A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic (Script)

The following is the script to my video, A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic.

I got an email from an (I presume young) man by the name of Ken who said:

What you say about the burden of proof is very interesting to me, especially about engaging with [the] question and not just saying “you have to prove it to me; I don’t have any burden of proof so get busy proving your idea to me”:  I think part of why so many atheists, and I am an atheist at this time say the burden of proof is on the one making a positive claim i.e. god exists or god doesn’t exist is because so many Christians respond to questions of how do you know god exists with ‘”well, can you prove god doesn’t exist?” “I’m going to continue to believe god exists until someone proves to me he/she/it doesn’t”  Have you heard of Matt Dillahunty? He said something about burden of proof I find very compelling: He talked about the game of guessing how many [whole gumballs] are in a clear glass jar. Matt said that before you even begin to try to figure out the answer there is one thing you absolutely know and that is that the number is either and odd or even. If someone asserts that the number is even and I say I don’t believe that, that is not the same as saying I think the number is odd. The default position before you find out the answer is “I don’t know yet’.  He said a god either exists or it doesn’t exist. For clarity we need to keep god exists and “god doesn’t exist” separate and examine them separately. if I say you have failed to meet your burden of proof that your god exists I am not saying your god doesn’t exist but that you have not established that it exists. It seems to me that if the burden of proof is on atheists to prove YHVH does not exist then Christians have the burden to prove that the thousands of other gods do not exist and if you set about trying to prove all those gods/goddesses don’t exist those believers will use the same defenses Christians use to defend their god claim [and will say] you failed to prove their deity doesn’t exist.  I am wondering what you would say I am missing here?

This video will answer this question.

I’d like to preface my video by saying that the Christians who respond to questions about how one can know the faith is true with “how can you know it’s false” are simply not the people to talk to. Most people—regardless of belief system or topic—are simple people and simple people are not good at explaining things. This is true whether you’re talking about religion, engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or anything else. Only some people are good at explaining things and these are the people you should seek out when you want an explanation. But, unlike in engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or just about anything else, Christians who are good at teaching will happily teach you about the truth of Christianity for free. There are tons of free apologetical materials online and plenty of excellent books available at basically the cost of printing—and plenty of Christians will happily buy books for people who are sincerely seeking the truth.

With that out of the way, there’s one other thing which will help for us to establish before we proceed: every positive claim is convertible to a negative claim, and vice versa. This is because a double-negative is equivalent to a positive. You can say that a man is dead or not not-dead, and they mean the same thing. If you want to make it sound better, just give not-dead a name, like “alive”. This will come up in a bit.

So the first thing to say about Matt Dillahunty’s jar of gumballs is that his explicit conclusion is entirely true. To not come to a conclusion and to conclude a negative are not the same thing. To not be convinced that somebody is right and to be convinced that they are wrong are not the same thing. To not accept the truth of a proposition and to accept the truth of its negation is not the same thing.

Here’s the thing: no one ever thought that they were the same thing. What he is saying is true, but it is also trivial and irrelevant to the subject of whether God exists as it is discussed by human beings. And, to be clear, by God I mean the uncreated creator of all that is; the unchanging source of all change, the necessary source of all contingency, the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. I don’t care about big guys with hammers or worshipping the sun. If Thor exists, at most he is a more powerful creature than I am but still just a creature; this is utterly unlike the source of every moment of my—and if he exists, Thor’s—existence.

Matt Dillahunty’s example is about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. Now, within the example, the number of gumballs has no practical consequence, and whether the number is even or odd has, if possible, even less significance. It doesn’t matter in the slightest to anyone. This is not true of whether God exists, however. There is nothing that matters more, and nothing of greater practical consequence, than whether God exists. It affects every aspect of life in every moment of life. And everything you do is going to be consistent either with God existing and having created the universe on purpose and with meaning, and therefore with a nature out of which flows a particular morality, or it won’t be. I talked about this at length in my video Atheist Morality, but the short short version is that morality either flows out of human nature, which can only have been given to us by a rational creator, or what you call morality is just a name for people doing whatever they want—which needs no name. The short short short version is that you can’t know whether you’re using or misusing something until you know what it’s for. In Dillahunty’s made-up example, you can ignore the question and the question goes away. But real life doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.

In a moment I’m going to present a much better analogy for the situation human beings find ourselves in, but first, I want to point out that you can see this flaw even in Dillahunty’s example just by looking at where he stops: he ends the example before he writes his name and contact info and a number on a piece of paper and puts it in the submission box. The jar of gumballs is part of a contest (if you look up the video where he first presents this analogy, it’s explicitly part of it). And yet in the analogy he never enters the contest. He apparently just loses by not trying. Of course he couldn’t enter the contest in his analogy because if he did, the number he wrote down, being a specific number, would have to be odd or even. The only way he can remain uncommitted is by not playing the game for which the jar of gumballs was set out. Let’s be really clear here: this is a strategy to guarantee that you lose. This is, literally, a loser’s strategy.

