Monday, January 26, 2009

The Book of Jonah, and miracles

Yesterday in church the first reading was from the book of Jonah. A lot of agnostics like to make fun of the Book of Jonah, on the grounds that it's impossible for a man to survive three days inside a whale. Well, yes. I don't think that Jonah was really swallowed by a whale, and I don't know too many people today who do. For that matter, I don't think that St. Augustine, who talked extensively about the book of Jonah, thought he was swallowed by a whale. That particular book is a myth, a parable, to be interpreted, not literally, but as a figure of Christ. The story of Jonah is a prophecy of Christ: the three days inside the whale correspond to Christ's burial and descent into hell on Holy Saturday.

What I had forgotten, until I looked at the book of Jonah last night, is that Jonah actually pleads with the sailors for him to be put overboard, and the sailors like Pilate, ask for their hands to be washed of an innocent man's blood. Jonah willingly offered himself as a blood-sacrifice, just as Christ did. And Jonah, as much as Christ, was the Jews' "messiah to the gentiles", in this case to Nineveh. Really, what a profound foreshadowing of the Passion of Christ. Jonah was the unwilling vehicle of the salvation of the sailors, as Christ was the willing vehicle of the salvation of mankind. As Augustine puts it, As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world.

And really, when you think about it, what is the bigger miracle? The agnostics are right to tear apart the lesser miracle- no, Jonah wasn't really swallowed by "a big fish". But they can't touch the greater miracle: that hundreds of years before Christ, the Jews were telling amongst themselves a strange and enigmatic fable about a man who is swallowed by a whale. They didn't know what it means, and they couldn't- no one could, until "all was fulfilled". But for some reason, unknowingly, they put this strange, obscure, poorly written fable into their canon of Sacred Scripture, and passed it on through scholarship and recitation. Their rabbis taught it and their youths learned it- not knowing that hundreds of years later, people would look at it and see an unmistakable foretelling of the Passion of the Lord. That is the real miracle here, not some tall story about "a big fish", as William Jennings Bryan said. The real miracle is not whether the story happened: the miracle is the story itself. Just one of the many details in world history and cosmology that make no sense by themselves, but make perfect sense when we read them in the light of John 1:14, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."

Christ was, as C.S. Lewis liked to put it, the Myth made fact. In Christ the myth of Jonah- and of the Saoshyant, and of Vergil's Eclogue, and of the Suffering Servant- was made fact. In Christ is the story of Jonah, and all these other stories, fulfilled.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Compean and Ramos

Bush's last pardons in office were not, surprisingly, of any noted war criminals or architechts of the Iraq war. Rather he pardoned two Border Patrol officers in prison for 20 years.

Their crime? They had chased a Mexican drug dealer, later found to have a thousand pounds of marijuana in his car, for several miles through the desert, after he apparently pulled a gun on one of them. Eventually they shot him in the ass- he made it back to Mexico safely.

They were found guilty of illegal use of force, and because they used a firearm in the course of their "felony", an extra 10 years was added onto their sentence. Mr. Aldrete-Davila, the charming young drug dealer, was given special immunity to come back to this country and testify.

Excuse me? Are you f--ing kidding me? No wonder we have a crime, and drug problem, in this country. We live in a society where a known drug smuggler whose ass got peppered by a couple of cops, is invited like a diplomatic guest of honor to come testify against two policemen. This is criminals' rights run amock. No one is going to take seriously a legal system that celebrates people whose bad behavior gets them chased by the cops, and that tosses two hardworking cops in prison for 20 years.

