Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Summer Squash

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2015

I enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay’s two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, and I enjoyed his Ysabel, so I figured I’d have a fling at his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Ordered the books from Amazon. Started book 1, The Summer Tree.

Within a few pages, I had realized this must be his first novel. The first-novelness of it fairly leaps off the page. I also had a dim memory of having read the opening at some point in the distant past and having decided not to bother going further. This time, having bought the books, I’m forcing myself to slog through at least a couple of hundred pages.

The premise of the opening is that a wizard from the parallel world of Fionavar shows up in Toronto. He invites five college students to accompany him back to his home world, for reasons that he is rather vague about. And of course they accept the invitation. Not eagerly, but with only the barest of misgivings. And without packing suitcases.

When they arrive in Fionavar, they’re instantly plunged into a maelstrom of courtly intrigue. It’s a stock Medieval fantasy world, pretty much. Swords and longbows and a palace with a wastrel prince and an aged king who is surrounded by duplicitous counselors. Oh, and an ancient evil entity imprisoned by being buried under a mountain. You just know the evil entity is going to get loose before long, if he isn’t loose already. So that’s the story setup.

The first problem is that the two young women and three young men from our own world are not clearly differentiated from one another in the opening. Kimberly, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave sort of share the spotlight. A better way to handle this type of situation narratively, rather than shuttling back and forth, is to use a single viewpoint character and share his or her views of the others.

The second problem is that the young people are singularly credulous. After one evening’s acquaintance, they hop into the magic circle with the wizard from Fionavar, and off they go. When they arrive at the palace, again they seem content to bumble along, asking few questions in spite of the deep tensions that are immediately apparent, and seeming almost unfazed by the fact that their entire lives have just been turned upside down. One of them has evidently suffered some emotional trauma (still unexplained after the first 75 pages) in the recent past, but emotional depth is not a prominent feature of the narrative.

It seems very possible that they were swept up into this seemingly impromptu expedition for reasons to do with Fate, or hidden magical facets of their personalities, or something of the sort. But really, that’s just the young author playing fast and loose. He wants to toss some modern people into a Medieval epic, so there they are, and because he wants them there and they’re his puppets, they’re not shocked or bewildered, they’re just having an adventure.

The fact that the natives of Fionavar speak English? None of the characters seems to have noticed how odd this is. The king also plays chess, and by the same rules that are used in Europe, which is really as profoundly weird as the linguistic coincidence, because chess was invented in India and underwent various developments over the course of a thousand years or so. It’s still played in somewhat different forms in Japan, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere — so how does the king in far Fionavar happen to be familiar with the European rules?

The third problem is the fantasy premise itself. Fionavar is replete with magic — strange beings, glowing crystals, jealous priestesses, magic bracelets, a Seer, a wolf who is there and then not there. But between that mishmash and the standard literary furniture of a Medieval epic, there’s not, as yet, much promise of originality or depth.

The fourth problem is what we might call the Celtic kitchen sink. Several pages are studded with foreign names, none of which are clearly explained to the reader. It’s as if Kay is expecting, or hoping, to dazzle the reader with epic breadth without bothering to nail anything down the way he ought to. Starting on page 1 (and omitting the names of onstage characters), we have Ginserat, Cathal, Eridu, Revor, Dalrei, Colan, Conary, Paras Derval, the lios affar, Ra-Termaine, Daniloth … and that’s all on page 1. Then Rakoth Maugrim, Seresh, the Summer Tree, the svart affar, and later on, in another saga-flavored info-dump, Rhoden, Saeren, Taerlindel, the River Glein, the Latham, Leinen, Gwen Ystrat, Dun Maura, Brennin, Mornir (with an umlaut over the o, if you please), Delevan, Cathal … is your head spinning? Mine is.

I’m not giving up quite yet. I’ll give him another hundred pages, but as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, Kay has some ‘splainin’ to do.

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Cognitive Defects

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2015

In yet another of those annoying, pointless Facebook wrangles, I found myself stating that conservatives don’t know how to think. This concept requires a bit more explication than Facebook’s slim user interface can conveniently handle, so here we are.

