Monday, July 25, 2011

One-sentence book reviews

For some of my recent reading:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: I know this wasn't your intention, but now I really feel like a loser for how little my garden is producing.

The Aeneid (trans. Sarah Ruden): This translation is clear, memorable, and moving; it made me wish that Vergil had finished the poem, just so I could read more.

The Phantom Tollbooth (in progress): Why did it take me so long to discover this book?

The Trumpeter of Krakow: I'm not actually reading this one--my wife is. But this book smells like a happy childhood.

Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (in progress): I feel the ceiling of what is possible for me to learn about math rushing precipitously toward my head.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Potter Challenge

So, you're put off by the Harry Potter hype. You had to live through "the end of HP" back when the seventh book came out, and now the media is filled with the same recycled stories. The breathless devotion of the fans is annoying. You just don't get what all the fuss is about, and you're not planning on reading the books yourself any time soon.

Well, I was once just as put off as you. And I'm now one of those breathless fans. I have a hard time formulating how much I love these books. I turn into a cliche factory: they're about good and evil, about love conquering all, about growing up, about learning how to die.

Yeah, I wouldn't want to read them on that description.

But I really think you should read these books. Not so you can wring some enjoyment out of the mediocre movies or catch esoteric references. It will improve your life to have this narrative walking around with you.

So as an incentive for you to read the series, I'm going to put my own reading time on the line. There are plenty of supposedly "great" books that I don't see what the fuss is about. I've written these authors off; I'll never read them. Unless you read Harry Potter.

Here's what I propose. If you pledge to read a certain number of pages in the HP series, I'll match those pages with something that you love from my Never Gonna Read It list.

Feel free to choose works by any of these authors:
Ayn Rand
David Foster Wallace
James Joyce
Kurt Vonnegut
Karl Barth (or pick your favorite systematic theologian)
Sylvia Plath (I don't even know what she wrote. Just her name annoys me.)
Virginia Woolf (I'm not sure I know the difference between her and Sylvia Plath. Also, her name has too many o's.)
Kate Chopin (let's just make a category called "Depressing Lady Books")
Stieg Larsson
Leo Tolstoy
Stephanie Meyer
William Faulkner
Thomas Hardy
Marshall McLuhan
Any French Novelist (Proust, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Zola)
Any of the Brontes
Suggest something you know I'll hate!

Suggested page pledges:

Sorcerer's Stone: 309
Chamber of Secrets: 341 (650 cumulative)
Prisoner of Azkaban: 435 (1085 cumulative--you should go at least this far)
Goblet of Fire: 734 (1819 cumulative--you really should go at least this far)
Order of the Phoenix: 870 (2689 cumulative)
Half-Blood Prince: 672 (3361 cumulative)
Deathly Hallows: 759 (4120 cumulative)

This is a genuine offer. I honestly loathe the thought of reading any books by these authors. But I'm willing to make the sacrifice. Let's make a deal.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Paul among the People

Paul among the People is a good book. You should read it.

The author, Sarah Ruden, is a classical scholar and translator of the Aeneid. Based on the snippets of her translation scattered throughout the book, I'd say she's a very good translator. (Maybe she'll be able to get me past Book I of the Aeneid.) Her renderings are striking, immediate. The danger in translating classic texts is that the unnatural English of the translation will lay like a haze over the terrain of the original's ideas. The haze masks the landscape, the places where it rises to meet us and where it falls away abruptly. Ruden is clear, and the disorientation you feel when reading her translations is the result of seeing the extremes of the landscape: These ancient people were just like us, except when they were exactly unlike us.

In Paul among the People, Ruden lets us hear Paul in the context of "his own time." This is what New Testament scholarship is supposed to do, but Ruden does it more vividly than any commentary I've read. What kind of behavior were the early Christians and their polytheistic neighbors engaged in? What was Paul warning them to avoid? (The short answer: A lot of sexual violence and exploitation.)

Ruden's approach is driven by the way Paul is viewed in modern society (outside the evangelical sphere, it should be added): as a hater of fun, women, and homosexuals, a supporter of oppression and slavery. Ruden's project is to debunk this view, topic by topic.

