Friday, July 20, 2018

Fiction Friday (July 20): Words Really Do Matter

"Autobiography of Red" and "Amy's Three Best Things"

So, you know how when you pick up a book, judging it by its cover at first, because, yes, we CAN and DO judge books by their covers, and then flip through the pages and light upon one or two random lines on one random page, and realize that you are going to like, or not like, that book?

Try out these two lines, and see if you know what I mean: 

From "Autobiography of Red," by Anne Carson:

"Her voice drew a circle
around all the years he had spent in this room."

And now, from "Amy's Three Best Things," written by Philippa Pearce and illustrated by Helen Craig (I picked up this book because of its charming cover...see above about covers!):

"And the next day the sun shone, so they all went to the fair."

Now, which of these sentences makes you want to go on and read the rest of the book? Admittedly, the "Amy" book is for children, but I don't think that fact necessitates every dang sentence having the word "and" somewhere in the middle of it, or several times in it. And (yeah, I know, "and") because it's a children's book and it really is a charming story with charming illustrations, I'm not really complaining. Not at all.

But doesn't that other line, "Her voice drew a circle/around all the years he had spent in this room," make you want to read more? Doesn't it make its own picture in your own mind, not on the page, where you don't need it, because it's in your own mind?

Both stories are made up of series of incidents in the main characters' lives, forming a plot arc that is interesting, but words matter.

I would write more about this right now but because words matter and because I'm so sleepy that I'm having trouble with words, this will have to do for now.

(By the way, which book cover for "Autobiography of Red" makes you more interested in buying the book? When I bought it, I chose the one on the left because it was used so it cost me about half the price of the new book. But, price aside, I think I like the one on the left better, anyway.)

Autobiography of RedAutobiography of Red by Carson, Anne (1999) PaperbackAmy's Three Best Things

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Happy Bastille Day!

Is that the appropriate greeting? Or is that like when a foreign student once wished me a Happy Memorial Day, the day when we remember those who have died?

Not sure, but here's a photo of Pres. Macron and his wife and a bunch of other people standing at attention during a two-hour-long parade. Did they have to stand that way for the whole two hours? I hope not! Anyway, I'm pretty sure they're actually celebrating this day.

The parade lasts more than two hours and involves over 4,200 soldiers, 220 vehicles and 100 aircraft. Japanese and Singaporean soldiers are also taking part in the parade to represent their respective relationships with France.Bastille Day celebrations are not limited to Paris. Across France, other parades and parties will commemorate the move towards democracy over 200 years ago. Festivities will also take place in countries around the world, including South Africa and India. (from USA Today)And, from The Verge:
Image: Ministère des Armées
For the first time, France’s military cyber command marched in this year’s Bastille Day parade on the Champs Elysees in Paris, alongside other units in the nation’s armed forces. The military noted that it’s a recognition of the advances that the unit has made since its formation last year, and reinforces that “cyber defense remains a national priority.”
French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced the formation of COMCYBER in December 2016, noting that the emergence of state actors operating in cyberspace was a new way to approach warfare. The command brought all of the nation’s soldiers focused on cyber defense under one command, with three main tasks: cyber intelligence, protection, and offense. 
The timing of the creation of the command is no coincidence: it came after widespread allegations from the United States that Russia had intervened in the 2016 Presidential election. Yesterday, those allegations gained some additional credibility as a grand jury issued incitements against 12 Russians, claiming that they had carried out cyberattacks to undermine the country’s election infrastructure. 
The recognition that France’s COMCYBER has received by being permitted to march in the parade alongside the rest of the country’s armed forces is a notable example of the seriousness to which its taking the issue, as officials warn that countries such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea remain a threat to the US and other nations’ digital infrastructure.

A Quick Digression: Science and Politics

While we're writing about science and religion and myth and mysticism and superstition, we've got to consider also the role that politics plays in all these discussions.

I mention this now because I've just read an article, "How Politicians Have Corrupted the Concept of 'Survival of the Fittest,'" which points out some of the ways that our American ideas of  toughness and self-sufficiency influence our understanding of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Not only have many misunderstood Darwin's theory of how species survive and thrive, but people with power in our political system have used these misunderstandings to move the goal-posts on the playing field of American life.

