Thursday, October 31, 2013

Things To Say To People Who Say They Think Celebrities Are Ugly

* "The TMZ Website is THATaway, Pardner!"

* "Just one time I would love to see one picture one of you creeps who are always trashing celebrities, cause I bet not one of you on your very best day could pose for a glam shot by the most talented photographer in the world which would look anywhere near as good as any of these candid shots of celebrities on the worst day of their life when some lowlife scum papparazzo catches them -- No! That was rhetorical! I didn't mean it! I don't want to see a picture of you! NO-ONE WANTS TO SEE A PICTURE OF YOU! Please! Put the picture away! No! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

Taste the commenter, and remark: * "Hmm. Bitter!"

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This Is Priceless

Sometimes something simply leaves you breathless. Sometimes because it's brilliant or beautiful, but not always. Sometimes something is so thoroughly stubbornly stupid that it takes your breath away. It's beautiful in own utterly ugly way. It's a negative sort of perfection: stupidity perfected.

I've been going back and forth with a person who's not hopelessly stupid in all things, but stubbornly, proudly sticks to the "Bronze-Age goat herders" meme. Coming toward the end of my rope with him on the subject, I sarcastically remarked: "I see: you can't think of anything else at all to call them [the authors of the Bible] besides 'Bronze-Age goat herders' and 'donkey hucksters.' And that's my fault."

His priceless reply:

"Actually, yes, it is. Bronze Age goat herders is slang and may be a bit dubious, but I and everybody else knows what I mean by it, so it's doing its job, which is to communicate meaning, meaning that maybe it ain't really broke, so why fix it? Donkey hucksters has the advantage of strict cultural and historical accuracy, but you haven't said whether it passes muster with you, or if not why not. In any case, nobody seems to have a problem with any of this stuff but you; why? Well, you haven't really said, in any way that makes sense to me, despite my having read your blog entries. Maybe you were raised in a cave by wolves and don't really understand how the rest of us process these things? I should think some Christians might have a problem with it, but not because of its weakness re historical accuracy. In other words, the only person in the world who has an issue with this would appear to be you, so yes indeed, it is entirely upon you to think up something else to call them."

I haven't looked into the phrase "donkey hucksters" yet, so I don't know whether it has wide currency outside of places like jesusneverexisted.com and Stormfront. I'll look into it and get back to you. To you. Not to this other guy. As far as he's concerned, I give up. I can only assume that his blind spot here comes from some deep-seated childhood trauma. I hope he gets the help he needs someday. I, unfortunately, am not a therapist.

PS, 11:49 AM: I just googled "donkey hucksters" and got 3 hits, one to this post, one in fact to Stormfront, the third to a PDF of a newspaper page from 1961.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

It's Interesting That The Phrase "Bronze-Age Goat Herders" Was Coined By A Highly-Respected Scientest

That phrase, which has become a hugely-popular meme, was coined to describe the authors of the Bible by Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most highly-respected biologists, perhaps the single most highly-respected biologist in the world. (Or perhaps he still was before he started devoting more time to religion than to biology.) It's interesting because when the subject is biology, Dawkins, like any competent scientist, is at great pains to be as accurate as possible. For example, he has devoted more than a little energy to combating the popular meme that "humans are descended from apes." He points out that humans and apes share common ancestors, and that the most recent of those shared ancestors, several million years ago, were neither humans nor apes, but rather species which have a great deal in common with both. The inaccurate "humans are descended from apes" meme leads to all sorts of other inaccurate notions, such as that some creatures evolve to a certain state and then stop evolving. The false conception here would be that, millions of years ago, apes existed, and stopped evolving, except for those apes who were our ancestors, who continued to evolve. But the truth is that those primates millions of years ago had some descendants who evolved into apes while, at the same time, other of their descendants were evolving into humans, and also that apes, humans and other species are continuing to evolve. The "humans are descended from apes" meme and others like it tend to distract from the fact that evolution is continuing.

The difference between the popular meme: "humans are descended from apes," and the truth, that humans and apes descended from common ancestors and are continuing to evolve, may seem small to someone who knows very little about biology. The more one knows, however, the bigger the mistake looms which is contained within the popular meme. The more one cares about the study of biology, the more interested one is in sharing the excitement of that study with the broadest possible audience, the more intolerable such popular memes will become, and the more urgent it will be to remove such misunderstandings from the collective consciousness.

The term "science" is defined differently in English than the closest corresponding term in some other languages, and in English, some people define "science" much more narrowly than others. In German, history is a "Wissenschaft" as much as biology is. Perhaps such matters of linguistics sometimes lead English-speaking scientists (in the more narrowly-defined sense) to regard other academic disciplines such as history with an undue lack of respect.

Perhaps some biologists don't realize that strict accuracy is every bit as crucial to the competent study of history as it is to biology or physics. The Bible wasn't written by Bronze-Age goat herders, it was written by urban people in the Iron Age, and even among rural ancient Israelites, many more sheep were raised than goats. To believe that the bible was written by Bronze-Age goat herders requires a very profound ignorance of the dates of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Middle East, of the dates of the earliest-known writing in Hebrew, of the distribution of the rates of literacy among urban and rural ancient Israelites, and of the types of animals domesticated and raised by those ancient Israelites. It's actually harder to imagine any 4-word phrase which could betray a more complete ignorance of the history of ancient Israel than referring to the authors of the Bible as "Bronze-Age goat herders."

It's odd, it's just so damned odd that so many of the people leading the way in the spread of this spectacularly-inaccurate "Bronze-Age goat herders" meme are scientists, scientists who constantly -- and accurately -- are pointing out that science advances by constantly correcting itself and changing its views in the light of new information, and that this gives science a huge advantage over religion, which clings to revealed "truths." Very damned odd indeed, because of their own approach to a certain segment of ancient history, where it seems they're deaf to some information which would cause them, for instance, to modify their outlook and refer to the authors of Genesis as "Iron-Age temple scribes." Instead, regarding this area of history, they're just as deaf as any fundamentalist Christian is to information about evolution -- and/or they simply don't care about being accurate. It's just downright odd. And as the study of history, it sucks. But maybe we don't even need to call it the study of history. Maybe it's much more accurate to describe it as a stubborn resistance to studying history.

Oh well, the anger and disgust these people arouse in me with their "Bronze-Age goat herders" meme gives me lots of energy and incentive to write. Thanks, you schmucks!

PS, 31. January 2015: I'm sure I've mentioned it somewhere on this blog already, but since writing this post I've found out that the term "meme" was invented, ironically, by Richard Dawkins.

To Someone Who Claims To See My Point About Saying "Bronze-Age Goat Herders," But To See No Satisfactory Alternative To The Phrase

No, you don't see my point at all, which is about how insisting on reciting Dawkins' Holy Scripture and repeating "Bronze Age goat herders," word for word, time after time after time, makes YOU sound: namely, like someone who either hasn't heard that the oldest parts of the Old Testament were written by Iron Age city dwellers or doesn't care about describing things accurately, but still somehow wants to come across as someone with scathing critiques to offer. Historians who are unconcerned with describing things accurately? Outside of the Bizarro-World of places like the History Channel (about your speed, perhaps) such people generally aren't called historians. People who intentionally are inaccurate for rhetorical effect? They're generally called liars. That's certainly what I call them. If I belonged to a group who called some 20th-century Americans who weren't farmers "Iron Age soybean farmers" and insisted that they had "stolen science from the Renaissance" and then stood there high-fiving each other with smug looks on our faces like we thought we'd really ripped them a new one, it wouldn't make anyone look bad except us. We wouldn't be impressing anybody except each other. And we'd probably vanish from history fairly promptly, apart from historians of the absurd.

If you think it's essential to offer negative criticism of someone, and accurate description of them doesn't do the trick, doesn't cast them in a sufficiently negative light, and you see yourself compelled to be inaccurate in order to be "effective," something is drastically, and very obviously, wrong with your situation. It may be time to pause and consider whether you have your head way, way up your ass. Perhaps people like Ehrman are 100% correct to compare people like you to climate-change deniers and Holocaust deniers, if you feel you're on a mission too important for you to be bothered with things like the truth.

Monday, October 28, 2013

It's Time To Drop The Phrase "Bronze-Age Goat Herders" Like A Hot Rock

In case you've been lucky enough not to have encountered it yet: "Bronze-Age goat herders" is a doubly unfortunate meme used to describe the authors of the Old Testament. The phrase was coined by Richard Dawkins. It's unfortunate one time because it's completely inaccurate, and a second time because it's become wildly popular, passed along by countless people who've never read Dawkins, neither his brilliant work on biology nor his less-brilliant, wildly-popular books on religion, nor the Bible.

We possess some Bronze-Age writing in Sumerian and some other languages written in cuneiform, and also in Egyptian, but we have not yet encountered one little bit of Bronze-Age writing in Hebrew. The very oldest examples of Hebrew of which we know originate well after the spread of the Iron Age throughout the Middle East. Their possible connections to Bronze-Age writing, or more probably Bronze-Age oral storytelling, are matters of speculation. They were written by city dwellers, not by people who herded animals. And as far as that goes, the rural Israelites who did herd animals herded many more sheep than goats.

If you want to make it crystal-clear that your intention is not to have a sensible conversation about the Old Testament and the people who made it, but just to express contempt for people and things about which you don't have a clue -- then by all means, keep on referring to the Old Testament as the work of "Bronze-Age goat herders." But just know: I'm done talking to you about it. I've had enough, I've had it up to way, way past here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Religion Itself A Sin? (Yeah, Edgy, I Know!)

I think that religion, including all the mountains of stacks of books' worth of theology on the subject of sin, is a prime example of humans "messing" up. (An Anglican's recent heavy-handed use of the F-bomb, carpet-bombing with it so to speak, in order to show that he is "modern" and that we "don't understand him," has sort of spoiled it for me for the moment. He describes sin as The Human Propensity to Mess Things Up, except, because he's all "edgy" and determined to "shake us up," he doesn't say "Mess.")

