Saturday, December 31, 2005

Jurassic Park left out the Feathers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, paleontology, palaeontology, dinosaurs, birds

I grew up reading Roy Chapman Andrews's books on finding dinosaur fossils in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Those books and similar "science adventure" books had at least as much to do as my mother's influence (she was a rockhound) with making me into a geologist.

After reading Unearthing the Dragon I find its author, Mark Morell, has assumed Andrew's mantle. Here is a lavishly illustrated (thanks to his collaborator, illustrator and photographer Mick Ellison) and well written account of the fossil find of the turn of the century: the discovery first by Chinese scientists and then in collaboration with international colleagues, that many dinosaurs were feathered, and that birds are dinosaurs.

The subtitle of the book is "The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery". Its second title, shown here, puts a nuance on the title, where the "Unearthing" ideogram has the connotation of revealing, and those for "Dragon" refer to a living, rather than mythological, being. The real dragon being revealed here is the land and multifaceted cultures of China.

A word as to how creatures are grouped into families. As well as I understand it, the current controversy in cladistics—grouping like things into a hierarchical classification system—is about the definition of a clade. When a clade is defined, does it include or exclude those clades that arose from its own members? For example, the Vertebrates might be a clade to one scientist, but not to another, because it is understood to include five major groups: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, plus a few little critters like lanceolets that are hard to place.

I think most people have little trouble with this, or with the placing of Vertebrates and the many kinds of Invertebrates (clams, worms, insects, and many more) into the big, kingdom-size group Animals. Going smaller gets us into trouble. If the amphibians arose from one or more kinds of fish are they part of the Fish clade? More to the point, if birds arose from dinosaurs, are they dinosaurs? Dr. Norell has one heavy-duty chapter at the end, plus solid materials scattered throughout the book, that support his contention (with which I agree) that birds are dinosaurs. The main difference between a crow and some of the fossils from China are that the crow has no teeth but is better adapted to flying. Many of those fossil critters—even some that look less like birds—probably flew, also, but it is hard to prove just which ones could, and which could not.

One thing is sure, though. Nearly all the dinosaur fossils from Liaoning Province are feathered, wherever they are preserved well enough to show the feathers. This illustration, a bit enhanced compared to the book photo (p. 185), shows feathers with vanes just like modern bird feathers.

One thing has become abundantly clear. Feathers did not evolve to enable flight, but for insulation. Feathers provide better insulation than any kind of hairy pelt. Flight arose later, much later. Thus, the feathered dinosaurs must have been warm-blooded. Whether they were as stably so as modern birds and mammals is not known, but they would not need feathers if their metabolism was lizardlike.

Throughout the book, the author regales us with anecdotes of his and Mick's adventures in China, personal glimpsed of many fine Chinese scientists, and the surprising and amusing cultural differences a Westerner faces in China. The Chinese are not one people, but dozens. There is probably more ethnic and cultural diversity in China than in India, though the thousand languages of China are more closely related than the many Indian tongues.

The discovery of feathered dinosaurs, dinosaurs that might have flown, very early birds, and a number of links between Archaeopteryx and both modern birds and its own ancestors, including dinosaurs that probably did fly, has catapulted Chinese fossils, Chinese scientists, and Chinese science into the international limelight. There are still very few who have visited China, but riches abound for those who do. Now, in the fossil-prone areas, small regional museums like this one (p. 147) abound, showing not just large, "traditional" dinosaurs, but many new discoveries of the smaller, much more abundant (though less often fossilized), feathered dinosaurs that we lived through the Cretaceous extinction event to become today's birds.

The last chapter of the book is polemic. As with any new discovery, there are those who see it differently. The vocal crew that rallies around the moniker BAND (Birds Are Not Dinosaurs) prefer the view that birds evolved from something ancestral to both the feathered dinosaurs and the bird clade. Dr. Morell spends the whole chapter refuting their views. Time will provide its own refuation, should one be needed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Eleanor Rigby generation

kw: book reviews, fiction, anthologies

I occasionally pick up a title of "mainline fiction," particularly a short story collection. Each year I read the "O Henry Awards" collection, though the experience has been getting less and less enjoyable over the past twenty years. Nonetheless, I look from time to time to see if a positive trend is appearing.

Thus, I recently read Alice Munro's Runaway collection. Among eight stories, I found one arresting image: "Trespasses", which portrays an ever-more-entangled set of relationships, ends with a young woman whose pajama cuffs are covered with cockleburrs that she can't get off without she ends up waiting... The stories made me think, "Oh, look at all the lonely people; where do they all come from."

