Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Winning Over My Neighbor's Dog

Now this I don't get. Let's say I want my neighbor's dog. In order to get this dog to abandon my neighbor, I kick the dog and steal its food dish every day in the expectation that someday it will decide that the neighbor was not providing for it and it will waltz over to my lawn and start fetching my slippers.

This, as far as I can understand it, is the logic being used by Israel and the US with respect to the 1.7 million residents of the Gaza strip vis-a-vis Hamas. Good luck with that. It would be comical if there weren't thousands of lives in the balance.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

God's Will?

C Michael Patton blogs at Parchment & Pen. I don't agree with his positions vis-a-vis the existence of God, the source of morality or theology but I really appreciate his reflective nature and his willingness to ask questions. His is not the only theological blog that I visit. As a rule I avoid making snipey comments on these blogs. I consider myself a guest and believe that it would be highly inappropriate for me to pick an Atheism-vs-Believe fight on every blog post. I try to limit my comments to constructive observations (wry, at times) and questions that might move the discussion along. Others must judge if I am true to my code.

In Michael's November 20 post, he defends Calvinism in a seemingly novel way, by arguing that it is less rational than Armenianism. He opines that Armenians claim to have a logically consistent view of salvation while Calivinists leave certain "tensions" unresolved. The reason that this works for Michael is that he believes that Calvinism is truer to the Bible and therefore superior. By insisting on rational explanations, he concludes, the Armenians miss God's truth while Calvinists recognize that the truth found in the Bible transcends human understanding. In Michael's view, his, sub-rational, position is the superior. I guess Armenian's roast in hell :O

As I said, I don't have a dog in this fight and stay out of the thick of theological smack downs. However, this blatant appeal to authority over rationality points up a pattern. In my cruise through skeptical and atheist literature I have been exposed to the claims that religion teaches magical thinking and destroys the ability to reason properly. I have always considered these to be screeds of overly vocal neo-atheists. I mean, how many people really turn their think down to the level of believing in demonic possession. Well, as it turns out ...

In recent posts, C Michael Patton has addressed the top 10 apologetic arguments for the existence of God, miracles as signs of Gods will, bad marriages as signs of God's will, and demonic nocturnal visitation. It is not just that Michael has felt the need to post on these topics but it is the response he gets in the comments. For instance, on the topic of bad marriages, one poster shared the view that her enrolling in seminary after her husband died proved that years of bad marriage were God's will. Similar stories were forth coming. By this definition, just about anything can be viewed as God's will. In fact, Michael himself claims that Barak Obama's election was God's will which would seem to place every McCain voter in an awkward place!

Now, I guess I am not too surprised that people take the First Cause argument seriously. Superficially William Paley's watchmaker analogy is convincing. On the subject of sleep paralysis and waking dreams being mistaken for demonic visitation, I grant that the experience would be quite frightening. I myself have suffered waking dreams. Spooky. But this is where the slippery slope begins. Sleep paralysis has been studied and solid physiological mechanisms have been discovered. The trouble seems to be that some people expect the supernatural and thus never reach for the rational.

This last, tragic, case really struck me. It seems that Michael's sister developed a severe case of depression and became suicidal. Through strenuous efforts on the family's part, she was saved from a potentially fatal overdose. Michael reasoned, correctly, that an overdose was not quick enough to evade the close supervision that he was providing and that if his sister were going to be successful she would need to use a gun. One day, after determining that his sister was not at home, Michael saw her drive by the her house, see him in her yard and then drive off. He tried to follow but lost her before he reached the main road. Here is where the rational kicks in. Not knowing which way to turn, Michael decides to turn back toward home in Arkansas (he is in Texas). Eventually deciding that his efforts are futile, he turns his car around. Driving home, he spots a motel and, seemingly for no reason, pulls in, spots his sister's car and stops her from shooting herself. This would seem miraculous. In fact, Michael decides that is, indeed, a miracle and tells his sister that it is obviously not God's will that she commit suicide. The heart breaking ending is that, later, she manages to kill herself with a gun in a different motel. Michael of course is shattered and wonders how he could have misjudged God's will in this matter.

My response, which I did not post to his blog out of sympathy, was that Michael has it exactly backwards. What saved his sister the first time was he and his mother's determination that she needed to be checked on. This saved her from overdose. The prevention of her first attempt at shooting herself was likewise no miracle. This was Michael, having known his sister so long, following his intuition as to which direction she would turn (explicitly stated by Michael as "homeward") and the fact that she would seek out a certain kind of motel. No God here, just Michael using his wits and trusting himself - even if he didn't realize in whom his trust was placed. I can only assume that his vigilance did not waver once he came to the conclusion that his sister was enjoying God's protection. Unfortunately, his sister succumbed to her depression when she played on Michael's knowledge of her and went to a part of Texas he wouldn't have guessed.

I don't think Michael would feel better in the knowledge that his reason failed to save his sister than in the belief that he misunderstood God's will. That's not really the point. The problem here is that billions of people are being encouraged to favor fantasy over reality. You can say that Christians or whatever are generally rational and I guess they are when they are buying a car (although I know a couple who bought a car because they thought God had made it drive past them). Belief in the supernatural, in a Being who determines what is going to happen, in the futility of thinking about things and trying to act on our own best intuition erodes the ability to think rationally. It becomes a habit or worse. It is their fall back position and often their starting place. I have been amazed at how far some people take their Faith. It sometimes reaches the point of the ridiculous.

New cars, parking places, bad marriages, nothing happens by chance or human will. I don't blame religion for every bad thing that ever happened in the world but what is the future of a society that encourages such a disconnect from the Real World? Are these people mentally insulated from a universe over which they have no meaningful control? Are they holding us back? Does acceptance of "you will always have the poor" mean that effective efforts to address hunger and education will languish from lack of support?

As you can tell, I am pretty riled up by this. Coming face to face with such irrationality in everyday Americans has made me reevaluate my view on human nature and acceptance of religion's place in our society. Do I fight it or accept it as God's will?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shadow of a Fortune Cookie

"Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see."
From a fortune cookie as cited in The Invisible Constitution by Laurence Tribe.
Not that I think that Plato was right or that reality is completely hidden to us. However, this strikes me as saying that the things we see and know are caused and influenced to other things that we do not see and do not know. Those things, in turn, are interconnected to yet other things and eventually back to our perceived entities themselves.

This sentence leaves me feeling connected to the Universe in a way I only occasionally perceive. Of course my perception of this connection is actually the shadow of many unseen connections ...

The One That Started It All

Steven Carr, in a comment to Exploring The Matrix, brings back to me the scripture that made me what I am today - an atheist.
Matthew 18:17 - If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
I was about 20 years old and attending an Episcopal church when the minister gave a sermon on a passage including this verse. In his sermon he explained that Jesus could not have said this because at the time there was no "church" for someone to listen to. Jesus followers were not that organized. This saying would have to have been added by the early church.

Now, there are those who might make arguments that the priest's analysis was flawed but 25 years ago this comment set off a train of thought. I said to myself, "If you can't trust the Gospels what possible basis do you have to be a Christian?" Of course this is horribly simplistic. My wife once accused me of being a fundamentalist atheist and I suppose she is right. However, I no longer base my lack of belief on this passage or this line of reasoning. The important thing was that it forced me to step back and look at Christianity, and theism in general, with a critical eye. I started reading. I reflected on things that I had read previously. By the time I recognized the complex reasons people have for being Christians I had trained myself in skepticism to the point where there was no turning back. There is too much fishy about the origins of Christianity and the foundations of the belief in God for me to go there again.

Now, what would happen if I suddenly became "convicted"? Would I be true to my fundamentalist nature? Or would I retain my skeptical outlook concerning the absolute accuracy of the Bible become a "liberal", perhaps mystical, Believer? Interesting question.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Self Made Men

"What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood."
Nicolas Sarkozy

"I need my pain"
Captain James Tiberius Kirk

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The War on Christmas

Have we become so self-regarding that giving gifts to others at Christmas is justification for buying ourselves a "gift"? I have seen advertisements that suggest you "reward yourself". Now American Express is offering to give you two of anything, one to give away as a gift and one to keep as a gift to yourself.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tolkien Question...

Did J. R. R. Tolkien envision a Fifth Age?

