Wednesday, April 23, 2014

I really want to like "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"...

but I just don't.

When I first heard about "Cosmos" and saw the ads for it, I was excited. A science show! A well funded science show on over-the-air tv! I'm all for science outreach, and making it look as cool as it really is. I got a little nervous when I read that it was being produced by Seth MacFarlane, because I have yet to enjoy any of his comedies, but I thought it would probably still be good. Money and sponsorship has to come from somewhere.

I watched the first episode with Dear Husband. The animations were stunning. The episode as a whole was...underwhelming. DH, who while not a scientist is highly logical/mathematical and a great appreciator of good CGI, felt the show was boring, slow, and kinda wandering. He has not watched another since, so I have been watching them on my own as I have time.

Now, I'm not old enough to have seen the original "Cosmos", so I'm judging the new "Cosmos" on its own merit, so anything that's an homage to the original, unless obvious or called out as such by others, is lost on me, as it will be for anyone under, say, 30.

My feelings about "Cosmos" haven't really changed since that first episode, which is disappointing because I want to love it. It's slow. It could be doing SO much more with the time and obvious animating talents at its disposal. It's historical segments* are full of half-truths, and give me the impression of an 8th-grade history paper. It's anti-religion bent is just tired. I could accept the latter if the former were honest. I could accept the former if the latter were absent, toned down or at least not directly tied to the former. As it is, I just sit there waiting through the historical sections for inaccuracies, anachronisms and the projection of 21st century thought patterns onto previous generations. Tyson made some not-as-subtle-as-he-thinks snide remark about religion and I just want to tell him to get on with it already. I'd have rather had a 5 minute atheist chit-chat in the first episode and just on with the science already.

For the record, I actually liked some of the taking-down Young Earth Creation (YEC) segments, particularly the one in "A Sky Full of Ghosts". I doubt it converted as many as Tyson thinks it should, but at least it's footing is firm--light travels this fast, ergo we shouldn't be able to see almost anything in the sky if the universe is only 6000 years old. We see lots of stars and galaxies, ergo the universe is much older.

Though Tyson gets a bit hand-wavy when it comes to the frontiers of the knowledge of science (multiverse, how exactly we got from chemical soup to single celled organisms), the science content is solid, if spread a little thin. I really think they could have fit more science content in, if they cut down the semi-history, Tyson spoke at a normal pace and they grouped topics a little more strategically.

Actually, Tyson as narrator poses a bit of a stumbling block for me to like this show. I know he's an astronomer rockstar, that he is a beloved science communicator, etc. But his tone and cadence remind me of the one that my mom uses in teaching 2s and 3s Sunday School, with a dash of pseudo-drama. I don't mind when people talk with their hands, but his hand movements feel fake, an affect someone told him was an effective presentation technique. Not that this is a great reason to dislike "Cosmos" but it does make it a bit of a chore, a kind of science devotional for me to watch the show. It's that class on the awesome topic taught by a teacher you can't stand.

Overall, I'm not sure that this incarnation of "Cosmos" will be as effective as the original. Of course, maybe I'm the wrong audience, but I have yet to find someone who didn't love the original that is taken with the new one. And preaching to the choir is not a successful evangelism, pardon me, communication method.

*A separate problem for me is the horrific accents for some of the animated segments. Some are fine, but some are just terrible.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Seven Stanzas at Easter" by John Updike

Ever now and then, a poem speaks to you. That's how I felt the first time I encountered John Updikes poem "Seven Stanzas at Easter". It's not my usual style of poetry; I tend to go for same number of syllables per line, rhyming, more Shakespeare and Donne than modern. But this hit home. 

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall. 
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours. 
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose. 
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door. 
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day. 
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom. 
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
-John Updike

What we believe is not reasonable. It is not polite, it is not pleasant. It is monstrous. But unless we believe the fullness of the monstrosity, that Christ rose with the same body, though transformed, that he died, the miracle is meaningless. If it was anything less than a weighty stone, a real angel, a real chemical body, it's just a story. A weird parable of an old religion. But if its true, then we have to admit to ourselves that God has no interest in playing to our convenience when our salvation is at stake.