But no. No. As soon as I wrote that I said to myself, It's not that simple. I can't describe tens of thousands of years of human activity in a handful of words. As it is so often, so also here, things are just much more complicated than that. Humans developed the way we did, and for tens of thousands of years that develop included religion. If one were to object to all of religion, one might as well object to our having skin, or eyes.

But to object to people continuing to be religious, and either being hopelessly ignorant of science and history, and/or to being maddeningly pretzel-logical in order to mask all of the things which science and history show us about how religion began and developed in roles in which it is no longer needed -- I think it's as reasonable to reject this continuation of religion as it is to reject the idea of people once again living in trees and living on whatever we can kill with sticks and rocks, as our ancestors did when religion began to motivate and organize them and to lead to things like cities.

We can honor what religion did. We can argue about when it ceased to be useful. We can point and facepalm and moan at those still caught up in it, shake our fists at them in frustration and mock them. To call it a sin would be to behave as disgracefully simplistically as -- a theologian. (Oooohhh, edgy! , not. It's about the speed of some of the FTB guys, if they want to use it I won't call plagiarism.)

The Following Is All Pretty Simple And Basic

Good and bad are relative. Not just that one and the same action is good for one person and bad for another: not just that these rural families were put onto the electrical grid and the cost of those losing their homes forever because now those homes lie at the bottom of the lake made by the dam which is producing that energy. Not that this electrification was all good or all bad for any one particular person, either: a person displaced by the dam may find it to have been both good and bad for him because he misses his own home, but he thrives in the city to which he has been relocated in a way he doesn't think he ever could have done back home. (Not that he knows for sure.) One thing can be both good and bad for the same person.

To stick with rural families and water: the same unexpected rain which cancels the Sunday baseball game for which Bob had bought tickets and driven his family quite a long way into town, an outing they had been planning for months, and they won't be able to attend the Monday doubleheader with which the team is making up for the rain-out to some its fans, but the same unexpected rain from the same storm might save Bob's parched crops, and allow him to keep his farm and head off the foreclosure, from the sadness of which he had been trying to distract his family with the outing to the city and the Sunday ballgame.

The heedless bicyclist on the sidewalk might knock me down and break my arm. Very bad for me, but it might be that at that moment I had been a very heedless pedestrian, all up in my head, concerned with moral relativity instead of traffic, muttering to myself and gesticulating angrily at theologians who weren't present instead of watching where I was going, and so the heedless cyclist, who knocked me down because I wasn't paying enough attention to jump out of his way, might have been the only thing which prevented me from stepping off of the curb and into the path of a speeding bus which would've killed me. In which case it's very good that the bicyclist knocked me down and broke my arm. Regardless of whether the cyclist or I ever had any idea that the accident which happened had prevented a worse one.

In short, reality is much too complex for concepts such as sin to do it any justice. And that's very plain to see. But wait, saying that it's simple and plain to see may be an oversimplification. It's plain for me to see because I've read authors such a s Nietzsche. Nietzsche made the case for moral relativity in a very sound and convincing manner, and I've been pondering what he wrote for over a decade and a half. During that same decade and a half your attention on the subject of morality may have been held by smug Anglican morons like GK Chesterton and CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and Francis Spufford, whose minds are as soft and sluggish as their bodies. Because of your misfortune in reading material, it may really be as unreasonable for me to be annpyed with you and think you're a moron because you haven't got a clue about moral relativism as it is for you to smirk at me because I don't understand your inside jokes about Episcopalian clergy and church services and coffee klatsches and golf courses.

Except of course that it's not unreasonable of me inasmuch as I'm speaking of principles applicable to the entire human race and to much more than that, while your frame of reference is a lilly-white WASP-y version of a nerd-filled comic-book store. The socially-crippled comic book guys won't admit that they're afraid to cross the street and talk to those women who have worked over there in those stores for years now, much the same way that you deny that you're afraid even to think about the implications of the speculations of centuries' worth of the intellectual world getting on with it without you. I'm afraid to talk to women, too, but I cross the street and do it anyway. I act in spite of feeling exactly the same anxiety as the comic-book guys, just the same way that contemplating a random universe with no supernatural Beings caring for me terrifies me, but I contemplate it anyway, because a world based on Leviticus and Matthew and so forth makes just as little sense as a universe in which Superman and Spiderman and so forth are real.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Theology, Ah Rilly Rilly Kant Standz It!

There seem to be some atheists such a R Joseph Hoffmann and Hermann Hesse (I think he was an atheist but I'm not certain) who are capable of enjoying theology, reading it for pleasure despite disagreeing with its authors on small points like God and Heaven and Hell and sin and orthodoxy and heresy and so forth, and then there are atheists such as Goethe and myself, who are not. I get the impression that Schopenhauer was not, and studied it, as I do, out of a self-sacrificing, Stoic sense of duty that them bastids must not be allowed to get away with it. (Goethe studied viewpoints with which he did not agree, including every single theistic thought, in order to understand. Schopenhauer studied viewpoints with which he disagreed in order to attack. Studied them like an epidemiologist studies disease, in order to attack and annihilate. I honor both approaches, Goethe's and Schopenhauer's too.)

Who's right, Hoffman and Hesse or Goethe and I? Or is that an irreducibly subjective question like, "Do green peas taste good?"? (They do NOT.)

As Schopenhauer said, "Das Grundgeheimniß und die Urlist aller Pfaffen, auf der ganzen Erde und zu allen Zeiten, mögen sie brahmanische oder mohammedanische, buddhaistische, oder christliche seyn, ist Folgendes. Sie haben die große Stärke und Unvertilgbarkeit des metaphysischen Bedürfnisses des Menschen richtig erkannt und wohl gefaßt: nun geben sie vor, die Befriedigung desselben zu besitzen, indem das Wort des großen Räthsels ihnen, auf außerordentlichem Wege, direkt zugekommen wäre. Dies nun den Menschen Ein Mal eingeredet, können sie solche leiten und beherrschen, nach Herzenslust." ("The essential secret and basic trick of all preachers all over the world in all eras, be they Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, is the following: they have recognized and understood the great strength and indestructibility of mankind's metaphysical longings: and now they claim to possess the means of satisfying these longings because the answer to the great riddle has come directly to them in an extraordinary way. Once they've convinced people of this they can control and dominate them just as they wish.")

There is, of course, no Ultimate answer, no Timeless Truth Which Will Save Us, and because people and the conditions under which they live are constantly changing, so too the bullshit which can be successfully presented to some people as Eternal Truth must constantly change.

And so we look in the Sunday paper or channel-surf on TV and encounter the brand-new Version 34,763,299, 473.267334 of this or that timeless truth contained in this or that Holy Scripture.

I might be missing something, but to know better, like Hoffmann or Hesse, and still to be okay with or to somehow admire people being used and led around by the nose like this because their deepest longings and fears have been exposed and are being used against their good sense, being okay with it just for the sake of enjoying the great Glass Bead Game, just strikes me as being impossibly cold.

PS, 21. August 2014: Although he doesn't believe that any deities exist, Hoffmann does not want to be called an atheist. So I take back my description of him as an atheist... No, you know what, I don't take it back. "Unbelievers But Not Atheists" is every bit as absurd as "Spiritual But Not Religious." There is more than enough absurdity in the world, including more than enough perpetrated unintentionally by me, I won't go along with it when I know better. You're an atheist, Dr Hoffmann. Get over it.

Homophobia, And Opposition To Homophobia, In Religion

There seems to be a lot of debate within religious institutions these days about non-heterosexuality. Or LGBT, as some people call it, which stands for: Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals. Some people have added a fifth letter to the acronym LBGT, and in some cases, I think, maybe even a sixth or more. Which I find annoying. What we're talking about here is human rights for people who mate in ways other than the traditional hetero way. I'd rather just say "gay" and have it refer to all the LGBT etc etc, but alphabet soup seems to be the way the wind is blowing in this case. And acronyms aren't the main issue, the main issue, again, is human rights. Traditionally, Christians, Jews and Muslims have denied full status to LGBT's, sometimes have punished them severely for being who they are, and now that's changing in many institutions, and it's controversial.

I want LGBT's to have full rights. I want them to be allowed to marry like heteros if they want to, I don't want their career opportunities to be limited because of their sexuality, I don't want them to have to live in fear of violence from their fellow humans, or, worse, from the law enforcement organizations who are supposed to protect us all.

And so if a church or synagogue or mosque declares itself to be LGBT friendly, that's good, because, unfortunately, it's not as if our society is overflowing with institutions which welcome LGBT's unconditionally just yet. And this is where I part company with some of my fellow atheists, who simply refuse to see anything good in any religion. Well, it's part of the parting of company, because there are many other good things I see in religious institutions, from stained glass to charity work.

But in common with those other atheists, I still am critical of religion. Sorry. Even though I completely reject black-and-white, right-and-wrong worldviews which are blind to all the shades of grey everywhere, and those black-and-white attitudes most certainly include a lot of atheists who can't seem to come up with a more sophisticated approach to reality than religion-bad, atheism-good, I'm still an atheist. I still think it's ridiculous to base your life around one book, whether it's the Torah or the Christian Bible or the Quran, or even something really good like JR.

And I think it's perfectly plain that if you're a Christian, Jew or Muslim, you are basing your life around one book, even if you are determined to portray yourself as a sophisticated person who does no such thing. It may well be that you actually are a sophisticated person who claims to be religious but actually is way more sophisticated than that, and is not religious at all. That has been known to happen.

And I still think it's perfectly obvious that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have been emphatically and unanimously homophobic until recently, when they have undergone a great transformation and become partially emphatically homophobic. I think that it's as plain as can be that most of the stories of past ages of gay-friendly Abrahamic religions are pure myth, and that the few authentic exceptions, such as the partial lessening of strictness of sexual mores in Europe during the 12th century when very many of the most pious types were off in the Middle East fighting the Crusades and giving a great deal of the grief they traditionally give to their fellow Christians to Muslims and Jews and Eastern Christians instead -- I think it's as plain as can be that such episodes of partly-lessened intolerance in Christianity represent a lessening of the observance of Christianity, that they were anti-Christian. Which is exactly what some of those bawdy 12th-century troubadours said about it.

