Thursday, May 23, 2019

Summary of Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss by Brad Matsen

Otis Barton, born 1899, first began exploring under water at age 16 when he created his own diving helmet with a breathing tube. By the time he had graduated from Harvard with an engineering degree, he had plans to create a device that could explore far beyond the 365 feet of the current submarines. He was dismayed to read that William Beebe, an acclaimed, self-taught naturalist and explorer, might beat him to it with his own plans for a diving tank. Seeing the engineering flaws in Beebe’s design, Barton approached Beebe about a joint, undersea expedition using Barton's own design for a diving sphere. Beebe agreed.

The construction of what would eventually be called the Bathysphere was an engineering wonder for the 1920s. It was a steel, metal ball with a viewing window, electric lighting, air-conditioning, oxygen, a search light, and telephone communication. The sphere was submerged slowly from a boat via a giant cable by a team of assistants. The author goes into detail about the engineering requirements for the sphere to withstand their goal of 2-miles deep. Each part was manufactured by the company that specialized in that particular product. For example, the lamps came from General Electric, and the phone system from Bell Laboratories.

Beebe and Barton made their first dive in 1930, setting a record of 803 feet. Going deeper with each successive dive, they topped off their record at 3,028 feet in 1934. Because of these unprecedented depths, Beebe and Barton were the first to observe the sea beyond the reach of sunlight: “The sun’s light and colors simply drop away in order of the position of their wavelengths in the spectrum, beginning with reds at about 50 feet, then yellows at 150, and greens at 300. Finally, only the faintest hint of purplish blue remains at 700 feet.”  As a result, fish which are one color in the sunlight become an entirely different color. Beebe observed a pilot fish whose “reds had gone to black, its grays to white…” (93).

Due to his frequent deep-net fishing excursions, Beebe was familiar with every fish known to science at the time. Nevertheless, some of these fish he had not seen alive until his Bathysphere dives. Others he had seen, but were considered shallow-water dwellers until now. Beebe also described many new fish that haven’t been seen since. His claim that these were as-yet-undiscovered species caused much controversy by a scientific community, many of whom felt Beebe was not qualified to make such a claim.

It was through the single viewing window that Beebe witnessed these discoveries of the deep, while Barton kept an eye on the operation of the Bathysphere. Having followed and idolized Beebe’s career during his youth, working with Beebe should have been a dream come true for Barton. However, it was clear early in their working relationship that they had vastly different personalities and even goals. Barton was an adventurer desiring eventual fame; Beebe’s passion was science. “Barton was good with mechanical things and fixed the generator…but he wasn’t a patient observer of specimens. When Hollister [Beebe’s assistant] was showing him around her lab, he picked up a dragon fish she was preparing and his rough handling broke off a part of its tail. Barton laughed. Later that night, Hollister told Beebe she’d just as soon not have Barton hanging around while she was working.” Barton, likewise, was put off by Beebe’s “break-neck, dawn-to-dusk pace” and authoritative manner (56-7).

Thereafter, their relationship would be strictly a working one, and often strained at that. Barton increasingly resented being overlooked for his part in the Bathysphere creation and expeditions. By the end of their diving career, Barton’s desire for fame prompted him to exaggerate the deep sea creatures they had seen. This shoddy reporting of their dives angered and dismayed Beebe, whose pop-icon status already placed him on shaky ground within the scientific community. The catalyst for their permanent separation was Barton’s shabby movie production sensationalizing the Bathysphere dives. A shark was killed and a battle raged between an octopus and a lobster. The movie, which closed in three weeks, was inaccurately credited to both Barton and Beebe and their Bathysphere associates. Beebe quickly set the record straight, publicly disassociating himself and the others from this embarrassing production.

