Archive for December, 2009

Things to ponder

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

J.R. R. Tolkien was once accused (and is still by many) of peddling nothing but lies. His response was this….

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

In a different context he said…

“Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and
likeness of a Maker.”

When ever I think about art, I almost invariable think about the essay that these quotes where drawn from. Although Tolkien tried hard to differentiate fantasy from other art forms, I think all of his arguments could be applied to any art form. And I think he does his arguments a disservice by trying to limit them the way he does.

Be that as it may, I keep coming back in my thoughts to this essay because it is such an unsettling thing for me to read. I don’t feel comfortable with many of the arguments that Tolkien makes. One gets the feeling that he fell in love with his subject to an extent that is almost idolatrous. Yet at the same time, I cannot make myself dismiss Tolkien argument out hand.

It cannot be denied that man is a creative by his very nature. Nor would I argue that there is anything wrong with being creative. But to make to much of man being a “sub-creator” because he is made in the image of God is a very slippery slope. That argument can very easily lead to deifying man.

And that is before we get in the difficulties presented by Tolkien’s arguments over what is really “true”.

A question and an answer

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

What is the difference between good writing and bad writing? Or to be more precise, what is the difference between great writing and merely functional writing? And is there even any profit in considering the question?

It is often argued that great writing is just a matter of taste. And to a certain degree this is true. A blind man will never be able to appreciate the work of a visual artist. And I have determined through scientific testing that your intelligence level vastly affects what you can enjoy and what you can not. To wit, if I am tired and brain dead I don’t like things that I would otherwise love and love things that I would otherwise hate.

But when people say that great writing is just a matter of taste they are not claiming that people’s limitations affect what they are able to enjoy. Rather, they are arguing that there is no objective standard by which we might say that some writing is functional and other writing is great. This view point is seriously misleading. I would even go so far as to argue that it is completely false.

It is true to argue that mankind will never be able to articulate or understand a complete objective understanding of what makes writing great. But that has nothing to do with the issue with of whether such a standard does exist. Human beings are not the measure of reality. And this distinction matters because something that we can never fully obtain is still worth striving for.

In fact, I would argue that artistic expression in western world has gone down hill precisely because artists have come to believe that man is the measure of all things and they have given up striving to live up to any other measure. The builders of the Cathedrals lavished great care even on the unseen parts because the believed that the measure of good art was not limited to the measure of man. Modern architecture is designed solely around the need to shock or impress the mind of man. In my mind, there is no contest as to which is the better work of art.

And I think that a similar observation could be made about art in general. Once man became the measure of all things, the only things that matters where those things that could get a strong reaction out of mankind. And those were generally things that shocked, titillated, or horrified. Thus, the great and good will not consider a work of fiction to be serious unless it is one part porn, one part ghost tale, and one part freak show. And yet, their serious works do not compare to that which came before them and in their more honest moments they recognize this.

If you share this observation, then the answer to my last question becomes obvious. If acting as if man is the only measure of what makes things great drags the arts down then it is obvious that ones conception of what makes writing “great” matters. And thus there is some value in considering the question of what makes writing great how ever minor that value might be.

A question

Monday, December 28th, 2009

I would rather write a few pages that were well written then a lot of pages that were not well written.

But you can’t prove that by what I have written. The most common compliant that I get is that it is too wordy. And it is a valid complaint.

So I guess, the question is, how do you get from writing a lot of garbage to writing some stuff that is well written?

A common answer offered up by a lot of well meaning moralists is that you have to write a lot of garbage before you can learn to write well. This is demonstrably not true. Very few of the best writers in this world are prolific writers. Some of the best of them hardly write at all.

For example To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book that Harper Lee ever published. In contrast, Agatha Christie published numerous books. But I would rather have a book like To Kill A Mockingbird then all the books that Agatha Christie ever wrote. By the same token, I would rather have a Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz under my belt then all of the books that Isaac Asimov wrote. And one could go on and on with other such examples.

The thing that makes the advice of all those well meaning moralists false is that good writing depends more on the ability of the writer to think then it does on the writer ability to write. Asimov could put words one after another as well as Miller. But he did not even come close to having Miller’s depth of thought.

But the question still remains, how can one improve one’s own writing if practicing writing alone is not sufficient?

