God’s Blessings on February 27, 2017

God’s blessings on this the twenty seventh day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

So, I’m clearly not very good at keeping up the daily blogging. I did get a video out over the weekend, though:

It’s some commentary on Bishop Barron’s video on prayer, which is much better:

Still, he didn’t say it, so it might be worth saying.

I also put up a few videos recently about a debate challenge which I got from Deconverted Man and why I don’t debate atheists. Both drew a fair number of comments from people who, shall we say, do not appear to be rocket surgeons. (I like mixing metaphors to spice things up.) The most noticeable sort are from people who can’t seem to get that I am not trying to debate anyone in those videos. The first is me making fun of a ridiculous debate challenge (which was absurdly specific about things which needed no specificity and absurdly under-specified in the things which did). Specifically, making fun of a debate challenge from a fellow who criticized a previous video of mine as being irrational. The other is an explanation of why I, personally, don’t debate atheists at this point in my life. Very explicitly so; I say that in the first minute. And yet I got comments from people critiquing it as if it were one side of a debate.

I also got a tweet from “Mr Oz Atheist” snarking,

Wouldn’t have thought it takes a video 32 minutes long to say ‘Because I have no valid arguments’

I’ve dealt with him before and he’s not exactly the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket, if you know what I mean. But the really curious thing is that I then got a comment on my video:

Let me help you out and shorten your video. You don’t, because you can’t provide good evidence, just logical leaps and fallacies.

Now, I have no proof that he’s one of Mr. Oz Atheist’s followers, but the timing and the phrasing is suggestive. Which raises an interesting question, even if it didn’t happen in this particular case: why do people go to following links in order to leave comments on things they haven’t watched? Unless the comments are original thoughts derived from the title (and hence won’t be very original since most everyone sees the same possibilities in titles), they have to be just parroting whatever it was they read about the video. Why would a human being think that’s valuable? Is it that their Dear Leader’s thoughts are so wonderful they must be shared, and Dear Leader has too little time to leave comments on every video he comes across? Are they hoping that they’ll be noticed by Dear Leader and get praised? Is this purely a pack instinct to attack anything perceived as an enemy? There must be some explanation, but at present I’m at a loss to understand it.

Incidentally, what is this odd obsession atheists have with valid arguments? There are valid arguments for everything. They’re the easiest things in the world to construct. Just take modus ponens:

∴ q

Where q is the conclusion you want and put anything at all for p. Here, with p being 2+2=5 and q being God exists:

If 2+2 = 5, then God exists.
2+2 = 5
Therefore, God exists.

It’s perfectly valid, as an argument. If the premises are true, the conclusion certainly follows from them. What it’s not is a sound argument. (A sound argument is a valid argument with true premises.) More colloquially, what it is not is a good argument.

Sometimes I’m tempted to thank these atheists for making atheism look so bad. But the thing is, all this idiocy doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. These poor creatures should be taken care of by people more able to think than they are; the strong should protect the weak. But these poor people have fallen into the clutches of atheists who are typically only a little bit smarter than they are and not really any better educated (as opposed to schooled) and they’re suffering from it. Pray for them with me, if you will.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 22, 2017

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

My recent video where I made fun of the debate challenge I was given sparked a lot of comments. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s here:

Now, straight up, that was not a nice thing to do. This is making fun of Deconverted Man. But, it should be noted, niceness is not a virtue. To put it bluntly, Deconverted Man is an idiot who presumes to lecture people about how they’re wrong when he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. This is something he should be corrected on, and equally importantly, since his errors are proclaimed publicly, it is right that he should be corrected publicly. The public good is disturbed when ignorance is proclaimed as knowledge and that goes unchecked.

I suspect that what makes me (and at least a few other people) uncomfortable with this is that it’s ungentlemanly. A gentleman never draws attention to the failings of another. It is unpleasant, and in polite society unnecessary. When someone is acting intolerably that is best handled by avoiding to invite them to your parties. But polite society is a fiction created by wealth in order to be an ornament (at best). This sort of thing pretends to Christian virtue because it can seem like the idea of not judging others, but it in fact is not that. This sort of politeness has no problem at all judging others; it’s concerned entirely with the enforcement of that judgment.

Now, here’s the problem. Me making fun of Deconverted Man is a bit like a young man beating up an aged grandmother. It’s not a fair fight. But that doesn’t mean that I should therefore let Deconverted Man get away with publicly proclaiming falsehoods. And with thick-skulled idiots like him, gentle criticism from somebody who is an out-group member (since I’m a “theist” and he’s an atheist) will have precisely no effect. Moreover, his idiocy is public. Subtlety does not work for most people. It’s very commonly liked because it’s gentle and doesn’t lead to bad feelings, except that it often does lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings anyway. But subtlety is, I suspect, far more often an act of cowardice than it is an act of love.

