Friday, November 19, 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Virus removal tools and updates, link list

This is a simple list of links (as direct as possible) to the latest versions of the best virus removal tools. Note also that these are listed in the best order run.

Avira Rescure EXE (direct link, will burn a CD-R with bootable media)


Avira Rescue ISO (direct link if you prefer your own CD burner)

Combofix (link to page)

Malwarebytes (link to page) and definitions (direct link)

Spybot S&D (link to page) and definitions (direct link)

SuperAntiSpyware (link to page, downloads automatically) and definitions (direct link)

Microsoft Security Essentials (link to page) and definitions (direct link)

Avast (link to page) and definitions (direct link)

Friday, September 10, 2010

It's Your Turn

Here's a basic struggle: doing that thing I am called to do, when I am called to do it. I'm not really talking about things like homework or chores or assignments. I'm talking about those points in life where somebody greets you at the yawning chasm of the unknown and says, "It's your turn."

I have not always returned that greeting enthusiastically. I distinctly recall being in line to jump off the three-meter diving board of a swimming pool in Tucson, AZ. I have never before so appreciated the magnitude of cubic space that separated me from the cold impact below. I couldn't do it. I cried. I asked to get down. The slow way. The safe way.

Through the turns in my life I have arrived at a familiar but uneasy relationship with irreversible moments. I learned that nothing is worse than stepping back down the ladder once you have climbed up it. That rule established, all forms of hesitation, worrying and tribulation feel like so much self-abuse. Confronted with life's one-way doors, the inner voice that says, "Get it over with!" wins the day. No matter how bad the possible consequences might be, none of them are worse than the ignominy of giving up, or the paralysis of indecision.

I am not advocating recklessness. Better divers than me do not hesitate to jump--that doesn't make them careless, just bold.

And so now life approaches, and it is not governed by my adolescent imagination. It marches inexorably toward me, relentless, obscure, vast, and not wholly reassuring. I arrive unprepared. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm not ready for this! I have no guarantees that this will end as I would have wished.

Mistakes will be made. So be it! Off I go! And God help me.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I love my terrible job

Every day, I go to work, and I am beset by several shelves full of computers whose owners have been waiting too long to get them back. I select four or five of the most urgent machines and get started (leaving the remaining 15 or so for another day) and I push hard to make progress on their repair. All the while, I frequently put my screwdriver down to answer phones and assist customers at the counter. In fact, in a given day, I may spend three quarters of my paid time at the counter, receiving new computers, talking with angry customers, and doing damage control for unexpected issues.

Every day, I expose myself to near constant negativity. And I love my job. I love it because it keeps me here in an existence that I love.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"If fertility is important, shouldn't infertile heterosexuals be disallowed to marry?"

No. That would be silly.

When this question is raised, it is important first to address a pernicious intellectual obstacle.

The phenomenon of human fertility is not subsequent to marriage (like some kind of "add-on feature") but rather, prior to it. The fact that we have been rendering childbirth technologically optional does not change this. But our sense of control over childbirth is artificially inflated. We have lost touch with the socially organizing power that fertility naturally holds.

Fertility is prior to, and the basis of, all manner of human interactions. We should not be surprised at its central role in early and nature-based religions. In civilizations where women were accorded a solemn reverence, it was their fertility that was the source of their sanctity.

The existence of fertility in general is, anthropologically, the basis for the existence of marriage in general. I do not believe this is a controversial statement in itself.

However, reflecting on this reveals something new. Comparing a same-sex union to an infertile gender-complementary marriage involves a mental seppuku. Neither is bearing children, it is true--like two trees that had no apples for the harvest. One tree may be suffering a disease. The other is made of plastic. One couple fails in spite of participating in the socially organizing powers behind civilization. The other never participated.

Consider the justifiable outrage if NIA support groups around the country began being attended by same-sex partners.

One must also consider that infertility is not fully understood in the same way that same-sex infecundity is. Children born to couples who believed themselves to be infertile are not uncommon. Even so, an couple that is infertile because of a vasectomy is still infertile for accidental, not constitutive reasons.

The phenomenon of gender-complementary fertility in general is the basis for the existence of marriage.

Therefore same-sex infecundity, infertile-by-definition, means that there is no basis for same sex marriage.

EDIT: Clarification based on questions from friends:

Wyatt: Wait, I'm lost in syntax. How is a vasectomy accidental? And how is something constitutive necessarily not accidental?

I meant "accidental", not in the sense of "unintentional", but rather being the result of an external occurrence. If a dog has three legs, or is wearing a knit sweater, or has a notched ear, those are all "accidents"--none of them are the result of the dog being a dog. They just happen, whether by chance or invention. Accidental. It's philosophy jargon.

A gender-complementary marriage might be infertile, but that infertility is due to random incident--not to any constitutive feature of the couple, as is the case with a homosexual pair. There is a difference between being infertile in fact and infertile by definition. C.f. sick tree vs. plastic tree.

Typically when I make this distinction, the common reaction is, "Well, you're just splitting hairs, they have the same results, so they're the same thing." But that's reducing things to their function and result, and we don't do that in other areas, not even legal ones.

Wyatt: And how is homosexuality not both [constitutive and accidental]?

The jury's still out on whether homosexuality is a constitutive element of a person. Probably that answer is different from gay person to gay person and there are different varieties of homosexuality.

Regardless, homosexuality doesn't cause infertility. A homosexual union is infertile, not in the way a hetereosexual couple /can/ be infertile (external incident, disease/belief/surgery), but in the way a chair, a cloud, an antler are infertile--by definition.

Katlin: What about heterosexual couples who choose not to have children for religious reasons (believing the end times to be near) or personal morality (believing the world is already overpopulated?

On a personal (not legal) front, I might question the point of the people in your examples getting married in the first place. But even their decisions are "accidental," in the sense of being the result of something *external*--i.e., their heterosexuality didn't *make* them believe those things.

Katlin: There ARE people who do not believe in sex outside of marriage but who still refuse to have children. Should they also be forbidden the right to marry in a courthouse because they define marriage as being between two individuals WITHOUT the intention to procreate?

Recall my earlier statement: the only reason marriage exists at all, for anybody, is the generalized phenomenon of human fertility. Gender complementarity is not an optional component of that.

There is a difference between something being "forbidden" and being simply a contradiction in terms. Matrimony cannot be forbidden anyone for whom it is a possibility. But its origins define it. Matrimony without gender complementarity might as well be matrimony without two people. Either variance takes the union utterly outside any resemblance to its known origins, and outside any participation in its distinctive social character.

Infertility, voluntary or imposed by circumstance, does marriage no favors, but it does not create a contradiction.

An aside: In Catholic Canon Law, it is impossible for a couple to be married in the Catholic faith if they are not at least sincerely open to the possibility of children. This impediment does not prevent a (by chance) infertile couple from marrying, since they are still participating in the same formal structure, and anyway, children have been born to couples thought to be infertile.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Problems in the Conservative Strategy

Alas, conservative activists for sexually complementary marriage are not, by and large, philosophers.

If they were, they would find in the annals of history some formidable allies, among them Plato and Aristotle.

