In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


The End of The World As We Know It.

I recently blogged about my treadmill desk, and after a faltering start due to illness over the holidays, I’m very pleased with it. I can read, write, revise, blog, surf, and do anything else I need to do on the computer, all while walking at a comfortable 2 miles per hour. I already lose track of time while writing and find my wife giving me the stinkeye at two in the morning. Now I’m getting healthier instead of heavier while I’m at it.

But like getting a dog, the treadmill desk turns out to have a social dimension above and beyond the technical. Though I had probably had the passing idea, I first encountered the serious proposition of an actual treadmill desk on line. Now that I have one, I’m finding I’m far from alone. Susan Currie Sivek blogged about her experiences doing academic work on her treadmill. Daniel Miller ‏(@Crimson342 on Twitter) is using a treadmill to fit up his gaming habit. Ashley Jenkins ‏(@jinxcellent) successfully petitioned for a shared walking desk to be installed by her employer.

This is not a crazy idea. As we sciency types often find, what we’ve been doing for generations is the crazy idea. This particular crazy idea (spending 40,000 or more of our most produtive hours sitting behind a desk) is killing us, and it stops here–or at least takes a majorehind a desk) jog to the left–and we’re helping one another do it. Score one for the internet. Welcome to the end of the world as we know it.

My Little Christmas Present

This year, I bought myself a Christmas present.

I’m not really a trend follower, but a recent NPR story about treadmill desks started me thinking. I read on the exercycle all the time, but these days I spend a LOT of time writing, often taking breaks to go for a walk and think. Why not combine the two?

Of course, both treadmills and treadmill desks are often over-done and over-expensive for my tastes, so I just bought a Horizon T101 treadmill and made my own desk. The T101 is a good, middle of the road unit that folds out of the way and is large enough for my stride. Most important, it has simple, flat grip handles. I just lay a short piece of wire shelving upside down across the handles and add a matching shelf-top rack that locks securely into the shelf and bumps my netbook up to a tolerable height.

So far it’s working well. The shelf extends far enough over the deck that I don’t kick anything when close to the keyboard (a problem many have had with expensive treadmill desks), but I still have enough handle to grip should I need to. Of course, I do step off to drink my coffee, and I added a small box to raise the netbook another two inches and to prevent neck strain (I’m 6′ 1”). I’ll come up with something more permanent for that, but in the meantime, I’ve got a fully functional treadmill desk for just over $600.

The best part is, I completely loose track of time when I’m writing. Once I get used to typing while I walk, I’ll while away hours on this thing and never even notice. Most likely, my legs will give out long before my patience, which will be a novel excercise experience.

Cheers, and happy holidays.


images-1You know who had faith? Hiroo Onodo. He was the last officer to serve the old Japanese Imperial Army after World War II. He held out on a remote island in the Philippines for twenty-nine years until 1974, when he was found by a college dropout searching the world for ghosts. Even then, he held out until his old commander, now a bookseller, came out into the jungle to relieve him.

Hiroo never surrendered. He didn’t believe the pamphlets dropped by his adversaries or those of his own government. He didn’t trust the pleas and photos dropped for a decade on behalf of his own relations or the return to domestic life on his island. He missed Hiroshima and the cold war. He missed the moon landings—all of them—and his country’s emergence as a great and positive force in the world. He missed whatever family of his own he might otherwise have had.

He missed most of his own life and much of the most amazing progress in human history, but Hiroo had faith. He knew what he knew. In thirty years time, he slaughtered thirty innocent villagers, shot two men who had risked their lives to retrieve him, and wrought no end of carnage on a people whose lives his emperor had already despoiled. All of this, he did for faith–for a military-imperial-religious certainty instilled in childhood beyond all question, beyond all consideration of evidence, no matter how ample or bloody.

To have faith in mankind is to reckon on his strength and character and mind. But there is another kind of faith, the kind still widely celebrated in our culture, the kind Mark Twain defined as “believing what you know ain’t so”. This is the sort of faith that enslaves one man’s character in the service of another. Such faith can tame barbarity and foster civilization. All too often, though, it only dresses up the one in the guise of the other.

For all the claims made by those who would speak for the creator, we all have direct access to the creation itself. When a man holds beliefs more tightly than the truth in evidence around him, he cannot but blaspheme against creation. For all his promise as a civilized being, man is also the most dangerous of predators. To cleave conviction from reason divides the predator against everything greater he might yet become. It turns his very strengths into weapons against his own soul. For the soul of man is humanity, and it survives nowhere but in collective memory, and the dead recall naught.

