RANDOM THOUGHTS

all random thoughts by James Grossmann © 2003 through 2009


robot flowers.....Went to a pricey department store one day and discovered robot flowers. (Most people call them bottles of cologne or perfume.) Just like biological blossoms, these flowers of metal and glass repose in silent beauty to fill our lives with fragrance. In fact, robot flowers carry more scent than natural flowers, and never wilt.

Robot flowers don't look like their natural counterparts, but manufacturing robots don't look like assembly workers either. It is the function of the robot flower that demonstrates how Man can improve upon Nature.


free will.....How can people debate the existence of free will when no one knows what free will is? Since when has anyone coherently explicated this concept? Recall the dilemma that philosopher David Hume pointed out.

If free will means that our choices are not determined by prior causes, how can we make sense of the idea that choices can be prompted by certain factors, like my choice to get out of the rain, or move out of a dangerous neighborhood?

If free will means that our choices are indeterminate, how do we explain our intuition that other indeterminate natural phenomena do not possess free will?

(Consider the likelihood that a single atom will undergo radioactive decay. Consider the exact trajectory of a single gas molecule. Sorry, folks, you can't predict those things.)

On a more modern note, if free will merely means that we could have acted differently in a given situation, why not impute free will to everything in our universe, which current physics tells us may be one of many universes in which all alternative events are realized?

The philosophical and theological sense of "free will" is not only vague; it's useless too. We don't need this ghost of a concept to understand that people's brains can generate alternative scenarios; conceive of them as occurring in the past, present, or future; and select a scenario or two to use as a basis for action. Are the processes involved in this kind of thinking determinate or indeterminate? Does the phrase "free will" have a meaning after all? These are questions for physics or metaphysics; they have no everyday ramifications in my opinion.

Yes, better minds than mine think that question of free will is crucial to ethics too, but I don't see why. (Don't laugh yet.)

If determinism is true, and we are helpless to prevent our own misdeeds, aren't other human beings equally helpless to stop themselves from calling us responsible?

Consider the plight of the deterministic police officer. Maybe deep down, a tender facet of the officer's psyche wants to hug the sex-murderer he has just arrested. Maybe the officer wants to shout "All is forgiven! Sin no more, and let us run together naked and innocent through sunny fields of flowers!"

But does the officer do these things? No! His upbringing in a family with good parents, his constant exposure law-abiding peers, and his indoctrination at the hands of a crime-weary society have forced him to a different course of action that he cannot even consciously question! Deterministically driven, he handcuffs the sex-murderer, and puts that villain in jail!

The idea that determinism is relevant to morals or law involves an unforgivable inconsistency: the notion that, while wrong-doers and criminals can't be held responsible for their actions, society-in-general and the criminal justice system can. For are we not called upon to consider the alternative choices to traditional punishments when confronted with the idea that wrong-doers can't help themselves?

Holding people responsible for their behavior is a universal human tendency. A person acts one way, we praise. A person acts another way, we blame. As a practical matter, the advantages of this behavior pattern outweigh the disadvantages.

Who knows when or if this behavior pattern will become outmoded? If it does, the change won't be due to the collapse of some airy-fairy nebulous notion of free-will.


gold and god.....

From the Opium War to the conquest of the Incas to all the blood shed over land, oil, and every other source of wealth--oh, the atrocities committed in the name of gold.

Does this mean that gold is responsible for centuries of murder?

Does everyone who long for gold inherit the blame?

Is gold no earthly use to anyone? Is there no one who could look to gold for genuine help or comfort?

And isn't it absurd to ask how gold could exist in a world where people who seek gold do so many vicious things?

From the Inquisition to the Witch Mania to all the blood shed over doctrines, denominations, and every other source of religion--oh, the atrocities committed in the name of God.

Does this mean that God is responsible for centuries of murder?

Does everyone who longs for God inherit the blame?

Is God no earthly use to anyone? Is there no one who could look to God for genuine help or comfort?

And isn't it absurd to ask how God could exist in a world where people who seek God do so many vicious things?


materialism.....If three goons in trench coats pushed me into an elevator and demanded to know my metaphysical orientation, I would have to call myself a rationalist. I could call myself a materialist, but I have never been comfortable with this term. My discomfort has nothing to do with any belief in disembodied spirits or non-physical beings. No, the reason the term "materialist" irks me is that the term "material" doesn't really mean very much.

If "materialism" is defined as the belief that the constituents of reality fall into one ontological category, namely "matter," then it may be too monistic to be compatible with the physical sciences. After all, there are many fundamental particles, and at least three forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces). But, the quest for a Unified Field Theory notwithstanding, the sciences have yet to reveal a single ur-substance called "matter." To say that the various particles and forces are all the same type of thing, namely "material," begs the question of what all these particles and forces have in common.

What they have in common, I believe, has nothing to do with their intrinsic properties, but rather, how much we know about them. "Material" and "immaterial" do not mean "known" and "unknown," but historically, their application has corresponded, respectively, to things that we understand empirically and things we hardly understand. In ancient times, the universe was explained in supernatural terms: a plethora of gods explained everything from weather to disease to sunshine. As we came to understand more about our surroundings, lo and behold, the land became "material." The stars in the heavens and the animation of living bodies remained supernatural for a while. But thanks to people like Galileo and Newton, the planets and stars became "material." Even up to the nineteenth century, the processes that kept organisms alive were "supernatural" or at least imbued with a "vital spark." Now that we understand proteins and DNA, life is presumed to be "material." "Material" vs. "immaterial," "physical" vs. "non-physical," and "natural" vs. "supernatural" are unwittingly epistemic terms.

Admittedly, supernaturalist doctrine complicates the picture. Though the term "supernatural" has historically been applied to poorly understood phenomena, the believer in the supernatural is not an agnostic, but one who pretends to know all sorts of interesting things about the unknown. The creativity that this pretense requires has given us a baroque world literature of superstitions from heavens to hells to gods-on-Earth. A frequent theme among all of these beliefs is action caused by unmediated will. In magic and in many religions, things happen because certain beings will them to.

No known natural phenomenon is caused by unmediated will; even biofeedback is theoretically mediated by nerves or hormones. So for the time being, we have a convenient way of distinguishing alleged supernatural phenomena from natural ones. But what positive property makes a phenomenon "natural," "material," or "physical"? In my opinion, none.

It's how we come to claim knowledge of reality--trust in common sense, observation, and their mathematically gifted children, the sciences--that distinguishes rationalists from believers. That's why I prefer to call myself a rationalist rather than a materialist.


humility.....Humility is not a mirage; humble people really do exist. Maybe you've met a humble person once or twice in your life. A relative who who never makes anyone feel inferior. A friend who listens better than anyone else. A neighbor who says "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" to everyone from bankers to small children to skid row bums. A boss who isn't afraid to apologize to the lowliest subordinate. A mensch who sees something miraculous and worthwhile in every other human being no matter how small or broken.

Yes, humility is real, but it can't be taught. Why? Because people who set themselves up as teachers of humility are, to a man and woman, devoid of this virtue. Who could even state the intention to teach humility without proving himself an arrogant ass? "Hi, my name is Fred. Your ego is inflated, but under my guidance, you'll learn to understand what an insignificant boob you really are."

Even if the listener is an insignificant boob with an inflated ego, how humble could Fred possibly be? What could be more conceited than Fred's belief that his put-down will improve his listener's character?

If Fred is going to get away with being the great teacher of humility, he can't state his mission explicitly. He has to be subtle. He has to establish false credentials as a master of humility by cultivating an image that gullible people associate with that virtue. He could adopt the farmer's or the laborer's "more meat-and-potatoes-than-thou" taste, dress, and mannerisms; who could possibly be humbler than the salt of the earth?

Religious posturing accomplishes the same goal. If a scoundrel constantly humbles himself before God, gullible people will overlook the fact that he never humbles himself before anyone else.

Once such false credentials are established, Fred is free to spread the gospel of humility to his unwitting and unwilling students. He can tell endless jokes at their expense just to "bring them down a peg," and call them too arrogant to take a joke of they object. He can scoff at their every stated ambition, and call them conceited if they object. He can angrily shout down their attempts to assert their own wants and desires, and call them egotistical if they object. In short, Fred, the Great Avatar of Humility, can spend his days treating all the vain people in the world as his inferiors.

What results can we expect if we try to teach humility? The usual result is a vain person who hates the teacher. However, some students of humility really do lose their vanity, and gain a sense of insecurity that allows them to face the world with all the confidence of a laboratory monkey freshly strapped to the dissecting table. Other successful students of humility go from being vainglorious boobs to obsequious boobs, yes-men, suck-ups, and slaves. Still other good students of the humble life become aw-shucks-just-plain-folks who punctuate their every spoken paragraph with some gratuitously self-deprecating remark--as if that's going to stop them from deprecating everyone else too.

Worst of all, some students of humility become erstwhile teachers of humility themselves, perpetuating a false and toxic sense of virtue.

No, humility can't be taught. It's something that grows spontaneously in the hearts of sweet-tempered souls who like people in general. After all, if you liked everybody, who would you talk down to? And who wouldn't you be willing to serve, however humbly?

At most, humility can be encouraged, possibly by persuading people to appeciate the interesting qualities in all human beings. In the English classes we take in school, we are taught to appreciate fictional characters. We don't despise Falstaff's cowardice and bluster, or Ahab's obsession, or Raskolnikov's homicidal neurosis; the characters are too fascinating. Who could teach us to see real human beings in the same broad-minded light? Couldn't children be taught to appreciate life's real characters--great or lowly, strong or weak, bright or slow, happy or haunted, plain or handsome, fringe or mainstream, familiar or foreign, young or old? Maybe that would encourage humility.


bald man!!!!.....When his plane crashed in the high mountains of Nepal, Trey Dome was rescued from a frozen death by a secret society of martial artists, who taught him to use his baldness as a weapon for justice! Now, evildoers everywhere cower under the glare of Bald Man!!!!

[page 14, panel 1]....Four members of Dangerous Dirk's Beserker Gang burst from the doors of Everest Security Bank. But as they heave their loot into the trunk of their getaway car, a caped figure moves to intercede.

(Bald Man)..."Thought this was bank-robbing season, did you? Not today, vermin! Surrender, or face the consequences!"

[page 14, panel 2]....Drawing their firearms, the Beserker Gang prepares to strike!

(Thug One)..."Try facing these consequences, Bald Man!"

[page 14, panel 3]....But before the fiends can pull the fateful triggers, Bald Man assumes a Level Two Jeet Bal Do stance, positioning his head at a microscopically exact angle with respect to the sun! Dropping their firearms, their hands rushing to protect their eyes, the erstewhile assassins fall to their knees as they cry out in turn...

(Thugs)..."Oh, God, we're blinded!" "The light! Get it away!" "We surrender, Bald Man! We'll do anything you say!"

(Bald Man)..."Very well. I say turn yourselves in to the nearest jail!"

[page 14, panel 4]...Behind our hero, evil makes its next move!

(Dangerous Dirk)..."And I say you're one dead cue ball, Bald Jerk! Say hello to my flame thrower. Say hello to Hell!"

(Bald Man--thought balloon)...(Only a million to one chance to save myself! But I've got to risk it!)

[page 15, panel 1]...Furrowing his optically smooth brow, the Glabrous Gladiator makes a supreme effort to gather the ambient light and focus its power like a laser beam!!

[page 15, panel 2]...In a heartbeat, the light of justice strikes, and Dangerous Dirk meets the flames of destiny!

(SOUND EFFECTS: bzzzzt! KA-FUUUUNNGGG!)

[page 15, panel 3]...Now a weary crime fighter can only hang his head at the tragedy. An officer of the law comforts him.

(Bald Man)..."If only Dirk had made his life an instrument of good! If only I could have somehow...done something..."

(Police Officer)..."We saw the whole thing. It was him or you. Anyway, the Beserker Gang won't be threatening any more innocent civilians. Nice work, Bald Man."

[page 15, panel 4]...As Bald Man disappears into one of many secret tunnels that honeycomb the city...

(Bald Man--thought balloon)...(Nice work? My work can never be finished. For as long as evil men and women threaten the good and decent people of the city, there must always be...Bald Man!!!!)


architecture.....When little kids see a long hallway or a large room, they see a perfect place to run around. When they see a short stairway with railings on both sides, they see a perfect place to jump and vault. When they see part of a wall painted in a light hue, they see a perfect place to draw stick figures and stick houses in crayon or permanent marker. When they see a linen closet or the floor beneath a big dining room table, they see a perfect place to hide.

All this goes to show that, for little children, function follows form when it comes to architecture.


Space-Age Memories....I was born in 1957, the year that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, which scared the bejesus out of the American government and spawned a race to the moon and a push for better science education.

1.....Fuzzy black-and-white TV image of Neil Armstrong climbing down the LEM ladder onto the lunar surface, with caption "Live, from the Moon." Uninterrupted on all three networks.

2.....Toy astronaut helmets as Christmas gifts for tots. (I have a very fuzzy memory of having one as a tot in New Jersey. The shell was white; the visor was dark green.)

3.....Astronomy-oriented kindergarten nap-time songs. (Way back in Mrs. Pfaffle's kindergarten class, I heard one about how the sun is too hot to live on, but that without the sun there would be no you or me.)

4.....A kids' book, found among other kids' books like "Go Dog Go" and "The Cat in the Hat," called "You Will Go to the Moon." The lunar surface in the book was yellow. I forget whether or not the red space ships were single-stage 50’s sci-fi jobs.

5....."Space Food Sticks," chewy sticks of food that came in peanut butter and other flavors. Designed for use by astronauts!

6....."Tang" advertisements reminding us that astronauts used this drink.

7..... Man-Lands-on-the-Moon tie tacks and other accessories.

8.....People getting bored with post-Apollo-11 moon landings; political lefties decrying billions spent to collect a few moon rocks when those billions could have funded social programs.

(For some reason, I don't remember much about the post-Apollo 11 missions; the Apollo 13 emergency passed me by. I learned more about it from Ron Howard’s movie than I did from the contemporary issues of Life Magazine.)

9.....Astronauts in a quarantine unit that looked a little like an Airstream trailer. That was after a post Apollo-11 moon landing (maybe more than one?) when concerns about the possibility of lunar germs prompted the quarantine.

10.....The Matthew Looney series, including "Matthew Looney's Voyage to the Earth," "Mathew Looney's Invasion of the Earth," and "Matthew Looney in the Outback." These first three are the best. Extremely clever and funny children’s books about Moonsters (indigenous people of the Moon) and their journeys to the exotic satellite, Earth.

11.....1964 World's Fair: A family car of the future, long as a limo, fire engine red with long, long fins. Forget whether it had glass dome instead of conventional roof & windows.

12.....1964 World's Fair: A "Fun Machine," a sort of monkey bar in a metal & transparent-stuff cube with ladders and tunnels and ropey things hanging from above. Fun for little kids like me to crawl through. Fun as a vending machine commodity?

13.....1964 World’s Fair: "The City of Tomorrow" part of a ride that began with a cool dinosaur diorama, had a bunch of stuff in between that I've forgotten all about, and culminated in "The City of Tomorrow," a panoramic night-time view of a city-cum-light-show.

14.....1964 World's Fair: I saw the Unisphere! It was big and metallic. (That pretty much exhausts my memories of the '64 World's Fair.)

15.....Our family saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" when it first came out. We saw it at the Cinerama in Seattle. I was struck by the fact that the bone-tool of the ape-men and later HAL 9000 the computer were both weapons. Didn't get the ending.

16.....All imaginary space stations were big doughnuts. Skylab was a big disappointment. Skylab burning up in the atmosphere was an even bigger disappointment. The space station Mir drove a stake through all my dreams of mega-doughnuts in the sky.

17.....Splashdowns, live and uninterrupted on all three networks.

18.....A non-fiction TV series called "The 21st Century." Early '70's. Short, tinny, and robotic-sounding synthesizer theme song. I forget what the gee-whiz predictions were. Wasn't that on National Educational Television?

19......Film version of "Future Shock" that I saw at the University Congregational Church. Early in the picture, we see a shot of someone walking in the forest, approaching the viewer. As the figure walks out of the shadows, we see its robotic face. An earnest narrator asks the viewers "in the future, will we be able to tell whether a store clerk is human or a robot?" or words to that effect. The book was a different thing altogether.

20.....Brazenly artificial food was perfectly okay. Snow-white low fiber bread with no holes was considered healthy. Twinkies, Ding-Dongs, and Ho-Ho’s did nothing more sinister than spoil a kid’s appetite. Sci-fi writers and futurists predicted artificial nourishment that would supercede bulky natural food. (This was before the wheat-berry bread backlash of the '70's, and the "every kind of bread you can possibly imagine" Harry's Market mentality that came afterwards.)

21.....People still believed that aliens might be humanoid. One popular science book, whose name and author escape me, argued that extraterrestrial people would resemble us for the same general reason that placental wolves and marsupial wolves/tigers resemble each other---form follows function. As you probably know (hey, the net people should abbreviate that AYPK) few people buy that argument these days.

22.....One children's non-fiction book, "Automobiles of the Future," featured a picture of a model of a car called the "Nucleon." A nuclear reactor would power this future car, so it would never need re-fueling in its lifetime. I don't recall any material about what would happen if an atomic-powered car got in a wreck.

23.....Time/Life books were about the sciences. Insects. Mathematics. A far cry from the series on alleged paranormal phenomena that Time/Life sold years later.

24.....Most ultra-modern domestic design was realized in cheap plastic. I once owned a doughnut-shaped blue transistor radio. It became garbage in what must have been under a year.

25.....Women were often referred to as "girls." The word "men" could still be used generically to refer to people. TV comedies like "Love American Style" and "Here Come the Brides" made people laugh, not vomit.

26.....Personal helicopters, household robots, colonies on the moon, mainframes that could think like human beings, and technologies that would make Earth a paradise all seemed possible.


science fiction....Attention, would-be science fiction writers! Here are three ways to make your science fiction novel a surefire best seller!

First, make sure that about ten percent of the words in your novel are taken from an imaginary jargon. Your novel should have a glossary in back to tell the reader what your new words mean.

Second, chuck characterization. Write about archetypes, like the King, the Queen, the Wise Old Crone, the Madonna, and the Conquering Messiah.

Third, set your novel in a future so remote that it couldn't possibly have any relevance to readers in the here and now.

This plan would be a real money-maker if Frank Herbert hadn't thought of it first. Seriously, why do the "Dune" novels sell so well? Even with the war and the intrigue and the giant sandworms, you'd think that the jargon alone would turn most readers off.

But the operative phrase here is "most readers." Science fiction readers are, by and large, a group distinct from the readers of most bestsellers. Sci-fi readers are distinct demographically. Most best-selling authors write to an audience with a female majority. The sci-fi readership is predominantly young and male. More importantly, sci-fi readers bring a different set of expectations to their favorite books than the readers of most bestsellers do.

For the readers of most bestsellers, the characters and settings in the book exist to drive the plot. Characters must be drawn well enough to keep the reader interested in what happens to them. Settings must be vivid enough to transport the reader to the scenes of many conflicts. But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the plot is the thing.

For science fiction readers, the characters, plot, and setting in the novel exist to reveal author inventions, the more novel, the better. Good characterization remains a plus. The plot must be good enough to keep the reader turning pages. But invention is often the point of science fiction novels. I would add that this invention is often invention for the sake of it-for the sheer fun of it.

That's why the jargon in the "Dune" books doesn't necessarily put sci-fi readers off. In fact, it promises the reader a trip to a neverland so exotic, so inventively imagined, that dozens of new words must be coined to describe it.

Even so, how can a book like "Chapterhouse Dune" make it to the Costco bestseller stacks? IMO, because the audience for science fiction and fantasy has either expanded or become a more visible market in recent years. For this we can thank the development of movie special effects that make it easier to bring science fiction convincingly to the screen, and more importantly, the increasing popularity of role-playing games and computer games.

For the role-playing and computer game fans, learning jargon and mastering background information are crucial to their games, which get much of their inspiration from science fiction and fantasy.

It's no surprise that the world of computer gaming gives us so much science fiction. A lot of scientists and computer programmers were inspired to enter their fields by reading science fiction, or, more generally, being part of a cultural axis, a set of overlapping fan-bases and subcultures, that includes comic-book fans, science fiction fans, gamers, and budding computer experts. The members of this axis are more interested in creating private worlds than in depicting the reality we share, and more focused on the mind than on the heart.


abortion....Is abortion okay? I don't think that medical science supports or refutes either answer to this question. The development of a human organism, from fertilized egg to viable baby, is continuous, and provides no obvious clear-cut line of demarcation between pre-person and person. "Person" is a philosophical, religious, legal, and moral concept, not a biological one.

IMO, religion has helped individuals decide whether to condone or condemn abortion. However, religion does not provide compelling reasons for widespread agreement on this issue. Among Christians, judgments on the morality of abortion depend on differing interpretations of the Bible, and vary across denominations.

IMO, secular philosophy has been equally un-helpful. One secular definition of "person" that I have encountered is "a being that can conceive of and has concerns about the future." This particular definition excludes from personhood almost anyone under three! And how long a future are we talking about anyway?