But even if you include the parts which were left out of his analogy, a jar of gumballs just isn’t much like real life. So let’s take a different example which has the same point that the gumball example does but like real life involves skill and effort, and the results actually matter:

Suppose you are the umpire in a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning in the last game of the world series, there are two outs, and the score is tied. A ground ball is hit and the runner on third base dashes madly toward home plate. The short stop initially fumbles the ball but the third baseman ran behind him and picks up the ball, then throws it home. The catcher catches the ball and tags the runner as he slides into home plate.

Now, one thing you know for sure is that the runner is either out or safe. The runner says to you that he’s safe, but doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. The catcher says that the runner is out, but also doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. If you simply announce that you don’t have enough evidence to make a call and so you’re going home now, this is definitely very different from calling the runner safe because you believe he’s safe or calling the runner out because you believe he’s out. For one thing, you’re going to be fired from your job as umpire and may well be hanged from the nearest lamp post by outraged fans before you make it home.

And now we come to the big problem with the umpire who refuses to come to a conclusion if the players don’t prove their case to his satisfaction. Why is he being so damn lazy? As the umpire, it’s his job to know whether the runner is safe or out. That’s the whole reason he’s on the field at all. It’s not the players’ jobs to prove they succeeded in their goals, it’s his job to pay attention to the game closely enough to know who succeeded and who failed. If he spends the entire baseball game in a closet playing video games and then throws up his hands when a call is necessary, he’s not nobly committed to intellectual honesty, he’s just neglecting his duty.

But bear in mind that this example does prove, just as much as the marble example, that there is a difference between refusing to commit to a side and committing to the negative side. Does anyone wonder why Matt Dillahunty picked his jar-of-gummballs example and not this umpire-in-a-baseball-game example?

But throwing up one’s hands and going home—in the real world this is the equivalent of freezing motionless or perhaps committing suicide—is not what people actually do. Atheists like Matt Dillahunty define some course of action as the default—they never, of course, explain why it’s the default, since they can’t, since there’s no such thing as a default when it comes to morality—and then do that if the contrary isn’t proven to them. So let’s look at that.

Suppose you decide to define “safe” as a positive claim and “out” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually out—call him “out” since the runner didn’t satisfactorily prove his positive claim. So what? You are still calling him out. That you don’t really believe him out changes exactly nothing about what you’re doing. The game will go into overtime just as much as if you actually believed your call was correct.

Suppose that you did the contrary and defined “out” as the positive claim and “safe” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually safe—call him “safe” since the catcher hasn’t satisfactorily proven his positive claim. Again, so what? The runner is still just as safe, the run counts just as much, and the team has won the game to exactly the same degree as if you actually believed that your call was correct.

Incidentally, I’ve heard it claimed that there is a rule in baseball that “the tie goes to the runner”. Several things need to be said about this. First, if you look this up, it refers not to uncertainty on the umpire’s part but to the case when the ball and the batter-turned-runner reach first base at the exact same instant such that neither arrives ahead of the other. Second, this is not a rule in baseball but rather an interpretation of the rules—which not all major league umpires subscribe to. And third, let’s ignore those first two and suppose this actually was a rule for there being a default to resolve epistemic uncertainty. Find me a case in real life where the following happened:

In a situation like above, bottom of the ninth, etc. where the umpire wasn’t paying attention and doesn’t know what happened at home plate, so he follows the default and calls the runner safe. The team manager from the team who has now lost comes up to the umpire, screaming at him that he must be incompetent, stupid, blind and on drugs. The umpire calmly tells him, “Sir, I wasn’t actually looking when the play happened and so I went with the default call of safe.”

The team manager, clearly taken aback, stammers and says, “Oh man, I’m so sorry for what I said. I thought that you actually thought that the runner was safe. Oh man. I didn’t realize that you had no idea what happened and just went with a default call. I take back everything I said about you being incompetent. Please accept my most sincere apologies for insulting your umpiring. You are a credit to your profession.”

Find me that. Preferably in video. But I’ll accept newspaper reports.

If an umpire makes a bad call because he was going with some default because he didn’t know what happened, this is not better than making a bad call because he was mistaken. It’s still a bad call, and it’s still his fault because he didn’t take the trouble to make a good call.

If you cheat on your wife with her sister but “don’t really mean it,” you’ve still cheated on your wife. If you cheat on your wife with her sister and father a bastard, that child exists just as much and has the same needs whether or not you actually believe that you should have cheated. This whole project of trying to do things without having them count is just pure cowardice. There’s no honor in doing things without thinking that you should do them and there’s even less in—if you don’t know what you should be doing—not spending every waking moment of your life trying to find out what you should be doing.

The Matt Dillahunties of the world are busy trying to say that if I shoot you in the head because I believe you are a zombie, I’m crazy, but if I shoot you in the head because I haven’t been convinced that you’re not a zombie (that is, that you’re alive), I’m the pinnacle of rationality. (And since this is the internet, don’t take this analogy literally. Shooting someone in the head symbolizes, say, fornication, and “because they’re a zombie” symbolizes sex being purely about pleasure.)

Now, to come to the crux of the matter: the only reason anyone likes this irrelevant gumball example is that it sneaks in the assumption that it doesn’t matter whether God exists. Just like a stage magician getting you to focus on the hand that’s pretending to have the coin when the coin is actually in the hand that you’re not looking at, this example is purportedly about whether or not indecision is identical to disbelief, but in reality is about whether disbelief matters.

