Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Advertising conquers physics

Jewelry and reality

A regional jewelry chain has dug into the vaults to unearth a pair of commercials from a couple of years ago to promote sales of the Tacori line of rings. I understand, of course, that one should not confuse advertising with reality—especially not in the case of fine jewelry, which is traditionally entangled with all of the complications and unnaturally heightened romantic hopes and expectations of love and courtship. It doesn't matter. Every time the “Cupid's Arrow” commercial appears, I sit transfixed in grudging admiration of its blatant disregard for verisimilitude. If you can afford the expense of generating photo-realistic animation, why not use it with a careless disregard of the real-realistic world? Just shove that old camel through the eye of a needle! Rich people haunted by Matthew 19:24 will rejoice.

Just so you know it's no accident, Tacori violates the integrity of solid objects just as light-heartedly in its earlier “Checkmate” commercial. Again I cringe.

No doubt we're supposed to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy the surrealism of these highly transgressive advertisements. No over-thinking. Just go and buy the miraculous jewelry. Or ... are the magical powers inherent in the arrow and the chessmen instead? Or even just the black queen? Oh, the confusion of it all!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Warding off bullets with magic

Armored with irrationality

Ruben Navarrette was outraged by the behavior of some people in the wake of the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut. The syndicated columnist quickly took aim at those who offended his sensibilities: the people who decried America's insane love affair with guns. Navarrette was dismayed by the prompt and vigorous reaction by supporters of more stringent gun-control standards. In his view, they were guilty of not maintaining a sufficiently long period of silence. The NRA, at least, was good enough to duck and cover for an entire week before calling a press conference to double-down on their traditional gun-worshipping insanity.

Navarrette singled out in his column some especially egregious offenders against common decency:
How about giving a horrified and heartbroken nation a chance to mourn and bury the dead? How about showing some respect for the victims you claim to care about? How about giving politics, pet causes and partisan jockeying a rest until we wipe our tears and catch our breath?

Tell that to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who said after the shootings: “If now is not the time to have a serious discussion about gun control and the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our society, I don't know when is.”
Sorry, Ruben. I agree with Nadler. Completely.

Navarrette points his accusing finger at Nadler and other gun critics and demands, “Have you no decency?”

Go to hell, Ruben.

In his defense, we should perhaps point out that Navarrette is legitimately worried over the state of the nation—although he dismisses Nadler's similar concern. The columnist fears for the safety of his children, as would any responsible parent. His solution? A return to childhood superstition.
I spent Sunday morning looking for answers in a place I hadn't been in a while—a pew of my neighborhood church. The woman next to me wore pain on her face, and didn't smile once during the hour-long service. I held on tight to my kids. During communion*, I asked the priest to bless them. As we walked toward the altar, I whispered, “This is to keep you safe.”
Yeah, Ruben. And a garlic clove dangling from a neck thong will keep vampires away.

*Note: Is Navarrette a nominal Catholic? If Navarrette has indeed been absent from his neighborhood church for a while, then he is guilty of the mortal sin of deliberately missing mass and therefore cannot legitimately partake of communion. I have more contempt for pretend-Catholics like Navarrette than those who take seriously the arcane rules of the club they belong to. If you think that communion is real, then you apparently believe in the Church's magical powers. How does that square with flouting the Church's rules except when you feel like going in for a tasteless snack?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Religion: the cure for science

Praying instead of studying?

I'm not sure what Bob Christopher was doing in college during his years as a biology major, but it sure wasn't learning science. Christopher had occasion during today's installment of “People to People” on Christian radio to discuss how learned-up he was about science. Seems, however, that it didn't take. During a program on Christmas titled “Jesus is the Reason,” Christopher fielded a question on evolution from a young man named Shawn, who hails from Waco, Texas. He promptly trotted out the “only a theory” meme:
Shawn: I'm really wondering, though, about evolution. I hear this a lot. I hear, of course, you know, we're descendants of Adam and Eve. You know, just kind of wondering what your thoughts are on evolution.