I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives never think. The brighter ones often do. The problem is that their thought processes don’t work correctly. Kurt Vonnegut once compared fascism to a clock. The clock, he said, keeps time perfectly for 5 hours and 32 minutes — and then the hands spin wildly as it backs up to 2 hours and 6 minutes earlier. It then runs perfectly for 27 seconds and then jumps ahead by an hour and 41 minutes, after which it runs perfectly for another 3 hours and 14 minutes…. You get the idea. The problem lies in those strange lapses, those moments when the mechanism (of thought or social organization) breaks down.

I see a couple of reasons why this happens.

First, conservatives conspicuously lack compassion. It is a cardinal rule of conservative thought that if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault, and that if you don’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, no one else has any obligation to offer you a hand. Conservatives will sometimes have great compassion for others in their peer group, while actively demonizing those who are not part of their group. It’s not an accident that most racists are conservative: Racist thinking is much like conservative thinking. It’s a deliberate failure to acknowledge the suffering of other people, and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions in causing or perpetuating that suffering.

It’s lack of compassion that causes conservatives to love war. The enemy isn’t seen as human. If the enemy isn’t human, the normal strictures of morality don’t apply.

Conservatives are addicted to winning. They will do whatever it takes to win. If that means keeping the content of an important piece of legislation secret, or shutting up witnesses at a hearing, they have no problem with that.

Just as important as the lack of compassion is that conservatism is ideologically based rather than evidence-based. Conservatives typically ignore evidence that’s right in front of them, because to acknowledge the evidence would force them to re-examine their ideology. The economic policies of Republican lawmakers in the United States are a fine example of this. When their policies tank the economy, the solution they propose is generally more of the same.

Those who are in the grip of ideology have Holy Texts, whose content is not to be questioned. The Holy Text could be the Bible, or it could be the novels of Ayn Rand (who was certainly not a fan of the Bible). It doesn’t matter what the text is; what matters is that when anxiety arises over reality’s failure to adhere to your fond expectations, you can take refuge in the Holy Text, which must be right.

In chemical dependency, refusal to confront the evidence is called denial. Projection is a related mental strategy. In projection, you accuse the other person of engaging in the precise behavior that you’re engaging in yourself. I don’t know whether this is a modern manifestation of conservatism, or whether it’s of long standing, but it’s certainly prominent today. If you mention racial injustice or even suggest that some particular injustice might be racially based, you’re accused of being a racist. If you mention that rich people oppress and cheat poor people, you’re the one who is engaged in “class warfare.” If you’re a Christian of a certain stripe, you claim the right to demand that everybody else should adhere to the rules for personal comportment that are espoused by your church — and if they say they’d rather not, you’re the one who is being persecuted.

I don’t think this is always a conscious ploy. I think many conservative Christians really do feel that they’re being persecuted when they’re denied the privilege of persecuting others. Liberals, in contrast, generally understand that we’re living in a pluralistic society, and that we all need to respect one another’s diverse needs and desires, as long as they don’t cause problems for other people.

And of course, if you point out the defects in conservative thinking, you’re the one who is intolerant of opinions different from your own. The conservative position is that if you don’t smile and nod at whatever egregious nonsense they’re peddling, you’re exhibiting intolerance and bias. The widespread and preposterous attempt to paint mainstream media as having a liberal bias is a good example. If a news organization doesn’t toe the most hidebound conservative party line 100%, that’s a liberal bias.

A corollary of the tendency to cling to ideology is that when presented with a rational argument that debunks their ideology, conservatives will change the subject rather than changing their minds. I saw a good example of this a couple of years ago, while discussing gay marriage with a conservative friend. My friend is no dummy — he has a Ph.D. in a technical field. He was also raised Catholic, which may or may not be relevant. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t see the point of legalizing gay marriage.

I asked him why. The purpose of marriage is procreation, he said. Gay couples can’t have babies, so there’s no reason why they should be able to marry.

