Monday, December 09, 2013

Writer's block party

It's funny, and I don't know in which sense of the word I mean "funny", but when I was in college, I took a number of creative writing courses, and something that haunts me to this day about them is that I had a large portion of my classmates tell me that I was the best writer in the class. It haunts me because, well, while I do recognize that I wrote a handful of really good short stories in the mid-'90s as I was taking these classes, I've really never written much of anything else since then, at least fiction-wise.

Yeah, I've been blogging, and some of it is probably pretty good, but when you think about being a "writer", don't you tend to think about someone who writes stuff that's more than just a handful of self-published random musings? What I'm saying is that I've always wished I could be a novelist, because it somehow always seemed like writing a novel is something a "real writer" would do. But even back in college when I was getting all this praise dumped on me, it always got to me that however good my writing might be, I'd never written a piece longer than about ten pages. Really, that's only a proper short story because unlike terms like "novel" or "novella", there's no minimum guideline for what qualifies as a "short story".

It's a kind of writer's block for me: I can think of stories, but generally only very, very short ones, and sometimes not even that. Where do stories come from, anyway? It boggles me that there are writers out there with dozens of novels to their names, people who just seem to be a wellspring of ideas that are worth committing to paper and distributing to thousands of readers. How do they do it?

I can barely get a blog post out.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Is blogging an ethical act?

From Goosing the Antithesis:

Alison really hit the nail on the head when she told me the real issue was that people actually believe in the act of belief itself. Indeed, the Christians have been positioning themselves as being part of the "belief-based" side and that they support religion against atheism, instead of their regular exclusivism. Because of this, a most vital debate that should be taking place right now, and which people like Dawkins and Harris are starting, is "is belief an ethical act?" (and by ethical we mean: as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments)

That is the real issue that should concern all of us, atheists and religious alike.
Francois Tremblay's writing is very interesting to me, because despite the fact that I rarely agree with his conclusions, he is indeed very adept at cutting to the heart of an issue. The problem with this issue, however, is that he seems to be making some assumptions that I don't completely agree with.

Actually, almost more than the assumptions, the thing that I have issue with is the definitions of the words used in the question. If "ethical" is taken to mean "...a social rule or judgment, group norm..." then the default answer is "Yes!" and really can hardly be anything else. As most if not all societies throughout the world are composed of a religious majority, the answer becomes a default. It seems to me that Tremblay (being an atheist) must either be sarcastic or far more lax in his wording than his usual writing in the above piece.

So I'll make some assumptions of my own to try and simplify the issue just a bit. The easy assumption is, from the larger context, that by "belief" we mean here "religion", that is, faith in a higher power of some sort. That being the case, however (or even if not) I question the use of the word "act", as belief, while something that oftentimes leads to action, is not really an action in itself.

Restating the question as "Is belief ethical?" still leaves us with items to sort out, though. Actually, it may be the reason that Tremblay phrased the question in that manner; are we asking if belief leads to ethical behavior, or if belief itself is ethical? Furthermore, are those two issues at all separable? Most religions come with a code of ethics built in, but such ethical codes may have difficult wrinkles in them that seem to be flaws: The God of Israel forbade human sacrifice, but ordered Abraham to kill his son. What happens when a supposedly moral God (who demands obedience as part and parcel of His moral code) orders a person to do something apparently immoral?

That issue in turn leads to another, probably more important one. How do we effectively define ethics apart from belief? There are many people who feel that there is a need for a supernatural basis for ethics and that without such a basis, ethics is meaningless. This has never been proven to me in a satisfactory manner, and as many an atheist has pointed out in one way or another, taking such a position robs us of our ability to reason out the true nature of ethics. (If you can't say that God is at least possibly immoral, then how is it meaningful to say that God is moral?) It seems that ethics need to either be relative or anchored in something even more fundamental than a supreme being. If a theist wants to propose otherwise, they would need to explain why, rather than take it as a given, I think. However, at the same time, moral relativism is something that needs some explaining; as one person implied in the comments of the original post, if morality is relative, then you once again are not able to say that God (or anyone else) is immoral.

A further wrinkle that I don't believe came up in the comments is that there is perhaps an assumed false dichotomy. If the answer to the question is "No", does that mean that belief is immoral? What if the answer is that belief is amoral? Indeed, I have heard it claimed by devout Jews at times that belief in God is not a prerequisite for being a good Jew; the Torah contains laws that are mostly prohibitive, and among those remaining laws that are requirements, belief in God is not one of them, so even the religious can believe that belief itself is not an ethical issue. If belief is amoral, then what does that imply? Does it make the question more important, or less?

While Tremblay's post is truly meaty food for thought, I fear that the question he raises has no obvious answer in the end.

