Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Crazy Little Thing Called Love

I studied biological psychology back in the days when brain science was little more than phrenology--basically, feeling the top of somebody's head to get a fix on their character and mental capacity. OK, it was a little more advanced than that, but not by much.

So I'm fascinated with the flood of new studies of brain activity using brain scanning devices like MRIs. Scientists are gaining insight into the deep mysteries of human behavior all over the place.

Turns out that "falling in love" has a lot in common with mental illness from the point of view of deep brain actitivy. A recent study showed that the early stages of romantic attraction cause brain activities not too different from those in mania and obsession. And it's based in "an area of the mammalian brain that takes care of the most basic functions...at an unconscious level...."

The whole thing is a form of insanity! Just as those of us with a more rational and less sentimental disposition had always suspected. Now we have the hard facts to back it up....

I also got a kick out of brain scan studies of the frontal cortex of teenagers. That's the part of the brain that controls many of the conscious, higher functions of the brain like planning, goal formation and impulse inhibition. Researchers found that teenagers have a significantly lower level of activity in the frontal cortex than adults do. Seems that the functioning of the frontal cortex doesn't fully develop until people are in their early 20's.

Another mystery solved and one more superstition banished. Some of us had come to believe that children were abducted by aliens at puberty and replaced by deranged facimiles during their teen years. Turns out that's false. It's just a case of not enough blood flow and electrical activity behind the old forehead.

If we take the final step and combine the results of the two studies, well, the prospect of a teenager in love becomes frightening indeed. Add a cell phone and a car to the equation and you've got a potential menace to society on your hands. Hey, why aren't we quarantining these people....?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Saying Yes to Something New

I just got this from Sojourners zine mail. It's a brief piece by Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners.

If students and faculty at a very conservative religious place like Calvin College can do this kind of thing, surely people in Christian institutions and churches all over the country can do it too.

This is a time for thoughtful Christians who are uncomfortable with what's happening to speak up.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Sky Script

People in Denver love to talk about the weather. No wonder.

As a native Californian I always thought that people talked about the weather when they ran out of anything else interesting to say. Weather in SoCal is always pretty good and very predictable in spite of the infrequent and rainy El Nino years.

The local newscasts in LA had to resort to hiring entertaining clowns to do the weather because there wasn't much weather to report. A surfer/weatherman named Dallas Raines (sort of like "rains") was one of the "deans" of SoCal weather when we lived there.

The weather in Colorado needs no media boost to create interest.

You never know what's next in a mountain climate. We sometimes get all four seasons in a single day and the calendar doesn't necessarily give you much of a clue.

Overall, the weather is great in the Rockies. But making plans for activities can be a challenge.

A Denver native asked one of our local weathermen here why we can land men on the moon but can't predict the weather better. He replied, "Because it's easier to land men on the moon." Nice response.

I'll write more about the weather culture in the Rockies at Hieronymus http://greekgrapes.blogspot.com/ in a future essay post.

Anyway, I appreciate accurate weather forecasts more than I once did. My frequent trips overseas make that even more true.

Here are some of the best sources I've found for an accurate sky script:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration http://www.noaa.com/

Meet the weather geeks. What a cool site. Their main lab is here in Boulder since Colorado is American weather central.

This is the place to get the most accurate and detailed daily forecasts for the US. You can get a 7 day forecast broken down into day, night and overnight details. For some reason you have to enter in your city name and state instead of a zip code, but that's the only annoying feature I've found.

You can also learn about tsunamis, el nino, environmental research, weather satellites, etc.

My first choice for US weather.

CNN Weather http://www.cnn.com/WEATHER/

Good US weather and one of the best international weather sites. Daily, weekend and 10 day forecasts.

Accu Weather http://wwwa.accuweather.com/index.asp?partner=accuweather

Not a very intuitive site but once you get to the international section they have forecasts for an astonishing number of places around the world. If you want to find the weather in some minor town in Uzbekistan, this is the place to check it out.

The Weather Network http://www.theweathernetwork.com/weather/cities/indexintl.htm

Good international forecasts

Lemme know if you've got good weather site suggestions for US or international cities or interesting weather science sites.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Evil Emperor's Teeth

Quick follow up on my last post....