I pointed out that our laws allow women who are past menopause and men who have had vasectomies to marry. By his logic, that shouldn’t be allowed.

Well, that wasn’t the point, he said. The point was that children should have a mother and a father as role models. I asked him whether that meant that the children of single mothers and single fathers should therefore be taken away from their parents and put up for adoption, so they could grow up in a household with two parents of opposite sexes.

Well, no, that wasn’t what he meant either. What he meant was that marriage had always, traditionally, been defined as between a man and a woman, and there was no reason to change that.

I pointed out to him, first, that traditional marriage in many parts of the world included polygamy, and that in the European tradition until rather recently, divorce was impossible. Traditions, patently, can and do change.

But why do they need to call it marriage, he asked. Aren’t domestic partnerships the same thing? Well, no, I explained. Not in a legal sense. There are many reasons why gay couples may need the legal benefits of marriage — the right to family hospital visits, inheritance law, the right not to testify against a spouse in court, and so on.

Well, all that was beside the point, my friend said. The point of a marriage was to raise a family, and gay couples can’t have kids.

But many gay people do have children, I pointed out. Well, adopted children, he said. No, I said — not just adopted children. Many gay people have already had biological children before coming out as gay. Isn’t it better that those children should be raised in a stable two-parent household?

At this point my friend switched back to one of his earlier talking points. We had gone around in a circle. I had convinced him of nothing. The reason I had failed was that he had already made up his mind (for reasons that were, I’m sure, mostly unconscious) before the discussion started. My demolishing his talking points one by one had no effect at all, because he wasn’t interested in having a rational discussion. He was only attempting to demonstrate his rationality in order to preserve his own good opinion of himself.

So I yelled at him. I called him a fuckin’ bigot and stomped out.

We’re still friends. And he’s probably still a bigot. He probably still doesn’t get it — and he probably still thinks his position is rational. That’s what I mean when I say conservatives don’t know how to think.

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Modulation Done Right

Posted by midiguru on June 18, 2015

In implementation, thinking through the details of how your users will want to use a feature can make a huge difference.

Today’s details will be of interest to nobody but musicians who use Propellerhead Reason. One of Propellerhead’s optional add-on synths is PX7, a 98% faithful recreation of the hallowed and groundbreaking Yamaha DX7 (which first appeared in 1983). Six-operator FM synthesis — a distinctive and versatile sound.

Yamaha later went on to release several other FM synths, including the lower-cost rackmount TX81Z, which was very popular. This week, a small company called Primal Audio has released the FM4. Like PX7, it’s a Rack Extension for Reason. And it’s a (slightly less faithful, but still good) recreation of the TX81Z, which had one or two distinctive features of its own, notably a choice of eight basic waveforms, as opposed to the DX7’s straight sine waves.

FM4 has CV input jacks on its rear panel for control of the pitch and amplitude of each of the four oscillators. PX7 only has inputs for amplitude of its six oscillators. Ah, but if you put PX7 in a Combinator, you gain access to all of its parameters, including oscillator pitch, via the Combinator’s programmer page. Right? Well, sort of. Actually, “wrong” would be a better description.

Like the DX7, PX7 gives you coarse and fine tune parameters for each oscillator. These are in the form of numbers. Fine tune can be set from .00 up through .99. This is perfectly sensible if you’re programming a sound and can set the tuning ahead of time, before you start playing. If you need a pitch that’s slightly flat, you just dial the coarse tune down to the next lower value and then crank the fine tune up to .98 or .99.

But if you want to apply real-time modulation — from an external LFO, let’s say — to the fine-tune parameter, this implementation is quickly revealed as a disastrous mistake. The LFO, which is being routed through the Combinator, can only move the pitch of the oscillator up, because .00, which is the “in-tune” pitch setting, is not in the middle of the parameter’s travel; it’s at the bottom. The LFO can’t impose a bi-directional pitch wobble, which is what you would typically want — it can only drive the fine-tune upward from .00.

