Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Be Thankful

Thus ends the best month in New England sports history. Be glad you lived to see it.

Outing Albus Dumbledore

I have sat on this essay by a friend for over a week now, to see if anything brilliant to add occurs to me...

Not much, actually. I will only note that when the essay criticises Rowling for inserting an alien political/social agenda, he is right that it does damage to the story. Dumbledore would not be much influenced by Muggle society. One might create a world in which homosexuality is looked on in much the same way as modern Britain, or alternatively, is viewed much differently, but one would then have to create background reasons for either. Heterosexual relations are viewed with more consistency through history, and do not require much explanation unless there is something unusual to report. Once you've put the unusual into your subcreated world, you have to justify it. As Tolkien noted, you can have a green sun, but you must then offer some internally consistent reason why this is so.

The writer is Dr. James Ernest, once of Manchester, NH and now of Grand Rapids.

Outing Albus

J. K. Rowling now announces that Dumbledore is gay. The account of the "outing" at says:

In a surprising new Potter twist, author J. K. Rowling outed Dumbledore at New York's Carnegie Hall in front of 2,000 Potter fans during a question and answer session Friday night.

After reading an excerpt from the seventh installment of her series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," one young fan asked if Dumbledore had ever loved anyone.

"Dumbledore is gay, actually," replied Rowling.

The predictable reactions have been forthcoming. Advocates of gayness are pleased. Opponents of gayness are displeased.

Having myself been instructed by at least two excellent high school teachers who I believe were homosexual, I have no difficulty imaging an outstanding homosexual headmaster. The best schoolteacher or principal may be the one who pours heart and soul into teaching and more generally into mentoring, advocating for, and when necessary protecting, students; one whose whole life, as far as the student can tell, is devoted to the high calling of education, whose sexuality is either creatively sublimated or expressed in a private realm that never impinges upon the teacher-student relationship. Such a teacher or principal may be either heterosexual or homosexual. One can acknowledge that fact without signing on to a progay or antigay agenda.

But what does this have to do with Dumbledore? The question is: does an author own the privilege of offering authoritative interpretations of her own fictional work to the extent of adding new information that is not necessarily implied in the work itself? Reactions to the outing seems to assume that she does. Any alumnus of a decent lit 101 course knows, however, that a well-constructed fictional world takes on a life of its own. Its characters may develop depths of soul that the author cannot plumb. A sufficiently attentive reader may begin to discern them, but the author has no a priori claim on being her own work's best reader. After all, a work of fiction is never the solo creation of its immediate author. Elements of the world in which the author was formed, including themes, motifs, archetypes, and mythic patterns from countless sources, become ingredients of the author's fictive world, and she herself will not necessarily understand or even be aware of them all. Even if the author is a competent literary critic (which may not be true in this case), other critics of her work may achieve insights that elude her.

The news account of the Rowling pronouncement quotes her offering the following anecdote:

Recently I was in a script read-through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script, saying, "I knew a girl once, whose hair--" . . . I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter -- "Dumbledore's gay!"

Rowling's note might have said, "Nowhere in the books does Dumbledore express any romantic feelings toward a woman." That note would have been enough to avert the script error, and it would not have claimed knowledge unavailable in the books. Her gay pronouncement does claim such knowledge. It is a possible interpretation of Dumbledore's behavior and therefore not quite so jarringly gratuitous as if Rowling had announced that Snape denies global warming or Minerva McGonagall supports Fred Thompson for president of the USA. It does have some of the same feel, though: the feel of an attempt to load an alien political agenda onto the back of a successful story. Rowling's intervention has averted one violation of the narrative's integrity by perpetrating another.

In Albus Dumbledore, Rowling has created a hero whose singular powers of perception and action necessarily make him a loner and whose willingness to lay down his life to defeat the powers of evil and save his friends classifies him as a messiah. Many of Rowling's readers are familiar, even if Rowling is not, with other stories in which messiahship requires celibacy. In such cases, speculation as to whether the messiah is homosexual or heterosexual may indicate a failure to understand the character and the story. Certainly most devotees of the Christian story say so regarding attempts to make Jesus either gay or the lover of Mary Magdalene. J. K. Rowling, for all her inventive genius, is not necessarily incapable of misconstruing her own story.

