Sunday, May 31, 2015

"I Could Happen!" (Not A Typo. I Meant To Say "I")

That's what I said just now while fixing my coffee and imagining some nice things happening to me: instead of saying "It could happen!" I said "I could happen!"

And I think it was one of the finest Freudian slips I've ever performed. "I could happen!" emphasizes my own role in my future, while "It could happen!" emphasizes the role of chance. Would I still like to win the Nobel Prize in Literature or find a huge laundry bag stuffed with $1000 bills or several tons of gold, or both, or have Reese Witherspoon fall in love with me? Of course! But whether any of those things ever happen to me or not, the quality and utility of my life will still depend on what I do -- they will still depend on me "happening," or not happening so much.

I'm not in an iron lung just yet. I still have two arms and two legs -- although one of my knees hurts at the moment, but hey, I'm almost 54 years old, one or both of my knees are supposed to hurt now and then. This is the knee whose LCL I ripped 12 years ago. That's right: LCL, not ACL. I always hear about people tearing their anterior cruciate ligaments, but I tore my lateral collateral ligament, shortly after setting a personal best on the leg press: 10 reps at 600 lbs. There may be a connection there, between the 10 reps at 600 lbs (These weren't 3-inch "presses," I bent my knees well past 90 degrees each rep, and I wasn't pushing my thighs with my hands in the well-known arm-and-leg press, they were legit), and the LCL suddenly giving way weeks later.

You know what? Maybe there was no connection. I've never used a trainer, I've never discussed this with a doctor, what the Hell do I know? Maybe my LCL would've been better off if I'd done more heavy leg presses.

But that's not the point here, the point is that I can still go on. I don't have to lay around on my back all day today moaning and groaning because I've got a sore knee. I can research the human knee if I so choose. I can consult with trainers and MD's.

The point is that I can happen, in many different ways.

And so can you.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Atheist Islamophobes Sound Exactly Like Conservative Christian Ones

The anti-Muslim protest in Phoenix last night is an example of why I've been dropping out of atheist groups lately: there are far too many anti-Muslim fanatics in those groups, saying things exactly like those armed bozos in Phoenix, and not nearly enough people standing up to them. I would imagine that most of the anti-Muslim protesters in Phoenix last night were conservative Christians, but when the subject is Islam, often these days conservative Christians and atheists sound exactly the same. Right down to "Everybody be sure to bring your guns." And that sucks. The atheism I want to be a part of is not a hate group.

Washingtonpost.com's coverage of the anti-Muslim protest in Phoenix.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Atheists Need To Stand Up To New Atheists

If you don't know who I mean by New Atheists, if you read this post all the way through, you will.

Hundreds of years ago, some of the people who didn't believe that God or any gods existed were afraid to call themselves atheists, and so they called themselves skeptics instead. Sadly, it's happening again.

Today, there are atheists who are choosing not to publicly refer to themselves as atheists, because they're afraid that if they do, people will assume that they agree with Richard Dawkins when he compares Trinity College in Cambridge to "the Muslim world" and tacitly assumes that Nobel Prizes are an objective measure of a culture's achievements; or with the late Christopher Hitchens' assertion, important enough to him that he made it a subtitle of one of his books, that "religion poisons everything;" or with Sam Harris when he says -- just about anything; or admire PZ Myers for covering a copy of Koran with garbage and feces. Or maybe they're afraid that people will assume that they share the Islamophobia or the large gaps in the education in history of all four of the above... They choose not to call themselves atheists, to behave as if the word does not mean what it meant when the big atheist superstars were Russell and Sartre instead of Dawkins and Harris, because they're afraid.

And so they're hiding behind less clear labels like "skeptic" or "non-believer" or, if they're even a little bit more cowardly than that, they just keep going to church, and claim on Facebook they if they come out of the atheist closet they'll be lynched. In the last instance I'm not talking about atheists living in countries where atheists actually have been killed, sometimes by the authorities. I'm talking about the cowardly atheists in the US who claim that if they publicly acknowledge that they're atheists, they will be risking their lives.

But back to the "skeptics" and "non-believers" : the thing is that "atheist" does -- for the time being, anyway -- still mean what it meant back when Bertie and Jean-Paul were kicking ass and taking names and winning Nobel Prizes in Literature (Ai kan also haz??) "Atheist" still refers, for the vast majority of the population, to anyone and everyone who thinks that God and gods and miracles and resurrections and so forth are all make-believe.

But even beyond that -- what has ever been the point of anyone calling him- or herself an atheist? Outside of the Communist bloc, it hasn't ever been done in order to increase one's chances of winning political office. It's been done for the sake of honesty. For the sake of clarity. For the sake of good sense. (I've stopped using the phrase "common sense," because as time goes on it becomes more and more clear to me how uncommon good sense is.)

And so, in order to be as clear and precise as possible, if you're an atheist who realizes that a phenomenon that has included billions of people over tens of thousands of years is far, far too complex to be referred to as all bad, an atheist who's noticed both all of the Muslims being killed by majority-Christian nations and all the Muslims fighting ISIS and fighting extremism in general and just can't go along with the fearmongering Islamophobic bullshit of Dawkins and Harris and Hitch, an atheist who finds it disgusting and counter-productive when someone literally craps on books, or who knows several things wrong about describing authors of the Bible as "Bronze-Age goat herders" -- if you're all or any of those kinds of an atheist, the thing to do is to say so. And not to surrender the label "atheist" to the fans of Dawkins, Hitch, Harris, Myers, Dennett, Coyne & Co.

It occurs to me that the situation may already have grown so ridiculously confused that not only some atheists, but also many religious people may agree with Hitchens' slogan "religion poisons everything." without agreeing with Hitchens or me or any other atheists (or skeptics or non-believers, po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to) in any particulars whatsoever. I'm talking about the so-called "spiritual but not religious." Like the "skeptics" and "non-believers" who are actually atheists but prefer to be obscure, to hide from the danger of association with the barbarian New Atheist hordes, the "spiritual but not religious" have differences with people who share certain metaphysical beliefs with them (the set of beliefs known as "religion"), and instead of directly confronting those specific differences, whether they have to do with hierarchy in religious organizations, or corruption in religious hierarchies, or with politics -- instead of dealing with those specific issues, the "spiritual but not religious" have preferred to pretend that the term "religious" suddenly does not mean what it means. There are a lot of Buddhists who suddenly are pretending that Buddhism is not a religion and never was, and that Buddhism who think or thought it is or was a religion are or were doin' it wrong.

I think that we atheists should leave this sort of semantic nonsense to religious people, along with their metaphysical nonsense. If you don't believe God exists and you do believe Dawkins has become a huge jackass since he stopped studying biology a decade ago, or you have differences with Harris or Hitch or Myers -- or with Russell or Sartre or Nietzsche or Twain, or with me, or with anyone else who identifies as an atheist -- I think you should call yourself an atheist and talk directly and clearly about your specific differences with those other atheists.

Why? Because if you correctly identify yourself as an atheist, there's a greater chance that others will understand what you're talking about. Abandoning the term will only lead to confusion -- it has only led to confusion. Simple and plain as that. And again, what ever has been the point of any of us (outside of the Communist bloc) opposing religion and exposing ourselves to so much aggravation, if it has not been for the sake of greater understanding and greater clarity, and for the sake making more sense and speaking more plainly than those others in their churches and temples and mosques, and for the sake of striving to be better than those who know better but would thrive on the confusion of others?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Chess Log: 1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 ♘d4 4. ♘xd4 exd4 5. d3 c6 6. ♗c4 ♗b4 7. ♗d2 ♕e7???