When the lights go out on broadway…

It was a seedy little hotel, the kind adulterers and drug dealers rent by the hour, but we had contracted for a whole wing for as long as we needed it. I was to ask at the front office, but the office was locked and the city had posted a sign stating that the building was not fit for human habitation. I took a few step back and looked around. Quiet. When I looked up, I saw a bed sitting on the roof. That wasn’t the roof though. The second floor had been peeled away starting three rooms down from the road.
I work for an electric utility that delivers power to two and a quarter million customers in south Texas. Hurricane Ike left ninety-six percent of those customers in the dark. It took four days to restore the majority of the distribution lines and substations, returning power to nearly a million customers. The remainder of the effort took another two weeks and cost over half a billion dollars. We have had more practice with this sort of thing than most other parts of the country, but all utilities approach restoration the same way:
First, secure downed lines and restore service to vital infrastructure, hospitals, waste and water treatment facilities, government facilities, and so on.
Second, restore major lines, fuses, and key distribution infrastructure.
Third, clear debris from the distribution system. In our case, this required an army of 5,000 tree trimmers who could not start work until day five.
Fourth, restore local distribution. For us, this required 7,000 linemen, the vast majority on loan from other utilities throughout the country as part of prearranged mutual assistance agreements. Key personnel began triage earlier, but for the most part, this effort did not begin until day six.
Fifth, repair individual transformers, circuits, and drops to restore power to individual buildings.
Restoration starts at the power plants and moves out into the distribution system. Doing it any other way will get people killed and damage key infrastructure—making the effort take even longer. Every component must be isolated and tested before it can be energized. Improperly installed generators and fire hazards must be cleared. Restoration must follow these steps, and no matter the resources dumped on the problem, it can only move so fast.
As in New York, we had public outcry starting on the third day, mostly from residents who had yet to see any linemen in their neighborhoods. In our case, though, the mayor and county commissioner appeared with representatives of our management to assure the public that help was coming. Seventy-five percent of service was restored within ten days (four days after linemen went to work). Complete restoration took 18 days.
During this time, our company established and managed five staging areas around the city. We provided food, fuel, supplies, laundry, medical care, ice, and logistics to what was, in fact, a small army. I drove past one of these on my way to my alternate work site at a nearby power plant. The roads were choked for miles with pole trucks. The air was orange with diesel exhaust.
Hundreds of office workers rode with linemen and trimmers. They acted as spotters and talked to customers so the crews could focus on work. In the south, people don’t throw eggs, they make lemonade (and sometimes cookies), but recovery is no time for southern hospitality; we have work to do. Crews worked from two hours before sunrise to dusk, every day. We fed them and watched over them. I was assigned a tree trimming crew from some town in New Mexico I had never heard of. I was to report and help solve any problem they might have. The missing roof, surprisingly, was not a problem. The hotel staff moved into a room in one of the wings and our crews moved in next door. And yes, we contracted every available hotel room in the region—something that people also complained about at the time.
Today, I watched in disgust as New York Governor Cuomo stood before the cameras fanning the flames of dissent that always follow a disaster, playing the protector who will make those misfits at Con Ed move faster. Really? They say they can restore power in a week. If they can do that, my hat’s off to them. We couldn’t do it, and I’m absolutely sure that no utility on this planet is better at recovery than we are. We also don’t have miles of underground lines to contend with—and those take much longer to repair.
By the way, our recovery cost half a billion dollars. The rate payers will pay this off, a little bit each month, for the next several years. It would cost far, far more to maintain a larger staff of linemen to sit around idle until they are needed. And guess what, when they were finally called for, they wouldn’t be able to start work until day six. That’s the way it’s done.
If Mr. Quomo is really interested in helping the voters, he should let the power company do its job by focusing on his own, and right now, that’s mostly appealing for calm and patience.

Why is Television so Awful?

Since its inception, television has been derided as a cultural wasteland. This is, perhaps, not quite fair. After all, television is a diverse beast because we are a diverse audience. Those who don’t care for reality TV may get more from TV about reality, which is why Neil De Grasse Tyson is on PBS.