One young Harry Potter fan's reaction to the news of the outing was that it ruins the stories for him. It shouldn't. The stories stand on their own, untouchable, for better or for worse, by the author's subsequent obiter dicta, even including revelations of what she was thinking when she was writing this or that scene.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Kahlil Gibran's Collected Works - A Complaint

Alan Jacobs does a wonderful parody over at First Things of Gibran's style, which sums up the Levantine lyricist's arrant nonsense better than any mere criticism could manage. A sample:
Expansive and yet vacuous is the prose of Kahlil Gibran,
And weary grows the mind doomed to read it.
The hours of my penance lengthen,
The penance established for me by the editor of this magazine,
And those hours may be numbered as the sands of the desert.
And for each of them Kahlil Gibran has prepared
Another ornamental phrase,
Another faux-Biblical cadence,
Another affirmation proverbial in its intent
But alas! lacking the moral substance,
The peasant shrewdness, of the true proverb.

In Evidence of the Accidental World

We are familiar with the accidental discovery of enormously important scientific ideas and methods. Everyone, it seems, was looking for something else when they made the discovery that made them famous. Pasteur’s immunological advances, penicillin, vulcanization, Watt’s observation of the steam kettle’s energy – all these came not as complete accidents, but of clever people looking for one thing and finding another. It happens often enough that a methodology of looking for one thing, but just fooling around with the ideas or objects to see what they do, has much to recommend it. Pasteur famously said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” We often miss the important only in that statement.

There is a new one, found somewhat accidentally by neuropsychiatric researchers at NYU. It is not yet published, so I won’t push this too far, but it seems we have been overlooking enormous amounts of data from fMRI’s because of an unlucky choice in the frequency we use to reveal brain data. A graduate student fooling around with the procedure uncovered a wealth of signal we had been dismissing as noise and trying to eliminate. If this holds up, it will reveal brain activity with a specificity that will begin to consitute lab tests for various psychiatric diagnoses. As brain activity patterns emerge, it will likely upset our diagnostic categories.

Not too far away from the day that we can tell exactly what has been damaged in a head injury, or knowing the brain’s pattern for autism or schizophrenia – or whatever we learn to reconceptualize them as then.

As Yogi Berra said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

The Accidental World

Whether future events are open or closed might not make much practical difference to us humans. Whether God has already composed the entire score or is brilliantly improvising as we go, the understanding of the entire piece is beyond our understanding. As a practical matter, open and closed theology are not opposites of each other so much as both opposite to our delusion that we can predict what will happen.

Whether the events of our lives are truly accidental or merely seem so to us hardly matters as we get our daily bread. We are going to make guesses about the future and plans in advance, and we will be wrong a significant portion of the time.

Watching a Blackaby* video in adult Sunday School yesterday, a friend very rightly observed that we resent God not letting us know the plan in advance. After some thought, it came to me that we are going to resent someone or something anyway. We will make plans, something will happen to upset them, and we will resent our fate. Whether those plans were ours, or our guesses as to where God is going, we’re still going to feel that the rug has been pulled.

Even to an atheist, it may be better to have an attitude of being ready for anything, than to attempt to methodically prepare for everything we can thing of. We can predict much, and observing predictabilities has allowed Western culture to prosper. But the predictability is only comparative. The Enlightenment belief in control of events through systemization is a delusion. As human beings are the least predictable part of the system, and humans become more interconnected, we enter a period of less predictability, not more.

*I have mixed feelings about Blackaby’s writings, which I may go into at some other time. In brief, I think his approach to experiencing God is worthwhile, but I find that he is not entirely fair to the ideas of those who might disagree.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Free Tacos

The part I liked best was Coco Crisp talking to Jacoby Ellsbury: "If you get on, you have to go. All of America is counting on you." Taco Bell needs to use that exchange as a commercial next year.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

No Need To Check

My father-in-law, a lifelong Democrat, asked me today whether I thought the electoral college system should be scrapped. This is an opportunity to demonstrate media manipulation and bias in favor of the Democrats.

I haven’t followed a word of it recently. I remember after the 2000 election Hillary Clinton suggested that the system was outmoded and needed to be scrapped, but I have never run the numbers or read the back-and-forth debate on it. In the abstract, I don’t know where I stand on whether this would be a good thing for the Republic in the long run. In general, I believe changes like this are subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences, and should be held at arms length for quite awhile before acting.

But in the short run, I don’t have to read up on it and run the numbers. If Stuart is bringing it up, then the Boston Globe/Newsweek/Major Network political shows have been carrying it, and they have been carrying it because some Democrat has brought it up and – can you imagine - it benefits the Democrats. That is why it is coming up as an “interesting discussion.” I mean heck, it’s just an intellectual discussion, right? Don’t Republicans want to have an intellectual discussion?

