Monday, August 30, 2010

Daniel, Isaac, and Neal

A very interesting point to consider in light of the ubiquitous "the world is getting steadily more awful" meme we often hear in religious discussion. (This attitude or presumption is even more influential in faiths with a strong millennialist streak, such as Mormonism.)

The author, depicted with (counterclockwise from upper left) Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Sophia of Hanover and William of Orange.

Aboard ship, our protagonist, Daniel, morbidly ponders the possibility of a wreck as he continues to record his memoirs of his university education with his friend Isaac Newton––specifically regarding the new (and more accurate) sundial they built.

From Quicksilver, Vol. 1 of The Baroque Cycle, by the brilliant and inimitable Neal Stephenson:

One cannot board a ship without imagining ship-wreck. Daniel envisions it as being like an opera, lasting several hours and proceeding through a series of Acts.

Act I: The hero rises to clear skies and smooth sailing. The sun is following a smooth and well-understood cœlestial curve, the sea is a plane, sailors are strumming guitars and carving objets d'art from walrus tusks, et cetera, while erudite passengers take the air and muse about grand philosophical themes.

Act II: A change in the weather is predicted based upon readings in the captain's barometer. Hours later it appears in the distance, a formation of clouds that is observed, sketched, and analyzed. Sailors cheerfully prepare for weather.

Act III: The storm hits. Changes are noted on the barometer, thermometer, clinometer, compass, and other instruments––c┼ôlestial bodies are, however, no longer visible––the sky is a boiling chaos torn unpredictably by bolts––the sea is rough, the ship heaves, the cargo remains tied safely down, but most passengers are too ill or worried to think. The sailors are all working without rest––some of them sacrifice chickens in hopes of appeasing their gods. The rigging glows with St. Elmo's Fire––this is attributed to supernatural forces.

Act IV: The masts snap and the rudder goes missing. There is panic. Lives are already being lost, but it is not known how many. Cannons and casks are careering randomly about, making it impossible to guess who'll be alive and who dead ten seconds from now. The compass, barometer, et cetera, are all destroyed and the records of their readings swept overboard––maps dissolve––sailors are helpless––those who are still alive and sentient can think of nothing to do but pray.

Act V: The ship is no more. Survivors cling to casks and planks, fighting off the less fortunate and leaving them to drown. Everyone has reverted to a feral state of terror and misery. Huge waves shove them around without any pattern, carnivorous fish use living persons as food. There is no relief in sight, or even imaginable.

––There might also be an Act VI in which everyone was dead, but it wouldn't make for good opera so Daniel omits it.

Men of his generation were born during Act V* and raised in Act IV. As students, they huddled in a small vulnerable bubble of Act III. The human race has, actually, been in Act V for most of history and has recently accomplished the miraculous feat of assembling splintered planks afloat on a stormy sea into a sailing-ship and then, having climbed onboard it, building instruments with which to measure the world, and then finding a kind of regularity in those measurements. When they were at Cambridge, Newton was surrounded by a personal nimbus of Act II and was well on his way to Act I.

But they had, perversely, been living among people who were peering into the wrong end of the telescope, or something, and who had convinced themselves that the opposite was true––that the world had once been a splendid, orderly place––that men had made a reasonably trouble-free move from the Garden of Eden to the Athens of Plato and Aristotle, stopping over in the Holy Land to encrypt the secrets of the Universe in the pages of the Bible, and that everything had been slowly, relentlessly falling apart ever since [emphasis mine]. Cambridge was run by a mixture of fogeys too old to be considered dangerous, and Puritans who had been packed into the place by Cromwell after he'd purged all the people he did consider dangerous. With a few exceptions such as Isaac Barrow, none of them would have had any use for Isaac's sundial, because it didn't look like an old sundial, and they'd prefer telling time wrong the Classical way to telling it right the newfangled way. The curves that Newton plotted on the wall were a methodical document of their wrongness––a manifesto like Luther's theses on the church-door.

*In England, the Civil War that brought Cromwell to power, and on the Continent, the Thirty Years' War.

Friday, August 20, 2010


I don't know about you, but I am in the mood for some serious refudiation today!

By now, unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about the attempts to build a mosque/community center at or near the site of the World Trade Center buildings (or where they used to be).

In legal terms, the situation is quite simple: if they own the property and that property is correctly zoned, they can build whatever the hell they want.

If we want to concern ourselves with sensitivity or decorousness, things get a bit more complicated. There are lots of opinions on the subject; both sides have marshaled numerous arguments to their defense. However, I would like to address just one thing that has come up repeatedly, which I found irksome.