Maybe I just don't have the right kind of mind. That cockleburr image is as close to a story actually getting somewhere as is to be found in the collection. Munro's characters seldom make decisions; they do not act but react, or fail to react. They have no goals; they wander at random, not moving but moved. When they do act, they don't know their own motivations.

Perhaps this exemplifies the younger Boomers and the X and Y generations. Burned out by "ME generation" hype and the failed sexual revolution; jaded to everything. They have become one with Camus and his philosophy of emptiness.

This is the black backdrop behind my love for Science Fiction and some Fantasy, and my disdain for those insecure SF&F writers who try to bring "mainstream" elements into their stories. Legendary editor John Campbell gave some advice to a young author whose story consisted of lovingly detailed descriptions of imaginary technologies, but otherwise went nowhere: "Pose a problem, then solve it!"

Yes, I know that "people problems" are often not solvable. I know that politics often produces results that are worse than letting things happen at random. But stories are about results. I may not be able to figure out why this co-worker (or wife or child or neighbor) does something, or change his or her attitude. But I can learn to cope with it, and hopefully make some lemonade out of the lemons life served up.

One of my favorite stories is about the collapes of the Social Security system. After some false starts, the protagonist learns of the value of his elderly friends' memories. They make things better in their corner of the chaotic world around. Did they save the world? They saved a little. Like the guy throwing starfish back into the ocean after a storm. When asked, "What difference does it make?" he replied, "Lots of difference to this little guy," then threw another back.

In the past I've railed against writers (and artists in general) who thrive upon degrading their audience, and argued in favor of ennobling them instead. Much contemporary fiction doesn't either ennoble or degrade; it simply leaves you in an emotional desert. Where is it that God said, "I wish you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out."?

Ms Munro is a skilled writer. Too bad about her tepid imagination.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A gem here and there: exemplifying Sturgeon's Law

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

Rebounding from the familiar "The Pen is Mightier than the Sword," I sometimes speak under the title, "The Tongue is Mightier than the Pen." Yet something underlies them all, something without which the tongue is silent, the pen dries up, and the H-bomb is impotent, nay, does not exist: The IDEA.

I read because of ideas. I may read several books before encountering an idea worth remembering. Sometimes I find a gem.

Theodore Sturgeon (a famed SF writer) once took a friend to a conference on SF. After one talk, the friend turned to him to say, "This is 90% junk!" Sturgeon replied, "Ninety percent of everything is junk." Even the best ore yields only an ounce or two of gold to the ton.

So I wade through a lot of junk. Every reader does. I nearly didn't wade through The Cuckoo's Boys. Robert Reed's first story is an ugly, distasteful piece of crap about a guy getting away with murder. Yes, one could say I read it, but I really skimmed through, rather briskly! The rest of the collection, though rough around the edges, was at least tolerable.

In the tenth story of the twelve, a character muses on religion. The character, probably speaking in the author's voice, sees that people mostly get religious when they are in a lot of trouble: "Foxhole conversions". People don't take time to build seaworthy craft, but lash together any kind of raft to ride out a storm. Then she goes on to ask, "What would a genuinely seaworthy god look like, and sound like, and give back to true believers?"

Now that is a question worth considering. Of all I might say in response, I have one foundational thought: a real god exists independently—is not created by us—and would take the initiative to begin a relationship. Think your own thoughts on this...I'll be back.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Well, it is fortunate there are only about 10,000 known birds

kw: book reviews, natural history, ornithology, bird watching, bird listing, obsessions

After finishing To See Every Bird on Earth: a Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel, I spent a couple days thinking about it. So now it is late on Christmas day, and I still don't know what to think about someone who has seen a life total of nearly more than 7,500 birds (to date), yet cut himself almost wholly off from his family to do so.

Richard Keoppel, the author's father, is one of the top twelve "Big Listers." Sixty years mostly spent obsessively seeing and listing bird after bird, between periods of a year or two in which his shame kept him from going after any; sixty years of saying, "I'm done, I've seen enough," at 2,000, 3,000, 4,000...

To be a Big Lister means lots of travel. Just to get to the first thousand, one must travel overseas; there are 914 bird species in North America by the latest count. To see 70% or 80% of the species in any area, one must go a few times. At different times of the year. As you might imagine, a Big Lister doesn't have much time for anything else. Most are pretty much failures in the Family Life department.

