Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New blog up!

The focus of my writing efforts these days is my new blog, Jurassic Talmud. I am trying to write commentary for every single Dinosaur Comic, in chronological order. Yes, this is going to take a while, and I'm only about two weeks in. Only time will tell if I have the tenacity to see it through to the end.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A different kind of conspicuous consumption

Patton Oswalt says, Wake Up, Geek Culture. It's Time to Die. He touches on a few things I have been pondering lately, which is the increase in cultural consumption that has occurred within the past few years--or, as he so adroitly points out, the way in which we are consuming popular culture. There used to be very few TV shows that people watched religiously, and discussed with their friends. Shows that, if someone said, "Oh, I don't watch that," you would say, "What's wrong with you?!? You don't know what you're missing!" The first show like that was I Love Lucy. If you were scheduling to go out to dinner with someone, it could never be at the same time as I Love Lucy.

The show of my generation like that was The Simpsons. When I was in fifth grade, some kids actually had a kind of Simpsons discussion group that met during recess every Monday, to talk about the Simpsons episode that aired the previous evening. (This, of course, was nothing like a book club where they talked about the biting social commentary--it was more like, "Oh man, that part was really funny.") As the show became syndicated, it was possible to watch The Simpsons every day, sometimes up to four times in a single day. When I got to college, if a person wasn't able to converse in Simpsons references, it usually meant they had parents who, at some point, strictly controlled what they watched on TV.

Today, you can watch any TV show you want, any time of day. On that note, we are going to take a brief diversion.

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People sometimes talk about how bad TV has gotten in the past decade, pointing to the surfeit of crap reality TV that is out there. TV has also, in other respects, gotten really good in the past decade. Setting aside the several original series produced by Showtime and HBO (The Wire. There, I said it.), there are plenty of shows that are far better than what was around in the 90s. To me, the only things that come to mind are sitcoms, since it is one of my preferred genres: Community, Children's Hospital, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Office, to name but a few. In animation, there has been Avatar, Adventure Time, and quite a few things on Adult Swim.

I think that was has happened is that instead of trying to make their shows appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, producers are trying to make each show appeal to a particular audience in the best possible way. When you form a devoted following, you get people who tune in every time the show is on, regardless of what else is on, whereas before, you might have gotten people who watched your show simply because it was the best thing that happened to be on at the time. (Also, there are now shows you have to pay attention to while you watch them, and shows where you can do housework and only half pay attention while missing nothing.)

What brought this into stark relief for me was when I recently watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its fans will talk to you about all the things that are so great about it, while its detractors will talk to you about all the things that are bad about it. From time to time, both of them are correct. It has interesting storylines where characters make tough moral choices... but it will sometimes have entire episodes where the characters play hot potato with the idiot ball. There is a lot of fluff and filler. And this is because the show was probably aimed at trying to capture both the audience who likes "good television," and the audience that watches whatever crap happens to be on right now.

If Buffy were made today, I think that it would have half as many episodes per season, and have at least 50% less filler. It would be more watchable for some people, while some of its most die-hard fans would probably be upset that you cut out all of the rich social drama (which was really just people yelling at each other for five minutes, over a misunderstanding).

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So, we now live in a world with lots of great television shows. And video games. And movies. And books, good god, there are books everyone is reading! With the power of the internet, we can find out all of the cool things there are to consume in our spare time. We can also see our friends having conversations about these things, and we think, "I would like to be able to participate in that conversation. I will go find out what it is they are talking about." (I might just be speaking for myself, but I don't think the power of implicit social pressure should be denied.) But each one of those TV shows will require several hours of your time to watch all the way through. The movies, two hours apiece. The video games, 10 hours or more. The books depend on how fast you read and what books you are reading, but reading a George R. R. Martin novel will require no less than 10 hours of your time.