Saw "Revenge of the Sith" today with Andrew and his buddy JJ.

Brief review: special effects and battle scenes remarkable; music stirring and operatic; story line ok; acting mediocre; dialogue embarrassing and distracting; mature human feeling or believable drama barely registering. In other words, it's a Star Wars movie. Not as good as the first three but better than the last two.

The whole thing is a sci-fi comic book and a very violent video game on the big screen. I went with Andrew so I could debrief the relentless violence and try to build on the human and spiritual elements in the movie and series. I've gotten used to doing that with video and online games so I've had some practice.

Technically skilled grown ups with a subtle and mature sensibility will eventually make use of these kinds of digital/visual breakthroughs to produce more worthwhile stuff. But that day is probably still some years off. Right now all we can do is celebrate the male adolescent creativity and fantasies that produce amazing visual stuff like Star Wars and the current crop of destruction and dominance game offerings.

Turns out that poor hygeine on the Dark Side has nothing to do with the Evil Emperor's bad skin and teeth. Brush their teeth and use sun screen, they do.

The Emperor gets a plasma facial from one of the Jedi. Question answered. Glad to hear the problem wasn't a lack of self-care or self-esteem.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Endless Star Wars

OK, now for a pretty meaningless post. Gotta mix it up a bit....

The Star Wars saga is about to come to an end after 28 years! The first movie came out in 1977 when I was a mere 20 year old. I'm just glad Lucas finished it before I got my AARP card.

I remember seeing Episode 4 in San Francisco on opening weekend with a bunch of my Stanford friends.

We were used to going to movies at the "Flicks" at Mem Aud (Memorial Auditorium) at Stanford, so our movie-going manners weren't normally very good. At the "Flicks" most everybody would rip and ridicule whatever movie was showing--very few people actually came to see the movie since it was all about who could be more creative and clever in trashing it.

They used to show "Sound of Music" every year just so people could go off. Few movies ever made lent themselves as well to sophomoric college satire. Poor ambiguously gendered Rolf (the oldest boy in the Von Trapp family) got the worst of it every year when he sang the "Adieu, Adieu, To You and You and You" number. Let's just say those weren't shining moments in the history of gay awareness and sensitivity.

Anyway, we were ready to get a little rowdy at Star Wars, but from the first moment when that imperial ship passes over the screen everybody in the theatre--including us--got quiet and got into the movie. Now, of course, all the special effects look sort of silly and cheesy, but at that time none of us had ever seen anything like it.

And even though some of the stuff Lucas put into the original 3 films threatened to turn me off completely I stayed with it. Even the Ewoks--who seemed like hopped up little terriers on crystal meth--didn't extinguish my interest.

Looking back I realize none of us ever expected that day in San Francisco that we'd be seeing the final episode when our own children were in college. I mean, the story arc for some of the Old Testament patriarchs played out in less time!

To say that I've lost some of my original enthusiasm for knowing how Darth Vader becomes a Sith Lord would be an understatement. I barely remember Episodes 1 and 2 though I do remember how dull I thought they were.

This last one is supposed to be better. I guess I am interested in knowing how the Emperor got such bad skin and teeth. Maybe poor personal hygeine is common on the Dark Side, but I'm guessing there are other fascinating explanations that I've been waiting almost 30 years to find out.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Gay Marriage?

The debate about gay marriage continues here in Colorado.

An earnest and well meaning conservative Christian congressman from the prairie ranching lands of eastern Colorado recently weighed in on the issue.

He argued on the floor of the Colorado House of Representatives that allowing gay marriage would inevitably lead to inter-species marriages between humans and animals.

What an eye opener. Everybody knows that cowboys love their horses, but I had no idea of the kinds of temptations that folks face out on the lonesome prairie.

I'm pretty interested in what people think about gay marriage. Along with abortion and 9/11, this is the issue that has motivated conservative Christians to come out of the closet politically in order to put very conservative and right wing governments in power.

I personally support legal civil unions between gays while opposing gay marriage.

Scripture says no to homosexual practice while holding out hope for those who are willing to live heterosexual or celebate lives in spite of their proclivities.

