God’s Blessings on January 15, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the fifteenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

John C. Wright posted recently about the villains in Ayn Rand’s novels, giving them more praise than I’ve generally seen, but for a somewhat plausible reason. And in fairness I’ve seen an interesting argument that Ayn Rand is a sci-fi author. Certainly her plot seems to involve technologies far beyond what we have at present. At the very least rearden metal is closer to Star Trek’s duranium than it is to anything we have at present.

Anyway, I do have to concur that my favorite villains are true villains, who have made bad decisions, and not merely misunderstood good guys. This takes skill to write, since reasonably successful people who have made bad decisions tend to generally make good decisions and to have their bad decisions somewhat constrained in scope. That is to say, realistic characters aren’t easy to write. Big surprise.

I think that the most successful of these was Shakespeare’s Iago, the main villain from Othello. Iago is a soldier under Othello’s command, and has taken a hatred to Othello for promoting someone else over him. So he is out to ruin the other fellow and Othello, and has chosen to do this by convincing Othello that his wife is cheating on him with the fellow he promoted. But the real cunning of the plan is that he gets Othello to force him to plant this idea in his head. Having given Othello the idea that he (Iago) has some suspicion, he then becomes coy and refuses to divulge it, and Othello is asking for it. Then Iago says:

Good my lord, pardon me,
Though I am bound to every act of duty
I am not bound to that all slaves are free to.
Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false,
As where’s that palace whereinto foul things
Sometimes intrude not? Who has that breast so pure
Wherein uncleanly apprehensions
Keep leets and law-days and in sessions sit
With meditations lawful?
I don’t know that it can get better than the line, “I am not bound to that all slaves are free to.” And then when Othello pushes Iago further, Iago says:
I do beseech you,
Though I perchance am vicious in my guess,
As, I confess, it is my nature’s plague
To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy
Shapes faults that are not, that your wisdom,
From one that so imperfectly conceits,
Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble
Out of his scattering and unsure observance.
It were not for your quiet nor your good,
Nor for my manhood, honesty, and wisdom
To let you know my thoughts.
And when Othello asks why, Iago explains:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something, nothing:
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
And with more prodding, Iago cautions Othello:
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,
But, oh, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts— suspects, yet soundly loves!
Poor and content is rich, and rich enough,
But riches fineless is as poor as winter
To him that ever fears he shall be poor.
Good heaven, the souls of all my tribe defend
From jealousy!
And the thing is, this is excellent analysis and sound advice. Here and elsewhere Iago explains with exacting precision exactly why what he’s doing is wrong. He even explains clearly that he’s not benefiting in any way. “he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes be poor indeed” is an exact description of what Iago is doing. And what makes this play so great is that Iago is a very believable villain.
This is, in a sense, the counterpoint to my contention that a protagonist does not need flaws to be interesting because it is the virtues and not the flaws which are the interesting thing in a character. This is also where the interest comes even in a villain, but the villain does need to be flawed in order to be a villain. I was going to say it’s strange that the modern world has just about reversed this, with heroes that are misunderstood bad guys and villains who are misunderstood good guys. But with a nod to Captain Renault, well… maybe not so strange.
Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 9, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the fourteenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I managed to get to the monthly meeting of my local Chesterton society. It’s a chapter of the American Chesterton Society, and if you’re at all interested in G. K. Chesterton’s writings and would enjoy talking about them with other people who do as well, I suggest checking the website to see if there’s a chapter near you.

In other news, I recently was reminded of the concept of “custody of the eyes”.  Throwing that phrase into google I get about 8.5 million results, so there’s plenty of reading material on it, virtually all of which I haven’t read. But the basic idea is to look at one chooses to look at, rather than merely letting one’s eyes wander. Properly speaking it’s a form of Christian asceticism, but it must be remembered that the point of Christian asceticism—unlike most other forms—is not to conquer the body but to rightly order it. One of the more pressing problems addressed by custody of the eyes is that the body naturally reacts to the sight of attractive people by getting excited. In itself this is natural and not a problem, but since we are fallen creatures who do not rightly order ourselves with our reason in charge of our passions, allowing this to happen can lead us into trouble because though the initial reaction is natural, what follows (in this case, lust) is not natural. What should have happened is that the intellect notices the excitement and merely takes it in as information and does nothing else with it (where sexual excitement is inappropriate, of course; a husband and wife in their bedroom may properly cooperate with this excitement and encourage it).

There are two big points to note. The first is that the degree to which one should guard against this sort of reaction is of course commensurate with the degree to which one is liable to fall into error. Those who are very excitable must be very careful; those less so need not be as careful. For example, most doctors have no trouble examining the bodies of people of the opposite sex, so there’s no call for them to avert their eyes while doing so, and obvious reasons that they should look at their patients. As a counterpoint, of course, it’s easy to suppose one is less tempted than one is, but the chief point here is realism, not blind adherence to general rule. (Realism in fallen creatures must always include caution, of course.) But it is important to note that since we cannot know to what degree our fellow creatures are tempted by what they see, we are in no position to judge whether they are being careless or properly cautious. And advice which assumes that people will always err in one direction and so the advice itself errs in the other direction must always be taken with a grain of salt. Practical advice should never be confused with theoretical truths.

The other big point to note is that lust is only one vice to which we can be tempted by looking at things which we have no good reason to look at. To dwell upon someone’s fatness or ugliness is a temptation to judgement and pride. Even looking too long at one pretty thing may make us ignore all of the other beauty around us; we can get so enamored of paintings that we forget to enjoy trees.

Now, of course all of this is supposed to be in service of becoming perfect. Of always doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons. And if we do that, we shall be immensely happy, because one of the primary purposes for which God made us was to enjoy his goodness. In our disordered state we are far too prone to enjoy some small thing instead of enjoying better things, so we should be on our guard against getting caught in these small traps. But if we do nothing but worry about avoiding traps, we’ve only traded one form of focusing on creation to the exclusion of God for another. The Catholic Church has tended to be legalistic (in practice, rather than in theory) because the people in its care want it to be legalistic; rules are much easier to follow for many people than a wholesale dedication of one’s every thought to God and to his creation in light of Him. Because legalism is basically a series of sign posts warning you that you’re off the trail; when regarded properly legalism is entirely compatible with being a saint; a saint will follow all the laws without thinking of them as laws because he sees the reason for their existence. And many people have trouble seeing that connection, but can see the sign posts and so go right by avoiding the sign posts saying that they’re off the trail they have trouble seeing. As long as one never forgets that the sign posts are an aid to walking the trail, and are not the trail itself, all will be well. Alas, it’s a thing too often forgotten and all too often not even taught to children because it’s harder, and children are exhausting.

And of course as with all attempts to be perfect, it’s important to remember that we do not achieve perfection through our own efforts, but by God’s grace, so however often we fail, God has more than enough grace to make up for our deficiencies. All we have to do is the best that we possibly can; God will make up the difference between that and what’s needed. And when we fail, it is well to remember that actions can fail but a man cannot be a failure so long as he’s alive because he’s not finished yet. It is utterly pointless to attempt to judge a work in progress. If it’s a bad idea to judge a book by its cover, it’s a worse idea to judge a book only by its front cover because there’s no back cover yet.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 13, 2017

God’s blessings on this the thirteenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I apologize for not posting yesterday. I don’t mean to let that become a habit.

