Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Friday, October 4, 2013 Thursday, September 26, 2013

Richard Dawkins and Other Truthful Fictions

The story goes that a bumble bee, so lumbering and unwieldy, defies the laws of aerodynamics and should not be able to fly; of course, no one told the bee that. A quick fact check on this story will reveal that the flight of a bumble bee is well understood and the story is a myth. But the facts aren’t the point. The story lets us wrap our fingers around what we all suspect at one point or another, that life is full of intractable mysteries. Scientists will tell you that love is just our genes’ way of extracting the next generation from us, but that knowledge does not stop them from falling madly in love. Ninety-five percent of the mass and energy of the universe, which we know from gravity must be there, is completely unaccounted for; but no one told the universe that it was under any obligation to make sense. The story of the bumble bee illustrates that there is a factual truth and an emotional truth, which is the distinction between non-fiction and fiction. Studies show that if I put the facts I’ve just written in a well-told tale, wrap them in myth, they will feel — and feel is the key, here — more personal to you, so you will comprehend them more deeply and remember them longer. Anthropology tells us that stories were used to store knowledge for millennia before there were either studies or anthropology.

The Onge of Little Andaman Island, in the Bay of Bengal, have a story about how angry spirits shake the tall stump that holds up the sea, then hurl boulders down from the stars into the water. This causes the waters in the creeks to recede and the tide to rush far out until, like a great breath drawn in, it is released as a great wave. As soon as they feel the stump shaking, they know what is coming. When the water in the creek recedes, they scatter turtle and pig skulls around their settlement and throw stones at the ocean, so that the evil spirits will look for them where the rocks land or around the skulls, which they leave as evidence of a recent hunt. Assured by their amulets, containing the bones of their ancestors, that good spirits will defend them, they flee to the high jungle to wait out the battle, while the earth turns into water. To anyone outside of the Onge, this story would have seemed quaint and remained worthy of note only to an anthropologist or two, up until December 26, 2004.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Writing on a Kelvin Scale

So, katskradlexx sent me this youtube video, a “dramatic reading” of a self-published book called, The Haunted Vagina. It is a longish video, so I’ll give a choice quote:

"I’m haunted," she said, smiling and touching her vagina. 

"How did a ghost get in there?" 

"I don’t know. It’s been in there for a long time, now."

Now, katskradlexx suggested that the writing sample above, “reminds me of that horrible book you and your friend had to edit.” I posted excerpts of that book, Twisted Love, a few months ago, but here is a refresher quote:

"Oh, yeah?”Crystal asked, as she also smiled, as she moved in closer, as he body was close to him, while he embraces her tighter, as they both felt the excitement grow between them.

I said, “Yes, I thought of the same thing, though this one [The Haunted Vagina] had sentences.”

katskradlexx replied, “Horrible sentences.”

I said, “Yes, but sentences. You have to think of [The Haunted Vagina] as bad writing on a Kelvin scale.” (It is important to know that katskradlexx did not have the above exact quote from Twisted Love available. Sadly, I was all too familiar with it.) 

So let’s talk about Kelvin. The Kelvin scale starts at Absolute Zero, the point at which everything freezes, or where all thermal activity ceases. The freezing point of water is 0.01 degrees Celsius, which is 273.15 degrees above Absolute Zero, or 273.15 Kelvin. The boiling point of water is 100 degrees Celsius, or 373.15 Kelvin. 

Now, applying that scale to literature, let’s define what we will call litKelvin. Absolute Zero litKelvin would be represented by total illiteracy, no recognition at all of any letters or numbers. The freezing point of water (0.01 degrees Celsius) would be analogous to the Twilight Series, or 273.15 litKelvin. The boiling point of water (100 degrees Celsius) would be analogous to anything by Vonnegut, or 373.15 litKelvin, where clean sentence structure puts forth the story into the realm of bubbling genius.

