Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Under the Banner of Heaven

I just finished reading “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer (who also wrote Into the Wild and Into Thin Air). It was an interesting book – different from other things I’ve been reading lately. The book covers the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, who in 1984 killed their 23 year old sister-in-law and her 15 month old baby. They claimed they committed the murders because they were ordered to kill by God. To better understand the crime, Krakauer looks into the history of the Morman Church and the development of fundamental Morman sects.

I think the book is interesting, and I did learn some things I didn’t already know, but it is definitely written in a skeptical style. He focuses on many of the negative and violent aspects of Morman history, without dealing much with the average people, who are mostly normal, friendly religious people. Also, I think it would be possible to write equally violent histories of any of the major religions, all of which have questionable events in their histories. I think it’s important that the reader is able to separate historical events and the belief of fundamentalist sects from the beliefs of the majority of people currently practicing a religion.

That in mind, he does an interesting job discussing the way people deal with inconsistencies in their thinking. How do people justify violent events in this history of their religion with their current beliefs and practices? Should people learn about and study these events, of should the history be more focused on the positive aspects important to the development of the religion? Personally, I think the more information you can gather, the better, you just have to be able to think carefully about what everything means. He looks at how fundamentalism begins, and how people think about the way they practice religion, and how literal interpretations should be.

He also deals with a really interesting issue regarding sanity. Part of the trial of Ron and Dan Lafferty dealt with whether or not they were crazy. So in the trial, and in the book, there was discussion of the definition of insane. I think many people would argue that because Ron Lafferty believed that he talked to God, and that God told him he needed to kill people, that automatically made him crazy. But lots of people pray, and lots of people say they’re following what they believe to be God’s path. So are all of these people crazy? Are you only crazy depending on what God tells you? Are you crazy because you believe something that’s not very logical or rational? What about all the people who are very serious about wearing their “lucky T-shirt” to football games? That’s an illogical belief, but most people wouldn’t call them crazy.

In the trial, they actually found that both Ron and Dan Lafferty were not insane. Though they had some really odd religious beliefs, they understood what they were doing. The psychologists in the trial said Ron had a very extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder – so he thinks of himself as very important and has trouble feeling empathy for others, but this is a common disorder among many highly successful people – scientists, lawyers, doctors, etc., who perform very highly, think of themselves as very important, and often feel like others are less competent or less important. I thought this section of the book was especially interesting to think about. What is rational and what isn’t? What makes the difference between rational and irrational beliefs? What drives some people to take extreme actions?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

California Christmas (and Hanukkah)!

Jeff and I went to California for a couple days (Dec. 21-24) to celebrate the holidays with his family. This year, we went to his aunt and uncle's house in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County. It was fun to see family, and since we were in wine country, we made a couple quick stops into local wineries. Jeff got some bunny slippers for Christmas that he's very fond of now.
I celebrated Hanukkah for the first time of my life - I lit menorah candles with Jeff and his family for the first couple days of Hanukkah. It was really nice, and interesting, and led me to read up a bit on Jewish holidays.

We did a bit of sight-seeing in the area. One activity included walking along Florence Street, which is famous for its lawn art - designed by Patrick Amiot. I have pictures below, and you can see more on his website ( It's all made of old 'junk', so its pretty impressive to see what he's put together.

Naomi's Kids!

One of the things I had a chance to do while in Minnesota was meet (for the first time) my friend Naomi's kids! She and her husband Brian (who was in my first grade class!) have four month old twin boys - Caleb and Micah - and they're adorable!
The rest of the Christmas vacation in Minnesota was really nice, as well, I had a chance to see friends and family. The trip was more brief than usual, but hopefully I'll get to go back and visit again soon!

The Man Who Was Thursday

Continuing my reading spree, I decided to get started on the January book club book - "The Man Who Was Thursday" by G. K. Chesterton. I think the title (and author's name) have quite a ring to them, and the text of the book is similar. I sometimes get bored by long descriptions in books, and prefer more action, but Chesterton is so creative and unique in the way he describes things, that I loved it. That said, there is some interesting action that happens as well.

The book is basically about a police officer (in early 1900's London) who semi-accidentally joins the 'European high council of anarchists'. The book is funny and entertaining, and the writing style is different and interesting. It's not the type of book that I'm used to reading, but I really enjoyed it.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

Talking about the main character, Mr. Syme:
"He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realization; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinthe and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike.... Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left – sanity.”