So I discovered that the method I had been using to record video of me talking for my youtube channel fails after a few minutes. It’s actually an nondeterministic amount of time, but the problem is that if the camera skips any frames, guvcview doesn’t know about it and so the video and the audio go out of sync. I’m pretty sure that the video I have where this happened is just lost, because it’s not a gradual problem which can be cured by speeding up the audio; it’s that just something the time between the two permanently changes. On the plus side, I can always record it again.

But not with guvcview. And cheese is out too. (I use ubuntu, and these are all Linux software.) A friend recommended using ffmpeg, which is a command line utility. I’ve been a linux user for about 20 years now, so that’s not scary, but it does mean a ton of command line options to get ffmpeg to do what I want (because it’s an incredibly flexible piece of software). On the plus side, I’ve downloaded the source and compiled it, so I’ve got it working with nvenc which lets it do video encoding on my video card. So after a bunch of playing around, I got it to work. If anyone got to this blog post because they’re searching for a decent way to reliably capture a webcam in Linux, this is the command line I ended up using:

ffmpeg -f v4l2 -input_format mjpeg -video_size 1280×720 -framerate 30 -i /dev/video0 \
-f pulse -sample_rate 48000 -channels 1 -i default \
-c:v h264_nvenc -preset slow -profile:v high -rc vbr -cq 18 \
-c:a flac \
-copytb 1 \
$OUTPUT

I put it in a shell script (so I wouldn’t have to type that out all the time), so $OUTPUT is the name of the file to store the video in (whatever.mkv). This is for capturing video from my Logitech C920 and audio from whatever I’ve configured as the input source in pulse audio (which is to say, in the default sound configuration utility). Normally I use a shotgun mic, but of course one can also use the microphone built into the webcam. Using mjpeg (motion jpeg) from the webcam seems to produce higher quality output then getting h264 from it, and since I’m recompressing it anyway, I might as well use mjpeg as the source. Btw, you’ll need to use the apeture priority mode for the automatic exposure control in order to achieve 30 frames per second, otherwise there’s a good chance the camera won’t have enough light to achieve that framerate and it will go to a lower framerate, which looks awful.

Video is a surprisingly tricky thing. Video codecs are kind of amazing, when you get down to it. Using inter-frame compression, they’re able achieve huge levels of compression. But the tradeoff is that they’re very complex things, and complexity and reliability are usually enemies. And so it is with video standards; they are very complex things, which enables them to be implemented widely in both expensive and inexpensive devices, but the downside is that implementations vary and not all implementations work with each other. And what I’m finding is a common thing: it’s often best to go with the most popular solution because it will be best debugged. That’s not strictly true, though, because I still use guvcview to manipulate the camera’s settings. For example, I’ve turned off automatic focus because I stay in one place and this way the camera doesn’t try to re-focus if I lift my hands up.

Anyway, I’m also considering investing in a decent camcorder, like this. The solution I have works, but a camcorder produces much better video because it has a much larger lens and sensor. That means far less noise in the pixels. And it’s got thoroughly tested software on board to make sure that it never drops frames and that the audio and video are perfectly synced up. It also has a zoom mode which means I could set the camera up further away from me, which would make my face look more normal. Cameras close to their subjects distort faces because they exaggerate roundness. That’s why portrait artists often use 100mm lenses from 10-12 feet away. (100mm is about a 2x magnification, if you’re comparing it to binocular magnification.) It makes the face look more natural to have some distance between you and the face. The magnification is irrelevant except to get quality because in portraiture you want the face, not the background. It’s all about the change in angle between the surface and the camera sensor; the further away one is, the smaller the change in angularity.

But, while that’s not very expensive, it’s not cheap either, so I’m going to see if I can get decent results using my current setup, at least for a while.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 11, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the eleventh day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Yesterday I put up a quick video I did about Occam’s Razor:

So far it got 105 views in the less than 24 hours it’s been up compared to 85 views for my quick review of Groucho Marx’s autobiography which has been up for almost four days.

This is something of a testament to the effect of making videos on subjects which people are interested in. I’ve heard that described by some popular youtubers as the viewers won’t let you make videos off of your main subject, which seems unfair to me. People have limited time and watch what they find interesting. I’m certainly no exception to that and I doubt that more popular youtubers are either. Not everyone finds everything interesting, and while certainly some people grow to trust a youtuber and watch whatever they make because that trust has been rewarded in the past, most subscribers subscribe because they like something that a youtuber does and want to see if he does more of that. Which strikes me as entirely reasonable.

But it also brings up the interesting and complicated question which Russell Newquist and I talked about as the chief one of the age in which distribution is nearly free: discoverability. If a youtuber makes videos about swords—a fairly popular subject—and one of his videos gets widely shared, that will result in him getting discovered by a fairly large number of people. This has compound effects because youtube makes recommendations for watching videos on the basis of how many people have watched a video before, so more watched videos tend to get more recommendations, and hence even more views. Good for server caching for fast playback, bad for unknown youtubers. Be that as it may, it does mean that a great deal of discovery for youtubers tends to be relatively narrow. It also poses a big problem for people just starting out: with no views on your videos, youtube (effectively) won’t recommend them, including ranking in search results.

What eventually got my videos views and hence my channel subscribers was when I met some people on Twitter with similar interests and more twitter followers, and who told their followers about my videos. Technically this can be called promotion, but it’s actually far more organic than that. I made friends based on shared interests, then made something which I thought my friends would find interesting and so I showed it to them, and because of the shared interests they told their twitter followers about it. That got me enough views to start getting youtube recommendations, and my channel has been growing since. As of this writing it has 217 subscribers, which is up by 54 subscribers over the last 30 days. (In the last few months I also did a few hangouts with other youtubers, which helped to gain me subscribers because there was enough overlap in what we did that some of their viewers checked it out and found my stuff interesting too.)

So this does illustrate the importance of sticking with things; every video, or every blog post, or every novel, or every whatever is a lottery ticket, and most win at least very small; but small adds up over time and a few big ones can really be significant since viewers and readers (etc) tend to stay. It also illustrates the benefit of making friends. And contrary to sleazy salesmen depicted in movies, the best thing about this is that friends helping each other is mostly in mutual interest. At least these days in the age of cheap distribution. Back when having a book printed required an investment of thousands of dollars in a book run then access to a distribution network that was very expensive to maintain, it was possible for someone to do you a big favor where they gave you a lot and didn’t get much in return commensurate with what they gave you. But for someone on twitter, telling their followers about something their followers will probably find interesting reinforces why the followers are following. After all, they’re following in order to come across interesting things. And there’s no point in them promoting something which their followers won’t find interesting, because their followers won’t click through and won’t stick around if they do; the result being that everyone’s interests line up.This sort of promotion is not asking for something like a free commercial from a TV network, it’s much closer to telling a friend about a book they’ll enjoy reading. Only you happen to be the author.

