Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You Might Be An Asshole If...

I do a lot of reading online. Some of it is one-way - that is, it's a piece of text, and the only interaction comes from someone reading it - but a lot of what I read is interactive: message boards, comment threads on blogs, things like that. These are basically conversations, but conducted in text rather than sound.

Generally, I like this approach. Text conversations tend to be better thought out than spoken conversations, and if you're not sure what someone just said, you can go back and reread it. There are tradeoffs, of course - since you can't see stance or expression, it's hard to tell when someone is being ironic - but if you're willing to extend the benefit of the doubt and/or ask for clarification when needed, that doesn't have to be a problem. Also, I like to sit down and assemble my thoughts into a unified whole - and I can do that in text a lot more easily than I can while speaking.

Recently, though (say, within the last year), I've encountered several situations where one or more people takes advantage of the medium to be extremely rude. When someone pointed this out, they did not apologize; instead, they continued to be rude, or became even more rude. (I realize that this is actually quite common, but I generally stick to sites with good moderation and well-developed communities; so I don't run into it, much.)

I don't generally interact with those sorts of people. I don't need the grief, and there's never any benefit to it. Having encountered two of them in relatively close succession, however, I find myself considering the pathology of the behavior.

So, without further ado, I present the Top Five Signs That You Might Be An Asshole:

5. A lot of your fun comes from making things less fun for other people. (This doesn't mean you're superior; it just means that you're mean.)

4. You focus on winning the debate and/or showing how foolish your opponent's belief/opinion/stance is. (This is fine in an actual debate; but treating every conversation as a debate is a mistake. That's true even if it's only about a certain topic. This behavior is doubly foolish, as it fairly well guarantees that not only will you not get anything out of the discussion, but you won't convince anyone else, either.)

3. You defend your behavior by saying that people spend too much time being polite instead of saying what they mean, and/or complaining about people being "politically correct". (It is, in fact, perfectly possible to polite and clear at the same time.)

2. You're certain that you're strong, and the fact that other people get upset with you demonstrates their weakness. Alternatively, you're certain that the reason people get upset with you is because they know you're right (which is basically the same thing). (Anyone will get upset if someone pushes the right buttons. Also, can we stop with the lame metaphors and self-aggrandizing imagery? Honestly...)

And the number one indication is... ::drumroll::

1. You say things like "everybody makes mistakes" or "I've been wrong before" but somehow there's never any possibility that you might be wrong about the topic at hand. (Um, yeah. Really. Huh?)

Also, you get bonus points if you make a habit of communicating poorly and then acting smug, offended, or both when people misunderstand you or ask for clarification.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back when I was cool...

In the overall course of my life, I have very seldom been "cool". As a youth, my interests were geeky, and my fashion sense was... idiosyncratic. I was reasonably athletic, but I had a deep aversion to team sports. I read books - all the time - and I was generally very quiet.

So I wasn't really a target for teasing - not much, anyway - and I did have friends. But to a lot of people, I was sort of invisible. (In eight grade, I had a girl look at me and say, "I remember you. You're the one who was always sitting in the back of the class, reading those huge books." My reaction was something like, Yes, we've had classes together for years, and you're just now figuring out who I am? She was right about the books, though - one of the teachers had given me his old D'n'D manuals, and those things were huge.)

Occasionally, though, I did get a chance to be cool. When I did, I savored it. And every once in a while, I like to dust off those memories and take a look at them.

This one actually took place in graduate school. I was getting ready to graduate, and I'd dropped by the Registrar's office for... I don't remember. Something I needed.

Now, the Registrar himself was an older man, tall and a little gangly. He was quite friendly, and extremely willing to help. His secretary, by contrast, was the dragon guarding the castle gate: unfriendly, unhelpful, and always trying to send people elsewhere. At the time, I thought her presence was the result of some sort of law of Conservation of Bureaucracy: a counterbalance for his essential helpfulness. Looking back, I think she was probably just trying to make sure that he could get some of his own work done.

So I approached her desk with some trepidation, and was relieved to find it empty. Not entirely relieved, because it was really empty - there was nobody there at all. Now, the Registrar's office was set up with the secretary's desk out front, separated from the public by a middlin' tall counter. If you were standing at the counter, the desk was in front of you, and the door to the Registrar's office was behind the counter, on your right.