I talked about this before, but to go over it again because it’s so important: there is no truth more important to human life than whether or not God exists. I’ve also covered the practical importance of the question of whether God exists in my video Atheism Changes Everything, but just consider for a moment that if a rational, loving God created the world, we have a nature out of which morality flows so morality is not merely the arbitrary question of what people happen to approve of. We have a soul which can live past the death of the body and live with the consequences of whether we acted in accordance with our nature or against it, that is, it is possible we will go to some sort of heaven or some sort of hell, with justice actually being enforced in the end. There is no such thing as a hidden deed; it is not possible to get away with something merely because no other human beings know about it. Having a common creator all human beings are a sort of sibling; we can have duties to strangers and even to enemies. The good things in life like beauty can be true and not merely meaningless preferences.

Someone who thinks that whether these things are true is like whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even has to have replaced his brains with rat droppings. Then taken the rat droppings out and burned them. Then used a hose to suck even the air out of the empty cavity in his skull so that in place of his brain there is now only vacuum.

The idea that it doesn’t really matter whether God exists is not even within spitting distance of a reasonable position. It’s not within sight of a reasonable position. It’s not on the same planet as a reasonable position.

And even on just a mundane, nitty-gritty level, practicing religious people are less likely to smoke ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28667475 ), to abuse alcohol ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/charlie-sheen-circus-and-_b_836934.html ), and to divorce ( https://shaunti.com/2014/06/marriage-month-daily-tip-12-go-church/ ), just to name a few things (in the studies showing this, practicing tends to mean regularly attending church). Correlational studies should always be taken with a grain of salt, but does your position on whether there are an odd or even number of gumballs in a jar have that sort of effect, or even just correlate with that sort of effect?

And yet, you see this from atheists all the time. They say, “I don’t believe in God and I’m able to go on living without any problems.” Perhaps, but how do they live their life?

Just take a look at the lives of the atheists who make these arguments about how their life is unaffected by disbelief. It’s not a pleasant thing to have to point out, but when they say this, then take a look. Do they refrain from excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, pornography, fornication, adultery, gossiping, backstabbing, and so forth? Do they further spend their own time, energy, and money being generous to people who can’t repay them? Do they constantly strive for greater self-control, that all they do may be upright and good? Is their life marked by a sense of gratitude for all of the good things they’ve received, including existence, intelligence, and the opportunity to see beauty and help others?

Now, Christians fall short of these things all the time. It is a terrible shame, but it is true, that not all Christians are saints. But are any atheists saints? Just take a look at them. Is there a single atheist anywhere who hasn’t noticed that the world being a meaningless accident that only has the meaning they give it (that moment) has the implication that whatever they find hard isn’t worth doing and whatever temptation they want to give into is justified? Especially over time? Atheism is, I fear, a degenerative disease.

So take a look at the older atheists. How many of them have any sort of remarkable virtue or self-control? How many ascetics practicing self-denial do you find? How many of them have dedicated their life to helping people who can’t contribute to their patreon account? How many of them have forsworn sex so that they may dedicate all of their time to service? Heck, how many of them spend even one hour a week set aside for appreciating that existence exists and being grateful for it? Most of the atheists I know talk about how going to church once a week is such an unbearable burden that you would think they were talking about being woken up at 2am to spend 14 hours in a hot standing cell without food or water.

So yes, there is theoretically a difference between acting as if God does not exist because you believe that he does not exist versus because you merely assume that he does not exist. There is not, however, a practical difference between these two things. The difference doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Someone who believes he knows that God does not exist is justified in not spending time trying to find out whether God exists, since he already has an answer with which he is satisfied. Someone who claims to not know—and therefore to have no idea whether what he is doing is good, evil, or indifferent—had better be spending all of the time and effort he can spare from immediate necessity trying to find out the answer.

Consider a man holding a gun. If he knows that it is unloaded because he verified it himself (including checking the chamber), it is fine for him to wave the gun around or even to point it at someone and pull the trigger—since he knows he will certainly do no harm. A man who has no idea whether the gun is loaded is grossly irresponsible for doing the same thing and no amount of him saying that it has not been proven to him that the gun is loaded changes that he is being a bad man.

Men who exist in the world will act or not act in each moment they continue to exist. It is their first responsibility to find out what they should do and what they should refrain from doing. And there is nothing more important to answering that question than whether a rational God created the world and, if so, what purpose and nature he gave it.

Someone who tries to answer that question, even if he comes up with the wrong answer, is at least trying to be a decent human being. Someone who merely ignores the question isn’t even trying to be human.

Ironically, though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, it’s that latter group who seems to spend the most time boasting about how rational they are.

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

A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic

I got an email from a young man named Ken who asked me about an analogy Matt Dillahunty presents about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. I originally did an unscripted answer but a lot of people missed the point so I did a scripted video which should be a lot clearer. You can of course watch it in YouTube:

A British Lieutenant Playing A Star Wars RPG

If you haven’t seen this video where Owen Stephens tells the story of the time he was running a Star Wars RPG playtest and an (probably World War II) British Lieutenant showed up to the table, it’s well worth the six minutes:

I really love that they blast through the material because the Lieutenant, being an officer, does what an officer does: he leads them. He lays out plans which make sense and in which the boys at the table can see their parts and so they do what people do in the presence of a competent leader: they follow. And together, they did what people cooperating do: a lot more than they can do on their own.