Despite his life-long struggle to achieve scientific legitimacy, Beebe was eventually credited with having an understanding of ecology before the word was even in common use. “Beebe’s legacy as a pioneering ecologist rivals that of his contributions to ornithology, marine biology, and oceanography. The notion that an organism can only be understood when its surroundings and neighbors are taken into account was so radical during his time as to have been completely absent from most scientific discussion. The term ‘ecology’ was not in common use when, in 1909, Beebe published a twenty-page article in Zoologica entitled ‘The Ecology of the Hoatzin’ [a south American bird]…” (232). Beebe passed away at age 84.

Having far less interest in scientific recognition, Barton continued pursuing film-making until he was called to service in WWII. It was after his service that he designed the Benthoscope which took him 4,500 feet, breaking his and Beebe’s deepest record. He undertook small, naturalist projects throughout the latter years of his life. He passed in 1992 at age 92.

I found this book to be really engaging, even in some of the technical descriptions. Knowing this was accomplished in the 1920s was fascinating to me. I was disappointed by the conflict between Barton and Beebe, but that was part of the story’s pull. It was a perfect story for both readers of information and those seeking entertainment.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mary of Guise by Rosalind K. Marshall

I just finished Mary of Guise, Queen of Scots by Rosalind K. Marshall. It was only 100 pages and Marshall says in the forward that it is a “distillation of [her] previous full-length biography of Mary of Guise.”

My decision to read about Mary followed my reading more extensively about her daughter Mary Stewart and John Knox. While Mary Stewart is a more popular subject, Mary of Guise is, in my admittedly novice opinion, a far worthier queen and perhaps nobler person.

Coming from devoutly Catholic parents (her father was a war hero in defending the faith), Mary’s faith to the Church and in God was unshakable even through severe heartache. After the death of her two children by James V, followed by the death of James himself, her son from her first marriage also died. In the face of such personal defeat, she wrote to her mother, “I think, my Lady, as you wrote to me, that Our Lord must wish for me one of his chosen ones, since he has visited me so often with such sorrow; praised be he for all” (75).

Besides her faith, her qualities of leadership were remarkable. She exercised wisdom and won hearts at times when a lesser leader might have enacted vengeance. For example, when some Scottish soldiers deserted during a battle against the English, she personally visited each house where they were hiding, and said, “Is it thus, my friends, that you support the French? Is it thus that you set them a good example? Before God, if I had not seen you with my own eyes and if anyone had told me that you were like to forget your honour in this way, I would not have believed them. I should have thought such a thing incredible, having praised you so much all my life for what I believe and still do believe to be true, that no nation on earth would equal your courage.” She also allowed for the possibility that, instead of deserting, they had merely returned to regroup and rearm, and “she knew that they would not want to miss the opportunity of avenging the death of their relatives and friends.” Abashed, the soldiers returned to the army immediately. She followed their service with personal gifts, promising more to come after battle (67-8).

She likewise handled the fickleness of her nobles’ allegiance with the same shrewdness. The Earl of Arran was particularly notorious for switching his loyalties back and forth between Scotland and England, and during one of his wavering moments, Mary “hastily persuaded Henry [King of France] to offer a wealthy French Bride for young Lord James [the earl’s son]” (66). It worked for a time, but, although the Earl was eventually made Duke of Châterherault , he was supporting the English again by the time of Mary’s death – even to the point of denying Mary the Bishop of Amiens at her death-bedside when the other Scottish Lords consented. (Sadly, because her rule was weakening with the often violent growth of Protestantism, the French support she had relied on throughout her reign ceased until after her death when France resumed negotiations with Scotland) (96).

The Protestant subjects’ hostility toward Mary, fueled by the ever antagonistic John Knox, never seemed justified to me. Maybe it was more a reaction to the bloody reign of Mary Tudor, whose reign lasted for 5 of the 6 years of Mary of Guise’s reign. For the nobles, the devotion to either church was usually politically motivated, a spiritual void I can hardly fault them for in an age where the church and state were one in power and corruption.