The Lie I Told Myself

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

I spent most of my first real job in a state of fear. There are various stories I could tell to justify that fear.

I could talk about the first time my boss had me back hang a commercial garage door. He was in a terrible rush and demanded a similar state of hurry from me. So while I was 15 feet in the air on a ladder, he was throwing me nuts and bolts and other such stuff from the other end of the garage and telling me not to drop them on the brand new car that was right below me. As if that was not enough, it was my first time drilling through steel and all I had was a drill without variable speed and bunch of dull drill bits. I can’t remember how many bits I broke.

Or I could talk about how I had just got my driver’s license and I was driving a 1-ton service truck that was older than I was and had bad brakes to boot. And I was doing this in heavy traffic while driving at speeds above the speed limit with my boss next to me yelling at me because I was not driving fast and aggressively enough for him.

I could tell a lot of stories like those, but they would all be lies. Not because they are not true, but because they mislead people as to why I was always afraid. They would make it seem like the problem was my boss when really the problem was me.

My boss did everything in his power to make things easy for me. Granted, his powers were rather limited. But he treated me twice as good as he was treated when he was first starting in the trades. He honestly wanted to set me on the road to prosperity and he did everything in his power to accomplish that end. The only thing that kept him from treating me even better is that he just did not know any other way of doing things.

In America, you don’t get much in the way of training when you start out in the trades (unless you start out in a union, but few in America have that luxury). In America, the people in the trades generally get their education via the time honored sink or swim method. And my boss just could not conceive of any other way of teaching someone.

And if I had been remotely talented, this would not have been a problem. But I did not have any talent for what he needed me to do, and that is what caused me to spend my time in a state of fear.

Before my first real job, I was not used to being someone who was slow on the uptake. All my life up to that point I had learned most things very fast and with hardly any effort. But when I got my first real job, even the simplest things took me forever to learn. There was nothing about my job that I learned fast.

And so the fear that I lived with was fear that once again I would demonstrate that I was incompetent. I hated being incompetent. I hated being the fool. I hated being slow. And the feeling that every working day was going to reveal me as being one of those things was enough to make me feel like I was trapped in a living nightmare.

I guess you could argue that I should have quit my job. But I did not feel that I had that option.

I had always known that if I wanted to do something that I was really good at, I would have to go to college. But I wanted to help my family now, not wait four years. And besides, I felt that any college degree that I would be interested in would require me to take a job out of the area. And that would make it tough to help my family out.

You could argue that my reasoning was poor. But regardless of what the truth was, I did not feel that I could quit my first job. But as much as it embarrasses me to admit it, I did pray that I could find some way out of the job. Or even more pathetically, I would pray that I would get out of something or other that I feared I would do poorly at. Sometimes I even prayed that I would become good at what I was trying to do. But somehow I could never bring myself to believe that would happen.

I went along like this for a while. But at some point I remember rolling down the road in the work truck praying my usual pathetic prayers and suddenly it dawned on me that what I really needed to be praying for was the ability not to be ruled by fear. And though I did not stop praying for a way out of the job that I could take with a clean conscience, I did start praying that I would not be ruled by fear.

And while I am not an objective observer, I would say that those prayers were answered. I did not become competent. But that no longer caused me to operate in a state of fear.

Not too long after this, I quit that job. I spent just a little over two years working there. I thought that those two years were a waste of time because I did not learn much to speak of. What I did not know at the time was that if I had spent any less time in that job, I would not have qualified for the job I have now. Anything less than two years, and I would not have qualified.

But even if those two years had not qualified me for a much better job down the road, those two years were not a waste. I learned things that had a value all their own.

When another man who did his best to help me committed suicide, I thought back to this time. I thought of how much like him I was. The focus of my fears were all centered around my ridiculous self regard. I thought if I was good at everything, I would be happy.

But the real cause of my unhappiness was not my inability to be good at everything I tried to do. Rather, my unhappiness was caused by my inability to rule my own fears. All the powers of a demigod would not do me any good if I could not rule myself. But I preferred to lie to myself and focus on the outward things as being the cause of my unhappiness.

The Promise

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Many people read Luke on this day. I prefer to start with Genesis…..

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

And I like to read in Deuteronomy….

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

And Isaiah….

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

And of course, Micah…

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor gives birth
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be their peace.

