Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Veterans Day

This past Friday was Veterans day, a holiday in which we celebrate the sacrifices of those who have served in America’s military. Watching Facebook I saw a lot of tributes to this group of people and let me start by saying that I share the sentiment. Every day there are thousands of Americans who put their very lives on the line to service the needs of our country. These people go to work every day with the knowledge that they may very well get their faces blown off by an IED or be killed or horribly maimed. That’s a claim that very few of us can make. Those who serve in the military are truly selfless individuals who deserve to be praised and honored every day of the year, not just one single day in November.

All that said, the idea that any of that is necessary at all is complete bullshit. On one hand I respect immensely that people are willing to do that. It takes a hell of a lot of guts to put everything you have in jeopardy every time you put your boots on in the morning. On the other hand, it makes me utterly sick that in this day and age our government is still so backwards and unsophisticated that it requires that people fight and die to support its strategy on the world stage. Every American soldier who comes home without a hand (or a face) represents the failure of the U.S. government to do its job. Surely in this day and age diplomacy must rule first and foremost. Only when the statesmen fail to do their jobs properly must we resort to the abomination of war, physical intervention in some remote area.

So on this Sunday after Veterans day, I say simply, thank you. Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for what you put on the line every day. But it’s a complete fucking shame that you have to do it. If our politicians weren’t such utter fucking failures, you would all be safe at home, every single one of you, warm and comfortable by the sides of the ones you love. Your deaths lay heavily on the failures and the egos of the American political system. The sooner that the United States can take its right and proper position in the world, the sooner you will come home safely. I honor the veterans of America’s wars, but I hope for a day when they will be an extinct species, a relic of a bygone and obsolete age.

Monday, October 31, 2011

On the Stock Market

So, a while back I invested some money in the stock market. Not in a mutual fund mind you but in pick a single stock and hang on type schenario. I was alive in the ninties so I have this pervasive mental image that money invested in stocks is like planting a money tree in the back yard. You put $5 in and before you know it, $57.67 has grown in its place. I still remember in my college days thinking, “Boy, if I only had some money I’d really invest in that eBay place!” I remember watching the stock tick gradually up and up and up and up and split and split and split until I was woozy with the math of how much my $10 then would be worth today. OK, it’s only $166, but still. That’s 4.5% interest! I’m sure I would have sold in 2004 when it peaked. Not…

As I sit here today looking at the returns, on one hand I’m happy. I bought in a fairly severe dip in the markets. My Walmart stock is up 11.02% in a month! Microsoft, up 6.5%. Starbucks, up 6.4% in three weeks! Great returns, right? Fuck no. The whole market, on average, was up 12%! Even my absolute best pick, Walmart, suffered worse than the Dow Jones and NASDAQ, both mindless conglomerations of companies that managed 12% gains in the period of a 30 days. God damn. That’s a lot of wasted effort to do WORSE than the average of just a bunch of companies thrown into a bucket.

Every single day I watch the markets hour by hour. One day they’re up and one day they’re down. Today my portfolio was down 1.91%. The Dow was down 2.26%, a miniscule gain. Tomorrow, I’m willing to bet that my portfolio, in obedience to the oscillating markets at large, will be up by about the same margin. This blind zombie obedience makes me regularly consider selling off my entire list of stocks just to buy some index fund. On many levels, I wonder what in the WORLD the point is. Unless I’m smart… impossibly smart and ahead of those MILLIONS of investors trying to do the same thing, I’m just gambling. If I drop $1,000 into Akorn, I might make more than the Dow or I might lose it all in a day. Who knows? I’m not sure any of it is worth the risk. Tomorrow I will sit and hit the refresh button every hour or so and watch my money go up….. (hopefully) and inevitably go down…. All based on the whims and speculations of millions of other investors who are influenced by random stories on the radio or a single internet speculation. Who can compete with that? Not me. I’m just gambling. It’s like slot machines with one-share minimum.

Random Thoughts for Halloween 2011

As I sit here alone in my third-floor apartment on Halloween night in 2011, I realize that lately I’ve been on a renewed search for a sense of purpose. Of course that search has been blunted by as much rum as I can cram into the refrigerator but even the thick blanket of Sailor Jerry cannot completely suffocate the part of my brain that calls out for something meaningful to do with my life. As I look around the apartment (which, it should be noted, is 77 degrees today even with the windows open because of the ambient heat leaking up from my poorly-insulated neighbors) I see the evidence of many of my previous attempts to have some meaning to the world. They’re like little tombstones to the hopes of a person who only really wanted to be someone…

Between my elbows rests “The New Middle Eastern Cookbook” and yesterday saw the first-time preparation of three new recipes. Fish with Chermoula sauce was divine (p187) with the aptly named “Rice to Accompany Fish” (p 342) and Kousa Mabshoura (p 287). They were all tasty and well worth having again. They gave me a peek into the foods of other cultures and made me a more knowledgeable and efficient customer when next I venture to order food at an Iranian restaurant. The experience added to the sum total of what it is to be “Rob” but ultimately, they’re meaningless in the grand scheme.

Looking left, I see the Jared Diamond book I’ve almost finished. It goes on in much detail about the intimate practices of various species and describes how those practices relate to human practices in the bedroom. For the most part, it’s all fairly cliché and material that I’ve either concluded on my own or read in other literature. It’s all very edifying in its way and adds to the sum total of what it is to be “Rob” but ultimately, it too is meaningless.

