Faith, Reason, and Doubt

Faith, Reason, and Doubt
Faith, Reason, and Doubt

Terry Gross Fresh Air interviews

I suppose this isn’t a book, but it feels like an audiobook.  I got this collection from our local library because I’m often thinking about the relationships between the subjects here.  The interviews are interesting and enlightening, though I can’t say that I found myself persuaded at all.

And neither could Gross.  While she occasionally prods her subjects a little bit, she doesn’t do so very often.  Reviewer “Traveler” on Amazon explains her positives and negatives this way:

Gross interview[s] Tim Lahaye, author of the “Left Behind” series. This is a man who is as close as it gets to being fringe on the far right. Lahaye tells Gross that he respects other people even if he disagrees with them. He then goes on to explain how he once publicly asked the Dali Lama if he would meet with him in private so that he (Lahaye) could share the truth about Jesus Christ. Again, no followup question! A better interviewer would have very politely asked Lahaye what he thought if others saw this act as being disrespectful. . . .

Gross’ value as an interviewer is that she sometimes – and I stress sometimes – pulls from her subjects statements they might not otherwise say if they were thinking straight. Gross disarms them in part because she doesn’t challenge them. In other words, she gives them the rope to hang themselves.

I found myself agreeing.  Gross interviews in a pretty unconfrontational way, giving the subjects the floor to say what they want.  While there is need for this kind of frank discussion of belief in our public square today, I agree with Traveler that people also need to be challenged when they say things that are bunk.

One interview that I found particularly interesting (and somewhat galling) is the interview with the liberal Muslim advocate scholar Akbar Ahmed. While many of the points he makes are essential and must be heard–the idea that we need more conversation between Muslims and other folks, he simplifies to the point of being insulting the question of drawing Mohammed.

The prophet is the embodiment of the Koran, which Muslims believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Koran is the word of God.  The prophet translates that word.  And therefore he holds a very high status in Islam.  To attack the prophet is to attack the base, the very foundations of faith itself.

Gross asks why Muslims get so upset when people draw Mohammed and his response is that Muslims hold the profit as the conduit for God’s word, and to disrespect the prophet is to insult everything they believe in.  And then, as with LaHaye, Gross doesn’t follow up.  It seems to me that the essential issue has to do with human rights, particularly the freedom of speech and the freedom of conscience.  In some Muslim countries, apostasy is still illegal.  People are still murdered for thought crimes, for not believing what the mainstream in their countries believe.  And even in other countries, people are being murdered for saying things or writing things.  Not things actively advocating action, but criticism itself.

I’m afraid I come down on the side of extreme intolerance for suppression of speech and thought.  And that’s where I differ from Ahmed.  He suggests, pragmatically for sure, that Westerners and secular people everywhere should be tolerant and respectful of religion.  But it’s against religion, kicking and screaming, that enlightenment pushes the world forward.  And respect is hard to maintain when you’re being kicked.

The Titanic and the Californian


Titanic and the Californian
Everything you wanted to know, and a whole lot more

by Thomas B. Williams

One of the more interesting aspects of the whole Titanic legend is the scapegoating of Walter Stanley Lord, the captain of the Californian.  Despite pretty contradictory evidence and shaky witnesses, Captain Lord was castigated as a negligent jerk who could have saved the 1500 people who went into the water, but didn’t.  People have debated the issue with vigor, but the issue was pretty much settled among casual observers after Robert Ballard found the wreck and discovered it to be miles away from the location it was using to call for help.  Here’s a breakdown of the case against Lord, and Williams’ thorough refutation of it:

  • Officers and passengers of the Titanic all said they saw a ship in the distance, but near enough that early boats were told to row toward it, which they did until it steamed away.
  • The Titanic signaled the ship with its morse lamp and with rockets, but the ship never responded.
  • The Californian, which was stopped in ice for the night and whose wireless operator went to bed 10 minutes before the Titanic hit the iceberg and thus never heard the CQD call.
  • Several witnesses on the Californian testified that they saw a steamer on the horizon, and they saw rockets that went halfway up its mast.