Bob Christopher: Well, Shawn, my degree in college is a degree in biology, so I spent a lot of time studying the theory of evolution. And that's exactly what it is: it is merely a theory. There's no scientific fact that supports evolution as the way we came into being. There is microevolution, there are small changes that occur within the species, but the species always remains the same. We don't see one species changing into another as evolution would have it. That's just not supported with the facts. But it is a theory. It's an intriguing theory. It's an interesting theory. It held no water until geologists came along and started proposing the idea that the earth was much older than we first believed. Up until the mid 1800s it was just a known fact—or at least everybody believed—the world was no older than six thousand years as far as the age was concerned. But geologists started proposing that quite possibly that it would be older than that, could be millions of years. And without that assertion into the scientific community, the theory of evolution would have died. Why? Because that theory requires time for it to be a reality. So the geologists helped move it along just a little bit and it took root in the scientific community and they've been exploring it and trying to figure it out ever since. But, quite frankly, I think it's a veil that they're using to cover up what they really believe, and what they really believe is that there is no God. And so they're using that veil of evolution to hide that fact.
Who is this “they” that Bob Christopher keeps talking about? This mysterious entity appears to comprise all scientists and teachers of science. Christopher's further remarks do not clarify his meaning. In fact, he concludes his argument with a shocking revelation.
Bob Christopher: And so schools have bought into it hook, line, and sinker, they're teaching it as if it was truth, but it's not truth. It is just a theory. It's a person's theory on how things came into being. It stands in opposition to what the word of God has to say, and as far as science is concerned— I love science. I was, like I said, a science major. I thought the courses I took in college were absolutely fascinating. I was intrigued by every single one of them. But science, if you follow the evidence, I think that evidence is going to lead you right back to God. It has to. God is the author of science. God knows how this world works. God is the very force that holds it together. He understands physics better than our best physicists that are out there. He understands the way the body functions better than any medical doctor, better than any biologist. He knows how our chemicals work inside of us better than any biochemist. He knows us better than anyone else. He knows how this thing works. So any study of science, any real study of science, that looks at the evidence and looks at the facts and lets the evidence and the facts speak for themselves, that person is going to be led to the Creator. And I think more and more scientists, up in the upper echelons of the scientific community are coming to that reality.
Really, Bob? The most prestigious members of the science community are embracing the God hypothesis? You'd think someone would have noticed this trend by now, especially since it entails a dramatic reversal of a highly publicized result from 1998, when it was determined that only 7% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences (is that “upper echelon” enough for you, Bob?) believe in a personal God. The God-botherers within the nation's scientific elite could hold a convention in a phone booth with room left over for the catering staff.

Better do it soon. Phone booths are going the way of the dodo.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Music. Therefore, God.

A different fine-tuned argument

The resident curmudgeon at the American Record Guide decided to share a few theological nuggets in his column in the November/December 2012 issue. Editor Donald Vroon has had personal experience of God through music, and shame on you if you don't acknowledge this as proof of the deity's existence:
I have often said that music is spiritual in its essence. It reaches us thru purely physical means (sounds) but it conveys so much more. (Actually, I believe that all spiritual values come to us thru physical things.) Music has always been viewed as divine, and the power of music makes it impossible to deny that there is a God. I think that is so obvious to the true music lover that we suspect that anyone who persists in denying God is fighting his own inner conviction that there must be. And he may have good reasons for that, but he may also be blinded by a false faith in reason and/or science that fails to see how limited their vision is. It may very well be that the largest, most important realities are beyond reason and science—both too simple and too complex for them.
As arguments go, it's not a particularly strong one. The foundation stones are shot through with the weakening striations of “I think that is so obvious” and “It may very well be.” Nor can I say that I am especially impressed by his wide-stance, have-it-both-ways declaration that some things are “both too simple and too complex” for comprehension by reason and science. Here, instead of tautology (“I believe because I believe”), he invokes internal contradiction. Sorry, Donald, but the Venn diagram blobs for “too complex” and “too simple” don't intersect.

Vroon cites Easter Vigil services as further evidence of his experience of the divine:
[T]he bishop stands up, spreads his arms, and shouts “The Lord is Risen”—and joy breaks forth: bells ring and peal, the organ comes to life and roars, the lights go up, and the candles are put out. And we sing! And every year at that moment I lose conscious control of myself and burst into tears. My surroundings vanish and I am on a higher plane—and I don't want to come down again.
Higher plane? Vroon is caught up in a well-choreographed theatrical event (with better staging than most religious spectacles of my experience) and equates that with ascending toward God. At least he's consistent. He continues:
That is exactly the same response I have to parts of Mahler—and Wagner, Strauss, and Bruckner.
Hey, me too! Vroon cites my favorite composers. But I don't confuse a deep emotional response to thrilling music with mystical communion with a godhead. In fact, I draw a conclusion opposite to that of the esteemed Mr. Vroon: If humans are capable of generating such profoundly stirring experiences, then where's the evidence (or the need) for positing divine intervention? While it's true that Mahler and Bruckner were imbued with religious feelings that they were trying to work out (while Wagner and Strauss mostly just worshipped themselves), Gustav and Anton place no obligation on me to give God credit for their compositional genius. I recognize it directly.
I have experienced enough with music to begin to rise to God.... I have tried to write about this a few times, and I am never satisfied that I have dealt with it adequately.
Indeed not. Perhaps because you want your ecstatic experience of music to entail more than emotional enjoyment and the physical impact of an endorphin rush. For me, the enjoyment is enough.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Deck the halls with Schadenfreude

