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Random Randomness, 4/22/2014

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Where everything’s random, until you notice the pattern…

Go Ter-ra, It’s Your Earth Day, It’s Your Earth Day: Today’s the global celebration to remind us how wonderful Earth and its non-sentient inhabitants are and how much better things would be if human beings would just go back to swinging between trees and stop killing baby seals while randomly spewing carbon dioxide everywhere.

Sigh.

Anyhow, despite Anthropomorphic Global Warming, Earth is indeed very cool, and following astronaut Koichi Wakata on Twitter will provide you much photographic evidence, like this picture of the Bahamas he took from the diabolical, human-created International Space Station.

In the Name of the Moon, I Will Punish You!  Hey, what would Earth be without the Moon? Or Sailor Moon? The Moon Animate Make-up! project has gathered over 200 talented animators to create a shot-by-shot re-imagining of an episode from the classic anime, and it’s chock-full of the most brilliantly random animation ever. They’re on track to finish this thing in a couple of months. Here’s a sample:

 

blutoIf It’s On The Internet, It Must Be True: Here’s a quick example of why a single piece of second-hand information, even from an ostensibly credible, reliable source, is never a good basis for making a judgment about any issue. My Darling Daughter is a college debater, so when I noticed an article about debating posted on political blog PowerLine, I gave it a read. The author and his collaborator are former debaters who view recent trends in this extracurricular activity with a jaundiced eye. The thing is, my daughter, unlike the authors, was present at the events they criticize, knows several of the debaters they held up as evidence that debating has gone to wreck and ruin, and witnessed the debates in question. What the bitter geezers authors fail to capture is the level of self- and peer-review that happens during and after these events and the sophistication these kids bring to the table when analyzing and discussing their work. You don’t just “get away” with offering specious arguments, and anybody who thinks the participants are a monolithic bloc of race warriors, leftist ideologues, or what the authors dismissively term “performance artists,” hasn’t spent much time in their company, and part of the challenge is often having to argue a position they personally disagree with. They grant no mercy to half-baked reasoning anywhere on the political/social spectrum. These are smart, thoughtful young people learning how to navigate complex issues and counter tenacious opponents. There are worse ways to spend your college days.

Turtles All the Way Down: Anybody out there enjoying Cosmos, the reboot of Carl Sagan’s iconic miniseries playing on Fox Network and the National Geographic Channel? I am, most of the time. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is a pleasant host who seems to be having a ball talking about the wonders of the universe and zipping about inner and outer space in his Ship of Imagination. The visuals are breathtaking, and the historical animations are quirky and fun. I just wish the show would lay off slamming religion (ever-so-politely) and taking every opportunity to stereotype Christians as random anti-intellectual Luddites. It spends far too much time and effort debunking Young Earth Creationism and posturing religion as an obstacle to scientific inquiry. C’mon guys, you’ve flashed your Freethinker’s Union card a dozen times now. We get it, already.

cosmosWhat’s amusing is that every time the show encounters something it can’t explain with regard to the origin of life and the universe, it invokes its own statement of faith: “Turtles All the Way Down.” It goes something like this, as cited at the Carnegie Institute for Science cosmology website:

William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!

Rather than acknowledging the problem of infinite regress posed by denying a first cause, Cosmos blithely declares, in essence, “Everything probably created itself, and that is so cool!” then moves on.

How fortunate for us that faith is, apparently, not an obstacle to scientific inquiry.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2014 in General

 

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Happy Easter!

 

The Road to Emmaus

“The Road to Emmaus,” by He Qi

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

— Luke 24:13-32

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2014 in Faith

 

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Book Review: Harbinger of the Storm, by Aliette de Bodard

Harbinger of the Storm, by Aliette de Bodard
Blood stained the room, stains of various sizes, all the way down to small drops marring the frescoes. It had not been quick, or easy.

Ordinarily I would have knelt, closed the body’s eyes and said the death rites; this time, it seemed like the body was scattered over the whole room. So I just stood there, and said the prayers I always did.

We live on Earth, in the Fifth World

Not forever, but a little while

As jade breaks, as gold is crushed

We wither away, like feathers we crumble

Not forever on Earth, but a little while…

Acatl is Tenochtitlan’s High Priest of the Dead…coroner, funeral director, keeper of the unseen boundaries between the the world of spirits and the world of men, and reluctant detective, when the need arises. He’s a humble, soft-spoken man who’s grown considerably into his duties since last we met him, but now he’s confronted by a new and terrifying challenge.

The Revered Speaker, ruler of Tenochtitlan, is dead, and court intrigue swirls around the naming of his successor. Acatl would prefer to be left out of the political maneuvering, but when one council member is murdered—and more horrifying deaths follow—he has no choice. The murderer has violated the ancient barriers and employed a forbidden magic that threatens to wipe Tenochtitlan and its inhabitants from the face of the earth and usher in the next epoch of history, ready or not.