5-0 blitz, I played White. When Black resigned I had 3:58 left on my clock, Black had 3:27 1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 ♘d4 4. ♘xd4 exd4 5. d3 c6 6. ♗c4 ♗b4 7. ♗d2 ♕e7 8. a3 ♗xd2 9. ♘xd2 d5 10. ♗b3 dxe4 11. O-O e3 12. ♖e1 exf2 13. ♔xf2 ♗e6 14. ♗xe6 fxe6 15. ♕g4 ♕f6 16. ♘f3 O-O-O 17. ♖xe6 ♕f7 18. ♖e7 1-0 {Black resigns}

For crying out loud, don't leave your Queen right in front of your King FOR 8 MOVES early in the game while your opponent still has his Queen and both Rooks! A halfway-alert opponent will punish you for this. Black got the Queen out of the way eventually, but after White's 18th move, Black would still either lose the Queen with 18. ... ♔b8, or be checkmated with 18. ... ♖d7 19. ♕xd7+! ♔b8 20. ♕b7#. I am not a great player, not even close, but I saw this coming from my 11th move.

If you're going to put you Queen in front of your King early on, make sure you know how you're going to move one or the other, and make sure that move happens soon. SOON.

Why Don't People Mention The Last Temptation Of Christ And The Gospel Of Judas In The Same Breath?

In 1953, Nikos Kazantzakis published his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, a version of the story of Jesus in which Judas was Jesus' closest disciple, and betrayed him to the Romans on Jesus' instruction, in order that Jesus might fulfill his mission and the will of God. That is to say, he published the original Greek version of that novel in 1953. The English translation appeared in 1960, spreading the controversy and scandal over Kazantzakis' unorthodox tale, and the controversy was spread much wider still in 1988, when Martin Scorsese's film version of the novel appeared, with Willem Dafoe in the role of Jesus. It was Scorsese's 3rd attempt to make the movie. In the 1st go-round Robert DeNiro was going to play Jesus, the filming was to take place in Jerusalem, and the budget was going to be around $40 million dollars. But the film's financial backers backed out, afraid of the controversy. The 2nd attempt went as far as Aiden Quinn growing a beard in order to play Jesus. Again, just like Peter after Jesus' arrest being accused of knowing Jesus, the money people became sore afraid for a 2nd time and the project was abandoned again. When Scorsese finally got it done with Dafoe as Jesus, he filmed in Morocco on an $8 million budget.

And a lot of people flipped out. In Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1988, someone drove a car through a wall of a theatre planning to show the movie, and behold, the theatre owners were sore afraid, and The Last Temptation of Christ got its Knoxville premiere a couple of years later when it was shown by the University of Tennessee Film Committee, a dedicated group of film lovers notable not only for their good taste in movies but also for their guts.

Meanwhile, in the 1970's, the Coptic Gnostic text now known as the Gospel of Judas was discovered in Egypt. It was published in 2006, and widely remarked upon and exclaimed over for its "novel" version of the story of Jesus, in which Judas was Jesus' closest disciple, and betrayed him to the Romans on Jesus' instruction, in order that Jesus might fulfill his mission and the will of God.

And apparently, out of all of the billions of people on Earth, I'm the only one who has noticed the similarity between the Gospel of Judas and Kazantzakis' novel, written 2 decades before the Gospel was discovered and 5 decades before it was published, the novel also having been made into a famously controversial and scandalous Hollywood movie in the meantime also.

Well. I guess it's a darn good thing I'm around to point out things which somehow weren't already obvious to everybody! Can I have that Nobel now?

PS: Just as with the similarities between Homer and the Pentateuch which I pointed out in a recent post, I suppose that it's possible that an entire community of scholarly folks has been excitedly discussing the similarities all along, and I've simply never noticed. Possible but not bloody likely.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Agnostics Say Nothing Is Absolutely Knowable. They Are Wrong.

I am not absolutely certain about very much, but I am absolutely certain that agnostics are unbearable. I am absolutely certain that they are wrong when they claim that they have grasped certain aspects of knowledge which have escaped all of the rest of us, atheists as well as religious believers. I am certain, without reservation, that their smug sense of their own intellectual superiority is mistaken. I am absolutely certain that that smugness masks a subconscious insecurity about their intellectual prowess, and I am absolutely certain that that that insecurity, although unfortunately subconscious, is well-justified.

And I am as certain that I have no need whatsoever to prove any of the above, as I am that Bertrand Russell had no need to prove the inexistance of his hypothetical teapot:

"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

Spot on, old man! Spot on! Well done! So wrote Russell in a magazine piece first published in 1952, in response to demands that atheists prove that God does not exist. A demand that I should demonstrate that agnostics are icky, horrible, unloveable motherless bastards with halitosis and bad manners is every bit as unreasonable. Anyone who has ever been unfortunate enough to meet an agnostic, any atheist who's ever been cornered by one of them and made to listen to him recite things which he, the atheist, went over long ago in his own mind before moving on, anyone who's listened to an agnostic swelling with unjustifiable pride as he goes on and on as if he'd just come up with an ironclad, easily-verifiable unified field theory, knows that I'm going easy on them.

They're the worst! All the rest of us, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs, Bahá'ís, Southern Baptists, ironical Episcopalians -- all of us can agree about that!

Stuff it, agnostics! Nobody wants to hear it (again)!

Why Aren't Homer And The Pentateuch Mentioned More Often In The Same Breath?

They come from the same part of the world. Greece and the Western coast of Turkey aren't so far from Egypt and Israel. They each occupy a central, dominating place in a culture, first the Greek culture in the one case and through it the Graeco-Roman and its heirs; and in the other case the Jewish culture, and then through it Christendom and Islam and very many of the same cultural inheritors. The events portrayed by each of them occurred, if they occurred, in the 13th century BC or thereabout. They each existed as oral epic passed down for some time before they took written form. Each one took roughly the written form with which we're familiar no later than the 6th century BC.

In hindsight, we can see both Greece and Israel for the first time after what is called the Ancient Near East Dark Age or the Late Bronze Age Collapse: a period of chaos and destruction in Egypt and the Hittite and Canaanite civilisations in the 13th and 12th centuries, from which we have very few written documents. As with the European Dark Ages between AD 476 and 800, this period in the ancient Near East is sometimes called a Dark Age because very little contemporary writing sheds light on what happened, and also because what we do know about the era seems to have been very desolate and bleak and bloody. After this gap in the historical record, we can see Greece in what had been the territory of the Mycenaeans, and Israel in what had been Canaan. It's unclear to what extent the Greeks were descended from the Mycenaeans, and to what extent the Israelites were descended from the Canaanites. The Mycenaeans and the Canaanites had written with a syllabic script, and the Greek and Israelites both wrote with alphabets which both came from some original alphabet. We don't know exactly when or how the Greeks and the Israelites began to write.

Homer and the Pentateuch both describe events which may or may not have actually happened -- the Trojan War and its aftermath, and the Exodus -- but which if they did were no doubt significantly altered in the written versions. It's debatable whether there ever really was a Moses or Joshua, or an Achilles or Helen. Or a Homer. The parallels just don't stop.

Can it really be that these parallels are not often remarked upon and investigated?

Well, they should be mentioned in the same breath, for countless reasons, and if it's really the case that nobody before me has done so, then it's high time someone did and I'm someone and I'm mentioning them, so there!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chess Log: Too Aggressive

5-0 blitz, I played White.

1. e4 d5 2. exd5 ♕xd5 3. ♘c3 ♕a5 4. d4 e6 5. ♗d2 ♗b4 6. a3 ♗xc3 7. ♗xc3 ♕d5 8. ♘f3 c5 9. dxc5 ♕xd1 10. ♖xd1 ♗d7 11. ♘e5 f6 12. ♘xd7 ♘xd7 13. ♗b5 ♖d8 14. ♗a5 b6 15. cxb6 ♔e7 16. bxa7 ♘h6 17. ♗c6 ♘e5 18. ♖xd8 ♘xc6 19. a8=Q ♖xd8 1-0 {Black resigns}

This opponent and I seem pretty evenly matched at present, having split a number of victories lately. My overall tendency as a player is pretty aggressive, but this guy is significantly more aggressive still. He often comes up with moves which are just wild, and may not be perfectly sound upon careful examination, but remember, these are 5-0 blitz games. We've got 5 minutes apiece, total, for all of our moves in the game. I examine things as carefully as I can during the game, of course, but I've got to hurry. He has often succeeded in flustering me enough to gain a decisive advantage, but this time I managed to keep my head and weather the storm. (I knew this guy by now: I knew a storm was coming, so I had installed my mental storm windows, so to speak.)

