Monday, October 19, 2009

Fragments 6: TV, Quotes and Science

So I’m back to a regular preaching schedule. As usual, I will be posting manuscripts and MP3’s. But I have also managed to collect enough fragments for another Fragments and Links post (something I try to do every other month or so). This week, a spattering of TV thoughts, a few quotes, the standard music commentary and a couple science anecdotes


I am warming to Mad Men[1]. I am one season in and the characters are taking form. The following exchange demonstrates 1) who Donald Draper is and 2) why the show is compelling.

Hippy: You make the lie
You invent want
You are for them.

Draper: There is no lie.
The universe is indifferent.
-Mad Men Season 1 Ep8

I’m not really into the new show Community, but found the this exchange pretty interesting:
Dr. Ian Duncan: I'm asking you if you know the difference between right and wrong.
Jeff: I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I could make anything right or wrong. So, either I am god or truth is relative. And in either case, boo yah!
Dr. Ian Duncan: Oh, interesting, it's just the average person has a much harder time saying "boo yah" to moral relativism.

Amanda and I have been watching How I met Your Mother lately which is probably the third best sit com on right now…substantially behind Big Bang Theory and the Office[3]. But the premier of season 4[4] had an exchange that left me laughing out loud harder than any dialogue I can remember in a long time. Stella (Ted’s new fiancé – i.e. Elliot from Scrubs[5]) admits to Marshall that she didn’t enjoy star wars (Ted’s favorite movie) leading to this exchange:

Stella: "It's sooo stupid. I mean, first of all, how do they understand that walking bear they hang out with all the time?"

Marshall (dejected and hurt): "Wookie."

Stella: "Yeah. He goes, ‘Arrrrrr,' (trying to imitate Chewbacca badly), and they're all, like, 'that's a good point, bear! Let's try that.'"

'that's a good point, bear! Let's try that.' – I am giggling like a 4th grader just typing that. Perfectly written and perfectly delivered.
Speaking of Star Wars. I have always been intrigued by tauntaun digestion (how tauntaun digest not how one digests a tauntaun). I can't seem to figure out how it would work given the brief glimpse we see of their innards. I mean are the ruminants? Are they omnivores? I can’t imagine they are grazers unless they were imported to Hoth for the purpose of Rebel transport….even then they must be from a frozen biome to be suited to Rebel activities on Hoth. But they don’t seem to have the dental equipment to hunt and kill. And why do they need so many intestines? I have so many questions.

Back to How I met Your Mother, I would like to commend them on being the first major media example I have encountered that has broken ‘The Stan Rule.’ What is ‘The Stan Rule?’ Well I’m glad you asked.

You see I have this theory about my name. It is not a very cool name. In fact – it is anti-cool. So, if you are writing a story or script and need a character who is a geek, a nerd, or a tool, don’t have the narrative space or motivation to develop the character, you just name him Stan and the audience will tap into an unspoken cultural expectation that ‘this guy has some glaring personality flaw.’ I have collected evidence for this theory from sources as diverse as Harry Potter, Three’s Company, Sex in the City and Second Hand Lions. But in Season 4[6] they introduce a character named Stan who is meant to embody all that is cool and smooth and wise. And did I mention he is black? This may be the first confirmed sighting of a black fictional Stan in recorded history.[7] But I am going to label this anomaly ‘the exception that proves the rule’ since I think they are clearly going for irony here. They introduce the Stan character in dialog, allow us to build our culturally programmed expectations, and then reveal him, generating comic tension out of our dissonance. So, ‘The Stan Rule’ is, in fact, alive and well.


Flannery O’Conn0r “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discovers and at its worst an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”

I broke out Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in 10,000 Places for a talk I am working on. It may be one of the most quotable books I own. Here is a quote I didn’t use: “The usual way to avoid the appearance of crass individualism is through sectarianism. A sect is a form of narcissim…We construct religious clubs instead of entering resurrection communities. Sects are the termites in the Father’s house.” p244

Chad Walsh: the Christian writer ‘gives himself to his task in a spirit of deadly serious playfulness’

“The definition of sacrifice is doing something without appropriate compensation…(Counterintuitively) this can lead to bitterness…and greed.” –Nic

There were two quotable moments from my time with the in laws

The kids were talking about a guide to my father in law’s legendary speeches and decided to call it ‘a guilt trip tick[8]

Anne – ‘Masons is kind of like girl scouts for grown ups.’ This is particularly hilarious in light of Dan Browns new book.