But how can the priest of a second-rate deity stand against a horde of demons hungry for an apocalypse of blood and fire?

In Harbinger of the Storm, the second volume of Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy, we move deeper into the inner workings of her circa-1400s Aztec society, as seen through the eyes of her unlikely hero, Acatl. This is a world where magical power is tangible, a thread woven through every activity of life, no matter how simple, and the strongest magic derives its power from blood sacrifice. The Aztec society exists in a symbiotic relationship with gods and goddesses who depend on humanity’s devotion while manipulating it to serve their own imponderable agendas. Both men and gods are in turn subject to a fate beyond their control but enigmatic in its vision of the future. War and violence are expected, existence is haunted by fear and uncertainty, and comfort is found only in the daily routines and rituals, constantly seeking the gods’ capricious favor.

Acatl is a man of unique spiritual sensitivity, comfortable in his own skin and in the small universe of his priestly duties, who finds himself pulled out of his comfort zone with distressingly accelerating regularity. He becomes entangled in a confusing royal succession disputed by factions whose motivations and loyalties simultaneously define the complex web of alliance that holds Tenochtitlan together and threaten to tear it asunder. He’s the only man at court without political ambition or instinct, and he must somehow keep these forces in balance, solve the perplexing murders, and, just maybe, survive. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, where an outmatched individual must find the strength and ingenuity to defeat an overwhelming adversary. Acatl is humble, principled, and determined to protect the people who look to him for leadership. It is those traits, not physical power, genius, charisma, or even magical talent, that see him through. He possesses great courage, but he reminds us that courage and fearlessness aren’t necessarily the same thing. He’s an appealing protagonist, very much in the spirit of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael or G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.

Like the first volume, this story is free of explicit content, with little on-stage violence, but there’s also no flinching from the truth that Aztec religious rites often involved human sacrifice, and there’s blood just about everywhere in the temple precincts, dried or dripping. Acatl’s rites for Michtlantechuhtli, the Lord of Death, however, don’t involve human sacrifice, since his clients are already dead and there’s not much point in it. While wearily accepting that it’s the way of things in his culture, it’s clear Acatl would be quite happy if the gods who demand human sacrifice gave up their thirst for blood altogether.

This is a fine story, well-researched, enjoyable as both a mystery and a window into a vanished culture unfamiliar to most of us. Give it a read, but start with the first book, Servant of the Underworld, which introduces Acatl and his community, since the second volume moves at a fair clip and doesn’t dwell much on backstory, though it stands well on its own. As you might expect, it ends on a note that makes it clear that the resolution is only temporary, and more danger and mystery awaits Acatl and his allies in the final volume, Master of the House of Darts, which I’ll be reading and reviewing soon.

More posts about Aliette de Bodard and her stories.

Aliette de Bodard’s author website

Link to purchase Harbinger of the Storm

Link to purchase Servant of the Underworld

Link to purchase Master of the House of Darts

Link to purchase the Obsidian and Blood trilogy in a single volume

>>This review is based upon an electronic copy of the book I bought with my very own cash money because I have enjoyed other stories by Ms. de Bodard and thought this one would be worth reading. I was right. FTC busybodies looking for conflict of interest should inquire elsewhere.<<

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Writing

 

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Drive By Sci Fi #3: Hard Time

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime, The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment, Of innocent merriment!
Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado

The twofold topic of crime and punishment has yielded bountiful fruit over the years in science fiction, providing endless speculation on the future of law, law enforcement, civil justice, and criminal punishment, and perhaps no representative of the genre has made more salad from this particular harvest than that icon of television, film, and popular culture, Star Trek. Many of its futuristic scenarios implied things wouldn’t stray far from the familiar: investigations, inquiries, inquests, courtrooms, courts martial, jury trials, imprisonment, exile, and executions (usually averted at the last minute). Occasionally we’d be treated to a fun anachronism, like trial by combat.

Punishment was often surprisingly harsh, given Star Trek’s rosy view of the evolution of future society. One of my favorite Original Series Trek moments was Spock’s dispassionate summation of the various forms of execution jovial con-artist Harry Mudd would face were he ever brought to justice:

mudd

Well, I suppose it’s better than stranding me on an asteroid with a few hundred robot duplicates of my ex-wife.

Mudd: Do you know what the penalty for fraud is on Deneb 5?

Spock: Guilty party has his choice. Death by electrocution, death by gas, death by phaser, death by hanging…

Mudd: The key word in your entire peroration, Mr. Spock, was… d-d-d-DEATH.

