Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lost on the causeway?

Christian sin

Glenn Branch was speaking in Sacramento last night, so I made a pilgrimage up to the state capital. I took some notes and will probably be able to find time to post a report later this week. (Unwritten exams are currently demanding my attention.) While I was in the vicinity, I drove across the Yolo causeway to check out the vandalized billboard near I-80's westbound lanes.

I was too late. It has been miraculously healed. Or, at least, a kind of blue Band-Aid has been stuck on top of the anti-atheist graffiti. The blue was not a perfect match for the original billboard, but close enough for motorists zipping down 80 at 70. The billboard is one of ten scattered about the capital region by the Sacramento affiliate of the United Coalition of Reason.

I am guessing, of course, but I imagine the vandalism was carried out by one of California's many irate Christians, someone who is affronted by the existence of people who don't agree with him. (I'm guessing about the “him,” too; most of the female Christians would probably consider it unladylike to clamber up a billboard.) The vandal was also stupid enough to use black paint against a deep blue background, apparently not noticing why the original lettering was in white.

I wonder why this person thought he was honoring his god by committing a sin. Vandalism is covered by the seventh commandment*—“Thou shalt not steal”—because destroying or damaging something that belongs to someone else is akin to taking it from him. It's nice of him to be willing to risk hell for the greater glory of God.

Still, things may not be working out as he hoped. When I drove down I-80 and saw that the billboard had been repaired, I cried out, “It's a sign!”

*No quibbling, please, about the numbering of the commandments. They aren't numbered in the Bible and Catholics disagree with most Protestants about how they should be designated. I am, after all, a Catholic atheist. And, unlike the commandments' right-wing idolators, I can actually recite them. So there! (Oops! Sin of pride!)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Religious boobies

A nice pair

Inside the Vatican is not a humor magazine—at least, not intentionally. Sometimes, however, they just can't help it. The February 2010 issue is out and it immediately provides some light entertainment, beginning with the first letter in its correspondence section:

As a Catholic and an American I am appalled at the public pronouncements made by the Pope regarding global environmental issues. I would hope that the Vatican would start focusing on the spiritual rather than the political world.

On those issues, the Pope does not speak for me nor should he. As an American I do not agree with our president's socialistic/fascist approach to global environmental problems that appear to be a cover for something else.

M. Shirrel
California, USA
Was it an unconscious act of “truth in labeling” when the conspiracy-fearing Ms. Shirrel chose her e-mail handle? Was she aware of its pagan origins in Greek mythology? (Of course, that's a trait shared by several aspects of Christianity.)

The fun continues on the facing page, where the editorial staff found it necessary to provide Inside the Vatican's readership with an apology for the excesses of the December issue:
Special Note: We would like to apologize to our readers for using an image on the cover of our Christmas issue (December
2009), which depicted the Virgin Mary in the stable at Bethlehem in a way a number of our readers found offensive. We will be more careful in the future about including anything of this type in the magazine. —The Editor
An “offensive” depiction of the virgin mother? On the cover of a staid religious magazine?

Surely someone in the publication's art department must have evaded editorial supervision and slipped in something shocking. While the chosen artwork is a rather conventional mother-and-child nativity scene—with what my art history professor used to call the “standard glow-in-the-dark Christ child”—it apparently reminded too many of the devout Catholic readers that Jesus was not a bottle baby.

I'm sure that you must be as shocked as I am! No wonder an apology was necessary. I suggest that next Christmas Inside the Vatican play it safe by avoiding the kitschy devotional work of no-name artists and choosing a classic work by a famed Renaissance genius like Leonardo da Vinci. For example, there is Leonardo's justly famous “Boob and Winkie.” One can just imagine the flood of appreciative letters from readers.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The cold truth about PZ Myers

Not exactly TMZ on PZ

While on tour in the Golden State, PZ Myers was resilient enough despite minor jet-lag to hoist a few brews after his talks. Smiting ignorance and prejudice can be dry work.

I tagged along to two of the post-presentation chat sessions. The chosen venue after the Sacramento City College talk was the Fox & Goose, which bills itself as a “public house” in the British style. (That's right: a “pub.”) It was a slow evening when we dropped in. PZ and a dozen other people gathered around some shoved-together tables and kicked back for some casual conversation. (No, we did not array ourselves in the manner of Da Vinci's “Last Supper.”)

During the course of that colloquy, PZ off-handedly made two shocking revelations. The first was his youthful rebellion against his father's carefully mapped-out plans for PZ's life. PZ, you see, was destined to be a ... refrigerator repairman.