Emphasizing competition and "survival of the fittest" leaves out more than half of the components that contribute to what makes individuals thrive and societies survive. Hiding the fact that most rich people in America actually inherited their riches and benefited from social safety nets not extended to those without the head-start of financial and social standing keeps those rich and privileged people in power, where they continue to extend the same benefits to their own children, keeping them from us and from the children of the rest of us. De-emphasizing and downgrading the importance of sharing and cooperating makes the denial of universal health care and Social Security (yes, this is coming, too, just look at what Republicans in Congress are already promising to do!) seem acceptable and even part of the "American way."

But it's not just in the national political arena that this misunderstanding scientific principles and how science works interferes with creating a just and fair society. Con men and hucksters abound, selling their products and philosophies to naive and uneducated individuals who want a quick fix and don't know any better. 

And among those who do know better, researchers who want to make a name for themselves, and are devious enough to think of a faster way than the tried-and-true, and scientifically rigid and controlled methods of conducting experiments, can fake data, misrepresent results, and become, say, the head of their university department or big-company research division, with results that can hurt other people. 

That's all I'm going to say about this for now. If any readers have any comments on this topic (or the way I've so quickly pumped out these few words on my keyboard), please share them.

One way to do field work: grasshoppers in cages!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Elisha and the Children

I ordered this back issue of "BYU Studies" because I thought, from the Amazon description of this particular issue, that I would find therein... (Like that? This is my new favorite word, besides stotting, which I'll explain in an upcoming post.) (Where was I? Oh, yeah...) thought that I would find therein an essay by Lia Purpura, recommended by a poetry teacher in a workshop I took recently. 

Turns out, that essay wasn't in the issue I received, and nor was (Like that? My next new Britishism) any essay by Lia Purpura. But there was a great essay analyzing the Old Testament story of Elisha and the children. 

2 Kings, chapter 2, tells us that Elijah let his mantle, the mantle of the prophet, fall to Elisha as his successor (verses 8-13). So Elisha went back to the "sons of the prophets" (verse 15), who started bugging him to go after Elijah, even though Elisha had seen Elijah drawn into heaven by a whirlwind and horses and a chariot of fire (verses 11-12). Those guys go around looking for Elijah, and when they come back empty handed, he says, "Did I not say unto you, Go not?" (verse 18).

(I'm finding these verses at

Then they ask him to perform a miracle, which he does (he "heals" the waters, verse 21), and then starts to travel to Bethel (from Jericho), but is confronted by some little kids who call him "Baldy," so he curses them (verses 23-24).

This passage has bugged me, and apparently has bugged a lot of scholars, too, because as I've studied the Old Testament over the years I've read various explanations and interpretations of it. But in this issue of BYU Studies I think I've read one that makes sense, and it requires a little understanding of the multiple meanings and symbolism of some of the words in the passage.

So, first, these weren't actually "little children" (verse 23) but young men (na'arim qtannim), maybe in their late teens or early twenties. In addition, a "noted medieval sage" (Rashi) has pointed out that these young men might have been angry at Elisha because they had been employed by the people in Jericho to bring good water to them because the water near Jericho was bitter. Also, this sage points out that the youth were "shaken" from the commandments, and also "little" or "small," meaning small-minded and mean, as the root (q-t-n) of that word "qtannim" suggests. 

So, here we have some great punning, some even greater symbolism and metaphor, depicting the type of person who would taunt and harass a prophet of God. 

And there's more, much more. Remember what they call Elisha, translated as "thou baldy" in the KJT (verse 23)? Is that enough of an insult to God's prophet that he would let the prophet curse them? Yes, apparently so, because they weren't talking about his bald head---we don't even know if he was bald. They were making fun of him for not wearing a "hairy" garment that they thought a true prophet should wear (think of John the Baptist). In other words, they were accusing him of being a false prophet.