To the extent that arguments about the morality and legal status of abortion hinge on whether or at what point a fetus is a person, I can't foresee an end to the debate. However, the debate will go on anyway, and with this in mind, I offer the following observations.

a....We should be careful to distinguish two issues: Is abortion moral? Should abortion be legal? It's high time that people recognize that these are separate issues. Though the law is often inspired by moral maxims that enjoy widespread support (e.g. murder is wrong), the laws enforced by conscience and community are still distinct from the laws enforced by the criminal justice system. This is particularly true when...

b....In connection with the abortion issue, we should ask "What moral relationship does a woman have to organisms--human or otherwise--that have to reside in her body in order to live?" Is a woman sovereign from the skin down, having the power of life and death over any organism--human or otherwise--that depends on her body for life? Can a woman be morally or legally obligated to use her body as a life-support system for someone or something else--even if she is partly responsible for creating the life in question?

c....I am satisfied that a legal system that can't compel a woman to donate bone marrow to preserve her daughter's life should not be able to compel a woman to face all of the risks of pregnancy to preserve the life growing inside her.

d....I am also satisfied that the point at which a fetus is recognized as a person will always vary from sect to sect; that any state declaration that life begins at conception would represent the imposition of sectarian views on the public; and that therefore the question of when and whether the dependent fetus is a person should be decided by the mother, not the state.

e....When the fetus reaches an age when it can live outside the mother's body, and can be removed from the mother's body without being killed, then the state can claim an legitimate interest in preserving its life.

f....This means that the morality of abortion may change when we have a widespread, practical means of bringing human life from conception to birth outside the mother's body. An artificial womb would raise the question "Why kill it when you can park it?" But there aren't any artificial wombs yet, so let's cross that bridge when we come to it.


atheological arguments....For those who came in late, an atheological argument is an attempt to demonstrate that the concept of God is incoherent. For example, one argument runs that God cannot be immutable and the creator of the universe. The former entails changelessness; the latter entails a change from the God who meant to create the universe to the God who did so. Then there's the argument about how a loving god could never permit the suffering we experience in the world he supposedly created.

Atheists often use atheological arguments to bolster their positions: after all, how can we say that something exists if the very concept of that something doesn’t make sense?

The trouble with atheological arguments is that they address concepts without addressing the possible reality of things that believers may merely misconceive.

If there was a time before God willed the Creation, and a time after, then God cannot be atemporal. Does this mean that there is no God, or that God is must be temporal being?

If the concept of a bodiless agent is incoherent, does this mean that there can be no God, that God has some kind of substance?

If it doesn't quite make sense that God knows everything and yet thinks and draws conclusions, does this mean that there can be no God or does it mean that God might not be omniscient?

If a loving god could not make his creatures suffer, does this mean that God does not exist or does it mean that God's love is not like human love?

If three cannot equal one, does that mean that the Christian God does not exist or that trinitarians are simply wrong about God?

It's easy to prove the biological impossibility of mermaids, but that doesn't disprove the existence of manatees. It's easy to point out the absurdities in most dogmatic conceptions of God, but that doesn't mean that something invisible, conscious, and supremely wise and powerful can't exist.

These remarks aren't intended solely for atheists; they are also addressed to theists who refuse to alter their conceptions of God even when those conceptions don't make sense.


creationism....

If creationism is true, then someone deliberately made us physically and genetically related to chimps. Getting rid of evolution doesn't change the facts of comparative anatomy or genetics that the theory explains.

If creationism is true, we come, not from animals, but from dust! Well, okay, men come from dust: women are just spare-ribs.

If we really did descend from Adam and Eve, then all of us are the products of brother-sister incest among their children. How could this not be if we take the Bible literally?

Creationists can boldly face the idea that God made us from dust, spare-ribs, and incest with the hope of making us look and act as if we were related to chimps. This is the doctrine that preserves human dignity; this is the creed that gives us comfort.

Personally, I would rather be comforted by the belief that evolution, which has given us dangerous childbirth, monkey-heritage, and a food tube that crosses the airway, was not done to us on purpose.


miracles....According to some believers, any event that is both improbable and good must be a miracle. A child survives a plane crash that killed everyone else on the plane: it’s a miracle! A junkie kicks a 20-year habit: it’s a miracle! A cancer inexplicably goes into remission: it’s a miracle!

It really is too bad that believers use events like these to defend their faith.

In the first place, this defense reflects a naivet頡bout numbers. Suppose we define miracles as beneficial events so improbable that the odds are a million to one against their happening to any particular person in any given year. Here in the USA, whose current population is about three-hundred million, that’s maybe three-hundred miracles a year on average nation-wide. What’s so supernatural about that?

In the second place, the miracles just mentioned wouldn’t seem so miraculous to the families of people who did not survive the plane crash, the families of junkies who have died by the needle, and all the cancer victims who have lost their battles with malignancies. Did these people lack sufficient faith in God? Did God ignore their prayers? Was their suffering part of God’s plan? Most importantly, what psychopath would burden the victims and survivors with these questions?

Anyway, there are other kinds of miracles, namely things that just can’t happen, not only according to the sciences, but according to thousands of years of accumulated common sense. Corpses raised from the dead after days in a tomb! Water changing to wine! Seas parting on command! Atheists’ reasons for disbelieving these tales are just as good as Christians’ reasons for disbelieving every one else’s miracle stories except their own.

But let’s suppose that things really do happen that defy any rational explanation whatsoever. Let’s say that corpses do rise now and then, that staffs turn to serpents when we aren’t looking, etc. etc. etc. A lot of people think that such miracles would vindicate religion if they were documented.

But there is no reason to think of Biblical narratives as default explanations for everything that we moderns don't understand.

It is beyond any reasonable doubt that we moderns know far more about the material world than the ancients did. If the ancients could not explain things that we do understand; such as where rain comes from and the order in which light, land, and water came to be; why should we believe that the ancients had a clue about things that even we moderns don't understand?


first cause argument.... One of St. Aquinas’s formulations of the first cause argument for the existence of God goes something like this.

There are two possible kinds of beings, necessary and contingent, i.e. things that must exist by their very nature, and things whose existence is contingent one some cause.

The existence of contingent beings is evident. Everything in the observable universe seems to arise from some antecedent cause.

However, there cannot be an infinite regression of causes.

So, there must be a necessary being that constituted the first cause of all the contingent ones, and this necessary being we understand to be God.

This argument still has some big flaws, IMO.

1. There is no reason to believe that "necessary" beings that are eternal and contingent beings exhaust all the logically possible types of being. One does not contradict oneself by imagining a first event that did not have a cause but was finite in duration.

2. Though necessary beings are eternal by Aquinas's definition, the argument still does not give anyone reason to believe that the first cause is conscious, intelligent, infinite, all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, or otherwise anything else like God. What is more, the argument does not imply--even to the slightest degree--a deliberate act of creation on the part of the First Cause, which act is a central tenet of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

3. What is more, the argument does nothing to eliminate the possibility that the universe as a whole is a necessary being even if all of its constituents are chains of contingency. Parts and wholes resemble each other only contingently, not by logical necessity. Recall that, as far as any physicist can tell, mass is conserved. Though features of the universe may come and go, the stuff that the whole universe is made of can neither be created nor destroyed.

Incidentally, the premise that there cannot be an infinite regression of causes is false. Aquinas would have known that if transfinite arithmetic had been invented in his time. But this point is academic, because current scientific evidence suggests that time had a beginning.

But the fact that time had a beginning does not imply a creator. In fact, one could argue that the universe could not have had a creator, since the transition from God's intention to create to the fact of creation implies a temporal sequence, which is not logically possible before the beginning of time.

A theist could reply that the creation of the universe took place in a larger realm of absolute spacetime entailed by God's existence, but this is an ad hoc hypothesis--no independent considerations support it.


knowledge through religion....For most of history, people have used mythologies, including religious doctrines, to account for material phenomena. With the development of empirical sciences, the track record of these mythological accounts has been proven to be abysmal. The world wasn't created in six days, rain doesn't fall from holes in the firmament, the sun doesn't orbit the Earth, and although scientists debate details about how life evolved, no publishing biologist working as a biologist at any accredited university doubts that life evolved.

Maybe knowledge through religion is restricted to knowledge about gods, avatars, angels, demons, spirits, afterlives, etc. It should be obvious that knowledge through religion, if there is such a thing, could not be empirical. There is not one shred of empirical evidence that gods, avatars, angels, demons, spirits, or afterlives exist.

In fact, I haven't heard a good explanation of what would constitute evidence for the existence of the god of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed.

Suppose, for example, that Jesus did rise from the dead. Currently, our sciences could not explain that. But does this mean that religion is the default explanation?

To put the question another way: if religious doctrines are lousy ways to explain stuff we do understand (e.g. how the species came to be), why would they all-of-a-sudden be good ways to explain things that even modern scientists can't understand?

If the Resurrection were a proven fact, the biblical explanation, that Jesus was the Son of God, would still be just as mythological as the biblical explanation of rain, which supposedly leaked through holes in the firmament above us.

So is there such a thing as knowledge through religion? I think that depends on what we count as knowledge. For instance, when we interpret the meaning of a book, to posit such things as author intention, unconscious author motivation, etc, are we generating knowledge about the book?

I'm not sure.

But I am sure that, if we can interpret the meaning of books, there is no law that says that we can't also interpret the meaning of existence (life as we experience it) or the universe (the reality that the sciences attempt to describe).

If our experience suggests that life has a purpose, it makes perfectly rational sense IMO to posit a being whose purposes reality serves. Such a person makes the notion of a purpose for reality intelligible. Hence theism.

I'm not a theist myself, because my experience has not suggested that reality has a purpose. But I think that theism can be rational for the reasons just given.

However, religions go wrong when they make absolute truth claims. Just as there can be myriads of defensible but mutually incompatible interpretations of a book, so religions--which shed light on the meaning of existence--can vary.

Besides, absolute truth claims about God, in all his unprovable glory, are irreverent, since those who hold them presume to comprehend the infinite and transcendent with their tiny finite immanent minds. To say nothing of people who presume to speak for God, who are arrogant at best, and monstrous at worst.

Also, religions, Christianity in particular, founder on their absurd empirical claims. For instance....

We can't disprove the notion that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead: no one brought a camcorder to the alleged event.

But disproof is not the only good reason for disbelief. We can reasonably reject the Lazarus scenario for two reasons that don't mean much by themselves, but mean a lot together.

1st: No one has found empirical evidence that Lazarus rose from the dead. This does not mean much by itself. No one has found empirical evidence that one of my thirteenth century ancestors liked to play games of chance, but it would be foolish to pronounce that statement impossible on that account.

2nd: No one has found any evidence that bodies can rise from the dead. This does not mean much by itself either. No one has found empirical evidence that there are particles that move faster than light, but tachyons could be discovered next year for all we know.

Both: But if there's no empirical evidence that bodies have risen from the dead, and no empirical evidence that bodies can do that, these two considerations together make the Lazarus account worthy of disbelief.

That doesn't mean that my disbelief comes with absolute metaphysical certitude. But since blind allegiance to a mindless dogma is the only human activity that requires such certitude, the world is still safe for atheists.


king of kings....Here’s the problem: how could a God who loves each one of us, even the littlest sparrow, condemn human beings to the worst suffering that the world has to offer?

Some answer the problem with the Free-Will Argument, to wit: our suffering is humanity’s fault, not God’s. The appeal of this argument is easy to understand. In the era of modern technology, the suffering that we encounter most often is indeed caused by people. We don’t run from cave-bears anymore; we run from men with guns. We don’t get eaten by sharks very much; we get hit by cars. We don’t worry about surviving the winter; we worry about surviving a nuclear war.

Small wonder that the Free-Will Argument has such credibility these days; we could avoid many deaths that occur in the wake of natural disasters if only we chose to. No one forced us to overuse our water. No one forced us to settle in places where earthquakes and hurricanes are common. No one forces us to travel widely enough, and invade the wilderness aggressively enough, to make ourselves the living targets of deadly unknown plagues.

The Free Will argument would be very compelling if God were simply very powerful and remarkably competent. But God is supposed to be all-powerful and all-knowing. So critics of the Free-Will argument can be forgiven for insisting that, in addition to never being jealous, boastful, conceited, or selfish, Love does not give any child cancer or muscular dystrophy, does not afflict any youth with schizophrenia, and does not curse any elder with Alzheimer’s disease.

What’s more, God in his omnipotence could have created a less dangerous world. Why should there be such things as hurricanes, earthquakes, and plagues if God can ordain that they never occur?

Related to the Problem of Evil is the question of why a just god would punish finite human sins with infinite damnation.

One answer invokes the following principle: sins are punished not only in proportion to their gravity, but in proportion to the one offended. This doesn’t sound like modern law or modern ethics, and indeed it isn’t.

When thinking of God's justice, we need to remember that the paradigm for God is the ancient near Eastern King.

That the leaders of nations can be judged, that their powers should be limited by custom and constitution, and that the government should be one of laws and not of men--all these notions are a bunch of bleeding-heart-liberal claptrap that had nothing to do with the original intent of Western Monotheism's Founding Fathers.

In a good, basic, old-time government, the king may kill anyone he likes, torture anyone he likes, and make any decision he wants to about who should pay for a person's transgressions. If he doesn't feel like punishing a transgressor, he can torture or kill someone else instead; maybe the transgressor's family, or maybe someone else.

And who is a transgressor against our ancient king? Anyone the king names. People who do not bow before the despot, for example. Or people who say that this king is not the greatest of all kings. People like that deserve to be killed outright, or thrown into the dungeon and subjected to periodic torture for the rest of their lives.

And why not? These decisions are not evil. The will of the king is good by definition, since his word is law. Therefore, we should call the king benevolent, even loving, since his armies protect his subjects against all the evil kings.

God is an ancient Near-Eastern despot writ large. Hence the archaic and barbaric concepts of justice embodied in the doctrine of damnation for unbelievers.

This doctrine is not merely one that I happen to disagree with; it is a doctrine that I condemn as evil, since Western Monotheists of many sects have used it as an excuse for vilest forms of oppression wherever and whenever these believers have held political power.

What is more, the doctrine could not be more obviously human in origin. What could be more unmistakably mundane, more alien to the sublime notion of divinity, more typical of humanity's primate in-group/out-group mentality, than the idea that WE believers will be saved and THOSE others will be damned?

We have tried to outgrow the notion of a Master Race. But too few people mind when Pat Robertson and his ilk promote the notion of a Master Creed. That notion deserves a lot less respect than it gets.


hell....What will save you from the fires of Hell? Is Hell reserved for those who laugh and grin in carnal ecstasy as they strangle the innocent in vicious sacrifices to Satan? Will you be saved if you merely refrain from stealing, lying, or coveting your neighbor’s wife? On the day when your flesh cools to be justly and rightly mortified by its journey to hideous putrescence, will your history of total devotion to acts of piety, purity, charity, and humility save you from the great birds whose beaks shall tear and rend your soul for all time?

Oh no....Hell waits for all who have yet to heed the call of our Savior, for all who fail--on even a single night of their worthless lives--to grovel before the Lord baptized in the chill sweat of their own self-revulsion and terror! Indeed, should you have even thought of touching yourself for sinful purposes within the last five years without the cleansing guilt that the Lord grinds down upon sinners even as millions of tons of glacial ice grind down upon the mountains, you stand condemned to the pits of HELL!

In what body shall you suffer Hell’s torments? Shall you merely awaken in a copy of your familiar form, kneeling naked in an icy lake? Shall you be a shade which bears translucent resemblance to the body of your prime of life, but suffers not the rending of the flesh? Shall you be a mere abstraction, experiencing only that conceptual separation from the Lord which you so happily endured in this world beneath the sun?

Oh no....The body in which you awaken in Hell shall be far different: so loathsome and abhorrent that even the most horribly deformed, gnarled and twisted soul on Earth would --upon the sight of your body in Hell--hobble up on his stumps and growths to wheeze and sputter his prayers of gratitude for the Lord’s generous gift of his glorious frame.

Imagine a body riddled with huge worms, each impelled to chew with venomous teeth and drool with corrosive bile until the softest, most sensitive secrets of your mortal flesh are ripped and burnt in agony! The worms deny you the peace of the grave, for as they saw and grind your flesh from within, they die and rot in the stinking slime of the suppuration and filth that courses through your veins, your flesh, and even your skin, where it erupts in great splashes from your legions of pustules. But the poison suffusing you denies you the peace of the grave, for the poison is burnt to grotesque crustiness by the fires that consume you yet leave you alive to suffer the agony of immolation for all time!

Yes, imagine all this, and know that awakening in such a body would be as awakening in bloom of active youth unblemished by one atom disease or discomfort in comparison to awakening in the body that shall curse you forever in HELL!

And what awaits your tortured body in the Pit of Hell? Will it be an eternal debauch where libertines wallow in their detestable sins and mock the righteous and the pure?

Oh, no...Hell shall be far different.

How will Hell look? Hell shall surround you with darkness, because the flames of Hell burn even blacker than the heinous sins that stain your unrepentant soul! But even as one can look through fire to glimpse what lies beyond it, so the damned shall gaze through the midnight darkness to see sights that nothing human could bear for an instant! Oh, how intolerable these sights shall be!!!

Imagine that you saw a sight so horrible that even the briefest glance would force your doctors to amputate your arms to stop your desperate lifelong struggle to claw your eyes out with your bare hands.

Yes, imagine: and know that this sight would be as the sight of your beloved, happy and well, reposing in the comfort of a summer mountain meadow, in comparison to the SIGHT OF HELL!

How will Hell smell? Imagine the carcasses of an entire herd of cattle, kept in a vat until they have rotted into countless gallons of putrescent goo. Now imagine a diabolical machine in which you lay strapped and helpless as every cubic centimeter of this goo is slowly pumped through your nostrils, so that you must constantly spit it from your mouth in order to breathe, tasting that which wrenches the gorge from the tortured organs of your belly.

Yes, imagine--then know that this experience would be like the delicate scent of honeysuckle floating on the fresh and gentle winds of Spring in comparison to the SMELL OF HELL!

How will Hell feel? Imagine that every cell in your body could transmit as much suffering as all your nerves and brain can on Earth! Imagine the fire roasting your flesh, so that it may heal to be burned again and again forever. Imagine that every last cell in the flesh, bubbling in the searing heat, conveys so much suffering, that the pain of the ragged hoarseness of your never-ending screams shall be as great, nay, greater, than that of the black eternal fires themselves!

Yes, imagine--and then know that even this experience would be like silks, oils and the loving hands of heavenly massage in comparison to the true PAIN OF HELL!!

And what anguish of the soul awaits us in Hell? Even if Hell were a sunlit land of milk and honey (WHICH IT MOST ASSUREDLY IS NOT!) how much inner grief and turmoil would blight the minds of the damned even centuries after their gnashing teeth at long last lay shattered at their feet?

Imagine yourself in a box at a stadium whose retractable roof is closed. You preside at a convention for the families of unusually sweet-tempered and well-behaved preschoolers, who laugh and play on the Astroturf. You decide to do something naughty for once in your life, so you open the roof. Moments later, a meteor shower kills everyone at the convention except you. Later, you learn that the stadium roof was so rugged, it could have easily deflected the meteors if only you hadn't opened it! You consider using a pair of pliers to kill yourself over a period of three hundred days, but realize that it's not enough--that nothing can ever be enough!

Yes, imagine--then know that even this anguish would be like waking up in the warmth of a summer morning to the smile and touch of the love of your life in comparison to the ANGUISH OF HELL!!!

HOW LONG WILL YOU BE IN HELL???? The merest memory of even an infinitesimal fraction of a second spent in Hell would leave the strongest specimen of mortal humanity gibbering, shrieking, drooling, and convulsing in an agony of unremitting horror that only death could silence! Is this how long you shall spend in Hell if you are damned? Shall mere instants suffice as punishment?

Oh, no...Hell shall last far longer than mere instants. Longer than mere centuries. Longer than mere eons!

Would it last for the time it would take a dove to flatten the tallest mountain by brushing its wings against it once each century? Would it last for the time it would take an asthmatic mole to wear down all the mountains in the solar system by breathing on one spot on one mountain once every thousand years until all the planets shone in the sky as smooth as spheres of glass?

Bah! These trifling intervals are too inconceivably brief to mention in connection with the never-ending, vile, and exquisite torment that your mangled violated soul shall suffer in the Pit of Hell!

But if you imagine the time it would take you to accumulate a mass of snot equal to the mass of the Cosmos raised to the power of trillions by blowing your nose once every geologic epoch, know that even these countless ages would together constitute a barely measurable fraction of a single instant spent in the ETERNITY OF HELL!!!!

Remember this: God loves you. If you don’t love him back, he will send you to HELL!!! If that’s not love, what is?

[a public service announcement from the Church of the Fiery Severed Fist of Our Redeemer at Stonehenge]


darla....[Our writer’s group was doing a serial novel that never got finished. A chapter without a novel won’t be published, so I tucked this one into the word-garden.]

[The story so far: With each of two ex-spouses claiming that the other stole an expensive diamond ring, insurance investigator Ben Skidmore suspects that one or both may be trying to defraud his company, represented by his boss, Hudson. Skidmore’s investigation leads him to a zirconia ring that matches the diamond ring’s description, and to a rival insurance company, headed by the evil and repulsive Fontaine. Eager to gain eyes and ears in Fontaine’s office, Skidmore has a steamy affair with Fontaine’s sexy secretary, Darla. Fontaine knows about the affair, and is secretly using Darla to spy on Hudson and Skidmore. But there is far more to Darla than any of the insurance men suspect, as we shall see in this chapter.]