Bush has done a lot of bad things in his presidency, but this is a good one. Mr. Ramos and Mr. Compean deserve to be home with their families- it's a pity that they still have this "felony" on their records. If I ever meet them, I'm buying them a round.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, and the current economic crisis

I'm planning to write a post, sometime soon, on the current financial crisis and recession that appear to be spreading from the United States to all the developed late-capitalist powers. It's fascinating to me that so many of the contours of this looming crisis- not just the claim that Western capitalism would collapse, not just the hope that Western capitalism should collapse, but a detailed analysis of how and why it would be collapse- were predicted several decades before. I'm thinking, of course, of the "underconsumptionist" thesis propounded by a number of left-leaning thinkers: by Sismondi, and by the Harvard economist Paul Sweezy et al. Of course I don't mean to dismiss the older prophecies: the visions of so many people, religious and secular, who foresaw that the current age, the age of lust, greed, and pride, would come to a bloody and fiery end, and that a new age of love and harmony would be ushered in.Those prophecies are invaluable as aids to faith, hope, and love, and ultimately they will be fulfilled. But in addition, it would be good for us to know how and why the kind of economy and society we have today, late-capitalism, with all of the distortions and deformations it has caused- to the natural environment, to other species, to the poor, to developing countries, to rural areas, to the family, to our own sense of virtues like justice, love, labor, and charity- is eventually going to fall, and why its end is in some sense inevitable.

Paul Sweezy provides such an argument. It will be a while before I can write detailed posts on the current crisis, as I need to skim through "Monopoly Capital" in my spare time and marshall his main points. But basically, Sweezy argues that modern Western capitalism is by its very nature underconsumptionist. Not that we in the West consume too little. On the contrary, we consume far too much- this is why we have raped the natural world, and are rapidly running out of virtually every natural resource- fossil fuels, metals, timber, arable land, water, fisheries. The point is that we consume less than the system produces; that a mature capitalist system tends towards a state in which the system cannot absorb the surplus that it generates. This wasn't true for early, competitive capitalism: but it is true today, in the world of globalized, oligopolistic capitalism. For the nature of oligopolistic capitalism is that it partakes both of aspects of monopoly and aspects of competition. Inasmuch as it resembles competitive capitalism, businesses are driven to keep their costs low (and globalization helps drive them even lower). Yet inasmuch as it resembles monopolistic capitalism, with industries being dominated by a few players who have swallowed up their rivals through consolidation and buyouts, companies are free to keep their prices high, and in fact tend not to use lowered prices as a means of competition.

This creates an ever expanding ocean of surplus profits in the hands of the owners of capital. And the nature of monopoly capitalism is that it has no good way to use up that surplus. A feudal Christian state could use them up by building churches and monasteries. An oriental monarchy could build palaces and pleasure gardens. A social-democratic state might simply pay workers more, or force prices to be lowered. A real socialist state would not have the problem in the first place, as there would be less separation between producers and consumers, and therefore no surplus beyond that which was socially necessary. A competitive capitalist economy could lower prices and get rid of the surplus that way. An environmentalist state could use the surplus to plant trees and solve our carbon-dioxide problem. But no, a monopoly capitalist state can't do any of these things, for in their different ways they would all challenge the logic and surplus of the system.

Sweezy predicted that monopoly capitalism would use up the surplus in three primary ways. It would throw some bones to the poor, to persuade them to buy into the system and become dependent on it, without actually doing anything to remedy their plight or to give them control over their own livelihoods and destinies. It would throw money at an ever expanding and ever more bloated military establishment, using ever higher and more expensive technology against ever more meaningless and pitiful threats (Iraq, anyone? Grenada?) as well as, of course, against crushing revolutions in the developing world. These seem to be good descriptions of the "welfare state" and "warfare state" in the modern West respectively.

