Jan 242012

Journals whose articles have appeared in my Progress in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and Journal of Magnetic Resonance feeds since 1 January 2012:

Advances in Water Resources

Immunology Letters

Journal de Réadaptation Médicale

Journal of Accounting and Economics

Journal of Controlled Release

Journal of Food Engineering

Journal of Hydrology

Legal Medicine

Marine Environmental Research

New Carbon Materials

Organic Electronics

Physica C: Superconductivity

Separation Science and Technology

Solar Energy

Surface Science

I mean, seriously, this should not be that hard to figure out. The Journal of Molecular Biology feed is fine, so why must I wade through an ocean of crap in my specialist feeds?

On an open marriage

 homosexuality, horrible old man, politics  Comments Off on On an open marriage
Jan 232012

This past weekend, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican primary by a considerable margin over the putative front-runner Mitt Romney. The victory was due in no small part to Gingrich’s impressive performance in the debate mediated by CNN’s John King, where he made a fiery attack on the moderator for opening the debate with a reference to recent stories in which one of Gingrich’s ex-wives asserted that he had asked her for an open marriage, presumably because he already had a mistress.

In calling King’s effort to broach the subject “despicable”, Gingrich was able to play to the crowd’s distrust of the “liberal media” and brush the issue aside, at least temporarily. King, obviously cowed, tried to walk back the question, which put Gingrich in control of the situation and allowed him to play the victim. Gingrich may be right that King’s bringing up the question was despicable, but he has no right to get offended or to go on the attack. Gingrich owes us an explanation of this open marriage, not because his married life is our business, but because he proposes to make our married lives his business.

There is also a general sense in which Gingrich’s marriages matter to a voter, because it speaks to a larger issue of integrity. Of course an individual relationship has many differences from a government office. Nonetheless, an oath is an oath, and if a man can’t hold to his vows to a single person, how will he handle his obligation to an entire nation? Yet, this does not justify any particularly close examination of marital details. Gingrich’s divorce habit and ethics reprimand tell us all that we need to know about his character. In this regard, the open marriage story adds nothing but shock value.

There it would stay, but for one thing. Like the vast majority of his Republican compatriots, Newt Gingrich opposes gay marriage. Indeed, he opposes it so vehemently that he has stated he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman if the “Defense of Marriage Act” were found to be unconstitutional. He even made a video to support California’s odious Proposition 8. Gingrich believes that he should have the right to define marriage for everyone in the country. He therefore owes the people a clear understanding of what marriage means to him, not only as he describes it in prepared speeches and soundbites, but also as he practices it in his life.

Does a man who cannot even commit to the woman he has presently married and not yet divorced have any right to tell a gay couple that their commitment means less than his? I submit that he does not. So, having opened this door, having asserted that he possesses the virtue to tell other people what to do in their lives and relationships, Gingrich has invited us to examine his own affairs. For him to then object when that moment of public examination arrives shows him to be a coward and a first-order hypocrite.

I, however, can object for him, because I do not propose to become America’s marriage-judger-in-chief. The open marriage story is prurient and worthless, intended to increase the stench of Gingrich’s long history of failed marriages without providing any special insight into the man. This attack is beneath us. It is even beneath Newt Gingrich, and considering what a despicable little worm he is, that’s saying something.

Inherit the Tropes

 books  Comments Off on Inherit the Tropes
Jan 102012

I got a Kindle for Christmas, thus semi-joining this millenium… at this rate, in another 20 years or so I’ll have a smartphone. I naturally had some high-minded ideas about delving back into the classics, but what really happened was that the travel schedule and desire to read in between watching football games made me grab for the popular fiction. So, in some bits of time I had over the past two weeks, I read Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle.

I didn’t hate it.

This is not to say that the books are modern classics or that Paolini is the next Tolkien (or even the next Feist). The Inheritance novels, particularly Eragon, are an adolescent writing experience made excruciatingly public. Considering that, they’re quite well-written, but as one might expect from the circumstances, they’re derivative, suffer from rather ad hoc world-building, and star a Mary Sue.

It would be unfair to criticize Paolini too loudly for any of it, in my opinion. Almost any creative teenager at one point or another has imagined himself as Jedi ninja Cool G. Beans, Duke of Radsylvania, accompanied by his trusty sidekick Sir Suspiciously-similar-to-your-best-friend on a mission to save Princess That-girl-from-math-class from the evil Lord Obviously-your-gym-coach, adjusting as needed for your gender, orientation, desire to bone your best friend, and whatever horrible slang was used to identify coolness during your adolescence. Paolini happens to be the lucky guy who leveraged that into a reasonably popular novel.

