Awkard Silences and Being Like Jesus

I moved to a new place recently. There is a large amount of economic disparity here, especially along racial lines. There is also widespread atheism. Putting aside all policy arguments, I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do about the problems this city has using a Godly yet uncondemning approach. Jesus is the best example of how to deal with these problems. He hung around with poor and marginalized people, and although he alienated the upper crust of society, most people loved him. My question is…how?

CityI mean, Jesus was perfect. But does that imply sinlessness or complete perfection in all areas? He seems to have known exactly what to say to make people feel loved, even when he didn’t agree with them. Does perfection also mean he never had awkward moments where he didn’t know what to say to homeless people, how to talk to his teachers, or how to solve a math problem? Did he ever not know how or even whether it would be wise to talk to people about God?

On one hand, Jesus was fully human, so he had moments of extreme mental distress, exhaustion, and he had to keep in contact with God by prayer. On the other hand, God seems to have come through an *awful lot* and told him what to say when. Unfortunately, my words never seem to come out right. Perhaps this imperfection itself is not a sin, but a symptom of not spending enough time with God.

On the bright side, whatever it is, it seems to have afflicted a lot of people in the Bible. Elijah hid in a cave because he didn’t want to face Jezebel right after God had sent down fire from heaven to burn up Elijah’s sacrifice. You’d think that would have given him some nerve. Nope. He ran away and hid in a cave even after God sent an angel to feed him en route. It took God passing by the mouth of the cave and talking to Elijah in person to give him his nerve back. Even then, God didn’t yell at him: he sent him reinforcements in the form of Elisha, and allowed him to continue calling down fire from heaven.

God seems to do that a whole lot. The Bible says fear is the opposite of love, and God is love, but most of the important people in the Bible are really fearful. Peter failed walking on water and denied Jesus because he was afraid. God had Aaron speak for Moses because Moses was too scared. After John the Baptist was thrown in prison, he sent people to verify Jesus’ identity even though he had already heard God identify him. Abraham lied about his wife because he was afraid the Pharaoh would kill him. Paul doesn’t seem to have been too fearful as a Christian, but prior to that, he was a legalist, which in my experience is an expression of fear of the consequences of personal insufficiency.

The good news is that this discussion of perfection is arbitrary. Perfection is not gained via legalism by wanting to be perfect. If Elijah’s experience is relevant, the proper approach is to talk to God (sans hiding in caves), find reinforcements, and keep on trying to love people. As Paul said of legalism, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Even if the silences are *really* awkward.

The Post About Frozen

So I finally watched Frozen. A lot of the delay had to do with my frustration with its most familiar song, “Let It Go”. Now, I’d been told not to judge the movie on the basis of that song, and my knee-jerk reaction upon actually seeing the movie is that the song is acceptable in context and that it’s a brilliant movie. On the other hand, despite it’s placement in the movie, the popularity of the song brings to light some problematic values which the movie dealt with and which the movie-going public has completely ignored.

Firstly, my initial problem with “Let It Go” is that it’s a rebellion song. (Anyone who disagrees needs to deal with “No right, no wrong, no rules for me/I’m free!”.) The movie deals with this by giving Elsa if not strictly a “good” reason to rebel, certainly a sympathetic reason. When Elsa finally caves to the incredible pressure of her isolation, loneliness, and anger, leaving her responsibilities as queen, the audience wants her to escape. However, this ultimately leads to the dawn of an eternal (or however long Elsa lives) winter of suffering that even Elsa cannot control. Unfortunately, this is not recognized in popular use, as the song functions more as a statement of “I’m going off to do whatever I want” rather than, “I’m trying to leave my issues behind.” The emphasis is on the injury rather than on healthy ways of healing. Parental restrictions *can’t* be what all these people are singing about, can they?

(c) Disney, etc. etc.

(c) Disney, etc. etc.

Looking more closely, however, Elsa was not required to seclude herself as she did. Even had her parents forbid her to speak to Anna, which was suggested but not made explicit, Elsa would have had ample opportunity to throw off the bonds of seclusion after her parents died. She didn’t. This suggests that her restrictions depended largely upon fear, and were largely self-made. Now, one could argue that her parents’ past restrictions and fear of hurting Anna still bound her. Having been a sister, I certainly appreciate the difficulty of opening up to an impossibly inquisitive little sister. But then the song becomes about Elsa’s own pride and fear, and the rest of the movie becomes about being so lost in self-pity that one can’t see the outside world. I can certainly relate to that.

You know who’s less relatable? Anna, the main character. I know that a lot of people *do* relate to Anna. As a younger sister, I find that understandable. Anna is less relateable overall because she spends the bulk of the movie in increasingly fantastical chase scenes which prevent extensive character development development. Where her character is developed Anna is essentially a weaker reflection of Elsa.  Both sisters are excited about gaining their freedom (opening the gates, on the mountain), both do stupid things with it (getting engaged, moping about an ice castle), and the movie can’t move on until they get past their expectations (rescuing Elsa rather than having Elsa or Hans fix the problem, only controlling snow). 

