Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Google Zeitgeist

Mark Elrod (I always want to type "Mark Aelrod") posted about Google Zeitgeist earlier today. He just looked at the top searches in 2006, but he seemed to miss some interesting things in the other ratings:

The "where is list":

1. where is togo
2. where is matt
3. where is torino
4. where is darfur
5. where is villanova
6. where is montenegro
7. where is angola
8. where is .com au
9. where is palestine
10. where dubai

Well you can all stop searching. I'm right here.

(BTW, this is probably what they were looking for.)

(Also interesting: For those of you who know my last name, you can search for "where is matt lastname" and find an amazon list that is NOT mine, but looks suspiciously me-ish. If you search for "matthew blog" you will find on page 2 a blog about Matthew at Harding. Also not me.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


It's lunchtime, now. I traipsed through a rare Abilene drizzle to grab Subway's Two for Tuesday, and now I'm sitting at my desk, munching on one of the Two and drawing little boxes and arrows on a sheet of printer paper, three-holed to fit in one of my Very Important three-ring binders.

The boxes and arrows represent different areas of my life - the layout of my home is in one box, the schedule of my week in another - because I'm trying to get things straight. I have this emotionally pressing need to simplify my life. I'm not quite sure what this means, or what the benefits would be, but the feeling is there all the same. My life feels ... cluttered.

Maybe this drive to reduce clutter is one that has arisen from programming, and I'm trying to nest and encapsulate things neatly so that I can hold the entire idea of My Life in my head all at the same time.

Maybe it's about mastery, and I think that if I can reduce the number of entities I encounter on a daily basis - clothes, books, toothbrushes, vehicles, people - I can have more control over my environment.

Or maybe it's that I think that if I could clean up my life, it would be more efficient. I would get more benefit, or be more productive, or something more positive per unit time. Maybe I'm approaching 30 and developing an unsettling, subconscious feeling that I'm wasting my life.

Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciplines for this. One of the most important is the Sanskrit dhyana, mispronounced in Chinese as "Chan" and again mispronounced in Japanese as "Zen." Phaedrus never got involved in meditiation because it made no sense to him. In his entire time in India "sense" was always logical consistency and he couldn't find any honest way to abandon this belief. That, I think, was creditable on his part.

But one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes. That was the end of the exchange.

Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phaedrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.

He returned to his Midwest, picked up a practical degree of journalism, married, lived in Nevada and Mexico, did odd jobs, worked as a journalist, a science writer and an industrial-advertising writer. He fathered two children, bought a farm and a riding horse and two cars and was starting to put on middle-aged weight. His pursuit of what had been called the ghost of reason had been given up. That's extremely important to understand. He had given up.

Because he'd given up, the surface of life was comfortable for him. He worked reasonably hard, was easy to get along with and, except for an occasional glimpse of inner emptiness shown in some short stories he wrote at the time, his days passed quite usually.

What started him up here into these mountains isn't certain. His wife seems not to know, but I'd guess it was perhaps some of those inner feelings of failure and the hope that somehow this might take him back on the track again. He had become much more mature, as if the abandonment of his inner goals had caused him somehow to age more quickly.


I hadn't intended for this post to be about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but there you go. This bit makes me a bit nervous, if you want to know the truth. Phaedrus goes into the mountains and pretty soon he ends up insane. And if it's all the same, I'd prefer to avoid insane.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bah, humbug.

'Convert or die' game divides Christians

I expect you've heard about this game already, but here's some stuff I didn't know:

Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.


Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics.


The Rev. Tim Simpson, a Jacksonville, Fla., Presbyterian minister and president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, added: "So, under the Christmas tree this year for little Johnny is this allegedly Christian video game teaching Johnny to hate and kill?"

Thanks to Colby for the linkage.

I'm going to go hide under the bed now.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Zen and the Art: Changing the World

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. A surprising number of people (two) seemed to want to know what I thought of the book. So being the accommodating fellow I am, I'm going to attempt to write about it.

Now this won't be a scholarly literary analysis, or a cliffs note summary, or really any kind of review that any self-respecting publication might be interested in. Instead, I'm simply going to try to describe, in a fairly disorganized way, the sorts of things that happen when the thoughts in my head get mushed together with the thoughts in Zen.

What the book is kind of about

For those of you who haven't read Zen, a brief summary might be in order. Zen really seems to be two books, the first being a narrative about the author taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son, with periodic flashbacks discussing the author's life and thinking, all the way up to the point where some mental health experts got ahold of him and solved his various problems by applying choice electrical currents to the appropriate areas of his brain.

The second book, interleaved with the first, is a philosophical investigation of separateness. It's a thoroughly Buddhist attempt to contradict our tendency to reduce, subdivide and compartmentalize the world. In my opinion, this is the meat of the book: the narrative is just a framework for moving the reader along and, at some points, for illustrating the author's philosophy.

An interesting thing

Here's something from Zen that I found interesting:
I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important _end products_ of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values of[sic] right. The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.

How should you go about trying to change the world, if you're turned on by that sort of thing?