Peering further across the room I see the book on Islam. It was very edifying and I still swear that I’ll finish its summary at some point. It will, I’m sure, be an interesting period in my life to look back on. It too adds, but ultimately it’s meaningless.

Today I worked another day at work. I slogged through the same relatively inane garbage that really does fail to challenge me in any way. My job is far too easy and despite the fact that we really do a wonderful service to our customers, that too is meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

If you add up all the pieces of a person’s life, one by one and end to end, how can you determine their actual worth? How many pieces and parts add up to a meaningful whole? On measure, no individual item that I have ever undertaken seems to add up to a hill of beans in the world. No one picture I’ve ever taken has ever inspired anyone. Nothing I’ve written has ever made a difference in anyone’s life. No line of code or documentation that I wrote in my professional life ever really mattered one damn bit in the grand scheme of the universe. Taken in this light, my life is a waste. Time ticked ploddingly past one grain of sand at a time with no one to notice or to care.

But I like to think that taken as a whole, my life has great meaning. Perhaps that funny turn of phrase that I shared in the hallway rolls around in a co-worker’s mind long after I’m gone. Maybe that smile I shared with a stranger in a crowded store turned around some part of their day. Perhaps my whole body of work, everything I’ve done over the past four decades of my life has inspired SOMEONE or made someone think or smile or love or laugh.

This is the battle that rages in my head. As I sit here by myself I think back upon all the things that I have most definitely NOT done in my life. I am no great man. I am flawed and lazy and in error and utterly a mess in many small ways and in many big ones. But at the same time I am devoted and passionate and caring and above all I really do give a damn. I hardly ever say the right thing but I am dogged and determined enough that I will try, again and again, until I find it. What I lack in skill I make up for in raw and unadulterated tenacity. I am a small and ferocious dog with almost impossibly dull teeth. It is with the balm of these words that I sooth myself from the ache of the “am nots” that roll so fluidly and effortlessly from my mind. I am not great. I am not wise. I am not powerful. But I will be there after everyone else is gone. I’m not the most fun or giddy guest at the party, but I am the one who will help you with the dishes after everyone else is gone.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Unpopular Opinions - Dan Wheldon

Generally speaking, my fits of writing tend to begin with writing about something that is exceptionally unpopular. This particular topic is likely to earn me more heat than most but I can’t help but feel that I don’t really care very much…

Driving back from Lafayette today I heard a protracted WIBC story about Dan Weldon. They went on at length about what a shame it was that he was killed and I don’t disagree. When people die, it sucks. From everything the news reporter had to say, he was a nice guy: involved in his community, great father, great husband, all the usual stuff. That’s wonderful. More people should aspire to such a position in life. I was right on board with them until they suggested that listeners should contribute to the trust fund for his family. Excuse me? Perhaps I didn’t hear properly?

During his racing career, Dan Wheldon has earned $14,612,570. The median annual household income in Indiana is $45,424. When I think that the local radio station is suggesting that households that make 1/300th as much as Dan Wheldon send his family money it quite frankly turns my stomach. Seriously? Was Wheldon’s death a tragedy? Yes, by all means. I hate to see anyone lose their life in pursuit of their job. But for the love of all that’s good, do not send this millionaire’s family any money. If you feel the need to help someone, why not give to the many millions of families who don’t have enough money to even fulfill their basic needs.

All too often I think that in this country we confuse grief with actual need. Wheldon’s family is hurting emotionally. They lost a loving father and husband. I feel for them. However, that doesn’t mean that they need the financial outpourings of people across the country. If you feel the need to help people who are REALLY hurting, how about donating time or money to the local homeless shelter? How about helping people who really need it? There are families all around us who can’t buy food or the basic necessities of life. Wheldon’s death is a tragedy, but there are so many better ways that your money could be spent.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Personal: Echoes of Solitude

I have, as of late, avoided posts of a personal nature. In part, I think that’s because I’ve tended to have a less public venue for my personal outpourings and in part it’s just damn embarrassing. Both for me and for my readers because honestly, who wants to read someone’s innermost struggles online? I know I do, but then I’m all about figuring out how people work.

At any rate, as I sit here looking about this apartment on a Wednesday night I’m struck by the need to be doing something. I don’t mean walking about by myself in Zionsville in the dark taking night photos. I don’t mean sitting reading a book. I’ve found as time goes on that I need people. People are really important to me and yet in some bizarre way I have the damnedest time relating to them. I am, if we must be utterly honest, terrified of people. Well, amend that slightly. I’m terrified of people that I don’t have some sort of handle on. People at work are a snap because I have an “in” with them. I can talk about work! What could be more natural than that? Unfortunately, that seems to be just about ALL I can talk about at work.

For example, one of my coworkers is leaving our company soon and it was announced today. I sent him a short missive that said, in a nutshell, how much I appreciated the work he had done and that one of the things that I really admired about him was the fact that he managed to really get things done but also forged personal bonds with people. He’s just an amazingly nice guy and people can sense that and appreciate it. Meanwhile, I’m off in the corner just sort of working away and I suspect that people think of me as “Rob, that guy that does the work” but it ends at that. My coworker is real. He’s human. People like him and relate to him. I feel most days like I’m just a drone. I come in, I’m good at what I do and then after the work day ends I vanish (unless there’s an emergency support call). For the most part people don’t know how to really relate to me. It’s clearly not their fault, but I can’t help but feel that there’s some part of me that’s missing. That they try to connect and all there is in response is empty air.