Up until 4. d4 this is a standard Center Counter Defense opening. Black's 4. ... e6 takes us out of the book. By 13. ♗b5 Black is in serious trouble: his unsuccessful attack beginning with his 5th move, which by his 10th move had seriously fizzled, has left him overextended and out of options.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Academics Haven't Convinced Me That Jesus Existed. With Very Few Exceptions, They Haven't Convinced Me That They've Really Begun To Investigate The Matter

Here we go again, round and round and round, getting all worked up, getting nowhere. Isn't it all just perfectly dreadful.

Historicists, people who believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed, including many atheists who don't believe any of the New Testament stories of supernatural things, often correctly point out that the great majority of academics are historicists. And they often correctly point out that most of the mythicists, the people who have doubts about Jesus' existence, are amateurs, and often do a spectacularly poor job of making the case that it's less than certain that Jesus existed. To be clear: mythicists don't merely doubt the supernatural stories about Jesus. They (we) are not convinced that those stories are even based on a real person, named Jesus, who came from Nazareth. We figure: so much of the New Testament is clearly legend, the existence of Jesus might be just one more legendary detail -- a rather small detail when one considers the proportional of legend in the New Testament.

I agree that there are a lot of zany mythicists. I've criticized some of them so harshly in this blog that some of them, apparently having stopped reading before the end of one post or another, have assumed that I am an historicist, or even a very devout Christian. So, for the billionth time and the 2nd time in this post: I'm an atheist and I'm not convinced that Jesus existed.

Yes, I've criticized some mythicists very harshly. I've also pointed out that the fact that some of them argue the mythicist case very poorly says nothing at all about the soundness or unsoundness of the case itself, the soundness or unsoundness of the position: it is not certain that Jesus existed.

There must be a term in formal logic for this sort of fallacy: the fact that A argues the case for 1 poorly does not say anything about the soundness or unsoundness of 1. Whatever logicians would call this fallacy, it's the primary argument of the historians.

Surprisingly, historicists who are also academic specialists in Biblical studies very often assert that the evidence for Jesus' existence is more extensive and solid than the evidence for the existence of Socrates or Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. Surprisingly, because it's so obviously wrong: we have writings from 3 of Socrates' contemporaries, compared to 0 for Jesus. Besides Caesar's own writings we have those of his contemporaries Cicero and Sallust. We have likenesses of Socrates and Caesar and Alexander in the form of sculptures which were obviously based on real people. We know what each of them looked like. Not so with Jesus. And in the case of Caesar and Alexander there's the little detail of them having been the leaders of huge armies and huge states, which means that huge numbers of people would have had to have been silent about them being fictional.

And you know what? Just like the historicists pointing out unsound mythicist arguments doesn't prove that Jesus existed, my pointing out unsound historicist arguments doesn't prove he didn't exist. Far and wide here, no one is proving anything one way or another about whether Jesus existed.

Still, the fact that the academic consensus that Jesus existed is so solid impresses many people. And the consensus shouldn't just be dismissed. However, it is not quite proper to compare mythicists, people who challenge that consensus, to global warming deniers and Holocaust deniers, people who oppose the consensus of climatologists and historians of the 20th century respectively, as Bart Ehrman has done, because Biblical studies is not exactly the same as climatology and 20th century history. Biblical studies is problematic, as scholars say when they suspect that some nonsense may be afoot, screwing up the work of serious people. Biblical studies is not always distinguishable from theology: sometimes a person whom everyone would think of as a Biblical scholar has diplomas which say that his or specialty is theology, and sometimes a theologian has diplomas which say that he or she is a Biblical scholar. There is a certain amount of overlap.

And theology is certainly not at all like 20th century history or climatology. It simply isn't, and if you want to insist that it is, I have nothing to say to you about it. Instead, I'm trying to communicate with serious people here.

Christians theologians are the people who made the Dark Ages dark, who wiped out pagan religions, who tortured and killed fellow Christians for not being the proper sort of Christians and not believing the correct things about the way the world was. They imprisoned Roger Bacon, over academic differences. They killed people for saying that they believed Copernicus' theories. They threatened to torture Galileo, and kept him under house arrest for the last several years of his life. All over academic differences. They condemned Darwin's theories when they were new, although by that time, the mid-19th century, they were no longer allowed to torture and kill the people who disagreed with them. They were slow to come around concerning 20th- and 21stcentury physics. They're still interfering with stem-cell research.

I'm not claiming that present-day theologians want to torture and kill people who disagree with them. (Not all of them.) I also don't deny that, although they're very opposed to even discussing the question of whether or not Jesus existed, most of them presently do acknowledge that Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham are mythical figures. Most of them. Many have even stopped arguing altogether for the existence of Moses.

But they haven't led the way in academic consensus, they've never been cutting edge and they're still not.

That's the theologians, though. Not the Biblical scholars, the very ones who have dismantled our belief in the literal truth of the earlier stories in the Bible, the very ones who've shown us that Bible, supposedly the inalterable word of God, has indeed gone through some revisions over the course of centuries.

Except that you can't always tell who's one and who's the other, who's a theologian and who's a Biblical scholar, and who's partly both. Except that sometimes it seems that the theology still corrupts almost every single scholar in the field. Times such as when people try to discuss Jesus' historicity, and the scholars almost all insist that that already has been thoroughly studied, and that Jesus' historicity has been solidly proven. And even more so when many of them go even farther than that and needlessly insult people for thinking that there could be any doubt, for merely wanting to discuss the question. I get a really unpleasant sense of being in the presence of traditionally-Christian, Medieval attitudes at such times.

Nobody's proven anything here. The academics haven't proven that Jesus existed. Not to me, anyway. Not yet. I certainly haven't proven that Jesus was made up by St Paul or someone else. But maybe, just possibly, I've gotten one or two people to begin to wonder whether the academic Biblical scholars sometimes cease to behave like 21st-century academics in fields like meteorology or chemistry or 20th-century history or physics or Classical studies or math, and begin to get a little Medieval, when the question of the Historical Jesus is brought up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dream Log: An Ineffective Approach To The Issues Facing Detroit

I dreamed I was in a part of the main branch of the Detroit Public Library unlike any part I've seen in waking life: circular hallways bent around the center of the building, and the circles got smaller as I climbed to higher floors. The circular hallways were carpeted and lined with bookcases, and crowded with people who all seemed very serious and aggressive and efficient, like the more serious characters in His Girl Friday. On a rather high floor someone took me by the hand and dragged me to a television studio. In the studio everyone started treating me as if I were the Mayor of Detroit. (I'm not.) No one actually came out and said that I was the Mayor or called me "Your Honor" or "Mr Mayor" or anything like that, and I also didn't get the impression that anyone present actually thought I was the Mayor, but they all clearly had decided to act as if I were. And I didn't like this. It annoyed me quite a bit.

I was shown onto the set of a morning talk-show. Someone attached a microphone to my lapel, and a makeup woman fumbled around briefly with me. One of the hosts of the show was also on the set, as well as Katy Kay, the anchorwoman of BBC World News America. Not only was everyone treating me as if I were the Mayor, they were also treating Ms Kay as if she were a lifelong resident of Detroit and deeply involved with the minutiae of its politics. Ms Kay didn't seem to care for the situation any more than I did.

