Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reflections on Proselytizing

My friend Billy and I were just talking the other day about how much easier it must be to proselytize if you’re a Christian or a Hindu or something like that. “Worship with us, and your sins will be forgiven, and when you die you’ll go to Heaven.” Or, “Worship with us, advance your soul, and when you die you’ll be reincarnated as someone better.”

Easy sell, right? If they only knew the truth... But what are we supposed to tell people? “Worship with us, help bring about the death of the world, and when the Ancients rise up they’ll eat you last.” Not the most appealing sales pitch, I’ll admit, but look at what we have to work with. “On the plus side, the Shapeless Lurker doesn’t care a whit about your sins, and the world will end soon anyway, so you might as well do what you want.”

I guess it doesn’t really matter. I mean, when we go door to door, we usually just drug unsuspecting housewives or elderly homeowners and carry them out to the van. Every once in a while we’ll have to make a sacrifice on site, and it can be kind of scary to know you have to hide the evidence of the ritual and make it look like a typical robbery... but you know, I’d still rather do that than actually proselytize.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Critical Evaluation as a Moral Necessity

“I swore to defend this country against all enemies, foreign, sir... and domestic.” ~Commander Anderson, The Rock

Last weekend, the FBI and the ATF arrested eight members of a Michigan-based Christian militia group called Hutaree; a ninth is still at large. This group is accused of planning to planning to murder a police officer, then set off an IED at the funeral – apparently in the hope of triggering a revolution by killing even more police officers. (Apparently the group thinks that police are the moral equivalent of Imperial Stormtroopers, working in mindless service to the Federal Government and the New World Order.)

Assuming that this assessment of their goals and methods is correct, this is a textbook example of terrorism. (Making Light offers another example of domestic terrorism in action.) Now, this isn’t an especially striking or controversial assertion. Terrorism is, basically, the use of violence or threats to intimidate or coerce, particularly for social or political purposes. This group was proposing to use violence in order to provoke an uprising against the government. Therefore, they are terrorists; Q.E.D.

As I said, this shouldn’t be controversial. We could argue about whether the charges are true – innocent until proven guilty, after all – but if the accusations are correct in even their broadest outlines, it’s terrorism. Probably treason as well. Based on their online writing, we’re well past sedition already.

This being the case, one might expect a certain segment of American society to call for them to be treated like terrorists: try them in military tribunals, torture the ones we have in custody until they tell us what their co-conspirator is up to and where he might be, etc. I don’t actually think that will happen, at least not in any great degree. The sorts of people who are inclined to completely freak out when a Muslim fails to bring down an airplane, are also inclined to assume that it’s some sort of government frame-up when the perpetrators are white, Christian, and American citizens. There’s a sort of tribal double-standard here: “terrorism” is what the other guy does (much like “refugees” must always be foreigners*).

And that brings me, by a long and circuitous route, to my point. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think morality has anything to do with religion. I think that moral behavior has a lot more to do with paying attention to your actions: both what you’re actually doing, and what effects (obvious and subtle) your behaviors have. In other words, it’s not the source of your rules that matters, it’s how you apply them. Fred Clark of Slacktivist recently observed a related distinction between “values” (qualities you appreciate) and “virtues” (which require ongoing effort to cultivate as habits of thought and action).

So, on the general subject of applying morality to everyday life, I’d like to look at the process of making moral judgements. The example of domestic terrorism, and in particular the way the response to domestic terrorism differs from the response to foreign terrorism, illustrates a critical first step that a lot of people seem to miss. That step is, basically, to evaluate the situation. You can’t start with a moral rule and then try apply it to a situation; first you need to understand, as much as possible, what the situation actually is. Otherwise you tend to leap to the wrong conclusion – not because your logic was faulty, but because your assumptions were mistaken.

That means that a lot of moral judgements are conditional. For example: “It seems that management is taking advantage of the workers here. If that’s the case, it needs to stop.” This is a very different sentiment from “The workers should rise up against the management” – which may or may not be true, depending on the actual situation.

