01 September 2010

Little Demon Bug

This evening I was sitting in my apartment, minding my own business, when I began to hear this strange sound. It was “flap flap flap BAP…flap flap flap BAP” over and over. I got up to see what was happening, and there was a cicada flying around my nice new lamp.
For those in far-away places, a cicada is a locust-like creature, as wide as my thumb but not as long, big enough that you hear its wings flapping rather than just a buzz. It is completely alien-looking. It is clumsy and stupid, and also makes a horrible shrieking noise when it wants to talk to its friends. I was very pleased that it was not making the noise right then, but I knew that soon I would turn off the lamp and at that point the only light source in the apartment would be my computer monitor. I couldn’t have the big stupid clumsy thing flying around my face all night (plus which the lamp is one of those Chinese-type lamps with a paper shade and it was hitting the shade so hard I was afraid it would break through), but I try not to kill for no reason, so I determined to catch it and put it out the window.
As I say, they’re clumsy, and catching one is no kind of problem. Pretty much right away I was able to grab it. I was careful to hold it actually IN my hand, rather than grabbing it by a wing; if I’d done that, it would have broken the wing trying to escape from me. So I wrapped it gently in my palm and headed for the bathroom (the only window that doesn’t have a screen).
That’s when it started shrieking.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the sound, but if you haven’t, it’s extremely unpleasant, and is less pleasant the closer you are to it. It is the shrieking of souls in hell. Furthermore (and this is something I could totally have lived happily without knowing) when they shriek they vibrate like tiny, creepy cell phones. And it was doing this right there in my hand.
Reflexively I let it go, which I suppose proves that evolution knew what it was doing when it gave them that particular characteristic. How can something so small make that awful noise?
Seriously, I was present at the death of my father. I have been in a fatal car accident. I have witnessed a man being shot to death. I have killed a poisonous snake and fought off a wild dog. I have beaten and escaped from a potential rapist twice my size. But I don’t think I have ever felt a stronger sense of horror than I felt at that moment, with that awful noise and that vibration coming from my own hand. I knew it couldn’t hurt me, but I threw it away from me. It flew right back to the lamp.
I had a feeling that my prehistoric ancestors, who had hunted the mammoth and fought the saber-toothed tiger away from their young, were ashamed of me.
I went and poured myself a shot of whiskey. I lit a smoke, took a drag, and went back to the lamp. I caught it again and wrapped it in my palm, and again it shrieked and vibrated. I stood for a few seconds, smoking, refusing to open my hand, refusing to crush it.
After a while it stopped complaining and decided to wait and see what would happen next. I calmly carried it through to the bathroom and released it. It flew away silently. I hope the rest of its night was better. The rest of mine almost had to be.
I posted a shorter version of this story on Facebook as a sort of joke, but I’ll tell you the truth: as stupid as it sounds, I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything more difficult than standing there, with that shrieking bug in my hand, and refusing to be creeped out. I hope my prehistoric ancestors are satisfied.

15 August 2010

What We Mean

There’s a big argument going on right now in the internet skeptic community, which can basically be boiled down to “Atheism vs. Agnosticism.” I don’t have very many readers, of course, and I am not going to influence this debate by writing here, but I’m gonna tell ya what I think anyway.
It seems to me that there really shouldn’t be a “vs.” in there. Atheism and agnosticism are not identical, but neither are they mutually exclusive. They aren’t about the same thing. Atheism is about belief and agnosticism is about knowledge (or, more accurately, they are about the lack of belief or knowledge). These two things don’t have to overlap, but they frequently do, and it’s certainly possible to be both (like me), neither, or one or the other.
Now, as you may know (and as I’ve said on here many times), words mean things. So, if we’re gonna discuss this we should know what we mean by “atheist” and “agnostic.” Agnosticism simply means that we don’t know. As far as the existence of a god or gods goes, we are all agnostics, speaking literally. The existence of gods can’t be disproven, but there’s no evidence for them, so it’s impossible to actually “know.” Pat Robertson is an agnostic, no matter how sure he is that there’s a god. Christopher Hitchens (get well soon) is also an agnostic, no matter how sure he is that there isn’t. Belief, no matter how strongly held, simply does not equal knowledge, and so I say again, we are ALL agnostics.
That isn’t how the word is generally used, though, so we should stick to the common definition, which is certainly serviceable. Basically, when we call someone an agnostic, what we mean is that this person accepts or is aware of this universal condition of incomplete knowledge. Pat Robertson does not accept this condition, and so in this narrower sense he is not an agnostic, whereas Christopher Hitchens does and is.
Atheism is much simpler. If you don’t believe there’s a god, you’re an atheist. That is all the word means. Some people will attribute other qualities to atheists: that we are all political liberals, that we all accept evolutionary theory and Big Bang cosmology, that none of us are religious, etc. These allegations are false, or at least not uniformly true. The only thing all atheists have in common is that we don’t believe there are any gods. For example, what word besides “atheist” accurately describes both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand?
“I don’t believe there’s a god” is a negative statement. It is not a belief, but rather the absence of one. Sometimes, however, atheists use the related positive statement that “there is no god.” For most of us this is just verbal shorthand; it is inaccurate and we know it, but it is easier to say “there is no god” than “there is no evidence that there are gods and so I don’t believe in them.” If you polled every atheist in the world and asked us which of those two statements is the better summation of our beliefs, the majority would pick the latter, but in everyday conversation we don’t want to use all the extra words.
A small minority of us would still cling to the former, and of course it would not be proper to call those people agnostics under the common definition. Understand, though, that the statement “there is no god” is a belief masquerading as a fact, just the same as when a fundamentalist avers that Jesus was the son of God. It may actually be a fact that there is no god, but we don’t know that for sure; in fact, if it is true we will never positively know it. Any gods that actually exist could easily prove their existence (and the fact that they don’t should be a lot more troubling for people than it is), but if none exist there will never be any proof. The atheists who aver this belief as fact are just as irrational as fundamentalists, and I suspect that most of these “former atheists” you hear preaching on the radio now and then were this sort of atheist before their conversion. If you believe one thing for no reason, it is very easy to start believing other things for no reason. In the absence of evidence, the only rational position is a lack of belief.
And this is my point: although not all atheists are also agnostic, all rational atheists are. Furthermore, I think it would be fair to say that all or at least most rational agnostics are also atheists. It is certainly possible to admit that you don’t know whether God exists or not and also that you believe He does, but the statement is inherently irrational. Again, the two words are not identical but there is and should be a lot of overlap, so why on Earth would we argue about “Atheism vs. Agnosticism”? Isn’t that like arguing “Whiskey vs. Wine”? Can’t I love both?
For political reasons we have placed additional, artificial definitions on these words. Self-described atheists deride those less vocal with the word “agnostic,” and self-described agnostics lament the militancy of “atheists.” Don’t use “atheist” to mean “radical” and “agnostic” to mean “moderate.” Just say “radical” and “moderate.” This discussion will go nowhere if we can’t even say what we mean.

