Tuesday, December 28, 2010

82 Moves -- Few if Any Brilliant Ones

1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. ♘xd4 e5 5. ♗b5 ♗d7 6. ♗xd7 ♘xd7 7. ♘f3 ♘gf6 8. ♘c3 a6 9. ♗g5 ♗e7 10. ♘d5 ♘xd5 11. ♗xe7 ♘xe7 12. c4 ♕a5 13. ♘d2 ♘c5 14. O-O ♕c7 15. ♘f3 ♘xe4 16. ♕e2 ♘c5 17. ♘g5 h6 18. ♘f3 O-O-O 19. b4 ♘e6 20. b5 ♘d4 21. ♘xd4 exd4 22. bxa6 b6 23. ♕f3 ♖hf8 24. ♖ac1 ♕c6 25. ♕h3 ♕d7 26. ♕f3 ♕c6 27. ♕h3 ♔b8 28. c5 dxc5 29. ♕g3 ♔a7 30. ♕a3 ♘d5 31. ♖fd1 ♘b4 32. ♕g3 ♘xa6 33. ♕xg7 ♕g6 34. ♕e5 f6 35. ♕e7 ♔b8 36. ♕e6 ♔b7 37. ♖b1 ♘b4 38. ♕e7 ♔c6 39. ♕e6 ♖d6 40. ♕c8 ♔d5 41. ♕xf8 f5 42. ♕a8 ♖c6 43. ♕d8 ♖d6 44. ♕a8 ♖c6 45. ♕a4 f4 46. ♕b3 ♔d6 47. ♕f3 ♘d5 48. ♖e1 ♕f6 49. ♖e2 ♔c7 50. ♖be1 ♕f7 51. ♖e5 ♖d6 52. ♖e8 ♔d7 53. ♖a8 ♘c7 54. ♖a7 ♖c6 55. ♕g4 ♔d8 56. ♕h4 ♖f6 57. ♕h3 ♖f5 58. ♕xh6 ♖h5 59. ♕d6 ♕d7 60. ♕xf4 ♖f5 61. ♕h4 ♔c8 62. ♕h8 ♕d8 63. ♕h3 ♕d7 64. ♕h8 ♕d8 65. ♕h3 ♕d7 66. ♖a3 ♔b7 67. ♖b3 ♖d5 68. ♕f3 ♕c6 69. ♕h3 c4 70. ♖f3 d3 71. ♖d1 d2 72. ♖a3 ♘b5 73. ♕h7 ♖d7 74. ♕h3 ♘xa3 75. ♕xa3 c3 76. h3 c2 77. ♖xd2 ♖xd2 78. ♕e7 ♖d7 79. ♕e2 c1=Q 80. ♔h2 ♕f4 81. g3 ♕ff3 82. ♕f1 ♖d2 0-1 {White resigns}

This afternoon, on the Free Internet Chess Server, I suffered through one of the most tedious, damnably dull chess games of my life. I was rated 1211 going into the game, and my opponent was rated 1109. He or she had set the time setting for the game, 3 12, and I had accepted the seek. 3 12 means that each player starts with 3 minutes on clock, and gains 12 seconds with each move. The clock starts after each player's first move. So on the second move, each player has 3:12, and, for example, if they take 5 seconds to move, their clock goes down to 3:07, then up to 3:19 until their next move. If a player takes 2 minutes to make his second move in a 3 12 and 1 minutes and 12 seconds to make his third move, he will forfeit on time on his third move.

If, on the other hand, each player takes less than twelve seconds per move, if neither player is checkmated or stalemated, and if neither player calls a draw for 3-fold repetition of the same board position or 50 moves without a capture or promotion, and if they build up enough time to take naps when they are tired, or get other players to cover for them while they sleep or do whatever else they have to do, then theoretically the game could last forever,

I don't know how long this game lasted. It felt like forever. I prefer games with no increments: 3 or 5 or 10 minutes or so per side to make all of your moves. That way you know it will end in 6 or 10 or 20 minutes or less. But I sometimes accept seeks for incremental games rather than just wait around for a 5 0 or a 10 0.

In chess, each player begins with 16 pieces. To be sure, some pieces are more powerful than others, but in a good game every piece is important. Generally speaking, all other things being equal, the player who best succeeds at using his pieces in combination and in marshaling all of them into the common cause will have the stronger game. For readers fluent in chess, it will give convey some impression of the nature of this afternoon's game when I say that my opponent, out of 82 moves, moved his Queen 42 times, and put me in check 20 times. As one of the leading chess writers of the past century pointed out, I apologize for not remembering the author and title of the book in question, novice-level players -- that certainly includes me and my opponent here -- often overestimate the importance of check. Check is not checkmate. My opponent checked me 20 times, I checked him 3 times. If the player who put his opponent in check the most times won, my opponent would've scored a rousing victory. But he lost.

A great danger for me in this sort of game is boredom, leading to lack of concentration, leading to blunders and often enough to lost games. It was clear that my opponent, who had manoeuvred his Queen into a position where could check me with it frequently, was going to check me about as many times as he could. 20 times, as it turned out. That's a lot. 42 is an awfully big number of moves for one piece in one game. 82 moves is an awfully long game. In this case, an awfully long, awfully monotonous game. Early on it became clear to me what my opponent was going to do: check me with the Queen relentlessly. There was none of the texture, the drama and surprise that comes from an attack co-ordinated between several pieces. All I had to do was stay awake and fend off one piece until I could find some holes in my opponent's position and exploit them.

I almost didn't. No, I didn't literally fall asleep, but at one point I lost concentration sufficiently to go behind in material.

Several times we had repeated the same board position twice, check with the Queen, evade, check with the Queen from another square, evade, then back to the first one -- once I thought we had a had a three-fold repetition, and I gladly hit the "Draw" button, willingly to lose a point or 2 or 3 in order for this to be over -- but I had been mistaken. And so hitting the "Draw" button didn't result in an automatic draw, but gave my opponent the option to accept a draw, end the game and win a point or 2, or 3. But he kept on.

And finally there was no way for him to keep checking me, I had manoeuvred out of that situation, he could either trade pieces or re-group, and he didn't want to trade pieces, maybe because that would mean no more Queen and hence no more hammer-away-with-the-Queen, and he couldn't regroup, apparently. All he could do was hammer away with the Queen, or quickly die. I'm not a great chess player, far from it, but there is more than one note on my keyboard, so once I silenced his one note, that was that.

So there we were, with his King on the 8th rank behind 3 Pawns on the 7th rank, and me with 3 pawns together in the middle of the board -- because you advance your Pawns, it's one of the basic things you do in chess if you have more than one note -- and enough skill to easily promote one of them, because all 3 were passed: no Pawns were facing them. My opponent floundered, lost material until we were even again, and then it was him with a Queen and Pawns and me with a Queen and a Rook and then with 2 Queens and a Rook, all 3 of them concentrated on the Pawn covering up his King, and he resigned 2 moves before I was going to checkmate him, taking that Pawn with my Rook, then taking his Queen and pinning his King on the edge of the board.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Being an Atheist Doesn't Mean You Don't Have to KEEP Thinking Rationally

So you've figured out that God is a fairy tale and that Jesus didn't walk on water. Congratulations. But that was a pretty low hurdle you just cleared, Sparky. Also, the rise of "new" atheist authors like Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris, their spending more and more time on the bestseller lists and TV, makes it less and less likely that you cleared it on your own. In short, as the public presence of atheism spreads, so does the visible presence of dumb atheists.

They state flatly that Jesus never existed. Now, I'd be with them if they'd said that the stories of Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes and walking on water were just as fictitious as stories of Harry Potter flying and casting spells. But that's not what they're saying. They're saying that Jesus is as fictitious as Harry Potter, not allowing for the possibility that someone named Jesus really did preach, for example, the collection of bad advice and farfetched promises which has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount, and really was crucified in Jerusalem on Pontius Pilate's watch. I don't know if there was such a man. I certainly don't know that there wasn't.

They say that the earliest records of His life appear 70 years after His alleged death. No. The Gospels, according to most experts, date from AD 70 and later, which would be 70 years after Jesus's alleged BIRTH, Sparky, which would be 35-40 years afters His alleged death. And they forget, or more likely didn't know, that the writings of St Paul are the earliest known writings about Jesus, pre-dating the Gospels, beginning to appear within 20 or 25 years of His alleged death.

But some of these atheists are even dumber, and insist that the Bible was written around AD 400 at the Council of Nicea under Constantine's supervision, ignorant of the facts that 1) the Council of Nicea took place in AD 325, not in 400, 2) Constantine had been dead for 63 years in AD 400, 3) Constantine didn't care much what was in the Bible, he just wanted the bishops to stop squabbling among themselves and for a unity of the Church to mirror the unity of the Empire, 4) that manuscript fragments of the New Testament pre-dating Nicea by over a century have been found -- just generally really spectacularly ignorant.