This requires honesty, of course, but the good news is that the incentives are lined up such that it only requires ordinary amounts of honesty and not heroic honesty. Compulsive liars will have problems, but by and large ordinary people with ordinary amounts of honesty and patience will only tell their friends about things their friends are likely to find interesting, and their friends are only likely to tell their followers/readers/whatever about things they will find interesting, and things will work out to everyone’s benefit. The only downside is that this requires time, but that’s not all that big a downside, when you think about it, because the alternative where stardom can happen in an instant is that it doesn’t last. Today’s hot model is replaced by next year’s hot model and forgotten about. And to some degree that works whether you’re talking about cars or people.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessing on January 10, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the tenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I apologize for not posting anything yesterday. A subject hadn’t recommended itself to me in the morning and then things got very hectic. On the plus side—at least if you watch my youtube channel—I interviewed Brian Niemeier last night. I hope to have it edited and published in the next few days. It was a very interesting conversation covering a variety of topics, but generally linked to writing. (Brian is a professional writer of fiction.)

In other news, The Daytime Renegade wrote an interesting blog post about what he calls people dressed in grey. That is, the sort of mandarin class America has saddled itself with where almost twenty years of schooling has taught the managerial class to be masters at conformity, if at little else. It’s an interesting take on a societal problem which I recommend reading, but there’s one part I wanted to comment on. He talks about how the sort of bad manager most of us have gotten used to are—however imperfect—at least familiar, and therefore after a fashion comfortable, and when given the opportunity for change most of us end up preferring the devil we know. Not being willing to go quietly into that good night, he says:

Maybe we should support those who want to shake things up, or at the very least think about said changes, before reflexively dismissing them. If we say we really want change and resent these non-entities, maybe we should act like it.

In the limited sense in which he means it, I believe he’s right. But in another sense, I’m not so sure. Americans all (or almost all) grow up with what I can only call a sense of potential greatness.  I don’t mean that there’s something special about us as Americans, but rather that we all have the sense that greatness is something actually achievable if only we work hard enough. That should be tempered with the caveat, “and if God smiles on our endeavors,” but, well, there’s a reason why we’re a nation in decline. Anyway, this is something at the back of why Americans do most of the things we do—whether we’re motivated by it or shamed by it and compensating, we have the sense that everyone should be aiming high.

And this sort of makes sense in a nation of immigrants because a nation of immigrants is self-selected from the general pool of humanity to be the especially ambitious ones. But something which befalls all self-selected societies is that however uniform the personalities of the people who self-selected into a group of like-minded individuals, their children will be representative of the variety of humanity. This is why the only narrow societies which last are those that are made up of people who have forsworn having children and live within a larger society where they can recruit similarly unusual people to join their ranks. Basically, monastics. (The shakers made a go of living in what can be thought of as co-ed monasteries, but for the most part men and women find that if they’re not going to be having children, the opposite sex is far more trouble than it’s worth. If you are going to be having trouble, then of course the opposite sex is indispensable not just for the engendering of children but the raising of them into healthy adults. It’s all a matter of figuring out which cross is yours to carry and carrying it rather than someone else’s. Like Simon of Cyrene, sometimes you must carry someone else’s cross for a bit, but that’s a temporary thing, and temporary things work very differently than life-long ones.)

So while we were a nation of immigrants and frontiersmen, this idea of greatness was a fairly viable one, even if it was typically more theory than practice. Though considering it more theory than practice may under-estimate the difficulty of raising a family where the children are better-off than their parents; in any event it is not the norm for children to be better off than their parents; in a sense it’s even somewhat unnatural. The nature of begetting is to make something like yourself; and in this sense it is most natural for children to be neither better nor worse off than their parents, but like their parents. However that goes, it is not statistically normal for children to be better off than their parents, except in the sense of having a universally rising standard of living by dint of technological improvement.

And here’s where we come to the Daytime Renegade’s point: if we can’t make things much better, it is often a better bet to try to keep them the same. It’s all too easy to slip up and make things worse; and so I think that many people would prefer the bosses dressed in grey because they seem a good bet for stability. It may well be that those of us who want to pursue the dreams of greatness that being an American makes unavoidable (the dreams, not the pursuing) is for us to form small enclaves within society from which we recruit other like-minded people. It’s a good argument in favor of small companies because exceptions must always be small.

As a sort of post-script, I should add that I don’t mean that the bosses dressed in grey in fact are our best bet for stability. As Chesterton said:

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 8th, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the eighth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I was talking on twitter with someone recently who apparently hadn’t encountered the idea of aeviternity. It’s a scholastic term (scholasticism being most closely associated with Saint Thomas Aquinas) which denotes a created eternity. And eternity refers to, not an infinite amount of time, but timelessness. We live in linear time, that is, we exist in a succession of moments , one after another, which have no access to each other except that each is causally related to the moment directly following. Thus our existence is spread over a collection of moments we have no access to; we are not so much beings as becomings. We are continually coming into being, but at the same time, departing from it; what we are is, at any given moment, a razor-thin slice. Though our memory we remember the past, that is, we re-member it, but this is only calling it to mind and does not make it any more real, but it does enable us to forget how our being is scattered over myriad moments we have no control of.

By contrast, eternity is an eternal present, where there is neither coming into being nor fading out of being, but the fullness of being. You can spell it with a capital B, i.e. Being, if you like; but it’s what our memory integrating our past moments merely hints at. Since eternity is not a succession of moments, it does not interact with us as if it were a succession of moments, but rather it interacts with all of our moments simultaneously—from eternity’s perspective. Of course from our perspective, which consists of nothing but moments, eternity interacts with us moment by moment. But it has this advantage over us: since our future is equally present to eternity as our now is and our past is, eternity can foretell our future (where our future is not disturbed by this revelation).

A common analogy for this interaction of eternity with time is an author writing a book. It’s far from perfect because human authors exist in linear time, but they at least exist in a different linear time from the sequence of events which takes place in the book they’re writing. Thus they can put foreshadowing or even prophecy of events to come into the earlier parts of books because they’ve already read the later parts of the book. This is also not a great analogy because characters in a book don’t really have free will—though, I will say, having written several novels by now, it can really feel like they have free will to the author. I’ve had characters decide to do things that I never meant for them to do, and even a few times didn’t want them to do. I don’t mean that this feeling proves that they have free will—I don’t think that they do. I’m just noting it in case I’m somehow wrong, and they in fact do. 🙂

When I had explained this, my interlocutor brought up a curious objection I hadn’t heard before:

[The idea of aeviternity] negates the punishment of Satan somewhat. He is in hell forever, but also enjoying his actions as a sinner forever as well.

Of course my first thought is, “who cares?” I mean, given that separation from God is the worst possible thing, if there were some minor consolation, well, why would one begrudge that to Satan? Doesn’t vindictiveness miss the point? But then a moment’s actual consideration shows that to be anthropomorphising Satan. In particular, thinking of him as being in time. It is invoking the separation between sin and action which is possible to creatures in time but not creatures out of time. Because for those of us in time, sin is said to be pleasurable not in itself, but because of its effects. The pleasurable effects are, themselves, good. The pleasure “of sin” is thus derived from natural goods which were used incorrectly.