Still, from a literary perspective, much of television programming suffers from an inherent defect that seems to doom it from the outset. A staple of television has always been the series, and in the vast majority of cases, this takes the form of a set story pattern that plays itself out over and over again whether as game show, situation comedy, or courtroom drama. In most cases, the main characters (be they host, buffoon, or crack P.I.) do not change very much. They do not get to grow as people. They simply show up week after week to let a new set of questions, jokes, or perps play out upon them in the established pattern.

This is understandable of course. It is risky to tamper with success. Yet, some might argue that repetition is inherently toxic to successful storytelling. From a literary perspective, it breeds mediocrity or worse turns the successful premise into a parody of itself.

Some programs weave in a little character growth in the form of cross-episodic story arc. Magnum may begin to suspect that Higgins is really Robin Masters. Frazier and Lillith may have a baby. Fox Mulder may learn that the aliens are part of a quasi-government conspiracy that might have involved his father. This seldom manifestly changes the main character. He may be pushed dramatically or humorously out of his comfort zone, but by the start of the next episode, he’ll be right back where he belongs. If the show is successful enough, real character growth may be allowed in the final episode. Dr. Winchester may finally grow a heart. Cody may finally graduate. Sam Malone, left standing behind his bar, may be reveled as the sad, middle-aged Lothario he has always been.

There is, of course, a legitimate issue of continuity. If main characters are allowed to grow too much, viewers may become lost if they miss a few shows. This was a more serious concern in the early years when most television programs were broadcast only once or twice. Today, viewers have plenty of ways to catch up once they become interested, and character growth is a key way to achieve this. Whether due to this, to fragmentation of the mass media, or to increased sophistication of viewer tastes, we are starting to see exceptions to the general rule—and examples of far better television.

A case in point is the BBC’s Primeval. This is a sci-fi time travel show involving dinosaurs and adventure, not traditionally fertile ground for rich character development. Yet, the characters in this show are painted with texture from the start, then allowed to grow organically over a number of seasons. A self-obsessed scientist becomes a leader. A shy, cowardly goof-ball grows up and becomes a reliable, fearless hero. A petty zoologist matures into the kind of woman who can love him.

Closer to home, the sci-fi series Lost and Heroes provide an example in contrast. Lost was not a perfect show, but at its best, it was some of the finest, most revetting drama ever to reach the air. Each of the lead characters grew as a result of their circumstances. To pick just a single example: Charlie, a self-absorbed rock star, learns self discipline and restraint, comes to understand love and commitment, and ultimately sacrifice. Many of the other characters similarly grew—and strove to grow beyond the petty circumstances that had stained their existence prior to the crash.

Lost eventually ran aground, recovered, and ran aground again, but when it was good, it was “stay up all night watching back to back episodes on the web” good. Heroes, on the other hand, never really found a footing in the second season. From the start, it depended too much on the introduction of new characters and new magical powers. This is all tantalizing stuff, but from a narrative perspective, special effects take you only so far—no matter how tantalizing. Characters were fleshed out fairly well in the first season, but any change was more adaptation than real personal growth. We were never allowed to know the characters because the writers wanted to maintain a sense of mystery.

Then in season two, Heroes tried to repeat its success with a wearying palette of additional characters who only muddled the cast, diluted the story, and detracted from time that could have been spent on real growth. Characters remained mysterious, and mystery became ambiguity and them inconsistency. The exception was Hiro, who grew consistently over his appearances but sadly was not given a central enough role to compensate for digression away from the mysterious army-camp past and into the maniac carnival owner.

In the end, Heroes also suffered from another literary faux paux borrowed from the soap opera stage: the character shift. Bad guys become good guys. The cheerleader (for no reason related to the story) flirts with a lesbian. The Spectacled Man is a bad guy, no a good guy, no a bad guy whose heart is in the right place, no a good guy doing evil out of good intentions. Sylar is evil incarnate, but in the future he’s a Daddy, but he’s evil… Pretty soon, viewers are exhausted by the inconstancy and looking back fondly on the good old days when the Skipper’s “Little Buddy” could be counted on never to grow up and Vampires always recoiled from Holy Water. Even Lost succumbed to this ill to a degree, but on a show in which everyone starts out doing evil for what they believe to be noble reasons, a little shifting is understandable.