Monday, November 18, 2013

No one really believes in my blog

A long time ago, I was a guest blogger on the atheist blog Goosing the Antithesis. It was a pretty sharp blog, and I think it showed a degree of open-mindedness that they allowed me as a Christian to make an occasional post there. The blog however is no more; that is to say, while it's still there for anyone to read, there hasn't been a new post since January of 2009, and there clearly is no intention of changing this. Still, every once in a while I drop in there to peruse posts and reminisce a bit, and that final post by Francois Tremblay in particular has a lot of potential for encouraging thought, and I thought it might be interesting to address some of the issues it brings up.

...[N]o one really believes in God. How could you? It's impossible to even conceptualize the idea of God, and you can't believe in what you can't conceptualize. The person who says "I believe in God" believes in some image in his head which he believes is the image of God, but which cannot in any way have any relation to what God is actually supposed to be according to the theologians. They believe in a father in the sky, not an abstract absolute existing in Dimension X.
This is an interesting statement on many levels. One thing that makes it interesting to me is that you will find theists who demand the exact opposite is true. Maybe not in the fine details, but on the whole, there are a lot of theists who don't believe that any atheist can seriously, in full honesty, say that they don't believe in God, but rather are in some state of fancy theological denial. I just note this as interesting, though, as I do not share this belief. I'm willing to accept that any given atheist or theist is fully sincere in stating their disbelief or belief in God.

Yet Tremblay has what seems like a valid point to be made here, and many theists will agree there's something to it. There are qualities that God possesses that are in essence infinite, and infinity is not really something that the human mind can fully grasp in a meaningful way. Indeed, I think most of us will at times have a mental image in our heads of what God is like, and that that image by necessity must be lacking in comparison to God's true nature. So how can we believe in that which we cannot truly fathom?

I think the answer to that is to be found in the subtleties of the way religion is expressed in practice. I've had discussions with many people ever since I became a Christian about how both Judaism and Christianity forbid idolatry, and yet to an outsider might seem to be practicing it all the time. What church is there out there that is not at the very least adorned by a huge wooden cross which everyone faces while in worship if not ornate stained glass figures of famous historic saints? What synagogue fails to exhibit great fawning reverence for the Torah as a physical object? How is this not idolatry? Aren't we taking our inability to grasp the concept of God and refocusing our religious reverence on physical objects?

There's an important distinction to be made here, and it's the distinction between idolatry and iconism. Idolatry is taking a physical object like a statue and saying, "This is my God." Iconism is taking a physical object like a cross, or a picture, or a book and saying, "This is how I access my God."

The term "icon" is a very telling one in the computer age, too. It's my experience that there are very few people who understand Microsoft Excel, and in fact, when you talk about Excel as a full concept in code built from the ground up, there really is probably next to nobody who understands it. Despite this fact, all a computer user has to do to use Excel is click on its icon, and then they have full access to all of Excel's functions and features, even if they don't understand them. Clearly, the greater the depth of understanding a user has of Excel, the more they will likely get out of it, but even the most basic user can get something out of it.

Why does a Jew revere the Torah? Because he believes that it is through the words written on that Holy scroll that he will better come to understand the mind of God. Why does a Christian revere the cross? Because it reminds her of a physical act of sacrifice that God performed that gives her insight into the heart of God. We all know that full understanding is impossible, but that does not change the fact that we have access to God in a very real way. Because we are helpless to fully understand God, God has condescended to give us the tools we need to come closer to him in a very real way without that full understanding.

No, perhaps nobody really believes in God, but we believe in God's goodness. We trust in God's character. We follow God's will. We study God's word. And in the end, God believes in us, which is all that really matters.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The treachery of video games

When I was a kid, I used to have this space game on my home computer. It was really cool. This was before the age of the NES, and yet this game had 3D graphics and an awesome soundtrack. The funny thing about this game was that instead of being controlled in a simple up-down-left-right fashion by a joystick, the controls were all on a keyboard and the spacecraft moved like an airplane, pitching and rolling instead of moving in the standard way most of us probably expected of video game flying craft. You had to navigate through space and carefully synchronize the movement of your craft with rotating space stations that you had to dock with, all the while fighting off space pirates and dodging bits of space debris. It was a tough game, but for some reason, I liked it.

I think one of the main reasons that I liked it was that the game play was supposed to be a bit more open-ended than most games of its age. While the main idea of the game was to trade goods between one star system and another, you could beef up your ship with good weaponry and capture bounty for chasing down space pirates. You could equip your ship with an ore scoop and mine asteroids. If you wanted to, you could actually become a space pirate yourself and destroy other ships to take their cargo. I used to play around with the possibilities.

The thing that really made it easy to play around was that the game had a save feature, but it was of course optional. That is to say, if you ran a mission and it didn't turn out quite the way you wanted it to turn out, you could just reset the game and reload your last save. I think with a lot of games these days, that's almost something you take for granted, isn't it?