Speaking of Dan Brown’s new book, I noticed that there is a purchase correlation on Amazon between its buyers and people who bought Glen Beck’s new book. I wonder if this is a statistical artifact of Amazon’s correlation algorithm that simply reflects the fact that they both sold a bazillion copies or evidence that enjoying these authors suggest similar plausibility apparatus. I suspect it is the former, but desperately want to argue the latter.


I think there is something wrong with my ears. Despite several attempts, I have never been able to get into Radiohead. They seem like the kind of band I should like. But I just don’t.

I know I am late to the game, but I have been into Tool lately. Sober appears to be about a friend of the band who could only do art when under the influence:

Theres a shadow just behind me. shrouding every step I take.
Making every promise empty. pointing every finger at me.
Waiting like a stalking butler, who upon the finger rests.
Murder now the path of must we, just because the son has come.

Jesus, wont you f*$^ing whistle. something but the past and done.

Why cant we not be sober? I just want to start this over.
Why cant we drink forever? I just want to start this over.

I am just a worthless liar. I am just an imbecile.
I will only complicate you. trust in me and fall as well.
I will find a center in you. I will chew it up and leave.
I will work to elevate you, just enough to bring you down.

I want what I want...

I love the imagery of that first verse. Tool is trying to paint a picture of a complicated malevolent dependency, but, more and more, I like the metaphor of addiction for the edenic nature. There is a lot about that verse that I see in many facets of my own existence.

Of course my ‘favorite’[9] tool song is "10,000 Days (Wings Pt. 2)" about the lead singer’s religious mother who died after being confined to a wheelchair for years.

I wonder if I am the only person in Pandora history to form a blended Tool/David Crowder channel[10]. But this is precisely the kind of soundtrack I like while writing my talks. We claim our college ministry is supposed to be a place for 2 kinds of people: those who have chosen to follow Jesus and are trying to work out what that looks like and those who are spiritually curious and looking for a safe place to experiment with Christian ideas and community. I find that a tensioned sound track (including a thoughtful opponent to Christianity or agnostic and a thoughtful Christian) helps generate an emotive space that keeps both audiences before me.

Speaking of preaching, I found Bill Simmons discussion of ‘the Adam Carolla Rule’, extremely interesting. It goes something like this: ‘For every hour that you film someone trying to be funny, you will get one minute of usable comedy.’ This is intriguingly parallel to the rule of thumb I follow in preaching prep that it takes 1 hour of prep for every minute you spend talking to put together something worth saying.


My Facebook status from a few weeks ago: I’ve identify the red gravel in his can imagine my surprise to find that it is probably 'greenstone.' Geologists are adorable.

Overheard in Bio lab: "Wouldn’t it be cool if humans could fix nitrogen."[11]
My response: "You just described the lamest super power of all time."
What followed was a brief but nerdy conversation about what a Halloween costume for Nitrogenese Man would look like…which was followed by me thinking about it for much longer.

I have Dr Don Strong for intro to Evolution and Ecology. Prof Strong is animated and engaging (I started my last talk with an anecdote from this class and he performed not one but 2 death scenes as part of his discussion of the Nitrogen cycle). He does not seem to be a friend of the teleological argument, though. He gave a lecture on epistemology and took the position (without saying it) that positivism has epistemic priority.[12] There have also been backhanded jokes about design[13].

But he made this comment the other day, which I loved: “If I am looking in nature for evidence of supernatural powers I would say, ‘the lord has saved us from ourselves,’ because (fossil fuels) are too diffuse for us to pump out and suffocate ourselves.”[14]

Speaking of positivism.[15] The opening chapters of Wrights New Testament and the People of God has done a masterful job crafting a worldview that negotiates the narrow path between positivism and phenomenologicalism.[16] But his comments about positivism is salient here:

“Though this view (positivism) has been largely abandoned by philosophers, it has had a long run for its money in other spheres, not the least those of the physical science. Despite the great strides in self-awareness that have come about through (for instance) sociology of knowledge, not to mention philosophy of science itself, one still meets some scientists (and many non-scientists who talk about science) who believe that what science does is simply to look objectively at things that are there.”[17]

This is one of the things that bugs me about Dawkins. He does not own his presuppositions, even when they are philosophically passé. How many of his readers do you think could identify him as a positivist, and how many of them realize that positivism has not been considered philosophically viable for decades.