But most of all, Sweezy said, American late-capitalism would use up the surplus through the sales effort. As monopoly capitalism suffers from inadequate demand (because profits, to have value, must be invested, and you can't invest in production without a demand for that production), monopoly capitalism would create the demand. It would invest heavily in advertising, marketing, sales, and all the other types of economic activity that employ so many people in our wonderful late-capitalist utopia, and that create utterly nothing of any meaningful value. Go into your nearest grocery store and look at how much on the shelves is really necessary to a fulfilling and happy life. It would invest in pouring out a nonstop stream of mendacious messages to get people to buy stuff they don't need, and in making people feel that the old, sturdy products they had were unfashionable and out of date; it would invest in differentiating their products from the absolutely identical products of their competitors through meaningless brand-name differences. It would invest in creating a swollen, dependent middle class of salespeople, marketers, public-relations specialists, consultants, and I don't know what else, in order to keep the populace employed, in order to keep the demand for goods high while the price of production stayed low, in order to keep the wheels of industry turning, and in order to keep surplus profits from backing up. Like Orwell's Eastasia, modern capitalism would be faced with the imperative to keep the wheels of industry turning, but at the same time to keep the actual fruits of production out of the hands of the poorest of the poor- for that would challenge the very logic of the system. This huge and bloated class of people involved in the "sales effort" would be, in the strict sense, unproductive workers: they would not produce anything, but rather be involved in selling what was produced. In that way, they would be net consumers of the surplus, and would not contribute to expanding the surplus further. They would be the equivalent of the slaves who built the Pyramids, or the retinues of domestic servants in the European Middle Ages.

Sweezy draws, in careful detail, a picture of why monopoly capitalism would be driven to use the sales effort as its last tool to keep demand high and to use up the surplus generated by capital, and also shows how society and human beings were morally, intellectually, and spiritually corrupted and deformed by the system. But one point he doesn't make, perhaps because it wasn't yet a reality in his time. He doesn't point out another way that monopolistic businesses would collude with the capitalist state to increase demand, particularly among the poor and working class. How they would use advertising to persuade people to buy beyond their means, and would then extend them credit to do so. How they would encourage people to buy houses they couldn't afford with cheap loans; how they would encourage people to buy things on credit cards that they would never be able to afford, and fall into lifelong cycles of debt. How thrift would become a vice, and profligacy a virtue. How the American economy would shift further and further away from actually producing goods, until most of our manufactured goods had labels on them from Asia or Central America. How the American economy would become less and less dependent on real goods, and more and more on moving paper money around. Until we reached a point at which the bulwark, the strength, the only real basis of our economy was our ability to persuade people that we had lots of money that they wanted, and an ability to pay whenever they required it. And what would happen when they decided to call our bluff? Sweezy didn't know all this, but I'm sure he would have seen this as yet more confirmation of his theory. And he would have been right. Sweezy was right, and our slide into a parasitic economy of consumers rather than producers proves it better than ever.

Sweezy was wrong about some things, but he was right about the deepest things. He was right to see in late capitalism not just irrationality and immorality, but also a fundamental incoherence. Those contradictions have only gotten deeper since he wrote his boom "Monopoly Capital" (dedicated to Che Guevara) in 1966, and the real question for us today is this: will the crisis of 2008 be seen, in retrospect, to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, the spark that set the world on fire?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The descent of the dove

This is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on which Our Lord was baptized by St. John in the waters of the Jordan, the day on which a dove descended on His head, the day on which a voice spoke from heaven saying This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. Remember that imagery of the dove. Like everything else in the Gospels, it is there for a reason. Here are St. Augustine's ruminations on what that reason might be.

For this reason was charity betokened by the Dove which descended upon the Lord. That likeness of a dove, the likeness in which came the Holy Ghost, by whom charity should be shed forth into us: wherefore was this? The dove has no gall: yet with beak and wings she fights for her young; hers is a fierceness without bitterness. ....See here, brethren, a great lesson, a great rule: each one of you has children, or wishes to have; or if he has altogether determined to have no children after the flesh, at least spiritually he desires to have children:— what father does not correct his son? what son does not his father discipline? And yet he seems to be fierce with him. It is the fierceness of love, the fierceness of charity: a sort of fierceness without gall after the manner of the dove, not of the raven.