And a lot of people really dislike “drama”. That is, they dislike unpleasant feelings. And being around people who are not getting along generates a lot of unpleasant feelings. Which is fair. Human beings are not meant to live in very large groups; we’re much better off with small groups of people we’ve known for many, many years. We work much better in that sort of environment. I suspect that they should be honest with themselves that they just can’t handle the truth, though (which is fine; we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, and can’t handle everything we should—I can’t either).

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 21, 2017

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

I missed something like four days in a row now. Argh.

I released a video at lunchtime today about a debate challenge I received. It was ridiculous and I think the British expression is that I took the piss out of it:

I laughed at it, in any event. I’ve got a video about prayer which is coming out soon so I’m looking forward to that.

And I’m going to try to get back to daily posts here.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 16, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the seventeenth of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Last night I did a hangout with Max of the Escaping Atheism project on YouTube, if you’re interested you can watch it here:

We spoke about the style of talking with Atheists (primarily what I call kakangelical atheists—atheists who want to spread the bad news), and how there are different styles and a place for Escaping Atheism’s blunt, combative style.

To give a brief summary of why, especially on the internet there are a lot of kakangelical atheists whose approach is to be very confident and very aggressive to believers, asserting in very forceful tones that they’re delusional idiots for believing in a magic sky fairy with no evidence! Etc. And I think that there is value to some people equally forcefully responding, “no, you’re the delusional idiot for thinking God is like a magic sky fairy, for asserting that there is no evidence in plain contradiction of simple fact, and for not having bothered to learn anything before spouting off about it.”

It’s not that this will convince anyone that they’re wrong, but curiously it will sometimes convince people to go do some studying, not because they are inspired to better themselves, but because having done no studying they have no reply, and so may go do some studying just to procure some better rhetorical weapons. Along the way, they may end up learning something. That said, the real important part of this is that it neutralizes what amounts to bullying. Powerfully presented confidence is intimidating; to see it on both sides reduces its effect, giving space for reason to operate. This is especially important for the young; as I mentioned in the video that forceful approach shook me a lot when I was a teenager. Now that I’m getting close to forty I tend to just reply with equal confidence and move on, occasionally amused at the names I get called for doing what the other guy just did (that is, asserting that I was right and the other guy wrong). I don’t think I’ll ever understand thin-skinned people who lead with insults. Thick-skinned people who open with insults make sense to me, but how have the thin-skinned ones not learned to moderate their approach in pure self-defense?

Now, it might be brought up that one catches far more flies with a tablespoon of honey than with a gallon of vinegar. It’s a great saying, and in certain situations very true. I’m not sure of the literal fact behind the metaphor, though; I’ve seen a lot of dead flies in a bowl of apple cider vinegar which was accidentally left open. That being said, if you want to find people who responded with mild language in the face of blasphemy, I suggest you read something other than the bible. As the meme goes:


Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 15, 2017

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

There are a lot of trials in being a parent, but I think that the hardest is sleep deprivation. At least for me, I find it very difficult to function when I’m underslept. There is an element, I think, in Christian psychology in the modern west where we expect that carrying our crosses will be glamorous. Well, not glamorous, exactly, but the sort of thing people would write stories about. We’re so soaked in fiction that we think about a great deal of life in terms of how it would be summarized in a story. And after all, Jesus carrying his cross was written about in a story. Surely, so our emotions sometimes go, our cross to carry will be similarly story-worthy.

But our crosses to bear are often things like, “sure, Child, I will walk you to the bathroom at 3am then tuck you back into bed; don’t worry, I’ll get back to sleep eventually” and dealing with the exhaustion and headaches the next day.

Some wag apparently said that there were enough putative fragments of the true cross of Christ to make a ship, whereas in reality there are something like four kilograms worth of fragments claimed to be from the true cross, but in any event one night of little rest is not like a splinter from one’s cross. For many of us, I think we carry our crosses one splinter at a time, and over the years they add up to a cross, so we don’t notice and it’s very easy to complain because we don’t think of them the right way.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 14, 2017

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

I’m not feeling much today in terms of a subject to write about, but here’s a video I did recently on the subject of to err is human:

I look at the side of to err is human which holds that making mistakes is part of being human, and why that can’t be true. (I don’t object to the idea that we should be realistic about how all men make mistakes, and should be understanding of them when they do, and I don’t address the sense of contrast in the original, “to err is human to forgive divine”.)

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 13, 2017

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

There’s an interesting phenomena going on right now in the “skeptic community” which is very approximately the branch of the online atheist community who dislikes identity politics. An extremely brief summary of it is that some prominent members of the skeptic community gave paid endorsements to a company promoting an app/social media site called Candid. (I’m not being coy, by the way, I haven’t followed enough to know who they all are. I suspect it’s public knowledge, but it’s not relevant here.) A less prominent member of the community (going by the name Harmful Opinions) then called Candid into question as being, far from a dedicated to free speech, seeming to use an AI in order to police speech more stringently than it has been before. The truth of the accusations I don’t know; I’ve seen some evidence presented by Harmful Opinions in a video, but without tracking down original sources that’s not really different from ignorance. It’s not really relevant to me since I’ve never heard of the social media platform makes it sound like I’d never try it, so it’s just not relevant to my life.