The problem of evil has often been subdivided into categories of human evils and natural evils, with the latter being the more difficult to answer for because it can not be foisted upon human will. But I would like to propose the following argument on Katrina in light of San Francisco, Natomas, and Seattle – In the next 30 years something horrible is going to happen in Natomas[18] (flooding), San Francisco (earthquakes) or Seattle (volcanic devastation) and we will ask, how could God do such a thing. It won’t occur to us to ask, ‘are these really places humans should live’ or ‘how could the local or regional leadership allow such a thing?’

There is a marked proof of first paper[19] online here.

The odd thing about my PhD is that I am primarily a numerical modeler. Secondarily I am a field and project scientist. What I was not, remotely, was an experimentalist. Yet my dissertation is experimental[20]. The cool thing about this paper, though, is that 2 people have already contacted me who will be doing their dissertations, at least in part, on trying to numerically replicate the experimental results from this paper.

There are two numbers that I think are interesting enough to post here from my dissertation: 100 and 600,000. The first is how many tons of sand and gravel I shoveled into and out of my flume[21] in order to set up and clean up the 25 experiments I conducted. The second number is how many sand grains I counted (and color sorted) with a dentist pick and a magnifying glass.[22] I am one of the only people I know who have an intuitive sense of how many 1 million is because I have counted over half way there. It is a LOT. Anyway, this is all to explain what became my motto for the doctoral work. I began to describe my approach to academic innovation with the phrase: “What I lack in ability I make up for in industry.”

The sand counting task made me want to include the following excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth as an appendix to the work. I refrained:

Firstly, I would like to move this pile from here to there," he explained, pointing to an enormous mound of fine sand; "but I’m afraid that all I have are these tiny tweezers." And he gave them to Milo, who immediately began transporting one grain at a time…

"Quite correct!" he shrieked triumphantly. "I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit...There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too."

This pretty much sums up my feelings about the PhD. The master’s degree is, by far, the more efficient vehicle of intellectual exchange and development. If you are thinking about getting a PhD, get 3 Masters Degrees in different subjects instead. You will come out of it with the same amount of effort invested and will be better educated.

[1] As I have mentioned before, I gave up on it at least twice before returning to it after critical acclaim and the recommendations of people I trust.
[2] Draper is in advertising. I love this line almost as much as Drapers.
[3]And Scrubs in its prime, but seasons 7 and 8 of scrubs were not as good as the previous and I am not that hopeful for a season of scrubs that ‘takes the focus off JD’ and only has the main characters signed to 6 episode contracts.
[4] Yeah, I know. We don’t keep a TV so all of our small screen consumption is either Hulu or, mostly, DVD’s so we end up being a year behind. I’m ok with that, but it doesn’t exactly make for cutting edge cultural analysis.
[5] Who was great for the part but not showing a ton of range.
[6] Incidentally, I think the really historic part about season 4 is that both female leads got REALLY pregnant during the shooting (Hannigan even gave birth and disappeared for a few weeks near the end of the season) and they didn’t write either of the pregnancies into the show. There were just a lot of flowing tops and enormous purses. It became a comical sub-plot. This is understandable with the Robin character who supposedly hates kids, but Hannigan’s character is happily married. It makes me sad that there is no room for children in a show like this. Sad but not surprised.
[7] Because, in fiction, black is shorthand for cool as much as Stan is shorthand for uncool…and honestly, rightly so.
[8] My in-laws are a AAA family. Some of you may not remember this, but before Google maps or mapquest you could go to AAA and get essentially the same service. It was called a trip tic.
[9] Hard to call it a favorite since it is so brutally heart breaking
[10] Usually I like the variety and insights into new bands that Pandora provides, but I really wish the David Crowder channel played more David and less others because I don’t know if there is another genre like ‘worship music’ (a horribly self involved moniker) where the top performer is an order of magnitude better than the average band.
[11] The process by which only about 20 Bacteria and Achaea turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia which is needed for all life.
[12] Honestly, it is just irresponsible to teach on the philosophy of science without even mentioning Kuhn.
[13] Which, in fairness, have often been apt and enjoyable. My favorite ‘Cyanobacteria forgot to read Genesis.’ Of course, my response, ‘Genesis isn’t about the endosymbiotic cyanobacteria that lives in all photosynthetic organisms…it is about the dark parasitic idol maker that lives in my heart.’
[14] He was talking about the molar equivalency of oxygen and fixed carbon. For every mole of Oxygen in the atmosphere, there is a fixed carbon in the lithosphere. If we had access to all the world’s fossil fuels we could literally turn all of our atmospheric O2 into CO2 and asphyxiate ourselves. Strong’s argument/joke is that it is fortuitous that only a small portion of fossil fuels are in economically viable concentrations.
[15]I am working on a post about the role data selection, presentation and funding plays in destabilizing positivism and why I am an unabashed Khunian in my philosophy of science.
[16] Or, as he puts it, “To one side we can see the positivist or the naïve realist, who0 moves so smoothly along the line from reader to text to author to referent that they are unaware of the snakes in the grass at every step; to the other side we can see the reductionist who, stopping to look at the snakes, is swallowed up by them and proceeds no further.” (p61)
[17] p33 – The presuppositions most likely to derail the scientific enterprise are the unacknowledged ones. Wright says elsewhere, that the claim to neutrality is usually just a clue that one’s biases have not been robustly evaluated.
[18] Or, even more likely, the Sacramento Delta or New Orleans…again.
[19] The paper was published in Sedimentology in August. The second paper is coming out in the Journal of Geotechnical Engineering in February.
[20] Here is how it went down if anyone is interested. I started out trying to design a numerical algorithm for bed mixing and realized that there was no data to base it on. So I got a few experiments funded and 25 experiments, 3 to 6 papers and a 450 page dissertation later, the data set itself, rather than the algorithm is my actual contribution.
[21] A flume is essentially an experimental fake river. Mine was 3ft wide and 74 ft long. Gravel weighs around 120 lbs/ft2.
[22] One of the substantial contributions of my work was to finally hone in on a repeatable method to do this with image analysis, but this technique was not perfected until near the end of the study…so I did a lot of counting by ‘hand.’
[23] Excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, 1961; pp209-214