The TV people turned on the cameras on the set, and we were on the air, and the host started peppering both Ms Kay and myself with questions to which we had no answers whatsoever. Ms Kay glowered, removed the TV microphone from her lapel and walked off of the set, and I followed suit. She and I assured each other that we had had nothing to do with this bad idea. Then I woke up.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Scholarly Editing

There's a huge difference, for an historian, between studying events which took place two hundred years ago, and those which transpired two thousand years ago. While there are piles and shelves and entire large libraries' worth of the original copies of documents written or dictated by the American Founding Fathers and the protagonists in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, taking quite a bit of the doubt out of our conceptions of what people like George Washington and Georges Danton really wished to communicate to their contemporaries, we don't have any original copies of the works of Julius Caesar or Livy or Ovid or Vergil, or any other of the Classical Latin authors. We don't have any copies made within three hundred years of the lives of the authors in the cases of Livy or Vergil. In the cases of Caesar and Ovid, enormously popular authors from their own time down to the present, no manuscripts have survived which are older than the 9th century, more than 900 years after the texts were first written, unless some older fragment on papyrus has been found recently in the Middle Eastern desert. Even the 9th century is very impressively old for a copy of an ancient text. For some of the most highly-prized writers of ancient Latin, we have to make do with manuscripts no older than the 15th century, or even more recent than that. But in such cases we still make do gratefully -- why? Because there are very many highly-prized ancient authors whose works we no longer have at all, about whom we know only because other writers have mentioned them. And in the cases of Caesar and Livy and Ovid and Vergil and many, many other ancient authors, we have mentions of other works they wrote, but no copies of those works. Rarely, a copy of one of those lost authors, or of a lost work by some author whom we already know, turns up. And that's also a big occasion, even if all we've found is a few words.

It'd be nice if we had all sorts of original or near-original copies of things written thousands of years ago. But we only have a few, and most of those are either inscriptions, words carved into stone like the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a self-serving list, written by the Emperor Augustus, of his own achievements, carved into public monuments after his death,



or things like shopping lists and the personal letters of non-famous people on some of those above-mentioned scraps of papyrus, dug up at places like Oxyrhynchus in Egypt -- along with an occasional scrap of a very old manuscript of a text by someone like Homer or Vergil. When it comes to literary texts, Classical scholars attempt to reconstruct the earliest version of the text they can, as best they can. This process is known as scholarly editing, and rather than me clumsily attempting to explain to you step-by-step how it's done (I'm not ready to do it myself just yet), you'd be better off taking courses in Classical Studies, or referring to books like these, written by some of the world's leading Classical scholars:



The world's leading Classical scholars also edit texts for series like the Oxford Classical Texts (OCT) and the Teubner series,



Each volume in those two series begins with a preface in which the editor explains, often at great length and in great detail, which manuscripts and other sources of information he or she has used in the process of editing the text, and just exactly what he or she has done with those sources in order to come up with the present volume.

Of course, most of the prefaces in the OCT and Teubner series are written in Latin, which is 1) one more very good reason on the long list of reasons to learn Latin, and 2) perhaps the best single piece of evidence that, in the 21st century, Latin is still not dead.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Battle Of Lepanto And The Sinking Of The Spanish Armada

I wonder how many of you have heard of one of the events mentioned in this post's title and not the other. In 1571 the combined naval forces of Spain, the Pope and Venice scored a great and unexpected victory over the navy of the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras in the Ionian Sea. 17 years later, in 1588, the same Spanish navy, the dreaded Spanish Armada, suffered a great and unexpected defeat at the hands of the English navy when they attempted to invade England.

Both events have been written about at great length, but what strikes me is that, to the best of my recollection, I have never heard them mentioned in the same breath, as I am doing now. Garrett Mattingly's The Armada, an above-average book about the 1588 battle,



has 3 entries in its index under "Lepanto, battle of," but 2 of those references merely mention that Don Juan of Austria and the Marquis of Santa Cruz had been at Lepanto, and that Sultan Selim II had spoken disparagingly of the battle's significance. Mattingly actually says nothing at all himself about the battle.

The I Tatti Renaissance Library recently published an entire volume of poems in Latin written shortly after the battle of Lepanto and celebrating the Christian victory,



and nowhere in the poems, the index or introduction or well over 100 pages of notes about the battle and its background and significance is any English man or woman mentioned, let alone Elizabeth I, let alone the sinking of the Armada.

I thought that surely HG Wells, in his great 1-volume history of Earth, The Outline of Hidtory,



would prove an exception and discuss both battles. But no. And more surprisingly still, the battle he mentions is Lepanto. Maybe he was deliberately thumbing his nose at those of his countrymen who in his estimation went on and on at entirely too much length about the supposed significance for world history of the sinking of the Armada.

Which brings me meandering roundabout to my point: some historians have written at great length about either Lepanto or the sinking of the Armada, either because they felt that it was of great significance in world history, or that its significance had been greatly exaggerated by historians. Either one battle or the other -- and the other was barely worth a mention.

Surely many Spanish sailors and soldiers must have been in both battles, just 17 years apart. Surely they, if no-one else, often thought of both battles at the same time, and considered them to have some connection to each other. Such sailors and soldiers were themselves an obvious connection.

But individual historians have rarely -- if ever -- felt that both battles were worth writing about. Which is my point: the great subjectivity of decisions about what is "historically significant." Surely the treatment by historians of these 2 battles shines a very great light on the fact that objectivity is an illusion. Historians write about what is significant from the point of view of the entire world? No, they cultivate myths of significance. If they are especially sympathetic to Catholicism and/or Spain, they nurture the myth of the significance of Lepanto, they talk up the glorious nature of the Catholic, or Spanish (or Venetian, or Papal) victory, and don't mention the Spanish defeat in 1588. But if they happen to think that England is particularly glorious, they support that preconception by dwelling on the sinking of the Armada, and by making it seem as glorious as they can.

Objectivity, schmobjetivity. There is no such thing. Research these 2 battles and you will be shown objectivity's nonexistence in a particularly striking way.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Constantine And The Council Of Nicea And The Bible For The Billionth Time

Oh, it's so awful, the way that laypeople talk about early Christianity without having either A) a clue or B) any trust of those who do have a clue because they study such things all day every day for a living, the theologians and Biblical scholars, and C), the way that the experts unfortunately often enough give the laypeople reason to distrust them -- it's all such a mess.

One example out of -- thousands, probably, is the way that the widespread error persists that the Bible was re-written or at least edited at the Council of Nicea in AD 325, a notion for which there is not a shred of historical evidence -- and there are quite a number of contemporary and near-contemporary descriptions of the Council.

It seems that two different things are being confused here:

1) The purging of the Arians. I don't dispute that this got underway on a large scale at the Council of Nicea. I certainly wouldn't call Constantin­e an innocent bystander in this process, although I speculate -- speculate! -- that if the Arians had formed a majority at Nicea, Constantin­e might've sided with them and begun the purging of their opponents, because his primary concern was that the Christians stop fighting among themselves and agree to some degree about what their religion was and what it stood for. He cared about political order, not theology.

2) A 4th-centur­y rewrite of the NT. I do dispute that this took place. Some Gnostic texts were destroyed along with the wiping out of the Arians, but these all dated later than the texts which were later canonized, and the texts which were eventually canonized were all or almost all already accepted by most Christians well before Nicea. Irenaeus, for example, (ca130-ca2­00) refers to the four eventually canonized Gospels at around the time that the Gnostic Gospels were first being written. He quotes from 24 of the present 27 NT books, all but Hebrews, III John and Jude.