These lines are from the "Sermons on the First Letter of John", 7:10. This is the same sermon, incidentally where St. Augustine writes the often-quoted words: Love, and do as you wish. People often quote that, but equally often fail to look into the context in which it was said- a context which many today would find unappealing, specifically defending the use of coercion, by the Church and the State, when it is genuinely done out of love, for the good of the person being coerced. I'm much more sympathetic to that point of view than modern liberals, though by the same token more cautious of its dangers and limitations than St. Augustine. (And for good reason- we have sixteen centuries more experience with the dangers that can accompany coercion in the name of love, if it's not tempered with mercy.) But that aside- I don't want to turn this into a political post, and I have to get back to work anyway. But just think about this: the man who wrote such timeless and beautiful prose intended them for one context, but we in a completely different context, separated by sixteen centuries, can still find them speaking to us today. Augustine wasn't right about everything he said, by a long shot, but he was right about this: and when he wrote these words, the Spirit was showing herself* forth through him, just as she showed herself through the descent of the dove.

*The Holy Spirit is a feminine noun in Hebrew and Aramaic; when Jesus spoke of the promised Paraclete, he did so in the feminine. Unfortunately, this nuance was lost when the New Testament was written, as Spiritus Sanctus is masculine in Latin and, I believe, in Greek. But it's clear from reading this sermon that when St. Augustine compared the Spirit to a dove, he did so specifically to a mother dove, i.e. a female dove. The Spirit represents, among other things, the feminine side of the Divine, as God the Father represents the masculine.

Unemployment in Venezuela and the United States

It's of yesterday, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is 7.2%, the highest in 25 years. Venezuela, on the other hand, has an unemployment rate of 6.1%. Of course, that unemployment rate will probably rise this coming year, if oil prices remain low. Nevertheless, there's a couple reasons why this is not simply going to be a case of Venezuela falling through the floor this coming year as they can no longer sell their oil. Venezuela is actually in a better situation than one might expect, for a number of reasons.

1) Unlike most commodities, oil isn't a free-market commodity, and there is no "market price" for oil. Oil is an oligopolistic, cartelized industry, and to a large extent the price of oil is whatever OPEC and Russia say it is. So far they haven't agreed on a plan to lower production: but they will, and they will lower it to the point where their earnings are maximized. That will happen, I suspect, sometime early this year. To put it another way, Venezuela and the other powerful oil producers (Russia, Iran, etc.) have a lot of discretionary power over the price of oil.
2) The demand for oil, inevitably, is going to increase again. The earth's population is increasing, there is a rising demand for energy to build industrial economies in India and China, and the proposed stimulus plan in the United States will require an initial investment of fossil fuel energy to build the alternative-energy plants that Obama is talking about. As the supply of oil falls, the price will inevitably go up. Let's remember that the price of oil is still about 33% higher than it was six years ago.
3) Chavez has been investing a lot in agriculture and manufacturing. As Venezuela makes less money from oil, it will be forced to devalue its currency, which in the long term will give a big boost to domestic production. Unlike a country like, say, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela has a plethora of natural and human resources: fertile soils, vast expanses of land, dense and biodiverse forests, rich fisheries, an educated and hardworking people, and a basic industrial infrastructure- roads, factories, transportation networks, processing plants, and the like. It's a far cry from the environmentally barren and socially decadent one-crop economies that are the Persian Gulf states, it's a far cry from the overpopulated ethnic and religious powder keg that is Nigeria, and it's a far cry from the curious hybrid of First World and Fourth World that is Equatorial Guinea. Venezuela is more analogous to Russia or Mexico- oil has been great to her, but she has more to rely on than oil, and she will get through this mess somehow. (Fortunately, unlike Russia, Venezuela isn't flanked by expansionist European globalizers to the west, Jihadists to the south, and an amoral and land-hungry Chinese tyranny to the east).
4) Finally, the Venezuelan revolution isn't going to fall because the economy is bad, it's going to fall if and only if people blame the revolution for their ills. If Chavez is smart, he will blame the economic difficulties on the irrationality of the global capitalist system, and on the amorality and disloyalty of the wealthy who pulled their capital out of Venezuela. And he would speak the truth- not all of the truth certainly, for Chavez has made plenty of mistakes of his own, but he would not be lying. If Chavez is smart, he could even use the economic crisis as a way to get people to band together against the enemy at home and abroad, and as a way to reconstruct the economy along progressive lines. Argentina used the crisis of 2001 as an opportunity to extend state and worker's control over factories that went bankrupt; Cuba used the crisis of the early 1990s as an opportunity to transform their agriculture along ecologically sustainable lines. In both cases, ultimately the countries emerged stronger and more progressive from their ideal. It is to be hoped that Venezuela can do the same.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Yes, I know you guys must be sick of reading my theological ruminations, but just one more. This last Tuesday was the day of the Epiphany, traditionally a more important feast than Christmas. It is the day that for the first time, God was made manifest through the person of Jesus Christ. This was the day that the three Magi, the wise men from Persia, arrived at the end of their long quest, and fell in adoration and worship before the Christ Child.