I think my favorite part is when he explains to the boys at the table what a commando raid is.

There’s a lot that could be said about how young men need older men and it is one of the great follies of our civilization that we separate the two groups so completely, but I think it’s sufficiently obvious in this video that it actually does go without saying.

A Easy Way To Filter Out Bad Faith Atheists

On the internet it’s very useful to quickly tell whether someone is asking questions about Christianity in good faith or just trying to waste your time. There are lots of ways, I’m going to show one easy one.

It’s this: Point out that the existence of gravity cannot be empirically verified, it can only be shown through its effects. Then see what they do.

Now, this is unarguably true. Something which can be empirically verified is something which can be directly observed by the senses (possibly with the aid of an instrument, such as a magnifying glass or stethoscope). Gravity:

  1. Has no color and cannot be seen*.
  2. Has no taste.
  3. Has no smell.
  4. Does not feel like anything. (if you push on it, there’s no resistance. Your arm might feel heavy, but the gravity itself doesn’t feel like anything.)
  5. Has no sound.

It is easy to discover that there is gravity, though the difficulty depends on exactly what you mean by gravity (gravity as described by general relativity is hard to discover), but it must be done by observing the effect of gravity upon things. After observing this effect one can then infer the existence of gravity, but the gravity itself cannot be observed.

Gravity is, in this regard, like observing wind purely by sight. You cannot see the wind, you can only see the effect of the wind.

This is not a controversial point, and it’s not a difficult point. If you can empirically observe something you can say what color it is, how loud it is, what it tastes like, what it smells like, or what it feels like. You can do none of these things with gravity. This is what makes it a useful test.

If an atheist acknowledges this point (and proceeds in a manner consistent with acknowledging this point), he’s probably sincere and not merely trying to waste your time. If he twists himself up into self-contradictory knots trying to fight this point, he’s just trying to waste your time.

The only reason anyone ever has for denying something which is obviously true is because their primary goal is not the truth.


*This is not quite 100% true as one can argue that gravitational lensing is actually directly observing gravity. The only problem with this is that no one has actually seen gravitational lensing. It has been observed in radio frequencies by radio telescopes, but humans do not see in radio frequencies. Once you have an instrument which translates what we cannot see (etc) to something that we can, you have to make arguments for why the translation is correct, and those arguments cannot be empirically verified. Thus anything which rests upon observations through translating equipment is not empirically verified by rests upon indirect observation and argument.

Deflatheism on Good People Doing Bad Things

Over at Deflating Atheism, Rob examines the quote, “For good people to do evil, that requires religion.”

I love that he tackles it by just taking it at face value. I don’t come across this quote much—it’s the sign of a complete idiot if you see someone think there’s anything to it, and I tend to avoid complete idiots—but the few times I have I just look at how ridiculous the idea is that people are naturally good. As if theft, murder, rape, adultery, lying, and so forth never occurred to anyone on their own but only came from directives they were taught!

So I found it especially fun that he demolished it from the opposite end.

Accuracy vs. Charity

A curious experience I have from time to time is when discussing some sort of sin or other moral error, when I identify the lesser good aimed at, I’m told that I’m very charitable. This confuses me somewhat because my goal is not to be charitable, but merely to be accurate.

All sin is the seeking after of some lesser good in place of a higher good. The clearest and easiest example is idolatry—this is worshiping some created good as if it were the Creator. But that means that the idolater is seeking God in a creature. It’s not particularly charitable to note this; it’s simply accurate.

To take a slightly less obvious example, when a person is wrathful—i.e. indulging in excessive anger—they are placing the rectification of some wrong above the good of the injured party and the culprit. In true justice, a wrong done is rectified and a balance restored between aggressor and victim, so that they can return to their proper relationship of friends. When one is wrathful one seeks only to redress the wrong done to the victim, but not to restore the relationship between creatures. By giving an infinite weight to the good of which the victim was deprived, the wrathful person is never satisfied at the restitution and therefore ignores the greater good (once proper restitution has been made) of restoration of the proper relationship between sinner and victim. But saying that the wrathful person goes wrong by over-valuing the victim (or the good of which the victim was deprived which constitutes the injury to the victim) is not—in any way that I can see, at least—being charitable to the wrathful person. It’s just being accurate.

I suppose it’s possible that this is taken for charity because commonly people ascribe sin to the desire to do evil, but this is not actually possible. It’s simply a point of metaphysics that the will can only move towards some good, though it can move toward a lessor good in place of a greater good. As such, whenever a person goes wrong, you know with iron certainty that they were seeking some good, however minor. This doesn’t lessen their sin since it’s inherent in their sin being sin that they are seeking some (lesser) good.

Perhaps people think I mean that the one whose sin I’m explaining must therefore have sinned by accident, or been misled through no fault of their own? That certainly does not follow; we know from the fact that sin is voluntary that one can knowingly choose a lesser good over a greater good.

Oh well. Perhaps some day I’ll understand this.