Off the top of my head, the Republicans and Democrats would both be able to put states into play that are currently so strongly for one or the other as to not attract campaigning. Maybe that’s a wash. Abandoning the electoral college would seem to give advantage to areas of denser population, as a candidate could get more exposure and news coverage by stopping in New York than in Anderson, TN. That would be an advantage to Democrats in a national election, I suppose. But as I said, I don’t know. I just know that if it is coming up, it favors the Democrats.

Stuart is not a stupid man by any means. He has an engineering degree from Stevens Institute, and a lifetime of experience as a business owner, father, practicing Catholic, householder, and reader. But that lifetime of trusting the mainstream media as reliable, generally evenhanded sources of news now makes him exploitable by the Democrats. I don’t recall that when conservatives come up with ideas for discussion, such as flat taxes, term limits, or death taxes, they were considered quite such interesting intellectual discussions. If someone wants to show me the Time magazine cover about one of those I’ll retract the statement.

I don’t mind so much when politicians are cynical opportunists. I don’t expect the spirit of Frank Merriwell and Chip Hilton, graciously declining an unfair advantage over a competitor. I do mind when politicians are merely cynical opportunists.

So tell me folks, who brought this idea up, and what major MSM outlet is flogging it?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Emerging Church Sendup

From the very clever site Lark News:

Emergent leaders call for ‘missional re-understanding of Jesus-followership and Christ-focus imbued with passionate creativity and emotional authenticity,’ whatever that means

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — At a recent conference-like "gathering" of emergent church leaders, various factions sparred over competing visions for the future of the movement.
Leaders on one side called for "deepening and continuously beautiful efforts toward emotionally true self-divulgence and confession." Other leaders countered with a call for "a theological re-purposing of our objective and subjective missionality within a framework of God-love." Because few in attendance actually understood what either side meant, both ideas were tabled.
The sides did agree that emergent leaders should continue to take every opportunity to make casual, cool cultural references to popular television shows, movies and Internet phenomena to introduce quasi-intellectual spiritual points about the state of the American church.
They also pledged to maintain their reputation for being "more spiritually honest than the millions of people who attend institutionalized churches every week and blindly go along with the programs, sermons and mindset that make American Christianity the colossal failure it is today."
After toasting themselves with various hyper-cool micro-brews, the audience adjourned to begin 7- and 8-hour theological bull sessions in their hotel rooms and local bars.
Conference organizers say they will meet again to do the same thing next year. •
I think that about captures the EC.

Quote Born of Understanding Suffering

Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition, which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cold Turkey on Current Events

I haven't been following current events at all lately. I had become a bit obsessive about them, and decided that I was not able to take them in moderation. As a result, I have not been visiting my regular circle of blog friends, and have been focusing on the wide sweep of things more. The places at which I have been a regular commenter, such as GM Roper's, Maggie's Farm, Willisms, Joust The Facts, and No Oil For Pacifists, I have neglected. Those sites include thought-pieces of a more general nature which I am sure I would find gratifying, but they also include observations on the events of the day - a temptation beyond my reach at present. It was even hard to avert my gaze when I went to their sites to capture the url's for the links above.

I should at least drop them a note, I suppose, so that they don't wonder that they have offended in some way.

Nonetheless, I suspect I am up on the news anyway. Large events would have broken through so that people would have to mention them to me in other contexts, and all I hear about are the dangerous fires in San Diego. The smaller events are rather predictable.

1. Hillary Clinton has another fundraising scandal which is being buried.
2. John Edwards has done something which reveals him as an elitist posing as a populist.
3. Barack Obama has said many inspiring things, interspersed with slips of jaw-dropping stupidity.
4. Because of the above, discouraged Democrats are wishing that someone else, like Al Gore, would run.
5. The war must be going well, because I haven't heard anything about it. Both civilian and military deaths are trending down, except for Al Qaeda attacks on softer and softer targets.
6. The economy in general must be going well, because no one's mentioning it as a whole. Individual problems and weaknesses, which we will always have among us, are being overemphasized.
7. There has been new information which undermines belief in climate-change catastrophe. If it is large enough, it is being discredited. Small enough, it is being ignored. (I say that as a person who believes that AGW is real, but not a catastrophe).
8. Polls: Giuliani leads, Romney is focusing on NH and Iowa but is otherwise tied with McCain and Thomson, and one of the second-tier candidates, most likely Huckabee, is showing improvement. Bush's popularity must be rising, because I'm not hearing about it.

