Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The last day of September

What's your favorite time of year? I think this is mine. Halloween and Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas are all before us. Just as I started wanting summer to end, it suddenly cooled off a little and now I can feel that fall is here (it helps that our yard is covered in maple leaves.)

I mean, my real favorite season is winter and my favorite time of year in Christmas, but that all seems so otherworldly somehow, hard to imagine when it's not here, and it goes by in no time, or I'm too distracted to take it all in when it's here. So right now, at the end of September, with three whole months to anticipate-- this is my favorite time.

Missal and breviary art, old and new

My 1962 Missal has lots of intricate black and white illustrations in it. Here's an example.

This happens to be my favorite picture, the one heading the section on Confession. Here's a closer look:

All right, I can't post this picture without at least a fast explanation of its symbolism, so skip this paragraph if it bores you. :) At the top: "Pœnitentia", which I imagine is the Latin for "penance" or "confession". The border is a broken chain because by confession the sinner is set free from sin. On the left is a background of spiky thistles, most uncomfortable, and a little lost lamb looking even more uncomfortable, wrapped up in thorns under a stormy sky. He's trapped in sin, poor guy. Beneath him are the words "Salva nos Domine" ("Dne" is an abbreviation), which means "Save us, Lord"-- he turns trustingly to God for help. In the middle the background is pansies, which normally are purple, the color of penance. The crossed keys are the symbol of the popes and the power given to Peter, "I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; what you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven; what you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven," and later to all the apostles and their successors, "If you forgive men's sins they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." The drops are probably the Blood of Christ washing away sins. The anchor I'm not certain about, but I'm guessing it stands for the ship that is itself a metaphor for the Church. St. Paul took Noah's Ark to be a prefigurement of the Church: those on board were saved. Confession brings those in mortal sin back on board, while those with less serious sin repair their communion with the rest of the Church. Then on the right is a background of white lilies for restored innocence and purity, and a lamb set free in green pastures besides quiet waters. Beneath him are the words "Vade in pace"-- go in peace, the words the priest usually ends with.

All that long paragraph of symbolism is suggested wordlessly by the picture. I like art that's packed with meaning, especially if it also works on a simple level, like "Yaaay, the lamb is happy now!" If you weren't in the mood to pray all the long prayers in this section while preparing for confession, you could just meditate on that picture.

So anyway, that was 1962. Right after that came the Second Vatican Council, and after that there were lots of liturgical reforms and artistic changes in the Church. These had been pretty well implemented by 1975 when our current breviary came out. So what sort of illustration is to be found in the new breviary? Here's an example:

Quick, guess! What is that pale red spiky shape on the left?

Any clue?

Take a closer look:

Yes, it's a bunch of triangles with circles balanced on top! The deep symbolic mysticism overwhelms me, as does my own sarcasm!

All right, it's the Last Supper... but really... You know, some of the artistic reforms that happened back then, I think were good. I can't say I'm sorry the flying nun headdresses got simplified, for example. But some other things that happened were really, really dumb, and abstract art in the breviaries is one of them. What the heck was the thought process behind the triangle people, anyway? Were they trying to return to the aesthetics of the simple early Church? Because even the persecuted Christians hiding out in the catacombs managed better art than that. Were they going for the caveman look? Please do not insult the caveman artistes of France. Has there ever been a culture, no matter how primitive, that didn't respect its religion enough to come up with more suitable artistic expression for it than this risible bit of 1970's pretension that's been foisted on us Catholics who deserve better?

I'd type more but the doc says I've got to take my meds now. :)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What I see in the microscope

Here's something I do a lot of at work: injecting sea urchin eggs. Someone in the lab set up a video camera through the microscope to take this video of injections. You can see some eggs in sea water that have been stuck to the petri dish in a neat row. The eggs are about forty microns across, just barely large enough to see them with the naked eye as tiny specks in the plate. When an egg is fertilized with a sperm, it very quickly (within one minute) raises a membrane that prevents any other sperm from getting near. (A human egg doesn't do that, but it has other mechanisms to ensure that it's fertilized by only one sperm.) You can see in the video that all these eggs are fertilized except one at the very top of the frame. In about an hour and a half the fertilized eggs will all divide into two cells, and then there'll be no stopping them. In twenty-four hours they'll be cute little embryos, hatched from their membranes and swimming around the dish.