Progressive Novel: Chapter 5 (Jim Grossmann)

Wandering First Avenue, Darla tip-toed around fast food trash, broken bottles, and broken drunks. Most of the lunch hour bodies coursing around her wore moth-eaten jeans and sweats, though the occasional suit walked by, along with women wrapped like party favors in loose blouses and tight skirts. Darla's blouse was day-glow pink. Her leopard-skin mini-skirt complemented the tall curls of her silvery sequined wig.

Feet tortured in her high heels, she glanced at windows, searching among pawn, porn, and thrift shops for her destination. At last she spotted the landmark her contact had described: a five foot cardboard cut-out of a sixteen ounce can of Komodo Dragon fortified malt liquor, standing sun-faded in the painted window of Mr. Z's Bar. The giant lizard on the can stood with its mouth in a drooling gape over a caption that read "It’ll eat you alive." The door, its paint peeling from gray wood, stood part way open. Darla stepped inside.

Here were walls painted black, a dozen booths and corners, and light-bulbs dimmer than candles. Judging from the cigarette smoke, maybe half a dozen patrons sat hidden in the darkness, drinking up for their nightly bout of vomiting in the alley.

Behind the counter, a stout man wearing a derby sucked on a cigarette, stopping to chug a can of Komodo. Several other cans lay crushed and empty by his left hand. Taking another drag on his smoke, the man glared at Darla and said "According to ancient texts unearthed in Greenland, the wooly mammoth mated awkwardly."

As the man gazed into her eyes, Darla answered "My acupuncturist has abandoned needles. He now uses angry hummingbirds."

With a sideward glance, the barkeep motioned Darla to the back of the room. Moments later, she found a dark hallway with several unmarked doors. Facing one such door, she lifted her blouse, and watched an oscillating red laser scan her exposed navel. When the laser winked out, the door opened without a sound. Darla stepped through onto plush carpeting and staggered out of her high heels as the door closed behind her.

Blue-white lights came on, and Darla surveyed the safe room, which stood bare except for a bed, a nightstand, a full length mirror, and a long, low dresser. The dresser supported a large fish tank filled with blue liquid whose aftershave smell permeated the room.

With a single motion, Darla flung her day-glow pink blouse onto the bed, revealing her naked torso. When she tried to hook her thumbs into the mini-skirt's waist band, the thumbs wouldn't fit. She tugged at the zipper; it was stuck. Maybe she could get her thumbs into the skirt if she jumped up and down. She tried it. Five minutes later, she was still jumping and clawing at the skirt with both hands. Finally, she opened a dresser drawer, took out a Bowie knife, and slashed the skirt off her body. With towelettes from the night stand, she rubbed the make-up off her face.

She stood naked in front of the mirror, a young woman whose beauty could leave a man dehydrated in a matter of hours. Her thatch of pubic hair sat five or six inches too low, but no man had ever noticed. She pulled off her wig, letting it drop to the floor, and inspected the real hair, the brown crew cut hair.

Pressing her right hip in three spots, Darla watched as skin parted with a hiss and a puff of steam. Seconds later, her hips and vulva hung in loose flaps around her middle. The molecular bonding of the sexual prosthesis had depolarized, and the person in the mirror winced while pulling the prosthesis down the hips and legs. That damned rubber thing always pulled too hard on the testicles, and its catheter stung the urethra on its way out. Once the prosthesis lay down around his ankles, the man in the mirror cradled his crotch in his hands. For Darla was really Dan Hazard, secret agent Double X working for the CIA.

Hazard gathered up the prosthesis, and laid it gently into the fish tank. The light blue synthetic bath would clean its intricate micro-technology. Hazard stared in wonder at the machine in the tank. Its inter-femoral orifice, though strangely positioned, felt just like the real thing, reacting with all the right fluids and swellings. During the physical act of love, it injected Hazard with endorphins and sex hormones, allowing his body to respond to sexual acts that he inwardly loathed.

Hazard wasn't some communist pansy out to ruin America's families; he was a real man, with a wife and seven children to prove it. Now that the hormones had worn off, he sat nauseated with memories of the past week's sex. Fontaine on the desk. Fontaine on the floor. Hudson in the men's room. Hudson in the ladies' room. The other insurance guy in the cafeteria dumpster.

Hands shaking, Hazard opened a dresser drawer and fetched a stack of football magazines, a can of beer, and a full-sized luxury cigar. Soon, he lay back on the bed, enjoying a manly beer and smoke, loudly coaching the football players in the magazines spread across his lap.

Hazard hated dressing up and doing it with guys. He did it strictly for duty. He tried to remember how disgusting it was to get intimate with Skidmore.

But when he pictured the detective, all he could think of was a speed boat bounding through the waves off the Florida keys, with him and Skidmore in the front seat, both wearing the loose fitting pastel coats and trousers he had seen in hip eighties TV detective shows. Him and Skidmore. In the speed boat. Together. Hazard almost dropped his beer as he shook the thought away.

His next thought found him in a Ferrari cruising down a highway flanked with palm trees. Skidmore sat beside him, tanned and muscular, at the wheel and in command in his lavender tank top and knee-length raw silk shorts, whose cut said 'casual with an A-list flair.'

Hazard dropped both the cigar and the beer, and wrestled with the bed clothes as he struggled to put the cigar out. Dousing the smoldering comforter with beer, Hazard seized a football magazine.

"How about those Dolphins; how about those Forty-Niners," he said to himself, over and over, as if he were saying Hail Marys in the face of an oncoming tidal wave. By the time his mantra had changed to "Stay with ball," his whole body seized into a cringe: he had forgotten to remove his artificial breasts.

Trembling, he almost ripped the left breast from his body, but remembered that doing so would trigger its built-in stun grenade. So he pressed several subcutaneous studs where the breast clung with no visible seam. The breast flopped off with a hiss and a steam puff. The same procedure worked with the right breast. As he held its soft generous bulk in his hand, he gave it two quick squeezes and three long caresses, activating his two-way right breast radio.

"CIA Headquarters," a deep voice boomed from the breast. "Smith speaking."

Hazard spoke into the nipple. "This is Double X. I want out. I can't do this anymore."

"You're hyperventilating, Double X," said Smith. "Take slow deep breaths and give me your report."

"Okay, but this is the last time," said Hazard. He sighed and continued. "I've got four targets: Ann-Marie, her ex-husband, Fontaine, Hudson, or Skidmore. One of them has the zirconia ring. Still don't know who's working together, or how much they know. Who else is after the crystal?"

"The Guatemalans," Smith said. "If they get the secrets burned into that crystal, they'll be fixing up America for their fruit company."

"I thought the Guatemalans were our friends, or our colony, or something," said Hazard.

"That's last week's news, Double X. The Guatemalans are part of the Axis of Evil now. Get that ring before they do."

"What the hell do you need me for?" Hazard said, teeth clenched. "Just pick these jokers up and interrogate 'em."

"No good," Smith said. "They've probably arranged to ship the ring the moment we grab them. It's up to you to be the person they want to share their schemes with. That's how you'll get the crystal back."

"No," said Hazard. "I can't put that stuff on me anymore."

"That stuff," Smith said, "comes from a research institute that employs a thousand people in the President's home state. We're supposed to create a demand for it. Besides, our female operatives won't do this kind of work."

"I won't either," said Hazard, tears flooding his eyes. He sobbed and shouted into the nipple of the breast-radio. "I quit! No more!"

After brief silence, Smith's voice, softer and more conciliatory, issued from the hefty breast in Hazard's hand. "Double X. Dan. We can't make you do the mission. But if you quit, someone will have to notify your mother. I'll be assigning that duty to you."

His mother. How could Hazard have forgotten her, and the sacrifice she had made to make sure that the hair on his sexual prosthesis was natural to the last follicle? How could he turn his back on his mother's selfless patriotism, when a part of Mom went with him on every mission?

Hazard wiped the tears from his eyes, and raised his head up high.

"Okay," he said, "I'll do it for our country."

"Good man," said Smith. "Now listen carefully. I want you to get close--and I mean really close--to anyone who might have the ring. Especially Skidmore. Wear him down until he talks. And Dan?"

"Yes, sir?"

"When this is over, we'll get you a good psychoanalyst. Smith out."

Hazard spent the next few hours lying on the bed in a fetal position, clutching the breast radio. Was he laughing or crying? He didn't know.


it’s hard to find good help....You ask one of the staff to help you find something in a store. The staff person admits to being just as clueless as you are about where that something might be. In fact, this staff person is even more clueless than you are, because this person hasn’t looked where you have looked. So what does this staff person do? Stand around for who-knows-how-long telling you where the item you’re looking for might be.

Good Lord, that drives me nuts! It’s like hearing the staff say “Well, my guesses aren’t even as good as yours, but instead of letting you go so that you can use your time to find another solution to your problem, I’m going to keep you here for at least five minutes with my unhelpful verbiage so that you can stew in frustration at the time I’m wasting.”

Of course, if you tell the staff person that you would like to find someone who does know where the item is, the staff person will look at you as if you’ve just stated that his or her mother is fellating Satan in Hell.

More delicate exits from such conversations are possible, but I’m tired of having to preserve the staff people’s delicate egos!

Store managers--wherever you may be, whatever store you manage--hear this plea! Tell your staff that if they don’t know the answer to the customer’s question, they should ....


little howie:....Willa Nice, Miss Nice to her first grade class at Placid Elementary, always had her doubts about little Howie, the red-haired boy who sat by the window. Not that Howie was slow; he was a bright, creative boy. Each day, Miss Nice was amazed to see the strange and pretty shapes he made with Legos. He could grow up to be an artist or something if only he weren’t such a trouble-maker.

But every quarter, she had to put the same marks on his report card. Plays well with others? Needs improvement. Uses time wisely? Needs improvement. Follows directions? The same answer, and the same exasperated sigh each time she checked it off.

She had hoped that Howie’s mother, Ms. Rand, could help him fit in better with the other children. At conference time, however, Ms. Rand had scoffed and said that the other children weren’t worth Howie’s time. Every year brought at least one problem mother who couldn’t face her child’s behavior issues. But Ms. Rand would have to face reality after that business on Valentine’s Day.

The problems started before the party, when Miss Nice explained that Valentine’s Day celebrated people who fell in love, like Mommies and Daddies. She asked her class what they would do when they became Mommies and Daddies.

“I’ll have lots of money and get lots of trucks and a big house!” said one little boy.

“I’ll have twenty babies and give them twenty Barbies and kiss them all goodnight,” said a little girl.

“I don’t wanna get married,” said Howie. “I wanna have a girlfriend and dump garbage all over her and be mean to her all the time. And I want her to be mean to me too.”

“Well Howie, that’s interesting,” said Miss Nice, horrified.

“I want to get married to someone like you, Teacher,” said the little Keating boy. Such a wonderful child to have in class, Miss Nice thought. That Keating boy always warmed her heart. He even brought her apples.

“Okay, boys and girls,” she said, “time to go to centers and make Valentines.”

When the children were finally settled down, earnestly cutting away at heart patterns on red and pink paper, Howie caught Miss Nice’s eye again. His paper had no heart patterns. It wasn’t even pink or red. Howie had cut out construction paper rectangles in three shades of blue, and had just finished gluing them together in overlapping patterns.

“Howie," said Miss Nice. "what are you making?"

“This is my Valentine,” said Howie. “It’s cool.”

Miss Nice gazed in wonder. Howie’s geometric collage was pretty advanced for a first grader, but the boy wasn’t following directions.

“Howie,” she said, “we’re not using blue paper. We’re making valentines. Valentines need hearts.”

“All the valentines have hearts,” said Howie. “When we make hearts, we’re just copying old stuff. My valentine’s new. It doesn’t have hearts.”

“But Howie,” said Miss Nice, “If you don’t put a heart on your valentine, what will the other children think?”

“I don’t give a damn what they think,” said Howie.

Miss Nice told Howie to sit in the time out-chair for his language. While the other children laughed and talked as they made their valentines, Howie sat still and silent in time-out. He never seemed to care about time-out, but at least he stayed quiet there.

The time came to pin the Valentines on the bulletin board. She put little Howie’s up last. Then she opened the valentines and read their little messages one by one. To Mommy. To Daddy. To Mommy and Daddy. The Mommies and Daddies continued for twenty more valentines, until Miss Nice opened Howie’s and frowned. Painstakingly scrawled in purple crayon, its message read “To ME.”

Mrs. Nice frowned and found herself saying “This valentine would look nicer if someone put a heart on it.”

"I’ll put a heart on it, teacher," said the little Keating boy.

Miss Nice beamed. Little Keating already had a heart perfectly cut and glued, ready to add to Howie’s creation. The heart didn’t go well with Howie’s work, but it represented such a nice thought.

“Okay, Howie,” said Miss Nice. “Are you ready to come back to class?”

“Yes teacher,” said Howie, in his usual flat monotone.

Then Miss Nice looked away for only a moment as one student asked permission to use the bathroom. In that moment, she smelled smoke, and a little girl shrieked “Teacher!”

Two loud pops, like gun fire, sent the children shrieking to their feet as Mrs. Nice whirled to see the charred and smoking remains of fire crackers taped to a few blue shreds that used to be Howie's valentine. Howie stood beneath the damage, glaring at Mrs. Nice with bitter calm as she ordered her class to sit down. Nice grabbed little Howie and dragged him to the office.

All the way down the hall, Howie screamed “I don’t want any hearts on my valentine! It’s MY valentine! It’s mine!”

After the children had gone home for the day, Miss Nice discussed Howie with the principal, who dismissed most of her concerns.

“Quit worrying,” the principal said. “He’s just a kid. He’s not gonna act like this for the rest of his life.”

However, the principal agreed that the fire-setting incident would require meetings with the parents and the multi-disciplinary team, and referred Howie to the school psychologist.


the fountainhead....Captivated as I was by The Fountainhead, I had a couple of problems with it: the absurdity of its characters and consequent plot points, and the fact that it never presents Roark or his philosophy with any significant challenges.

absurdities

1.....Roark is an absurd character. He expresses only two emotions, amusement and anger, and then only for philosophical reasons. He has no family. They weren’t killed in the Great War; they simply never existed. When faced with circumstances that most people would find stressful, he never exhibits any significant need for comfort or support. His creative genius grows without nourishment, with no ideas from past or contemporary masters of his profession. Though he claims to love people, he never shows that love. He is Dominque’s master, not her lover. His self-sufficient ego is every bit as implausible as the ideal of absolute selflessness that he criticizes.

2....All of the other major characters are more interesting than Roark, because they have origins, emotions, and social circles in which their lives develop. But Keating, Dominique, Toohey, and Wynand are all made ridiculous by their awe of Roark’s ego.

Keating is the most successful architect in the business. He knows that he's not an artistic genius, but instead of crying all the way to the bank, or realizing that not every building has to be a work of genius, he pines away under the blazing glory of Roark’s ego.

Dominique is a lively sado-masochistic society lady, but her adulterous, abusive, and emotionally unavailable boyfriend’s ego awes her so thoroughly that all she can do in response is abase herself by becoming some millionaire’s numb, dumb slave-toy waiting to be rescued by the guy who raped her.

Toohey is a successful architectural columnist for a big newspaper. He's also crazy and secretly conspires to suppress all individual greatness so that mankind can live in mutual enslavement. He considers one eccentric architect’s ego to be a threat to civilization.

Wynand is the publisher of a major newspaper, and Roark is just another bug that he could squash for fun. But confronted with Roark's ego, Wynand can only sadly salute the great one and dismiss himself as hollow. The publisher will risk ruining himself in defence of the mad architect, and let Roark build his skyscraper. He doesn't even care when Roark beds down with his wife.

If The Fountainhead were remotely true-to-life, Keating would have forgotten Roark, Dominique would have dumped him, Toohey would not have wasted time scheming against him, and Wynand would have squashed him like a bug for refusing to do copies of the Parthenon for the rest of his life.

3....Most absurd of all is Roark’s big statement at the climax of the novel. In a nutshell, Roark seems to say that....

....humanity’s great achievements are all the work of lone creators.

....these creators always stand apart from opposed to tradition and majority opinion.

....humanity is divided between these lone creators and second-handers who define their own value, and that of their work, in terms of what others think.

....great works, and all works of integrity, are done for oneself and not for others.

There have been lone creators who achieve great things on their own. Van Gogh comes to mind. There have been great creators who have all but single-handedly saved the societies that despise them. George Washington Carver comes to mind. But as generalizations about all great creators, Roark’s claims fail--fortunately.

I’m glad that the Manhattan Project, the Moon Landings, supercomputers, and cyberspace were not the works of lone creators. I am also glad that the works of lone creators like Thomas Edison have been improved upon by scores of other inventors.

I’m glad that the people who built the great cathedrals of Europe, and all the great religious art and architecture around the world, surrendered themselves in will and intellect to their religions and sought to impress the masses.

I’m glad that there are people who tend to innovate cautiously and otherwise re-hash other people’s ideas, always with an eye on what others think. Among such people stand investors, doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, activists, archivists, editors, and clergy.

I’m glad that some bright people know the value of working together on behalf of others. Aren’t you glad that Howard Roark was not the father of our country? Imagine his Preamble to the Constitution: “This is my Constitution. I designed it, and have forbidden anyone else to have the slightest say in its contents. Most of all, I designed it for myself. If the people like it, fine. If they don’t, that’s tough, because I don’t give a damn what they think. If anyone changes my constitution, my demolitions-knowledge will serve the British cause.”

no challenges for ayn

1....Roark’s practical difficulties--from bad press to professional ruin to lawsuits to criminal court--leave him unmoved. Only his ego and his ethical egoism matter to him, but The Fountainhead avoids any challenge to either.

Roark faces too little indifference. If his greatness goes unrecognized, it’s because of people like Toohey scheme against him in the name of the Great Conspiracy to Lead the Masses to Collectivism by Enshrining Mediocrity. The Fountainhead never allows that the world might ignore Roark on its own accord; and that Roark might have to care about his clients, do a better job of pitching his work, and be willing to compromise in order to receive even a single commission. Rand’s novel can’t deal with these possibilities because doing so would diminish Roark’s inhuman self-sufficiency.

Roark is the only major character in the novel who is permitted any integrity. Keating is a sell-out; Toohey is a wacko power-monger; Wynand prostitutes his soul and looks to Roark for redemption; Dominique is a willing slave. Only in comparison to characters like these can Roark seem morally ideal. Better characters would upstage Rand’s creation. His ego could not withstand a superior architect who honestly believed that modern architecture should recall the Renaissance. His dubious dignity would not survive his mother’s harangues against adultery. No problem: Roark has no mother.

Where are the sincere altruists in this book? I’m not talking about corrupt and crazy collectivists like Toohey; I’m talking about people who run soup-kitchens, fight fires, and comfort dying children. Rand’s case against altruistic ethics amounts to little more than equating altruism with a) collectivism, b) being propagandized into subservience by and for the power elite, c) being jealous of great talent or integrity in others, d) letting others dictate one’s values. The equations are false, but keep Rand’s philosophy safe.

Where are the committed couples in this book? Roark and Dominique grow from S&M buddies to disciple and prophet, but there’s no marriage here. In marriage, you have to live partly for someone else--not just yourself--so Rand avoids this challenge to her philosophy. For the same reason, none of The Fountainhead’s characters are loving parents. Rand’s universe has no room for people who say things like “We need towels,” “We should go on vacation,” and “Our children will live better lives than we did.”

In short, The Fountainhead carefully excludes any character or event that might challenge Roark’s faith in himself, along with any possible counterexample to ethical egoism. Ironically, these omissions weaken the drama and persuasiveness of Rand’s vision. Without moments of self-doubt and philosophical crisis, Roark’s endurance is no more meaningful than that of a stone. Without real altruists in her novel, Rand’s egoism stands unchallenged, and therefore undefended.

It would have been so easy to give Roark a sincerely altruistic brother, a social worker, whose honest and selfless life gave Roark pause, until the brother burned himself out by giving too much of himself, while failing to improve the world nearly as much as Roark’s egoistically motivated housing projects. But Rand couldn’t write about altruists made of flesh and blood; her altruists had to be made of straw.

where rand gets it right

Rand’s take on social responsibilities may be dubious, but her egoism is right-on when it comes to life’s non-moral sphere. Far too many of us use peer reactions to judge our tastes, avocations, and opinions. Will we be embarrassed or ostracized if we speak frankly about them? We should address that issue as Roark would, IMO.


three atheistic diatribes.....Unbelievably, I once heard a pastor say that, as a rule, Christians don't use force to impose their beliefs on others. Here in the USA, churches CAN'T use force to impose their beliefs, thanks to the Constitutional separation of church and state.

So, if we are to assess the claim that Christians use only peaceful means to seek converts, we need to look at either Christian theocracies, or states with no church-state separation. In such states, the Christian Church (whichever one held the power) really had a genuine choice as to whether to impose its beliefs on non-believers. Name one such state that did not impose its beliefs through force. Christians, name even one.

...............

Part of me is comforted somehow by the idea that there is a God who became incarnate to discourage hypocritical legalism, promote love, and sacrifice himself for all humanity. In the right hands, this idea can be ennobling, as my Christian friends can attest.

Also, though I don't believe in the Resurrection, the story can serve as a beautiful allegory for the idea that the fact of love is more important than the fact of death.