When I test the waters of my regular sites again, I will likely start with Tigerhawk and Neo-neocon, which have a higher posting ratio of long-term to short-term focus.

Golden Dome, Local Myth Version

People in New Hampshire have been telling visitors and immigrants from lesser states about the gold on the State House dome in Concord for years. I have myself asserted with great confidence that only those states which have had a president elected from among its citizens are eligible to have gold domes, and NH qualifies because of Franklin Pierce. A friend from Pennsylvania challenged this claim.

I can find no evidence that it is true, either by statute or custom. Counter-examples from Colorado and West Virginia reveal that there is no law which requires this, though that does not rule out custom which they choose to ignore. But I suspect this has been something which people in NH just say, finding it plausible and thinking it true, without actual basis.

Spiritual Giants

I asked my son whether he knew anyone who was a spiritual giant. We have all read about such people - Dietrich Bonhoeffer ministering to his prison guards, Elizabeth Elliot returning to live among the people who killed her husband - but I was less sure that I personally knew anyone fitting that description. I know people who are A-grade solid in their Christian walk, whose actions bespeak a peace/joy/love like a river/fountain/ocean. In fact, I know several.

Yet I am thinking more of the type of person who resembles a mountain rather than a really large person, or if we must keep our giant analogy pure, is 4 meters tall, not 2. Do I know any such? My son thought that perhaps one, a retired president of Asbury College, who might qualify. My wife and I threw out nominations from among the "solids" to each other, not finding any who struck us as qualitatively different from the others.

There are a few possible explanations: people who we know personally have those little quirks and irritations of humanity that disguise their true nature to our judgmental eyes; we may know of a real failing or two that causes us to write them off prematurely. We are probably quite unable to see the giants around us. Also, we may gravitate more to churches which focus on building communities of solid disciples rather than individual giants.

The apostle Peter and King David would be among our early nominations for giantism, yet we know well their faults, and those around them likely knew of even more failings which never got mentioned in the scriptures. Peter and Ana Lucaciu, who smuggled Bibles into Romania, evangelised under communism, and built an orphanage and medical clinic there after they could have remained safely in the US might well be giants if I had X-ray vision, but I have worked with them directly, and know Peter to be disorganized, and Ana to be stubborn and sharp of tongue, so I might well underestimate them. Giants look like the rest of us, perhaps.

I have a suspicion from the scriptures that a tendency toward risk-taking may be necessary. The person who buried the talents in the ground was admonished, not those who put them at risk. (Admittedly, the parable does not tell us what would be said to the person who risked their talents and lost them all.) The prodigal younger brother may be more capable of repentance than the older in the story. In addition to St. Peter and David above, Abraham risked a great sin in becoming a giant, and many of the mountains of righteousness began their careers as valleys.

We shouldn't push this too far, perhaps. Anna, Lois, Timothy, and Ananias seem to fit more into the solid category of spirituality, though they were called to greater adventures. But spiritual giants may be found more among those either/or people who we know. Few among the solid people we identify will actually turn out to be dwarves, but in looking for giants we may get a lot of false-positives.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


I mentioned long ago that I have some reputation for liking variety in music. I've decided that's not quite so. I like harmony, or things I can harmonise to. I like violins. That still includes a pretty wide range.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I have spent many hours in nostalgiac reverie. Earl’s sermon a few weeks ago spoke about letting Jesus be lord of the past, specifically noting that replaying counterfactuals (Earl didn’t use that phrase – he knows how to talk like a normal human) is tantamount to believing that God didn’t get it right.

This seems counterintuitive at first. It is our actions, not God’s, which we replay with a counterfactual. “If only I had waited for that second job offer…if only I hadn’t lost my temper…” We don’t think of this as blaming God, or not trusting him. It’s blaming ourselves.

But God has subsequently made adjustments. Whatever has gone by, He has responded to for our ultimate benefit and His glory. To play the counterfactuals in our heads is to deny that. I hadn’t looked at it that way before. The sin of not trusting God about the past just went from nowhere on my radar to #1 in the blink of an eye, because I have done this for years.

In the secular sphere, people often tell us to let go of the past because “we can’t do anything about it.” That’s true as far as it goes, but most of us regard daydreaming as cheap entertainment. Learning something new takes work, but wandering around familiar neighborhoods gives us a lot of the payback of intellectual stimulation without the effort. We can also pretend we are learning something so that we’ll make better decisions next time. This is theoretically true, but we seldom get that much benefit out of replays.