You can easily imagine his father's horror when PZ threw it all over in favor of going to college. Even worse, PZ became a hardcore academic, ending up as a tenured professor. While it seems that his family eventually became reconciled to PZ's academic bent, his father never quite understood why PZ tossed over a sure thing like major appliance repair for the uncertainties of university life. Instead of associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, PZ could have been Refrigerator Repairman—but it was not to be.

All habitu├ęs of Pharyngula know that PZ is a prodigious writer (except, perhaps, for the book he is always supposedly finishing up). It's not surprising to learn that he is also a prodigious reader. Of course, we know this because we see his reading as the grist for his blog's mill. However, there's more to it than that. PZ is a big fan of science fiction author Iain M. Banks. In fact, he's also a big fan of Iain Banks, this latter being the name that Banks uses for his non-sf novels.

I lean toward the Culture novels myself, my favorite Banks work being The Player of Games, one of the few books I have read multiple times. PZ expressed a fondness for the semi-notorious Wasp Factory and its sociopathic protagonist. My Simon & Schuster paperback copy of The Wasp Factory includes on its back cover such paeans as “One of the top 100 novels of the century” and such slams as “A literary equivalent of the nastiest brand of juvenile delinquent.” I rather admire the cheekiness of running negative comments among the usual positive blurbs.

(Shocking revelation of my own: My copy of The Wasp Factory is brand new. Despite an assiduous search through my bookcases, I find no trace of the white-covered edition I see so clearly in my mind. And paging through the new copy leaves me befuddled, since the story seems only vaguely familiar. Have I forgotten it or have I never read it? Both are hard to believe. The book is now on my “read soon” stack and I'll see whether Frank's nefarious adventures ring a bell.)

PZ and I were not the only Banks fans present. One of the other attendees offered his opinion that Banks wrote scenes that were impossible to turn into movies. (An attempt to turn The Player of Games into a film foundered several years ago.) PZ disagreed. He suggested that the scene with the Eaters in Consider Phlebas would make for a very nice horror movie.

He's probably right, but you wouldn't want to be munching popcorn during that episode (“we are the Eaters, the Eaters of ashes, the Eaters of filth”).

The venue for the post-talk gathering after PZ's Sierra College presentation was BJ's Restaurant & Brewery in Roseville. The contrast with the Fox & Goose was dramatic. BJ's was crowded with patrons and PZ was accompanied by a much larger entourage. Long tables were pushed together to make enough space for the dozens of people in the party.

I got to sit close enough to PZ where I was able to get his autograph (like the geeky fanboy that I am). He observed that we carried closely matched Moleskine pocket notebooks, including the same quadrille rule (no mere lined paper for us science types!). He also complimented me on having neater handwriting than his, but PZ also pointed out that he takes notes in multiple colors and has a Moleskine customized with the Seed Media Group logo. Point to PZ.

I was suitably abashed, of course.

Creationist Robert O'Brien eventually showed up and was wedged into a tight space next to a cadre of Sierra College students. He got to hear them explain to me how Sierra College differed from the neighboring American River College. The recently ousted right-wing ARC student government had campaigned with a strong anti-gay plank in its platform, pandering to the homophobia of its Slavic immigrant base. The candidates ran a fearmongering campaign that claimed that militant gay activists were trying to take over the student government.

“At Sierra College,” said one of the students, “that's exactly what we did!”

I congratulated them on realizing the worst fears of the local bloc of right-wing, anti-gay, creationist extremists.

The anti-gay O'Brien did look a little uncomfortable, although I have to give him credit for a good poker face.

PZ's phone rang later in the evening. He saw that it was the Trophy WifeTM and dutifully said he had to take the call. After he chatted with her about his connections for his trip to the United Kingdom, PZ's companions all yelled out a greeting to his distant spouse.

We were heard in Minnesota.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

King of the silver lining

Please ignore the dark clouds

As a completely rational man, I do not countenance superstitious behavior. For me, “knock on wood” is just a jocular expression. Spilling salt doesn't bother me (except for the mess it might leave). I'll pet a black cat any old time (assuming it's not hissing at me).

But sometimes I wonder. I appear to be the master of mitigated bad luck. A few examples will demonstrate my outlier status on the coincidence curve.

On the afternoon of the day before the start of the new semester at my school, I decided on impulse to run an errand. I jumped into my car and headed toward town.

Thup, thup, thup.

Not a normal car noise. I pulled over and checked out my vehicle. The right rear tire was almost flat.