Being good during the holidays

I first saw the anti-Obama LOL sticker last year on the back of an SUV that also carried the logo of a local Republican women's group. It seemed little more than kitschy snark from an aggrieved right-winger—especially in this deeply blue section of northern California. Poor thing. Of course, I once enjoyed displaying an anti-Bush sticker that called him the worst president ever. All in good fun! (Actually, I was in dead earnest.)

As we all know, Republicans are deeply devoted to recycling. Hence it was no surprise recently to see a vehicle (another SUV!) sporting a variation on the worst-president theme. This has probably been going on since the days of James Buchanan, if not before. (Even good old George Washington came in for some licks of his own from his political opponents.)

I'm thinking that perhaps I should get myself one of those Obama LOL stickers for my own vehicle, repurposing it to suit the happy results of the 2012 elections. Whose turn is it to laugh out loud now, bitches? On the other hand, my better judgment tells me it would be better to gloat internally rather than externally. In fact, that's what I did during the Thanksgiving holiday, when I was in the midst of disheartened family members whose trucks (and SUVs) sported Romney-Ryan stickers. A subliminal aura of gloom hovered over the festivities, although I had as cheerful and upbeat a demeanor as ever. Since they were reticent about their disappointments, I refrained from chortling my joy.

Even Dad tried—mostly successfully—to be good. Instead of his usual rants and jeremiads, he kept his own counsel and contented himself with watching the entertaining antics of his many great-grandchildren. His one slip-up, if it was even that, occurred during a conversation about a recent wedding attended by several of the members of the family. I didn't know the people involved, but my parents traveled to the Central Valley city where the nuptial mass was celebrated. The local church was an old-style building festooned with statuary and iconic art. Dad vigorously approved this exemplar of pre-Vatican II ecclesial practice. He waxed nostalgic while recounting the beauty of the church, the mass service, and the traditional hymns:

“It actually choked me up a couple of times. It really took me back. It made me thankful for my many blessings: My long life, good health, wonderful wife, great children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and getting to live in this nation while it was a free country.” Because, you know, it ain't anymore, what with that black tyrant squatting in the White House. I winced when he said, “while it was a free country,” but I kept quiet. Besides, the family has had plenty of experience dealing with him, and even the majority that tends to agree with him prefers to head him off before he launches into political oratory. In this case, a quick remark about the beauty of the bride took the conversation in a much safer direction and Dad subsided into silence. Perhaps he was contemplating the future of his great-grandchildren in socialistic bondage.

As Thanksgivings go, it was a relatively happy holiday. Anyway, as long as I don't provoke my father by actually saying, “Happy holidays!”

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Plus or minus

Rather missing the point 

One of my favorite negative reviews on is the following:
I don't understand why people say he is a good instructor. Many students in his class struggle to get a good grade. yes he is clear but his tests are extremely difficult. And expect a ton of repetitive homework assignments.
Let's deconstruct my student's complaint piece by piece:
Many students in his class struggle to get a good grade.
Yes? You mean they don't get good grades automatically? The student in question was enrolled in a calculus class. Such classes are notorious for easy grades, right? Yeah, right. More to the point: In a typical college class you can expect a distribution of grades, most of which are C's. Not what I would call “a good grade.” Good grades are A's and B's, earned only by those students who put in the effort.
[E]xpect a ton of repetitive homework assignments.
I checked. The syllabus contained homework assignments for each section with, typically, 12 to 20 problems. There were 33 sections that we covered, so students were expected to solve approximately 500 problems over the course of a 16-week semester, or a little over 30 exercises per week. (My bleeding heart weeps for them.)

Funny thing: There is a remarkably high correlation between doing the homework and getting one of those good grades. There were thirty students in the class. I note that only one student in the top half of homework performance was not earning an A or a B (and that one student was pulling a solid C). Of the fifteen students in the bottom half of homework performance, only four had “good” grades (three B's and one A [there's one in every crowd]). Conclusion: Do the work, get a good grade.
[H]is tests are extremely difficult.
Evidently not the case for those who work at it by doing the “repetitive” assignments. (Average scores were actually in the low eighties.)
yes he is clear
Thank you very much. Clarity is something I strive for and I am pleased that you noticed.
I don't understand why people say he is a good instructor.
Indeed you don't.