In fact, the problem is worse than that. When modulation is applied to PX7’s fine-tune, it is assumed by the PX7 to be bidirectional from the midpoint of the parameter’s travel. The fine-tune will instantly reset itself to .50 (the midpoint — or to .75 if the coarse pitch is 0.5) so that it can go up or down from there. This completely fucks up the patch.

The FM4 gets pitch modulation right. Guess I’ll have to keep it in my rack after all.

Posted in music, technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Call Me a Snob If You Like, but…

Posted by midiguru on June 13, 2015

Should I return to college as an English major? Maybe not.

Yesterday I took a look at the courses English majors are required to take at UC Berkeley. Reading lists are provided with the course listings. One of the courses (English 45B, which covers the 18th and early 19th centuries) puts Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the very top of the list. Possibly because it’s an alphabetical list, though a few items are out of order. So I thought, hey, I’ve never read it. I’ll give it a try. This will give me some good information about whether I would enjoy being an English major.

Pride and Prejudice is amazingly, mind-numbingly boring. It is an absolute crock. I’ve only read about a quarter of it, but no inducement on Earth would persuade me to go on. The novel concerns itself entirely with the marriage prospects of idle rich girls. Everyone in the book is rich. They have servants. There is, from time to time, a passing mention of a cook or footman, but the servants have neither faces nor names.

What’s worse, the characters in the novel have no interests whatever, other than gossiping, idle chitchat, and dissecting one another’s manners. Were world events unfolding in the years around 1810? Certainly. (The novel was published in 1813.) In 1810 Napoleon married Marie Louise, his second wife. Napoleon was the self-declared emperor of France, a nation quite near England. Also in 1810, he annexed Holland. In 1812, of course, the British army soundly defeated the upstart United States and burnt the capital of the U.S. to the ground.

Ah, but Elizabeth is concerned only with Mr. Darcy. The fact that the cook’s husband is ill, or that Napoleon has annexed Holland — these things concern her not for a moment. In Austen’s austere world view, nothing exists but rich people and their social encounters.

When the English department at UC replaces Jane Austen with Terry Pratchett, call me. I mean this quite seriously. Pratchett was a humorist, but his novels have far more meat on their bones than Pride and Prejudice. They have poor people. They have people taking huge risks and nearly getting killed (or more than nearly). They have recognizable literary themes. They have insight into human nature.

Or maybe Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Yeah, call me when you add that course to the syllabus.

Posted in fiction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Those Who Can’t (or Don’t) Teach

Posted by midiguru on June 12, 2015

As a retired single guy who dropped out of college in 1969, I have a recurring fantasy of going back to get a degree or two. Not strictly for my own satisfaction or to fill the idle hours (though those are considerations) but because, degree in hand, I could teach electronic music at one or two nearby colleges.

It wouldn’t have to be a music degree; pretty much any accredited degree would do. There’s clearly a crying need for instruction in music technology, a need that I could easily fill if only I had that piece of paper saying I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

My impression is that UC Berkeley pretty much has to let me in as a returning undergraduate, since I left in good standing. Their music department is a good one, but I’m dissuaded from the idea of majoring in music by the performance requirement. Their symphony rehearses on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7:30 to 10:00 (after which I would have to drive home to Livermore), but I already have a Tuesday evening commitment to the local community orchestra. Oh, and orchestra is a 1-unit class. Five hours a week, to say nothing of the woodshedding, and they give you one lousy unit for it? Excuse me.

In any event, I hardly need experience performing. At the age of 25 I was gigging five nights a week.

Last night’s brainstorm was, why major in music at all? Why not major in English? After all, I’m a professional writer and an avid (though not very selective) reader. So this morning I had a look at the UC Berkeley English department.

The courses look very good indeed. I mean, it’s not my life’s ambition to read Moby Dick, but I’m sure I’d learn a lot.

What I found a bit discouraging, or at least disconcerting, is that almost none of the instructors in the English department is a novelist. Among those who list the novel as their specialty, not a single one lists a novel among his or her published books. Lots of scholarly criticism, but no actual (cough-cough) novels. Among the 12 instructors who list creative writing as their specialty, there are, by my count, three novelists. Mostly it’s poetry, poetry, and more poetry.