When these religious people these days welcome LGBT's and give them a place to belong, a place to be nurtured, to be unafraid to be themselves, that is thoroughly wonderful. When they claim that their welcoming of LGBT's is true Christianity, it's thoroughly ridiculous. If a Christian theologian who has studied Christian theology and history of all eras says it, then it involves denial of what he or she knows about that history on a scale which boggles my mind. Acceptance of LGBT's is at odds with all of Christian practice and doctrine until the past few decades, that is as clear as anything has ever been.

Once again we see how nothing at all can be clear enough for a religious believer who is determined not to see it, to see it. And so I have profoundly mixed feelings about the recent LGBT-friendly trend in the Abrahamic religions. Acceptance and love are good. Period. But illogic and doublethink are bad, period, and resistance to logic in one thing can and often does lead to resistance to logic in all things. And so if you welcome gays into your congregation I will support you, unconditionally. But if you try to tell me that this welcoming is in the true spirit of your religion and always has been, I will tell you that you are completely full of shit. That's how I roll.

Friday, October 25, 2013

It Could Be Worse: I Could Be Using Apple

Apple has released a new, inexpensive version of the iPhone and they can't sell it because it won't make anyone envious.

I can honestly say that I have never envied anyone for having purchased an Apple product. Now of course, a lot of you Apple people will read that and think either that I have no idea what I'm missing, or that I'm lying, that I really am envious. And that doesn't bother me either. And a lot of you will read that and think I'm lying, or that I just don't understand.

I was walking around in NYC in 1996 with my brother and I saw what looked to me at first to be a line of homeless people waiting outside of a soup kitchen for some grub. But it was a strange-looking group of homeless people, different from most homeless: just as dirty and scruffy and haphazardly-dressed, but almost all of this group were white and overweight. Then I realized that they weren't homeless people waiting for food, they were idiots waiting in line for $10 tickets for that evening's performance of Rent. (Tickets for Broadways shows were normally $50 or so and up at the time, and popular shows were sold out way in advance, but because Rent was so "hip," they always held a certain number of tickets for each show, to be given to whomever had gotten in line for them early enough and paid $10. Which meant that every day people were camping out in line in front of the theatre overnight. How "bohemian," eh? I don't know if or how scalping of those $10 tickets was prevented, and you know what? Don't care about that either.) I'm certain, I don't have any actual stats but I mean I just know, that many of those douchebags in line for the $10 Rent tickets have been networking since then as mid-level execs at Starbuck's or Trader Joe's and now stand in line at the Apple Stores and have iPhones. And will never believe that someone like me feels sorry for them or understand why I would, because they're idiots and there's a whole lot of things they will never understand. Like how Steve Jobs understood how many people are idiots and still have massive amounts of disposable income, and understood how to organize them into massive lemming-like herds consumed with desire to buy anything he dangled in front of them.

As long as it was unreasonably expensive.

I Hate Windows 8

I hate all those tiles on the start page. Besides the fact that I can't use the content on any of them, that I can find better content than that by myself, I like it when a window or screen has a little x in the upper-right-hand screen, or responds to the esc key, or features some other way that I can get away from it and get on with whatever I was hoping to do when I turned on the goddam computer, without calling tech support or rebooting my computer, if I happen to accidentally open it. Trapped? Yes, that's it, that's how those goddam x-less screens make me feel.

I hate the ghosts or the, whatever they're called, settings and so forth which are no longer called icons and now have some name like ghosts, because they automatically disappear after a second or so. If I'm lucky enough to be able to find some of the essential controls on my computer, they damn well ought to stay in sight until I decide to make them go away again, or use them.

Apparently there's some goddam online course about how to use Windows 8. I don't want to have to take a goddam course every time I get a new computer. Oh, it's worth it, you say, once you learn how to use the new version of Windows? Well, I say bullshit. You say those IT billionaires are geniuses? I definitely say bullshit to that too.

I Was Confused About The Term "Vellum"

It appears that "vellum" refers to a kind of parchment -- refers to it in English, that is. I had assumed, wrongly, that "vellum" was a Latin term for "parchment," alongside the more commonly-used "membranis." But no. "Vellum" may well be derived from the Latin "vellus," via French, but in Latin itself, as far as I am able to determine, having consulted many sources, there is no noun whose root form is "vellum" -- I refer to the root form because Latin nouns take on a variety of endings according to inflection -- and "vellus," apparently the Latin ancestor of the English "vellum," refers to "wool" or "fleece" or "hide" or "pelt," but not specifically to "parchment," although parchment is made from hides.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Oprah vs Nyad, or: One Example Of How To Tick Atheists Off

ATHEIST: Ambiguous or possibly poorly-word statement.

BELIEVER: Aha! POUNCE!! So you DO believe in God!

ATHEIST: No, I'm an atheist! Let me explain --

BELIEVER: LA LA LA LA I'M NOT LISTENING. Clearly, you feel awe and certain other human emotions. This would seem to indicate that you are not dead inside, which in turn indicates a belief in God. Well, which is it: do you believe in our all-merciful, perfectly-loving Supreme Being? Or are you dead inside? LA LA LA LA I'M NOT LISTENING. Why are you getting so upset? I guess you are an atheist, then: no sensitivity or humanity.

On October 13 of this year Diana Nyad, one of the great athletes of our time, played the role of ATHEIST, and Oprah Winfrey played the role of BELIEVER. Nothing new here. Nothing any atheist who's gone public with it doesn't already know all about. Same shit, different day.

Some atheists have demanded an apology from Oprah for her interview with Nyad. Not me. I'm not demanding anything from anybody. On the other hand, good luck trying to get me to apologize for describing the interview the way I did above. I'm not going to apologize for being angry about this kind of crap. I'm really not angry at Oprah personally, I'm angry because it's frustrating to encounter this sort of response over and over. But this is a situation involving billions of people which has been going on for thousands of years. Oprah didn't invent the situation we're in regarding religion, any more than she invented the weather. Like the weather, this situation is just there. And it used to be much, much worse. Unlike people in Europe in the Middle Ages, I can talk openly about religion. Unlike anyone until well past the Middle Ages, I can angrily satirize religious points of view. Things are changing, even if we're surrounded on all sides by attitudes like Oprah's.

A Big "Duh" Moment: Why They Call Us Nones

Ever since I have heard the term "nones" to describe people who identify as religiously unaffiliated, I have been extremely annoyed that we atheists are called "nones" along with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc, etc, who lately haven't been going to church or temple. I object to being put into the same group as those people -- sometimes also called "spiritual but not religious" -- every chance I get.

But then today it suddenly hit me why we all would but put into the same category, and also why that category is called "nones": because "none" describes the financial contribution we are currently making to traditional religious institutions. From the point of view of those institutions, that is exactly what we all have in common.

Rock Criticism

It may have been the overwhelmingly negative opinion of James Taylor among rock critics -- that is to say, among the rock critics at Rolling Stone, where I read most of the rock criticism I have read -- which caused me to begin to question the authority of their opinions and aesthetic sense. "Fire and Rain," "Your Smiling Face," "Mockingbird," "Shower the People" and other James Taylor singles -- well, I liked them, plain as that, even though the critics called them wimpy unbearable shit. "You've Got a Friend" was and is wimpy unbearable shit to me, but everybody slips now and then. Apart from that one song, it became more and more undeniably clear to me that I found the average James Taylor song on the radio to be more edifying and worthwhile than the average record review in Rolling Stone, or even the average above-average review in Rolling Stone.

It wasn't just James Taylor. Around the same time that Taylor began to be an unreconcilable point of contention between myself and the rock critics -- that is to say, in the 1970's -- I also came across a couple of remarks from great musicians: Frank Zappa calling rock criticism "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read," and Lou Reed complaining about working on an album for a year and a half only to have some asshole in the Village Voice (Robert Christgau) give it a B-.

And Christgau, most people would agree, is one of the best rock critics.

John Peel -- or Sir John Peel if you prefer, he was actually knighted -- was considered by many to be the very best rock critic in the world, and he didn't seem to think much of rock criticism, devoting more of his career to being a radio DJ.

Mystery Trainby Greil Marcus is probably the most highly-regarded book ever written by a rock critic. Like my growing and increasingly disturbing awareness that I simply couldn't accept the critical consensus regarding James Taylor, and Zappa's pithy dismissal of rock criticism in general and Reed's of Christgau, and Peel's disappearance from his rock-critic columns in favor of the DJ booth, Mystery Train is a product of the 1970's. I own a copy of it. I've never really known what to make of it. Marcus' description of how Little Richard disrupted an episode of the Dick Cavett Show when it was becoming quite pretentiously silly is well-written, and his interpretation of Richard's motives for the disruption -- because some other guests were beginning to pontificate in a very silly way about art, and he knew that he was the only artist on the stage at the time, and that he knew that his artistry was far more important and enduring than the fact that a couple of of those other people thought he was silly -- that analysis of the incident on Marcus' part is not entirely unconvincing. But other parts of the book, unfortunately, consist of unbearably silly pontification about art.

Part of the pointedness and venom of my current disdain for rock criticism (I realize that many other names for it may be preferred these days, but when I stopped being able to take it seriously that's what it was still called) is a deflection of my shame at having taken it so seriously for so long. But I was only a child! How was I to know?

But is there a point to all this vapid rambling? Well, no. And perhaps that's the point. And perhaps Duke Ellington said every single thing there ever was to say about any sort of music criticism when he answered the question, What is good music? thusly: "If it sounds good, it is good."

Indeed. Cazart. Believe your ears regarding music and do not let your reading eyes hand you any wooden nickles.

Some Atheists Ask, "How Can People Still Have Religious Beliefs In This Day And Age?"