Tieing it in to my new favorite topic, such playing with the past also envourages us to see narratives that aren’t there. We gradually reshape our memories to make them fit existing stories, or search them for evidence which proves our favorite theories. Thus, playing with counterfactuals about our own lives in this way can make us less able to deal with the present and future, not more. We become less “ready for anything,” more “ready only for certain outcomes.” That can’t help much in listening for God’s direction.

Merely wasting time in reverie I didn’t mind so much. I always figured I had enough gray cells to spare while still getting the laundry done and my shoes on the correct feet. Plus, it’s an inexpensive medium of entertainment, as I said. But learning that this practice actively interferes with my hearing and trusting God, and obstructs my understanding of how the world works, it’s time to set it aside. I’ve thought enough about my own past.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cleveland Indians

I am of course rooting for my Red Sox. But I just can't work up any animosity against the Indian players. Paul Byrd is pitching, and he's a sweet guy. What's not to like about the way Grady Sizemore plays baseball? Kenny Lofton and Trot Nixon have long been favorites of mine. The Bettencourt story really gets you on his side, hoping he does well.

Rooting against the Yankees is just more enjoyable.

Not Kicking Barry Bonds

The quote from an online discussion
Chong (St. Louis): Rob if you had to give a number for the amount of players that took steroids and/or hgh in major league baseball, what would be the percentage?

ROB NEYER: 40-60%

Neyer should know. If that's true, why are Bonds' numbers any more tainted than other recent players?

Narratives Kill, or Al Gore Isn't The Worst

I have heard it said that one can not watch a soap opera for several months and still pick up again almost immediately and know what is going on. As an extreme example, I once mentioned to a soaps fan the two episodes I had seen of something in the 1970's or early 80's. I don't even remember the show, but someone asked a detective if he had any suspects for the (supposed) murder of Marco Dane. The detective tossed down the phone book and said "Anyone who knew Marco Dane for more than fifteen minutes had a reason to kill him." I thought it was a great line. I saw part of the show again a year later, and Marco Dane's murder was still prominent in the plot.

I said this to my fan friend sometime in the last few years. She told me that Marco Dane was back.

I had much the same feeling being away from the news and the blogs for a week while I was in Houston. On a TV screen in a restaurant, the crawl said that Al Gore had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Well of course. Why read the papers or log onto the blogs about it? The detail of Gore (and later, I learned, the IPCC) getting the prize was only a small part of the larger pattern of how Eurocrats think and act. It's hardly worth even mentioning.

Alfred Nobel's will specifies that a peace prize be given to someone who "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses". This is the recipe that people of good will a hundred years ago thought would work. If we could just have more peace congresses...if we could get everyone to throw away weapons or reduce armies...if we all got together and did nice get-along things... Imagine there's no countries, and all that. The award-givers were true to their charge. They gave the award to someone who still believes that those things would work if we just tried hard enough. Gore actually isn't such a great choice, because he is less of a wussy pacifist than they would like to pretend. He just sounds that way when he gets rolling on climate change.

Climate change isn't about peace, exactly, but there are similarities. That whole fraternity among nations thing fits well, and so do the environmental conferences, which are like peace conferences in many ways. A minuscule subgroup of many nations gets together and agrees what everyone else should do. Nations which have no good intentions toward anyone else get invited and condemn the same people in your rich nation that you do. That, my friend, is fraternity. The Nobel committee rewards people who support their belief in this outdated and patently stupid process. The Eurocrats and many Americans still believe in this process because they can imagine a story how it should work. If everyone reduced their standing armies (or their nuclear weapons), they can se how that would probably maybe mean less war. If nations did fraternal things and all pulled together, then it would stand to reason that they would all like each other better and stop fighting. Wouldn't it? Can't you just picture it? And peace congresses! What could be better? If all these folks could just sit at the same table they would all see how human everyone else is and they'd go home and tell the others how this can all be talked out.

That belief is a failed god, however much people want to prop up the corpse and worship it.

There isn't really much contradiction in giving the peace prize to environmentalists. The Nobel committee has been wandering farther afield for years, giving awards to various do-gooders who are killing people. If you check the list, you will see that UN committees and officials win this award frequently. It's also a good peace-career move if you found a group that talks about peace (or, y'know, other good stuff) to governments a lot, or are a religious leader who says nice things about peace.

The most deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize was farther afield than even Gore or Jimmy Carter are. 1970 winner Norman Borlaug saved an estimated one billion people from starvation.

