Friday, October 29, 2010


I will not be posting details of the wedding until after I've circulated pictures and notes to family.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I complained a while back that the simple model of DNA in popular thought ("Let's clone a mammoth!") wasn't good enough. It turns out I didn't know the half of it. The article is about what DNA looks like and how it actually works--as far as we know. Sections include: Genomic Perplexities, From Junk to Living Organism, The Dynamic Chromosome, The Dynamic Space of the Cell Nucleus, Metamorphosis of the Code, DNA’s Many Languages, Meaningful Form, The Sensitive Nucleosome, and The Nucleosome as Mediator.

I knew things had to be dynamic, but I had no idea how many different factors interplay in expressing a single gene. Go read it. Maybe you'll need more than one sitting, but go read it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Caricature and Attraction

When I was young and wanted to be an archaeologist, I was fascinated at how ugly the Egyptian women’s stylized makeup was. How could anybody think it attractive?

Now I understand how it works. I’ve lived long enough to see it in action.

Apply just a little exaggeration to the features of beautiful women, and make them the standards to emulate. Advertising campaigns or being Pharaoh’s daughter both work fine.

Give people a few years to get used to it, and then, a few fashion cycles later, deepen the exaggeration just a hair’s breadth. If you can saturate the media you can make the look the new baseline. Children will pick up on the message: this is needed to make you attractive. After a few years the symbol will start to dominate. Look at some of the eye shadow used in recent ad campaigns. Just sharpen the boundaries slightly instead of feathering them out, and it’ll be almost Egyptian, although without the little tail.

Symbolism and stylization can go very far. Think of Indonesian dance, or a huge swath of Chinese painting genres. They’re unintelligible to outsiders, because they’re dominated by symbolic movements or shapes. One angry-looking Chinese mask is a monster, and the other is a beneficent defender against monsters, and the difference all comes from tiny symbols and color choices that I know nothing about.

Or, closer to home, consider the pole dance. We’ve all seen clips--one played in a show on the flight back the other day--a woman clinging to, rubbing against, and climbing around a pole on a stage. A scantily or un-clad woman is erotic, especially when in motion; but for the pole to add anything to the scene you the viewer have to come prepared to think of the pole as a stand in (symbol) for yourself, for her swinging her leg high to be a symbol of her offering herself, and so on. If you don't accept those symbols, her exaggerated motions look creepily unnatural, and for her to be wasting her caresses on a chunk of iron suggests an unattractive confusion. But the dances are popular enough to have "found their way" into other entertainment, like a TV medical show. A lot of people have been trained to accept the symbols.

I wonder how often we wind up preferring symbolic to realistic action. I know politicians rely on that, but those kind of odd choices show up in other areas of our lives too. Its not hard to notice other folk's strange decisions; I don't know a simple rule for identifying my own.

Friday, October 22, 2010


This still says it well.

You might say sentimental, you might say sappy; but sap is what makes things live. God bless you, daughter, and new son far away.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Songs and Memories

Some music provokes a deep reaction from me. The strongest reactions are the oldest, from songs I must have heard on the radio in the kitchen in California. I hear one passage from one of Tchaikovsky’s works and I’m back sitting at the table while Dad listened to the radio. Serenata by Leroy Anderson sings of lost opportunities and a different, warmer path than the one I chose: a melancholy reaction to such a cheerful piece. The Route 66 theme evokes exactly what it is meant to: the rhythm of the wheels on the road and the turning off to the goal (not home). Long before I learned to drive it defined the experience for me. I only saw part of the show when the family visited friends once, but somewhere I heard the tune.

Sometimes just a fragment of a song is all that it takes: "Once there were valleys where rivers used to run" from Greenfields by the Brothers Four—not so much the rest of the song, but that line resonated with the "cat who walks by himself." Or "I hear the music from across the way, across the bridges of my mind" (not so much the rest of "Music from Across the Way") calls up the ghost of a dream of walking down 2am streets with the streetlights that shine like grubby winter, past the mansion of music to an alley of pointless errand.

The wedding march 30 years ago was the carillon from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne, but although the memory is fond the music isn’t visceral in the same way; perhaps because that day was supplemented by 30 years worth of other days with other incidental songs.

The Uses of the Trivial

John Reynolds wrote on looking for entertainment and the importance of trivial things. A sample:

Finally, the trivial engages one part of self and allows other parts to shine. Playing Risk is no great pursuit in itself, but it allows a social setting where fellowship can take place. Playing the card game "hearts" was one of the great learning times of Bible College, though "hearts" should never appear in any curriculum. While we were dealing the cards, we talked about everything and somehow achieved an honesty that would have escaped us if we had nothing to do but sit and talk.