The day and age may have less to do with it than it appears at first. For one thing, the fact is that what one person can easily perceive, others cannot, and this has been true for thousands of years. (As Admiral Morison said when asked whether people in Columbus' time believed that the Earth was flat: "Some people did. Some people still do.") For another thing, what people believe and what they believed in the past, and what we are able to perceive about those beliefs, are two different things.

Thousands of years ago, in ancient Greece and Rome, where people were allowed to discuss religion openly, some people saw through it. Possibly some people saw through it much earlier than that but were prevented from expressing their insights in written form, so we never heard about them. After ancient Greece and Rome, Christianity prevented written expressions of religious skepticism, so we don't know how many people in the West were atheists in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (We don't know of any Medieval atheists, but many Medieval theologians spent a great deal of time devising proofs of God's existence. Why would such a thing have been necessary is belief were unanimous? Against whom were those theologians arguing?) We don't know for sure how many atheists there are today because there's still some pressure to conform to religion.

There is currently an upswing in the number of people who identify as atheist. Some atheists see this and think, At last, progress is being made in people's ability to think! And I also think that some progress is being made, but I don't think we can know for sure how much of the increase in publicly-visible atheism is due to mental progress, and how much is due to a decrease in the pressure people feel to conform.

If we're really trying to understand religious belief in Western civilization (Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Modernity, Now), we should entertain the possibility that all along a majority of us have been atheists, and that what has changed has been above all the degree to which we have been coerced to appear to have religious beliefs.

Monday, October 21, 2013

According To Google Maps --

-- it's 7.2 miles by foot from my home to Catholic Social Services.

Google Maps says it's 37.9 miles to King's Used & Rare Books in Detroit. Which is an awesome store run by nice people, by the way.

265 miles to Toronto City Hall, 87 hours of walking. I don't think I've ever been to Toronto. Seems like I'd remember. When the CN Tower in downtown Toronto, over 1800 feet tall, was completed in 1976, I made a bet with my brother that I would ride a certain sort of Kawasaki Z1 from the US Midwest to the Tower by a certain time. I don't remember how much we bet. Ten bucks, maybe. maybe more. I don't remember whether I was betting that I would make the ride by my 18th birthday, or my 21st birthday, or when exactly. I turned 15 in 1976. Also, I don't remember whether I was betting that I would make the ride on any sort of Z1, or on a Z1 which had been modified in certain ways. I was very much interested in motorcycle road racing in those days. Which is not street racing. Road racing refers to races held on tracks which are paved, as opposed to dirt tracks, and which have many turns per lap, left and right and left and right, as opposed to ovals with left turns only. The Kawasaki Z1 was a 900cc 4-cylinder 4-stroke street bike, which at the time was just about the fastest street bike available in completely as-is stock from-the-dealer condition, and was also one of the leading models, perhaps the strongest overall, in Superbike road racing, which featured -- and I assume still does, although I'm not entirely sure -- motorcycles which began as stock mass-market street bikes, and which were pretty heavily modified, but still LOOKED very much like stock. Back in the mid-70's this meant that almost none of the Superbikes raced with fairings, that is, with the plastic aerodynamic coverings which were on all motorcycles built just for road racing back then, and on very few street bikes, and which are on all of the highest-performance street bikes today. So back then, Superbike road racing, which was still fairly new, looked much different than regular road racing, because of the absence of the aerodynamic streamlining.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure I've never been to Toronto, and I've never owned any Z1, stock or modified.

It's 3808 miles driving, 66 hours of total driving time, to my Mom and Stepdad's place in Alaska. Google Maps said it was unable to calculate the walking distance. Let me try that one more time to make sure -- nope. Google Maps still sez "We could not calculate directions between[...]" It gave driving directions, but one very important thing it did not say is that, unless you're driving a pretty serious all-terrain vehicle, and maybe even then, you shouldn't attempt to drive from anywhere in the lower 48 to anywhere in Alaska except during a few relatively snow-free months of the year -- April to August, give or take, but check the forecast in advance. The only motor routes between Alaska and the lower 48 go through a lot of extremely mountainous terrain. In the cooler parts of the year, blizzards on the roads are guaran-Goddamn-teed, and a lot of snow and ice are possible any time of the year. This is not a journey for the faint of heart, the bald of tire or the ratty of engine.

Animals I have seen while driving through eastern Alaska, the Yukon and northern British Columbia include many moose and bears and buffalo, lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of caribou, bighorn sheep, bald eagles (I've only seen bald eagles in Canada, never yet in one of the 50 US states) and prairie dogs, who are awesomely cute little guys.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Texas Is Purple

I'm taking this opportunity to tell you that Texas is purple -- that is, neither overwhelmingly Republican nor overwhelmingly Democratic -- because I've heard so many Democrats, most of whom, I just betcha, haven't ever been in Texas, saying things like "Texas is just hopeless" and "Texans are all morons" and "Can Texas secede now? Please?" and so forth.

I have no problem with people saying that W and Tom DeLay and Rick Perry and Ted Cruz are all morons. They are. And unfortunately they're also the Texas politicians who have garnered the most nationwide attention since Ann Richards died. The thing is, though, neither Perry nor Cruz gained his current office by a landslide, and there are signs of buyer's remorse from some of the good folks who did vote for them, and furthermore, 12 out of Texas' 36 US Representatives are Democrats. That's exactly 1/3 of Texas' US House delegation, and 1/3 is more than Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

Purple.

And those 12 are mostly very liberal Democrats, too. And liberal Democrats aren't just a recent phenomenon in Texas. Take Henry B Gonzalez, who represented Texas's 20th congressional district from 1961 to by-God 1999. According to Wikipedia,

González became known for his liberal views. In 1963, Republican congressman Ed Foreman called González a "communist" and a "pinko" and González confronted him. González was referred to as a "communist" in 1986 by a man at Earl Abel's restaurant, a popular San Antonio eatery. The 70-year-old representative responded by punching him in the face. González was acquitted of assault for this incident.

Yessir, that's a Texas Democrat for you: liberal and mean, and well-loved by his fellow Texans for both. Can you say Lyndon B Johnson? I know that you can. Yes, currently the most well-known Texas politicians outside of Texas are some Republican yahoos, but it might not be long before the most prominent politician from Texas in the US is someone like 39-year-old Joaquin Castro, who is now the Congressman from the 20th district, the same 20th district earlier represented by the 70-year-old who punched a yahoo in the face for callin' him a Commie and was aquitted of charges for it, or maybe Joaquin's twin brother Julián, currently the mayor of San Antonio, a little over half of which is in the 20th district. Whether they go nationwide or not, I'd say it probably couldn't hurt to be on good terms with the Castro family if you want to be a big shot in San Antonio. I'm just guessing. I'm also guessing that Texas will get a lot more blue in the next few years, but that's not just me, that's also most folks who know something about Texas politics and aren't so unbelievably stupid that they consider Ted Cruz to be a hero. People who can count past 10 without takin' off their socks. So brace yrselves, America! This'll be good!

Friday, October 18, 2013

I Look At People Like Ted Cruz, And It Just Makes Me Want To Say --

-- non scholae, sed vitae discimus. Suos cultores scientia coronat. Citius, altius, fortius. Condemnant quod non intellegunt. Castigat ridendo mores. Alenda lux ubi orta libertas. Alis grave nil. Carthago delenda est.

Prejudice & Paranoia

The Congressional aide who went berserk on the House floor during the vote to end the government shutdown was yelling about Freemasons. Do any of you wonder, like me, whether she also wanted to yell out some antisemitic insanity, but didn't have the guts because she suffers from paranoid delusions along the lines of "the Jews control the media and pull the strings of politics -- along with their good friends the Masons of course, and who knows how many Masons are crypto-Jews," yada yada yada? Raving anti-Masonic paranoia does often go along with antisemitism, and anti-catholicism, and anti- a lot of other ethnic and cultural groups. It's amazing that such idiocy still exists to such an extent that a congressional aide could be possessed of it.

Maybe exactly the same kinds of prejudice were just as amazing to many of the Founding Fathers. (Even the ones who weren't Freemasons.) Progress and enlightenment happen, but not to everyone. How old was I when I heard about Freemasons for the very first time? younger than when I first encountered anti-Masonic paranoia, that much is certain. Who knows how much creedence I might've given some raving fool like that Congressional aide, if she were the very first person I'd heard mention Masons?

But no. I lucked out, tolerance and opposition to prejudice were instilled in me from the cradle onwards. I was fortunate in that regard in my parents and the xenophilic, pro-civil-rights, anti-fear-of-the-unknown-or-exotic culture to which they belong. Messages like the one brought by that crazy Congressional aide never had a chance with me.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Let's USE This Vast Political Capital The Republicans Have Just Handed Us

Let's go after every single Republican office-holder -- unless you can think of a Republican currently holding public office who's stood up to the Tea Party since 2009. Yeah, I can't think of one either. Yes, some of them are critical of the Tea Party now, but look at the size of the clusterfuck it took for them to speak up. Look at what was acceptable to all of them until the writing was on the wall about the 2012 elections, and then to all but a tiny handful of them. The Tea Party belongs to the Republican Party. Let's make them own it. All of them. Let's not let this very recent turn toward bipartisanship make us forget the 5 years before the last 3 weeks.

And please, my fellow Democrats, let's stop this awful pathetic whining about how this or that Republican Senator or Representative or Governor or Councilman or judge or dog-catcher is untouchable. None of them are untouchable after this shutdown debacle. Let's not just win some seats in 2014 and 2016, let's crush the GOP as it now once and for all, so that what emerges is either a GOP as unrecognizably liberal by today's standards as today's is unrecognizably reactionary by the standards of several decades ago, or something like a political landscape where the Republican and Green Parties have swapped places in terms of relevance and clout, a US where it's Democrat against Green instead of Democrat against Republican. (Or better yet, of course, a change in the Constitution to base our government on proportional representation, but at this point the eradication of far-right political power looks like a nearer, more attainable goal.)