Anyway, my personality dysfunctions aside, I was reflecting tonight on my situation and realized that my feelings of isolation, as they always are, are self-induced or at the least a function of my anthropophobic tendencies. It is not that life does not throw ample opportunity at me for social interaction but much more that I simply fail to grasp it. For example, let’s just look at the calendar for the next several days. Tomorrow the Center for Inquiry has an event going on that sounds pretty interesting: “The Dark side of the Sacred.” If that doesn’t scream, “Rob Slaven come see this!!” I don’t know what the hell does. Friday through Sunday morning I have my girls over so that’s certainly accounted for. Sunday afternoon I have an Ultimate Frisby (whatever the hell THAT means) invite that I should not ignore. Monday I have photography class where I will sit quietly in the corner and fearfully not really participate. (Yes, I realize that anyone reading this from my workplace will be totally agog at the idea of me sitting quietly anywhere.) Tuesday I can go to a classic movies discussion. (assuming I can find and see the subject movie by that time). Wednesday I can…. Well. Hrm. Not much going on Wednesday. Perhaps I’ll relax that day… anyway, point is that there’s SO much crap going on. There is absolutely NO excuse to be sitting here on my own. The whole world teems with ideas and activity for those willing to partake of them…

It really is funny, in an odd sort of way, that someone who seeks so vehemently the company and friendship of others is so incapable (scratch that, not incapable, but inherently unskilled in) of taking advantage of all that the vast society around him has to offer. In times of more assiduous reflection, it seems clear that society would welcome my contributions if only I were more readily capable of producing them and making them clear to those around me. Sadly, this tiny and ill-heard forum is insufficient to bridge that gap. One voice crying out in the forest is far from sufficient. The voice will have to take to its legs and go forth unto the people. And once there, proclaim itself to be appreciated…

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Notes: St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics

Below, find my observations as I read Norton's selection of St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics.  The topics discussed are entirely outside the realm of my current expertise and so I reserve the right to falter, fail and downright err in my attempts to assimilate and summarize the text.  You'll also no doubt note that my writing style is faulty and at times illegible due to the complete lack of familiarity with the topic.  Parties wishing to correct my interpretation, grammar or content are welcome to do so.  Parties wishing to argue about the nuances of Thomist theology should find a more worthy opponent with whom to test their expertise.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics
Norton Critical Editions

Life of St. Thomas - Timeline
1225 - Born near Naples
1244 - Joins to Dominican order but is imprisoned for a year by his family as they are disappointed in his choice.  They preferred he become a Benedictine.
1259 - 1264 - Writes 'Summa Contra Gentiles'; an aid to help missionaries in their work to convert Muslims and Jews in Spain and North Africa.
1265 - Writes 'On Kingship' for the youthful new king of Cyprus
1266 - 1272 - Writes 'Summa Theologiae', an introduction to the Dominican theology for novice members
1274  - Died after striking his head on an overhanging tree branch
1323 - Canonized

Saint Thomas' primary contribution to history was to integrate the newly discovered and seemingly contradictory teachings of Aristotle into the theological teachings of his day.  Because Aristotle's teachings ran contrary to long-standing church teachings they were banned in 1215.  The ban was re-affirmed in 1231 but a few short years later the logic of Aristotle's arguments was irresistible and by 1255 he had become required reading.

Thomas' use of the scholastic approach allowed complex philosophical problems to be broken down via rational debate.  Where previously issues of governance and morals were resolved by attempts to extract answers directly from interpretation of Biblical texts, with Thomas we see the evolution of the use of natural law or reason as an extension of Biblical teachings.  The belief that man's natural reason is all part of God's plan for the world is key to Thomas' work.  "Grace does not destroy nature, but completes it." he writes.  The grace of God and the knowledge of Jesus' sacrifice does not contradict our observations of the world around us but instead caps it nicely by wrapping up the lose ends that human reason is too feeble to resolve.  Man can know some part of God's divine plan by use of his intellect but can never know God completely.  Where knowledge ends faith must begin.  For Thomas, reason was simply another path to God, not one of self-deception as St. Augustine argued.

Summa Contra Gentiles
In Summa Contra Gentiles Thomas argues about the fundamental properties of God and the universe.  God, he argues, cannot be entirely understood by application of human reason.  Using the human senses to know God is like knowing an object merely by the shape of it's shadow.  One can demonstrate logically that God exists, that God is one and eternal but the deeper mysteries of God, such as the fact that he is simultaneously 1 and yet also 3, are impenetrable to logic.  Though it is possible to know something of God by argument alone, few men do so.  Most are distracted by earthly concerns, not mentally capable of the pursuit or merely too lazy.  But the knowledge is there for anyone who seeks it; reasoning and logic, derived as they are from God himself, will never contradict faith and truth.  It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that no matter how diligently we may seek or reason, the final step to knowing God must be an act of faith.  Reason alone will not give us all the answers.