17 July 2010

Last Words

So a week or so ago I was cruising YouTube, which I always enjoy, and came across a video by a user named Oallos1 (“o allos” is Greek for “the other,” so we’ll call him “The Other One” or “TOO”) called Famous Atheists Last Words Before Dying. There’s an apostrophe missing, and the poster could probably have left out the words “Before Dying,” since that’s the commonly understood meaning of the phrase “last words,” but I watched it anyway. You can, too, if you like (or read one of the many identical blog post; I don’t know who is swiping from whom), and then meet me back here.
If you don’t want to I’ll give you an outline. It’s a bunch of quotations supposedly from the deathbeds of Voltaire, Hobbes, and others, shown over mournful music, followed by very serene last words from Christians (and King David, who of course was not a Christian, but they dig him). The idea is that all these atheists were, at the end, terrified of going to Hell (there’s a sub-plot of general despair as well). I wondered, “Why are all these people so scared of going to a Hell they don’t believe in? Perhaps I should look into this more closely.” And it’s Saturday and I have nothing to do, except that I’m gonna make an omelet and fried potatoes in a bit, so I thought I’d do a little research. What did I find? Well, read on.
He starts with Voltaire, a personal favorite, in despair: “I am abandoned by God and man…I shall go to hell.” Later in the video he gives another Voltaire deathbed quote: “I have swallowed nothing but smoke…I have intoxicated myself with the incense that turned my head.” I’m not sure which of those words is supposed to be the last.
Voltaire, of course, was not an atheist but a Deist. He rejected Christianity, not God. I suppose a committed Christian might not appreciate the difference, but Voltaire did. Three months before his death (when he was already very ill) he wrote “I die loving God, adoring my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” His actual last words were to a priest, come to solicit a last-minute confession to save his soul, and they were “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.” There is also his apocryphal deathbed utterance to a priest upon being asked to renounce Satan: “This is no time to be making enemies.” I hope that’s true. It’s so like him.
These are the facts (not counting the Satan bit) of Voltaire’s death. They don’t jibe that well with the quotations TOO uses, do they? So what’s the source here? Well, these words were part of a longer conversation reported years later by Voltaire’s doctor, a long deathbed screed that I’ve included here if you’d like to read it. There is no other source for them but the doctor. That doesn’t prove the doctor was lying, of course, but his account faces certain problems: these quotations are unlike Voltaire’s known statements, even those he was making at the same time; the doctor claims Voltaire had gone mad, an opinion no one else shared; the doctor reported this conversation in a private letter affirming his own faith, demonstrating a probable expectation that the words would never face public scrutiny; and most convincing, that Voltaire had a priest right there who could have “saved” him if he was worried, and he didn’t take advantage of it. I think the most likely conclusion is that the doctor was...well, we’ll say he was in error.
TOO includes other apocryphal or plainly untrue last words. Thomas Carlyle, for example, whose last word was “goodbye,” he has saying, “I am as good as without hope, a sad old man gazing into the final chasm.” I can find no documentation for this except that every fundamentalist site out there reports it faithfully. Thomas Paine’s deathbed recantation (in which he wishes that his Age of Reason, one of the most important documents in human history, had never been published) is a fabrication that didn’t appear until ten years after his death and was vigorously repudiated by those who had been present. TOO, though, happily recounts it.
The best of the bunch is this one from “Aldamont the Skeptic”: “My principles have poisoned my friend…my extravagance has beggared my boy…My unkindness has murdered my wife…and is there yet another hell ahead?” Whew, that’s pretty compelling. What’s that? You never heard of Aldamont? Don’t worry, the problem isn’t your ignorance, it’s TOO’s. You see, Aldamont never existed. He was a character in an 18th century novel by Edward Young, and is quoted here as if he were a real person. That’s why he’s my favorite.
Another along the same lines is this one from “Sir Thomas Scott, Chancellor of England” that reads, “Until this moment I thought there was neither God nor hell. Now I know and feel that there are both, and I am doomed to perdition by the just judgment of the Almighty.” That’s pretty straightforward, except for three things. First the correct title is “Chancellor of Britain,” although I suppose that if you go far enough back that might be the older equivalent. Second, the office is partly ecclesiastical in nature. Third, I have checked a list of all the Chancellors and there has never been one named Thomas Scott.
This is kind of serious, isnt it? The closest I could get with that name is a Sir Thomas Scott who served in Parliament and held a ton of other government positions (but not Chancellor!) in the 16th century. I don’t know for sure that this is who The Other One meant, but I could find no nearer match; all the others I found were ministers. This Scott was a Protestant and was enthusiastic about the persecution of Catholics. If this is the right guy, my guess is that the quote was made up (maybe by angry Catholics ). Also, there was Sir John Scott, Lord Eldon, who served two separate terms as Chancellor at the beginning of the 19th century. The guy who served in between was named Thomas (Erskine), so between them you have a Thomas and a Scott, and maybe TOO was just a bit sloppy. Regardless, none of these men were atheists, so again, this quotation was probably made up.
This video is full of people who weren’t atheists, actually. You have the Voltaire quotes above, of course, and TOO also mentions Edward Gibbon’s apocryphal last words (“All is dark and doubtful”), even though Gibbon was a Deist, alongside those of the Emporer Severus (“I have been everything, and everything is nothing”), who was a polytheist. He includes this bit from Gandhi: “My days are numbered. I’m not likely to live much longer, perhaps a year or more…For the first time in fifty years I find myself in the Slough of Despond…all about me is darkness…I am praying for light.” Gandhi, of course, was Hindu. To TOO there is apparently no difference between being an atheist and being non-Christian.
Of course, that doesn’t explain this quotation: “Oh, my poor soul! What will become of thee? Whither wilt thou go?” These are the alleged last words of Cardinal Mazarin, and as you may know, “Cardinal” was not his name but his title. He was one of the most powerful and influential clergymen of his day and, presumably, a Christian.
So this video is misnamed. It should be “Last Words of Famous Non-Christians (plus one or two Christians who didn’t believe hard enough).” TOO did not succeed in creating what he wanted to create. I left a very polite comment to that effect on his video, to which he responded by reporting me as a spammer. It turns out that he has reported every single comment to this video as spam. That’s why I wrote this, ‘cause I couldn’t write there. If he was trying to inspire people, well, he certainly succeeded in inspiring me.
Oh, well. The truth that TOO is trying to obscure is that human beings, no matter their religion, generally approach death with trepidation, for the same reason we pass a door into a dark room with care. We don’t know what’s on the other side. That room might hold a pretty girl, or a psycho-killer, or just some furniture we’ll stub our toes on. We might be afraid and we might not, but we tread carefully.
Mazarin (if this report, unlike the others, is true) is a Christian dying in fear, uncertain of what’s to come. Thomas Hobbes, whose last words “I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark” TOO misquotes, is also uncertain. To me Hobbes sounds less fearful than Mazarin, probably because he didn’t believe in Hell and Mazarin did. It is not clear to me that a belief in Hell is a comfort at the end of life, and I bet I could find some other despairing quotes from dying Christians if I wanted to, but really, what sort of person wants to read of people dying in despair?
Also, even if all these quotes were accurate, TOO would have a weak argument here. Does being near death give us insight into the great mysteries of the universe? Not obviously. Consider all the people who slip into dementia at the end of their lives. But even allowing that it does, what then of non-Christians who faced death unafraid and unrepentant? What of Heinrich Heine, who refused a last confession with the memorable “God will forgive me. That’s his job”? What of Byron’s peaceful “Now I shall go to sleep. Goodnight,” or Darwin’s simple and elegant “I am not the least afraid to die.” Given all the bizarre deathbed stories about Darwin, I always find that refreshing. Considering how much last words vary on the subject, isn’t the best bet simply that the speakers knew no more at the end than they had in the middle of life? Isn’t it likely that none of this proves anything at all?
Personally I have always been fond of Bertrand Russell’s words on the subject, and though they weren’t his last they were at least definitely his, and we’ll let them be the last here:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life, but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.

03 July 2010

Seriously, it took five minutes.