"Let’s talk" shuts many of us up, but "let’s play cards" opens up many a mouth.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


The Ancient and Noble Order of the Masters of IT works an esoteric ritual known as "backup." I do not doubt that the Iranian branch still performs this traditional rite.

Granted, the government's interest in secrecy may keep the number of backups small, but I'd guess that restoring the main systems is no more than a few days, and restoring the auxilliary systems no more than a couple of weeks. All the PCs with important information will have to have their disks combed in a clean environment, and that demands some expert time (and user time) to retrieve the vital stuff, but all is quite doable.

Work will have been lost, but it isn't a catastrophe or a showstopper. Probably pretty much everything the media has said about it is either a mistake or a lie.

What is going on?

  • It could be a coincidence. Stranger things have happened.
  • It could be a test weapon that got away before it was ready to be used.
  • It could be a feint: for example to focus Iranian intelligence on computing at the nuclear plants rather than personnel at the airports. Anybody else notice that several high ranking Iranians died in air crashes in the last few years?
  • It could be meant to panic them into buying new network gear to isolate the control systems, gear that somebody has put backdoors into.
  • It could be a coverup to keep attention away from real spies in their nuclear facilities.
  • It could be meant to panic them into a spy-hunt in their facilities, which could tie things up worse than a worm.
  • It could be a probe to find out who's really in charge of some division.

One thing I'm pretty sure of: the announcement of a name in the code that might link to the book of Esther was meant to mislead. That's a pretty far-fetched link, and did you see the code? Me neither.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"God's Perfect Plan for Your Life"

I've always had a contrary streak. Even after I became a Christian I didn't think much of this phrase. "Plan?" Does God have a minute by minute checklist? Does anything in the heavens above or the earth below or the waters under the earth care which shoe I put on first in the morning? Do I have to pray to ask whether I should go to work again today?

And if you admit the possibility that there can be a variety of freely chosen actions that are all perfectly acceptable in the plan, then the Plan begins to assume a very different form. Not a checklist or a schedule, but a form and a framework.

Perhaps you have a special calling: you must be a missionary; and perhaps you've been given a special message: "Come to Macedonia and help us." Perhaps you've been told to run alongside a chariot and eavesdrop. These tie in very nicely to the model of a Plan as a schedule. But what about deciding that you will work nights as a tent maker rather than ask for support? Paul testified that he had flexibility in carrying out his orders. For him the Plan was a set of objectives, and not a detailed daily list.

WWII Officer Candidates' School: The officer in charge of a bunch of candidates gave them a test. The question was how to raise a 20-foot flagpole. In the scenario they were given a block-and-tackle, a sergeant and six men and asked how to get it done. Each man came up with a set of diagrams, math formulas and various theories. The officer then said, "Gentlemen, you are all wrong. The correct procedure is to turn to the NCO and say, "Sergeant, get that flagpole up."

"Paul, get the gospel preached in Macedonia"

"The Best of All Possible Worlds" is the same confusion in a different form. Who said that universes had to be orderable in that kind of way? You can easily conceive of less-good universes, but also of classes of universes which are equally good.

Within that kind of flexibility, I suspect that it often doesn't even matter who you marry—within some general guidelines, of course. You don't need to be a prophet to predict that certain personalities are going to conflict more often than necessary...

Jesus' life seems to show this flexibility. I've heard the miracle at Cana taken to prove that Jesus was willing to modify his schedule to suit his mother, and that therefore we should ask her to twist his arm for us (never mind John 16:26-27). But look again. Over and over we read something like "He had compassion on them and..," and over and over He told the healed to not tell anyone about what He'd done. If that isn't showing flexibility in the schedule, it sure looks like it.

Of course He didn't lose sight of the main objective. And we (OK, I) have a tendency to be flexible in the direction of maximum personal comfort, which doesn't follow Jesus' example very closely.

Wet Wedding

After I got a clear schedule for when the repairman would arrive to fix the water heater, I went over to the atheletic club for a soak. From one urgency to another I hadn't gotten to it since the water heater croaked, and I was kind of achy.

The therapy pool had a photographer (one of the lifeguards), a boombox playing Mendelssohn's famous march, and about twenty elderly folks standing in it holding large balloons and making arches with fanoodles, under which the curves of which the bride and groom walked to the front. The bride wore a kind of lace half veil, and everyone was in swimsuits.

I did not intrude or gawk, but as I walked away one person seemed to be asking them questions, and a few minutes later there was cheering. Perhaps they met in a therapy class, and thought this would be a cute way to involve everybody.