What is relevant is that a rift in the skeptic community where prominent skeptics are being taken down a peg certainly seems like good news to those of us who are on the receiving end of their followers blind faith in the sufficiency of atheism as a worldview. And to be explicit, I believe that one part (not the whole) of the confidence that many slow-witted atheists have that atheism has all of the answers to life’s questions which are necessary to live a good life is because they see more intelligent, charismatic people like the prominent skeptics being (apparently) content living the atheist life and take their confidence from that.

So I think that there is a hopeful pleasure to be seen in this which can be distinguished from simple schadenfreude (“shameful joy”) at bad things happening one one’s enemies. I say to “one’s enemies” but they’re not really my enemies; if they’re anyone’s enemies they are the enemies of those they are leading astray. They’re not really doing anything to me. (Also I run far too small a channel for them to even know I exist, so none of them have ever mentioned me or anything like that.)

This is also something which touches on the issue of “atheists can be just as moral as Christians” which comes up less these days than it did decades ago, I think, but it still comes up because it is true that a given atheist can be personally better than a given Christian. Which is to say that the best atheist is better than the worst Christian. But as it becoming ever clearer, that’s mostly a theoretical statement. The rate at which atheists are degenerating is startling to the point of being scary. Of course, they are degenerating in the sense of coming to believe that if God is dead all things are permitted, not that if God is dead, you can get away with everything. Which is to say that they are considering worse and worse things to be perfectly moral. So if you want to murder your child in the womb after a three day cocaine bender/orgy with married people, that’s your own business and doesn’t make you any less moral than anyone else.

What’s going to be really bad is the people who are raised this way, by the way. People who were raised with morals but then overthrew them still have most of the inhibitions of their youth, at least for a few decades and often for the rest of their life. People who were raised with the idea that they can do anything they want so long as everyone consents—whatever that means given that they also don’t believe free will exists—will act very differently. It’s not likely to be pretty. Be that as it may, there may be some effect of this for the intermediate people who still have some scruples against lying (does anyone consent to be lied to? But being hung up on telling the truth is a Christian hang-up; I suppose the usual atheist approach is to not think about it). Seeing that many of the prominent atheists they look up to as living a good atheist life are in fact willing to lie and sell out their followers for money may shake some people’s confidence that atheism is in fact a viable path to a good life. So I think that greeting this scandal in the skeptic community with glee is defensible on this ground.

Though I think it’s important for Christians to be careful here; this sort of thing can very easily turn into gossiping. But that does not mean that tarnishing the good name of a villain is wrong; to uphold the reputation of a liar is to be complicit with his lies. So while great care is warranted, I do think that there is a legitimate way of receiving this news with mixed pleasure. Of course, no sin can properly be the occasion of pleasure, so it cannot be a pure pleasure in hearing this, but that truth may finally be revealed to those who have been in darkness is worth celebrating.

(And if anyone wants to draw a false equivalence between this and misdeeds by priests or pastors, the key distinction is this: no one can actually convict the atheists of having done anything wrong on atheist principles. About the most you can convict them of doing is possibly acting sub-optimally from a species-benefit perspective. Or possibly being incompetent in their self-interest. When a priest does something immoral, he can be convicted by the Christian morality he himself acknowledges. In short, the key difference is that if the prominent skeptics acted badly, they cannot be charged with being hypocrites. Which is a far greater condemnation of them.)

If you can, say a prayer for all of the members of the skeptic community, prominent and anonymous alike. They sure as hell need it.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 12, 2017

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

I’m traveling right now and in the hotel I was staying in the bed was too soft and the pillow was too hard. I suppose that means that on average I was quite comfortable.

It’s an old joke, but for a reason. Not everything which can be measured tells you anything when you do. That, of  course,  is the role of wisdom. To (among other things) distinguish between the things one should apply statistics to and the things one shouldn’t. Not too long ago I saw a fun rant / tweet storm from Nicholas Nassim Taleb about how Nate Silver’s predictions in the presidential race were junk. He couched it in terms of any model with such a high variance approaches a coin flip, but I prefer to look at it as Mr. Silver modeling an alternate reality. I’m not sure which, but it’s one of:

  • Outcome if nothing changes between now and the election
  • Outcome if the election were held today. 

 They’re related, of course, but the first is obviously not our world, because things change constantly in our world, especially when two large groups are vying for a prize. The second is obviously not our world because our election has a different date.

And as we’ve seen, these things will have a similar outcome to our world only when they do, and not for any fixed, causal reason. 