It’s a delicate balance. TV writers have a product to crank out. They need formulas, and frankly, there is a place in the world for fluff and even camp. In any consideration of quality in television, though, we must ask one simple question: what stands the test of time? To me, there is a lone stand out above all others–one show that lives on past all those final episodes and all the changes in tastes and technology. It is a show created by a great writer who used television to reach a wider audience than the theater crowd of New York, whose only formula was the unexpected, whose only repeating character was his pen. He wrote every episode as a self-contained teleplay. Every episode brings some new character to life and then up to the brink. And the happy fact is, as this writer might say, is that these techniques aren’t confined to the Twilight Zone.

Hey, Hi, Hello GUTGAAgians

This is my meet & greet intro for GUTGAA. If you don’t know what that means then either you aren’t in the writing biz or you need to follow this link.

Either way, Hi! I’m C. Stuart Hardwick. Welcome to my little sliver of the Internet. I grew up in South Dakota, and my writing springs from the intersection between the Wild West and the Space Age, the History of Earth and the dreams of mankind. After decades of technical writing, I turned seriously to fiction just a few years ago and write science fiction principally, but also historical tales and all sorts of other things. I won the Colonnade Writing Contest in December, and am pursuing a graduate certificate in writing from UC Berkeley.

Q: Where do you write?
A: Well, mostly Earth but…. No seriously, I write everywhere: the bus, coffee shop, back yard swing, standing up, sitting down, in a boat, with a goat. Well no…goats are annoying.

Q: Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?
A: A cup of coffee. No, wait. The dog. Who gave the dog a cup of coffee?

Q: Favorite time to write?
A: When I’m awake. Seriously, I write whenever I have time, but different writing tasks require different circumstances. If I had to pick a favorite time, though, I would say “whenever the alternative is waiting on something.” Writing can turn an hour stuck on the bus and in traffic into a blessing.

Q: Drink of choice while writing?
A: Seriously? Actually, I drink mostly decaf, and to keep from tanning my insides, sometimes a nice flavored sparkling water. When I can get them, I like to nibble on cherries while I edit.

Q: When writing , do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?
A: Music generally, and specific music. When writing sci-fi, I generally listen to Tangerine dream and Daft Punk. Recently I altered the tone of an entire short story in response to its resonance with a particular piece of jazz. Never, ever, anything with lyrics.

Q: What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?
A: If I told you that, I’d have to kill you and write a scene about it. Usually, I start with scenes or characters. I write a few scenes and the story and the relationships emerge from that. Then I stop and plan out the story and start looking at structure and pacing and balance.

Q: What’s your most valuable writing tip?
A: Writing takes humility and arrogance, and maniacal patience. Have faith in your voice and vision, but make sure you learn continuously. Be prepared to wait indefinitely, but work aggressively toward your goals.

Fun facts:

* I’m left handed and have been known to paint with both hands simultaneously.

* In high-school, I wrote a computer program to train myself to touch type.

* I once worked with John Carmack–a couple of years before he wrote the video game Doom.

* I know how to juggle, and prefer clubs.

* I play piano a little better than I juggle.

One Great Man, One Giant Legacy

The first ape to leave his planet of origin and go for a walk on another is remembered today as a “great man”. Perhaps, and the honor is certainly well deserved, but if Maj. General Armstrong was great, it was more for his conduct on the ground than for his exploits in space.

Humanity’s considerable success does not arise only from our intelligence or the dexterity of our opposable thumb. We have diversified, colonized, and advanced because of our unique balance of aggression and cooperation. Arguably, nowhere in our entire history is this better illustrated than in the Space Race of which Armstrong became such a key part.

We went to the moon for science and exploration and adventure, but we signed the checks to stick it to the Ruskies. We went because the two most powerful nations the world had ever known were locked in a stalemate of nuclear hair triggers that—once or twice that we know of—had brought us within hours of potential extinction. And yet, at this pinnacle of barbarism, we did what our ape family has been doing for over a million years: we hatched a bold plan, put together a team, and pulled off the win. At the height of the cold-war, we unleashed the combined creativity and dedication of 150,000 American engineers, scientists, managers and laborers to build a system of machines, the complexity of which makes the Great Pyramid just a pile of rocks by comparison.

Then we put together the procedures, policies, communications networks, and contingencies needed to test, perfect, and utilize this monster to do something that throughout history and until the last decade, had seemed to be impossible. We even broke the rules and put together a back-door alliance when it turned out that radio signals used by Soviet espionage vessels off the Florida coast had the potential to compromise the moon shots (in response to a long relay of unofficial personal pleas, the Soviet radios were silenced).