The issue of justice in sentencing, how to make, in the words of the Mikado, “the punishment fit the crime,” came to mind the other day in the form of a couple of articles discussing advances in our ability to manipulate memory, and possible applications this and other biotech developments might have in the criminal justice system.

obrien-hardtimeThe ideas floated in this article seemed hauntingly familiar. Then I remembered one of my favorite episodes from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, “Hard Time,” in which stalwart DS9 engineer Miles O’Brien is arrested on an alien world, charged with espionage, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Virtual prison. O’Brien lives every moment of that 20 years, indistinguishable from reality, in the space of a few hours. Then, he’s released to Federation custody to put his life back together. He has to orient himself to life outside prison, re-forge friendships, and re-learn his job. But he’s still haunted by the ghost of something horrific that happened during that time he was captive within his own mind, and it nearly destroys him. It’s a tour-de-force of brilliant acting by Colm Meaney, who plays O’Brien, and Craig Wasson, who portrays O’Brien’s illusory cellmate. Watch the whole thing, if you get the chance.

suluparadise

It’s paradise, my friend.

We’re approaching the ability to insert false memories in the human mind, distort its perception of time, and automate these effects with computer technology. So many delicious opportunities here. A convict could experience a lifetime in prison in mere hours of real time. A violent criminal could re-live his misdeeds from his victim’s point-of-view, over and over again, until he was rehabilitated—or so emotionally and psychologically broken that he could never harm anyone again—all in a brief space of time with no danger or need to kill or even physically injure the criminal. Prisons and all their expensive and inherent evils would be obsolete, as would the engines of capital punishment. Justice could be specifically tailored to the perpetrator, the crime, and the desires of victims and their families.

Everybody wins. Right?

Well, maybe. There are some thorny ethical issues here, not the least is whether this sort of treatment constitutes torture and invites abuse. Proportionality of sentencing is threatened, as well. It could be easier for judges to issue excessive punishments—it’s all happening in an imaginary world, anyhow. What does an illusion of 100 years in prison matter if it’s only taking a few hours of real time on a soft couch, and nobody gets hurt?

There’s also no guarantee this technology could remain restricted to use by a legal, accountable authority. Imagine the likely outcome if the ability to lock someone in a virtual hell found its way into the hands of terrorists:

We have your daughter. Oh, please, sir, relax…we’re not barbarians. No harm will come to her, but if you don’t cooperate, she’ll be spending 24 hours in our “private resort.”

The most chilling part of this topic for me is people’s readiness to entertain the idea of creating that virtual hell, for any purpose. Much ink has spilled in the last few years about the incomprehensibility of a loving, merciful God consigning anyone to Hell, no matter how heinous their crime or unrepentant their heart. We poor, feeble human beings would never consider sending someone to eternal punishment. We’re better than that.

Mm-hmm. We’d do it in a heartbeat. We’re already talking about it. We’re halfway to figuring out how to make it happen, and we don’t have to worry about being constrained by any of that “loving, merciful” jazz. On this issue, my faith in the beneficence of my fellow man is rather limited. A source of innocent merriment!

We have an affinity for hell.

 

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Opinion, Technology, Writing

 

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Weekly Weimaraner #19

image

Good to the last drop.

My Lovely Wife captured Josie enjoying a tasty Macchiato with double whipped cream, hold the coffee, at Starbucks yesterday. Spoiled much?

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2014 in Family

 

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Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

jesus-of-nazareth-2I read the first volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s three-volume opus on the life of Jesus a little over a year ago, intending to read the second volume during that year’s Lent.

I finished Part Two a couple of weeks ago. Whether the delay was due to my own absentmindedness or perhaps because I wasn’t prepared to absorb the second book, it’s been a wonderful and relevant enrichment during Lent this year. Like the first book, this isn’t Catholic dogma, and there’s no reason for Protestant readers to shy away from it. This series is a solid, well-researched, engagingly-written, and Biblically-focused examination of the life and person of Jesus, penned by an eminent theologian with a pastor’s heart. There’s probably a copy at your local library. Check it out.

This is a more challenging read than the first volume, mostly because it’s packed even fuller with insights that take some time to digest. Nearly any paragraph could sustain a solid week or two of Bible study. Where Part One surveyed the broad scope of Jesus’ ministry years, Part Two zeroes-in on Holy Week, and the books are about the same size. This reflects a quantum leap in the level of detail—Ratzinger drills deeply into the significant events surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection, examining them both in their immediate context and their larger significance to the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Pope Emeritus has a lot to say in answer to the question, Who is Jesus, and how did his life, death, and resurrection transform our relationship with God?