Reality vs. The Meaning You Give to Life

I suspect everyone who knows atheists has encountered people who say that atheism does not entail nihilism, because “life has the meaning you give it”. I just want to mention a small point regarding that.

My favorite definition (more a description) of “reality” is:

That which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.

It’s not a complete description, but it’s a pretty good working description, especially in our confused times. Anyway, it’s worth noting that “the meaning you give to life” goes away when you stop believing in it.

The atheist retort that atheism does not entail nihilism thus amounts to:

Life doesn’t have any meaning, but I can pretend that it does.

Which no fool ever doubted.

Pride Vs Stupidity

Over on his blog, Mr. John C. Wright asks the question:

Why is the proud man angry or peeved with the stupidity (real or imagined) of his fellows? I ask because one would think a saint would be very patient with someone who was stupid, if it were honest stupidity, and not merely laziness in thinking. Whereas the devil (or Lex Luthor) is always in a state of haughtiest annoyance, because he is brighter than those around him. Their stupidity proves his superiority – yet it irks him. Why?

To answer this question we have to first answer the question, “what is pride?” (I’m taking the distinction between pride and vanity as a given.) A generally workable description of pride is an inflated sense of the worth of the self. This is, however—when properly considered—a symptom rather than a cause.

The cause of pride is a mistake about the nature of the self. This is inescapable because the value placed on something is inherently a description of its nature. (I should probably clarify that pride is an inflation of the inherent worth of the self—it’s not a utilitarian measure of the worth of the self to someone else’s purposes, as a means to their end. That’s actually a form of vanity.)

There are two possible mistakes to make about the nature of the self which aggrandize it:

  1. That one is a higher creature than one is, but still subordinate to God
  2. That one is God

While #1 is possible, I suspect it’s not the common mode of pride since it’s too subject to correctives. A human being who thinks that he’s an angel, for example, will have a hard time not noticing that he has a physical body and is, therefore, actually a human being. If he still thinks himself subordinate to God, he will in humility accept this recognition. It is, therefore, hard to see how #1 can be a long-lived error. Even Gulliver couldn’t think himself a Houyhnhnm for long at a stretch.

This leaves #2 as the common form of pride, and it is this form of pride in which stupidity angers the proud man. It angers him because it is proof that he is not God. The proud man wills that the people around him are not stupid and yet they are. This proves his limitations and therefore disproves his opinion of his own power. The larger the difference between what he wills reality to be and what it is, the greater the proof that he is not God, and therefore the greater is his anger.

It’s the Same Old Song

There are a lot of traps which humanity falls into over and over again. The one on my mind lately goes something like this. Some atheist, proto-atheist, or other person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature says:

People have been evil because it never before occurred to them to be good. I have gotten the idea that I will be good. Come, follow me, and you will be happy in the perfect society I will construct because it has occurred to me to do a good job this time!

And some other atheist, proto-atheist, or person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature replies:

Finally, someone has explained why it is that things are not perfect. Life would be much better if things were perfect, and here is a man who is setting out to make them perfect. Since I would prefer life to be perfect, I will follow him and live in the perfect society he will build. What fools my fellow men are to stay in their imperfect world when perfection is so easily attainable!

Then the first atheist, proto-atheist, or other person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature tries to build his perfect society and things go wrong. He refuses to acknowledge this and tries to hide it. In time this is noticed. He blames his followers. They say, “He lied to us!” But they do not agree after that. Some say:

The problem was that we followed a bad man. Let us find a good man to implement the good ideas and all will turn out well.

Others say:

The problem was that we trusted a man. Let us no longer trust anyone for all ideas are bad.

The children of the first people would go on to distrust organizations because their parents were so often duped. The children of the second people would go on to trust organizations because their parents’ life was difficult, working entirely on their own.

And along came an atheist, a proto-atheist, or other person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature who said:

People have been evil because it never before occurred to them to be good. I have gotten the idea that I will be good. Come, follow me, and you will be happy in the perfect society I will construct because it has occurred to me to do a good job this time!

I’ve Got You, Babe

I recently came across a performance of I’ve Got You Babe done by Sonny and Cher in 1987:

This performance was approximately 12 years after their divorce (if you’re not familiar with Sonny & Cher, they were a husband-and-wife singing duo in the 1960s and 1970s). This makes many of the lyrics quite ironic.

They say we’re young and we don’t know
We won’t find out until we grow

You were young and didn’t know.

Well I don’t know if all that’s true
Cause you got me, and baby I got you.

It was true.

[HER:] They say our love won’t pay the rent
Before it’s earned, our money’s all been spent

To be fair, here, their love did pay the rent. They were a very popular singing duo. But like many things in this life, it did until it didn’t. After their divorce, they ceased to be popular.

They would each eventually recover in their own way, but their attempt to continue singing together failed. There’s an interesting subject here about popular figures selling an idea, not themselves, and when the idea turns out to be an illusion, the figures cease to be popular. It’s an interesting subject that popular people often have to deal with—that it’s not them that their fans love, but who they are when they perform. And yet, who else could their fans love?

Fame is a very curious thing, because while not bad in itself, in this fallen world it makes all sorts of very empty promises.