"Gnostic" has become a buzzword. Today's atheists have learned that Gnostics were opposed by early Christians, and apparently that's enough for their approval -- the enemy of their enemy is their friend. These atheists have not gone to the trouble of finding out anything about the Gnostics, or Arians, or other dualists, whose teachings, in fact, were even crazier than those of conventional Christians, and who were often viciously antisemetic, claiming that the Old Testament represented the imperfect, evil world of the Demiurge which was to be wiped away by the new and perfect spiritual world of Jesus -- see Steven Runciman's book The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy.

One self-satisfied atheist bonehead I've run across recently points out triumphantly that the lack of video and photography in Jesus' time, and the practice of reading intestines and tarot cards, are relevant to the quality of historical statements about the period and that therefore the Magi are fictitious. (I couldn't make this up. Well -- I wouldn't. I didn't.) Neither video nor still photography existed in the time of George Washington or Christopher Columbus. Does this guy think that therefore nothing can be said about Washington or Columbus? (He might. I wouldn't be surprised.) Intestines were read in the Roman Senate -- does he think therefore that Julius Caesar is a fictitious character? Does he think tarot cards were read in the time of Caesar and Jesus? If so, he's off by over 1200 years. I mention this atheist not because he is a rare bird, but because, on the contrary, he does NOT stand out from the mass. He's TYPICAL.

It would be nice if we could transition from an age of discourse among believers to an age of reason. But I think we may be overly-optimistic if we believe that this is already occurring. All too often conventional religion is being traded for beliefs which are equally unsound, resting in an equally uncritical way upon equally unsound authority. I'm not saying there are no bright atheists who think critically and do serious research into historical subjects before pontificating upon them. I just wonder whether there are very many of them, or if typically second-hand reliance on one set of authority has merely been exchanged for equally unthinking acceptance of other authorities.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Medieval Learning

Nancy Marie Brown has written a book about Pope Sylvester II.

"In the popular mind today," Brown writes, "the Dark Ages are wrongly considered a time of superstiti­on and hysteria, when the Christian church suppressed all scientific investigat­ion.

"Just the opposite is true."

No. The opposite of the Church suppressin­g ALL scientific inquiry would be the Church suppressin­g NO scientific inquiry. The Church most certainly did suppress some inquiry, and most certainly did foment some hysteria and superstiti­on -- even if one doesn't put Christiani­ty under the category of superstiti­on. I do, but for the sake of argument I'll accept Brown's definition -- and on the other hand it supported and encouraged some scientific work. So many people, on one side or another, seem to want to make black-and-­white statements about this or that historical period, in order to score this or that political point -- one reader of HuffPo, for example, responded to Brown's article with the flat statement "the Pope was never a scientist" -- as opposed to really trying to find out what happened, which in my humble opinion is difficult enough under the best of circumstan­ced with no preconceiv­ed notions clouding one's view. (Well... SOME preconceiv­ed notions will probably always cloud the view to some extent.)

Brown writes:

"Gerbert devised an abacus, or counting board, that mimics the algorithms we use today for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. It has been called the first computer."

(Called the first computer by whom?) I was worried that someone might think that Brown had said that Gerbert invented THE abacus, as opposed to AN abacus -- the first known abacus was made in Sumeria somewhere around 2500 BC -- but luckily that doesn't seem to have happened so far.

"In a chronology of computer history, Gerbert's abacus is one of only four innovation­s mentioned between 3000 B.C. and the invention of the slide rule in 1622."

That just makes me think: Wow, that's a pretty weak chronology. Where did you get it -- from a placemat in a diner on the Interstate somewhere?

Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Sylvester II in the last 4 years of his life, really was a very interesting man, and Brown lists off some of the high points from his resume, but she betrays the spirit of careful scientific inquiry exemplified by Gerbert, by Sylvester, with absurd statements like "A thousand years ago [...] our modern tension between faith and science did not exist."

As a corrective to such sweeping statements, I would like to recommend once again, as I did in another blog post recently, Lynn Thorndike's superb Chapter XXII: "Magic, Witchcraft, Astrology, and Alchemy," in The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. VIII: The Close of the Middle Ages. In the bibliography to this chapter ones sees that Thorndike consulted an extraordinary number of primary documents. Thorndike tries neither to exalt medieval thinkers nor to condemn them but to show them and their situation as they were: surprisingly advanced in some ways to modern eyes, and surprisingly limited, primitive and superstitious in others.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

For Non-Theological Philosophy

It used to be, in Western society, that a philosopher was also a theologian, and a mathematician, and a literary critic. A philosopher was just about anyone who wrote for a living who wasn't also a poet, and sometimes someone was both a philosopher and poet, like Dante, for example. It's not well-known that Galileo wrote commentaries on Dante, but in his time it didn't seem strange -- he was a learned man, everyone agreed on that. Why shouldn't he write commentaries on Dante? The fact that the philosopher Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, and Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz in the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries, were also leading mathematicians of their day, did not seem at all remarkable to their contemporaries -- they were philosophers. Who else but a philosopher should lead the way in math? The fact is that the term philosopher meant something very different back then, it referred to a learned man, and a learned man was expected to study all fields of learning. The division of labor which makes it seem strange that an astronomer is also a literary critic, or that leads some people to claim that a biologist like Richard Dawkins is not competent to write on theological matters, because he is a biologist, is a recent intellectual habit in our society, not more than a few centuries old.

Nowadays, a philosopher is -- what? Philosophy is a rather ill-defined term today. I think it's defined negatively, by the things which it is not, by the disciplines which have broken away from it. Philosophy is no longer astronomy or chemistry or mathematics, although the combination of philosophy and mathematics lasted somewhat longer than the combination of philosophy and some other fields. (A philosopher can of course still be an astronomer or a chemist. The difference is that now it would seem odd.)

Theology has not yet completely broken away from philosophy, or should I say, philosophy has not yet completely freed itself from theology. This is good for the reputation of theology and bad for that of philosophy.

One of the chief tasks of theology, a task which has grown steadily in importance over the past couple of centuries as atheism has begun to spread like wildfire, is to KEEP THINGS MURKY.

CLARITY is an archenemy of religion. And so when you make some clear points in a public forum about religion, and it's clear as well that you have the Abrahamic religions in mind, and above all contemporary Christianity in the US, there's a fairly good chance that some theologically-minded individual will come along and accuse you of having said something which does not apply at all to the Upanishads. And it's not unheard-of that this individual would be a professor of philosophy. Faculty in both philosophy and theology will bore and infuriate you with long speeches closely resembling sermons, and they'll make things even worse by enthusiastically quoting people like Nietzsche and Freud. Nietzsche hated, hated, hated theology and was crystal-clear about that, Freud took for granted that his stuff was not to be mixed up with that stuff those jokers down the hall in the theology department were instigating. Both Nietzsche and Freud underestimated how low theologians would stoop. They're like that repulsive booger which has attatched itself to to the end of your finger, and you shout in horror and shake and shake your arm and hand but it stays stuck there.

Life can be confusing under the best of conditions, and when it comes to philosophy there is often the difficult attempt to re-define certain things most of us take for granted, there are often long or rare words and texts in many different languages. But don't let the long words and various languages of theology fool you, philosophy does not have to be lumped in with theology. Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, Sarte, Derrida & co are atheists, they aren't having any of that stuff -- although some of them do often cite authors of the time of the Christian hegemony, also known as the Late Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance eras, and show how substance and sense con be separated from the obligatory religious goobledeegook of those times.

With recent theology, the division of labor has proceeded to the point, I fear, that the goobledeegook has become their whole profession. Kierkegaard may mark the end of the era where philosophy and theology were still combined. (Karl Barth, Karl Barth! they're shouting. No. I really don't think so.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Some Things I Wrote in a Moleskine Recently

In what follows, additions or changes to the original journal entry will appear [in square brackets], with the exception of the names of chess players, where I will follow the same rule as in this chess log, referring to Player A, Player B and so forth. The reader should not assume that Player A below is -- or is not -- the same person as Player A in that blog post. Rather, in each new blog post in which I excerpt chess logs, I will start over again from the beginning of the alphabet.

I dreamed I was trying to return a stolen shirt to a store in a mall, stolen by someone else although I was wearing it. The sales staff would not or could not understand that it was not just an ordinary return. At one point I was an angry young black man, [In waking life I am neither young nor black. I do have occasional fits of rage, but I've recognized that this a problem, and I'm getting treatment for it.] stripping off the shirt and shaking it, angry and bare-chested, at the sales staff, who continued to fail to understand, or to pretend not to understand, that someone had stolen the shirt, instead blandly continuing to inquire if I wanted an exchange or a refund or what. The shirt resembled [my favorite shirt, a] long-sleeved blue shirt with horizontal pinstripes.

