Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Agora: Just a Little Talk with Jesus

Will, the bartender, stands staring at the matter compiler sitting on the corner of the bar. A tiny, frustrated voice echoes from within. Reverend Carl's scheme to remix Jesus using sacramental bread and wine appears to have worked.

"Seriously?" Will asks.

Beth sits at the bar, while John Cates stands nearby, momentarily distracted from his quest to obtain the cheese omelet that is his Heart's Desire. Bud, a rather enigmatic figure, remains sitting at the opposite end of the bar.

The multicolored seed winks from inside a terracotta ashtray.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Agora: Thumbs Up

Will, the scruffy barista, continues to tidy up the bar. Occasionally he picks up his cup of tea and takes a sip.

The matter compiler sits innocently at the end of the bar, a few feet from Beth, Vincent and John. Its "completed" indicator, a bright green thumbs-up symbol, glows cheerfully.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Agora: Meta

This is the meta post, where we can talk about Agora (as opposed to your in-character comments, which ostensibly happen in Agora).

If you're playing along, you may want to subscribe to comments on this post, as well as the summary post, in case there's anything interesting going on.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Agora: Beginning

The little shop sits on the slope of a small hill, looking down into a long, busy street that shoots straight into the heart of downtown. At the end of the street, blocks and blocks away, the old courthouse sits, delicate and ancient, surrounded by looming black skycrapers. Out here, though, the buildings are a bit less crowded and a bit more reasonably sized. This one sits at the edge of what used to be a boutique shopping district, and formerly housed an antique store with a horribly florid name: "Exilene's Land of Lovely Long-Ago Rarities" or something like that. The new owner slapped on a coat of dark blue paint to obliterate most of the sign, but left a few of Exilene's delicate, decisively serifed letters:

Ago Ra

Agora's storefront is entirely glass, allowing patrons inside to observe the commuters outside, and vice versa. On sunny days, someone occasionally drags a table out the front door and situates it on the sidewalk -- a little land grab into the commuters' territory -- but today it's a bit chilly, the west-facing storefront will be in shadow most of the day, and nobody seems terribly interested in rubbing elbows with pedestrians.

After passing through the front door, customers end up in the big main room, a few hundred square feet in size but partitioned into smaller spaces by roughly plastered walls. The partitions and plaster make the place feel a bit like a southwestern mission, split into cells populated by urban monks with a taste for joe and overstuffed Goodwill furniture. Parts of the bar are visible from the front door, but the path from here to there is less than direct. A heavy wooden door near the bar leads out to a patio.

The bar itself is formidable, festooned with both coffee mugs and glassware, because Agora is an unusual mix of coffee shop and bar. It sells mostly caffiene in the morning and mostly alcohol in the evening, but everything is available all the time, and given the human variety in a city this size, it's not unusual to see the barista serving shots of whiskey at 5 in the morning, or a double shot of espresso at midnight.

Of course, baristas aren't strictly necessary these days. The place has a matter feed, a sleek gray rectangle tucked away on one corner of the bar, but it's primarily there as a concession to a certain sort of customer, usually a guest of a regular who won't take his beverage any other way. But most folks come to Agora precisely because they like things done in the old, aromatic way, with shining, hissing metal cylinders, multicolored bottles half-full of multicolored liquids, jiggers and shakers and plenty of steam.

Today, the man tending bar is a moderately scruffy, sandy-haired grad student named Will. Will spends a lot of his time reading, sometimes tending bar with a glass in his left hand and a book in his right. He also makes a tasty Irish Coffee. At the moment he's wiping down the bar with a white towel and whistling what sounds like a Beatles tune.

Agora: Overview

For a little while, this blog is going to become a coffee-shop-slash-pub called Agora. The basic mechanism is this: I will post an initial descriptive post. You folks will adopt a persona and, in the comment section, describe the actions and interactions of your characters. Characters who intend to stick around will be added to the roster below. If you would like your character's description to be added, please affix it as a comment to this post. Periodically, new suggestions and guidelines also will be added to this post.

Let's see how it go!


  • Meta

    Discussion about what's currently going on in Agora.

  • The Beginning

    Wherein we meet Vincent, Beth and John, and ale is drunk.

  • Thumbs Up

    Wherein Beth and John consider the desirability of desire, and Carl hatches his scheme to usher in the Second Coming.

  • Just a Little Talk with Jesus


Please post in the present tense. So write "Charlie walks in the door", not "Charlie walked in the door."

Please play along. This is a basic rule of improv, and here it means several things: one is to go with the flow of the conversation, but it also means to try not to dramatically alter the parts of the world that have already been created by other people.