In fact, the only real purpose to such public polls and public models is entertainment. A 24 hour news cycle needs far more interesting events to happen than typically do in the real world, so news organizations are forced to do much if not most of their reporting about hypothetical worlds. The big difference is how discreetly they do it.

Glory to God in the highest. 

No Post Today

I’m sorry I didn’t get to it today or yesterday. Things have been extra crazy. One interesting thing, though, is that my wife sprouted an avocado seed (pit) and put the root in a wine bottle filled with water. Curiously, it put the root out for several weeks before it started growing anything in the top. Seemed odd to me with all of the energy in the pit until I realized that no matter how much energy the plant has available, the leaves will need a lot of water or they will dessicate and die because leaves can’t help using water in sunlight. Hence the relatively large root system first. 

Glory to God in the highest. 

George Orwell on Penny Dreadfuls

Via a blog post by Brian Niemeier I found this essay by George Orwell. It’s mostly about the penny dreadfuls which are popular in England at the time of writing, which appears to be 1939. It’s a curious read for the snapshot of history it gives, but the whole thing is tinged with a bit of disapproval, which finally comes out in the end. It turns out that this essay was written during Orwell’s socialist phase, before he became disillusioned with socialism (I heard in the wake of the Spanish civil war). And his point in writing the whole thing was to note how conservative penny dreadfuls were, and since they were read primarily by children in the range of 10-16 years old, that his was probably very influential. So, he concluded, there should be penny dreadfuls written by socialists to promote socialism.

But there was a problem, which he noted and proposed a solution. First, the problem:

This raises the question, why is there no such thing as a left-wing boys’ paper? At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q,. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’

A. ‘No, Comrade.’

Q,. ‘Why, Comrade?’

A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression.’ Etc., etc.

Now suppose that at this moment somebody started a left-wing paper deliberately aimed at boys of twelve or fourteen. I do not suggest that the whole of its contents would be exactly like the tract I have quoted above, but does anyone doubt that they would be something like it? Inevitably such a paper would either consist of dreary up-lift or it would be under Communist influence and given over to adulation of Soviet Russia; in either case no normal boy would ever look at it.

I think that this is a fairly good description of the problem with socialists writing, well, anything. Their philosophy is so inhuman that it can’t be made appealing. But Mr. Orwell has a solution:

But it does not follow that it is impossible. There is no clear reason why every adventure story should necessarily be mixed up with snobbishness and gutter patriotism. For, after all, the stories in the Hotspur and the Modern Boy are not Conservative tracts; they are merely adventure stories with a Conservative bias. It is fairly easy to imagine the process being reversed. It is possible, for instance, to imagine a paper as thrilling and lively as the Hotspur, but with subject-matter and ‘ideology’ a little more up to date… If, for instance, a story described police pursuing anarchists through the mountains, it would be from the point of view of the anarchist and not of the police. An example nearer to hand is the Soviet film Chapaiev, which has been shown a number of times in London. Technically, by the standards of the time when it was made, Chapaiev is a first-rate film, but mentally, in spite of the unfamiliar Russian background, it is not so very remote from Hollywood… All the usual paraphernalia is there — heroic fight against odds, escape at the last moment, shots of galloping horses, love interest, comic relief. The film is in fact a fairly ordinary one, except that its tendency is ‘left’. In a Hollywood film of the Russian Civil War the Whites would probably be angels and the Reds demons. In the Russian version the Reds are angels and the Whites demons.

To put his solution more bluntly, he proposes lying. Since the philosophy of socialism is too inhuman to communicate to ordinary people, he suggests trying to make it more palatable by showing you the people who have been duped by it, who are still at least mostly human, and not the inhuman philosophy to which they have been duped. And moreover he’s talking about showing the dupes at the moment when they are least typical of the philosophy of their side. Anarchists being chased through the mountains by police are romantic because a group of people working together to avoid death in a harsh environment is romantic. But anarchy is not a group of people working together, it is at its most typical the strong preying upon the weak. (Until such time as a strong man starts protecting the weak in exchange for their supporting him, and government starts once again. To paraphrase Chesterton talking about paganism, if society ever dissolves into anarchy, it will end as all anarchy does. I do not mean it will end in death. I mean that it will end in society.)

And in fact Orwell does have some intuition of this, I think. Because the next sentence after the quote above is this:

That is also a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

This sort of lying in fiction is a phenomenon we are all familiar with, I think. I suspect most people are familiar with the leftist version of it, but I’ve seen quite a lot of it from atheists, as well, where they depict atheists doing all of the bold and daring things that men who believe in something greater than themselves do, except without the believing in anything greater. (I’m speaking of western materialist atheists, here.) Unlike Orwell, whose purpose was recruiting people into a cause, I suspect that atheists tell these lies primarily to themselves, as a form of comfort.  They like to think about what they’ve given up, as if they haven’t given it up.