Christian traditon says no to homosexual practice and says yes to the most hostile persecution of gays imaginable.

Current experience says that homosexuality is mostly genetic and beyond people's control but that socialization and personal choice also play a role. Science is simply a more disciplined and verifiable form of current experience.

Thoughtful Christians have always believed that the combination of Scripture, Christian tradition, and current experience is the best guide to faithful thinking and living. But they've also believed that all of those sources of guidance should be questioned and examined.

An additional factor in the current American debate is the fact that we live in a democratic republic that is committed to human rights and the protection of the freedom of minorities. Oh, and yes, there are a lot of gay people in the U.S.

Seems to me that the most appropriate response to this whole controversy--given historical Christian thinking and current cultural realities--is to support gay civil unions while opposing gay marriage.

This approach would encourage long term and committed relationships among gay people and would give gays the kinds of civil rights that I think most Americans think they should have.

At the same time it would reserve the fundamentally religious institution of marriage for heterosexuals in accordance with virtually all traditional religious teaching no matter what the tradition might be.

If the church supported this kind of agenda and aggresively pursued reconciliation with the gay community (including repentance for the harsh and unjust treatment of gays over the centuries) I think some holy progress could be made.

This kind of approach wouldn't be a walk in the park. Many segments of the gay community are militantly committed to gaining the civil and religious right of marriage.

I'm still forming my thinking on this issue and I'd love to hear what people think.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Spy Who Mowed Me

The Denver Post reported today that the CIA may relocate its entire domestic operation to the Denver Federal Center. The Fed Center is the largest gathering of federal employees and agencies outside of Washington D.C. It's also about a five minute walk from our front door.

Lots of our neighbors are geologists and national parks types who work at the Fed Center and they give the 'hood a pretty unique feel.

Before we moved to Colorado we lived for many years among gangsters and drug addicts in LA. So I guess you could call us a reasonably tolerant and understanding family.

But the CIA next door? Jeez, there goes the neighborhood.

I'm aware of the potential benefits in spite of my misgivings.

It's kind of cool to think about 008 cutting his grass down the street. I assume he'll do the job with a standard issue CIA sit-down lawnmower that can accelerate to 80 mph and fire missiles at any suspicious ice cream truck that might be harboring a small but especially dirty nuclear device. I'd feel a lot safer having that kind of stand up guy in the vicinity.

On the other hand, I'm not excited about the prospect of lots of local fathers named Al Smith who all run import/export businesses.

And I'd really be bummed if one of my neighbors accidentally slipped and told me some secret of national importance over the back fence and then had to pop a cyanide capsule to make amends. That would be awkward and would create some pretty depressing conversations among the local parents at our kids' soccer games

But as I said, we're a pretty tolerant and accepting family.

So I'd like to welcome you to the neighborhood, you stealthy devils.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Napoleon D Conquers the NBA

More on the cultural conquests of Napoleon Dynamite (see "The Charm of Underdogs" below on P and P).

The San Antonio Spurs are probably the best team in the NBA. They eliminated the Denver Nuggets last night in the first round of the NBA playoffs and have won two NBA championships in the past few years.

I saw something during the game that cracked me up.

Even though the Spurs are one of the best basketball teams in the world, they play in San Antonio, a city that suffers from an ongoing urban inferiority complex.

Manu Ginobli plays for the Spurs. He's from Argentina. Lots of people--including myself--think he's one of the best players in the world. He led Argentina to the gold medal in hoops at the last O games.

But he's a Latin hoopster in America and plays in a second-tier city that can't believe it deserves the good fortune of such a great team.

The Spurs' PR department understands all of the above.

In the Napoleon D movie the uber-geeky Napoleon wants to help his unassuming Mexican immigrant friend Pedro become class president of their all white, rural high school. He starts wearing a "Vote for Pedro" t-shirt.

During their final game against the Nuggets, the San Antonio PR suits sent their team mascot out wearing a "Vote for Manu" t-shirt patterned directly after the Napoleon D version. Tons of SA fans wore the same thing in the stands.