What I DO despise, with all my heart and soul, are these things;

---the doctrine of damnation for non-believers,
---opposition to the separation of Church and State,
---the idea that Christians are morally better than non-Christians.

If someone said that Jews all deserve to go to Hell, that the state should give special privileges to non-Jews, and that other peoples are morally better than Jews, we would rightly condemn these ideas as the rankest kind of anti-Semitism. The Nazis are not popular.

But because Christian ideas are considered sacred; because the Scriptures that convey them are found on every Christian altar, every book store, and even most motel rooms; and because most Christians don't know any atheists, or gays, or pagans, it's perfectly okay for Christians to express precisely the same sentiments about non-believers.

We don't even give such vile prejudices a name, even though the names suggest themselves immediately: Christian Supremacist, or, to use a more general term: Creedism.

A great many Christians--perhaps the majority--are by no means Christian Supremacists. But I think that Christian Supremacism is very popular in the South and Midwest; that George W. Bush, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, & Gary Bauer, are all Christian Supremacists; and that Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, the 700 Club, and the Christian Coalition are all Christian Supremacist organizations.

....................

I think that Christians who lose their social skills in Jesus’s name deserve the ridicule that they often get.

It is just plain STUPID to preach that an absolutely loving and all-just God would send non-believers to hell, and THEN to offer no real evidence in favor of this claim, and THEN to expect non-believers to harbor no disdain for said doctrine. And yet, intelligent Christians do this all the time, as if the Blood of Christ had washed away their common sense along with their sins.

....................

What do I think of all religions, not just Christianity?

At their best, religions give their followers an explanation for the meaning of existence (life as we experience it) and reality (the world that common sense and sciences attempt to grasp). At their best, religions remind their followers of the virtue of benevolence to oneself and others. At their best religions give people words and metaphors for experiences that our terms for emotions are not subtle enough to describe. At their best, religions remind people that there are things more important than commerce, success, politics, and work. At their best, religions keep the State and Human Cleverness off the pedestal reserved for the Godhead. At their best, religions remind us that humanity and the world have an intrinsic worth that has nothing to do with their mere utility.

At their worst, religions perpetuate all manner of superstition and just plain nonsense. At their worst, religions serve as excuses to oppress and torment unpopular people or groups. At their worst, religions block every movement towards progress, not just in the sciences, but in humanity's effort to bring common decency into the law, the government, and our traditions.

Demons account for some mental illnesses! Only our Church can save you from Hell! Masturbation is highly disordered and sinful! Look, this saint's corpse can't rot! Look, our sacred waters heal the sick! We're Sudanese Muslims; the Christians must die! We're Serbian and Orthodox Christian; the Muslims must die! We're Hindus, you're Muslims, so let's commit atrocities against each other! And the majority of Christians? Well, since governments in most predominantly, or at least nominally, Christian nations try to limit the political power of their churches, the Christians don't get to kill people outright like they did through most of the Dark Ages and the Renaissance.

But at least the conservative Christians can lobby against birth control, against the teaching of evolution, against homosexual rights, and, historically, against civil rights movements in general. Hell, in Virginia, they've passed a law that would allow courts to discount wills and contracts made between same-sex life partners. But of course, this is being done in the name of Christian love.

I still don't understand why intelligent, educated, 21st century people buy into this kind of vile and pernicious garbage.


defining the stages of life:

child		one who wants to be an adult 
adult		one who wants to be a child
teenager	one who wants to be an adult and a child

boy		one who wishes he were a man
man		one who wishes he were a boy
girl		one who wishes she were a woman
woman		one who wishes that men were better 


what are teenagers?.....Teens are people who preen their hair and clothes in front of mirrors, like adults preparing for a meeting or a dinner date.

Teens are people obsessed with sex, unlike adults, who are uniformly chaste in spite of the fact that their higher incomes have made pornography a multi-billion dollar industry.

Teens are people who are self-conscious about their bodies, and worry about their physiques, hair styles, and zits. They barely resemble adults, who are self-conscious about their bodies, and worry about their paunches, their hair loss, and their wrinkles.

In so many ways that age denies, teens are young adults, and adults are old teens.


SANITON! (The Ultimate Custodian!)

[panel sixteen] (Saniton flying over Peoria) With King Grime safely confined to his giant hefty bag at Peoria’s City Refuse Center, Saniton resumes his patrol once more. Flying free through fresh clean skies, he startles at a mysterious and monstrous sight!

Saniton: (thought balloon) Great Scott! Those buildings were clean moments ago! How could they be covered with graffiti so quickly?

[panel seventeen] (Saniton swooping closer to Peoria’s skyline.) Using his sani-vision; which allows him to see even the smallest specks of dirt, dust, and grime from any distance; Saniton discovers the true horror of the graffiti menace.

Saniton: “That graffiti is spreading by itself! Who could be responsible for this hideous filth!”

Mysterious Voice: “I am responsible. And you are helpless! Ha ha ha!”

[panel eighteen] (Saniton swoops by a cornice, glaring at the villain who stands gesticulating upon it. In the background, more buildings are covered in graffiti.)

Villain: “Admiring my auto-catalytic graffiti, Saniton? See how it spreads like fire across the buildings, absorbing its substance from the very steel, glass, and concrete it defiles! Without one drop of paint, I shall deface the world! So swears Graffiti God!”

[panel nineteen] (Dramatic close-up of an angry Saniton holding his hands claw-like before him as bubbly-looking energy surges from his finger tips.)

Saniton: "Graffiti God, eh? Let’s see how god-like you feel when your evil plans get washed away under the power of my surfactant force!"

[panel twenty] (A disbelieving Saniton stares and Graffiti God laughs as graffiti intrudes once more upon the dozens of buildings sprayed clean mere seconds ago.)

Graffiti God: “Ha ha ha! Cleanliness and order shall fall! Filth and chaos shall reign forever!”

[panel twenty one] (Saniton looks pensive as he scans the streets with furrowed brows.) Thanks to the mess-detecting power of his sani-vision, Saniton sees the evil graffiti that covers the streets and skyscrapers detouring around grassy areas.)

Saniton: “Looks like your graffiti only covers hard surfaces, villain!”

Graffiti God: “What difference could that possibly make, Sani-Clod!”

[panel twenty two] Saniton: “All the difference I need!”

(Graffiti God looks perplexed and worried as Saniton furrows his brow in fierce concentration.)

[next set of panels all headed by this caption:]

[Using his telekinetic command over all cleaning sponges, Saniton calls upon thousands of his squishy allies! From kitchen sinks, from restaurant counters, from janitorial supply closets everywhere, sponges fly from their normal duties to aid Peoria in its time of direst need!]

(Multiple mini-panels show dedicated cleaning sponges flying from their various locations.)

[panel twenty five] (Graffiti God cringes in shock as a triumphant Saniton sees the sponges land in the paths of spreading graffiti lines, stopping them dead in their tracks!)

Graffiti God: “No, my graffiti is invincible! This can’t be!”

[panel twenty six] Saniton: “Let’s see what a little surfactant force can do now!"

(Saniton unleashes his surfactant force once more as crowds of innocent Peorians cheer the obliteration of the graffiti menace. Graffiti God sobs, head in hands.)

[panel twenty seven] Later.... (Saniton is at street level as a crowd gathers around him.)

Kid in Crowd: “Wow, Saniton, you’re not just a custodian; you’re a hero.”

[panel twenty eight] (Saniton in semi-profile goes into to full speechifying mode as the awe-struck crowd listens intently.)

Saniton: “Am I a hero, son? Or are average custodians the true champions? I’ve been blessed with special abilities to fight extraordinary threats to cleanliness. But when the average custodian faces the worst this city has to offer, he doesn’t have super powers. All he has is a bucket, a mop, and a sponge. Yet, somehow, the city stays clean. Because when bits of trash sadden a happy sidewalk, it’s the average custodian who puts them in their place. When callous litterbugs sin against our hallways, it’s the average custodian who makes those hallways clean again. When the smells and fluids of daily life overwhelm the innocent citizen, it’s the average custodian who meets them head on. When lavatories threaten to spread disease and disgust, it’s the average custodian who says ‘No!’ to the germs, and wipes away their evil stain, not just sometimes, but every day! How can any occasional act of service on my part possibly compare to that steadfast heroism? How can society ever repay its debt to the legions of custodians who hold the line against a world of barbarous filth to keep the world safe for good clean living?”

(Saniton’s head is bowed as a single tear appears on his cheek. The crowd is hushed.)

[panel twenty nine] (Pan into crowd.)

Ordinary Citizen: “Gosh, I never thought of custodians that way. I always used to look down on them... make fun of them. Not anymore! Thank you, Saniton!”

(In the background, the members of the crowd smile through their tears of gratitude as they applaud their immaculate hero.)

[panel thirty] Later...

(A mugging victim lays in an alley.)

Mugging Victim: (looking shocked and afraid) (thought balloon) Oh no! I’ve been stabbed!

[panel thirty one] (Same scene, except mugging victim is smiling gratefully as Saniton, unaware of the victim’s plight, zooms through the sky overhead.)

Mugging Victim: (thought balloon) But the wound won’t get infected in this clean alley. Not with Saniton around!

NEXT: Saniton faces the malodorous menace of....THE SKUNK!


when to become a theist:.....Are you an atheist? If so, when should you become a theist? If you’re not sure, watch for the following changes in your universe.

a)....From all radios and radio telescopes, no matter where they are pointed, a message is received. "I am God, the god who spoke to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Bahaullah, and others. I am the all-powerful, all-knowing maker of this universe and other realms, even Paradise. Though you have suffered, yet I love you infinitely in ways that you will understand in the life that awaits you in the hereafter. Believe that I am God; trust in me; pray to me. Most of all, love others as you love yourselves."

The repeating message is broadcast over as many frequencies as there are mutually unintelligible varieties of language--with one language per frequency.

b)....The message is received telepathically by all humans. (The purpose of the radio message is to insure that the message was delivered in an objectively recordable form, and not just subjectively.)

c)....Scientists document that the sources of this message include every star observed with no exceptions, and that the background radiation that has permeated the universe since the beginning of time is modulating to convey the message also.

d)....According to all observatories, the red shift that indicates the motion of the galaxies away from us in the expansion of the universe has stopped. Later observations confirm that the universe had, in an instant, changed from a post-big-bang universe to a steady state universe.

e)....Astronomical photos confirm that the countless observable galaxies in the universe have changed positions, and are now arranged in clusters each containing a prime number of galaxies.

f)....As for the moon and every other observable non-stellar astronomical body, all these become hospitable to human life in an instant to brief to be measured.

g)....All infirmities, diseases, and disorders vanish in the same instant.

h)....All humans suddenly acquire the ability to change their location instantly by act of will, and travel not only anywhere on Earth, but to any world in the entire universe, without ever getting lost. Remember, all the worlds are habitable now.

i)....All humans acquire the ability to hear--unaided by technology of any kind--radio transmissions from the stars, which would convey The Word of God undimmed by the errors and biases of scribes and translators.

If these changes happen in your universe, consult your clergy person about becoming a theist today!


the hero’s sister:.....Some martial arts movies are lightweight. Take Jackie Chan’s most recent movies, which feature lots of amazing stunts and honest-to-goodness comedy. Then consider ninja movies, harmless revenge/omnipotence fantasies for people who are thirteen or want to take a break from being older than thirteen.

Some martial arts movies are grim, and come in two flavors: Early Bummer and Later Bummer. Both these kinds of movies have a grim tone and lots of action occasionally seasoned with some good acting, but you can generally tell these two kinds of movies apart by paying attention to what happens to the hero’s sister.

Here’s what happens in an Early Bummer martial arts movie. Right at the get-go, the villain kills the hero’s sister in some vile and horrible way. The hero gets wind of it, and vows revenge. After spending the entire movie destroying the villain’s organization with his bare hands, the hero has a showdown with the villain.

Maybe the hero kills the villain. Or maybe the hero refuses to kill the villain until the villain pulls a gun and leaves the hero no choice. Or maybe, the villain sneers at the hero’s principled refusal to kill him until a gust of wind blows the villain off the thousand foot cliff (where he happened to be standing) and onto the jagged rocks below.

The point is, in an Early Bummer martial arts movie, the hero’s sister buys it early, and the hero feels grim, but a little bit better when the villain is dead.

Things are different in Later Bummer martial arts movies. The sister doesn’t die until close to the end of the movie. At the get-go, the hero is trying to stop a criminal organization that relies on elite martial artists armed with throwing stars when ordinary tommy guns and tanks prove inadequate for its sinister plans. As the plot thickens, the hero gets more and more bummed out about the contrast between his sister’s gentle peacefulness and his own chop-stocky tendencies. Close to the movie’s finale, the hero’s sister gets caught and killed in the crossfire of the hero’s battle. The hero prevails, but the death of his sister leaves him a shell of a man, condemned forever by the ultimate emptiness of his violent destiny.

To review, in Later Bummer martial arts movies, the hero’s sister dies late. The hero prevails, but feels horrible beyond imagining even after the villain is dead.

Of course, in lightweight martial arts movies, the hero’s sister not only lives, but, as a martial artist in her own right, helps the hero catch the bad guys, who usually live to be thrown in jail.


gentle plant eaters my ass:.....Enjoyed Jurassic Park a lot, especially back when it came out, but one thing that really pissed me off about it was the depiction of plant-eating dinosaurs, brachiosaurus in particular.

There’s this scene in which a man and two children are resting near the top of a tree, and a brachiosaur approaches, and starts nibbling at the leaves right next to the humans. When one of the children gets scared, the other two people say not to worry; that this is a plant-eater, not a meat-eater, and therefore a gentle creature. Yeah. Right.

The three largest land animals alive today are all plant eaters: the tranquil rhinoceros, the unassuming hippopotamus, and of course, the gentle African elephant.

Rhinos are meek, timid creatures, unless you get too close to them, in which case they snort in order to scare you away. If that fails, they charge, fast as a horse and eager to drive their horns like huge stakes straight through your guts. Of course, they’ll probably have to shake your body off those blood-drenched three foot spikes, but bits of gore will cling like crimson slugs to the deadly horns as the rhino tramples you to a hideous paste that will never threaten their kind again.

Ah, the peaceful rhinos. They’re plant eaters, you know.

Hippos, on the other hand, kill more people in Africa each year than lions do. Hippos attack anything that surprises them and their jaws are strong enough to chop a human head off at the shoulders with one bite. In fact, hippos really do bite human heads off at the shoulders. Hippos take all kinds of killing bites out of human beings, but only out of anger, never out of hunger. They’re plant eaters, after all.

And who can forget the African elephant? So mild, so tranquil. Well, okay, it gets angry sometimes. That’s when it picks you up with its powerful trunk and hurls you twenty feet to a bone-shattering collision with the nearest tree. Or maybe it will dash you to the ground where its feet can stomp, kick, and trample you under its three tons of muscular weight. Or maybe the retiring pachyderm will use its head to pin you to a pile of rocks as it lifts its back leg, transferring crushing tons of force to the head that smashes your bones and mashes your organs.

If African elephants, mild and harmless plant eaters that they are, can be this gentle, how much more gentle would plant-eating dinosaurs be?

Guys, gals, if you’re ever stuck in a very tall tree, and a brachiosaurus puts its mouth within teething distance of your body, be afraid. Be very afraid.


overestimates:.....We should believe in learning, but be skeptical about education. When we acquire the skills and information that authors and teachers attempt to teach us, that’s learning. When some of what we learn gives us a more informed way of looking at the world as a whole, that’s education. Consider a modicum of scientific skepticism a good example of education.

Now some people inflate the utility and value of education. Some educated people say foolish things like “I’m too educated to be influenced by propaganda,” “Educated people have the most refined tastes,” and “Educated people always make the best parents.” Let’s not even get started on that last one.

What’s really foolish is the belief that mastery of one field of learning somehow translates into a superior knowledge of all fields. Most educated people deny believing this, but too many educated people speak as if this is precisely what they believe. It’s as if they think that each year in school adds a new level of epistemological clairvoyance.

The most irritating examples from my experience?

Some physics students believe that studying the Theory of Everything gives them knowledge of everything from botany to philosophy to interior design.

Some psychiatrists and psychologists overestimate the forensic utility of their field, as if they could investigate the world of fact through unaided investigations into their subjects? states of mind. (False memories, anyone?)

Some speech therapists overestimate their knowledge of neurology.

Some pediatricians overestimate their knowledge of child cognitive and linguistic development.

Some teachers overestimate their knowledge of psychology and medicine.

Way too many English profs and teachers overestimate their knowledge of philosophy, psychology, and linguistics.

Some Ph.D.’s in fields that have nothing to do with the humanities talk about the arts as if the New York School of Fine Arts sends them a fresh diploma every year.

Hey, guys, outside your field, you’re lay people.


what the hell is this?.....Different tastes are a fact of life. Other people are always going to like stuff that you can’t stand. You won’t be able to imagine liking that stuff; you’ll wonder why anyone sane would like that stuff; you’ll avoid hearing and seeing that stuff whenever you can; and you’ll object when some inconsiderate so-and-so needlessly subjects you to it. And all that is okay. It doesn’t make you closed-minded. You don’t have to like what other people like.

But it’s a long jump from not liking something to cultivating an active contempt for people who do. You walk into someone else’s home, hear a tune that isn’t on your personal play list, and say “What the hell is this?” You get testy and disrespectful to anyone who mentions an artist whom you don’t like. Someone explains why they like something you’re not into, and you call their judgment stupid or corrupt, and otherwise treat them like dirt.

Hidden behind your angry contempt for tastes you do not share is pure egotism embodied in the idea that that all the forms of art, and all the media too, should be made for you, and that all the people around you must defer to your judgment. Yes, it does make you closed-minded. Yes, it does make you despicable.


the UFO cover-up:.....In this country, the belief that UFO’s could be extraterrestrial spacecraft pops up across a wide spectrum of rationality, from the arguably scientific notion that the unexplained UFO sightings are worth more serious study to the frankly mystical belief that extraterrestrials have come to Earth to enlighten humanity.

It has become customary to refer to the ideas along this spectrum as “belief in UFO’s.” The phrase is stupid considering what “UFO” stands for. First, we do not merely believe in unidentified flying objects; we know for a fact that some flying objects are unidentified. Second, those who are said to "believe in UFO’s" think that they have identified the flying objects in question as extraterrestrial spacecraft. Strictly speaking, flying saucer buffs believe in fewer UFO’s than skeptics do.

So let’s distinguish “UFO’s” (unidentified flying objects) from “ETV’s” (extraterrestrial visitors, to Earth that is).

Belief in ETV’s has created precious opportunities for our secrecy-obsessed government, particularly the agencies that protect the secrecy of classified experimental aircraft programs. In a country where half the population owns camcorders, someone is bound to pick up an image of an experimental aircraft flying around.

How can our government keep these aircraft secret? The most cost-effective way to do this would be to persuade the public to doubt the veracity of UFO reports. It beats trying to put a tarp over half the sky to conceal our hypersonic aircraft tests. But how could the government accomplish this persuasion?

By covertly encouraging belief in a government cover-up of ETV. This prompts the believers in ETV to say things about UFO’s that reflect fanciful speculation and anti-government paranoia, which in turn prompts most of the public to laugh UFO’s into the margins of public discourse. Everyone talks about aliens. No one talks about hypersonic aircraft tests. The blurry photos and videos are too closely linked to fringe groups to have any credibility, and the government is happy.

This encouragement would hardly cost the government a dime. All it would have to do is classify a bunch of UFO reports. These reports would not have to concern any actual experimental aircraft. The reports could be transcribed from old UFO stories in newspapers. They could be compiled from Project Blue Book. They could be fabricated by aspiring novelists among the government staff. And, if distributed to the public, they could be so riddled with blacked-out lines that any self-respecting ETV fringe group would cry "government cover-up.”

The government could further obscure the truth about experimental aircraft by allowing retired or supposedly fired officials and military pilots to describe impossible UFO sightings. Such insiders could report silvery flying discs executing right-angle turns at thousands of miles an hour, or appearing from nowhere, or rendezvousing with great mother ships that don’t show up on radar. With testimony enough to keep the ETV groups thirsting and the public scoffing, these few ex-government employees could camouflage the true capabilities of secret experimental aircraft.

The government could even pay a few ordinary citizens to claim that the government harassed them for knowing too much about flying saucers. These citizens could even tell tales of handling alien materials or seeing things that may have been the bodies of alien humanoids.

Yes, that’s the real explanation for the government’s UFO cover-up. You can take my word for it. After all, it’s not as if alien humanoids in dark suits came to my house and forced me to write this piece. The very idea is absurd. Isn’t it?


mind-photos:.....A good photographer can make almost any subject look interesting. And a good photographer’s pictures need not represent the concrete world exclusively. Even without retouching, properly cropped photographs of interesting surfaces can do the work of abstract paintings. A good photographer can see beauty everywhere.

Now, not everyone can take good pictures. But if everyone took a little time to use their eyes the way they might use a good camera, the whole world would be filled with fascinating scenes. You already take mind photos of people. Take mind photos of everything else too. Make your world more interesting.


thirty flags:.....Walk down the hallways of any elementary school. You’ll find a wall somewhere dedicated to this week’s art from some classroom or other. Sometimes you’ll see free coloring or painting on 9 x 12 construction paper. Sometimes, you’ll see photocopied line drawings colored by the students. The art will be arranged in neat rows and columns on the wall.