Granted, that can be annoying, unsatisfying, or both. Also, some people are going to see it wishy-washy, wimpy, or uncertain. Unfortunately, human beings are not, as a general rule, blessed with the ability to immediately and accurately assess any given situation that they happen to stumble into. In addition, situations in the real world tend to be complicated. As a result, conditional judgements are about the best we can do; the alternative is a false (and possibly damaging) certainty.

* * *

* True story. During hurricane Katrina, we had a great many people fleeing New Orleans and the rest of the coast. They were desperately in need of refuge, and a lot of them wound up in the D/FW area. As part of the relief effort, my employer arranged to offer shelter to some of them. We had no sooner put the information up on our website than the word came down from On High: no matter how badly they needed refuge, we couldn’t refer to them as “refugees”. They were, um, well... They needed... Well, we could call them... Oh, I know! They’d just been evacuated, so they were “evacuees.” Apparently “refugees” only exist in other countries.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Scammer Seeks Apprentice

I saw a sign on my way into work this morning. I'd just gotten off the highway, and was coming up to the light where I turn from the service road onto Arapaho. The sign was on the verge - that grassy area between the sidewalk and the street. The sign was maybe two feet wide and a foot high, held up by an abbreviated wire frame that had been driven into the earth. It was hand-lettered, and it said:

$20,000 / MONTH+?
(972) XXX-XXXX

Now, my immediate reaction was a derisive snort. These sorts of signs pop up from time to time, and they're invarably scams of one sort or another. But the more I thought about this one, the funnier it got.

I mean... "Real estate investor seeks apprentice?" Seriously? Have you looked at the market lately? D/FW isn't as bad off as some areas, but it ain't great - and somehow you're doing well enough to seek an apprentice?

And that brings me to my second point: "apprentice?" How does that work? I mean, if you're looking for an assistant, that's one thing - though I notice that there's no particular skill set being mentioned. Instead, I'm supposed to believe that you're seeking a protégé that you can train in the mysterious ways of real estate investing, someone to whom you can impart your hidden wisdom, someone who - when the time comes - can take up the burden himself...? Dude, I think you've confused "real estate investing" with "Jedi training".

Which brings us, at last, to the utterly laughable bottom line: $20,000 / month. Seriously, what? You can afford to pay an apprentice $20K a month, but you have to advertise with craptastic hand-lettered signs by the roadside? Really? Or maybe I'm reading that wrong, and you want me to pay you $20K each month for the priviledge of sitting at your feet and learning all the skills that made you - clearly - so enviably successful. Either way, FAIL.

So very much fail, on so very many levels.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Zombie Dance!

Another strange dream last night...

I'd gotten lost, and wound up in a small town in the middle of nowhere. They had a zombie outbreak - or rather, periodic zombie outbreaks. I don't think they ever got the problem to go away, but there were only ever a few people infected at a time.

The solution was not to remove the head or destroy the brain. No, the solution was to hold down the zombie (who had, presumably, been a friend or neighbor until recently) and force-feed it some of the local beer. The victim would return to normal.

I bet that made for some interesting parties.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reflections on the Final Days

I’m so glad to be alive at this point in history. I mean, I know the Great Darkness will fall soon, and the Old Ones will rise up to scourge the Earth with fire and madness. I realize that even as one of Their worshippers, I probably won’t survive their release. Even if I do, I’ll be a gibbering, subhuman madman, my mind and body blasted by Their influence, scrounging a desperate living among the ruins - or kept alive as a pet for Their hideous and perverse amusements.

But think of how exciting it is to be living in the final days! I mean, we get to see cities tumbled into ruin and scoured by the burning winds, whole continents uprooted, lava flowing like blood in the wounds of the Earth. Pride in human accomplishment will be revealed for the hollow mockery that it is when the seas turn black and devouring. Our true masters will be revealed, and the sight of them will strike men blind, shatter minds into lunacy, even kill a lucky few outright. Finally, of course, the Nameless Shadow will devour the sun, leaving the world in darkness and cold forever. Who wouldn’t want to witness that?