[HIM:] I guess that’s so, we don’t have a pot
But at least I’m sure of all the things we got

Yeah. That turned out to be mistaken certainty. There’s a great line in either C.S. Lewis or Chesterton which I cannot find again, which was itself quoting something that was, if my memory isn’t deceiving me, a line given to a fictional pagan:

In this way can man best the gods: he can keep his promises.

The Greek and Roman gods set a very low bar for behaving better than them and yet so often human beings fall below it all the same.

Anyway, back to the song:

[HIM:] I got flowers in the spring
I got you to wear my ring

That’s a start. Alas, the promise implied in wearing the ring turned out to be a false promise.

[HER:] And when I’m sad, you’re a clown
And if I get scared, you’re always around

Well, not always.

[HER:] So let them say your hair’s too long
Cause I don’t care, with you I can’t go wrong

Eventually he cut his hair and, according to her divorce filing, she went wrong with him. (Cher alleged involuntary servitude for his withholding of money they made together.)

[HIM:] Then put your little hand in mine
There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb

But long before the end, they couldn’t climb any hills together. Let alone any mountains.

[HIM:] I got you to hold my hand
[HER:] I got you to understand
[HIM:] I got you to walk with me
[HER:] I got you to talk with me
[HIM:] Igot you to kiss goodnight
[HER:] I got you to hold me tight
[HIM:] I got you, I won’t let go
[HER:] I got you to love me so

[BOTH:] I got you babe
I got you babe
I got you babe
I got you babe
I got you babe

They did. Then they didn’t.

It’s a truism of human life that promises are easy to make and hard to keep; the trick to making a lot of money as an entertainer is to sell the illusion that you’re keeping a promise when all you’re doing is making it. (That enables you to make mutually exclusive promises, increasing your revenue.)

And then figuring out a new shtick when people find out that all you were doing was making promises you weren’t going to keep.

For some reason I always connect this song with Cher’s much later song If I Could Turn Back Time.

There’s no actual connection between these two songs, of course. If I could Turn Back Time was released in 1989. Sonny and Cher had long-since moved on from each other and by this time Cher’s public persona was utterly disconnected from Sonny’s. Moreover, given her desperation for fame (fun fact: Cher was 43 at the time the music video was filmed and it was her creative decision to be semi-nude), it seems unlikely that Cher actually had regrets about not fulfilling her personal responsibilities.

And yet. And yet, the songs do go really well together as a pairing. One of those odd coincidences of life, I suppose.

When Mary Met Sue

At his inimitable blog, author John C. Wright has an interesting blog post (which is mostly a quote of one of his readers’ comments) about what makes a Mary Sue. The key insight is that the defining characteristic of a Mary Sue is not that she is super-awesome. It’s that she’s super-awesome but we’re supposed to treat her as a young, innocent ingenue:

Rey is great at everything she does. The reasoning behind that may be justified…but that is not the issue.

The issue is that Abrams clearly expects us to think of her as a sort of female Luke Skywalker. Except Luke was nothing like that! We are asked to accept that she is a natural born pilot, better mechanic than Han Solo, better natural Jedi than Luke was at the same point of his training, and a natural swordsman…but we’re ALSO supposed to think of her as a plucky orphan farmgirl.

I think that’s right. A 35 year old queen who is beautiful, intelligent, a skilled warrior and a crafty statesman wouldn’t be a Mary Sue if she’s presented as someone with a past who’s used her 35 years to good effect—if she’s someone who’s already been on the hero’s journey and come out of it having learned some lessons. The real problem comes in when she’s all of those things and only 16 years old.

The commentor which Mr. Wright is quoting calls it fundamental dishonesty, and while I think that he’s right, I’d prefer to call it a fundamental contradiction in the character. What really makes Mary a Mary Sue is when she’s got all of the benefits of experience without having any of the experience. I think that it really comes down to sympathy.

Growing up is rough so (sane) human beings have sympathy for people who are still doing it. We are willing to tolerate all sorts of mistakes in those who are young and inexperienced which we will never tolerate in the old and experienced. (This is why it’s so important to not waste one’s youth and to learn how to be competent while people will still be forgiving of your mistakes.) The upshot is that young protagonists are much easier to write—the audience will naturally be sympathetic with them. The author’s mistakes will get much of the forgiveness that the character gets since the author’s mistakes often are also the characters’ mistakes.

The other thing is that this makes character development a snap. Children don’t know anything and make (nearly) all the mistakes one can make, so giving them something to improve about is trivial. Because of the instinctual forgiveness given to children, they don’t cease to be sympathetic merely because they start out awful, either.

This creates a temptation on the part of the author to make his character younger than he should be because it’s easier to write. A competent adult is much harder to make sympathetic, especially if he has a character arc. It’s easy enough to give him a character arc if you make him start off as a bastard who deserves to be shot. (This is the reason why the Loveable Rogue™ is to popular, by the way—just be careful to say that he’s a rogue rather than show it or the sympathy goes away. Show don’t tell does not apply to flaws in characters you want the reader to like!)

