2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 16,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 4 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.


the doomed Hummingbird

I’m on chapter 3 of Midnight’s Children, “Hit-the-Spittoon.” This is a good chapter to discuss why I read this novel so much more slowly than I’d like.

  • cultural references and language – at the end of paragraph one, the narrator says that “I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious, dust” (36). The number can’t be random, can it? And I wonder what the population of India is at the time this narrator speaks because the introduction tells me the narrator and India are twin characters. On page 37, the narrator tells us that he makes chutneys and pickles condiments. He addresses the reader: “But now, ‘A cook?’ you gasp in horror, ‘A khansama merely? How is it possible?'” And although Rushdie gives us the translation of khansama as “cook,” I still want to look it up. Why does he use Hindi words some times and not at other times? This passage is also a bit surrealist — a writer-pickler? And here comes the literariness: “…I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks” (37).
  • surrealism – in the example above, the narrator has just asked us to accept that he is disintegrating. The surrealism throws me off a bit. Not sure why it’s inserted when it is. I suppose I keep reading with the expectation of a more traditional novel, especially since Rushdie has cited Austen and Dickens in his introduction. Here’s another example: “…And certainly Padma is leaking into me. As history pours out of my fissured body, my lotus is quietly dripping in…” (37). This is an example of surrealism and literariness combined because the narrator asks us to accept that his body is disintegrating (surrealism) while he gives us the beautiful image of history leaking out of him and the influence of Padma, whose character is not too clear.
  • new words – Rushdie loves to play with language, but his neologisms always make me stop and wonder. Example from page 38: “what-happened-nextism” and from pages 37-38: “down to earth earthery.” I like the playfulness, the newness, and the craft, but all of these things compel me to slow down so I can admire and ponder.
  • uncertainty – for instance, who is Padma? She is a lover, a servant, a wife? Still unclear.
  • chronological jumpiness — shouldn’t be a problem in a novel, but I get a bit lost with the long digressions. So, for instance, on page 37, I read, “–so it’s appropriate that I’m about to tell the story of the death of Mian Abdullah. The doomed Hummingbird: a legend of our times.” But we don’t get to the story for another page and half, and the intervening paragraphs seem disconnected. The paragraph after the one that ends with the promise of Mian Abdullah’s story discusses the narrator’s impotence. Hunh? Yes, it’s done in a very clever and funny way. But I’m still left with disconnection and wondering about Mian Abdullah.

So now I’ve located and even categorized some of the reasons I’m frustrated in this first reading. Not sure if I’ve applied any of the strategies in Tovani’s book.

purposeful thinking while reading

I’m reading Cris Tovani’s Do I Really Have to Teach Reading and wondering how to apply it to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a novel I’m also reading. I’ve taught two of Rushdie’s short stories — “The Courter” and “Chekhov and Zulu.” I like Rushdie’s short stories. But I have yet to get through one novel. I’m reading Midnight’s Children because one of my sisters has just picked it up, and we’ve decided to have a book discussion club of two.

It’s slow reading. Why? I know some of the context. For instance, when the narrator gets to Amritsar in 1919, I know we’ll hear about the Amritsar massacre. But even as I read the fictional rendering, my finger is itching to hit Google and find out more. I resist. I need to keep reading. I haven’t even read forty pages yet, and I tend to read novels fast.

What slows me down? The thickness of the prose. That’s about the only way to put it. Rushdie nods to Austen and Dickens in his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Midnight’s Children, and his writing feels more like a combination of 19th century tomes and myth. Thick narrative. Rushdie has written elsewhere about the central importance of A Thousand and One Nights, and the narrator in this novel compares himself to Sheherazade. I’m still not sure what slows me down. And I’m not sure what strategies I’ll be able to employ from Tovani’s book, but I like that I have a text I’m resisting. I can experiment.

I like the start of Tovani’s book — she hooks us with her stories, and we’re with her on the plane as she’s off to lead a workshop, as she wonders how to make a science textbook on viruses relevant even as that reading bores her, as she encounters a bored and rude student.