Not the way it's supposed to work

So I took yesterday off from work. Last week was horrible, owing mainly to a combination of allergies and stomach trouble (which could have been caused by the allergies, or could have been some sort of tummy bug working independently). I worked all the way through it, partly because we're quite busy right now, and partly because my immediate boss was out on Thursday and Friday; somebody had to hold the fort.

If I'd had a week like that when I was younger, I would have spent the weekend alternating between the bed and the couch. With a four-year-old in the house, and an extremely (ludicrously!) pregnant wife who needs to grade papers for her classes, the opportunity to just rest is a bit harder to come by. So on Monday, while my wife was teaching, I dropped Small Boy off at his Nana's, went back home, and called in sick(ish).

Monday was an excellent recovery day. I went back to bed for a brief three-hour nap, made some food, played video games, and generally failed to accomplish anything. It was wonderful.

You'd think that would make me feel better, but by the end of the day I was nearly painfully exhausted. Yes, that's right: doing nothing wore me out. I think I'd been pushing so hard that when I finally slowed down, my body decided that it could now spare the time to actually be sick. So I took more meds before I went to sleep, and woke up this morning in a puddle of sweat - I think I actually threw off a fever somewhere in the small hours of the morning. (That would probably also explain the rather vivid dream where the ghost was deciding whether or not to kill me.)

I do feel better, really - clearer, better able to focus. It's just that I'm still exhausted, and just rested enough to realize how tired I really am. Goal for the day: try to take it easy, and make an early night of it tonight.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Driving to church in the snow

I dropped my son of at his grandparents' church this morning. This is our usual Sunday pattern; it gives the boy some time with his grandparents, and it gives us some time to get things done around the house. The only thing that made this morning interesting was that yesterday, it snowed.

That, however, was more than interesting enough. My son (he'll be four in June)thought all the snow was hilarious; he kept pointing out things that had snow on them, and then giggling. The highway was mostly just wet, but there was slush on the bridges. We passed one wreck, where the front left corner of one vehicle had connected with the rear right corner of another, with the result that both were now on the side of the highway and facing the wrong direction. Everyone passing the wreck did a sensible job of slowing down enough to be safe, but not so much as to create additional dangers; and Theron had a good time looking at the fire trucks. All in all, the trip down was pretty uneventful.

So I dropped the boy off and headed back, and that was where life got a little exciting. The ramp that takes you from LBJ Freeway to Central Expressway (or 635 to 75) is a high, curving bridge. It's two lanes wide, with about half a lane on either side. And, of course, as we came around the top and started to descend, the car in front of me decided that - what with all the slush on the bridge - she should step on her brakes. Fortunately, she figured out almost immediately that that was not a very good idea. Unfortunately, that forced me to slow down, at a point where I really didn't want to be braking. All things considered, it was more annoying than really dangerous, but I was doubly irked when we reached the bottom and I discovered that the driver was talking on her cell phone while driving in the slush.

But okay, fine, I passed her and life went on. Now I was driving north on Central, and the road was wet with stretches of mush atop the bridges. Traffic was pretty light, and while the crosswind was a bit nasty, that danger was easily avoided by just not, y'know, driving too fast.

Two bridges further north, I glanced in the rearview mirror just in time to see a large pickup truck accidentally move half a lane left as he was crossing the bridge. He had been in the left lane, so the lane that he was now partly occupying was the High Occupancy Vehicle lane, which was empty at this hour. However, owing to an excess of stupidity at the Texas Department of Transportation, the HOV lanes on Central are separated from the rest of the lanes by rows of little plastic sticks. The truck mowed down a good forty-foot stretch of these with his front bumper before he was able to get back over into his original lane.

A bridge or two later, I saw somebody in a smallish black car - if I had to guess, I'd say it was probably a Mustang - take an unexpected right turn across all four lanes of traffic. It was the same basic scenario: the car was in the left lane, coming across the top of a bridge. I don't think he actually got hit; I think he was far enough in front that the car which would have t-boned him was able to stop. It was pretty obvious (even watching through the rear view mirrow at an increasing distance) that he'd panicked... because once the car came to a stop, it didn't move for a good half a minute. I did eventually see it straighten out and get moving again.