Even in her Catholic devotion, Mary recognized the flaws of the clergy, once asking the Pope to send a cardinal to deal with the problems, which included “lack of ecclesiastical discipline, the dispersal of church property, and the immorality of monks and nuns.” Her request was not granted, and Mary later asked the Archbishop of St. Andrews to call for a council to “consider the Protestants' demands.” The death of Mary Tudor put a halt to these plans and the Protestant Elizabeth took the English throne (85).

Obviously, a 100 page biography is more of a primer, but it gave me a favorable view of Mary of Guise, and it also reinforced to me the hardships of being a monarch. I believe she met the challenge with the strength and wisdom required, and would have been a more formidable opponent for Elizabeth I than her daughter was.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Report/Review of John Knox by Rosalind K. Marshall

My reason for reading a biography of John Knox was to get a more in-depth view of his character. He is so demonized today, particularly by women, and references to him in my readings on Mary Stewart left me disgusted with him. I eventually decided that any assessment would be unfair until I’d read at least one biography.

At the beginning of this book, when reading of his often-misunderstood relationship with his eventual mother-in-law Elizabeth Bowes, I got a picture of a very sensitive, compassionate man able to openly express emotion and affection.  By all accounts, he retained his kind nature when dealing one-on-one with his female family and parishioners.  

Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were never to see this side of him. The opinion for which he is most disliked today is his outspoken objection to female rule, a sentiment that was largely fueled by the abuses he and his contemporaries suffered at the hands of the Catholic Mary Tudor in England. This prejudice was firmly affixed by the time Mary Stewart took the Scottish throne. Despite her efforts to reason with him and even charm him, as she did most people, he retained his opinion for the rest of his life: a female monarch was acceptable only if she submitted to the true (Protestant) church and, eventually, to a husband.  She was never to be considered the final authority, as it was unnatural for women to be in positions of leadership, to say nothing of their natural inclination toward sin. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification of his beliefs, but that’s the basic impression I came away with. A more in-depth look at his views can be found in his treatiseThe First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which angered both Mary and Elizabeth.  

While Knox supported the protestant Queen Elizabeth, he did not find much more favor with her than with Mary, largely because of The First Blast.  Knox’s genuine surprise at her reaction shows what I consider to be a naivete rooted in the confidence of his doctrine. He expected her to understand that such statements weren’t personal, but true, and if Elizabeth simply followed the correct faith, he approved of her rule within its proper boundaries.

His incredibly obstinate refusal to temper his views or even the expression of his views is what defined his character until his death.  Elizabeth’s disapproval and Mary’s tearful rage did not faze him, even when Mary came close to charging him with treason. It is certain he would have chosen to be martyred before he would recant.

While his belief in the Protestant cause overrode his sense of self-preservation -  an admirable trait as far as convictions go – his focus on establishing an earthly kingdom is disconcerting from my personal Christian perspective. As the daughter of a minister descended from a line of ministers on both my paternal and maternal side, and someone who has chosen the Christian faith of my parents, I cannot read such a biography from a purely objective perspective.  Instead, I find myself despairing over the state of the spiritual kingdom that surely must have been stunted while Knox wreaked havoc in its name. Yes, historically, it was a tumultuous time and it was the way of things to shed blood over doctrine, but even Calvin had to occasionally distance himself from Knox’s proclamations.  By contrast, I cannot see Knox as merely a product of his time. His antics baffled his peers almost as much as they do our more moderate, modern minds.

Of course, Knox was patterning himself after the Old Testament prophets, much as many Christian historical figures have.  It really isn’t clear how appropriate such a role is anno domini.

My final conclusion as to Knox’s character is that he was a generally kind-hearted man, but without the slightest sense of ecumenism or diplomacy.  His resolve helped establish Protestantism in Scotland, but also alienated two monarchs as well as hosts of their subjects – on both sides of the religious argument.

There are so many “what-ifs” that come to mind should Knox have been more moderate: What if Mary Stewart had been swayed toward Protestantism, what if Knox had been better able to join forces with Calvin, and – most importantly to me – what if, by showing grace and love, Knox had managed to further the real, unseen kingdom over the earthly one?