Armstong too, illustrated this human balance. He is remembered (rightly so) for his humility, but he didn’t get to the moon by being a wallflower. He was smart and sociable, but he was neither particularly well connected nor an academic superstar. He was, however, reliable. He made good grades and he did his job. When opportunities arose, he jumped on them with both feet. He fought in Korea, then he volunteered to be a military test pilot. Then he went to Edwards AFB, where he took the very unglamorous job of flying chase planes and the bombers that dropped the test aircraft. He went on to fly 600 different types of aircraft, most of them experimental. At Edwards, he regularly risked his life and just as regularly came back alive. Famously, when he ejected from a failed Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, he hitched a ride back to the office and started on the paperwork while some of the other Astronauts looked on in awe.

He made mistakes. He got a test plane stuck in the mud. He bumped into the ground with another and–through a serious of “bad day” challenges familiar to us all–ended up stranding three test pilots at another base. But when things went wrong, he handled them. He volunteered for Apollo, but was late getting his paperwork in. They took his packet anyway—they knew his reputation.

Neil Armstrong didn’t just go to the moon, he took us to the moon–all of us–and he saw his role in history with a clarity and humility that allowed him to step back and let us enjoy the ride. His passing, after 82 years, is a loss and sadness for his family, but his life will remain with us as a heroic example from a heroic time in our human journey. Neil Armstrong was indeed a great man, not because he was better than so many others, but because he was the sort of human being that any of us can be with a little bit of moxie, a little bit of smarts, and a whole lot of effort. He was a true hero, because more than anything else in this life, we all need to be reminded that we are all of us capable of greatness.Time and micrometeorites will erode the prints men left on the moon, but the down-to-Earth life of the first man who made them will forever be recorded, as truly a giant leap for mankind.

If Man Evolved From Apes, Why Are There Still Apes

Evolution is not a religious issue. It isn’t. If you make it a religious issue by pitting your religion against science, your religion looses. Period. That’s not an atheistic science conspiracy, it’s just a predictable byproduct of mistaking for divine revelation, what are actually stories passed down from people living in the iron age. Maybe the authors of genesis were inspired by God, but they clearly weren’t taking shorthand.

Maybe God made us in his image, but he took 4.6 billion years to do it and by “his image” is probably meant something other than “an old guy up in the clouds”. God or no God, evolution is how we got to be what we are, and if that seems to contradict some of the stories in scripture, that’s okay. God may have inspired the scripture, but he MADE the world, and this is it, right here holding up all these fossils.

Still, evolution is a vast and fascinating field, and there are a few things that are understandably confusing to the layman. This question, though, shouldn’t be one of them.

Australia was colonized by the British. Why are there still British? Because Australia was a penile colony, and most of the Brits stayed home and worked on bits for what would one day become Monty Python. Get it? Notice how Australians have a new dialect that is quite distinct from their ancestors? And yet, the Queen’s English is alive and well. Get it now?

No? I know, I know, you weren’t paying attention. The dog is chewing on the table leg, and somebody called you a monkey’s uncle, and you just have one question: If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?

Because the apes that were living 6-8 million years ago didn’t all line up and march through the mouth of Vol (Star Trek reference) and come out human. There were thousands of these apes, you see. Tens of thousands, in fact, and lots of different groups and kinds—far more than today, partially because we weren’t around with our Land Rovers and our taste for bush-meat and penchant for taking away everything from everyone all the time except in church when we remember that the Big Man is watching. But I digress.

There were all these apes see, and some of them lived over there under those trees and they were just okay. And some of them lived yonder in the valley and they were cool with that. And a lot of them lived way over through the mountains and they don’t ever call or write. But this other group here, let’s call them the Skins, they kept rubbing elbows with those ugly bad-tempered dudes at the edge of the jungle who ate all the bananas, the Shirts.

The Shirts really stunk. No really, they smelled of bananas and Old Spice, and between you and me, they were bullies anyway. So the Skins, they started foraging out into the savanna a bit. Now, the African savanna was as dangerous then as it is today. They have lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Well, they have lions. And stuff. Lions loved eating them some Skins, but like every other mammal, lions have to chill through the heat of the day or they—oh what is the technical term? Oh yeah—die.

