BAH (not humbug)

Fake news and fake science is all the rage now, but I’ve been a fan since college when my mother, the research librarian, introduced me to the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a parody scientific journal. It published papers on absurd scientific theories, backed up with equally absurd and surprisingly detailed research, observation, and ‘facts.’ A quick google search tells me that the JIR was founded in Israel in 1955. I’m not sure it still exists; there is a JIR website, though I can’t tell how up-to-date it is. A former JIR editor founded the Annals of Improbable Research in 1995 which does appear to have a current website and publication schedule, and is the sponsor of the Ig Nobel award, a parody of the Nobel Prize. More well-known, perhaps, are the Darwin Awards, given out to people who remove themselves from the gene pool to the betterment of the future of the human race.

Nowadays, when I read fake news I tend to laugh only to keep myself from crying, so imagine how I leapt at the opportunity to attend BAHfest, the festival of Bad Ad hoc Hypotheses where I could laugh for the sake of genuine ‘scientific’ humor.

BAHfest is the brainchild of Zack Weinersmith, best known for writing the webcomic SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal). Last Saturday, the husband, D#2, the Significant Other (SO), and I went to BAHfest Houston on the campus of Rice University. (There are numerous BAHfests held in different locations worldwide.) None of us were quite sure what to expect; we were all prepared to end the evening saying either, “that was nice, glad I did it once,” or “I’m putting it on the calendar for next year.”

Below is a quick rundown of and highlights from the evening.

The keynote, Ron DenBleyker, addressed how the biggest problem with a space elevator will not be whether it can be built, but rather space elevator small-talk.

Nick Keiser posited that humans evolved bipedalism in order to juggle. When questioned by the judges as to how this might relate to dinosaurs who walked on two legs, Nick replied that paleontologists have unearthed what they claim to be nests with broken eggs indicating hatched dinosaurs… and he let the audience laughter finish his thought.

Social media can replace the current scientific peer review system according to Thomas Clements. Papers can be vetted simply by the quantity and duration of comments that a paper receives on twitter. As an added benefit, scientists will then be able to claim that the time they spend on social media is actually useful.

There was a bit of a dark theme to the evening, starting with Patrick Clay talking about the spread of disease. When good, happy people get sick, they tend to hide out at home until they recover. When mean, angry people get sick, they go forth and become super-spreaders, seeking contact with as many others as possible, the old misery-loves-company theory. The theory was good, but his solution of rounding them all up and sending them to Norway seemed unlikely to halt the next pandemic.

Rae Holcomb somehow compared a galaxy to the internet. Complete with photos that showed how they look almost alike…if you look at them from far enough away. Not finding evidence of life in a system as complex as the Milky Way is akin to not finding anything of value on a system of information as complex as the internet. In conclusion, complex systems all eventually fail and we are doomed. Even the judges were cowed by that one and had no followup questions.

The eventual winner of the evening was Habeen Chang who presented a very compelling argument in favor of replacing the quantum computing unit of qubits with units of ex- boyfriends and girlfriends called quexes because of the near infinite amount of meanings that can be contained in any given phrase of conservation. He clearly had the best, deadpan delivery, including starting his talk with “you all know about quantum physics so we can just skip over that part.”

The final presenter was Claire McWhite who studied what words can be found encoded in our genes. DNA, RNA, and proteins are denoted by series of letters. At the DNA level, it’s pretty much all CATs, but the more complex human proteins contain many more sad and negative words than happy and positive words. She hypothesized that this is why humans tend toward being miserable. Possibly because I was primed after a whole evening of fun, but this talk had me crying with laughter.

It was unanimous, the four of us are putting the next BAHfest Houston on our calendar, whenever and wherever it is. And we’re planning to spread the word to other folks who we know would enjoy an evening of laughing at good, bad science.

One last note. The JIR used to occasionally have contests for its readers. One was to write a limerick that contained the word “irreproducible” at the end of a line (necessitating writing a rhyme for it.) Here is my entry, which won honorable mention:

Old Bossy, she tried to seduce a bull.
No luck, but the fact was deducible,
That the bull she held dear
Was really a steer
That the farmer made irreproducible.