But the the popular case against recognizing same-sex unions as marriages has run aground of bad presuppositions, bad language, and bad ideas. Conservatives lost the intellectual battle before they started. They entered the coliseum and promptly stabbed themselves.

Their first mistake was attempting to use sociological arguments in favor of sexually complimentary marriage.

Sociology is a child of the Enlightenment and it will always be loyal to she who bequeathed its operating maxims: that humans are discrete units, that the most important conclusions are reached by statistical observation, and that there is no such thing as an inherent, stable human nature.

I must constantly remind that I am not the Enlightenment's (or sociology's) enemy.

So, back to conservatives using sociological arguments. There are basic problems on the face of it.
  • It takes a lot of effort for a conservative to persuade progressives that his information comes from credible sources. Short of studies published by the competition's own favorite outlets, any other use of studies is largely wasted effort. Progressives understand that studies are easy to distort, whether by poor methods, obscuring of relevant data, loose interpretation, or simple human error. However, they are only likely to raise such matters when said studies arrive at conclusions that challenge the Enlightenment's (or the sexual revolution's) presuppositions about human nature. Ultimately, if any studies are cited that might favor such conservative shibboleths as valuing two-parent homes, delaying sexual experience in youths, marriage prior to cohabitation, or natural family planning, the result will almost always be a side-tracked debate about the reliability of sources.

  • Presumably, on matters of family and sex, conservatives would like to see some norms established for the long term. This renders questionable the strategy of basing their arguments in sociology, whose results are constantly changing. Please note that I do not thereby question sociology's usefulness in general--only its usefulness for establishing long-term norms. What sense does it make for conservatives to argue that sex-complimentary marriages are statistically better for children? Could anything be more difficult to prove in a legal setting? If ever there was a donkey jawbone wielded against the Philistine army, that's it (in which case, God help you).

  • Sociology alone makes no value judgments. Placing one's fate in the hands of sociologists (because, for the moment, they seem to be allies) is a bit like mistaking a wind-vein for a compass.

    Sociological studies of marriage are as necessary as digital thermometers inside of a computer.
    One must know a computer's optimal temperature before a thermometer becomes useful. Sociology, like a thermometer, is a "dumb" measuring tool, not a basis for arriving at overarching conclusions. Taking the analogy even further, the technician might be monitoring the temperature of a dozen laptops and watching them reach 95°C and above, and proceed to shut off. If that technician were like some of today's sociologists, he might say, "Oh, I guess that this is the new standard of laptop behavior! We should issue cautions to consumers not to start any computer work they can't finish or save within 15 minutes."

    In other words, too many sociologists measure trends in human behavior, but will not name the proverbial overheating when they see it. They understand correctly that sociology itself cannot make value judgments (any more than a thermometer can). But some of them write as though every new trend of human behavior is seen as a "new standard". But trends are trends. Surely there is a deeper basis for action and value-forming than the mob.
In short, conservatives should never uphold sociology as a standard for weighing fundamentals. Sociology does not deal in fundamentals. It deals with superficials. This is not to say that conservatives should never cite sociological studies. Yet if they do, they should be wary of the way that citation will be interpreted, understood, and reported.

Progressives in the "gay marriage" issue have been trumpeting the weakness of conservative sociology-based arguments for a long time. That weakness may be the single most important drive behind Judge Walker's striking down Proposition 8. Conservatives allowed themselves to be cornered into a position of relying on a harm-benefits analysis, and they predictably lost. They will continue to lose if they continue to play that game.

This is unfortunate. Progressives are guilty of no small amount of card-stacking when it comes to matrimonial and reproductive issues in the last fifty years. Elizabeth Anscombe understood in 1972 that widespread artificial contraception removed the keystone from sex's social benefit--the integrity of the triad of "sex-marriage-family". Pope Paul VI understood the ripple of social repercussions even earlier. In the present day, looking back, Jean Twenge's "Generation Me" sites studies documenting the slink of generations into divorce, learning disability, and mental illness.

So if sex-complementary marriage today does not shimmer in sociological terms, this should come as no surprise, least of all to those who have favored its continued dissolution in the individualistic waters of the Enlightenment. What is surprising is that marriage's struggles are now used by progressives as evidence against its deserving distinct public respect, relative to its novel counterpart. Well, say I, of course the dog doesn't walk anymore--you kicked it!

Unfortunately, this narrative--that the sexual revolution ruined marriage before it offered it to same-sex couples--will win no points on a legal front. Sociology cares not for whatever matrimony may have been; history and narrative are not its trade. If gender complementarity is in a shambles right now, there it lay. The case for gender complementary marriage will not be made via sociology or historical narrative, harm-benefit analysis or nostalgia.

It does not, however, need to be.

The United States government is not, and never has been, predicated on a mere harm-benefit analysis. That government would look very different. Conservatives can take heart in the fact that the Constitution lacks modernity's preoccupation with (and pseudo-sociology's belief in) a capriciously shifting human nature. That is to its credit. In fact, without a stable human nature, there is nothing inherent to individuals such that rights need always be respected.

Conservatives have a basic understanding, though they have not been very good at declaring it, that a fluid notion of human nature is coextensive with a fluid notion of human rights. This is bad. What the government can giveth, the government can taketh away. People with long memories and a historical sense (more, mind you, than an ability to proof-text old documents) are justifiably leery of the expanding sphere of State powers.

Judge Walker knows this, which is why he correctly phrases the terms of his decision as whether homosexual couples are seeking a "new right" or a right which has always existed but never manifested.

Developments in constitutional law have not aimed to reverse any tenet of the Constitution but to elucidate its implications for new scenarios. Judges understand that the trajectory of a Constitutional mandate may, if applied consistently, have surprising results.

Nevertheless, for Walker's decision to hold, it needs to be shown that same-sex marriage is not a new right; only an (inalienable human) right of which we are newly conscious. A careful and considered response to his statement is overdue, but it will not happen here, save for one note.

Recent history has, it is true, witnessed the rapid encroachment of Enlightenment and sexual revolutionary ideals--individualism, self-determination, identical public treatment--into marriage. However, that same history has revealed ever increasingly that sexual complementarity is a constitutive and vital component to human beings, including homosexuals. Elevating same sex unions to the level of marriage enshrines in public law a statement which is untrue: that sexual complementarity is of no consequence to human individuals or to society.

In order for a human right to be a human right, it needs to be bound in some respects by the human (in all of its biological irrationality)--and not an Sartrean narrative about what the human ought to be (a rational, disembodied, perfectly autonomous, self-creating en soi).

To an extent, the conservative inability to effectively vocalize the precise benefits of complementary marriage is to its credit rather than the reverse. It uncovers the preposterous nature of the challenge that is put to them: "What concrete advantages do heterosexual unions have over homosexual ones?" "Why should trees be made of wood and not something else?" "Why is a blue sky better than a green one?" Who could blame them for being a little inarticulate?

Forcibly submerging the sex-complementary quality of matrimony does not contradict a "tradition;" it contradicts us, collectively and individually. On the natural plane, heterosexual intercourse is the origin of individual life, and so (though it may raise eyebrows to say it), sex is the closest thing to God civilization encounters on this earth.