A policeman explaining to Mr. Syme why they need a new philosophical police force:
“We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people’s.”

Three Cups of Tea

Just before Christmas (thanks to lots of time on airplanes) I finished the book "Three Cups of Tea" by David Relin and Greg Mortenson. It's a book about Greg Mortenson, who used to be a mountain climber. In 1993, he went on a trip to climb a mountain in Pakistan, but through a series of coincidences and mistakes he ended up in a small mountain village. The people there helped him, and he promised to build them a school. Though it wasn't intention at the time, that ended up starting what would be his life's work - building schools for poor, remote villages in Pakistan and surrounding areas. The details of trying to make his promise into a reality, and the story of how this all evolves, as well as where he is now, are the topics of the book. It's really interesting - both his story and his philosophy - believing education is the key to stopping poverty and promoting peace. I'd highly recommend reading this one!

You can learn more about the story, and buy the book (7% of proceeds go to the Central Asian Institute, which builds the schools) at this website: .

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Holiday Season Crunch

The title almost seems like it could refer to a breakfast cereal (probably a really sugary, colorful one), but instead it refers to the crazy busy-ness that has descended as finals week, pre-holiday break work meetings, and holiday preparations all come together. This has been part of why I haven't written in over a week.

Last weekend, I spent most of my time trying to do the work that I hadn't even looked at during the Thanksgiving break in Minnesota. That lasted basically until Sunday, when I flew to Charleston, SC. I then spent all of that week in a work meeting in Charleston.

Now it's back to another crazy weekend of catching up on work. To be fair, I do manage to do other things - some important and some purely for procastination. In the former category, I finally had a chance to get together with my friend Pooja, who I haven't seen in person in over a year! She spent about half of the last year in Africa, and came back to the states while I was in Barcelona. She and I work together on our engINdia project, so we talk once in a while, but haven't had the time to travel (she lives in NYC) to visit. In the procastination category, I managed to watch all of season 2 of "The Sarah Jane Adventures" - a spin off of Doctor Who. I also started reading "Three Cups of Tea."

Originally, I was supposed to leave for Minnesota last night, but instead I have another work meeting (this time in DC) on Tuesday, and then I'll fly back to Minnesota on Wednesday. Due to this last minute change, Jeff is still on a flight to leave for Minnesota today, so he'll be there a few days without me - hanging out with my family.

Here's my agenda of things to do between now and flying back on Tuesday:

1. Finish my independent study paper - big final paper, draft is complete, but need to finalize it.

2. Turn in my "Politics of Earth and Space Science" take home final - which is a three-page paper about the Mars Science Laboratory (a very awesome NASA Mars Rover that's been in the news a lot lately because its over budget).

3. Raytheon Work (and preparing to present at my meeting)

4. Space Foundation Work (assorted writing and editing)

5. Apply for Graduate School (I am hoping to do a PhD next year, and need to apply to the programs!)

6. Send Christmas Cards! Which actually takes longer than you'd think...

Alright... I better stop blogging and work on those things.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Goodbye, Pol!

After three weeks in the USA, Pol left today. There was just time for packing and getting ready to go, and then it was off to the airport. It was a really fun visit, and I think he had a good time. Now he's headed back to Barcelona - but he's definitely got some Minnesota blood - he didn't even zip up his jacket in the "warm" DC weather - almost 40 degrees - since he's now used to the 20 degree weather in Minnesota. It's 50 degrees in Barcelona at the moment, which is pretty cold for that city - he said he'd go to the beach.

After the airport, it was off to my last day of class for the semester. Then it was back home to hang out with Jeff for the first time in a while, since he wasn't in Minnesota. Jeff, knowing I'd probably be sad after leaving Minnesota and then saying goodbye to a friend, surprised me with flowers, some of my favorite foods for dinner, and a bunch of Christmas music (I love Christmas music). It was really sweet. :)

Movie time in DC

On Tuesday we woke up, hung out around my house, packed, and got lunch at Lee-Ann Chin's. Then it was off to the airport and back to DC. We got into DC pretty late - around 10:30pm, but Jaisha came over and hung out for a while. Then it was movie time. We watched:

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
I've been meaning to watch this movie for a long time. I heard it wasn't as good as the first movie, which I guess might be true, but I still loved it. These were some of my favorite books when I was younger, so it was fun to see it all in a movie. I hope they're making another one!