So, I kind of leaned over the counter and looked back into the main office. The Registrar wasn't there either, but there was a trio of undergrads, holding papers and deep in conversation. I was so relieved at not having to deal with the Dragon that I decided not to interrupt them - at least, not immediately.

While I'm standing there waiting, there comes a very loud POP! A wall of thick, grey smoke starts curling up from behind the screen of the monitor on the secretary's desk. This, clearly, calls for immediate action, so I lean around the counter again, and call in through the doorway: "Pardon me, but your computer's on fire."

A nicely dressed young man comes out of the office and takes his place behind the counter. He has clearly failed to notice the smoke. He asks: "What can I do for you?"

Well, what could I say? I smiled, met his eyes, and said: "No, really. I wasn't kidding. Your computer's on fire." And I gesture at the desk behind him.

He turns around and sort of freaks out: startles visibly, and then rushes over to the desk and starts scrambling around on his knees, looking for the power cord under the desk.

I decide that this is getting out of hand. I'm not sure just how much of a fire hazard the thing really is, but it can't be doing any good to leave it sitting there smoking. So I come around the counter, grab the power cable at the back of the monitor, and pull it out. The smoke stops, and the kid stands back up, looking relieved.

I stepped back around the counter, and he got me whatever it was I needed. While he was doing that, the other two came out and stood around the monitor, probably trying to figure out what to do with it. I took my whatever, and rode off into the sunset.

And that, my children, is one of the very few times when I was actually cool.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mawwiage is what brings us together...

"Like so many contemporary philosophers, he particularly enjoyed giving helpful advice to people who were happier than he was." ~Tom Lehrer

I like being married. Oh, maybe not in general; I mean, I can picture quite a large number of situations in which being married would be inconvenient, annoying, or downright nightmarish. But I like being married to The Beautiful Woman... and I liked being married to my Supposed Former Wife well enough that I was willing to get married again after my first marriage imploded.

At one point, I had intended to spend some time on this blog talking about marriage: about what makes it work, about warning signs indicating that it isn't working, about mistakes that I see people making... and I can't. At least, not in general terms.

Marriage is different for everyone. Don't take my word for it; look around. Anyone who thinks that there's a single {formula/model/piece of advice} that will {help/work for} everyone is clearly delusional. (By extension, this means that probably a full third of all the self-help, new age, and Christian living books on the market are a complete waste of your time and money.) The best general marriage advice I can come up with is this: "Find something that works for you."

I can think of an addendum: "...and stick with it for as long as it works." I can also think of a couple of corrolaries: "Know yourself well enough to realize what you want and what you need, and how to tell the difference between the two." "Make sure your expectations are realistic." But, basically, it comes back to finding something that works for you.

I still have a few specific rants on the topic. (In fact, I wrote one on the topic of "It Just Happened" back before I even had the blog.) So I'll probably be coming back to the subject.

There is one other point I'd like to make, which is also a corrolary to the "find something that works for you" rule. It's this: Just because something doesn't or couldn't work for you, that does not mean that someone else is doing it wrong. I say this particularly in relation to the Homosexual (Etc.) marriage debate which is currently occupying a certain amount of our national politics, but it's good general advice, too. There's a natural Human tendency to think that the way I do something is clearly the best way, especially if it works so well for me. By extension, it's easy to think that anyone who doesn't do it that way must be ignorant, or insane, or possibly immoral.

But, well, people are different. And anything built from people - as marriage is - is naturally going to vary depending on which people it's built from. And that is, actually, the way it's supposed to be.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A call to arms!

Ladies and Gentlemen, the holidays as we know them are in danger. They are losing their history and their significance - the very things that give them meaning. I'm here today, on this very blog, to issue a call to arms.

The problem, my friends, is Christmas. In the early days of Christianity, Christmas was a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Over the centuries, Christmas became the dominant winter holiday in Western Civilization. In the process, it crowded out other mid-winter celebrations. (For example, few people really celebrate Chanukah anymore, and Saturnalia is forgotten by everyone except a few history buffs and pagan revivalists.)

Christmas has also become more commercial, and as a consequence, more secular. This, as you might imagine, is a problem. The occupation of our stores and public areas by Christmas decorations, Christmas music, and Christmas merchandise could, perhaps, be tolerated in conjunction with the holiday itself. But! Brethren, but! Christmas is no longer content with its dominance! For the last several years, Christmas has insinuated its agents into other areas of the calendar. I am convinced that its goal is nothing less than the total occupation of year!