I never realized until just recently how strange the world of most video games is, at least in comparison to the world we live in. When you're playing some Legend of Zelda game, and Link dies, what are the consequences? Hyrule is lost? Princess Zelda is doomed? Ganondorf reigns triumphant forever? No, not at all. The consequence is this: "Would you like to try again? YES/NO"

Of course it's not a universal truth of video games, although I think it may nearly be so, but whereas reality as we know it has no consideration for whether you come out of your next adventure triumphant, reality as known in video games is looking for you to win. If you don't win, reality itself grinds to a halt and says, "Wait, it looks like we should try that again!" Time and space realign themselves to a place back before you made your big mistake and says, "Okay, take two!"

I started to wonder, does this warped view of the inevitability of success do something to the minds of people of my generation and younger? I've heard it said that young people today are disgruntled by the fact that they don't see much chance for success in their future, and maybe some of that is the economy that our forefathers messed up to some degree. Then again, maybe young people have had their brains wired to expect success to be handed to them. No, not fresh and steaming on a silver platter, but rather that if things don't go the way we want, there's a part of our brains that expects there has to be a way to go back and do it all over again until it turns out right.

Around the same time I had that space game that I talked about above, there was an unfortunate incident that happened to me. I was in my grandmother's garden one day, and I was foolishly playing with a knife. I'll spare you details, but I ended up in the hospital with forty stitches in my hand. I have a scar on the palm of my hand and nerve damage that will be with me for my whole life. No doubt there was a moment when I looked at the cut in my hand and would have been very happy for a chance to back up to the last save point, but life doesn't come with save points. "Would you like to try again? Too bad."

Maybe I'm overestimating the effect that video games might be having on our collective psychology, but I've started to notice something strange in me lately. The more my life seems to be messed up and in need of a magical restoration at the click of a button, the less I find myself interested in video games.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

I most definitely dream in color

(The following is an e-mail I wrote to myself last October which apparently describes in great detail a bizarre dream I had. I found it a fascinating read, perhaps worth sharing, although I warn that as a dream, it really has no point.)

It is about 5:30 in the morning.

I have had less than one hour of sleep.

I don't care; I'm done. I can't take anymore nightmares. Every night, I struggle for hours to go to sleep, only to wake up repeatedly full of terror from what I cannot remember.

We (and I don't know who "we" refers to) are living in a house that we've lived in for some time, but we've been considering moving. Packing has been a long, difficult process as it always seems to be, yet somehow, it is excruciatingly worse than I could have imagined. Even though I am living with my family (and is it my wife and children? Or am I the child, living with my parents?), I sleep in a room with three other roommates, two of which spend all their time playing tricks on each other in an ever-escalating manner that seems to have neither limit nor logic. This very evening, the two of them had been talking about something that only they thought was funny, sitting on the edge of their shared bed (there are only two beds in the room, and not much else, as the room is too small to fit anything of consequence in addition to these matched items of furniture, and our personal belongings stuffed underneath) when one of them jostles the other and spills his beer, which he'd been drinking out of a pint glass. Angry, yet laughing, the roommate with the spilled beer tries to punch his friend in the arm, but he leaps quickly out of reach, and runs toward the door, necessitated by equal parts room size/layout and desire for swiftness to run over the top of my bed (on which I am sitting, sifting through a large pile of broken electronic devices attempting in vain to find any that have the slightest bit of function, thus implying my need to pack them). As he reaches the doorway, he turns back and mockingly points, laughing; so roommate with the spilled beer throws his pint glass towards his adversary in the doorway, who ducks as with a loud smash of glass against wood, half the room is showered with beer and shards of broken glass. Both pause for a moment, shocked but still gleefully smirking as they survey the damage, then run from the room, switching the light off behind them and leaving me in the dark, surrounded by broken glass and corroded plastic and metal. My mother sticks her head through a hole in the wall I'd not noticed before and informs me disapprovingly that a friend of mine that had dropped by is sitting on the floor of the master bathroom reading through a stack of pornographic magazines instead of helping clean the kitchen, as she thought he had come over to do. Somehow this is my fault, as is the one thing that makes me glad to be sitting in darkness: the third roommate, the one with whom I share a bed, is not present though she is supposed to be. At least the darkness conceals this one thing that I know will only make things worse. I know I've expressed in the past my disapproval of my roommate's activities, not in small part due to my understanding that for some reason it's my responsibility to keep her out of trouble. As it happens, our house is somehow situated right next to the border between the U.S.A. and the People's Republic of China, to which my roommate nightly sneaks through the bedroom window to illegally visit. She's smuggling weapons into the country and trying to convince them to invade, which is odd since they have repeatedly told her they have no interest in military conquest of the West, and would she please just leave them alone?