I claim my 15 minutes of fame anywhere I can get it.

Exit West

exitwestExit West by Mohsin Hamid is the third book I’ve read for this year’s Tournament of Books and my new favorite to win the Rooster. It’s the timely story of two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who flee their war-torn country for a chance at a life somewhere else. But it’s a timeless story as well, the balance between adapting to new cultures and experiences while holding on to pieces of the past. And it’s a bit of speculative fiction, taking a possible peek at the future of mankind’s migration around planet Earth.

The author takes what feels like a theatrical trick, a trap-door under the stage, and turns it into a literary device to shortcut Saeed and Nadia’s journey, making the migration about where they are rather than their journey. I loved it, and I loved all the symbolism behind it.

The writing is beautiful, causing my to-read list to grow with the addition of Hamid’s earlier novels. It was emotionally restrained, somehow, yet powerfully precise. Here are four of my favorite lines:

“…but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

“What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, and so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.”

“Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done.”

“Every time a couple moves, they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”

In these for passages, I feel like Hamid captures essential truths of moving on, of human dignity, of acceptance, and of love.

In Pachinko, immigration is the focal point of a multi-generational family saga. In Exit West, a love story of two young adults is the focal point of a world-wide human migration saga. I love that both these books are included in the ToB.

Next up: The Animators.

Lincoln in the Bardo


lincolnI was surprised to learn that Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel from George Saunders, an author who has lurked on my to-read list with his acclaimed short story collections. I vaguely knew what the book was about before I began, despite not actually knowing the meaning of the word “bardo.” Some friends just dove in and were feeling rather clueless until they at least looked up the definition.

The title actually conveys the entire plot of the novel: one evening in a cemetery, with souls caught in the bardo, and one very alive President who is mourning the death of his son.

I struggled early in this novel, I found the writing style utterly distracting. There are chapters of voices/dialog/thought where the “speaker” is identified at the end of the passage and chapters of cited historical observations, which may of may not have all been made up by the author. Not unlike a Ken Burns style documentary, but where most of the observations/opinions/information given are only a sentence long.

Then, suddenly, the distraction factor faded and I was swept away by the stories of all the souls, living and dead. This book requires a re-read, or at least a strong discussion with folks who picked up on different things than I did, I am sure I missed so much the first time through. There’s a little American history, a sprinkling of humor, and a lot of life/death philosophy.  What makes a life worth living, what makes us go on and what makes us give up?

Rounding out my philosophy lessons for the week, I also caught most of the movie Ghost – while the husband was flipping thru channels and I commanded him to stop (missed the pottery wheel seen, tho, darn it) – and Austin Kleon posted about checking in with death from time to time.

Book two from the Tournament of Books was another great read, tho I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

Inked Up

Those, my friends, are pictures of my left ankle.

Bucket list item achieved. You’re never too old. Just do it. Be yourself. Why not?

Last weekend I went to the Star of Texas Tattoo Art Revival in Austin with D#2 and her “aggressively supportive” girl gang. Attending a tattoo convention was NOT on my bucket list, but it was a really fun day. I felt much less out of place than I had expected. It was really a convention for the tattoo artists – almost 400 of them from around the country (and a few from other countries) – with contests and social get-togethers and entertainment, but it is open to the public to admire the work displayed in portfolios, to admire the work displayed on people, and/or to actually get tattooed.

It wasn’t unlike walking thru an art museum, quietly commenting about things I really like, silently raising eyebrows at or swiftly passing by those things that didn’t appeal to me. Snark was kept to a minimum because 1) the artists were right there and 2) it was such a non-judgmental atmosphere. No one looked askance at me even though I was clearly one of the older attendees, and observation, even gawking, was encouraged for the art that was being worn and being created. And let me make very clear that I have no hesitation in calling these people artists – their talent is truly noteworthy, whether or not it appeals to me personally.

The people watching and eavesdropping was A-plus. Some people carefully choose tattoos with special meaning. Some people choose tattoos like they would choose a painting for the wall of their home. Some people collect tattoos like souvenirs.