Now you are spending every possible minute of your spare time doing nothing but consume popular culture, and it's not enough. Unless you quit your job, and make your life all about media consumption, there is never going to be enough time for all of it. The further problem, as Patton Oswalt says, is that you are never taking the time to reflect on these things and absorb them. In a world where we never have to watch the same show twice, we are missing out on the value of repeated viewing that made some of us conversant in Simpsons references.

This means that you have to make a choice in what you are going to consume, and stop worrying about the fact that you haven't consumed the thing your friends are talking about.  I am trying to take this even further, and want to take the time to rewatch some of the shows I have enjoyed the most in the past five years (yes, The Wire, but also Adventure Time). If we don't try to slow ourselves down, I don't think it will be quite as bad as Oswalt says, but it doesn't seem like something I want to be part of. All I can see is a future of image macros that reference 10 different intellectual properties at once.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to have a replacement for a personality

Developing a personality is hard. Where do you even start? You don't have that kind of time, to say nothing of the humility it requires. Instead, you can have something to talk about, with anyone at all, without ever having to dig down inside to find out who you are! It's so easy! Here are some things to get you started:
  • Wear a fedora. It's, like, the coolest kind of hat there is. People will compliment you on your snazzy hat, and then you can tell them about all the other hats you have at home. You'll wish you had an extra head, so you could wear two snazzy hats at once.
  • Start using Linux, which is like the fedora of operating systems. It's better, in fact, because while there are only so many things you can say about hats, you can talk to anyone at all, as much as you want, about Linux. Do they not use Linux? Tell them why they should. Do they already use Linux? Tell them they're a goddamn idiot for using Red Hat, when everyone knows Ubuntu is the best distro. And who the fuck uses Pine anymore? You get the idea. Also, if you learn enough about Linux, you could probably get a job in IT.  I mean, like, maybe. I don't know. Linux people and IT people talk the same kind of gibberish to me, so it seems natural.
  • Wear a utilikilt. For too long, men have been shut out of the benefits of wearing skirts. Now you can wear a skirt that is not only manly, but has a system of pockets like cargo pants. Tell everyone you know about how liberating it feels to wear a utilikilt, especially if you're not wearing underwear with it. Oh yeah, did I mention? It gives you an excuse not to wear underwear, something else women have bogarted for too long.
  • Learn a lot of jokes. You won't ever have to say something in a conversation that isn't a joke.
  • Learn a lot of random trivia. The quick and dirty way is to pick up one of those giant trivia books, and read it cover to cover, maybe keeping it in the bathroom to read while you're on the toilet. You can also do this, of course, by reading lots of non-fiction, because those books are frequently peppered with interesting asides. If it's interesting enough for you to commit it to memory, then it should be interesting enough to tell someone you just met. Hold on, did they say something about space shuttles? Now's your chance to talk about Richard Feynman testifying before Congress on why the Challenger exploded! Also, speaking of Richard Feynman... yeah, once you're talking about Feynman, you can talk about anything.
  • Start making things out of duct tape. You can even make a fedora out of duct tape. (I don't recommend a duct tape utilikilt.) Don't make those foam-padded boffers, though. Those are dumb.
  • Take up some old lady type of crafting, like knitting or needlepoint, and make video game-related things. You don't even have to play any video games--just pay attention to what video games other people are playing, and making jokes about on the internet. I've never played Portal, but I'd make a needlepoint of the companion cube, and have it say, "The cake is a lie." If I did needlepoint. Anyway, if you had something like that on your wall, everyone would tell you how awesome it was.
These are just some ideas. You might find a new and creative way to get by without a personality! There are no limits! Maybe you want to do nothing but consume popular culture, so that you can talk about those things with other people. Start with The Wire, because, seriously, everyone should watch that show.

Now, not everyone who does the things I just mentioned is trying to replace their personality. Many of them have brilliant, shining personalities, and when you touch on that point of common interest with them, it will allow you to spend a lot more time around them, potentially leading to things like meeting their friends, going to their parties, and having one-night stands with any female they know.