Paolini also seemed to understand the criticism and take at least some of it to heart, although his response mostly took the form of obvious flailing in the second book. In the first novel Eragon can do almost no wrong, going from a simple farmboy to a world-class swordsman and magician within the space of a few months. In Eldest, Paolini does all he can to tear Eragon down, repainting him as foolish, arrogant, and weak, not to mention giving him a pimple in the form of his accidental cursing of Elva. This incident hinges strangely on a point of grammar, makes the rules of magic less clear rather than more so, and generates a powerful character Paolini never really figures out how to use. Like this, the whole effort turns out poorly. Eragon’s disability is temporary, his huge mistake with Elva turns out to be accidentally beneficial, and his most serious weaknesses are magically erased (I mean this literally). Above all, it is very boring because we are already past the point where we as readers really believe Eragon will fail, or even get derailed temporarily in an interesting way.

Yet, Paolini does manage to tell an interesting story in this book, continuing on into the remainder of the series. It is not Eragon’s story, but his cousin Roran’s, that is worth reading. Roran has no magical powers, no capacity for wielding a sword, and nothing to rely on besides his strength, creativity, and charisma. He uses these talents to defeat a group of soldiers, lead an entire village across the world, and rise to high command and great success in the rebel army. Of course this is quite conventional — Roran is motivated by a desire to rescue, then protect, his personal princess — but well-told nonetheless. Having accidentally created a class of essentially unbeatable superhumans in the world-building for Eragon, Paolini ably uses Roran’s story to show how the world can work despite their existence.

Unfortunately, as the cycle winds to a close, Roran has to step back because the actual business at hand is Eragon’s conflict against the unstoppable Dark Lord Galbatorix. The problem is that Galbatorix has been overbuilt: vastly outnumbered, he nonetheless defeated the ancient order of Dragon Riders, spent the next century growing stronger, absorbing all that they knew, and ultimately succeeded in finding a way to control all magic in the world. Thus, he must be defeated by a technicality; despite his insuperable knowledge and power, he is unaware that you can cast spells without saying anything.

Arguably, The Lord of the Rings similarly hinges on a technicality. However, the idea has a kind of logic. Since Sauron put all his power into the ring, destroying the ring will destroy him. Moreover, the technicality is introduced very early on, at a point when we’re still just accepting what we’re told about the world rather than trying to piece things together for ourselves, and it motivates the whole quest that the trilogy relates. Paolini, on the other hand, lays out his (poorly conceived) system of magic in excruciating detail, the relevant technicality doesn’t flow naturally from that system, and it’s buried somewhere in the second book and forgotten until it’s needed for the finale.

All of this could have been overcome. Paolini is a reasonably talented writer, and given some time and some life experience — which might have, for instance, prevented him from exoticizing nearly all the major female characters — the Inheritance cycle could have turned out much better. Unfortunately, Eragon was published before he had enough time to reconsider it, and at that point he was locked into a world that had a bit too much of Tolkien and McCaffrey (the bonding and mental-link stuff is practically straight out of the Dragonriders of Pern novels), and a story that had a bit too much of George Lucas. All the same, the novels are fun to read, and the errors, though numerous, are tolerable and occasionally instructive.

For the New Year

 omphalos  Comments Off on For the New Year
Jan 042012

Well, the New Year, the hangover, and most of the bowl games have come and gone. The custom is to make yourself some promises that you’ll be hard-pressed to keep, and before I eat up all the leftovers from my New Year’s Day dinner, I thought I’d share mine with you. Feeling ambitious, I came up with six resolutions, and I feel confident about fulfilling at least one of them. To increase the chances that I’ll work to achieve more than that, I’ll make these public so you can scold my failures.

1. Get a new job.

HHMI has rules that prevent them from paying my salary beyond May. I feel my time in Doro’s lab has been pretty successful, but both of us are ready to move on. I’m examining all options, so if you have a crazy urge to offer me a job, don’t be shy.

2. Exercise more than two hours a week.

Losing some chub would be nice, too, but if I keep my physical activity up, that will probably come.

3. Read two books a month.

I do this anyway, but it’s good to have a reminder.

4. Make sure each blog gets at least one post a month.

The databases of Conflux and Discount Thoughts are polluted with dozens of half-written posts. I need to be better about finishing them.

5. Design and build at least one level, for purposes of humility and perspective.

I’m going to try to do this with the Skyrim creation tools.

6. Get at least one triple-secret project past the “idea” stage.

I have three novels, two websites, and at least one game rolling around as disconnected ideas or loose plans on sheets of paper. I want to turn at least one of these into a full outline or a working prototype in the coming months.