Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Fear and Loathing

My friend Leila forwarded an article on "the market of fear". The basic premise of the article was that fear was somehow becoming a more prominent part of modern culture and politics.

Hmmm . . . I read the article, and I must say that I don't buy it. Not one bit.

If you look carefully through the paper, you will see lots of sweeping generalizations about the current state of affairs and very few specific measurable comparisons with the past. Statements like "during the past 2,000 years we mainly feared supernatural forces" seem patently simplistic and wrong. (We feared death, disease, famine, and natural disaster, the same things we fear today; we just _attributed_ those things to supernatural forces. Our model of the world was different, but our fears were the same.)

Playing on people's fears is timeless. It is happening about as much today as it ever did. If you read any of the common political writings of two centuries ago, you will find them laden with even _more_ dire predictions of disasters should the other guy come into power. To claim (with no factual evidence) that there is more of this now than before shows a stunning lack of historical perspective.

The author thinks that the culture of fear is the result of an internalized sense of powerlessness. This is poppycock. By and large we rich Westerners have more stability, security and control than anyone ever did before. The reason there seems to be so much vague anxiety is because human beings are naturally insecure animals, and if we don't have a specific threat to fear we will cast about for something else to fear.

So, it might be more accurate to say, "People fear as much as they ever did, it's just that there are more imaginary threats than real ones these days." Or, put another way: "We have a heightened sense of just how much we could lose."

Friday, January 13, 2006

A pox on "Law and Order"

When my kids were younger, my wife and I watched almost no TV, because we were committed to not exposing the kids to any screens at all for as long as possible. And yet, somehow in the last couple of weeks, I am finding myself watching TV almost every night. How could this have happened? Reality TV isn't, situational comedies aren't . . .

It is, of course, the same instant-gratification trend I have seen in SQL and Scrabble. The quick-hit drug of TV is Law and Order. I have been interested to deconstruct how it works, and how quickly it has gone under my radar.

L&A is almost completely story-driven, which, as it turns out, is a lot easier to make fast-moving than a character-driven story. The show manages to move to a new scene every two minutes or so, with it's trademark plucked-string beat. Every beat is almost a story-within-story, with setup, tension, resolution, leading to the next beat. It's hard to ignore. Even as I write this there is an episode playing in the other room, which I am desperately trying to ignore.

L&A is also crack-like in its cheap abundance. What other show can you watch every night of the week?

I'm sure some people will come across this entry and wonder what rock I crawled out from under. How is it that someone who reads the Wall Street Journal and listens to NPR, so thoroughly informed on important issues, is so completely clueless about popular culture? Only Buffy the Vampire Slayer interrupted my peaceful cluelessness.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rhetorical Sumo

Well, everyone else seems to be blogging about the Alito hearings, so I guess I'll join the crowd.

When I was studying the martial arts in college, I remember hearing stories about quasi-mystical matches between swordsmasters, in which the two masters faced each other, unmoving, waiting for the other to move . . . it was supposedly a tribute to their mastery that they were so patient, even in the tension of the conflict, waiting for the perfect moment. I even heard that some matches ended without swords being drawn, their will and patience was so unperturbable.

I feel that way listening to the Alito hearings. Senators assume their rhetorical stance, hardly changing an iota (how many times did we hear the word "troubling" in the questions?) while Alito patiently answers the same question five consecutive times identically, without budging a millimeter from his original phrasing. It's almost a Monty Python argument ("Yes, it is. No it isn't. Yes it is. No it isn't"), but less heated.

You might think that the politicians, free to be as partisan as they wanna be, would have the upper hand in this contest. After all, it's a twelve-to-one randoori, and Alito has to go several days of the whole Senate judiciary committee tag-teaming him. But surprisingly, the judge seems to have and easier time of it. After all, judges are supposed to be annoyingly consistent in their reasoning and their opinions. We would think less of him if his stance changed under political pressure to have a more interesting-sounding answer. But politicians have the added burden of being interesting and likeable and sound-bitable, and though they too have super-human powers of staying-on-message, somehow they seem to be the ones who sound silly asking the same question five times, rather than Alito who gives the same answer five times.

Maybe it's more like Goju . . . Alito-sensei muscles into a tight stance, and Orrin hatch breaks a two-by-four across his back. Again. And again. And again . . .


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Writher" for 110 points

I am nursing a ferocious Scrabble addiction. I played it as a kid, but didn't really get into then. About five years ago I played a game with my wife's family over the holidays, and I suddenly got interested again. I bought a book on Scrabble, and played a computer for a while . . . but eventually interest faded again.