After the incident with the shirt, I continued down the hall in the mall, and came across Tim Allen sitting on a couch. Gradually it became apparent that Tim was one of several people sitting on a couch, and that they were all wearing face paint somewhere between circus-clown and Hollywood-Indian. They were sitting very wide-eyed, and very still, as if portraying carved figures. They looked a little scary. Then there were very many Native Americans storming into a house, perhaps a model house on the mall grounds, or a partial model house. I was concerned that I might have been part of what incited the Native Americans to anger. I was also concerned that they might inadvertently trample me in their headlong stampede or turn angrily on me.

Then I was pretty much out of their way and [nevermind who] and I were sitting on the ground and she was rubbing my shoulders. I groaned and she was concerned she might be doing it wrong, but I assured her that they were moans of pleasure and relief.

[End of dream log.]

[My Free Internet Chess Server rating rose to] 1305 after [winning] 3 straight [games] from Player A. ([Who was rated] a little under 1100.)

I'm at Barnes & Noble now. In the men's room, someone wrote on a stall wall: "Empty your mind/And you will attain peace" and underneath that someone else wrote: "Empty your bowels/And you will attain relief." I think the 2nd one is more profound. It's certainly more site-appropriate.

[there follows in the notebook a very bad attempt at the beginning of a sketch of the escalator in the Barnes & Noble. I've always been very bad at drawing, but lately I'm trying to see whether frequent practice might change that.]

When I was a teenager [in the late '70's], I was disappointed that no-one ever initiated me into Dungeons & Dragons. [I didn't realize that it was a game that anyone could buy in a store; from the way the few players I knew acted, I assumed that it was more of a secret society into which one had to be initiated.] Just now, near the bench where I was writing, were two full-grown pudgy geeks of the type which remind me why I should be very, very grateful that there never seemed to be time enough, or that I was never deemed cool enough when I was a kid for that D&D initiation to happen. Harsh? Fuck 'em, I'm being real. Game Stop was the name of the store in front of which the geeks were hanging, loudly speaking Geek. Game Stop? With truth in advertising, they'd call it Girl Repellent. Or just Repellent. [Yeah, I know I play chess. But I don't play it in person. Harsh? Maybe so. Don't some people think I'm as geeky as can be? No doubt some do.]

I had to quickly walk out of the Barnes & Noble to the bench near Game Stop in order to resist the temptation to buy STILL MORE MOLESKINES! A family walked by on the way into Barnes & Noble. One of the children was a toddler saying "Hi, hi!" to everyone they passed. Cute as could be. Maybe she very recently learned to say "hi." Several young ladies walked out of the store just as this family was going in. They exchanged "Hi!"'s with the adorable little toddler. One of the ladies said, "Aw, I want one!" That lady is to babies as I am to ever more Moleskines. [I gather that it's pronounced as if it were an Italian word, with a syllable for each vowel: "Mole-uh-skeen-ay."]

Sunday, November 28, 2010


In his latest contribution to the Huffington Post, entitled How Should Religion Behave in Public? Amarnath Amarasingam takes the obligatory swipe at the "New Atheists" (I still don't know what's new about them except that several authors of pro-atheism books are making the bestseller lists at once) as follows:

"While the writings of the New Atheists are a natural evolution of a cultural struggle, from the perspective of the scholarly study of religion and theology, their collective studies disappoint. They typically look at the most common examples of religious belief and practice provided by organized religion and conservative Christians, and then reduce a highly complex phenomenon -- religion -- into jejune explanations and conclusions. It's evident in the very titles of their books that the New Atheists overreach: Religion poisons everything (Christopher Hitchens); religion is a delusion (Richard Dawkins); religion is a spell that must be broken (Daniel Dennett) and needs to be ended (Sam Harris). Again, theirs is a natural reaction to the past and current abuses of organized religion, but not surprisingly, just like other cultural pendulum swings, it too is an overreaction both emotionally and scholarly."

While Amarasingam does not refute any of these atheist theses -- saying "Nuh-UH!" and calling someone's work jejune does not constitute a refutation. Not in my book, Sparky -- he at least lists a few of them accurately. This puts him way ahead of most of his theist colleagues posting in the Religion section at Huffington Post, even if all he did was look at a few book titles. This is progress.

And my attempt to pay him this backhanded compliment was not posted in HP's reader's comments, which leads me to think that young Mr Amarasingam may already be a Templeton fellow. Good for him!


In his latest go at squaring the circle, reconciling religion and science, on Huffington Post, Clay Farris Naff insists that God is real -- because so many people say that He is.

"In reconceptualizing faith," Naff assures us, "you can liberate God from the ancient traps of theology."

I'm much more interested in liberating mankind from this kind of theological doublethink. Nineteen Eighty-Fouris a powerful, terrifying novel, but doublethink and doublespeak and the Ministry of Love and "Two and two are as many as we say" remind me so much more of Christianity than of any Communist institution past or present.

By Naff's standards, witches and the laws of alchemy and astrology were real almost everywhere as late as the late 15th century. Lynn Thorndike gives a fascinating account of how prevalent such beliefs were in medieval society in Chapter XXII of Volume VIIIof the old Cambridge Medieval History, New York: MacMillian, 1936. Universities published annual astrological predictions, physicians were required to own astrolabes and handbooks of astrology and vie for astrological prowess with the theologians, most leading monarchs employed court astrologers, as even leading humanists such as Aeneas Sylvius, the later Pope Pius II, urged that they should.

A scant five centuries and change, and look how such superstitions have been almost entirely overcome, and who would argue that this is not for the good?

As with one superstition, so with another.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Too Funny For HuffPo!

Below are two reader's comments to Philip Goldberg's less-than-sane article on Huffington Post, Making Space For Sane Spirituality. The first comment, beginning "I don't know if," made it past the moderation. It's an answer to a comment from another reader, responding to another comment of mine in which I asserted that pro-religion and anti-atheism prejudice is everywhere, all around us.

The second comment begins with "It's like the old joke," and the moderation seems to have deemed it unfit to appear on Huffington Post's website. Although, as always, nothing with the HP moderation is certain: the old joke could appear at some later time, and the paragraph beginning "I don't know" could well vanish. Inconsistent? Unpredictable? A bit wacky? Why yes, the moderators of the readers' comment at Huffington Post are all of those things. And more.

[Comment1] I don't know if I have anything original or brilliant to say on the subject. It's all around us, it's plain to see: US Presidents being expected to end every speech with "God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America." "In God We Trust" on all of our money. The uncomfortable silence which is the usual response to any lunacy which is laced with Bible verses, as opposed to the minute scrutiny and nitpicking criticism which is the usual response to any irreligious utterance, no matter how reasonable. It's everywhere: here on HP, in mainstream media in general, in legislatures, school boards, sitcoms, billboards, everywhere. It's plain to see, but because it happens all the time, it usually doesn't seem remarkable, We're as used to it as we are to the sun rising every morning and setting every evening, and we tend to comment on it as little as we comment on anything else which happens all the time, because we're thoroughly used to it.

[Comment 2] It's like the old joke: a man goes to a doctor for a physical, the doctor asks him to describe his morning routine, he says, "I wake up, I urinate, I move my bowels, I vomit, I wash my face, I shower, I shave, I --" "Hold on a minute," says the doctor. "What was that part between moving your bowels and washing your face?" "Uh, let's see -- I vomit." "You vomit every morning? "Well sure I do, Doc. Doesn't everybody?"

If something happens every day, no matter what it is, people will start to think of as normal. If it happens every day for two thousand years --

Reality, Truth and All That

A reader's comment to Understanding the Truth of Advent by Acknowledging the Reality of Death, by Rev. Amy Ziettlow
on Huffington Post:

"Should we as Christian people and families cave in to the secular expressions of the season or should we call things what they truly are?"

Since when do Christians call things what they truly are? Isn't it pretty much a requirement that you DON'T do that?

I think Sigmund Freud would've just loved the way you started out your essay with mentions of the fictional characters of Star Wars and Harry Potter in the imagination of a young child, and then went on to insist that the stories of Jesus are of a completely different nature.

I think I can hear him chuckling in his grave. (No, not REALLY.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So Maybe I'm Not an Historian

Recently I tried to write a blog post here about the interconnections of some cultural, political and economic phenomena of Western civilization in the 17th century, and failed. After taking a lot of notes and writing an unusual amount of drafts, I had to conclude that I was spinning my wheels, and I hit "delete."