But that guy with the duct tape fedora and the utilikilt? He also uses Linux, and he thinks he's hot shit just because he uses Gentoo. That is some bullshit. Go tell him how much of an asshole he is.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

You're going to need all of it

Every one of us can remember being in school and asking our teachers (no matter what class it was), "When are we going to use this in the real world?" And your teacher probably didn't have a very good answer. It was probably something along the lines of, "You won't, but you should learn it anyway." Additionally, when politicians and other people debate what we need to be teaching in schools, a lot of the ideas about what is necessary and what is not come down to what application these things can have in "the real world." To me, though, there are two problems with this line of thinking.

The first is the very idea of "the real world" as distinct from the world of education. Maybe this is because much of what you learn in school becomes applicable to other classes (e.g., science classes require a certain background in math), but doesn't ever seem to have application in the everyday life. Or, one can't imagine what sort of a job this kind of information would require. The fact of the matter, though, is that all of us are going to end up with different kinds of jobs when we leave school. Some of them will involve a lot of math and science. Some of them will involve a lot of writing.

And this brings me to the more important problem of "when will we need this": you are missing the point of education. If you are going to learn exactly what you need for a particular job, you go to a technical school. But the point of a broad education is to give you a perspective on the world that you wouldn't otherwise have. Our modern world is a vast, complicated place. Having a basic understanding of each of the components of the world helps us to understand why things are the way they are, and why things work the way they do.  As one example, if you are going to give two shits about politics—and you should—you ought to know some things about world history, and the history of your own country. (Hell, just about anything you need to know about politics is in fuckin' Thucydides. He wrote a book that he wanted to endure across the ages, and he damn well succeeded.) Additionally, our current political debates about climate change, teaching evolution in schools, come about from a willful rejection of established science.

So, you won't ever need this in the real world, but at the same time, you will always need this in the real world, everywhere. If you understand why this answer makes sense, then you'll understand why it's such a dumb question in the first place.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Advice no one will give you, part 1

Throughout your life, you will receive a lot of advice. Some of it, you will hear from a lot of different sources. Some of it, you will probably hear only from me.

Never dress yourself in the dark. No matter how much time you think it will save you not to turn the light on, you stand a chance of looking completely ridiculous, and you won't realize it until it's too late to do anything about it. (Some more general advice might be to get a good look at yourself in the mirror before leaving the house.)

Don't do the drugs that make you lose your friends and furniture. This is one I heard as a harm reduction volunteer. There are a lot of drugs out there to experiment with, use, and abuse, and the popular propaganda about drugs makes it seem like each one is just as bad as the other. Nobody ever went completely broke because of their magic mushroom habit, though. So, if you're the sort who likes to experiment with drugs, it might be prudent to stay away from things like meth, coke, and heroin, since they carry a higher likelihood of ruining your life.

Never trade a crack addiction for a meth addiction. I first heard this advice from a former trance DJ in Seattle. The way he explained it was, "Yes, it's cheaper, and yes, it lasts longer, but trust me, it's not a good idea." More scientifically speaking, meth makes you impulsive (among other things). Drug addicts are known for doing just about anything to get their next fix. Meth addicts will do just about anything for no damn reason.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Of ropes and camels

There are a lot of things Jesus says in the Bible that do not make immediate sense to a modern reader. Typically, it is possible to explain things things simply by saying, "At the time, things were like such and such, and people generally believed such and such." Something that has been gnawing at my brain lately is possibly one of the oddest things that he says: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

This is the only passage I know of that requires an elaborate story to explain it, and usually that story is about a gate in a city wall that was called "the eye of the needle," and in order for a camel to go through it, you had to unload everything off the camel. There are also stories about a mountain pass where something similar was required. I've come to believe that this is all bunk, though. Admittedly, I don't have many reliable sources (there are these two pages that look straight out of 1998, and a Wikipedia article that needs a lot of work), but I've never heard of a reliable source for the traditional explanation, either.