Thomas goes on to compare humans' relationship with the divine to an oyster's relationship to a plant.  The oyster represents the very lowest of the animal forms and as such is only slightly separated from a plant.  In the same way, humans, supreme among the animals, are only slightly separated from the angels above them in the great 'Chain of Being.'  Man, as ruler of the animals has only his soul to separate him from his baser counterparts.  While all animals outstrip man in some manner (some are faster, stronger, better hunters) man dominates them all in that he has a soul and can partake of the ultimate happiness, the contemplation of God.  While communion with God is the greatest joy possible to mankind this is never without an accompaniment of sorrow or distraction.  No man is without suffering until he reaches his ultimate reward.  The soul needs the human flesh to help it derive knowledge from the substance of the world around it but this flesh comes with a price, constant suffering while man lives on Earth.  Only the divine light of God can teach the soul directly without the need for a human form.

All the acts of man, no matter how base-seeming, come about as the fulfillment of natural appetite.  Since nature tends always towards the good and optimal all acts are good though that good may be of a strictly local nature.  If a man should kill another man, it would be for the benefit of himself.  Whether this should benefit society in general is another argument altogether but in the context of murderer alone the act is a good one.  Similarly, all intellectual acts bring us closer to God.  No matter what we seek the only truth in the universe is God himself and when we approach truth by any path we approach God.  If we should derive pleasure from any act we commit it should be noted that this is merely a byproduct and not the goal to be achieved.  Pleasure is never an end in and of itself but instead merely a sensation that signals that we have completed some more important goal.

On Kingship
On Kingship illuminates Thomas' views on the best manner of government.  This text was started for the King of Cyprus in 1265 but Thomas did not, in fact, ever finish this work as the young King was killed not long after it was started.  Another writer completed the text afterwards.  Thomas argues emphatically that the best form of government is a Monarchy.  A single ruler, he says, is not burdened with differing viewpoints.  A benevolent monarch can move quickly to serve the needs of his people without the need to consult anyone else.  While private concerns of the citizens work to divide the community the king's role is to guide the people to focus on the public goals that bind them together.  It is this act of uniting his people in peace that is the ruler's first and most important responsibility.  Because this is the first goal, it can obviously be done most efficiently by only one man.  No appearance of dissent is possible if all the decisions stem from a single individual.  Nature also demonstrates to the superiority of a single leader.  Thomas points out that the body is ruled by a single organ, the brain.  The universe is ruled by a single God and even bees are guided by a single 'king' bee as he refers to it.  Lastly, a government ruled by many, no matter how seemingly benevolent, is more likely to devolve into tyranny.  If a group rules then it becomes increasingly likely that at least one of them is corrupt and thirsts for more power and may overthrow the others. 

While a king is the best form of government a tyrant is the worst.  As the king works for the benefit of the ruled the tyrant works only for the benefit of himself.  A tyrannical monarch is worse than any form of government in which many rule since he works in the interest of only himself while a oligarchy at least works for the benefit of a select handful of people.  A tyrant also drives the virtuous from his kingdom.  Any who excel in a society ruled by tyranny represent a threat to the status quo and are quickly forced to either leave or act against the king.  Men will still labor to support a just king but a tyrant brings out the best in no one around him. 

A relatively benign tyrant can be better than a particularly oppressive oligarchy, Thomas concludes.  A tyrant only steals for his own benefit but an oligarchy may go so far as to spur a war or in the best case steal for the needs of many more individuals.  Once established, a tyrant should not be removed except by the united rebellion of those he rules.  It is thought by many that simply assassinating the despot will resolve the government's problems but often is it found that another even worse tyrant simply replaces the first.  Since this new ruler is keenly aware of the delicate position he holds his reign will be even more oppressive.  If the ruled cannot unite strongly enough to depose their ruler then their only valid course is to appeal to God himself.  It is better to suffer an unjust ruler than to act unjustly in deposing him as God sometimes uses such rulers to punish the sinful.

A king who wishes to be just should model his rule after that of God over the universe.  Rulers should consider their subjects like parts of their own body and treat them with the same respect.  The ultimate goal of the government is to support the people in their own goals: to live virtuous lives and enjoy the divine knowledge of God.  The government should recognize the supremacy of the church in all matters since it is the Church which is the best guide of virtue and Godliness.

Summa Theologiae Part 1
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas takes on some of the stickier theological questions of his day.  The format for these answers takes the form of a debate in which the question is posed, objections are raised and then Thomas puts forth his proof.  I will boil down these proofs to their key points below.

Does God Exist?
Objections: God cannot exist because a true God would not allow evil to exist in the world.  Besides, everything that takes place in nature can as easily be explained without God.
God's existence can be proven in 5 days:
  • Objects on the Earth and outside it move from the stars to the wind.  In order for these things to move there must be someone to move them.  This is most assuredly the work of God.
  • The universe operates on the principle of cause and effect.  Everything we see around us has some cause but there is no effect without a cause.  This first cause which is required for anything to exist is God.
  • Objects in the world either exist or they do not.  Objects come into being because of other preexisting objects therefore there must be some initial object to have created all others.  Again, this first object is God.
  • To all properties in the universe there is a greatest superlative example.  God exist to represent the greatest possible example of 'goodness' and benevolence in the universe.
  • Nature operates in the optimal way possible for the survival of animals and plants.  Just as for the arrow in flight there must be an archer to guide it, so also in order for nature to behave in a rational manner there must be some God to dictate this behavior.
Responds to Objections: God is so utterly powerful that he allows evil to exist so that he may turn it to good.  Further, all the acts of God seem rational and explained by other means exactly because God dictates that they behave in a reasonable fashion.