That's unusual for me, and it was discouraging for a while. But soon after this attempt failed, I think I suddenly grasped why it failed, and so the whole experience was not a total loss. The problem, essentially, was that I was trying to write an historical article, when the pieces I usually write are much more in the form of personal essays. One of the first pieces I posted on this blog posted the question in its title, "Am I an Historian?" At the time I answered the question: yes. Ironically, that piece was clearly a personal essay. Now I think I would answer that question, no, I'm not an historian, or at most I'm rarely one.

Not that personal essays can't contain a lot of interesting and useful historical information. It's a matter of approach and form. An historical work, for example, might say, "On July 4, 1187, knights and foot soldiers of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem fought against Moslem forces led by Saladin near the town of Hattin in present-day Israel," and proceed to tell the story of that battle, with appropriate footnotes. A personal essay, on the other hand, might tell how the writer was made aware of the works of Steven Runciman,and how Runciman describes the battle of Hattin near the end of the second volume of his History of the Crusades, and how reading Runciman inspired the writer to seek out and read some of the medieval source material relating to the Crusades and work hard on improving his Latin and feel more keenly his lack of fluency in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and other languages. The historical piece synthesizes the source material, the personal essay points out a better historian, in this case Runciman, who has already covered the subject, and attempts to communicate and make contagious the writer's excitement in reading the historian and some of the historian's sources.

I don't have any brilliant brand-new insights into 17th-century Europe and its colonies. If I wrote, "The new freedom which existed within the Dutch republic in the 17th century, freedom for example for painters and poets and other artists and thinkers to function as free agents, with no need for aristocratic patrons, as they had never been able to do previously in Europe, with the partial exception of Michelangelo, was paradoxically made possible by an economy which ran on colonial exploitation and slavery, with thousands of slave ships passing through the port of Amsterdam," that might be wholly or partly correct, but it would not be new; no-one acquainted with the cultural and economic history of 17th-century Europe would slap his forehead in amazement upon reading this passage, rising to his feet and shouting, "New worlds open up before me!" I stopped attempting to write that historical treatise because I realized that it would contain nothing new.

But I, like everyone else, am unique. And so in directly relating my experience to the reader, I may have a greater chance of telling him or her something original, something new. What may seem at first like egotism in the form of the personal essay, I, I, I, I, may reveal itself upon closer inspection to be modesty, the realisation that the author has nothing particularly special to offer BUT what is personal.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heaven's Gate

Last night I dreamed I was spearheading an effort to expose a link between Heaven's Gate,the movie, and the Heaven's Gate-Hale-Bopp cult. In my dream I was trying to publicize the notion that perhaps there really had been no cult, that perhaps the whole thing was just more of the effort by Cimino's enemies to sabotage him and his movie. (Cimino's a scapegoat, like Barry Bonds in baseball. The manufactured outrage about them is used more to distract from than to solve problems endemic in their respective industries.)

With the rise of home video, more and more people were actually able to see Heaven's Gate, which is a masterpiece. Okay maybe it's not your thing and maybe some of the shots are orangy -- or maybe the orangy shots are just more industry sabotage, deliberately poor image transfer from the original film to video. I don't remember earlier video versions being so orangy -- but any reasonable viewer must admit that it's interesting at the very least. See it and compare it to the awful reviews millions of people heard about when the film was released and then vanished before more than a few thousand people had had a chance to see it and decide for themselves whether or not those reviews made any sense.

They certainly made no sense to me when I first saw Heaven's Gate on VHS in 1992, except as a concerted conspiracy to derail the career of a gifted man. The film looked liked a masterpiece to me. Similar to The Deer Hunter in a lot of ways, but better.

Maybe the Hale-Bopp cult was a hoax. Maybe some producers who hate Cimino because he's not a yes-man, or because they see him as a dangerous loose cannon, or simply because he's too damn good at his job and he knows it, decided that his career was getting too close to back on track, and decided to plant a horrible subliminal message in the public's mind, associated with that movie. Maybe they hired an actor to play the creepy cult leader, told him it was a screen test or something, whatever, then they castrated him and 38 other people, dressed them in matching dorky outfits with sneakers, killed them and left them along with the "leader''s creepy tape to be discovered as the self-described Heaven's Gate cult, sexless, styleless, crazy, horribly sad all around, all just to make sure there was something else very unpleasant for people to associate with that movie -- even putting $5 in each of the victim's pockets for yet another subliminal association, because $5 is more or less what it would've cost in 1980 to get into a big-city first-run cinema to see Heaven's Gate -- unless you were a hack reviewer being paid to trash it, in which case you'd most likely seen it in a private screening before the first run, or some other big shot being comped.

Do I REALLY think that Hollywood big-shots castrated and murdered 39 people in order to create an unpleasant association with Cimino? Well...



...no, probably not. I don't think Hollywood is quite as bad as it enjoys portraying itself. Not quite as bad as, for example, the Hollywood of The Player,in which a producer not only gets away with murder, but murder actually gives a big boost to his career, makes him seem more serious and worthy of more respect. The Player is satire. (It's a great movie, though.)

But I do think that Cimino and Bonds are scapegoats in their respective industries, movies and baseball, and that what they were punished for is being uppity. They're employees, they're the help. Granted, they're very well-paid help -- but how many other peoples' pay is headline news? The nature of those two businesses is that you must pay a few uniquely-talented people something approaching what they're worth in order to offer your product to the public. Publicizing their pay is a distraction from how much money their employers make. Now there's a question people should be asking. There's the sort of question an uppity employee might pose in front of a live mike. Best to try to preemptively make them look bad beforehand.

And I do think that people take incompetent and/or dishonest reviews and other sorts of less-than-stellar journalism much too seriously, and that in consequence they think too little for themselves about the subjects of journalism, whether it's movies or baseball or politics or economics. That's my subject here: how easily opinion is molded by the media, which in turn all too often seems to be dancing on the strings of a few nasty plutocrats behind the scenes. How is Heaven's Gate less of a movie than The Deer Hunter,except as portrayed by Vincent Canby and a few other hack journalists? To take the example of a director-writer-auteur significantly sillier than Cimino, Oliver Stone, how is Stone's fun but silly old-fashioned Holly melodrama Wall Street,which got generally bad reviews and had a relatively short run in theaters before its second life as a perennial favorite on TV and video, any worse than his silly but fun old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama Platoon,released one year earlier, which reviewers generally praised to the skies and which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year? My face still scrunches into an incredulous sneer as I recall the pretentious film fans I knew in the 80's who praised Platoon so and were so contemptuous of Wall Street. To me they were silly in both cases. Well, I don't hang out with them anymore.

I really like Heaven's Gate a lot. Like The Deer Hunter, it evokes a subculture in America -- actually, in the case of Heaven's Gate, two subcultures -- and makes them feel like the viewer's whole world. Like The Deer Hunter it's full of great acting and superb visuals. Like The Deer Hunter, it's very long, but will reward your patience.

But I don't want to tell you what to think of it. I want you to make up your own mind about everything, including whether or not I know what I'm talking about on any of these subjects, and also about whether this or that movie is worth watching to begin with.

Monday, November 1, 2010

E - Readers

Recently I was in a bookstore, and I saw a sign saying "e readers," and, although I share some of the "Luddite" tendencies of some other bookworms when it comes to this -- that is to say, a powerful, visceral resistance to the idea of anything replacing traditional books, a horror at the suggestion -- suddenly I was curious, and I asked a store employee to show me how those things work.

And to my own great surprise, suddenly I became very intrigued. I have overflowing bookshelves and piles of books on the floor in most of the rooms of my house. And I like it that way, thank you very much. But I would save money with an e-reader as opposed to buying more conventional books, there's no doubt about that, and e-books would be easier to buy as well as cheaper, and I wouldn't have to think about getting a bigger house just to hold the books.

And -- the e-readers look a lot like the devices people used to read books on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." That's kind of cool. I wondered if they intentionally designed them to resemble the STTNG thingies in order to lure the middle-aged demographic, those slyboots.

But the main things which struck me when I was looking at the e-readers were, one, how much I liked them, and two, how much the whole experience reminded me of how, pre-Internet, I used to be so anti-computer, and how suddenly and completely the Internet changed that for me.

More news on this front as it happens.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

So Long, Paul Simon

Does anybody else remember "This Note's For You," the title track of an albumfrom 1988 by Neil Young and the Bluenotes? Neil mocked Michael Jackson and others who let their music be used in commercials: "Ain't singin' for Pepsi/Ain't singin' for Coke/Ain't singin' for no one/Who makes me look like a joke" -- man, those were the days. Back then it was still comparatively rare and shocking when a record originally released as a piece of music for its own sake was recycled as the soundtrack of a commercial. Nowadays it's business as usual. Nobody seems to get upset about it any more. No musicians seem worried that such a thing might make them look like a joke.