Will is a sandy-haired barista-slash-bartender who has worked at Agora for more than a year. A graduate student at a local university, Will is, as one might expect, a bit lean and scruffy, but otherwise not a bad looking fellow. He spends a lot of his time reading, sometimes tending bar with a glass in his left hand and a book in his right. He makes a tasty Irish Coffee.

Vincent is a homesick Englishman, age uncertain but well beyond middle. Nor is he certain how he got to this town, with its West Coast feel--perhaps San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver? He ought to know, wonders if dementia is starting to bite. If it is, he hopes to die of something else before he forgets who he is. At the first signs, he plans to start living more dangerously; and wonders if this is a suitable place to start--this town, this odd bar, which he thinks unlikely to serve English ale at cellar temperature.


John Cates
The man really wants a cheese omelet.

A rather enigmatic figure.

Carl the Cleric
Desires to remix Jesus using a matter compiler, sacramental bread and sacramental wine.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Game of Agora

Oh, hi there.

A few days ago, I ran into some interesting folks on Richard Beck's blog, and one of them mentioned liking to get together and talk with people, which made me think ... most of the people I want to chat with, like you, are not here with me in Memphis. You're in all sorts of other weird places around the globe. So I was thinking, why not use the magic of the internets to get everybody together?

If we liked each other a whole, whole lot, we could converse via skype and things like that, but that's not really ideal either. Too little ambience, too much scheduling, too much bandwith, and too much obligation to be your real life self.

But what if we just ... pretend ... to get together? Our get-together would be on this blog, so it would look a lot like a blog post with comments. But instead of discussing a post as yourself, the comments would contain descriptions of your -- I dunno -- avatar moving around in an imaginary space, doing stuff, talking about whatever people are interested in talking about.

I would start with a description of an area where we can interact. A pretty safe third space, since it would be totally made up. The initial post might look like this:


JuJu Bee's Bakery

Walking into JuJu Bee's, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the flowers. They've been smeared everywhere, in bright pastel reds and blues and greens: on the walls, on the tables, on the ceiling. The only surfaces exempt from the painted garden are the glass counters containing JuJu Bee's wares: breads, cookies, pies.

JuJu Bee is sitting behind the counter, chewing on the butt end of her pen.


And then in the comments, you could create a character and toss him or her into JuJu Bee's, just to see what happens when you interact with one another. For example, suppose Crystal decides she wants to discuss something using the persona of a businessman named Carl. I don't know why she'd want to be a Carl, but bear with me.


[comment: Crystal]

A man in a business suit rolls up on a Segway, parks it near the front door, and walks into JuJu Bee's.

"Hey, sister JuJu!" Carl yells, straightening his sparkly green tie. "How's it going this morning?"

[comment: Me]

JuJu is immersed in the piece of newspaper she holds in her left hand.

"'sokay," she mumbles, scribbling something on the newspaper with her pen. "Three letter word for a scraping tool?"


I suspect the characters will get around to discussing things that people who read this blog like to discuss. I expect that occasionally I'll be pondering a thing, and have a character pop in to talk about it. I think the initial setting will be a sort of beverage shop called Agora. It may not work at all, but I think it could be kind of fun.

Any takers?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Problem of Evil, Redux

A while back, Crystal asked me about my theodicy. More recently, Paul (no, not our Paul) asked something similar. I've finally managed to put together a few paragraphs that communicate the essentials. Mostly it's just a bit of self-justification, but maybe a couple of other people will find it helpful.


It is not enough for God to feel bad about human suffering, or to somehow make up for it after the fact. To allow the torture of innocents is to be complicit in that torture, Free Will be damned. Consequently, it is plainly incoherent to posit a God who is both good and overwhelmingly powerful.

But most of us still believe in a God. So what do we do with this belief?

We should affirm it, but also accept that we must have been mistaken in some ways, and go about finding a different way to think about God.

In my opinion, the best thing to do next — given the track record of power — is to abandon the idea that God is powerful, and by doing so, liberate our claim that God is good … that God is essentially goodness itself … or if we want to angle it a bit differently, we can claim, as the Bible does, that God is love.

This is hard for many of us, because not only does it mean giving up little things, like a God who magically gives us rain and parking spaces and helps us find our keys, it also means giving up really big things, like a God who is a big grand king, who creates everything from nothing, who inspires a Bible, and who raises people from the dead. And maybe these things are too big to give up.

But for those of us who have already given up most of those things, giving up power actually solves more problems than it causes. It’s the piece that makes everything click.