I should never ever read the comments on YouTube. It always hurts. There is no greater source of ignorance on the Web, with the possible exception of Yahoo! Answers.
I happened across one today where the commenter, one hennypenny247, said:

FREEDOM is a word I have NEVER heard from Obama’s mouth. For a man who so consciously uses words to redefine events, this omission has great meaning. It’s about time we all started talking about the missing, unspeakable F-word.

I am forced to assume from this comment that this woman (I’m guessing from the name that she’s a woman) didn’t hear Obama’s inaugural address:

Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and FREEDOM.

Also, she missed his famous Race Speech, the turning point in the Democratic primaries...

Those stories—of survival, and FREEDOM, and hope—became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.

and the big speech in Berlin during the campaign...

At the height of the Cold War, my father decided, like so many others in the forgotten corners of the world, that his yearning—his dream—required the FREEDOM and opportunity promised by the West.

and his message to Congress, the “not the State of the Union” speech from last year...

And a twilight struggle for FREEDOM led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

and his actual State of the Union from this year...

For America must always stand on the side of FREEDOM and human dignity.

and his speech in Cairo...

Moreover, FREEDOM in America is indivisible from the FREEDOM to practice one’s religion.

But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the FREEDOM to live as you choose.

The fifth issue that we must address together is religious FREEDOM…FREEDOM of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.

and the speech after the Fort Hood shootings...

We are a nation that guarantees the FREEDOM to worship as one chooses. And instead of claiming God for our side, we remember Lincoln’s words, and always pray to be on the side of God.

and his speech just two days ago on immigration.

Our founding was rooted in the notion that America was unique as a place of refuge and FREEDOM for, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “oppressed humanity.”

I’m sure there are more. This is just what I got in five minutes with Google, CTRL-F, and a bit of the ol’ cut-and-paste. Anyone with internet access (which, presumably, YouTube subscribers have) could have done the same. In FIVE MINUTES.
He uses the word “freedom” all the time. hennypenny may not have been listening because her ignorance is more comfortable than paying attention, but he still says it. She can argue that he doesn’t mean these things (as long as we have Guantanamo and renditions and the War on Drugs and illegal wiretaps and Justice Department lawsuits defending the National Day of Prayer I’m inclined to agree) but she can’t argue that he hasn’t said them.
In other words, her statement tells us nothing about Obama. All it says is that she hears only what she wants to hear. What argument does she think she’s winning?

14 June 2010

Open Letter to the Gas Company

1644 W. Grace St. #3
Richmond, VA 23220

June 13, 2010

Dear Gas Company,

Enclosed you’ll find my check for $144.77, which I can’t afford but am paying to avoid having my service cut off.
When I first got hooked up you folks charged me a ludicrous $235 ($35 hookup fee and $200 security deposit) for the privilege. Why a public utility with the full force of City government behind it needs to charge this fee, so much greater than private companies charge for comparable services, is a question I have not yet found an answer for.
Still, having no choice, I have been paying that ridiculous fee off in installments. However, the installments have been very large and I’ve had trouble keeping up, in spite of the fact that I’ve kept my actual usage to around $30/month. In other words, I am behind in my payments exactly because of the security deposit you charged in case I fell behind in my payments. If you hadn’t charged me that, my payments would have been on time and in full every month.
Now you write that if I don’t send you $144.77 by the 21st you will disconnect my service and I’ll have to pay another deposit and hookup fee to start it up again. So, to summarize, you charge an outrageous deposit as security against my not paying my bill, which causes me to be unable to pay my bill, and if I fall far enough behind you’ll charge me another security deposit and I’ll fall even further behind, and we’ll be in a perfect cycle of you getting an extra $235 every few months. This instead of you simply charging me the fees for what I actually use, fees I would be able to pay.
I confess that it’s a pretty clever, if soulless, scam. I wish I had thought of it myself.
Anyway, here’s your $144.77. Assuming I don’t starve to death in the meantime, you’ll get the rest of your money next month. Until then I am apparently

Utterly yours,

Richard James Winters III

07 June 2010

I Couldn't Do It Any Worse

I just had to take one of those online personality tests on a job application. You know, the ones I always fail. One of the last questions was this one: You do not fake being polite (Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, Strongly Agree).
Now, tell me if I’m wrong about this, but there’s no way to fake being polite. You either are polite or you aren’t. You might be polite even though you don’t feel like being polite, but even so, you are actually being polite. The question is therefore meaningless, and so what the hell am I supposed to say? Should I strongly agree because I am not a fake, or should I strongly disagree because I am always genuinely polite?
If someone is going to take upon himself the responsibility of trying to establish a stranger’s personality through a few questions, doesn’t he also have the responsibility of making sure those questions make sense? Maybe I should apply for THIS guy’s job.

27 May 2010

A bit of history

I got involved in a discussion yesterday on the Chess.com message boards. Someone started a thread titled, “Is Chess Racist?” The guy was asking if racism is the reason that the White pieces always move first. The answer is no, though certainly people are free to interpret things however they like. And I thought the story of how this tradition started might interest some of you, so I’m reporting it here.
Most people, of course, came on the thread and told the OP (original poster) that he was an idiot for even asking the question, or saying that the people calling the OP an idiot were idiots themselves (whenever the word racism is used publicly this happens). A few people replied thoughtfully, though. One guy in particular seemed to be carrying the day before I got there. He had responded that, no, it isn’t racist, since the game was invented in India, modernized (to a great extent) in Persia, and introduced to Europe by the invading Moors. All these people were darker than Europeans, so it wouldn’t make sense for racism to be behind this tradition. This argument sounds pretty good if you don’t know the history of the game, but unfortunately it’s invalid. See, the Persians etc. had no tradition of White always moving first. That tradition is only about two hundred years old, and it originated in Europe, in the earliest chess clubs of London and Paris. This sounds bad for folks who don’t want the tradition to be racist, but hear me out before you judge.
See, here’s what happened. You know how, before a football game, there’s a coin toss, right? Most people think that the team that wins the toss automatically gets the ball first, and then the losing team chooses which goal to defend, but that isn’t true. The winning team can either choose to kick off or receive, or choose which goal to defend. The losing team then gets to choose on the other option. But since almost everyone always chooses to receive the opening kickoff, it’s easy to assume that winning the toss=having the ball first, and losing the toss=choosing the direction.
In those early Continental clubs, something similar happened. Before a game, the players would toss a coin, just like football teams. The winner of the coin toss could either go first, or choose which set to play with. Now, going first is a much bigger advantage in chess than in football. The player who goes first starts off with initiative. He’s always one step ahead, unless the player moving second is clever enough to wrest control of the board from him. It takes more work to win, in other words, as the second player. Given that, you would expect the winner of the coin toss to always elect to go first.
However, that isn’t what happened, for two reasons. First, the Black pieces were considered lucky; it was a very prevalent superstition at the time among this small group of players. Second, the theory of the game was more primitive at the time than it is today, and going first wasn’t quite the overwhelming advantage it is now. So, many times the winner would grab up the lucky darker set, leaving the loser to go first. Even if the winner of the toss did elect to go first (the savvier move, obviously), the loser would then “even the odds” by taking the lucky black pieces. So, in practically every game, White went first. And eventually, realizing this, they just streamlined matters by making that a rule: one player would have the privilege of the first move, balanced by using the “inferior” white set; the other player, using the “superior” black set, would start off on the defensive.
So, the White pieces go first because they were actually considered less desirable. And these were the people who gave us the game we play today. They would eventually form FIDE, the international governing body of chess, and they would hold the first-ever World Championship tournaments. Even though there weren’t very many of them, their influence is widely felt, because we still play by the rules they set up (the FIDE rulebook is still the standard), including this silly, superstitious one. Whether the players involved were racist or not is an open question; the rules themselves, however, aren’t racist at all.