Latest case in point: a piece of the lovely multi-track vocal harmonies from Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York" is on a new Honda commercial. The commercial has been circulating for probably weeks now, and it's become so common for pop music to be used in commercials that it took me until tonight to realize that there went another one: another musician who doesn't mind looking like a joke, in exchange for a nice big slice of that sweet advertising money.

I used to respect you, Paul Simon. What was I thinking?

Who's left? Who hasn't sold their music yet as a backing track to peddle cars or soda pop or sneakers? Neil? Bruce? I think the Clash bit that dust a while back, after Joe Strummer died or was already critically ill.

I'm warning everybody: when Rage Against the Machine is the backing music for a commercial for Oreo's, I'm going to get REALLY mad.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some of the People, Places and Things I'd Never Heard About Before Reading Gravity's Rainbow

The V-1. The V-2. The A-4. Kyrgyzstan. How the Soviet Union gave alphabets and written vernaculars to its previously illiterate nationalities. Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz. The benzine ring. IG Farben. The fact that Shell Oil maintained companies of great strategic importance for both sides in both Allied and Axis territory all throughout WWII. The Poisson distribution. Entropy. Plasticman. The Zoot Suit Riots. The genocide of the Herero. Margaret Dumont. The Spartakists. The cities of Nördlingen and Peenemünde. All of these were new to me when I came across a copy of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in a used-book store in 1974 or '75, when I was 13 or 14 years old. German rockets fired on London? Shell seeming to have no qualms about profiting from the war efforts of both sides during WWII? Math and chemistry which were actually interesting?

I checked all of these things and found that they were in fact nonfictional. So you can see, perhaps, that my world was broadened a little.

And then there was the matter of prose style, unfettered by considerations of "high" or "low," setting a good example for me before I'd had the chance to take seriously those who might tell me a piece of writing had to be one or the other. Thanx Tom.

And an inkling of the multiplicity of the world's culture was given to me, before some single ideology had had a chance to plant itself deep into me, with proto-Beatnik hipsters, upper-middle-class British, somewhat lower middle-class British and overachieving working class, tossed together by the War and all quite uncomfortable with each other, zoot suiters, Soviet functionaries, Kyrgyz tribespeople, German Communists resisting the Nazis, rich decadent sexual perverts (It's okay, that's how they would've described themselves), gauchos, pre-Bop jazzmen, grim American Calvinists, cynical American Calvinist businessmen, Chinese opium addicts, witches, dopers, Swedenborgian mystics, Navy lifers and others and many characters who were several of the above at once all in the mix.

You can tell I like the book a lot, right? But any praise is insufficient. Read it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chess Log

Sometimes I jot down some notes about the blitz games I play at the Free Internet Chess Server. Sometimes I write things during the games. That's very unusual, because after all these are blitz games, blitz as in 10 minutes a side or less to make all the moves you're going to make in the game, blitz as in hurry up. In anything like an evenly-matched game there is no time to write things. Every second not spent concentrating on the board is a significant gift to one's opponent.

Sometimes, however, even in a blitz game, the situation is so lopsided, and my opponent is taking so much time between moves, that I have to find some way of entertaining myself, and I jot things as I wait for my turn to move:

October 16

Waiting for Player A (rated 662) (I think some players might not like it if I wrote about them using their actual online handles so it's just going to be Player A, Player B and so forth) to move. I'm rated 1165, and this game is Ugh-LEE.

Player A has moved a few times since I wrote that, but time continues to be one of his big problems in this game. I'm at 7:02 in a 10 0 blitz, and Player A is 1:20 -- hey he just moved!

He forfeited on time with 5:32 left on my clock. So Ugh-LEE in so many ways, this game!

Waiting for Computer A (rated 816) to move. 2nd straight game against this computer. It resigned the 1st game, while I was being very careful, with 2 Queens, not to end the game in a stalemate.

Yes, Computer A is playing very -- I was about write "very badly" when it checkmated me. Effing Doofack!

Despite the frequency with which it happens in movies and sitcoms, if someone checkmates you in real life when before that move you thought you were playing well, you were playing extraordinarily badly. Checkmate usually comes gradually over a number of moves, gradually and painfully obviously. Most top-level games which aren't draws end with a resignation many moves before a checkmate would've come.

I played chess very badly this evening. Meanwhile, in a case of chess Charles Atlas, Player B, whom I was used to seeing with a rating under 1100, is now about halfway between 1200 and 1300. It's unusual to improve that much after having played a long time at that level -- in fact Player B and I are the only two players I know personally who've done it, so good for us both.

October 17

Chess is starting out well this morning: a draw against Player C (1365) and a win against Player D (1209). When I had 48 seconds left, Player E (1123) let her clock run down from around 1:25 to 1:06 and then resigned, thank you very much Player E!

When it rains it pours: Player F (1148) resigned from what looked to me like a very good position. I'm up 30 points, 1133 to 1163, in about an hour.

And another one bites the dust: Player G (1269) resigns after 10 moves, not entirely without reason. Played like a beginner but he or she has thousands of games on FICS.

And a draw against Player H (1319).

Okay, I think I'll take a break now, take my 43 points and run. 4 wins and 2 draws in 6 games this morning, the 2 draws against players rated over 1300, the wins against players rated between 1123 and 1269.

How much of my success when I'm successful has to do with simple determination and concentration?

Afternoon chess: an Ugh-LEE 19-move beatdown of Player I (1099). A merciless spanking of Player J (1055).

I got way ahead of myself: almost before the game began, I thought up an epitaph for the wrong player: "Player K tastes the pain." But no. I tasted it. And I don't like it! Concentration and determination are key to chess, but my greatest nemesis continues to be over-confidence.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Trailer for Incongruity, Starring Thandie Newton and Tom Hanks, Directed by Ron Howard

aerial shot of Watts

VOICEOVER: (The voiceover should sound somewhat like the voiceover in "South Park"'s trailers for movies starring "Rob Schneider, derber derber derber," because what I think of Ron Howard is similar to what Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to think of Schneider.) She grew up in Watts,

montage of young girl playing YOUNG THANDIE, AGE 10 eating breakfast cereal, carrying books to school

fought her way through school,

montage continues with YOUNG THANDIE raising her hand in class, being surrounded by bullies on the sidewalk and defending herself by hitting the bullies with a large hardcover textbook

worked her way through college,

montage of THANDIE sitting on the grass with other students in front of ivy-covered buildings, listening to a lecture, washing dishes in a restaurant, fending off a lecherous professor with a large hardcover textbook which looks identical to the one with which YOUNG THANDIE fought off the bullies, waiting tables

and became one of the world's leading experts in theoretical sets and quantum fields, and a leading candidate both for the Fields Medal in mathematics and the Nobel Prize in Physics.

montage of THANDIE finishing a lecture to a thunderous ovation, pondering alone at a desk at night, touring the Large Hadron Collider, pondering alone in a valley amid snow-peaked mountains

He was born in Beverly Hills

aerial shot of Beverly Hills

and grew up to be a bum.

montage of TOM, covered with as much funk and long hair and beard as Nick Nolte at the beginning of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, panhandling, sleeping on a bench, coaxing wild birds to alight on his fingers and head, being moved along from several different locations by several different cops

TOM is sitting beside Mulholland Drive, rubbing his ankle. An SUV stops and THANDIE gets out

THANDIE: Are you alright?

TOM: I think I may have sprained my ankle.

THANDIE: (taking a close look) I think it may be broken. C'mon, (slinging his arm over her shoulder and helping him to his feet) I'll give you a ride to an emergency room.

TOM: (very surprised) Thanks!

inside the SUV

TOM: The thing about emergency rooms is, they'll probably send me to a psych ward as soon as they're done with my ankle. If experience is any guide.

THANDY: Really? Are you crazy?

TOM: I don't think so. I'm unconventional.

THANDY: Maybe a stay inside would do you good.

TOM: I like fresh air. On psych wards all the windows are always sealed up.

THANDY: Well, you don't seem crazy or dangerous to me. And even if you are dangerous, I've been defending myself from bullies since I was small. I'll take you to my place and call a doctor, you can stay there while you heal up if you want to.