It's often said, by critics of Christianity, that Jesus was just a 'wise teacher', not God Incarnate, and that his initial followers saw him as such. "He was a wise teacher, a charismatic rabbi.", they say. "Later, myths grew up about him, and St. Paul invented the idea that he was God." Er, no. Regardless of whether you think that Jesus Christ was the Incarnate God, the Logos, the Son, it is clear that He claimed to be such, and that many of his early followers (the ones who realized what was going on) recognized Him as such. None of this 'wise teacher' business. This was made clear to me in a great homily I heard at last year's Epiphany service. We think of the gifts- gold, frankincense, and myrrh- as just another bunch of expensive substances. We laugh at how useless they would have been to a peasant Jewish family, and we laugh knowingly when Monty Python makes feeble jokes about Mary wanting to return the myrrh. But actually, each of these gifts is saturated with significance.

Gold signified glory and virtue, it was a gift given to a king.The gift of gold showed that the Magi recognized Christ's human nature, as the Son of Man, the longed-for messiah, the King who would say at the end of the world, "Behold, I make all things new." The gift of frankincense showed that they recognized His divine nature. Frankincense was the incense of religious ritual, it was what you offered to God. The Persians were recognizing what Caiaphas saw as blasphemy and what Pilate saw as treason, that Christ was not just a King but also a God. The myrrh, most powerfully and interesting, was an embalming perfume; it was used in preparing the bodies of the death. Through the gift of myrrh, the Persian Magi were prophecying that the Incarnate God, the Word made flesh, would die as a sacrifice for human sin, and that in a very real sense His death was the ultimate purpose of His human life. Behold the lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world. St. Ambrose of Milan says of the gifts One is the token of the dignity of a king, the other the symbol of divine majesty, the third is a service of honor to the dead, that does not destroy the body of the dead but preserves it. In the myrrh we see not just the prophecy of His death but of His resurrection: this was the God-King who would overcome death, and through whom all men could enjoy eternal life. As myrrh preserves the body of the dead, He would preserve their souls: but while myrrh preserves them for a time, He would preserve them for ever.

We often think of Christ as being the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy and of the Jewish faith, and He was. But He was so much more. He was the fulfilment of all that is good and true in all the religions of the world. Before the Logos was made incarnate at Bethlehem, dim glimpses and hints of what was to come had been revealed to the peoples of the world. Isaiah had prophecied a suffering servant, whose life and death would usher in a time of perfect love and perfect peace. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his wounds we are healed. Virgil, in his fourth eclogue, foretold (merely a couple decades before Christ) the birth of a boy who would usher in a new, paradisiacal age. Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign/ With a new breed of men sent down from heaven/ Only do thou, at the boy's birth in whom / The iron shall cease, the golden race arise..." The Zoroastrians, of whom the Magi came, had prophecied a savior, born of a virgin , who would overcome death and allow men to attain eternal life. The victorious Saoshyant and his helpers... shall restore the world, which will (thenceforth) never grow old and never die, never decaying and never rotting, ever living and ever increasing, and master of its wish, when the dead will rise, when life and immortality will come, and the world will be restored at its wish; When the creation will grow deathless, - the prosperous creation of the Good Spirit, - and the Druj shall perish, though she may rush on every side to kill the holy beings; she and her hundredfold brood shall perish, as it is the will of the Lord. Others, too, had vague prophecies that make sense in the light of the coming of Christ: the Hindus, the Greeks, the Central American peoples. C.S. Lewis once said, 'I believe in Christ as I believe in the sun; not merely because I can see it but because by its light I see everything else.' He was right.

