In order to live

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Joan Didion, The White Album (quoted in Into Thin Air by John Krakauer)

Ring Nebula

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The Ring Nebula’s hot new profile picture

This 1998 pic of the Ring Nebula entranced me when I was a child. A spooky cloud of gas and dust, measuring a whole light-year across…and to think that I only had the privilege of seeing a 2,000-year-old version of it, because the light took that long to travel over 120,000,000,000,000,000 miles of space! Rather than inducing existential angst, these numbers made me happy: the universe was so much bigger than whatever idiocy was going on in my life.

Now there is a new high resolution image of the Ring Nebula, and it gives us all the cold, ancient beauty we’ve come to expect from Hubble, as well as some new insights into the structure and formation of the nebula. The space in the middle, once thought to be almost empty, is webbed with low-density material, suggesting that the nebula is barrel-shaped rather than ring-shaped.

The best MOOC ever just ended

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This week marks the end of a massive open online course called Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life. This course, an adaption of human genome unwraveler Eric Lander’s Bio 101 class at MIT, was offered (and may be offered again) by all-star online education platform edX. And as it happened, it consumed my life for three whole months.

I am going to miss it so much.

The principle joy of taking this course was Dr. Lander’s feisty, creative teaching style. I’m sure that I missed out on some things experiencing it on video only, but the elitists who snub MOOCs on this basis forget that most of us are never going to know what it’s like to attend an MIT lecture in person – the effect of a charismatic hologram professor on the student is diluted, but still valuable. I admired Dr. Lander’s manner of structuring the material, which involved tying the textbook material to the historical progress of genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. The few MIT chemistry lectures I watched before accepting that I needed to take calculus first followed a similar multidisciplinary-historical approach, suggesting that this may be part of the MIT model of education in general. If so, MIT is awesome.

English: Professor Eric Lander teaching the fi...

Platonic crush ahoy!

I loved how current some of the material was. At one point, Dr. Lander was discussing RNA-induced silencing complexes, and he said “This isn’t in your textbook, but it’s in your body.” That’s how fast the discipline of biology is moving, and that’s the value of having MOOCs in STEM fields. A rockstar prof involved with cutting-edge research is going to have access to the most recent advances and know how to teach about them. S/he will also have amazing stories to tell – this year, Dr. Lander wrote a brief to the Supreme Court regarding the pitfalls of gene patents, and it was cited at the hearing!

Please grant me one more paragraph of shameless gushing: some of the software available with the course was incredibly cool. It allowed students to solve problems involving actual protein structures and genome sequences. Now, there were a few bugs that drove us all crazy in the beginning, but all in all it was a good system – there is nothing like solving a biology problem with a real genome. There is nothing like knowing that one’s homework is real.

I came within five points of earning a full certificate in this course as opposed to an auditor’s certificate, but I didn’t make it. This is only, and I mean only, because I went through a disorganized period in May where I missed the second half of the midterm exam. I guess I learned some lessons about writing things down on my calendar. Depressing, certainly, but I cannot consider it an outright failure, as it is not going to be carved in stone on any transcript. The point of most MOOCs, as they currently exist, is what knowledge one can take away from them; 7.00x was stellar in this regard. I’m happy to take the auditor’s certificate as a souvenir/physical token.

Earlier this year I took a MOOC called Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Noor of Duke University in partnership with Coursera. I did earn a full certificate in that one, as well as two hours of college credit and a distinction badge. When I was banging out Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium problems as part of Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, I remembered thinking, “Wow, I could do this every day for the rest of my life!” Normally statements like this are just hyperbole (“Mmmm, Miss Carrie, I could eat this cornbread every day for the rest of my life!”), but when they concern things like biology, computer programming, sewing, writing, or fixing cars, that’s an inner voice to which one should pay heed. It reminds me of being that little girl who would only listen to fairy tales if her mother replaced all the characters with anthropomorphic viruses and bacteria. Seems I’m still that little girl.

To close with a quote from Dr. Lander’s lecture on gene patents:

There are choices we have to make as a society, and different societies make different choices. It’s done in different ways in different places, and they may value things in different ways. But it’s important that as much as we may focus on alpha helices and proteins and telomerase and things like that, we recognize that what we’re doing does spill out and affect the rest of society, and as scientists, or people just learning about science, it’s important to think about bringing that knowledge to these social questions…That’s what we want people to be able to do, to be able to take knowledge from science and then go apply it to different social situations, combining with real human values. In the end, the values make a big difference to where you’re going to come out. But if you’re not informed by good science, values alone aren’t going to be enough to get you to a good answer.

Indeed, indeed.

Memorial day post

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This is Wilfred Owen, one of the First World War’s greatest poets. He died from gunshot wounds a week before the armistice. I know that he was English, and Memorial Day is an American observance, but we’re talking about WWI – a war that challenges our capacity to care about who was who. *salutes, cries*

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime –
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

My Thoughts on Inmate 54321123… (or why Kaitlyn Hunt is a criminal, not a cause)

The attention this case is getting makes me angry – and scared. I already have to deal with being called a sexual predator, or being compared on a moral level to a sexual predator, all the time. Thanks for making the religious right that much more paranoid about gays coming for their children, internet jerks.