Moreover, it will continue to be so, regardless of public policy. Denying gender complementarity its unique role in the public is a bit like denying photosynthesis its unique role in agriculture. A State-sponsored fiction. Yet when the State begins to rule by fictions, where does this leave citizens who are in tune with reality?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Marriage vs. the Enlightenment: The Prop 8 Debate

Not everybody will be able to read this in a mature spirit. It is not addressed to them.

I do not believe that the state should recognize the union of same sex partners as a marriage.

Unfortunately, that means that I will be known (outed, as it were) to the current activist public, including some friends and family, as a bigot.

That's a little bit painful, since as a child of the 80's and coming of age in the 90's, we learned about all of the institutional evils that were "ancient" history: the slaughter of Native Americans, oppression of blacks (slavery, Jim Crow, segregation), the Japanese internment camps, disenfranchised women, etc. And so people who had any ties such past evils, even if they disavowed them, were marked; and if they did not disavow them, they were more than marked.

So I'm already reconciled that in a decade or three, I may come to be known as a dangerously deluded relic, much like today's segregationists are. Oh well.

What opinions I hold strongly, I do not base in cheap sources, political mantras, or a lack of awareness of contrary arguments. I am not confident I could say the same for many people who support gay marriage. Or who oppose it. Politics, like sports, is all loyalties and passions and not a lot of discussion. Those on either side are simply too indignant that sincere opposition exists. The time for conversation has ended. History has made its decision. Now there is only one choice remaining: get on the right side or fade away.

Well. That is the way people are going to be. I don't need to play by their rules.

Why I am not hopeful for a strong defense of gender-complementary marriage in the US.

Opponents of gay marriage have never successfully made an accessible case for their side. That's not entirely their fault. The cards were stacked. To date the only "popular" manifestation of traditional marriage activism feels territorial and petty compared to the more attractive liberal image. Traditional marriage activists are not likely to shake the notion that they are simply mean.

They are not, by and large, mean or territorial. They are conscious that matrimony makes a contribution to public society, and legally blurring and loosening of marriage definitively obscures that contribution. But what that contribution is, conservative activists have failed to make clear and attractive.

I hope that they do. I might offer a suggestion. Instead of "traditional marriage," I believe conservatives should find a term that more accurately encapsulates what is really at stake, which is not, after all, a "tradition" but a facet of humanity. I propose an alternative: "gender complementary marriage."

The dynamics of ideas at the heart of the debate.

The liberal attitude is born out of Enlightenment individualism. The Enlightenment champions Equality--and not just any equality, but an equality that views differences between humans with suspicion. The Enlightenment attitude satisfies its impulses by publicly battling those differences.

This is not a criticism. I have no value judgment toward this tendency except when it is misapplied. Many times in recent history it has been correctly applied, and I applaud it.

Society remains in thrall to the Enlightenment, and no activism will succeed without believably honoring its cherished values--freedom, equality, democracy, self-determination. Yet marriage and the Enlightenment cannot coexist easily. Not without great concessions to one or the other.

Marriage demands sacrifice; the Enlightenment resists demands. Marriage is born out of compatibility, which is born of difference; the Enlightenment stresses equality, at times at the expense of difference. Marriage evokes permanence; yet the private, autonomous will chooses nothing permanently. Marriage embodies a communitarian view of the human person; the Enlightenment embodies an individualistic view.

Marriage is older than the Enlightenment and has roots in nature, making it therefore mysterious and integral to our human makeup. It is a part of us. It is both organic and institutional. The institutions of marriage are not so much a human construct as a human scaffolding around what is fundamentally not a construct. A tree is a tree before it becomes a treehouse.

The Enlightenment is novel and it is a construct, but again, this is not a criticism. The Enlightenment offers important correctives against common evils. Nature is cruel and brutal and unenlightened. Human inventiveness is necessary for survival, peace, and civilization. Thus we should not be too "romantic" about the naturalness or organicness of things. Nature is worthy of awe and reverence but not idolatry; it is not the only source of wisdom and it cannot alone provide us with peace.

Why the Enlightenment should not be taken too far.

Yet our innermost selves are natural. We are animals. Human inventiveness (like the kind expressed in the Enlightenment) forgets this at our peril.

When human inventiveness becomes drunk on its own accomplishments, it oversteps and begins to treat its natural, animal masters as if they themselves were its creations, and subject only to its machinations. Regimes based upon invented models of humanity have a habit of devouring people in the name of the models. The worst experiments in this manner of world-reinventing have come and gone, however. I will not name them. Godwin has no home here.

If such human inventiveness is likened to an unruly drunk, then perhaps it has gone through the 12-step program. Mr. Brooks has been clean for a long time. But William Hurt hasn't gone away yet.

An allegory.

In the recent history we have of making proverbial tree houses, we have discovered that houses can also functionally be built onto telephone poles. (They even get free cable).

Initially, tree-house dwelling society was taken aback, but reactions to this innovation eventually softened.

Only lately, those who once advocated for the acceptance of telephone-pole houses, now ask that telephone poles be called trees.

Those who objected, on the grounds that telephone poles are not trees, were called backwards thinkers.

Those who pushed for the recognition of the unique and distinctive character of trees were called bigots.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wikipedia vs. Digg: The Internet at its Best, and at its Worst

The dreams of doe-eyed idealists live on in the Internet. "Information wants to be free!" Universal, free access to limitless information; absolute powers of self-publishing; and virtual intellectual anarchy. The Internet is a parallel world to the real one, and the only rules it abides by are the ones people have chosen to follow. It is a self-governing paradise.

One of those dreams is the image of millions of anonymous surfers acting as the ultimate information sieve of which information and news is most relevant, important, and true. Throw enough people at a problem and the solution will rise to the surface.

That power is enticing, but it is tempered by one phenomenon: the more democratic information becomes, it seems, the less it becomes. Like magnetic iron shavings, Internet users bond together into clumps, and where there are clumps, there is control, there is preference, and there is domination.

Two of the Internet's most popular sources of information are Wikipedia and Digg. Both derive their importance from the analogy of the sieve. In Wikipedia, anonymous contributors edit articles ad-infinitum, and the more an article is edited by more people, the more true it becomes. Digg is somewhat different in that it does not apply the ocean of Internet users to the task of content creation, but rather merely content evaluation. Articles are voted up or down (there are no criteria for choosing one or the other; it is merely preference); and moreover, comments to those articles are themselves voted up or down.

These two models of user participation both make claims to the effect that the democratization of publishing will produce an end result that is more helpful and beneficial to public discourse than their mainstream media counterparts.

Wikipedia, I believe, succeeds brilliantly. The anarchic encyclopedia often comes out neck-and-neck in terms of accuracy with the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta, though it is often lacking in good structure. Whatever its failings, Wikipedia is far and away more useful and accurate than anybody could have predicted of a reference governed only by an honor system.

Even on matters concerning religion, which the dominant 20-30 something crowd of Internet users commonly loathe, Wikipedia offers solid information.

Digg, in spite of having similar principles driving it, is a wasteland of critical thought. Digg voters and commentators appear to be dominated by a vast sea of--not just non-believers--but angry, prejudiced, intolerant, and utterly dogmatic non-believers. It is not only the religion articles that unveil that striking character, but any article invoking popular emotion unleashes the mob mentality. That mob feeds on itself by "digging" comments it agrees with and "burying" comments it does not agree with.