From these bits of testimony, the two boards of inquiry found that the Californian could and should have rendered aid, and that the captain of the ship was derelict in failing to do so.  See the novel and film A Night to Remember for a particularly mean dramatization of the Californian‘s role in the affair.

Williams is part of a dedicated group of researchers who’ve worked tirelessly to clear Lord’s name.  Here’s a few bits of his case arguing that Lord was blameless in the affair:

  • Regarding the ships who saw one another, he supports the idea that there were two ships between the Titanic and the Californian, the one the Titanic saw and the one the Californian saw.  He suggests two, rather than one, because of testimony from the officers about the position and direction the ships moved.  If it had been one ship between the two, that testimony should have matched.
  • He also points out that since both ships were using morse lamps to signal the other, they couldn’t have been signaling one another or they would have noticed.
  • The witnesses on the Californian distinctly described a small steamer similar to their own ship.  By contrast, the Titanic had 10,000 lights and would have glowed on the horizon like a small city.  It would have been unmistakable.
  • The rockets, too, suggest that the Californian wasn’t nearly so close as the inquiries decided.  The men on the stopped boat testified that the rockets only went halfway up the mast of the other ship, and they did not hear a report.  The Titanic’s rockets went hundreds of feet in the air and were deafeningly loud.
  • Finally, the Californian’s position, verified by testimony from other ships in the area, was approx 20 miles from the Titanic, because the Titanic was about 10 miles off in the position they were broadcasting.  In the morning, several ships congregated in the empty water where the Titanic‘s wreckage should have been.  By contrast, the Carpathia picked up lifeboats several miles south of the reported position.  Not too far, actually, from the spot the wreck was found in 1985.

Williams also makes a convincing political argument that the British inquiry had business to conduct that had nothing to do with safety–it needed to preserve the reputation of both British shipping and the Board of Trade, so it needed to deflect attention from the reckless speeds, the untrained crew, and the lifeboat shortage.  Lord was a perfect scapegoat.  And because he was castigated but never formally charged or censured, he had no legal recourse to defend himself.

The book is interesting if you’re into the minutae of the Titanic mystery as I obviously am.  There are a few new details, such as the political connections attached to Lord Mersey (who ran the British inquiry), and a conspiratorial explanation of the Board of Trade’s reluctance to reopen the case even decades later.  The writing isn’t the best, with some amateurish bombast and indignant denunciations of people (particularly the U.S. Senator Smith who led the U.S. inquiry) that gets in the way of the otherwise very detailed document and witness analysis.

Is that a tentacle by the window?

A Shoggoth On the Roof
A Shoggoth On the Roof

A Shoggoth on the Roof

For my birthday the year before last, Andrew gave me a copy of the cast album for A Shoggoth on the Roof, a Lovecraftian parody of A Fiddler on the Roof which apparently has never (or VERY rarely) been performed because of the threats of legal action.  Ironically, since parody is a protected form of adaptation, the producers would be on the right side of any judgement to come down.  But as we all know about American Copyright law, you have to defend your legal right to do something in court, via a lawyer (who probably gets paid by the hour).  Anyhow, I’ve now listened to the musical a couple times (the first time all the way through in mid-May), and I have some thoughts:

  • This is really for the gibbering mad cultist in all of us.  There are songs about various Deep and Ancient Ones, about a fishy guy from Innsmouth and about the mad reanimator Herbert West.  All are delicious.
  • I had planned to review A Fiddler on the Roof before I listened to this again, but who wants to do that.  Thus, I tend to think of George singing “If I were a Rich Man” on Seinfeld.  Also, the sequence from Notting Hill in which the weirdo clerk from the bookstore claims to have seen Topol on the street one time.  But it may not have been Topol.
  • There’s a romance sub-plot in the story in which a young woman wants to marry either Herbert West or the son of a cultist who plans to kill and eat her.  Apparently, it’s a difficult decision.
  • My favorite number is If I Were a Deep One, which has lots of funny bits about hanging out with Cthulhu and driving people mad.  Also great? The translation of tra-di-tion! to ten-ta-cles!
  • Andrew does a much better job of writing about A Shoggoth on the Roof than I do.  Go read his review.

