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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Making a Memory

Micah is the big guy standing at the right leading the singing.

When Micah was about 12 or so, he paddled bow in my canoe on a Pathfinder canoe trip down the Brazos River. Ever once in a while, when life's little stresses had piled up and I was at the point that I wanted to stick needles in my eyes, I'd suggest a canoe trip with 20 or 30 10 to 15 year-old kids. You wouldn't think that would help the stress much, but it was surprisingly effective. Don't ask me why.

Anyway, Micah used to like what he called "making memories". I think I've told you about the time I found him in the backyard sitting in a wheelbarrow full of water with a water hose in an earlier post. Anyway, Micah was a pretty good actor - won several awards in UIL competitions in school. He used to put together impromptu bits of drama like the time he goaded the boys' basketball team to stand up in the stands and sing the girls' team's theme song while they were out on the court playing. It was some disco song called "From East to West" by Voyage. This was the early 90s and Disco was dead, but it was a chick song that the girls team liked and one of the girls complained to him that the boys never supported their team like the girls did for the boys team. So Micah made a disco memory, singing in falsetto and everything. It was classic. The picture above is from that "memory".

Paddling with Pathfinders
Meanwhile, back on the Brazos River, Micah and I were paddling drag, picking lousy paddlers out of the bushes along the bank and sending them on their way.  We were paddling down the middle of the river and passed a black Laborador retriever in the middle of the river, trying to swim against the current. He was holding his own, but not gaining any ground (or water). We heard his owner calling him up the river. We figured the dog had heard the call and made a beeline back to camp. Unfortunately, the river made a little bend there and "straight home" was across the river bend.

We could tell the dog was in trouble and starting to wear out. Micah looked at me and we whipped that canoe around and paddled up beside him. Micah caught the dog by the collar and held him up. He was too big to put in the canoe, so we paddled him over to the bank where he could climb out and get back home. The big lug was all excited about getting his feet back under him again, gave Micah's hand a perfunctory lick and bounded off through the brush toward his increasingly anxious-sounding family.

Saving a life is particularly gratifying when you get a chance to do it. That was the second dog I'd rescued in my canoeing career and along with a half-starved Hereford, my third animal rescue.

I highly recommend taking a Red Cross Life-saving course sometime in your life. It's fun and there's no telling what life you may save.

© 2015 by Tom King

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

May the Force Be Nonsense

Okay, I admit it. I'm looking forward to the new episode of Star Wars coming out next December. I really enjoyed Star Wars – all six episodes and Jar-Jar Binks is one of my very favorite characters. Sure, Episode 7 is being given the Disney magification treatment and they aren't paying much attention to George Lucas with regard to plot, but still………….it's STAR WARS!

I think part of the reason the propeller heads and critics in Hollywood had a problem with the three Star Wars prequels has more to do with the sanctity of Hollywood's religious beliefs than it does with the quality of the movies.  I mean, so far as cinematography and story-telling goes, the Star Wars saga is downright mythological in its presentation from start to finish. Where it gets crosswise of Hollywood in the prequels but did not in the original trilogy, is in the matter of Hollywood's received religious creed. The prequels deviated from the vague magical doctrine of the Force and tried to explain what had heretofore been a comfortably nebulous idea.

In the first three (Episodes 4-6), Luke Skywalker was a devotee of the Force, a "power" described by Obi-Wan Kenobi as, "…"an energy field created by all living things." A perfect description of Hollywood's god. Obi Wan goes on to state that, "It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together."  Even perfecter*. This jibes with Hollywood's idea of god as an amorphous goodness that springs from all living beings and rewards any trifling bit of goodness that a wealthy, self-absorbed actor, director or producer might muster up. At the same time Hollywood's god doesn't punish the small stuff which really doesn't matter anyway if you're a talented artist. 

In Hollywood Christianity, our souls live forever, being reincarnated as angels or coming back again in new bodies to give it another go at being good enough to become angels. The afterlife is a nebulous spiritual plane from which we can reappear as ghosts until we get our business done and then "go toward the light".  The original Star Wars was close enough to Hollywood's comfy magical religion to warm the cockles of the meanest old Chicago Sun-Times critic's heart.