And on the day before school starts, too. However, I was close to the Big O Tires where I had purchased the rubber I use to meet the road. I therefore risked thupping a few blocks more, where the automotive mechanic popped off the tire, fixed it, and had me back on the road in half an hour.

No charge.

By no stretch of the imagination is a flat tire good news. However, had I not discovered the flat that afternoon, I would have discovered it early in the morning when leaving (or trying to leave) for the first day of school. Not good. I might have been late for the first session of my first class of the day. Definitely not good.

One more thing: Had I been traveling in a different direction, I would probably have pulled into the car dealership where I sometimes get my vehicle serviced. I would have gotten the tire fixed, but certainly not comped.

See what I mean about silver linings?

Several years ago, driving north on Highway 99 on Washington's Birthday, I heard an unpleasant noise from under the hood of my car. The fan clutch had seized up and apparently didn't want to die alone. It took out the water pump and the radiator in its death throes. My car and I ended up by the side of the road, over a hundred miles from my destination.

Rotten luck, no?

Yes, but not entirely rotten. In those pre-cell-phone days, I was pleased to find that I was within easy walking distance of a gas station with a pay phone. The AAA tow-truck service was soon hauling me and my disabled vehicle into the nearest town. Not only that, we were deposited at an auto shop (open despite the holiday) that sat directly opposite the street from the bus station. The one daily bus up to Sacramento was due to arrive within the hour. Barely sixty minutes after my car's misadventure, I was on a Continental Trailways bus, traveling toward the state capital again. I had called ahead to notify a friend of my plight. He picked me up at the station and drove me home.

Of course, a couple of days later I had to take the bus back down to the auto shop to collect my repaired car—which was a bit of a nuisance—but it feels petty to complain about it. As mishaps go, it was pretty thoroughly mitigated.

Perhaps you're not impressed by those two trivial automotive examples, but I can cite other instances that do not involve vehicles.

Education of Hard Knocks

Consider my grave misfortune in not completing my Ph.D. in math when I was first enrolled in a doctoral program. The department chair had prevailed upon me to accept a teaching assignment despite my reluctance. I thought I should concentrate on my graduate studies, but he pointed out that teaching assistants were often assigned lecture responsibilities and that he had a calculus class that needed an instructor. I taught the class and loved the experience. I never turned down another teaching assignment. I also never graduated, running out the clock on my eligibility for grad school without ever doing any research and never advancing to candidacy. (I passed all my classes and all of the written qualifying exams, but a Ph.D. is a research degree and I was found wanting.)

Disaster, right?

But that experience placed me on the road to the job I have today, a full-time teaching job which is the best job I've ever had.

Sweet. I could have ended up as one of those California State University faculty members now suffering from reduced pay and furloughs (which are worse than the cutbacks at many community colleges).

And there was that time between teaching gigs when I worked for a state agency in Sacramento. Everything was fine until the musical chairs that characterize the top management level of state service brought a thoroughly unqualified political appointee into the agency's executive position. One might think it would be fun to work for a legislator's mistress—but not so much. (And, to be fair, the legislator's divorce had come through before his paramour became our boss, so she was married to him by then.) She turned the workplace into a snakepit, but she also helped give me the courage to accept the temporary faculty appointment that later turned into a tenured position at my college. (Thanks, bitch.)

So perhaps her arrival on the scene wasn't such bad luck after all. (She was fired the year after I left, too.)

Old Man Gut Pain

The incidents keep piling up. Just the other evening, lounging comfortably with a book in my recliner, I sat up and felt a sharp pain in my abdomen. Ouch! I moved about gingerly. Ouch!

No doubt I was about to die from acute appendicitis.

I'm not really a hypochondriac. The pain was not sharp enough or persistent enough to make me drive to the local emergency room. It certainly wasn't bad enough to call 9-1-1. A Google search reassured me a little. I calmly went to bed and managed to fall asleep before long.

In the morning I woke up feeling better. No pain. I started to get up. Ouch!


As it happened, I had no early morning classes that day. (Wouldn't you know it?) I called my doctor's office. As it happened, he had had a cancellation and he could see me immediately as the first patient of the day.

See what I mean?

He checked me out and informed me that it was merely muscle pain. No intervention was indicated (except, perhaps, ibuprofen). The bad news, such as it was, was that the pain might linger for quite a while, but eventually it should go away. It's not an unusual condition in men my age.

So I guess I have “Old Man Gut Pain.”

I'd rather not have it, of course. But, come to think of it, I haven't felt it in a few days. Maybe it's gone away already.

My life is charmed—in a very peculiar way.