War and God

I was recently messaging with old friend Barry Mateer who is now in Iowa about his time 50 years ago when he was a Peace Corp volunteer in Nepal. He was there for a couple of years, returned to Iowa, got sick from a disease contracted over there, almost died, and when drafted, he filed for Conscientious Objector (CO) status. He was required to do some Alternative Service instead of serving in Vietnam. He elected to return to Nepal, and his parents, although concerned, did not object.

My tennis buddy and teaching colleague in Barcelona was about the same age. He too was a CO, did his Alternative Service cleaning toilets at a state hospital (mental institution). I was a bit younger, was in line to be drafted, but by then the war was winding down. Nonetheless, I also applied for CO status and was accepted about 6 months before Jimmy Carter ended the draft, so I didn’t have to do any Alternative Service. (I did end up volunteering for my church in China for a year, similar to AS, but many years later.

Which brings me to this story in the Smithsonian magazine, The Priest of Abu Ghraib. It is a long piece about Joshua Casteel and his time in Afghanistan. Another war, same story. Casteel was raised in a very religious family and volunteered for the war. I will let the article tell his fated and tragic story, a story where he struggles mightily to be a good Christian as well as a good soldier. He fails. With terrible consequences.

We switched as a family from the Catholic church to the Church of the Brethren when I was a teen. I was never sure whether it was because it was such a great church (it was) or whether it was because it was a peace church. I certainly am grateful, though, for the move. While my family has moved cities and congregations (they are now Presbyterian), I have wandered away from a formal religion and accepted a happy agnosticism like those around me here in Japan. I still volunteer, though, and I still think about war, killing and god. But nowhere like Joshua Casteel.

Who is lambasting whom?

I was reading my RSS feed and came across an article in The Hill (a neutral rated news outlet that is good for news titles). It said, in paragraph 3 or so, that “Trump lambasted Democrats on Twitter earlier Tuesday” That got me curious about lambasting.

Now, for my students, (look it up!) lambasting means to criticize strongly. (Dictionary.com has it as “criticize harshly”. Merriam Webster has it as “assault violently” or to “attack verbally”. Growing up in the age of Nixon, I got the impression that it was strong criticism with a note of sarcasm and an element of truth. Most of the lambasting going on then was directed toward the President who had to claim he was not a crook.

So I started to think. Which direction is the lambasting going these days? A search for trends does not yield any significant results. But a simple search for “Trump lambasted” gets 23,300 hits (using the incognito window, so it is not filtered for my previous searches). A search for “lambasted Trump” drew about half that, with 11,800 hits. Now searching inquiries to Google is not a great measure, it is pretty much all we have. (Any suggestions for other search engines?)

It might be the media, attributing a more violent verb to our current President who claims no collusion. Still trying to check out that avenue. Which leads me to wonder if the rest of us are being too nice. May I suggest we “politely” lambaste away? My other question was whether you can really lambaste by Twitter.

Altered Carbon: Bad Good SciFi

Netflix continues to push the envelope, with a greater variety of TV that appeals to a wider audience, especially one that has tired of typical fare. It is another golden age of TV, now called streaming video.

One example of this is Altered Carbon.  It is cheesy. The plot is a mess. It is a tale as old as the hills, set 350 years in the future. A world where your mind (and soul?) are downloaded and you use “sleeves” until they die. But you get put into another.

The story starts with an insurgent getting reawoken after 250 years on a hard disk, doing time. Oddly enough, he can operate and understand everyone without a hitch. There is gratuitous sex, lots of violence, way too much chop-sockey. And yet, it all hangs together.

Part of the charm is the cast, a very multi-national group. Long stretches of dialog occur in Spanish, German and other languages. One “sleeve” of the main character is the Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (the assistant detective in The Killing), and his sister (as an adult) is one of my favorite actresses, Tibetan/Australian Dichen Lackmann. And a host of other not-so-well-known actors who try to breathe life into the weird script that is all over the place (sci-fi allows for lots of inserted backstory).

The other part is the worldbuilding. It is an interesting world that has consequences. That is an extremely hard thing to do, as Charles Stross points out. Even though he is an SF author, one of the reasons he no longer reads much SF is that the worldbuilding is not consistent. I don’t mind a few inconsistencies, if they propel the plot forward, as is the case of Altered Carbon, in its exploration of how death makes us human.

Cormac McCarthy on Language

Cormac McCarthy, author of novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road, is, believe it or not, interested in physics and complex systems. Writing in Nautilus (great publication), he muses on language and the unconscious in The Kekulé Problem.

The shoehorn into the discussion is that people solve problems when they are asleep. Kekulé is only the most famous for this; falling asleep and solving the problem of the chemical structure of Benzine. The point is that the image he saw, that revealed the structure, did not contain any language. That is because it is from the unconscious.

Read the article to find out why the unconscious and language are separate. Is it biology, did it evolve, or are they simply incompatible? McCarthy jumps between psychology, biology, philosophy in his quest for an answer. He gets help by discussing with his friend and colleague David Krakauer, both from the Santa Fe Institute (home of really smart people). He ends up solving the problem after a ten-hour lunch with Krakauer and yes, some sleep.

This article reminds me of two other books. The Third Culture was the first collection of essays I read by John Brockman, a literary agent. He assembled a collection of scientists (Gould, Dawkins, Minsky, Schank, Pinker, Penrose, Smolin, Kauffman, and especially Gell-Mann, also at Santa Fe) to answer questions usually reserved for theologians and philosophers. C.P. Snow postulated that Science and Literature would merge into a “third culture.” It had a profound effect on my thinking. Brockman puts a similar book out each year, addressing a new question. Find him at the Edge.

Language is metaphor, and that is what makes us human. China Mieville writes of an alien race inhabiting a trading outpost at the edge of the civilized universe in Embassytown. The heroine watches as the Ariekei try to lie and fail, repeatedly. They are not built that way. Their Language requires people to speak in two voices at the same time. Humans that are conjoined twins fill the role of Ambassadors. When a linguistic “virus” invades, all hell breaks loose.

Which brings us back to language. It language itself just a virus, a parasite, riding on the cerebellum and medulla, causing the cerebrum to develop grotesquely large? Read McCarthy.

Joan Didion Documentary

I fell in love with Joan Didion when I read The White Album. Maybe college, or shortly after. She was such a good observer. Wordmaster, yes. But above all, she was courageous. She reached down deep to the center of her being and pulled it out, and allowed everyone to see. The essay in The White Album about migraines. The one about water in California. The one about the Black Panthers, and then one about Doris Lessing. If we look carefully at the treatment of all these diverse subjects, we see her reflecting, shaping.

She continues revealing herself with this documentary on Netflix. She is frail, but her mind is still as sharp as ever. We get glimpses of the comedy and the tragedy of her life as her nephew feeds her questions to continue the dialog between her and the reader. Continually surprising (watch what she thinks about discovering a 5-year old on acid in the Haight (SF) of the 60’s). Yes, she is self-absorbed at times, but she is still observing and showing how she observes and tells it how it is, deep down, not just how it appears.

I have been lax, but am happy to be able to read her most recent 2 books even though they are real downers, about the tragedy and impermanence of life. Almost Buddhist. The title (The Center Will Not Hold) comes from a Yeats poem, The Second Coming (“the centre cannot hold”), which ends with the line about Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the title of the collection of Didion’s essays just before The White Album.