Reading this book from within evangelicaldom is an interesting experience. Ruden shows that Paul was on the right side of history, but she doesn't have the highest opinion of his personality. I don't think evangelicals perceive Paul as having a personality, at least, not personality flaws. (Is this a consequence of inerrancy? Was Paul's crankiness covered in verbal plenary inspiration?) Some of the hardest passages are punted away by saying, "Paul didn't write that letter." This was a let-down for me, but fair enough: Ruden's project isn't to tell the church what its Scriptures teach; she wants to present what Paul, the ancient thinker, actually taught. As an outsider to New Testament scholarship, it makes sense for Ruden to defer to the highest-credentialed scholars in the field (i.e., her colleagues at Harvard and Yale) on the limits of the Pauline corpus.

This is a unique, helpful, and riveting book. (I read it in only a couple of sittings.) The designers and typesetters also deserve credit for an excellent finished product.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Lord and Master

Pets aren't supposed to be called pets anymore, apparently. It makes sense when you think about it. There's already something odd about referring to a dog and his "master," isn't there? Something 1950s, patriarchal, racist. The concept of master recedes further and further from our minds and everyday experience, until it relates solely to two opposite images: the Christian God (Lord = Master) and a fat Southern slave owner. A mental continent is sinking under the waves, with these two promontories the last pieces of ground above water. Is there anything valuable in seeing that they are connected under the surface?


A certain stock scene has cropped up in a couple of recent books I've read. I feel like I should reflect on the meaning of the scene in it's various incarnations, but the closest I'll get is probably making a note of them here:

WorkFaithful spouseUnfaithful spouseResult
The Moon and SixpenceDirkBlanchesuicide
Todo sobre mi madreManuelaLola[!]AIDS

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Who Owns the Slave?

*This is a satire. Don't take it too seriously, mkay?*

Just a quick note about "slave labor." The real question for those who would understand the nature of slavery is the question of ownership. Say there is a particular slave working in the fields, or at the factory, or in the house on Main Street. Who owns that slave's labor?

The assumption behind the free labor movement is that the worker owns his labor. The biblical understanding is that the one who owns the worker owns the labor (1 Tim. 6:2). This is not the same as saying that the slave owner is a great guy. No, the slave owners are frequently evil, and they abuse their position of ownership (Exod. 1:11).

Owner/slave disputes often fall into a false good guy/bad guy dichotomy, and it betrays a false understanding of the antithesis. In the Bible the owners are often the bad guys. But that does not mean they are not the owners of their slaves. Bad guys can own things. And the commandment does not say, "Thou shalt not steal, except from bad guys."

So there is absolutely nothing wrong with slaves deciding that conditions on the job are horrendous, and asking the owner to remedy the situation. And there is no problem with the slaves using whatever persuasive ability they have to make his case. Say they are asking for an increase in rations, or for safer working conditions. That is fully legitimate as well. What is not legitimate is for them to refuse to provide the owner with their labor as though they are the owners of it. To refuse to work until your demands are met is a claim of ownership, which in this case is a false claim.

This sin (and it is a sin) is in evidence when slaves abandon their duties entirely by running away. This deprives owners of both the slave's labor and the slave himself, and also negatively affects all the remaining slaves, who must shoulder the extra burden left by the runaway.

In other words, the proposal to emancipate slaves and pay them for their labor is nothing but extortion, and Christians should do everything in their power to have nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Homemade Naan

Indian food is the best food on the planet. I've tried my hand at several different Indian dishes over the years (some of my favorites are Aloo Gobi, Baingan Bharta, and for special occasions, Rogan Josh). But I've never tried to make the naan before. I've always been content to serve the dishes with basmati rice. But you only live once, right? Go big or go home.

There are several naan recipes out there. I wanted to start simple, so I ignored the ones that called for yeast. This recipe seemed a good base. I diverted from it a bit, so I'll spell out my own work below.


1.5 cups flour (plus more flour for dusting)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup soymilk (this is just an accommodation to my wife's lactose intolerance--cow's milk is what's typically called for)
2 tbs vegetable oil
olive oil (or butter for those who can handle lactose)


Combine dry ingredients in a bowl or food processor. Mix in wet ingredients. Dump dough onto floured surface and knead (with floured hands) until dough is smooth, about 8-10 minutes.

Dump dough into a greased bowl and turn the ball so that the whole ball is coated with oil. Cover with a towel and put in a warm spot for an hour.