They're not untouchable. Let's find a brilliant, charismatic rainmaker in his or her early 20's and run him or her against John Boehner. That's a no-lose proposition for the Democrats because the whiz kid will either actually win, or win enough votes against the sitting Speaker of the House to brighten up any 25-year-old's resume.

Let's go after em all. You may say I'm a crazy wild-eyed dreamer. I say that the Republicans are in such a mess that it'd be crazy to consider any one of them to be invulnerable.

These Are The 18 Senators And 144 Representatives Who Voted Last Night AGAINST Ending The Government Shutdown

Senators Tom Coburn R OK
John Cornyn R TX
Michael D. Crapo R ID
Ted Cruz R TX
Michael B. Enzi R WY
Charles E. Grassley R IA
Dean Heller R NV
Ron Johnson R WI
Mike Lee R UT
Rand Paul R KY
Jim Risch R ID
Pat Roberts R KS
Marco Rubio R FL
Tim Scott R SC
Jeff Sessions R AL
Richard C. Shelby R AL
Patrick J. Toomey R PA
David Vitter R LA

And Representatives Robert B. Aderholt R AL-4
Justin Amash R MI-3
Mark Amodei R NV-2
Michele Bachmann R MN-6
Andy Barr R KY-6
Joe L. Barton R TX-6
Kerry Bentivolio R MI-11
Rob Bishop R UT-1
Diane Black R TN-6
Marsha Blackburn R TN-7
Kevin Brady R TX-8
Jim Bridenstine R OK-1
Mo Brooks R AL-5
Paul Broun R GA-10
Larry Bucshon R IN-8
Michael C. Burgess R TX-26
John Campbell R CA-45
John Carter R TX-31
Bill Cassidy R LA-6
Steven J. Chabot R OH-1
Jason Chaffetz R UT-3
Chris Collins R NY-27
Doug Collins R GA-9
K. Michael Conaway R TX-11
John Culberson R TX-7
Ron DeSantis R FL-6
Jeffrey Denham R CA-10
Scott DesJarlais R TN-4
Sean Duffy R WI-7
Jeffrey Duncan R SC-3
John J. Duncan Jr. R TN-2
Renee Ellmers R NC-2
Blake Farenthold R TX-27
Stephen Fincher R TN-8
Chuck Fleischmann R TN-3
John Fleming R LA-4
Bill Flores R TX-17
J. Randy Forbes R VA-4
Virginia Foxx R NC-5
Trent Franks R AZ-8
Scott Garrett R NJ-5
Bob Gibbs R OH-7
Phil Gingrey R GA-11
Louie Gohmert R TX-1
Robert W. Goodlatte R VA-6
Paul Gosar R AZ-4
Trey Gowdy R SC-4
Kay Granger R TX-12
Sam Graves R MO-6
Tom Graves R GA-14
Morgan Griffith R VA-9
Ralph M. Hall R TX-4
Andy Harris R MD-1
Vicky Hartzler R MO-4
Jeb Hensarling R TX-5
George Holding R NC-13
Richard Hudson R NC-8
Tim Huelskamp R KS-1
Bill Huizenga R MI-2
Randy Hultgren R IL-14
Duncan D. Hunter R CA-50
Robert Hurt R VA-5
Bill Johnson R OH-6
Sam Johnson R TX-3
Walter B. Jones R NC-3
Jim Jordan R OH-4
Steve King R IA-4
Jack Kingston R GA-1
Doug LaMalfa R CA-1
Raul Labrador R ID-1
Doug Lamborn R CO-5
James Lankford R OK-5
Robert E. Latta R OH-5
Billy Long R MO-7
Frank D. Lucas R OK-3
Blaine Luetkemeyer R MO-3
Cynthia M. Lummis R WY-1
Kenny Marchant R TX-24
Tom Marino R PA-10
Thomas Massie R KY-4
Michael McCaul R TX-10
Tom McClintock R CA-4
Mark Meadows R NC-11
Luke Messer R IN-6
John L. Mica R FL-7
Candice S. Miller R MI-10
Jeff Miller R FL-1
Markwayne Mullin R OK-2
Mick Mulvaney R SC-5
Randy Neugebauer R TX-19
Kristi Noem R SD-1
Richard Nugent R FL-11
Alan Nunnelee R MS-1
Pete Olson R TX-22
Steven Palazzo R MS-4
Steve Pearce R NM-2
Scott Perry R PA-4
Tom Petri R WI-6
Joe Pitts R PA-16
Ted Poe R TX-2
Mike Pompeo R KS-4
Bill Posey R FL-8
Tom Price R GA-6
Trey Radel R FL-19
Tom Reed R NY-23
Jim Renacci R OH-16
Tom Rice R SC-7
Martha Roby R AL-2
Phil Roe R TN-1
Mike D. Rogers R AL-3
Dana Rohrabacher R CA-48
Todd Rokita R IN-4
Tom Rooney R FL-17
Dennis Ross R FL-15
Keith Rothfus R PA-12
Ed Royce R CA-39
Paul D. Ryan R WI-1
Matt Salmon R AZ-5
Mark Sanford R SC-1
Steve Scalise R LA-1
David Schweikert R AZ-6
Austin Scott R GA-8
F. James Sensenbrenner R WI-5
Pete Sessions R TX-32
Jason Smith R MO-8
Lamar Smith R TX-21
Steve Southerland R FL-2
Chris Stewart R UT-2
Steve Stockman R TX-36
Marlin Stutzman R IN-3
William M. Thornberry R TX-13
Michael R. Turner R OH-10
Ann Wagner R MO-2
Tim Walberg R MI-7
Greg Walden R OR-2
Jackie Walorski R IN-2
Randy Weber R TX-14
Brad Wenstrup R OH-2
Lynn Westmoreland R GA-3
Roger Williams R TX-25
Joe Wilson R SC-2
Rob Woodall R GA-7
Kevin Yoder R KS-3
Ted Yoho R FL-3

All Republicans. Every single one, all 18 of those Senators and all 144 of those Representatives.

Didn't vote: Senator James M. Inhofe R OK, and Representatives Carolyn McCarthy D NY-4
Bobby L. Rush D IL-1
C. W. Bill Young R FL-13


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where Do Republicans Go From Here: Further Down The Toilet Of Tea Party Insainty, Or Back Toward Relative Bipartisan Sanity?

From early this morning the news has been full of confident reports that the idiotic Republican shutdown is about to be put behind us. I won't fully believe it until it's done, but the reports are nearly unanimously confident that Congress will in fact pull its head out of its ass and the chestnuts of the global economy out of the fire.

So. If we're wrapping up the shutdown now -- will the rightwing nutbags be able to do it again? Soon? It seems so stupid to me that so many nonextremist Republicans let them get away with this, let themselves be pushed around so. Perhaps they haven't studied the end of the Weimar Republic as much as I.

If the deal is going through now and the Bizarro-World episode is almost over, if we're there, it's because mainstream Republicans are siding with the Democrats against the Tea Party in sufficient numbers. Which they should have been doing since well before the 2010 midterms, from the point of view of they own self-interest, nevermind considerations of things like sanity, reality and common decency. 3 years' worth of cooperation with idiots and psychopaths, the most spectacular example of which, before the last couple of weeks, was the 2011 budget crisis, has done huge damage to the Republican brand. I predicted it had well before the 2012 elections. Democratic gains in 2012, due in no small part to the defections of non-batshit-crazy Republican voters appalled at everything for which the Tea Party stands, proved me right, and the catastrophic plummeting of Republican approval ratings during the shutdown is sending the same message to any Republican with ears and a functioning brain: Dump the Tea Party, the sooner and more emphatically, the better.

You can't be a little bit pregnant and you can't be a little bit okay with psychotic political partners. When the whole fucking world is appalled at your political allies of convenience, whether you're von Papen in 1932 and those partners are the Nazis or you're John Boehner in 2013 and those partners are the Tea Party, it's time to stop and consider the opinion of the whole fucking world, and think about whether, in the long term, that opinion should outweigh the political gains you're trying to obtain by allying yourself with a fringe group of fascists who hate you just as much and respect you just as little as they do anyone else.

The 2012 elections told mainstream Republicans that their partnership with the Tea Party was political poison, that it was just a sheer disaster. Some of them listened. The public reaction to the shutdown is telling them the same thing. A few more have been listening, still not very many. The 2014 midterms will scream it so loud you'll wonder how anyone possibly couldn't hear. But keep in mind that many mainstream Republicans still thought Romney was going to be elected President late in the evening of Election Day 2012. Perhaps things like that should make us wonder whether many of the mainstream Republicans aren't just plain stupid. I'm talking about the mainstream, never mind the Mad Hatters of the Tea Party.

Anyway: Republican Senators and Congresspeople, on behalf of the Democratic Party, thanks once again for providing us with tons of priceless campaign advertising material for which we won't have to spend a lot of money, but just quote you and run raw audio and video of you. You're really being a tremendous help.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Daryl Hannah Is Autistic

She announced this just recently. I was very surprised when I first heard the news. I had speculated that this or that movie star might be autistic, but Hannah wasn't one of the ones I'd had in mind.

But since the announcement, one thing about Daryl Hannah has made much more sense to me: her performance in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill,parts one and two. I think it's safe to say that her portrayal of Elle Driver in Kill Bill is by far her most highly-regarded performance. And Quentin Tarantino is a director known for an unusually-small amount of tolerance for improvisation by his actors. Small, if not actually non-existent.

That sort of approach to directing is ideal for me. (I've done a little bit of acting. Instead of "for me" I was going to say, "for autistic actors," but the thing is, I don't know for sure that any other actors besides Daryl Hannah and myself are autistic.) I don't like improvisation when I'm acting. I don't improvise, and to say that it is disorienting and unpleasant and difficult for me when other actors in a scene with me improvise, is a huge understatement. Some directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman, encourage if not demand a great deal of improvisation. They've been known to say things to their actors such as "Read the script once and then thrown it away, it's just suggestions, it's not the law." Actors have come to them and asked things like, "What's going on with my character at this point?" and gotten answers such as, "Your character is whoever you are at the moment."