TOM: (very surprised) Thank you.

at this point "Animal" by Neon Trees begins to play in the background

montage of TOM moving in, playing with wild birds in the yard while on crutches, taking a bath, THANDIE'S YOUNG DAUGHTER asking, "Mommy, why does the car stink?" THANDIE giving it a whiff, shuddering and replying, "Sweetie, we may have to burn the car," THANDIE whiffing the air and muttering, "We may have to burn the whole guest house!" the DAUGHTER coming across a bathtub with a big black ring and screaming

VOICEOVER: Sometimes, it takes a truly exceptional mind to recognize another one!

montage of TOM in clean clothes, with his hair and beard still long, but clean and unmatted now and the hair in a ponytail, THANDIE saying, "You have a remarkable mind! You are a little bit crazy, though," TOM delivering a lecture, TOM wearing a tuxedo and shaking the hands of other people in formal attire

VOICEOVER: Thandie Newton. Tom Hanks. Ron Howard's extraordinary new film, Incongruity. Rated PG-13.

Montage of THANDIE and TOM frolicking in various locations with and without the DAUGHTER, ending up with the the two of them kissing at sunset beside Mulholland Drive

Friday, October 8, 2010

Selections From My Dream Journal

Lately I've been keeping a dream journal. If I can remember to write soon after waking up, I tend to remember a lot of detail. In my recent blog post How Art May Save Us From Ourselves, the part about elephants being penned and painted and a slender earnest beautiful woman trying to set them free was from a recent dream of mine.

In earlier times, people believed that dreams were messages from God or from the dead or other folks. I suppose some people may still believe such things. Why not, if they believe in horoscopes and haunted houses and prophecies from Nostradamusand so forth? Freudbelieved they were a key to better mental health. My attitude toward them is an existentialist one similar to my attitude toward many other things: I don't know how important they are, but they're interesting.

Some highlights from recent dreams of mine:

I was among a large group of people, mostly artists, being driven around in some downtown from one opening, reception or similar event to the next. At first I was underdressed to the point of wearing no shoes and one sock, but then this problem was somehow resolved. A tall handsome painter wearing a tux who looked like Brendan Fraser and may have been Brendan Fraser was accompanied by a small woman who was his art agent and who shouted unpleasant things at him, into a cell phone and elsewhere, just an all-round unpleasant person. People were carrying a two-sided painting by the tall artist, with a full-length portrait of Julian Sand on each side, incorrectly labeled "JULIAN TEMPLE" in large bright block letters on each side. Our group found itself first in the extremely metallic-looking lobby of a huge skyscraper, and then inside a vast apartment high up inside this skyscraper which in great contrast to the lobby was very warmly furnished in wood and other earth-toned things, and went up for several stories, with open-aired spaces going up the full height of the apartment, sometimes with stairs, sometimes with ladders or other fun things to climb.

I dreamed I was playing basketball on a very large court in the courthouse of a hotel or motel, in a pick-up game with large groups of people, many more than five a side, none of whom was dressed to play basketball. Some wore suits, others casual street attire. No-one else but me seemed to be taking the game very seriously, which annoyed me greatly.

I dreamed I was in the middle of a big flea market which was either under a tent or in a large dimly-lit building, and Lindsay Lohan was figure-skating with a partner through the crowd. I was amazed to see that Lindsay could figure-skate in addition to all of her other talents. I was annoyed that the crowd generally ignored her, not even moving out of her way, which made what she was doing even more impressive. I'm no expert on figure-skating, but I was impressed. Her costume wasn't the greatest, a green satin minidress, but she looked very strong and healthy, which was a relief to me, as I've been very concerned about Lindsay's health since she went through that deathly-skinny phase a few years ago. In the dream it didn't strike me as strange that Lindsay and her partner were ice-skating on a surface which didn't seem to be ice for all of us flea-market shoppers, who were walking and not slipping on ice.

I dreamed I was a "Roman" conquering "Gaul," although the conquering seemed to consist of pleading with individual French people who mostly ignored me, and we all appeared to be in 1950's Paris or a good imitation thereof. A large group of beautiful female medical students in long 1950's style skirts came walking toward and past me out of a medical school in the Sorbonne, all carrying books under their arms. The entrance to the medical school had a 1950's, Frank-Lloyd-Wright, spacious and glassy look. I and several other people rode in an enormous Citroën around the edges of Paris rooftops.

I dreamed I was caught in the midst of a cultural conflict of some sort which sprawled over several boroughs of New York City. It was not clear what people were fighting about. It may have had to do with ethnic resentments, or women's rights, or sexual orientation, or all of those things and more. The threat of physical violence seemed to be constantly "in the air," as they say, but luckily, at least where I was, the conflict was waged mostly in the form of a game which resembled basketball in that a ball was thrown at a painted totem roughly the size of a basketball backboard. And in some cases the totem seemed to be mounted on a pole or over a garage door at about the height of a basketball backboard. But sometimes, as on a totem pole, the totems were stacked from the ground up. There was one miniature version of such a totem pole, about a foot high altogether, inside a casing of bars, and one had to throw the ball -- more marble-sized in this case. Usually they were similar to basketballs -- at the totems through the bars of the casing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How Art May Save Us From Ourselves

Who was that stand-up comic who finished his set saying "Less killing! More art! Less killing! More art!" ? I wish I could remember your name, Dude, I'd give you props. That was a nice finish. I thought of that finish as I saw some old-master paintings on EWTV. (Yeah, that's right, I watch Eternal Word TV sometimes, you got a problem with that? No? Good!) I generally find EWTV pretty dismal and depressing. But the art -- that epitomizes what I came there for. And I wondered, Does it epitomize Catholicism for a lot of Catholics? And I thought, Would it help ease tensions between Muslims and Christians if they knew more about each others' art? And I thought, How could it help but ease tensions? Art is the expression of the deepest within us, it goes way past little things like fear and hatred and distinctions of religion. Here is a Western European painting from around 1300:

Here's a tile from Iran from around the same time:

So what were they fighting about? (OMG they still are aren't they? Maniacs! Murderers!) The amazing part is that even back then not all of them were fighting. You had to be a rebel to be a Western European back than and not display enmity to Islam, but it could be done.

(The Europeans were penning those big wild African elephants behind chain-link gates, chain-link as high as a wild African elephant. And as if that weren't bad enough, they were painting chevrons onto the elephants foreheads! Red-white-and-blue chevrons! But then a young slender earnest beautiful woman among them, who looked like Liv Tyler or Jessica Biel, as slender and earnest as that, struggled past their objections with the help of a young earnest Western man, risking trampling they threw the tall gates back open! And then it thundered and rained as they hugged like Edward Norton and Liv Tyler in The Incredible Hulk. Yes, as earnestly in love and as beautifully soaked with rain as that.)

It's very hard to kill someone with a painting. Paintings are very unwieldy weapons. That's just one of the nice things about them.

Hate tends to generalize: "They all blablabla..." "All of them! All of them want to yibbity yibbity yibbity..." Art draws you back into the present. You look, you really look. At the specific.

And just possibly when you look up from the pretty picture, or you're released from the spell of the organ music and incense or the chanting, you'll also really see that person, the one you're convinced is gonna GIT ya! here, now, as he or she is, and leave some of that frightened "All of them...!" ranting behind. Charging out on your stallion to slay Saracens is one thing; killing Salim, who has a shy and deep affection for the neighbors' daughter and wants to learn to paint, he's not very good yet but he's taking lessons and trying very hard, is quite another. We kill randomly, forgetting that everyone dies very specifically. We love specifically. We spare people and other creatures specifically. None of this is new, I know, I know...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Indoctrinations in Myth

I suppose the first myths to which I was exposed must have been the Christianones my family heard and read about every week at Sunday school and church services, and occasionally on a Wednesday as well, and sometimes on still other days of the week, for example during Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter, the myths of God and Jesus and Satan, of angels and Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Moses. I believed what I heard in church for a while, and as far as I can tell, my mother and father still do. Our church's version of things was correct, of course, and so I started to notice early that there were other Christians who were getting a lot of things wrong. For example, they referred to the fruit which Eve ate in the Garden of Eden at Satan's urging, the one that got her and Adam banished from Paradise, as an apple. Clearly, though, the Bible did not specify what type of fruit it was. In our church we knew nobody knew what kind of fruit it was. We speculated that it might have been a pomegranate.

More serious than this, but symptomatic of the same sort of error, the same inattention to the Bible, which was not unambiguous about these and many other matters, was that fact that many Christians served in the military. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Jesus clearly taught that Christians were supposed to be pacifists. The men in our church were conscientious objectors. One of my uncles, one of my Dad's brothers, had broken with the family and with the church and joined the Navy. We were all quite shocked by this. We still loved him, of course, but what he had done was very strange. We seldom saw him any more; we were in the Midwest and after his Navy hitch he had settled in California.

But it wasn't only people outside of our denomination who didn't seem to always be paying attention. I remember once there was a business meeting of the church, all and sundry welcome to attend, where the issue of buying a new organ was debated. The earnest little pain in the ass that I was, I stood up in this meeting and angrily lectured everybody for even considering such a thing, because in the Bible Jesus clearly said to give everything to the poor and follow him, and last I checked there were still poor people in the world. Quite an angry ten-year-old, I was that afternoon. Nobody contradicted me at the business meeting. But they still bought that new organ.