As my mother leaves, I begrudgingly turn to the task of trying to clean up the glass shards (which I cannot see clearly, but glisten in the moonlight through the open window) without the aid of anything useful like a broom. I'm left to simply pick them up with my bare hands and pile them by the foot of my bed, all the while finding--like one does while on a sandy beach on a windy day--that while it's annoying enough to have glass shards irritating my bare hands, it's not nearly so annoying as continually noticing that somehow my mouth has filled with a not-insignificant amount of glass as well, which seems to diminish in no way as I repeatedly spit mouthfuls onto the pile on the floor. I grow more and more frustrated at the task, until my mother calls me to help her move some furniture in the living room. I stand up and walk barefoot through the glass to the living room.

In the living room a number of people, only some of whom I know, are sitting around talking while watching what's happening on the top of a large wooden table in the middle of the room. The table is covered with several mounds of a gelatinous substance which one might think to be a dessert but for the foul, not-at-all-fruit-like smell it emits and a bubbling noise it makes as though it were a freshly-opened carbonated beverage. I ask what the hell is going on, and my mother shrugs, telling me it was a school project and she didn't realize that the recipe she used would yield so much and she doesn't know how she's going to package it all up to take away but in the meantime could I help her move the table since it's oozing onto the carpet and we'd like to get at least some of the cleaning deposit back. So I grab one end of the table and we start to carry it away, when to my surprise one of the people in the room I vaguely know as a friend of my mother's reaches out and pinches my ass and winks at me. I barely have time to register that the moment feels like something out of a cheesy TV sitcom before I complete what somehow feels like a cliché by reacting with a jump and dropping the table, which of course flips over and dumps its contents all over the floor.

Oddly enough, this is somehow not my fault--even though my mother did not witness my getting pinched--and instead of rebuking me or making me clean it up, my mother leaves to find the vacuum cleaner and charges me with watching that the house pets don't get into the stuff. This is not a difficult task, as our older dog is outside playing with the kids, and the puppy we'd just adopted earlier in the week is far too fascinated with some of the remains of dinner that were left on the kitchen floor: the hide and most of the bones of a buffalo I'd killed that afternoon and brought home to barbecue. A cousin of mine who happens to be among those in the room comments that the sight of the puppy trying to rip a chunk of raw meat off the carcass is grossing him out. I assure him that however gross it may appear, there's nothing unsanitary about it as the meat is rather fresh; in fact, I note to him that I myself had cut a chunk of rib meat off to eat while I was carrying the carcass home, and it was quite tasty. I do comment that we really ought to get it out to the garbage before it attracts any pests, and just then I

I don't know what it is, but it's clearly alive. When I first spot it, it's vaguely snake-shaped, but it quickly recoils at the sound of my voice and in doing so morphs its shape into something more like a jellyfish; not that I would have mistaken it for either of those creatures, as its color is sort of lime green, and spotted. I get down on my hands and knees to look under the counter where it has disappeared from sight and am amazed at what I see there. Whatever kind of creature it is, it isn't alone, as there appears to be three or four more under there, and I say three or four because it's hard to concentrate on counting when I've just happened upon a scene that might as well be a rain forest on the surface of an alien world. Under the edge of the counter, I see from this angle that the lower portions of our kitchen are host all manner of flora and fauna, but mostly an array of bright-colored fungi in a plethora of shapes and sizes. None of it is any life form that I can identify. Something clicks in my mind.

I recall that in the years that we have lived here, we seemed to have a problem with leaks in the kitchen plumbing every few months, but the landlord never seemed to be able to fix it, or for that matter, figure out where the leak was coming from. Each time he'd reassure us that it didn't matter anyway, since there was no carpet in the kitchen to be effected, and wherever the leak might be coming from, at least utilities were included in the rent, so it was really his problem, and he wasn't worried about it. Surely all that moisture and warmth has simply made a perfect environment for all sorts of living things under our kitchen sink, and this is the eventual disgusting result. I hunt through kitchen drawers until I find a flashlight and duck back under the sink to get a better look. In the back of the space under the sink, there is a gap in the concrete wall that I'd seen before in many of our moments of plumbing distress, but now, shining a flashlight into the gap, I see that rather than damp floor behind the wall, there seems to be a deep puddle of standing water that stretches into the darkness past the flashlight beam at this angle. So I crouch down even lower and try to peer in deeper. I can't comprehend what I see. I stand up and leave the kitchen, running down the hallway to the back of the house.

Near the master bedroom, there is a bit of a nook set off from the hallway that we've been using as a sort of a study, and another glimmer of memory is coming to me. I violently shove the computer desk aside, exposing the wall behind it, where there is a doorway with no knob, just a rust-encrusted keyhole. When we had moved in, the landlord was dismissive of the door, assuring us that it merely led to a narrow crawlspace that allowed access to venting for the original furnace which no longer works, and besides, he has no idea where the key is. He had suggested we set up the room as we had, with a large piece of furniture covering the door so as to just forget it was there. I crouch down and lunge forward, slamming into the door with my shoulder. It doesn't budge. I kneel before the door and stare intensely at the keyhole, bringing my arm back and pummeling the edge of the door with repeated punches, noting within the dream's only brief moment of genuine pleasure that flakes of rust and paint are falling with each blow, and the door is beginning to shudder. After less than a minute of focused attack, a crack appears beside the lock. I reposition myself and, giving a hard kick to the center of the door, hear it give with a satisfying crunch. The door swings open, and I see exactly what I feared I would.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Answers in Genesis

I had a friend many years ago who was an atheist. That in itself is not particularly notable, as atheism is fairly common these days, and I'm sure I have many atheist or agnostic friends. What was really notable about this guy was that unlike a lot of atheists I seem to meet on the Internet, he was pretty tolerant toward theists. In particular, I once heard him make what I thought was a pretty insightful statement: that all of the major religions of the world have enough internal logical consistency to believe in them, or else they probably wouldn't exist. I think he was right.