God’s Blessings on February 7, 2017

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

I got in a conversation about church hymns today. For anyone who doesn’t know, after the switch from Latin to the customary vernacular which happened in the 1960s, the Catholic Church in America was in great need of English language hymns, and the hymnal which was put together very quickly, well, sounds like it was. There are some really good songs in the hymnal—in the sense of both having beautiful music as well as having theological content in the words—but then there are also some songs whose inclusion is hard to understand apart from the poor judgment which goes along with desperation and lack of sleep. Or possibly very weird taste born of living in a very strange time, which the 1960s in America certainly seems to have been. I do think that people get too worked up over this; if the worst cross one has to bear is singing some bad hymns while getting to celebrate our salvation by eating the body and drinking the blood of God, one has very little to complain about. And I expect that better hymnals will be produced within a few decades; on the scale of a 2000 year old church that’s nearly the blink of an eye. Still, that’s not quite so fast by the standards of a human life, and while Marty Haugen wrote some competent melodies it seems that anything to which he wrote the words is a penance to sing. So, for anyone who’s suffered through the hymns of Marty Haugen and his similarly-talented contemporaries, take solace with me in this fun parody (no idea who to attribute it to):

Glory to God in the highest.

Time Chasers

One of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is Time Chasers. It’s not my favorite—that’s Overdrawn at the Memory Bank—but it’s up there. I was recently reminded of the scene where Bob Evil (actual name: J.K. Robertson; President of Gencorp) quotes a clause in the contract his company has with Nick Miller (the main character) saying that if anything in the time transport project is deemed of value or a threat to national safety, the government will appoint a project supervisor, and that supervisor will have total control overriding any previous agreements established within the contract. Bob evil then goes on to say, with impressive defensiveness, “That’s a government law, not a Gencorp one.” As opposed to all those other Gencorp laws, I assume. I don’t think that was intentional self-parody; I think it really was an impressively fiction-based understanding of reality. If you like MST3K and haven’t seen this episode, I highly recommend it, it’s a huge amount of fun.

God’s Blessings on February 7, 2017

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

I got the video about the asymmetry between good and evil up, if you’re interested:

And my friend Eve Keneinan mentioned an interesting approach to describing this sort of asymmetry, which is that of truth. Truths cannot contradict each other, but falsehoods can contradict both truth and other falsehoods. It’s not precisely the same relationship, but it does describe a similar asymmetry.

Towards the end of my video I mentioned that it has implications on writing. I do think that this is another source for the idea that flawed characters are essential to good writing. Flaws in characters can’t help but remind us of goodness by contrast, since flaws are in a sense the shadows cast by virtues; they are in any event a painful reminder of where virtues are supposed to be. And this is, I think, another reason why I dislike the flawed character dictum; it would be much better to call to mind virtue by actually calling it to mind, rather than by using shadows which remind us of virtue. Of course, it’s more work, which is why it’s done less often. Also, I’m thinking of changing the thumbnail on the video to this:


I’m curious whether it’s an improvement. It’s meant to be suggestive of the metaphor of evil like a shadow—a thing with a purely negative existence, not a positive existence. It’s by no means a perfect representation of the shadow metaphor since evil is the privation of good, not merely the absence of good. That is, it is the absence of good where there should be good. Hence why lying is evil, but staying silent when there is no need to talk is not evil. But, even though it’s definitely not perfect as an illustration, I do kind of like it aesthetically. And as a thumbnail rather than an illustration within the video, I think it wouldn’t be likely to confuse anyone. If you had a moment to tell me what you think in the comments, I’d be grateful for the feedback.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 5, 2017

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

I recorded a video today which I hope to get up about the asymmetry between good and evil. It’s a curious thing which occurred to me recently because some people mistakenly say that we need evil in order to appreciate good. That’s not true, since evil is the privation of good (privation comes from the same root as deprivation; it means that evil is the absence of good where there should be good; evil is like a shadow—it looks like something, but that’s an illusion caused by the things that do exist around it). But there is, therefore, this asymmetry: you can consider good without thinking of evil, because good has a positive existence, but you can’t consider evil without thinking of good, because evil is defined only by where good should be, but isn’t.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 4, 2017

God’s Blessings to you on this the fourth day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017. When I was young, there was a TV show I sometimes watched called Movie Magic. It was about special effects in particular, but it could have been a much more general title, because everything about movies has a certain magic to it.

As I write this, I’m watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode for the movie The Dead Talk Back. According to Wikipedia, it was filmed in 1957 but never screened. It eventually was found in a warehouse and went direct-to-video in 1993, and appeared on MST3K a year later. I wouldn’t call it a good movie, but I sometimes put it on in the background while I’m programming because I find it works well for that. (I can only watch movies I’ve seen more than once before while programming or I find them distracting. I never do this with really good movies because I don’t want to ruin my appreciation of them.) It’s a murder mystery, which I love dearly, and all of the production elements were decent but not good. The acting was OK, the cameraman filmed it so the people were reasonably large in the shots, it was lit so that you could see what was being filmed, etc. The story itself is, while not great, at least coherent and the pacing isn’t bad. And I’ve found that this is what really makes for the best MST3K episodes; the underlying episode needs to be relatively watchable. (I say this as someone who owns more than 20 boxed DVD sets of MST3K.) I very rarely re-watch episodes where the underlying movie was unwatchable.