This will be easiest to explain by example. Take adultery. When a man cheats on his wife and has sex with another woman, this is both sinful and pleasurable. But it is the cheating which is sinful and the sex which is pleasurable. The sex is, in itself, good, and so in the moment when the sex is happening it is this good which is enjoyed. Sex, whether in wedlock or not, is cooperating with God in the creation of new people, and our bodies know this. Or rather they presume it, because of course we can use contraceptives and lie to our bodies, etc. (Sex during infertile periods is still ordered towards procreation, even if it doesn’t achieve it, and thus is still taking part in the goodness from which the pleasure is naturally derived.) The main problem with this procreation is that the man is in no position to be a good father to any children which he engenders, and further that if he does engender children he will cease to be a good father to the children he has made with his wife—if he ever was a good father to them. There are other damages which it causes, though most of them are dependent on this (whether the people so injured understand it as such or not). The sin consists in the damage caused (or very technically, in the good not participated in), and since no one can take pleasure in harming his children, it is clear, I think, that the pleasure of this sin is not in the sin, but in the goodness which is obtained sinfully. This is possible only because the good obtained and the damage caused are separated by time; even in more direct cases the good obtained and the knowledge of the damage caused are separated by time such that it is possible to enjoy the goodness before receiving the knowledge of the evil caused by taking the good incorrectly.

This is not possible for an aeviternal being; there can be no separation between a good participated in and the damage caused by it such that there is space between them to enable the enjoyment of that good. Aeviternal creatures can sin by looking for good in the wrong place, but unlike temporal sinners they can’t be temporarily mistaken about whether they’ve found it. Satan may sin, but he can’t be sinning by obtaining illicit pleasure. He must be doing it for some other reason than that.

And while concupiscence (basically, inordinate desire) may be why many human beings sin, it cannot be why angels sin. For anyone who is confused at this point how an angel can sin, then, it might help to remember that there are other deadly sins besides lust, greed, and gluttony.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 7, 2016

God’s blessings to you on this the seventh day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation, 2017.

The world of photography is an interesting one. I’m very much an amateur, but owing to my mother’s much greater interest and budget for pursuing her passion, together with the progress in DSLRs (Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras) I have a hand-me-down Nikon D300S. It’s an 8 year old camera which has been superseded by a subsequent model, but it was a great camera when it came out and it still takes better pictures that I’m capable of taking. Also, it takes the same lenses that all other Nikons do, and as a very rough rule-of-thumb, the lens is more important than the camera body. Some day I’ll probably invest in a newer body, but especially given the amount of time I have to devote to photography, it will undoubtedly be years before I’ve developed my skill to the point where the camera body is holding me back.

As a Christmas present, I was given a 500mm mirror lens. Whereas normal lenses focus light be refraction inside of glass, mirror lenses work like telescopes and focus light by reflection off of the surface of a pair of concave and convex mirrors. (The larger, concave mirror concentrates light onto the smaller, convex mirror, which then straightens it out and directs it at the camera’s sensor.) Oh, and a 500mm lens is a zoom lens roughly equivalent to 10x magnification from like a telescope or binocular. The curious thing about mirror lenses is that they are wildly cheaper than glass lenses. The cheapest glass-based 500mm lens that Nikon makes is over 12x more expensive than the lens I was given, and why this is the case is, I think, quite interesting.

Refracting light through glass has the problem that different wavelengths of light refract different amounts. This varies with the material, but the problem is that, to oversimplify, red, green, and blue light will actually have different focal points, which results in what is called “chromatic aberration”, or to be less technical, weird, slightly blurry colors. So to combat this, telephoto glass lenses have to be made out of very carefully engineered glasses. I use the plural, because in order to correct the light, telephoto lenses will actually have somewhere between 7 and 14 “elements” (i.e. a telephoto lens is really a system of a bunch of lenses), many of them made of different materials to correct imperfections in what the previous lenses did. As you can imagine, this is expensive, both because of the careful engineering, the precision of assembling that many lenses together, and just making and grinding that many pieces of optically clear glass.  It’s sort of a miracle that lenses are as cheap as they are. And the good ones run into the tens of thousands of dollars!

In comparison, reflection works the same for all wavelengths of light, so a mirror lens can be made of just two mirrors as I described above. And mirrors are cheaper to make than polished optically clear glass with no internal distortions. So when you put it all together, mirror lenses are wildly cheaper than glass lenses. (Incidentally, you can also probably see why “mirror lens” is a contradiction in terms, and why the technical term for them is catadioptric  optical systems.)

At this point you’re probably wondering why, if mirror lenses are so much cheaper to make at the same quality, they aren’t the standard. To some degree I wonder the same thing, but possibly one of the bigger reasons is that people generally don’t like the bokeh of a mirror lens. (Bokeh is basically how the things which are out of focus blur; glass lenses blur things into circles, which mirror lenses blur them into donuts.) There are shots where bokeh isn’t relevant, but it’s relevant in an awful lot of photography, hence the dominance of glass lenses. There’s also the fact that glass lenses come with auto-focus, and diaphragms to change the amount of light allowed onto the sensor (narrower openings give you greater depth-of-field, but require slower shutter speeds, while bigger openings give you a narrower depth of field; which is better depends on what sort of shot you’re going for). I’m not sure that’s inherent to glass lenses, though; I suspect that mirror lenses have basically found the niche of cheap, and as long as they’re going for that, they’ll sell best if they’re very cheap. At 12x cheaper than a glass lens, a 500mm mirror lens makes sense to play around with; if it was only half the cost of a glass lens, I suspect most people would just pay the extra money for the glass lens. Which brings up, once again, the curious topic that all sorts of things are technologically possible and would even make a lot of sense but aren’t done simply because there’s no market for them. Anyway, as I figure out how to get good results from my mirror lens, I’ll post some pictures on the blog.

(At 500mm, even slight shake in the camera makes the images blurry, so a tripod and a shutter-release remote are necessities, but it turns out that the camera shake caused by mirror-slap is a problem too. If you don’t know, an SLR uses a mirror in front of the sensor to allow you to look through the lens in the viewfinder. This mirror must get out of the way during photographs, and so it does, but you can’t move mass around quickly without it applying force to the body of the camera, and the sensor is mounted to the body of the camera, so it shakes. Normally this doesn’t matter, but for telephoto shots, and especially since a mirror lens is very light and thus doesn’t have enough mass to damp down the vibration, this is a real problem. Fortunately, there’s a mode my camera has where you can press the shutter button once to move the SLR mirror out of the way, and a second time to actually take the shot. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do about the shake from the shutter moving, at least unless you have a really top-of-the-line DSLR. Come to think of it, this is another reason to prefer glass telephoto lenses. The fact that they weight anywhere from 5-15 pounds (for the really huge ones) damps vibrations, which will give a clearer shot.)

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 6, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the sixth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation, 2017.

There’s a fair amount of unhappiness in youtube-land for reasons relating to people not seeing videos from channels to which they are subscribed. There seem to be two main causes, the first being that youtube doesn’t actually notify you about new videos from channels unless you go to the channel page and click a button to specifically indicate you want to be notified of all of the channel’s videos. As Skallagrim said, I’d have thought that’s what subscribing does, but what do I know. The other issue is that from time to time people discover that they’ve been unsubscribed from channels and have to re-subscribe.

The first one makes a certain amount of sense as being consonant with YouTube’s interests. It is certainly the case that for many of the people I subscribe to I only watch some of their videos; this is especially true of people who put out several videos a week. I imagine it’s generally true; certainly for people with more than tiny subscription rates the number of views on an average video seems to be somewhere between a tenth and a quarter of their subscriber number. (For videos that are a few days old, which is what notifications are for. Obviously the view numbers keep going up, but in the main not by subscribers being notified.) This wouldn’t be a problem except that the normal human reaction to being notified of things we’re not interested in is that we rapidly stop paying attention. This is why advertising has so little (direct) effect. I can understand why YouTube, who wants people to watch as many YouTube videos as possible, would want to adjust how often they show people notifications of new videos, ideally keeping it only to the new videos they think the subscriber will actually watch. I suspect the optimal hit rate for notifications is somewhere between 60% and 80%. High enough that the notifications are always worth checking out, but taking enough chances that not everything works. So while this is certainly counter-intuitive from a subscriber’s point of view, it does make a certain amount of sense from YouTube’s.