[Note to self: Always check Wikipedia first]

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Future of The Palin

Now that Sarah Palin is back in Wasilla pondering her future, so too do we take a look at her prospects for future, national office.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen to her is for Ted Stevens to lose his Senate seat to his Democratic challenger. This would give her the opportunity to take back the seat in 6 years and continue her journey on the national stage, starting to think seriously about issues beyond distributing Alaska's wealth-spreading oil checks.

If, however, her popularity has been significantly driven by her sex appeal then she could have a problem. I may get in trouble here but politics and image are by their nature crass. In 2012, Sarah Palin will be four years older. Will she still have the same sexual charisma? Will she still be a "hot"? What about 2016 when she is over 50 years old? She may retain her "beauty" (never got it, myself) She may still be "handsome" and that may be enough. Maybe she can transform herself into a compelling mother-figure. She can always cling to her folksiness schtick.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

That Strange Feeling ...

From the Oxford English Dictionary
Déjà Loué:

The phenomenon of sitting down in your new sub-compact, breathing in that new car smell and suddenly having the strange feeling that you are driving a rental car.

Monday, October 27, 2008

There and Back Again

Just finished reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time. Once again I am left with the same impression: Don't mess with Rosie Cotton.

It also finally penetrated my thick skull that the one who goes "there and back again" is not Bilbo or Frodo. It's Sam! He says so right there in the last sentence, "Well, I'm back." Duh!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hubris Watch

I figure most eras of American history have their share of hubris but I would stack the first decade of the 21st century up against the best of them:

2000 - Karl Rove finds the perfect candidate for President through whose administration he will be able to manipulate the political system and create a Permanent Republican Majority. Instead, the tenure of George W Bush sinks into crass opportunism, abuse of power and executive incompetence that results in record deficits, a tarnished image and a set back to conservatism that may require a generation to overcome.

2001-2003 - Donald Rumsfeld and the neo-conservatives decide that, with a couple of bombers and Army Rangers, they can scare the regime in Iraq into (American) bloodless submission. Then all the petroleum producing countries in the region would lay their oil at our feet and marry their sons to Israeli princesses. "Democracy" and Pax Americana would flower in the Middle East and through out the world. Instead Iraq is destroyed, the price of oil spikes, the military is straining at the seams and Iran emerges as a serious regional power.

and finally,

2000-2008 - I love this one: the financial geniuses on Wall Street come up with formulas that allow them to structure their portfolios such that risk can be managed while returns continue unabated. Got that? Risk Will No Longer Be A Problem! The result? A complete financial meltdown.

Gotta love it!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Invisible Meme

I have long been wanting to start a blog meme among believers and non-believers in which each “victim” of the mind-virus would answer the following:

1) Who are “Us”?
2) Who are “Them”?
3) What is the weakest argument used by supporters of Our Side?
4) What is the best argument deployed by Their Side?

This would hopefully take the focus off bashing the other guy and turn it toward a more humble footing. It could even be applied to the opponents in any contentious debate.

Unfortunately my blog doesn’t have the visibility (no one reads it) to start something like this. That said, my answers would be run thus:

1) Soft Atheists: those who cite that “(claimed) insufficient evidence” for God’s existence.

2) Theists: I think you know who you are - still wondering about James McGrath :)

3) Every evil perpetrated in the last 2000 years can be blamed on religion: I firmly believe that, while Hitler may have had religious thoughts, in the absence of those he would have found some other justification for his actions.

4) The argument from personal experience: Although what takes place in an individuals head is subjective and unreproducible (under controlled conditions) it is still a something that was perceived and affected that person’s life. (HT McGrath)

(originally posted at Pen & Parchment)

Deep Thoughts

"There appears to be a correlation between being an undecided voter and wearing a goatee. Which actually sort of makes sense."

Comment from viewer of second presidential debate coverage

Monday, September 29, 2008

Generations Passing

It happened during the 1996 Republican Convention. Senator Bob Dole stood up and said that the White House was filled with people who had "never accomplished anything." This struck me as an inter-generational slap against the Baby Boomer generation by a member of the Greatest Generation. "We won WWII and all you did was smoke dope!"

Now McCain is trying to paint an Xer as naive while we must trust the worldliness of his Silent Generation. I wonder if this sort of thing signals "past it!"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Feelin' Old

I am sitting at my desk listening to James Taylor on my headphones and thinking, "Man, that was good music!"

Sarah, The Messiah

At 7:30 in this video, Sarah Palin accepts the anointing of a man who believes he defeated a witch in spiritual battle.

What does it say about a person's world view and, frankly, judgment that she allows herself to be involved in this?

Monday, September 22, 2008


I have become increasingly disappointed with Wikipedia when it comes to getting unbiased information on non-trivial topics. Then I read the entry on the Gospel of Luke.

Statements like this set off the warning bells:
The traditional view of Lukan authorship is “widely held as the view which most satisfactorily explains all the data.” The list of scholars maintaining authorship by Luke the physician is lengthy, and represents scholars from a wide range of theological opinion. But there is no consensus, and the current opinion concerning Lukan authorship has been described as ‘about evenly divided’ on who the author was.
Note the appeal to popularity. Not a lot of light shed here.
Then there was the sop to Bart Ehrman on early modifications to Luke:
While probably not original to the text, these verses reflect first-century tradition.
When you check the source for this statement you get Bruce M. Metzger, a favorite authority for apologists and evangelicals. In fact nearly a quarter of the sources cite Donald Guthrie whose wrote "New Testament Theology, which some evangelicals believe to be among the more significant books related to the New Testament." Excuse me if I reserve judgment.

The article does contain a smattering of skeptical citations but the whole fails to give any sort of balance or appreciation of the thrust of argumentation. Of course, I will continue to use Wiki for all my Power Rangers background material.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


It really bugs me that when I check for science news in the Tech & Science section of a news site, I have to see stories about video games!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sarah Palin: Ceiling Shatterer

I remember seeing something in a fellow workers cubicle back in my phone company days.

I paraphrase:
True equality will not exist until an unqualified female shmuck is promoted to a job ahead of a similarly qualified male shmuck.

Update: I heard a female voter interviewed on NPR make this same point. (9/18/08)

Friday, September 12, 2008

EBay Wisdom

In every speech it seems that Sarah Palin burnishes her reformist credentials by hyping the fact that she put a state jet on Ebay. I'm sure your average American is impressed with the homey wisdom of the bespectacled Alaska governor.

Think about that for a minute. Now add the fact that she put it on EBay twice and failed to sell it either time plus the fact that it was ultimately sold via an aircraft broker and you are left with a somewhat different picture. Sure, she sold the damn plane. Good for her. However her judgement starts looking a little suspect. Your average Hockey Mom (tm) might think the best way to unload something is on EBay but among the Experienced (tm), these sorts of deals just don't go down that way. Naivite, perhaps? Yes and forgivable in your average American. Worldly-wise enough to be President? I'm not sure.

I am left wondering what else Sarah Palin doesn't know enough about to know that she doesn't know enough about it. That is Wisdom and it is something that Palin has not yet demonstrated clearly. Similarly, while Barak Obama's manner consistently hints at a level of self-reflection that guards him against rash and unwise action, John McCain, in some ways like George W Bush, shoots from the hip and risks lodging a bullet in everyone's foot.

Some people feel that men or women of action are needed to keep this country strong and safe. I think the last eight years bears me out in believing that action is dangerous when not balanced by curiosity and awareness of the limits on our ability to predict the consequences of our actions.

Obama may prove too circumspect to act when necessary but John McCain (and Sarah Palin?) gives every indication that he will act without understanding the consequences.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Sen. John McCain has claimed that Sarah Palin "knows more about energy than, probably, anyone else in the United States of America."

Go here and play the video at about 4:15 (the counter runs backwards).

Update: And that was in response to a question about foreign policy, followed of course by mention of Alaska's proximity to Russia ...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Free Market Myth?