What’s really hard is writing a competent adult with a character arc who starts off as a decent human being. The reason this is much harder, of course, is that the writer has to be better than minimally decent. Because one can’t give what one doesn’t have, one can’t fake wisdom. And the character arcs of decent adults are all about growing in wisdom. A child has the (easy from an adult’s perspective) task of becoming a minimally competent adult. A minimally competent adult has the task of becoming a wise old mentor. Children generally succeed; adults often fail. For that reason, nearly anyone can write a coming-of-age story. It takes a real man to write a story about someone who already came of age.

A Mary Sue is the attempt to have it both ways—to write a coming-of-age story about a competent adult.

Punk Rock Can Be Quite Tame

Over at Amatopia, Alex has a post about Geek Conformity. The main subject is a former drummer of the band Nirvana who left to join the army. When asked why he left, he explained that punk rock was too stifling. About this, Alex says:

But his comments–“strict rules for practicing the right kind of individualism”–perfectly encapsulate the contempt I feel for a lot of so-called scenes involving “free thinkers.”

And this is something I find interesting. I grew up with music from my parents’ generation, not my own. The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, & Mary—that’s what I listened to while I was growing up in the 1980s. The closest I came to anything contemporary was borrowing my father’s Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits CD. Punk Rock was something very foreign to me that moreover seemed dangerous.

Then as an adult, I actually listened to some. (Note: I’m enough enough of an expert to tell the various genres of people in death-inspired makeup apart. If this is Emo or some other genre I don’t know the difference between and regarded as equally dangerous in my youth, please forgive me.) And I found that it wasn’t actually very different.

Granted, there’s what for simplicity I’ll call “shout rock”, which tends to be very fast and might as well not have lyrics because one can’t tell what any of them are, but amongst the supposedly dangerous stuff where the singers actually sing, well, it turns out to be a bit underwhelming in its satanic majesty.

Readers of this blog might have seen me mention that song before, because it was the opening theme to Friday Night Live’s performances. Anyway, this is hardly scary. In fact, it sounds somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles. Compare it to Hard Day’s Night:

I’m not saying that you’re going to mistake the one song for the other, but if it turned out that Friday I’m In Love was inspired by Hard Day’s Night—or even was intended as a tribute to it—it would hardly be surprising.

There’s another song by The Cure which I discovered I like:

It’s a nice song. Granted, the lead singer is gotten up to look a bit like Pinhead from Hellrazer, but it’s basically a breathy love song. The music itself sounds a bit unfamiliar because of its heavy use of synthesizer, but as this acoustic cover shows, you can easily substitute a wind instrument and it sounds similar:

At the end of the day, it looks strange, but it isn’t actually that strange. And that makes sense when one remembers the context: punk music is a performance. It was also a product, but that just means that it was a performance intended for a large audience.

Now, the thing about performances is that in order to be successful they must be intelligible to the audience. I know that it’s popular for artists to say that they make their art for themselves but that’s (about 99%) nonsense. If they did that, they wouldn’t perform it. And the thing about audiences is that they don’t vary that much in what they find intelligible. They do vary—hence the existence of shout rock and jazzy noise (I don’t know the technical term for the genre of jazz in which the musicians, all heavily under the influence of mind-altering drugs, play random notes for interminable lengths of time with traditional jazz instruments)—but the further outside of common experience one goes, the vastly more one limits the potential size of one’s audience.

Anyone who wants to make a living off of their performances requires either an impressively rich audience or a fairly large one and the former is much harder to come by than the latter. The consequence is that the performer—if he wants to be different—must clever disguise what the audience is familiar with as something that it isn’t. Those who wish to be popular may only ever use novelty as a spice, never as a main course.

All the same, it’s tempting to thing that Rob Parvonian is right: “Punk Music’s such a joke, it’s really just baroque.”

The Best Defense Can Be Recognizing What’s Not A Threat

A few days ago, I was stung by a yellow jacket. (If you’re not from the north-eastern United States, they’re a type of wasp.) I was mowing the lawn in a section where I had let the grass grow a little too long and so didn’t notice their burrow. They felt threatened by my presence and so one stung me.

It was quite painful, and has been for a few days since, but ultimately, that’s not too important. I can simply avoid the nest. But my children play in my back yard and young children can’t be expected to remember where the yellow jacket nest is. So, shortly, the yellow jackets are going to die.

There’s an interesting lesson here—neither I nor my children would normally bother with the nest at all, except that they consider us a threat. By playing it safe—in the sense of not taking chances on what’s a danger and what isn’t—they’re actually playing it dangerous. Because when my children’s safety is on the line, I’ve got some very powerful tools to ensure that not a single one of the things survives to sting my children. And unlike them, I can make sure that they’re completely gone.

There’s a lesson in there, when it comes to dealing with potential threats. In a sense it’s related to Ed Latimore‘s dictum:

Never make enemies for free.

But the general rule is fairly simple. If you’re not sure that somebody is an enemy, be sure that you can beat them before you guarantee that they’re an enemy.

