Tuesday, July 29, 2014

(Re)Read "Dune" with the SciFri Book Club!

Science Friday's book club revived on July 25 with a group read of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic, "Dune." If you've never read it, this would a great time. If you've read it before, it's as good a time as any for a reread. If you've read it enough times to have it pretty well memorized...well, you can follow along the discussion with or without a current reread.

My copy has a copyright date of 1965 and a printed price of $2.95. I'm one of those who has read it numerous times, and am still thinking about reading it again soon. Read or ignore the other books in the Dune series (sadly, things deteriorate with each successive volume); watch or ignore the film version; but "Dune" itself will always be a classic.

The link above to the SciFri Book Club Reads page has the podcast from the introductory discussion of the book with author Kim Stanley Robinson and astrobiologist Sara Imari Walker. There is also discussion of the book in the comments on that page, as well as links to a selection of SciFri Book Club tweets.

The discussion was a fascinating consideration of the book in the context of the time it was written, as well how it fits with current understanding of ecology and exoplanets. I always enjoyed it for the characters and culture Herbert created, as well as for the adventurous plot. Now, as drought and water conservation have increasingly become both local and global geopolitical issues, the book looks more relevant -- more prescient -- than ever.

There's plenty of time to catch up before this Friday's broadcast (August 1) and participate through Twitter or email (@scifri, hashtag #SciFriBookClub or bookclub@sciencefriday.com)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Natural Rider: A Right-Brained Approach to Riding," by Mary Wanless

I remember exactly where I was when I found my copy of "The Natural Rider" – Powell's bookstore in Portland Oregon. I'm less clear on exactly when, but I'm thinking it must have been 1996 or 1997 when we drove up to Portland to visit my brother. Among the favorite places he selected to show us, Powell's was high on the list.  It was, and still is, a destination worthy of a trip to Portland on its own.

We hadn't intended to be there for hours, which was stupid, because no one entering that idyllic zork-maze of books, shelves, and alcoves could possibly keep track of time. I'm not sure how they manage to clear the place at closing. Perhaps they can't. It's not hard to imagine living there – sneaking out occasionally for a shot of expresso and a breath of fresh air, then diving back in again to explore yet another subject area and page through just one more volume.

Among other subjects, I always find myself drawn to the shelves housing books on animals – whether wildlife or pets. At the time I had recently started riding lessons, so I was particularly interested in books that might help me improve at my new activity.

I had imagined horseback riding was something I could learn to do in a few months, and so be ready to take pack trips in to the Sierra with my family (which seemed easier than carting the gear on my own back!). My oldest son (aged six at the time) was interested in riding too, so I pictured it as something we could do together. Well, he broke his leg that year, and to make a long story shorter, I started my adventure with horses on my own. While I loved the contact with these amazing animals, as well as the challenge of learning a new skill, riding turned out to be far more difficult than I'd anticipated.

Like many adult beginning riders, I had issues with fear. It's a long way down, and horses can be unpredictable. While riding does have its dangers, dwelling on them is not helpful. At all. Tension in the rider can make the horse respond with echoed unease, which is not taking things in the right direction – as nervous horses tend to spook and run. So, looking to books for some help was the most natural thing in the world.

At the time, I had never heard of Mary Wanless, but I liked the diagrams in the book as well as the use of mental imagery and visualization. I'd experienced such techniques over many years of dance training, and found them helpful. Sometimes too literal of instruction gets stuck in intellectual analysis, and never makes it to the musculoskeletal system. In other words, sometimes apparently fanciful imagery can get us out of our own way.

Turns out that Mary Wanless is quite a well-known master riding instructor in the UK, as well as in Australia and the US. So, clearly I'm not the only one to find her approach helpful. That first reading of "The Natural Rider" did leave me a little panicked with the realization of how much of it went right over my head. I was way more ignorant than I'd known. There were a few key points, however, that I was able to put to work right away:
  •  Our automatic physical reaction to fear is to curl forward into the fetal position. This is about the worst thing you can do when things go wrong on a horse. It takes a lot of work to relax instead, but it's probably the most important aspect to work through.
  • It's okay to not be innately talented or find riding easy. You can progress a long way by improving your skills. Gaining those skills will make you more confident in every aspect of life, not just interacting with horses.
  • It's really not about you; it's about the horse. Your job is to use your body as a positive influence on your horse's way of going.

It's been almost 20 years since I bought this book, and I've had a horse of my own for the past nine of those years. These days we are both arthritic enough so that our rides are more like mutual physical therapy sessions than an athletic event. But we're still together, and both still benefit from the exercise and paying attention to good form.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"The Artist's Way" and "The Right to Write," by Julia Cameron

Don't be put off by the subtitle of the first book – it has quite a lot to offer even those of us who aren't "blocked," who don't have toxic people in our lives keeping us from writing, or who lean towards a more pragmatic way of thinking. Just ignore any of the tips that don't speak to you. Personally, I'm just prone to procrastination and can always benefit from some help developing and keeping good habits.

Each chapter in "The Artist's Way" is based on a lesson from the author's class, including suggested exercises at the end. You could go through it with a group or a friend, or just on your own (like I did).