This movie was soooo cute. I thought it might be boring, since there's almost no dialogue, but it really isn't. It was a really fun movie, and I'd recommend it.

Welcome to Minnesota

On Monday, our last full day in Minnesota, my Dad took Pol and I around to see some of small town Minnesota. We drove to Taylor's falls, and saw some of the bluffs overlooking the river.
We walked across the bridge over the St. Croix and into Wisconsin.
It's a really beautiful area - lots of pine trees, small rapids, and ice.
After Taylors Falls, we drove down the river to Stillwater. We stopped at a 50's style diner for some cheeseburgers, and then headed back to Maplewood.

During the drive, Pol talked about how crazy it seemed that you can drive your car out onto a frozen lake (for ice fishing, for example). It was too early in the winter to take the car out, but my Dad thought Pol should walk out on the lake. We went to Silver Lake, which was frozen and went for a little walk out onto the lake.
This picture is my favorite...
In the afternoon, Annette came over and we watched more "It's Always Sunny" and ordered pizza. Then we played another game of Settlers - this time getting my Dad addicted. Kelsey came over during the game, and when it was over (sorry for the wait, Kelsey) we headed over to Paul's house. We ended up playing about a million rounds of the card game P&A - it was a fun last night in Minnesota.

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

On Sunday, we finally got some snow. That gave Pol his first chance to shovel a driveway. :)

Once the snow was cleared, we headed to Lake Elmo Inn for brunch. I used to work at that restaurant, and it has some of the best food in Minnesota.

After brunch, it was just a lazy Sunday. We watched a bunch of episodes of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which is a hilarious TV show. We played some Settlers of Catan and watched movies.

Pol watched "It's a Wonderful Life" for the first time ever (and loved it)! One of my favorite movies of all time."Merry Christmas you wonderful old building and loan!"

Football at the Metrodome

My dad coaches high school football, and his team got into the state championships this year. That meant they played the final game at the metrodome.
So we all went downtown to cheer for De La Salle. Sadly, they didn't win, but second in the state isn't too bad.
After the game, we went for lunch in Minneapolis and walked through the skyways for a while. In the evening, my dad and mom took Pol and I on a driving tour around Minneapolis and St. Paul. We saw the capital, the cathedral, the science museum, the Guthrie theater, Summit Ave., the Hill House, Nicollet mall, Rice Park, and lots of other twin cities sites.

We meant to go out to see the twin cities night life that night, but after a few busy nights in a row, I was just too tired. We stuck around home and chatted with Katie's friend Denise, who had come over to visit.

Black Friday @ Mall of America

On the biggest shopping day of the year, we decided to celebrate by visiting the biggest shopping mall in the country - Mall of America.
We actually didn't do that much shopping - we started out by having lunch at Corona Cantina, which over-looks Camp Snoopy. Katie went to Forever 21, and Pol and I went to Old Navy. They had a good deal on winter coats, and Pol helped me make decisions as I tried on about 15 different styles and sizes. (Thanks, Pol!) Then Katie and my mom stepped in to help make the final decision - I actually ended up buying two, since I couldn't decide between black and red.

Then we went to Camp Snoopy, and got unlimited ride wrist-bands (which I haven't done in years!). We went on all the roller coasters - there is one new one that has a part that's completely vertical, and it was pretty awesome.

We went on the ferris wheel, which gives a beautiful view, but which Pol insists is the scariest ride.
Pol convinced me to go on the Log Chute, even though the idea of going on a water ride inside the mall was not that appealing. Luckily I ducked down and hid, avoiding almost all water.
After quite a few hours at the mall, we headed to my brother's house. We hung out and talkled and played with his puppy, and watched a bunch of movies. We saw "Arthur", which was about a rich, drunk piano player. Then we watched "Gone, Baby, Gone" which was set in Boston and was actually a pretty interesting movie. We finished off with "Enchanted" which my sister wanted to see, since its set in New York City. Busy night!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving was fun - lots of family, food, football, board games, and relaxing around the house. My brother and his fiance came over (with their adorable puppy, Hazel), and so did my aunt, uncle and two cousins, so we had a very full table.
Mom cooked dinner with all the classics - turkey, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, green beans in cream of mushroom, corn, and hot rolls. Pumpkin pie, French silk pie, and cranberry-apple pie for dessert.