Hopefully it's clear that I don't have a theologica­l stake in any of this. I don't believe in God, I'm not sure whether Jesus existed, I don't believe in walking on water or rising from the dead or other miracles. I don't believe in any Christian doctrine, canonical or heretical, nor do I have any non-Christ­ian religious (or spiritual or mystic, po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to) beliefs. I'm interested historical accuracy here. That's all. And when it comes to the Council of Nicea and the Bible, the historical record is unusually clear.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Chess Log: My Group Have Discovered The Queen's Gambit Declined

5-0 blitz, I played Black:

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e5 3. ♘c3 dxc4 4. e3 exd4 5. exd4 ♘f6 6. ♗xc4 a6 7. ♘f3 b5 8. ♗b3 ♗e7 9. O-O ♗b7 10. ♘e5 O-O 11. ♕d3 ♘d5 12. ♖e1 ♘b4 13. ♕f5 ♗c8 14. ♕f3 ♖a7 15. ♘xf7 ♕xd4 16. ♗e3 ♕f6 17. ♕xf6 ♗xf6 18. ♗xa7 ♘8c6 19. ♗c5 ♖xf7 20. ♗xf7 ♔xf7 21. ♖e2 ♗e6 22. a3 ♘d3 23. b4 ♗c4 24. ♖c2 ♗b3 25. ♖d2 ♘xc5 26. bxc5 ♗xc3 27. ♖d3 ♗xa1 28. ♖xb3 ♗d4 29. ♖d3 ♗xc5 30. ♖d7 ♔e6 31. ♖xc7 ♔d6 32. ♖xg7 h5 33. ♖h7 ♗xa3 34. ♖xh5 b4 35. h4 b3 0-1 {White forfeits on time}

Until a few months ago, when I was playing black I was rarely confronted with the Queen's Gambit: 1. d4 d5 2. c4; now it's one of the most popular openings among the group of players I usually play, whose rating is low like mine. It's been very popular among better players for over a century, and now we're getting in on the fun. The standard response is 2. ... e6, but I always play the more aggressive 2. ... e5, getting things nice and stirred up early. 2. ... e5 is rarely seen among good players. Both in Grandmaster play and in the humble games I've played, 3. dxe5 is much more popular than the 3. ♘c3 played by my opponent in this game, and as far as I can see, my 3. ... dxc4 took us out of the book altogether. By 10. ♘e5 at the latest, White had me in a very constricted position and did a good job of maintaining the pressure. (I say "at the latest" because the 10th move was when I first noticed that I was in trouble, and not necessarily when I first was in trouble.) By his 25th move, although he had more material and a better position, White was under serious time pressure. But he rose impressively to the occasion and played his last 10 moves in under 11 seconds, and if I'd been a little more careless he might've beaten me on time: I had a minute on my clock after my 25th move, and under 24 seconds at the end.

[PS, 3. June 2016: I've gone back to accepting the Queen's Gambit. It's almost all of the way "out of the book," but it suits me better.]

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Apparently Some Of You Still Need Some Convincing That I Deserve The Nobel Prize In Literature

(It seems it's "in Liturature," not "for Literature." "In Literature" sounds strange to me -- but that's okay, it's their prize and they can call it whatever they want. Just seems kinda strange.)

Why do you still need convincing? *turning toward those of you who are convinced* I know! Good question! *turning back toward the general readership* Whatever the bizarre reasons may be, I've examined the stats for this blog, and some of you aren't yet convinced -- because if you were, you'd be excitedly talking non-stop about how awesome I am and how deserving of the Nobel Prize, and linking my blog and tweeting and emailing about it and putting the blog's address in print ads and billboards and so forth, and if all of you were doing that, it would show in the stats. If Oprah and Chris Matthews and Larry King and David Letterman and Harold Bloom and Conan O'Brien and Rachel Maddow and GA Wells and Bruce Springsteen and William H Gass and Barack Obama had all given my blog rave reviews on the same day, it would have shown in the stats. That's all I'm going to say about the stats right now because the stats are the confidential bidniss of me and Blogspot, and our bidniss ain't yo bidniss. No offense. It's gist bidniss.

Anyway -- the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded 5 months from now, maybe even a little bit less than 5 months, and I've examined the statistics for this blog concerning the volume of my readership, and if current trends continue, I will have to be considered a dark horse for this year's literature prize. It's not that more popular = more likely to win the Nobel. Don't worry, Dan Brown will never win it. Neither will Stephen King or John Grisham or any of those other Bozos who can't write worth a tiny speck of poop and are always clogging up the bestseller lists, making the interaction between good writers and discerning readers much, much more difficult than it should be. Only a handful of people need to be aware that my writing exists in order for me to be awarded the Nobel -- the handful of people who actually award the prize. But getting those people to read this blog and/or the manuscripts of my 2 complete and still-unpublished novels is easier said than done. I've researched the award process a little in the past 2 months, since I published the post Let's Get Serious And Get Me The 2015 Nobel Prize For Literature, and it appears that literary editors of leading publications, and maybe also some people such as prominent critics, give some input to the Nobel folks as to who they think is worthy, among the writers of their particular country. Makes sense: it's a big world, hundreds of countries in it, the Nobel people need some help organizing the competition. And of course Nobel laureates of previous years also have a big say in each new prize. And as I mentioned back in March in that previous post, most winners have already been at least somewhat famous before they win. A few of them have been among those rare birds, bestselling authors who also don't stink as writers.

I don't know any Nobel laureates personally. Nor am I personally acquainted with the editors of The New Yorker or the Kenyon Review. Obviously: if those folks were aware of my existence, they would be clamoring to publish my work, and as yet they are not. I need to get some people's attention. I need to get onto their radar.

The way I've imagined this happening is that my blog would go viral, and become one of the most widely-visited blogs of all time, and far and away the most popular one in the history-philosophy-belles-lettres category. I'd go to bed one night, sleep the sleep of the just for having written well and done other good and noble deeds all day, and rise the next morning to find that I'd become famous overnight, that my blog had broken the Internet and that so much media would be camped out on my street, hoping for a snapshot of me or a word with me, that the police would have to be called just to unblock the street enough that it would be possible for my neighbors to drive on it and get to their jobs or wherever they needed to be.

For the sake of sanity on my block, I would have to move out. Luxury hotels would be jostling each other for the opportunity to comp me, Rolex and Omega would each try to outdo the other in giving me a greater number of gold and platinum watches, in the hope of it being more likely that one of their watches would be seen on my wrist than one of the competition's watches. Same with free clothes and many other items. And of course the quantity of free books, every publisher going all-out hoping for a blurb -- the quantity of books would be simply cuckoo.

But not nearly as crazy as the bidding war between publishers for the right to publish my works. Even before I had an agent, headlines would claim that the bidding had reached 8 figures -- and those headlines would be accurate.

And so forth. I'd be so famous that I'd be famous just for how famous I was, like Dan Brown or Justin Bieber, and just as in their cases, that would make me even more famous.

That's how I picture this going, but of course that's not the only way it could go. The editors at the Kenyon Review or The New Yorker or whatever, the people at some other rag could find out about me before I'm completely famous, and they could be a part of the process of making me famous, rather than my blog just going viral before any of them have a chance to act.

There are various ways this could go. I could actually get published by means of a publisher or periodical or agent getting back to me about one of my submissions or queries. Anything's possible.

But again: we've got 5 months to make this happen, people! 5 months or maybe even a little bit less. Talk, tweet, email, link, go, go, go!!!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Things I've Been Called To My Face

Skinny, fat, Big Guy, ugly, Stretch, a tall thin man, fatass, okay-looking, cute, gorgeous, Zitface, guy with a sweet scarred-up face and big cow eyes, young man, old man, man, a real man, strong as an ox, not a real man, my man, man, kid, a bear, Snuggle Bear, hey you, kid, a writer, an actor, a saxophonist, the janitor, the groundskeeper, Mr Bollinger, Sir, Professor, a terrible singer who can't stay anywhere near on-key for more than six bars or so, an historian, a philosopher, an enigma, a phony, pretentious, extremely boring, silly, serious, sensitive, insensitive, crazy, extremely sane, gentle, an Asperger, autistic, a genius, an idiot, very smart and very dumb at the same time, a freak, a pothead, a drunk, an alcoholic, a great alcoholic in my own right (this was at an AA meeting), the leading contender for the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, a novelist, a blogger, a volunteer, a Volunteer (in the sense of having attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville), Next!, The Wrong Monkey, Steve, Stevie, Steven, Stephen, Stefano, Étienne, Stephan, Steve-o, Steverino, the Steve-Meister, Steve-Man, Tom, The Human Zit, weird, interesting, a Donald E Westlake fan, a Joseph Heller fan, a Thomas Pynchon fan, a William Gaddis fan, a Heinrich Boell fan, a former Heinrich Boell fan, someone who finds Heinrich Boell both great and terrible, a Peter Handke fan, a former Peter Handke fan, a Padgett Powell fan, a Barry Bonds fan, an Alfred Doeblin fan, a Jimmy Jackson fan, a Nietzsche fan, a Jarious Jackson fan, a Steven Runciman fan, a Sloterdijk fan, a Schopenhauer fan, an Adorno fan, a cat person, a dog lover, King Pong (a 7 year stretch without losing a single game of ping pong), a dancing machine, a punk rocker, an old punk rocker, a weirdo, a burnout, a loser, someone who will never amount to a sack of shit, someone who'll be a big success in whatever field he chooses, a space cadet, Dream Weaver, Bitch, Pretty Boy, Clint Eastwood, James Woods, Cate Blanchett's secret boyfriend (Okay, no one has ever called me that to my face. As far as I know I'm the only one who ever called me that), an atheist, an atheist who's dared to take on Paulkovich (as if that required daring), a secret Christian or Muslim pretending to be an atheist, a mythicist (correctly), an historicist (incorrectly), an amateur Latinist, that guy who can't stand Cicero for some reason, that guy who's afraid of moose, a Yankee, a Gringo, cool, tough as nails, weak, brave, cowardly, hey Batter Batter Batter, a good baserunner, a right fielder, ninth in the batting order, ein Arschloch, esse, homeboy, home fries, buddy, pal, Sweetheart, my frent, Cool Steve.