Friday, October 2, 2009

Despair and Dread: The Precipice and the Field of Rye

I recently read a little Dostoyevsky primmer[1] that essentially said that FD’s novels are useful as a conduit of teen angst but that if you hadn’t outgrown them by your mid 20’s you simply hadn’t grown up. I could not disagree more. But I have heard very similar things said about Catcher in the Rye and was less sure of their accuracy. Catcher was my second favorite high school read[2] so, I was intrigued when my reading group decided to tackle it as a 3 week breather between City of God and NT Wrights 2000 page, 3 volume work on Christian Origins.

In high school we thought it was a book about authenticity. We resonated with Holden’s perspective that we were surrounded by unreflective phonies. It verified our self perception as unique or profound in our tired self-refuting insights. We identified with his disaffection and his systemic mistrusts. We saw Holden as a champion of nerdy angst and entirely missed Salinger’s clues that our narrator was neither consistent[3] nor well.[4] This, of course, reminded me of a recent xkcd comic:

As I aged I came to see it as a book about despair. I even came up with a catchy phrase to describe its thesis:

“The examined life is not worth living.”

I thought it was a book about the madness of reflection. In a sense an inversion of Pascal’s Pense:

“As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of such things.”

It seemed to me that Salinger was saying, yes, ‘precisely.’ The Big questions are too big. Their weight will crush you if you live under them continually. The life of resigned coping is more experientially stable. The long stream of characters Holden encountered each seemed to have flawed apparatus to negotiate reality, but in the end, they were each more pragmatically livable than the protagonist's attempt at an authentic, reflective existence. In the end Holden’s world view, though more empirically valid than the others he encountered[5], proved psychologically unsustainable and wrecked him.

But upon a second reading, I don’t think that was right either. The resolving tone of the text is much too hopeful to support this reading. Instead of despair I have come to belive The Catcher in the Rye is about dread.

As is my practice with fiction, I underlined themes in my latest reading of CITR looking for repetition and reoccurrence as a clue to intention and authorial motivation.[6] But it wasn’t until nearly the end of the book that I realized I had missed the most important theme. The book is simply haunted by the ghost of Holden’s dead brother, Allie. This death begins as an incidental detail but becomes increasingly central and, I think, winds up the interpretive key of the book…to the point that I suggested to my reading group that I think ‘the book is actually about Allie.’ Let me cite three passages to build this argument.