Something to think about from the The Nation's Deborah Stone:
Maybe this is the ultimate lesson in why the Republican strategy of privatization and deregulation doesn't work. Markets depend on confidence--confidence that somebody stands behind the currency of exchange, confidence that somebody will hold buyers and sellers to their promises and, above all, confidence that if banks and big businesses crash, somebody will step in to help all the little people who might be wiped out with them.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Sack of Salt

Following up on yesterdays post about military "spin", we have this:
"The US military said that its findings were corroborated by an independent journalist embedded with the US force. He was named as the Fox News correspondent Oliver North, who came to prominence in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair, when he was an army colonel."
[italics added]
Exactly how long does the Pentagon think they can get away with this before their credibility has been completely pissed away. Sure, cover up the important, operational, stuff but don't lie about things that can be easily disproven. It is beginning to appear pathological.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Don't Go to War: Reason #102

In response to claims that an Aug 22 air strike by U.S. killed 90 civilians our military, the good guys, replied thusly, "The U.S. military says militants encouraged the villagers to exaggerate their stories."

This sort of bald faced spin in routine from the armed forces. In essence the true situation "on the ground" is virtually impossible to get at without serious and dedicated digging by outside parties. It becomes so essential that the military keep the public on their side that body counts, exageration and outright lies become necessary.

Here's an idea: Don't start wars unless there is a genuine, existential threat.

Never mind. It would never work...

Friday, September 5, 2008

More on Bush's Detachment

Bush's detachment is highlighted all the more by the fact that he is largely an absentee president - 879th days at his ranch as of May 11 and currently spending a "long weekend" at Camp David. While Pres Bush claims that he works from Camp David, it is 70 miles from the White House and requires extra effort to organize meetings. Impromptu or short-notice meetings would be nearly impossible.

I am not one for conspiracy theories, but there must be some who prefer that the president be inaccessible during his frequent stays away from Washington.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

I just saw Todd Palin and John McCain do a little Man-Hug at the Republican Convention. Is non-hand contact now acceptable between men?

As Bad As I Thought

The Washington Post has a brief overview of Bob Woodward's new book on the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War, The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008. (When did book titles start getting quotes instead of underlines?)

The headline reads: "U.S. spied on Iraqi leaders, new book says" but the real shockers as reported in the article are far less mundane.
In response to a question about how the White House settled on a troop surge of five brigades after the military leadership in Washington had reluctantly said it could provide two, Bush said: "Okay, I don't know this. I'm not in these meetings, you'll be happy to hear, because I got other things to do."
Say what? Happy to hear that you don't attend meetings concerning the commitment of US troops?

And this:
During the interviews with Woodward, the president spoke of the war as part of a recentering of American power in the Middle East. "And it should be," Bush said. "And the reason it should be: It is the place from which a deadly attack emanated. And it is the place where further deadly attacks could emanate."
Excuse me, but no deadly attack emanated from Iraq. Afghanistan, perhaps Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Was our attack on Iraq supposed to scare Saudi extremists like Bin Laden? This is the most daft national security strategy ever. And it has failed to boot. The really scary part of thi sis that Bush has managed to cling to this belief for 7 years.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

On Community Organizers

"Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor."

A blog commentator

Words to Live by in a Political Season

“No matter how cynical I get, it’s just never enough to keep up.”

Lily Tomlin

More Sex and Politics - the Obama Edition

Obama said that teen mother's are off limits as a campaign attack but his surrogates are saying, "True, but this raises questions about McCain's judgment in picking Palin." THIS IS STILL MAKING TEEN MOTHERS A CAMPAIGN ISSUE!!!


It is sad that the McCain campaign forced 17 year old Bristol Palin to stand up on stage under the scrutiny of a nation. I suppose every candidate must parade their family on the convention stage - unfortunate. But to force the teen aged father of Bristol's unborn child to get a haircut and stand up there holding Bristol's hand to prop up Sarah Palin's moral credibility? This is political theater at it's worst.

I really feel for both of these kids.

Sex and Politics

A few thoughts about gender, politics and the current campaign:

If you are going to present Sarah Palin as a "Hockey Mom" you can not complain about the media talking about her kids and her daughter's pregnancy. If her motherhood is a touted as proof of her virtue then examination of it's quality must be allowed.

When the Republican delegates wear pins saying "We have the hottest VP" and "Hot Chick", you are not allowed to cry, "Sexism." Ever!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I am calling an official ceasefire in the war against Asian American Women!

First there was Disney's The Suite Life of Zach and Cody, the London Tipton character is spoiled, self-absorbed.

On Cake TV (yes, I said, "Cake TV"), the character Miracle is a - wait for it - spoiled, self absorbed Asian-American.

Now there is a Washington Mutual ad featuring an Asian-American professional woman who fantasizes about slipping into pink, fur-trimmed and racing across the salt flats in a pink rocket powered car.

In each of these cases the women are bailed out by their white friends. The amazing thing here is how easily Americans can shift from one insulting stereotype to another without any seeming awareness of what is going on.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Do They Just Not Get It?

From McClatchy:
On Friday, China acknowledged that children clad in ethnic costume who carried the Chinese flag at the ceremony were not actually from any of China's 56 minority ethnic groups.
This was not how it was perceived in my household. We thought it was actually representatives of the 56 groups (I must admit, they all looked more "Chinese" than I expected). Perhaps in other parts of the world, this is acceptable. This would never fly in America. Imagine performers in black-face at the Atlanta games.

And this is just pathetic:

Faced with partially empty arenas, authorities have mobilized armies of volunteers to attend Olympic events, despite the fact that all seven million tickets to the Summer Games were sold out or distributed to national Olympic committees.

Some of the Chinese spectators appear lost at the intricacies of the events they watch as they sit in blocks in stands, wearing colored T-shirts and waving flags.

IOC member Kai Holm, a Dane, called them "phony spectators."

"They sit around in small groups, some in yellow shirts, some in red shirts," Holm said. "They do not understand the rules of the game they cheer. It's a little bit funny."

Holm said leaders tell volunteers when to cheer: "They are applauding by signs."

[emphasis added]

Jeez! The Chinese Government thinks that we will all be impressed by such transparent attempts at a Potemkin Olympics.

Here's a tip Politburo: Take the rocks with the gems and you will be welcomed as a peer by the rest of us mediocre countries.

Update: My infinitely wise partner pointed out that she assumed that the children in the opening ceremony were were merely normal children dressed in ethnic costumes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More Infamy

Doping in the opening ceremonies?!

Now it seems that the cute little girl who sang "Ode to the Motherland" during the Opening Ceremonies i the Beijing Olympics wasn't quite cute enough. A member of China's Politburo official decided that a cuter little girl would lip-sync Yang Peiyi's recorded performance.

I understand that Pavarotti lip-synced his own voice at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. Apparently there was concern for the ailing star's health in the cold air. China, on the other hand, tried to spin the whole world. If the Olympics are not about authentic performance and spectacular, though real, feats then what is it about?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Infamy

Well, the veil drops away a little.

This from msnbc: The cool "foot print" fireworks that "marched" across the city during the Opening Ceremonies were a fake - computer generated footage

Olympic Glory

I watched the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games with my kids. They were, indeed, spectacular and the best I have seen in my life time (still having nightmares about pick-up trucks.) Bravo, China.

Aesthetics aside, however, there is the undercurrent of China's "coming out." Did the Chinese government really think that acing the opening ceremonies and netting the most medals will impress the whole world. Did they think that suddenly the world would say,

"Gee, my impression of China as a repressive country that jails journalists and monitor's tourists internet traffic was completely off base!

"Now that I have seen how masterful their Tae Kwon Do masters are and how dominant their rowers and synchronized divers are, I know that they are cuddly as a Luxembourger. Why, they are not a diplomatic or commercial rival at all!"

As if throwing your entire government into an enterprise detracts from the obvious fact that the government, at least, is authoritarian. We have seen the Three Gorges Dam, thank you very much. Point made.

Just as likely, I suppose, is that the event is aimed at building up the pride of the Chinese themselves. A proud and nationalistic Chinese population might prove more pliant to the ruling Communist party. What such a tool might be used for is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I don't know if my thoughts are completely formed or even cogent on this but I am struck by something.

On the one hand you have John McCain demanding that American troops stay in Iraq until they can return home victorious. For one thing, I didn't know people used the word "victorious" anymore. I must be an "in victory" kinda guy. Anyway, I can't shake the impression that McCain is trying to redeem the Vietnam War here. I expect him to slip up one of these days and utter the implicit "this time" at the end of his speech. It would not be unprecedented for a politician to seek to defeat the Vietnam syndrome once and for all. Secretary Rumsfeld's Iraq plan sought to prove that wars could be won with out bogging down a la Vietnam.