And the curse? In the name of the Lord, he curses them, and two bears come out of the woods and tear 42 of them to pieces. Is this even a just punishment from God? Yes, it is, according to Fred Woods. 

Their taunt, "leh qereah! leh qereah!" seems to point back to 2 Kings 2:11, and to Numbers 16:3, where Korah (a relative of Moses and Aaron) led a rebellion against the prophet and his spokesman, claiming to be at the same level of authority as they were. As Fred Woods writes, "The youths in the passage of 2 Kings 2:23 seem to be accusing Elisha of like motives when in fact they are the guilty ones." 

Furthermore, the punishments pronounced on Korah and his rebels and on the youths are similar in involving "tearing up," with the Hebrew verb "tear open" (b-q-') appearing in both stories. 

So, those youth weren't just making fun of the prophet of God, but were accusing him, wrongly, of usurping authority, thereby justly incurring the wrath of God, "who had previously warned, 'And if you walk contrary to me, ... I will send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children' (Lev.26: 21-22)."

(This analysis, "Elisha and the Children: The Question of Accepting Prophetic Succession," by Fred H. Woods, Director of the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is found in BYU Studies, Volume 32, No. 3. It includes much more than the linguistic analysis of these words and phrases, going on to explain the chiasmic structure of the first two books of 2 Kings and the significance of that structure. It is a gem of Biblical and literary analysis. If any of my readers want to read the whole thing, you can download a PDF of the entire article, FREE, here.  

Is this fascinating, or what? Or is it just me who is so strangely and easily fascinated by such bits of linguistic and Biblical knowledge?

Not important. Because now I'm going to quote Neal A. Maxwell, in the first article/talk in that issue of BYU Studies, quoting Austin Farrer, who wrote, in praising C.S. Lewis: 
"Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced, but what no one shows that ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish." (BYU Studies 32, No. 3 (1992---which is also the reference for the article on Elisha.) 
So true. So this is why I love to read these kinds of things, and why Jason and i are writing all these essays and eventually a whole book about the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

(You can also download, for free, the talk by Neal A. Maxwell, here.)

Volume 57:2 (2018)(More on stotting, and more on Lia Purpura, later)

(Oh my goodness, you can also download, for free, this week's "Featured Item" from BYU Studies, "Dating the Departure of Lehi from Jerusalem," by Jeffrey R. Chadwick.)

Fiction Friday (July 13, 2018): Animal Envy

Ralph Nader, genius though he may be, shouldn't be trying to write a novel, or even, as he calls this book, a "fable." For one thing, it isn't actually fiction or a fable. Another reason he shouldn't have thought this was a good idea is that, Hello, Ralph, George Orwell already wrote "Animal Farm."

Okay, "Animal Envy" doesn't have the same plot or underlying political argument, but it also doesn't have any of the other characteristics of a great novel or even of a careful metaphorical examination of how we treat animals and what they may be thinking of this.

I bought this book by mistake and will be happy to give it to any of my readers who may request it from me. Heck, I'll even ship it to you for free. (If you're overseas, you must have an APO or FPO address.) Only one requirement in return: You read the book carefully---more carefully than I did---and write a review for this blog. If you write a positive review, so much the better for all our readers.

I admit I didn't read it carefully. In fact, if/when you receive your copy from me, you'll see evidence of how I threw it to the floor in frustration, which I did after one chapter of reading and a few more of skimming.

Do I have to say more? Is this like a book report for fourth grade where Mrs. Lincoln would get mad at me for not giving a synopsis? Yes? Too bad.

Here are some blurbs from the back jacket:

"It's good to see Ralph Nader turning his attention to the way we treat animals." (That's only part of Peter Singer's review. Good old Peter Singer, I don't blame him for wanting another intellectual on his side of the "Animals--If you love me, don't eat me!" argument.) But maybe he didn't actually read the book, any more than I did. Because even though, quoting Mr. Singer again, "the ideas he presents are important and demand our attention," this is not the way to get anyone's actual attention to the issue.