(I'm not sure why you have to let the dough sit for an hour, since there's no yeast involved, but I decided not to skip this step. Since we keep the heat on low in my house, there aren't many warm spots. I turned the oven on low for a couple minutes, turned it off, and stuck in the bowl.)

Divide dough into quarters. On a floured surface, roll out each ball into a very flat tear-shaped loaf with a floured rolling pin. In the meantime, position your cooking surface (a baking stone, upside-down cast iron skillet, upside-down baking sheet) a few inches away from your oven's broiler and turn the oven on to the broil setting.

Pop the loaves onto the hot cooking surface. They will cook very quickly. Turn the loaves over when the top side has browned and blistered. When the other side is finished, pull them out and brush them with oil or butter.

I honestly didn't think these would turn out very well, but I was pleasantly surprised. We quickly devoured the four loaves, so I'm tripling the recipe next time. Wish me luck.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunflower Satay

In my last post, I talked about making "tahini" from sunflower seeds (instead of sesame seeds). I suppose it was really more of a sunflower butter--just roasted sunflowers and oil ground into a paste.

I had some leftovers from the recipe, and used it up by adding a little salt and sugar, then spreading it on celery like one would peanut butter. This was a great snack, and there was something about the taste that reminded me of Asian food (East Asia, that is).

I thought that this sunflower paste might be a workable substitute for an Asian peanut sauce. (We've been avoiding peanuts in our household to prevent our son's getting allergies.) I found a base recipe for a peanut satay recipe at and started modifying. We like the results; here's the recipe:


1 inch ginger, minced
4 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 onion, sliced
1 can coconut milk
1 cup sunflower sauce (recipe follows)
4 cups broccoli, cut into florets
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
2 limes, quartered
1 bunch cilantro, chopped


Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a wok or deep pot over high heat. Stir fry the ginger and garlic for about a minute, then add the sliced onion. After frying the onion for a few minutes, add the sunflower sauce and coconut milk. Run some water into the coconut milk can and swirl it around to avoid wasting any of that coconut goodness and add it to the pot. Stir to combine.

When the pot begins to boil, add the broccoli and red pepper, reduce heat, and cover. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the broccoli is tender. Remove from heat and add chopped cilantro. Squeeze the juice of the limes over the sauce and mix in. Serve over jasmine rice.

Sunflower sauce:

1/2 cup of roasted sunflower seeds
1/4 cup of vegetable oil
1/4 cup of fish sauce and/or soy sauce
2 tsp chili paste (I used some homemade paste that I made by just roasting some peppers and processing with garlic and cilantro)
2 tbs brown sugar
Curry spices to taste (cumin, coriander, tumeric)
1/2 cup hot water


Combine all ingredients except the hot water in a food processor. With the motor running add some hot water to thin out the sauce (you probably won't need the full 1/2 cup). Process until smooth.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Falafel Meal from Scratch

Thank God for Sultan's Market. Without them, I would not have known how awesome falafel is. I've been on a quest for the last several years to make as great a meal at home as you can get at Sultan's Market. I'm still a long ways away from that goal, but I've made progress.

If there's one key to that progress, it's this: from scratch is better.

I started by buying packaged hummus, tahini paste, and falafel mix. I thought I was showing mad skillz by making my own tahini sauce from the paste (following the recipe on the side of the bottle).

I took the next step toward "from scratch" by making my own falafel, following this recipe. I used our food processor to make the falafel, without which it would have been much more of a pain. Shallow frying in olive oil doesn't produce quite the same deep-fried deliciousness that Sultan's falafel has. This recipe is quite tasty, though.

The results were good enough to make me want to try again soon. However, I had used up the last of my canned chick peas and the last of my tahini paste. We ran out of hummus long before we ran out of pita. The price tag for these three products (chick peas, tahini paste, and hummus) is higher than I would like: about $1.00 for a can of chick peas, $5.00 for tahini paste, $2.00 for a tiny tub of hummus. I figured I could get better flavor and better value by cutting out a few middle men and moving closer to "scratch."

A 2-lb bag of dried chick peas was only $2.00. For the price of two cans of chick peas (28 oz), I ended up with about 80 oz of cooked chick peas--plenty of raw material for falafel and hummus, with plenty left over. I followed these helpful directions for preparing the dried chick peas.