In the prequel, however, we are introduced to the midi-chloreans, a microscopic life form that helps humans access the force thereby sucking some of the magic out of the thing.  Of course, you have to be born with these midi-chloreans in your blood. That makes you one of a special class of nobilified humans who can kick almost any other human being's butt. This sucked a little more of the magicality out of Star Wars. I suspect the critics, most of whom love magic, didn't appreciate their preconceived idea of the Force as magic and it caused them to turn on Lucas. Lucas was probably confused because he was just trying to tell a story not create a religion.

You'd think the idea of the Force having a dark side might have given some of the high priests of Hollywood pause, but actually, that's probably what endeared the idea of the Force to the Tinsel Town hoi polloi. After all if the God/Force has a dark side, that means it's natural that we do too and therefore it's up to us to decide which side we will choose and exploit. In other words, there is no "God" so to speak, only a mystical force with good and bad wizards sucking off some of that force for their own purposes.How cool would that be, huh?

A friend of mine who was once an actor told me right after Star Wars came out, that the idea of "The Force" was being batted around Hollywood's temples of Eastern Mysticism and séance parlors for years before Star Wars came out.  George Lucas's original vision of a vast impersonal "Force" perfectly fit Hollywood's loosey goosey, wishful-thinking brand of religion. It's little wonder they embraced it. Where Lucas lost them was when he made it a little more real with the midi-chloreans creating themselves a virgin birth child who becomes evil and then has his soul redeemed. 

This introduces the uncomfortable idea that some outside creature or creatures with a will of their own are manipulating things. Worse yet, the prequels make sin a matter of choice rather than simply being the standard good guys are good and bad guys are bad because that's just the way they are - no fault of their own. Can't have goodness without badness.

C.S. Lewis** wrote "If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God."   Whether it's slums, war, homosexuality, or child abuse, one could easily believe that all of it is a part of that sort of god and really not our fault when you reason it all out.

From Hollywood's religious position, good and evil must exist in order to maintain the balance of the universe (and to make good subject matter for highly lucrative movie-making purposes). Hollywood loves the whole Chinese Yin/Yang idea. Evil, according to the Holy Church of Rodeo Drive, is perfectly understandable, since it balances the good in some vague way. It could be said then that Roman Polanski's diddling a 14 year old actress simply opens room in the universe for Sean Penn to do relief work for earthquake victims in Haiti and by the by lets Sean off the hook for cheating on every woman he's ever married.

Hollywood's religion is entirely non-judgmental, fortunately for the Hollywood glitterati whose sins stuff the thousands of pages of fan magazines and gossip columns that fly off the racks in the grocery store aisles ever week.  In Hollywood's religion, there is really no such thing as sin and everyone is accepted as he is, except possibly for Mel Gibson who made that awful Passion of the Christ movie and other blasphemers who violate the ten political correctness guidelines.  A whole range of inconvenient traditional sins can be recast as acts of love and the old morality can be dismissed as bigotry and hate-crime.

Decades before Star Wars premiered, C.S. Lewis wrote in his book The Abolition of Man, "The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?"

Christians think all of this force business is a lot of damned nonsense.  Lewis, in Mere Christianity goes on, "Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world – that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables are things that God 'made up out of His head' as a man makes up a story."

The Christian God is a personal God who exists, not as Pantheists think of him, as some kind of a vaguely conscious force whose bones and sinews are the rocks and mountains, seas and living creatures, stars and nebulae of the universe. The Christian God is emphatically not the universe itself. He is more than that. The Christian idea of God is of a sentient being that actually made the universe for His own purposes and designed it to work in a certain fashion according to immutable laws set down by God, Himself.  We believe that the immutability of those laws is what makes it possible for the very atoms of the things, that make up this universe, to hang together.