I don’t propose to have the answers, nor am I assuming that Knox always did the wrong thing in the eyes of God. The Church has passed through many unseemly phases and only in the end will we be able to fully distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

As far as books go, this one wasn’t an overly fascinating read, but I feel it did give as objective a view of Knox as possible. I would personally like to see Jane Dunn undertake a biography on Knox, but he isn’t the most fascinating character to write about. Rather than the soap-opera drama of his monarchs, his life was characterized by the “straight and narrow,” his famous flares of anger against the Catholic church and its supporters eventually falling into the rhythmic noise of artillery – always loud, but always the same. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Cross Stitching, My Unlikely Hobby

Of my many hobbies, one of the few that actually places me in more common circles is cross-stitching. I picked it up on a whim around 2005 or so when my husband and I took to listening to Coast to Coast AM in the evenings (we're Streamlink members).  I bought the Eeyore pattern you see below and took off rather quickly on it.  Then I set it down for 7 years.  I mean, I was so close to finished, and I just set it down.  It became one of those monkey-on-your-back projects that seems to grow heavier with every day you ignore it. So, 7 years later, which would bring us to the fall of 2012, I pulled old Eeyore out and tried to send him home with a friend to finish, telling her she could do whatever with it afterward, but just knowing it was completed would give me peace of mind.

After she'd left and I realized she'd forgotten to take Eeyore with her, I suddenly found it within myself to continue working on it, very much like the whim that had caused me to purchase it 7 years earlier. I was pleasantly surprised to find that locating the row where I’d left off on the now yellowing chart wasn’t impossible after 7 years.  As I stitched, my feelings moved from obligation to actual enjoyment.  It was the moment I sewed the X-es for his eyes and thought “now he can see!” that I knew I was hooked.  After roughly two weeks of wrestling the demon of backstitching, during which I had to undo and redo the same section multiple times to achieve the 3D effect (I’ve attached Eeyore pre-backstitch so you can see the difference) I had him made into a pillow for my mom’s Christmas present.

Following Eeyore, I worked the seahorse cross stitch for my friend’s mom. The pattern I chose was shipped from New Zealand and was my first lesson in the varying styles of needlework directions over the world: the chart told me which symbols correlated to which colors, but the problem was that that colors were all so similar. I had such a rough time distinguishing “purple” from “medium purple and “purplish blue” that I concluded that company should have had the threads pre-labeled. I finally sorted it out and found it a fairly simple project – until the end where I abandoned my newly-learned “nun stitch,” which was causing the material to prematurely fray,  for a simple backstitch.  And just as I was proudly putting the finishing touches on the seahorse, my friend – whose mom was to be the recipient – asked hopefully, “Are you going to put her name on it?”

They say all you have to do is chart the name in the squares, but I can tell you after stitching words (not pre-printed) on two projects now it is not that simple.  I had to restart her name several times to adjust for even spacing, etc.

After she learned I was stitching a bookmark for a friend’s mom, my own mom suggested I do my next one for her. I thought long and hard before settling on the Scottish Piper pattern that hails to a joke we’ve long had since our trip to Scotland. The pattern was, in fact, shipped from Scotland, and ironically, I found myself back in Scotland while finishing it. I was in a pub, in fact, and never more glad to say goodbye to a project in my life. The New Zealand company’s instructional deficiency had nothing over that of the Scottish. While the chart told me where to put the backstitching and outlining, only the picture (small as the life-sized bookmark) told me what colors to use. If you will observe the detail in my Scottish Piper, you might get an inkling of the tedium this involved.  It was exhausting, especially as I had to move back and forth between studying the chart and studying the picture. Furthermore, the chart and the picture had some differences in spacing that forced me to improvise. On more than one occasion, I thought I was almost finished only to find I had missed or erred on a section.

I finished it in an Edinburgh pub, trying to beat the setting sun in the window behind. A couple sat next to me, watching with interest. I explained with embarrassment that I hadn’t originally intended to cross-stich a Scottish Piper in Scotland, as if I were an obsessive tourist. (I was relieved to learn they were Irish.)