The parallel case is Dick Cheney trying to prove that we overreacted to Watergate and that concentration of power in the Oval Office is natural and desirable.

What is it with these guys? Are all of us spending our lives waiting for the opportunity to vindicate a past failure or can we just avoid these guys? What about Obama - is he seeking to redress the failure of the Black Star Line? Haight Ashbury? The breakup of the Beatles?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Quote of the Day

”Calling ‘atheism’ a religion is like calling ‘bald’ a hair color.”

(Don Hirschberg)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Not Another One!

According to Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball, presumptive Republican presidential nominee has exactly one (1) weekend campaign event since February... Do we want another part-timer in the Oval Office?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why the fuss over N T Wright?

N T Wright, Bishop of Durham (England) is currently held up by some as the great theolgian of our time. Every encounter I have had with his writings was left me saying, "Huh?" I managed to get through his brief article, Kingdom come: The public meaning of the Gospels and, frankly, I am left surprised and baffled.

I am surprised that he reduces the significance of the Kingdom of God that Christ's life and resurrection ushered in to the Church confronting "secular" leaders to be accountable to Jesus/God's instruction or to be martyred in the attempt. He might insist that "advancing God's restorative justice" is of utmost importance but it is expressed solely in terms of "holding powers to account." Color me unimpressed.

Bishop Wright makes it abundantly clear that he believes that the "rulers of this world" govern by some sort of Divine Right. "God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic, and that human power structures are the God-given means by which that end is to be accomplished.” Furthermore, “... rulers are corrupt and to be confronted yet are God-given and to be obeyed." In a way I admire Wright's fidelity to Paul's language. But are we really to resist overthrowing tyrants in our now familiar Enlightenment manner toward which the Bishop hurls such disdain? To indicate that martyrdom is acceptable when the tyrant does not welcome a call to restorative justice (whatever that means) would indicate that the answer is a firm No. "That sounds to us as though we are simultaneously to affirm anarchy and tyranny. But this merely shows how far our conceptualities have lead us again to muzzle the texts in which both stand together." To prove this by saying that Isaiah recognized Cyrus as a ruler glosses over the fact that God threw in some heavy signs of His sovereignty to keep Cyrus in line. I assume neither the Bush nor Clinton administrations received any such warnings. Hence my bafflement. We are to accept worldly authorities but to hold them accountable. We are “called to collaborate with compromise” with “overtly pagan” authorities but to “put them on trial” after they leave office.

Maybe “doing God in public” is about letter-writing campaigns, protests and 527 organizations. If so, why doesn’t Bishop Wright just say, “Get active in your community and lobby for prayer in schools and food stamps?” All this about God reclaiming the world seems like God is not doing much of anything other than sending the Holy Spirit to give a stirring pep talk during halftime. His followers are doing ALL the work. The God who stopped the sun and raised Jesus from the dead is reduced to this? As the founder of the Vineyard Church said, “Where’s the stuff?”

Finally, God’s apparent sloth has reached the point where 2000 years of slaughter and mistreatment by Christians, pagans and secularists have been allowed to transpire without any sign of God redeeming his creation. Wright has implied in his “debate” with Ehrman that reclaiming the world was an ongoing process. With Dr Ehrman, I would say, enough is enough. Wright can get as cranky as he likes toward scholars and the flippin, modern world but some of us would just as soon walk away from his God’s little project and see what can be done to end river blindness and to bring a tiny bit more peace to the world.

As far as I am concerned, paraphrasing Paul Kurtz provides a more succinct and useful statement than all the Bishop of Durham’s thick prose: “There is no God. We have to fix this ourselves.”*

• - sorry, can’t lay my hand on the exact quote.

Update: Found the Kurtz quote from the Humanist Manifesto II - "No deity will save us; we must save ourselves."

Friday, June 13, 2008

My Outrageous Accent

Our company is pushing hard to expand the amount of our work done offshore - namely in India. Comments from those who have experience in working with the sub-continent have mentioned issues with coordination across global distances and timezones but invariably the issue of communication comes up. There have been complaints about understanding the accent of those not raised speaking American English. I have experienced this and found that the situation improves with time, no doubt due to my own ears acclimating themselves.

Another observation made was that the team members on the other side of the phone line seem to struggle to understand American speaker's comments and questions. One sign of this is when the same questions are asked over and over again. Somehow the answers are just not getting through.

I must admit my first thought is, "Gee, their English must not be very good." But now it occurs to me that the trouble may well be my accent! An accent is all in the ear of the hearer. If someone in India has limited exposure to a southern-tinged way of speaking, especially one not trained in elocution to the degree common in actors and TV journalists, we should not be surprised if they have a little trouble cutting through our southern drawl or even a northern twang.

Once again, Humility proves the greatest virtue.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Green Lantern Fiscal Policy

"In an exclusive interview with The Times on the eve of the United States-European Union summit in Slovenia, Mr Bush expressed concern about the dollar's continuing weakness and said that he favoured an appreciation in the US exchange rate.

"'We want the dollar to strengthen,' he said on Air Force One as it crossed the Atlantic bound for the summit."

But Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that in his press availability today, Bush "essentially rejected the idea of possible government intervention to prop up the value of the U.S. dollar. He said he believed in a strong-dollar policy, but that world economies will end up setting the value of the dollar."

From the Times of London via White House Watch

Does the man understand anything about currency markets? There is no power ring to wave around and change exchange rates. The market doesn't devalue the Euro to make George Walker Bush happy. You have to do something to make the dollar more attactive, ie improve your economy or increase bond rates.

Good riddance

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Plea For Intelligent Discussion

There are a number of news sources I admire and pretty much trust, like NPR and Diane Rehm. However, there is established practice in the mainstream media that is creeping into these high quality sources of balance and perspective. This is the seemingly reasonable practice of inviting "news makers" to participate in the commentary and analysis of those issues in which they are involved. I am not talking here about inviting the UN Secretary General to discuss future directions in international cooperation. The problem I have is when the campaign manager for John McCain spends 15 minutes shouting at the democratic party official. What the hell do you think these guys are going to say? Do you really expect the Obama supporter to concede that McCain has a forward-looking and innovative plan for mass transit? Of course not. You are going to get spin, spin, spin, spin, spin. Please don't waste my time. The same goes for predictably doctrinaire pundits. I know what Bill Kristol is going to argue so I simply turn off the program as soon as he launches into his standard spiel.

Now there are some somewhat more nuanced pundits. Pat Buchanan, for instance, is unexpectedly evenhanded at times. But I want insight and perspective from people who have listened closely, cut through the crap, and can present honest, intelligent analysis. You can keep the shouting heads.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Quote of the Day

The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it.

P.J. O'Rourke

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hunger = Good?

Hunger is not a Sin.

I am not talking about the kind of hunger that haunts and kills millions every year. I am thinking here about the kind of hunger that your average office worker experiences around 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The natural reaction seems to have become to get up and visit the snack machine. Hence, an obese nation.

Yesterday I neglected to eat the sliced orange I had packed myself as an afternoon snack. I really enjoyed my supper! And I didn't die!

When my wife and I were facing some serious lifestyle changes to keep our financial house in order, I adopted an attitude that entailed not merely considering each purchase before entering into it but considering all purchases extravagant. I learned to think poor and changed my attitude toward consumption. I believe the same thing should be possible with respect to food and eating wisely. I must learn that being hungry before a meal is normal and natural. Hunger can be a good thing. I am, of course, assuming that this is not the road to an eating disorder.

The Perils of Magical Thinking

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities"

French author, humanist, rationalist, & satirist (1694 - 1778)

Friday, May 9, 2008

My ONLY Jeremiah Wright Post

A church is NOT a pastor. A church is a community. I know that my in-laws will not attend my church because the pastor jokes about their college football rival from the pulpit but most people become attached to the members of their Sunday school class, the programs and opportunities for ministry. Some even view their home church as a live market for selling insurance.

If the sermons push (or pierce) the envelop, are you really going to yank your children out the church where they have made friends? Where you have invested thousands of dollars in tithes? Where those you come in contact with challenge you to a more serious faith or greater compassion? Where your admittedly fiery and all too human pastor has provided sage advise and perspective in personal matters? Is your self-righteous indignation so great and humility so poor?