And that was pretty much the last of the morning's excitement. I got back home, parked the car in the garage, and took a nap. Mission accomplished.

I do have a final note for my fellow Texas drivers. I know we sometimes get unusual or unexpected weather conditions, and I understand that sometimes you have to go out anyway. I'm also aware that the Metroplex is carefully arranged so that automobiles are the only practical way to get to most places. That said, I'd take it as a personal favor if those of you who don't know how to drive in these conditions would stay off the road when they happen. Okay? Thanks.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Why is it snowing *inside* the house?

I just got home to find that the thermostat had been cranked down to about 50 degrees, and the fan had been switched from "auto" to "on". The house is a brisk fifty-five degrees or so. (I'm assuming it got a little warm during the play date, and leaving for gymnastics was not a calm, organized endeavor.)

And so but anyway, I've made myself a large cup of cinammon tea and gotten out my ski jacket, which I intend to be wearing when Beautiful Woman and Small Boy return home. As a matter of fact, I hear the garage door now...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stupid Arguments III: Abortion Edition

This post is not about the relative merits of either side in the abortion debate. Instead (and this should be really obvious from the title), I want to discuss why it's a stupid argument. More to the point, I want to look at some of the reasons why it's nearly impossible to have a productive discussion on this topic.

The problem is not just that the public (or at least media) discussion of the issue has been oversimplified to point of absurdity; or that the two sides are so utterly polarized that there's no common ground at all; or even that neither of those positions actually fit the way most people think - though all of that is, to some degree, true. It's the structure of the debate itself, which conflates two very different questions and concerns.

What it breaks down to (in the oversimplified, polarized, make-people-fighting-mad presentation) is this: "Killing babies is bad" vs. "Abortion should be legally available". And then, of course, we have people shouting them at each other, as if they were actually talking about the same thing:
"Killing babies is bad."
"But abortion should be legally available."
"But killing babies is bad!"
"But abortion should be legally available!
...And like that.

Until you start breaking the argument down, there's no way to make progress. And, to be honest, I think a lot of our politicians prefer it this way. The issue generates a lot of righteous anger, and gets people to vote. If it ever went away, they'd have to find some other way to motivate people, and that takes work.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Reclaiming My Voice

The first time Cat saw Aniel, he thought she was a ghost.

I had a funny little epiphany late last week.

I was writing an entry for The Grey Tower, which is an online writing/roleplaying site set in the world of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I've been involved with this site off and on for years; for a while I was actually helping to run the place. Then my free time imploded, and I dropped out in order to give myself more time for my own writing projects. Amusingly, that was the same reason I went back: I wasn't finding time for my own projects. The sort of written roleplay done at the Grey Tower involves creative writing in pleasantly bite-sized chunks, and offers a way to keep the imagination limber when I just don't have the time or attention for an entire story.

Recently, I re-introduced one of older characters, a master swordsman named Firredal Osiellin. He would be interacting with one of the newer arrivals at the Tower. Firredal had been away for at least a year of his personal time, and his affairs were more than a little complicated. So when the time came to reintroduce him, I had a lot of background to fill in.

So I started writing, trying to set the scene so that my partner could see it well enough to add the next part. And I found myself describing Firredal's return, exploring his mixed, conflicting reactions to the changes he found, filling in the setting by describing the ways in which it had changed. I found myself, in other words, writing a reasonably compelling opening scene.

And then I found myself wondering, Why can't I do this with Warrior's Legacy? I've started and restarted the rewrite of that book; I probably have a dozen abortive second drafts. And I realized (or at least theorized) that I was treating Warrior's Legacy like a project, instead of a story.

The problem with writing stories that have speculative, futuristic, or fantastic elements is that they require additional work. You don't just have to introduce the characters and the plot; you also have to introduce the weirdness: how magic works, if you have that; the effects of advanced technology, if you have that; the applications and limits of psychic powers, if you have those. You have to know, preferably before you get started, how your world is different from the real world... and then you have to introduce those differences to your readers.