What's the difference?

I believe there are a few:

  • What kind of user-contribution is invited?
  • What is understood to be of greatest value?
  • What happens to truth in these models?
Digg and Wikipedia ask for distinctly different contributions. Digg asks for a click. Wikipedia asks for expertise and explanation. An opinionated troglodyte can edit a Wikipedia article; however, such an edit will not likely stand the test of time. Even if the troglodytes outnumber the scholars, the scholars will win out in the end because the value of their contribution to the article will be more widely recognized.

Digg offers no serious means for scholars to win influence away from troglodytes. On the contrary, because contributing to Digg has no complexity or distinctive content (no "click" is more persuasive than any other "click"), the scholar's positions will only be "dugg" if their conclusions match those of the majority; otherwise they will be "buried." Majority opinion is self-reinforcing on Digg.

Digg and Wikipedia have distinctly different values. That is evidence in their very titles. Wikipedia is the "Free Encyclopedia". Users and contributers have a collective understanding that accuracy and truth are its sole reason for existing. Even those with idiosyncratic agendas understand this. Relatively few people edit Wikipedia articles with the same interests in mind that govern Digg. Whether I "like" something is irrelevant. Only the truth matters.

Digg, then, is all about preference--not about accuracy. A true comment will be "buried", not because "Diggers" found it to be untrue or inaccurate, but because they might have found it disagreeable or unimportant.

Another factor to consider is that the people who make earnest contributions to Wikipedia articles more often than not are specialists of some kind or another. They care about the topic at hand. Two scholars on Wikipedia can hold off a dozen article-defacing troglodytes, because they can continually remove the influence of superficiality, and their efforts will be reinforced by supporters.

On Digg, a comment can only receive one vote from each person. Thus, a scholar cannot continually "digg" their own comment; to defend ideological terroritory, the scholar would have to recruit substantial numbers in order to "digg" that comment up into relevancy. Without the numbers, comments get buried irrespective of their actual value.

So what happens to the truth in these models? In Wikipedia I believe truth actually does rise to the surface. In Digg, truth takes a backseat to the caprice of the mob, to enjoyment, to collective outrage, in a word, to groupthink.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My fascination with abandoned buildings

Few things in the world fill me with more wonder and excitement than an abandoned building. I am not particular as to what kind of building it had been--though churches, schools, and hospitals seem more likely to bear a resemblance to their once living purposes.

I am not certain why these things capture my imagination. It's a sensation that actually leaves me at a loss for words. Most of my attempts at an explanation feel flat. So here is another go at it.

I believe my fascination is the result of the overlapping of several features that pull on my heartstrings.

First is the feeling of having found hidden treasure. Most abandoned facilities have been picked clean of anything of actual monetary value. Yet they often contain items whose financial worthlessness does no justice to their uniqueness, scarcity, and storied past. These might take the shape of a piano decayed beyond repair, or Victorian architecture, or works of art (like simple murals inside childrens' quarters). The only reason these objects haven't left their home is that individuals could hardly put them to use elsewhere--they would wind up being stored and forgotten (which is hardly better than being abandoned and forgotten). What they lack in utility, they make up for in curiosity. A piano may never be played again, yet by its very presence and accessibility it continues to be a source of enjoyment--"Hey, here's a piano! Somebody once must have considered this to be a valuable thing."

Even buildings without such trifles contain something of the same character. Indoor space is not something that is constructed, or abandoned, lightly. Somehow, present value becomes an echo of past value. Why are these buildings no longer used? Why do they occupy a no-man's land between use, demolition, or embalming? Very often in modern cases the reason is mundane: asbestos. Considerations of efficiency, safety, and risk-benefit dictate that allowing buildings to rot is the least bad path.

Unfortunately this means that some of that feeling--of having stumbled upon an (available) treasure--is illusory. Everything has an owner, even if it's rotting. The state protects garbage. There will be no fly-by-night restorations, no partial re-inhabitation of a long unloved shack, no "secret place" where one can spend leisure hours in privacy. Many, but not all abandoned sites are monitored by security.

But such reminders can't quench my suspension of disbelief. Abandoned buildings will always hold the allure of offering a "secret place".

A second reason such places captivate me is the ghosts. I am not referring to the remnant souls of the dead--I am a skeptic (though paradoxically I do take paranormal phenomena seriously). When I speak of ghosts, let me be clear that I do only refer to my own projections and imaginations. Yet time is relative rather than absolute. We are not so removed from the past as the length of years would have us believe. There is a sense--whether objective or subjective, I care not--of the lingering presence of the past in the present. An abandoned psychiatric ward will always feel more ominous than a disused auto repair garage. Buildings with innocuous histories will inherit a "spooky" character from my imagination. And buildings that harbored secret crimes will not tell those secrets now.

The allure of abandoned constructs is in their stories--real, or imagined, known or projected. In those stories is an invitation to feel connected to an "other," a desire that is the flip side of enjoying the privacy of perceived solitude. There is a community that is experienced when people occupy the same place at the same time. But there is also a community that is experienced by the historian, who acquaints him or herself with people in the same place at different times. The strength of that "community," I feel, is related to the presence of artifacts--which explains in part why I find recent wrecks to hold more allure than ancient ruins.

Though to be fair, the ancient ruins are less likely to cause asbestos poisoning.

The third and last reason I feel compelled to explore our discarded places is that it recaptures a lost sense of the frontier. Over the course of months I begin to feel as though I spend my days in an endless sitcom rerun. The nooks and crannies have been exposed to the white hot light of prosaic familiarity. Everything is properly regulated and controlled.

If this sounds nightmarish, then I am being unfair. I like routine. I would be happy to surrender six days a week to it. When "interesting" events meddle in my comfort zones, I feel intruded upon.

But, dear God, remind me please that this is not all there is! Show me secret gardens, impassable stretches, unattainable heights, and dark caverns! Abandoned buildings are a part of that mystery. The once-familiar is now unfamiliar and strange; a place where the nocturnal creatures of our childhood imaginations find sanctuary from the common, and thus from becoming exploited and common themselves. In abandoned buildings the domestic has returned to the wild, the controlled to the uncontrolled, and thus, the impossible to the possible. The small world of routine becomes large again, and that one day of the week stretches out to overtake the other six in its mysteries and unknowns.

In explaining myself here I think I begin to uncover something basic to human nature, which is its longing for the infinite. That is part of the reason I can't be other than religious, and why I regard worship as one of two most vital human activities (the other being caritas, mercy). The experience of the infinite and the mysterious inside natural phenomena--like abandoned buildings--reminds me with natural feelings of the what the supernatural infinite lays before me. But one need not be religious to be captivated by the haunted and uninhabited.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

National sovereignty and immigration: a response

My friend Katlin recently posted an argument in favor of Arizona's new-ish immigration law, as well as a link to Ray Steven's music video on the subject (he's still alive?).

I don't entirely disagree with her. Yet one can listen only to so much NPR (and associate with the highly activist Catholic Church in the southwest as much as I have) before one begins to pay serious attention to complicating factors in this issue.