Yassar Arafat, on the other hand, won the award in 1994 in the more traditional way: he went to meetings about peace.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Houston Area

Visiting sons 2 & 4 this week, I have driven around the Houston area, both with and without purpose.

On the plus side, there are no political billboards here, which is a nice break from NH. Houston seems to like fountains as well; even boring fountains are still attractive, to my mind.

On the downside, a limited number of businesses dominate the area. It's a growing area, so real estate and building materials aren't much of a surprise; restaurants in an area without any natural and few historical attractions are expected. But I do wonder how so many storage facilities stay in business. And academic enrichment (or rescue) schools for children must be either a very good or very bad sign.

No wildflowers except some yellow blossoms; no bright-colored birds, though the varied song is nice. Brush obscures many views. Fascinating trees, though perhaps only to those such as I who are interested in bark and leaf-shapes. Not a lot of fruit, flower, or crops. Perhaps that is an October problem.

Addendum: Those enormous abstract metal sculptures in public spaces - the ones that any sane person looks at and wonders "what were they thinking?" They are very fond of those things in Houston.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Leaving Narrative Behind

Reading around the web, I have detected some discomfort among Christians on this topic of abandoning the idea of narrative. I think the worry is misplaced. Belief in a more random-looking, chaotic, and unpredictable world does not undermine God's sovereignty - indeed, it may be more compatible in some ways - but it certainly undermines our mental picture of what that sovereignty is supposed to look like.

From a long cultural line, extending at least back to Plato and gathering force during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, we have come to picture life in a more patterned way that it necessarily is. We see God turning the pages of a book already written, or weaving a pattern which is obscure to us but set beforehand. We see His intervention as a tweaking of some great clockwork or deflection of a river in a bed.

Yet a chaotic view, in which God ropes in, or attracts in various bits to send them on their way makes as much sense. We assign an enormous importance to our own history, as if one of the main points of getting to heaven will be to look back over it all and see what it really was. What if the journey is quite inessential and only the destination matters, however we got there? How if there is no longer any need, or even any point, in reading the pages of the book or listening to the symphony when our lives and all this world are complete? Perhaps they are just typing practice or the tuning of instruments, signifying nothing.

We like the idea of living within a story, even if we have little idea where it is going. It seems to give a point and a structure to all that happens here, especially the unpleasant parts. We want our sufferings to not only mean something but to have meaning in just the way we direct. We tell God what we believe will give it all meaning.

There is a chain of story in the Bible, but the past-present-future aspect of it seems to relate entirely to Jesus and/or the Messianic chapters of Israel. There are prophecies to the Jews of what will happen to them in a year or a century, but these come and go with not much reference to each other. The point of them seems to be the type of tribe and people that the Jews will be made into - what they should learn - rather than some destination requiring that they direct their efforts toward.

The events connect in retrospect, with ample evidence that Yahweh ties events of the past and present together, but I think we overvalue the continuity. The Passover is celebrated to remember an ancient event as if it were somehow happening in the present as well, but it is remembering that first Passover, not the long succession of Passovers, that is the point. As humans living in history we like the continuity that tells us that this Christmas is connected to the Christmas of our grandmothers, and their grandmothers before that; that this Passover was celebrated by people who bore our name two centuries ago or ten. But these are incidental; embellishments allowed like favorite foods to help knit us to the events but not the events themselves.

I am somewhat astray from where I began this. There are many passages in Christian writings which liken the procession of the world to something already patterned, which we must conform ourselves to before the end. It was one great contact point with the northern European concept of fate or destiny which allowed them to apprehend the Gospel. But we may have only one destiny, which is heaven - a destination. There may be a dozen possible destinies (or a thousand) on the way there.

Air Travel

Modern air travel prepares us well for eventual teleportation. You go into a local node, are made uncomfortable for some hours, and pop out in another node somewhere. Despite our observance of planes in flight from the ground and of things that look like a terrain beneath us when we are ourselves flying, it feels rather mocked up. Though we can relate a map to real distance, we are not built to think of the world from above. Even people like me, who are at the far extreme of imagining states and countries in terms of their overhead map, as if Italy actually did run from some upper lefthand corner to a lower righthand one and looked like a ruffled, spiked boot, do not naturally make the jump from looking out at the horizon and multiplying that visually by a thousand and intuiting California.

I think that's the Mississippi River over there. But it could be just a clever graphic out my window.