As a child the only mythologies to which I was exposed in-depth were Christianty and the American mythology which featured tales such as overcoming the dangers of Indiansand the treacherous English,of George Washingtonchopping down that cherry tree, for some reason, and then refusing to lie about it, and then, for some reason, throwing a dollar across the Potomac River. When I was eight or ten my family went to Washington, DC and environs for vacation, and we saw the spot where George, as a teenager or very young man, had allegedly thrown that dollar. The river looked very wide at that spot to me. Too wide by far, in my young judgement, for anybody to have thrown a coin across it. I think it was there and then, on the bank of the Potomac, that I began to wonder if I had been lied to about certain events in our nation's history.

I wasn't reading ancient Latin and Greek as a first grader like Steven Runciamn.However, about the time I started kindergarten or a little before, I was a faithful watcher of a TV show about Hercules. I remember very little about the show: Hercules was a big muscleman who vanquished all and sundry, and if I remember correctly, part of the theme song went something like this: "Hercules!/DadadaDaaa-da-da-da, Hercules!/With the strength of ten/Ordinary men/Hercules!" For many years after that, as I began hear and there to learn little snippets of Graeco-Roman pagan mythology, Hercules remained the character on the TV show who ten times as strong as normal, and I was quite surprised to learn of his connections with Zeus/Jupiter and the Oracle of Delphi and that whole bunch.

My interest in Classical literature didn't become very pronounced until after I was full-grown. In my early adolescence, after I had stopped believing in Christianity, the closest thing I had to a religion was rock 'n roll, as expounded bu such rock 'n roll theologians as Dave Marsh, Greil Marcusand Robert Christgau.It was very important to refer to it as "rock 'n roll" and not "rock," which might refer to this or that wimpy heresy. In retrospect it all seems very silly and embarrassing. Especially Marsh. Bruce Springsteen definitely replaced Jesus in my mind for a while. Not only did I buy Springsteen's records and go to his concerts, I also bought Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story,the biography written by Dave Marsh, and read it very carefully several times. Yes. When I was starting to read Pynchonand Gaddis,I was also reading Marsh.

The interest in Marsh gradually passed, and, to a lesser degree, the interest in Springsteen, as punk rock and new wave became more interesting. My interest in Bob Dylan, with quasi-religious beliefs in the revelatory qualities of his work, was more tenacious. There was a biography of Bobas there had been a biography of Bruce.

The aforementioned growing interest in Classical mythology is not of a part with these other interests of mine, in that I do not believe in the Olympians. Never have I thought that Hermes or Athena was going to solve some problem for me.

I cannot claim that my political interests have remained equally free of such superstition. For some reason, before he took office as POTUS I thought Barack Obamawas a reforming firebrand who was going to be as forceful in his us of the Presidential office as Theodore Rooseveltor his cousin Franklin Delano,and not the cautious centrist he clearly is. (Not that I'm one of the those leftists who regrets voting for Obama, who wishes he had instead wasted his vote on someone like Nader and helped the Republicans stay in power. What are those guys thinking? Anyhoo --)

Come to think of it, my image of the Roosevelts may also be significantly colored by the same Messianic longing.

The literal belief in salvation through Jesus Christ vanished from my mind long before I was full-grown, but it seems that mental habits associated with that belief, learned along with that belief, have persisted, and continued to cloud my perception of reality. What were Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie really talking about in that NYC hospital room, shortly before Woody died and Bob got his first record contract? Was it all business and image? Was "Dylan" Woody's idea? Was that Newsweek cover story about Bruce in the fall of '75 right all along? Was FDR's wheelchair a prop? Did Teddy intentionally throw the Presidency to Wilson? Did Hercules have pec implants? Did Hermes take the subway like that woman who cheated in the Boston Marathon? Am I nothing but one continual lifelong chump?

Friday, September 17, 2010

This comment was removed in accordance with HuffPost's moderation guidelines, Part 2

Here it is, the entire comment, cut and pasted:

“Hard to make my case when the moderation removes my responses.”

I wonder if they'll post a link to this. This is getting to be pretty funny, to me at least. I hope someone else is enjoying it.

PS: And now (an hour or so later) the response to which I was referring is back on HuffPost. If anybody from said moderation is reading this: on the slim chance you guys ever get your shit together, please let me know just what exactly those guidelines are. That'd be great.

PPS: It continues. This morning (Saturday morning, September 18) Coats -- we're discussing, or rather, Coats is discussing, and I was trying to discuss, this silly piece by John R Coats on HuffPo. I think I'm done trying now -- continued the exchange: "You want me to defend what somebody else said/wrote?" to which I retorted, “You wrote: 'Beneath the glare of uber-left-brain logic, the stories and myths that had carried the larger truths about being human in an overwhelming, frightening, awe-filled universe were declared to be nonsense' Whether or not you defend it is your business, but if you keep removing my responses, at some point I'm just going to take my toys and go home.” My retort was promptly removed.

The Rapture and Revisionism

"So, what's real about the Rapture?" asks John R Coats in a Huffington Post blog. "Its roots are in the nineteenth-century rebellion against Modernity with its scientific rationalism. Beneath the glare of uber-left-brain logic, the stories and myths that had carried the larger truths about being human in an overwhelming, frightening, awe-filled universe were declared to be nonsense -- which is nonsense"

"Larger truths" ? Huh.

"and begged an equal and opposite reaction, which came in the declaration that the Bible was literally true -- every word."

To hear people like Coats tell it, things like Biblical literalism, and the conflict between religion and science, are mere recent misunderstandings.

I just don't buy it. In this particular case of the story of the Rapture as it is popularly known today, the details have been changed around a little, but it's not as if the various mentions in the Bible of the rise of the righteous into heaven are less far-fetched than the Left Behind thrillers.

It seems quite clear to me that Coats and his fellow "modern theologians" -- I put it in quotation marks because it seems as oxymoronic to me as "jumbo shrimp" or "living dead" -- are trying to convince themselves and their readers that early and medieval Christians were just like themselves, and that all these fanatics and fundamentalists running around causing so much trouble today are a recent aberration having little to do with the main history and substance of Christianity, which mostly consists of people who loved and appreciated things like science and would laugh and shake their heads at anyone who would take Bible passages as literal truth. If you ask them to back up this last part they point to Augustine of Hippo, who wrote a long, long thesis on the non-literal nature of the stories in Genesis. Typically, in the course of these arguments they do not mention that Augustine wrote no such thing regarding the other several dozen books of the Bible, and they do not mention things like the many people killed by the Inquisition, or the many Catholics killed for being Catholic by Protestants, or people killed for being witches by both Catholics and Protestants, or the huge massacres of Jews, Muslims and furrin-looking eastern Christians during the Crusades, or the often quite systematic destructions of civilizations in the Americas and Africa and Asia, destroyed because they were not sufficiently Christian, or any other of the long list of well-known horrors which fill the history of Christianity -- or if any such horrors are mentioned they are downplayed, and it is insisted that they, too, were aberrations.

Let's get back to those "larger truths" supposedly contained in those Bible stories, which were supposedly understood all along to be myths -- what are they? I hear so much about them yet I actually find them nowhere, like a disheartened medieval explorer searching all of Asia for Prester John.

Coats is attempting to make a huge mountain of reasonable, even wise, "modern" Christianity out of the molehill of his perception that a few Bible passages were modified -- slightly -- to come up with the story of the Rapture. The Left Behind authors aren't the only Christians telling tall tales these days.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Who Believed the Earth Was Flat and When Did They Believe It?

Responding to Matt J Rossano's latest silliness on Huffington Post, reader Keith Roragen notes that Isidore of Seville (born ca. 560, died 636) described the Earth as a disc, and adds: "Isadore's flat Earth model persisted, at least, into the late 15th century." I have no idea where he's getting the part about Isidore's description of the Earth persisting into the 15th century. At least. I'm quite skeptical about that.

Isidore (AD 560 – 636) wasn't the only medieval Christian who wrote on the subject of the shape of the Earth. Boethius (c. 480 – 524) (possibly not actually a Christian) described it as a sphere. So did the venerable Bede (c.672 – 735) in a treatise on time which circulated widely among the Western monasteries.

And it's not universally agreed that Isidore was talking about a disc and not a sphere. It's also controversial whether Augustine was referring to a sphere or to a disc in his writings.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) says that everyone agreed that the Earth was a sphere, but that it was not entirely clear whether it was a perfect sphere, or something more like the shape of a pine cone.