I’m going to write more about this in depth some day, but I think that the basic underlying reason for it is that MST3K is fundamentally most enjoyable to people who are—fundamentally—laughing at themselves by proxy. It’s great to people who intuitively understand the magic of movies, and would love to be a part of it in making a movie (or TV, etc.; same basic thing for my purpose here). Those of us who do understand just how willing we’d be to take short-cuts if it meant the difference between coming in under-budget with a movie, versus going over-budget and having to shut down production with nothing. Like is Plan 9 From Outer Space, if you have everything set up and need to get the shot now or give up because you don’t have the budget for another day’s shooting, who wouldn’t just shrug their shoulders at the wrinkle in the blue sheet used to represent the sky behind the colonel giving the orders to shoot? The set used to represent an airplane’s cockpit is absurd, but it does at least remind one, if only a little, of the cockpit of an airplane, and that’s a lot better than (1) nothing in the form of sitting at a desk in a cafeteria or (2) nothing in the form of no movie. B movies might have as their theme song repeating the phrase “don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good” repeated like a mantra. But of course these aren’t good movies. And that’s unfortunate, but in a sense OK. And that’s why MST3K is so funny. Because it is pointing out these two truths which are hard to hold simultaneously: these aren’t good movies, and all being, as such, is good. Also, they’re not really bad movies. If you want truly bad movies, watch wretched things like The House on the Edge of the Park or Slave of the Cannibal God. I learned early that when you want to watch bad movies to make fun of them with your friends, you need to be very careful, because there’s another barrel buried deep in the ground underneath the barrel that Plan 9 From Outer Space at the bottom of.

Anyway, that juxtaposition of truths which are hard to hold at the same time is perhaps the easiest to notice in movies which aren’t good, but are close to good, hence movies like The Dead Talk Back. But I’ve noticed this in other contexts, too. If you want to make fun of things for humor, don’t look for the worst things there are, because no one can stand them even to laugh at them. Pick things that are nearly good but not quite.

And there are exceptions to the rule about B movies, by the way. Gunslinger was on an MST3K episode, and it was actually a good movie. Low budget, to be sure, but a plot worthy of a greek tragedy and with decent enough acting to make it believable. One of the later scenes involves a man and a woman who’ve fallen in love but are on opposite sides of the law professing their love for each other as they shoot at each other, and when the woman hits the man, she rushes over to cradle him in her arms as he dies (which he does). That’s the thing about fiction; no matter what signifiers of quality it comes with, you can never quite be sure what you’re going to find.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 3, 2017

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

Like a lot of people, I read about the violence used to shut down a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos. And like a lot of people, I’ve seen more than a few instances of left-wingers on twitter applauding this violence or defending the idea of punching people they designate as Nazis. It is upsetting, but I think it is upsetting in disproportion to how significant it really is. There is a great deal of human evil in the world, and while we should do what we can to prevent and counteract it, what we can actually do about almost all the evil in the world is, basically, nothing. This is just common sense; there is no way I can prevent the murder of people I don’t even know in a country I don’t live in; and so it goes for nearly everything.

Of course, newspapers and later TV news specialized in telling me about things I cannot control as if somehow, by knowing about them, I could in fact control them. This is obvious nonsense. In some vague theoretical sense, knowing about some problem in Australia means that I could give up my life in the United States and travel to Australia to right that wrong, except that (1) I probably can’t and (2) I would be committing a much graver injustice against my family by abandoning them than I have any real chance of doing good in Australia. (And apart from that, one may not do evil that good will result. So abandoning my family is right out.) I think that the usual dodge is that I can call my congressman and senators and tell them how important fixing whatever it is that’s going on in Australia is. Except, let us be honest, American congressmen and senators are not going to actually drop their pressing American concerns to—do what? They could declare war on Australia, I suppose. Establishing burdensome trade restrictions which mostly hurt innocent people would also be doable, I suppose. But even there, it would only work if more than one congressman and two senators were in favor of it, and I have even less influence over congress critters I don’t vote for. And what’s extraordinarily true of events in other countries is only marginally less true of events within my own country. Countries are big places, and the United States is one of the bigger countries.

And, in fact, when looked at realistically, my sphere of influence drops off to almost 100% uninfluential pretty rapidly; most of what’s in it are my family, friends, and co-workers. In fact, a cynical man might conclude that this is why Christ talked so much about neighbors and so little about society.