Wednesday Caption Contest

I’m starting a new weekly thing, now that I’ve scanned all these old timey German magazine images.  Here’s an image that you should supply a caption for.  GO!

What do you call your sister-in-law’s cat?

Is it my cat in law?  Anyhow, check out this vid by my sister-in-law’s husband:


Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection

A Record of the Year of Infection
A Record of the Year of Infection

by Don Ruff and illustrated by Chris Lane

Jenny came home last week with a new zombie book for me.  She said she considered it the “me” equivalent of flowers.  Isn’t that nice?  Zombies is crafted as a journal that a scientist/birder keeps during his time trying to survive a food-additive-driven (perhaps) zombie outbreak.  He has both narrative and sketches in the book, along with an involving tale.  Some thoughts:

  • It’s a lovely book, with great zombie art and character sketches.  The writing is crisp and economical, but tells the story well through short vignettes of survivors the main character encounters.  The drawings are pretty great too, especially the portraits of living people.
  • The stories ring true — there are lots of people who survive by happenstance, and the result is that everyone is in mortal peril all the time.
  • I like the gimmick of the food-additive zombie menace.  This means that anyone can change at any time, especially because they all have to keep eating the food despite its potentially dangerous qualities.  At one point, our narrator writes: “It’s my birthday today.  I’m 33.  To celebrate I had a potentially zombifying nutritional bar from my pack (peanut butter chocolate chip) and a bottle of potentially zombifying nutritional water that promises calm focus, energy, and antioxidants (tropical breeze).”  As with most zombie texts of the past few years, it’s some technological development that shapes the outbreak.  This time, it’s aspertame (kinda).
  • This book features a section on how to kill the zombies as well–it’s very hard, apparently, as one particular area of the brain controls the motor function.  In other words, it’s easy to shoot them in the head and not kill them.
  • Toward the end of the comic, we get some sense that the zombies are starting to get smarter.  Woe to us all.

Overall, a good read.  Especially if you received it as a sign of affection.  Ain’t bloodthirsty undead cannibal corpses romantic?

Is that Groucho?

I’ve been scanning and uploading images from an old book a friend loaned me.  It’s a German humor magazine chock full of public domain pictures.  Delightful stuff (except for the racist images).  But the picture below caught my attention because it looks a little bit like Groucho Marx is standing around in the background.

Is that Groucho?
Is that Groucho?

Check out this one too — what the heck is this guy doing?

Tasty paperwork
Tasty paperwork

And finally, I can’t help but think this is an image about sexy dreams.  Or acid trips.  Or both?

Sexy Dream or Drug Trip?
Sexy Dream or Drug Trip?

This Week’s Tweets

  • 21 July: writing log: fiction, 550 words
  • 20 July: The E-Dead essay finished and emailed. Good? it’s done. Bad? 20 days late.
  • 19 July: Good get your hackles up music: Carl Orff’s “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi – O Fortuna”
  • 18 July: Congrats to Sky Wang, a CCC student, whose short film won ‘best of show’ from THE ACCOLADE,

We’re doing something right

On the way home from the pool the other day, a couple days before we’re going to go camping with our friends Michelle and Christopher and their daughter Jordan:

Avery: I love you, Daddy.

Me: Well, thank you, Avery.  I love you too.

Avery: I love you, Mommy. And I love Finn.  And I love my two grandmas.  And I love my Grandpa.  I love everybody I know.

[Jenny and I grin at one another over her head as we walk along.]

Avery: And I love Jordan.

I didn’t inquire why Jordan wasn’t covered in the ‘everybody I know’ claim.

The Titanic “Conspiracy”

The Titanic Conspiracy
The Titanic Conspiracy

Cover-ups and Mysteries of the World’s Most Famous Sea Disaster by Robin Gardiner and Dan Van Der Vat

This book has a comprehensive set of allegations and “mysteries” that aren’t answered by the various inquiries into the sinking of the ship, which were essentially white-washings of the event designed to blame nobodies and to leave the responsible parties relatively unscathed. Gardiner and Van Der Vat would become famous for the other book they published in 1996, in which Gardiner argues (and Van Der Vat disagrees, apparently) that it wasn’t the Titanic that sunk, but the Olympic.  This book doesn’t make that claim, but it does allude to it at the end.