And I'd been working too hard to fill in those differences. I was so busy trying to introduce the world, that I was neglecting the characters and the plot; I was trying to stuff the background in - unobtrusively yet - so I could get to the story. And, naturally, it didn't work. It ground; it dragged. I'd get frustrated (probably at not having really started the story yet), and start over again... but while I might come at the story from a different angle, I hadn't fixed the fundamental problems with my approach.

Okay, I told myself. So don't do that. Just start with the story, and fill in the background as you need it. So I did, and suddenly the story has flow again. I'm making progress. It isn't quick or easy, but it's worlds better than it was before. Before, making progress was like shoving a boulder down a road; every time I let up at all, it ground to a halt and didn't want to move again. Now, the story itself is pulling me along; I'm not pushing at along so much as following it to see where it goes - or at least how it gets there.

I've found my voice again, and - oddly - I owe it to roleplaying.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

More strange dreams

This morning my allergies woke me up at about three-thirty. Given that I went to bed as soon as Firstborn started snoring, this was a decent amount of sleep. However, I've been trying to get enough sleep to stay health, so I didn't just crawl out of bed. I found some tissues and a cough drop, and tried to go back to sleep.

This actually worked, in the sense that I did manage to fall asleep again.

Now, under the circumstances, I might hope to at least have pleasant dreams: something featuring Natalie Imbruglia and myself at a scenic mountain resort, perhaps. Instead, I get an extremely creepy sequence where Firstborn was a zombie and gnawing on my hand, followed by another sequence where an old acquaintance from college dropped in unannounced, and expected us to offer her a place to stay. Is this really the best my brain can come up with? Is an indiscreet moment with Drew Barrymore on a desert island too much to ask for? If Ms. Barrymore was already booked, I'd have settled for a chance to explore the island...

To quote Charlie Brown, "It just isn't fair!"

Texas in a nutshell (with the emphasis on "nut")

Every once in a while I find myself trying to describe what Texas is like to someone who's never been here. It's not easy, because almost everything you might have heard about the state is true - even the parts that contradict each other. It's a huge state, with a lot of different regions - each with their own peculiar take on "Texas Culture".

But I think I've finally found a way to describe it... or at least sum it up. Today, on my way to work, I passed a pair of large pickup truck. One of them was a Dodge; I'm not sure about the other. They were about the same size: big, with extended cabs, tall enough that the hood was on a level with the roof of my Honda Accord. They were both being driven by white males in their late forties to early fifties. And they both had bumper stickers.

The first one I noticed because the bumper sticker was in the back window. The background of the sticker was a Texas flag. The text was a single word, in large letters, written over it: SECEDE.

The truck in front of him - very similar in size, design, color, driver demographics - had a sticker on the bumper. This sticker was white text on a black background, and said: Keep Austin Weird.

So there you go. Welcome to Texas.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back when I was a ghost...

The place where I spent my first two years of college has always struck me as the perfect setting for a werewolf story.* It's a high-powered University, very intellectual, built on the edge of the cumberland plateau; it's possible to walk from the dormitories, and find yourself in the midst of genuine wilderness - forest, cliffs, caves, wild animals - in a matter of minutes. This suited me; at the time, I was considerably more restless and uncivilized than I am now. If I could have changed myself into a wolf and gone to live in the woods, I probably would have. I'd at least have given the matter serious thought.

The buildings there are built of rough-cut sandstone, and the architecture has a somewhat gothic sensibility: regular and flying buttresses, elegant archways, crenelated walls along the balconies. In addition to encouraging a certain sense of romanticism, these features provide a nearly-irresistible** opportunity for climbing. And being restless and out of place and nearly nocturnal, I did a lot climbing.