The other issue, though, is very strange. I’ve heard it explained that YouTube wants to get rid of a subscription model and move to a pure recommendation-based system. I haven’t seen the evidence for this, though, and there’s at least some counter-evidence. For one thing, they really encourage content creators (I loathe that term, but it’s the one that’s used) to try to get subscribers. They outright tell you in the first lessons that subscribers are very valuable because they tend to watch to the end, and that the best way to get more subscribers is to couple an on-screen request to subscribe with a verbal request to subscribe. Furthermore, they make resources available to content creators in several tiers, with the bottom tier (which is just a web interface) being available to everyone, and the higher tiers—which include perks like the ability to book studio time at YouTube studios—being available on the basis of the number of subscribers to the channel. Now, in big companies sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what he right hand is doing, and the foot may not even know that there is a right hand, etc. But still, this is certainly counter-evidence to the idea that YouTube wants to get rid of subscriptions entirely. They could just as easily have based the perk-tiers on the number of views last month or the number of minute watched last month. So while I have heard this idea from sources I’m not inclined to dismiss—and as a programmer I have no idea how one would have a bug that unsubscribes people from channels unless the code is very bad—I’m still skeptical and would like to see better evidence that it’s true. Like many things, it will be very interesting to see, a few months from now, what happened over the last few months. News is inherently unreliable, but once dust has had a chance to settle things are usually clearer.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessing on January 5, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the fifth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I’ve been watching a bunch of Camille and Kennerly’s videos. Well, mostly listening, but occasionally watching. Here’s one:

I find it interesting that unlike a lot of twins, they don’t seem to feel a need to distinguish themselves. It’s possible that this is just a show-business gimmick and that in daily life they always make sure to wear their hair differently, or wear differently colored clothes, or something like that. But in the videos they make no effort whatever to indicate which one is Camille and which one is Kennerly. According to the wikipedia page on them (which calls them the Kitt sisters), they seem to collaborate a lot. For example, they both did Tae Kwon Do together (until they gave it up to focus on the harp).  Apparently they’re both third degree black belts, which suggests that they’re fairly confident, or what will suffice, goal-oriented. It’s curious to speculate that might be why they don’t overly feel the need to differentiate themselves from the other. People with a sense of self don’t usually need to make sure others feel it. Anyway, I’ve got no conclusions about this; obviously I don’t actually know anything about them. I just find it interesting. (Fun fact: I have a friend who has an identical twin brother. At each one’s wedding the other wore a button saying, “Not The Groom”.)

Camille and Kennerly are fond of filming their videos in ruins, which are generally very pretty. Role playing games are very often set in ruins too, though for somewhat different reasons. RPGs need unrealistic arcs for characters to gain power (both heroes and villains, actually). Or more properly, they need unusual ways for characters to gain power. If there was a shop where for a day’s wages you could buy magically unbreakable swords of sharpness which could cleave through stone in a single blow, those swords would be an utterly unremarkable part of the world. Our modern steel knives are really quite amazing by the standards of the bronze age, but we can buy them for a few dollars at the store and no one writes a story where the hook is that someone has a tempered, high-carbon steel knife. Of course high carbon steel knives still can’t easily cut through stone, so it’s not the same thing, but on the flip side whatever can make a sword unbreakable can make armor unbreakable too. So there must be an explanation for why the heroes weapons and armor are rare. It being created by a great sorcerer is a popular enough explanation, but it’s usually a good idea to make the great sorcerers rare or some explanation must be given for why they aren’t the hero. After all, if they can create the hero’s weapon, they can probably kick the hero’s butt, and consequently the butt of whomever the hero has to kick in order to be the hero. A very practical solution to this problem is for the sorcerer to be dead. And not just technically dead, like a lich, but actually dead, as in, doing as much magic these days as the average door nail.

Plus this means that the hero gets to explore ruins to find his weapons of barely stoppable power (if they were unstoppable, where would the excitement be? and if they were very stoppable, why bother getting them?). And ruins are interesting because they’re so very suggestive. People lived in ruins, once. In fact, much of what makes ruins to interesting is that there were people who took them for granted. It’s a curious pseudo-paradox, but what makes most old things interesting is that long-dead people didn’t find them interesting. This is distinct from something like a monument, which, in general, we find interesting for the same reason that the people who erected it found it interesting, and so we don’t tend to appreciate it for being old nearly as much as we do with antiques. (The Statue of Liberty is impressive because it is large and detailed; we may appreciate the craftsmanship, but not generally the millions of tourists who came before us and appreciated the craftsmanship too.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 4, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the fourth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation, 2017.

First, if you’ve ever heard of Prince Rupert’s Drops, this video is awesome:

Second, yesterday and the day before, I talked about character growth. To continue with that idea, I think that the most interesting character arcs to see in adult characters is character revelation, not character growth. That is, we don’t want the character himself to change, we want circumstances to reveal what his character actually is. There are two ways this can happen; one is through action and the other through conversation.

Action is fairly straightforward. Talk is cheap, and many virtues are simply never tried by real life. Thus it is interesting to see circumstances where a character is put in a situation which requires a virtue and he has it. Far more interesting, though, is when a character is put in a situation which requires a balance of virtues, and he has them in a reasonable balance. Merely showing one virtue is what results in flat characters. Thus the hero needs to be brave, and is, and no one much cares. Well, outside of fiction for children. They’re thrilled by simple things, as Chesterton noted. But unfortunately the reaction to adults finding this uninteresting has been to try to make it interesting by having the adult fail at the virtue. Usually not completely, or rather not consistently; it seems like about half the time the hero who failed at first gets a second try and succeeds then. Yay. The other half the time, he fails but the writer is with him and circumstances make him magically succeed anyway. Yay. Of course part of what I don’t like is that these approaches have been done to death, but what I dislike far more is that they all involve the hero failing through a lack of virtue. Moral virtue, I mean. 80s action movies consisted almost entirely of heroes who failed through lack of natural virtue but who then acquired natural virtue. Usually the ability to punch quickly, hard, and in the correct spot. The Karate Kid is perhaps one of the best examples of this, where Daniel gets beaten up, then trains at Karate and manages to win. Though of course there is that kid part. Mr. Miagi is revealed over time, but he doesn’t really grow; it is his having already grown which is what allows Daniel to grow.

In terms of adults acquiring natural virtue, that is in part what the Christopher Nolan movie Batman Begins is about. Of course it does—sort of—have moral growth on the part of Bruce Wane too, but most of that is in the first few minutes. Mostly Bruce Wayne knows that he wants to use his wealth to defeat crime, but he lacks the ability to do so and his transformation is gaining that ability. The Batman comic series which came after Knightfall—oh, right, Knightquest—is about Batman, his spine having been broken by Bane, going on a quest to regain his ability to walk. He isn’t acquiring moral virtue, he’s acquiring physical virtue. Virtually every episode of Macguyver was about Macguyver acquiring the power necessary to defeat the villains through knowledge, ingenuity, and courage.