A few comments:

  • My favorite of the mysteries is the newspaper that published a schedule that put the Titanic in port on Tuesday evening.  The authors suggest that somebody at White Star screwed up and published the secret speedy schedule early, indicating that Smith’s excessive speed was part of a plan.
  • They really criticize J. Bruce Ismay’s claim that he was “just a regular passenger.”  Their two pieces of evidence: one, he carried around one of the ice warnings all day; two, he didn’t pay for his berth.
  • They also spend a lot of time detailing the various testimonies about how many people went on each life boat.  The inquiries found wildly different numbers for “people saved.”  The authors make a lot of hay out of the overturned lifeboat that one of the other ships discovered much later, right near a bunch of bodies.  This despite the fact that the other ships claimed to account for all the lifeboats.  Of course, they didn’t bring all the lifeboats aboard, so the overturned one found later could have been one of the ones left in the water.
  • The book also puts a lot of focus on the missing binoculars, which were an essential part of the lookout’s arsenal.  They raise a point that I hadn’t thought of before — in the 30-degree weather, the binoculars would have provided relief from the constant wind of the ship moving 22 knots through the water.
  • The best bits of evidence in the book are the excessive detail used to document the numerous ships spotted by passengers and crew in the two and a half hours between the collision and the sinking.  These ships will be essential to the intentional-sinking theory, but as it is they’re just interesting.

This book isn’t all that satisfying because it doesn’t collect the evidence into a coherent picture — something the other Gardiner books apparently do.  I’m looking forward to reading those.

I Love You, Man

I love you, man
I love you, man

I’d heard a little about this “bromance” before, but hadn’t sought it out.  It’s a funny movie, with an amusing set of characters and funny situations.  A few thoughts:

  • The Jason Segel character is a little uneven — he’s  a strange mix of likeable and utter dislikeability.  Likeable: honest and forthright and funny.  Dislikeable: doesn’t clean up after his dog.  There’s no clear sense of why he has these mix of traits.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with Paul Rudd where he plays such a helpless character.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I saw some similarities to the man in the movie (sensitive, can be friends with women) but he was a bit over the top as well.  I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.
  • It’s a movie with honesty about characters, which is a nice thing.  Despite what I’ve written above, the characters are within the realm of realism and worked for me.  The only character that’s a little extreme is Thomas Lennon’s frustrated gay ‘date,’ but he’s too funny to leave out.
  • Boy, Jon Favreau captured the super jerk here.  It just got irritating, though, that Peter kept trying to befriend him.  There’s a certain point at which you stop trying to be nice to assholes, and you just be civil.  Also, nice cameo by Lou Farigno.
  • The movie follows the classic romantic comedy plot, with the search for a friend filling in for the search for a lover.  It’s a great twist on a common storyline.  It’s even got the mistake/breakup/resolution finale that all such films must have.

Overall, it’s an entertaining movie that captures well the plight of finding friends as an adult.

Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance

by Bill Kelter & Wayne Shellabarger

I added this book to my Amazon wishlist after it got a very positive review on BoingBoing, and it turned up in my birthday gift pile.  Veeps provides a short, pithy bio of each Veep, along with relevant facts about the administration he worked for and why he’s worth remembering.  The illustrations are funny and there are lots of great quotes, often from the Veeps themselves about why they don’t want the office.  My favorite is the one from William Almon Wheeler on the cover, “I regret that I was nominated.  You know I did not want the place.”

It’s a nice little book, perfect for reading a little bit at a time.  Kelter and Shellabarger do a great job filling in little bits of history and outlining why each Veep was good or stinky.  Most were empty suits (by nature or by circumstance), but there were a few very competent men whose Presidents actually gave them something to do.