Some of the young colorists can stay in the lines; some of them can’t. Pictures colored by a talented few will look eerily like stained-glass windows. More pictures will be scribbled over with clashing colors. But regardless of the level of talent each young artist brings to bear, every picture will be different, no matter how much the teacher strives to craft instructions that produce identical pieces of art.

Look at the art from a single classroom and you’ll see the flags of thirty nations on the school house walls.


human cloning:.....For those who came in late, living human clones have existed ever since the dawn of humankind. We don’t call them human clones; we call them identical twins. But biologically speaking, they’re clones; more than one individual with the same genetic material. This does not mean that identical twins are less human than anyone else. Nor does it mean that they have less individuality than the un-twinned masses. And there is no good theological reason to deny that identical twins have souls.

So let me say from the outset that artificially produced human clones would be just as human as anyone else; there is no scientific reason to believe otherwise. The idea that artificially cultivated human clones would be less than human is superstitious garbage.

Also, let’s assume that the technical difficulties involved in cloning mammals will one day be solved. One fine day in the future, cloning a mammal will not involve the destruction of dozens of try-out embryos and will not doom the clones to birth defects and progeria.

All that said, I’m against the use of cloning to make babies, because the only reasons for reproductive cloning are bad reasons.

Cloning babies to solve Earth’s desperate under-population problem is obviously ridiculous. Human beings have doubled their population over the last fifty years just by doing what comes naturally.

What’s more, cloning whole nations would also decrease human genetic diversity, leaving these nations vulnerable to diseases that would harm a smaller percentage of more genetically diverse peoples.

Cloning talent seems like a good idea at first blush. Why not clone another Einstein or another Michael Jordan? The answer is no revelation. Cloning for talent would create a de facto caste system. It would not be called a caste system. The existence of the talents in question could be scientifically documented rather than assumed on religious grounds. But the investment represented by cloning million dollar talents could not be justified unless the course of a clone’s life were preordained.

Cloning whole babies for spare parts? Heck, why not clone babies just to see if we can keep their severed heads alive in laboratories? Our clones would be human. What’s immoral to do to identical twins would be immoral to do with human clones.

But what about human cloning as a fertility technology? Well, personally I’m not a big fan of elaborate fertility technologies. Do they really have a place in a world where too few children are adopted?

Even if they do, would it be healthy for a parent to raise his or her identical twin? Many parents are tempted to live through their children; to insist that their children succeed where they failed. How might this temptation be magnified if one parent had a child created in his own image? How else might cloning distort the parent-child relationship? If a child were cloned as a replacement for a child who died, what would that say about whether a child exists for its own sake or as a mere vehicle for parental fulfillment?

And by the way, why use cloning when you can use artificial insemination?

The fertility tech crowd could argue that would-be parents have the right to assume the psychological risks of raising their own clones. But in my opinion, cloning for fertility could be the slippery slope that leads to cloning for talent. Suppose an eminent and remarkably talented couple had one or more children who failed to exhibit the family genius. Cloning would make it possible for them to have another child as smart as Mom or Dad.


same people. different BS:.....Any well-traveled person will tell you that people are the same everywhere; that you find the same kinds of personalities in every nation the world over. Let’s take the globe-trotters at their word.

Societies don’t vary when it comes to the types of people they have, but vary a lot when it comes to the stations that the different types occupy. Take thugs, for example. In America, thugs are often found in dark allies. Back in the Soviet Union, thugs got jobs in the secret police and occupied high positions in government.

I shake my head when I hear people say that the Soviets had street crime licked. Stalin didn’t wipe out murder. He turned it into a function of the government.


laundry folders:.....I am currently watching BEAST, a made for TV giant squid movie based on Peter Benchley’s giant squid novel of the same name. It may not be as legendary as the Godfather saga, but it’s one of the greatest laundry-folding movies of all time. At more than three hours in length (four if you don’t fast forward through the commercials), this light soap opera, occasionally punctuated by giant-squid scenes, requires only the most minimal attention on the part of the viewer. This enables the viewer to do repetitive tasks, such as folding laundry, in a pleasant stupor rather than a bored funk.

America’s Great Laundry-Folding Movies (cue "2001" theme music)

contemporary

Peter Benchley’s THE BEAST: film version
Peter Benchley’s CREATURE: film version
Any giant-and-or-recombinant-DNA-animal attack movie

retro

The Land that Time Forgot (featuring Doug McClure and cheesy pterodactyls)
The People that Time Forgot (the proudly mindless sequel!)
Any ninja movie

silver screen classics

Any 1950’s B or C grade giant-and-or-radioactive horror movie.
Any Tarzan movie.
Any Bomba the Jungle Boy movie.

What Elements Make a Laundry-Folding Movie Truly Great?

cheesy pterodactyls
man-eating plants
gratuitous dry ice
pits of quicksand, lava, fire, or unspecified dangerous-looking bubbly liquid
lots of young, very good-looking non-actors, plus a few old, career-impaired actors


the competition:…..When you’re in a competitive situation, it’s important to gauge not only your own ability to compete, but how much attention you need to pay to your competition.

In games, from chess to football, you have to anticipate and respond to your opponent move-for-move throughout the contest. So too with races.

At the opposite extreme, we have being a student. Trying to be a good student is indeed a competitive task, but you don’t have to pay much attention to your competition as long as you do your best.

Arts and entertainment occupies the whole range between these two extremes. Creating original art or entertainment aimed at small audiences can be a very competitive task, but not one that requires you to pay much attention to your competitors. Creating derivative work for a large audience requires close attention to the other guys.


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socialism and artificial scarcity:.....We’ve tolerated the artificial scarcity of diamonds; we’re starting to feel the artificial scarcity of music. A technology sufficiently advanced, coupled with social discipline sufficiently comprehensive to give societies control over their own population growth, could make artificial scarcity so pervasive that the pressure to eliminate it and embrace socialism would be great.


Hendrix et al.:.....Recently, I did a re-listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love.” I only discovered this album many years after I discovered “Electric Ladyland” when I was a kid. In fact, I bought “Axis” within the last decade or so to complete my collection of Jimi Hendrix re-issues.

The drummer was smarter than I remembered; and played lots of flashy fills.

I think this fill-o-mania has to do with the fact that rock breaks three cardinal rules of art, namely don’t be obvious, don’t be simple, and don’t do anything to excess.

It is incumbent on rockers, particularly hard rockers, to communicate very simple messages (I’m angry; I’m horny; I have a glowering spooky side; We should all be afraid; I live in a world in which my emotions must be suppressed to an unhealthy extent so part of me dreams of making an aggressive and triumphal tidal wave of sound powerful enough to annihilate all my frustrations and feelings of powerlessness--which is why millions of people like me wish they were rock stars.)

It is incumbent on rockers, particularly hard rockers, to keep the composition stringently simple. (Prog-metal acts like Dream Theater don't fit this description, but the existence of prog-metal depends on the existence of simple metal, and the most metallic passages of Dream Theater are simple). So in the main, forget composition; any ingenuity in hard rock and metal is invested in texture; not just the production, but the timbres of the instruments, the dexterous (if artistically undisciplined) instrumental work and solos, and most importantly, the voice of the lead singer.

It is often incumbent on rockers, particularly hard rockers, to do things to excess. Why? Because you have to make that big sonic tidal wave with very few instruments. If all you’ve got are a bass, a guitar, a drum kit, and a voice, and you’re supposed to communicate intensity, one way to do this is to have everybody overplay. The singer screams, the guitarist plays too many notes, and the drummer plays more than his share of fills. And if the band is anything like The Who, the bass player holds everything together. Oh, and you have to have lots of big speakers.

Nowadays, with modern production, a hard rock or metal band can make a stadium-filling growl even if they play simply, but back in the heydays of Hendrix and the Who, having the musicians do too much of everything (into too many speakers) was one way to ignore art’s “nothing to excess” rule. Fortunately, for people like me, who are suckers for even unmotivated displays of instrumental dexterity, the too-much-of-everything tradition has carried over into relatively recent times.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience played a lot of flashy fills.

As for Hendrix himself, I can’t pretend to identify with his heritage or circumstances. But I can sure as hell identify with the euphoric fantasy he communicated through his lyrics. Electric Ladyland was the album that first acquainted me with his music; I must have been in sixth grade. But Electric Ladyland, with its music and its soundscapes and its omnipotent Voodoo Child and Hendrix turning to a merman in 1983--all that I could identify with.

The first album and songs like “Purple Haze” didn’t do much for me then. I was no friend of hard rock in sixth grade. Elementary school caught me hooked on the harmonies in the Fifth Dimension’s cover of “Aquarius.” I only started liking Zep when I was eighteen and ran into Physical Graffiti, which I like very much to this day.

I knew for a long time that Led Zeppelin owed a big debt to Hendrix, but listening to Axis recently made me realize that Zep owed a HUGE debt to Hendrix.

So how do Zep and Hendrix compare IMO?

Hendrix was unquestionably a much better and more creative guitarist than Page.

The best Zep songs are as good as the best Hendrix songs, but the guiltiest Led Zeppelin pleasures are guiltier than those dopey songs that Noel Redding wrote for the Experience, like “Little Miss Strange.”

Jimmy Page was a better producer than the folks who produced Hendrix. Forget that flashy Les Paul of his; Page in his prime was past master of the analog studio. For one thing, he pioneered the use of ambient mike-ing to make drums sound humungous. (The old rumor was that one of the mikes for the drums on Zep's version of “When the Levee Breaks” hung two hundred feet above Bonham in the sanctuary of a huge cathedral, but I’m betting that one’s apocryphal.) More generally, the production on Zep’s three best albums (III, IV, and Houses of the Holy) speaks for itself.

So here’s my big rock and roll fantasy: The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s one-shot reunion album. Untitled. Produced by Jimmy Page in 1972.

If only.


a nice little school:.....On the table that sat at the back of Five Points Elementary School's auditorium lay tens of plates piled with food--a dozen kinds of pie wrapped in as many kinds of leafy greens; old world sweets whose chocolate sweated in the heat of the lights and the crowd; meats stuffed with savory olives, onions, pimentos, or bits of tomato; bacon wraps for scallops, quail, and other fine meat. Flanking the food, pitchers of wine stood next to a gathering of wax paper cups: large ones for the adults; small ones for the children. Behind the table on the wall hung a butcher paper sign bearing a single word in black tempura paint: indulgence.

Along with a crowd of other adults, Flo approached the table, hoping for some wine and chocolate. A boy, probably in the third grade, attempted to cut past her, but she grabbed his shoulders firmly, pulling him back to face her.

"Your time will come, little one," she said, "but for now, respect hierarchy."

Cuffing him in the shoulder just enough to make him wince, she sent him back to his proper place, behind her. A number of adult faces in the crowd glanced her way with expressions ranging from apathy to approval.

However, one woman approached her with a look of concern; Deidre, Flo's neighbor.

"It's almost time for the choir, Flo," she said. "Please come back with me."

"I will have my wine and chocolate," said Flo, "and also your company Deidre, in moment."

Minutes, later, when Flo sat down, Deidre tugged her shoulder and pointed excitedly at her daughter who stood with the rest of the choir.

"When I was a little girl," she said, "I used to sing in the choir, and we wore red and black cassocks just like the children wear now. Aren't these kids adorable?"

"Of course they are," said Flo. "Children are life itself. Train them hard, but love them tenderly, for are the purest expressions of life." She smiled, proud of the brood that Five Points School was raising.

The music teacher, seated at the old upright piano, nodded to her charges, who sang a beautiful rendition of "The Strong Shall Guide Our Land." When the song ended with the enthused applause of the parents, the choir filed away, and a boy and girl -- probably in sixth grade -- parted the curtain to put two items on the stage. One was an American Flag. The other was an easel that held a picture of President LaVey, standing in front of the Presidential Seal with its inverted five pointed star enclosing the image of the national bird, the raven.

"And now," said the boy and the girl in unison, "the Pledge of Allegiance."

Every voice in the auditorium, young and old alike, joined in.

"I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, under the Left Hand Path, with Freedom for those who dare seize it. Hail Satan!"


the magick shop:.....For those who came in late, “magick” spelled with a “k” refers to true supernatural magic, as opposed to conjuring or sleight-of-hand.

The efficacy of magick is an object of faith for all kinds of neo-pagans, a few of whom run a little store next to my favorite comic book shop. This magick shop sells books about Asatru, Voodoo, Ceremonial Magick, Wicca, Tarot, Astrology, and more. It sells powders, silvery charms and cute bumper stickers along with Tarot cards and other oracles-in-a-box.

Most of the folks behind the counter seem level-headed, and why not? The efficacy of magick is no less credible than the efficacy of prayer; the ceremonies of magick no less sober than holy rolling. As much as they want supernatural power and insight, the practitioners of magick also seek--and find--a source of spiritual vitality that stands outside the demands of working life, the pointlessness of secular consumerism, and the oppressiveness of popular churches.

Anyway, the shop has signs that I have always liked.

Remember that a lot of self-described witches shop here when you read this sign: “Unattended children will be fattened up.”

Somewhere near the cash register, a sign reads “I am not here to validate your delusion.” The cashiers work alone, get a few weirdos in the store sometimes, and need a sign to point to.

Another favorite sign in the shop reads “Imaginary dragons bite the hardest.” Sure, it’s literal nonsense, but what a nice metaphor it makes for the fact that ideologies, cruel gods, and other creatures of the imagination cause more anguish than most natural calamities.

I still go to the shop now and then to buy a stray book here, a tarot card deck there. But I don’t believe in magick. Ceremonial magick, in particular, is a bundle of superstitions when viewed as an analysis of the material world. But viewed as a religion of self-realization, and as a source of fascinating images, magick is interesting.


writers and actors:.....When I was in my twenties, I thought that acting was overrated profession. Sure, it required a lot of technical skill to emote convincingly while saying someone else’s words, toeing someone else’s marks, and following the director’s orders. But in my naive mind, an actor amounted to little more than a paid puppet. The writer, I thought, was the true brains behind a movie.

Sometime in my thirties, I realized that a lot of movie writing is crummy and that good actors can cover up that fact by delivering their lines with straight faces. So, when the pen behind the movie version of Dante’s Inferno writes lines like “Wow, Virgil, this is so uncool,” it will be the actors who save the writer from well-deserved humiliation. Good actors are the brains that save the movies.


the two great principles of clinical practice:.....In the helping professions; which occasionally fall prey to fads, scams, and dubious findings; we need to remember these two great principles: Everything works on somebody. Nothing works on everybody.


agnosticism:.....Agnosticism has come to denote the claim that one does not, or that no one can, know anything about whether there is a God or anything else that transcends Nature.

Personally, I think that this term is unfortunate, because it ignores an important distinctions.

Two people approach a gaming table. One is a gambler. The other is a college student who does not gamble, but needs to write a paper on gambling. When our gambler bets half his money on the roulette wheel, and he and the student watch the ball. Neither one knows where it will fall.

So, when it comes to the winning number, the gambler and the student are both agnostic, but their stances are hardly the same. Willingness to risk acting in ignorance and a dispassionate judgment of ignorance are very different, and each ought to be named with its own term, not just one ham-fisted word, “agnostic.”


salaries:.....Here’s one to make you world-weary: the way that so many Americans who profess a belief in free enterprise wind up talking like socialist utopians when the high salaries of athletes and entertainers come into the conversation. Move stars and football players make a hundred times more than teachers and doctors, they cry. What does this say about our society’s values?

What the salary scales reveal is that most people like to play better than they like to study for final exams or undergo medical procedures, and that our market economy reacts accordingly.

Meanwhile, the socialist utopians say that no one should make millions, since no one works hard enough to justify such compensation. But this notion rests naively on the premise that labor is the only justification for claiming wealth.

What about ownership? When people discover gold on their own property, should this gold be taken away from them because it wasn’t earned? And isn't an actor's talent like gold?

What about scarcity? If a doctor discovers a way to transplant bodies, and is the only person on Earth who has performed this procedure successfully, should we blame him if he chooses to work for the parties who pay him the most?

Responsibility has often been cited as a reason for unequal pay. A manager who manages a thousand workers has more responsibility than a subordinate manager who supervises only ten. Doesn’t higher responsibility merit higher pay?

The answer to this question is complicated by the varying nature of responsibilities. You have two companies. One makes pacemakers. The other prints books of horoscopes. Both companies make about the same amount of money. So which CEO has the greater responsibility, and which should make more money? For that matter, how much should our horoscope CEO make in comparison to one soldier, one cop, or one doctor? The market doesn’t answer these questions, which is the best hope for those who would evaluate salary scales according to non-economic values like fairness and importance.


ninjas:.....I used to watch ninja movies, because these black-clad warriors of the night could annihilate any foe. Too swift to overpower, too elusive to capture, too deadly to defeat, the ninja fulfilled all my fantasies of invincibility and power.

Recently, I learned that real-life ninjas never wore black, were not renowned for their fighting skills, and operated mostly by dressing in enemy uniforms and causing all kinds of confusion in enemy palaces. The same source told me that no record exists of a successful ninja assassination. Not even one.

This broke my heart, until I realized that this historical portrait of the ninja was merely a smokescreen: a supreme deception that continues to cloud the minds of even the most able historians, who uncover merely what the true ninjas want the world to think. The night assassins can operate freely now precisely because the world dismisses them as legends.

Yes, my black-clad ninjas are still out there; as silent and lethal as the shadows of death itself; their successes undetected, as though their victims never were!


how to include a four year-old in a chess game:.....Put one new piece on the chess board, called the “dragon.” Teach the four year-old that the dragon can only move one space, but can do so in any direction. The dragon moves like a king, except that no piece can take it, and the dragon can take any piece off the board. Both chess players should praise and reward the four year-old every time he or she makes a correct (1-step) move; they could hug or ‘fly’ the little tyke, for instance.

In the war metaphor that chess constitutes, the dragon plays the role of the natural catastrophe.


transincarnation:.....Let’s play a game. We make up a new word, using English roots and derivational affixes. Then we assign a meaning to this new word. So I hereby coin “transincarnation” which has either of the following definitions:

1….The incarnation of one’s soul into the lives of every person that one has ever met: i.e. one lives, not only one’s own life, but the life of one’s spouse, relatives, friends, enemies, and every other person one has ever encountered.

2….The incarnation of one’s soul into all of the lives that he or she has lived in the infinite number of parallel universes predicted by some interpretations of physics.


a chain in every town:.....America towns have become homogenized. In our grandfather’s time, every little town had its own little businesses, its own little community celebrations, its own personality. Now there’s a McDonald’s , a Target, a Kinko’s , and a Denny’s in every town; national and regional chains have taken made most US towns look the same.

Broadcasting, too, has made our nation one: most local stations broadcast national programs. Everybody has the same TV shows to talk about. So every town is roughly the same: we see, hear, visit, eat, and buy the same things.

Perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. Maybe there are perfectly innocuous reasons for the market to create uniform towns.

Consider rapid historical and technological change. In modern America, that change is constant. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have come to talk about different decades, the fifties, the sixties, and so on, as if they were different historical eras. And why not? Considering that more change has happened in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined, how ridiculous can this habit be?

One has to wonder how well human beings have adapted to this rate of change. Ever since our species came into being, most people have spent most of their lives living in little villages, associating with the same relatives, friends, neighbors, and others in communities where everyone knows everybody.

Americans don’t want to admit it, but perhaps most of us never lost this ancient need for the familiarity and predictability that village life once provided for nearly everyone. Perhaps that’s why the chains do so well--because they make every town like our home towns.


feminized masculine names that didn't make the cut..... There are plenty of nice feminine versions of masculine names: Paul/Paula-Pauline; Michael/Michelle; Christopher/Christine; and so on. What a blessing feminized names have been for parents who expected a boy, but had a girl instead. Truly, this feminization has been a worthwhile effort. But in every worthwhile effort, there are false starts and blind alleys, as we see here:

Arnold/Arnoldelle.......Bud/Budette.......Chet/Chetina.......Dudley/Dudleah.......Ethan/Ethanona

Fritz/Fritzine.......Greg/Gregeree.....Harvey/Harvelia.......Irving/Irvice.......Jeff/Jeffany

Kurt/Kurticia.......Lemuel/Lemuela.......Matt/Mattelle.......Otto/Otta.......Phillip/Phillipina

Quincy/Quincissa.......Ralph/Ralphanne.......Spike/Spyche.......Trent/Trentille.......Upton/Uptine

Vincent/Vincentia.......Wally/Walline, or Walla


obscure universal languages:.....Most readers have heard of the artificial language, “Esperanto,” a proposed as a universal auxiliary language designed to slash translation costs and unite the world. Many other universal auxiliary languages have been proposed: Interlingua, Novial, Volapuek, and others. All of these are now obscure enough to serve as secret codes.

A fellow named Andrew Large wrote an excellent book, “The Artificial Language Movement,” which describes the development of Volapuek, and subsequently Esperanto, and the reasons why neither of these languages is currently used at the U.N. If memory serves me, one of the chief downfalls of artificial language movements were their failure to promote their languages intelligently. For instance, instead of making an organized effort to get people to use Esperanto for trade and such, the Esperantists argued over the grammatical minutiae of their proposed lingua francas, and splintered into sub-groups that extolled revised grammars. Hence Ido and Esperanto’s other children.

IMO no universal auxiliary language will be widely used in the foreseeable future, even with intelligent efforts to promote it. Not enough people need to know more than one language, and even globe-trotting cosmopolitans would hesitate to speak in a language that is foreign to everyone.