Yes, a country has a right to enforce its borders. And yes, the United States has taken a gentler hand to border crossers than many countries, including, tellingly, Mexico. Sentimentality is a poor basis for legislation. Those who are in the United States illegally may have their advocates here--but how can they reasonably expect to demand anything for themselves? So far is it goes, error has no rights. Those who push for amnesty do not have solid ground to be shrill or self-righteous. To advocate for amnesty is to advocate for the capitulation of our legal system to serve interests to which nobody has a right.

But leftists are not necessarily the only sentimentalists to speak of, here. I dislike crooning, whether it's crooning over the plight of the poor [your favorite minority here], or crooning over the much threatened "American way of life" (a phrase which is abused when leveraged as a xenophobic bludgeon).

One consistent trend to be drawn, on many issues, is that the right tends to be principle-centered and the left tends to be more pragmatic. In the extremes, the left sometimes threatens to forget important principles (like national sovereignty), and the right threatens to forget the facts on the ground (like the material and historical causes of illegal immigration).

My problem with Ray Stevens is not that he's wrong in the principles his music celebrates, but that he is not tempering them with a healthy consideration of the problems at hand.

  • Illegal immigrants are in a desperate geopolitical/economic situation.
  • Legal immigration is too difficult/costly to achieve.
  • Birthright citizenship creates important human rights problems when dealing with the illegally immigrated parents of US citizens.
At the same time, amnesty is not a desirable option.
  • It sets a precedent that encourages further illegal immigration.
  • It does not address the actual causes of the problem.
  • As a matter of principle, it is an affront to justice for those who are legally inside the country.
So it seems that we need comprehensive immigration reform. The difficulty is that those words have been, fairly or unfairly, entangled with amnesty.

But we still have problems to solve. How will we deal with the American-born children of illegally immigrated parents, without forcibly separating families? How can we bring some sanity and accessibility to legal immigration?

And in the long term (when we are slightly less desperate ourselves), how will we discourage illegal immigration in the first place? It is important here not to pooh-pooh the economic situation in Latin America. The choice to cross illegally is not made lightly and it is not made with delusions of an easy life. In Altar, just south of the border, humanitarian organizations provide basic needs while strongly discouraging border crossing and expelling any myths about the availability of jobs. Problem is, many of the people in Altar aren't Mexicans--they're from South America. You're not going to dissuade someone who walked/hitched to Altar from El Salvador.

And the words "choosing to cross the border" need to be spoken slightly tongue-in-cheek. Certainly, everyone has a sob story. Like I said, I don't like sentimentalism. Yet the Ray Stevens video gives the inaccurate impression that people jump the border expecting to transition to a great life (full of freebies). This is not the case. In many cases, border crossers believe their choice is between assured expiration and uncertain hope. Considerations of whether it is right or wrong to break a law shrink in view of reality. Ultimately, the consequences of spending one's total resources to travel thousands of miles, get caught and prosecuted, become more tolerable than the consequences of staying home.

There is no legal classification for "economic refugees", but one could make a case. In the absence of such a legal classification, however, we should act in view of the facts on the ground.

Which brings me back to the immigration law. Is it wrong? Not really. But is it enough? Not even close.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Convergence is great when you spread it out right

Consider this "Technology Post 3: Return of Concupiscence"

Ever since high school I've been fascinated by the idea of converged devices. It always seemed to make more sense to me that a single device should take the place of three, four, or five other objects.

As early as 2004, long before the iPhone, I was already achieving a reasonable facsimile of an ultimate "do-all" device with an HP iPaq Pocket PC. I felt no shame for carrying around a gadget that functioned alternately as a walkman, breviary, newspaper, book reader, Web browser, and game device all in one.

But realistically, it didn't do any of those things well.

Technology has gotten better in the last six years, but I don't see that progress in terms of new technologies so much as the new affordability of existing technologies. Five years ago, the Fujitsu p1000 series MSRP'd for $1200, and now, netbooks run circles around it for a quarter of the cost.

The market is still, surprisingly, on a quixotic mission to give birth to an "ultimate converged device". It continually rediscovers that, where every human need is squeezed into a gadget of one design, the inadequacies of that design give birth immediately to another class of devices whose claim is to trump the first in usability.

We wind up with a handful of "classes" of devices that all serve a handful of tasks chosen from the infinite palette of human activity.

There are smartphones, MIDs ("mobile internet device", i.e. the iPod Touch), gaming handhelds, PMPs ("personal media player"), netbooks, tablets, smartbooks, and of course the venerable laptops (of all classes) and desktops (of all classes). A number of old classes have gone extinct. Yesterday's PDAs and UMPCs have today been absorbed into the nebulous category of MID. Arguably, gaming handhelds and PMPs are all also MIDs. Whatever.

Ultimately, you can get something that fits in your pocket, or something that fits in a purse (or a "murse" *snerk*), or something that you need to set on a table, or something that won't leave your home. Between those possibilities, you might want to send and receive calls and text, use the Internet, "consume media" (I hate that phrase), get directions, view and create documents and media, and so on.

All of the available gadgets offer to provide that functionality, but one thing continues to divide them: contracts.

So far as I am concerned, one has only successfully met their needs when one has minimized the number of contracts to which one is bound.

I considered this when my brother Alex and I discussed the GPS feature on his phone. It is incredibly useful. But it isn't available without a data plan on a major cellular carrier.

So who, in the end, wins the value game? Someone whose phone accomplishes the tasks of dozens of gadgets, but who pays $70-$80 a month for the privilege? (Alex gets some discounts, thank goodness). I have arrived at the conclusion that value trumps convergence where convergence involves slavery to contracts.

A nice computer with Skype + a pay-as-you-go phone + a dedicated, contract-free GPS would seem to do the trick.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The difference between storytelling and pornography.

So far as I can tell, it's a clear line.

I do not come down very hard against violence or explicit content in the media, so long as adults are given the ability to control it (now if only they would).

Looking back on media that I consumed, even before high school, I'm amazed now at how much graphic content and adult themes I was exposed to. I will pick up a book that I read in the 6th grade and think, "I corrupted my young mind!"

In fact, I probably had zero understanding of the gravity of such things when I saw it.

But was what I read/heard/watched/played pornographic? I don't think so.

The line between the pornographic and the merely dramatic is partially a function of the author and partially a subjective quality in the consumer.

The same work can be either merely dramatic or pornographic for two individuals.

I believe the dividing line is drawn based upon the degree of subjective distance allowed between the consumer and the character.

In good storytelling, I fully expect conflicts to arise that are violent, problematic, etc. What I do not expect is an invitation by the author to take unreflective pleasure in evil acts.

As I said, the same artwork can be experienced in either way by different consumers. I do not doubt that some individuals play Grand Theft Auto perversely. But mostly, the thrills of the game do not feel substantially different than children playing "cops and robbers".

God of War 3, on the other hand, deliberately requires you, the player, to enjoy the very physical feeling of murder.

What about sex?

I believe it's a mistake to put sex on the same level as violence. It's worse. Perhaps that is counter-intuitive to people in my age group. "Make love, not war," etc. More Puritanical prudery from your local traditionalist Catholic. Yet there is a very simple reason why.