Here's another one: "As to be expected from a book by Ralph Nader, 'Animal Envy' is hard to pigeonhole---equal parts science fiction, philosophy, science and nature reporting, tragedy, and comedy." That's from Eric R. Glitzenstein, who is described as an animal and environmental attorney. My guess is that Mr. Glitzenstein, after his years in law school and writing court briefs, doesn't recognize an actual novel (or "fable") when he sees one.

Glitzenstein adds, "Most important, the book is a desperate plea (from the animals themselves) that we change that relationship [the current relationship between us and them] before it is too late for both them and us."

See, that isn't even true, for two reasons. First, and obviously, the animals themselves didn't write this book. Secondly, so many other writers have actually made that "desperate" plea so much more effectively than Mr. Nader has, that I'm thinking his book is a waste of paper, made from a tree or trees that some real animal could be using somewhere for food, or shade, or protection from predators. So, save another tree and let me mail this to you. Thanks!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Your Inner Fish

Ever thought you were descended from fish? Whoa! Is that better or worse than the idea that you might be descended from apes? Actually, humans aren't descended from either. 

As Prosanta Chakrabarty explains in his TED talk, "Four Billion Years of Evolution in Six Minutes,"

"Knowing you're a fish and not a monkey is actually really important to understanding where we came from." 

He says, About three billion years ago, multicellularity evolved. This includes your fungi and your plants and your animals. The first animals to develop a backbone were fishes. So technically, all vertebrates are fishes, so technically, you and I are fish. So don't say I didn't warn you."

He also talks about how some of the ways we have come to think of "the theory of evolution" have hampered our understanding of the way life evolved, and the way (and the reasons) humans evolved; which has led to hilarious arguments between evolutionists and directed design believers.

I love his conclusion:

Think of life as being this book, an unfinished book for sure. We're just seeing the last few pages of each chapter. If you look out on the eight million species that we share this planet with, think of them all being four billion years of evolution. They're all the product of that. Think of us all as young leaves on this ancient and gigantic tree of life, all of us connected by invisible branches not just to each other, but to our extinct relatives and our evolutionary ancestors. As a biologist, I'm still trying to learn, with others, how everyone's related to each other, who is related to whom.

Here's the transcript of the TED talk. I couldn't find this talk on YouTube, which is why I didn't put a link to it here. To compensate, here's another talk by Prosanta Chakrabarty, on, you guessed it, fish. It's fascinating, well worth the short time it takes to watch. Enjoy!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Fiction Friday (July 6, 2018): Some Famous Mystery Writers

I admit it: I've been wasting time lately reading some pretty low-brow stuff, such as Dorothy Gilman's "Kaleidoscope," Agatha Christie's "Murder After Hours," and Tony Hillerman's "The Fly on the Wall."

I admit, too, that I enjoyed all of them. Who doesn't enjoy a mystery story? In fact, I firmly believe that all the novels and stories we read are essentially "mystery stories," even if they're not called mysteries. 

We read what we read in order to discover something we didn't understand before we read that. We want to know why people do the things they do. We want to know our own selves better. We want to know more about those people who can solve mysteries, how they do it, and why they think it's important to look more closely than the people around them do.

In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot stories, we also want to know why his English friends tend to look down on him even as they depend upon him to solve the mystery. In "Murder After Hours," all clues point to the unhappy wife as the murderer of the cruel and heartless husband, and apparently everyone else but M. Poirot knows she committed the crime, but they won't reveal the fact to him, so he has to figure it out on his own. And, of course, here's why we read Agatha Christie: because she draws it out so expertly, tossing clues at us, as well as to M. Poirot, so that we're focusing so much on her throwing technique that we miss the easy catch.

I think I've read all of Tony Hillerman's mysteries set in Navajo country, but "The Fly on the Wall" is the first of his novels I've read that doesn't involve tribal lands and cultures. This one involves politics and newspaper culture, and even though it was first published in 1971---good grief!---it's a story that could happen this week or next year. Why would a good-guy politician be willing to murder, and another one to cover up the murder, and then go on to murder a reporter? Oh, sure, we all know the answers to those questions. But Hillerman teases out the story so brilliantly that we seem to be discovering the answers for ourselves, for the very first time.