The real point of the movie is that we build emotional prisons for ourselves, and without outside help, we can’t escape them. For Anna, this was the need for validation from a guy: validation she eventually found from both *another* guy and her sister *after* she stopped trying to find validation and acted sacrificially. Elsa, on the other hand, trapped herself in her room even after her parents were gone and then in an ice castle because she couldn’t control her emotions. Of course, in the end it turned out that she just needed to think about how much she loved her little sister as she did her magic. So, Frozen is a brilliant movie for several reasons, and “Let It Go” is an important song, but it’s a song about a mental prison: wouldn’t a song about love make more sense in the context of the movie?

As a side note: where on earth were the trolls during Elsa’s childhood? Maybe the king should have asked for their advice more often as Elsa’s control over her powers slipped.

Red Flags in Activism

Grass-roots activism has been a powerful force in American-history. However, there are certain common problems with activists’ arguments, which, if not obliterating that cause’s chance of being taken seriously, prevent *me* from taking them seriously.  Every organization that exhibits one of these warning signs is not necessarily foaming at the mouth, but has blind spots and should be approached with caution.

Darn Commies! (C) Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm

Darn Commies! (c) Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm

Persecution Doctrine is the belief that people/the establishment are actively persecuting a cause. But exactly what is persecution? Merriam-Webster defines “persecute” as

1: to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs

2: to constantly annoy or bother (someone)

Often, however, no evidence of constant harassment or unfair treatment is presented. Nor does such evidence prove that either viewpoint is in the right. It only suggests that one side finds debate threatening. However, if said cause wishes to proceed in this vein anyway, I find their arguments more convincing if they document a substantial number of concrete examples of how the organization/specific people have been harassed or focus their argument on things the organization has done, rather than ways it has been disenfranchised.

Squelching Debate. Ironically, the people who complain that their viewpoint has not been given a fair hearing often deny the opposition the same thing. This may take the form of deleting criticizing comments or banning commentators from web-page. Debate suppression may take the form of ad hominem attack, building straw-men, or bulverism. Indeed, if these organizations actually believe that their opponents are “haters” whose viewpoints are dictated by the “establishment” one begins to understand their persecution doctrine. However, the correct viewpoint will not be injured by answering the opposing arguments, and will be more respected for it.

Excessive Adherence to/Refusal to Acknowledge Authorities is another warning sign. One may disagree with the authorities, but to do so, one must present reasons, and one’s own authoritative voices. Or activists may attempt to cover their back by only citing particular authorities without addressing personal experience or opposing arguments (See Squelching Debate). The potential activist should realize who their authorities are, determine whether that authority applies, and present challenges to and alternative viewpoints to their own.

Excessive Attention to Marketing need not signal duplicity, but it has been used to “crowd-out” bad stories. To establish credibility, one might address these bad stories openly, and without generalization. They won’t be as apt to pop up later.

Fear-Mongering is used as a recruiting technique. Unfortunately, these fears often rely on unproven assumptions or there are alternate means of preventing the feared outcome. To make these strategies more effective, one should ensure the feared outcomes are direct consequences of your cause’s failure, rather than one-thing-leads-to-another scenarios.

Refusal to Compromise or Leave Opponents an Honorable Out commonly prevents amicable agreements. For example, after WWI, the French insisted that the Germans shoulder the bulk of the war debt and accept responsibility for the war. Regardless on your opinion of whether the French were justified, the Germans never would have taken such an agreement had they any choice, and Hitler’s rhetoric at the beginning of WWII highlighted showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race. Policy change is essentially a treaty, so I believe in giving your opponent a way to come out of a skirmish with dignity intact. For example, Germany could have given up Alsace-Lorraine in exchange for debt forgiveness or trade agreements or something else, which might have allowed the new German administration (over which France had just become dominant) to remain in office where France could exert its sway.

Partial Falsehoods fall under the umbrella of intellectual dishonesty (unless, of course, there’s no way one could have known the truth). Activism is all about morals. What are yours?

Poor Spelling and Grammar does not imply poor reasoning skill, but look at it this way. If you can’t be bothered to proof-read or hire an editor, than why should I give you money? Quite probably, you don’t have an accountant either. If you don’t care about your cause enough to discuss it in an educated way, than why should I care?

Excessive Anger is both one of the most detrimental and most difficult problems to cope with. If you didn’t believe in this cause, then you wouldn’t be an activist. Yet anger clouds thinking and allows the opposition (if it exists) to write-off your supports as a bunch of frothing at the mouth idiots. Rather one might formulate with possible retorts and ways to address them in a professional manner.