The K Word

photoI am not sure whether many had heard this story outside of Florida, but back in February, Kaitlyn Hunt, an 18-year-old high school student was expelled due to her relationship with a 14 year old classmate (who happened to be a girl). She was also charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child 12 to 16 years of age as a result of the relationship.

Just so we are all straight, an 18 year old adult was in a relationship with a 14 year old child and is now in jail.

AS SHE SHOULD BE.

kaitlyn_huntNow months later people (a lot of people) are actually trying to condone her actions. Not only condone them but champion them, there are petitions signed asking her to be freed, hacker groups threatening e-anarchy, and even celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon.

As a lesbian, a feminist, and a future…

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An awkward shiksa’s encounters with Holocaust literature

Too painful to read more than once a year.

This book is too painful to read more than once a year. Trust me, I’ve tried.

I love Holocaust literature. It seems a little weird, to declare one’s love for something so unenjoyable, but there you go. I’d say it’s a combination of the thoroughly fascinating history (I read nonfiction about both World Wars as well), the high literary quality of many works I’ve found, and certain personal factors which I shall explore here. Note that this is not a strictly informative post. Strictly informative posts may be forthcoming, however.

Continue reading

Not-Robin: the bird that started it all

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“I saw a weird bird this morning,” began the note I wrote to my stepfather, which I would leave on the counter for him to pick up as he left for work.

The bird I’d seen was odd not because of what it was, but because of what it was not. It was not an American robin. It was a big, fattish songbird with dark upperparts and rusty flanks, but it gave off a maddening vibe of not-robin that I didn’t know how to interpret at the time. I’m surprised my stepfather was able to decipher the garbled description that my untrained eyes and mind came up with. Bertrand Russell was right – non-experts make terrible witnesses.

I’d seen an Eastern towhee. Unlike robins, which are in the thrush family, towhees are basically gigantic sparrows. They’re named for their enthusiastic calls of “Tow-hee, tow-hee!” which can often be heard at dusk in Eastern states (a closely related bird, the spotted towhee, lives in Western states.) The male wears a handsome black coat with white accents over a rufous vest and a white shirt. The female looks a little drabber in her brown jacket. Image

A major difference between towhees and robins is that towhees hop rather than walk across the ground. Scientists don’t know why some birds hop while others walk; possible factors include leg length, energy expenditure, weight, and the evolution of ground-dwelling vs. arboreal species. I say that a scurrying robin and a bouncing towhee are equally cute.

Towhees also tend to be more reclusive than robins, despite preferring similar suburban and woodland edge habitat. They like to stay in the bushes, kicking up leaves with their feet in the most charming manner to get at insects.

The Eastern towhee remains one of my favorites because it was the first bird that really got my attention. The attractiveness and peculiarity of this species encouraged me to look about and perceive the beauty and variety of the natural world, and to forge a friendship with my stepfather based on my newfound interests. Hooray for the not-robin!

Lady WWII buffs represent!

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“That is a bridge too far. That’s right, I read World War II history, motherf***er!” – Angie Jordan (Sherri Shepherd), 30 Rock

Here’s your 40-second challenge for the day: get a piece of scrap paper and draw a WWII buff. Or, if no paper is available, close your eyes and draw a WWII buff in your mind.

You drew a white man in his 50s, didn’t you?

It may surprise you that tons of women and girls are WWII buffs (and Civil War buffs, and every other kind of buff.) It surprised me, because I used to think I was a bit of a freak. I’ve been a WWII buff ever since I read the American Girl Molly books in elementary school…and I am mos def not alone. I recently went on YouTube and looked up videos of teenage girls talking about books, and you’d be surprised how many of them named The Book Thief and Between Shades of Gray as all-time favorites. One English girl was talking about how she went out and read everything she could get her hands on about the Nazis after reading The Book Thief and it hit me so hard I burst out laughing: these girls are all WWII buffs! They’ve just never self-identified as such because it’s understood that WWII buffs are old white guys.

The female WWII buffs I’ve encountered on the internet and in real life are less likely than the regular old white guys to be able to recite trivia about ships, artillery, and troop movements.  We ladies tend to focus on the stories that came out of the war. Like all stereotypes, this isn’t universal, but I’ve found it broadly applicable. Part of it is probably socialization: guns and strategy games are for boys, storytelling and emotions are for girls. Yet two more important factors may be empathy and historical fact. A man studying war wonders what it would have been like to fight; he imagines the soldier’s world and ends up studying the soldier’s world. By contrast, a woman would almost certainly have been a civilian (most, though not all, female heroes of WWII exercised their badassery in auxiliary roles, as nurses, underground resistance fighters, spies, and the like.) When a woman considers the World Wars, she struggles to picture what it would have been like to live during that time in the more general sense, and her studies reflect that. This does not make her any less of a WWII buff. If you’ve got the bug, you’ve got the bug.

Now, I know about those ridiculous Tumblrs where idiots “fangirl” over pictures of Himmler and Goebbels, but that’s just Tumblr being Tumblr. Tumblr is why we can’t have nice things. But you wouldn’t ask a male WWII buff if it was all about him finding female concentration camp guards hot. He’d look at you like you were crazy. Yet this is something people have asked me, to my face. “Is it the uniforms?” UGH, NO. Yet another nerd girl problem you would never expect.

Ladies, we need to represent. We gotta stand up and say, “We read WWII history, motherf***er!” ’cause it’s just that hip to be square.