Anyway, I felt pretty bad writing this particular post, not because of the bare fact that I wrote it, but because it seems somewhat unfair that I waited so long to write it. To some extent I do pride myself on being open-minded and fair towards all religious views, but occasionally, I realize that I've developed a bit of a blind spot when it comes to my own partiality with respect to certain religious attitudes. Shortly after writing my recent post about Orson Scott Card, for instance, I realized that if I ever got around to reading the Book of Mormon, I'd really have to be far more generous towards it than I probably would have intended to be under normal circumstances. Anyway, while I don't currently have any plans to read the Book of Mormon, I still on a regular basis write about atheism (and yes, while atheism is not a religion, it's a religious view), and a few weeks ago I had an interesting epiphany about atheism that I really should have put into writing. Well, I can console myself that few atheists are reading my blog, and probably even fewer really care.

In a certain way, it was odd that it was only just last month that I'd come to the realization that I did, since it's largely due to Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, which I read some time in the late '80s. Who knows why it would take me more than a quarter-century to put this together? I really ought to go back and read the book again.

Something that has always bothered me about Dawkins is the way he has over time morphed into a sort of crusader for atheism. Surely, the guy is a great thinker and a giant in the world of biology, but why does that make him an expert on (the non-existence of) God? To a great extent, even though I think I've come to a deeper understanding of why his studies in biology might shed some light on theological issues, I still question what purely physical biology has to tell us about spiritual matters, but no matter (no pun intended).

This is the thing, though; I've made a big deal both on my blog and in more casual conversation that I think it's a shame that many scientists can't seem to accept the possibility of the supernatural. That's certainly not to say that the supernatural has a part to play in science; it absolutely does not, by definition. My only thought was that while studying the purely natural, a person might lose sight of the possibility that there was more to our existence than that. And I consider myself a skeptic; I don't place a great deal of faith in the supernatural myself, despite being a theist. I believe there is a God, and there is a spiritual aspect of our lives, but for the most part we can live as though it were not there. What got me feeling guilty as I prepared to write this today is that I realized I was being guilty of doing the exact same thing as I was criticizing others of doing, but in reverse.

What if the parts of our existence I considered to be purely in the realm of the spiritual could actually be under the influence of purely material forces? Why not?

If the study of science blinds one to the spiritual, certainly the study of religion could blind one to the natural. There is something that I'd always felt to be lacking in atheism, but maybe it was because I'd unknowingly set the terms of the argument unfairly. The thing that atheism lacks (in my previous view) is answers. There are certain questions that it is human nature to ask, and atheism either can't seem to answer these questions, or claims that they have no answer. These questions are things like, "What is the meaning of life?" or "Is there a higher power over us?" or "What happens to our consciousness after we die?" I mean, maybe there is no real answer to these questions, but it seems so unsatisfying.

But what if I (along with others, no doubt) was insisting on spiritual answers because I assumed that these were, by their very nature, spiritual questions? What if there was a need to keep an open mind about materialism in the same way that I always felt one should keep an open mind about spiritual things? If you open up these questions to be answered in a materialistic fashion, didn't Dawkins really answer them?

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins had a revolutionary idea with respect to biology, genetics, and evolution. (Bear with me, it's been, as I said, about a quarter-century since I read this.) It's funny, because it's one of those things that, to me at least, seems almost obvious once you point it out and explain the principle. There's a lot of misunderstanding about evolution. Does it happen to individuals or groups? Does it happen all the time, or is it a gradual process? Is it a process that has a directed plan of some sort, or is it random? Whatever the answers to these, Dawkins suggests that the real driving force behind evolution is in fact the very genes of living creatures themselves. Genes, for lack of a better verb, "want" to propagate. All biological processes on both the micro and macro level can trace back their base driving force to this fact. It's logical and inevitable on some level: as natural selection posits survival of the fittest organisms, so Dawkins' model suggests survival of the fittest genes. If a gene codes for a behavior or a characteristic in an organism that makes it more fit, then surely that gene itself could be considered fit.