Now it's happened again. My sister-in-law got a deluxe Scrabble board for Christmas, and we played a game. I downloaded a Scrabble game onto my Palm, which turned out to be my undoing. My taste for puzzles ranges in the two- to three-minute range, which is why I got hooked on doing SQL queries: it's the closest thing to instant gratification that you can get in programming. That rush from doing SQL is scarily like playing playing a bingo on a triple-word score with a "w". I say "scarily" because that little addiction to SQL lead to a whole new career path and changed me from a molecular biologist into a database consultant.

Now that I can walk around with Scrabble in my pocket, and take a hit while I wait for something to print out, I suddenly find myself playing it a lot. An awful lot. Compulsively. So where could this be leading?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How to dress like a writer

It's all about the sweater.

Real writers don't wear t-shirts -- unless they're wearing the t-shirt they fell asleep in yesterday, beneath a bathrobe they put on this morning before they snuck downstairs to write before the kids wake up.

Real writers don't wear jackets -- unless they are doing a reading from their latest work at the bookstore of the local college, or unless they are paying someone to shoot a photo they hope and pray will someday grace the back of their "latest" work (that is, their only work).

No, it's all about the sweater. All-natural wool. Gotta be wool. Only wanna-bes wear polyester blends. Natural wool color, cable-knit, just tight enough in the shoulders to make you look like a Hemingway-esque large man, just baggy enough at the waist to hide the spare tire. Preferably with steam rising from a coffee mug with a muddy, primitive looking glaze. Or possibly smoke from a cigarette, but only if you're French.

So, imagine, glazing (er, I mean, gazing) out that window, with coffee and/or smoke curling around your all-natural cable-knit wool sweater and sunshine suffusing the room with so much warmth and delicate shadows that you feel like you're in a pharmaceutical commercial . . . do you think the pants matter? The socks? Get real.

The sweater.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Battleground God

I heard on the BBC about a very interesting online test called "Battleground God", which allows you to test who rationally consistent your religious beliefs are. What I find most interesting about it is that it doesn't insist that religious beliefs have to be logically consistent -- only that it can be informative and useful to recognize the inconsistencies in one's thinking, and to consciously assess the questions raised by recognizing such inconsistencies. The test forces you to either "take the hit" (acknowledge that you contradicted yourself) or to "bite the bullet" (restate your beliefs to acknowledge the logical consequences of your earlier statements.

This is profoundly refreshing to me, because it seems most people find it difficult if not impossible to keep faith and rationality together in the same conversation. Many assume they are polar opposites, or that they are an either/or proposition: either you have faith, or you are rational, but you can't have it both ways. It's wonderful for someone to come out and even suggest that it is possibly necessary to apply rationality to one's beliefs, and make sure that if there are logical contradictions, they are there by design and not by inattention or lazy-headedness. So many of the faithful cling to an anti-intellectual stance, as if somehow God loved them better for talking like idiots. Likewise, so many of the knee-jerk reductionist materialists walk around with a whole host of prejudices about religion and morality which turn out to be just as logically inconsistent.

I took the test, and managed to get through with taking only one "hit" and biting one "bullet". The logical contradiction related to the standard of proof that I maintained for beleiving things; I apparently held believing in God to a different standard than beleiving in evolution . . . which was interesting. I'm sure that almost no one can get through the test without having some disagreements about the phrasing of the questions or wanting to split some hairs . . . but then again, that's just the point. I doubt that the test will do much to change anyone's mind about their beleifs, but it will force them to think about them with a little more subtlety.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Review of the Review

Well, I googled up some other reviews of "God's Debris" and found numerous customer reviews at Amazon.

The good news: most everyone agrees with me. Several people were sympathetic to Adams' goal of trying to stir up people's thinking, and many, many more were excoriating him for really poor thinking in the book.

The bad news: most of the reviews were much more interesting to read than mine. Sigh. You can read them here. Of course, it's the really blistering reviews that are the most fun to read. Maybe I simply am not ruthless enough to write a good review. Naw . . . I just got out-written.

What was especially interesting to note in the reviews was how much people disagreed about how easily reader's could critique the book. One reviewer thought that "most people will find [it]exceeds their knowledge of probability, physics, religion, philosophy, evolution, psychology and logic." Others (closer to my soul) thought it was so glaringly awful that only a poorly educated public could ever find it "compellinh." Alas, I think it will wind up like The Celestine Prophesy, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, or most any book by Deepak Chopra: people below a certain level of critical thinking will find it wonderful, and people above that level will think it awful, and even more infuriating for being seductive to those who can't see it's flaws.

Since I work directly with college students, I am tempted to put the book to the test with them, and see how quickly they could tear it apart.