But first the little suckers get injected! In this video a microscopic needle lowers into focus. The person doing in the injecting has various fine controls that move the needle around. He rests the needle against an egg and then hits a foot pedal that forces a tiny amount of air into the needle, forcing an equally tiny amount of injection solution into the egg. You can see the light gray puff inside the egg where dense egg cytoplasm is suddenly displaced by less dense injection solution. There's no sound in the video, but in real life each injection makes a satisfying click-whoosh sound, and the whole thing is vaguely like playing a video game. I enjoy it. :)

What do we inject? Lots of stuff, but the most popular is a big piece of DNA called a BAC. The BAC usually contains a sea urchin gene of interest, and it also contains a gene from a jellyfish for green fluorescent protein (GFP). If all goes well, the injected DNA will use the sea urchin egg's cellular machinery to make a hybrid protein-- the protein from the gene of interest, and GFP that glows green under UV light. Then when the embryo's developed a bit, I can slap it on a microscope slide, turn off the lights in the room, shine a UV light through the slide, and see where the embryo is glowing. That tells me where the gene of interest is expressed.

That's the simplest experiment; there are also more complicated ways to use injections, but this post is plenty long already. Here's the video. :)

Monday, September 28, 2009

My first layer cake

Here's what I made yesterday and enjoyed with a friend:

I used a box of Trader Joe's vanilla bean cake mix, which is plenty good without frosting, but even better with. :) For the first time in my life I attempted a layer cake, and I think it came out pretty well. I had to level off the rounded top of each layer to stack them neatly, but that's normal.

Here it is cut open. Mmmmm.... :) I think I might have liked it even better with vanilla buttercream frosting, but you can't really go wrong with chocolate....

Of course it was the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul yesterday, or it would have been if Sunday hadn't superseded it, so Christie and I watched a very good French movie from the 1940's, Monsieur Vincent. I think that qualifies the cake for my Catholic desserts category, don't you? If you say no you'll be banned from my blog latae sententiae.

Now that I'm a layer cake expert, I could make this if I wanted to. I just don't feel like it. :)

Don't let the New York Times near the schools...

Some time ago the New York Times had a story called Gut Instinct's Surprising Role in Math, which contains this paragraph. See if anything seems wrong with this reasoning:

One research team has found that how readily people rally their approximate number sense is linked over time to success in even the most advanced and abstruse mathematics courses. Other scientists have shown that preschool children are remarkably good at approximating the impact of adding to or subtracting from large groups of items but are poor at translating the approximate into the specific. Taken together, the new research suggests that math teachers might do well to emphasize the power of the ballpark figure, to focus less on arithmetic precision and more on general reckoning.

Preschool children aren't very good at specific math, so... teachers should teach it less! That's the conclusion the reporter is drawing. Focus on what the kids already know and don't try so much to teach them anything new. Great idea. It's been tried with reading: a few decades ago they said phonics was boring and hard and they got teachers to stop working on it, with disastrous results for the poor illiterate kids who failed to learn reading effortlessly by osmosis as expected.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Picture quiz

What's this?

If you guessed a shoe, you're correct!

I'm not impressed till someone manages to walk around in it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ugly monastery

Seriously? A monastery that's going for the gulag look?

It's the Benedictine Monastery of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Clear Creek, Oklahoma. I've heard very good things about it, actually. They have the TLM and good chanting and they let visitors come and make retreats there. But they also have an unheated chapel even in subzero weather, or so I gather from the pictures of frost outside and laypeople within all wrapped in down coats and scarves. The chapel also features walls of cinderblock and cement.

You know, that is such a typical man thing-- a plain bare chapel that looks like it was built by hand by the monks themselves. I've seen other examples, particularly with Benedictine men, but this is the most extreme. I certainly don't mean to impugn the holiness of the monks concerned; quite the opposite. I'm just laughing at how aggressively un-feminine it is!

We need to detox now with something pretty. This will do.

It's a shiny white marble chapel of cloistered Dominicans. I took this picture from the public side, and you can just see a few of the sixteen nuns on the cloister side. This was during Mass, which was ad orientem from our perspective, and in this shot the priest is preaching to them.

My former roommate is a postulant with them now. :)

Update! Okay, so Rick tells me the gulag looks that way because it's actually under construction. Thank goodness and my apologies to the monks. :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Men, women, and VCRs

I'd like to see the original study, but I can't find it online. It's mentioned all over the place, for example here and here:

In a Yale University study, 68% of men asked to program a VCR using written instructions were successful, compared to just 16% of women.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I guess this settles it

Discernment on the go

It's a great blessing to make an eight-day Ignatian retreat, to be silent for a whole week and devote oneself to prayer and listening to God. But occasionally I find myself wanting to know God's will for a decision that I have to make really quickly. For that, as the priests at our parish have told us, St. Ignatius recommended asking oneself three questions:

1. When I'm on my deathbed, what will I wish I had done?
2. At the last judgment when all my deeds are called to account, what will I wish I had done?
3. Suppose a good friend is in exactly the same situation and comes to me for advice. What would I advise him to do?