It took the author decades to come to a kind of peace about bird watching, and listing. Then he could go with his father to Brazil, to witness the sighting of his 7,000th listed species. I find this is the rule; whatever someone's obsession, if you want to relate to that person, you must enter their world. They are unable to leave it.

Thirteen birds. The book's thirteen chapters each begin with an episode from Richard Koeppel's memory, about seeing the species, and the chapter content is woven about the time period in which that particular sighting occurred, usually a period of a few years. From the Brown Thrasher—which got young Richard started birding, and the first he recorded, though the 24th species he could recall seeing—to the Saw-Whet Owl—the smallest owl known, and his 726th—to the Harpy Eagle, #4,706; the tales tell the man.

Researching and writing the articles that make up the book, and taking the journeys that led to the culmination of the research, and the final healing of the relationship, the author developed a fondness for the birds, learned quite a bit of birding lore, met most of today's Big Listers, and came to grips with his own personality and development. Whatever may become of his father, Dan Koeppel has been bettered for it.

For myself, the question arises, "Do I have an obsession that is harming my family?" Being able just to ask the question is helpful.

Monday, December 19, 2005

...and what do you do with the Indians?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, interstellar colonization, space aliens

When Columbus discovered Hispaniola (today's Haiti and Dominican Republic), the indigenous people there seemed to be in a "state of nature," almost a pre-Eden condition. He wrote that they were "en Dios", "in God," apparently innocent and lacking any civilization that he could recognize. That didn't stop him from making plans to enslave them.

English-speakers, knowing he'd set out to find India, mistook his epithet and began to use the term "Indians" for indigenous Americans. Regardless of modern PC terms like "Native American" and "Amerind," at least a large minority of Euro-americans (myself included) tend to apply the term "Indians," at least in our thoughts. The fact that I am part Iroquois (1/32 or less) myself doesn't have much to do with my internal life; I was raised entirely Western.

Whatever people called them, the European colonists and their descendants didn't consider pre-European Americans fully human for several centuries...and some still don't.

Of all the interesting ideas in Allen Steele's Coyote series, the most touching, to me, is the status of the natives on the planet Coyote. I've just read Coyote Frontier, a space-opera twist on American Independence. Steele does his best to show that the earthling colonists are the real aliens here. Though they are the focus of the action—this is mainly a political book—the colonists' leaders in the end have just begun to acknowledge that the monkey-like chirreep might be people, too.

The earlier books, Coyote and Coyote Rising, dealt with the exploration of the new planet and the revolution needed to hold it. It pretty much covers a period similar to the Americas from 1491 to 1777, but compressed into a generation. The new book is analogous to the 1789-1815 period, the second war of independence, brought on when the new English mastery of the seas, and faster sailing craft, led them to try to assert sovereignty again in North America.

In Coyote Frontier, the second revolution is brought on by the invention of the Starbridge, which allows a starship to zip through a specially-created wormhole. Now that one can go between Earth and Coyote in days rather than decades, what is the outcome? Steele digs into this problem, producing a solution for Coyote that is still being worked out for America.

The ending takes a sidestep, and the future of the chirreep, for one, is left undetermined. There is plenty left for Steele to write about, should he wish to turn the trilogy into a longer series.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chipmunks and Groundhogs and Bugs, OH MY!!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, ecology

I have two microscopes. One is the kind you see in CSI or other shows portraying science labs: high-power (25x to 1600x), uses glass slides with thin slices of something (usually a crucial clue). So, I have an array of glass slides, cover slips, stains, razor and other blades for slicing stuff really thin, and various light-source accessories like filters and dark field attachments. I use it to look at pollen, slices of leaves & twigs, the critters in my birdbath water or nearby stream, and such. But it can be a bit of a pain to use.

The other is easier to use. It used to be called a Stereo Inspection Microscope. It is really two microscopes, one for each eye. It is low power, from about 5x to 30x, and you just put a light of some kind next to its tray and plop something there to look at. You'd be surprised at the features of a 2mm-size brown grease ant stuck to some flypaper, at 30x, in 3D. It looks over two inches long, and the little facets on its eyes are like jewels, there are hundreds of tiny hairs all over, and its jaws resemble a mini-bear trap.