My tattoo? Oh yeah, carefully chosen with special meaning. Pretty much anything I do comes with a story, ofttimes much to the dismay of those near and dear to me. If I was a better story teller, they might not cringe so much when I feel a need to give a presentation with every present given or recount the backstory behind every purchase made.

Flash back to when D#2 was in high school and exclaimed that she wanted to get a tattoo. I counter-exclaimed, “me too, let’s get them together!” It wasn’t actually reverse psychology, I did sort of like the idea of a tattoo, but she went off to college and, very justifiably, didn’t wait on me.

Flash back not quite that far to when a friend got her first tattoo. She is a children’s librarian and her tattoo has a children’s book theme, perfect for her. It got me thinking more seriously about what the perfect tattoo for me would be…

Flash back to when I was in high school. The summer after graduation I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which remains my favorite book of all time. A key component of the book is the story of Cain and Abel, both literally and figuratively, and if evil is pure, inherent, and inescapable, or if it is something that can be overcome. “Timshel” is a Hebrew word that has been biblically translated with subtle differences, but at its most hopeful (at least for Cain) means “you may.” It is also the final word of East of Eden and has remained with me for 40 years.

Flash back not quite so far to when the daughters were regulars at summer camp. Each year they would bring me back a friendship string made from embroidery floss that they tied/braided for me and which I would dutifully tie around my ankle. But here’s the thing…I loved those anklets. They were bright and they stayed with me, I would wear them until they frayed thru and fell off. They reminded me of the daughters and for a woman who shuns cosmetics and just plain forgets to wear jewelry, they were a simple adornment that made me feel special. Ever since, anklets have been my favorite adornment, though it has not always been easy to find ones that I can just leave on all the time.

I was finally able to put the whole story together. The tattoo I wanted was an anklet, in the shape of a vine to express my love of nature, and somehow incorporating the word “timshel.” It took D#2 to actually make it happen, to invite me to the convention and encourage me to find an artist to make my simple vision a reality. And a pact made when she was in high school was finally fulfilled when she got her own version of a timshel tattoo at the convention.

My tattoo is just another story, just another part of who I am.

Pachinko, still

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is centered in 20th century Japan, but aspects of it feel timeless and universal.

Immigration, nationalization, citizenship, belonging, identity, culture, home, HOME….

(Assuming the author wrote accurately about this in her fiction book…) Koreans must register as aliens in Japan every three years. Even though Korea was at one time annexed by Japan and Koreans immigrated there legally. Even if you and your parents were born in Japan, you are still considered Korean. The hyphenated term Korean-Japanese was not even used in the book until an American-born Korean character was introduced late in the book. What came to my mind was DACA and the Dreamers who were brought to America as children, were promised a safety blanket of sorts if they “registered” and who now may be facing deportation thanks to Trump policies.

What about refugees around the world? Thousands of children have never known life outside of a refugee camp. Where is their home, what is their home country? I think of Syrians and Rohingyas and so many others with no place to (safely) go.

Why are labels so important to some, yet so hated? My nieces, born to a mother from America and a father from Ivory Coast, growing up in Ivory Coast, Pakistan, and India, who attended college in the US and South Africa, loathe the term “African-American.” They are truly children (now adults) of the world. I also think of the people who look “different” and who are rightly angered when the question, “Where are you from?” implies “What nationality are you (and your parents)?”, not “Where do you live?” Perhaps I should start replying “Western Europe” instead of “Houston, originally Chicagoland.”

Technology has made the world so much smaller, but there seems to be more focus on our differences than our similarities. I’ve been hearing a lot about Dan Rather’s book What Unites Us. His feelings about nationalism and patriotism (from a Texas Monthly article about the book) really resonate:

Rather argues that people unwittingly use the terms interchangeably, but it’s important to distinguish their meanings. Patriotism, he says, requires revering your country but also being open-minded about its imperfections and, in turn, striving to correct them. Nationalism, meanwhile, tends to shut down dialogue because it stakes a claim to moral and cultural superiority. 

Citizens of the World. It seems like a concept that mankind should be racing towards, yet it feels like we are moving farther away. Yes, Lee’s novel is still rattling around in my brain, much like a ball bearing bouncing off the pins in a pachinko machine.