Some tidbits:

  • John C. Calhoun (vp to JQ Adams & Andrew Jackson) saw his political career spiral out of control over the social infighting of the Washington ladies circles.  Jackson’s choice for Secretary of War, John Eaton, had an affair with a married barmaid over which her husband killed himself.  Eaton then married the woman, nicknamed “Pothouse Peggy” and shunned by the snooty Washington wives.  When Jackson appealed to Calhoun to get his wife to be nice to Eaton’s new bride, Calhoun refused (or claimed little power in swaying her).  Jackson didn’t forgive him.
  • Martin Van Buren was quite an asshole in his own right, but his Veep, Richard Mentor Johnson, takes the cake, IMO.  Johnson, like many slave-owning men of the era, took advantage of his female slaves.  But to the horror of society elites, Johnson took one of them into his house to live as his common-law wife, bearing their children and running the household.  Johnson seems pretty progressive until you learn that after his wife died, he brought another woman into the house to replace her.  She ran away with her husband, one of Johnson’s other slaves.  When they were caught, Johnson sold her out of spite and then took her sister into his house instead.
  • U.S. Grant’s Veep was Schuyler Colfax, a particularly corrupt man who had the nickname “Schuyler the Smiler.”
  • Henry Agard Wallace, FDR’s second Veep, who gave up the office only eight months before FDR died, was a new-age nutcase who believed in the Masons and thought the Russian communists weren’t all that bad.  The Washington elite were terrified that FDR would die and leave Wallace in charge.
  • I have only the casual GenXer’s view of Watergate, it being before my time and never one of my topics of reading (though I did read Haldeman’s memoir), so I didn’t really know much about Spirow Agnew, except that he was one of Nixon’s scapegoats.  Turns out he was also a corrupt scuzzo.  Who’da thunk?

An enjoyable little book.  Nothing amazing, but not bad either.

The Last Cop Out

The Last Cop Out

The title of this one is particularly striking.  The Last Cop Out.  I haven’t read it.  Do you think it means “The Last Police Officer to Leave” or “The Last Evasion of Responsibility”?

Plus, the purple prose on the back is hilarious: an orgy of blistering destruction.

Garden update

It’s been SUPER hot here.  We’re doing our best to keep the plants robust, but they’re tired tired tired.

  • The peas are done, so we’ve pulled them out.  I think we’ll pull out the vertical nets too, till the soil, and plant a second round of lettuce.
  • We had a nice set of green peppers going until the heat melted them all.  Now there are just two waiting on the plants.  Grarrr.
  • The squash and squash like plants are already flowering.  We’ll have some of those soon.
  • The tomatoes are nearly there — the first one will probably be ripe tomorrow.
  • It looks like we planted too many potatoes, so they’ll be small this year.
  • The same goes for the sweet onions, which we harvested today.  They’re supposed to be drying out for a week, and then we can start eating them.
  • There’s one cute carrot in the middle of where the lettuce patch will be.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Played With Fire

by Stieg Larsson

The second book in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy continues the adventures of Blomkvist and Salander, following threads that began in the first book.  A few thoughts about the book:

  • I’ve read much (and agree with the ambivalence other people express) about how Larsson’s book shows and revels in a lot of the violence against women which he dislikes.  This was a bigger problem in Dragon Tattoo than in the second book.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some disturbing and brutal scenes, but nothing to the level of the scenes in book 1.
  • I suppose it’s necessary for the story and perhaps I’m a bit naive, but MAN this book has a lot of men who secretly hate women.  Okay, it’s the villains mostly, but the number of people in this story who walk around thinking viciously misogynist things was pretty depressing.
  • The villains who emerge as the story goes on are pretty great, especially Roger.
  • I thought this book does a better job balancing the central mystery and the exposition.  One of the complaints I heard from others as they read Dragon Tattoo was about the financial stuff at the beginning.  This book gave us more about Lisbeth and Mikael (Lisbeth especially), but was able to do so because the central mystery is about her instead of about some extra person.
  • This book goes full speed right up to the end.  I’ve heard that Kicked the Hornets Nest starts right where this book ends, and I can totally see it.

Oh, and there’s actually a point where you “get” the title to this book.  A nice change.