26 May 2010

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day

So, the first annual “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” was a few days ago. I had my entry ready, but what I forgot was that I have no way to digitize it, so I had to wait ‘til I went out to Mama’s so I could use the scanner at her library. Also, I had no art supplies, because I’ve been broke for so long, and did it in twenty minutes with a four-for-69-cents ballpoint pen. So, it’s crap and it’s late, but here it is:

In case you missed all the news about this for the past three weeks or so, it all started when those jackasses at South Park decided to include Muhammad in an episode. Now, of course, it is forbidden under Sharia for anyone to make any visual representation of the Prophet (in fact, if you want to get right down to it, Muslims aren’t supposed to make visual representations of any living thing whatsoever), so Parker and Stone got around this by dressing him in a bear costume. Yeah, I didn’t ask.
Anyway, there were the predictable death threats and people acting crazy and Comedy Central ended up editing him out of the episode. A cartoonist in Seattle was offended by this censorship and declared May 20th “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Then she chickened out after she got some death threats (actually, to be fair, “chickened out” is the way most people would react in that situation) but the idea had taken on a life of its own, and so it kept going in her absence.
It isn’t really about the religion itself, but about censorship and the particularly bloody and ludicrous version of it practiced by Muslims. All Americans should hate censorship (though I’m fully aware that not enough actually do). Since that was the battle being fought, most participants tried not to be disrespectful in their representations. They just drew, you know, a guy in a keffiyeh and beard. Their point is that if you’re offended enough by that to threaten to kill someone you are being unreasonable, and they’re right.
I’ve been going back and forth on this, about whether I should be placatory or not, and although I can see the point of the organizers, I finally decided to be offensive. Not as offensive as I could be, but frank and contentious. I know I am trying to be a better person and maybe I made the wrong decision, but before you judge me I ask you to remember this: we’re not talking about the censorship practiced by ignorant school board members, odious as that is. We’re talking about the censorship practiced by the people who killed Theo Van Gogh, the people who have hounded Ayaan Hirsi Ali around the world, the ones who set fire to girls’ schools and keep the firemen away ‘til everyone inside has burned to death. In my opinion those people deserve to be offended, every minute of every day, until they either stop doing stupid shit or brighten the world by leaving it. I’m doing my part.

16 May 2010

Doors close and I'm looking for windows

I mentioned that I am applying at the Valentine (see the last post). Fact is, I’ve been dropping applications and résumés all over town, because Assanté’s is no longer a viable job.
When I first started working at the pizza place I was working nights, as you’ll remember. The shifts were ten to twelve hours long, which sucked, and the place was crazy busy, and at the end of the night I’d be beat to shit. But, I also made crazy money, and three shifts a week would give me more than enough to live on, and four in effect made me rich, by my own standards (which I admit are not very high).
I wanted to work days, though. First, the place manages to do great business in large part because we deliver to neighborhoods that other places refuse to deliver to. Some of these places are pretty dangerous, and in fact last week two drivers were robbed at night, in separate incidents. Also, although days do sometimes get quite busy, they generally aren’t enough to make me crazy, whereas at night I’m crazy pretty much from the moment I walk in the door.
I managed to convince Chef, the old GM, to switch me exclusively to days. I was working four days a week; obviously I would prefer to work only three, but day shift drivers work shorter shifts, so we need more of them. If you work four day shifts, you can kind of scrape by. I haven’t spent money on anything but groceries and bills since I moved into 1644, but I’ve been making it.
We have a new GM now, though. The new guy is keeping me on days, but he’s only giving me three shifts a week. There’s another day shift driver who used to get two shifts, but she has convinced him to give her another, so I’ve lost one. I noticed yesterday that she was asking him for a fourth day, so I might possibly lose another shift.
By my calculations, I need to make $284 per week in order to eat, drink, smoke, and pay my bills. I would like to make more, so that I have money to buy DVDs and things to furnish my lovely new apartment, but that’s the baseline that I need just to survive. Working three days I make only about $250 a week, and that’s only if business is good and folks are tipping; on slow weeks (like this past one) it ends up being closer to $200. That obviously is not going to work, so I’ve been looking for a new job. I haven’t made a judgment as to whether I want something I can do a couple of days a week, between driving shifts, or something full-time so I can quit the joint altogether. I might be restricted by what jobs are available and what hours they want to give me.
I’ve been a few places this past week, and nothing has looked particularly promising. However, I did get an application for a video store, just a few blocks from my apartment. A job in a video store would be perfect for me, given how much I love movies. I love working in libraries because I’m surrounded by books all day, and being surrounded by movies would be equally groovy. Also, my extensive knowledge of lesser-known pictures would let me recommend things to people that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise, so I would be as good for the place as it would be for me. I’m going to take the application and turn it in tomorrow.
I hope that the same woman is there that was there when I got the application. She is, I would guess, a year or two older than me, attractive, and seemed very charming. She was slender and graceful and dark with just a few strands of grey, and her eyes were lively and merry, and maybe she loves movies as much as I do. I will try to be very charming myself, because I need the job, but also because I really just want to charm her. I will wear a button-down shirt, because I don’t want to look like a bum, but I will wear it open with one of my many B-movie shirts visible under it, to advertise my love of the obscure, the overlooked gems and diamonds-in-the-rough of independent film. I would be happy to work there five or six days a week, but at the least I’m hoping that I can wrangle a shift or two. Even if I got the job at the Valentine, I would want to be able to put in a few hours at the video store.
I am hoping for the best on a couple of fronts, you see. Once again, wish me luck!

05 May 2010

An appreciation: Lance Henriksen

It’s likely, dear reader, that you won’t recognize the name “Lance Henriksen.” He is not the world’s most famous actor, but he is one of its more interesting ones.
He dropped out of school and left home when he was 12. He hitchhiked across the country, making his way as best he could. He was illiterate ‘til he taught himself to read at age 30 by studying movie scripts. A few years later he started turning up in “small but important” roles in some pretty well-regarded movies. He appeared in Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Right Stuff, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then he turned in a good performance as Sergeant Neff in Damien: The Omen II and seems to have realized, “Hey, it’s cooler to have big parts in small movies than to have small parts in blockbusters.”

He’s perfect for the Bs. He is not stereotypically handsome but striking, compelling, with a gravelly voice and drawn face with eyes that seem impossibly deep, eyes that you cannot lie to, because they see every part of you. He could never be a “leading man” type because Hollywood is stupid, but he has a tremendous screen presence that demands your attention. As soon as he appears on screen he adds depth, dignity, and honesty to whatever he’s in, and more often than not, whatever he’s in has desperately needed plenty of all three.
It’s by appearing in cult films and shows that he’s made his name, as a homicide detective in The Terminator (the title role was actually written for him, but Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up being cast instead), as the android Bishop in Aliens (he’s the only actor besides Sigourney Weaver to appear in more than one of those films), and as the sociopathic leader of a gang of manhunters in Hard Target, one of the many modern adaptations of “The Most Dangerous Game.” He also has many TV credits, including most notably a three-year star turn as the semi-psychic investigator Frank Black in the TV show Millenium, a sort of spinoff of The X-Files that the critics loved and nobody else but me watched.
Of course, for each of these projects there’s been a Piranha 2: The Spawning or a Stone Cold or a Man’s Best Friend. He’s played more than 150 parts on the big screen and the small, sometimes in classics, mostly in pieces in which he was the only thing worth watching.