If you answer yes to any of these questions I will refrain from questioning the depth of your faith but will reserve the right to consider the quality of your humanity.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good Question

Why aren’t millions of believers saying, “Yes, I know my god is real because the universe is intelligently designed and I believe that the [Bible, Koran, or Torah] describes him accurately. However, based on the actions of this god. I cannot follow or worship him because I am a decent human being.”
Guy Harrison on "Where Are the Moral Believers?"

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Perhaps this is the source of Lewis' enigmatic dwarves from The Last Battle:
The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable.
(Excerpted from PBS site "Freud and Lewis")

The choice to acknowledge God or Heaven or Uber-Narnia is free.

That's Better

I remember finishing my reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John before it and starting the Epistles of Paul. Man, what a breath of fresh air! After the unflinching repetitiveness of the former two, the later retained a real, human voice. There was Paul of Tarsus speaking across the intervening millennia. This was a flesh and blood man with all his glories and faults (more than many are wiling to acknowledge.)

That is exactly how I felt while reading A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis. After hacking my way through seven Narnia books and with indigestible bits of Mere Christianity still clogging my brain, I felt I had finally met the man whom J. R. R. Tolkien had befriended all those years ago. Lewis produces pleasant turns of phrase. He wrestles with alternating bouts of despair, guilt and hope. Gone is the didactic and turgid prose of those other works. Present are a humility and openness. Even when Lewis comes full circle and re-engages a God who in some ways is just as catachismic as the one who seemed to abandon him in his greatest need, he does so without bombast and expecting to find that he has been mistaken in every one of his conclusions when he finally meets his Savior face to face.

Perhaps a re-read of Mere Christianity or one of Lewis' other apologist works would leave a kinder having seen the all-too-human man behind them. I think, however, that I am going to leave Dr Lewis for now as I encountered him in his last work - with a higher regard.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mr and Mrs Straighttalk

Can we stop calling John McCain a straight-talking, maverick tough guy now that we know he hides his valuables behind his wife?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Calm Down

There is a great deal of angst out there among Democrats that somehow Barak Obama has lost his mojo and will be swiftboated into oblivion in November. This may be true but left out of the discussion is the man Barak would be running against.

The liberal hand-wringing continues whenever the fact that John McCain does not have an opponent for the nomination comes up. Oh my goodness, they whine, he is getting all this free air time to bash the Democrats. This, too, is true but who the hell is paying attention? Hillary is doing a fine job of bashing the Illinois senator. Everyone is talking about her. And when McCain does actually try to say something substantive, he blows it.

This brings me to my main point. John McCain is a terrible candidate. Once the main campaign starts and people start seeing him and hearing him speak, Barak and Hillary are going to look brilliant. For starters, McCain looks old. Sorry about that but it is true. Sometimes he looks tired. In an elder person this comes across as dazed. Sorry again. Even my life-long Republican father-in-law thinks so and he is over 80! On top of that McCain does not appear to be all that smart. His policies are simplistic when not completely disconnected from reality. He also has trouble speaking fluently in public. There are stories of him becoming unglued when the teleprompter fails. This is going to appear a little too Bushian to many. Now imagine John McCain in three presidential debates. It will not be pretty.

So, sure, Barak could get pummeled by the Republican dirty tricks brigade but who can walk away from that unscathed? McCain may snag some of the older voters that have supported Hillary but he won't get a single voter under 30 (if they show up). It will be difficult. The Oval Office was never guaranteed for the Democrats but let's not lose perspective.


John McCain should NEVER wear sunglasses!

Does he not look like he should be down on the beach with a metal detector?

Thursday, April 24, 2008


If I see one more photo of someone's breakfast/lunch/dinner/tea/supper/snack on their blog I will personally launch a cyber-attack on their account and leave a flaming bag of dog poo on their front stoop.

Are we clear on this?

Narnia - Fin

I’ll open up with a few questions.

  • Does Lewis intend to teach children that a demon can be summoned by an unbeliever by invoking its name? Or is this a bit of gothic horror that children seem to like?
  • Does Lewis actually believe in Platonic forms? I didn’t think anyone took those very seriously - even Plato.

I finished the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. This final outing combines a gloss of Revelations with some end times theology and a depiction of heaven in terms of Plato’s Theory of Forms. Let us just say that C. S. Lewis did not suddenly discover subtlety in 1956. The ape, Shift, is a kind of false Anti-Christ, albeit a manipulated one. The dwarfs cannot experience heaven because they are trapped by their own closed minds (what are they doing in heaven if this is the case). Susan is no longer a “friend of Narnia” because she becomes interested in “nylons, lipstick and invitations.” If he was not writing Allegory then what was he writing? Parody? Metaphor? I am at a loss.

Any who - So Lewis is a second rate fantasy writer. No big surprise there. However, he also comes off as a bit of a crank in the Narnia series. He keeps taking cheap shots at those with whom he doesn’t agree. Those who suffer at the pen of the Greatest Christian Apologist of the 20th Century are:

  • Educators – Over and over again, Lewis slams modern education, from Lord Digory’s exclamations of “What do they teach them at these schools!” to his depiction of the Experimental School where Eustace and Jill attend.
  • Scientists – See here.
  • Socialites – I find the argument that Susan failed to reach heaven because she “grew up” or matured sexually unconvincing. I think Lewis makes it clear that her problem was her turning toward superficial things of this world, appearing attractive and going to parties.
  • America – Is it coincidence that the last reference we had to Susan’s activities before she is struck from the list of Saved is that she travelled to America with her parents? Is Dr Lewis taking a swipe at my own fair country?
  • Liberal theologians – Any non-Mystical explanation of Christianity ever put forward seems to come under fire along with scientific approaches to studying religion (see scientists, above). Kind of ironic since Lewis himself attempted to use logic to prove the existence of God and the precepts of Christianity in Surprised by Joy and Mere Christianity.
  • Dwarfs(?) – What to make of the black dwarfs in The Last Battle? Who is Lewis trying to get at here? Skeptics? The generally closed-minded? The parochial? The amoral? The short?

Overall, I am thrilled to have these books behind me. C. S. Lewis’ work does not hold up well after half a century. Even those views that were not anachronistic at the time of their writing are mostly so now, for instance, his depiction of Calormen (“smelling of garlic and onions”) or his glorification of warfare. In fact it is disturbing how much violence is portrayed as a fitting way to serve Christ. I would not encourage my children to read these books for any reason other than a college level study of the author.

My next read will be A Grief Observed. Let us see where Professor Lewis ended up. I only hope the hype does not bode ill for this book as it did the previous seven (eight if you count Mere Christianity).

What's the Matter With Republicans

If true this is revealing:
In fact, while roughly the same number of Republicans and Democrats claim to believe in God, the number of Democrats that accept evolution is double that of the Republicans

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More Reasons to Believe

My previous post concerning C. S. Lewis' endorsement of believing things that are appealing was preceded by a scene just as revealing. In it the witch attempts to put the heroes under an enchantment by combining magic smoke, the repetitive strum of a mandolin and reasonable sounding arguments delivered in a soothing voice. In trying to convince them that only her underground realm exists she argues that because they can not explain how the sun hangs in the sky it must just be a dream or a product of their imagining. Likewise with the Christ-Lion, Aslan. She states that they have only imagined something bigger than a normal cat with which they embue their highest virtues.

The latter argument is obviously a dig a rationalists arguments that God is a created in men's minds out of a need for an ultimate father figure. Perhaps Freud even said that. The former argument however reveals Lewis' view of science's procedural naturalism. Science, it seems, wants things to be explainable. If there is no explanation for an observable phenomenon, science digs for one. If a phenomenon is not observable than science offers at most guarded skepticism, at worst public exposure. After all, history is littered with grand sounding claims that proved untenable and, in hindsight, unrealistic.

Lewis will have none of it. He belittles science's prime virtue by placing it in the mouth of a despicable character. It seems he must have his mystery, at the cost of the greatest truth-producing mechanism yet devised by man. Science ain't perfect or sufficient to a well-balanced life, but mystery only covers ignorance with self-indulgent childishness. Perhaps that is it's appeal.

Credit Cards

Sometimes a quote is too good not to share...
... credit cards ... separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of paying.
Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

Reasons to Believe

C. S. Lewis places the following words in Puddlegum's mouth in the The Silver Chair.
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars ans Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made up things seems a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies making up a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I am going to stick by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as much like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.