A lie that killed

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

I knew a man who committed suicide. He had lots of good reasons to hate himself. But I don’t think he killed himself for any of those reasons.

This particular man did a lot to help me out. He always paid me more then I asked. He was one of the prime movers behind getting me a job in the organization where I currently work. And he was instrumental in getting me every promotion that I have gotten since I started.

For me, the best part of this is that he never tried to make me feel grateful and never spent a lot time bragging about what he did for me. He was one of the few people who have ever helped me without trying to make me feel grateful or like I owed him one. And I am not the only one who could say that. He was good at helping people.

But he had a lot of vices. And I do mean a lot. But they were all summed up in the image of perfection that he tried to project. Some people described it as arrogance. But I think he went through life desperately hoping that people would think he was something that he knew he was not. And in his desperate attempts to prove that he was all that, he did a lot of very wrong things and hurt a lot of people. Particularly the women who made the mistake of falling in love with him.

And maybe I should not impute motives to the dead, but I believe that he killed himself because he felt he could no longer maintain the image he was trying to project. He felt that he screwed up and now everyone was going to find out what a real loser he was.

And that is really sad. The image that he tried to project was always a lie that nobody believed anyway. None of the people who really cared for him were fooled by that image (at least, not for long). And the people who hated him, hated him because of all the things that he did to try to maintain that image.

If he had truly become disgusted by all evil things that he had done, I don’t think he would have killed himself. His death only hurt all the people he had wronged even more.

His suicide was one of the things that got me thinking about how even our hatred for ourselves is founded on lies. That guy had a lot of things that he could have truthfully felt bad about. But I really believe that it was the lie he tried to live that caused him to kill himself.

Just because it hurts does not mean that it is true

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

I have a tendency to have more faith in the bad things that I think about myself then I do in the good thoughts I have about myself.

After all, I would love to honestly be able to think good things about myself and I don’t really want any bad thing to be honestly true about myself. Therefore it stands to reason that my desires will cause me to more readily believe goods things about myself even if they are not supported by the truth. Thus, there is a high probability that that the good things I think about myself are false. But since I don’t want to believe bad things about myself, any bad thing that I do think is likely to be true.

On the surface, the above logic seems pretty compelling. Indeed, the first premise is undoubtedly correct. We often lie to ourselves so as the be able raise ourselves up in our own estimation. But the second premise is completely false. We are no more likely to think truthful bad things about ourselves then we are to think truthful good things about ourselves. So the reasoning I am often prone to is highly misleading because it fails to account for how completely lies dominate my thinking.

As a kind of simplistic example of what I am saying, let us imagine that there is girl who considers herself to be ugly. Chances are very slim that this girl has an objective standard of beauty that she would be satisfied to meet. It is much more likely that this girl imagines that if she was beautiful, she would be able to find true love or that she would be a lot more happier or some other pipe dream. And because of that, she is likely to continue to feel that she is ugly as long as she does not get the things that she imagines that beauty would get her, regardless of what the objective facts are regarding her looks. So she thinks she is ugly because she is lying to herself, even though she would rather think of herself as being beautiful.

In the same manner, our condemnations of ourselves are often based on lies.

The unsolvable paradox

Monday, December 21st, 2009

One of my greatest desires and one of my worst fears is that I might come to understand the truth about myself.

James notes that “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” I think a similar sort of logic applies to knowing the truth about one’s self. Your ability to perceive truth is only as good as your ability to know the truth about yourself. And since it is impossible to fully know one’s self, you can pretty much write off any claim of being able to fully know the truth about anything else.

It is easy to look around you and see people who’s understanding is warped by their own desires and motivations. They think they are looking at the unvarnished truth but it is clear to most everyone else that they have swallowed a lie.

You see this and you have to wonder how you fall into the same trap. What kind of lies am I believing as truth? How am I blind?

But paradoxically, if you really wanted to know the answers to those questions, you would. The lies we tell ourselves, even the ones that we use to tear ourselves down, are all lies that we want to hear.

Our fundamental problem is that we want to be vindicated in our own mind. But we want to be vindicated in truth, not in our own made up lies. But if our minds where forced to judge ourselves in the light of the complete truth, we would not be able to vindicate ourselves.

In order to solve this paradox, our minds must lie.

These meanderings were a result of thinking about this post. Figure that one out if you can. I was going to work it into the post, but I ran out of words.

