I can't get the link to work, but you can find it on The Economist's webpage. Just search for the title Tall, Dark and Stable.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Coursera--Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World

Tomorrow, I will start a 10 week free internet course on Science Fiction and Fantasy literature offered by Coursera. This will be a fantastic opportunity to interact with people around the world and discuss the importance of speculative fiction for portraying certain types of ideas. The class dovetails nicely with the book I just finished, Fantasy Media in the Classroom, edited by Emily Dial-Driver. Although I already knew that fantasy and science fiction could be rich with portrayals of the human state--in the past, present, and possible future, I was really impressed at some of the ideas in that book. 

I was particularly impressed by a fusion class described in one of Dial-Driver's essays. She included serious literature such as Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect—books which describe motives for unsavory behavior. She supplemented those with fantasy media such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the BBC miniseries Jekyll, the short video Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Wells' The Invisible Man. All of these fantasy works are about grey moral choices, reasons behind these choices, and consequences of these choices. The professor incorporated lessons learned from Frankl and Zimbardo while studying these fantasy works. 

As I was reading that, I wished that I could have taken such an interesting class. Just as I was finishing up that book, I found out about this Coursera course, so I decided to give it a try. (If I want, I can always add some fusion on my own.) :) I am not allowed to post "solutions to homework and quizzes," but I find nothing wrong with posting my own short essays on my blog for your reading pleasure--so I will be including commentary on the course materials as I proceed. In the end, I will receive a letter grade (participation based) and a certificate signed by the instructor (yea!), Eric S. Rabkin.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Milton and Paradise Lost: A Quest to Understand

Today, I am beginning yet again on my quest to understand Milton's epic Paradise Lost. I have already listened to it on audio and read it once through using the Barnes and Noble edition. Now, I have purchased the Norton Critical Edition. I will read AND listen to the Norton Critical edition, and compare to the footnotes in the Barnes and Noble edition. I will read supplementary materials. I will record my quest here, because I know everyone who reads my blog is raring to hear follow me on my quest. :)

My first notes will be on David Hawkes' introduction in the Barnes and Noble edition:


During the time building up to the writing of Paradise Lost, the "free market" concept was emerging. In this system, land was being taken away from peasants and their labor was being exchanged for money. This emerging free market system seemed like objectification of labor, as if the laborers were "signs" or "symbols." This system seemed idolatrous to Milton. 

Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church so he could get a divorce, but he disliked many of the Protestant ways, so the Anglican church was more similar to the Roman Catholic Church than Puritans were comfortable with. They wanted to be free of religious practices they viewed as idolatrous. 

Meanwhile, the new market economy provided a means for non-gentlemen to get money, so the long-established structure of the English society was breaking apart. Charles I kept trying to get Parliament's consent to raise taxes, but Parliament insisted on economic or religious reformation as stipulations. Therefore, Charles I increased taxes without Parliament's consent (around 1640). In 1642, Charles I needed to raise an army to quell the rebellion in Ireland, but Parliament no longer trusted him. Charles I left London and raised his army in Oxford, which initiated civil war. This is when Milton emerged into history. He considered the "free market" and legitimization of usury to be idolatrous. He wrote many political pamphlets about his views.

Paradise Lost is about Satan's idolotry. It could even be viewed as a prophecy of today's world, in which everything is represented as a symbol (think of virtual reality and the internet). To Milton, even viewing our perception of the world as reality was idolatrous. We forget that, through the filters of our human minds, we can not perceive the truth as it really is. Therefore, when we view our perceptions as reality, we are idolatrous.

...At least, so says Hawkes. I find this an interesting opinion and will look more into Milton's political writings to see if I agree that Milton's view of the political and economic state of affairs was idolatrous and consider how this may be represented in his epic allegory.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

2012 Book 109: The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman (7/19/2012)

Reason for Reading: I was interested to see where Pullman was taking the Paradise Lost allegory

My Review
Lyra and Will finish up their journey (started in The Golden Compass) while desperately trying to dodge enemies and make the right choices. I enjoyed this book even less than the second book, The Subtle Knife, though The Golden Compass was in the "ok" range. I just didn't feel attached to the characters of Lyra and Will, and I didn't care what decisions they made. There was WAY too much Buddha-on-the-mountaintop both in the narrative and in the dialogue. I realize Pullman had a message he was trying to portray, and it wasn't a bad message (if you ignore all the hateful representations of organized religion)--he wanted to say that you should enjoy and live life here on Earth. What is happening in the present is what is important. Build the "Kingdom of Heaven" here on Earth instead of always denying our fleshy bodies as we look to our afterlife. This is a reasonable message, but I felt as if I was pounded over the head with it--to the point that it was distracting from the action. Furthermore, the action seemed to stop half-way through the book, followed by a long philosophical denouement. I WAS interested in his message, and that's why I continued the book after I didn't like the second...but it was a long haul for me. I don't really understand why this series is as popular as it is? But that's just my opinion. *shrug*

A note on Pullman's Message
In his 1998 article in The Guardian, The Darkside of Narnia, Pullman stated his opinion about the Narnia series: “there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read.” 