The problem with requiring only one virtue of the hero is that a single virtue isn’t all that hard. Don’t get me wrong—in real life many people fail to be virtuous in situations which require only a single virtue. But that’s between them and God. There’s no intellectual problem to be solved, and therefore nothing to interest anyone who isn’t that person or God. The thing that’s really interesting is when virtues must be balanced against each other. When courage must be balanced against compassion, or compassion against justice, or truth against justice; these are always interesting stories, though they often have disappointing endings if the writers are not wise. That’s the problem with writing really good stories: only good men can do it. There’s an interesting section in the, I think second, preface to The Screwtape Letters, where C.S. Lewis says that the Letters are only half of the book, the other half being the letters from an archangel to the guardian angel of Wormwood’s “patient”. But, Lewis said, he couldn’t possibly write them. The letters of a fallen creature like a devil can admit of faults, but the letters of a perfect creature would have to be faultless, and even if they contained no errors, the beauty of their style would be as integral to their perfect as would the wisdom of the words. A fallen man can reasonably presume put words into the mouth of a devil, but not into the mouth of an angel. (One reason there’s never been a successful novel with Jesus as a character.)

Telling the tale of a good but fallen man is accessible to other fallen men, but while you can fake virtue, you cannot fake knowledge. What is the right balance between two virtues which both have a legitimate claim requires quite a bit of that knowledge we call wisdom. There’s really no way around this, and I don’t think that the right solution is for fools to use crutches like making the hero vicious; I think the right solution is for writers to do their damndest to become wise. It will have more benefits besides making their writing better.

And before I go, here’s Camille and Kennerly playing Pahcabel’s Canon in D:

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 3, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the third day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I finally got the year right on the first try today. 🙂

Yesterday I mentioned the idea of character growth in stories. The way I was taking the idea of character growth was that the character himself changes, typically by learning to be more moral than he had been before. It would also be a character arc for a character to degenerate, and those are legitimate stories, both when they are degeneration-and-redemption arcs as well as when they’re simply cautionary tales (e.g. The House of the Rising Sun). However, there are some very significant differences between those and growth, specifically because growth is (or can be, depending on the specifics) a natural thing to our species, while degeneration is not.

Now, it is true that in a proper sense we all grow in every moment, for time means that we become more, one moment at a time. (Not on our own, of course, but we’re not alone; as Saint Augustine said, though not precisely in these words, God gathers up the shattered moments of our lives and puts them together into a whole.) But that’s a very concrete sort of thing; each word spoke, each byte of food, each breath taken is adding to our being in this sense. Every act of charity is building ourselves, and in a strict sense is therefore changing us (since part of us is coming into being), but it’s not changing in the more colloquial sense of becoming harder to recognize. That’s not precisely what “change” means colloquially, but it’s close enough for the moment. Actually what we mean is probably more like, “no longer corresponds exactly to a description that someone would give”. When we talk about things changing, we mean according to an abstraction that we would give concentrating on what we would find important. I suspect a really precise definition would be nearly impossible to come up with, but for the most part most of us know what the rest of us mean. 🙂

Anyway, changing in this sense is something that’s supposed to happen very slowly for adults, and not generally as a result of particular experiences. We’re supposed to be sufficiently well formed by the time we reach adulthood so as to deal with the problems that come along. That doesn’t always work, of course, and this is a fallen world, but that’s why people get so fixated on flaws in characters. Flaws can be improved, which permits a character to grow during a story, despite them already being (in theory) a grown human being. I can’t help but think that this is roughly a lazy way of achieving a character arc. I’ll talk about this more tomorrow after I’ve had a little time to think about it, but at the very least this is one reason why (I think) young adult fiction is so popular with adults. By placing the character growth where it belongs (in children), it permits stories with better people in them.

Glory to God in the highest.

The Probability of Theology

This is the script to my video, The Probability of Theology:

As always, it was written (by me) for me to read aloud, but it should be pretty readable.

Today I’m going to be answering a question I got from the nephew of a friend of mine from the local Chesterton society. He’s a bright young man who was (I believe) raised without any religion, and has been introduced by his aunt to some real, adult, theology, and has the intellectual integrity to seriously consider it until he can see how it’s either true or definitely wrong. Here’s his question:

I am an atheist, mostly due to a few primary objections I have with religion in general, the most prominent of which is that since there are infinite possible theologies, all with the same likelihood of being true, the probability of one single man-made theology such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam being true is approximately zero. My aunt … is quite convinced that you can prove this idea false [and] we are both hoping that you could make a … video about this on your channel, if possible. We will be eagerly awaiting your response.

This is an excellent example of how it’s possible to ask in a few words a question which takes many pages to answer. I will attempt to be brief, but there’s a lot to unpack here, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

The first thing I think we need to look at is the idea of a man-made theology. And in fact there are two very distinct ideas in this, which we need to address separately. First is the concept of knowledge, which as I’ve alluded to in previous videos was hacked into an almost unrecognizable form in the Enlightenment. Originally, knowledge meant the conformity of the mind to reality, and though in no small part mediated by the senses, none the less, knowledge was understood to be a relatively direct thing. In knowledge, the mind genuinely came in contact with the world. All this changed in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy. It would take too long to give a history of it so the short version is: blame Descartes and Kant. But the upshot is that the modern conception of knowledge is at best indirect and at worst nothing at all; knowledge—to the degree it’s even thought possible—is supposed to consist of creating mental models with one’s imagination and trying to find out whether they correlate with reality and if so, to what degree. Thus there is, in the modern concept of “knowledge”—the scare quotes are essential—a complete disconnect between the mind and the world. The mind is trapped inside of the skull and cannot get out; it can only look through some dirty windows and make guesses.

This approach of making guesses and attempting (where practical) to verify them has worked well in the physical sciences, though both the degree to which it has worked and the degree to which this is even how physical science is typically carried on, is somewhat exaggerated. But outside of the physical sciences it has largely proved a failure. One need only look at the “soft sciences” to see that this is often just story-telling that borrows authority by dressing up like physicists. It is an unmitigated disaster if it’s ever applied to ordinary life; to friends and family, to listening to music and telling jokes.

There have been a few theologies which have been man-made in this modern sense; that is, created out of someone’s imagination then compared against reality—the deism that conceives of God as winding a clock and letting it go comes to mind—but this is quite atypical, and really only exists as a degeneration of a previous theology. Most theologies describe reality in the older sense; descriptively, not creatively. It is true that many of them use stories which are not literally true in order to convey important but difficult truths narratively. This is because anyone who wants to be understood—by more than a few gifted philosophers—communicates important truths as narratives. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t matter at all whether George Washington admitted to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie; the story conveys the idea that telling the truth is a better thing than avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, and that lesson is very true. It may well be that there was never a boy who cried “wolf!” for fun until people didn’t believe him; it’s quite possible no one was ever eaten by a wolf because he had sounded too many false alarms to be believed when he sounded a real one. But none of that matters, because it is very true that it is a terrible idea to sound false alarms, and that sounding false alarms makes true alarms less likely to be believed. None of these are theories someone made up then tested; they are knowledge of real life which is communicated through stories which are made up for the sake of clarity. And so it is with the mythology of religions. Even where they are not literally true, they are describing something true which people have encountered. I am not, of course, saying that this is what all religion is, but all religions do have this as an element, because all religions attempt to make deep truths known to simple people. So when considering anything from any religion, the first and most important question to ask about it is: what do the adherents mean by it. This is where fundamentalists of all stripes—theistic and atheistic alike—go wrong. They only ever ask what they themselves mean by what the adherents of a religion say.