I can watch one man shoot another man without participating in the shooting. I can even pretend to shoot a man in the context of a game and not participate in it. Violence, whatever its inherent evil, does not by spectatorship or pretend compel complicity.

Sexually explicit content, however, does. That's partly cultural; but let's not fool ourselves: biology is a major player. It doesn't matter whether a novel, a film, or a game creates any level of distance between the actors and the consumer. Any recreation of the sounds, sights, and sensations of sex elicits immediate responses from the body. It is impossible to enjoy the "dramatic" element of a fully explicit rape scene without becoming emotionally complicit in it, at least partly.

Some scenes are carefully manufactured to communicate horror (think of the miserable sequence following the "key party" in the Elijah Wood film, "Ice Storm"). But even they eliminate nudity so that the horror is not compromised by natural reflexes.

The recent media spat over sexual video games is probably the best advertising they have ever witnessed. But their growing popularity likely has more to do with the lingering 60's cultural narrative that "pornography" no longer exists. So sayith the legend, the label of "porn" was only ever an instrument of patriarchy to control the free flow of information and maintain stultifying control over children and women.

So now we will have an epidemic of people who are controlled not by patriarchal institutions without, but by addiction, compulsion, and insecurity within. Hail freedom. Right?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What are the strongest threads of atheistic thought today?

There's a common proverb that "For those who do not believe in God, no proof is possible; and for those who do, no proof is necessary."

I won't criticize this proverb too harshly--I know why it is so credible. But as a matter of history, the Catholic Church has come down on the side of saying, yes, God's existence is a fact knowable by reason.

In other words, the existence of God is not an object of faith (at least, not properly or exclusively).

It's the other things--the Resurrection, the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth--that are objects of faith.

But God's existence is not. The existence of God is something that can be known. Such a statement is likely to draw criticism from believers and non-believers alike. But I would like to propose a fresh, all-encompassing approach to the God question. I would like to gather up the threads of atheistic discourse, analyze them into their components, and provide an alternative approach to uncovering the existence of God.

So here's my question. Where do I begin? How can I get the best bird's eye view of the current landscape of atheistic thought? I am already quite familiar with Richard Dawkins and But I still need to collect as many atheistic resources as possible. Perhaps some of my less pious friends will indulge me.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Setting the infatuation record.

I'm in love with Laura Saad. And, reading her blog, is it really difficult for anyone to see why? But after six months of seeing each other, my degree of infatuation hasn't eased, it hasn't waned, it hasn't even plateaued. I remain still in the blissful state in which the very sight of Laura sends "happy juices" flowing all through my mind. And every day this feeling increases.

Love is not a feeling; it is a choice. Infatuation renders the choice easier to make... in some ways, infatuation makes the choice (to love) far less heroic than it otherwise would be.

Not that I complain. My last six months have not been easy, but the pains have been substantially offset by instinct and affection tugging on all of my paternal heartstrings. I am warned, both by friends and by knowledge, that the "easy days" do not last even for the healthiest of couples. And yet I feel that heeding these warnings too much would disallow me from savoring this slice of heaven. No!

In the private cocoon bordered by couch cushions and a blanket, there is a pervasive sense shared by Laura and me that our finding each other is both inexplicable and inevitable, and is by itself proof of God's existence and goodness. Each of us represents the fulfillment the other has sought since the lonely and cruel days of elementary school. And we fulfill it so well.

This all leaves me in a curious position vis-a-vis the "infatuation stage". I am both mentally preparing for its exit and each day overjoyed at its abiding presence. I know that my cautioning friends are not trying to be wet blankets... they only do not wish me to be dragged down too far by disappointment, or to confuse infatuation with "the real thing". I understand. And if they are right and automatic affection becomes someday rare, I will not be sad. But all the same, I cannot let go of the private joy in the possibility that my 6-month-and-counting infatuation trip may prove them wrong.

All I know is that many would die for what I now have, and I am among the luckiest people on the planet.

Monday, March 01, 2010

On feeling powerful

All right, I have a confession to make.

I actually think I'm pretty smart.

That's a dangerous opinion to have, because if I can't back it up, that makes me one of the world's most detestable kind of people; and even if I can back it up, being smart is, ultimately, of only relative importance in life. And if I ever forgot that fact, I wouldn't actually be all that smart, would I? See the rule about not being able to back it up.

But one doesn't have to be smart to feel powerful. Something about the combination of forces--a cup of coffee, good health, free time, and a medium of expression--is enough to make a lot of people feel a rush of "can do". The world at one's fingertips. Thought with the clarity of a three-dimensional Venn diagram (with bullets). Delusions of intellectual grandeur. It's almost as if I could wield ideas like a pair of Paul Bunyan's axes, chopping down the forests of obscurity, darkness and fear in the name of God, like some horseman of the apocalypse of the world of unreason.

It's a good feeling. And once in a blue moon it actually does contribute to something really awesome. But more often than not I just like to stew in the feeling, and finally, time gets wasted. Ironic.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Religious belief and intelligence

At the behest of a certain internet friend, I'm starting a thread on this topic to sort of tie together conversations surround religion and intelligence (HAHA, get it? Thread? Tie? Ok, I'm done).

Here's an irony. Intelligent people "get" the questionable nature of citing a correlation as if it were a cause. But that doesn't take away the seductive nature of correlations for anyone (intelligent or otherwise). This is certainly true of the alleged correlation between intelligence and unbelief.

Richard Dawkins goes to great lengths in "The God Delusion" to suggest powerfully that theistic belief is in fact a function of IQ. Specifically, a low one.

And yet Neil deGrasse Tyson, another atheist, points out that the really interesting thing is not the correlation, but the fact that intelligent theists exist at all (even at the highest echelons of academia).

Of course, the existence of intelligent believers isn't really a novelty to me. Please note that the "Academia <--> Unbelief" correlation typically cite hierarchies within scientific academia--never the professors of faculties in fields of philosophy or theology. Not that I have numerical evidence that those heirarchies are any different. But if powerful, believing brains are hard to find among the physicists, they don't appear to be nearly so much among the metaphysicians.

Nor are brilliant theists hard to find within history. History is a sticky issue to bring into this discussion, since the retort will arise: well of course 17th century geniuses still believed in God. Virtually everybody did. Our knowledge of the universe wasn't as advanced as it is now.

Yet this leads me to ask if atheism was really so intellectually inaccessible to academics of 100, 200, or 300 years ago. Perhaps it was easier (for the general populace) to believe in God in a world without Darwin. But among academics, Darwin's ideas were hardly new when they arrived on the scene. What was new was the compelling nature of the evidence he provided and the radicality of his conclusions. Yet it would have been as possible to be a 17th century atheist as it was to be a modern believer.

I still haven't gotten to my main point. Right now I'm just collecting sub-issues to deal with. And I have more.

For example, there's a basic fact that so many distinctions must be made before we can even discuss these issues accurately: Belief (propositional content) vs. religion (practice, ritual, song, storytelling, community). Philosophically informed belief vs. simple belief (vs. culpably stupid belief).

IQ vs. intelligence vs. academic accomplishment vs. field of expertise.

And let's not forget the factor of objective truth. Is it possible for the simpleton to be objectively correct in spite of himself?