So the Skins did okay. They weren’t exactly sprinters, but if you keep following an animal through the heat of the day—keep making him run—eventually he’ll keel over (there are modern humans who still hunt this way today). This worked pretty well, though the hairier guys couldn’t take the heat. Those guys would pass out and get eaten, or they would go off and join the Shirts bowling league. After a while, no one with much fur was left among the Skins. Life on the savanna worked out pretty well, because it was getting hotter all the time and the savanna was getting larger and larger. Also, tracking prey and pacing yourself is not the easiest work. The groups with the best planning and tracking skills got more food and less, um, eaten. So, by the time the sea level dropped enough to create a pathway up into Europe and Asia, the Skins were much smarter and taller and faster and sweatier than the Shirts, who still got together Thursdays to shake down the bananas, and if anything were even bigger bullies than they had been.

“But,” I hear you asking, “if the Skins evolved from the Shirts, why were there still Shirts?”

Put down the bananas and pay attention will you? The Skins didn’t evolve from the Shirts, they both evolved alongside each other. After a while, none of the lady Shirts wanted to hang with those sweaty Skins, and the Skins hated the way the Shirts beat the crap out of them for showing off their times in the 200 meter sprint, so they just sort of left each other alone. They had become separate species—though not by much.

Migration and isolation are key parts of evolution. Forget about Gorillas and Chimps for a moment. Look at our more immediate ancestors. Homo erectus migrated out of Africa 1.8 million years ago, eventually migrating up into Europe and evolving (over more than a million years) into the Neanderthals. Meanwhile, the original population of H. erectus still existed in Africa, continuing to evolve into H. sapiens. When Sapiens migrated out of Africa 200,000 years ago, they out-competed Neanderthals and spread around the world. But Sapiens still existed in Africa–and still exist there today.

If that’s all too much to wrap your brain around, here are some simpler examples: Branches can grow from a tomato plant while the plant is still there sending off more branches in other directions. We humans bred domesticated corn from a bushy grass called teosinte, but teosinte still grows wild. Televangelists evolved from the Catholic scholars of medieval Europe, but there are still smart people in Europe. Okay, that’s not really an example; that’s cultural evolution.

There are still other apes (besides us) because we evolved alongside them, from the same ancestral stock as they come from. But we know for a fact that we evolved together.primate-hands-family-tree

And no, we did not descend from Monkeys. We descended from an ancestral population of early apes that lived 6-8 million years ago. Our last common ancestor with the monkeys was around 70 million years ago and wasn’t even a primate yet. I think they still wore tunics or something like that.

Have Proper Noun, Will Capitalize

Thou Shalt Capitalize Proper Nouns.

I don’t make the rules folks, but we all benefit from them, and my fellow writers, well criminy—look them up will you?

Earlier, I ran across a thread in a writer’s forum — a well-respected writer’s forum mind you–that went on through page after page and month after month of ignorant prattle about whether to capitalize “bible” or “the Bible” or “God” or “gods”. Every single post, it seems, missed the point utterly. You capitalize proper nouns: God, Zeus, Elvira Mistress of the Night, Scoobie Doo, what have you. It has nothing to do with whether you believe in God or whether you want to pay respect or reflect the importance of a figure.

We don’t capitalize God out of deference to God. We don’t do it because we believe and fear his wrath. This is not a question of style or belief or fashion. We do it out of deference to our reader, because we believe and fear his scorn. Even Christopher Hitchens would write, “God is not  great”. We don’t capitalize Charles Manson because he is so influential (well, I certainly hope not!) but because that’s his name. Piss off Charlie you git.

We also generally capitalize adjectives derived from proper nouns, such as Malthusian or Reaganesque. Oddly enough, notable exceptions to this rule include “biblical” (generally not capitalized anywhere in the English speaking world except the editorial department of the local Baptist church), or vedic or talmadic. For the record, neither theist or atheist are capitalized, but Baptist is. The latter is a religion, a proper noun and derived from a proper noun, the former are  states of being (adjectives), like “agnostic” or “fed up with people who can’t be bothered with an Internet search before stating an opinion on the Internet”. Oh, and “Internet” is capitalized because American dictionarists are under the collective misapprehension that it’s a proper noun instead of a noun meaning “a network connecting computers in two or more installations”, as opposed to “intranet”.