One of the first problems is that there is nothing about the supposed gate or the mountain pass that is contemporary with or before Jesus. Furthermore, when he said the quotation, he was on the coast of Judea, and not near any city gates. In a time when some people never traveled outside the city they were born in, it wouldn't make sense for him to refer to something that some in his audience might never have seen.

The more likely explanation is that this is a persistent mistranslation: the Aramaic word for camel, gamla, is also the word for "rope," and context generally determines what the word is supposed to mean. If you are talking about riding through the desert on a gamla, you are probably talking about a camel. If you are talking about putting a gamla through the eye of a needle, you are probably talking about a rope.

To me, this recalls the scene in "The Life of Brian," where Brian and his mother are at the Sermon on the Mount, way at the back, and it's hard for them to understand the words. Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers," and Brian's mother says, "Blessed are the cheesemakers?" Let's imagine for a moment that what ended up getting written in the Bible was, "Blessed are the cheesemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." We would have all sorts of explanations for this that involved some kind of way in which people at the time made cheese, or something else about the profession of cheesemaking.

There might not be a solid case for the Aramaic explanation, but at the very least I would like it if Biblical scholarship eventually set the record straight on which explanations are flat out false, as the traditional one seems to be. I have no hope for this though. The main reason is that the "camel" reading let's people tell a story and show off something they know. The bigger reason, though, is that there are plenty of other ways in which people are just plain terrible at reading the Bible. Many books have been written about the things that get taken out of context, or ignored, or outright fabricated. Reading the word as "camel" is fairly benign in comparison to rapture madness, or scaring people with visions of Hell.

As a side note, one of the articles linked above provides an additional explanation that is suggested by a passage in the Babylonian Talmud. A rabbi is talking about the nature of dreams, and that they will only show us that which is natural or possible: "They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle." There is at least one other passage where this is used as an example of something that is not possible. So, there is a chance that Jesus was simply using "camel through the eye of a needle" as an example of something that is flatly impossible, and by saying this was easier than a rich man entering heaven, he was saying it was even less possible.

The Talmud, however, was composed well after the time when Jesus was alive, so it isn't something that could have influenced him. He was also fond of making hyperbolic comparisons, such as in the passage where he says, "Before you try to remove the mote from your brother's eye, first remove the beam from your own eye."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The worth of philosophy

I recently read an article titled How to Do Philosophy. As someone who majored in philosophy, I mostly agree with the writer, and shared a lot of the same frustrations in my studies. I'd say the material was half stuff that seemed to have practical application somewhere, and half stupid bullshit. The subject I usually cite as my prime example is epistemology. I am not sure if the wider field of epistemology is different from this, but we spent most of the semester arguing about whether you could have knowledge of the outside world. If you come to the conclusion that when everyone in the world says that they "know" something, when they don't really know it, something has gone wrong. Yes, it's true, I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat who is part of an experiment being conducted by a mad scientist. But I know that the Dow Jones is over 10,000, and I know that George Washington never studied kung fu at a Chinese monastery. (Or did he?)  Only an asshole would tell me, "Well, you don't know that you're not in the Matrix, so you don't really know those things."

The parts of philosophy that I thought could be useful for something were, generally speaking, things that could feed into the field of ethics, and most people would agree that ethics is a worthwhile field of study. For example, there is a branch of metaphysics that is all about causality. How do you determine what and who played a causal role in an event? And how responsible can you hold someone for failing to prevent something? The answers to those questions can be really important, and it often takes a philosopher to give a satisfactory answer to them.

A few years ago, I took a philosophy class at Portland State, and though I was not at all impressed with the professor, he did articulate what I think is the best definition of what philosophy is: the study of the construction and evaluation of arguments. Regardless of whether any person agrees on whether that is what philosophy is, one cannot doubt that this is what one is doing when one is doing philosophy, and I believe that this is what makes philosophy a worthwhile study. A philosopher can make an argument like a ninja: define some terms, mention out some logical connections, throw down a conclusion. BOOM. Done correctly, one can only disagree with the conclusion by disagreeing with the definitions and premises.