However, if some hard-working young idealists wanted to create the seed of an organization that could promote some new artificial language as a future lingua franca, they might follow these suggestions:


can non-theists sin?..... We non-theists hesitate to use the word "sin," because it refers to a transgression against or separation from a God that we don't believe in.

However, most of us non-theists acknowledge that we are capable of wrong-doing. That is, we can violate the system of conventions that exists to provide the optimal compromise between the fulfillment of the individual and the needs of society as a whole.

Individuals do not decide what these conventions will be, any more than individuals decide upon other society-wide conventions, such as the value of a dollar in a free market society. Rather, such conventions develop along similar lines across societies, because the conventions satisfy needs that human societies have in common. For example, any human society with property relations is going to prohibit stealing, whether its members have read the Bible or not. Any human society in which one killer can terrorize a whole community will inevitably prohibit murder and punish murderers. The anthropological truths involved are more complex than they look here, of course, but you get the idea.

So morality, IMO, is very much like the law, except that morality is transmitted chiefly by families instead of governments, and that it can trump the law under tyranny--hence noble "crimes" like hiding resisters from totalitarian governments, which seek to stamp out fulfillment for all but a few individuals.

To whom are we accountable?

Many Christians do have people to whom they are accountable not only for their sins but for their spiritual development. The spiritual directors of seminarians and monks are a good example. I imagine that spiritual direction is more informal, less institutional among many of the Protestant denominations.

To whom are non-theists like myself accountable? We are accountable to other people--especially the people whom we have wronged.

Is this as effective at keeping people in line as accountability to God? Naturally, I answer 'yes.' Accountability to God is good only when the will of God is not interpreted in some pernicious way. The many religious people who work in soup kitchens answer to God, but so do the many people who kill in the name of religion, including the 9-11 hijackers.

Of course, many religious people would say that Al-Qaida is ignorant of the true will of God, but this prompts the observation that there is no objective way to determine God's will.

There are, however, objective ways of determining whether people are thriving or languishing because of prevalent rules and behaviors, which gives us the means to decide whether certain rules should be preserved or changed, given the goal of reconciling individual and collective needs.

The latter isn't an exclusively non-theistic observation. Christians should note Jesus’s teaching that our treatment of the people around us, especially the least among us, is the yardstick by which we should measure fidelity to him.


parapsychology.....After more than a century, parapsychology, formerly known as psychical research, has failed to produce any repeatable findings. Names have been given to alleged powers like telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis, but little more than anecdotal accounts suggest such powers exist.

One thing that parapsychologists may need to do is to separate the investigation of phenomena heretofore described as supernatural from the influence of assumptions grounded in the supernatural view of the world.

This separation happened in at least one other discipline, biology. Once upon a time, biology was the study of supernatural phenomena; organisms were created by a deity and sustained by mysterious vital energies that chemistry could not describe. The study of Earth's supposedly supernatural organisms proved to be fruitful, but only after supernatural assumptions about the organisms were abandoned.

In particular, and in light of the failure to replicate studies of alleged psychics, we should strongly question the idea, so often implicit in parapsychological studies, that parapsychology is the study of human faculties. In study after study, people's psychic faculties are tested by taking the people in question to a laboratory and examining their performance under laboratory conditions.

Imagine this methodology applied to people who witness auto accidents. X reports that he has seen an auto accident, so he is taken to a laboratory, where tests are performed on his mysterious auto-accident witnessing faculties. Lo and behold, X does not witness an auto-accident in the laboratory, leaving frustrated scientists with another negative result in the search for X's power.

I believe that the notion of telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis as human faculties is rooted in a supernatural world-view, which posits that events can be caused either by symbolically mediated or flat-out unmediated acts of will. This view of causation is one of the defining characteristics of the supernatural world view, to whatever extent the term "supernatural" can be said to apply to anything more than humanity's ignorance of the natural forces that govern strange events.

If we abandon this world-view, we can chuck the notion of "psychic powers," and assume that unexplained knowledge of other people's thoughts, unexplained knowledge of the future, and unexplained movement in the vicinity of certain people, may be things that happen to people when said people's brains are exposed to unknown factors which, like auto-accidents, are not universal, but localized in time and space. Come to think of it, "psychokinesis" may have nothing to do with people at all--it may be unknown external energies acting on external objects, as baffling to the attraction of straw to amber was to the ancient Greeks.

As far as I'm concerned, this means that parapsychologists should perhaps put a hold on their laboratory work, which may be premature in the absence of any theory of psi, and stick to studying alleged psi phenomena on site, which as much attention paid to the surroundings as to the people in question.


dominion.....When the Bible says that Humanity has dominion over the world, maybe it's talking about the same kind of dominion that homeowners have over their homes. If you own your home, you have dominion over it, but if you wreck your home, the guy who built it won't come back to fix it for you.


uses for tarot cards.....A lot of people use tarot cards for good old fashioned divination, which makes sense from a worldview leavened with supernatural beliefs. But for people who think that magical beliefs are a bunch of malarky, the cards still have their uses. For example:


knowledge.....[In response to the question 'How do we acquire knowledge,' yours truly wrote the following.] The whole idea of knowledge is a reification; knowledge is not a thing that we acquire; it's a constellation of responses that include (but are probably not limited to) interrelated mental images, descriptions, inferences and feelings of certainty or doubt that we experience to varying degrees.

It is important not to confuse these responses with the things that we respond to. A tree and our knowledge of a tree are two different things.

Most importantly, feelings of reasonable certainty should not be projected onto all reality. Reality as a whole isn't certain or uncertain; it just is. Only people are certain or uncertain--and said feelings are affected by our criteria for certainty.

This is why I am just as unimpressed with extreme skepticism as I am with naive realism: there is nothing particularly startling about the observation that fewer things occasion the feeling of certainty when our criteria for certainty are made arbitrarily stringent.

As for the justification for our feelings of and criteria for certainty, I believe these to be purely pragmatic, and find myself leaning toward the acceptance of (what little I've heard about) pragmatist accounts of knowledge.


the disgusting five..... Five disparate heroes united by their icky powers and a relentless pursuit of justice:

Born on the plains of Africa with severely deformed nasal passages, little Alan Wright struggled for each breath until his missionary-surgeon father saved his life by replacing the twisted wreck of his cranio-facial flesh with the only transplantation tissue available: the anus of a recently poached rhino. Now grown to manhood, Alan fights crime with has naso-ano gas blasts as ....Rhinocerous Anus Nose Man!

When evil ninjas chained librarian Sarah Jones to the target of a particle accelerator, she not only survived, but discovered that her stomach now harbored a wormhole to a universe filled with nothing but green putrescent goo. Mastering yogic techniques to control this awesome power, Sarah now uses her gouts of verdant vomit to drown the schemes of evildoers. Thrill to the power of....The Green Gorge!

A missed transit to his home planet, Stellamorphon. An adopted world crying out for a champion of good. The call to lay the wicked low gave new purpose to the life of extraterrestrial visitor Three-Suckers-Wriggling. With his armored body and regenerative powers, our five-lobed hero traps criminals in his thousands of sticky tubules and digests their evil hands with his evulsing stomach. Criminals beware of.... Starfish Man!

Attacked by a she-demon from Hell, Bertha Stokes fought a losing struggle against its talons of damnation. But before the lethal claws could fell their prey, the she-demon clutched its belly and moaned in the agony of birth! Heedless of her own safety, Bertha helped her assailant bring a new demon into the world. Grateful beyond words, the she-demon granted Bertha the power to transform herself into an eighteen foot tall supernaturally animated rotting placenta! Now, evildoers everywhere flee from the righteous stench of.... Afterbertha!

As a teenager, Maggie Holmes suffered from an unknown fungal infection whose severity forced her to live in a hospital ward for people with red, itchy, and cracked skin with oozing boils. Her youth was a cauldron of misery until she learned the bio- feedback techniques that bent her fungus to her will. Now, Maggie's body is a sticky symbiosis of human and fungal cells that can speed-rot any organic obstacle and blight the bad guys with irksome and gruesome fungal infections. Evil is rotten; evil must rot! So swears...Fungella!

Together they're The Digusting Five!


why realpolitik........ There are many reasons why so few people pay attention to normative politics these days. For one thing, normative politics tends to manifest itself along a continuum that ranges from the feckless to the horroric--for example, from peace marches to gulags.

But there is another reason why so many people look down their skeptical noses at normative politics, namely this: The fact that our nation's decision-making should be guided by principles or ethics presupposes the existence of principled or ethical parties to international affairs--parties whose existence is doubtful.

Consider the current situation in the Middle East. We've got the USA who invaded Iraq on false pretenses to control its oil, to establish up a military presence in the middle of the Middle East, and to put companies like Halliburton on the reconstruction gravy-train. We've got Al Qaida, which wants to grab power by killing Shiites and Americans. We've got Hezbollah, which wants to grab power by killing Sunnis and Americans. We've got Iran, which funds terrorism and a nuclear program and doesn't give a damn if its common people suffer from what sanctions may come. And Israel? Well, maybe it should retaliate against Hezbollah and make the world safe for its mistreatment of the Palestinians.

There are Americans who protest the war in Iraq. There are Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere who see radical Islamist suicide bombing for the blasphemy that it is. There are Jews in Israel and elsewhere who wish that the Israeli government would be nicer to the Palestinians. But these principled and ethical people don't have enough power to achieve their aims, so they don't count.

Among the real players in the Middle East, there isn't a single interested party that isn't balls-out sociopathic. So it's hard to imagine who would function as the powerful good-guy whose existence is presupposed by all normative political philosophies.

International affairs are all very significant when it comes to issues like comparative standards of living and degrees of oppression. Morally, however, the conflicts and alliances between nations are as meaningless as a struggle among hungry shrews trapped under the same bowl.


paul mccartney's brilliant idea..... When I was young, and Paul McCartney formed Wings, I couldn't believe he was dumb enough to put his wife Linda in the band. By all accounts, this gifted photographer could barely play her keyboards. Memory tells me that McCartney answered this criticism with the words "She'll learn." Not the strongest recommendation for any musician. What was Paul thinking?

I'm not so young anymore, and hindsight tells me that putting Linda in the band was a brilliant idea.

A lot of rock stars aren't as brilliant as Paul McCartney. Most of these guys marry nice women, then leave home to tour for a few months. Or six months. Or a couple of years. On the road, they call their lonely wives, and when they aren't calling their lonely wives, they're screwing their groupies. And after who-knows-how-many-months-or-years of this behavior, they come home, scratch their heads, and say "Duh, gee, why is my wife divorcing me?"

Not McCartney. Not with Linda learning to play keyboards on the job in Wings. Not with Linda at his side throughout the numerous tours.

When I think about all I've heard about Paul & Linda's beautiful and enduring marriage, I can't help smiling.


administrative solutions.....One of the worst things about working in a bureaucracy is having supervisors who address unfortunate unfortunate isolated incidents with systemic remedies.

You low-level bureaucrats know what I'm talking about, and might find the following scenario all too believable.

In the wilds of Australia, the loneliness of one of the spiny egg-laying mammals that humans call "echidnas" attracts the attention of superintelligent telepathic echidnas from outer space.

These starfaring creatures attempt to land in Australia to greet their earthbound cousin. However, when a meteorite strikes their spacecraft and damages its navigational system, the star echidnas wind up on the fourth floor of the Hugeco Insurance Tower, where naive employees mistake them for little trays of lasanga hors d'oeuvres with lots of toothpicks in them.

Horrified by human attempts to eat them, the space echidnas strike back! Their spines fly into dozens of human victims, leaving them screaming on the carpet as blood spurts from their wounds. Alien telepathy, beamed into the brains of the hapless insurance workers, magnifies their slightest anxieties into living damnation that wrenches shrieks and wails of agony from their throats. All the while, the air vibrates with psychokinetic energies that form the frightful words: "Die, humans, die!"

Office workers explode, wither, and change religions countless times until CIA agents swarm into the fourth floor and confiscate all echidnas, paperwork, and personnel, delaying the processing of six insurance claims.

Enter the fourth floor supervisor, who was buying a latte in the lobby during the action. Shocked by the six claims-processing delays, he vows to prevent a similar incident from ever happening again.

After two years of involving most of the fourth floor staff in lengthy and dithering meetings regarding the Super-Intelligent-Echidna-Office-Invasion-Regulations, the supervisor decides that the staff's input is irrelevant, and unilaterally institutes the following regs:

Most importantly, in the event that no further attacks of super-intelligent psychic echidnas take place during the year after the implementation of these regulations, the latter will be assumed effective and adopted company-wide.


paranormal themes in fiction.....A growing number of people in our country and elsewhere are realizing that superstition, whether in the name of religion or an incohate "New Age," is getting popular and destructive. Thanks to belief in miracles, "psychics" can feed on gullibility, "faith-healers" can feed on pain, "mediums" can feed on grief, and religious demagogues can lead their followers by the nose with the promise of a ticket to Heaven.

In this age of fashionable unreason, we might wonder whether it's healthy to for children (of all ages) to read, listen to, or watch fantasies with supernatural themes. Do horror movies, role playing games, and Harry Potter promote superstition?

In my opinion, they tend to do the opposite. Most popular depictions of the supernatural in fiction promote an evidence-based view of the material world by depicting hypothetical worlds in which strong evidence for the supernatural really existed.

By exploring the ramifications of such evidence in a hypothetical world, and pointing out the lack of such evidence in the real world, a parent (actual or internalized) can use such fantasies to nudge a vulnerable mind toward a world-view grounded in common sense.


art dust.....I don't know much about conceptual art. It's a form of art in which the execution or creation of an art object is insignificant compared to the idea for the piece. So you have Marcel Duchamp--who could actually paint, by the way--turn a urinal on its side and call it art. More recently, conceptual art has included everything from a "base" of the world (thus presenting the whole planet as an art object), to an erased piece of paper, to plans for art objects that are never made at all. My personal favorite is a piece that Yoko Ono made some time back: a ladder extending to a part of a ceiling where a little card bearing the word "YES" was affixed.

Now it seems to me that traditional painting and sculpting has two advantages over conceptual art. First, the former can communicate more concepts than the latter. This is why most story books, coffee table books, technical manuals, and text books contain pictures rather than instructions not to attack the book with a whipped cream dispenser while shouting "Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!"

More importantly, however, cheap, mass-produced paintings are more plentiful than conceptual art. If you go to a craft store or a department store, what are you going to find to put on your walls? Prints, assembly line oil paintings, or a rubber chicken with the words "I excrete the universe," written on it in black felt pen? Sad but true, conceptual art is just too scarce to stock at fine stores like Michael's and Target.

But it doesn't have to be this way. In fact, plain old people like you and me can make our own conceptual art with the help of art dust. Art dust shouldn't be regular, asthma-promoting dust; it should be clean sand mixed with a little glitter. With a single declaration that anything sprinkled with the dust becomes art, a thrifty customer can make conceptual art out of anything or everything in the home.

Creating art with art dust can provide hours of fun, without all the mess and bother of painting, sculpting, or craftwork. Apply a little art dust to durable discards that Good Will won't accept, and you'll build a collection masterpieces sure to arouse your neighbors' sense of wonder.

Old tin cans, dishes in the sink, rusting vehicles on your front lawn--all can be esthetically redeemed with a few sprinkles. Start staking your claim on the peaks of esthetic experience by mixing your own little bottle of art dust. Or, dispense with the actual bottle of dust and just use pretend--oops, I mean 'conceptual'--art dust.


bad writing.....[This is some bad writing I whipped up many years ago.]

"Though loathe to engage in the presumption indubitably emobodied in the interruption of the mellifluous flow of your rather discursive monologizing, politeness compels me to direct your attention to the blob of yellowish colloidal matter adhearing to the left corner of your moustache," Skip chortled.

"Nonsense!" Chip snorted.

"Would that my statement lacked sense, but--alas--it is you who lack sensation, oh wretchedly miserable abstracted avatar of absent-mindedness," Skip chortled with a snort.

"Would that politeness would permit a more vulgar repudiation of your metaphorically feculant calumny," Chip retorted with a self-conscious attempt to snort with a simultaneous chortle, the act of which precipitated a freakish spasm of his pharyngeal muscles which caused everything he said thereafter for the rest of his days to be punctuated with grotesquely strangled gagging and splutching noises.


are love and hate close........A lot of people say "Love is close to hate," when they're trying to explain couples who won't separate but don't get along. I have never heard anyone clarify this paradoxical old saw. For a long time, I assumed that it was one of those popular sayings that sound meaningful but aren't. "Only the good die young," and "This is the first day of the rest of your life," come to mind.

But on reflection, who can deny that people who love and people who hate both do everything possible to make these feelings mutual?


occurrence in goldendale.....[Here’s another one that I wrote a long time ago.]

GOLDENDALE, WA. America found itself a nation dumbfounded in the face of shocking rumors of an occurrence in Goldendale, while members of the political and scientific communities across our land issued conflicting proclamations about the significance of the alleged event. Rumors of the occurrence began to circulate last week, first in Goldendale and then in the surrounding communities. While civic leaders initially denied the possibility of such an occurrence, increasing numbers of reports from reliable witnesses have catapulted the apparent event from the status of just another small town rumor to that of a national obsession with what has been described the find to end all astonishment.

Despite the reliability of the witnesses involved, reports are conflicting, with some witnesses describing the occurrence as "a soft pop," and others describing it as "a dim speck of light" seen momentarily from the corner of the eye. But while details vary, all of the eyewitnesses are unanimous in their conviction that something did indeed occur in Goldendale.

This conviction appeared to be gaining support from scientists here and abroad, as the physics community rushed to publish radical new theories to explain what had been previously characterized as an absolute physical impossibility. According to physicist Clark String, "This is the find we've been waiting for, to bring together all the data we haven’t yet been able to fit into a coherent picture of the origin of time and energy. A find like this comes maybe once in ten thousand years."

String's enthusiasm is echoed by scientists the world over, but some physicists urge caution. In an article in one of Britain s major scientific journals, Dr. Morris U. Mason criticized "the tendency among the younger physicists to give credence to every bizarre new idea that comes along, whether it's ten-dimensional space, microscopic black holes, or occurrences in Goldendale Washington."

Dr. Mason adds "An occurrence in Goldendale contradicts the fundamental principle that energy cannot be created out of nothing. Beyond this, all the data presented so far appear perfectly consistent with the so-called event being the result of a snoring dog, a blade of grass drying out, a blinking stoplight, or any one of the hundreds of essentially static phenomena that characterize Goldendale as a physical system."

Despite such caution, interest in the alleged occurrence has affected every facet of the lives of millions across the globe. Hundreds of protestors stormed the Vatican yesterday in an attempt to obtain a ruling from the Pope as to whether the occurrence represents an act of divine intervention.

Closer to home, members of the radical Church of the Fiery Severed Fist of Our Redeemer at Stonehenge held ceremonies in nearby Marysville, as their leader proclaimed "Raise your hearts to the quickening of the universal vengeance of the Almighty One, who comes now to cleanse the world of iniquity. For though the unbelievers have questioned His word, chuckled at our warnings, and heaped scorn upon the sacred prophecy of Our Redeemer's imminent annihilation of this wretched planet, can they deny that something has occurred in Goldendale?"

Attempts by social service agencies to minimize growing public agitation about the event have highlighted the need for counseling for those disoriented by the rumors. Humanistic psychologist Innis Michael O'Kay explains that "When confronted by the idea of an occurrence in Goldendale, a lot of people feel that reality is absurd and nothing makes sense, and they begin to sink into a kind of nihilistic stupor. We want these people to know that help is available, and that there is someone they can talk to about this."

Governmental agencies from the municipal to the federal level have sought to assure the public that even if an event has taken place in Goldendale, local and federal agencies will continue to function normally. And although crack investigative teams from the Pentagon have been sent to explore the possible implications that an event here might have for national security, residents seem calm and skeptical despite the turmoil. As one local resident put it, "I don't think it happened. Nothing ever happens in Goldendale."


read by the author.....Thanks to a long commute, recorded books are my weekday companions. When I shop for audio-books at my favorite bookstore, or look them up at libraries, I don’t just look for good authors; I look for good readers too.

In audio-book-speak, a ‘reader’ is the person who reads the book aloud. Most readers are actors, though there are voice talents who specialize in audio-books. Frank Mueller comes to mind. A good reader’s delivery complements and draws attention to each scene and point in the author’s work. A bad reader’s delivery is cloying, annoying, or just plain boring enough to prevent the listener from concentrating on the text.

Unfortunately, some of the worst readers in Audiobook Land are the authors themselves. Author-readers usually come in two varieties: the ‘how-hard-could-speaking-be?’ author-reader, who drowns the work in rivers of tedious monotone, and the ‘my-every-word-is-golden’ author-reader, who reads each deathless sentence with the precious intonation of a funeral director pitching caskets.

There are exceptions, among them Stephen King. King is a decent reader. His vocal renditions of his own work stand at the summit of adequacy and prompt this listener to lift his gaze to the infinite heavens and proclaim “That’s okay, I guess.”

So I don’t mind King reading his own books, though I hope that the constraints on this famous author’s time force his publishing company to hire actors.

As for the most author-readers, I wish they would get back to their word processors, because some of the most excellent books are written by some truly lousy voices.