Anyway, there’s another phenomenon I’ve noticed, which is that if you talk with most liberals—or at least when I do, with the ones in my life—they don’t tend to know a lot about the extreme left wingers that I read about a lot. Now, you can call them useful idiots if you like, and there may even be an element of that going on, but at the same time I’m not very familiar with whoever the extremists on my side are supposed to be, such as David Duke, the Westboro Baptist Church, Sean Spencer, etc. It’s not that I literally have no idea who they are (since liberals bring them up all the time) but that I pay no attention to them because they’re minority idiots. And rightly or wrongly, that’s how the liberals in my life tend to view many of the worst leftists. There is an asymmetry, to be sure, because some awful leftists are quite mainstream to the point where it’s impolite to point out how awful they are, but none the less, when it comes to things like punching Nazis, that doesn’t appear to be a mainstream thing. And to be fair there was a bunch of rather shameful celebrating of the guy who punched Spencer—with ritual incantations of “I don’t condone violence” as if that makes celebrating it harmless.

So, yeah, I don’t know. I was going to say that both sides cherry-pick the worst of the other side, which gives both sides a skewed view of the other side, especially when it comes to the ordinary people who aren’t so involved, but I don’t know any more.

Hopefully I’m just having a bad day, but in any event it’s a damn good thing that God is in charge of the world and not people.

Glory to God in the highest.

Beauty and the Beholder

In a recent blog post, John C Wright discusses beauty and where it is located. Now, there is nothing wrong with what he says, but I do submit that he is somewhat taking the meaning of a person who says the words to be overly related to the words that they say. You can see a similar thing when people criticize doing evil that good may come of it with the words, “the ends don’t justify the means”. Taken literally, this is nonsense. Of course means are justified by ends, because nothing else can justify means. There is no such thing as a self-justifying means. Pushing a sharpened piece of steel into somebody’s bodies is justified or not entirely on the basis of why you’re doing it. Is it to shiv him in revenge for a minor transgression? Or are you a surgeon cutting out a cancer to save his life? Plunging the metal into him is merely a means, and as such must find its justification in the ends for which it is used. What people really mean, of course is one of  “this end don’t justify those means” or more commonly, “remote ends do not justify proximate, intermediate ends”. But it’s less catchy, so you can see why people don’t say what they literally mean. Plus most people would have to look up what proximate means (in the proximity of; right next to, approximate meaning an estimate by way of analogy to not-right-next-to).

I submit that the same thing applies to the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Taken literally, it is as Mr. Wright says a denial of beauty as a concept. But many if not most people do not mean it literally. (I’m on relatively safe ground here; when discussing anything less practical than passing the salt at dinner, people rarely mean what they say literally.) There is a real thing which is being described, which is that beauty is a direct perception of the goodness of God as reflected by the goodness in creation, and each person is given a different (if largely overlapping) perspective on the goodness of God, and hence what precise goodness each man is able to perceive does vary. Thus when beholding any particular beautiful thing, one man may see the goodness of God revealed clearly in it because it matches what he was made to see, while another may see it only dimly because he was given something else to see clearly. To generalize, there are those who like roller coasters and in them appreciate the power of God in velocity and turning; this is an aspect of God’s goodness I see only dimly, while I appreciate the stillness of a forest and the loudness if leaves falling to the ground in it quite a lot. Now, my inability to perceive God’s goodness in the rush of the roller coaster does not mean that it is not there, any more than a deaf man’s inability to hear the beauty in Mozart’s music does not mean that it is not beautiful.

It is quite wrong to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is quite accurate to say that perceiving beauty depends on the eye of the beholder. But the second phrase is harder on the ear, and when it comes to expressing truths most people are far more traditionalists than they are philosophers, and those of us who are capable of saying what we mean should always look out in charity for those who are not. On the other hand, it is always good to give people who misuse common phrases a (metaphorical) hard slap upside the head to try to bring them to their senses, which I think is what Mr. Wright intends. So please take this post as an elaboration on the subject Mr. Wright is speaking about, and not a contention with Mr. Wright’s post.

God’s Blessings on February 2, 2017

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

I found an interesting referrer linking to my interview with the editor of Cirsova magazine. It’s a blog post by Rampant Coyote about how the covers on old pulps were often quite misleading. It’s an interesting post and I recommend reading the whole thing. I found this part especially interesting:

The covers … well… as much as I love them now, they aren’t great representations of the stories themselves. The Weird Tales cover here, for example… if you’ve actually read “Queen of the Black Coast,” the only thing about this image that resembles the story is the monster. Kind of, but it’s supposed to be more ape-like. The dude is not Conan, and the girl isn’t acting (or dressed like) like Bêlit. In the story… well, Conan pretty much meets his match in Bêlit. She is a bloodthirsty, avaricious, fearless pirate. She commands some men and slaughters others, and her name strikes fear in the heart of captain . As I recall, she’s the one who does the rescuing (if posthumously… it’s complicated. They borrowed that idea for the 1982 movie. Read the story, it’s awesome!)