But what does this mean philosophically, or even theologically? "What is the meaning of life?" Why, it's all about obeying our genes, isn't it? This is weird, since on some level this is a sort of "Well, duh," thing. If you understand that what we are and what we do is the product of our genes both on an individual level, and as a species or even an ecosystem, then doing what our genes tell us to do isn't even a choice, it's just what we are. Our genetic code is, in the end, the "higher power over us" in a very substantial way that arguably trumps anything else that might stand in its stead. Especially if you have a materialistic world-view.

Of course, maybe as a theist I still need to stress that this does leave many of those questions unanswered. There's no clue given here to the nature of a possible afterlife, certainly, but of course there may be no answer. There also is no clear indication as to what sort of moral system one should follow, but maybe morality is a separate realm from these sorts of questions. Does admitting these as potentially valid answers to great philosophical questions mean I'm advocating for atheism? Of course not, I'm still a Christian. Maybe I'm just suggesting that which is already obvious to atheists: that atheistic viewpoints have enough internal logical consistency to believe in them, or else they probably wouldn't exist. Am I right?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mimi's Last Coffee

I was in the process of putting together something for my other blog, and it occurred to me that one of the issues that I was bound to be addressing was the fluidity and vagueness of language. Really, it's not just about the Bible either, but about the way people nitpick details in literature.

Anyway, many years ago, Scott McCloud had made an improvised comic strip called Mimi's Last Coffee. I say improvised because it was part of McCloud's "Morning Improv" project, in which he was taking suggestions from readers for titles and then making them up as he went along. In the associated discussion forums, some discussion broke out after McCloud published the first panel of the comic:

Somebody wondered where the story could go since this appeared to be Mimi enjoying her last coffee, and since that was the title of the story, what else was there to tell? Well, it's been at the back of my mind time and time again over the years, and I thought it would be an interesting exercise in examining the fluidity of language. The fact is, comic strip aside (although McCloud does play with possible meanings of the title in his storytelling) the phrase "Mimi's last coffee" has a near-unlimited range of possible meaning.

Starting at the end of the phrase with the word "coffee", I think a lot of people don't realize that they're dealing with a word that has so many meanings. People probably assume most of the time that "coffee" is referring to the hot brown liquid that many people enjoy with breakfast, but that's just one of a number of meanings. "Coffee" is a word that refers to many aspects of related concepts to that beverage. Coffee is a beverage, yes, but not only can it be prepared in numerous ways (Have you ever tried Turkish coffee? It's a whole different experience!) but the word refers to different parts of the process of making coffee. Starting from the beginning, there is a tree called "coffee", and it produces a fruit called "coffee". The seed of this fruit is known as "coffee", and this seed is commonly dried out and roasted to make a substance known as "coffee". The dried, roasted "coffee" is ground to a variety of different granularities and packaged as "coffee" which people buy and combine with hot water to make the aforementioned beverage. After the grounds are used, they're still "coffee" although nobody consumes them; they either thrown them away or use them for fertilizer (I think).

Being such a big part of our culture, "coffee"" is also used for a number of other concepts related to the food product in one way or another. For instance, "coffee" is a shade of medium-brown. (Mimi could be painting!) "Coffee" can also refer to the food product in a collective sense, referring to types or brands of coffee, as in, "I don't like Folger's coffee or any of the grocery-store coffees; I prefer Starbucks coffee." Actually, if you go to Starbucks or a similar coffee establishment, you'll find that they offer many different coffees. I used to work an opening shift at Starbucks, and before we opened the store, one of the things that had to be done was of course brewing up the coffee; I'd brew a pot of dark roast coffee, then a light roast coffee, and decaf would be my "last coffee". Many years before that, though, I used to have a social gathering at my house in college every week at which I served my friends coffee; such social gatherings are commonly referred to as "coffees". There may be other shades of meaning (including the idiomatic phrase "wake up and smell the coffee"), but that will do for this writing, I think.

So, how about "last"? Once again, devoid of context a person usually thinks of the word "last" as meaning "final" but I think even in that sense of the word there are shades of meaning. Someone who was going to quit drinking coffee and had a hard time keeping their resolve might repeatedly declare "This is my last coffee!" and then have yet still one more, and one more, etc. There are other senses of finality, however. Suppose Mimi were to treat two of her friends to coffees at the local cafe, and having only two hands in which to carry coffee cups, she might carry two cups to the table and then go back to the counter for her last coffee. Also, even if she is drinking her coffee alone, any particular cup of coffee might be her last coffee of the day. If Mimi were working at the coffee shop, even if she intends to come back for a drink after her shift concludes, she could very well call the final cup she serves her last coffee. If she's making coffee for herself at home, and she finds she has only enough supplies for one more cup/pot, she might declare that she has drunk her last coffee, and must go to the store for more.

Furthermore, the word "last" doesn't only carry the concept of finality, but the concept of previousness. Mimi may be enjoying a cup of coffee now, but may have a story about how bad her last coffee tasted. Or if she throws the sort of little coffee parties I mentioned earlier, and you attended one, you might hear about how things went at Mimi's last coffee. There are other senses of the word, too. Suppose that Mimi went to the cafe and found that they were serving a particular coffee blend that was her least favorite; she might declare that that is the last coffee she would ever drink, and have no coffee at all.