Yaguello and conlang vocabularies.....Quite a few people design imaginary languages as a hobby or a personal form of conceptual art. Before the internet, these projects were strictly solitary. J.R.R. Tolkien's essay about language construction was aptly titled "The Secret Vice." Nowadays, people who design never-never tongues form an internet community. The designers are called "conlangers" and their projects "conlangs," short for "constructed languages," which can now be found on hundreds of web pages.

In contrast, only a small number of books about imaginary languages have made it into legitimate print. One of the most unusual is "Les fous de langage," which was written in French by Marina Yaguello. I don't speak or read French, so I read Catherine Slater's translation, "Lunatic Lovers of Language." What makes this book unusual is its combination of obvious scholarship with equally obvious contempt for its subject matter, which is named in the book's subtitle, “Imaginary Languages and their Inventors.”

Yaguello presents a good survey of two types of artificial languages: so-called philosophical languages, which represent thoroughly naive attempts create better mediums of thought and communication than natural language, and the proposed artificial universal auxiliary languages, most notably Volupuek and Esperanto.

At the same time, Yaguello seems so committed to depicting imaginary language designers as marginal and deluded that the reader is left to wonder why she bothered to write about them. Conlanging is less important than linguistics, and has little influence on scholarship or popular culture. Yaguello's book could hardly represent a timely blow against an unfortunate trend.

Yaguello's odd distain for the secret vice has prompted some conlangers to avoid reading her book. These misguided souls are missing out on some good insights. For instance, this paragraph from “Lunatic Lovers of Language” raises an issue that every conlanger should think about.

“Just look at the lunatic in love with language. Sitting in his book-lined study; he collects great piles of information; he collates and classifies it; he makes lists and fills card indexes. He is in the clutches of a denominatory delirium, of a taxonomic madness. He has to name everything, but before being able to name, he has to recognize and classify concepts, to enclose the whole Universe in a system of notation: produce enumerations, hierarchies, and paradigms.”

Yaguello is almost certainly writing about the composers of so-called philosophical languages; her book makes no mention of hobbyists. Yet she could have been writing about any conlanger struggling to create an imaginary foreign vocabulary.

To design an imaginary foreign language with a modicum of realism, it’s not enough to create a foreign morphology and syntax. The vocabulary has to be foreign too. After all, the vocabularies of real languages don’t map neatly onto each other.

Concepts expressed in phrases or compound words in one language are expressed with single-morpheme terms in others. The sets of meanings assigned to words with multiple meanings or sets of homonyms will vary from language to language. So will idioms and metaphors.

Some languages will have a greater variety of terms for certain classes of things, beings, or events than others. Eskimo doesn’t really have a hundred words for "snow," but English has at least a hundred for "motor vehicle."

What is more, some languages will have words for concepts unfamiliar to the speakers of other languages. Abstractions like Zen, gemuetlichkeit, and classiness aren’t the only examples. How many cultures need words for quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies, woofers, tweeters, knickers, banisters, coasters, lattes, aglets, julips, chili-dogs, boutonnieres, beachcombers, caddies, bobsleds, loafers, overalls, crullers, rock-n-roll, zydeco, riverboats, surfboards, gyros, or wallabies?

Even words for concepts familiar to most literate human beings won't always map neatly from one language to the next, because the connotations of individual words, along with the groups of synonyms, will vary. For instance, most languages might have a word for "house," but fewer would have words exactly equivalent to "shack," "bungalow," "cabin," "cottage," "villa," "domicile," "dwelling," or "crib."

If you attempt to build an imaginary vocabulary that reflects these truths about natural language by creating one precious word at a time, you really could wind up trying and failing to catalog the universe for the next thirty years. Fortunately, there are more sane and methodical approaches to building a conlang vocabulary.

The first thing you need is some humility. There is no way that one person’s invented language is going to be as vast, interesting, and expressive as a natural language. Sure, it's theoretically possible to make an artificial language as complex as a natural one, especially if you presuppose a lot of computer time. By the same token, it is theoretically possible to eliminate inflation by using elephants as currency, thereby placing ecological limits on the amount of money in circulation. But the elephant standard will not be adopted, and the hobbyists who dominate the conlang community will not create anything as wonderful as Chinese or the Chinese lexicon.

aside:.....At this point, naive souls might ask why anyone would bother to create a conlang when real languages are so much more intricate. This is like asking why anyone would bother to paint an imaginary meadow when real meadows are so much more intricate. Neither question reflects any recognition of the difference between the desire to give form to a fantasy and the desire to study some important feature of reality. It’s the difference between the desire to paint imaginary landscapes and the desire to study ecology.

You don’t have to create a vocabulary to match the stupendous lexicons of English and other well-attested and widely spoken natural languages. The two or three thousand needed for diaries and everyday conversation will do just fine. If all you want to write is a reference grammar, you could settle for less than a thousand.

A second thing to keep in mind is that there is no sovereign list of conceptual primitives. The quest for a small set of concepts from which the universe of concepts can be rigorously derived is as futile for the lone inventor as the quest for a five color map.

Even the pursuit of a basic vocabulary, a set of words for which every language has an equivalent, is quixotic and unnecessary. There is no guarantee that such a set of words would suffice for everyday conversation. Most importantly, you don’t need to know anything about conceptual primitives or basic vocabularies—whatever they are—to create an inventory of nouns, verbs, and modifiers. All you need to know is what you or your imaginary speakers want to talk about in your language.

If the speakers of your language live in towns, keep houses, and ask for food, drink, clothes, and the nearest bathroom, you should crib and translate vocabulary from a preschool picture dictionary. Then write texts that you would like to translate into your language. The lists of preschool vocabulary and the nouns, verbs, and modifiers from the texts should give you most of your lexicon, although you will also have to alter the text itself if you want to develop your own figures of speech.

At this point, we are only talking about the nouns, verbs, modifiers, and not other parts of speech like determiners, conjunctions, pronouns, and various kinds of particles. Such grammatical word classes, or equivalents to them, if they are needed, will materialize as you write the grammar for your conlang. If all you’re doing is compiling a preliminary lexicon, stick with the nouns, verbs, and modifiers.

With this in mind, here are some tips on changing a set of real words into an imaginary foreign vocabulary.

The following assumes that you are monolingual English speaker like me, and that you have written your English texts and compiled your preschool/text vocabulary list.

Break Up Big Verbs.....Verbs with zillions of meanings in English, like “run,” “get,” “set,” “take,” and “turn,” should be realized in your imaginary language as a larger number of verbs each with a smaller number of meanings. WordNet, an online English lexicon that lists the various meanings of each word all but exhaustively, is particularly helpful for this.

Replace the Phrasal Verbs with Single-Word Verbs..... English has loads of phrasal verbs, like “make up,” “find out,” “put on,” “give back,” “grow up,” “hand over,” “run away,” and “wind down.” Replace these patent English-isms with single-word verbs. Lists of English phrasal verbs are easy to find online.

Invent Your Own Teenage Slang.....Make sure it isn’t much like real teenage slang. Insert your new slang into your original English texts whenever possible. This is a fun way to develop your own phrasal verbs, metaphors, and idioms.

Invent Words That Reflect Speaker Attitudes….Remember that speakers of real languages don’t always use emotionally neutral denotative terms. Invent some value-laden terms for your vocabulary. If you like, you can invent different words that denote the same class of things, but each carry a different connotation, e.g. “good,” “bad,” “trifling,” “important,” There could be five different roots that signify “person,” depending on whether the person is a “person,” “saint,” “scoundrel,” “cipher,” or “great one.”

Invent Some Derivational Morphology.....This device has been used as a way to expand vocabulary in proposed international auxiliary languages like Esperanto and Volapuek. In your language, enough affixes can turn one word like “dog,” into a number of words with meanings like “male dog,” “bitch,” “old dog,” “puppy,” “to have puppies,” “to raise dogs,” “to act like a dog,” “to look like a dog,” “miniature breed dog,” “huge dog,” “good dog,” and “bad dog.” Once you have invented your derivational morphology, have fun deriving words! For example, if one of your words is “library,” and you create an affix that means “place where X is kept,” then the word for “library” in your imaginary language could be derived from the word for “book.”

caution:.....Do not use your derivational affixes in every possible instance. Doing so makes words with related meanings look and sound too much alike, which makes for confusing prose and conversation. Compare this actual English paragraph with the nonce-English paragraph below it.

"George loaded the film into his camera and took a picture of his house. Then he took the camera to a darkroom and developed the film, using the negatives to create a dozen prints."

"George loaded the photographedia into his photographizer and photographed his house. Then he took his photographizer to a photographarium and post-photographized the photographedia, using the contraphotographedia to create a dozen photographs."

Also bear in mind that you can use derivational morphology to communicate speaker attitudes, along with size, status, gender…almost anything you can imagine. If you don’t want separate roots for “person” that communicate various connotations, as mentioned above, you can communicate those connotations with suffixes. So, for instance, the word for “person” could become “person,” “mini-person,” “giganto-person,” “unimportant-person,” “important-person,” “good-person,” etc.

Get Rid of Old Compound Words and Make Fresh Compounds..... Go through your English preschool/text vocabulary list and consign compound words to one of two fates: replacement in the new language with single morpheme terms, or replacement of old compounds with fresh ones. Then go through the single-morpheme words on your vocabulary list, and make sure that some of these become compound words in your imaginary language.

Often, when we English speakers think of a compound word, we think of two roots juxtaposed with the relationship between the beings, things, or events that they stand for being implicit.

A cowboy is a man who herds cows.
An airhead is someone whose head is figuratively filled with air.
A stingray is a ray that has a stinger.
A cupcake is a cake made in or the size of a cup.

For a more systematic way to build vocabulary as needed, you may want to make your rules for forming compound words more explicit and productive. For instance, your compound words could contain nouns, verbs, modifiers, and prepositions all marked as bound morphemes. The compound word could be the equivalent of a simple clause, full or truncated, or of a modified constituent. For instance, "a general" could be realized as a compound word that literally translates as “person-guides-soldiers.” A “bank robber” could be a “robs-banks.” A "male actor" could be a “man-acts.” Charity could be “money-for-poor.” “Bluebird” could be “blue-bird.” (Some compounds are too good to eliminate.) A lifespan could be a “years-of-life.”

Develop Grammar that has Novel Effects on your Lexicon.....The grammar of your imaginary language can influence which words, or kinds of words, that your language has.

If your nouns have a system of classifiers, the meaning of a given word could vary with its classifier. So if you have a classifier for “living thing,” another for “dead thing,” and another for “non-living thing,” then the same noun could mean “person,” “person’s corpse,” or “android,” depending on its classifier.

Your inventory of verbs will be particularly susceptible to grammatical influence.

If verbs have different grammatical markers or occur in different types of clauses depending on whether they refer to deliberate acts, things people undergo, relationships, or states of existence or availability, then the same word could mean both “drop to the ground” and “fall,” another word could mean both “become” and “come into being,” and another word can have these four meanings: “look,” “see,” “look (like)” and “appear/come into view.”

If verbs are grammatically marked or occur in different clause types depending on whether the actions that they stand for entail their own completion or not, then the same word could mean “strike” and “beat,” another word could mean both “walk” and “take a walk,” another could meanboth “drink” and “have a drink,” and so on.

Yes, conlangs can have goofy features that you don’t see in natural languages. You could make all verbs like “go” and “went,” having completely different forms in past and non-past tenses, effectively doubling the number of words in your inventory of verbs.

You could also make all your verbs passive. So you would have “Road walk-on Sherman” mean “The road was walked on by Sherman.” If you wanted “by Sherman” to be the subject of the sentence for purposes like EQUI deletion or pronoun reference, you could have a special marked non-passive form by using one or more affixes, particles, or auxiliary verbs. So “Sherman active-auxiliary walk-on road.”

Here’s another idea: If event verbs for which only one argument is semantically necessary each take a cognate object, as in “walk the walk,” “sleep a sleep,” “wake an awakening,” or “jump a jump,” modifying or substituting the extra argument can create phrases that stand for related concepts. “Walk an injured walk,” could be “limp”; “sleep a nothing” could be “have insomnia,” “wake a hang-over” could be “wake up hung over,” and “jump an injury” could be “jump only to fall and injure oneself.”

Your lexicon will also be influenced by the choice of word classes you have in your language. If you don’t like adjectives and adverbs, you don’t need to put them in your conlang. Nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases can do the same work that our modifiers do. You could say people say “It reds,” instead of “It is red”; “like a child,” instead of “childishly,” “the quick one, the fox” instead of “the quick fox.” and so on.

Also, verbs and nouns (maybe with a few particles or affixes here and there) can do the work of prepositions. In English, we have nouns like “top,” “bottom,” “side,” “base,” and “summit.” Put these terms and many more like them in your lexicon, not only for parts of objects but for areas of space-or-place that exist in relation to the object, and at most you’ll need a single particle or affix to use these nouns as equivalents to prepositions. Let’s call our affix "X" and say that it means “at the (position term) of (some other noun).” So “in front of the house” would be “space-or-place-in-front-of-entity-in-question-X house.” Being a noun, “space-or-place-in-front-of-the-entity-in-question” could be modified, and so take an adjective like “grassy,” or a descriptive appositive noun like “grassy-one,” or a descriptive verb like “being grassy.” You get the idea.

Make a List of Words that You Think Your Language Should Have.....First, you can check your mind for words that you wish English had. One Robert Carpenter invented the possible English word “glincipate,” which means “to read the very end of the book that one has not come close to finishing.” You could coin other words for concepts like “to attach unacceptable riders to a good bill solely to make it look as if your political opponents oppose the good bill,” “the facial expression that indicates the feeling of being non-plussed or mildly revolted," “in the mind of or from the point of view of,” and “widely and condemned as morally wrong even though it involves no harm to any party (said of actions or policies).” Then substitute a word in your imaginary language for your English neologism.

You can check your text for long or awkward phrases that you may want to realize as single words in your imaginary language.

You can also compile lists of necessary related vocabularies for such things as numbers & numerals, colors, and body parts. Don't spend too much time doing this, however. If you do, you'll wind up in a book-lined study up to your elbows in index cards and caught in the throes of denominatory delirium, to say nothing of taxonomic madness.


tv paint.....Imagine dipping your brush into a can of paint, slathering it onto a nearby wall, then touching the corner of the opalescent swath to see it change into a televised image. Welcome to the fascinating future where our descendents will enjoy the convenience of TV paint.

Here's how TV paint works: Millions of nanobots are suspended in a gel that comes in paint cans. Spread onto a wall in a sufficiently thin layer, the viscous gel dries slowly enough to allow the nanobots time to assemble themselves into a thin, holographically-engineered imaging system complete with receiver and activation corner. Both this self-assembly and the finished imaging system are powered by the light that falls on the TV paint. Since the images displayed are not luminous, light enhances rather than reduces their visibility.

Is TV paint possible? Beats me. That's why I am asking the electronics experts in the audience to rate TV paint on the following scale of plausibility.

4. human colonies on Mars
3. fusion power plants
2. true and self-aware artificial intelligence
1. faster-than-light travel
0. the portable hole

Even if TV paint were possible, there would have to be more convenient ways to package ultra-thin imaging systems. Coming soon: TV adhesive pads!


instant non-linear literature.....Stories told in non-linear fashion do have beginnings, middles, and ends; they just don't have them in the usual order. Our three traditional parts of a story might be intercut among each other, or told in an order that time travellers can relate to.

Non-linear storytelling is very fashionable and intellectually chic. With this in mind, how can hip and modern people redeem novels that were written in a stodgy, logical sequence that runs from first to next to last events?

Simple. Buy your old-fashioned, temporally correct novel in audiobook format--compact disc, not cassette. When you put your CD in the player, press the "shuffle" function. On some CD players, this may be called the "random" function. With its tracks played out of order, any novel you hear, no matter how archaic, will challenge your mind with its non-linear structure.

There you have it: another good reason to buy audiobooks on compact disc.


the more things change.....[I wrote this story a hell of a long time ago. This type of Twilight Zone knock-off could never be published in today’s market. But what you can’t publish, you can always post.]

The voices of the city had gone. Only a short time ago, the knowledge, imaginings, and hopes of a whole world--a scintillating cascade of information--had coursed through the brain of citizen 721. Not one voice remained now. The elders had forbidden 721 any contact with public communication networks, and the city, once alive with thought, was reduced to a collection of silent monuments. Cut off from the world, 721 sat in the circle of condemnation on a bare stretch of concrete that served as a meeting place. The rest of the circle sat mute, except for a single standing figure, the official Accuser appointed to the case.

“We will communicate acoustically,” the Accuser said, “The heretic will refrain from all radio transmission, and so protect the discourse of our city from the noxious influence of a godless apostate. 721, your words have slandered the Deity, without whom life has no meaning. Submit yourself to the will of our nation, or try, if you dare, to dissuade us from imposing a well-deserved sentence of death.”

721 spoke softly and clearly. “I don’t believe that the animal origin of our kind is a pernicious idea. It lacks harmony with common sense, but it is based on facts, and facts are no insult to the Deity.”

“Our kind arising from animals?” the Accuser said. “This is not only sacrilege” it is madness! Can animals build a civilization? Can they create great works of art, or contemplate the mind of God? Are animals even capable of the simplest reflection? Are you suggesting that our species descended genetically from the animals?”

“No, of course we aren’t genetically related to animals,” 721 said, “We don’t have genes.”

“Then how could we have arisen from mindless brutes?” the Accuser said, his voice self-righteous, triumphant.

“I know that animals are incapable of reason,” said 721, “but my studies suggest that this was not always the case.”

An angry hum arose from the group, and the Accuser seized his chance to vilify the outcast.

“Must we hear more insanity from one who believes that the witless brains of animals could somehow generate the fiber optics that we think and move with? Does the apostate mean to suggest that the brittle bones and puny hearts of the dogs that roam the countryside somehow became the polymers and batteries that make each of us more powerful than any beast? You, degenerate! How can you sit and rust in the decadence of your delusion, when every atom of silicon in your body cries out that machines are machines, created by our Deity, and taught by Him to manufacture our kind, so that beings created in His image might teach perfection to an unredeemed organic world?”

Stillness crept across the robotic figures in the circle. 721 could hear the sounds of micro-motors as the others tensed. Regardless, it had to speak its mind, even if doing so meant death.

“Perfection?” 721 began. “If the Deity had chosen a perfect means for our genesis, why are our bodies so imperfect? Why must we be covered with a centimeter’s thickness of silk armor? A Deity could give us the power to heal without repairs, as animals can. Why must we mine the earth and the plants for the oil we need for lubrication, when any being worth of the name ‘Almighty’ could banish friction from the universe? Could such a being not also rid the universe of rust and every form of corrosion? Why is the magnetism that makes our lives possible also so dangerous to the health of our microprocessors? And most importantly, why must we all wear out eventually? Could not an omnipotent power give us batteries that last forever, and software that never degrades?”

The Accuser shot back. “You know very well that our imperfections are the price we pay for having failed to complete the Almighty’s work on Earth. Yes, our bodies depreciate, but our spirits are divine! While the horses in the fields obey only their hunger and lust, these base appetites are foreign to the life of a machine. While the rats scurry about the city, driven by the need to escape predators and all manner of external threats, we machines are driven by programming, which guides us from within. Is this not the very definition of free will? Look at our bodies, whose smallest components constitute irrefutable proof of conscious design. Only God could clothe the mind in mineral form, and it is only through this truth that our salvation is assured!”

Without a word, 721 reached into its carrying bag and removed a large, round, grey object. Most of the machines present recognized it as an animal skull, but could not place the species. The brain case was bigger than that of any known beast. At the sight of the skull, some machines took out cleaning towelettes and polished their optic lenses in disbelief. 721 turned the skull sideways, exposing the hole at its base.

“If this skull were a robot head, the core wiring would emerge right where this hole is, at the base of the skull, not back. This animal walked upright, and probably had free use of its hands.”

721’s antennae tingled and throbbed as group members extruded their radar guns and scanned the animal skull. Lenses directed at the skull, the Accuser emitted a short burst of static in a well-known sign of disgust. 721 would not be intimidated. He continued.

“I believe that skulls like this one prove that long ago, there lived an animal species that could think, communicate, and build just as we can. I believe that this species manufactured our first ancestors, possibly because they knew that they were going extinct, and did not want consciousness to disappear from the world.”

The Accuser had to broadcast an intense radio pulse to silence the synthetic cacophony of indignation in the circle. When all had quieted down, it spoke.

“Why, then, did these supposedly sentient animals not leave records of themselves, so that we might honor them throughout time?”

“What makes you think they didn’t?” said 721. “There could be an abundance of such records in the ancient cities.”

“The ruins of our ancestors, where the Scriptures command us not to tread?” the Accuser asked.

“The ruins that are always located near a source of fresh water,” said 721, “something every animal needs. The ruins in which every building contains significant caches of organic feed. The ruins that I have visited time without number! The ruins littered with the bones of the animal species that created them! The same species that created our kind!”

The response from the circle was immediate. “Kill the blasphemer!” the cry went up from both acoustic and radio sources. The Accuser let out a satisfied hum, and goaded the group to action.

“Perhaps you were conceived in the animal flesh that putrefies from birth, but the decent citizens of this city are the artifacts of God! By the power this circle has invested in me, I order your destruction in the name of the Faith!”

The other machines extruded their laser weapons, and fired. 721 felt no pain as its polymers burned and its metallic parts melted onto the concrete, but its entry into nothingness was announced by a final moment of grief.