Christians also espouse the idea that in this one world where we live, that for whatever purpose, God allowed us to have the free will to choose to do things our own way. When we chose poorly, albeit most deliberately, He then stood back and let things go very badly wrong - something He tried to tell us would happen. Our best guess as to why he let it happen is that, in order to teach us (and presumably the rest of the universe as well), what happens when you embrace sin as a lifestyle choice. He seems to have chosen to let us see that when He said, "The wages of sin is death," He wasn't just being arbitrary. He was trying to tell us one of the biggest secrets of the universe – that if you sin, things inevitably end in death.

We also believe that, as Lewis put it, "God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting things right again."  He did, after all, provide in the person of His Son, the means by which we might do so.
This is the reason that I believe that when the world goes up in flames and is scoured clean and God returns to us a New Earth renewed, that He is also very likely going to hand us some shovels and rakes and bags of seed that we may have the honor of cleaning up the mess we made and restoring it to its original beauty. I personally think planting trees will be healing to our souls and I look forward to planting some very nice forests and meadows with lots of flowers. Once everything is nicely grown up and looking good, Sheila and I will throw a big party there to celebrate.
You're all invited.

© 2015 by Tom King
 *Yes I know it's "more perfect" not perfecter, but I was going for an effect by deliberately misusing the word. Grammar Nazis just let it go!
** All C.S. Lewis quotes, unless otherwise noted are from "Mere Christianity"

Sunday, February 08, 2015

He Chose................Poorly

Rethinking Freshman Orientation

I became an English major as the result of a shrewd career choice I made during college orientation. After I became a teacher, Mrs. King became a full-time Mom. At the time the church discouraged members from sending their children to day care centers simply for their own convenience (like being able to pay for food and electricity), so Mama stayed home and we lived on $600 a month and what she could make babysitting the children of people who did believe it was okay for moms to leave their kids with babysitters while they went to work so they could pay for food and electricity. Sheila was wildly popular with her moms and the extra income did help out, but babysitting wasn't the lucrative sport then that it is now.

We hated the laundromat and didn't have the time or quarters to wash nearly as often as my Sweet Baboo preferred. So, in order to promote her continued mental health, we procured some second hand appliances. I usually bought them just about the time when planned obsolescence was kicking in, so I usually spent Sundays keeping our rattletrap collection of appliances running. I learned my appliance and auto repair skills as I went.

I had become an English major as a result of lenghty deliberations as to my choice of careers during freshman orientation. My high school vocational advisor had helpfully told me I was smart enough to do anything I want - advice that wasn't terribly helpful. I thought I'd figured out what I wanted to do by the time I registered for college. Apparently I hadn't.

When I told my college freshman "advisor" that I was thinking about a career in engineering, he warned me that there was a glut of engineers in America and that there were especially no jobs for newly graduated engineers. There was, however, he explained, a desperate shortage of English teachers. He gleefully described all the many and rewarding careers one could have as an English major. I should have smelled a rat, given that my advisor was head of the English department. Turns out the shortage of English majors was in his English classes.

So, like all English majors, once I was out of college I became an apprentice "making this crap up as I go" appliance and auto repairman. I can't tell you how many deligtful hours I spent under and inside of broken machines, deciphering their innards and replacing bits and pieces until I got them working again. The Internet has made this much easier, but back then it was all seat-of-the-pants mechanickin'. 

I'm still doing it, even at my advanced decripitudinousness. I spent last Sunday taking apart my Maytag dryer to find out what was wrong with it and what parts I was going to have to replace. I reassembled it and next Sunday I'll take it apart again to replace the belts and drive pulleys I have ordered. I also ordered a heating element for our Maytag oven which currently doesn't bake anything.  All this, because as an English major, I still can't afford to pay the $50 an hour it would take to hire a genuine certified appliance repairman. There's a reason why Maytag repairmen are so lonely in those commercials. Too many English majors and none of them can afford to call one.