This was in part an effect of the business model of the time, or more properly of the specialization involved in having a publishing house. The people who commissioned the art for the covers were people who had a keen sense of what sells books, which was their job, and not nearly so much of how to accurately represent a story in a picture, which was (in practice) no one’s job. This is one thing that always annoyed me as a reader and something I’ve fixed as a self-published author. Since I commission the cover art, I have the artist depict a scene from the book. Whether that negatively affects sales I don’t know, but I far prefer the honesty of it.

Anyway, I had gotten so used to the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” being used metaphorically, especially about judging a person’s moral character from his looks, that I had all but forgotten that it was also literal advice based on how much book covers might be outright lies.

There is another very interesting section later on in the post, about what the stories were actually like:

This is especially true in some recent efforts I’ve seen to deconstruct / subvert older stories… folks should know what they are trying to build on. If you are writing a “pulp-style” story and you think you are being bold and original because it’s about a female warrior / pirate who totally has to rescue a Conan-analog character… it’s been done. Magazine covers notwithstanding, Howard has already been there. Lots of the pulps have. They may not be what you think they are.

Which brings up an interesting fact about the pulps: there were a lot of them. Writers wrote many stories, and though there undoubtedly were formulaic stories (any industry which needs a lot of writing is going to publish a lot of bad writing, for the simple reason that bad writing is easier to come by than good writing) writers of successful stories needed to come up with new things so as not to become stale. People did not buy the pulps because the previous issue sufficed for the new one, and subverting expectations is a very old trick for surprising the reader and keeping  his interest. It’s done much better by people who want to do it in order to make their stories interesting than by people who want to overthrow morality so that they have license to be bad, since the former will only subvert things which do no harm when subverted while the latter will subvert things which do a lot of harm, but the general concept of subverting expectations is not new at all. In fact, God even used that trick when he took on flesh, being born a helpless baby in an insignificant part of an insignificant country, in a stable for animals. As Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, there is something very strange in picturing the hands that made the universe being too small to reach the enormous heads of the cattle.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 1, 2017

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

John C Wright has a fascinating review of ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan. The story is better known as the introduction of Buck Rogers, who Mr. Wright notes is not known for this story but rather for the comic strip, radio play, movies, and later TV show in which he was the main character.

It’s an interesting review which is very much worth reading, but the thing which particularly caught my attention was when Mr. Wright, after detailing the bad aspects of how the story is written, then talks about why the story had such an impact, or in other words what was good in it. And the main thing was, roughly, the setting. It was an imaginatively great setting, full of possibilities for adventure. To over-simplify, the basic idea of a man frozen in time and emerging into a world of marvels who becomes great because he is able to merge knowledge now-forgotten with new marvels really captures the imagination in a strong way. There are other very interesting aspects, relating to the specifics of the story, which Mr. Wright outlines as important; how people are living a life of low civilization in hiding because a more powerful group of people are hunting them, and how they have grown strong through suffering while the more powerful group has grown decadent and weak through comfort. (Which is an interestingly Christian theme, by the way.)

Now, the curious thing about the power of a good setting, which is essentially the power of a good idea, is that good ideas are not generally regarded as very important by writers. I don’t mean that writers think that bad ideas make for good stories, but rather that usually a good idea is not the hard part. The hard part is writing the story. Furthermore, the same basic story, written by two different writers, can come out very differently, including one coming out well and the other terribly. As I remarked once before, bad as well as good stories can be written with the basic plot and setting of Pride & Prejudice, and indeed many have been. If anyone has ever read fan fiction in high school written by friends,  one will be familiar with how good plots can be made unreadable by poor execution. (Or by intermixing; one chap I knew gave himself the quickening from highlander while he was fighting the emperor from Star Wars. This did not turn out as well as mixing chocolate chips and butterscotch chips in cookies does.)

And there are plenty of examples of great works with completely unoriginal plots; I’ve heard it said that Shakespeare didn’t come up with a single original plot, and certainly at least his histories didn’t claim to be original. Further it is said that mediocrity borrows; genius steals.

And yet. It does seem like there are occasionally ideas which are just so good that they irresistibly capture people’s imaginations even if one can barely stand to read the stories they’re in. Light sabers were not the original energy swords, but aside from the flaming sword given to the angel guarding the garden of Eden, they are at this point the most iconic, and given how successful the prequels and now the whatever-you-want-to-call-them to Star Wars have been successful in spite of not always being very good, I think it reasonable to call the light saber a billion dollar idea. Though to be fair, they probably wouldn’t have been as successful without the Force. Be that as it may, this is an example of an idea which was extraordinarily successful in spite of sometimes bad execution. Like demonstrated in the video, The Totally Phantom Menace:

I don’t have any conclusions about such ideas; in one sense it seems counter-intuitive that they should even exist. And yet they seem to; there were well done lightsaber duels, but even a poorly executed lightsaber duel is fascinating to watch.

Glory to God in the highest.