But let me conclude on a simple opinion. Being a theist who, I'll flatter myself, isn't stupid, I not only believe in God but I believe that my belief in God is rational and that my premises can stand up to any of the apologetics of, for example, the authors of

So, being faced with the facts on the ground--the correlation between IQ and unbelief, or between scientific academic accomplishment and unbelief--it behooves me to offer my own explanation. I have one: Culture.

Unbelief in western acadamia is as self-perpetuating as superstition among backwater rubes--and its memes use much the same mechanisms of defense and self-propagation as the silliest of religion. I'm gravely pessimistic of anyone's claim, implied or otherwise, to be above the subtle machinations of cultural influence, which are a-rational (while not necessarily ir-rational), powerful, and invisible even to geniuses.

And I have a complementary explanation of why such correlations bother me even less: basically, I think I'm right... and I would be no less right if I were impossibly stupid.

Forgive my bias, but I imagine that good old Benedict XVI could go toe-to-toe with Richard Dawkins without breaking an intellectual sweat. And that's the point. This is one case where it only takes a single counter-example--a single smart believer (or even a single stupid believer who happens to be correct) to make the whole alleged correlation between unbelief and intelligence completely irrelevent. And not only irrelevant, but perilous to put too much stock in.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Redemption and Buddhism

Father Cory Sticha posted a video of a mutual favorite professor of ours, Fr. Robert Barron, defending the remarks of Brit Hume regarding Christianity's superior tradition of redemption relative to Buddhism.

There are two issues involved, really. The first is the question: ought mainstream media figures to make such statements at all? (Here is where Fr. Barron's remarks are right on the dot). The second: does Brit Hume have a point as regards Christianity and Buddhism?

Some of the source of left-wing anger at Hume's comments might be that they interpreted his words to mean: "Christians are more forgiving than Buddhists." I seriously doubt it was his intention to say any such thing, but then, it is difficult to be accurately understood when one must shoehorn important words into brief moments.

One problem is that, if people do not know much about Buddhism, they might walk away from Brit Hume's words with a vision of the eastern philosophy in which people blame each other and are blamed for sins without any religious or metaphysical framework of overcoming it. I could think of no greater misery! But that is a gross distortion of the reality--and again, I contend, not what Brit Hume had in mind.

The difficulty is that neither forgiveness NOR blame are much on the radar of Buddhist philosophy. Seeking and granting redemption, while of course possible, are not ends in themselves.

The very concept of redemption entails a dialogue between the self and the other. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to eliminate that very distinction. When the "self", the "other" and the "all" are all One (and in some sense 'naught'), there is no redemption because there is no distinction between the redeemer and the redeemed.

Fellow Christians and I can interpret our entire faith-worldview as a dialogue of redemption. For Buddhists, that image would be far too "anthropomorphic" to serve as a model for their religious primary concern.

But that doesn't mean redemption is absent from Buddhist philosophy. Think of it this way. Christians might say, "forgive and forget"; I think Buddhists would focus mostly on the "forget" part. In other words, the only way for the sinner and the sinned-against to move closer to peace would be for each independently to "let go" of the drama that seizes their psyche. Neither person depends upon an action taken by the other to achieve this (no "Please forgive mes" or "I forgive yous" required).

Redemption can find itself in Buddhism in another way, via the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a means to an end--not an end in itself. But its dictates do involve more of what we would consider traditional "Christian" morality. To grant forgiveness, or to seek forgiveness, would fall under the dictates of "Right Speech"--but again, the overriding aim here is not to effect any objective state of "being redeemed", but to ensure that our words pave over the rocks and potholes of relationships. Words should extinguish passions, not enflame them. The word "nirvana" means, literally, to extinguish, as in the passions and attachments that anchor us to an illusory prison. That is the overriding concern in Buddhist philosophy.

If my understanding here is correct (and I hope people will check my thinking), there might be some truth in Brit Hume's comments--without implying that Bhuddists are in any way stingier with their forgiveness than Christians.

Tiger Woods' redemptive dillema is, I think, two-fold.

First, by being a celebrity, he is caught up in a firestorm of secular modernity's exaggerated condemnations. The media has a penchant for shrill, judgmental, despair-laced soul poison that makes Jonathan Edwards' famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" look like a pep talk by comparison. The reputational death-sentence, to be held up by the modern media for public scorn, is one of the ironies of our allegedly 'permissive' contemporary culture.

Regardless of religion or philosophy, any of us walking in Tiger's shoes (Nikes, presumably) could probably imagine wanting a finger dipped in water to cool our tormented tongues.

And yet it feels difficult, in such a situation, to glean satisfactory counsel from a tradition that does not recognize the reality of sin ('Original' or otherwise), or the objective spiritual damage caused by sin. Isn't that like the coach who tells his broken-legged quarterback to "walk it off"?

If I misunderstand, I hope to be corrected and educated about this issue.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Designing the robot secretary, pt 3

Thus, it's not enough to focus simply on one's ultimate goals and how they are fulfilled--one must also see that for every "ultimate" goal there is an "immediate" correlate. To write that book (someday) I need to educate myself (now). To love my grandchildren (someday) I need to eat healthy (now). To go to heaven (someday) I need to go to Mass (now)*.

*-No, one does not earn Heaven by going to Mass. Mass is not the price of Heaven. Going to Mass is merely the prescribed way of saying "yes" to God's free gift. Mass and Heaven are virtually one and the same.

And so the ultimate concerns need to be counter-balanced with immediate needs. And those immediate needs are governed by balance.

Balance is a tricky concept and it's one that needs to be broken down into concrete concepts if it's going to serve a function in a computer application.

I believe the definition of balance in this case exists somewhere between two concerns: (1) That I make sufficient immediate daily progress towards the milestones on the way to my ultimate goals so that they can be achieved without undue strain, and (2) that I serve the health and capability of my body and mind by enriching daily activity and avoiding excess.

One may add, as an appendix, (3) that I permit as much flexibility as necessary to live life in its unpredictability.

I believe that a computer program can reasonably factor all three of these in to a more or less satisfactory daily agenda. In the case of #1, it would be up to the user to outline "ultimate goals" and "milestones", as well as to estimate how much time certain milestones would take to achieve. For example, how many hours will it take me to become ready to take the Network + certification exam? When should I have taken that exam?

Designing the robot secretary, pt 2

Although people's planning processes are more or less systematic (in my case, much less), everybody has a complex interworking of values that, after some mental wrangling, spell out how they spend their time.

I think a goal for all of us is for our schedules to represent what we truly value, rather than our values be changed by our schedules.

The system I am toying with now, drafting as a simple database, takes the answers to simple questions and attempts to turn them into a balanced schedule that adapts to new input similar to the way we do. Normally, we have to do the high-level thinking ourselves; Apps like Microsoft Outlook take care of the low-level minutiae of recording our plans. Glorified sticky notes. I want an app that intelligently structures time according to the common sense which is not so common.

In principle this shouldn't be hard to implement. The only appointments that one would hard-schedule would be ones that were already set--work schedules, doctors' appointments, etc. Though the app itself could remind you when it was time to sit down and put these in!

And even the work schedule would not be inviolable. Tell the program you're sick, and it'll give you the contact information for work and your doctor, query your sick days, and adjust the schedule appropriately.