You’d think an English department would have a few novelists on staff. Or at least, I’d think that.

Here’s an evil thought. Though I wrote some poetry in my callow youth (a youth so long ago I’d have to look up the word “callow” to learn what it means), I long ago desisted. The only poetry I write now is, quite literally, refrigerator magnet poetry. On my refrigerator are a couple of hundred substantives (nouns, adjectives, and verbs) and a bunch of connecting elements (suffixes, pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions). From time to time I assemble a wickedly surrealist poem in free verse. I jot them all down in a notebook that sits atop the microwave. So now I’m wondering … if I whipped out a dozen of those refrigerator magnet poems and edited or expanded them so that they appear to have some semblance of actual meaning, and then submitted them as original work in a creative writing class, could I fool a UC Berkeley poetry professor into thinking I was a real poet?

It’s almost worth enrolling at UC just to find out.

Posted in fiction | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Smut Smiters

Posted by midiguru on June 11, 2015

I’m kind of burned out on the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing — trying to explain to people that a trans woman is not “a man in a dress.” But somewhere along the way, I was taking a quick, horrified glance at a couple of radical feminist web pages, and I was reminded that most radical feminists are vehemently opposed to pornography.

Whenever we find supposed leftists aligning themselves with fundamentalist Christians, we should probably be a little suspicious. But the Christians’ objections to pornography are really too silly to be worth discussing. The feminist objections, I think, can be dealt with in a rational manner.

If I understand it correctly (and please correct me if I’m missing something), the feminist objections to pornography are, first, that the pornography industry exploits women; and second, that pornography objectifies women by portraying them simply as bodies suitable for lusty purposes rather than as whole human beings.

Of course, gay male pornography complicates the picture. Really, we should be talking about “people” rather than “women.” But let’s avoid complicating the discussion.

I’m sure it’s true that the pornography industry exploits women. But then, so does the garment industry in Taiwan. I’m guessing that the type of exploitation that so upsets radical feminists is that the women who are employed as photographic models or film actresses in pornography are required to take their clothes off as part of their employment. And to engage in real or simulated sex acts.

However, artist models routinely pose naked. And are sometimes paid for doing so, I’m sure. For that matter, there are nudist colonies and clothing-optional beaches. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either nakedness or being paid to get naked.

If some women feel that being in porn (or stripping) is the only way they can earn a decent living, then yes, that’s exploitation. The solution is not, however, to remove those job opportunities. The solution is to provide other well-paying job opportunities so that women don’t have to do porn unless they want to.

I’m pretty sure some of them do want to. And that fact is nobody’s business but their own. Neither the radical feminists nor the fundie Xtians get to say, “But she shouldn’t want to!” No, you don’t get to go there.

Is there something uniquely awful about being paid for sex, as opposed to, say, being paid for cleaning motel rooms or working as a cashier at Wal-Mart? No, I think we can dismiss that notion. Sex is a normal, healthy activity.

Prostitution ought to be legal, and plenty of feminists understand that. Laws against prostitution punish women. How is engaging in sex for pay on camera any different? It’s not.

In sum, the argument that pornography exploits the women who work in the porn industry pretty much falls apart when you look at it closely.

But doesn’t pornography objectify women? Doesn’t it demean all women, whether or not they’re on camera? Doesn’t it give men unrealistic fantasy ideas about women’s bodies? Doesn’t it damage men’s ability to relate to real women as whole human beings?

I think if you took a survey, you would find that most heterosexual men think healthy, well-formed 20-year-old women are sexier than healthy, well-formed 40-year-old women. I think you would find that most men are not sexually aroused by pimples, wrinkles, stretch marks, or surgical scars. (There are exceptions, of course.) Most men have, in other words, an ideal in their heads of what they would like a sex partner to look like. The ideal will differ from one man to another, but there will almost always be an ideal. A man who is equally aroused by all women, and who is not lying about it, would be extremely rare, and would probably be worth studying in a laboratory that’s equipped with brain scanning technology. We can safely say there must be something wrong with his wiring.