Can we know God in this lifetime by use of reason alone and is it better to know God by reason or by Grace?
Man can learn to know God by the use of his reason but the results will be hollow when compared with that gained by God's grace.  The pursuit of God by logic is prone to error since man's reason is subject to the frailty of his senses while God's grace instructs the soul directly.

Does God love all things?
God does love all things and everything is good in God's eyes.  God's very love for things makes them good while man's love is contingent on the belief that they are good.

Is the soul a material object?  Is the human soul corruptible?
The soul is incorporeal and as such is not corruptible

Should woman have been made in the Original Creation?
Objections: A woman is basically just a defective man so she shouldn't have been made in the first place.  This is obvious because she is subject to the rule of the man and this is an indication that she has sinned and is being punished for it.
Woman was made as a "helpmate" to man.  Not for helping in the fields but as an aid to procreation.  Animals in nature reproduce in the same way and while the woman is concentrating on bringing new life into the world the man can be focused on the first goal of mankind: communion with God. 

Responses to Objections: Woman is somewhat defective in her nature but that's what God made her to be.  Her duty is to create children and this was as God intended therefore it is good.  Also, woman is subject to the rule of man but that's only because man is more endowed with intelligence than woman so it's for her own good that this is so.

If the 'Fall' had never happened, would we still need Kings to lord over us?  Would we still have sex?
Man is a social animal so regardless of the circumstances he will require the company of others.  Whenever men congregate there will be some who are more intelligent or stronger than others so even if man had never fallen from grace, we would still need leaders to direct the actions of the community.  As to sex, male and female were made before the fall so sexual intercourse would still exist.  It would be different however in that it would not be tainted by lust.  This is not to say that it would be less pleasant however.  A moderate man who eats only what he needs enjoys his meal no less than a glutton. 

Are there different orders within the hierarchy of angels?
Yes, angels are broken into orders by their function and into three levels: highest, middle, and lowest.

Summa Theologiae Part 2a
In part 2 of the Summa St Thomas pursues a few more questions but for brevity I will reduce the findings to a more comopact form and dispense with the Question and Answer format.

The only happiness that can be found in this life is merely transitory.  Man is never truly happy as long as there is more to do and more to find out about and in this life we cannot possibly hope to exclude all suffering and evil.  It is only by achieving his primary goal, to know God, that man can achieve happiness.  God in his wisdom and mercy gives us tools added to our natural intellect to help us attain this final happiness, they are the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity.  It is by exercising these virtues that man can eventually become truly happy.
Just as you would not blame the hand alone for a murder it carried out, so too can one man alone not be blamed for his sins.  The body of mankind as a whole is tainted and this is the nature of original sin.

Law is the rule or measure of action or restraint in a man and the first law of all is that of human reason.  A law is said to be good if it is oriented towards the common good.  To be effective a law requires consensus among the ruled and must be widely known.  Effective law also requires that the ruler has the power of compulsion in cases where the law is disobeyed.  Unjust law is contrary to divine goodness and should be considered no law at all.  There are four types of law:

Eternal law is the law by which God governs the universe, the divine wisdom by which all things are ultimately ruled.  Eternal law is a constituent in all other laws.
Natural Law represents the manner in which man behaves according to the Eternal Law.  These laws are the same for all men but are unknown or unfollowed by some.  They are also prone to exceptions since they can be changed or exceptions made depending on the situation or the will of God.  Natural Laws fall into three basic categories: those laws which preserve life (prohibitions on murder, suicide), that knowledge shared in common with the animals (sex, education of children), knowledge of how we can become closer to God.

Divine Law is the word of God given to us in the form of Scripture.  Divine law serves four purposes.  First, to aid man to reach beyond the Natural law towards his own salvation.  Secondly, to correct human laws where they may err.  Third, to judge those things which cannot be judged by man's sense of the world around him.  Lastly, to tie up any loose ends that are unenforceable in the course of a normal human lifetime (such as punishing suicides who would otherwise be beyond the reach of civil authority).

Finally, Human law is constructed by man and derived from Natural Laws as an aid to the young and the weak who might not otherwise observe those laws.  The purpose of human laws is not to suppress all human vice, this would be impossible to enforce.  Rather, those infractions which would diminish the social order are focused on.  Even those who are outside the enforceable realm of human law are subject to it as God will sit in judgment of even Kings who violate it.  Over time, Human Law evolves and exceptions are made but changes should only happen with the support of the ruled and in cases when the risk of changing a long-held belief is small compared to the benefit derived from the change.  In many cases, local custom has the force of law even when it is not formally codified.  The best way to administer Human Law is through a single ruler and a council of elders much like Moses and the council of 72 elders.  Human Laws fall into two basic categories.  Firstly, those laws which are common to all nations and from which there is no dispensation.  These laws are derived directly from the Natural Laws.  

Secondly, laws which are derived less directly from the Natural Laws merely for the convenience of the of the community.

Most importantly, it should be noted that no system of laws, no matter how constructed or how closely adhered to can make a man truly good.  Only the Grace of God can bring man to the level of true goodness.

Summa Theologiae Part 2b
Those who never believed in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ (primarily the Jews and the Muslims) should should not be physically compelled to believe since this would not actually do any good anyway.  Heretics, apostates, and any others who stand in the way of the faith can be removed by any means necessary as these threaten the viability of the faith.  The faithful should also not associate with unbelievers, especially those weak in faith.  Others may associate with them only if there is hope of conversion and the rituals of unbelievers are not to be tolerated unless that tolerance directly serves to advance the cause of conversion.  Further, the children of unbelievers are not to be baptized against the will of the parents until such time as they reach the age of reason.  In extreme cases, heretics may be killed but only after being given the chance to renounce their heretical views.