A few things struck me. This point: “One critical concept embraced by both researchers and literacy specialists is that learning to read doesn’t end in the elementary grades” (5). Seems obvious, eh? But the quote got me thinking that much of what I do is teaching students how to read — in 101, 102, all the 200-level literature classes. I also like the last section of the introduction: No Easy Answers. I like that Tovani acknowledges the complexities and difficulties. Here’s the last sentence of this chapter: “Meaning arrives because we are purposefully engaged in thinking while we read.” I think this is what I need as I read Rushdie’s novel. And it’s the most difficult thing to teach my students, no matter if they’re reading a 17th-century poem by Anne Bradstreet or their peer’s first draft of an argumentative essay. Getting readers to trust their own minds is perhaps my biggest challenge. It’s OK to say, “I don’t understand this,” or “This passage is written in a really confusing way,” or “I really like the way you end your paper.” Getting students to acknowledge that their ideas count, that the most important place for them to start is precisely with their own ideas, their own confusion, their own pleasure — well, this seems to be the biggest challenge. The payoff is that once students know their ideas and their voices count, it’s hard to shut them up.

last class

Our last class for “Engineering Words: The Art of Writing Science” was last night. We had a pile of great presentations: Ryan used a Prezi to explain the uncanny valley theory of robotics; Chad offered an elegant analysis of how David Bodanis’s book, E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, succeeds as a piece of science writing; Anneliese took us through the stages of training for a paycom at the Marshall Space Flight Center; Christina introduced us to Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD); Anne speculated on whether or not a personned flight to Mars is plausible any time soon; and Chris expounded on the wild and wacky world of plasma. Prada didn’t have too much to say, but I think she enjoyed smelling pizza.

response to Annaliese’s blog posting

Freewriting from class on 9 November — read Annaliese’s blog posting and respond to her criteria for good science writing. My freewriting:

  • get the facts straight
  • use primary source quotations
  • timeline effect — give historical context
  • citations — where do you get your background information?
  • politics — sellability affects which stories are most aired, noticed

I don’t have much to add. I agree with all the criteria — but they are also the same criteria for any effective writing. I think the difference between any ole’ good writing and good science writing has to do with what Zinsser and Flaste talked about — relates to Anneliese’s first criterion — fine to get the science straight but if you can’t tell that science in a way that any reader can understand, then it doesn’t matter how straight you get it. So — I agree with Flaste’s advice to use “metaphor instead of mathematics” and Zinsser’s advice to avoid technical jargon. I would add another criterion — it doesn’t always work for every piece of science writing, but the science writing we’ve read that engages me most has this criterion, and that is — the clear participation or voice of the author. How does the author fit into this project of translating science into an accessible language? Like Skloot, who details the process of research, or like Lauren Slater, who sees her ears differently through the eyes of Dr. Daedalus and his wife, or like Atul Gawande, who has the courage to discuss mistakes doctors make — I want to know what stake the author has. I know that doesn’t work for every piece, but I like that kind of writing.

OK, 6 minutes. Good writing — any good writing — is good thinking. It’s thinking that is organized and clear and insightful. Beyond that, the language used to convey that thinking engages the reader. Metaphor, figurative language, even poetic language can help to convey ideas and concepts more effectively. OK, that just sounded thoroughly bland and common-sense.

Humor. How much humor do we find in science writing? Is that why Mythbusters is so popular — because they all look like they’re having a great time? That’s why I like Jack Hitt’s piece, “Mighty White of You.” It’s the funniest piece in the whole anthology. Or there’s simply the joy of discovery — that’s something that science offers. How does a writer catch that joy and illuminate it and share it with readers?

I so have nothing else to say. 2 minutes. Not bad. I do appreciate Anneliese’s list of criteria for effective science writing. I guess I’ll hazard a bit more of an answer to her last question: I think reporter/journalist/writer passion has a lot to do with what gets read. I’m thinking of Skloot’s book, Lisa Morganelli’s Oil on the Brain has become immensely popular, and Moby-Duck. These are all huge writing quests — each writer risked him- or herself to a certain degree to get the story, and each writer was dedicated and passionate about the story.

stepping to the right of our left hemisphere

This is the second time I’ve watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk, “My Stroke of Insight.” Hit me square in the solar plexus — again. Yup. I cried. Again.

There’s still this voice — “But she’s a neuroanatomist, a brain scientist. How can she act like that?” Like what? Like a new age priestess beckoning us all to our better collective selves. Like a spirit dancer exposing her heart. How can she be so damn vulnerable on that stage?

My assumption is that science and emotion don’t mix. Where did I get that assumption? Objectivity-subjectivity. Thought-emotion. Rational-irrational. All those delectable polar oppositions of our western culture. They get is into so much trouble. Duality instead of multiplicity.

And yet isn’t that what Bolte Taylor’s talk tells us? Doesn’t the neuroanatomist demonstrate that duality in the physical structure of the brain? Some folks wanted to study Einstein’s brain. I know I read this somewhere — some sense that the corpus callosum was thinner — so does that mean that the two hemispheres of Einstein’s brain were able to communicate more easily (or less easily)? What’s always fascinated me about Einstein was his interweaving of imagination and play and scientific thinking.

But back to Bolte Taylor. She experienced the division of the hemispheres. And she came back with her message: hang out more in the right hemisphere.