Men’s ideas of what they would ideally prefer in a sex partner are not created by the porn industry. The ideals are natively just there, in the men’s heads. The porn industry certainly targets those ideals, but it doesn’t create them. It can’t create them. It’s really difficult to get anyone sexually turned on by something that he or she doesn’t already want to get turned on by.

Most men understand that the sex partner they have is less than ideal — and they’re okay with that. Unless something a lot better comes along, of course. Infidelity and divorce are painful and unfortunate, but they’re not caused by the porn industry. They would exist, and probably at about the same frequency, even if pornography were prohibited. Indeed, a case could be made that pornography gives some men a sexual outlet that allows them to remain faithful to their wife. In the absence of pornography, they might feel a greater need to seek outside stimulation of a more direct and personal nature.

It’s important, too, to emphasize that when a man looks at a woman — perhaps a stranger — and is turned on by her in a specifically sexual way, without reference to her personality or her other fine qualities, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure millions of happy marriages have begun in momentary lust. Men are not such primitive, loathsome creatures that they are unable to move outward from their lust into an appreciation of a woman’s intelligence, honesty, or other attributes.

One of the basic rules of progressive politics is this: Politics stops at the bedroom door. You don’t get to have a political opinion about what turns anybody on. You don’t get to say, “But that shouldn’t turn you on!” As long as the two (or more) people involved in the sexual encounter are consenting adults, anything they do is fine, and any feelings that they have are fine.

Attempting to demonize pornography is, at root, an attempt to tell men, “But you shouldn’t be turned on by that!” It’s bullshit. Men are turned on by whatever they’re turned on by, and as long as it involves consenting adults, you don’t get to have an opinion about it.

Sexual attractiveness is a commodity. The mating game is market economics in action. We all try to make the best deal we can, and we all try to market ourselves as well as possible — through personal grooming, buying a fast car, or whatever. That’s biology, as expressed through human instinct and human culture. I’m going to be unkind here. My suspicion is that quite often radical feminists object to the portrayal of women in porn because they, the radical feminists, feel ill equipped to compete with the women in porn.

But you know, I’m ill equipped to compete with Ben Affleck. That’s reality. Deal with it.

Posted in random musings, society & culture | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Quest for Knowledge

Posted by midiguru on May 21, 2015

Nibbled at by some persistent demon, it has occurred to me that I really would like to go back to college and get my B.A. Possibly a Master’s as well. At the tender age of 66.

I live less than 40 miles from UC Berkeley. Not only that, but I’m a former Berkeley student (for two quarters in 1969). If they can find my student ID number (not guaranteed — probably on microfilm in the basement), I qualify as a returning student. I can apply this week and start classes in the fall.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. More like a wart hog, actually. (Visual: wart hog in the ointment. Let’s not go there.) UC Berkeley is not a commuter school. There are something like 800 parking spaces to serve 20,000 students. On top of which, as a music student, I would often need to carry my cello. The nearest and most convenient parking garage (which might, on any given day, be full) is too far from the music department for a 66-year-old to carry a cello.

The music department has lockers. The most likely solution will be for me to rent a barely adequate cello ($70 per month for a couple of years, thereby adding a cool $1,500 or so to the cost of attending school) and leave it in the locker. But the parking situation is still dismal.

Riding BART in from Dublin is not an option. As a male over 65, I sometimes need quick access to a restroom (or at least to a place where I can pull off the highway for a minute). No, I’ll be driving.

Hey, how about parking on the street a mile from campus and riding the bus? Sounds like a swell idea. The 49 bus runs right up College Ave. to the campus. But most of Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods, including those that lie along the 49 line, are parking-controlled. Two-hour limit unless you have a resident sticker.

Contrast this with Cal State East Bay. It’s a commuter school. Plentiful student parking within 200 yards of your classroom. And the commute from Livermore is shorter. Trouble is, Cal State is not really a wonderful school. You can get a degree there, no problem, but if you want an actual education UC would be a far better choice.

Maybe I can charter a daily helicopter.