In science fiction, such as Star Trek, you get disassembled in one place and reassembled in another. That will likely have some unpleasant side effects. But we'll be ready for it, having waited in tedious lines for bored bureaucrats to place us into cramped containers for hours in order to "arrive" at some more desired place. Our stomachs, sleep, and joints are inconvenienced. Teleportation is going to be any easy switch.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Return of Uncertainty

If uncertainty is increasing as the world grows more complex and interconnected, that is mainly a matter of definition. It was not so long ago that death, accident, disease, and hunger found us rather more easily. Close to half of children did not make it to adulthood; whole families died in epidemics, whole regions in natural disasters. It is defending against such things that is recent.

It is fair to protest that wars used to be more localized and thus did not kill millions, or that droughts might eliminate a whole tribe but not an entire region. But this is observed entirely from the perspective of knowing how many people there are in the world and something of what happens to them. It may seem a small thing to us now if a single band of 150 souls ceases to exist, but it would hardly seem so to its members, who consider themselves to be The People, and know only slightly or indirectly of a few surrounding similar groups. In such a case the world has ended, so far as the individual knows the world. When Squanto returns from Europe to find all his tribe dead and most surrounding tribes reduced by 90%, the world has ended.

One can catch something of the sense of this if you imagine that there are numerous other inhabited planets. All earth catastrophes, even planet-wide ones, would then seem strangely local.

It is only since about 1800 that the idea of some certainty has crept into our thinking. Even at this, it is not until my lifetime that there is much expectation of getting through life unscathed. We get sick, we now expect to get better. Dying before age 60 is now seen as an enormous unfairness, a robbery from your allotted span. A worldwide depression or a nuclear holocaust strikes us as an unimaginable and unprecedented occurrence. Not so; the Great Plague wiped out one-third of Asian and Europe - the New World was devastated by diseases to an even greater degree, upwards of 90% dying. Before that, invaders put village after village to the sword. Wasn't that the whole world to those in those villages.

As science developed since Bacon we have come to expect that the behavior of the world is regular and predictable. Particularly in Europe since the (hah!) Enlightenment, we believe that all events have explainable causes if we could but understand them better. This assurance on our part is more a worldview than an advance. Because we have brought some things under control and made them more predictable, we believe that all of life will become more so. Not so; the catastrophes (and beneficences) simply expand to the new size we are aware of. We share more catastrophes with neighbors distant as well as near.

Nearly everyone still has huge, somewhat unexpected, life-changing events in their brief journey here. We still share this with the great mass of all the humans who have ever existed. It isn't new. Only the expectation that life is "really" different from this is new.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Brief Update

Visiting two of the sons in Houston, and not reading any news unless it is related to a New England sports team.

I will note that no one in Houston seems to be aware that cars come equipped with turn signals, and all are unaware what to do at a four-way stop. My theory is that they've gotten it into their heads that they are supposed to stop at the sign and wait for someone else to go before proceeding.

Also, Shiner beer ain't much. I'll give Lone Star a try while I'm here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Edwards On Limbaugh

Elizabeth Edwards had an interesting interview quote about Limbaugh:
My classmates went to Vietnam, he did not. He was 4F. He had a medical disability, the same medical disability that probably should have stopped him from spending a lifetime in a radio announcer’s chair; but it is true, isn’t it? If he has an inoperable position that allows him not to serve, presumably it should not allow him to sit for long periods of time the way he does.

Tune in next week, when Elizabeth sniggers at the name "Lake Titicaca" and passes notes in class.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

That "Jewish Lobby" Again

I haven't followed much of what prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion has been saying. The following quote may be an example of his true colors leaking out, however.
A renowned atheist cited the "Jewish lobby" as a model for his campaign to promote atheism in the United States.

Richard Dawkins said he wanted to gain the same kind of influence as the Jewish lobby, saying it "monopolizes" U.S. foreign policy.

"When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told -- religious Jews anyway -- than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolize American foreign policy as far as many people can see," Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist who advocates atheism, told the Guardian newspaper. "So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place."

Dawkins, an Oxford professor who wrote the best-seller "The God Delusion," told the Guardian that he wants to organize American atheists to counter the influence of religious groups.

"I think some sort of political organization is what they need," he said.

Need For Narrative

Abstract statistical information does not sway us as much as the anecdote - no matter how sophisticated the person. Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Journalists must have a narrative to market their wares. Media outlets, mainstream or otherwise, don’t attract readership with lists of unassembled facts. Conservatives can complain about the bias of the prevailing narrative, but it bears mentioning that some sort of narrative must exist, or no one will buy it.