Zen Buddhism offers meditation as a tool to allow that left-hemisphere chatter to fall away so that we hang out in that huge expanded present Bolte talked about. That big nirvana.

I love when she describes becoming conscious that she’s having a stroke: “Wow — this is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to understand the brain from the inside out?” And her description of how she called for help — mind-blowing. I wonder — was she able to persist in making that call because she knew so much about the brain? If she hadn’t been a neuroanatomist, would she have died from that stroke there in her home?

And what a trip to be in the ambulance, say goodbye to your life, and then decide that it’s worth returning because what a hell of an opportunity… As Bolte Taylor says at the end of her talk: “And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.” The idea — if we hang out with our right hemisphere a bit more, we will become more peaceful and expansive beings, and our societies will become more peaceful and expansive.

What does this all have to do with the last chapter of Soul Made Flesh? First of all, it surprises me that Zimmer chooses to end with Thomas Willis and Anne Conway. I’m not sure why. Even though I was very engaged with chapter nine —  maybe especially because Conway is the only female figure who gets any space, but also because Conway is an intriguing person. How so? Because she thought and studied and wrote so much even through the brain-constricting blinding of migraines. That takes amazing strength. But Zimmer’s last paragraph seems to say that understanding the brain takes both science and religion/spirituality — perhaps in the same way that Bolte Taylor talks about the two sides of the brain having distinct and very different personalities. I love her comparison of the left hemisphere as a serial processor and the right hemisphere as a parallel processor. But it’s pretty fascinating that the right side does not communicate in language, while the left side does. How the heck do these two hemispheres communicate and to what end?

Oil on the Brain

I’m reading Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline by Lisa Margonelli — and I am enjoying it immensely. That is, I’m enjoying learning, and I’m enjoying the writing. The nervous pit in my stomach from all that learning — not so much enjoyment. I just finished the refinery chapter — Margonelli visits BP’s refinery in Carson CA — and there’s a shut-down. Here’s one paragraph that showcases Margonelli’s ability to present the science:

Refineries are molecular butchers, dissembling crude oil and shaping it into smaller, reusable components. Crude arrives as a stew of hydrocarbon chains — some as short and gassy as methane, which consists of 1 carbon atom and 4 hydrogen atoms, and some as long and heavily sludgy as the asphaltenes, which can have 150 carbon atoms surrounded by messy scrums of hydrogen atoms. Mixed in you’ll also find sulfur, salts, nitrogen, and metals. A refinery sorts these molecules by size and behavior and then cuts and re-forms as many as possible to make the 3- to 12-carbon molecular variety pack that is gasoline. Sorting requires fractionating towers to separate the components by weight, and a whole variety of other vessels with catalysts, vacuums, re-formers, and compressors to re-shape the molecules. The key ingredient is steam — a million pounds an hour, one-and-a-half gallons of water for every gallon of crude. (50)

This image of a “molecular butcher” is uncanny — anthropomorphizes the whole huge process — which is a hugely complicated piece of chemical choreography — and makes it tangible, comprehensible. I like the surprise of the word “scrum” — the image of hydrogen atoms in a rugby huddle, scrapping around a huge pile of carbon atoms — sweet. So — this paragraph offers a big picture (refinery as molecular butcher), the details (molecular breakdown), humor (scrum), and clear science. Fresh and clear writing — a joy to read. The next paragraph continues Margonelli’s tour of the refinery with Walter Neil, “head of community relations for the refinery” (48):

Crude oil arrives on tankers in the port of Long Beach, entering the southern end of the refinery by pipeline. Walter and I start there and head north, past the fractionating towers that sort the hydrocarbon strings by their boiling point. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of towers in the refinery, all looking like headless silver rockets with a [sic] spiral staircases twinning around them. Inside each tower forty trays sit at different levels. When the steamy hydrocarbons enter as gases, they condense in the trays with the lightest molecules on top and the heaviest on the bottom. The streams of sorted hydrocarbons are taken to the next treatment, and the next. We pass pipes and towers and more pipes until we close in on the fluid catalytic cracker, the refinery’s most important piece of equipment. The cat cracker uses steam, hydrogen, and a catalyst to break long hydrocarbon chains into short, neat gasoline molecules. It produces a quarter of the gasoline the city of Los Angeles uses daily, and it feeds a whole complex of towers and equipment that finish the gasoline. “I call them the children of the cat cracker,” Walter says, [sic] “All of them serve that big monster.” (50-51)

That description helps me visualize what happens at a refinery. I still want to see it — how do those molecules settle into trays anyway? — but I know 2000 times more about a refinery than I did before reading Margonelli’s descriptions and explanations.