This poem challenged me many years ago to face what I was confessing. Choose the physical, risen Christ of the empty tomb, or a metaphor that would make me seem a little less crazy.

I chose the former.

Happy Easter.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Preparations

Holy Saturday has always been a kind of prep-day for me. Growing up, there was church decorating and food to be made and choir folders to organize. And that hasn't really changed now that I've grown up and married and established a household of my own, minus the church prep and add some house cleaning.

Saturday is our usual house-cleaning day anyway. Things like dishes and laundry get done as needed during the week, besides the obvious post-cooking counter cleaning. But Saturday morning is cleaning time. Dear Husband cleans the bathrooms while I make breakfast. I sweep the floors and clear away any clutter that has accumulated during the week. Any outdoor cleaning that needs to be done gets done then. Vacuuming gets done if the vacuum cleaner cooperates.

Today we did CLEANING. Dust the baseboards, scrub all the floors cleaning. The house smells like lavender and almonds.

And of course I did food preparing for tomorrow. For one, I made sure I had everything. I got a leg of lamb roast to cook for dinner, which requires nothing more than salt, pepper and some rosemary before I throw it in the oven tomorrow. The potatoes and asparagus can't really be prepped today, but they don't take much time anyway. I made deviled eggs, which are a must in my book and my only regret is that I didn't have enough forethought to make them earlier in the week and partially pickled them in pickled beet juice, which turns then a pretty purple-y pink.

The one at 11 o'clock had an abnormally large air pocket.
I even figured out how to do that cool swirly rosette thing with a piping bag!

I also finished the lamb cake. What is a lamb cake, you ask? It is a cake baked in a mold that looks like a lamb. If you are an excellent cake-pan preparer you could probably dust it with powdered sugar and serve right from the pan. But, I am not an excellent cake pan prepper, and my family traditionally has it covered with coconut icing, which is a tradition I am happy to continue.

This cake goaded me last year to learn the art of the 'crumb coat'. Instead of trying to ice it perfectly in one go, you use a thin layer of icing to stick down any crumbs (and hold on any ears that may or may not have been a little stuck to the pan), let that dry for a few minutes, and then finish icing with a thicker layer that gets to be all pretty and even and crumb-free. As a finishing touch, I coated it with coconut using the old press-and-stick method. The eyes, nose and impertinent tongue are jelly beans, and the grass is coconut tossed with some green food coloring. I serve it with strawberries, which is delicious but my sister calls 'macabre'.

Now, other than quiet contemplation, I am ready for Easter.

Have a blessed Paschal Triduum!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Meditations on Holy Week

Warning: slightly rambling

Most people who didn't grow up in the church assume that Christmas is the biggest holiday for Christians. It's certainly the most visible and drawn out, the most easily co-opted and inviting of all our holidays (and we have a lot). It's warm and fuzzy and bright at the darkest time of year. The gift portion is certainly attractive to pretty much everyone. And it looks like our name! that's convenient.

But the reality is the Christmas is, at best, the second most important holiday. Holy Week and Easter, collectively known as Passiontide, is our most important holiday. Christmas is joyous, of course, but it's a prelude, and one that is theologically tempered. If you read through the texts of Christmas hymns and carols, you'll find that some of the less-popular-on-the-radio-station verses are rather bleak (some more modern, cheerful hymnals even leave them out). Take, for example, the second verse of "What Child is this?"
Why lies he in such mean estate
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear: for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne for me, for you;
hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the babe, the son of Mary.
The whole point of Christmas, the arrival of God-made-flesh, is so that Good Friday may take place. Good Friday is rarely a service that draws in people from the outside, even though it is as well advertised with lawn signs. Who in their right mind wants to go sit in a darkened, quiet church and contemplate on their sins, the agony of death on the cross, and the [seeming] finality of death?

