Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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    Tuesday, December 28, 2010

    Quote of the Day

    "Every morning we face a clean white sheet of paper upon which we can start anew and create anything we want."
    -- Scott Kurtz, cartoonist, PVP Online

    Posted by Tom, 12/28/2010 5:39:45 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sunday, December 26, 2010

    Tron: Legacy

    Few things are as frustrating as desperately wanting to like a movie, only to find very little about it that is likable. Tron: Legacy is a perfect example.

    The movie tries to be too much at once: it's a heart-warming tale of a father and son reuniting 15 years after the father's disappearance, an allegory about man's rebellion against God, and a morality tale about the hubris of creative energies. It's a dessert topping and a floor wax! Along the way, it encounters many opportunities to be more meaningful or profound, but completely passes them by.

    The guys at Penny Arcade had their own list of grievances for the movie, but for me it goes a little deeper. As a software engineer and lifetime fan of science fiction, I've long been fascinated by virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the cyberpunk genre. I never thought much of the original Tron, but I could certainly connect with the metaphor of the User/Programmer as God, and the Program as Man/Creation, so I appreciated it on that level even though I didn't find the story particularly compelling.

    The main problem I had with Tron: Legacy is that it is locked into the technological model of its predecessor. In 1982, computers were largely standalone devices. With few exceptions, they were isolated from the rest of the world and didn't do much communication. Tron thus modeled a world stuck inside a single supercomputer, unable to communicate with anything outside of itself except by great effort.

    By contrast, today's computers are exceptional if they are not connected to virtually every other computer on the planet. In a lot of ways, a computer which is disconnected is nearly useless except for certain specialized applications. Indeed, this interconnectivity is even mentioned in Tron: Legacy, but nothing is done with the concept. Even though Flynn states that he had the idea for interconnectivity years before his disappearance, he apparently never pursued it. Thus, the world of Tron: Legacy seems even smaller and more isolated than the world of Tron, despite there having been a literal revolution in computing technology in the intervening time.

    Even more grating were Flynn's constant assertions that what he had created was "truly revolutionary", and would "change everything" about subjects as abstract as religion and philosophy. Of course, he never really gets around to even hinting at how such changes might be effected, while in the meantime, the modern technologically-aware viewer is riding a wave of innovative revolution in the form of the internet that truly is "changing everything". It's hard to imagine how Flynn's little isolated virtual reality amusement park is going to do more for humanity than a global, near-instantaneous system of communication that breaches cultural, geographic, and political boundaries, and in the words of John Gilmore, "interprets censorship as damage and routes around it". Embarrassingly, the world of Harry Potter springs to mind as having a far more robust communications system than that of Tron: Legacy, and they sent letters to one another using frickin' OWLS.

    There are so many things about our modern world and the technology we live with that could have been wonderfully explored by the metaphor of Tron's world, but sadly they were all passed by in favor of flashy special effects. In the end, Tron: Legacy is about action scenes involving people wearing cool glowing costumes. It's somewhat fun for 12-year-olds, but the rest of us have better things to do.

    Posted by Tom, 12/26/2010 2:33:44 PM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, December 16, 2010

    What About Love?

    I was recently asked to give a speech for a group of Christian men, and it did not go over well. The topic was faith's role in improving the world, but in my usual overzealous manner I managed to step on more than a few toes. I was treated to a 45-minute barrage of criticism from all sides, one which left me shaken and unsure if I wanted to participate in the group any more. After praying about it and talking to some trusted mentors, I resolved to soldier on, but I still felt an enormous sense of relief when it became apparent that I would not be able to participate in the group's next event. Hopefully the time off will give me an opportunity to continue building my resolve.

    Of all the things that were said to me that day, the one criticism that sticks in my head (and heart) is that the things I had to say were "too political" to be brought up in church. I just can't seem to wrap my mind around that idea -- it hurts my brain to even try. When I read the Gospels, I don't see Sunday School Jesus, trying to teach His buddies to be nice to one another. I see a man whose every action is political, a man who is driven to challenge the powers-that-be at every turn with the simple but revolutionary concept that without love we are just wasting our time. Without love, all of our laws and rules and conventions are just ways to push each other around -- for one person to feel superior at the expense of another. It's my belief that if Christianity means we seek to follow in Jesus' footsteps and emulate His ways, then Christianity is inherently political. So how can Christianity be "too political"?