When someone says that the mosque site is just too close, their opponents will frequently say something along the lines of "Well, how far away is far enough?" That argument is just too smug for my liking. The suggestion, of course, is that "too close" is basically meaningless, because nobody will be able to make a rational argument explaining that, while two blocks is too close, three blocks (or whatever) would be fine. If the refudiators cannot offer a specific acceptable radius –– and of course they can't –– then their opponents feel they've won. Game, set, match. But they'd be wrong.

Let's do an experiment. You'll need a box of matches or toothpicks and a few friends. Begin to put the matches/toothpicks on a table, one at a time, stacking them roughly on top of each other. Tell your friend to say stop when you have made a "pile." Repeat with your other friends. Chances are, they will have stopped you at different points in the process. So, how many toothpicks does it take to make a pile? 5? 6? 83? Attempting to pick a specific number will always be arbitrary. However, that does not mean that the word or concept of a "pile" is worthless.

Trying to draw a line at the outer radius of a "too close to ground zero" zone is going to be arbitrary too. But that does not mean that there's no such thing as "too close." Mosque proponents ought to acknowledge that, instead of wasting time with semantic games whose sole benefit is ego-stroking, but which do nothing to promote understanding or further the possibility of a fair and amicable resolution.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Diagnosis and Solution

The problem.

The cure.

You're welcome. It's just what I do: "Fixing the world, one indecent exposure at a time."

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Don't you just LOVE Lewis?

I've just read a most fascinating quote. It comes from Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question––how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.
You know, I think that's just a capital idea.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Now, I CAN say I'm surprised...

L.A. Times headline: Judge strikes down Prop. 8, allows gay marriage in California

My only comment: "Wow. I wasn't expecting that."

I may have more comments later, but it's 3 AM, so I'm gonna sleep on it.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

I can't say I'm surprised...

First, read this article. Can you tell what's missing? The holes aren't just in the article either––almost every comment that mentioned any of those holes has also been "moderated." The Deseret News echo-chamber apparatchiki once again behave with all the journalistic integrity of Stephen Glass.

Enjoy this sampling of comments that the moderator felt were allowable:

LJ | 7:46 a.m. July 30, 2010
I also choose to remember the good in people. Thank you Deseret News for showing respect to George's children and grand children at this sensitive time.

JBs | 7:54 a.m. July 31, 2010
Good post, Tony. And a very classy way to handle this, DesNews. Thanks!

dung beetle | 8:33 a.m. July 31, 2010
Yes, George lost his way and the Lord and the Church lost a great servant when he would not retrace his footsteps. He has to deal with the consequences. We can mourn his losses (and ours) without remembering the ugliness. Let the Trib deal with that - they do it so well.

daizy | 10:45 a.m. July 31, 2010
This is nothing to make an issue of. Stop this!

countrygirl | 6:12 p.m. July 31, 2010
my sympathy and prayers go to the family of Elder Lee. There are so many positive and uplifting thoughts floating around 'out there', so I choose to think positive and uplifting thoughts. When I leave this earth, I would sure love it, if people remember the good things I might have said or done. I too have a very dear person in mind, who was instrumental in teaching my husband the Gospel and thereby changing his life forever for the better, this person some not so smart things later in his life, but that doesn't detract from the good he did for us and others. God knows our hearts, he knew us before we were born.

Californian#1@94131 | 7:37 p.m. July 31, 2010
The Trib and most of its forum posters never miss a chance to heap mud on anyone or anything Mormon, and some of the posters here ought to go and stay over there.

Just lovely. I particularly like the shrill demand from "daizy." On the website, it's impossible to see what got her so upset, since almost every comment that even mentioned the "issue" she so disliked is now no longer there. Simply put, it is not the responsibility of journalism to "choose to remember the good [only]," to never remember "the ugliness," or "to think positive and uplifting thoughts." Nor is the suppression of pertinent information "classy." To report facts is not to "heap mud," and the facts (that the ex-General Authority in question was excommunicated and later convicted of molesting a little girl) absolutely ARE something "to make an issue of."

The article was not a eulogy. It was a NEWS item, printed in a publication that is still (ostensibly) a NEWSpaper. The omissions in the article were not minor––they were like writing a book on the Bush administration, but never mentioning 9/11 or the Iraq War.

It is disappointing that the Deseret News has chosen to behave as though there is no elephant in the room, because now that elephant casts a substantial shadow over the question of their professional ethics.

I like the adage that (good) "fiction uses lies to tell the truth." Too often, the Deseret News does precisely the opposite.