So atheists, you still have to capitalize God and the Bible. Theists, you still have to capitalize Wiccan and Galilean, and Darwinian. Anything else just wouldn’t be cricket, Cricket.

The Certain Fool

It is a peculiar form of arrogance that leads from “I don’t know” to “those who claim to know are liars, conspirators, and scoundrels.” I once knew a fellow who believed that the transistor was (and could only be) the product of alien intervention. It’s unclear why he found this explanation more reasonable than simple human inventiveness, but I suspect it’s because in some primordial way, he placed aliens in the metaphysical realm of myths and Gods with dominion over the unknown (and suspiciously complex). God couldn’t have done it because transistors brought rock & roll to America and millionaires to silicon valley, and there is nothing less godly (apparently) than a machine that gets people tapping their toes and buying things, so it must have been the aliens.
Miraculous as its impact has been, though, the origin of the transistor is quite down to earth. It was the product of a very human team of scientists (led by William Shockley at Belledisoneffect Labs) who set out to find a faster, more reliable alternative to the triode tube used in war-time radar sets. The triode (and other tubes) had evolved from attempts during the 1880’s to extend the operating life of Edison’s new light bulb. Edison, in turn, was building on earlier work by Humphrey Davy, Warren De la Rue, and James Bowman Lindsay, whose own efforts derived from simple experiments with electricity and magnetism, including the observation that lightning strikes cause a magnetic compass needle to jump (God did it after all, he just takes his sweet time). All of this is known and well documented. But none of it mattered to my acquaintance. He seemed to believe that what he didn’t understand couldn’t be understood, and that attempts to explain it could only be the work of tricksters, out to conceal the real and simple truth: the government is conspiring to hide little green men! One wonders what he would think of the idea that God (or at least the author of the bible) is necessarily in on the ruse? A healthy skepticism is vital, but the key to skepticism is diligent, objective study, not paranoia and infantile rationalization.
Everything we humans do develops in this way, step by step, one generation building on the shoulders of the last. It has taken millennia to build the modern world, and it is natural that we sometimes find it as overwhelming and inexplicable, as our ancestors must have found the elements of nature. But we have more than technology: we have the way of thinking that swept us, wave after wave and revolution after revolution, from beast to astronaut in less time than it took wolves to become pekingese.
Our problem, of course, is that we are all doomed to live and die within Plato’s allegorical cave. We know of the world only by the shadows on the walls—that is, through our imperfect senses. Empirical study may not reveal all that we would like, but it provides the only answers in which we can justify any confidence. Science cannot tell us why the earth exists, but it can tell us how it formed and how long it has been here. We are free to believe as we like, but only within the constraints set by what we can see and test. When we speculate (or accept the speculation of others) in the absence of evidence, we are literally “taking leave of our senses.” When we accept it in the presence of contradictory evidence, we are mad.
Of course, we can’t investigate everything for ourselves, so we are forced to rely on the testimony of experts. This presents a problem. How can we evaluate the expertise of someone who knows what we don’t? More to the point, what do we believe when our doctors, priests, administrators and scientists are at odds? Sadly, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, is not something any of us will ever have access to. We have facts, but we can only measure them against the ruler of reality, and since we must measure the ruler as well, we must accept a degree of uncertainty.
Not all possibilities are equally likely, though. We can approximate truth like an archer zeroing in on the bullseye. By testing what we can test, we can sort our beliefs until we develop confidence as to which are closest to the truth. This is the key insight behind the scientific method, and it is the key to assessing the claims that clutter our modern world. If science is a game of archery, our individual quest is more like pyramid building, where facts form a broad and shifting base, people who make claims about fact hold up the middle, and the truth, distant and precarious, balances somewhere at the apex. This is a difficult and imperfect way to understand our world, but it works.
Millions of Americans believe that the Apollo program was a hoax. They are all wrong, and I am about as confident of that as I am that those millions of people (most of whom I have not personally met) exist. This is possible because I know enough about science and engineering and human fallibility to recognize the veracity of the evidence supporting the landings, and at the same time, the laughable ignorance behind “moon hoax” arguments. When a “hoaxer” shows a flag waving as it could only wave in a vacuum and then claims this as evidence for a breezy sound stage, I naturally grow suspicious. When his arguments reveal ignorance of how dust falls in a vacuum, of optical photographic artifacts, and of basic physics; when he reveals omissions, flaws, and shortcuts in his reasoning and research and then responds to correction with anger and appeals to authority instead of gratitude and reconsideration, I can hurl his bricks away with confidence.