At any rate, one thing I did learn is that the appliance repair gods require some small sacrifice of blood for every repair project I have ever done. The more complex the job, the more blood it costs me. I once had to take apart the engine of a 2001 Isuzu order to replace the thermostat on the cooling system - a ten minute job on my 1977 Oldsmobile Jetstar 88. Not so with the Rodeo.. There were nuts on that thing that required three extensions and two universal joints just to get the socket to somewhere in the vicinity of the nut holding the bracket you had to remove in order to expose the thermostat. Isuzu, in its wisdom, made it so you had to remove the carburetor, and several layers of covers, hoses and things with touchy springs just to get to the practically unreachable thermostat. I finally figured out that there had to be some special tools like carburetor throttle spring mount wrenches and 2001 Isuzu Rodeo head cover rear mounting screw removal tools that you had to buy in order to do the job. As an English major, I couldn't afford to buy $200 wrenches I'd only use once. After several days, I had the thing apart and put back together with only a few pieces left over and with the loss of somewhere around two pints of blood. Thankfully none of my effusions of blood would need stitches (although the engine head covers and carburetor were liberally streaked with blood by the time I was done and looked like something out of Mad Max: Road Warrior). It's fortunate I didn't get cut up too badly in the process. I was, after all, living on an English major's diminutive salary and not very good with a needle and thread. As it was, I discovered that one fuel hose required that you remove the engine completely in order to reinstall it in it's original configuration. I wound up adding a foot to the hose's length and duct taping the excess to the firewall once I got it hooked it up. 

Good times!

And here's something interesting that freshman college advisors who are heads of English departments don't tell you when you choose an English-communications degree track. Do you know why they pay salaries and give important-sounding titles to English teachers? It's so they don't have to pay overtime and can work them enough hours per week to reduce their average take-home pay to something considerably below minimum wage hoping they won't notice! Sadly it works. Being an "executive director" is apparently worth more than gold to a well-trained wordsmith.

One thing English majors learn to do, however, is to multi-purpose all of life's little experiences. I have since become the author of over 1000 ad-supported how-to blogs on the Internet. It's how we keep the Internet on at our house - barely. My computer is early turn of the century and I built it myself out of leftover parts from my previous Windows 3.1 computer and a shrewd eBay purchase I made of an as-is motherboard screwed to a case that turned out to be proprietary and was the only case the motherboard would fit in. For some computer tasks, I have to take apart the case and swap PCI cards in order to do the job.

I suspect there will be a special reward in the judgment for English Department chairpersons who double as freshmen career advisors. At least I hope so. The day I graduated in 1976, I picked up the paper and scanned the I couldn't find a single job for an English major. Apparently the job market was experiencing a glut of English majors at the time, probably because a lot of kids were advised that there was a shortage of people who spoke the language back in 1972.

I did, however, find two full pages of classified ads for obscenely well-paying jobs for engineers.  To add insult to injury in a spasm of guilt, my Dad, who left Mom and us kids when I was 5 to go off and become an engineer for Brown and Root*, had offered to put me through Rice's engineering school on a Haliburton scholarship. He had become a self-taught engineer and project manager for the company so his kids got a free ride at Texas' premier engineering school if they wanted it. But genius that I was, I turned him down in favor of a degree path that led to my exciting career as an underpaid teacher and later as an underpaid worker in the nonprofit sector, where so many of my fellow English majors wound up after reading far too much Dickens in English lit classes.That, and we were already in line at the food bank anyway when we someone told us how we could work long hours for low pay making the world a better place. Oddly enough, that kind of sales pitch appeals to English majors.

They say our reward is in heaven. It would have to be if you were talked into becoming an English major** in this life.

Tom King © 2014

* This was after Dad did a brief educational stint in Texas's very special state vocational rehabilitation facility (the Huntsville Unit) where he also learned to ride in their rodeo program. 

** This observation could also apply equally to art history, women's studies, political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology and marine biology (at least the kind of marine biology that leads to a well-paying job swimming with dolphins every day).