A few of the pre-Christian Graeco-Romans argued that the Earth was flat, perhaps most prominent among them Lucretius (early 1st century BC), beloved among atheists for remarks like "Fear is the mother of all the gods." Christian writers who argued that the Earth is flat include Lactantius (245–325), St. Athanasius (c.293–373), Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 394), Severian, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), St.John Chrysostom (344–408) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (6th century). So perhaps the general statement could be made that Christianity set science back several centuries on this topic.

The Christian Basil of Caesarea (AD 329–379) was of the opinion that the question of the shape of the Earth was not theologically important.

It must be added, of course, that with all of the writers mentioned above we are talking about educated people, leading intellectual lights of their times, and that when it comes to the masses, especially the overwhelmingly illiterate masses in the medieval Christian West, it is very hard to tell what they believed.

Wot Thuh Eff?!

Why was this comment removed? The only explanation I can conceive is that some moderator has taken a special personal dislike to me, and removes some of my comments as soon as he or she sees that I am their author, without bothering to read them very carefully first. Yeah, I think I'll just post all of my comments here first from now on, then cut-and-paste into the HuffPo readers' comments.

I'm responding to This Huffington Post article about language "mistakes" :

“This obsession with spelling rules is only a couple hundred years old.

"Thiss ubseshun wth speling rools iz onnleeuh uh kuppel hunndrid yeers oldd.

"'Or how about a word that really gets under your skin when mangled or mixed-up?'

"Wot gits unnder mah skinn izz thuh unnderlai-ing uhssumpchun thut langwuj rools r evur more thn sumwuns arrbatrairee pursunul uhpinnion.”

I Should Just Post Here First --

-- then copy-and-paste in the HuffPo readers' comments section and see if it gets through.

I'm having to partially reconstruct this comment, which was removed by Huffington Post's moderation. I can click on "My Activity" at HuffPo and see the beginning of longer posts, but not the whole thing. If there's a way to retrieve entire longer comments removed by the moderation, I haven't found it yet.

I'm replying to How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War by Matt J Rossano:

“Rossano is right that it is a myth that many people thought that the Earth was flat by Columbus' time. The Church did not propagate a flat-Earth model in the middle ages -- apart from a few isolated individuals here and there, and mostly very early on in the history of Christianity. But to jump from that observation to the thesis that the historical error of an official flat-Earth Christian dogma created a conflict between science and religion, which had previously been in harmony, is staggeringly absurd."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This One Is Up On HuffPo, But I'm Posting It Here In Case It Disappears Later

Reader MrBwood wrote -- once more, in response to John Shook:

"How does this guy type this without laughing?"

And I responded:

"I see two possibilities:

"1) He's a believer

"2) He is laughing -- all the way to the bank, figuring that a book about a "debate between atheists and the faithful" will sell well."

If this disappears later, it would tend to support my thesis that seeing through authors' cynical motivations vis-a-vis their readers gets comments deleted.

I'm Posting This One Here Whether HuffPo Posts It or Not

Again, responding to Dr John Shook's recent contribution to Huffington Post:

"'Mystery now seems like a theologian's safest refuge'

"Or maybe the only safe one. And maybe not just now, and not just recently.

"The author distills arguments for God into 5 categories: theology from scripture, from the world, from beyond the world, in the know, and into the myst[ic], and then comments:

"'Strident atheism is mostly uninterested and unprepared for this broad theological landscape.'

"I don't think you have to be strident or unsophisticated or shallow to regard this 'broad landscape' as five different kinds of rather obvious nonsense. I myself am fascinated by the history and development of religions, but I don't think everyone has to be fascinated by such things, any more than I would accuse someone of being deficient in his or her intellectual citizenship if he or she did not have a deep knowledge of recent theoretical math. You don't need detailed, specialized knowledge to perceive that religion is outmoded superstition, or that math continues to advance the human condition.

"And there's no need to debate with religious people as if they were making sense, as the author seems to insist that there is. In fact, there are good reasons not to become entangled in such debates, not to pretend that such debates take place on an even playing field. Nietzsche knew that over 130 years ago. See Morgenröte,aphorism 95."

By the way, this is the 100th Wrong Monkey blog post. Thank you, thank you. Yes, thank you all very much. You're too kind. Please, take your seats. Thank you, thank you. This is embarrassing. I promised myself I wouldn't cry.

PS: HuffPo posted this one. Go figure. Maybe the other moderator went to lunch. (Maybe this comment will disappear from HuffPo when he or she gets back from lunch. Comments often do disappear after having been up for a while.) Maybe the problem with the previous comment was that it was all too perceptive about publishing and marketing, and this one lacks any such direct critique of Dr Shook's way of making a living.

Maybe it is vain to seek any sort of sense or pattern in Huffington Post's moderation of their readers' comments.

Greek -- Eek!

For a while now I've felt a need to learn Greek. Ancient Attic Greek, mostly, but Homeric Greek, too, and other ancient varieties. I've been reading things written in Latin, and Latin seems to pull one strongly in the direction of Greek. The culture and mythology of ancient Rome borrowed very heavily from those of Greece. Classical scholars go into raptures about how beautiful Greek is. One of them, I wish I could track the quote down, once said that Latin should be taught to all children, and Greek saved as a special treat for the brightest ones.

So these and related inducements to learn Greek have been building up for a while. But recently the urge has become a significant step stronger, because I read Sein Und Zeitby Martin Heidegger, and although I am quite bewildered by the book, I am also quite fascinated, and Heidegger says that there are things to be learned from the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers on the question of being, a question, Heidegger says, which has been neglected since the pre-Socratics. Hermann Diehls collected a volume of the primary materials by and about the pre-Socratics.Some wrote little or not at all themselves, and most of what they did write has been lost, but still, the fragments of their writings and the oldest descriptions of their writings fill up Diehls' fairly large book, a recent edition of which, I gather, is still regarded by some as the definitive one.

So I've been looking at Diehls' book, and it is so tantalizing, because, you know, I can't read Greek. I'm not even sure what one particular lower-case letter is. I think it's theta, and that German-speaking Classical scholars write lower-case theta differently than English-speaking Classical scholars, but I'm not completely sure about that yet, although it has been preoccupying me for a couple of days.

I've been learning languages on my own for the past couple of decades -- Spanish, Italian, Latin, now dipping my toe into Greek -- after having learned German and French in college. Spanish, Italian and French are all related to Latin, and German is related to English, so that helps with learning. Greek belongs neither to the Romance not the Germanic sub-family of the Indo-European languages, although it is Indo-European, and hence not so completely foreign to one such as me as Finnish or Japanese would be. Still, I'm almost 50 years old, which is an unusual age to be learning a new language, and the thought of it makes me tired. Also, if I continue learning autodidactically, I continue to have the problems of autodidactic learning. I don't really know how fluent I am in Latin. No one is giving me grades, there are no other students around me with whom I can compare myself, I have no one to speak or hear the language with. Learning a new language is very, very difficult for almost all people, most certainly including me. There are a few linguistic geniuses who can pick up a new langugage as quickly as Mozart learned to play an instrument. Not me. But alongside the difficulty there is a delicious fascination in linguistic study for me, and this fascination and pleasure grows ever stronger.

I don't know if I'll ever get very far with Greek. I do know I'll be spending some time on it in the immediate future. And there are classes available for such things, if I ever decide to supplement my self-teaching method. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Heraclitus, Aristotle... Hesiod, Homer... And of course, the farther back one goes in Greek history, the larger do loom Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the lost languages of the Hittites, for example, and let's not forget the lost Etruscan language, someone has to decipher that, too, it's not going to decipher itself is it? And so forth, endlessly. Eek, he cried weakly, but with a smile on his tired old face.

I Can't Believe They Removed This Comment, But Then Again, Obviously, I Can -- I Anticipated It This Time

I've cut-and-pasted this comment ahead of time, just to be sure, in case it's removed by the Huffington Post moderation: In response to this article by John Shook:

"Dr Shook, do people write books about the dumbest, loudest, shrillest scientists, or the laziest athletes? No, not very many, anyway, and that's a good thing. Your article doesn't particularly tempt me to buy your book. I can hear the loud shrill people just fine without your help, because they're loud, and shrill. I'd like to hear more about the brightest people. But that's just me.

"In your article you seem to be matching the best theology has to offer against the worst atheism has to offer... Yeah, okay, I guess that's a pretty fair fight. And I suppose that positing a great and evenly-matched intellectual debate may be better, from the marketing perspective of a publisher, than rolling up one's sleeves and taking a position oneself."

Huh! How about that, it was, in fact, removed by the moderation. I don't think they're being very moderate. (And that's not just me.) I don't know whether I want to keep on fooling with them if they're going to be this way. Maybe I should just post everything here to begin with, eliminate the middleman.