The basic tools on offer are simple, and very powerful: "the morning pages," and the "artist's date."

The artist's date is intended to be a weekly habit of taking yourself out somewhere – away from the behavioral routine ruts we all tend to get into. Break away from autopilot and experience the moment. I can't pretend to be particularly organized or consistent in the practice, but the concept does help me remain more mindful when I'm out enjoying the outdoors with my dog or horse.

The morning pages, on the other hand, are absolutely a revelation. The idea is that first thing every morning -- before you get too involved in your daily routine to sit down and do it – you write out three pages (single side), longhand. It's pure stream of consciousness, just scribbling out anything that pops into your head.   

I don't always have/make time to get to my morning pages; sometimes months go by. But when I do make it part of my routine I find it does more than just kick start my writing. It's like a form of meditation that lets me start my day organized; having dumped whatever nonsense was spinning my brain in circles and stressing me. It makes me more productive at work and more likely to get personal tasks done too.

Ideally, what I like to do is start by reading a chapter in a writing book to use as kind of a prompt to fill three pages in my journal. The first thing I write is often a to do list, which gets that off my chest, then gradually my hand moving across the page starts problem solving. As if the hand directs the brain to give it something useful to do. Could be a scientific issue I'm dealing with at work, or a plot point for a story where I've just been stuck.
Apart from its other virtues, writing the morning pages helps establish the habit of writing every day, or at least most days. You really can't wait for the mood to hit. Every author I've ever read on the subject of writing is clear about that. The magic comes from the hand on the pen on the page and the brain rising to the occasion.

It doesn't matter that none of what I write is legible, not even by me – it's all in my head. I've always found writing was the best way for me to learn, and apparently even psychologists have documented the phenomenon:
Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks: research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
It makes sense that there is a direct connection between hand-eye-brain – a connection that is, in turn, intimately entwined with our human capacity for written language.

In "The Right to Write," Julia Cameron introduces another tool of great assistance to would-be creatives, "The Narrative Timeline." This is an autobiographical account, written out long hand, and sticking to the facts – without filling in emotions or fleshing out details. Of course the process invariable does lead to what she calls "cups," or inspirations that provide endless material for expansion into creative projects – whether memoir writing or purely fictional.

I can't say I've been particularly well organized about producing a proper "Narrative Timeline," but to some extent it was my inspiration for reviving this blog. It gave me a good excuse to go back through my old books and reflect on what reading and re-reading them has meant to me over time.   


Monday, July 14, 2014

"The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics was Reborn," by Louisa Guilder

"The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics was Reborn," by Louisa Guilder tells the story of the fascinating and critical debate in theoretical physics that took place in pre-WWII Europe. While it's helpful to have a basic layman's understanding of the physics, the book is a history of the science and the scientists. In other words, it's a good read even for the math phobic!

The “EPR paper” (Einstein, Poldosky, and Rosen) was published in 1935, in the journal, “Physical Review.”  The title of the paper was “Can quantum mechanic description of physical reality be considered complete?”  The paper was a critique of the "Copenhagen Interpretation" supported by Bohr, Heisenberg, and Pauli. The new paper answered the title question with a firm "No," and derided the implications as "spooky action at a distance."

In the years leading up to this debate, Niels Bohr had founded the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen in 1920.  He talked about “complementarity” – that is, he maintained that the complementarity of waves and particles, or position and momentum, meant that when one existed fully, its compliment did not exist at all.  He described waves and particles as abstractions observable only by means of their interactions with systems such as measuring apparatuses. In other words, both waves and particles exist in a complimentary way; what we observe depends on what we look for and how we look for it.

I ran across a link to this helpful little video on NPR today. It gives a short graphical presentation on the concept of wave/particle duality:

Schrodinger coined the term “entanglement” in 1935 to describe what he and Einstein saw as a paradox in quantum theory.  A rigorous application of the laws of quantum mechanics would lead to the conclusion that measuring one particle would affect the state of the other particle – however great the distance between them (the "spooky" part).

In the winter of 1926-27 Heisenberg worked out the "Uncertainty Principle."  The uncertainty in the exact momentum of a particle times the uncertainty in the exact position of the particle must be greater than or equal to Planck’s constant (later refined to Planck’s constant divided by 4 Pi).  

In the early 1930s, an alcoholic and depressed Wolfgang Pauli sought treatment with famous psychiatrist, Karl Jung.  Jung theorized a “universal unconscious" full of “archetypes” which uncannily echoed quantum theory.

Jung, in turn, had been “seduced” by the work of a botanist at Duke University, J.B. Rhine on Extra-sensory Perception or ESP (a term coined by Rhine). In 1934, Rhine completed his experiments with “ESP cards” – one student looking at the cards, turning over a deck of 25, one card at a time, while another student across campus tried to guess which symbol was on each card.  Rhine declared that the results were statistically significant, being correct 10% more often that would be predicted by chance alone.

Jung believed that:
“these experiments prove that the psyche at times functions outside of the spatio-temporal law of causality….This indicates that our conceptions of space and time, and therefore causality also, are incomplete.”