The theme of Holden’s underlying dread really gained momentum in one of the most poignant passages, about midway through the book:

“Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody. When the weather’s nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie’s grave. I went with them a couple of times, but I cut it out. In the first place, I certainly don’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tomb stones and all. It wasn’t too bad when the sun was out, but twice – twice – we were there when it started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars. That’s what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner – everybody except Allie. I couldn’t stand it”
This idea, that all the visitors could get on with their trivial lives, but not Allie who just lay there with the rain falling on his belly emerges as the interpretive key of the text against which Holden evaluates nearly everything as trivial.[7] We search in vein for another trigger to his angst. His family seems loving and supportive. They seem to intentionally undermine Holden’s caricature of them. The minor interactions we get with his mother and DB are exceedingly positive.[8]

He walks through life under the weight of impending doom. Everyone seems phony, not because Holden is advanced or superior in his observations or insights, but because their daily actions seem absurd given the ever present reality of death. Whether it is Stradlater combing his hair or the army man he is introduced to by Sally…the whole theme of phoniness is really just a macrocosm of the line ‘Ally doesn’t get to go to lunch. He stays in the ground.’ By remaining in the fog of unresolved mourning[9] Holden interprets every action that does not explicitly connect with his dread at the brevity of life as banal or trivial.

Later, he visited the museum which he found soothing in a couple ways. He found it just as he left it. The unaltered life moment of the museum, brought him back to a time when his brother was alive. But he felt more at home among the mummies than he had with almost anyone alive that he had encountered in the book. It was peaceful. It was a place where death received its proper emphasis. It was a place where his internal haunting found an external validation. By stockpiling their goods to be buried with them these strange ancients had lived their lives with their death in view, which was what Holden so desperately wanted from those he interacted with…gravity born of dread.

But when we finally find out what Holden wants more than anything else…when we get to look past his coping mechanisms and his self preservation…when he tells his sister (the only moment where I get the sense he is actually being authentic) what he really wants to do, we get this strange but surprisingly vulnerable description that gives the book its title:

“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch
[10] them. That’s what I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
The title comes from this vision he has of being able to overcome his helplessness. Of being able to save innocent kids playing without a care in a field of Rye, from falling off a precipice that they don’t know is there. What Holden wants more than anything else is to overcome the oppressive helplessness he feels in the wake of Ali’s death. It is the image of kids playing carelessly in a beautiful place, totally unaware of the horrific precipice that is just a few steps away. His life is dominated by his knowledge of the precipice. He is unable to forget its existence and enjoy the field. More than anything else he wants the power, not to alert the playing children to the existence of the precipice[11] but to steal its power and diffuse its dread.[12]

Honestly, I think my 10th grad English teacher missed the boat on this text. I recall being told that Holden went crazy in the end. But I don’t think that is how the book ends at all. I think it ends with healing and hope. Holden’s family rallies around him and get him help. He begins to mourn, and he begins to value human connection again. The book ends with:

Text Color
“I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradtler and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that g-d Maurice.[13] It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do you start missing everybody.”

We leave him on the verge of being able, again, to enjoy the field despite the precipice…or even to allow his knowledge of the precipice to enlarge his enjoyment of the field. This is the utility of dread, in an odd twist, for both the existentialist and the Christian.

This post was written while listening to Absolution by Muse
[1] A pitiful little book that, in my opinion, simply dismissed FD’s work because it came from a place of belief even if it was tortured belief.
[2] Behind The Stranger which I re-read to my great delight a few years ago…but which is dwarfed by the brilliance of The Plauge. Incedentally, I have heard similar accounts of Salinger – that some of his other work is better. This would be remarkable, because Catcher in the Rye is brilliant.
[3] My favorite clue that our narrator might be less than trustworthy is the fact that the title of the book - the central vision of what Holden wants out of life - is based on a misremembered line of poetry.
[4] After we finished to book Alex (a youth pastor) posed the question, “Is this a book that you think students should read in High School?” I think it is a great book for students to read with their parents and a horrible book to read with other high schoolers.
[5] I am contemplated a second post on religious themes in CITR. There is some hilarious stuff in there. But for now I will settle for my favorite passage on the topic: “Finally, though, I got undressed and got in bed. I tried to pray, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jeus and all, but don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while he was alive, they were about as much use to him as a hole in the ehad….If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him about ten times as much as the Disciples that poor bastard.
[6] I am neither inclined nor qualified to take on the issue of hermeneutics here, but, lets just say, I think Salinger’s intentions matter in answering the question ‘What does this art mean?’
[7] There are important exceptions to this. The guy who beat the drum just once in an entire performace was an important one with substantial existential overtones.
[8] Though there are the faintest allusions to possible prior sexual abuse - which would change things.
[9] Holden never got to go to Allie’s funeral. He was in the hospital from punching out the windows in his garage.
[10] Emphasis original.
[11] Which would be the metaphor for my previous interpretation of the book.
[12] I know it is trite to look for Christ figures in literature. But what Holden wants is to be able to say is: “Where o death is your victory? Where o death is your sting?”
[13] The pimp that beat him up.