Take his role as Ed Harley in Pumpkinhead, one of the more memorable 80s B-horror pictures. Harley is a small-town storekeeper whose young son is killed in a hit-and-run accident by a bunch of idiot teenagers vacationing from the big city (it is, after all, a B-horror from the 80s). He turns to the creepy-ass local witch for help, and she summons Pumpkinhead, a demonic spirit of vengeance, to punish the kids. But once the demon starts its rampage Harley realizes the horror he’s unleashed and brings the monster down, saving the kids (well, some of them) at the cost of his own life.
It was a pretty clever idea for a movie, plus which it was a welcome non-slasher in the heyday of the slasher film (I love slashers, but sometimes you like a little variety). Still, it was cheaply made, not terribly well-written, and had a less-than-stellar cast outside of Henriksen. But he really elevates the whole picture. His grief, his determination, and his integrity are a physical reality to you as you watch him. He demands that you take his little movie seriously, and in the end you do. As I say, it’s a memorable picture, but really only because of him.
That’s the way he is. Like Boris Karloff before him he is a professional who treats every movie as if it matters. No matter what he’s in, no matter whether it’s any good or not, he shows up to work every day and gives everything he’s got, and that really comes through on screen. He does his job as well as it can be done, no matter what it is, and really that’s about the highest compliment you can pay a man in any line of work.
Anyway, Henrikson turned 70 today. I hope that wherever he is (and wherever he is, you can be sure he’s working) he had an excellent day. Everybody, raise a glass.

21 April 2010

Me, Mos, and Zooey

I had become a fairly well-known artist, and was having my first really big-time show in a fancy gallery in a converted loft in Manhattan. Everybody who was anybody had turned out to see my newest work. Zooey Deschanel was there, with purple streaks dyed into her hair and too much mascara on her eyes, and we were quite taken with each other. I won’t go into a lot of detail on that.
Mos Def was there, too, and he was telling me how much he enjoyed my work. I told him that I loved his stuff as well, and took him to see a particular painting. I explained to him that I had been listening to Black on Both Sides when I painted it, and so really he was the inspiration for the work. For some reason this made him angry, and he told me that I shouldn’t be drawing inspiration from him, that my inspiration should come from inside me and from nowhere else. I tried to explain that nobody (not even me) is complete unto himself and we are all influenced by the world we live in and the people we share it with, but he was having none of it and stormed off offended.
So, if by some chance Mos Def is out there reading this, dude, what was that all about?

15 March 2010

In Defense of B Movies

I post on the message boards at IMDb, of course, because I love movies very much and like to discuss them. And I post frequently on the boards of bad B movies, because I am especially fond of those.
A couple of years ago I posted about Coleman Francis’ epic Red Zone Cuba that I wish they would release it on DVD. Francis only ever made three films, the oddly magnificent Beast of Yucca Flats, the slow-moving and ugly Skydivers (should have earned an Oscar for most ludicrously over-the-top use of stock footage), and this meaningless mess of a film. I wondered why they didn’t just release the three as a box set for bad movie fans everywhere.
Yesterday someone posted on my thread there, and I reprint their post and my reply here:

Jellyfish19: Why exactly do you buy crappy movies? Don't know where to spend your money? I don't understand people like you...

OgreVI: It isn’t all bad movies. Transformers, for example, I have no interest in. When someone has the money and the skilled crew and everything he needs to make a good movie and doesn’t, then that bothers me.
But these movies I’m talking about are different. They were made by people who had no money, no name, and (in some cases) no talent. There are and have been many filmmakers who weren’t part of the system for whatever reason, who had no resources. They just loved movies, and they had something to say, an idea that they wanted to share, and they struggled and connived and worked their fingers to the bone to get their visions put on film. In the case of someone like George Romero or Hal Hartley the final product can be magnificent. In the case of someone like Coleman Francis the final product turns out to be pretty lousy. But it’s entertaining in its ineptness, and also it is possible to respect the work and the desire that went into making it, even if they were poorly aimed, isn’t it?
So, when I talk about this movie, or Francis’ Beast of Yucca Flats, which in its way is a kind of bizarre triumph, or others like the mighty Plan 9 or Manos, I don’t think I’m really talking about the worst movies ever. I call them that ‘cause it makes sense to do so, but any of them is far superior to, say, Catwoman or Epic Movie, or even to many good big-budget studio films, because they are testaments to human will and determination, and because they were labors of love.

And that’s it, in case anyone was wondering.

09 March 2010

This all went down on my permanent record

I just had my first real walk since January 24th. It is 65 and sunny today, far too beautiful to waste time driving, and I had to go to the library to get a new library card, so I hoofed it. The library is on Franklin and covers the whole block between First and Second Streets. For Huntingtonians, that distance is roughly equivalent to walking from Towers West to the Kroger’s on First Street & Seventh Avenue (although, you may say, "If I was at Towers West I would walk to the Kroger’s on Fifth Avenue instead, because it’s closer," to which I reply "Shut up."). Not a huge walk, but a decent one, enough to get the blood flowing.
I discovered upon arriving at the library that I owed a very old fine. That was not a surprise, though the amount ($23.40) was a bit high, but lower than the $40 or so I had feared. And, since they’d been waiting for that money since 1996, I didn't complain.
It was interesting to look at my old record. The address they had on file for me was 2127 W. Main Street, and to the best of my recollection (which I admit is not that good) I’ve never lived on Main Street at all. Upon reflection, though, Kenny and Andrea had an apartment right around there, and though I don’t remember their address it could be that one. At the time I was more or less homeless, so it would make sense that I would give them an address where any letters would ultimately reach me.
The fines were for Camus and Dorothy Parker, a good combination, and reflected my failure to ever actually return The Fall, one of the most important formative books of my consciousness. And I did finally discover that they had a record of my last real address in town, at 206 N. Lombardy.
The whole thing was sort of a time capsule. I should have asked for a copy; it would be interesting to see if they had the place at Harrison and Floyd, or Grace and Ryland, or Kimmy’s place on Monument or any of the other places I slept at but didn’t actually live, listed for me. It would be like an old directory of my dearest friendships. I always think of these things too late.
I paid my fine, which I can’t really afford and which took forever because there aren’t many 15-year-old fines that get paid and nobody was sure of the procedure. Still, I really wanted a couple of books and so I put up with the time and expense. In particular I wanted (and checked out) Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which I’ve been meaning to read for twenty years and now seems like a good time for it. I also got three mysteries: a Nero Wolfe, a Brother Cadfael, and the second Rumpole Omnibus. I should be happily entertained for several days. And I learned that for this particular walk I should in future allow about 90 minutes, assuming I have a reasonably clear idea of what books I’m after before I leave the house.
So, I find myself this afternoon with a sense of accomplishment and slight nostalgia. I hope everyone is having a good day. I myself am about to leave for work, after I drink my belated Breakfast Beer and get started on the Eco. Love to all.