While these warning signs are present in a number of popular activist causes, I believe that they are the reason a lot of causes haven’t gone further: the organizers refuse to address people who value complete logical arguments or the organizers have not thought about why the opposition might oppose the movement or whether the movement’s goals are even viable.

While I find these characteristics troubling, they do not imply that an activist cause is necessarily wrong. There are some causes I support which display some of these red flags. In addition, there are many opposing outlooks on this issue. In researching some of the rhetoric out there, I stumbled across a post opining that youth activism is actually too “safe”, politically correct, cool-headed, and dependent on authority. While I agree that government-funded activism isn’t a good idea, my gripe with activism is that it is too emotionally driven, and the public makes decisions based on fear, rather than reason, while the activists place the appearance of righteousness over reason.

Grad School Decision

In my last semester at college, blogging has not come easily. Last semester, my library class enforced a (sort of)  blogging regimen, but for the last month I have been visiting and researching graduate schools in addition to my courseload. Even with so many new experiences, I still don’t feel like blogging. I feel worn out. Unmotivated. And, oddly enough, peaceful.

I finally made my graduate school decision. I spent a lot of time arguing with myself about rankings and locations. But in reality, I was splitting hairs to mask my fear of the location and the future and my slight discomfort with the fact I “felt at home in” a place I don’t really “feel at home in”. This despite the fact that I feel at peace with my decision. I’m going to Yale! The future awaits! Why am I still so tired? But I’m better with poetry right now.

Grace Enough Yale Stonework

At the end of each day
May I find grace to say
It is over, through, done
By God’s grace we have won

Perhaps we failed to find
An ending silver-lined
Perhaps we failed to do
Things we know we ought to

Yet in the end each day
I know a better way
No complaints or regrets
Peace though I don’t forget

Tomorrow comes apace
A dogged slavish race
Though the labor is tough
He has given grace enough

Why You Haven’t Seen Me in Three Months

There are three stages to graduate application.

1. Anticipation: Around October, I began thinking seriously about preparing my applications. I was in the process of writing fellowship applications to fund graduate school so I already had a lot of the material ready.

The primary barrier to application lay in the personal statement. The personal statement is an important part of the admissions process and commonly contains academic interests, future goals, reasons for pursuing graduate study, a summary of past research, reasons for applying to a particular university, and professors of interest all within 1-2 pages. That would seem straightforward enough. However there isn’t really a graceful way to say “I want to go to grad school so I can learn enough to complete the goals I’ve just mentioned.” (I didn’t say that.) Nor is it very easy to write a gripping narrative when the application instructions ask for details about research dates, results, and impacts: it’s not untoward to ask for such things, but the story turns into a laundry list.

Another complication was the GREs. Due to spending my summer at an REU, I hadn’t had a decent time to study. Then, due to difficulties deciding where I wanted to send my scores, I missed the deadline to sign up for the September 28th Chemistry GRE. That meant I got to take the normal GRE twenty-four hours before the chemistry GRE. What fun!

About the time I had a basic statement ready, I realized that I’d told professors who agreed to write recommendations for me that I’d sent them the request links as soon as possible. But it was also necessary that I tell them *when* the letters were due. Guess what? A lot of applications either don’t have a firm deadline or maybe sorta imply that it’s at the same time as the rest of the application. Unfortunately, some applications won’t send out requests until the application is actually submitted and others won’t let you input recommender names until you’ve submitted some kind of essay.

2. DesperationAbout three weeks out from my deadlines, I realized that most school deadlines fell two days after the end of finals week. To complicate things, the Hertz fellowship folks scheduled an interview in Chicago the week before finals week. So NOTHING was going to get done finals week or the weekend before. That was ok. I’d get everything in on the weekend after my interview. He he. I got stuff in before school offices opened on Monday.

Tweaking the personal statement for each school was also something of an adventure. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of schools in the first place. You see, I hadn’t heard yet of the Directory of Graduate Research through which students can find professors in their area. Instead, I identified the top twenty to forty schools in my area and was painstakingly reading through all the professor bios to find people I wanted to work with. (I also tried searching people who wrote really interesting papers in my area, but a lot of them either lived in China or no longer worked in academia.) Once I had identified target schools, I had forgotten what research went with what name and had to re-read professors’ bios so I could write about where I fit into their research, in addition to tweaking my essay to better fit general application requirements.

Of course, then, each college had these unnerving questions

  • Where else are you applying? To quote Frozone’s wife (the Incredibles) “Why…do you need to know?”
  • Have you contacted any professors at this school? Will I be penalized if I haven’t?
  • What are your potential sources of funding? Why is this an issue? I’m a college student. Of course I don’t have any money. BTW, most fellowships have no firm decision dates.

3. Insanity: I am technically done with all my applications, my recommenders having been very good sports about the entire process. Unfortunately, there seem to be a whole lot of loose ends.