The Road To Hell

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

One of the things that people hate the most about orthodox Christianity is its insistence that everyone is deserves the wrath of God. Surly nobody finds this particular belief more objectionable then that class of people we call liberals. Therefore, it is highly ironic that liberals always seem to be pushing for laws and regulations that makes everyone guilty in the eyes of the state.

Granted, liberals have no desire to make everyone guilty. But they do want the world to be perfect place where no one is treated unfairly and everyone can be happy. And the harder they try to achieve this perfection, the more they create a world where everyone is guiltily.

This mindset was on full display in the New York Times article on New York’s juvenile prison system that I blogged about earlier. The would-be reformers profiled by the article seemed gripped by the illusion that the existing system can be fixed with more rules and more money. To my mind, this is self-evidently absurd.

It already costs over 200 grand per kid and how those kids can be treated is already heavily regulated. Even if New York State could afford it, does anyone really believe that spending 400 grand per kid and doubling the amount of regulations would improve outcomes? Anyone who does believe this does not understand how striving for perfection can make things worse.

One of the things that I tried to demonstrate in my follow-up post is that more regulations can make it harder to punish the bad state employees. When everyone is guilty how do you deiced who to punish? You can’t punish them all or you will not have anyone left to do the work.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most rules and regulations are not based on reality. I talked about absurdities that arise because the State insists on treating men and woman as if they were exactly the same. But the fundamental problem is that policy makers have lots and lots of incentives to base their rules and regulations on lies.

For example, wards of the state can sue the state if they are injured by state employees. But state employee can not sue the state if they are injured by a ward of the state. Thus, the rules and regulations governing how state employees can interact with wards of the state are geared towards protecting the wards of the state no matter what they do. But for political reasons, policy makers have to pretend that this can be done while still keeping the employees perfectly safe. So they pretend that there is no trade offs between those two goals while in practice they sell employee safety up the river.

These are all examples of how striving for perfection can make things worse. And yet it seems that would-be reformers think that can make the system better by pushing more of the same on the system until it becomes perfect.

I do think the system can be improved. But the first requirement for any real improvement is honesty. And the first requirement of honesty is the acknowledgment that there will always be trade offs and we will never have perfection.

So what kind of trade offs do we want to make?

Rules based on lies

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

I have watched as a high ranking female supervisor berated a lower ranking female supervisor. The high ranking female supervisor had no choice. The lower ranking female supervisor had tried to break the rules and it was the job of the higher ranking female supervisor had to tell her that she could not do that.

The rules were stupid and both ladies knew that. But they still had to be enforced.

The rules in question actually where not all that bad in and of themselves. All that the rules demanded was that seniority govern how certain task were handed out. In a world where all the staff were more or less equal in ability, such rules would not have mattered.

But the staff were not all equal. Some were male and some were female. And this made a big difference to the lower ranking female supervisor. She kept pleading, “I need at least one man, I can’t give up my only man.”

And other such things that females tend to utter when the are scared. But her supervisor kept telling her, “You can’t use that as a reason. You have to follow the rules.” And other such platitudes such administrators utter when they are enforcing rules that are based on lies.

The lower ranking female supervisor had good reason to be fearful. She was responsible for wards of the state who were all male, deemed to be dangerous (that’s why they were there), and some of them had committed sex crimes. She did not want to try to handle this without a man on her understrengthed staff.

No one would blame her. But the rules are based on the lie that men and woman are equal in all respects. And so her desire to hang onto at least one male was against the rules.

But the problem with rules based on lies is that they are unenforceable. An HR department will hire a female on the grounds that she is equal in all respects to a male. But it will not fire a female on the grounds that she is not equal in all respect to her male co-workers. That is to say, no HR department wants to try to fire a 130 pound female on the grounds that she is not willing to physically grapple with a 200 pound violent male, even if that is her job.

As a consequence, some females are worthless when trouble comes because they know that no one will hold them to account for not doing their jobs. Of course, not all females are willing to take advantage of this fact. In fact, those women who do try to do their jobs (and get beat up pretty regularly, in some cases) are biggest haters of those females that do not try to do their jobs.

But that does not change the fact that men can be expected to do their jobs were as women cannot be. And that is just one more reason why a female supervisor would want to hang on to her men even if meant breaking the rules.