Given this scale, I told katskradlexx that The Haunted Vagina would be closer to Twilight Series litKelvin, where writing freezes into stupidity, and Twisted Love is closer to Absolute Illiteracy, where all attempts at writing should bring down an indictment and mandatory jail time.

Saturday, May 19, 2012
unknownconstellation:

Darkness in a Sea of Stars
What you’re looking at it is the most mysterious phenomenon in all of science. It is the entrance to a Cosmic Cave, within which lives a dragon ten light years long, whose fire can destroy worlds with amazing speed. Woe to all who transgress, and bring the wrath of the great beast upon their civilization!
…Kidding. But wouldn’t that be something?
This is an image of Bernard 68, an absorption nebula about 500 light years away, in the constellation Ophiuchus. It’s a very interesting object, being totally opaque to visible light due to high density. It’s a massive, misshapen bubble of dark and extremely cold material which blocks the view of some 3,000 stars due to its half-light year diameter. 
Now Devin, you sexy devil (you’re probably thinking), what makes this thing all that interesting? Well, equally sexy reader, I’ll tell you. The object has very well-defined edges for being essentially a giant cloud of material. This would seem to indicate that gravity is starting to win a struggle with the outward forces within the cloud itself. This is not an insignificant struggle: the outward forces, which cause continuous wobbling in the cloud, have been raging against the gravitational machine for eons, but in astronomical terms, the war is all but over. It’s predicted that within 100,000 years the cloud will undergo gravitational collapse, and fusion will begin, and a new star will be born.
The cave of the great space dragon will close, leaving a bright and shining egg in the stellar ocean. 
(Can you tell I’m a nerd?)
-Devin

unknownconstellation:

Darkness in a Sea of Stars

What you’re looking at it is the most mysterious phenomenon in all of science. It is the entrance to a Cosmic Cave, within which lives a dragon ten light years long, whose fire can destroy worlds with amazing speed. Woe to all who transgress, and bring the wrath of the great beast upon their civilization!

…Kidding. But wouldn’t that be something?

This is an image of Bernard 68, an absorption nebula about 500 light years away, in the constellation Ophiuchus. It’s a very interesting object, being totally opaque to visible light due to high density. It’s a massive, misshapen bubble of dark and extremely cold material which blocks the view of some 3,000 stars due to its half-light year diameter. 

Now Devin, you sexy devil (you’re probably thinking), what makes this thing all that interesting? Well, equally sexy reader, I’ll tell you. The object has very well-defined edges for being essentially a giant cloud of material. This would seem to indicate that gravity is starting to win a struggle with the outward forces within the cloud itself. This is not an insignificant struggle: the outward forces, which cause continuous wobbling in the cloud, have been raging against the gravitational machine for eons, but in astronomical terms, the war is all but over. It’s predicted that within 100,000 years the cloud will undergo gravitational collapse, and fusion will begin, and a new star will be born.

The cave of the great space dragon will close, leaving a bright and shining egg in the stellar ocean. 

(Can you tell I’m a nerd?)

-Devin

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 Tuesday, May 1, 2012 Monday, April 30, 2012

Absurdism: Why it Fails and Why it isn’t Related to Atheism

deconversionmovement:

In a nutshell, the Absurd is the conflict that arises when we search for meaning in a universe that seems meaningless.  To prove the existence of such a realm, one has to prove that the universe is meaningless — a bold statement coming from a primate species born via natural selection roughly 200,000 years ago.  We cannot prove that the universe is meaningless; to the contrary, we can prove that it has meaning.  Follow me here.  Let us begin with the stars:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

The stars had meaning before our ancestors gave them meaning via astrology and other ways of worship. [edited for brevity]  

What meaning did the stars have? What Sagan and Tyson describe is not meaning without their own added feelings. The facts themselves are just facts. Science is not designed to arrive at meaning, only facts. Meaning is a particularly human pursuit. Even the most intelligent animals show no sign of needing meaning. The idea of meaning itself is probably relatively recent in human history, and possibly particular to certain cultures.