One interesting facet of the application process was the ubiquitous ApplyTexas application. It’s supposed to eliminate the hassle of filling out a lot of different forms for Texas public colleges. Of course, each of these colleges has supplementary requirements, to satisfy which, one must log on to that college’s website. Last week I received an email from an administrator asking me to submit such supplemental documents and inviting questions. I replied with a minor question about transcripts…and got an automated reply.

I began checking my email every ten minutes.

Hoping to stave off some of the minor panic which comes with waiting one to four months for a reply, I logged on to a popular graduate student forum…and regretted it. What with my good GRE scores, GPA, and research record, I thought I had a great chance of getting in at the schools where I applied. There were people online with nearly perfect GRE scores, publications in recognized journals, and steller GPAs from name-brand institutions. What’s more, almost every school I had applied to had already started admitting some of these bright folks, leaving me to wonder whether I had a chance.

On the other hand, academics are competitive by nature. However, what’s really important is doing good science, which isn’t necessarily the same as sounding good on paper. It also helps to realize that most students, even those competing to get into the same program at a university do not want to work with the same professors or do the same research. While I won’t go so far as to say that everyone’s research is equally valuable, researching at a slightly less prestigious university does not mean that research is any less valid or that the person researching is any less of a scientist. At least you made it through the application process. That takes guts.

Wisdom and Joy

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug comes out in December. Although this movie will (hopefully) not feature Elrond, I found myself recently thinking about different perspectives on Elrond. In The Hobbit novel, Elrond was portrayed quite differently than he is in the movies. In the book he was…happy. The general character of the elves underwent a similar transformation in the movie. In  novel, they climb trees, sing silly songs, and mock the dwarves for having beards and acting old though most elves are at least twice as old as any of the dwarves. In recent film adaptations of LOTR and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the elves have as much levity as funeral home directors.

I think this discrepancy springs from cultural ideas about wisdom. elrondWe have difficulty picturing anyone who is wise having a good time. The idea behind the old solemn sage is that anyone who gains much wisdom (often by years of experience) will be depressed by humanity’s prospects. Perhaps solemnity does impart the proper perspective on serious questions. Yet in joy, we find hope’s perspective, which is a greater wisdom still because it sees what might change with one person’s efforts, rather than what will be if that person does nothing. Moreover, that joy may be the effort which brings about the change. Gandalf provides a good illustration.

Though the movies depressed Elrond and the elves, did away with Tom Bombadil, and omitted Aragorn’s sense of humor, the movies did not entirely do away with Gandalf, who embodies the idea of hope-filled wisdom. Sure, Gandalf does silly things like making fireworks and harassing Bilbo about the phrase “Good morning”, but sometimes good things come of his silliness. Gandalf founds the expedition to the Lonely Mountain that enables Bilbo to find the Ring, which Sauron would have otherwise eventually taken from Gollum. The Lonely Mountain expedition also turns Bilbo into an adventurer, which in turn lets Bilbo raise Frodo to be adventurous enough to destroy the Ring. Frodo might have been unable to undertake such an expedition had not Gandalf been with him to give him encouragement like

“Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. in which case you were also meant to have it.”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

If the Elrond of the movie had his way, the Ring might have been hidden away while Middle Earth made one last all or nothing assault on Mordor, where everyone died–or the ring might have found by Sauron rather than Bilbo if the dwarves’ expedition had not continued. Fortunately, the Elrond of the book was nothing like this but helped both the thirteen dwarves and the Fellowship of the Ring and named his foster son (the future king of Gondor) Estel, Elvish for “hope”.

Image from from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Runaround

I’ve been working with a NMR a lot lately. It generates a reality all its own. Working with it during the past couple of days has taught me a few lessons:

  • You left something down a flight of stairs in the other lab. Figure out what it is.
  • Murphy’s law says as soon as a professor says this needs to be done today, another student will show up with the same urgency, whose sample should take much less time than yours. In theory. His sample is bigger on the inside.
  • After you insert a sample, you will realize that you forgot to remove your metal watch,  which might have messed up the magnetism of the NMR or your watch. No joke, my watch is losing time, though that might be the battery.

    Poor Watch

  • If you’re counting on getting “done” within a set amount of time, you won’t, because…
  • Shimming a sample never works the same way twice!
  • It may be necessary to pray for the equipment to get it to shim properly.
  • If labels can fall off, they will. Color code the caps of NMR tubes in sequences to make things simpler. (I use green-white-blue for incrementally more concentrated solutions.)
  • Make too much solution. Even if you use a volumetric flask, the elves will steal a few tenths of a milliliter.
  • There isn’t enough time to do homework between samples. Well, maybe like one question.
  • Do the dishes. The dish tray is a queue, not a dishwasher.
  • Things often don’t work out as planned. Keep going. :)