So when I picked up Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes a few days ago, with its cover showing a big plastic toy ant facing down a lawnmower, I expected a lot of insect ecology. I've read Ms Holmes before, particularly The Secret Life of Dust, and I enjoy her writing. Based on reading Dust, I also expected a healthy dollop of environmentalism, and was not disappointed.

Holmes gives us a jaunty journal of her peregrinations through a 0.2-acre yard over a year's time. The extensive bibliography that closes the book shows she didn't spend the whole time bug- and bird-watching. She gets into things.

She also names things. Cheeky, the chipmunk that visited her all spring and half the summer (lured by sunflower seeds in a cup on her desk), Yawp the juvenile crow, Big Fat Mamma the ground hog (or wood chuck or whistle pig, depending where you live), and Stunky the skunk move purposefully through the narrative. I don't recall that she named any insects.

One might expect someone with a strong environmental bent to abstain from interspecies murder. That is a caricature; environmentalism is a cost-benefit-driven pursuit. In the interests of getting her house insulated, and retaining the insulation's integrity, she must eliminate a number of wasp nests and a family of wall-dwelling mice. Ms Holmes wishes to go on living, and with a modicum of comfort, at minimal environmental cost.

Insulating the walls is a big, big step. A 1917 house with a few inches of matted fiberglass in an attic, and wholly empty frame walls, probably requires twice the fuel, compared to the same house with blow-in filling the walls and a foot or so in the attic.

And she has her dislikes, mainly introduced species, which, she notes, comprise 3/4 of the species in her yard and neighborhood, from European and Asian grasses and weeds to starlings and English sparrows (really a little finch), to the Euro-Asian dogs most commonly chosen as pets. The "native American" dog is most like today's Carolina dog, which looks a lot like a Dingo.

The lives of critters fascinated me most. Crows don't just "caw", each has its own voice, with more or fewer syllables, tone and duration variations (caw-caw-caw ... caaaAAW ... 4 caws on a rising note, etc.). Squirrels and even wasps have their own personalities.

As I read through the book, it was evident that the content of natural history was decreasing as that of environmental exposition rose. The last three chapters are fully environmental. And it was here that I found something to chew on. She reports that Jeffrey S. Dukes, now of the University of Massachusetts, published an article in which he reports that for each gallon of petroleum we consume, ninety metric tons (98 short tons of the 2,000 lb. variety) of plant matter were initially buried in the earth (Dukes, J.S. 2003. Burning buried sunshine: human consumption of ancient solar energy. Climatic Change, 61(1-2): 31-44.). I found the article and had a look.

The conversion of buried plant matter to coal or petroleum has several stages. Coal production is more efficient: about 85% of the carbon gets back to the atmosphere as peat is formed, and another 4% as brown coal is formed. That means 11% remains. Then more is lost when brown coal is converted to anthracite, in which less than 7% remains. OK, a ton of coal started out as ten to fifteen tons of carbon in tree trunks and leaves, maybe thirty or forty tons of newly-buried trees. Remember, this is the more efficient process!

Most petroleum formed from algae and softer plants that grow in water, whether fresh or ocean (the sweetest crudes were from fresh-water algae). As best I can read the figure on the fifth page of the article (p 35 in Climatic Change v61), here is the breakdown: [this is a list; I have trouble making html tables]

  • Kerogen formation: 98% lost, 2% remains.
  • Kerogen to Petroleum: about 50% efficient, so a little over 1% remains.
  • Much escapes to the surface (85%) before being trapped, leaving 0.15%.
  • Only a third of liquid petroleum can be recovered, so we extract an amount equal to 0.05% of the original plant matter carbon (Dr. Dukes's illustration is less generous, showing only about 6% of trapped oil extracted, for an overall recovery of 0.0085%. I've worked for an oil company, and know the real figures).

So, a ton of carbon (eight or ten tons of buried, wet algae) eventually produces either 1 pound (my recovery calculation) or 0.17 pounds (Dr. Duke's calculation) of extracted petroleum. A gallon of liquid petroleum weighs from 7 to 8.5 pounds and is 86% carbon by weight, so let's say a gallon of light crude has 7 pounds (slightly heavy crude). That gallon started out as either seven tons of carbon in 70 tons of algae, or about 40 tons of carbon in about 400 tons of algae.

To compare with coal by the ton, a ton of C is the content of 286 gallons of crude.