Growing up, I would say that Holy Week was one of the biggest weeks of the year (I was still a kid). Partly because I grew up the child of the church organist and the person in charge of decorating the church so I was there nearly everyday starting the day before Palm Sunday to strip the palms all the way through Easter. But also because it is a compelling narrative that the Church has been telling for centuries. During Holy Week we don't just read the accounts. We re-enact them to a greater or lesser extent.

On Palm Sunday the congregation plays the part of the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. We cry "Hosanna!" and sing hymns set to triumphal, often marching tunes. We wave palms and the organ plays at full blast.

But we know what is coming. Monday through Wednesday are spent in solitary preparation. There might be quiet preparations for Easter morning, but they are typically kept quiet.

Maundy Thursday exhibits the greatest variation I've seen among Churches. It commemorates the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested and condemned to death, which became for Christians the sacrament of Communion. For some its a meditative service, with quiet hymns, prayer, perhaps a short homily, and of course communion. Others include 'maundy' or the rite of foot washing, something else Jesus gave to his disciples as a ritual that got lost (probably as it moved north where socks and boots were the norm instead of sandals). The services are beautiful, but also introspective. This is not to say that visitors aren't welcomed, but for many Christians these services are deeply personal.

Good Friday is a hard day. It's a holiday, in the sense that it is holy and in the sense that most people don't have to go to work on it, but it is also hard. Hard to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced it in its full, raw power and hard to go through. Whether its the stations of the cross, mentally walking with Jesus to his death, or Tenebrae going through the entire passion narrative with the congregation playing the part of the crowd who cries "Crucify!", it is a strange day that we put ourselves through. We meditate on the idea that we killed God, that the second person of the Trinity willingly walked into Death, paying the price our sinfulness, our brokenness, so we never have to. We leave the church in silence and darkness, the Bible closed, a single candle burning on the altar.

Holy Saturday is the quietest day in the church. Everyone who has to go in to make preparations for Sunday whispers. You try to walk quietly. The lights stay dim. Even though we all know what happened that first Easter, that Jesus isn't in that tomb again, we are still quiet, as though we mourn with the apostles.

Easter sunrise services are the most joyful thing I know of, whatever the variation. The one I can describe best is the one I grew up with. You enter the church in darkness and silence, praying and waiting. The pastor comes in through a door by the altar, and proclaims "Why do you look for the living among the dead? I tell you he is not here. He is risen!" and the lights go up and the organ roars to life in one of the many Easter Hymns. The litany of "He is risen!" "He is risen indeed, Alleluia!" tumbles from everyone's lips. Our sin may have been atoned for on Good Friday, but the empty tomb gives us hope and therefore joy.

Does all this sound insane? Sure. There's a reason St. Paul wrote that the message of the cross was foolishness in the eyes of the world (I Corinthians 1:18)--it is. Most self-aware Christians know this. We know we sound crazy. (We also know some of our traditions are good theatre). And we're ok with that. We can give reasons and offer some sort of explanation. But at the core, we know its not rational. We don't believe because of a Pascal's wager. We believe because, at some point, we've had a moment at the well, an encounter in the garden, whether subtle or bolt out of the blue or anywhere in between. And we believe.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Windows, definitions 1 and 2

Last week has somehow ended up focused on two kinds of windows--the kind that let me see the outside world from inside my house and the kind that provides the operating system to my computers at school.

It was discovered a couple of months ago that one of our windows, one in my home office to be specific, was rotting out. Shortly after that I discovered one of our bedroom windows was rotting out. It looked like someone had just painted over existing wood rot instead of replacing the sills, leading the the entire thing rotting. Because both culprits are in bays, we were looking at least 6 windows needing replacement.