As in Part One, Ratzinger employs a wide range of Biblical scholarship and analysis in support of his narrative, while continuing his gentle critique of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship that pursues a “historical” Jesus but neglects the role of faith that illuminates the Scriptural account and reveals the meaning that permeates it. His method and intent are important to understand before delving into these books, so I strongly recommend reading Part One first, where he discusses this in detail.

In Part One, Ratzinger presented Jesus as the new lawgiver, the perfected “Moses” leading his people into the Promised Land. In Part Two, tracing the events of Holy Week, he shows how Jesus is revealed as the new, perfected High Priest, simultaneously God and Man, King and Intercessor, Priest and Sacrifice.

He spends a lot of time examining how Jesus prayed during these days—the High Priestly prayer at the Last Supper, the intercessory prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the words from the Cross. He also delves into Jesus’ prophetic discourses and instructions to his disciples that set the stage for the emergence of the Church that will carry on his ministry to the world, a calling and example epitomized in his washing of the disciples’ feet. Holy Week culminates in Jesus’ death and resurrection, wholly unprecedented and revolutionary events with implications that Jesus’ followers, guided by the Holy Spirit, would spend generations unpacking.

Not one to shy away from the hard questions, Ratzinger takes on the controversies surrounding the four Gospel narratives and shows how their harmony is preserved despite differing perspectives, emphases, and timelines. He concludes with a very simple and practical evidence of the reality of these events and this person he’s shared with us in the pages of his book, displayed in the aftermath of Jesus’ ascension into heaven:

The conclusion surprises us. Luke says that the disciples were full of joy at the Lord’s definitive departure. We would have expected them to be left perplexed and sad. The world was unchanged, and Jesus had gone definitively. They had received a commission that seemed impossible to carry out and lay well beyond their powers…And yet it is written that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, blessing God. How are we to understand this? In any case, it follows that the disciples do not feel abandoned. They do not consider Jesus to have disappeared far away into an inaccessible heaven. They are obviously convinced of a new presence of Jesus…they know that he is now permanently among them, in the way that only God can be close to us.

This is the Jesus revealed to us in Holy Week, the joy and hope of those who believe. Not absent, but ever and always present with us in a new way.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Book Reviews, Faith

 

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Curb Your Enthusiasm…

This happened last night. The key moment begins at 2:34:

Christian spec-fic novel Amish Vampires in Space gets a cover shot and mention on national television from a big-time celebrity on an American cultural institution, The Tonight Show. This is a good thing, right?

Well, it was 25 seconds of a five-minute comedy spot called “Do Not Read,” sandwiched between “Cooking the Dutch Oven Way” and “Stylish Napkins.” It was a punchline, not a promotion.

C’mon, Fred, lighten up. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Amish Vampires in SpaceMaybe. The book was flashed to an audience of millions, and Mr. Kimmel didn’t really say anything bad about it. Besides, It’s a foot in the door to begin a conversation, something like, “Did you see that crazy Amish Vampire book on Kimmel last night?” “Yes, and I’m so glad you asked…” Even Twitter scammers began using the title to attract hits on their tweets, so it’s gone viral, after a fashion.

Folks in the Christian spec-fic community were understandably jazzed: Finally, we got noticed. We’ve arrived. We’ve stepped onto the cultural stage. It would have cost thousands of dollars to buy a promotional slot on that show. That kind of free advertising is a gift.

But when I put the manner of the debut together with the response, I felt a little sad. It was like somebody at the cool kids’ table noticed us, and it made our day. “Hey, nice jacket, dweeb!”

Are we so desperate for attention that a talk-show gag feels like affirmation? We’ve been ignored for so long inside and outside the Christian community we’re excited to see this book presented as a joke, in the company of items emblematic of the worst products of American mass-market publishing.

ascsKerry Nietz is a fine writer and deserves wider exposure. His Freeheads series is a wonderful example of original science fiction written from a Christian worldview that defies conventional wisdom and expectations. Amish Vampires in Space, despite its notoriety, was orphaned in the sale of Marcher Lord Press because the new owners decided it didn’t fit their publishing vision, so I’m sure Kerry appreciates any public buzz at all about the book.

There’s certainly lemonade to be made from this lemon, and I admit It was cool to see a book written by someone of my acquaintance on television, whatever the circumstances. What would genuinely excite me would be a follow-up invitation for Kerry to appear on the show to talk about Amish Vampires in Space. Instead of the message, “Don’t read this book, it’s a joke,” we’d get, “Creative guy with a sense of humor wrote an interesting story.” That would be the sort of arrival on the cultural stage I could celebrate without mixed emotions.

Or, we could accept Jimmy Kimmel’s offer at the end of the video and send him more Christian spec-fic to lampoon in “Do Not Read” before anybody else gets the idea.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in Writing

 

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