Consider claims that the earth is only six thousand years old and that its surface was once covered in a single flood event. Many accept these claims based on their understanding of Christian scripture. But in fact, neither claim is explicitly made in the Bible, and neither can be true based on dozens of overlapping lines of evidence and thousands of physical observations. Some of these observations are simple for even the layman to understand. Dendrochronology (tens of thousands of overlapping living and fossil tree rings) and geo-stratigraphy (millions of layers of sedimentary rock) have complex names, but are easy to understand and to see. If we assert (as some do) that God simply popped everything into existence just as it is, with the ancient sediments, the tree rings, and photons sailing in from the spaces between the stars—just to test our faith—then we are in philosophically deep water indeed. If we can’t accept basic measurements of parallax collected through telescopes, then neither can we accept anything else gleaned by our senses, including the stories in the bible. This sort of solipsism leads nowhere, which is why even the Catholic Church, having burned itself before, has acknowledged the antiquity of the earth. Besides, if the entire universe is a fraud, what does that make its creator?
Anyone can sell magazines and books making bold claims. Here are a just a few that are bouncing around our world right now: 1) Conspirators tell us the World Trade Center towers were brought down in a controlled demolition because “no building could ever fall into its own footprint on its own” They do, of course, as happened in January of this year, when one did exactly that in Rio de Janeiro after a structural failure. 2) “Psychics” offer “readings” on late night radio, even though precognition violates the laws of physics as we know them, and anyway would presumably have given the cold war to the Soviet Union (which invested heavily and consistently in occult research). If for three dollars, a gypsy woman with a pack of cards and a creepy disposition can foresee the woman you are destined to marry, surely for a Château on the Baltic she will give you a schedule of spy-plane overflights so you can disguise your missile launchers as a Cuban bazaar! 3) The local pharmacy has an extensive selection of pricey Homeopathic remedies, even though these are just highly distilled waterxi—often with real medicine added as “inactive ingredients”. Homeopathic medicine would also violate the laws of physics (or at least everything we know about chemistry and life—which is quite a lot). 4) A casino paid $28,000 for a partially eaten cheese sandwich bearing an image claimed to resemble the Virgin Mary, (though in fact, no one knows what she looked like and for a short time afterward, the Internet was abuzz with images of foods and nature scenes depicting (with sufficient credulity) various rude acts and anatomical parts).
We are all entitled to our opinions, but none of these claims is worthy of serious contemplation by anyone with a command of our shared facts. Not everything can be observed directly, but we must never be too sure of anything that can’t. When forget this, we can fall for anything—literally. One consequence is religious fanaticism; it is just that sort of certainty that leads people to strap explosives to their bodies before visiting the local market. But such misplaced certainty does more than justify extremist violence; it subverts the ability of people and cultures to manage the resources upon which their survival depends. Children can learn much from the beautiful story of Genesis, but combat disease, they need genetics, and with it, the knowledge that our last common male and female ancestors lived at least 60,000 years apart.
History shows us to be an adaptable and clever race. In an age in which we alone among God’s creation have ventured beyond our world, we must add nuclear war, pandemic, overpopulation, climate change, genocide and eugenics to an already long list of known challenges. If ever a being had the tools to face these challenges, that being is man. But how will we face our future? One possibility is to throw up our hands in prayer and hope we are delivered from this world before it comes crashing down around us. A more intelligent, and frankly, a more spiritually responsible approach, is to learn to govern ourselves as our ancient advisers could not, and use our greatest gift—reasoning—to its fullest.
We don’t have to choose between faith and science; we can reconcile the one to the other. We don’t need to seek the fantastic; the real world is fantastic enough. We don’t need to pretend to certainty, a well-founded approximation of truth is more valuable. Thomas Painex warned us ‘The word of God is the creation we behold, and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaks universally to man.” More than ever before, perhaps, we are assaulted today by claims (counterfeit and otherwise) from those who would manipulate us or lighten our purse. We don’t have to give in to these claims, but neither should we see conspiracy and alien intervention in every unknown. Our nation is the fruit of the age of reason. It will survive only so long as science and clever human investigation are permitted to outstrip the darkness that came before it. Empirical thinking, if we will but trust it, will sweep us yet to new heights, whatever those may be.
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