So we called the local Anderson windows dealer, who discovered two more heavily rotting windows. These are windows that we never look out of since they just look into our neighbors windows and we can't easily see from the ground, but even we could see (when the blinds were drawn) that they looked like they belonged in a haunted mansion.

Hello custom, rot-proof windows. Goodbye nice vacation.

At school/work, IT is going crazy about replacing XP computers with Windows 7 computers. Yes, they are replacing the incredibly out of date operating system with a slightly less out of date operating system.

For most people, this is good news. Faster computers. New monitors, etc.

This is horrible for any sort of researcher. Custom software. Very expensive proprietary software that only allows one installation and is necessary to run a very expensive piece of equipment. Data that you don't want to run even the slightest chance of losing because that there's 4 years worth of work. For a theoretician, everything applies except the equipment.

Needless to say, most of us were trying hard to hide our computers and ignoring emails and personal inspections by the department IT guy.

I finally had to give in because the XP computers were going to be cut off from internet, and the program I depend on to produce graphs requires an internet connection, the stupid thing. But I'm keeping my old one, off network, lest I lose anything.

I was really excited to have two monitors at last. If only the new one actually worked.

Oh well, maybe I can get graphs in less than 2 hours computation time now.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Comfort Food: Pierogies, Sausage and Peppers

Here's something you'll rarely see anywhere: I've been trying to recreate a dish from the college cafeteria for years.

And yes, I mean a dining hall, not a fancified food court like some schools have. Over cooked vegetables, lots of things deep fried or baked within  an inch of their lives. Most days the only truly edible thing in the dining hall was the pizza, unless you arrived in time for the special, which was usually pretty good, but limited in quantity.

But there was one thing that the ladies in the dining hall kitchen did really really well--pierogies, sausage and peppers. I have a few theories why, but this is one of the few dishes I really looked forward to when it popped up in the menu rotation. Puffy, golden potato and onion filled dumplings, thin strips of red bell peppers sauteed until they were soft and sweet and just barely carmelized at the ends and perfectly fried sausage. It was an island of semi-home-cooked-ness in a sea of industrial, mass-prepared food.

I have been trying to replicated this ever since I left college. The timing of it all has always eluded me. Last night, I think I got it down method-wise, and next time I think I can even make it a one-sheet-pan meal to boot!

Start with some thinly sliced bell peppers

Toss with some olive oil and spread in a (roughly) single layer on a baking sheet.

Now, if you want to do everything in the oven, take a lovely pack of sausages

Cut them in halves or quarters and put them on the tray as well. Bake at 350 until the sausages are brown, the peppers are soft and starting to caramelize at the edges.

Now, if I had thought a little more, I would have taken the sausage and peppers off the tray and just tossed on some lightly oiled frozen pierogies. As it was, I did those mostly in a skillet, which was silly. But it did lead to this amusing series of pictures by Dear Husband. 

 He didn't quite hold it still, or activate the digital compensation.

I learned that I apparently stand with my legs crossed, for no obvious reason...

 Why is this picture at a 60 degree tilt? no idea

This could be really adorable if it weren't quite so blurry.

In any event, it was delicious, and very close to what I remember. 

Over all, a great sucess!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cute Dog, Weird Dog.

Penny is quirky. A lot of her quirks line up pretty well with ours (strict adherence to schedule, love of cuddling and watching tv in the evening) and some of them are just weird.

Especially for a dog.

Seriously, what self-respecting dog sleeps on their back?

Or worse, uses their paws as hands to play with a toy while on their back?

Did not notice when I took the video, but my husband was unintentionally providing background music

What dog does this? I have never seen or heard of this. And she doesn't just do it will nice floppy toys like this beaver/squirrel thing that once squeaked. She also does it with her ropes, her rawhides, and her bouncy Kong snowman thing


Note, right around the two second mark how she drops it, and bats it back into her mouth.

This cannot be considered normal behavior right? Kinda cool, but really? What dog does this?