Thanksgiving has already fallen! If we don't rally our forces, Halloween will be next. I estimate that at their current rate of expansion, in less than ten years the forces of Christmas will occupy all but a handful of days on the calendar.

Some of you will no doubt disagree. You may say, "Christmas is just trying to secure its borders. Let it have Thanksgiving - it'll stop before it reaches Halloween." I tell you, friends, appeasement will not work! We must fight back, and we must fight back now, before we are overrun! You may say, "I can't take part in the war on Christmas." I tell you that you must! I call upon all of you to join me! We must turn the tide of aggression before it's too late.

But a final word of caution, before we begin. War is never a pretty business. A battle against such a venerable and well-loved adversary, one which has done so much good over the years, must be undertaken soberly, and with a full understanding of our mission. Our goal is not to destroy Christmas - never think that! We fight only to halt its militaristic expansion, and drive it back to its traditional borders. With that in mind, I give your our rallying cry - a cry which will serve to remind us what we're fighting for, yes, but also when to stop the fighting.

"Twelve days - and nothing more!"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why Superhero Movies Suck

I grew up reading comic books - a lot of comic books. Marvel, DC, First (until they went out of business), and several independent titles. I was a huge fan of Sandman, which should surprise absolutely nobody; I also read a lot of X-men and related titles. Grimjack and Grendel were formative influences on a lot of my writing and gaming, and more recently I've been enjoying things like the new Blue Beetle and Girl Genius.

The recent run of comic-based movies should, by rights, be a source of considerable enjoyment for me. It's a logical transition (since comics, unlike books, are primarily a visual medium, which should make them vastly easier to convert into movies). And, frankly, since Hollywood's ideas for movie projects tend to get more than a little inbred, it's hard to be anything other than happy that they might have found a source for new material.

And yet...

Many - even most - of the recent superhero movies have left me feeling... impatient. I might even go as far as "bored". So I would like to make a suggestion, to any Producers who might be out there reading this:

If you're making a movie based on a well-known comic property - the sort of thing that might be considered a cultural icon - please don't feel compelled to muddle through the entire origin story before you actually start the plot.

Seriously. We know Spider-man got his powers after being bit by a radioactive spider. We know Superman fell to Earth from Krypton as a baby. We know the Fantastic Four were bombarded by Cosmic Radiation. "How I got my Powers" is almost never the interesting part of a superhero's story; it's a distraction from the rest of the movie. If you absolutely have to include the origin story, at least establish the main story conflict first.


Friday, November 6, 2009

An Observation On Moral Responses

Credit where credit is due, this is not my own observation. I found it in the comments on this thread over at Slacktivist.

The post, and the comments, are focused on a little chart that lays out the possible outcomes of helping/not helping someone who is/isn't in need. There are four possible outcomes:
  1. You help them and they need it: they get the help they need.
  2. You help them and they don't need it: they get help they didn't need/deserve.
  3. You don't help them and they need it: they don't get the help they need.
  4. You don't help them and they don't need it: they don't get help, but they didn't need it anyway.

I should really stop at this point, and recommend that you go and read not only the original post, but the comment thread that follows it. If you're even vaguely interested in moral philosophy, there's a lot of good stuff there. The observation that really stopped me, though, was on page 2 of the comments, submitted by JR. It's {his or her} observation that I really wanted to repeat and emphasize here. So...

Take another look at the chart (or the list o' outcomes). Two of those possible outcomes are good, and two of them are bad. But what's the worst possible outcome?

Go ahead. Take your time. I'll wait.


It seems to me that the worst possible outcome is #3: the person in need does not get help. I wouldn't think that this would even be especially controversial. And yet... in almost every conversation I hear about whether or not to help people, there's at least one person who argues as if #2 is the worst possible outcome: someone gets help that they didn't need or deserve.

Now, obviously the real world is more complicated than this. To offer a single counter-point (and there are others), there are plenty of situations where the presence of people taking help they don't need (outcome #2) actively prevent people who need help from getting it (thus producing outcome #3).

Nevertheless, I can't help but think that our first instinct, our gut reaction, should not be "How do we prevent help from going to people who don't deserve it?" The question that should be foremost in our minds and responses is, instead, "How do we make sure that help gets to the people who need it?"

Monday, November 2, 2009

How I met my wife...