Yesterday that came in handy. I had the day off (don't hate), and I had lots of stuff I wanted to do at home. The work had piled up because of my own procrastination, and I was anxious to get to it. But then my parents invited me to the beach (T-street Beach in San Clemente, pictured above). I hadn't been the beach in a long time and I knew this might well be the last warm weekend this year. I considered it and couldn't decide which was the better choice. Fortunately I then thought of the three questions.

1) What will I wish I'd done on my deathbed?

I'll wish I'd gone to the beach, no question. The beach I'll remember; the work I won't. Losing one day of work is frustrating now but it'll mean nothing then. And must I go another year with no beach?

2) And at the Last Judgment?

Well... I tried to figure out which was the right thing, and God will be my witness that I was slightly more inclined to stay home and get some work done because it was stressing me out. But it was a good chance for quality time with my parents, and I knew my mom wanted me to go. Not to get melodramatic, but we're none of us getting any younger...

3) And what would I advise a friend?

"You always have stuff that you need to get done. Are you going to avoid hanging out with friends and family any time there are chores you could do instead? Sometimes you have to put the work off. Go to the beach!"

So I put the work out of my mind and went to the beach. :) The water was so warm; even at 6 pm with an overcast sky I wasn't cold. In fact there were more people in the water as we left than there had been when we arrived at 2 pm. That was due to the after-school crowd, I think. As we climbed up the cliff to our car we passed lots of young guys trooping down the stairs to the beach with their surfboards.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unintentionally amusing intercessions

Folks, you won't miss my updates once you've seen Brother Charles' blog. He's a Franciscan priest who's had quite a run of interesting posts, but the one that pushed me over the edge into linking to him was yesterday's about intercessions.

Explanation for non-Catholics: sometimes at Mass there are intercessions, in which someone reads off a bunch of prayer requests and the congregation responds to each one. It goes something like this:

Lector: For our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and for our bishops, that God might help them in guiding his Holy Church, we pray to the Lord.

Congregation: Lord, hear our prayer.

Lector: That the nations of the world may have the courage to work together for peace, justice and reconciliation, we pray to the Lord.

Congregation: Lord, hear our prayer.

And so on. Now go read Brother Charles' post. :)

Off topic, Linda and anyone else who wants to read a cute owl story should click here. I'd happily loan the book, but I borrowed it myself from someone else.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The adventures of my Protestant namesake

Folks, I recommend the reading of my friend Rachel's blog post, particularly that second story. It's not just because I'm in it, though really, isn't that reason enough? :)

The Dream of the Rood

Fr. Longenecker is celebrating today's feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross by blogging about one of the oldest poems in the English language: The Dream of the Rood, from the 600's. "Rood" is an old word for "Cross". I've never read that poem. Today would be a good day.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is it bad...

...that I'm considering buying this some day?

Look, it's my favorite and it doesn't come in smaller sizes, all right?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My favorite basketball player enters the Hall of Fame

David Robinson, of course! He's the reason I became a Spurs fan. SUCH a thrill to see him win in his last year, 2003. His last moment of pro basketball was walking off the floor a champion with streamers flying and the home fans screaming as his team won another title.

I like the moments starting at 1:50 when he addresses each of his sons, at 2:40 when he talks to his wife and says "You make me want to be a better man," at 4:05 when he thanks his teammate Tim Duncan, at 5:34 when you think he's gonna stay classy, and at 6:45 when he tells the story of the ten lepers who were healed and the one who came back to thank Jesus.

What's great about him is you don't get the feeling he longs for his playing days again. He's got his family, his church (he's an assistant pastor there), and the school he built for poor kids-- plenty of important stuff for him to do.

In which I critique a stranger's future goals

Over at, you can see public but anonymous letters to the future. Here's an excerpt from one:

Dear FutureMe, How is life going? I hope you are happy in your life and things are going as you wish. The following is a list of future achievements that i hope you have achieved by now

1. Salary = approx $100,000/year (Job in computer area, network administration?)
2. Beautiful New Black BMW
3. Nice house. Possibly on a lake.
4. Beautiful Wife or Girlfriend.
5. Spiritual Ascension. Hopefully this was achieved by 2012-2013.

Thats justs a list of what i hope my future is, has become.

I note that in the Christian understanding, his pursuit of the first four goals could be a hindrance to the fifth. And the fifth goal is far more precious and difficult than his plan to have it all achieved and done with in four years would indicate. But perhaps by "spiritual ascension" he means something specific, technical, and far removed from what it would mean to me.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Saint quiz

Took this picture at a church in San Francisco that has awesome mosaics and statues. Who is this altar dedicated to?

No cheating, now. :)

Happy birthday, Blessed Mother!

Today's we're celebrating the birthday of the Virgin Mary. Usually a saint's feast is the day of his death, since that's the day he was born into Heaven, but there are three people who were so important in salvation history that their deaths and their births are on the Church calendar: John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and... I'll let you guess the other one. Think really hard. :)

Here's a sweet video of a whole bunch of people at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, singing Las Mañanitas, the Mexican version of "Happy Birthday", to the Blessed Mother. This was taken just a few months after I visited the place a couple of years ago. What a wonderful trip that was.