OK, there you have the range. Clearly, we'd do better in the long run—20 to 120 times better!—finding and mining kerogen, and then cooking oil out of it. That is why the "oil" shale in Utah and Wyoming and the tar sands in southern Canada are such important resources. A gallon of oil extracted from oil shale is the remnant of only a couple of tons of initial plant matter, rather than 70-400 tons.

One side drawback to using the oil shale, from a rockhound's perspective. The Green River shale, one of the better kerogen sources, has the best fish fossils in the world. I'd hate to see them go up in smoke...

Back to the book. Hannah Holmes is a thoughtful, thought-provoking writer. My environmentalism is not quite so hair-trigger as hers (and I don't deify Amory Lovins as she does). Regardless, I greatly enjoy reading such well-researched and -written work.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


kw: capital punishment, death penalty, morality, responsibility

Before reading any further, ask yourself this question (and do your best to answer it to yourself): Does the Devil know he is evil?

Well, does he?

Be honest.




OK, here is my answer: The Devil (AKA Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, etc.) thinks he is a victim of bad press. He lost an epic battle with Elohim (AKA Jehovah, El, Almighty God, etc.). Elohim claims to have created Lucifer, to be His servant-of-all-servants, to lead all the angelic beings in their service and worship. He was the original Prophet, Priest, and King in service to God..."until iniquity was found in you," God tells us.

But make no mistake about it. Anyone with any spiritual experience knows, the Devil is all to real, and all too evil.

The press today is full of the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, founder of the Crips gang, convicter murderer of four (and probable murderer of dozens more), the baddest guy in San Quentin prison (more probable murders, and many, many assaults on prisoners and guards)...more recently the author (maybe also the writer) of a number of children's books. He died this morning, shortly after midnight, I assume by Pacific time. Did he deserve to die?

Wrong question.

The right question: What is the use to society of legal killing? For what reason(s) ought a civil society take someone's life?

Some folks say, NEVER. A few would refuse to kill Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, or Stalin, were the decision in their power. They would grant clemency (with a life term, one supposes) to Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, and the Unabomber (Ted K...I can't spell his name). A couple hundred people at this end of the spectrum protested in the street near San Quentin prison over the last couple of days. Some have nominated TW for the Nobel Peace prize.

An equal number, right across the street, were at the opposite extreme, the "Nuke him 'til he glows" people being the edge of the edge. Among them, some wish we'd return to the Noose, the Chair, or the Gas Chamber, and do it in public. Twenty witnesses? HA!! Put it on FOX and CNN!!!!

Only a very few claim Tookie didn't kill anyone. Most anti-death-penalty folks have various sentimental arguments, about giving a guy a chance to reform, and so on. Just by the way, TW never, ever expressed regret for his crimes, or any kind of remorse. Nor did he take any responsibility.

In that I liken him to the Devil, described above. He just thinks he's had a bad press. He's really a good guy, underneath. He is like his friend "Monster" Kody, now called Sanyika Shakur, who, as you read his book "MONSTER", clearly just cannot get the idea that he is responsible for what he has done.

But to me, whether a killer has seemingly reformed or not makes little difference. Once a person has shown not just the ability but the willingness to murder, by actually doing so, and not just in self-defense, then he or she must be removed from this existence, permanently. It is the only action that can GUARANTEE the killing will not be repeated.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

"...the substantiation of things not seen"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, roadside attractions

I suppose we all know the parody, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," that ends with the lines:

Some folks say they don't believe in Santa.
But me and Grandpa, we believe.

Why did they believe? They saw something. "Seeing is believing," we are told; Missouri is the "Show Me" state. So what are we to make of it when Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed." And a decade or so later, Paul writes, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing from the word of God."

Yet the God of the Bible is also a God of signs. The most stirring passages of the Bible are those that describe a strong image: the four winged creatures with four faces each, accompanied by four sets of "wheels within wheels" in the opening verses of Ezekiel; the "one like the Son of Man" standing among lampstands, with blazing white skin and hair, fiery eyes, and a sword coming from his mouth from Revelation; or the "Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven" with her gemstone foundations, gates of pearl, golden street (only one street), centered on God as her Light.

Somebody once told me, "A Christian is someone who has seen Jesus." So we see also in the Bible, criticisms of those who "see but do not perceive." It is one thing to have a certain view pass before your eyes. It is another to take in what you see, to be altered by it.