He didn’t like Narnia because of Lewis’ blatant Message. The ironic thing is, Pullman’s message is JUST as blatant, and in many ways just as hateful as he considers Narnia’s message to be (his representation of organized religion is very hateful). It is difficult for me to like the Pullman's trilogy when I can’t help but see his Message and feel the full impact of its irony. It’s probably good that there are people out there who are able to ignore it! :)

In case you're interested, there's also a 2005 New Yorker article on Pullman's inspirations for His Dark Materials. It touches on his views on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Far From Narnia, by Laura Miller.

Translation of the Bones, by Francesca Kay

2012 Book 108: Translation of the Bones, by Francesca Kay (7/17/2012)

Reason for Reading: This book was longlisted for the Orange Prize this year, and it peaked my curiosity so I decided to give it a try.

My Review 
When Mary-Margaret, a well-meaning but slow young woman, sees a vision of Jesus’ blood in a Roman Catholic Church, she stimulates a miracle-craze which compels many people to question the meaning of faith. This is a very difficult book for me to review because I’m rather ambivalent about it. It is deep with meaning—but would mean something different to the “faithful” than it would to the “faithless.” This is a quality that few books attain, and I believe this is why it deserved to be nominated for the Orange Prize. However, this story is also very sad…it took me in a direction I didn’t expect. There were a lot of negative messages mixed in with the positive messages, which, I suppose, represents life perfectly. But still…some of it was hard for me to read. I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to explore faith and the meaning of mother-child relationships more deeply, and with an open mind. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Creativity: Maybe we should all just relax a little

While trying to catch up on my magazine reading, I came across Daydream your way to creativity..., by Richard Fisher (New Scientist 16Jun 2012, issue 2869)...another article pacing the well-trodden trail of creativity, which is a hot topic in neuroscience and psychology these days, and the subject of Jonah Lehrer's new bestseller Imagine. Scientists are currently trying to delve into the question: what makes some people more creative than others? The answer that most of them are settling upon: creative people are able to get insight by NOT concentrating...the more a person concentrates, the less capable that person is of making creative leaps. In fact, people with ADHD perform better at the "unusual uses task," in which people spend a given amount of time listing creative uses for a common object. Drunk people, who have poor concentration, are better able to solve puzzles that require creativity than sober people. People who are in a relaxed brain wave state are also more likely to solve creative problems

Maybe as that important deadline looms, it's better (for OH so many reasons) to relax a little instead of focusing continuously on our projects. Intuitively, I've always known this. When I want to write, or postulate scientific theories, I almost always lie down or have a nice warm soak in the tub if I'm at home. If I'm at work, I either pace while mumbling to myself or I lean back and stare blankly at a wall until inspiration hits. This works wonders for me (even if people at work often give me sideways glances, so I feel the need to hide). I do my most creative thinking when I'm letting my mind explore ideas on an unfocused road. I know many people who drink a beer or two whenever they're writing. Perhaps there's some merit in that. :) This article cements my mantra "rest and sleep is what I need." I think the world would be happier, more creative, and more productive place if people balanced work life with relaxation. Creativity is important for most careers that I can think of. So why does everyone work work work non-stop? Does it really get them where they want to go? One of my biggest pet peeves is overworking physicians (especially residents). If residents were able to come in to work well rested, perhaps that out-of-the-box diagnosis that had been eluding them will suddenly pop into place. People's lives are at stake! Why do we overwork our doctors to the point of losing productivity???

Ok, that was an aside--it's not at all where I planned on going with this blog, but I'll let my creative mind take me where it wants instead of following a formal outline today. :) I am VERY much looking forward to reading Imagine and to seeing many more studies on creativity in the months to come. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Is the collection of biometric data from Afghans ethical?