Hey... Wait a minute... The priests have THEIR BACKS TO THE PEOPLE! That's SO insulting and backwards and patriarchal and outdated! They're lording it over the laity and distancing them from the service and not allowing them to actively participate! It's much, much too difficult for the people to understand that the priests are only standing that way so they can face the image of the Virgin Mary and sing to her together with the congregation. No, those priests need to turn around right now!

(Just some snark from a TLM-lover. Pay me no mind.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

What you get if you Google me

Looks like a scintillating read! Check it out here at Google books, then get back to me and tell me what the heck the story's about. This Julie Kavanagh piques my interest with her subtitle.

Update! Vincenzo has kindly provided a more interesting cover for this work, right here. :)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Do you want a free recording of the New Testament?

Then go here before September's over. :)

"The sole cause of man's unhappiness..."

I'm reading The Discernment of Spirits by Timothy Gallagher, OMV, for a class we're having at church. So far it's good and we have a good teacher for the class, too. The book is about the first fourteen rules of spiritual discernment that St. Ignatius wrote in the 1500's. (My church is the place to learn Ignatian spirituality. Don't be frightened by our sinister website.)

What caught my eye just now over morning tea and jellybeans was this part in the book, explaining that the first step of spiritual discernment is just to be aware of what's going on inside:

Much is also said of the impact of contemporary culture in diminishing interior awareness.... Electronic means of filling the quiet spaces continue to multiply.... A secularized worldview questions faith and the reality itself of an interior spiritual life.... While these contemporary factors undeniably increase the difficulty of reaching interior awareness, they themselves are nonetheless expressions and consequences of a deeper resistance to living "within," a resistance that lies at the heart of the entire struggle itself. Blaise Pascal [1623-1662] powerfully explores this deepest resistance in his striking description of diversion, wherein we find his classic affirmation: "I have often said that the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." Diversion, as Pascal explains it, is essentially a flight from our own limitedness.

Boy, do I know what he means. I've wasted years simply being diverted, and I now think that kind of thing-- lots of daydreaming, lots of TV, lack of prayer, lots of useless hobbies, lots of internet (*cough*)-- is much more destructive than suspected because it eats away life. A priest told me, "We want to stay in reality because that's where God is." Pascal didn't mean we need to reject human striving and do nothing. He meant we need to reject useless distractions and fantasies and face ourselves as we are.

You know, just the ads I see over the freeway when I drive to church illustrate that ours is not a society conducive to facing ourselves as we are.

If I were a billionaire, it'd be fun to buy every inch of billboard space and fill it with stuff like Pascal's quote. :)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Beer in the cold room

First you must know that the cold room is a room in the lab that's kept at the temperature of a refrigerator, useful for working with whatever can't be allowed to warm to room temp. It's also useful for storing things, which is why at any given time it's usually home to:
  • Hazardous chemicals
  • Agar plates featuring growths of both bacteria and mold
  • Radioactive isotopes
You must also know that I'm the safety officer of my lab, which means I'm the scapegoat for any safety violations that occur.

There was an especially fun example some years ago when I was conducting a representative of the Safety Office through the lab on an inspection. I'd checked everything before the inspection began, but when we got to the cold room we found a case of Sam Adams beer chilling on the floor. I was rendered speechless. The Safety rep didn't seem to know what to say either.

Who, who in their right minds would put their beer in the cold room when there's room in the coffee room fridge? I sent out an email to the whole lab informing them of what they should already have known: human food and lab hazards should be kept separate.

Well, it's happened again. This week a rep from Safety informed me that he'd found beer in the cold room. Corona this time.

So I sent out another email. "Beer in the cold room" I titled it, and in the email I admonished the unknown violator to remove his refreshments.

Now it comes to my attention that quite a few co-workers read my subject line and perked up. They thought it meant I was providing free beer for the lab!

I feel like such a wet blanket. :)

Letter from the past, part II

Two posts down I mentioned a woman who was helped by advice she'd written herself when she was much younger. Normally we get wiser as we get older, so why was the reverse true in her case?

I'm thinking that perhaps when she was in her twenties she found herself subject to temptation she hadn't faced before. She decided as a teenager to follow certain principles, and they seemed very straightforward and sensible at the time, but years later when she had both the opportunity and the desire to abandon those principles, it all seemed much murkier. She needed to return to the clear-headed un-tempted state of mind that was captured in her letter to herself.

It reminds me of a major idea in Ignatian spirituality, that you cannot discern God's true will when at the same time you're desperately trying to make it match your own.

Or, as Jane Eyre has it:

"I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad--as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth--so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane--quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart is beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot."