Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Church Unity, or Lack Thereof

A friend of mine has been participating in an exploration into starting a new church of his preferred denomination near his home. The process prompted him to write about one of the great questions about Christianity: why are there so many different denominations and what are the implications toward the faith as a whole? This is in part a response to what he wrote, and also and attempt to consolidate some of the things I have pondered on the subject over the past few years.

Personally, I'm a Methodist. Why? The basic tenants of the Methodist Church match my personal feelings. I suspect, I hope, that's a big reason why people choose the churches they choose. (Other reasons could include: it was close to home, you have a good kids' program, I was raised a [fill in denomination], all my friends go here, etc.) After some thought, I've come to believe that having different denominations is actually a good thing for the Church. For instance, I believe that Biblical Inerrancy and the related Sola Scriptura theologies can actually be dangerous to the Church. That doesn't mean that I can't acknowledge the comfort that people take in such beliefs, or the power of their faith that allows them to hold the beliefs. And it doesn't mean I'm right about the subject. What it does mean, is that the Methodist doctrine embodied by "Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience" is a much better fit for me than some of the more Lutheran denominations.

People need different things. If someone can't in good conscience be a member of your congregation, isn't it a good thing that there is another across the street that might welcome him? In this way, splits between the denominations can help prevent endless doctrinal debates, and allow the Church as a whole to go on with its work. God has provided through his flawed people a place where I can go with my beliefs, and a place where others can go with theirs.

Here, I will reference the eloquent words of Romans 12, which were written about individual believers, but I think can be applied to the role of denominations in the wider Church:
"Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. ... Each of us finds ourselves fashioned into these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't."

This isn't to say we shouldn't worry about the correctness of our faith or the spiritual health of those around us. And I don't want to imply that I wouldn't love to see the denominations consolidate behind the true core tenants of our faith. But I do want to emphasize that denominational differences aren't as pronounced as they sometimes seem, and there's always something you can learn from someone who doesn't follow the same path you do. Even if it's just apologetics. Brian McLaren provides his story of learning about and from other denominations in the book A Generous Orthodoxy, and I found a great deal of food for thought in it.

What I'm trying in my meager way to get across here, is that if you are worried about the people around you (and you should be) and your denomination's place among other denominations and the world (and you should be), then there is always one simple thing you can do. Follow the example of Jesus: love one another. Believe me, doing that is hard enough to keep us all busy.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Quote of the Moment

"There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."
--Bruce Lee

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Battlestars That Pass in the Night

I hesitate to write about the series finale of the latest incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. There's an old bit of advice, you see, about what to do when you don't have anything nice to say. After the second season, the show collapsed under a lack of forward planning. Each season's ending pushed the show further and further into dark corners I had no interest in exploring. The most interesting characters were railroaded out of the main plot. Later stories failed to maintain continuity and undermined the actions taken in earlier seasons. The finale played out along the same directions the rest of the show had been going: a story that for me was neither interesting nor held together. Executive producer Ron Moore said in interviews that the series finale finally came together when he realized it was a character story. In his words, "It's not about the plot." And that right there pretty much sums up the highs and lows of the series. For me, the new Battlestar is a squandered opportunity. But the truth is, for two years, there was nothing else on TV I looked forward to more.

My bias here is hard to top. I'm a complete nut for spaceships. I'm a total post-apocalypse junkie. That said, Battlestar took the idea behind a campy late 70's attempt to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars and treated the idea seriously. I love the concept, and as a kid I loved the old show. (It really doesn't hold up well to adult eyes.) In the first two years, before the show blurred the line between the humans and cylons, it was an outstanding example of some of the best traits of science fiction. It deserves all the accolates it got for treating real world subjects with frank respect. The spaceships and space battles were beautiful, yes, but the stories about people faced with holding their lives together under impossible conditions were well done. Religion and politics were treated with an equally open hand and left for the viewers to interpret. The very first one hour episode "33" stands as a brilliant, tense, dark masterpiece, and remains the single best episode. The arrival of the Battlestar Pegasus and its look at the choices made during a time of war stands as the high point of the series.

As always there are bad actors and good ones (I'll point out Michael Hogan as Saul Tigh as the exemplar for the good actors) and poor episodes along with the great ones. But for my money the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica stand up well, not just when compared to other space operas like Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Firefly, but against TV drama in general. As for the last three seasons, I'm awfully tempted to say frack 'em. But that would be both crass and incomprehensable to people who haven't seen the show. What I'll say instead is: after a very promising start, I didn't like how the story played out, but there are plenty of people who disagree. Your milage may vary.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Time Dilation


Physics tells us that one person looking at two clocks passing by at different speeds will see them measure time differently. The faster the clocks move by, the slower the time they show will change. The equation above is the ratio that describes the difference relative to a clock the person sees as not moving. It's a strange, unintuitive thing, but luckily it doesn't really come up at the speeds we live our lives. Physics also tells us that our perceptions of reality don't always match up with how things really work. For better or worse, our perceptions completely dominate our everyday lives. Sometimes that can be good, and sometimes that can be bad. After all, as Einstein never actually said, everything is relative.

I had a bad day this past Monday. It was my first day back to work after a productive, but not very restful week of furlough. I was thankful that I didn't have to join the ranks of the unemployed this month, but worried about the deadlines that had just contracted a week. Naturally when I returned to work and tried to turn my computer back on, it failed to boot. I lost several hours fiddling with it, waiting from someone from our internal hardware support group to get back to me. The day crawled by as I hit one dead end after another. Eventually, based off an idea by a co-worker, I was able to recover enough of the previous week's work to continue on using one of the other machines available. It didn't have my setup or tools, but it had enough to make some progress. I went home tired and frustrated, but knowing that I could at least start moving forward again the next day.

Tuesday started off dark and early. I didn't feel particularly good, but I wrote it off to stress, had my breakfast, and headed into the office. After a couple of hours it was clear that my stomach was bothering me. By the time of the daily "stand up" meeting, I knew I was going to have to go home and try to do what work I could. The morning at the office had flown by in a haze, but the hours leading up to lunchtime crawled. By then I knew that something was seriously wrong in my gut.

I called my General Practitioner, and the person answering the phone told me there was nothing available, she would forward me to the nurses to see if they could get me in. The hold time lasted for minutes that seemed like hours. The nurses too said that the doctor's time was completely filled, and would I like to make an appointment? No, said I, I will go to an emergency clinic. Was I sure? Yes, thank you, goodbye. A few more eternal minutes passed while I waited for my father to pick me up. I was too distracted by pain at this point to drive. As we headed to the nearby clinic, Dad noted that red lights seem to last the longest when you are in a hurry.

The clinic started off as all doctor visits do, with paperwork and waiting. I was well into eight on the pain scale (out of ten), with an option on nine. My unsteady hand flew across the paperwork, and eventually they called me back. Nurse comes in, check the vitals, ask about symptoms, wait a bit, see the doctor's aid, pushing and prodding, yes it hurts there, and there, not so much there. They need a blood sample. It takes two tries, thanks to my first ever rolled vein. We need a urine sample and an x-ray. More waiting. Cold water in the sink, the x-ray room smells odd. The doctor stepped our for some lunch. More waiting. The x-ray is inconclusive, but I'm in enough pain they refer me for a CT scan. Back to the waiting room. Mom has joined Dad. She says I was back there for a long time...

Another drive to the place where I would have my scan. More paperwork and more waiting. The receptionist there was beautiful, with an equally beautiful diamond on her finger. I had fully arrived at nine on the pain scale, and decided that moving around out in the cool wind helped. I paced in and out the heavy doors several times as the delay stretched. They called me back and I had to lie still for the scan. Quieter than the MRI I had for my back. Not as comfortable. Kept my eyes equally closed, not out of claustrophobia, but because there was nothing to see. That done it was off home to wait some more.

The work day was almost done by the time I got the call back from the clinic: appendicitis. Thank God it's something they can identify and fix. They gave me the surgeon's name and the instructions to head on over to the emergency room, where they would be expecting me. Another long car ride. One I know actually takes less than fifteen minutes. By now my time sense was completely suppressed under the haze of pain. I couldn't stop myself from moaning. Logically, I know the wait in the emergency room was quite short. My body wasn't heeding logic at the moment. So this is what ten feels like. Finally, people came it to put in an IV. I was looking forward to it because I knew that had to happen before I would get any relief. Three folks, EMTs from the uniforms. A supervisor, older gentleman. A small woman maybe close to my age, and a large man, quite a bit younger than me. The latter got the honor of trying to hook me up. I warned him that needles and I don't get along. He smiled and told me not to worry about it. By his own admission, he was a sweater, but I actually didn't mind because I could tell he was taking his job very seriously. There was some conversation during the four attempts it took to get the IV in (first two from the man, once by the woman, and the final successful attempt from the man again) and a bit of advise from the supervisor. I don't really remember the details. More waiting. Now I can't writhe around anymore because of the IV in the crook of my elbow. How long was it before they wheeled me down the hall to meet the anesthetist? I didn't know.

There was a nice lady and gentleman with pleasant bedside manners and even more plesant drugs. Then for a while there was nothing at all. A tired haze of pain meds and the grind-whir-click of an IV machine. Catnaps through the night, the usual hospital routine. The doctor visited before sunup the next day. Everything went well. He got the appendix out laproscopically, and didn't see any sign of other problems. Departure instructions and paperwork. Icky jello and broth for breakfast. Nothing on the History Channel but stupid UFO garbage. Parents watching over me, a relative and a pastor calling. More napping.

In the end I was home in just over 24 hours from the time I went to the clinic. It sure felt longer than that. The next couple days passed in the expected haze. Today, I am more or less back to the usual routine, though still reacting slower than normal. I have a bunch of recovery still to do, and I won't be lifting anything for a couple weeks, but the story so far appears to have a happy ending.

And looking back, I guess Monday wasn't all that bad a day after all.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Quote of the Moment

"Look at that! The smoke grenades fit perfectly in the cup holders."
--Jeremy Clarkson, "Top Gear" during the 'what if I'm asked to take part in a beach assault with the Royal Marines' segment of the Ford Fiesta road test.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Good morning! Nice of you guys to drop by.

Die cast Star Wars toy: $8.

Digital camera: $100-150.

Waiting for a decent snow: two years.

A silly grin and a fleeting moment when it simply doesn't matter how old you've gotten or how much work you have to do when you get to the office: priceless.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watched Watchmen

"Quis custodiet ipsos custedos." --Juvenal, Satire 6

Those who know Latin, or recognize famous quotes, might immediately pick up that this is the phrase I suborned for the label of my political posts. It's also the source of the name of one of the most critically acclaimed comic series of all time, "Watchmen." Yesterday, I got a chance to watch the new movie based on the comic series.

It's hard to know where to start with this, so I will just give the overall impression: it's mediocre.

Before I get to the faults, I'd like to mention the good stuff. They nailed the character of Rorschach, the central mover of the stories. Rorschach is a dark, dangerous, paranoid vigilante in the vein of Wolverine, but with the actual psychological burdens such a lifestyle would eventually produce. The actor managed to carry off a performance of contained danger that made him scary in action, and much, much scarier when the mask came off. Nite Owl, the obvious Batman analogue, was also portrayed well, though the performance was undermined by the actor's unfortunate resemblance to Chevy Chase from the Vacation movies. (Why didn't someone notice that and at least change his hair or something?) The actor playing the actual superpowered superhero of the story, Dr. Manhattan, gave an able performance under the CGI as well, but was also undermined by... well, I'll get to it in a moment since it's part of a larger issue for me. The movie also looks outstanding, with an enormous amount of detail in set dressing and staging. Just in the visuals, Watchmen makes The Dark Knight look stark and empty. And finally, the best of the good bits was the ending, which was actually better than the one in the comic, both in its scope and in its fit with the overall dark tone of the story.