The general problem with this, of course, is that people are rarely persuaded by logic. One needs some appeal to emotions and values in order to convince someone to change their opinion. But that's a story for another time. Some recommended reading on that subject would be Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" (which can also be found in an anthology of his papers, titled "The Importance of What We Care About") and the anthology "Bullshit and Philosophy," edited by Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch. Seriously, if you read no other works of philosophy in your life, you should read these.

On the ideal music video

Making a music video is a different task from making a typical movie. All of the soundtrack is there already, and your task is to add a visual element to that soundtrack. From time to time, there is a video telling a story that has something additional at the beginning, or the end, or slightly edits the song in order to fit the video a little better. But it's not like shooting a screenplay where the closest thing to what's set in stone is the dialogue and a description of what's in the scene.

So, what is the best way to add a visual element to a song? I think that the most common thing is to show off the artist, and make something that just looks totally awesome. Buttrock and hip hop typically are the ones who do this most often. Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See might be one such example–visually stimulating, but I would be hard pressed to tell you how it relates to the song. AC/DC seemed to have nothing but videos showing them playing their instruments on a stage.

Possibly the least interesting kind of music video is one that is a shot for shot representation of what is going on in the song. I love Weird Al, but he is probably guilty of doing this more often than anyone else. When you hear the various lines of White and Nerdy, you can imagine quite a lot of what is going on, and in most places the video doesn't add very much to that. Or it does it in a way that was better in your head. (The few places where it parodies rap videos are somewhat clever, to give him credit where it is due.)

If one is looking to make a video that is a work of art, the ideal is to create a movie that tells a story that is very much like whatever story or narrative is in the song. Take On Me is the best example I can think of for this: it is a song about a man chasing after a woman, and so is the music video, but there is no direct correlation between any parts of the song and any parts of the video.

At first blush, this sounds like a dumb way to make a music video, but it allows for greater creative expression. The song and the video can have a kind of dialogue, where the video tells you something you might not have known about the song, and the song informs how one is to interpret the video. This is why I think Tool makes better music videos than just about anyone out there: they have figured out the full potential for what a music video can be, and they try to take it to that full potential. Sober is an elaborate metaphor about addiction (sometimes descending from the metaphorical into the literal), and so the video creates visual metaphors for addiction, going so far as to have a demon in it (or, at any rate, something that appears to be a demon). Both are meant to be super creepy, and having the two work together amplifies whatever creepiness they might have on their own.

Artistically speaking, to me, this is the greatest thing a music video can aspire to: accomplishing synergy with the original song, such that both the song and video are expressing things that they might not have been able to otherwise, or such that they are expressing what they were before at greater amplitude. When anyone talks about what they think are the best music videos ever, they will either have this quality, or simply look totally awesome--and looking totally awesome is also a noble thing to aspire to.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My tattoos: St. George

I have a couple of tattoos. Each one has a very short explanation of what it is, but they have much longer explanations of what they are and what they mean to me.

The first one I got was on my upper right arm, of St. George killing the dragon.

St. George killing the dragon

If you are not familiar with it, the story goes that there was a village in Libya where a dragon lived nearby, and to appease the dragon, the people would feed it two sheep. If the sheep did not work, then they would feed it one of their children, chosen by lottery. One day, it happened that the king's daughter was chosen. As she was going out to meet the dragon, St. George came along and wounded the dragon enough to subdue it. He then killed the dragon in front of the whole village, and in exchange, they converted to Christianity and were all baptized. 

The image I used comes from a book of Coptic pilgrimage tattoos, and when people ask me why I got it, I often explain that I studied Coptic for a year while I was in college, and wanted to get a tattoo of something from that book. I sometimes mention something about standing up for the oppressed, wherever they may be, because the Coptic Christians have been persecuted since the 7th century, when the Muslims invaded Egypt.