Now, on to Dorothy Gilman, the author of the famous Mrs. Pollifax mysteries. I've read one of those, and, unimpressed, haven't bothered to pick up any of the others from the Camas Library's shelves. Another of Gilman's characters, Madame Karitska, new to me, is fascinating; but I'm not going to get the other book featuring this psychic wonder. What I liked about "Kaleidoscope," though, what kept me reading to the end, was the kindness of Madame Karitska, not just her mystery-solving skills. Because, let's face it, the book world is full of people who can solve mysteries, but what we love is someone who does it with compassion. 

Why is human nature such a mystery to us? I wish I knew. Maybe it's not such a mystery, and sometimes reading these stories is just pure escape from improving our own nature. Now there's a thought! And that's why M. Poirot, John Cotton, and Mme. Karistky fascinate us. 

Kaleidoscope: A Countess Karitska NovelMurder After HoursThe Fly on the Wall

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Thursday Book Review: The Lost World of the Old Ones

The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest

I haven't even finished reading this book, yet it has inspired me to re-visit Nine-Mile Canyon (near Price, Utah), and many other places in the southwest.

The author, David Roberts, isn't grinding any axes, except that the pictographs and other artifacts of "Indian Country" must be  preserved; and people kept from trespassing on sacred grounds.

The book is full of stories of the various tribes, ancient and modern, who have inhabited and currently inhabit the areas of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. It includes stories of the Navajo forced march from their homelands and their return, and some of the secret hideouts that kept them safe from marauding soldiers.

Roberts is careful not to disturb sites, careful to document his travels, but also careful not to disclose the locations of places thieves may want to desecrate and rob.

I recommend this book, and will loan my copy to anyone who's interested, especially if that person or those persons would be willing to take a trip with me to one or more of these amazing sites.

Nine Mile Canyon

Another Reason I'm Grateful for how my Parents Raised Me

....and for the fact that they raised me with moral principles backed up by the teachings of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and taught and reinforced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

If you want to read a sad commentary on what it's like for a young woman to go out into the big wide world expecting to be treated well by men and to have wonderful sexual experiences full of love and mutual regard, you can read this article by Caitlin Moran: "How to Tell the Bad Men from the Good Men," with the subtitle, "Itt wasn’t so simple at age 18."

Or, if you don't want to read yet another sad and horrifying article about the completely messed-up world of contemporary "dating," you can read this summary, written by me:

Ms. Moran went out into the world knowing nothing about men. She adds, "In this, of course, I was scarcely alone. There are no guidebooks about men: figuring out which are the nice ones, and which are the dangerous ones. What is acceptable behavior, and what is not."

And that's still true for most young women, isn't it? We know nothing about men except for the romantic movies and 19th-century novels we were raised on, nothing but cute boy-groups singing songs about love, oblivious to the fact that the word  "love" in those songs just means "sex" to them.

So, what's a young woman to do? Enter my parents, and parents like them, who realize that our ignorance can ruin our lives temporarily and permanently, but also that we simply won't believe their warnings, and so they give us the rules ahead of time. 

Alas, Ms. Moran never comes right out and tells her readers "how to tell the bad men from the good men." She herself learned by experience, by dealing with sexist bosses in sexist offices, by having bad sex with cruel and heartless men, by hearing insults hurled at her by men who thought she "owed" them something, and so on.

In contrast, here are the rules my parents raised me with:

1. Don't have sex with anyone until you're married.

(But what if the person I marry turns out to be a horrible person, like those horrible men Ms. Moran learned how to deal with outside of marriage? Well, there are ways to deal with that, too. More on that, in a subsequent blog post.)

2. Don't date anyone who doesn't have the same principles you do, such as the ideals of  treating each other with care and respect, saving sexual intimacy for marriage, and all the rest of those "old-fashioned" values.

3. When you date, follow rules like not sitting in a car "necking" and not agreeing to or submitting to any kind of sexual acts. 