The journalist must make connections between bits of data to even remember the events long enough to report them. We just don’t tend to remember isolated facts without a lot of effort. Our brains seek out connections for reasons of efficiency. The more facts, the greater the need for narrative.

We hire many people to provide a narrative for us over the course of our lives. We expect teachers to be able to summarize knowledge, and give us the important bits in some learnable form. We go to the doctor to see what diagnosis, what narrative, he gives to our individual symptoms. There is in that sense nothing shameful about a journalist trying to put the unfolding events into some understandable form. That’s her job.

Because all narratives are at best an approximation, we all get used to ignoring pieces that don’t fit or cramming them into shapes that will fit. It may be imprecise and lamentable, but we could hardly think at all if we didn’t do so. Philosophers – Bertrand Russell, for example – might maintain that there are no categories of objects, only indivdual examples, but we couldn’t get through a day if we didn’t categorize. Nor could Russell have.

Narratives increase in deception the more raw data they leave out or reinterpret. Their approximation of reality becomes rougher and rougher until they are not only calling blue “green,” but calling it “yellow.” That analogy would likely work better starting from the other direction, in which reality is some shifting, unstable color such as “what the outside of a peach is” which we cram into simpler but inaccurate categories such as yellow or red.

Hence the moronic political false-choice arguments along the lines of “You must think peaches are all red, then, you fascist.” Come to think of it, most political arguments usually have at least one participant trying to oversimplify into deceptive categories.

The overriding goal of much conservative discourse over the past decades is to point out that the common narratives of just about everything have always been somewhat off, and are now more than 90 degrees off.

Darn, now I’ve gone and depressed myself.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Who Is Minding The Store, Exactly?

This was in the morning's email at work
To: Campus Community

Subject: State Police training

Good Morning,

NH State Police will be conducting SWAT training in the Bancroft Building (near the Main Building) today from now until roughly 1pm. There is a chance they may also be at the M&S Building today. It is likely you may hear muffled "shots". These are blanks and there is no reason to be alarmed.

If you have any questions/concerns please feel free to contact me.

Frank N. Harris
Acting Chief
NHH/SOPS Campus Police
Department of Safety

Who thought this was a good idea on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, in the area between the halfway houses and the acute facility?

They have also done the attack dog training outdoors in the same place.

Audio Books

Commenter BS King wonders over at her own site, Fair Trade Certified, what the proper phrasing is for referring to books you have listened to, but not read. It is rather a question of whether you get full credit for audio books.

Taleb notes this historical figure, with a comment on his reading habits.
Both Huet and Bayle were erudites and spent their lives reading. Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person of his day.

Sounds like audio books to me.

How Does One Respond?

In my sporadic exchange of emails with a childhood friend, I received the following, in response to my note that I had gone over to the dark side and become conservative years ago.
Hey! again, the busyness of this plantlady & school girl denies me the time to tell you of my post~political thoughts & loyalties! the peaceful play that comes with acceptance & just watching the ill~played "leaders" & greedy underlying impetus for actions.............YOW!! my fist is finally spelling in sign & forgetting the soapbox.........I think it's age......or perhaps the realization that politics are a world away even when I vote in the person who says & seems to represent who & what I am............
A Little History of the World E.H. Gombrich...............a book my daughter let me borrow..........tells the story of the human conditions beginning with the beginning........Ken Burns THE War..............etc. learning of the human condition brings a little more comfort in my everyday life........& :>) beeeeeing 53 & a gardener.........the idea of "pro~active" vs. beeeeeeing in the know! the strength in possibilities! There are people who stand on the bridge every Sunday, rain or shine or snow....protesting this tragic war....there are the women in black who every Weds. stand downtown protesting this tragic war I have so much admiration for there commitment.............but being in the gardens & silence & real growing strength that is where my loyalties lie~ teaching people about the that is the post~aging I have found great comfort in!~ we all have our places & thoughts don't we ??????
I hope to make it back to NH soon. & I sure do hope we can meet up & share a story or two & I can meet your life in its' to you David W. peace!

Remember, I am fond of this person.

Good Times

It's a good time to be a sports fan in northern New England. The Red Sox have the best record in baseball and are in the playoffs with everyone healthy. The Patriots are one of two elite teams in the NFL, plus a half-dozen other good teams; and the Celtics - oh, I whimper to even commit this to my site - are favored by some to win the Eastern Conference. I won't go that far, but they will compete, mirabile dictu.

This isn't to say that any of the three will win a championship, or even go to a championship game. But it's nice to look around and enjoy what we've got.