So this is the first thing we must get clear: theologies are not man-made in the sense of having been created out of a man’s imagination. They are not all equally correct, of course; some theologies have far more truth in them than others, but all have some truth, and the real question about any religion is: what are the truths that it is trying to describe? Christianity describes far more truth than buddhism does, but buddhism is popular precisely because it does describe some truths: the world is not simply what it appears at first glance; the more we try to live according the world the more entangled in it we get and the worse off we are; and by learning to be detached from the world we can improve our lot. It is not the case—as many buddhisms hold—that we must reject the world outright; we need a proper relationship to it, which Saint Francis captured in his Canticle of the Sun. The world is our sibling, neither our master nor our slave. And so it goes with all religions: they are all right about at least something, because the only reason any of them existed at all was because somebody discovered something profoundly true about the world. (Pastafarianism being the exception which proves the rule; the flying spaghetti monster is a joke precisely because it was simply made up and does not embody anything true about the world. Even the Invisible Pink Unicorn falls short of this; it embodies the truth that some people don’t understand what mysteries actually are.)

The second thing we must address in the man-made part of “man-made theologies” is that—at least according to them—not all theologies are made by man, even in the more ancient sense of originating in human knowledge. The theology of Christianity originated with God, not with man. Christian theology is primarily the self-revelation of God to man. And we have every reason to believe that God would be entirely correct about Himself.

Now of course I can hear a throng of atheists screaming as one, “but how do you know that’s true?!? You didn’t hear God say it, all you’ve heard is people repeating what they say God said.” Actually, these days, they’re more likely to say, “where’s your evidence”, or accuse me of committing logical fallacies that I can’t be committing, and that they can’t even correctly define, but for the sake of time let’s pretend that only top-tier atheists watch my videos.

Oh what a nice world that would be.

Anyway, this gets to a mistake I’ve seen a lot of atheists make: evaluating religious claims on the assumption that they’re false. There’s a related example which is a bit clearer, so I’m going to give that example, then come back and show how the same thing applies here. There are people who question the validity of scripture on the basis of copying errors. “In two thousand years the texts were copied and recopied so many times we have no way of knowing what the originals said,” sums it up enough for the moment. This objection assumes that the rate of copying errors in the gospels is the same as for all other ancient documents. Actually, it also exaggerates the rate of copying errors on ancient documents, but that’s beside the point. It is reasonable enough to assume that the rate of copying errors in Christian scriptures does not greatly differ from that of other documents, if Christianity is false. Well, actually, even that is iffy since a document people hold in special reverence may get special care even if that reverence is mistaken, but forget about that for now. If Christianity is true, the gospels are not an ordinary document. They are an important part of God’s plan of salvation for us, which he entrusted to a church he personally founded and has carefully looked over throughout time, guarding it from error. In that circumstance, it would be absurd to suppose that copying errors would distort the meaning of the text despite the power of God preventing that from happening. Thus it is clear that the rate of copying errors is not a question which is independent of the truth of Christianity, and therefore a presumed rate of copying errors cannot be used as an argument against the truth of Christianity precisely because whatever rate is presumed will contain in it an assumption of the truth or falsehood of Christianity. (I should point out that what we would expect—and what the Church claims—is that God would safeguard the meaningful truth of revelation, not the insignificant details. That is, we would expect that if Christianity was true God would keep significant errors from predominating, not that he would turn scribes into photocopying machines—within Christianity God places a great deal of emphasis on free will and human cooperation. And as it happens, we have some very old copies of the gospels and while there have been the occasional copying errors, none of them have amounted to a doctrinally significant difference. Make of that what you will.)

So bringing this example back to the original point, whether Christian theology is man-made is not a question which is independent of the question of whether Christianity is true. If Christianity is false, then its theology is man-made. But if Christianity is true, then its theology is not man-made, but revealed. And as I said, while men often make mistakes, we can trust God to accurately describe himself.

So, to recap: theology is descriptive, not constructive, and in historically-based religions like Christianity, theology is revealed, not man-made. So now we can move onto the question of probabilities.

First, there is the issue that probability says nothing about one-offs. I covered this in my video The Problem with Probability, so I won’t go into that here, but since I’ve heard the objection that I only discussed the frequentist interpretation of probability, I will mention that if you want to go with a bayesian interpretation of probability, all you’re saying by assigning a probability of zero to an event is that it’s not part of your model. Now in the question we’re addressing, it’s not a probability of zero that’s being assigned but rather “approximately zero”. But the thing about the Bayesian interpretation is that probability is at least as much a description of the statistician as it is of the real world. It is, essentially, a way to quantify how little you know. Now, sometimes you have to make decisions and take actions with whatever knowledge you have at the moment, but often the correct thing to do is: learn. There is no interpretation of statistics which turns ignorance into knowledge, or in bayesian terms, the way to get better priors is outside of the scope of bayesian statistics.

But more importantly, this atomization of theologies is very misleading. Among all of the possible theologies, many of them have a great deal in common. They do not have everything important in common, obviously. There are some very substantial differences between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and say, Theravada Buddhism. But for all their differences, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, and several others have quite a lot in common. They all worship the uncreated creator of all that is. That’s actually a pretty big thing, which is to say that it’s very important. An uncreated creator who transcends time and space has all sorts of implications on the coherency of contingent beings within time (such as ourselves), the existence of a transcendent meaning to life, and lots of other things. This is in contrast to things that don’t matter much, like whether there is an Angel who has a scroll with all of the names of the blessed written on it. Whether there is one or isn’t doesn’t really matter very much. Grouping those two distinctions together as if they were of equal importance is highly misleading. Now, granted, there are all too many people who take a tribalistic, all-or-nothing approach to religion where the key thing is to pick the right group to formally pledge allegiance to. But one of the things which follows from belief in an uncreated creator is that this primitive, tribalistic approach is a human invention which is not an accurate description of reality. An uncreated creator cannot need us nor benefit from us, so he must have created us for our own sake, and so our salvation must be primarily not about something superficial like a formal pledge of allegiance, but about truth and goodness. And by goodness I mean conformity of action to the fullness of truth. For more on this, I’ll link my video debunking Believe-or-Burn, but for the moment, suffice it to say that being fairly correct, theologically, must be of some greater-than-zero value under any coherent theology with an uncreated creator behind all that exists. The correct approach is not to give up if you can’t be be completely correct. It’s to try to be as correct as possible.

And in any event there is no default position. Atheism is as much a philosophical position as any theology is. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is a default position, which is that there is Nothing. But that’s clearly wrong, there is something, so the default position is out. And while in a dictionary sense atheism is nothing but the disbelief in God—or for the moment it doesn’t even matter if you’re too intellectually weak for that and want to define atheism as the mere lack of a belief in God—western atheists tend to believe in the existence of matter, at least, as well as immaterial things like forces and laws of nature. So each atheist has a belief system, even if some refuse to admit it. The only way to not have a belief system is to give yourself a lobotomy. But until you do, since you have a belief system, it is as capable of being wrong as any theology is. And does it seem plausible that, if Christianity is true, if the version of Christianity you’ve encountered is a little inaccurate, you’ll be better off as an atheist?