I mentioned, in my last post, that the way in which my wife and I got together tends to suggest that some Higher Power was shuffling us around on the Great Cosmic Chessboard - either that, or someone, somewhere, flipped on the Infinite Improbability Drive for a brief spin around the galaxy. A couple of people asked to hear the story, so I'm going to try to oblige. This is a little complicated, because it intersects with several other stories, and I'm not sure I can really sort all of them out and still show you just how ridiculously unlikely it was for me to end up married to the Beautiful Woman.

Let's start with some background (and I'll try to keep this as simple as possible). I graduated early from high school, and went to college out of state. My first two years of college had some enjoyable and memorable moments, but overall I was not very happy. (The technical term is "depressed", though I didn't recognize it at the time.) I was more than a little out of place, and I spent a lot of time alone - more than was healthy, even for a natural loner like me. The summer after my sophmore year, I went to a party with one of my friends from high school, and made the Earth-shaking discovery that not all colleges were like mine. Dizzy with revelation, I transferred.

This turned out to be one of the best things I could have done. I was still decidedly odd by the standards of the school, but I wasn't the only one; and I quickly stumbled into a small tribe of people who were not only odd, but odd in a lot of the same ways I was odd.

It was in this context that I first met the Beautiful Woman.

She was, of course, dating someone else. (Actually, when I first saw her, she was halfway through a fairly thick science fiction novel, and utterly engrossed in her reading.) In point of fact, she was dating one of my friends, a charismatic fellow with a flair for melodrama and a truly awe-inspiring inability to actually finish anything, ever. They broke up fairly soon after, but one of my friends and I both made a point of telling the Beautiful Woman that we really hoped she would continue to hang around with the group. She did, and the fellow she'd been dating got over it, and we all went on to have a lot of fun together.

I was, at the time, also dating someone else, someone who went on to become my wife (after college), my ex-wife, and (after seeking an annulment so she could join the Catholic church) finally my Supposed Former Wife. So the Beautiful Woman and I never dated in college. Instead, we hung around a lot, occasionally wrestled in the student center, and generally drove each other (and my then-girlfriend) completely crazy.

This continued until, I think, the semester before I graduated. At that point, several members of the tribe had graduated already, and the group was basically coming apart. The Beautiful Woman essentially quit speaking to me, and spent her time elsewhere. At the time, I didn't know whether I'd done something to offend her, or whether she was just going her own way. (It turns out to have been a bit of both.) So, shortly before I graduated, I left her a mixed tape and a note of conditional apology. ("If I did something to offend you, I'm sorry.") She wasn't in at the time, so I left it in the office of her dormitory.

I went on to graduate, get a job, leave the job for grad school, and... drat, I'm going to have to include a few more details. Okay, here's the relevant bit: I enrolled in grad school along with a friend from the tribe, who had graduated a bit earlier. We wound up in Stephenville, Texas (Tarleton State University), partly because a pair of gay, Hasidic rabbis - also members of the tribe, or at least closely affiliated with it - had bought some land down there.

Right, so - just before my final semester of Grad School, I got married to my college girlfriend, who was A) graduating and B) going into the Army as a nurse. I finished my degree and moved up to Lawton, Oklahoma to be with her, thus beginning an even more purgatorial time than my first two years of college. I was, again, very isolated (and I do not "break the ice" easily or quickly); I was unemployed; and I was not happy with the marriage, either. This went on for about three years. I should note for the record that my then-wife was not in any way to blame for this.

Somewhere towards the end of that period, I drove down to visit the Rabbis on their ranch. This was mostly in an effort to salvage my sanity by getting the Hell out of Lawton for couple of days, though it might also be fairly described as "running away from my personal problems". It had been at least six months - probably closer to a year - since I'd seen them, so we were mostly catching up. And it was in their house that statistical probability went right off the rails.

That was the same evening that the Beautiful Woman decided, purely on a whim, to call the Rabbis; and I happened to be standing next to the phone when it rang, so I answered it. I have no idea which of us was more surprised. At this point it had been at least six years since we'd last spoken; and it had been quite a while since she'd spoke to the Rabbis, as well.

We talked a little, and made arrangements to get together for lunch the following day... because, y'know, after a coincidence like that, how could we not?

We met at a Chili's, got a table, and placed our order. Then the manager came by, and told us that they needed the table for a large group which was coming in. She offered to give us our lunch for free if we'd switch tables, so we did, and she did. This was unprecedented in my experience, at least as unlikely as the phone call that reconnected us in the first place. It's the sort of thing that simply never happens.