04 March 2010

Ode to absent-mindedness

I have figured out what the next thing I buy for the new place should be: one of those boards. You know, those boards, with a name that I do not know. They’re white, and they hang on the wall or whatever, and you can write on ‘em with a marker that’s attached to it by a string, and then wipe it off with a paper towel and start over. What do they call those things?
Anyway, yes. Parking is even more difficult at the new place than I expected it to be. Last night I had to park in the Lowe’s lot on the other side of Broad (apparently they are used to this and don’t even bother to put up “Customers Only” signs or to tow anyone). This afternoon I had to park two blocks away, though at least I’m on my own street. Being powerfully absent-minded, I am sure that someday I’ll park the truck and then overnight forget where I’ve parked and be unable to go to work. So, I figure, if I have one of those boards hanging on the door I can write, for example, “Grace Street, eastbound side, between Meadow and Allison” as soon as I get home. Clever, yeah?
Also (more from the front lines of absent-mindedness), I must get keys made. Both my apartment door and the outside door lock automatically when they’re shut, and for someone like me that is a disaster waiting to happen. I prob’ly don’t have many more trips out of the house before I lock myself out, so I think I’m going to make a half-dozen copies of both keys and hide them all over the property, plus giving copies to basically everyone I know who lives within walking distance. I have already decided on a couple of decent hiding places, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t publish them on the Internet.
I went in to work at one today as scheduled, only to find that they’d changed the schedule without notifying me so that I work five to close tonight. Aggravating. If they want me not to quit they are not going about it the right way. So I came home, read, had an excellent sammich, and now it’s time to go back. Late night tonight, but at least I am well-fed and rested. Love to all.

02 March 2010

The Ballad of 1644, Verse One

Well, I’m in the new place. I’ve got internet access on my own computer, which is amazing (it spent more than an hour this morning updating and backlogging all the podcast subscriptions I’ve missed).
The move did not go smoothly. We got the truck with all my stuff in it from New Kent and drove into town, and only when we got here did I realize that I had not brought the keys to the place. We had to go back out to New Kent to get them, and the delay cost us one of our workers, a big healthy fella who was offered a football scholarship at Texas A&M and who prob’ly could have unloaded the truck by himself in twenty minutes. Mama had to come back into town with us and sit in the van while we unloaded, and we were at it ‘til after eleven last night. Then we returned the truck. I was dead tired but determined to unpack at least enough to make the place a home before I went to sleep, so I was up ‘til three or four.
I got the place in pretty good shape, though. All the furniture is tentatively arranged, and I got the kitchen stuff in place and my clothes hung up or folded and put away. I tried to hang a few posters, but couldn’t. It turns out that the walls in here are too hard for thumbtacks. Thumbtacks just break on these walls. After much work I managed to get the top of one poster (the Audrey Hepburn I’ve written about before, which I wanted to be the first thing I saw when I woke up) fastened, but not the bottom, so it was still curled up. Fortunately, it’s on expensive, heavy paper, and so it unrolled under its own weight while I slept, and this morning had fallen enough that her eyes were peeking out at me. Better than nothing.
I went to Lowe’s, right across the street, and got heavy brass tacks and a tack hammer today and set to work hanging posters. About a third of those broke, too, but I got most of the posters up after much hard work. There are a few left; I’ll get those tomorrow while my neighbors are at work so I don’t drive everyone crazy. It’s amazing, by the way, how little wall space all my posters take up. I will enjoy collecting more things to cover the walls with (and a stepladder so they can go right up to the ceiling).
There are only a half-dozen or so boxes left to unpack, and then all that’s left is to go to Goodwill in search of bedroom furniture and stock the pantry. I have already had my first company; my friend Stephanie came by and we ate Chinese takeout and talked for two hours or so. I introduced her to Aron Ra (hard to believe that, as a science teacher, she hadn’t heard of him), and showed her around the apartment. She pointed out that my front closet is so big (and has the same high ceilings as the rest of the apartment) that I could put up my Christmas tree in there next year.
That’s one of the cool little things I’m discovering about the place now that I have leisure to really explore it. Like, for instance, I have a back door with a patio and steps leading down into our fenced-in yard. Someone at some point in the past built a wood-plank walkway along the outside of the building to the steps from the bathroom window. It is not strong enough to hold a person, but is a perfect walkway for a cat. So I’ll be able, once it gets warm, to leave that window open and Jeannie will be able to come and go as she pleases without me having to let her in and out. In fact, I can leave it open for her even while I’m not here, since no human can get to it (and anyway there are bars on it). Isn’t that excellent?
In short, all is well here. The place is as beautiful as I remembered, a little chilly, but roomy and lovely. I am settled and comfortable, and regret only that sooner or later I will have to leave it long enough to go to work. I even discovered a new wine that I like, a California cabernet sauvignon called “Bohemian Highway” (if you wanted to pick two random words to make me interested in your product, those two would be good choices) which is inexpensive and tasty. My day has been a source of spiritual fulfillment, in short, and I hope the same is true of each of you. Love to all.

15 December 2009

The World is a Better Place Today

I used to live with a woman named Rhonda. She was pretty generally excellent, and we were together for four years. I have fond memories and no complaints about her.
When she was a little girl she used to stay with a family friend named Opal while her parents were at work. Opal was not actually related to Rhonda, but she seemed like a grandma so Rhonda called her “Mamaw Opal,” even after she had grown up. Opal was the sort of old woman that the movies think Appalachia is full of: tough but big-hearted, desperately poor, bright but barely literate, and of course devoutly religious.
When Rhonda was a little girl Opal was already old, so thirty years later when I knew her, she was very old indeed, and very sick. When her illness got so bad that she couldn’t bear it anymore, she wrote a letter to world-famous faith healer Oral Roberts, asking him to pray for her. She believed that he had the power to heal her, even from that distance. He wrote back, full of sympathy for her suffering, and told her that of course he’d be happy to pray for her, provided she sent him twenty dollars.

I hear that Oral Roberts died today. I wish I could have been there.

14 December 2009

The Meaning of Life?

I was at Richard Dawkins’ YouTube channel last night. I happened to notice in the comments that someone of the Catholic persuasion had posted a short comment on the page. It read, “I just have one question for all you atheists: what’s the meaning of life?”
This is not the first time I’ve encountered this question, of course. Religious folks, when they find out I’m not one of them, frequently ask it. I’ve never had an answer, not because it’s a tough question, but because as far as I can tell it’s nonsense.
The question is not “What must I do to live a good life?” It is not, “What are the essential requirements for a good life?” It is not “What is the purpose of life?” Any of those I could answer. But the question is “What is the meaning of life?” I first heard the question as a child, and didn’t understand it. Three decades later, I still have no idea what they’re talking about.
I could tell you the meaning I take from a story or a painting or a poem or song or even an insightful riddle, because those things at their best are analogous to life and can help us see it more clearly. Life itself, though, isn’t analogous to anything at all; it doesn’t mirror things, other things mirror it. It seems to me that asking the meaning of life is as, well, meaningless as asking what color life is, or what life smells like. It’s every color and every smell. It is every shape and every speed and every distance. It’s all the equations and all the emotions and all the energy and every possible meaning, wrapped up together.
So I’m asking you folks to clarify this for me. I am not going to ask last night’s questioner. I’m not getting into any discussion of any kind on any subject in the YouTube comments section. That way madness lies. So clue me, Blogger folks. What are people really asking when they ask, “What’s the meaning of life?”