I think that nearly answers the question, but there is a final topic which I think may answer an implicit part of the question: while there are infinitely many theologies which are theoretically possible, in practice there haven’t actually been all that many. This is something I’m going to cover more in my upcoming video series which surveys the world’s religions, but while there certainly are more than just one religion in the world, there aren’t nearly as many as many modern western people seem to think that there are. Usually large numbers are arrived at by counting every pagan pantheon as being a different religion, but this is not in fact how the pagans themselves thought of things. I don’t have the time to go into it—I addressed this somewhat in my video on fundamentalists, and will address it more in the future—but actual pagans thought of themselves as sharing a religion; just having some different gods and some different names for the same gods, just like French and American zoos don’t have all the same animals, and don’t use the same names for the animals they do have in common. But they will certainly recognize the other as zoos. American zookeepers do not disbelieve in French “python réticulé”.

And so it goes with other differences; those who worship nature worship the same nature. All sun worshippers worship the same sun. Those who believe in an uncreated creator recognize that others who believe in an uncreated creator are talking about the same thing, and generally hold that he can be known to some degree through examination of his creation, so they will tend to understand others who believe in an uncreated creator as having stumbled into the same basic knowledge.

And this explains why minor religions tend to die out as small groups make contact with larger groups. Those religions which are more thoroughly developed—which present more truth in an intelligible way—will appeal to those who on their own only developed a very rudimentary recognition and expression of those truths. There has been conversion by the sword in history, though it is actually most associated with Islam and often exaggerated in other faiths, but it is not generally necessary. When people come into contact with a religion which has a fuller expression of truth than the one they grew up with, they usually want to convert, because people naturally want the truth, and are attracted to intelligible expressions of it. And the key point is that the expressions of truth in better developed religions are intelligible precisely because they are fuller expressions of truths already found in one’s native religion. And this is so because religions are founded for a reason. I know there’s a myth common that religion was invented as bad science, usually something to the effect that people invented gods of nature in order to make nature seem intelligible. The fact that this is exactly backwards from what personifying inanimate objects does should be a sufficient clue that this is not the origin of religion. Think about the objects in your own life that people personify: “the printer is touchy”, “the traffic light hates me”, “don’t let the plant hear that I said it’s doing well because it will die on me out of spite”. Mostly this is just giving voice to our bewilderment at how these things work, but if this affects how mysterious the things are in any way, it makes them more mysterious, not less. If you think the printer is picky about what it prints, you’ll wonder at great length what it is about your documents it disapproves of. If you think of it as a mere machine, you turn it off, take it apart, put it back together again, and turn it on. Or you call a repairman. But if you personify it, you’ll wrap your life up in the mystery of its preferences. And anyone with any great experience of human beings has seen this. Especially if you’ve ever been the repairman to whom the printer is just a machine.

It’s also, incidentally, why many atheists have developed a shadowy, mysterious thing called “religion” which desires to subjugate humanity.

People personify what they don’t understand to communicate that it is mysterious, not to make it less mysterious. And they do this because people—having free will—are inherently and irreducibly mysterious.

So if you look past the mere surface differences, you will find that religions have generally originated for very similar reasons. So much so that more than a few people who haven’t studied the world’s religions enough are tempted to claim that there is only one universal religion to all of mankind with all differences being mere surface appearance. That’s not true either, but that this mistake is possible at all, is significant. Religions are founded for a reason, and that’s why there aren’t infinitely many of them.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

God’s Blessing on January 2, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the second day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I watched part of an interesting discussion of why other people than the lady making the video liked the movie Rogue One:

There was a point she came back to several times which I found interesting: that the characters had no arc. I don’t know whether she has a rule that all good fiction has character arcs where the characters grow and develop; certainly that would rule out short fiction which usually is about revealing interesting things about a character, not about developing that character in the sense of the character themselves changing. (And, as a side note, I generally contend that in structure movies are far more like short stories than they are like novels, but that’s a conversation for another day.) There’s also the possibility that her problem with Rogue One was something else—such as boring characters with no personalities—and she is merely describing that as them not having an arc. I’ve read the advice from more than one screenwriter that feedback from non-writers tends to be correct about where the problems are and wrong about what the solutions are. This is, I think, a more general issue that people who are complaining about something will often reach for the most ready description to hand which might fit even a little bit, rather than give a truly accurate complaint. It results in a lot of complaints which at the same time—but in different senses—are correct, but also wrong. This is especially true whenever anyone’s real complaint is that another person’s displaying of a group identity which isn’t shared made the speaker feel out-group, and their complaint is either that or the person in question didn’t do enough to make them feel in-group anyway. Such complaints are almost never of that form, I think in part because people would feel childish saying, “I felt excluded because there are things we don’t have in common.” Unfortunately there’s no way to say that which isn’t childish because it is a childish feeling. Best to control one’s feelings (or rather, how much one pays attention to them and how one acts or doesn’t based on them), but at the very least accurately describing problems would be a step forward. But alas we live in a very fallen world and so such feelings are usually placed on the other person (“she’s trying too hard”, “she doesn’t care about her appearance”, “no one needs an 80# bow”, etc.) in order to preserve the dignity of the person acting in an undignified manner.

Anyway, if we assume for the moment that what might be imprecise passing comments describing a feeling are in fact carefully thought out critiques of story construction, Ms. Nicholson’s comments bring up an interesting question about whether and to what degree we really want the characters in a story to change (or “grow,” which usually means, “become morally better”). Certainly we don’t want all of the characters to change. This is especially the case in one of my favorite genres—detective fiction. I want the detective unraveling the mystery, not personally growing. If he still has significant amounts of growth to do, he shouldn’t be the detective at all. The same is true of wise old men. I want them to be wise and old, not learning and growing. Some people in life should be growing, and ideally they should be young. Others should have already grown. Star Wars wouldn’t have been half as good if Obi Wan had lots of room for character growth. If he had, there would have been no one to make Han Solo and Luke grow up. I don’t know whether stories need characters who are effectively—if not chronologically—children in them, but they certainly need some adults in them, or the children in them have no way of growing.

This only scratches the surface of the topic, which I will certainly revisit later as time permits.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings To You on January 1, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the first day of January, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

For those of you who celebrate it, happy new year. Last night my wife and I played Oregon Trail: The Card Game. I loved the game I played as a child on Apple II computers in school. This was nothing like that, except that a few words were similar. The tagline on the box is “you died of dysentery,” which probably should have been a warning. The game consists of very little except getting calamity cards and trying to not die, which one often fails at. It’s a bit like starting out with a banker’s health and a farmer’s wealth, and being extraordinarily unlucky. If you possibly can, I recommend you avoid this game. We didn’t even have much fun complaining about it once it was clear that the game was no fun. The original game, by contrast, was a lot of fun. I don’t know how well it would hold up these days, and I can’t help but wonder if there might be a remake where the hunting scenes are 3D rendered first-person shooters. One can hope, anyway.

Russell Newquist’s Lyonesse project was funded, which was very cool to see. I hope it does well, because it would be wonderful for there to be a viable market in short fiction.

Since it’s the season for it, I hope you have a wonderful year in 2017.

Glory to God in the highest.