After that, we kept in touch by e-mail. Soon after, my marriage imploded and I moved back to Dallas; a few months after that, the Beautiful Woman and I got together; and we've been together ever since - three years of dating (mostly long-distance) and now seven years of marriage. We have a three year old boy, and another one on the way.

And that is the ridiculously improbable way in which I got (back) together with my wife.

Edited to add: I don't think "miracle" is too strong a word, here.

Varieties of Religious Perspective

For anyone wandering in unwarned, this thread is an outgrowth of some comments over at another blog: Slacktivist. The idea was that the commenters there, if they were interested, could come here and talk a little about their background and religious views/beliefs/opinions.

This is not the sort of thing I usually put on this blog, so I'd like to put down some ground rules before we get started:

  1. This thread is for sharing your beliefs, views, and/or experiences. It is not for proselytizing, and it is not for debating the merits of those beliefs (your own or anyone else's). If you can't tell the difference, please don't post. I do not have active moderation enabled, but I will edit, disemvowel, or simply remove posts if it really becomes necessary.
  2. By the same token, if someone says something that you find offensive, please do not respond. Bring it to my attention, and I'll deal with it. (I don't really expect that to be necessary, but you never know.)
  3. This group has a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Please remember that everyone posting here is doing so voluntarily, for our mutual education and enjoyment. Be friendly, and enjoy yourself.
  4. I have no idea whether this blog has length restrictions on comments, or what those restrictions might be. I therefore recommend that you compose your response elsewhere, and paste it in; that way, if it's too long, you can put the rest in a second comment. (Also, hopefully, you won't lose your work.)

So that's pretty much it. I'll start:

I post on Slacktivist as Michael Mock, just as I do here. If you go back far enough, I also used to post as Jack Grey, but that was years ago. I am, more or less, a militant agnostic with animist and pantheist tendencies.

I was raised Episcopalian (so I tend to expect church services to involve fancy clothes along with a lot of kneeling, standing, and sitting; to be fairly formal and ritualistic; and to involve a certain amount of incense). Unlike a lot of former Christians, I didn't ever really reject the church. I was a bit asocial as child, and church was just one of a long list of things that seemed very important to everyone else and didn't make much sense to me (c.f. team sports, cars, fashion). I didn't so much leave the Church, as wander off and never come back. I fiddled around with other belief systems for a while, and finally settled into my current agnosticism.

I don't really believe in G-d - at least, not as He is usually described - and I have some doubts about the historical existence of Jesus, but I don't really consider myself an Atheist, either. The reasons for that are a little complicated, but mainly come down to two points: I don't think the (non-)existence of G-d is a provable assertion, either way; and I am very aware that I look at the world in ways that are not strictly rational. (So who am I to throw stones?) Some examples...

  • There are places that are... alive... for me, in a way I find difficult to describe. Sacred, but not to any particular god; haunted, but in a good way. Hence the 'animist and pantheist tendencies' in my blurb.
  • Chi (or Ki or Qi) - the flow of energy through the body. I'm an amateur martial artist. I've actually felt this. I'm also pretty sure it doesn't exist, at least not in any empirically verifiable fashion. Nonetheless, it's a useful lense for looking at (this piece of) the world; it allows me learn and describe some subtleties of movement for which English lacks a good vocabulary.
  • The way my wife and I got together. It's the sort of scenario I could never include in a book; nobody would believe a coincidence that improbable. I detest words like "fate" or even "synchronicity", but quite frankly it's hard to look at the situation and not think that some sort of Higher Power was involved.

The other reason that I don't consider myself an Atheist is that I don't see the point in arguing about beliefs that I see as fundamentally harmless. I am aware that some people see religion as intrinsically harmful and repressive, but I tend to view it more like Art: it's just something that people do. Individuals will do it to a greater or lesser extent, and it may be used to promote either the nobler or the baser elements of human nature, but it's not particularly good or evil in itself.

Oddly, the one area where I really do have strong feelings has to do with what you can and cannot prove (or even reasonably assert); it makes me a little crazy when people start defending their beliefs (or attacking others) using logical fallacies, unsupported assertion, etc. etc. etc. This is why I classify myself as a 'militant' agnostic, and why I'm looking forward to seeing what Froborr does over at Fluffy Iguana Cookies.

That's pretty much it for me; anyone else want to play?