Friday, October 30, 2009

Speaking of mishie stories...

A friend of mine wrote a memoir about her LDS mission in Taiwan, and an excerpt was just published in the New York Times Modern Love Column: All I Wanted Was a Hug. It's a fascinating portrait of homo-vs-hetero public displays of affection in a super-chaste subculture!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Even if the church is perfect, the people aren't

Elder Beaverton and I didn't say anything as we walked northeast along the side of the Jardin Public. When we got to the corner, I suggested that we turn northwest and continue going around the park. I knew that the girls were still inside. I couldn't help but feel like if Elder Dickhead was going to label me a troublemaker anyway, it didn't really matter if I broke the rules a little or not.

As we approached another entrance to the Jardin Public, I turned to Elder Beaverton and said "It was very rude the way we left like that. We should at least go back and apologize to those girls and say goodbye to them properly before we go back to tracting."

"No, Elder Hobbs, don't do it. You're just going to get us into more trouble."

"You were fellowshipping them, weren't you? Read the rest of the story ->

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It takes a village...

...or a galaxy?

Leo decided to bring a handful of glow-in-the-dark stars to bed with him: one tiny one, and ten slightly larger ones.

So, as I was cuddling him, I suggested that the tiny one was the baby, and set aside two larger ones to be the Mommy and Daddy. Then I asked him who the others were. Here's what he came up with:

3. the grandma
4. the grandpa
5. the babysitter
6. the Paleontologist
7. the teacher
8. the train driver

Then he thought for a long time to name the last two, and finally decided that they were

9. the French teacher
10. the "teller" who "tells lots of stuff"

I'll bet you and Spencer met in the pre-existence

On Wednesday morning we were having about the same luck as Tuesday morning. We were wandering around the Place Gambetta, thinking about finding some lunch, when we heard a familiar voice:

Read the rest of the story ->

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Great moments in evolution: Nick Lane's "Life Ascending"

For years I'd been looking for a quick, readable synopsis of what is currently known about the origin of life. I'll bet a number of you out there are looking for the same thing. It's an area of active research, so whatever you learned about it in your Biology class (if anything) is probably not current anymore. Well, Nick Lane gives a straight-forward account of it in Life Ascending. Almost all of what he wrote in that essay was news to me, and fascinating news at that!

For that essay alone, I'd recommend this book. But on top of that, there are nine more of the good parts in the grand tale of evolution. It's a quick and fun way to get up to speed on the big ideas of Biology for those of us whose day job revolves around some other field.

His ten "great inventions" are the following:
1. The Origin of Life
2. DNA
3. Photosynthesis
4. The Complex Cell
5. Sex
6. Movement
7. Sight
8. Hot Blood
9. Consciousness
10. Death

In each of the ten essays, the author sets up some mystery about how or why the given trait evolved, then he builds up to explaining one or more theories about it -- along with giving you a good explanation of what kind of evidence backs each theory. Some of them almost feel like "Encyclopedia Brown" stories, leading the reader to guess what solution he'll propose. It makes for a pretty entertaining game, especially when he sets up questions I hadn't thought of. For example, with the case of warm-bloodedness, he sets up such a strong case for why it's inefficient, that it makes it fun to try to guess why it ever would have given an animal a selective advantage!

Another really interesting one was the evolution of photosynthesis. It had a pretty unexpected evolutionary path. And I learned that photosynthesis has two steps, the first of which is to use a photon to split a water molecule into its components. I hope not too many of you will laugh at me for not having already known this (I guess I wasn't paying as close of attention in Biology as I thought). But it turns out that people are very close to understanding precisely the reaction that would allow us to use sunlight to separate Hydrogen and Oxygen in water.

Whenever I'd heard people talk about how Hydrogen will be the new fuel (once we run out of fossil fuels) it always seemed to me to be a half-baked idea, because where does the Hydrogen come from? Splitting water molecules costs as much energy as we can hope to get back by burning the Hydrogen later, so at best it's like a type of battery -- not a source of energy to solve our energy problems. The fact that there's a good solar trick for isolating Hydrogen is the missing piece that makes this idea make sense. Considering how bad-and-worsening our energy/environment situation is getting, it's nice to hear a bit of a hopeful idea for a solution to part of the problem.