And because I’m one of those people, that’s my position. God is not powerful. Or to put it another way: Love, and nothing else, is God in the world.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


The cancer has come back, which, this soon after transplant, is a Very Bad Thing. But we are having good days with our boy, and pursuing a treatment that we hope will save the day.

Basically, it's like they say over at XKCD:

"Man. Fuck cancer."

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Just, eh?

Does anyone else find this song lyric strange?

For God the Just was satisfied
To look on him and pardon me
To look on him and pardon me

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week(end)

I was thinking I needed to share something for Holy Week, and lo and behold my friend Chad provided. Interpret it however you like.

The band's name is Typhoon, and the song is "The Honest Truth".

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Leukemia Update

Well, the leukemia has turned out to be a "hard" kind, but the boy is making great progress and feeling better and better lately.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rob Grumble Bell

Earlier today (well, yesterday, I guess), I read a Rob Bell update on CNN. And now, for some reason, I'm pretty angry.

It's not because Rob Bell is a heretic, of course, and it's not even because fundamentalists are giving Rob Bell crap for being a heretic. Actually, I'm not sure where the angry is coming from. Maybe it's because even edgy Rob Bell doesn't have enough balls or brains to embrace the label "universalist".

Or maybe it's this bit:

Bell would not be surprised if he saw Gandhi in heaven. “Jesus was very clear. Heaven is full of surprises. That’s central to Jesus [sic] teaching.”


Bell would be mildly surprised if Gandhi saw him in heaven. "I don't really think I'm on the same moral plane as someone like Gandhi," Bell said, "But who knows? We can hope, right?"

Friday, February 18, 2011

What Richard Said

Well, it's really what Jurgen Moltmann said.

Richard's interested in universalism as a means to theodicy, and posted about it. But I was really struck by this bit he quoted from Moltmann's Trinity and Kingdom:

The question of theodicy is not a speculative question; it is a critical one. It is the all-embracing eschatological question. It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world. It is a practical question which will only be answered through experience of the new world in which 'God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.' It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation.

"It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world." Put another way: theodicy is about reconciling our experience of the world with the claims people are making about God. Good theodicy is an effort to develop a living, harmonious understanding of the universe, rather than a manufactured, dead one, riddled with contradictions and conflicts.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Help me out here ...

What, exactly, is the difference between a "prayer warrior" and just any old person who prays?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ockham's Razor: A Probabilistic Justification

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time with probability and statistics, partly because we're about to make some significant decisions about our boy's treatment, and partly because I've been reading The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives, which, despite its overdone name, is really about -- you guessed it -- probability and statistics.

Anyhow, I was lying in bed the other night, and for some reason I was thinking about Ockham's Razor, which despite Wikipedia's protests to the contrary, is usefully summarized as "the simpler explanation is more likely the correct one." So if you imagine an explanation that rests on 5 propositions, and an explanation that rests on 10 propositions, you should give preference to the simpler argument. Sometimes this is justified in terms of "falsifiability": the longer argument is "more easily falsifiable" than the shorter argument, because it has more places it can break.

But that night, I was thinking that a slightly more interesting way of justifying the principle is in terms of probability.

Suppose you know nothing about the content of the propositions, or the quality of the argument. If it helps, think about this as being a situation where the content of the propositions is so arcane, you have no idea how to evaluate whether or not they are true. But even this little bit of information -- the number of propositions -- can help you choose an explanation, if you suppose that each proposition has an equal chance of being correct. And what else can you do, since you don't understand the argument? If that is the case, then the chance of all propositions being correct is the combination of the chances of each proposition being correct. You don't know exactly how to combine the chances, because you don't know how the propositions are related, but what you do know is that every proposition you add decreases the chances of all the propositions being correct.

To illustrate, let's look at our 5- and 10-proposition arguments and plug in some numbers. If we suppose that each proposition has a 50% chance of being correct, independently of any of the other propositions, we get:

10-proposition argument
1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 = 1/1024

5-proposition argument
1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 = 1/32

So there you go. Ockham's Razor is a good rule because every additional proposition decreases the chances of all the propositions being true.

Obviously, though, an actual analysis of the propositions is preferable to simply applying Ockham's Razor and taking that as proof. Right?

Well, probably. While this probability justification has the benefit of applying when we ourselves are too ignorant to analyze the argument, it also applies if we suppose that people in general are ignorant, and as likely to fail as to succeed when either composing or analyzing the truth of propositions. In that case, well, our best bet is just to guess ... and Ockham's Razor helps us make a better guess. I mean, unless I'm confused about the truth of that proposition. =)