On a deeper level, though, it is something of a moral allegory to me about the nature of evil, and a theological statement. I want to call it an "interpretive schema," but can't bring myself to do that without feeling like I am talking out of my ass.

Our competing desires between good and evil actions are usually conceived of as being an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other shoulder. They each advise us, and we weigh out the advice. The way I see it, it is a little more combative than that: we each have both St. George and the dragon inside of us, doing battle with each other. The dragon is our desire to do only what interests ourselves, without regard for how it affects those around us. St. George is our impulse to do what we know is right, regardless of how difficult it is. (And believe me, doing the right thing can be a giant pain in the ass.) Our selfish desires can only win out if we are unwilling to confront them and fight against them. Sometimes that is as simple as suddenly remembering what the right thing to do is. Sometimes… it can seem as difficult as fighting a dragon. If it were a literal dragon, maybe we could think to ourselves that someone else might come along to kill it, but we are the only line of defense against the dragon within ourselves. You can either be your own greatest adversary, or you can be your own savior.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Forgive us our trespasses

A few months ago, I got dumped by a girl I had been dating for a while. Epically dumped, I would say—the complete story is something for another time. At any rate, within a week, I was pretty much over it. I wasn't angry anymore, and pretty much had already forgiven her for what she did to me. Some of my friends started asking me, "Why are you doing that, after all she did to you?"

But I'm all about forgiving people. And my gold standard for that is John Paul II.

In 1981, while in St. Peter's Square, he was shot four times by a Turkish sniper named Mehmet Ali Ağca. The Pope lost three quarters of his blood, and was in surgery for five hours afterward. Not only did he forgive his attacker, but he met with Agca in prison, and later met with his family. In June 2000, he got Italy's president to release Agca from prison, where we was extradited to his native Turkey to serve out a previous prison sentence.

This idea of forgiveness, of course, has deep roots in Christianity. In the gospels, Peter (the apostle I consider to have gotten his name because he is dumb as a rock) approaches Jesus and asks, "How many times should I forgive my brother? Seven times?" And Jesus replies, "I say to you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." Which may have been to say, forgive him until you have lost count, and then keep on forgiving him.

He then goes on to tell a parable to illustrate this point (which you can read at that link—it's difficult to summarize). His point at the end is that, since all of us do something wrong from time to time, we do not deserve God's forgiveness unless we are willing to show forgiveness to the people in our lives. This is the source of the line in the Lord's Prayer that goes, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

You may respond here, "But I don't believe in God, and I am pretty sure that you don't either. Why would I need the forgiveness of someone I don't believe in?" To which I say, "You're missing the fucking point."

The benefit of forgiving people is not in what you do for the person who is forgiven, nor does it have anything to do with the extrinsic benefit you might gain in the Kingdom of Heaven or what have you. The benefit is that it makes you a better person. When you hold a grudge against someone, the emotions are all negative. You give yourself a justification for being angry and hateful. On the other hand, forgiveness is an act of empathy and understanding, to try to consider why a person would make the kind of mistake that they did. Above all, though it is an act of love, the basic kind of love that one extends to everyone just by virtue of being human. You know, the kind of love that makes us concerned about people in poverty- and disaster-stricken areas, even though we have never met these people.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we should let people walk all over us, and treat us like doormats. Generally speaking, a lot of the ways that people hurt us come about only because of a certain amount of trust we put in them. That trust can be taken away if they misuse it and violate it. If they continue to do you wrong, you can completely cut them out of your life, but I don't think there ever comes a point where you should stop forgiving them.

To relate this back to my personal life, I forgave my ex only days after she dumped me. I was still hurt and upset, of course, and I was still processing the experience in my head. And forgiving her didn't mean I would immediately take her back if she wanted to start dating again some months down the road. I sort of consider her a friend, but right now she is just "a girl I know on the internet," which is the very bottom of the friend hierarchy. But on some level, I still think of her as a friend.

"So, Tim, why you gotta forgive?" "That's just how I roll."