In a stroke of marketing genius the citizens of San Antonio and their hoop mascot became Napoleon Dynamite while their all-world immigrant hoopster Manu became the third world immigrant loser Pedro.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When elites wanna be geeks it's a case of Napoleon uber all.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Good Flicks: "Millions" and "The Motorcycle Diaries"

A couple of films well worth your time....


Jan took Andrew and I to see a movie called "Millions" this afternoon.


Sometimes you run across something so unusual and funny and creative that it's hard to describe it easily. I'll try my best to give it a fair take.

It's about a 9 year old boy who wants to be a saint. When was the last time you saw anything with that premise? He sees various Christian and Catholic saints in short and hilarious encounters. He's read some books on the lives of the saints and he remembers every detail.

When he meets the saints he introduces himself by quoting their exact lifespans and a brief description of their ministries. At one point in the movie St. Joseph shows up during his elementary school Nativity play. When he sees him his eyes light up and he says to Joseph, "The first century carpenter, exact dates uncertain."

It's about a father and his two sons who've just lost their wife and mother and are trying to make sense of their lives without her. Her deep faith and goodness make a huge if diverse impact on all of them as they pick up the pieces.

It's about the power of faith to overcome the corrupting power of money. Jesus' teaching that no one can serve both God and mammon is writ large on almost every scene.

It's a crime story about a major league train robbery. The ingenious criminals steal a huge amount of English currency which is on its way to be burned just before the (fictional) shift from the pound to the Euro takes effect. They throw large bags full of money off the train in various parts of England where their confederates will pick it up. One of those bags lands close to the house of the would-be saint and his family. Complications ensue.

So much for the plot.

The tone is true to life and funny in the smallest details. The sometimes edgy visual style is a kind of magical realism that fits a 9 year old's point of view.

I can't easily remember a movie that is so thoroughly Christian.

If it's still in theaters where you live go see it. If it isn't, rent it and see it. If you have kids, make sure they see it. By all means, encourage other people to see it.

The Motorcycle Diaries

I saw this one a few months ago on a flight back from Africa.

It's in Spanish with English substitles, so if you don't like foreign films don't bother with it. But if you're open to that kind of experience this is a really good flick.

It's the true story of Ernesto Guevara (better known as "Che Guevara") and Alberto Granado, two good friends and very young medical students who took a road trip together from Argentina to Venezuela along the length of Latin America during the early 1950's.

Che Guevara is a t-shirt icon for the supposedly hip. He's become a kind of abstract mythological figure who stands for anything countercultural or revolutionary even though most people I've talked to seem to know almost nothing about him.

I read Guevera's Motorcyle Diaries a number of years ago, and normally I like the book version of almost anything better than the movie take on the same material. But I enjoyed this film at least as much as I did the original book.

It's beautiful and moving. I thought the movie told two stories.

One of them is about two privelaged young men from Argentina who travel together through Latin America and discover the harsh reality of poverty and exploitation that most people in the developing world deal with every day. In small and understated ways throughout the film, both Guevara and Granado undergo a conversion experience.

The other story is about an old man looking back on his life.

As all of you know, Guevara eventually became a Marxist revolutionary who tried to emancipate the poor by overthrowing some of the obscene rulers and systems so prevalent in his day. He fought alongside Castro during the Cuban revolution, eventually fought in Angola, and was killed at 39 leading an insurrection in Bolivia.

Alberto Granado came to Cuba on Guevara's invitation and has continued to served the Cuban people to this day. Though Castro has become a joke and Cuba has become an economic failure,
the revolution there dramatically improved the lives of the poor, particularly in the area of health care. Granado played a practical and important role in those advances.

At the end of the movie he looks back on his travels with Guevara and what happened to their lives after that trip. He wonders, in the quiet and unassuming manner that is so characteristic of the flick, if he and Guevara made the right life choices in response to their experiences on their youthful road trip. But he doesn't doubt for a minute the truth of those experiences or the coming of age they had together.

I loved that ending because it seemed so universal to me. I guess lots of us, especially as we get into middle age or older, value the deeper truths we've learned while wondering if we made the right choices or committed ourselves to the right efforts in response to those truths.

Anyway, you might enjoy this one. Check it out.