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


Joel Wilcox said...

I find your attack on positivism interesting because, while I disagree with positivism, I also refuse to accept the alternative. I studied technical writing at Miami University for a semester and was there taught that scientific objectivity is nonexistent and that therefore there is no truth. While I agree that true objectivity is impossible, my struggle was with people who used the absence of objectivity to essentially deny the validity of science as a way of looking at the world.

Basically, they put a (somewhat secretly) atheistic spin on Kuhn (who I think was an atheist himself) by cutting truth out of the equation by way of cutting out positivism. I realize that positivism is a self-destructing philosophy (it's a philosophical case study in non-viable worldview), but people make the alternative out to be a world where truth is socially constructed. I can't accept that as a Christian, because God is the source of Absolute Truth.

My goal, I think, is to go between the horns and shoot for something that's neither positivistic nor social constructionistic, because I don't find either to be acceptable. And I still haven't figured out what either has to do with tech writing.

Of course, all of the above is only acceptable given my presuppositions. I don't think it makes my point any less valid, though.

stanford said...

Hey Joel,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I guess I would argue that there is more than one alternative to positivism. This is precisely what Wright is arguing, that the stark choice between positivism and phenomenologicalism (which disintegrates into solipsism) is a false dichotomy.

Things can be known with high confidence and the scientific method is an excellent way to do so...but, there is still no 'view from nowhere' as I think Kuhn definitively demonstrated.

I am simply suggesting that knowledge (even scientific knowledge) is best pursued with a robust understanding of our role as observer. It is unhelpful to just call scientists to 'objectivity' without serious thought about what the major obstacles to 'objectivity' are. Scientists are not exempt from what we have learned about plausibility structures and the role of paradigm on hypothesis formation, just because we do math and use instruments.

That is, honestly, all I am trying to say...that a robust epistemology lives between the poles of positivism and phenomenologicalism…which, I think, is what you are suggesting as well.

BlackEyedSusan said...

Somehow, I just wanted you to know that in 5th grade, I played AzAz, the King of Letters, in the play of The Phantom Tollbooth. My oldest friend, Jeremiah Sawma, played the King of Numbers. On stage, we fought incessantly, and there's this great picture of the two of us in the Jefferson County Journal. By odd alignment of our mothers' creative impulses, we both came to the performances with royal blue satin robes--I with letters hot glued on, he with equations glittered on. These days, I am a lit scholar, teaching book-reading and he is a scientist, teaching ecology. Sometimes I wondered if they knew before we did all that killing wondering about what we should do with our lives. Casting. Isn't that weird?

Joel said...

My mom still swears by AAA trip tics. She will print out a route from Yahoo Maps, then go get her trip tic, then whip out a driving atlas, and compare the three before she goes anywhere. My dad, on the other hand, seems to hop in the car and hope there will be signs with arrows. I fall somewhere in between.

Anonymous said...

Two thing, neither of which are terribly deep or insightful.

1. Trip Tics. Mine was a AAA-family as well. Something about the North Country perhaps and leaving it on an expedition. Best to consult the experts when leaving for parts unknown. I wonder if anyone kept those things? I should find out. Seems something that should be laying around at the bottom of the box some 40 years from now so I can tell my grandkids what the oddly folded pieces of paper marked in yellow highlighter are.

2. Re. your name - My 7-year old was trying to name a dragon for a school project. Among other suggestions, I said, "how about Stan?" He paused. "That's a good name. There's an android named Stan on 'aaron stone' (a disney show he watches)"
"oh - so it a cool name?"
I remembered your theory and thought I would do a little research for you.
"Is it cool for a dragon?"
"I don't know . . . "
"What about for a person?"
"Dad! It's a cool name . . . for an ANDROID!"
I'm not sure if that confirms or denies your theory, but I thought you'd appreciate it!


JMBower said...

1) freshman year of college...that brought back a rush of memories;)

I had not heard the other song. I'm afraid, given how close the material hits to this particular home, I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

2) re: positivism v. social constructionism. I guess my bent has always been more toward the literary..magical realism and the like. There is what is or may be true, and there is how we experience the truth. I will always hold that the experiential aspect is a far greater thing to hang one's weary thoughts on than to try to wrangle the essential nature of the universe into a normalized teapot. There is what is true, what may be true, and how it may have gotten there, but for me the thing that seems to matter more is how we ingest these things and what we do with them. Kind of a "great. you figured out what 'the truth' is. Now what are you going to do with it?" Sometimes philosophy seems like a collector who worries and harries himself over finding just the right piece, then places it on a shelf to admire in its inactivity. Maybe that's why I'm drawn more to fiction. I want to find the truth for myself and then leave it in the dust as I continue down the road.