For centuries, the Persians have had a special relationship with the Jews, and with the Christians, and perhaps most of all with the various dualist heresies that sprang up within the Christian fold. Cyrus of Persia was the only non-Jewish king who was called "the Lord's anointed" by the Jewish prophets; along with Darius and the Persian king in Esther, he was a friend to the Jews, and they saw in him the hand of God. Persian culture influenced the Jews during the exile, and had a great influence on thinking about the devil, the angelic hierarchy, the origin of evil, and the afterlife. Indeed, without the effect of Persian religion it's doubtful that Christianity would have ever learned about the nature and origin of evil and the evil power- there's certainly no hint in Job, for example, that evil is a real and malignant power. I can only make sense out of this by concluding that the Persians did, in fact, have their own and special revelation: they lacked much that the Jews had, but also had some unique insights of their own that they could teach to the Jews and Christians who had hitherto not known them. And this is demonstrated, to me, by the coming of the Magi. The Jews had prophecied Christ but it was the Persians who were the first to recognize him for who and what He was.

I consider myself a Christian because I believe that Christ was God Incarnate, the Word made Flesh, and I basically accept the Nicene teaching about Him. One of the areas where I disagree with orthodox Christianity, though, is that I think they have never fully given enough weight to the existence of evil. Traditional Christian accounts of the problem of evil did not satisfy Ivan Karamazov, and they don't fully satisfy me.

I am compelled by my reason and conscience to believe that evil has an eternal existence of its own, its own fearsome power and its own bitter independence. For how could Good be truly Good unless it existed in opposition to Evil? and we know, as per Anselm, that God has always been perfectly Good. Moreover, unless evil was a powerful and independent force of its own, then how can we fully account for why there is so much evil that goes unchallenged and unatoned for in this world? We know that we shall finally be recompensed, in the hereafter and at the end of the world, that we shall enjoy a perfect and blessed eternal kingdom, and that it will have been worth walking a quadrillion quadrillion miles through hell for two seconds of joy in heaven. But why is there so much evil here and now? I'm not convinced that traditional Christian teaching can fully answer that question: the Persian belief that this is a world of division, a world at war, over which two great powers are fighting, makes more sense to me. The traditional, orthodox Christian teachings have, I think, underestimated the power of evil in the world, where the Persians did not.

The Persians, then, have had their own wisdom, their own knowledge, and their own revelation. And this knowledge, this revelation, these flashes of truth, were fulfilled by the coming of Christ. They worshipped him, and kneeled before him, and offered their prophetic tokens of His kingship, His divinity, and His saving death. Then, we are told, they returned home "by another way". They came as Zoroastrians, but they left as, in some sense, followers of Christ. They who had seen Christ came to know Christ, and returned more truly believing than they came, says St. Ambrose. Chrysostom tells us that they returned and spread belief in Christ into their own country, and that when St. Thomas the Apostle went to Persia on his way to India, he baptized them. Finally when Thomas came to that country they joined themselves to Him. St. Thomas, is by the way, a fascinating character, and you should read the legends about his life in the Acta Thomae....supposedly he could raise the dead, talk to snakes, and lots of other fascinating legends.

This is the infinite wisdom of God, that he brought about through the Persian Magi what he had prophecied through Isaiah, and in doing so fulfilled and completed the faith of both. "Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be." Amen.

Colligative properties

So I was working at the high school yesterday, talking to the kids about boiling point....someone had asked what happens to the boiling point of water when you dissolve something in it. That got into the topic of colligative since we had a flask of water boiling, I thought I would demonstrate how addition of a solute raises the boiling point, and temporarily stops boiling. So after getting permission from the regular teacher, I added a little salt to the solution, thinking that the boiling would suddenly stop and then pick up again after the temperature rose a tiny bit.