Finally, there is, I suppose, the question of who (or what) "Mimi" is. As I already hinted at somewhere above, Mimi need not be the consumer of the coffee, but could be the server, or some sort of host; I also implied the possibility that Mimi could be an artist painting a picture in mainly brown colors. Mimi could be a coffee grower, a coffee roaster, or a professional coffee taster. There's a chain of restaurants called Mimi's Cafe, at which I've never had a coffee, but I assume they offer it, and every day at every location there must be a last coffee served. Mimi could be a company that produces and sells coffee, and "Mimi's last coffee" could be a reference to their most recently introduced product. Mimi could be a family pet that found an unfortunate taste for coffee, unfortunate because coffee was poisonous to her and it caused her demise.

Language is a very fluid thing by necessity, and that has its good points and bad points. Namely, when you read what may appear to be a simple phrase, you can never be 100% sure that you've got a clear grasp on it, so it's best not to leap to conclusions about whether it is stating something right or wrong.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


So, I'm reading a new (for me) book by Orson Scott Card, and while I'm generally managing to enjoy the book just for itself, there's something that keeps popping up at the back of my mind, and it's pretty much this:

The short version of the above video (uploaded to YouTube just a few weeks ago but originally made and published elsewhere at the height of the Chick-fil-A anti-gay marriage controversy), which you don't need to watch to understand my point here despite being a very insightful video, is that Orson Scott Card is simultaneously one of today's finest and most popular science fiction writers and one of the more prominent critics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. If you're not familiar with Card, I would say you're missing out on both/either some excellent writing and/or fascinating culture war. Lindsay Ellis, a.k.a. "Nostalgia Chick" is right that it's a bit overboard to think of Card's writing as fascistic, but I want to suggest that as polite and reasonable as she's being, there are some aspects of Card as a person that can stand being looked at both more deeply and kindly, and I think it's worth doing.

The thing is, I talked about this sort of thing before, but in that case I was only tangentially talking about things that were deeply and more explicitly evil, while here I want to get more in depth with the casually offensive. For the short version there, you can find the single sentence in the linked post that mentions Hitler; I'm going to compare Card to Hitler, but as weird as it sounds, I'm going to do it in a nice way.

So Card is homophobic. So what? A lot of people are, so why do people care so much about Card's homophobia? Hitler was homophobic, but it mattered very much because along with his racism, it led to the deaths of millions. Card isn't killing anyone, but his homophobia matters to people because as a famous person, the statements he makes in the public sphere have more influence than Joe Schmo who would tell the world how much the thought of two dudes kissing grosses him out if only anyone would bother to ask him his opinion on it.

Fame is definitely a part of it, and it's a funny two-edged sword. If you're famous, regardless of the reason, when you speak your opinion people listen. If they agree with you, then they say, "This famous person is terrific; everyone should be listening to this!" If they don't, they say, "This famous person is an idiot; why do famous people think that just because they're famous they get to tell others what to think?" I definitely believe that Card's fame is a big part of why he has a platform that allows so many to know what his opinion is, and since so many know, there is a sense in which the outrage over his homophobia is proportional to the size of his audience. But I don't think that's the whole story.

In the video, the homophobic* things that Card has said are labeled as "dumb shit" by Ellis. Okay, but what makes them "dumb"? I am of course making an assumption that may be taking her statements in as shallow a manner as I'm more or less accusing Card's detractors of taking his, but I assume that what makes them "dumb" is simply that she disagrees with them.

I can't speak for whether Card's views on homosexuality are smarter or stupider than anybody else's since I've never bothered to read them; I am one of those people who chooses to view art (visual, written, or musical) on its own merits rather than through the filter of what sort of a person the creator is, for better or for worse. What I think I can say is that there are a lot of stupid arguments against same-sex marriage, but that doesn't mean that every argument against same-sex marriage is stupid. For every dozen or so arguments on par with "legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to people having sex with ducks," there is somebody pointing out that same-sex couples being unable to procreate suggests something not quite in line with the natural order. Yeah, the latter argument has flaws, but at the very least it feels like there's a nugget of logic in there, you know?

But this is the thing, and in my mind, it's the real central issue of the problem that fans of Card's writing have with Card himself: Card is not stupid. His books almost invariably contain protagonists that are incredible geniuses, and while of course being able to reason your way out of a sticky situation is potentially less impressive when both the problem and the solution come from the same mind (Card's, that is), there is still the strong feeling that the person writing the story has got to be pretty darn clever. Why is this a problem? Because people who denounce things like racism, sexism, and homophobia have the unfortunate (in my opinion) tendency to label those things as "ignorance".