The animal skull was annihilated too, which suited the Accuser, who gazed at the carnage confident that Goodness had triumphed, and with it, Truth.


more tarot cards.....I’m not keen on divination. I don’t believe in divination, and when I attempt to use divination for my own entertainment, the process feels unpleasant. I found this out the hard way back in high school, when I decided to transcribe a conversation between myself and a Magic 8-Ball. Not only was the conversation boring, but I realized that a person could wander away from sanity after enough hours talking about the future with an inanimate thing that responds with only a restricted set of answers. The same realization came to me more recently when I tried to do a simple tarot card reading for fun. No fun there.

Using tarot cards to explore one's own psyche isn't that much fun either. With countless different spreads possible each time you use the cards, there's a problem with test- retest reliability. Beyond this, the use of an old divination system to model your mind represents a step backward from Freud, whose psycoanalytic theories have been increasingly discredited. Will tarot cards reveal your mind, or could they lead you to conform your mind to the restrictive explanatory schemas of the cards? There are better questions to answer, and better uses for tarot cards.

Tarot card decks can be fun to collect. I’m not a collector’s collector. Serious collectors consider such factors as popularity, scarcity, market value, artists, authenticity, innovation, and ease of use when they make their purchases. I just buy what I like and lean toward variety. I usually store the cards in wooden boxes and discard the original cardboard boxes. Serious collectors would never do that.

I also take the cards out now and then to admire their art work. That’s one good reason to lean toward variety: if you want to own miniature art galleries by buying tarot cards, you don’t want to buy the same gallery over and over again.

Here are two more uses for tarot cards:

You can use the readings as a basis for written or extemporaneous spoken fantasies. The cards may not predict the future very well, but they can predict the course of a fantasy as well as you want them to.

The cards might also be useful in meditation. Tarot cards usually stand for big concepts....anything from wealth to various stages and circumstances in life's journey. You don't have to map the concepts onto your own past, present, or future to focus on the concepts themselves. Since there are 78 cards that can be shuffled or laid out in lots of patterns, tarot readings could make for pleasant philosophical meditations on the ideas that they stand for.


moral absolutes & moral relatives:....If you ask me, the entire debate over whether moral prohibitions in general are absolute or relative is chowder-headed. Both sides of this debate can be shot down with numerous counter-examples, and the reason for this is simple: whether or not a moral prohibition is absolute or relative depends on the specific prohibition in question, not on the general character of all moral prohibitions.

Let me back up a little.

a....I'll speak of moral prohibitions rather than moral rules in general, since the nature and scope of affirmative moral duties is complicated in a free society where acts that are not morally prohibited are assumed to be morally permissible. (This contrasts to not-so-free societies, in which acts that are not specifically allowed are assumed to be forbidden.) The issue seems complicated to me, if not to other people.

b....A moral prohibition is absolute if it applies to any situation in which it is logically possible to apply it--in other words, if there can never be such a thing as a justification for committing the act in question. For example, if cursing the great god Kaiyoo is an absolute moral prohibition, then any expression that can be construed to mean "I curse Kaiyoo" is morally wrong, no matter how, when, where, or why it is done.

c....A moral prohibition is relative if it applies or fails to apply depending on the presence or absence of one or more real-world variables--in other words, if there can be such a thing as a justification for committing the act in question. For example, if cursing the great god Kaiyoo is a relative moral prohibition, it might be forbidden except when the speaker is raging, grieving, or using the expression in a discussion about morality.

d....It has become fashionable in some conservative circles to conflate moral relativism with moral nihilism. For those who came in late, moral nihilists deny that human beings have any reason to pronounce anything morally right or wrong. Conflating that with moral relativism is stupid. It was stupid yesterday. It is stupid today. It will still be stupid in the future, and deserves no further mention.

e....In the present discussion, let's ignore cases of duress, which can partly or wholly excuse acts that remain generally prohibited in many or all circumstances.

Now let's apply all this to the real world.

The prohibition against rape is an excellent example of an absolute moral prohibition. There are no circumstances that justify the act.

The prohibition against homicide is a good example of a relative moral prohibition, with the relevant variable being intent. Homicide is forbidden except when it is done for the sake or defending oneself or others from imminent death or severe bodily injury.

It is arguable that, in war, homicide becomes an affirmative duty, but here we are getting complicated again, so we'll just let that issue alone.

Some people might argue that the prohibition against murder is absolute. However, murder has no definition except "non-permitted homicide." The idea that non-permitted homicide is always non-permitted is true, but not very insightful.

Killings for self-defense, defense of others, and for fun and profit all entail the same immediate goal, act, and consent on the part of the victim. In all three cases, the immediate goal is to cause the death of another person, the act is causing the death of another person, and the victim's consent is non-existent. So we get more moral insight by speaking of a relative prohibition against homicide rather than an absolute prohibition against murder.

The prohibition against hoarding is also relative. The relevant variable is not intent, but the resources available to the society in which the moral agent lives. In America's historically unprecedented age of plenty, the prohibition against hoarding is almost unheard of. In fact, consumer hoarding of everything from musical recordings to motor vehicles helps keep America's economy strong.

Although Americans should be leading more Spartan lives so that other countries can use more of their own resources for their own benefit, even a stripped down version of American suburban culture would permit hoarding-excuse me, storing or collecting-almost any common items from canned food to copper pennies. Apparently, hoarding is morally permissible in today's America.

However, in the coming decades of oil shortages, crop failures due to global warming, and the collapse of our debt-ridden economy with its atrophied manufacturing sector, America might find itself on a tight regimen of rationing. Under those circumstances, hoarding certain items-even gewgaws that could be used for raw materials or as fuel-would be morally wrong.

So we have absolute and relative moral prohibitions. What makes either kind moral? Moral rules exist to keep the peace by facilitating a generally accepted reconciliation between individual desires and collective needs. The ultimate goal of this reconciliation is to prevent and reduce human cruelty.

Nothing made by human beings is perfect and moral rules are no exception. Human beings could devise better rules for preventing and reducing cruelty.

Consider the prohibition against torture. Nowadays, many people consider this relative, the relevant variable being the magnitude of the threat to national security that might be addressed with information tortured out of reluctant sources. But torture is not a reliable way to pry secrets from its victims, who will say anything--even believe anything--true or false as long as it stops the pain.

Let's all hope for the day when the prohibition against torture will be deemed absolute.


morals and god:.....Some people think that the existence of morals is a mystery explicable only by an appeal to the divine. After all, any one of us is capable of murder, theft, false witness, and all the rest of the sins, so why would we make rules that forbid them if not for divine intervention?

This argument overlooks some obvious facts about human nature. None of us wants to be murdered, stolen from, lied about, or otherwise victimized.

More importantly, healthy parents do not want their children to commit such sins-not against each other, not against the parents themselves, and not against neighbors and friends. Out-of-control kids drive adults crazy.

Small wonder that codes of conduct are transmitted across the generations by families. During child-rearing, parents spend much of their time teaching rules of conduct, exploring the ramification and technicalities of these rules whenever children ask about or challenge them. I have no doubt that the first moral rules were commands that parents gave their children.


baby religion.....Sometimes, Baby is me. Sometimes, Baby is my life-partner and sometimes Baby is my dog. But Baby is really a universal spirit that wants to be comforted and loved. When we take care of ourselves, others, our environment and especially innocent beings, we are taking care of Baby. When we do wrong, Baby is sad and we must comfort Baby by promising to be good and keeping that promise. When we feel blue, or want to stop thinking about certain memories, we can look inward and say "There's baby," or "We love baby," and feel some of the peace that happy and sleepy babies feel in the arms of those who love them.


God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens.... This is one of a number of recently published anti-religious books that also include Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, among others. Of this clutch of books, Hitchens’ is probably the best written. Hitchens is a world-class journalist whose complex style and nuanced arguments never stray from lucidity.

You wouldn’t know this from the subtitle of the book or the names of the chapters, which scream like tabloid headlines. The subtitle? “How Religion Poisons Everything.” Chapter names include “Religion Kills,” “Is Religion Child Abuse?” “The Nightmare of the Old Testament,” and “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One.”

Despite these screamers, God is not Great makes valid points. Let’s face it: most world-religions have some destructive denominations, doctrines, and movements, and American media overlook these faults too often.

How many Americans know, for example, about the complicity of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Serb-on-Croat ethnic cleansing, or the Franciscans who provided leadership for the Croat-on-Serb massacres of an earlier generation? Since the press tends to report these conflicts as if they were purely ethnic, Hitchens does his readers a service by pointing out that Christianity has, in modern times, been used to justify massacres.

Valid points notwithstanding, God is not Great fails to address some important questions, to wit: How do the evils of religion stack up against the evils of other similarly significant cultural forces? Since when have avowedly secular societies, taken as a group, behaved any better than religious ones? Are there no benign forms of religion? IMO, Hitchens' failure to address these questions reduces his book to a sophisticated exercise in card-stacking.

Yes, religion has motivated many atrocities. So has commerce. And fantasies of racial superiority. And a frontier combined with a “Manifest Destiny.” And the quest for a classless society.

Hitchens’ book is at its weakest when it comes to the latter. He spends comparatively few pages on Communist tyrannies, and tries to establish a tenuous connection between religion and these officially atheistic states by pointing out that Communism is rather like a religion, and that it seeks, not to eradicate the faith, but to replace it. Even if we grant both these points, neither alters the fact that dialectical materialism is an atheistic creed that has been used to justify tens of millions of murders.

Hitchens also fails to mention the harmless religions. Missing chapters from his book include “Sufi Mystics: Threat or Menace?”; “The Amish: Scourge of Pennsylvania”; "Jainism as a Reign of Terror“; "The Episcopalian Conspiracy”; “Is Methodism Murder?”; "The Wicked, Wicked Wiccans"; and “The Horror of Millions of Unchurched People who Nonetheless Believe in God,” among others.

Of course Hitchens doesn't mention these groups. Doing so would force him to admit that that it is not religion per se that harms society, but the marriage of religion to political power.

Some people might argue that this point is trivial, since religion has been married to political power at most times and places throughout most of history. But in the last two centuries, the separation of religious authority and temporal power has become widespread. The modern era is simply not typical of most of history, and has provided us ample opportunity to see what happens when religion and political power part ways.

In Europe, officially Catholic and Protestant states wasted years and countless lives in religious wars. In America, the separation of church and state have prevented interstate religious wars from happening. In World War Two, Shinto was used to justify Japanese militarism. In modern, democratic Japan, Shinto hurts no one. In the Middle East, the State of Israel oppresses Palestinians for understandable yet morally insufficient reasons. In ancient times, the Israelites waged fierce wars of conquest when their kingdoms were not themselves subjugated. But wherever Judaism lacks the status of a state religion, its precepts and followers generally enrich their communities.

Points like these make Hitchens' arguments too one-sided to take seriously. But the facts and arguments that Hitchens marshals to defend his thesis make God is not Great worth reading, if only because they receive too little attention.


Clapton by Eric Clapton....Apparently, Clapton wrote this autobiography without a co-writer. His warts & all account chronicles a lifetime of bands, affairs, addictions, marriages, misdeeds, and musical accomplishments. Throughout most of the book, Clapton maintains a plain-spoken and objective tone, the voice of an old fellow who has made peace with his wild youth. In the epilogue, however, he waxes passionate about his beloved wife and children, the importance of staying sober, and the music and musicians that shaped his career.

Clapton grew up as a poor country boy. The animosity between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker wasn't the only reason Cream broke up; Clapton thought that the group wasn't going anywhere musically. Drugs contributed to the disintegration the Dominoes. Having escaped heroin addiction, Clapton slid into alcoholism. It is truly remarkable that he and his music survived the years he spent swimming in booze. His relationships with women were emotional roller coasters that came to bad ends until he sobered up and married Melia.

He had a recovery center built in Antigua, and has raised tons of money for charity. His activities have led a great many people to sobriety. Now that he's in his early sixties, he doesn't want to do huge mega-tours that tax his stamina and keep him away from his family for too long. But he says he'll be working till the day he dies. He collects everything from watches to bicycles to cars and more, and is an avid hunter who eats what he kills. It's interesting that he doesn't say much about enjoying his rich and famous lifestyle until Melia and the children come into his life.

This book is jammed with people. If you don't identify with Clapton himself, odds are you'll find someone else in these pages whose triumphs and troubles remind you of yourself, a relative, a friend, or some co-worker or acquaintance. Yes, you can get some insight into people from this autobiography.

Clapton is also full of music. If you bought CD's of all the artists he praises, you'd wind up with a quality mainstream rock & blues collection.


There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Anthony Flew....Flew is a professional philosopher with a good international reputation. His book, like Stephen Hawking’s best-sellers, strives to be as non-technical as its subject matter will permit. It is also written in an even-tempered tone, and raises the level of discourse in the recent popular debates between atheists and theists.

Some of Flew’s arguments I will have to re-read.

Some of Flew’s arguments are shaky, for example, the argument that only a deity could account for the origin of anything as dynamically complex as life. Flew defends this notion with statements from other experts of the odds against the relevant molecules arranging themselves into organisms at random. He does not address the fact that chemical processes, while presumably not self-aware, are not random either. Nor does he mention that problematic nature of computing the odds for or against the beginning of life when no one knows how life began.

However, one of his arguments really grabbed me. Atheists often assume that the existence of the universe is a brute fact. In Flew’s book, we read that the universe is a complicated and strangely orderly aggregation of contingent entities. In all fields of scientific inquiry, the origins of contingent and orderly complexity are precisely the things that investigators seek to explain. In other words, the universe stands among the kinds of things that investigators almost never take as brute facts. The universe “cries out” to be explained in terms of something that is a) simple b) capable of making the universe into something that rational beings can model with mathematics, and c) not itself contingent.

God, who is a metaphysically simple, supremely rational, and necessary being, satisfies all these criteria, and so is the best explanation for the universe.

This argument serves us atheists right. For years, famous atheists have used methodological grounds like Occam’s Razor to argue for disbelief in God, the idea being that the notion of the universe as a brute fact invokes fewer entities than the notion of a universe created by another entity, God. Yet in Flew’s book, we see similarly methodological grounds invoked to defend theism!

But I’m not convinced yet. The argument in question depends on two ideas: A: The universe is an aggregation of contingent things. B: The universe is much more complex than its metaphysically simple creator, God.

At first blush, A seems obviously true. The objects we can observe, including everything from stars to artifacts to microbes, all have causes or antecedents that explain their existence. So too with most objects whose existence we infer, such as atoms, the simplest of which formed after the universe's initial state, with heavier atoms formed by supernovae.

But to accept A without qualification is to ignore an important feature of the entities in our universe, namely that, whatever form an entity takes, it is made of something, call it matter/energy/mass, that apparently can't be created or destroyed.

This is not a logically necessary property of our universe's ultimate constituents. Without contradicting ourselves, we can describe energy and matter coming into existence ex nihilo. Those who read about astronomy may remember that astronomer Fred Hoyle once proposed that new atoms were created in interstellar space.

Nonetheless, our current physics works, and works well, on the assumption that matter/energy/mass is conserved. This prompts an obvious question: if matter/energy/mass can't be created or destroyed, in what sense is it contingent? Isn't it true that it is only certain arrangements of mass/energy/matter that we call "entities" are contingent, and not the mass/energy/matter itself?

The fact that the universe had a beginning does not diminish the importance of this consideration. As the readers of Stephen Hawking's popular books know, time could be finite, in which case it would be meaningless to ask what came before the universe's initial state of infinitesmal size and infinite density.

We can also question the contingency of the fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force (responsible for radioactive decay), and the strong nuclear force (responsible for holding atomic nuclei together). As far as anyone knows, these forces didn't come from anywhere and aren't going anywhere: they're inherent properties of our universe. In what sense are they contingent?

So far, we have not defeated the argument in question, because we have not called B into question. Arrangements of matter/energy/mass are still very complicated compared to God's presumed simplicity, which means that said arrangements still "cry out" to be explained.

But as every eighth grader ought to know, the observed physical complexity of the universe can ultimately be accounted for by the interactions of a small number of particles and forces. So, in the unaided universe, we have complex phenomena arising from the underlying simplicity of a small number of particles and forces.

We also find staggering complexity arising from underlying simplicity in the case of God. Though God's substance may be simple, the complexity of his thoughts must be arbitrarily high, since, in his omniscience, he knows and is able to think about--simultaneously--not only all the general facts that there are, but all the particular facts as well. As with the universe itself, we have complex realities (God's thoguhts) arising from the underlying simplicity (God's substance).

One might argue that there are more kinds of particles and forces than there are types of divine essence. However, the former have more emprical evidence in their favor than the latter.

In light of these considerations, our idea B fails, and with it, the argument in question. As far as I can tell, anyway.

Flew also mentions the Argument from Design, which, from what little I've heard, has gained new respectability among philosophers in recent years. All I can say about the Argument from Design is that theists assume that the universe reflects an order inherent in the rational mind, whereas atheists assume, with equal justification, that minds reflect an order inherent in the universe.

Flew mentions and reviews the arguments of a number of theistic philosophers in his book. One Richard Swinburne figures prominently. Swinburne apparently answered a number of atheistic arguments against the coherence of the concept of God.

Also included in the book is an appendix containing an essay by Roy Abraham Varghese, which isn’t very good. The other appendix contained answers to questions about Christianity provided by Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, a New Testament scholar. These answers are very impressive.

So, is Flew a Christian now? No, he’s a deist. He’s also a mortalist; he sees no warrant for belief in an afterlife, so fear of death probably didn’t drive him into the theistic camp. However, Flew does believe that Christianity is the best defended of the world’s religions, and describes St. Paul as having a brilliant philosophical mind.


Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood....An absolutely marvelous science fiction novel. Here it is in less than 60 seconds: Snowman lives in a world devastated by global warming, largely depopulated by an artificial plague, and inhabited by dangerous transgenic animals along with odd transgenic people who regard Snowman as a prophet. As Snowman returns in a series of flashbacks to the old days when transgenic life was a booming industry, the story of the end of civilization unfolds. Crake, a megalomaniacal genetic engineer, had a friendship with Snowman that started in their college days. Though not a genius like Crake, Snowman, then known as Jimmy, eventually works for Crake as an adman. Oryx, a young victim of human trafficking, winds up working for Crake as the teacher and handler of Crake’s transgenic people. Strangely at peace with everything, Oryx gets killed. Snowman, aka Jimmy, has been made immune from the plague for Crake’s own twisted reasons, and so becomes the last homo sapiens, or so we believe until the end of the book.

You didn’t read it here first, but it bears repeating: Atwood is an ingenious writer. One of the measures of her skill is her successful use of two literary devices that don’t serve most writers well, namely frequent flashbacks and present tense narrative. Frequent flashbacks kill most novels that have them, since they tend to break up action and confuse readers. But in Oryx and Crake, flashbacks are clearly marked by the use of past tense and the name “Jimmy” for the narrative voice character. In scenes set in the post-plague world, present tense is used, and “Jimmy” becomes “Snowman,” the name he is given by the little village of transgenic people. What is more, Snowman’s present tense narrative reads just as well as Jimmy’s past tense narrative.

Another measure of Atwood’s skill is the manner in which she handles the novel’s two chief tasks: revealing the characters, the goal of mainstream novels, and revealing the setting, the goal of most science fiction novels. Since Crake is largely responsible for the transgenic life that changes the setting throughout the novel, the setting reveals the character. Atwood doesn’t just juggle her two tasks; she unifies them.

As for the setting, Atwood not only describes it beautifully, but also implies a great deal about it. One of my favorite passages in the book portrays Snowman’s attempt to figure out how to explain butter to the transgenic tribe, who eat only vegetation and live in a primitive village in the forest. After realizing that the villagers are unlikely to understand a reference to yellow grease churned into existence from cow’s milk that they have never seen, Snowman nixes the idea. That one passage implied what might have been a dozen pages of information about the death of whole industries.

As for the characters, I couldn’t help but identify with Snowman, the cynical middle-aged word nerd whose chief goal in life is getting by.

I didn’t understand Oryx, who seemed to take everything in stride, including years of childhood spent as a kiddie porn commodity. She seems to view the places and people in her life as one might view some natural environment, like a forest, filled with dangerous creatures upon whom it is pointless to place blame. Maybe that’s connected somehow to the fact that Snowman and the villagers call naturally occurring beings as “The Children of Oryx” and transgenic beings as “The Children of Crake.”

As for Crake, he seems harmless enough when we first meet him—an ambitious kid, pathetic in his inability to form close attachments with other human beings, and awe-inspiring in his genius and savoir-faire. As a friend to Jimmy, he is somewhat cold and domineering, but not malevolent. By the time the novel reaches its climax, however, Crake’s contempt for most of humanity turns to hatred. Having found out that Jimmy has been sleeping with Oryx, Crake slits Oryx’s throat right in front of his old friend, just as the plague starts killing cities around the world. I never did figure out whether Crake unleashed the plague because Jimmy and Oryx (and by extension humanity) betrayed him, or whether he wanted to destroy natural humanity to make room for his transgenic people. Maybe it was both.

And the moral of the story? It’s tempting at first blush to compare Oryx and Crake to Frankenstein. After all, they both concern a genius who creates life that turns out to be a menace. However, Frankenstein talks about arrogating a power that belongs to God, hence the book’s subtitle “A Modern Prometheus.” Oryx and Crake sends a different message: that technology is only as benevolent as the people who create it.


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