After lunch, we watched football and played board games. David, Natalie, Drew, MacKenzie and I played on a team against Mom, Dad, Katie, Tom, and Pol in Cranium. It was neck and neck, but in the end Pol's team won.
The rest of the evening we mostly relaxed around the house. We played a bit of Settlers of Catan and went to bed pretty early.

Home for the Holidays!

Pol and I headed back to Minnesota on Wednesday, November 26th. We got in around noon and headed home to drop things off. For lunch we went out to Chili's so Pol could try some Mexican-American food (and so I could order the skillet queso that I was craving).

That evening we went over to Paul Colling's house. We played guitar hero - I feel like I'm always making crazy faces while we're playing.
Also, there was a Paul & Pol team, which was pretty funny. (Actually, I like to call them the Paul/Pol's - a pun which works much better when you say it than when you write it out, since their names aren't spelled the same.)
After hanging out at Paul's, we went with Mike and Paul over to Kevin's house. Then we headed over to a bar in North St. Paul for the annual unofficial all-year high school reunion. It was fun to see people - there were a few I hadn't seen in a long time.

After we left the bar, to complete a typical night in North St. Paul, we went out to Perkins. We had some good middle-of-the-night diner food, and then headed home.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Paella Night!

When Pol was planning his trip to the US, we told him we'd love to have him cook some Spanish food while he was here, so he had his grandma teach him how to make paella.

He talked with her again on the phone after he got here, to get the recipe and instructions down on paper. Though my Spanish isn't great, I was able to make out most of the conversation, which mostly consisted of the words "wait" and "ok," repeated many times as she flew through the steps.

We were able to get most of the ingredients at whole foods (the only time in my life I've bought squid or mussels at the grocerty store). Then Pol took over all the cooking at home and put together a really amazing paella.
Stephanie, Arthur, and Jaisha came over and joined us to enjoy the meal. It tasted amazing - nice work, Pol!

Air and Space Museum

On Saturday, Jeff, Pol, and I headed to the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum out by Dulles Airport. It's a different style of museum - it's mostly just a very large hanger with lots of airplanes and spacecraft (including a space shuttle) rather than the typical series of rooms with exhibits.

(And Mom, if you're reading this - we'll definitely go next time you come - sorry we didn't make it out while you were there!)
After seeing the museum, we headed home to rest, and then Pol and I went out dancing with Emma, Beth and Jaisha. (Jeff wasn't feeling great and stayed home to rest.)

Jeff's Birthday

Jeff's birthday was on Tuesday, but since I was mostly out of town and he had a lot of work, we decided to postpone going out until the weekend.
We got a group of people together and had dinner at Dukem - a great Ethiopian restaurant on U Street. Jeff, Sarah (his cousin), Eric, Lindsey, Rachel, Tim, Adam, Pol, Ross, and I were all there. It was a really fun dinner.

Afterwards, a bunch of us headed to Cafe Saint Ex for drinks and more hanging out.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Animals, Space, Wine, and Theater...

Thursday was a fun day. I did a bit of sight-seeing with Pol. We started by walking up to the DC Zoo. We saw lots of cool animals - the panda's were napping outside.
The hippo was pretty active and kept swimming around and looking at the people.
After sightseeing, we came back to the apartment to warm up. We ordered Chinese for lunch and watched 12 Monkeys (awesome movie).

Then it was off to school for a GWSS-sponsored event. There was a speaker from Space-X - which was really well done and exciting. Dr. Logsdon came to the event and hosted his annual "beaujolais nouveau" party - celebrating the first 2008 wine to be available.
After the GWSS event, we went to see Brian Kester in "Godspell". I'd never seen it, and didn't really know what it was about, and I really enjoyed it! It was a really fun play - and they were really interactive, so multiple times Pol and I were talking to characters and once we were on stage dancing.

On the Road

Jeff and Pol left Virginia beach on Monday morning and went back to DC (via Baltimore to switch-back cars with Jeff’s mom – we had taken her Prius for the weekend). I stayed in Virginia Beach for a work meeting.

However, I had to drive back to DC for an exam on Tuesday (which I think went pretty well). I also took some time to sight-seeing with Pol – walking from the capital down to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a bright, sunny day, but was pretty cold (32 degrees), and there were some random snow flurries once in a while.
After the exam, it was back to VA for more meeting. Then back to DC on Wednesday. Road trips are fun, but I was definitely ready to turn in my rental car and be done with driving for a while.