For some reason, I conflated sesame seeds (the raw material from which tahini is made) with sunflower seeds. So I bought bulk unroasted sunflower seeds for $2.00 a pound. I intended to follow this recipe, but at the roasting stage, I suddenly realized I'd bought the wrong kind of seeds. Fortunately, someone has made this substitution before. My $2.00 investment in sunflower seeds produced the equivalent of $8.00 worth of tahini paste. The food processor did all the work.

The cooked chick peas and tahini paste go together into the homemade hummus recipe. (I followed the second, faster method.) This makes about 2 lbs of hummus for about $2.00 in raw materials. That beats out even the famous Costco hummus, and blows out of the water the teeny 10 oz containers you usually see in the grocery store.

The tahini paste goes into the tahini sauce that I mixed with the Jerusalem salad.

All in all, this is a pretty cheap way to eat. I figure I can easily get 8 meals out of the following ingredients:

$1.00 for chick peas (1 lb dried)
$1.00 for pita (8 loaves)
$1.00 for tahini paste (1/2 lb sunflower seeds + some vegetable oil)
$3.00 for fresh produce(cucumber, tomato, onion, garlic, parsley, lemons)
$1.00 for all the other incidental ingredients (a bit of oil, spices, etc)

That's less than $1.00 per meal.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

John and June, George and Tammy

One of my Christmas gifts:

I'm enjoying it. I'm also ready for the George Jones biopic starring Jim Carrey (Mrs. Chaka's idea).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Sci-Fi/Fantasy Franchise Ring

Mrs. Chaka and I started talking tonight about science-fiction/fantasy franchise crossovers. You know, like how since Star Wars took place a long time ago in a galaxy far away, and time travel happens in every third Star Trek movie, you could have a movie where the Enterprise joins in the attack on the Death Star. (This crossover is Mrs. Chaka's idea. I had not fathomed that such a thing was possible.)

That reminded me that I had heard of a Star Trek/X-Men crossover (apparently what I was thinking of was this comic book). If they did a movie crossover, Patrick Stewart would get to negotiate between the Federation and the X-Men as both Captain Picard and Professor Xavier. That scene makes the whole project worth doing.

And from that point, we tried to connect the cardinal science-fiction and fantasy franchises to each other. Jim Broadbent connects Harry Potter and Narnia; Christopher Lee connects Star Wars to Lord of the Rings . . .

It took some brain-racking (and eventually some help from IMDb), but this is what we came up with:There are other, more marginal franchises we could tack on: Batman, X-Men, Terminator, Pirates of the Caribbean. But they would destroy the symmetry of the above.

Incidentally, several of these franchises to Kingdom of Heaven. I'll let you flesh out the connections in the comments.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Idea for competitive exercise

For two teams of 2 or more players

Equipment: 2 jump ropes, room to run (a 100-meter course would work well)

Object: Be the first team to reach 1000 jumps

Rules: Each team has a jumper and a runner. The jumpers begin doing (single-under) jumps. If either jumper misses, it's a fault, and the runners start sprinting.

Let's say the two teams are called "Legends" and "Leaders". Assuming it was the Legends jumper who faulted, then if the Legends runner loses the sprint, the Legends have to do an extra 100 jumps. If, on the other hand, the Legends runner wins, his team suffers no penalty.

While the runners are sprinting, the jumpers may rest, change jumpers, or continue to jump. If they miss a jump during the sprint, it's not considered a fault, and there are no game effects.

First team to hit 1000 jumps (plus any penalties they've incurred) wins.

If someone can do 1000 single-under jumps without missing, feel free to substitute double-unders.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Computer viruses and the OT

Fascinating story of the computer virus that ground Iran’s nuclear program down to a halt. An excerpt:

“Originally, all eyes turned toward Israel’s intelligence agencies. Engineers examining the worm found “clues” that hinted at Israel’s involvement. In one case they found the word “Myrtus” embedded in the code and argued that it was a reference to Esther, the biblical figure who saved the ancient Jewish state from the Persians. But computer experts say "Myrtus" is more likely a common reference to “My RTUS,” or remote terminal units.”

Myrtus is the genus of the myrtle plant, and Hadassah means “myrtle”. (Which makes me wonder why we don’t just call her Myrtle.)

If I were writing a virus to save the Jews, I’d call it CyRus. (Cyber Rescue Virus)