The finished product, as you see, is framed for my mom. (It’s going to be a surprise, but I’m posting it now because I don’t think she ever visits my blog.) The puckering you might notice along the border is how I learned the hard way not to stitch so tight, but I wasn’t about to redo it all again.  Plus, what mom is going to care about that?

I’m currently working on the dragon that is going to be all for me, framed to hang in my study.

So, with apologies to my students for stealing their conclusion style, that is the story of how I began cross-stitching - if you don't count the large-print kitten I stitched as a child and the goose I never finished when I was 14.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review of Elizabeth and Mary by Jane Dunn

This book was excellent. I read one review where a reader complained that Dunn repeats herself too often, reiterating points as if you aren't going retain them otherwise. That's one reason I loved this book!  The reinforcement kept the important stuff fresh in my memory and left me feeling, by the end, I could probably given an impromptu lecture on characters of Mary and Elizabeth.

As for the impressions I personally came away with: Mary was an unfortunate product of the French court that taught her that rule was hers by right. She honed the art of charm but never wisdom. Between her chronic self-indulgence and her (likely) manic depressive cycles, she made a life-long series of decisions that sealed her fate. I have a difficult time with the enduring myth of her Catholic martyrdom; her behavior throughout her life was characterized far more by self-indulgence than faith. I felt as though her role as martyr was a last-ditch effort to improve her legacy. (Dunn seems to present it this way.)

Elizabeth, by contrast, became queen by a chain of uncanny events and never took rule for granted. She was discerning and so careful in her decision-making that indecision (contrasted with Mary's trademark rashness) was a weakness. Her eventual decision to behead Mary can hardly be called a decision at all,  as you will see if you read, and even though Mary was skilled at flattery and deference to Elizabeth in their early acquaintance, I got the impression that Elizabeth had more genuine feelings for and loyalty to Mary -- something she couldn't afford to entertain. 

I don't want to take the time to chronicle the numerous and critical mistakes that marked Mary's reign, but I will list three decisions I believe hurt Elizabeth's chances of solidifying a trustworthy relationship with Mary: her refusal to ever meet Mary face-to-face, her stall tactics over selecting a possible husband for Mary, and her refusal to grant Mary the asylum she sought when she fled Scotland. Her decision on these matters were complicated by the volatile political and religious situation at the time, and my opinion is an amateur one, but there it is. 

Overall, these historical females were brought to life for me in a very personal way, and I am anxious to read more historical books, especially written by Jane Dunn.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

C.S. Lewis and Focus on the Afterlife

I've been reading C.S. Lewis's book Reflections on the Psalms, and in it he explains how the Jews perceived the Psalms vs. how Christians perceive them. One thing he addresses is the Christian focus on the afterlife. He says that traditionally in Judaism, there was little to no belief in an afterlife. Then he says this, which I love because it so succinctly states my own objections to scaring people into salvation via hellfire and brimstone: "The truth seems to me that happiness or misery beyond death, simply in themselves, are not even religious subjects at all... the hopes and anxieties aroused are overwhelming. But they are not on that account the more religious. They are hopes for oneself, anxieties for oneself. God is not in the centre. He is still important only for the sake of something else" (emphasis mine).

That is also how I feel about the "Left Behind" mentality. Having been through my own Last Day obsession, I came out of it realizing how little it nourished me spiritually. My focus was on things so literal.

Anyway, he goes on to theorize why, in all God's revelation to the ancient Hebrews, he didn't reveal to them the importance of the afterlife: "It is surely, therefore, very possible that when God began to reveal himself to men, to show them that He and nothing else is their true goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that He has a claim upon them simply by being what He is, quite apart from anything He can bestow or deny, it may have been absolutely necessary that his revelation should not begin with any hint of future Beatitude or Perdition. Those are not the right point to begin at. An effective belief in them, coming too son, may even render almost impossible the development of (so to call it) the appetite for God; personal hopes and fears, too obviously exciting, have got in first" (emphasis mine).