This is easily the most theological statement in a book that is remarkably free of theology (at least in the first 220 pages that I have read so far). This same character makes many statements claiming that nothing happens by accident - a pretty bold claim but less so in a fantasy setting.

From what I have read if Lewis' conversion to Theism the above quote seems almost auto-biographical. Lewis came to the conclusion that if you have a desire for something it must be real. Here he is saying that if what you want to believe sounds better than reality than it is worth behaving as if it were. There is a subtle difference - in the first case he was arguing for the actual existence of something while in the second he was arguing for governing your actions as if something existed. It reminds me of Pascal's Wager, "What do you have to lose if God turns out not to exist?" In Lewis example you should act as if Christ were real not just because it is an appealing thought but also because it makes you a better person.

I find this kind of interesting because I have long believed that one must choose to live as if Theism is true or as if God does not exist. Agnostics can talk about doubt at their dinner parties but they can not live doubt, they have to make a choice.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I knew him, Horatio

The other day I found myself wondering what would replace Java as a programming language. Many are so entrenched in Java (or the latest cool new tool) that they just ignore the fact that all things come to an end. C seemed so entrenched that it was hard to imagine anything else eclipsing it (no pun intended).

What got me thinking about this was my philosophical frustration with String vs StringBuffer. String is the base class for handling text but to do anything even as banal as concatenation, you are supposed to use StringBuffer. I understand that immutable Strings were introduced for efficiency but they lie like a pustule festering in the heart of the language. Nothing will ever make them elegant.

And now we have Annotations in Java 5 (or is it Java 1.5?) We are told that XML is banished and deployment descriptors are a thing of the past (see here). The trend now is to entangle your code with deployment information (WebService and Entity annotations). Ironically, the instructor in the Core Spring class I recently took tried to sell us on the ways that Aspect Oriented Programming would disentangle our code. He followed this up by indicating all the Spring-specific annotations that we should add to our code! I can't escape the feeling that we are going to be deluged with new annotations when every framework will insist on their own, unique attributes. In order to port our so-called POJO to a newly released framework (or new version of an old one) we are expected to recompile our code. Imagine the stack of Annotations required to make our Plain Old Java Object deployable on the wide variety of possible environments our clients may be using. Alternatively we could try to tell CitiGroup that they have to use the technology that we chose to Annotate. Good luck! This smells like an attempt to solve a short-term problem (That Evil XML) with a long-term solution.

In Java 1.7, there is talk of multiple object return types. This may be the final sign that Java has Jumped the Shark. Are the developers of the language compelled to pile more and more stuff on the specifications to show that the language is growing or something.

And thus begins the gradual decline of Java.

More Stupid Programmer Tricks

Am I dense or just not one of the cool kids?

This is from JAX-WS FAQ page (
Q. What is the difference between JAX-RPC and JAX-WS ? One of the main difference between JAX-RPC and JAX-WS is the programming model. A JAX-WS based service uses annotations (such @WebService) to declare webservice endpoints. Use of these annotations obviates the need for deployment descriptors. With JAX-WS, you can have a webservice deployed on a Java EE compliant application server without a single deployment descriptor.
Excuse me, but the @WebService anotation is the deployment descriptor, except now the deployment is entangled with the implementation!!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Power of Self-Delusion

I was curious about the rumored doubts that C. S. Lewis expressed in A Grief Observed reflecting on the loss of his wife.

I came across this excerpt:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
Is there a better expression of an experience where it is made clear that God is a creation of our own perception of our internal state. The shadow we took for a giant turns out to be an ancient oak tree when we are forced to approach it more closely. We create God in our image and find that he is not there when we actually need aid from outside ourselves.

In the flesh

I read somewhere else that C. S. Lewis defended accusations that he was writing "allegory" by saying that he was merely exploring how Christ might have incarnated in a world like Narnia. Fair enough. Although you can't really say that Aslan's Christ is a different Christ from Jesus' Christ so the application of Aslan's behavior to our world is direct (although Aslan implies that the children mush learn to understand him under "a different name" at The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)

I think a slight extension to Lewis' description, above, would be that Aslan explores what the world would be like if Christ actually returned to Earth and hung around. There is no Holy Spirit as intermediary here. Aslan bails people out and advises them in the flesh, not as some feeling or strangely-warmed heart.

Perhaps this exactly what Lewis intended and makes this clear somewhere else.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I read somewhere on the net that C. S. Lewis was “a first rate literary critic, a second rate fantasy writer and a third rate theologian.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Theology starts moving up the rail. Theology recedes further in to the background in Lewis’ third volume. More’s the pity. Another commenter has posited that Lewis had missed the previous 100 years of biblical criticism when he started his apologetic career. As evidenced by his Narnia series, he didn’t keep up with modern literary technique either.

By the fifth outing in the series (they were, of course, written out of order), I have become somewhat accustomed to the patronizing quality of Lewis’ writing. Perhaps I am not as familiar with children’s literature from the 1950’s (outside of Dick and Jane) but his way of addressing the reader seems to be archaic by at least a generation. Even the Hobbit, published in 1937 and noticeably written as a children’s book, does not wallow in the syrupy nostalgia as do the Narnia books. The closest analog with which I am familiar is Winnie the Pooh (1926). Furthermore, Lewis seems trapped between the nursery and Oxford. On the one hand he harps on about how familiar the good reader is with stories about dragons and dwarves but juxtaposes this against the Eustace character who serves as a caricature of everything that Lewis finds foolishly modern. Kind of awkward to explain to a young Winnie the Pooh fan.

All this was present in the previous Narnia books but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader introduces yet another archaicism. When I think of some of the books I read as a young person, some (i.e. Isaac Asimov and Tolkien) written in the 1950’s or before, I remember stories with overarching story lines and well crafted plots. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we get a series of unconnected events, each one trying to dazzle us with bizarreness alone: the one-legged Dufflepods. Ramandu, the vacationing star (think astronomy, not Hollywood), the pool that turns objects to gold. Perhaps Lewis is consciously or unconsciously casting the story in the style of Danté’s Inferno. In any case, it made for dreary reading in this context.

As to the Theology of this book, I was not so surprised. Perhaps I have become as accustomed to thoughts on faith as to his style. Leaving aside Aslan’s Land which has no real theological content of interest, I groaned at the very end when a Lamb appeared to the children and offered them fish cooked over a fire and then appeared as their beloved Aslan! This story is weird enough in the Gospel of John. What is a child supposed to make of it? The claim that Lucy and Edmund have become too old for Narnia and must learn to find Aslan in their own world was pretty mild stuff. It came across as an acknowledgment that the nursery must be left behind. I can take that, may be even apply it to my own midlife wanderings. The most interesting theological motif, one that has appeared before in Lewis’ stories, is Aslan’s statement to Lucy when she causes him to appear via a magical spell, “Surely you think I would obey my own laws.” (paraphrased). If God/Christ is to be constrained by his own laws, then miracles such as the Virgin Birth become impossible. This is a whopper of a theological blunder and should be unsustainable by a serious religious thinker, at least one touted as the greatest Christian Apologist of the 20th Century. Alas.

I intended this post as a micro-review but apparently I had more to say than I had at first thought. As stated before, I intend to see Narnia through to the bitter end, or Last Battle. The later written volumes (The Horse and His Boy, The Magicians Nephew) were better than the earlier efforts so The Silver Chair may not be such a disappointment.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

C. S. Lewis and Theology

I have finished the fourth book in the Narnia series, Prince Caspian, and have had just about as much Thomas-the-Tank-Engine storytelling as I can stand. However, each book seems to be introducing new tidbits of C. S. Lewis' amateur theology. We have moved from the crudely told resurrection "analogy" to a story of Jesus (Aslan) forcing events by pretending to attack horses and riders to the previously visible Savior being invisible to his greatest supporters (and friends) because of their unfaith or something (the reason is not completely clear). I have developed a morbid curiosity to see what comes next. What will happen in the last book, ominously entitled, The Last Battle? I'm all a-quiver... or should I be dreading his clunky prose and awkward proselytizing?

It remains to be seen if all this will convince me to make another attempt at Mere Christianity, this time with the detachment necessary to prevent me from screaming and throwing the book across the room.


Another in my continuing ruminations regarding Wisdom.

Is Wisdom Meta-Intelligence?

Wisdom is ...