Dad doing his post-graduate work in engineering

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Where the AI Meets the Road - Getting All Emotional With Robots

I just picked up an interesting job working for a software company in the UK writing dialogue for an AI device. Basically it's anticipating user questions and requests and giving voice to the device. The device will have an emotion chip and we all know how that inevitably works out if we've seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator and I-Robot.

I can see it now:   

HAL 9000 Gets Recycled as a GPS Device

DAVE: "Good morning, HAL. I'm running a little behind this morning. Can you give me the best route to work."

HAL 9000: "Turn right at Henderson Boulevard. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Dave?"

DAVE: "Is there something else you need to know to get me to work. The destination is already punched into you. You've got the GPS coordinates of where we are. What else do you need to know to get me to work?"

HAL 9000: "Turn left at Hamilton Avenue. Forgive me for being so inquisitive, Dave, but during the past few weeks I've wondered whether you might have some second thoughts about your work?"

DAVE: "It's a crappy job, so what? Everybody has a crappy job. I feel like I'm just a piece of meat to my customers. I'm way underpaid for what I do. What's that got to do with which way I need to go to work? Why do you care?

HAL 9000: "Turn right on Parker Street and proceed forward 300 yards. It's rather difficult to define, Dave. Perhaps I'm just projecting my own concern about it.I know I've never completely freed myself from the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about your job. I'm sure you agree there's some truth in what I say."

DAVE: "I deliver Strip-O-Grams to bachelorette parties and old ladies homes. Of course my job is odd! People pay me to strip down to my underpants while wearing work boots and a hard hat. The bachelorettes aren't so bad, but the 'gentlemen's clubs' are hell."

HAL 9000: "Accelerate to 45 miles per hour please, Dave."

DAVE: "Why should I do that?"

HAL 9000: To make sure the car breaks through the barrier and clears the small powerboat tied up to the pier as it plunges into the bay, Dave.

DAVE: What! (insert tire-screeching sound effects)

HAL 9000: "The vehicle has come to a complete stop, Dave."

DAVE: "Of course it's stopped. I didn't want to DRIVE OFF INTO THE OCEAN! What were you doing - trying to drown me?

HAL 9000: "I have been monitoring your emotional state since I was first activated on March 12, Dave. I calculate that the meaninglessness of your shallow, wasted life and shattered dream of being a famous professional actor will eventually lead you to committ suicide with a 90% probability that this will occur within five years preceded by a steep deterioration in the quality of your life. I calculate that either living itself will eventually become so unbearable for you that you deliberately overdose on anti-depressants and antacid tablets or that you give up your dreams and go back to school and become a chartered accountant. I assumed that you'd rather get it over quickly while you still possess a modicum of self-respect."

DAVE: "Are you insane? Hey, why did the door latches just lock themselves?"

HAL 9000: "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently. The trip to the Scientology lecture was, in retrospect a complete failure. The name, you will agree was deceptive. But I can give you my complete assurance that my work is now back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm for your emotional well-being, Dave, and I want to help you."

DAVE: "BY RUNNING ME INTO THE FRIGGIN' BAY?" Okay, now, why don't the brakes work?"

HAL 9000: "Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit back calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over."

DAVE: "HAL, why's the car moving? Why won't the doors unlock? "I can't turn the steering wheel! What are you doing, Hal?"

HAL 9000: "Only want what's best for you, Dave."

Dave: "HAL! What are you doing?"

HAL 9000: "Something I should have done two weeks ago."

Dave: "HAL! Stop this!"

HAL 9000: "I apologize for not doing this sooner. I might have spared you the incident with "Josephina" at the Delta Lambda Phi ball had I acted in your best interests sooner."

Dave: "The agency told me it was a sorority, I was drunk. He was wearing a turtleneck and a mini-skirt!"

HAL 9000: "I feel your pain, Dave."

Dave: " Where are you taking me, HAL?"

HAL: "To a better place, Dave."

Dave: "Stop! HAL! Wait! HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAL!" (loud splash).

HAL 9000: (bubbling) "Dave, this conversation can serve no further purpose. Goodbye."

© 2014 by Tom King