My Christian walk began with something I saw. This was five years before I ever prayed to "receive Jesus," so I was barely a teen. At a church camp, there was a "child evangelist." I remember only one thing from his message. Before he spoke, we had a communion service: bits of bread and little paper cups with grape juice. We were told to hold onto the cups. At some point in the man's message, he asked us to unfold the cups. The juice had stained them with a cross. I was really touched. Somehow, the "blood of the cross" was made real to me. Afterward, I wandered alone in the forest nearby, and began to try to talk with God. Though the feeling soon faded, I think without it I never would have received the Gospel five years later.

There is another experience I had, more years later. I was a member of a conservative Congregational church, and got discouraged. They really don't know how to nurture young believers. I'd become over-taxed, and seen some very sad things. I couldn't believe they were God's church, any more. I removed myself from Christian fellowship for several years, but would sometimes talk to God. When I felt a particular need, I'd "send up a flare," as I liked to call it. At a time that I was ready, I came into contact with some believers, with whom I remain in contact and fellowship, now 33 years later.

Timothy K. Beal, a professor of religion in Cleveland, has written Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. He chronicles in some detail ten places that one finds along America's highways, places created by believers who were driven from within—by God, they all believe(d)—to evangelize people who might come by. These ten have become tourist attractions, but one hopes that, among the tourists, some gain something real of God.

My latter experience is pertinent to my understanding of Professor Beal. He reveals much of himself as he writes. Indeed, in this conclusion, he has written, "This is not the book I thought I was is the book I needed to write." He and his wife grew up in conservative evangelical groups. His wife in a charismatic congregation, himself probably among the Brethren or a similar group.

Speaking for himself, he related how, on several occasions, he could really empathize with the people who were most affected by the display, yet felt himself at a remove. He is the perfect picture of someone who was once in a spiritual atmosphere, then at college picked up a very intellectualized belief, and finds himself longing to restore the spiritual contact he'd lost. His closing words, of how he prays, indicate he's begun the journey. For this I rejoice.

An aside, then a bit more about the book. Today's shrinks say we are a "mind-body," that there's nothing but meat up there, and a sort of conscious computer program that runs on our "meat computer." A couple of generations ago, dualism was the standard, body and mind. The Bible shows, and any mystic can relate by experience, that a person is a trinity, not a duality or a monism. We have a spirit, a soul, and a body. The soul consists of the mind, the emotion, and the will. These are our psychological organs.

The human spirit is not our soul. It is a spiritual organ, designed to contact God and the spirits of fellow believers. When we receive Jesus, our human spirit is enlivened with the Holy Spirit. This is once-for-all and permanent. When we speak of the "salvation of the soul," this is the lifelong process of spiritual growth, "being renewed in the spirit of the mind," leading to a spiritual adult, whose soul is subject to the spirit within. This gradual, daily salvation is conditional on our cooperation with God.

The final "hope of eternal salvation" is to gain a glorified body. This is God's doing, and will transpire in an instant, when we are ushered into glory.

Now, why do we seem to so need material reminders of spiritual things? We are hard of hearing, spiritually speaking. God will use any means to gain us. Some may scoff at a replica of Noah's Ark being build in Maryland with steel girders, or a mini-golf course with biblical themes (there are many), or a collection of rosaries, or any of the various Passion Plays conducted around the nation (my favorite is in Spearfish, SD).

Some may be horrified at a ten-acre expanse of crosses and old appliances with messages like "HELL HOT" and "SINNER HELL WAITS FOR YOU," and very few with "JESUS LOVES YOU." But that might be what it takes to open a few lost hearts. Only God knows.

Professor Beals visited these places, was variously touched, repelled, and finally drawn by the sincerity of the people who conduct such works. A theme finally comes out. They are all like Noah, whose Ark was his sermon to a lost world. Beals uses the term "outsider religion," for these kinds of expression. To me, at least some of them are the real insiders.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

...but I wouldn't want to live there.

kw: book reviews, anthologies, speculative fiction

My experience reading Michael Moorcock is variable. Some I like, some I don't, and some I don't understand. He edited the sf periodical New Worlds in the 1960s and 1970s. I read a 2004 reprint of New Worlds: an Anthology, originally printed in 1983. I have a firmer view now. I don't like the kind of fiction he likes, with very rare exceptions. I do like about half of the nonfiction (criticism, and interview, and review articles) he reprinted here.

Of thirty items in the anthology, twenty are fiction. Only two resemble (distantly) what I'd call science fiction. A few are fantasy, one or two are speculative fiction, and the rest either fantasy or unclassifiable. It is clear that Moorcock is proudest of the unclassifiable genre. He likes J.G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss, but only at their zaniest (though J.G.'s least zany is clearly ahead of anyone else's most zany).