A) ... the knowledge of the limits of intelligence? (humility)
B) ... the knowledge of the situations where the application of intellect is appropriate?
C) ... the knowledge of which problem solving techniques are appropriate to a given task.
D) all of the above

This does not easily encompass an area that I have always considered a kind of wisdom: the ability to deal effectively and "intelligently" with irrational human beings. This may be where Solomon's "cleverness" in dealing with the two prostitutes and the baby falls.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Recycle or Merely Discard

Now reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

C.S. Lewis recycles the bogus Liar, Lunatic Lord argument from Mere Christianity on page 48. Liar, Mad or Truthful may work with real human beings that you know personally, as in the context of the story, but I am beginning to wonder if Lewis believes that this is such an irrefutable bit of logic that it can be applied widely. I can't shake the feeling that it doesn't hold up much better in the Narnia context either but I'll have to ponder that for a while.

A lifetime in their moccasins

Just finished reading Dr Bart Ehrman's God's Problem about the ol' theodicy issue. It is an interesting mix of analysis of how different Biblical authors view the problem of suffering and Dr Ehrman's own views on the matter.

In the last chapter, Ehrman sums up and points out that some suffering in the world is avoidable. When he states that the income and goods in the world could be redistributed if we had the will I was thrown back in my mind to my days in Junior Achievement and my attendance of the National Convention in Terre Haute, Indiana. One speaker claimed that if the incomes of the millionaires in the US were redistributed it would amount to such-and-such an amount, implying that it would be a pittance. I don't know if this was true but I have noticed that people who make arguments about how happy the poor are or how money can't buy happiness or how a few thousand dollars isn't going to make a difference to the poor, these people NEVER offer to trade places with the poor. If being poor is so satisfying and so little different from being affluent, why do these people pursue affluence so eagerly. The same argument goes for school funding. If "throwing money at the problem" is not an excuse for taking no action at all, then let's just reduce the school budgets for their precious children to the level of Alabama's Black Belt or the Mountains of Honduras. There is a certain minimal level of food, medical care and educational resources below which life is really hard or a child's education will be incomplete. There is probably a point where "enough" needs are being met and anything else is just tennis teams but of the worlds 6 or so billion people, how many are getting enough.

I am no saint and am haunted by my own laxity, greed and inability to do anything but, shit, at least acknowledge the issue people!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Death, Acceptance, Life

The third of my related series of posts:

I had intended to write a separate article on my own musings on meaning and finality but circumstances have overtaken me – namely confronting the same themes in, of all places, a fifth grade book.

Standing on the deck of the ferry crossing from Denmark to Sweden I once aspired to being “an old guy with lots of stories.” Years later, my partner bought me a tee shirt for my birthday that read – “In order to be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid.” I am not sure my current standing as a Junior Curmudgeon, 1st Class would allow me to agree with that statement now but both these yearnings illustrate something about me. I am the kind of person (ENTP for you MBTI mavens) who has made a life long pursuit of “understanding” the universe. I have rarely professed it so specifically, even to my self. Indeed, only a fool would claim such a task. More often the quest has assumed the avatar of the desire to be “wise.”

Wisdom is a good thing, right? Of course, the pursuit of my quarry has been overshadowed somewhat by my inability to recognize exactly what it will look like when I finally have it my sights. Perhaps realizing that is the beginning of wisdom... This gets thick, fast!

But maybe I am tracking the Dragon when I think I hunt the Unicorn. I am attracted to idea of Wisdom, surely, but the beast that draws me is Acceptance. No more tortured metaphors, I promise…

Lately, it has occurred to me that Wisdom is not my goal; it is my means. I think that I have set my sights on Understanding in hopes that in doing so I will be able to - wait for it - accept my own Death. We know that many people reach the end of their lives and find themselves ready, satisfied that they have lived fully and well. The (in)famous Stages of Grief grant Acceptance pride of place. Even J R R Tolkien had his elves become world-weary. My wife’s grandmother often complained that “Jesus had not come for her yet,” but, even those without religious faith achieve this state. Maybe that is not such a bad definition of Wisdom.

An understanding the world in which we live stands on its own merits but is it the best route to Acceptance? Wiktionary defines Wisdom as “3. The discretionary use of knowledge for the greatest good.” In my forty-fifth year the thought has been stirring in me that accumulation of knowledge is a passive and selfish act without action. Is it time to cast off my callow youth and start working toward the good of the world? James Michener claimed that surviving to thirty was its own justification but inherent in that is that after age thirty, you are expected to bail with the rest!

I have two children and hope I live to see them grow up and carry with them some of my values and, dare I say, wisdom. But I can’t help thinking that more is required of me. I am not ready for the Peace Corps but there are plenty of opportunities closer to home. Last year I spent a week repairing Katrina-damaged homes. I once spent a year tutoring biology to 9th grade girls in an inner-city school. Bits and pieces. I think I need a more unified effort and vision. I can’t escape the feeling that that is my next move, a part of the transition to the second half of my life (I physically shivered typing that).


Kid Lit - Death and Release

For me, the most moving scene in The Golden Compass series, was the moment when Lyra and Will release the now decrepit ruler of the universe from his crystal “cage”, the wind catches his form and dissipates him in a moment of release, not sadness. Likewise, the souls freed from the underworld experience a release and reunion with the matter of the universe when they return to the surface. Given his atheistic bent and statements, one can assume that Phillip Pullman, the author, meant this aspect of his work as an answer to the resurrection claims of the Faithful.

At the end of The Spiderwick Chronicles, we have the scene where Arthur Spiderwick, imprisoned timelessly by the Elves, is reunited with his now 80-year-old daughter, Lucy. Arthur may not touch his foot to the ground lest all his years come on him at once and reduce him to the dust that he would be but for his sojourn under the fairies’ power. In the movie treatment the elves transform the aged Aunt Lucille back to the little girl, Lucy, Arthur had left behind decades before and allow the two of them to dwell in timeless bliss forever.

Not so the book. Arthur Spiderwick says something to the affect of “I have overstayed my span of days.” He whispers something to his alarmed daughter and then steps forth onto the earth of the fairy glade and, indeed, returns to the dust from which he came. His daughter stands, dry-eyed. Would that we knew what Arthur had told her, eh?

This would traditionally be considered pretty heavy stuff for children’s literature. I am not sure what to make of it. J K Rowling was pretty cagey on the topic in spite of the claimed “unavoidable” religious themes. Pullman has obvious motives (that I might applaud). Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi (Spiderwick) might just have lifted their scene from Pullman but that decision would remain deliberate. Are we in the midst of a campaign to redefine the way we view death and the way in which we teach it to our children? Would that Jerry Falwell were still alive!

Newberry Good - Spiderwick Not-So-Good

This is a spoiler for the book if you have seen the movie. On the other hand, if you went to see the movie you have no business crying, “Spoiler” in the first place!

My daughter had not read the last two books in the The Spiderwick Chronicles when I took her to see the movie. I repeatedly reminded her that the movie and the book are never quite the same and often the ending is radically changed. Well, the ending in the movie was so anti-climatic that I thought, “God, I hope they end the book better than this!” A lesson in managing expectations: the ending of the book was exactly the same EXCEPT worse. In the movie the situation is set up so there is some sort of expectation and plausibility. In the book, no such thing! A hand shoots out and, chomp, it’s over. No foreshadowing. No heroism. No meaning.

On related note, what’s up with angry young boys? Harry Potter spends a few thousand pages inexplicably (or barely explicably, if you prefer) angry. Whenever the plot needs to be driven, Harry gets mad. His character development ends up stunted irrevocably.

Now Jared Grace spends at least part of every book angry. In his case, the anger is placed in a more familiar context (children of divorce) and you get a sense that it is an issue that would benefit from some therapy (not that it ever comes to that, the school expels him for carrying a swiss army knife without getting a therapist involved - as if!). Even so, this is beginning to feel like a cop-out for authors of children’s books – just make the protagonist angry and you don’t have to be bothered with complex character development.

That said, my daughter’s current book is called Rules by Cynthia Lord and it is quite extraordinary. It features a 12 year old girl dealing with the autism of her 8 year old brother juxtaposed against her encounters with a wheelchair-bound boy who must communicate via a set of cards with words written on them. This has genuine young anger, frustration, uncertainty and self-discovery. As long as nothing stupid happens in the last third of the book, it looks like a great read and an excellent book to read with my child. I am going to start looking for the Newberry label on all her books.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Not So Peculiar Relationships

I have always been intrigued by the relations between American slaves and their owners. It has always seemed to me that this relationship must be more complex than what is typically reached in high school level understanding I usually see portrayed.