I just finished reading The Eyes Have it, in the 7Jul - 13Jul issue of The Economist. Afghan soldiers are collecting retina scans of "suspicious" individuals. But they don't stop there. They're stopping buses arbitrarily and scanning all men, they're even scanning entire villages! This information goes to a database that can then be shared internationally. It can be used to track suspicious movements and to scan the bodies in a suicide bombing to find database matches. The article says that "American officers praise the technology as a helpful counter-insurgency tool."

Do I think potential terrorists need to be identified and stopped? Of course. Do I think retina scans of an entire population is going a bit far? Probably. But Afghanistan isn't my country, the situation is different, the culture is different. I can accept that. 

But it made me think...in this week's The Week, I read that the Taliban is causing difficulties for the Polio vaccine program in the Pakistani-Afghan border regions. I don't blame them! After the CIA used a Pakistani vaccination drive to collect genetic data in the search for Osama bin Laden, and with biometric data being collected arbitrarily from the Afghan public, who could blame the Taliban for suspecting that the Polio vaccine is yet another ploy of the Americans to spy? It is a shame, since this region is one of the few in the world that still has an active Polio problem. Subterfuge and lack of privacy leads to distrust--Sad, but true. 

Newsweeklies: Which is best?

So it turns out that I have been specially chosen by The Week to be on their "free list." That's right, I'm specially entitled to 7 free issues of The Week. Yippee! I'm so special! I have to admit though, I was impressed with this week's issue. The Week is a unique type of newsweekly because it doesn't seem to perform its OWN journalism. It sifts through thousands of OTHER news sites/magazines and then provides the week's news by summarizing snippets of what other news sources have said. Upon first blush, I scorned this lack of "true" journalism. But after reading through the magazine, I realized that it was actually a very useful source of information. I, certainly, don't have time to sift through all these news sources myself. By doing that work for me, The Week provides news commentaries of different opinions on each topic. How interesting to know how news source B disagrees with news source A. This is something I wouldn't know if left to my own devices. So I'm going to keep my free issues coming for now, so I can make an informed decision about this magazine in a few weeks. :) 

The Week also reviews books, movies, TV shows, art shows, theater, and albums. It has some basic gossip. (I didn't know we still cared about Mary Kate Olsen??? I had forgotten she even existed!)  

I contrast The Week to another weekly magazine I've been receiving: Time. I got a year's subscription to Time for free, so with much grumblings I accepted its arrival in my mailbox and even tried reading it for a few months. Why grumble, you ask? Because back when Yasser Arafat died I had a PAID subscription to Time, which I had been faithfully reading. I was excited when I saw the issue, because I knew very little about Arafat as a man. I figured: here is a good chance to find out more about him. After all, he may not have been perfect, but at the very least the Nobel committee thought he had an impact on the world. Much to my dismay, none of the articles taught me anything interesting about Arafat. They were all wailings about how pathetic Arafat was, how not even the Palestinians mourned his death. (FALSE--I happened to know some Palestinians at the time). This quote bothered me particularly: 

One of the last images he left to the world--the brief video clip showing the Palestinian leader, shriveled and frail, wearing blue pajamas and a knit cap before he left the West Bank for medical treatment in France--did not reflect the stylings of Yasser Arafat the revolutionary. (Source: The Eternal Agitator, by Lisa Beyer. Time 22Nov 2004).

I'm sure Ronald Reagan spent a lot of time lounging around in his pajamas when he was DYING too!

I felt cheated by Time's coverage of Yasser Arafat. I wanted to learn something about him, but what I learned, instead, was that Time doesn't like Arafat. I have since then come to the conclusion that they're not fond of Arabs in general. In summary,Time has one, maybe two, articles that I find interesting each week--but those generally aren't the "weekly news" articles. The rest I am either not interested in, or feel annoyed at their angle. I have decided to cancel my free subscription to Time. If they won't cancel it, the magazine will descend immediately into my recycling bin henceforth.

The Economist is a newsweekly that I am very happy with. It has fantastic coverage of world news. However, I want another newsweekly to supplement The Economist because it covers US news from an angle that would be most interesting to the world...I need to have some USentric news, as well, so I feel informed about things most Americans care about (and let's face it, most Americans don't care about the world). Then again, I suppose if I wanted to read what MOST Americans cared about, I'd be stuck reading celebrity gossip. Yick! /shock But I think you get my intended meaning, anyway. :) I don't like JUST reading the daily news, because the report-as-it-comes news takes some sewing together to see the whole picture. Newsweeklies are nice in that they do that work for me.  

If anyone has suggestions about other magazines I might enjoy, please do tell. /please