So this is where it all ties back to Hitler, and try and follow me on this because it is weird. In the post I linked to above, I pointed out that as much as people like to label him a "monster", Hitler was a human being, just like you and me. Sometimes you hear people say of politicians these days that "He's the sort of guy you could hang out and have a beer with!" I have no doubt that Hitler was a guy that you could hang out and have a beer with--so long as you weren't a member of one of the groups that the Third Reich tried to exterminate. And what's more, who could really think that Hitler was an idiot? He nearly took over the whole world, which doesn't sound to me like the sort of thing that idiots tend to do. No, Hitler wasn't ignorant; he had an oddly well-informed hatred.

So like I said, I'm drawing some parallels here between people of varying levels of tolerance. I would probably enjoy sharing a beer with Adolph Hitler, Orson Scott Card, or Lindsay Ellis, (although I surely won't because one is dead, one's a Mormon, and the last I'm unlikely to ever meet in person) but that's not necessarily a reflection on their value as a person, nor the value of their personal beliefs. What it is a reflection on is that I have no doubt any of them would be an interesting person to have a conversation with.

My belief--and this doesn't necessarily make me a better or more tolerant person than anyone else--is that when you dismiss anyone's viewpoint as stupid, you're the one who has closed yourself off to learning and growing. This is one of the reasons why I blog, and wish I was more diligent in responding to comments: I want to reach out to people who have opinions that differ from my own, because even if neither of us changes our position, I believe we can learn from each other.

So if you don't like Card's stance on same-sex marriage, you might consider reading more of his writing if only to understand why someone would have the stance he has. In the meantime, it's a free country, so write all the Wiggin/Delphiki slash fic your heart desires.

*I'd like to say that I've never liked the term "homophobic" as a blanket term for anything anti-GLBT. It seems to imply that a "homophobe" is afraid of people in the GLBT community, when often that is not the case. There were times in the past (and maybe even now, depending on how you feel about this post) that I've held and even expressed attitudes that would be labeled as "homophobic", but I don't have any fear of homosexuals. I've always felt that there ought to be term along the lines of "racist" or "sexist" in order to reflect somewhat more accurately the more general concept, such as "orientationist" perhaps? Oh well.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The Tale of the Paper-Wizard, an economic fable

There once was a man who was hard-working and kindly, and because of this, even though he lived alone he had everything in the world he felt he could possibly want, and was happy. One day, after an afternoon's labor of watering fields and chopping firewood, he sat down for an evening's meal of a freshly-cooked bowl of rice. As he was about to eat, a wizard emerged from the forest and stood before him.

"Hello, sir," the wizard said to him with a sly smile, "and good evening."

"Good evening, stranger," the man replied. "I was about to enjoy my evening meal, but as I see you are travelling and seem to have no food, I feel I should offer to share it with you!"

The wizard bowed to the man and said, "That is very kind of you, good sir. While I do appreciate your offer, I am glad to say that I would like to offer you an even more generous kindness!"

Although the man had entertained unexpected guests before, this was new to him. He asked the wizard what he meant.

The wizard reached into his pocket and took out a small object. "I was wondering if you would give me the entire bowl of rice, as I am quite hungry from my travel. In return I would give you this," he extended the object to the man, "a piece of magical paper."

The man examined the paper. Indeed, it did look magical. The whole of the paper was filled on both sides with fancy writing and images of elderly, wise men. "What does it do?" the man asked.

The wizard smiled even wider. "That is the great generosity of this paper; you see, while in appearance it is merely a piece of paper, with the great value imbued upon it by the writing, the owner of this paper may exchange it for twenty kilos of rice!" The wizard pressed the paper into the man's hand and closed his fingers over it. "I know twenty kilos is much more rice than you have in your bowl, but I insist that you take it."

The man was impressed, and he accepted the offer, giving the wizard his bowl of rice.

Well the next evening, the man had done less work than usual and yet felt far more fatigued and hungry. He figured that somehow, as light as it seemed, the twenty kilos of rice in his pocket must be weighing him down. As he sat to his evening meal, the wizard appeared before his house once more. There was an exchange of greetings, a discussion of the weather, and in the end, the wizard left with a belly full of rice, and the man had another twenty kilos of rice in magic paper.

This went on for several days. Finally, the day came when at the time of the evening meal, the man was lying in bed having been too weak to work that day. When the wizard arrived, he entered the house and asked the man what was wrong.

When the man explained how he found himself with no more energy to rise, and made to apologize, the wizard smiled his sly smile again and motioned for the man to be silent. "Sir, you are a very hard worker, and no doubt you have worn yourself ragged with labor. Do not worry about me; instead think of yourself. With all of the magic paper I have given you in the time I have known you, you surely have all the food you will ever need for the rest of your life. So sleep for now, and I am sure tomorrow you will be fine as you will no longer need to labor for your sustenance."

With that, the man closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. His pockets were full of hundreds of kilos magical rice he would never eat, for he never woke from that slumber again.