The bell tower was a personal favorite, though I never did quite figure out how to get the rest of the way up to the balcony. That's not to say that it couldn't be done; I just never saw a method that I trusted enough to try - and since nobody knew I was up there, I was very cautious about trying things. A large part of that caution was that anything I came up with would also need to be done in reverse, so I could get back down afterwards. That was the consideration that ruled out most of my bright ideas.

But that's a digression, really. The point of this story isn't about climbing things that I probably shouldn't have been. This is a story about being a ghost.

In some ways, I really was a ghost. As I said, I mostly came out at night; I wore a lot of black; I drifted restlessly around campus; I seldom spoke. Socially, that's about all it takes. But one evening, it went a little further.

I was climbing, of course; not on the tower, but on the art building which formed another edge of the central quad. I had gone most of the way up, but instead of continuing to the observatory on the roof, I decided to come in through one of the fourth-floor windows. The window was open (it usually was), and getting to the ledge was no great effort.

However, as I slipped into the room, I saw that I wasn't alone. There was a girl in the center of the room, with her back to me. She had a paint brush in her hand and an easel in front of her. She hadn't heard me come in; she was concentrating on her project, and probably didn't expect to have anyone materialize behind her in an empty room at two o'clock in the morning. For a moment, I considered just climbing back out the window; but I didn't really feel like it... and besides, if she happened to look around and see me, that could lead to questions.

So I put my head up, straightened my long black coat, and walked silently around her and out of the room. I carefully avoided making eye contact; in fact, I ignored her completely.

I'm pretty sure that this is how urban legends get started.

* I tried to write one - several times - but I was in my late teens and the results were fairly awful.
** Nearly irresistible for me, at least. Everyone else seemed to resist just fine.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Stupid Arguments part II: Religion and Morality

The priest seemed nice enough. "You're here with Tom, aren't you?" he asked me.

I was standing in the hallway outside the sanctuary, examining the art on the walls. I admitted that, yes, Tom had brought me. I think he wanted to see if I was interested in joining the Young Adults group.

The priest studied me. I don't know what tipped him off - whether it was something about my posture, or my clothing, or whether Tom had said something to him; but he asked, "You're not actually a Christian, are you?"

I shook my head. "Not really."

He smiled. "It's okay. I'll tell you a secret: it doesn't really matter where you get your morality. Read the Bible, follow the Golden Rule... the real difference between a good person and a bad person lies in how much attention they pay to the effects of their actions."

We chatted for a little longer, and then I went to look in on the Young Adults group. The priest's words stuck with me; that was the first time I'd ever run into that line of thought. It really was a shame that the priest turned out to be an evil ghost, sacrificing the souls of his congregation in order to raise a massive, multi-headed demon. It was disappointing to have to kill - or, well, disperse - someone who seemed so nice.

That was just a dream, obviously (and obviously I'd been watching just a little too much Buffy at the time). But the priest's words really did stick with me - and to the best of my knowledge, I really hadn't heard them anywhere before that.

All of that is really just a complicated lead-in to the idea that religion and morality are not the same thing. Now, if you're reading this and thinking something like, Yes, and the sky is blue. What else is new? ...Then skip on down and make some suggestion for things I should do when I become Emperor. If, on the other hand, you're spluttering with outrage and preparing a long and heartfelt comment about how there is no morality without religion... well, take a deep breath and hear me out.

The idea that morality is dependent on religion is extremely pervasive. I've come across it in all sorts of flavors, from the relatively harmless ("Kids should go to church so they learn about morality") to the ridiculous ("All this crime and violence is a result of taking prayer out of schools") to the downright offensive ("I'd never trust an atheist, because there's nothing to stop them from lying or cheating or stealing or anything"). I've also run into the argument that without God you cannot have true morality; at best, you have a human-created facsimile of true morality.