04 December 2009

If I Was God

π isn’t mentioned in the Bible at all. The reason for this is simple: the Jews had never heard of it. At the time the Old Testament was written the Egyptians knew what π was, and so did the Persians, but the Jews hadn’t discovered it yet. In fact, reading the Bible proves that they didn’t know about π, because the dimensions of circles are misrepresented on a couple of occasions.
If I was God, here’s what I would’ve done. Back when Moses was writing the Pentateuch (figuratively speaking) I would have said this to him:

“Okay, I’m gonna dictate and you write. I’ll go slow, ‘cause you won’t know what I’m talking about and in this case accuracy is important. Okay, you have a circle, right? And there’s a distance across the circle, and there’s a distance around the circle. Now, the ratio between these two distances is an irrational number that will eventually be known as π. I call it “irrational” because it doesn’t have a precise value. The first few digits of π are 3.14159, but you can keep computing it forever and never reach the end.
Here’s the thing: a few thousand years from now people will have these machines that can do really complicated math really fast, and some of them will start computing π more accurately than any person could. Eventually they’ll compute it out to a trillion digits. When they do, the next sequence of one hundred digits beginning with the one-trillion-and-first will be…”

And then I’d give him those digits. I’m God, I can do that, right? I think I’d replace a big chunk of Numbers with a series of these things that people would discover for themselves gradually, so that continuing discoveries would lead to more and more proof that I was real. You know, like “the Creation story is allegorical, actually I designed natural systems that caused life to diversify” or “the Earth (which is much bigger than you think it is) is a nearly spherical object orbiting the Sun (which is A LOT bigger than you think it is), and the stars are just suns that are really far away.” And each one would have a detail that ancient man couldn’t possibly know, such as “the Earth averages 93 million miles from the sun.” That right there would be perfect proof that I really exist, with a new one every few generations so that there would always be one not too far from living memory. Also, I might throw in a few basic agricultural and engineering tips, because the people I’m actually directly speaking to could stand to learn a thing or two and it would improve my credibility if they were demonstrably more advanced than the surrounding cultures. It couldn’t hurt to remove a few of the uglier laws, either. I always had trouble with “God’s chosen people” being a bunch of vicious hillbillies. But π and the other proofs are what’s important.
Of course, accuracy (not to say believability) is not the Bible’s only problem, so also I would have had Jesus say something like this:

First, all men are created equal. I know slavery is all the rage right now, but believe me when I say that men should not own each other, or have power of life and death over each other, and they oughtta get a decent wage for an honest day’s work.
Second, when I said “all men are created equal” I was using poetic language typical of the times, but women are equal, too. Women are every bit as smart and capable as we are and have the same worth as human beings (yes, even if they don’t marry or have children). They deserve to choose their own paths in life, so don’t tell ‘em what to do, don’t treat ‘em like second-class citizens, don’t beat ‘em up, and if you rape one of ‘em you’re the bad guy, not her, and you’re the one that should be punished.
Third, the world is full of people. Many of them come from other countries, speak other languages, or are different colors. However, they are just as human as you are. They love their children and their grandparents, they feel joy and pain, and they deserve life and happiness just the same as you do. Treat them with respect. Remember the “created equal” bit? I’m not just saying that to hear myself talk.
Fourth, of course I’m starting a religion and I expect you guys to go out all over the world and talk to people about me. However, some of them will not believe you. You really don’t have to kill them for this. It’s okay. They just won’t go to Heaven. Isn’t that bad enough? Leave ‘em alone.
These things, of course, are on top of all the other things I’ve been saying about, you know, the whole “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” thing and also the “Do unto others” thing, that you could have picked up from any decent religion but are still really, really true. I know all this stuff sounds pretty radical to you right now, but remember that I am the Son of God and I can see the future. Trust me, this is the direction the world is heading in, and you guys will look really smart if you were first on the boat.

Bang! A few extra verses and the world would be a better place and most of the more trenchant (and true) criticisms of the Bible would become obsolete. In fact, it would be just about impossible to argue that Christianity wasn’t the one true religion. These two passages together would have given Christianity the prestige and moral authority it claims but doesn’t actually deserve. Just a few extra verses, brothers and sisters, and I wrote them all by myself. I’m just a guy. How is it that I thought of this and God didn’t?

02 October 2009

I Know Who I Am

So I’m reading The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb (ISBN 039332365X), which is a good book and I recommend it.
Here is his description of Epicureans (presented in opposition to the sternness and self-sacrifice typical of Stoics):

...men of easy tempers and of amiable disposition. Gentle, benevolent, and pliant; cordial friends and forgiving enemies; selfish at heart, yet ever ready when it is possible to unite their gratifications with those of others; averse to all enthusiasm, mysticism, utopias and superstition; with little depth of character or capacity for self-sacrifice, but admirably fitted to impart and receive enjoyment, and to render the course of life easy and harmonious.

My friends, can there be any doubt whatsoever that I am a born Epicurean? I should make a quiz out of this.

26 September 2009

Of the Awesome Machinery of Nature

I think this is the best thing I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I absolutely love it. Many thanks to Jackie for sending it to me.

Best use of Auto-Tune ever. Transcript of the lyrics:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch
You must first invent the universe

Space is filled with a network of wormholes
You might emerge somewhere else in space
Some when-else in time

The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day venture to the stars

A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise
A morning filled with 400 billion suns
The rising of the milky way

The Cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths
Of exquisite interrelationships
Of the awesome machinery of nature

I believe our future depends powerfully
On how well we understand this cosmos
In which we float like a mote of dust
In the morning sky

But the brain does much more than just recollect
It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes
it generates abstractions

The simplest thought like the concept of the number one
Has an elaborate logical underpinning
The brain has its own language
For testing the structure and consistency of the world

For thousands of years
People have wondered about the universe
Did it stretch out forever
Or was there a limit

From the big bang to black holes
From dark matter to a possible big crunch
Our image of the universe today
Is full of strange-sounding ideas

How lucky we are to live in this time
The first moment in human history
When we are in fact visiting other worlds

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean
Recently we've waded a little way out
And the water seems inviting

28 August 2009


I had not realized it until just this very minute, but a sexy Romanian talking science definitely ranks among my favorite things.

06 July 2009

Three Feet. Nine Years.