Saturday, April 21, 2012 Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Life on Earth

I was trying to do the math the other day. Life has been knocking around this planet for 3.8 billion years. We’ve got about a billion more before the sun eats the earth. I’m not that great at math but if life were a life, maybe it’s a woman in her mid to late sixties, which was how old my wife was when she died. Humanity has arrived at the beginning of life’s retirement years. We are a belch she had in her kitchen one day, a thought she had for ten seconds before getting distracted by something more lasting, more substantial. Maybe the next contestant on one of those game shows she used to like. 

These are the busy thoughts of my Western mindset, I guess. The people around here don’t care about that stuff and don’t need to. They do what they need to do to survive each day. They play with their kids, screw and make more kids. They fight about things, but mostly they smile. They smile even though their kids sometimes get sick and die from simple stuff. They sing a lot. That seems to work for them more than anything.

When I came home from the war, I didn’t fit in back where I came from in the States. I can’t explain it, except to say that I was there, looking in on my own culture as an outsider. War does that to you. I did what most vets do, just tried not to think about it, get on with my life. I did, but I never could quite get the hang of it. I fit in back home about as well as I fit in here, but I like here better. It gets pretty hot here, and I don’t like the bugs, but I am on an island that is far away from everywhere. Since my wife died, I think that’s all I’ve wanted. Hell, she was the only thing that had brought me back to the States at all, and now that she’s gone, I can do without it.

There’s not much in the way of places, here, where you can learn more neat items like the birth and life expectancy of life on earth and such. I got plenty of that right up in my head if I’m feeling for that sort of thing. There are hills in the center of the island, where tall grasses are always waving in one direction or another. It’s like the hills are moving, waves on waves. The birds are loud and just brilliant. Did I tell you I like birds? I’m pretty satisfied, I guess. It’s so green here and something about that does it for me.

I’d like to learn to sing, though, I guess.

— I have a book, it needs love — Clint

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On the Importance of Screwing Up

It is beginning to look like some physicists made a mistake in 2011. Their claim was that test results indicated neutrinos might move faster than light. It might seem particularly embarrassing if it turns out that the whole thing may have come from a loose cable. It was no small claim. The idea of anything moving faster than light in physics might be comparable to the Vatican announcing, “Sorry, it turns out Jesus was not the Son of God, just a rather interesting fellow who ran into a bad day in Jerusalem. You can all go home, now.” But this is not religion, it is science. Where religion strives for perfection, science is driven by mistakes. In religion, a contradiction to doctrine is suppressed, while in science it prompts exploration. The claim immediately resulted in testing, testing, re-testing and new proposals. If the data could be shown to be above reproach, then a central tenant of physics would have to be abandoned, no matter how impossible it might seem. In science, a new idea is an invitation to tear it down. If it still stands no matter how much evidence you throw against it, then and only then is it a good idea, which may still be abandoned at any point for a better one. Mistakes are good for science, and this one is no exception. Even if it resulted from something so silly as a loose cable, it is a great lesson in what separates science from religion.  

To me this is larger than science or religion, though, because I see around me a society that is terrified of making mistakes. You have to be a big hit on the first try. You can see it in helicopter parents hovering over their kids in desperation to prepare their “genius” child for the right preschools, and all the right schools following that point until they graduate. You can see it with women and girls throwing around the words “perfect” and “flawless” when they are looking at magazines full of models and interior decors. You can see it in the profound neurosis most guys experience in approaching a girl, because they are supposed to come up with the absolute perfect thing to say at the right time. Kids should roll around in mud. Girls should look whatever the hell way they want. Living rooms should look lived in. Guys should say dumb things. Mistakes make life interesting and learning from them makes life better. You never really love somebody for their perfections, and you never learn much from getting something right the first time.