To me, that sort of direction is very frustrating. It doesn't help me. At all. When I go to a director for help, I want concrete suggestions -- and not suggestions about my "inner life," but very concrete feedback about my exterior: Should I speak this line louder or softer? Faster or slower? How's the expression on my face? How about if I open my eyes wider, like this? or look a little angrier, like this? Is that too much, not enough? How do you want me to pronounce this word? Can you read this line the way you want me to read it? How's my accent? Etc. Etc. Etc. For me, ideally, those are the sorts of issues a director is there for. And ideally, I'll get a lot of those kinds of instructions, that sort of extremely-specific information about what the director wants, before I even ask. The whole Method-acting, be-in-the-moment sort of approach just doesn't work for me. Maybe a director can get good results from me with that sort of approach, but frankly, I'd be very surprised.

For me, and for many autistics, everyday life and successful interaction with other people already calls for an exhausting amount of improvisation. Ideally, acting offers me relief from that: I know exactly what I'm supposed to say, it's right there in the script. I know where to stand when I say it -- they put a piece of tape of the floor to show me where to stand. And not only does the script tell me what to say, the director is ready with lots of feedback about how to say it.

I don't know Quentin Tarantino or Daryl Hannah personally, and I don't speak for Daryl Hannah just because she and I both happen to be autistic, but it doesn't surprise me at all, now that I've learned that she's autistic, that -- in my opinion, and many other people's -- her performance in Kill Bill has a wonderful, exciting quality that is lacking in some of her other performances. And since I've learned that she's autistic, and have been thinking about Tarantino and actors, it also doesn't surprise me that Robert De Niro, who is very much into the Method, be-in-the-moment school of acting, delivers a performance in Tarantino's Jackie Brown which, shall we say, sears itself into the viewer's memory much less than many other of his performances, and also much less than the performances of some other actors in Jackie Brown. His character is barely there. Perhaps from De Niro's point of view, Tarantino's directing style was overly rigid and gave him little opportunity to do anything, if his approach to acting equates "doing something" with the possibility that something may be improvised at any moment. There are all sorts of different ways to act and to direct, and De Niro certainly has delivered many brilliant performances.

Now if a director can handle Method actors and also actors who want a great deal of specific guidance and structure, both at the same time in the same performance, while fully answering everyone's needs and preferences, that would really be something. I don't know whether that's possible, though.

I'm very glad that Daryl Hannah came out as autistic. I hope it will show some autistic kids that you can be autistic and extremely successful at the same time. I also hope that Hannah's example will inspire some other prominent autistics who have been keeping their neurological condition a secret also to come out. The information could only help autistics, and the other people who have to deal with us in one way or another. The better we understand each other the easier and more rewarding the interaction will be.

'IT'S TIME FOR SOMEONE TO ACT LIKE A GROWN-UP'

That's a huge banner headline, in bold print with letters an inch high, over a story about more traditional Republicans lambasting the batshit-crazy Tea Party and its minions such as John Boehner for not facing reality and ending the government shutdown. It's a quote from John Sununu.

Next to the Tea Party, John Sununu is a moderate, centrist voice of reason and conciliation.

Under that banner headline is a big picture of Ted Cruz and John Boehner. Such a picture is not a reassuring sight under such a headline. Well, really, it's just about Boehner. Cruz can continue to act crazy, or to be crazy, if it's the case that it's not an act. It doesn't really matter much what Cruz does. As I've pointed out before on this blog, Boehner can end this shutdown any time he likes. Republican approval ratings plummet rapidly as he refuses to end the shutdown and the days go by. More and more pollsters are saying that, because of other things too but mostly because of this shutdown, the Republicans are in danger of losing their majority in the House in the 2014 midterms, which would mean that the Speakership, which according to insiders is why Boehner follows the Tea Party's lead, would go back to a Democrat anyway. The party that the President doesn't belong to almost always gains seats in congress in midterm elections; the last time this was not the case was in 1998, when the voters punished Congressional Republicans for wasting everybody's time with a silly spectacle, the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Well, this shutdown is much worse than that impeachment, not just in my opinion but also according to all the public opinion polls. The Republicans hurt themselves by coming close to a shutdown in 2011, and they're hurting themselves much worse now. That's the one piece of very good news in all of this stupidity and insanity: it will all be over, in a very big way, at the very latest, when the next Congress is sworn in after the 2014 midterms, and in a bigger way the longer the shutdown lasts and the more default becomes a reality. I'm a Democrat, a partisan in a very big way, as regular readers of my blog have no doubt long since noticed. Still, in this case, concern for humanity in general far outweighs even my party loyalty, and so I hope that the people in the Republican party who, by virtue of contrast with the Tea Party, look like voices of reason, can soon somehow manage to point out the writing on the wall to John Boehner. The sooner the better. Put a clean bill up for a vote, Mr Speaker. Today. The way you should've done before the shutdown, thus preventing the shutdown. Things will only get worse for many people, most assuredly including you, until you do.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Doo, doo, doo..."

Boehner's answer to questions about allowing a vote on a clean bill is Doo, doo, doo... I wonder, will "Doo, doo, doo..." be Boehner's legacy? Is that what he will be remembered for? I'm picturing posters and T-shirts with a drawing of Boehner wearing a toga and a laurel wreath on a balcony overlooking a Washington, DC in flames, plucking at a lyre and humming: "Doo, doo, doo..." Every minute that Boehner continues to prevent a vote on a clean bill, the harder it gets for me to accept the "conventional wisdom" about him, that he's actually quite smart, and only acts the way he does because of exceptional pressure from the TP. (There's nothing conventional about wisdom, there never has been anything conventional about it. If there were, every issue of TIME and USA Today would be jam-packed with wisdom.) Maybe it's time to try getting Boehner's attention by jingling shiny objects in front of him.

Steppenwolf Sucks So Much That It Makes Me Angry

I'm talking about the "hard" rock group, not Herman Hesse's novel of the same name which inspired the group's name. Although I don't have anything good to say about the novel either. I haven't read it. I've tried to read it several times, first, as a child, in English translation, then after I grew up and learned German, in German. Haven't made it a page in either way. Soooo boring. Tried to read Das Glasperlenspiel too, in light of Thomas Mann practically insisting that Hesse receive the Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis of that one book. I wouldn't call Thomas Mann the best German writer of the 20th century the way many people do -- less of them now, perhaps, then in the 20th century -- I'd rate Doeblin and Musil and Thomas's brother Heinrich more highly then Thomas, but I wouldn't find it outrageous to list Thomas Mann among the dozen finest German novelists of the 20th century. I don't find it appalling that Thomas Mann won the Nobel. He's a very, very, very good writer, so good that his praise of Hesse makes me think I'm simply missing something.

On the other hand, nobody will ever convince me that the rock group Steppenwolf doesn't suck. It makes me angry that big-time record-company execs signed and massively marketed such inept boring schmucks. (Not that Steppenwolf is unique or even unusual, of course, in being a musical act that pretty much nobody should be made to listen to, who've gotten such treatment from the so-called "music industry.") I got angry about them again today when "Magic Carpet Ride" came on my car radio and I switched it off and glanced at the dashboard clock, having no idea how long -- other than too long -- "Magic Carpet Ride" was, and figuring I'd check back in 3 minutes to see if it was over with and something decent was on the air. This particular radio station tends to play records all the way through, including long, long fadeouts which other stations wisely nip in the bud when the producers and record companies haven't. 3 minutes later I turned the radio back on, and boy, that sure sounded like the pointless latter stages of a fadeout which long since had began to meander, but it didn't fade and didn't fade and didn't fade, and sure enough, it was just the bridge, and finally, it was over: -- "You don't know what, we can --" -- snap, the radio went back off and I was angry. Angry at the record execs who marketed Steppenwolf so hard. Angry at the millions of fans who continue to eat it up and say it tastes good.

Angry at Dennis Hopper for making Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" the first music heard in his overrated iconic debut as a writer-director.

I'm even a little bit angry at Phil Spector about that. I know, Easy Rider is Hopper's movie, not Spector's, but Phil Spector is Phil Spector, and no-one was more fully aware of that in the late 60's than Phil Spector. I'm sure that Hopper also was sufficiently aware of it that he would've found it perfectly acceptable if Spector had asked about the music destined to land on the soundtrack. I'm angry that Spector did not do so, and then scream at Hopper, "No! No! NOOOO!! You will not immediately follow a scene with me with a chopper montage and Steppenwolf full-volume on the soundtrack! I love you, Dennie, sweetie, but you're clearly insane, even worse than your reputation, if you think that Steppenwolf is the way to kick off this iconic culture-changing 'masterpiece.' I can understand your not using my music, it's a different subculture you're portraying here, that's fine. I'm sorry for hurling you to the ground in rage and then standing on your chest like this, Dennis, boopsy, but I must have your full attention on this matter. You must not fritter away this epochal moment of the 'youth' culture and the 'generation gap' with garbage like Steppenwolf. You might as well have Barry McGuire singing "Eve of Destruction" during that montage as Steppenwolf. They're both about equally ridiculous. Listen to your Uncle Phil, honey: there's this band from Detroit called MC5. They're a REAL hard rock band, harder than Steppenwolf could ever dream of understanding, let alone being. Start off your movie with "Kick Out the Jams" by MC5 -- or one of their other songs. Everything they've ever recorded beats up Steppenwolf's music and steals its lunch money and its girlfriend and then leads a successful strike for better pay and working conditions for its schoolteachers and the school janitor -- and 44 years from now, that opening chopper montage won't be embarrassing to watch, it'll be exciting, still."

Monday, October 7, 2013

Ask Speaker Boehner To Let The House Vote On A Clean Bill

Most experts estimate that the effects of a default by the US government would dwarf those of the crisis of 2007-2008.