4. Do regard sex as the powerful procreative power that God gave us, to be used with care, in order to bring His spiritual children into the world with physical bodies so they can continue to grow and progress in becoming like Him and returning to His presence.

5. Don't drink alcohol. Alcohol consumption is associated with the lowering of physical, mental, and emotional barriers, resulting in behavior that a person would not ordinarily engage in, for example, having sex.

6. Go to church, spend time reading the Holy Scriptures every day, and pray at least every morning and every night for God's help in directing your life.

In summary, then, there ARE guidelines. The list I just wrote contains some of those guidelines. The idea that there are no guidelines, or that they're prudish and old fashioned, is another of many ways that the dirty old men of the world maintain power and influence, while keeping women and people of color from attaining their full potential. 

(Yeah, I know, "dirty old men," what a term to use, but, come on, you know it's an accurate one, don't you? Just look at Harvey W et al.)

That's all for now, except to state that I'm NOT recommending you not read Caitlin Moran's essay or anything written by her. She's a brilliant writer and astute observer of human behavior. She's worth reading. But she just didn't get the wonderful upbringing my parents gave me and my siblings.

(Here's Caitlin Moran's Amazon page.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

And now for something completely different: Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds--Just because they're so beautiful, and I learned so much about them from this video:

I'll be writing something more about hummingbirds, later, when I get around to the history of science. I've already written about them in my post introducing the topic of science vs. religion vs. superstition and myths. And hummingbirds will fit in, along with peacocks, and virtually every other animal discussed in arguments about evolution.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Evolution of Beauty

(Another Step in our Long March toward the Discussion of Evolution and Intelligent Design)

Peacocks! They're so beautiful! To us humans, anyway. Are they beautiful to peahens?
But that didn't stop him from thinking about peacocks and their feathers. In fact, thinking about it led him to the idea of sexual selection, a step beyond natural selection of his first book, "The Origin of Species," published in 1859.
Where shall we go next with this discussion? I think I'll look at the way Darwin himself made his decision about whether to marry or not. Maybe the post after that will discuss the way Darwin and his contemporaries viewed women; and maybe next will be the misrepresentation of Darwinian theory by our own contemporary anti-evolution writers. After that, I don't know yet. 

They must be, according to Darwin, although he also wrote, in 1860,  "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick."

You can't really explain the evolution of peacocks' tails with the theory of natural selection, because those tails make it impossible for peacocks to escape predators, meaning the fittest would be the ones with the shortest tails. So what is left to explain this trait (and many others, found in many other animals, that don't seem to advance survival of an individual or a species )?

Image result for peacock
He concluded,  “We must suppose [that peahens] admire [the] peacock’s tail, as much as we do." 

Therefore, if the longer tails are considered more beautiful by the peahens, they are inclined to let the longer-tailed beauties mate with them, and thus their offspring will tend to have longer tails and be more beautiful, too, and so they'll survive, pass those long-tail genes to their offspring, and so on. 

This seems obvious to us now, but it was not obvious at all to his Victorian contemporaries, not even to the scientists. And it's still not obvious to everyone, not even to our own contemporary scientists.

In fact, a fairly recent (2011) study found that it's not only the length of the peacock's tail that entices the peahen; there are other factors, including the number of "eyes" in the tail and the tail's symmetry, that the peahen considers in her acceptance or rejection of a suitor. 

This study isn't the only one that has been conducted on what helps a peahen make her decision; the back-and-forth between the scientists conducting these studies is a fascinating study in itself of how scientific dialogue should be conducted. 

The author of the 2011 paper cited above concluded, ""At the end of the day, we will never know what peahens are looking at and how they select their mates. You can't ask them."

And there's the rub. You can't ask them. In fact, you can't even ask humans what are the "true" reasons behind most of the decisions they make ranging from everyday matters to whom they marry and their career choices.

How did "beauty" evolve, then? We don't really know. Darwin was way ahead of his time when he suggested that beauty had anything to do with mate selection. He is still way ahead of OUR time, too, because many scientists with a purely mechanistic view of the animal kingdom are reluctant to admit that aesthetics have anything to do with evolution.