War is not in and of itself a sin.  If waged for a just cause and in a just manner war is an acceptable means of advancing the cause of the faith or removing an tyrannical ruler.  In all cases of violence, however, the benefit must be weighed against the costs of the disruption to the common peace.  Similarly, it is just to murder a criminal if that murder benefits the public good but this must be undertaken by the ruler of a community and not by its private citizens.  Killing in self defense is not considered murder as long as it is proportionate to the risk of doing nothing.  In such cases, the intent of the killer is paramount.  If the intent was to murder then so should the action be adjudged.  In the same way accidental killing is not considered murder except in the case where gross negligence caused the death.  In that case, regardless of intent, the ruling shall be that of murder.  Finally, in the case of the death of an infant before it's birth, it shall be considered murder if the pregnancy is more than 40 days old (in the case of a male) or 80 days old (in the case of a female).

Suicide is a mortal sin for three reasons.  Firstly, the act of suicide is contrary to the natural law of self preservation.  Secondly, the destruction of a member of a community is harmful to that community so the act is also one against the common good.  Lastly, suicide is an infringement on the sole jurisdiction of life and death that belongs to God.

It is within man's natural rights to own objects as his own private property.  In this way he is best able to care for those objects as he has a sense of ownership and pride.  However, with that ownership comes the responsibility to share that objects in a time of need.  A man may rightly steal if he is in dire need so the right of ownership is secondary to that of necessity.  A man may also sell his objects for a profit without fear of committing a sin but it is a sin against nature to charge interest on the use of money itself since nothing is bought or sold in the transaction.
It is natural that inferiors obey their superiors in life but a slave may never be commanded in contradiction to orders given by a greater superior (ie, God).  A superior can also not command outside the realm of his dominion.  Specifically, a master may command the body but the mind is beyond his reach.  It should also be noted that faith in Christ does not release us from our duty to secular authority.

In no case is lying acceptable even in cases where a another sin may be averted by use of a falsehood.  Instead, it is recommend that one simply avoid giving a direct response.
The act of drinking is not a mortal sin unless the intention is to actually become drunk.  Drinking to drunkenness deprives man of his natural reason which directs him to act virtuously.
Virginity, although contrary to the natural law of procreation, is not a sin if it is done so as to free one for more time to contemplate the divine.  The opposite extreme, that of promiscuity, however, is a mortal sin as it works against the proper rearing of children.  The mere act of kissing and embracing is merely a venial sin but those of masturbation, bestiality, sodomy and 'sex using the wrong organs' is against nature and constitute mortal sins.

Summa Theologiae Part 3
Christ is the head of all mankind though in differing degrees:
1.  Christ is head of those united to him in heaven
2.  Christ is head of those united to him in love (those not currently in a state of mortal sin)
3.  Christ is head of those united to him in faith
4.  Christ is head of those who have not yet united with him but who are predestined to before their deaths.
5.  Christ is head of those who will never be united with him and who will separate from him utterly upon their deaths.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Books: How to Work a Room

Extracted from a 2007 post that had some other garbage in it that had nothing to do with the book.

I started reading a book in the vicinity of this day. It's completely out of character as it's called, "How to work a Room." Yeah, yeah. Get back on your chair. After 50 pages I'd gleaned a couple of useful facts. By 100 pages I was just about ready to tear the book in half just to guarantee that one copy of this bullshit out of the millions available would not poison another impressionable mind. Anyway, let's start with the good and useful things I was told. Yes, I know, they're obvious but I'm not sure anyone had told me these things specifically:

* If you go to a party and you're uncomfortable, then other people are too. When I mentioned this to my wife she reminded me of the July 4th party I 'ruined' about 13 months ago. It went something like this. We went to some distant friend's house where we were in company of several other people who were good friends with the hostess. They all sat about drinking heavily, talking about nothing and I sat quietly and waited for the party to end. This, apparently, was enough to ruin the party and it certainly ruined my attitude for the rest of the day. The lesson learned here is a simple one I think. If you're not enjoying yourself then just leave so you don't screw it up for everyone else. Fair enough.

* 93% of people in the world consider themselves shy. I think most of the time that I consider myself shy but really I'm not. If you wander into a topic that I know something about, I will talk incessantly and I'm always blabbering on about my innermost thoughts on here so I'm certainly not shy about talking when I have something to say. The important bit here though is that the hard part for most people is approaching others. So, if you approach them then you've done 90% of the work and you can go about the conversation. Amusingly, evidence for this was right at hand. I often talk to people at random in stores or whatever and people almost always react positively to what I have to say so people want to talk to you. People are, in general, ready to have a conversation. The key is getting over that initial hurdle and breaking down the initial barrier between people. Now that, I think I can try to do more effectively. At this point, I can't imagine people will think me any MORE of an ass no matter what I say so I have that going for me. The down side here is that I typically just DON'T have anything to say on most of the common topics of conversation. You want to talk about the science or mathematics or literature or computing or religion then I'm your man. Let's set a date. You want to talk about what diet Cher's on or what happened on American Idol last night.... um, no, not so much.