At the latest count, 22 Republican members of the House have said they would vote for a "clean bill," one which would allow the government to resume business and avoid that default. Without getting rid of or delaying the start of Obamacare. 22, or maybe 23, one Republican seems to be on the fence. Either way, the clean bill would pass with a few votes to spare if it were voted on right now. The number of Republicans in the House expressing support for a clean bill seems to just keep on rising. As does the economic chaos brought on merely by the thought of a impending US default.

A clean bill can pass just as soon as Speaker Boehner lets the House vote on it. Please contact the Speaker and ask him to allow a vote on a clean bill.

Contact information for people outside of Boehner's 8th District of Ohio: http://www.speaker.gov/Contact/

If you're in Ohio's 8th District: http://boehner.house.gov/contact/

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Can Republican Congresspeople Literally Not Do Math --

-- or at least, not when they're drunk?

"There are not votes in the House to pass a clean CR," John Boehner said today on ABC's This Week. But there are. As far as I know, no Democrat is against such a bill. I'm not just talking about House Democrats. I'm talking about the Democrats in the House, the Senate, the White House, and Democratic Governors and mayors and councilmen and -women and part-time volunteers such as myself. NONE of us, given the chance, would vote against a clean bill and keep the shutdown going. Besides 100% of the House Democrats, 21 House Republicans have said they would vote for a clean bill. Which means, obviously, that my question at the beginning of this post is unfair: around 9% of the House Republicans, 21 of them, can do math well enough to see that the government shutdown is hurting their party tremendously. That leaves around 91% percent of them who can't crunch the numbers well enough to see that the shutdown is causing their already-leaky ship to sink like a stone.

That 91% of Congressional Republicans wouldn't be enough to stop a clean bill on their own. Because the GOP currently occupies more than 50% of the House Seats, however, a little over 0.4% of the House Republicans, a little over 0.2% of the entire House, the Speaker of the House, that boozy, teary faced Cowardly Lion, John Boehner, is not allowing the vote. Many so-called pundits allege that Boehner is not stupid, and that his actions comprise a masterly balancing act between the Tea Party and the realtively-sane parts of the GOP, but maybe we should take him at his word, maybe he's really too dumb to see that all 200 Democrats in the House plus 21 Republicans add up to more than enough to pass a clean bill and end the shutdown just as soon as he decides to hold the vote.

Or maybe I'm just too dumb to see the intricacies of a "masterly balancing act." Yeah, right. Boehner's refusal to get this done looks like nothing but stupidity to me. The Tea Party is done, they're toast. Around 9% of the House Republicans have grasped this and are doing their best to wash the Tea Party stink off of themselves. The longer Boehner waits, the harder it will be for him ever to disassociate himself from them.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Hold The Phone, I Just Got Some IMPORTANT News:

Patek Philippe makes pocket watches! Here and now! They make new ones!


I can't find any prices on the Patek Philippe website. Yeah, I find that sort of thing obnoxious. Sort of like restaurants without prices on their menus. No, I've never been to such a restaurant, only heard about them. Yes, I realize there's no way I can afford to buy anything from Patek Philippe. But it would be nice to have the information. Information is what websites are for. And menus, too, you pretentious schmucks.

Ah, I see the website does has information about the prices to have Patek Phillipe watches serviced at Authorized Service Centers. (They capitalize it, just like that: Servicing your Patek Philippe at an Authorized Service Center is not as expensive as you may imagine.) It's not cheaper than I imaged: $130 to change a battery. $1050 and up to service mechanical watches. The price to service an especially-complicated new Patek Philippe mechanical watch, or a Patek Phillipe that's more than 20 years old -- that is to say, "from the classic collection" : "estimate." Refused estimates cost $130.

Do they really have to charge for refused estimates? Was that really a big problem before they started charging for it?

Anyhoo, according to some other websites, a new Patek Philippe pocket watch with an 18K yellow-gold case can be had for under 40 grand. You know what? I don't know. The Patek Philippe website put me off just a bit, with no prices given for the watches (unless the prices are there and I missed them somehow) and absurd prices given for repairs. If this blog suddenly blows up and starts getting millions of hits a day, generating thousands of dollars a day for me, not counting book deals and other revenue streams which would follow the instant I no longer needed them, because the world is ab-so-lute-ly backwards in some ways, I don't know if I'll want a new Patek Philippe pocket watch. If I did get a Patek Philippe, new or "classic," I'm about 100% certain I could find a craftsman somewhere who'd be perfectly able and willing to service it just as well as an Authorized Service Center, or better, and charge less. You know what? Maybe I'd pay him more than he charged. Maybe I'd pay him Patek Philippe's rates, and then talk about that on Conan, just to shove it in Patek Philippe's pretentious faces.

Don't worry, I'm going to cool down and think about all of this for a while. Because it may be a mistake to judge the entire watchmaking company based on their website. Just recently I pointed out on this blog that I find the Bibliothèque nationale de France to be magnificent overall, while I find their website to be less than magnificent. Perhaps it's likewise unfair to judge Patek Philippe by their website. It's really not as if I'm an expert in high-end watches.

Hmm, I don't see any pocket watches on Rolex' website.

GOP Fearmongering Over Obamacare

I figured the Right would start keeping something like an "Obamacare death toll" on October 1. Looks like they're on the case. A few days before the ACA went into effect, Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner was on CNN's Crossfire, spewing gibberish about Obamacare and ignoring questions about what he said. Around the same time, Michelle Malkin claimed Obamacare had killed her health plan.

And yesterday ABC News 15 in Phoenix, Arizona ran this story about a man who says he has leukemia, says he was born poor, says he now runs two companies, and says he may have to get another job because his out-of-pocket for medical treatment has gone from $4500 to $26,000, because of Obamacare.

You could run the entire D-Day Normandy invasion force through the gaps of vagueness in this story. First of all, it seems that the only source for the story is this man who says Obamacare will crush him financially. He says he was born poor. Does this mean he was often homeless and malnourished as a child, or that he felt poor in high school because some of his classmates drove their own Lamborghinis to school, and he didn't? He was allegedly "one of six kids born to a school teacher." Are we talking about a single mother with six children and no income except her paycheck from a public school, or a schoolteacher married to a man who owned an oil company -- but a much smaller oil company than the ones owned by the parents of those darn snooty rich kids with their Lamborghinis and Armani clothes, while our guy was forced to drive a Porsche 914 and wear Calvin Klein (Sometimes even hand-me-down Calvin Klein! Oh the horror and squalor!) and a Rolex, a steel Rolex, forget about gold or platinum, and definitely forget about a Patek Philippe like all those snooty kids in their Lamborghinis with their Daddies who owned big oil companies, oh life can be so cruel! -- or what? He "runs two companies." What does that mean? Is he an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart in the daytime and an assistant manager at a Denny's at night, or does he make 9 figures annually running his own spam company and his own robo-calling company? His "out of pocket" was $4500 and now it's $26,000? What does that mean? Are $4500 and $26,000 his previous and current co-payments per medical treatment? Per month? Per year? Is that the total of his health insurance premium and co-payments per month? Per year?

My point -- and maybe you're way ahead of me already -- is that this story really isn't telling us jack. If "running two companies" means he's an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart and a Denny's, and his out-of-pocket expenses are going to go from $4500 to $26,000 a year, because of the Affordable Care Act, well then, obviously, something went very wrong.

If he makes $700,000,000 a year from spam and robo-calls, then, in my humble opinion, it's not an outrage if his medical bills are about to go from $4500 to $26,000 a year, or even a month, because of Obamacare.

If he makes, say, $150,000 a year, and his medical bills are going from $4500 to #26,000 a year, then he has a legitimate gripe. If they're going from $4500 to $26,000 a month, and he really has incurable, terminal leukemia, then this is a real horror story.

If ABC News 15 in Phoenix ran a story repeating everything an individual said, without checking any of the facts, just because what the man was saying made Obamacare sound horrifying, and if, for example, this guy's out-of-pocket medical expenses will go up only a little, or go down, and he's scared not because he's actually looked into what the ACA means for him, but instead just believed what he's heard from some Teabaggers -- well then, that'd be just about par for the Tea Party course.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Vulgate Isn't Called The Vulgate Because Its Style Is Vulgar

Its style isn't vulgar at all, it's perfectly fine, it's great. There are at least two translations of the bible worth reading for the quality of their prose: the King James Bible, and Jerome's Vulgate.

It's called the Vulgate because it's in Latin and not Greek or Hebrew. That's the only reason it's called the Vulgate.

It's sometimes mistakenly said that the Romance languages, Portugese, Spanish, Catalan, Provencal, French, Romansch, Italian, Romanian, etc, developed out of Medieval Latin, which, it is said, is "vulgar." Wrong on two counts.

First of all: some Medieval Latin is badly-written. So is some ancient Latin and some Renaissance Latin and some more recent Latin. And some Medieval Latin is very well-written. But it's all Latin, and it's all the one major written language of Western Europe until well into the Medieval period, and one of its main languages for a long time after that. Latin of all periods is perfectly comprehensible to everyone who has learned the Latin of any period.

And in all periods, it's a written language. The Romance languages developed from the speech of groups of people who didn't read or write at all for centuries. Latin has kept its form because the people who use it have never stopped reading ancient authors such as Cicero and Livy and Vergil and Horace and Ovid. And even the few fanatical Medieval writers who completely avoided all of them and thought they were evil pagans -- even they all still read the Vulgate. Which, whatever you think of the content of the Bible, stylistically is still top-notch Latin.

English developed out of the speech of people who didn't write their speech for about 3 centuries: after the Norman Conquest in 1066, most of the writing done in England was in Latin, and virtually all of the rest was in the Normans' native French. When written English appears in the 14th century in the form we call Middle English, with the writing of people like Chaucer, although the language was handed down generation to generation from the people who wrote Anglo-Saxon such as we find in Beowulf, it is very different from that Anglo-Saxon language. A native speaker of English today, with no training in Middle English, can read Chaucer. He or she might have to look up every fifth word, but the text will be comprehensible. And that's because there has been written English language continuously from Chaucer's time to ours.