Shuttle Launch!

There are only a handful of launches remaining before the space shuttle is retired from flight, and a group of us decided to go down and see a launch while we still could. Jeff, Pol, and I decided that we would drive from DC to Florida, in order to save some money and let Pol see more of the U.S.

It was a long day of driving on Thursday – about 12 hours – and somehow it rained the whole time. I didn’t know a storm could last through six states. Trying to convince Pol that all of America wasn’t dark and rainy, we tried to distract him typical American food. We had lunch at waffle house, where he had his first American breakfast. We did a pre-dinner stop at Dairy Queen, which resulted in us being too full to eat dinner until we arrived in Florida around 9:30pm. We had dinner at Carrabbas, and then headed to Stephanie’s house in St. Augustine, were we chatted a bit with Eric and Lindsey, and then fell asleep even before Stephanie and Arthur arrived from the airport.

Friday was launch day. We woke up, had coffee, and then Pol, Jeff, and I headed to Orlando to pick up Matt Carvey from the airport. Though we had decided not to try to do Disney or any of the parks, we went down International Drive to see some of the shops, restaurants, and entrances. We ate dinner outside on the patio (beautiful weather!) at Pizzeria Uno’s. Then we headed off to Damaris’s house on Cocoa Beach. Everyone else was there when we got there – Damaris, Emma, Kris, Eric, Lindsey, Stephanie, and Arthur. Damaris’s house is very cool – in addition to cool artwork, she has an arcade game system, a Wii, and Playstation 3. We ended up playing rock band for hours. Playing the drums is difficult!
Damaris cooked an amazing barbeque dinner – steak and shimp skewers with veggies, rice, corn on the cob, noodle salad, chips with home-made salsa, etc. This was followed by an awesome dessert, which she claims was easy and I’m determined to try (the only ingredients are canned pineapple, canned cherry pie filling, yellow cake mix, pecans, and butter). When we weren’t playing rock band, we had NASA TV on (just like all the cool Friday night parties). When we had about 20 minutes until the launch, we brought blankets and champagne, and walked out to the beach.
The launch was awesome! The first thing you see is the sky lighting up in a half-circle above the horizon. Then a bright oval (the shuttle) becomes visible and lights up the whole sky. You don’t see anything but a ball of fire for quite a while – it’s really bright, it’s almost difficult to look directly at it. After a bit, the booster rockets fall away, and you can actually see them separate from the shuttle. The shuttle becomes a more and more distant point of light, but you can see it for a long time (over a minute).
After the launch, and a celebratory toast, we picked up all our stuff and headed back to Damaris’s house for the rest of the evening. When it got pretty late, we went back to St. Augustine to stay at Stephanie’s house.

Staying at Stephanie’s was great, because that meant we could wake up and have pancakes (Thanks, Eric!), and then head out to the beach immediately after. There’s nothing (other than sand dunes) between Stephanie’s house and the beach, so it’s a short walk. The waves were pretty big, so Pol, Carvey, and I headed right into the water – swimming and trying to boogie board. We were only out on the beach for two hours, but somehow we all got burned. (Except for smart Jeff, who sat in a beach chair facing away from the sun.)
For lunch we drove down to a restaurant right on the beach (called Beachcombers) and had burgers and fries.
Then Pol, Carvey, Jeff, and I went to pick up a rental car for Carvey. Then we headed to downtown St. Augustine. There’s a really cute pedestrian street with lots of shops and restaurants. There’s also a castle near the water. St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish, so there were tons of shops advertised as the “Spanish Quarter” and things like that. Also, the castle (actually castello) was actually a Spanish fort.
Back at Stephanie’s that evening, we had dinner – Stephanie cooked fish, something I have never accomplished myself – and it was very good. We had dinner out on the deck, overlooking the water, which was great. Very nice end for the trip.

On Sunday, Jeff, Pol, and I basically needed to wake up and go. Jeff drove, and after getting to McDonalds just two minutes before breakfast ended (Yay Sausage McMuffin!), I slept for the first few hours until we got to Savannah, Georgia. We had lunch at Huey’s on the Savannah riverfront. It’s such a pretty city – I love all the parks. We drove until we got to Virginia Beach, VA. Anxious to be finished with driving, we held off on dinner and just ordered pizza after we got to the hotel. It didn’t take us long to get to sleep – it was a great weekend!