BAD IDEA. Do not EVER try this unless you are standing well back from the water. It made a little volcano, suddenly fizzing up and overflowing the container for a second or two. Then it stopped, as one would expect. Fortunately, I and the kids jumped back in time, so no one was splashed- it wasn't as if the flask exploded. But still, not the best idea.

In retrospect, of course, I should have expected that would happen. Before the salt grains go into solution (i.e. for a second or two) they provide a great array of nucleation sites for bubbles, so they provide an immediate acceleration of boiling. As soon as some appreciable quantity has dissolved, boiling stops since the temperature is now just below the new boiling point of the salt water. I'd never seen this happen but I should have remembered that salt is an excellent promoter of bubble formation....I remember once in a bar, getting a Corona (I almost never drink beer, and Corona is pretty much the only variety I ever drink) and thinking it would be cool to put salt around the neck, like a tequila. It overflowed all over the table, quite the little volcano....foam and bubbles everywhere. The waitress said she'd never seen anything quite like it.

In future, always remember the importance of nucleation sites for phase changes! (Indeed, this is related to how you can have 'supercooled' liquids, i.e. liquids below their freezing point, in very pure water- there aren't enough nucleation points so the solid cannot form.)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back in the Upper Midwest

So I arrived back in the Midwest on Saturday. I had a good break overall (didn't get enough work done, I am going to be screwed again at the start of this semester. Go figure).

I wasn't able to see all of my friends in Boston, partly because some of them were gone home for break, so that was unfortunate. I had also lost some of my friends' numbers when I changed cell phones, so I couldn't hang out with everyone, including a Dominican friend of mine with whom I had a great evening together last Christmas- he had grown up on a farm so we talked about growing tropical root crops like sweet potatoes. I organized a Christmas party on the Thursday before Christmas- rather a dumb idea since everyone pretty much is traveling on that Friday, either leaving Boston or coming to Boston, so of course hardly anyone came. One friend did show up- he's a friend of mine from high school and college, and currently a relatively newly ordained Congregational minister. He introduced me to a couple of friends including, oddly, a young lady with a degree in primatology who had worked in Madagascar before- we shared a couple acquaintances. Small world, indeed. I also met a student at the Harvard School of Public Health, so we talked a bit about Paul Farmer- a truly amazing person, you should read his book.

I didn't wind up doing too much for New Year's Eve (or anything, actually). On New Year's Day I did take a trip down to Newport, RI- truly a beautiful town. I spent the day driving around Newport with a charming young lady so that was definitely a highlight of my trip home.

I also got to hang out with my cute baby niece (just a month old)! Her name is "Lyra", presumably after the heroine of Philip Pullman's abominable book series. She is still at the small and delicate stage so I tried not to hold her too much...very cute though! We also were graced with the visit from an old family friend who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire just before the whole country went to hell in a handbasket (a hell from which, unfortunately, it hasn't yet escaped). She is another amazing person, and probably got me first interested in the Peace Corps
- today she studies demography, and works a lot in southern Africa. She had her 1 year old in tow. Very precocious- already walking, climbing up stairs (although he hasn't figured out how to come down yet), and trying to make gurgling noises that sound like words. He was very pacific too, with a minimum of crying, so I took every possible opportunity to hold him and play with him. He enjoyed particularly when I hand-fed him oranges- yes, he really liked oranges- but wasn't a big fan of cherries, and had a rather disgusted look on his face when we gave him a taste of a cherry. He also loved it when I showed him how to open cupboards- unfortunately he got the hang of it pretty quick, so I bet his mother's kitchen won't be safe for awhile! What a perfectly adorable little baby. His name is Amartya- I didn't realize but apparently this means 'Undying" or "Immortal" in Sanskrit- the same as a variety of other common European and Asian names like Amara, Amarantha, Akal, and Athanasios.

All in all, a fun back to the grind again....)