Actually, there’s an additional aspect to that rule. Before you make somebody an enemy make sure that you can beat them and their friends. In this case, the yellow jackets don’t stand a chance against my friends Amazon and the Sawyer company, who will provide me with this rather potent insect poison to pour into their nest:

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=chrislansdown-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B001ANQVZE&asins=B001ANQVZE&linkId=cd598c3b7cd746efd95f6c511dabeb77&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true

(There are a lot of alternatives; I’m actually trying permethrin out for the first time. Something I’ve done before which is cheap and effective is to pour 91% isopropyl rubbing alcohol into the nest. Note: when doing this, keep your eyes open and be ready to run quickly when they notice who is disturbing them. If you’re dealing with hornets—who I’ve heard will pursue people long distances—dress appropriately and have an escape plan to indoors you can get to quickly. In that case, though, you should probably invest in a more special-purpose wasp killer than can be deployed from 20+ feet away. And as always, since this is the internet: don’t do anything yourself and instead hire a professional to do it for you. Including hiring the professional. Hire a professional hirer to hire the professional.)

It’s Not Easy Watching Movies Any More

If one pays attention to how movies are made, it’s hard not to notice that they’d probably be more virtuous enterprises if they were written, directed, performed, etc. by prison inmates. I’m not even really referring to what Rob Kroese described in this tweet:

(If it ever gets deleted, he said, “Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer”.)

That doesn’t help, of course, but ultimately that concerns the personal virtue of the people involved, which is between them and God. As Chesterton said in a different context, “for [their] god or dream or devil they will answer not to me”.

What really bothers me is the degree to which Hollywood wants to sell evil as good. It’s not a single-minded occupation; they also want to make money, to be praised, and the fulfillment of several other self-interests. But the problem is that there’s a certain amount of trust involved in listening to someone’s story, and people who actively mean you harm are hard to trust.

Part of how I work around this is that I rarely watch new movies and—when I watch movies—tend to re-watch movies I already know are good. But even that is getting harder. Part of it is becoming aware of how long Hollywood has desired to destroy the concepts of decency and goodness in those who watch their movies. Merely watching old movies isn’t safe. Part of it is that it’s easy to become paranoid; to borrow an analogy, when 23 out of 24 M&Ms in the bowl are poisoned, one begins to wonder about one’s skill at picking out the good ones.

The thing is: fear is not a good master. Paranoia is rational, in a certain sort of very limited sense, but it’s not healthy. I suspect that the right way forward is to emphasize how not everyone in Hollywood is actively attempting to be evil, and good can slip through the cracks. The devil is not well organized. He can’t be, since evil is the privation of good and order is good. Or, as Saint Paul said, “where in abounds, grace abounds much more.”

There Was a TV Show Called Grand Jury

I was recently watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring the movie The Sinister Urge, and then I watched Plan 9 From Outer Space with the Mike Nelson commentary. Out of curiosity, I looked it up the cast, because one of the major villains in Sinister Urge was a good guy in Plan 9. His name was Carl Anthony. Here’s a picture of him:

mpv-shot0001

He’s the one in the police uniform. Here’s another picture of him.mpv-shot0002.jpg

His IMDB page only lists four credits:

  • Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
  • The Sinister Urge (1960)
  • Grand Jury: Boxing Scandal (1960)
  • Raw Force (1982)

Two things caught my attention. The first was that after some initial success, it was 22 years before he got another part. It’s not much of a movie, but it is a real movie. The IMDB synopsis for Raw Force is:

A group of martial arts students are en route to an island that supposedly is home to the ghosts of martial artists who have lost their honor. A Hitler lookalike and his gang are running a female slavery operation on the island as well. Soon, the two groups meet and all sorts of crazy things happen which include cannibal monks, piranhas, zombies, and more!

The second thing I noticed was that there was a TV show called Grand Jury. Carl Anthony was in the episode called Boxing Scandal. The Wikipedia page has next to no information beside an episode list. Yet there are writers for each episode, and it has actors, so presumably it was some sort of crime drama or detective show about a grand jury. I’m very curious what their premise was since grand juries don’t have continuity. They’re assembled for a few weeks, hear a bunch of cases, determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, then disband. Their goal is not to determine guilt or innocence, which would make it a very odd fit for a detective series.

Then it occurred to me to check to see whether there are any episodes on YouTube. Luck! There is:

It’s curious, to be sure. After a bit more research I discovered that Grand Juries actually do have investigative functions, such as the ability to compel witnesses to testify. The basic format is that some people committed a crime, then the grand jury investigates and tries to catch them. It’s actually a bit reminiscent of Columbo, in the sense of being a how-catch-em rather than a who-dunnit. That said, at least the episode Fire Trap is really more about the tragedy of how crooks fall apart than about investigations by the grand jury.

The acting was decent. The writing was… adequate. Really, it was kind of minimal. It wasn’t subtle, to be sure. To some degree it actually felt like a morality play—somebody made the choice to do a wicked deed and his life fell apart because of it. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this was a typical episode. Still, I can see why this was not one of the great TV shows which is still remembered. That might be why Carl Anthony got a part in it (this was after Plan 9 but before The Sinister Urge).

This ties in to my earlier post, Most of Life is Unknown. People worked on this show and—presumably—people watched it. Most of them are probably dead by now, and the show is barely known. The wikipedia page which gives its list of episodes is presumably copied from somewhere since most of the entries are TBA. Even the things which we think should last disappear quite quickly from human memory. Fame promises so much and delivers so very little.

It’s a good thing that God is in charge of the world, or we’d be really screwed.