Something this program should respect is that life is not divided into atomistic "appointments". Life is a self-gift. The unexamined life is not worth living--and so far as I understand, the quintessential examination is to ask: To what, or to whom are you giving yourself?

Put differently, as Stephen Covey advises: how do you want to be remembered at your funeral?

These questions, a computer program can't answer for you. But if these are the what and the why, then at least a program can help with the how. Which, I imagine, most of us struggle with at least sometimes.

Thus, the various top priorities of life--say, "Family," "Dreams," "Faith," "Work," etc., are not separate, disembodied "values" competing with each other for our attention. They are absolutely linked to each other. I work so that I can support my family and fulfill my dreams, all in the service of my faith.

But this, by itself, is not enough. Forgive my referencing an Adam Sandler movie, but "Click" is a perfect example. Michael Newman ostensibly works to support his family, but in reality, work has devoured his connection to the family.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Designing the robot secretary, pt 1

I have an idea which is both grandiose and simple.

Why couldn't a computer program take a lot of the legwork out of managing my time?

There are countless applications for scheduling, but these are scarcely more than planners wrought pixelated. I'm thinking of something more useful.

Think about the process that goes into our decisions about how we spend our time (if we're not run completely by impulse). The more perspicuous of us are skilled at striking a balance--ensuring that some minimum amount of time each day is spent in activities most beneficially performed as routines, while allotting the remainder of the day to work and rest so that duties are done and the self is not too taxed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On cliches and commonalities

For six years of my life I supposed that I would join a celibate order of priests in an ancient faith, and thereby find a niche that was, like me, rare, deep, mystical, and heroic.

When that house of cards began to falter, I looked instead to the monastery, which lacked the priesthood's offer of sacramental powers and responsibilities, but for this was rarer still, and perhaps better suited to my refined (albeit still flawed) self-understanding. I could have what my heart longed for: the company of friends and brothers, a solid life purpose, and external structures to buttress up my weaknesses.

There is a certain irony here. In the very path of studying for priesthood and flirting for the monastery, I learned to appreciate the rarity, depth, mysticism, and heroism of the domestic church, of being a family man, more than ever before.

It was not simply a case of the grass being greener, because for me the grass seemed perfectly green everywhere (although the diocesan priest's lawn perhaps needs the most expert care). But that is exactly it. Up until recently in my life I had an unfair picture of the family's grass as being quite dry and uninteresting (or perhaps the false green of astroturf). Yet the last few years have seen a total reversal in me.

Here is an insight I learned in the seminary:

It's true, there is a certain rareness in finding one's vocation in the celibate orders of Catholic ecclesial life. Just look at the numbers. No one will accuse a young priest or a religious of being unoriginal.

However, the rarity of marriage has a twofold edge. First, while marriages are a "dime-a-dozen", Catholic marriages that involve prayer and that follow the teaching of the Church are an absolute anomaly.

But second (and perhaps more importantly), each marriage is a true one-of-a-kind vocation. Lots of people get married. No one else will marry *this* woman. No one else will be her knight. No one else will be for her what I may be called to be.


To an extent, I have learned that the constant evasion of cliches and commonalities is itself a giant cliche. While the masters of irony lampoon stupid pet names, I lavish them on my love without any irony at all. My little flower. My sweetheart. My dove.

And that is a large part of my critique against what calls itself "counter-culture". Not that they are overly rebellious (with all of the typical "shocking" accoutrements), but that they are not rebellious enough. Total individualism is not individualistic enough. The shared (nearly slavish) fear of convention takes the shape of an unwittingly lock-step group-think. The irony is that, self-amputated from tradition, the victims of this zeitgeist lack the reserves of human thought buried deep in history, by which they might have actually learned how to think for themselves.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In search again for the archimedian point.

Life does not typically rest still long enough for me to make much progress in my search for truth. The search for a means to reliably pay the bills imposes itself with irritating urgency. I'm happy to report that my urge to write is slowly creeping back to me now, this time equipped with a new arsenal of experience, and yet with the same drive as ever.

When I mention the "search for truth," I am not referring to a personal existential quest or to a religious unknown. My guiding star will always, with the grace of God, be the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Yet having such a star does not excuse me from the exercise of walking long paths (with legs prone to stumble), nor of navigating for my peers when the skies are murky with pollution.

When I mention the "search for truth," I search rather for bridge between my skeptical generation and the faith which has brought me my deepest joys.

Yet for years my intellectual efforts have been like prying open a stubborn door. I can peek through the crack; I catch glimpses of what appears beyond; and I feel that at any moment the latches will snap and the door will burst wide open. Yet it always snaps shut, and I need to find another corner to pry.

What timeless dialectic shoots through every contemporary squabble with Christianity? What faults betray the fortress's strength? Where is the road by which belief's fiercest opponents may feel invited to walk, though it promises to confound them? What words can lead the Way without the dead weight of habitual cultural associations?

Where do I begin?

"Understanding Unbelief"- A sympathetic primer on the fundaments and structure of common contemporary irreligion.

"Everything Old is New Again" - The case for the revival of timeless human insights amid contemporary culture.

"Fault Lines on Sex" - A historical approach delineating the contrary, and overlapping foundations of contemporary schools of thought concerning sex.

"Social Conservatives' Shame" - Toward a reformed social conservativism.

"The Inner Life of Memes" - Toward a model for understanding competing belief structures.

Monday, January 04, 2010

So many stars to follow.

Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Gospel, the magi tell the king that a star has heralded the birth of the Messiah.

The priest, in his homily, pointed out that we have so many stars and so many lights around us. How can we find the one that beckons us toward our royal inheritance?

As he said this, my attention was drawn to the scenery of the church. The tree was lit up with lights. There were, of course, the candle lights, the overhead lights, and so on. It all gave a grand illustration of Father's homily.

Faith must be the first light, of course, but does that relegate all other stars to charlatans and swindlers? I think that the answer to this question is going to be somewhat different between Catholic and Evangelical traditions.

The sacramentality of the Catholic faith is about being surrounded with stars, stars that, far from pointing away from the Star, are constantly pointing towards it. The little stars remain with us sometimes when the big Star becomes obscured, and they lead us back, because they serve that greater Star. The fact that they are not the One Star does not detract from their own beauty.

The magi probably did not discern the heraldic star simply by its brightness, as is often shown in art in which it dominates the heavens. They probably, rather, used the machinations of astrology, which, without other stars to guide them, would have been powerless.

So the question of "what lights in your life are you following?" is not simply an exhortation to saving faith--though faith discerns best which lights to follow. For there are tangible stars in our lives that point the way. We mustn't be distracted by the odd meteorite or airplane. We mustn't assume that the sky isn't worth attention unless it has fireworks or other man-made delights.

Our great loves can be lights to follow. Sure, they are God's creatures, and struggle, like I do, under the effects of sin. But even so, their created brilliance is God's handiwork.

On a recent Muse album, a phrase that pops up from time to time is "guiding lightning strike". Lightning originates from the ground and strikes the heavens. So perhaps a guiding lightning strike is exactly such a good light to follow on my way to the heraldic star. I think I've seen mine. The pattern is permanently written onto my retinas. I think I'll follow her.