Monday, June 27, 2005

Harry Potter versus Aladdin

I learned something important last night about magic. There are two different kinds of magic: incantational magic and the other kind. Incantational magic was the stuff that Wiz Zumwald, Gandalf, and various Shakespearean magic-users performed. Think of Larry Niven's magic-goes-away notions that there's some kind of magical machinery that the magician can grab the levers of and turn to his will. You know, stuff like F=ma. Oops, I'm getting ahead of myself. You see, I don't believe in magic. Even the magical incantations that have familiar names, like the Sinner's Prayer.

So, I was listening to The White Horse Inn discussion of whether a Christian should let his kids read Harry Potter or not. You know, Harry Potter is a warlock and he hangs with witches and that sounds pretty unChristian on the surface at least. The guy said that Harry does stuff similar to the medieval alchemists and that's a lot different from calling upon the devil or demons or principalities or powers to get magic stuff done. Instead he says "hoc est corpus" or hocus-pocus or somesuch and a miracle happens.

This invoking of demons business got me thinking, "Yeah, that's significant."

Which brings us to Aladdin. Whereas Harry Potter is rightly rooted in some deep anglo-saxon soil what's going on with that cute blueberry colored guy in the lamp? First, you've got Aladdin, a theif. He's not an algebrist or an algorithm developer or any of the other productive vocations Arabic people pursued. Instead, he is a representative of one of the worst aspects of Arabic culture: it's disrespect for private property and the integrity of ownership. He steals a lamp containing a genie.

Now, I always thought Barabara Eden was cuter than Elizabeth Montgomery, but then I never knew exactly what a "genie" or djinn was.

It's some foreign word who's referent means what? I asked Dr. Webster just now and he said, "one of a class of spirits that according to Muslim demonology." Generally, when a spirit is described by someone's DEMONOLOGY that indicates the spirit is a member of the set of demons. Hmmm, looks like Ms. Eden was covering up more than just her navel. This makes me laugh. My sainted mom HATED "Bewitched" and fairly enjoyed "I Dream of Jeannie" because she thought the first consorted with the devil and the second was harmless fun.

This brings us back to what a Christian should do about all this? I never heard of Fundamentalist boycots and protests against the Aladdin movie about the Muslim demon and his master whose profession involves breaking the 8th commandment. But that sort of magic is a lot worse than incantational magic. Thus there should be no problem with Harry Potter.

On the other hand, now I have another reason to find Robin Williams annoying.

Sunday, June 26, 2005


You keep using that word, but I do not think that it means what you think that it means.

Thus spake the Spaniard in The Princess Bride and thus my rant at friends who have used the term Postmodern in my presence.

About 5 or 10 years back I started hearing this term bandied about by smarter-than-me friends. And I asked in my thoughtful way, "wuzzat." The response would generally be something I didn't quite follow about rejecting the metanarrative. I became an engineer because I meta narrative, several in fact, in Literature class that didn't make sense. Thus, I went around asking folks who seemed to be smarter than me, "wuzzat," in the hope of finding one enough smart enough to use terms I could understand.

I'm not a complete dullard, having a passing familiarity with trends in western civilization. I'd actually read Modern Art and the Death of a Culture and Goedel, Escher, Bach or at least enough to claim a passing familiarity therewith. So, I knew there was this Thing called The Enlightenment (which was important because they capitalized it), wherein folks thought that thought sufficed to find truth, perfect themselves, and perfect society. I've always thought Reason was reasonable, so I went along with this Enlightenment thing for the most part. I didn't really follow that New Soviet Man thing, but what can you expect of a Fundamentalist.

Since I trained as a mathematician and had an interest in the Foundations of Mathematics, I knew a bit about what Goedel did with axiomatic systems. He proved there are limits to reason: any axiomatic system big enough to do arithmetic leads naturally to a theorem that resembles the Liar's Paradox. The theorem said in hifalutin terms, "This theorem is unprovable." If the theorem is true, the axiomatic system is incomplete; if the theorem is false, the axiomatic system is inconsistent. Reductio Ad Absurdum. (Has to be provound, it's both capitalized and it's Latin.)

My liberal writing friend cites this and says, "Hah, I told you you can't know truth." He's one of the guys who tried to tell me what Postmodernism is. Of course, the existence of places where reason is unreasonable does not imply that reason is unreasonable in every place. It seems Dr. Goedel's math proof didn't show it was unreasonable to balance your checkbook.

I say all this to say that to understand Postmodernism, you must understand Modernism and that means understanding the Enlightenment and how it died. I place the moment of that death in the 1920s. Others place the moment of Modernism's death with the fall of the Berlin Wall (as Modernism's most ghastly construct died).

MY definition of "postmodernism" is whatever follows Modernism. It isn't a positive movement, per se, as much as a negation of Modernism. Modernism required logical consistency, Postmodernism does not. This explains why Postmodernism embraces ecclecticism. Once you prove Reason (capitalized) doesn't suffice to obtain Truth (also capitalized), it's a short step to say that there is no Truth. Or that anyone who claims to have Truth is playing a power game. This leaves the Postmodernist with a real problem with Authority.

That's probably why I never got a Satisfactory Answer when I asked what Postmodernism is. There's no Postmodernist authority who can give an answer that is true. Thus here's MY ANSWER as to what Postmodernism is: It's whatever follows Modernism. It rejects Reason's ultimacy; it is skeptical about Truth; it extracts meaning directly from Stories as the listener/reader interprets it individualistically.