Those of you who have only known me since I moved to Huntington don’t think of me as a football fan, I expect. I’ve only watched a few games since I moved here. The last one, I think, was the Super Bowl a few years ago between Pittsburgh and Seattle; my brother is a big Steelers fan, so I went and got drunk and cheered them on with him. I’ve watched probably a total of four or five games in the last several years, just because they happened to be on in the bar. I don't care about the game.
Before I moved here, though, I was really into football. I had an encyclopedic knowledge of players and stats going back to the forties, knew all the coaches, all the strategies. I was a fan of the Cleveland/Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams. In the seventies and eighties that was a pretty good life. We were always competitive, even though we didn’t win any titles, and there were always players to get excited about. I still have fond memories of Jack Youngblood and Eric Dickerson, Henry Ellard and Nolan Cromwell, Jerry Gray and Jackie Slater.
Then came the nineties, and suddenly we couldn’t win to save our lives. The whole decade, we were the worst team in football, a league-wide joke. They called us the “Lambs.” By 1999, I was mostly scar tissue from all the losing. Even the Bengals were better than us.
But then, in 1999, something magical happened. We drafted Tory Holt at WR to put across from Isaac Bruce, our lone All-Star who had suffered through some of the leanest years in pro football history. We traded for Marshall Faulk, the league’s smartest player and most dangerous runner. Our starting QB was lost for the year before the season even started, and our backup jumped into the starting lineup. His name was Kurt Warner, a nobody who had been bagging groceries in Iowa a few months before, and he began what looks like a Hall of Fame career. We cruised through the regular season with the most prolific and explosive offense the NFL had ever seen, and finally won our first championship since my father was in diapers. It was the greatest turnaround in pro sports history.
And, see, that’s why I stopped watching football. Nothing could ever be that good again. I tried to stay into it for a year or two, but it wasn’t sweet anymore. I had lost my dream, not by giving up on it, but by getting what I had wanted.
So, that night, January 30, 2000, was the last night I really enjoyed a football game. And what a game it was! We were playing the Tennessee Titans, the only team that had really beaten us all year long (we lost our last two regular season games while resting our starters, having already secured the home field). They, too, were a turnaround team, though they had never been as bad as us. They won on the strength of a tremendous defense and a piledriver of a runner named Eddie George, but they had something else. They had a kid at quarterback, like Warner in his first season as a starter. He was untested, rough, but supremely talented. His name was Steve McNair.
For three quarters we dominated the Titans, driving up and down the field, but they managed to keep us out of the end zone, and after three field goals we led only 9-0, despite having something like a 5-to-1 advantage in yards gained. Finally we broke through with a touchdown late in the third to make it 16-0, and the Titans finally abandoned their conservative game plan and turned McNair loose.
He was unstoppable. In my memory every play is the same; McNair drops back to pass, but our pash rush (the league’s best that season) would instantly collapse the pocket. Any other quarterback would be crushed under a pile of blue-clad bodies, but McNair would just step casually outside the rush. He was as untouchable as a ghost, and Ram after Ram flew past him grasping at empty air. Occasionally one would get to him, but McNair, as big and strong as any linebacker, would casually shrug him off like he was removing a raincoat and get back to business. He looked like a man among children. Sometimes he would scramble for a first down, sometimes he’d throw impossible, scrambling passes across his body to the other sideline, sometimes he’d find a man open far downfield. In this way he led them to two touchdowns (one with a missed conversion attempt) and a field goal to tie the game at 16.
But the league’s top offense had one more trick up its sleeve. On the very first play of our next drive, Warner, the nobody from Iowa, hit long-suffering Isaac Bruce for a lightning-bolt 73-yard touchdown, making the score 23-16. And so McNair walked onto the field one last time, two minutes to play and the whole season hanging in the balance.
So what did he do? The same thing he’d been doing, rolling out, scrambling, staying alive ‘til he could find the open man. He drove the Titans right down the field, with me screaming at my television “Jesus Christ, somebody tackle that man!” On the last play of the game, McNair hit Kevin Dyson on a crossing route inside the five, but linebacker Mike Davis made a miraculous tackle at the one as time ran out, and the Rams were (barely) world champions. Best Super Bowl ever.
I was elated, of course, but mostly relieved. It was very, very clear to me how lucky we were that football games are only 60 minutes long. That kid walked off the field without a trophy, without a ring, but he’d taken everything we could throw at him and just shouldered it aside, and had ended up a mere 36 inches from a title. We had won, but it was like they used to say about Bobby Layne, the great Detroit QB: he was never beaten, he just occasionally ran out of time.
Like I say, after that I never really enjoyed football again, and eventually stopped watching altogether, and so when I read this morning that McNair was murdered by his girlfriend this weekend, I was surprised at how moved I was by the news. I haven’t followed the game for years. I don’t know which team has his contract right now, or even whether he’s still on a roster anywhere in the league. At first glance it doesn’t make sense that this should affect me.
But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. It’s a shock, because it can’t be possible that anything could have killed him. That game, that last great game, is frozen in time for me. It was my last football game, and he was the hero of the story even in defeat. When I hear his name, I don’t think of whoever he has become over the last nine years. In my mind he is still that indestructible kid, powerful, unbowed, fearless. In my memory, forever, nobody can lay a hand on him.

25 June 2009

Step Back for a Moment

Lemme start by saying that I strongly dislike Mark Sanford. I think he’s a demagogue, an opportunist who is happy to sacrifice the welfare of the people of his state (particularly schoolchildren) to his own ambition. I find him extraordinarily cynical and willing to use specious reasoning and historical revisionism to get his way. In short, he strikes me as a bad governor and a bad man.
And, you know, the runup to Sanford’s confession was bizarre, and I followed it with some interest (though these days I can spare little attention for anything besides Iran). It was funny, the whole “he’s missing/he’s off writing/he’s in Atlanta/he’s hiking the Appalachian Trail/he’s in Argentina” thing. It was very off-the-wall, as is the man himself, and when I heard yesterday morning that the truth was coming out, that he was having an affair with a woman in Argentina (?!?), it promised to be the sort of entertaining news story that makes news-watching fun.
I’ve always felt that the personal lives of politicians should be considered separately from their work, the same as I feel about writers or musicians. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Sanford without digging into his relationships. But this story was just so odd, so over-the-top, that I confess to feeling a little charge of interest and even pleasure yesterday.
That changed when I started paying attention to the coverage. I don’t like the glee with which newspeople are springing on him right now. I don’t like that his hometown paper printed the e-mails Sanford sent to his lover, which are nobody’s business but theirs and should never have been published. I especially dislike the reading of these e-mails that Keith Olbermann gave on last night’s Countdown, in a voice that suggested he was auditioning to be Danielle Steele’s official audiobook narrator. I ended up fast-forwarding past them but saw enough to be very disappointed in Olbermann. I wanted to say to him, “Keith, have you never been in love?” I can’t imagine that any man of conscience (as KO seems to be) would air this and make light of it if he had ever felt this way himself.
More than that, I was impressed by Sanford’s press conference. Not “impressed” in the way people usually mean that word, but in the sense that it changed the way I looked at the whole thing. I mean, it was meandering and crazy, of course. Did anyone understand that whole “self” thing? It was so convoluted I can’t even quote it. But it was also very genuine, very honest, I thought, from a man not known for his honesty. I am not arguing that he deserves credit for being honest, and it doesn’t in any way absolve him. Still, he spoke extemporaneously, from the heart (unless he’s both far smarter and a better actor than I’ve previously given him credit for), and it meant something to me as I watched it. Compared to, say, John Ensign or Elliot Spitzer, he sounded human. He sounded lost.
Anyway, the point is this: I still dislike him just as much as I did yesterday, but what I saw up there was…well, a man in crisis, a man who doesn’t know where to turn or what to do, and it might sound dumb, but I’m just not comfortable laughing at a man in that position.
He’s lost his position with the RGA. He isn’t going to be President, or at least no time soon. He might even step down as Governor. And of course it goes without saying that his private life is in shambles. All of that is perfectly proper, and doesn’t cause me sorrow. Also, Sanford’s hypocrisy isn’t lost on me, and I understand the schadenfreude everyone’s feeling. It’s just that yesterday we all thought this was really funny. Today most still do, but me, I just don’t anymore.

08 May 2009


So Eric Cantor is a Virginian. He is one of the Congressional representatives from the Commonwealth. More than that, he represents the city of Richmond itself (well, part of it, anyway). As a result of this, I usually cut him a little more slack than I do most politicians. And his party certainly needs rebuilt, and it seems to me that the GOP could do a lot worse as far as young leadership goes. I definitely approve of this new “listening tour” he’s been going around on, though I don’t approve of some of the folks he’s bringing along.
Rush Limbaugh does NOT approve of this listening tour. He came on the radio and said that the GOP doesn’t need a listening tour, it needs a teaching tour. This is, of course, because the American people don’t actually know what’s good for them; they need Rush to tell them what to think.
That’s fine. I expect no better from Rush, and a week without him saying something stupid is like a week without a paycheck. What I was not prepared for, though, was that Cantor, upon hearing about Rush’s ludicrous but totally in-character statement, rushed to change his mind and point out that his traveling road show is not, in fact, a listening tour. I am outraged.
Mr. Cantor, you are a Virginian, representing our proud Commonwealth before the nation. Virginians do not take orders from, nor are we cowed by, people from inferior states. The last outsider to successfully knock us down was Ulysses S. Grant, and he had to bring three million friends to back him up. How dare you back down in the face of a fat-assed knuckleheaded blowhard from Missouri? Missouri, of all places! Where are your balls? Stonewall Jackson would have gutted the freak and got the hell on with business. I suggest you take a lesson from him.