* People can sense what your real intentions are so you can't schmooze just to get something. Now this, I thought, was a damn interesting little tidbit and hopefully true. The author tells bits about how she's gotten all sorts of random perquisites from her smoozing. Tickets to shows, free crap, discounts, etc because of some incident she had in an elevator. That's all well and good and a nice thing to look forward to I suppose but really just random gravy. What I guess pisses me off most is that there are people out there who have to be told, "just don't do this to take advantage of people" while I sit here on my own with absolutely nothing going on. It's damn frustrating to try to put yourself out there for people and get blank stares in return. I take cookies across the street to the old couple at Christmas but I'm not even sure they eat them. I'd be happy to help the neighbors get their yard in order so maybe they could sell their house but they won't even acknowledge my greetings. We're just such isolationists in this country. Either that or I'm just too damn scary. Whatever the case it's annoying. It's not that I WANT to get a call at 4 a.m. from some friend who has a major problem but it would at least be nice if that were a possibility.

So the first 50 pages went about like that. I was relatively upbeat on the whole process but it was clear that the book was geared for sales types which I most definitely am NOT a sales type. Then we start getting into the 'how' phase. How to make contacts and break the ice and get the free flow of information going. Sounds good doesn't it?

* The book recommends practicing a self-introduction. OK. Here's the best one I could think of:

**** Hi! I'm Rob! Now, I'm only here as part of a court-order. 'Socialization re-adjustment phase' of my parole they call it. Anyway, when we gone done talking there are some forms the judge would like you to fill out if you could.... Ma'am? Where are you...

* Practice your smalltalk. Look through the news and find 2 or 3 interesting stories and read them so you'll be prepared. Read People magazine so you can be aware of all the latest goings on.

It was at this point, that I measured the book to see if it could fit down the toilet. So basically, the key to successful smalltalk is to go read something you wouldn't ordinarily so that perhaps you'll have something to say that people might find interesting. Well I'm sorry but that's just a bunch of horse shit. If the idea of socializing with other people requires me to read fvcking People magazine then I'll just sit quietly and leave when I think it's no longer rude to do so. What the hell kind of lasting relationship is based on that sort of? Am I going to have to read People magazine every week/month/whatever for the rest of my life to sustain such a relationship? I'm looking for people to be friends with, to have interesting conversations with. Not sell them stool softener and rubber cane tips.

The first person to express a desire for this book gets it. Assuming, of course, that they can catch it as I hurl it at them.

* Books: Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

Writing evolved about 4000 B.C. due to the need to store accounting information. Farmer A had to know how many things Farmer B had given him so he wrote some symbols that looked like cows and some lines representing numbers and from there writing evolved into what we have today. Even thousands of years later, most of the texts found boil down to basic accounting.

As writing systems evolved, they became less pictographic and more symbolic. Rather than draw a picture of a cow a farmer might draw a rebus that represents the sounds in the verbal word for cow. Then even the rebus symbols became abstracted until a proper alphabet was developed.

Ferdinand de Saussure - "Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut out one side of the paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible to isolate sound from thought or thought from sound."

Egyptian Hieroglyphics
Deciphered in 1823 by Jean-Francois Champollion. For centuries even the Greeks had been mistranslating Egyptian Hieroglyphics (Greek for "Sacred Writings") assuming they were pictographs as did more modern translators. Champollion finally cracked the real meaning using the Rosetta stone, a 3/4 ton slab of rock found in 1799 by Napolean's army. The stone which describes an agreement between priests and Ptolemy V Epiphanes, a thirteen-yeary-old newly-crowned Pharaoh in which they'll offer their support for the new ruler for certain unspecified privileges. Good to know some things never change. The stone was written in Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Demotic (the language of common Egyptians.) As it turns out, Hieroglyphics are both pictographic and phonetic (each symbol can represent an idea or perhaps a sound.)

Linear B
The first examples of Linear B were discovered in Crete in 1900 by Arthur Evans. It was written around 1450 B.C. in clay tablets and comprised mostly of inventory lists. Evans kept the finds to himself for the most part in hopes that he could decipher them. It was not until after his death that they were published and translated by Michael Ventris. Evans believed the tablets to encode a lost Minoan language but as it turns out they represented ancient Greek.

Mayan Glyphs
Only four books (bark paper with jaguar skin covers) survived the Spanish conquistadors who burned Mayan artifacts as works of Satan. The longest is the Dresden Codex which folds out to 12 feet in length. Until the 1970s, Mayan Glyphs weren’t even considered writing. When they eventually were decoded they bespoke of a warlike people who were overly obsessed with hallucinogenic enemas and astronomy. Their calendar was complex sporting 18 named months of 20 days plus a single month of only 5 days. The workings of their calendar are well understood and allow the exact dating of several Mayan artifacts. The Mayan calendar begins on August 13th 3114 B.C. and ends on December 23rd 2012 leading some to believe this date represents the end of the world. The script would have been indecipherable except that in 1547 Fray Diego de Landa wrote down a partial rendering of their alphabet with pronunciations. That in combination with existing Mayan spoken languages has allowed interpretation of existing manuscripts.

Meroitic Script
The Meroitic civilization thrived along the Nile where Sudan is today. In 712 B.C. they conquered Egypt to become the 25th Dynasty. The Egyptians later repelled the invaders and subsequent Pharaohs carefully removed evidence of the outside rulers. By the first century A.D. the Meroitic civilization had evaporated leaving behind its undecipherable writings. Only 26 written words have been translated despite the discovery of some loosely translated documents written both in Egyptian and Meroitic.