With the good acknowledged, I have to run the movie down a bit. Not all of the cast was up to the emotional range and weight of the story. Sometimes it stuck a bit too close to the comic. Panel by panel recreation might be a great way to do fan service, but the inherant visual medium of the comics can lure a naive director into recreating pacing that works in a book but not in a movie. And finally, I get to my big rant: the movie has no visual restraint. The violence makes liberal use of over the top splatter gore. Japanese style horror movies use disjointed shifts in speed to create unease and nausea in a viewer, and that's exactly the effect some of the fight scenes' in-and-out slow motion had on me. The sexual content, with only one exception, added nothing to the story, and in the case of Dr. Manhattan's incongrous lack of modesty, greatly distracted from the actual acting going on. Let's face human nature, the first time you see Michaelangelo's David statue, his facial structure isn't what you see.

The comic was created with a CCA approval in mind, which drastically limited the content that could be depicted. As a result, the violence and sex in the book is implied. Dropping that self imposed restraint for the movie results in something that is so lurid it detracts from the actual content behind the spectacle. Watchmen the comic is a Cold War tale about the realization that our heroes are just people. It's a deconstruction of the superhero comic genre. It's a layered mileau presentation. Watchmen the movie aspires in places to these depths, but always gets pulled back to the turgid presentation of a grindhouse film. Given that one of the main themes of Watchmen was the realistic depiction of the world, it's an opportunity missed.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Solar Progress and Battery Info

For solar power generation to really take off in this country, it must become price competitive with other methods of power generation. The manufacturing cost of silicon-based photovoltaic panels currently sits around $3 per Watt of generation capacity. But silicon panels have a competitor technology in thin film panels which has reached $1 per Watt. Unfortunately, there are concerns that thin film panels will have problems scaling the manufacturing level up enough to meet the kind of large demands that will exist if solar becomes truly price competitive.

As an example of the kinds of potential solar demand, I mention two very different solar projects in California and New Jersey. The larger one will be in California where one of the local utilities will build relatively conventional solar thermal plants eventually totaling over a gigawatt of capacity. New Jersey is taking a more populist approach, with plans to install solar panels on utility poles and municipal structures. They hope doing this will lessen maintenance complications and solve the problem of needing space for the panels in the densely populated state.

Finally, here is a look at some of the potential technologies that will be used in future generations of batteries used in hybrid and all electric cars. A hybrid lead-acid/supercapacitor design solves some of the short term cost problems, at the expense of weight, and lithium ion could solve the cost issue in the long term, if the safety issues can be worked out. I'm still waiting on the all-supercapacitor solution...

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Times They Are a Changin'

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I connected a simple household device to the Internet for it to update itself. I'm torn between thinking it's great that the manufacturers have a method of extending the functionality and life of the machines and that it's horrid that now they can blame me for not keeping up with their software patches if they ship it in shoddy condition.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quote of the Moment

Sometimes even a boring episode of a show that went off the rails two seasons ago can come up with a winner.

"Sometimes lost is where you need to be. Just because you don't know your direction doesn't mean you don't have one."
--the piano player, Battlestar Galactica "Someone to Watch Over Me"

Medical Technology Strives to Remove the Fi from Sci-Fi

My lead item for today will be ongoing work to create a universal flu vaccine. Scientists are targeting their attacks on parts of the flu virus that don't mutate and are shared between various strains. If the method works out, it would give us a huge weapon against the potentially deadly, rapidly mutating virus. Currently, it appears the research is focusing on the more deadly strains of the virus rather than the most common ones, which will come as good news to people paranoid about the bird flu.

Elsewhere, researchers for IBM have created a new type of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) with resolution fine enough to see structure one hundred million times smaller than a conventional MRI scan. Such resolution could allow the direct observation of biological structures in a way we've never been able to do before. Learning the structures of proteins and other chemicals within the body could lead to better treatments, or even individually targeted drugs. The method has the potential to be far superior to electron microscopy, which is limited to the surface of objects and has the slight disadvantage of being destructive to biological materials.

Finally, the technology to allow parents to select certain genetic traits in their babies has been around for a while now, chiefly used to screen for and prevent a variety of genetic diseases. But now, one company is stepping into the realm of the purely cosmetic, allowing couples to choose eye, hair, and skin color for their babies. The choices are limited to what the DNA of the parents provide, but within those parameters, anything is possible. For a price.

If this was a post on Slashdot, someone would be required to respond: I for one welcome our new flu-immune, customized-drug-using, genetically-engineered overlords.