NPR this morning (for Black History Month, I suppose) ran an episode of their Hidden Kitchens series on African American Chefs at the White House. They profiled Lyndon Johnson's cook along with the slave-chefs of Washington and Jefferson.

These last two intrigued me. I thought, "Now here are two black men who were considered so indispensable to their masters that they were granted positions of great responsibility. Surely their relationship with these Founding Fathers were more than just employer-employee/master-slave." I may be right but the real lesson was far simpler than I longed for.

It seems that Hercules, George Washingtons chef, dressed in a velvet doublet and carried a gold-tipped cane when he ventured into the Philadelphia open air markets. Here was a man of great prestige and pride having achieved a lofty position based on his own ability and hard work. Well, when the time came for President Washington to retire once again to Mount Vernon, Hercules would not be returning with him: he escaped never to be found by his former master.

Similarly Thomas Jeffersons took his slave, James Hemings (brother of the famed Sally Hemings), to Paris to study cooking. Finding himself inhabiting a society where slavery no longer existed, James did not press his advantage and seek his freedom. However, upon their return to the United States, James did petition to be freed. Jefferson agreed only on the condition that he train a replacement, which James provided in the form of his brother.

Now, the idea that Thomas Jefferson would agree to free one brother but retain another as a property points up the "peculiarity" of American slavery as effectively as the simultaneous elevation and servitude of these two men. However, when asked about her father, Hercules daughter said that she missed him but at least he was free. It is quite simple. The yearning for freedom could not be denied and, I suppose, there is nothing peculiar about that.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Sadaam's Lunch Money

Here is President Bush revealing the real reason we invaded Iraq - to look tough. Apparently Cheney has been making the same must-not-look-weak argument around the country recently, too. I addressed the problem of looking weak by failing to successfully do the tough thing, here.

Now it occurs to me that the choice of victims against whom we would demonstrate our toughness is quite revealing as well. It is now common knowledge that there was no thought given to actually rebuilding Iraq or the possibility that some Iraqis might actually fight back. The conclusion one must draw is that Cheney and his minions thought Iraq was an easy mark. We would have no trouble subjugating this country and all the toughies in the neighborhood would look on us with a new respect.

At my daughter's school they have a word for someone who picks on kids smaller than themselves in order scare the other children in to "respecting" them: a Bully.

Don't you just know that Dr Phil would have a field day with this bunch of losers.

Update: Corrected some typos and bad grammar

Thursday, January 31, 2008


Stocks higher after troubled bond insurer MBIA assures investors in a conference call after reporting $2 billion loss. MBIA shares up 8%.

Is it just me or has any when else noted that the stock market shows big positive swings on the most anecdotal of signals (see above) while sinking with each broad-based negative measurement? These people seem to be clinging to their DOW 30,000 dreamworld by their fingernails.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


To those who are castigating President Bush for demanding a 50% reduction in congressional earmarks in the 2009 budget after turning a blind eye to the same practice in the Republican congress, shame on you!

The President is a man of principal and consistent reasoning. How dare you denigrate the office by making unfounded allegations. You see, the 50% earmarks that are to be eliminated are all the Democratic ones!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I spoke Too Soon!

I have made the observation that the line between any human stem cell and a human embryo is so thin that Pro Lifers will be faced with the possibility that ALL stem cell research of any kind is murder. The deduction is easy when you start with right assumptions.

It turns out that this issue is not to be left for future generations. Labs in California and Great Britain, at least, are creating human embryos in various ways. The upshot being that an embryo is an embryo. I believe the Catholic Church is way ahead on this - Every Sperm is Sacred, after all:
The process “involves creating human lives in the laboratory solely to destroy them for alleged benefit to others,” said Richard Doerflinger, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Peak Oil?

When President Bush pointed out on his recent visit to Riyad, that high oil prices were hurting the US economy and that an OPEC production increase might help, Secretary-General Abdalla Salem al-Badri said the oil cartel "will not hesitate to increase production if the market justifies this increase."

You could take OPEC at it's word and believe that high prices are NOT linked to supply but speculation in which case increasing production would not help. Or you could assume that oil producing countries are so greedy that they willing to prop up $100 oil in order to reap the profits.

The former seems insincere in light of the fact that reports of US inventories have a daily impact on futures prices. Supply and demand lives.

The later might be true but OPEC was making lots of money at $60 vs the $20 of a few years ago. It seems pretty extreme to risk the ire of your customers and of wary congressmen by following a $500 or bust policy.

What if the Saudis won't produce more oil because they can't? Peak Oil theorists have been pointing out for years that the official figure for Saudi Oil Reserves never changes. Think about it. They pump oil out of the ground for years but no dent is made in reserves. No bump up in estimates occurs because new reserves are located. Nothing. The figure just keeps steady over 18 years. Just what is being concealed by this practice?

It appears that there is more than prudence or greed going on here. With India, China and the rest of the developing world demanding more and more oil alternative energy and greenhouse gas remediation steps may become an economic as well as an environmental imperative.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Huckster

While driving to work this morning, my wife called me on the cell phone. She wanted to know if I had herad Mike Huckabee's interview on NPR just then. I had caught the end of it while flipping stations. The portion I heard involved Huckabee decrying the damage done by 527 organizations to the candidate they are intended to help. My lovely partner was impressed with how he not only talked sense but just how genial and nice he came across. I agreed, of course. Not only because she is right 95% of the time but because Huckabee is very charming in an interview.

Rewind to Christmas 2007. Mike Huckabee's famous reason-for-the-season ad and the bookcase. Some pointed out that the lit portions of the bookcase in the background were intended to not-so-subtly superimpose a cross with the candidates image. On MSNBC's Morning Joe program, Huckabee laughed it off claiming that he was also blinking a secret message to Evangelicals in Morse Code. He was very witty, charming and earnest through it all.

It was during that interview that my highly attuned Manipulation Alarm (patent pending) started going off. Yes, Mike Huckabee is cute and probably a sincere and nice guy. Bowling anyone? That said, it is apparent that he is also a skilled speaker and has honed his ability to disarm critics over his whole life. No one is this glib by accident. Even if unconsciously (he's no Romney), Mike Huckabee has probably learned that he will be more successful if he can lull people into a less defensive posture by appearing witty and charming. He bumps up against the line of Slick so tightly that you can barely see daylight through the gap.

Okay. So I am pathologically sensitive to being manipulated. I am too sensitive. Perhaps, but I refuse to believe that his campaign staff was so obtuse and unprofessional that they did not notice a giant glowing cross in their Xmas video. I also point you to his squirrelly Fair Tax plan of replacing the income tax with a 25%+ national sales tax and monthly rebate checks to every citizen while claiming that the current system is too bureaucratic and susceptible to fraud.

Finally I draw your attention to the item below. Even if your are not scared shitless by the prospect of amending the U.S. Constitution to bring it in line with Washington's view of God's Will, the fact that Huckabee is tossing this red meat to his theocratic supporters ought to expose his aw-shucks farm boy routine for the act that it is. Huckabee is a politician and play acting in a politician, while common, is no virtue.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Needs More God?

I admit that I was intrigued with Mike Huckabee. Maybe a "real" Christian - you know, one who cares about the poor and junk - would show all those nut jobs how Jesus meant for it to be done.

Now it turns out that Huckabee is going around saying that the United States Constitution should be amended to come into line with "God's standards." He just lost me big time! Even the blog at Christianity Today is taken aback.

The sad thing is that he is so glib and witty that he will try to laugh it off on al the cable shows.

Parlez-vous, Anglais?

I recently download an audio book from my library for my new MP3 player. The book was an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery. In this story, the hero, Hercule Poirot, peppers his speech with French phrases. These are not your average "Mon Dieu!" Many of these expressions are central to the flow of complex dialogs and there is little context to hint at the meaning of these utterances.

I studied French for a number of years and was able to more or less follow Poirot's polyglotic outbursts. My question is - How much French is the average British reader expected to know? Does England's proximity to their oft-reviled neighbor demand a working knowledge of the tongue? Perhaps the Texan-in-the-street has a similar fluency in Spanish.