The Etruscan Alphabet
Located in what is now Tuscany, the Etruscans are credited with bringing the Greek alphabet to the attention of Rome. The spoken Etruscan language is extinct and apparently bore no resemblance to any modern tongue. The Etruscans were highly literate and borrowed their alphabet from 8th century B.C. Greece. About 13,000 examples of Etruscan are known with 4,000 of those being graffiti or fragments of inscriptions. Of those, only about 250 words have been deciphered, mostly numbers and terms used later by Latin authors.

Most abundant among the artifacts are about 3,000 bronze mirrors bearing engraved pictures and brief Etruscan inscriptions. The Zagreb Mummy was wrapped in an older Etruscan linen religious text of about 1,200 words. The Tabula Cartonensis was found in 1992 and bears 200 Etruscan words. The artifact appears to be a contract for the sale or lease of land.

Linear A

Linear A was used in Crete between 1750 and 1450 B.C. and was believed for some years to be the ancestor of Linear B. As it turns out, it was used before Linear B and in many of the same areas but is not related. Only about 1,500 examples exist totaling about 7,500 characters. Linear A has been found throughout Greece and as far away as Israel. Emmett Bennett Jr. worked out the numerical system of Linear A in 1950 but the bulk of the written language is still undeciphered.

The Proto-Elamite Script
Used between 3050 and 2900 B.C. in what is now Western Iran, Proto-Elamite is the oldest known undeciphered writing system. Despite the fact that 1,500 examples have been found containing over 100,000 characters, only the numeric system has been translated. The primary difficulty in decoding the writings stems from the relative lack of variety. The vast majority of items are simple accounting records. Like other languages, the numbering system has been worked out along with a few simple words and it seems that counting was done in base 10 when counting people or workers but base 6 was used for counting grain products.

Rongo-Rongo is the only written language of Polynesia and was used solely by the inhabitants of the isolated Easter Island. Rongo-Rongo is written in reverse-boustrophedon, meaning the writing proceeds from left to write on the object, and then the object is turned 180 degrees and writing proceeds again from left to right on the opposite end. Writing continues until the two lines of text converge in the middle of the piece. Only 25 wood carvings survive from the island carrying a total of 14,000-17,000 characters.

The island was discovered in 1722 and later claimed by the Spanish in 1770. At that time, the local chiefs were asked to sign a treaty with the Spanish and they did so using pictograms but did NOT use the Rongo-Rongo language. When Captain Cook arrived in 1774 he reported no signs of a written language whatsoever; for this reason and others some speculate that the language developed only after contact with the west. In 1864 when Peru raided the island for slaves the written language seemed to be dying. By the time missionaries arrived in 1869, their attempts to save the language by asking the islanders to read the markings aloud were unsuccessful. Subsequent attempts similarly failed but it is believed by some that the language may not be in fact a complete writing system but instead a system of mnemonics to aid local leaders in remembering oral histories and genealogies.

The Zapotec & Isthmian Scripts
Zapotec is the oldest known script of the new world, used from 600 B.C. to 800 A.D. About 1200 inscribed objects survive but only 570 are indisputably writing. No apparent relationship with Mayan scripts from the same area but it is clear that the Zapotec originated the calendar system used by the Mayans though the Mayans improved upon it significantly.

Isthmian script is scarcer with only about 600 total characters discovered so far. The artifacts themselves are unusual:

* In 1902 a jade statuette was discovered in a field in Olmec. It depicts a man dressed as a duck and includes about 70 written characters. Included is a date of 162 A.D.
* In 1986 a 4-ton basalt stone was found a La Mojarra. The stone was 8x5 ft and contained a stunning carving of a prince and 400-500 written characters. This item was dated 143 and 156 A.D. Several decipherments of this item have been published but all are highly suspect.

The Indus Script
At it’s height between 2500 and 1900 B.C. the Indus Valley Civilization covered much of Pakistan and N.W. India. It had maritime trading as far away as the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia and was larger than either it’s Egyptian or Mesopotamian rivals. Over 1500 sites have been found, 5 of them major cities. Yet when Alexander the Great traveled in the area in 326 B.C. all he found were abandoned villages.

3,700 inscribed items have been found with 60% being seal stones containing very brief inscriptions. The longest inscription found is 26 characters with most less than 4. Since so little is known about the people or culture of the area at the time, all that can be said with certainty is that the reading order is right to left and the language seems to be made up of 400-450 distinct signs.

The Phaistos Disc
The enigmatic Phaistos Disc is unique. No other written example of this language exists and therefore it’s thought by many to be a fake. Discovered in Crete in 1908 in the Palace Ruins at Phaistos, this 6.5 inch diameter disc dates from 1850 to 1600 B.C. It contains 242 characters demarcated into 61 groups. The text is written along the outside edge and spirals inward and rather than being marked in the clay with a stylus the signs are actually stamped into the clay making it the first ‘printed’ document. The disc includes several scribal ‘corrections’ which many believe lends credence to its authenticity. Its uniqueness seems to lend credence to the theory that it is not of Cretan origin but has also acted to bring out all manner of crackpots who believe it to be an extraterrestrial artifact of some sort.

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