Potato

If I put a potato to your head would you finally start spreading atheism? Cause I've been doing it all by myself up until now, and being this pretentious is starting to give me a backache.

Potatoes, lettuce potato:

Our potato which potato in potato, potato be thy potato. Thy potato come, Thy potato be potato, on potato as it potato in potato. Give us this potato our daily potato, and potato us our potatoes, as we potato those who potato against potatoes. And potato us not into potatoes, but potato us from potatoes: For potato is the potato, and the potato, and the potato, for potato and potato. Potato.

Meine Kartoffeln!

Die Kartoffel gibt uns solche Freude. Die Kartoffel ist gut. Sie wacht ueber uns und gibt uns Friede. Ohne die Kartoffel waeren wir verloren und trist, und waere die Welt albern! Stellt Euch vor: Morgen ueber Morgen wacht Ihr auf, und seht da: die Welt ist albern!

Nanu, schrecklich und kaum zu vorstellen, wa? Eine Welt, welche albern waere. Kartoffel sei dank, dem ist NICHT so!

Do not question the ways of the potato, and say: Steven, translate this, and translate that! YOU must accept that there are mysteries, so that WE may hold on to our phony-baloney jobs! Can I get a potato!

Recently I had the potato to be able to travel to the Andes, to the very place where Potato Himself potatoed thousands of potatoes potato. Potatoes -- it was quite a potato, let me tell you. Everyone who's there can feel the presence of the Potato at every moment, in every small and large potato, from a potato of potato to the tallest potato. And I was filled with potato. My potato was renewed. And I'm so potato to Potato, for the potato to potato His potato.

Today I reflect upon what is written in the Potato, in the potatoeth potato of the potato of Potato: Behold, in those potatoes did Potato travel to Potato, and there were many potatoes assembled, and they were sore potato, but Potato said unto them: Potato potato potato potato potato.

Lettuce potato:

The Potato potato you and potato you; the Potato make His potato to potato upon you and be potato to you; the Potato lift up His potato upon you and grant you potatoes. Potato.

And now potatoes be upon you, and go forth and spread potatoes!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Chess Log: Don't Play ...f6 Too Early. Don't!

5-0 blitz, I played White: 1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. d4 f6??? 4. dxe5 fxe5 5. ♘xe5 dxe5 6. ♕h5 g6 7. ♕xe5 ♕e7 8. ♕xh8 ♕xe4 9. ♗e2 ♕xg2 10. ♖f1 ♗h3 11. ♕xg8 ♘c6 12. ♗h6 ♔d7 13. ♗xf8 ♘d4 14. ♕f7 ♔c6 15. ♕f6 ♔d5 16. ♘c3 1-0 {Black checkmated} White Clock at the end of the game: 3:17; Black Clock: 3:35

You see the way that 3. ...f6??? opens the way for White to sacrifice his Knight and take Black's King's Pawn and then his King's Rook? 7. ...♕e7 may have been the best that Black could've done at that point, enabling him to check White and cramp him just a bit, but it's not enough. I was tempted at first to place a couple of question marks behind 13. ... ♘d4, but I don't know that Black had a better choice.

Don't play ...f6 in your 2nd or 3rd move! Look at this game, look at the mayham Black allowed with ...f6. Burn it into your memory. It almost always turns out something like this when Black plays ...f6 against me in the 2nd or 3rd move. And, I cannot stress this too heavily: I'm not very good at chess at all, and that 3. ...f6 still just handed the game to me. A real chess player would've demolished Black even more quickly. Don't expose your King like that!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

1215

Some thoughts about some things which happened 800 years ago.

The first which comes to my mind associated with 1215 is the Magna Carta. As you may know, "magna carta" is Latin for "great charter." Some people call it "Magna Carta" instead of "the Magna Carta." I don't care whether you call it one or the other. But some people might.

I honestly don't know what to make of the Magna Carta. Some barons were in rebellion against King John of England in 1215. They, the barons, had the document drawn up which is known as the Magna Carta, which granted some rights to the barons, John very unwillingly put his seal on it on June 15, which is why there are going to be big celebrations here and there this coming June 15. On June 19 the charter officially went into effect, but in August John rejected it, which led to all-out war between him and some barons. Also in August Pope Innocent III declared the Magna Carta to be invalid. In 1216 John died, and his son and heir King Henry III re-issued the charter, but with some restrictions, hoping that this would end the war. But the barons wouldn't agree to the restricted charter and the war dragged on.

Out if this particularly dismal beginning the Magna Carta somehow became a great symbol of the rights of all English people. Another version was issued in 1217, and another in 1225, and eventually every English monarch upon taking the throne would ceremoniously renew the charter. The members of the English Parliament, and then its successor the British Parliament, have often claimed that the Magna Carta was the founding of Parliament, although actually a Paliament already existed going back to William the Conqueror, and although a Parliament even faintly resembling the modern one didn't begin to take shape until long after 1215. The rebels in the American Revolution referred to the Magna Carta as embodying the rights for which they were fighting. Which all goes to show that a lot of English and American people haven't been able to read Latin.

Be that as it may, symbols do have power even when they're misunderstood, or perhaps especially when they're misunderstood.

In 1215 the 4th Lateran Council began. The proceedings of this famous Council are so horrible and depressing that I'm just going to ignore them altogether, and instead say a little about the Lateran Palace in Rome where the Council took place, and from which it gets its name. The Palace is named after the Laterani family, who owned it from some time which is misty from distance even by the standards of Rome, until it was confiscated by the Emperor Nero, who accused the Consul-designate Plautius Lateranus of plotting against him. Constantine the Great built a church on the site and gave it to the Bishop of Rome at some time which is not precisely known. For most of the time from the 4th century onwards, the the Lateran Palace was the primary residence of the Popes, until the late 16th century, when they moved to the Vatican. The Lateran Palace is about 2 miles from the walls of Vatican City, but it is one of the few possessions of the Vatican outside the walls. Today it houses a museum open to the public, dedicated to the history of the Papal States, as well as the residence and offices of a Cardinal.

In 1215 the armies of Genghis Khan set fire to Beijing. The fire was not put out for over a month.

In 1215 the game of chess was known all over the Islamic and Christian parts of the world.

In 1215 Matthew Paris turned 15 years old. As an adult he would write some of the best historical works made in Medieval Europe, and very impressively illustrate his manuscripts. Despite his name, Paris was thoroughly English. Did he hear about the Magna Carta as early as 1215? If so, I wonder what he made of it.

In 1215 Saxo Grammaticus had either recently finished or was about to finish his great work, the Gesta Danorum, a story of the Danish people modeled after Vergil's Aeneid, which is modeled after Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How "South Park" Sometimes Makes It Hard To Watch.