Pirsig seems to suggest that you're going to get the best results if you focus on improving yourself. And this approach makes a lot of sense: if all the leaves on a tree are green, one's experience of the tree should be green. If all the people in a society are kind, one's experience of the society should be one of kindness.

Then why write a book?

I suppose that one answer would be: you improve yourself to the point where you have something worthwhile to say to other people, and *then* you write your book. Another answer is: "Rob, you're full of crap." If you want to change the world, then bottom-up methods are important, but top-down methods are also good. Writing a book, reforming a government, starting a charity - all of these methods are just as likely to be effective as "make myself a better person".

This poses some problems from a Buddhist point of view: it reinforces my tendency to distinguish between myself and the world. But another problem - a related problem - is that one has to decide what kinds of changes to try to make. And this, I think, is why Pirsig's emphasis on introspection has merit: because effective change does not necessarily equal positive change. If your values are screwed up, then your broad attempts to change the world are likely to screw the world up rather than make it better.

So how do you get good values?

"Good values." Heh.

OK, I'm stuck. Somebody come pull me out.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Get wet

Hunh. I guess today's a day for baptism.

From Pastor K at South Bay Christian Church:
Anne Lamott writes that "Christianity is about water. 'Everyone who thirsteth, come ye to the waters.' It's about baptism… It's about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rains and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that's a little sloppy because at the same time it's also holy, and absurd. It's about surrender, giving into all those things we can't control: it's a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched."

And, if you're the audio-visual sermon illustration type, here's yer fix, courtesy of Steve Allison:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Calling God "He"

So I'm having a conversation about using gender-neutral language in church, and an acquaintance - a woman - injects this comment:
God is a man. And if he's not a man, well he's sure not a woman.

Props to me: I didn't bite through my tongue.

I consoled myself with the thought that this isn't often an explicit theology: most conservative Christian churches probably hold that God is neither exclusively male nor exclusively female. The problem this presents is that the language most of these churches use to refer to God is exclusively male. And language matters. Because our language is currently at odds with our theology, we need to change one or the other.

One of the objections I hear for changing from masculine language is, "what are you going to use instead?" Specifically, the questioner usually wants to know what I am going to use as the singular pronoun when referring to God. So in a sentence like this:
God is good, and he wants us to be good.

they want to know, what am I going to use to replace "he?"

At first glance, this is a significant problem, because the English language has no gender-neutral singular personal pronoun.

"She" is not a good alternative, because it causes the same problems as "he". (Although one could argue for a sort of linguistic affirmative action, wherein we should call God "she" for the next several thousand years to make up for always having called God "he" before.)

Likewise, "it" is out of the question, because most of these people believe in a personal God, and calling a person "it" is degrading. (Although one could argue that calling a person "she" is also degrading.)

But the obvious answer, which sometimes gets overlooked, is: don't use a pronoun.
God is good, and God wants us to be good

Problem solved.

But won't this be cumbersome? Won't it sound really awkward?

Well, do the things said about God on this blog sound awkward? Because this is the language I already use, both in writing and speaking. It's what I've done for several years. And to my knowledge, nobody's noticed.

Sadly, this doesn't entirely solve our language problems, and here are two reasons:

1. Songs. It's hard to change them to be gender neutral, and not butcher them. (Gender-equal, maybe, but not gender neutral.) I'm sure you could come up with many more examples, but how would you reword these songs:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind
Forgive our foolish ways...

O worship the King
All glorious above
And gratefully sing
His wonderful love...

2. Gender-neutral language may not go far enough. Exploring God in the context of ideas that we have traditionally labeled "female" could be very powerful, but this is stymied somewhat by going to gender neutrality. In more conservative churches, though, going to even occasionally female language would be even harder than going to neutral language ... as you can see by the quote at the top of this post.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One reason I haven't been posting: I've been reading, and it's hard for me to do both at the same time.

One of the books I finished recently: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. I may have more to say about the book later; for now, here's an excerpt.
The ugliness the Sutherlands were fleeing is not inherent in technology. It only seemed that way to them because it's so hard to isolate what it is within technology that's so ugly. But technology is simply the making of things and the making of things can't by its own nature be ugly or there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things. Actually a root word of technology, techne, originally meant "art." The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them.

Neither is the ugliness inherent in the materials of modern technology – a statement you sometimes hear. Mass-produced plastics and synthetics aren't in themselves bad. They've just acquired bad associations. A person who's lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it's also the prime material of sculpture, and a person who's lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly. But the real ugliness of modern technology isn't found in any material or shape or act or product. These are just the objects in which the low Quality appears to reside. It's our habit of assigning Quality to subjects or objects that gives this impression.

The real ugliness is not the result of any objects of technology. Nor is it, if one follows Phaedrus' metaphysics, the result of any subjects of technology, the people who produce it or the people who use it. Quality, or its absence, doesn't reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use ...

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of "style" to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it's not just depressingly dull, it's also phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. It's the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don't know where to start because no one has ever told them there's such a thing as Quality in the world and it's real, not style. Quality isn't something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.