I figure Postmodernism is a mere transitional device serving to digest the corpse of Modernism, rendering it into rich fertile soil from something as significant as The Enlightenment will grow that I'll call post-Postmodernism for now. Metaphorical maggots. When the bones of the corpse of Modernism is completely picked clean, Postmodernism will be gone, too.

Friday, June 10, 2005


I was reading an argument about some Baptist preacher of the 18th century defending him against a charge of hypercalvinism. I think the term is a strawman that folks set up to knock down.

First a bit of disclaimer: I think I must make God as high as possible and I think I must treat mankind as responsible as possible. Sort that out as Calvinist or Arminian as you wilst.

What set me to write this screed was a definition of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. Presumably, if you're a hypercalvinist, you agree with one of those big words and disagree with the other. What do those words mean? They refer to whether the elect and reprobate were ordained as such before the idea of a lapsus, i.e. Fall, entered God's mind. This is an incredibly arrogant way of thinking. Mankind is actually going to sort out God's thought processes? Is God a man who decides matters or plans his decrees using processes like ours? Is God within time so that one can speak of ideas entering God's mind in sequence? If God is unbounded, how can an idea "enter" God's mind?

The questions above are absurd. Didn't someone once write that God's thoughts are above our thoughts?

That's the problem I have with a lot of arguments about divine sovereignty and "free will." Whenever someone tries to square the various theories in play, he often slanders God or diminishes human responsibility. For instance, I don't think God is powerless in the face of human decision making. God calls those who repent and believe and poor Mr. Almost Persuaded does not thwart God's plan by staying in the pew after the altar call plays the 95th verse of Just As I am.

On the other hand, God is not a man to exist within time, or to submit to the chain of cause and effect. When we contemplate God's role in freeing the will bound by sin, we slander him if we apply human categories to what he does, how he does it, and what was going on in God's head at the time.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

What Is Life?

So, a haploid sperm and a halploid egg combine to create a fertilized ovum. The process takes a random sample of mom's DNA and dad's DNA combines them and you get a "dot." At least that's what some guy in Congress said during some stem-cell debate.

I used to be pro-abortion. It was the '70s right after Roe v Wade was found in the emanations of the penumbra of the constitution by an unelected elite of nine men. That changed when I asked myself what this being was that being aborted. It wasn't mineral or vegetable. What sort of animal? A fetus isn't a dog or a cat--wrong number of chromosomes. A tumor has cells with the requisite 42 chromosomes. But they have the same genotype as every other part of the body. A fetus has a genotype distinct from both egg and sperm. This line of reasoning made me think think the fetus is a distinct human being.

So, what is this remarkable thing that happens when egg and sperm get together?

Back in fifth or sixth grade, my math teacher handed out graph paper and described a game that involved coloring in cells on the page. It was called "life" and it was invented by a mathematician named John Conway. You can find out more here. When Conway devised the game, he thought it was impossible for any pattern could grow without bound.

This idea was proved wrong much later when mathematician Bill Gosper invented a glider gun. This impressed me because it showed a "linear" population growth without bound where I'd expected to see an "exponential" growth curve.

The really unexpected thing happened a few years later when I you could array glider guns together to fashion a NAND gate. A NAND gate is one of the building blocks of a computer.

And computers can be programmed to do unexpected things.

So, John Conway came up with a fairly simple game, and from that humble beginning, a marvelous potential has been realized.

I draw an analogy between Conway's "life" and this thing that happens when 42 chromosomes combine at the point of conception. I see this as analogous to the start-point of some cellular automaton. Each human life is filled with unexpected potential.

The problem with death is that it interrupts the realization of that potential. This is why I don't buy the line that "death is part of life." It isn't. It's an offence. It's like starting a computer program and then yanking the plug before it can finish.

Since I'm a Christian, I figure God has set up all the various cellular automata and made things even more interesting than Conway's Life and I think he's interested in showing off all the unexpected potentials to be realized in people. And I also think there is some unseen things going on a spiritual plane.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Why The Soviets Lost

My daughter needs to get her driver's license. She took Driver's Ed a couple years back, did segment one and segment two. Now, she just needs to take her driving test. Back in the '70s, you gave the cop a ride and that was that.

We learned that since Jane is over 18, we have to get a Driver's Permit before she can take the driving test. OK. We went to the Secretary of State. Stand in line. My daughter complains. I tell her, "get used to it." We get a number and a form to fill out.

"I don't know my Social Security Number."

While I'm trying to contact my wife to ask her what Jane's number is, the bureaucrat turns my daughter away. I get back without the SSN, wait to talk to the bureaucrat and ask if they can take the paperwork without the SSN and we'd call it in. No, they can't do that.

We rush home (the office closes at 5:00), get the SSN and return just before the office closes. We wait through the line again. Jane hands the girl the form with SSN.

She says, "Do you have your Birth Certificate?"

Of course, we don't. I tell the bureaucrat that this is our second visit. Unspoken is the question, "why didn't bureaucrat #1 say we'd need that, too." Bureaucrat #2 is adamant. She needs three pieces of ID. I show her the SSN card, printed by the Federal Government. That's not good enough. She says we'll have to come back.

When are you closing tonight? 5:00. What time is it? Three minutes till.

Driving back without the permit to take the test to get the license, I find something good from the experience.

"Jane, do you know what's good about all this stupid inefficiency?"


"Imagine having to stand in lines like this to everything. Imagine a society where everything is run through a bureaucrasy like this. Nobody'd get anything done, they'd spend all their time standing in line. That's why the Soviets lost."