I wasn't totally convinced by Lane's explanation of death, but I think the fluffiest one was his essay on consciousness. That's probably because it's the most complex and least understood item on the list. Throughout the book Lane goes out of his way to avoid offending theists, but it was particularly funny in the consciousness chapter when he was talking about the "God Helmet" -- which causes people to believe they've seen God (by magnetically stimulating certain regions of the brain):

Persinger, incidentally, is at pains to point out that the physical induction of mystical experiences does not argue against the existence of God;

Of course not. That would mean ignoring the obvious explanation that God exists and just happens to be irresistibly attracted to that helmet! ;^)

But seriously, If you're curious about evolution and don't know it as well as you'd like to, this book will put you on the fast track to some of the most exciting parts!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All the good gossip

Between buildings we passed by a pharmacy that had in its display window a large poster advertising some sort of mysterious medication. The image on the poster was a soft black-and-white shot of a nude woman looking off into the distance with her breasts completely exposed to view. Read the rest of the story ->

Friday, October 09, 2009

My sweetie knows me too well!!

He decided to get me a special surprise the other day, and here's what he brought home:

Yep, it's Transit Maps of the World: The world's first collection of every urban train map on Earth!! :D

Not only does it have the transit map of every city in the world with an urban train system (real or planned), but it also has historical maps of the oldest subway systems and how they evolved.

I was interested in the usual suspects (London, New York, Paris), but was even more intrigued by the historical maps of the subway system in Berlin, where pre-WWII lines crossed from West to East and back! For decades (before the wall came down) some mostly-west-side lines would pass through "ghost stations" in East Berlin where the subway train just wouldn't stop. Now the Berlin subway system is, of course, re-integrated. It actually makes me curious to visit Berlin -- especially now that my German is improving.

(Don't ask me to say anything in German yet, though -- my best sentence in high German is still "Ich möchte eine Fahrkarte nach Heidelberg, bitte" [I'd like a ticket to Heidelberg, please]. Not that I've ever been there. And my best sentence in Swiss German is the one that translates as "There are many frogs in Switzerland." I'd spell it out in Swiss German for you, but there's no standardized spelling. I'd prefer to be saying "There are many cows in Switzerland" -- to impress my Swiss-German friends -- but the word for frog is easier to pronounce. Anyway, both statements are true.)

So how did my sweetie guess that I'd be fascinated by all these transit maps? And that I'd sit down and read them all, just for fun? Maybe he got his clue when we were in Boston this past weekend and I was contemplating the subway map on the wall, to see how many lines they have and how they connect to each other, etc.

My kids explore Boston!

Of course, I guess he doesn't really have to be paying all that close of attention to have noticed my crazy fascination with urban transit. It was still thoughtful, though.

Here's one more picture to prove that we did come out and explore above ground in Boston. A little. ;^)

A cute bronze sculpture illustrating all of the local wildlife that you'd see in Boston, if only that nature stuff hadn't been paved over.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I'm neither a poet nor a photographer

So how can I share with you this amazing sunny/windy fall day we're having?

I've somehow internalized the idea that it's not enough to just have experiences -- I have to record them and impart them. But when I try to press the little violet between the pages of a book, it's never quite the same as in life...

Why? Why not just be and do?

I'm tempted to trace it to my Mormon upbringing (given that that's my blogging theme), but I think it comes more from my non-religious outlook: any experience that I can't preserve will one day be lost (see why I don't like death). Either that or it's my ingrained Protestant work ethic. Must... make... myself... useful... at... all... times...

All of this real-life that's been going on since I've been here in New Jersey -- it's really cutting into my blogging. I have a backlog of about ten things I'm planning to post about! I can't believe I still haven't gotten around to recounting the Mormon Fundamentalist (polygamist) church service I attended when I was in Utah! Not to mention a bunch of other more mundane things that have been happening lately (my trip to Boston this past weekend, the dinner I went to last night where the hostess showed us Albert Einstein's desk that he had brought with him to Princeton from Berlin). But the problem is that it takes me a few hours to write a careful post, and those are hours I could be spending on more real-life experiences!

Meanwhile I keep obsessing over my elaborate plans about how to get an amazing new job when I get back to Zürich, plus I'm at a fun part on my professional research project that I'm doing during this sabbatical. But this weather is making me want to blow off work and go on a walk through the woods, crackle some crispy fall leaves under my feet.

I want to work,
I want to play,
I need three times as many hours in every day!!!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Not some dorkazoid missionaries!

The next morning, after Elder Beaverton and I had done our usual personal study and companion study, we set off to go out tracting. As usual, no one wanted to let us in. To break up the tedium and frustration of it, we played little games to vary our door approach such as picking a particular word we'd have to work into our opening line somehow.

The whole morning the only person who let us in to talk was an old guy who mistook us for the Amish. We would get this problem all the time because in the French version of the movie Witness, the word "Amish" was mistranslated as "Mormon". So a lot of times people would ask us about how we always drive around in a horse-and-buggy back home or some other crazy thing that of course we don't do. Still, it was better than getting mistaken for the Témoins de Jéhovah [Jehovah's Witnesses].

After grabbing a sandwich for lunch, we decided to spend the afternoon street contacting along rue Sainte Catherine,

Read the rest of the story->