Posted in random musings | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Revelation du jour

Posted by midiguru on May 9, 2015

There is a God. And God does respond to prayers.

God is a giant armadillo named Murgatroyd. And by “giant” I do mean giant. Murgatroyd is about 75 feet from stem to stern, not including His tail. He lives in an air-conditioned barn near Peoria, Illinois, and seldom leaves, except once a year, when he hovers over the Superbowl like an invisible blimp. But He is able to respond to prayers without leaving the comfort of his barn, so His reclusiveness is not an issue.

However, you may want to know that Murgatroyd speaks (and understands) only Latvian. Prayers in Latvian will be answered promptly (“promptly” meaning, sometime within the next five or ten thousand years). Prayers not in Latvian will not attract Murgatroyd’s attention.

But there’s some good news. Murgatroyd’s only begotten daughter, Betty, is bilingual in Latvian and English. You can pray to Betty, and she will cheerfully pass your requests on to Murgatroyd. Murgatroyd is not really too fond of Betty, so the results of her intercession cannot be guaranteed — but for most worshipers, praying to Betty will be easier than learning Latvian.

Betty is quite hard of hearing, unfortunately. Shouting loudly to her is recommended. And doing this outdoors will be most efficacious, as Betty is claustrophobic. She seldom ventures indoors.

Betty is very fond of yellow rubber rain boots. (Vinyl boots are acceptable.) If you stand in the street wearing yellow rubber rain boots and shout loudly to Betty, your prayers to Murgatroyd will have the best possible chance of being granted. Either that, or you could learn Latvian.

There has been a schism, regrettably, within the Church of Murgatroyd & His Divine Daughter Betty. The M&Mites hold that Betty is favorably impressed by an offering of burning M&Ms, whose smoke She inhales. Now, you may think it would be difficult to burn a bowl of M&Ms, but you’ll find that dousing them with gasoline or lighter fluid works very well.

The M&Mites are opposed by the Anti-Scissorites, who hold that touching or owning scissors, or even witnessing the use of scissors by a heretic, will infallibly incur the wrath of Betty. The wrath of Betty is not a pleasant prospect. It involves being forced to listen to the entire song catalog of the Eagles, played on a ukulele by a drunken auto mechanic.

On the whole, avoiding scissors seems like a very good idea. Either that, or you could always learn Latvian.

Posted in religion | Tagged: | 5 Comments »


Posted by midiguru on April 29, 2015

What did Jesus say? After uploading my previous blog entry, I decided I was curious about that. People who say they’re following the teachings of Jesus usually have in mind the first four books of the New Testament. But there are other sources.

A trove of manuscripts was uncovered in Egypt, not too many years ago — parchment books dating back to the 4th century. Until they were found, we knew little about the Gnostics, other than from the diatribes the orthodox church fathers wrote denouncing what they felt were the gnostic heresies. These recovered documents included a number of stories about Jesus and his apostles that differ, sometimes sharply, from what was previously known.

A scholar named Elaine Pagels wrote a wonderful book called The Gnostic Gospels about these newly discovered documents, and about what we can learn from them. I had read the book 25 or 30 years ago, but didn’t remember much. This week I’m reading it again.

The most important point, I think, is that the early church fathers were solidifying a rigid hierarchical and authoritarian social structure (bishops at the top, then priests, then deacons, then the ordinary worshipers). The gnostics were much more egalitarian in outlook. The gnostics allowed women to serve as priests, something the Catholic Church is still having fits about, 1,600 years later.

The gnostics were creative. They were interested in discovering spiritual truths for themselves. The orthodox church, on the contrary, was bound and determined that there was only one source of truth — a bishop who had received the mandate passed down directly from one of the apostles.

If anything, this view of the historical situation solidifies my contempt for organized Christianity, quite apart from any specific questions of doctrine.

Another thing that I’m reminded of by reading about these early struggles over the meanings of various events (such as the crucifixion and the resurrection) is that none of the people involved had the least idea about the nature of the world they were living in. Science simply didn’t exist. They certainly knew that it was unilkely for someone who had been crucified and was dead to come back to life — but they had no reason at all to assume that it could never happen. People whom they were inclined to trust told them it had happened; therefore, it had happened.