A native speaker of English today with no training in Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, as the language of Beowulf is sometimes called, will not be able to read Beowulf at all. The language is foreign, no if's and's or but's. And for that reason I prefer to call it Anglo-Saxon rather than Old English.

The Romance languages went through similar centuries of change when they were only spoken. Again, Spanish, French, Portugese, Italian and the other Romance languages didn't come from poorly-written Latin. These beautiful languages didn't come from written language at all. On the contrary: they became what they are because of extended periods of being only spoken languages.

And anyone who tries to tell you that Medieval Latin is just awful, horribly poorly written, is unfamiliar with the work of authors such as Boethius, Corippus, Alcuin, Scotus Eriugena, William of Tyre, Matthew Paris, Dante, Roger Bacon, William of Occam and Jean Buridan, to name just a few. And if you don't think that a very popular ancient Roman author ever wrote stuff which was just terrible, certainly far, far inferior to the work of all of the Medieval authors I've mentioned, just check out Nepos.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

SHOWTIME®. It's Not Just A Premium Cable Network Anymore --

-- in the past couple of years it's also become a place where movie stars throw things at the camera in slow motion. And now it's also a venue for actresses who think their characters sound sexier and more professional when they speak in throaty whispers, even when there's no chance someone's eavesdropping and no reason to whisper.

Two Manuscripts Of The Third Decade Of Livy (Hannibal Versus Rome)

By "the third decade" I mean books 21-30 of Livy's 142-book history of Rome. The first decade contains books 1-10, which cover the history of Rome from its mythical beginnings up until the early third century BC and the late stages of the Samnite Wars; the second decade, books 11 through 20, continue the story up until just before the Second Punic War. Books 11-20 are missing, except for a scrap of papyrus containing 41 words of book 11, found by archaeologists in Egypt in the 1980's.

The third decade, books 21-30, covers the Second Punic War, Rome's war against Carthage under its brilliant leader Hannibal, who actually came pretty close to conquering Rome, occupying much of Italy for well over 10 years before ha was finally defeated, hunted down and killed and Rome defeated Carthage for the 2nd of 3 times. (The 3rd time, Rome destroyed Carthage.)

It's debated these days just how good an historian Livy really is, how reliable the historical information is we get from him, how careful he is to get all the facts right. But even some of those who most emphatically denigrate him as an historian still praise him highly as an author. Apart from how accurate the tales he tells are as history, they are dramatic, exciting, gripping tales well-told. Livy is a great read. And of the surviving parts of his history, Livy's third decade seems to be the most popular, considered to be the most exciting reading. I would say that it's up there with ancient Rome's most renowned verse. Michael Reeve, a professor of Classics at Cambridge, said, at a colloquium in 1987, of a passage from Livy's book 23, that it "makes me wonder why our pupils spend so much of their time reading verse." ( Studies in Latin literature and its tradition: In honour of C.O. Brink,pp 103-104. )

The third decade seems to have been one of the best-loved parts of Livy's history right from the start, which may have everything to do with why we still have a lot of manuscripts of it. (154 manuscripts of the third decade, according to Reeve, p 107, but that was in the late 1980's, the total may be higher now.) I've come across 2 web pages, each dedicated to one of those manuscripts: this 15th-century manuscript in the University of Glasgow may not be the most important one from the point of view of preserving our closest guesses as to Livy's original text, but it's very nice to look at, with illustrations like this:



Then there's the Codex Puteanus of Livy's second decade, perhaps the single most important manuscript for transmitting the text. (There are many famous Codices Puteani, all named after their former owner Claude Dupuy, so when discussing this one make sure everyone understands that you're referring to the 5th-century Codex Puteanus of Livy's second decade.) This link leads to a page on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France where you can click through high-quality color pictures of all 900+ pages of the Codex Puteanus. You have to click for a while to get to the interesting stuff, but don't worry, the actual manuscript really is in there. It starts on Screen 11. That's a 5th-century manuscript, folks. Pay no attention to the BnF website telling you otherwise. The BnF has a tremendous amount of wonderful manuscripts, and they have excellent librarians working there too. It's a magnificent place. But the people who make their website are unfortunately still, in the year Two Thousand and For Crying Out Loud, not geniuses. You have no idea what I went through to get you that link showing you the Codex Puteanus. That codex should be right up on the library's homepage or very near it. Anyway... I found it, eventually, but only because I AM a genius, and wanted very badly to show it to you. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Oldest-Known (To Me) Examples Of This and That Sort Of Writing

A story about the oldest-known, recently-discovered Jewish prayer book (9th century) got me thinking about the oldest manuscripts and inscriptions of various types. Manuscripts, writing made with a pen or similar instrument on something like papyrus or parchment or paper, interest me much more than inscriptions, except that inscriptions are much more durable, and provide us with our oldest evidence of writing. The oldest known complete scrolls of the Torah are several centuries newer than this prayer book. It used to be customary to bury such scrolls when they became worn. Very few have survived from before the 15th century.

As far as any Hebrew writing is concerned, the oldest-known example -- please keep in mind that "oldest known" always means "oldest known to me." I'm not being particularly modest here, just particularly careful to be clear and accurate. Keep in mind when anyone talks about the oldest-known this or that that it always means "oldest known to them." Also keep in mind that all of us are estimating about these dates and that bias sometimes is involved in dating. More about that below -- is the Tel Zayit abecedary, a rock upon which the Hebrew alphabet was scratched in the 10th century BC. Tel Zayit, the rock's location, was over 30 miles away from Jerusalem in the 10th century BC, way out in the sticks in those days. This suggests that literacy in Hebrew may have been rather widespread by the 10th century BC.

The oldest hard copy of whole Hebrew words was found on a tiny silver scroll dating from the 7th century BC, upon which was inscribed the Priestly Benediction: "May the LORD bless you and keep you[...]" etc. Then there are the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are as old as the 2nd century BC, and some of them alleged by some to be much older, but I suspect unscientific bias in those earlier datings, but I don't really know.

Examples of Greek from the 8th century BC and of Latin from the 7th century have been found. The earliest Greek texts which are still widely read today are those of Hesiod and Homer. Hesiod was writing around 700 BC -- well, it's not certain that he actually wrote. Many of the earliest renowned ancient Greek authors are known to us not by anything they wrote, but by things which others wrote about what they said. Hesiod may well have personally written down much of the writing associated with him. (On the other hand, some of the writing associated with him was clearly added to the corpus of his works centuries after he lived.)

Of course, in the case of Homer, on the other hand, the question of whether or not he actually even existed is quite controversial. Hesiod helps us out here by inserting many references to his life and his surroundings into his writings. Homer doesn't say anything about himself. Whether Homer existed, or whether the songs of the Iliad and the Odyssey were attributed to a blind singer who never was, is extremely controversial. It's generally agreed that if Homer did exist and did come up with those famous tales, he sand them rather than wrote them. When they were first written down is extremely controversial. Probably in the 6th century BC or earlier. There are many linguistic characteristics in the Iliad and the Odyssey which come from long before the 6th century, but the preservation of these archaic details can be explained by singers carefully copying earlier singers as well as by the poems having been written down before the 6th century.

The earliest hard copies we have of any texts by Homer date to the 3rd century BC, and the earliest copies of Hesiod from the 1st century BC, and there are quite a few copies of both authors from those times up until the 6th century AD, but these are fragments, mostly rather tiny fragments of a few words each, found by archaeologists in the Middle East since the 19th century. One welcome exception to the generally fragmentary nature of these old manuscripts is the Bankes Papyrus, made in the 2nd century AD and containing most of the 24th and final book of the Iliad (18 pages in Richmond Lattimore's translation).

Although the oldest traces of any writing in Latin are almost as old as those in Greek, it's later before we encounter any Latin literature which is actually interesting for its own sake as literature, as opposed to very sketchy specimens interesting only to historians and paeleographers. There's a collection of laws from the 5th century, the Twelce Tables, meh. Yes, extremely interesting for the sake of the history of early Rome, and extremely revered by ancient Romans, but as actual reading material, meh. A Roman literature worthy of the name doesn't get underway until the 3rd century BC with Livius Andronicus, who, like the other two great early Roman writers, Plautus and Terence, was actually a Greek writing in his adopted 2nd language of Latin.

Less interesting to me personally than Graeco-Roman literature and much more interesting to the public at large are the questions of when the earliest parts of the New Testament were written, and how old the oldest copies we have are. As with Homer and Hesiod, so with the Bible (and with a lot of other ancient literature) : our oldest copies are recently-discovered papyrus scraps. Experts seem to agree that the scrap known as p52, containing a part of the Gospel of John, dates from the 2nd century AD and is the oldest New Testament papyrus whose date is well-established.

However, is there a 1st-century fragment of Luke set to knock p52 off its position as king of the hill age-wise? Daniel Wallace, who found it, thinks so. Mark Roberts, who wrote this article about it, thinks that Wallace is correct with this 1st-century date. But here we come to considerations of bias: Roberts, whose article mentions a recent debate between Wallace and Bart Ehrman, refers to Ehrman as an "extreme skeptic." That already makes me somewhat skeptical about Roberts' objectivity. As regular readers of this blog know, I've had my disagreements with Ehrman, but I would never call him an extremist. Wallace, whom Roberts praises and refers to as an eminently reliable scholar, has written books with titles like Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An Investigation into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today and Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Before I've cracked either one of those books, their titles have already made me suspicious of Wallace's judgment and his agenda. And Roberts has authored tomes with titles like Jesus Revealed: Know Him Better to Love Him Better and No Holds Barred: Wrestling with God in Prayer, which brings us up to about 6 or 7 strikes against this claim of a 1st-century manuscript of Luke. But I have to keep an open mind here. Just because Wallace and Roberts are clearly crazy in some areas, and more than just a little eager to establish a paper trail right back to Jeebus Hisself, doesn't necessarily mean that they don't know squat about ancient manuscripts.

But still.