"South Park" did an episode which was about how "That's so gay" supposedly had nothing to do with homophobia. That annoyed me greatly. Then they had an episode mocking Mormons, but when Stan voiced some concerns the Mormon boy told him to suck his balls and the Mormon boy was so cool and that was the end of the episode. And then after THAT Parker & Stone made the most successful musical of all time mocking Mormons, but supposedly doing it right while most people who mock Mormonism are uncool and gay and should suck everybody's balls. And then there was the episode with humanoids time-traveling back from an unliveably-polluted future, which was about how environmentalism is literally "gayer" than a huge pile of naked men all fucking each other.

And all of the disgusting bullshit described above would not matter to me if I didn't like the show a lot, most of the time.

So Matt & Trey: fuck you for not getting that "That's so gay" is homophobic and for mocking environmentalism in a homophobic way -- and no, Matt, it's not okay because you're gay. STFU! -- and when it comes to whether mocking religion is okay, I'm not even asking you to do it or stop doing it, just PICK A FUCKING SIDE and don't diss people for doing one or the other while doing exactly the same fucking thing you asswipes!

Again, I'm a huge fan, really, huge. And if some of your jokes are just simply sailing over my head here, and if you want to sit down with me sometime and explain them, that would be major awesome. But bring some groceries cause it's gonna take a while, and you know what forget it because I'm right, and you're douchebags!

Sorry. Love the show. Really. Thank you so much doing what you've done. Thank you so much. You ASSholes!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Losers In Gengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet once referred to some of the characters he writes about as being at "the bottom of the food chain." In the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin's character seems to exist for the sole purpose of telling the real estate salesmen played by Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin that they are losers, driving that point home in a extraordinary torrent of abuse. (Al Pacino plays a 4th salesman working in the same office. He's not present for Baldwin's tirade, which seems appropriate, as he has been selling much better lately than the other 3.)

Technically, Baldwin's talk with the salesmen might be called a motivational speech, except that its intent seems to be to de-motivate. He tells the salesmen they're all fired, and that two of them have one week left in the month to win their jobs back. First place in the month's sales contest, as they already know, is a Cadillac; second place, a set of steak knives. Baldwin drops the package of steak knives onto the table and tells them that third prize is they're fired. Harris responds to some verbal abuse by asking who Baldwin is, and Baldwin responds by intensifying the abuse. He tells Harris that he came to the meeting in an $80,000 BMW, while Harris drove a Hyundai. (This was 1992, the range of Hyundais available in the US was considerably humbler than it is today.)

Baldwin takes off his watch, tells Harris it's worth more than Harris' car, sets the watch down next to Harris and walks away as if he's forgotten all about it, continuing with the verbal abuse about how the salesmen in the office are losers, how they aren't really men.

I haven't seen this since long before I became daffy for watches, so I couldn't tell you a thing about the watch. Anybody who's watched the scene can tell you how intensely Harris stares at the watch, as if he sees nothing else, as if perhaps he no longer hears Baldwin either. He wants that watch so badly, the watch or the level of success that would allow him to wear one like it. He looks as if he's right about to snap, and --

And what? Pick up the watch? What if he did, what would Baldwin do? Was Baldwin really so oblivious to the watch and Harris so crazed that he'd just steal it, put it in his pocket without Baldwin noticing?

Or maybe he'd just hold it for a while and look at it. Maybe Baldwin would notice very well, and say, "You like that, huh?"

Harris, exhaling in a gasp: "Yes."

"You like how heavy that is? You can feel it's solid gold. Go ahead, put it on. Go ahead, do it, live a little. Nice, isn't it?"

"Very nice."

"Glad you like it. It's yours."

"You're giving it to me?"

"I said it's yours. I'm not fuckin with you. I'm giving you that watch. Your gift from me to you. You feel good?"

"...Yeah!"

"Lotta positive energy flowing through you. Okay. That's selling. You saw something you liked, you reached out and took it. Congratulations. That's selling! Okay, stand up, get out of here, keep that energy flowing and sell the shit out of those leads. Just him." Baldwin motions for Lemmon and Arkin to sit back down. "His sit is over. I'm not done with you clowns yet." He calls after the departing Harris, "You better do good, son. I see how much you like that watch. It'd be a shame if next week you have to sell it to a pawnshop for grocery money while you're looking for your next job."

Dramatic, but not really Mamet-level drama. Maybe when Harris picks up the watch Baldwin reacts negatively, puts his hands on Harris, maybe Harris punches him and then suddenly everybody in the office is in a melee.

I think both of those alternate scenarios occurred to me because the scene hurts so much and I want it to be different. But pain is the point of the scene, and Mamet doesn't wimp out: Harris never touches the watch. It's a carrot that's being dangled in front of him to make him work hard. Maybe he even knows it's a carrot, and doesn't expect to ever reach it, and still can't stop sitting there and staring and hurting. Harris' face is so expressive in that moment, he makes the viewer feel his desperate rage, but also his despair.

It really is too bad that since 1992 Mamet has flipped out and become a Tea Party Republican asshole.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Google Thought That ToDAY Was My BIRTHday!

So I fire up the ol laptop this morning, open up Firefox, and Google is spelled out of birthday cake and party favors. I'm thinking, What? is it Google's birthday? I mouse over the logo and it doesn't say "Happy Birthday, Google!" It says "Happy Birthday, Steven!"

What?

My first thought was that they had me mixed up with some other Steven Bollinger -- there's more of us than you might think -- so I clicked on the logo expecting to see the search results for Steven Bollinger, the prominent and wily Texas Democrat, or one of the several leading Steven Bollinger, MD's -- but no, I was taken to my very own Google+ page. I clicked on my profile and saw that my birthday had been given as May 4, 1986.

This was very confusing for a while -- then, slowly, very slowly, I remembered that some time ago, before allowing me to do something or other, Google insisted upon learning the date of my birth. I guess I was kind of grumpy at the time -- Hard to picture, right? Me, grumpy? -- and felt that they didn't need to know, but they wouldn't let me proceed without the info, and so finally I lost my temper and just filled in a random date.

So, now, my Google+ profile correctly gives my birthday as June 17. Google very politely left it up to me whether or not I would put the year of my birth on my Google+ profile, and I declined.

Almost a month and a half until June 17. Still time to plan for something extravagant. You know what I want -- that's right: a freakin Nobel Prize in Literature. And I know, I know, millions of you are now wailing at the screens of your computers and mobile devices and the screens of the computers and mobile devices of libraries and of your employers and friends, "But Steven! I can't give you a Nobel Prize! I'd do ANYthing for you, but THAT's not within my POWer!" And I say and I say again to you, it IS within your power to tell others how incredibly awesome this blog is, and how much finer this world will be once I've won that Nobel and am dating someone like Scarlett Johansson or Reese Witherspoon and am the unoffical 2nd sidekick to Conan O'Brien (Andy Richter's words, not mine!) and also guest quite frequently on Kimmel, I'm a big Kimmel fan, and am up to my neck in free platinum Omegas and Rolexes. It's within everybody's power to spread the Good News.

I apologize to my religious relatives if those last 2 words seemed blasphemous. I just meant them to be funny. I hope it goes without saying that none of this -- none of this post, none of this blog, none of most of what I say or do -- needs to be taken especially seriously. (Except for the part about me WANTing the Nobel. I really, really want it. Do I deSERVE it? Did Eyvind Johnson? Did Joyce and Freud and Doeblin and Borges deserve not to get it?) As the name of the blog implies, I'm just an eccentric monkey banging away on a keyboard and hoping that life doesn't squash me today so that I can bang away on a keyboard some more tomorrow. A monkey who -- okay, a 2nd thing is also meant quite seriously -- needs and will gratefully take all the freakin help he can get.

So, Google, or you NSA guys or whoever else is reading along here and is actually in charge of these things -- if the false birthday info was the reason my AdSense got cancelled and I can have it back now, that'd be swell.