Obviously, I don't believe this is true. I think there are secular moral paradigms that work just as well as religious moral paradigms. The Golden Rule ("Do unto others...") is a perfectly good starting point for figuring out how to deal with other people, and predates extant religions by millenia. Various strains of Humanism help flesh out the details - but, as the priest pointed out in my dream, it's basically a matter of paying attention to what you do, why you do it, and what consequences your actions cause. For that matter, the idea that religion offers a model for moral living strikes me as a little dubious, too: we can argue about the moral implications of Abraham's apparent willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but Jepthah's sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11) doesn't set any sort of example that I'd care to follow, and the Book of Job basically makes God look like a monster, morally speaking.*

The other reason that I don't believe that morality requires religion is equally simple: in my personal experience, people who self-identify as Jews and Christians (the ones who claim that G-d is the basis of their morality, in other words) are not any more trustworthy, honest, or reliable in general than people who self-identify as Atheists, Agnostics, or Wiccans (etc.) To be fair, I don't find that Jews or Christians are particularly less moral, either. It's just that in terms of day to day behavior, I don't see much difference. I therefore conclude that the important thing is how much attention someone pays to their actions, rather than the underlying paradigm that they're using as a guide.

To put that another way, even if we assume that G-d's morality is perfect, down here in the real world it gets applied by human beings - which is to say, imperfectly. As a result, I don't see any practical difference between someone applying a perfect morality imperfectly, and someone applying an imperfect morality. Obviously, if your experience is different - if you find, say, that Christians are more trustworthy and reliable than unbelievers - then you're not going to agree.

And that's pretty much it. Let me leave you with some of the best moral advice I've ever run across: "Be excellent to each other. And... PARTY ON, DUDES!"

* I don't really mean to single out Christianity, here. It's just that most of the we-need-more-religion-so-people-will-be-more-moral folks that I run into happen to be some strain of Christian. Also, since I was raised Episcopalian, those are the examples that come to mind most readily.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When I become Emperor

I was trying to put together a list of the thing that I will do when I become Emperor. The first one, of course, is to pass a law forbidding radio DJs to say anything beyond names of the song, band, and radio station; a one sentence / twelve word lead in may be added once every half hour.

I think the second one will mandate that any major political or religious figure who gets outed after making a career of opposing gay rights will be stripped of wealth and status and forced to spend the rest of his life apologizing.

Also, I will forbid the use of the phrase "take _____ to the next level" under penalty of maiming.

Private gun ownership will become illegal (I may consider a special dispensation for serious collectors). Police and military will retain their firearms; everyone else will have to make do with swords. However, swords and knives may now be worn legally. Also, all vehicles will now be required to come equipped with a sheath suitable for bladed weapons.

All motorized vehicles will be required to have a muffler that actually keeps them quiet. Violators will have their vehicles pounded into junk by neighbors, or - if no neighbors are sufficiently irritated - by the secret police.

Schools and Libraries will actually get funding.

I'm sure I'll think of others - the possibilities for professional sports alone are dizzying - but that's enough to get us started. What would you do if you were Emperor?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Stupid Arguments Part I: Creation vs. Evolution

"'Ideas are tested by experiment.' That is the core of science. Everything else is bookkeeping." -XKCD

I live in Texas, which I frequently refer to as "Darkest America." I also do a fair amount of reading on blogs belonging to ex-Christians and non-Christians. It is therefore nearly inevitable that I run into people who really want to argue about the relative merits of Creation and Evolution. Since this happens with some frequency, and since I get tired of making the same explanation over and over, I'm just going to lay out my position here.

It's a stupid bloody argument.

Here's why:

Science is, at its core, a method for studying the material world. It is, basically, the application of the Scientific Method. (The word is also used to describe the body of knowledge acquired by using that method; I think this is the origin of some of the confusion that contributes to this "controversy".)

Religion is... well, that's a complicated subject; it's not easy to define. For our purposes here, I'm going to say that religion talks about things that are spiritual and/or divine (or, if you're a non-believer, fictional and/or allegorical).

There's not a lot of common ground, there.

I'm going to digress for a moment, because I've seen people assert that science is just another kind of religion. This is an amusing rhetorical exercise, and I'll even go so far as concede that there are people who treat science that way; but science and religion are fundamentally different in the way they look at the world.