Pauli and Jung continued to correspond on the subject of a complementarity between causality and "synchronicity" (significant coincidences).  Pauli came to see physics as a one-dimensional section of a two-dimensional, more meaningful world, the second dimension of which could only be the unconscious and the archetypes.


On a related note, if you ever get a chance to see the play, "Copenhagen," a version of what might have taken place during a fateful meeting between Bohr and Heisenburg in 1941, take it. Two of the greatest minds of their age in physics, at a pivotal time in history…unable to escape the politics of the world around them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dan Brown's "Robert Langdon" Novels as Travel Guides

 I resisted reading "The DaVinci Code" for a long time. I'm generally not a big consumer of bestsellers and nothing I heard or read about it tempted me. I was even resistant to seeing the movie, though I eventually caved thanks to Tom Hanks and Paris locations. Beyond the actors and locations, I enjoyed the attention to small symbolic details of artworks and architecture – still wasn't tempted by the book though.

When the film version of "Angels and Demons" came out I was much more enthusiastic about seeing it. CERN, Rome, the Vatican, and of course Tom Hanks conspired to keep me interested. I watched the movie a second time while in the process of planning a trip to Rome, and added "Angels and Demons" to my pre-travel reading list.

Of course there is plenty to see and do in Rome without the aid of a fanciful novel, but it was fun to seek out some of the locations. Without the book I'm not sure I would have paid as much attention to details such as the four winds bas reliefs inserted in the pavement surrounding the obelisk in the center of Vatican Square. We might not have bothered hunting down the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria to see Bernini's remarkable statue of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. And I probably wouldn't have made a point to take a photo of Rafael's tomb in the Pantheon, or to visit the church of Santa Maria del Popolo and seek out the Chigi Chapel.

West wind, Vatican Square
The ecstasy of St. Teresa, Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria, Rome

Rafael's tomb, Pantheon, Rome

So last year when we were planning a trip to Paris, I finally picked up a copy of "The DaVinci Code." Happenstance put us in an apartment only half a block away from the church of St. Sulpice. St. Sulpice is the home of the "gnomon" or obelisk and the rose line, used in the book as a false clue to trick the albino. 
St. Sulpice, Paris
The actual purpose of the gnomen was celestial calculations: a hole high in the opposite wall is placed to direct a sunbeam to a mark on the obelisk indicating the winter solstice. It would be a fascinating object without the book and film, but I'm not sure it would feature as prominently in guidebooks to Paris as it currently does.

With these successes to look back on, I snapped up the audio version of the latest book in the series, "Inferno." Personally, I think it's the least successful of the three books, but a film and a trip might change my mind. I have not visited Florence or Venice in many decades, and I've never been to Istanbul. I definitely plan to return to Italy someday, and now Hagia Sofia and other sites of Turkey are firmly on my radar. When I'm ready to start serious planning and looking for a motivational read, I expect I'll give "Inferno" another look.


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove; and Other Stories," by Karen Russell

I had high hopes for this short story collection by Karen Russell. While I haven't read any of her previous books, I had heard a couple of interviews with her that made me think it was something I would like. In fact I started it thinking it would be a candidate for my personal favorite book of the year – and some of the stories are definitely on my short list.

I have a fondness for the surreal, and for works that slide between genres and don't pin down easily. Some of the stories – like the title work, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" -- verge on horror, but to my mind aren't quite. Despite having a pair of aging, abstinent vampires as the main characters, generating dread in the reader is not the point. More like exploring the ennui and unrest of their unlives.

My favorite stories among the collection have many layers that go much deeper than the superficial fanciful initial impression. Others, while amusing enough, didn't reach beyond the whimsical and clever surface – at least for me. For my money, the two most successful stories in the bunch are "Reeling for the Empire" and "The New Veterans."

In "Reeling," young female factory workers, having been tricked into signing contracts for advance payments to their families, find themselves transformed into human silkworms. The story is more than an allegory for the forced labor that disgracefully continues all over the world. The main character has a fairly good idea of what she is getting herself into, but chooses it anyway as the only option within her means for helping her loved ones. She doesn't embrace her fate, but she does accept responsibility for her decision. Rather than giving up or surviving on futile dreams of returning to a past existence that has become unobtainable, she determines to take control of her life as it is. It's a story that will make you think about the crossroads in your own life, and consider your responses to the outcomes of choices that cannot be undone.

"Veterans" follows the relationship between a massage therapist and a special patient: a returning vet struggling with loss, guilt, and the trauma of PTSD. Her healing hands alter the images tattooed on the young man's back, in turn altering his memories. At first it all seems like a good idea – he's happy for the first time in ages. But his experiences cannot be truly erased, nor can unpleasant events in the therapist's own past that persist in chasing her down. In the end, this story is about surviving traumatic events of many kinds – and finding a way to live with them. All memory is mutable, but truth is truth and will not be forgotten.

So many fun stories – what kind of mind writes about dead presidents resurrected as horses on farm? In addition: two stories that will stay with me for some time to come. No complaints from me, and I will definitely be looking for Karen Russell's other works.