Brilliant. It shows exactly the theological flaw in using scare tactics to present Christ. I realize some Christians have a "whatever-it-takes" mentality, but I just can't believe that such "salvation" leads to a true understanding of Christ.  It may do more damage in the long run.
I was brought up being taught, and have continued to experience, that the Kingdom is in operation every day, every moment.  Christ is Risen.  And living the Kingdom every day automatically keeps us in a state of preparation because we have the proper focus.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Silent Scuffle

There have been several events in my life that have seemed paranormal but could possibly be explained away, even if by a far-fetched theory. 

Tonight's event was not one of those.  At least I can't think of an explanation.

I will back up:  two days ago, I had a couple experiences with texts I knew I had composed and sent only to find later that they were nonexistent.  This happened with two different text messaging services.  Still, technology will be technology, so, while I find it intriguing, I know it could just be a glitch -- even, coincidentally, in two different text messaging services.

This morning, I noticed two of my rats starting what I like to call a "silent scuffle."  Bishop and Farnsworth are such good friends that when they DO appear to have a fight, they go through the motions, but there is none of the squeaking and screeching you hear with two less affectionate rats.  It's kind of like watching a silent movie.  So when I saw this silent scuffle about to start up, I grabbed my iPhone to get it on film so my friend Jocy could see it.  She had heard about their scuffles, but I'd never filmed one. 

Disappointingly, just as I started recording, Bishop and Farnsworth toned it down and just sat there sort of swaying their heads back and forth, merely considering starting a scuffle.  I thought to myself, "Well, this is boring.  But Jocy would probably find it interesting since she would be able to tell what they are actually doing." (Jocy knows "rat language" very well.) 

But when Farnsworth started grooming Bishop, I realized the show was over and I just stopped the recording and went about my morning.  The video wasn't worth sending even to Jocy.

This evening, Jocy accompanied me to a vet visit for my brother's dog.  On our way, I asked if she had seen the two rat videos I had sent her yesterday.  She said, "Yes, I saw them this morning." then she laughed.  "I saw the one with the 'silent scuffle.'"  I looked at her in confusion and she continued, "You know, where the two rats were swaying back and forth in front of each other."

I knew I hadn't sent her the video she seemed to be describing; I hadn't even told her I had recorded one of their scuffles.  So I just decided she was referring to a video with a part I didn't remember happening, or she was just confused.  We were interrupted, but resumed the conversation later.  When she again brought that video up, I said, "I didn't send you that video."

She insisted I did, and she grabbed her phone to pull it up.  Meanwhile, I grabbed my phone to pull up the video of the near silent scuffle.  When I showed it to her, she said, "Yes, that was it."
"But I didn't send this to you," I said.  "I just decided it was too boring and I quit recording and did something else."

Again, she insisted I did send it to her.  And, like I said, she had already described the video, even before I'd shown it to her.  She decided that maybe my iPhone had sent it automatically. 

However, when she went to her email to show me -- it wasn't there.  Only the two videos I remember sending her were there.  She told me it had been a Youtube link within an email, like the others.  I showed her no such email in my own sent messages OR in my uploaded videos in Youtube.  I then showed her the steps I have to take to send her a video (with this particular one, I'd have had to clip it and that takes me some time since I have to decide which part to send) and there are even more steps to uploading it to Youtube then sending it as a link. 

But the fact remained that she had been able to describe this video before we had realized there was no way she could have seen it. (Also note that I have only ever sent her three videos total. Two of those were yesterday and one was months ago. None of them had a scene like the one she had just described that I had filmed.)

To make this more interesting, she told me that as she was watching it, she had figured - considering the boring content - that I had wanted her to tell me what the rats were doing -- which was exactly what I was thinking at the time of recording. 

There is no explanation as of yet for this.  But it's not the first time Jocy has experienced what appears to be an alternate reality.