Only during the past 200 years have we been in any position to deconstruct the entire foundation of religious doctrine, using the tools of science. You might think this would be a great relief to everybody, but no. People care about their religion, whatever it happens to be.

And that’s the third point: memes. A meme is an idea that survives or evaporates in what we might call a virtual ecosystem, the system of human brains and human culture. Memes that resonate well with human instinct tend to spread. They lock in with our deepest feelings and are difficult to eradicate. An idea that seems grotesque to us (say, the divinity of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) is unlikely to propagate through the meme-sphere.

Religion is deeply entrenched because its characteristics have been finely honed through thousands of years to resonate with humans’ instinctive perceptions and needs. Trying to debate the truth or falsity of religious doctrines is very nearly useless. Memes are stubborn. You might as well try to cure cancer with aspirin tablets as try to explain scientific truth to someone whose mind has been taken over by religious memes.

The Gnostic Gospels illustrates this process in a clear and convincing way because the only thing the early Christians could do was ask themselves which set of ideas resonated best with their unconscious and intuitive sense of what was good or right. They were in no position whatever to do any reality-testing — it was all free-floating memes.

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Ruminations on Religion

Posted by midiguru on April 27, 2015

Today I got into a low-key wrangle with a woman on Facebook who feels that her moderate, enlightened version of Christianity is superior to the version espoused by the right-wing zealots who are currently spewing their toxic garbage across our national discourse. She said she simply follows the teachings of Jesus, which she finds not very ambiguous.

I asked her whether she opposes divorce; Jesus was quite specific about that, if the Bible is to be believed. Of course, the Bible is a farrago of fantasy, we all understand that — but if she’s trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, she has to use it.

She wouldn’t answer the question. But she got me curious, so I hauled out the King James Version and had a look at Matthew. The sayings of Jesus turn out to be more peculiar than I remembered — and a lot harder to use as teachings or moral precepts, I’d say. Here’s Matthew 8:21-22: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Okay, so one of Jesus’s teachings was that corpses were to be allowed to rot unburied. Have I got that right?

Earlier in the same chapter, a centurion comes to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal his servant, who is “grievously tormented” by the palsy. But the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to be seen entering his house! “For I am a man under authority,” he explains. He wants Jesus to heal the servant remotely. Jesus does so — but what’s remarkable about this incident is that Jesus goes out of his way to praise the centurion’s great faith. “Verily I say unto you,” he says to his disciples, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

The centurion is worried about losing his job if he’s known to be hanging out with Jesus, and Jesus praises his faith. That’s enough to set my head spinning. Jesus is unabashedly praising fear and hypocrisy. He’s praising a man for not wanting to lose his job.

And yet he also says, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Yes, that does seem to be fairly unambiguous, though it’s precisely the opposite of what he praised the centurion for.

Can we safely assume that the woman who is following the teachings of Jesus has no interest in dieting and nutrition? Can we safely assume that she doesn’t bother to wash her clothes or make sure that her socks match?

Or, as is much more likely, shall we assume that she is picking and choosing among the teachings of Jesus, embracing the teachings that she likes and ignoring those that would be embarrassing, inconvenient, or dangerous?

I’m not too concerned, at the moment, about hypocrisy. That’s not what I’m driving at. What I want to suggest is that not even the most scrupulously religious can dodge personal responsibility for their moral and behavioral choices. If you try to follow every single thing in your favorite holy book, of course you’ll go mad, because holy books are full of contradictions. But even if you did try to do that, it would still be your personal choice. You can’t evade responsibility for your actions by trying to blame it on Jesus. In practice, people do pick and choose the verses they will admire and embrace. And that’s as it should be.

But if you do it that way, and if you have even a scrap of honesty, you really have to admit to yourself that the Bible is not a reliable guide to anything. The only reliable guide to morality or life’s difficult choices is your own personal sense of right and wrong. Jesus got nothin’ to do with it.

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