And that is precisely why the "debate" is stupid. On the one side, you have the Theory of Evolution*, developed by rigorous study of the material world, asserting (for our purposes here) that new species - including homo sapiens - come about through a series of gradual, successive changes across generations. On the other side, you have a certain sort of Christian** asserting that species are different because G-d made them that way. Then people start arguing as if the one proposition had anything at all to do with the other. This is rather like debating whether Glazed Donuts Have A Lot Of Calories versus whether Goblins Enjoy Eating Glazed Donuts.

The only reason to even have the argument is if you believe that the Theory of Evolution somehow disproves the belief that G-d created everything. It doesn't. In fact, let me emphasize this, because I hear both Christians and atheists make this assertion: The Theory of Evolution does not disprove the existence of G-d. Neither does it prove the existence of G-d. It doesn't address the question at all, because the existence of G-d is untestable, and as a result can not be subject to scientific study. (That's why they call it "faith".)

Think about it. Science is founded on the study of the material world, through a process of ongoing testing and assessment. G-d, on the other hand - at least in the Christian view - exists eternally, outside of space and time; and is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. How do you test that? Even if G-d chose to reveal Himself in a documentable, reproducible fashion, how do you measure something that is, by definition, limitless? Did such a being create life, or cause human beings to develop intelligence? How could you tell?

There is a related argument which says, basically, that G-d must exist because the Theory of Evolution does not adequately explain how life could have begun, or why humans are intelligent enough to argue about this in the first place. This is both somewhat true and entirely misleading: while there is considerably argument over the details, the Theory of Evolution overall is very well established and enjoys a broad scientific consensus; and the origin of life, while related, is a separate issue. Secondarily, this argument reflects extraordinarily bad theology: if your faith is based on the idea that There Are Things Which Science Cannot Explain, then every new explanation makes your faith a little smaller, doesn't it?

Going back to my point: the Theory of Evolution says nothing, pro or con, about the existence of G-d. At worst, the Theory of Evolution can disprove one particular account of the creation of the world - and honestly, you don't need Evolution to do that; geological time does the job just fine. But even that isn't a problem if you're willing to accept the Garden of Eden story as an allegory, or even as a divine being explaining things to ancient tribes in a way that they would understand and pass on.

So please, please quit trying to mix science and religion. It only results in bad science - or bad religion.

* Which is a "theory" in precisely the same fashion as the Theory of Gravity.
** I am aware that there are other flavors of Creationist belief, along with a number of other beliefs that could arguably be called 'creationism'. However, the people who are currently trying to mess with our science curriculum are uniformly Christian.

Monday, March 1, 2010

United Way Chili Cookoff of DOOM!

I made chili yesterday.

Now, I understand that for most people, making chili is not an especially momentous event. And it really shouldn't be, even for me. I mean, I know how to cook - and not just bachelor food, either. Chili, however, intimidates me.

Partly that's because I don't really like chili. I'll eat it, but it's not something I ever find myself in the mood for. So I don't have any idea what people want or expect when they decide to eat chili.

As corollary of that, I don't cook chili. Yesterday marks the second time in my entire life that I have made the attempt. The first time was almost exactly a year ago, and for the same occasion: we're having a fundraiser at work for the United Way. One of the events is the chili cookoff. You'd think it would be easy to find people who actually know how to cook chili, but apparently not.

I just hope that nobody comes to harm. I mean, the ingredients are all edible... individually. It's the cumulative effect that worries me. For one thing, the recipe* includes a lot of garlic; anybody eating this chili is guaranteed to be proof against vampires for at least four hours. Possibly proof against their co-workers, as well. For another thing, there's a little bit... okay, a lot... of tabasco in the mix. The tabasco bottle was labelled "Instant Death", but that did not deter me. I may not know much about chili, but my food will not be bland!

Chili, for me, doesn't really count as cooking. It's more of an adventure - the sort of experiment that would make even Dr. Frankenstein pull back and say, "You know, maybe we should reconsider this." Pity the poor souls who must sample my work.

* Not really a recipe. It's more a conceptual recipe than an actual, reproducible formula.