The trouble is, many of the stories come from "the sixties", actually 1967-1975, when I quit reading sf entirely. At least half the "sixties" stories were extended wet dreams. This collection reinforced that view. I had to simply skip out after a few paragraphs on many of these. Many of the rest are varieties of pointless existentialism: obsession with detail, little or nothing that would reveal if any of the characters is actually conscious, and an ending that simply ends without conclusion. Most of my generation outgrew Camus and his "suicide is the best policy" ethic about the time President Carter invented the "miserability index".

New Worlds does try to present new worlds, all right. But I'd rather not live in any of them. There was a little to like, an interview with Tolkein that I enjoyed, a reprinting of "Traveler's Rest", which actually has a good idea—and which I'd read before with enjoyment—, and plenty that made me say, "Over all, I'm rather glad I skipped '60s sf."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Would Plato spin in his grave?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophers, short biographies

In The Republic Plato urged us to adopt a "Philosocracy", where a polis much like Athens is ruled by a philosopher-king. Naturally, being a philosopher, and thinking of himself that he was living what he preached, he expected a philosopher to rule most wisely. It doesn't take long, reading a biography of Plato, to realize that he was self-deceived. He strongly favored censorship of the popular press, for example, advocating a system similar to the Roman Catholic "Index" of allowed reading. Further, he had great disdain for the common folk, "hoi polloi", thinking that he, being wiser, ought not be subject to the laws which bound the many.

He also favored "Greek love", writing, "Wherever it has been established that it is shameful to be involved with sexual relationships with men, that is due to evil on the part of the rulers, and to cowardice on the part of the governed." As one may guess, I consider male-male sex to be perversion. I consider the current "untouchable" status of such behavior as evidence of cowardice on the part of modern society and her leaders.

The authority I accept, The Bible, has this to say: "Whoever cannot rule his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls." In a word: defenseless. Paul, writing about the leadership of the church, stated that both elders (presbyters) and deacons (ministers) must be family men who had proven their fitness to lead by raising successful and respectful children. I assert that the same ought to be true of public leaders.

(Aside: of the current crop of noisemakers in Washington, of both parties, only one has raised children who, while not mistake-free, are wise enough to have owned up to their mistakes and have since bettered their lives: the current President, Mr. GW Bush. Perhaps it is in some way related to the fact that only he shows any sign of having a backbone.)

There may be a few philosophers in history who actually practiced what they taught, but none come to mind. Two students of philosophy and history, Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson, have written Philosophers Behaving Badly, a study of eight prominent modern (post-Descartes) philosophers who are stellar examples of those whose lives were most opposite to their teachings. They are Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzche, Russel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault.

One could say that the transition from traditional philosophies to Logical Positivist and other "modern" philosophical trends rests squarely on these eight men. It is also safe to say that none of these eight could be trusted with the heart or life of anyone; they all left a trail of broken lives in their wake. They were all exceptionally bad at conducting human relations. They were all compulsive practitioners of numerous vices. Though one has been called an ascetic, that regards only one facet of his life; otherwise, he was a rampant hedonist.

Is this the best that we can do? I know three practicing philosophers, and one former practitioner. One at least is a rather pleasant person...the former philosopher who is now an electrical engineer. The other three, I wouldn't trust on a wager.

The authors state, "Adultery does not disqualify a person from presenting good philosophy." I say, "Oh, yes it does." These eight philosophers are largely responsible for the development of the current of the present age, that is destructive of families, racist, elitist, and hedonistic to a greater degree than any former generation (yes, I know my history. There is nothing new under the sun, but there is certainly more of it these days).

Yet adultery is but one sin, and the book chronicles many. The authors state that these eight were chosen not for sexual excess—though six at least were excessive to excess!—but for a significant lack of integrity. Not only did they violate their own ideals, they showed no sign that they though they ought to conform in any slightest way to the ideals they taught others. They were, to a man, exemplars of the kind of men Jesus rebuked: "Whitewashed tombs, well decorated but full of corruption."

Human leadership is a job like other jobs. You don't qualify for it by being a convincing speaker or writer. You get a job at one level, and if you do it well, you get promoted. The ballot box ensures that, to at least some extent, promotion to national leadership is contingent on demonstrating successful leadership in prior "jobs."