I don’t think it is any coincidence that the most religious places are those where the punishments for making mistakes are the most harsh, like the Deep South. By the time they are locking someone up for life or putting them to death, a lifetime of mistakes has gone by. How many little things in childhood were elevated to crimes with severe penalties until becoming a criminal was just meeting the expectations that were formed at the beginning? Southerners are still pretty solid spankers, major proponents of consequences over solutions. Maybe it would be fine if it produced high rates of achievement and low rates of crime, but the Deep South leads the nation in the opposite direction — in poverty and murder, for example. Harsh punishment produces fear and shame, which makes one inclined to displace blame for a mistake, rather than own up to it and learn from it. This very Southern way of doing things explains someone like George W. Bush, a man whose blunders were epic, yet he is still incapable of seeing almost any of them. As the nation continues to become more religious and more punishing toward mistakes — more Southern fried, you might say — the bad cables and botched neutrino-counts of science become ever more important as object lessons in the most productive way to deal with problems. Embarrassment and imperfection are a part of life and no mistake is ever as bad as the way it is dealt with. The difference is that between reasonable acceptance of the facts and a sober move toward solutions, or the dead end of denial, displacement of blame and suppression. Learn how to make things better, or never learn anything.   

Monday, January 16, 2012

Most of dust is not death
but what is launched by life in a house.
It is sloughed-off skin cells, pet dander,
and the tiny mites that ply their living from them.
It is fibers rubbed from couches and carpets and clothes.
Most of all,
it is dragged in from outside,
with doors opening and closing to feet of all sizes.
No lovers’ stains to mar immaculate beds.
No sweat or soil of exploration to sass
the pristine shoes of children.
The cleanest house is a dead house,
sealed like a tomb.

Saturday, January 14, 2012 Thursday, January 5, 2012

Our hearts are stupid, our blood, our bones and even our brains. There is no wit in a brain cell. It takes billions of them, stupid and automatic, to add up to a consciousness, which has no idea why it works, or even what it is. My collection of brain-cell functions keeps reminding itself tonight of the moon and the odd skim of life on this planet. Brains on limbs like me walk around in tiny spots on a thin, outer layer of the earth, dazzled, puzzled, baffled at the ubiquity of life around them and the beauty of the dead moon in the sky.

Altogether, the earth really is as dead as the moon. All of earth’s life bundled together is hardly worth counting as a percentage of its mass, all that cold stone and molten iron. Even when it comes to the progress of their lives, the bipedal brains are largely automatic. Lust impulses extract offspring, chemical love facilitates their growth, mechanical work feeds one end of these descendants of worms and soils the other. Why? A pointless question. A byproduct of stupid cells which, massed together, can appreciate art, the sublime nature of cats, guys kicking around a ball in a stadium, kissing and architecture.

Why? It walks around trading dried sheets of pulped plants for Hello Kitty backpacks and bottles of poison, which it uses to temporarily kill its awareness. To the increasing dismay of its pets, it spends an inordinate amount of time staring into glowing boxes. It tells itself fairy tales about little pigs, big bad wolves, grassy knolls and healing lepers with a touch, arbitrarily dividing them into categories of true and false. It invents punk rock and argues whether it is a better form of noise than classical music. It trades back and forth trillions of pieces of paper for assets it believes it will have, then is shocked and horrified when some other brain somewhere else suddenly decides the value of those assets in terms of those same pieces of paper is imaginary. It flings hunks of metal at the stars in its desperate search for a friend beyond the solar wind, hoping to receive some sign that it isn’t all just a fluke. It can conceive of a black hole, but not a universe where it is totally irrelevant. “There must be a reason,” it insists, especially when things go wrong in its tiny life. It expects things to go well and to see the intervention of the cosmos when they don’t.

Why? On this and other matters, the universe is as mute as the moon.

Strategy of Numbers, by Clint Irwin: Available now for $2.99 on Kindle and all other ebook formats. In print: $14.95 on amazon.com