Seriously, though, it's currently not millions of you wailing at screens, and that's kind of the problem. A Nobel Prize; Andrew Wylie acting as my agent; you, my readers, telling others about my blog -- any of those things would help a lot. PLEASE HELP ME!

So, to sum up: birthday June 17, silly monkey scribbling away, attempts to make you smile or laugh, want Nobel, need help!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

I Was So Excited When I First Heard There Was Something Called "New Atheism"

I was so excited, just a few years ago, when I found out that there were people called New Atheists, and started finding online atheist communities. Now, several years later, having read the same several dozen slogans 473,786,365,897,7563,8672,188 times in those online communities, having repeatedly been accused of secretly being a Christian or Muslim and been banned from atheist groups for not agreeing

1) that the Bible was written by Bronze Age goat herders or

2) that Constantine and the Pope re-wrote the Bible or

3) that it's 100% certain that the story of Noah was "stolen" from that of Gilgamesh or

4) that Judaism was "stolen" from Zoroastrianism or

5) that it's certain that Jesus never existed (or

6) for even caring whether there was a non-supernatural Jesus) or

7) that there were newspapers in ancient Jerusalem,

to name only of a few of the more spectacularly stupid mistakes which routinely pass as wisdom in many such communities; and after, several times, having finally, with great effort and tenacity, actually convinced someone that one of 1) through 7) or many more up to 30) or so, was a mistake, was ahistorical, getting the response: "So what?" and having people tell me they were going to go with the mistake anyway because that's what others in the group were doing --

-- after all of that, my enthusiasm has cooled somewhat.

Of course, not everyone in those communities clings tenaciously to all of these historical errors. And of course, not all of them are clearly errors. Some, like Jesus' non-existence and the story of Noah having come directly from that of Gilgamesh, are just premature conclusions. Those assumptions could be correct. But they could be incorrect, too, and we'd be learning much more quickly and effectively, as atheist groups, if we didn't rush to embrace every assumption as fact which would allow us, if true, to score points against atheists. It could also be correct, for example, as is routinely assumed in atheist communities, that there never was a Moses or an Exodus from Egypt to Canaan in the 13th century BC. If there was one it was much smaller than the 600,000 families which the Bible says wandered for 40 years. But try to get a discussion of small-Exodus theories going in atheist communities. Go ahead, try it.

There are just so damn few of us in these groups who, when considering historical topics like these, are actually more interested in knowing what really happened than in framing a narrative which is as unflattering to religion, primarily unflattering to the Abrahamic religions, as possible. Precious little serious historical discussion going on here. It no longer surprises me that historians tend to take such a negative view of movement atheism.

It no longer surprises me that so many movement atheists assume that academic historians, in and out of the fields of Biblical Studies and "the relevant fields," are either believers, or corrupted by the money and power of believers. It still greatly disappoints me, but it doesn't surprise me any more.

I still have exactly the same major problem with the academic mainstream which I had before I ever heard of New Atheists. (I had heard of Richard Dawkins before this, and read 2 of his books on biology, and I thought they were great, and I still do, and just like many historians I wish he would go back to biology, back to something he's good at.) That problem is their refusal, with very very few exceptions, to even consider the possibility that Jesus might have been a mythical character right from the start, and never an historical figure. But compared to all the problems I have with the movement atheists, it's not an overwhelming problem. It's a significant problem, but there's just one of them.

Apparently, one of the very very few mainstream academics who aren't convinced that Jesus existed, Thomas L Thompson, who was a professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen from 1993–2009, who because of his doubts is naturally very popular among the non-academic mythicists, was until very recently unaware that those mythicists existed, because he only read primary materials and peer-reviewed academic material. Last I heard he had no intention to start reading the non-academic mythicists. Ah, what blissful ignorance that must be.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Chess Log: Petrov's Defense, Black Left The Book Early

5-0 blitz, I played White: 1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘f6 3. ♘xe5 ♘xe4 4. d4 ♗e7 5. ♗d3 ♘xf2 6. ♔xf2 ♗h4 7. g3 ♕f6 8. ♕f3 ♗xg3 9. hxg3 ♕xf3 10. ♘xf3 d5 11. ♖xh7 ♖g8 12. ♖h1 ♗g4 13. ♗f4 ♘d7 14. ♗xc7 ♖c8 15. ♖e1 ♔f8 16. ♗d6 1-0 {Black checkmated}

Petrov's Defense often makes me nervous, if Black stays in the Book. Which was not the case here. 3. [...] ♘xe4? is generally considered a blunder. So is my 4. d4?, but still, already by his 6th move Black is in pretty serious trouble. 13. [...] ♘d7?? was a major mistake even by the standards of this low level of play, and 15. [...] ♔f8?? sealed the deal. 15. [...] ♗e6 would've kept Black alive for at least a while.

The standard openings are standard for a reason.

Loopers

I was not raised in a maritime environment. The clang and bustle of great ships being built, their great horns sounding as they begin their voyages around the world, flocks of seagulls -- these were not a significant part of my childhood. Several years of that childhood I spent in a small Midwestern town which is adjacent to a creek. The creek didn't leave a big impression in my memory. I don't recall any boats from miles away going past or docking at our town. On Google Earth I can't see any water at all in the creek next to our town or to the south. Perhaps 10 miles to the north, as the crow flies, more than 10 miles by the meanderings of the creek, there is some water in it, perhaps enough for a canoe, maybe for a boat somewhat larger than that, and it empties into a larger river, and after about 100 miles of meandering that larger river empties into one of the Great Lakes.

This town was founded over 150 years ago. I gather that back then it was more than somewhat unusual for towns to be built far away from navigable water -- has the creek dried up considerably since then? Or maybe the creek wasn't navigable a century and a half ago either, and the town wasn't intended to be more than a half-way stop between this city on that river and that city on this river? I don't know. You're asking about waterways and boats, and I don't know about that stuff.

I don't know much about water. As an adult I've spent a fair amount of time on the coasts of various oceans. As a child the oceans seemed immensely distant to me. In the northern Midwest, the closest big bodies of water to us were the Great Lakes, upon whose shores have been erected the mighty metropolises of Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Duluth. There are plenty of small private craft out on those lakes, lots of bigger ships too. Trucks and trains continue to eat away at the water-freight business, but how mighty would any of those metropolises have become without the Erie Canal connecting NYC to Lake Erie via Albany, or the St Lawrence Seaway connecting the St Lawrence River to Lake Ontario?

Of course, a ship continuing on west from Lake Ontario will have to go through some locks between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. How many locks? Let me put it this way: the quick way west from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie is over Niagara Falls.

So it took some doing and some digging, but today you can take a fairly large ship east from Detroit or Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean via the St Lawrence Seaway and Montreal, or a somewhat smaller ship via the Erie Canal and NYC.

Or with a somewhat smaller craft still, small enough to go in 5 feet of water and under a bridge with less than 20 feet of clearance, you can go from Chicago down the system of rivers and canals now known as the Chicago River to the Mississipi River, then take one of several routes to the Gulf of Mexico or cutting across Florida to the Atlantic via a system of rivers and canals, and then up the east coast either to the Hudson at NYC or quite a bit further north to the Gult of St Lawrence and the St Lawrence River, then west again to the Great Lakes via the Erie canal or the St Lawrence Seaway, and then you could make another counter-clockwise lap around the eastern US, and another and another, forever, without ever getting out of the water, or you could turn around and do it clockwise.

You could make such laps on the water, and I gather that some people do. Counter-clockwise, mostly. And that they call themselves loopers. And that some people, rich eccentrics mostly, I assume, have decided to devote the rest of their lives to making loop after loop, one loop per years, six months or more of each year on the water and going, and some time on land. I gather you can't do an entire loop with just sails, you need to motor part of the way.

Honestly, I don't know how to feel about this. Is looping folly? Wretched excess? Heroism? Some from Column A, some from Column B, some from Column C? Do the Columns depend on how they do it? I honestly have no idea what I'm looking at here. (I don't even know what labels to put on this blog post. But something tells me that I will find out more about loopers.