    Oddly enough, in a completely separate community of (largely) men, one which is dedicated to a shared interest rather than our (supposedly) shared faith, I was having somewhat more success. Of the members who are professing Christians, very few stray outside the mold of "Republican Jesus"… that peculiar viewpoint that says the Church should largely be concerned with passing laws to punish immorality with the force of government. It's a hard-nosed, hard-hearted type of faith, and they are not a particularly easy group to talk to, but I think I was making progress. That is, I was until the folks in charge handed down a new rule that prohibited any discussion of religion whatsoever.

    Longtime readers of this blog know that I am driven to integrate all of my beliefs into a unified whole. Like Ayn Rand, I cannot stand a contradiction. The religious and the political have to be compatible at the finest grain, otherwise something needs to be discarded. I've been working at this for over a decade now, and while I'm still a long way from completion, I think I've made quite a bit of progress. It therefore comes as a bit of a double setback to me, when I can't talk about politics in a religious setting, and can't talk about religion in a political setting. It's hard not to be discouraged.

    I am also dedicated to the proposition that the mission Jesus sets before us is not just to love the lovable, but to love the distinctly unlovable. I've made a personal crusade out of ending the societal hate expressed (through political means) toward criminals in general but registered sex offenders in particular. It's a lonely position to take, and even though I take it, choosing to love the offender is a tall order even on a good day.

    I recently came across this article, which describes unfathomable horror. In essence, two twin girls, Kathie and Kellie (and eventually their younger sister), were raped repeatedly by their older brothers over the course of 10 years. When they told their father, he started raping them too. When their mother tried to stand up for them, she was beaten. It was a family secret that was only exposed through the heroic efforts of their aunt and a neighbor lady.

    As I read the story, I confess to having a visceral desire to see the older brother Andrew, the primary offender, get taken down by the police in a cop-drama hail of bullets. I wanted to see the father defiantly resist arrest and get beaten down for his trouble. But the story of course doesn't follow the script of a TV show. Reality is much messier.

    The story brought me to tears, but the craziest things in all of that insanity were the actions of the neighbor lady, Shelly Vasey, after the arrests had been made and the girls rescued. Most people -- indeed, most Christians -- would consider the job done and move on. Shelly continued being involved. She started loving the girls' mother, who many saw as responsible for allowing the abuse to go on. She kept loving the girls themselves, of course. And then she did the unthinkable and started loving Andrew.

    There's something indescribable about that… the way our natural revulsion and desire for vengeance on behalf of the victims can give way to love, if we truly have God's love in our hearts and make the choice to use it. There is a terrible beauty in being awash in the rage and pain of the horrendous situation, but allowing concern for the spiritual well-being of the perpetrator to come to the fore -- not instead of, but in addition to, our concern for the victims. What human being has that much love to give, in so many conflicted ways, without relying on God's love to supplement their own meager energies?

    We learn over and over again that what God desires most is reconciliation with us. If we are to live as Christians, "on Earth as it is in Heaven", should not reconciliation be one of our top priorities? This is not to say that Shelly should push Kathie and Kellie to welcome Andrew back in their lives with open arms, and based on the article I don't think she is. Instead, she has reconciled the girls' mother to herself, and Andrew as well, acknowledging and forgiving their past, looking forward as much as is possible, while at the same time maintaining her concern for and care of the girls themselves. Is this not an illustration of what Christianity is all about? To meet insanity with something even crazier, a sheer audacity of love that is literally inconceivable?

    Ever since I read the article, every time I think of Shelly Vasey, I hear a chorus of men singing in my head… from another event when I was asked to speak:

    We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love

    Without love, we are nothing. Without love, Christianity is meaningless. But this is not just a Sunday School idea. This does not just belong in church, where everybody has little sins that are easy to forgive, or where the offenses are far removed from us. This is a message for right here, right now, in the ugliness that surrounds our lives. This is a message for the most horrible of stories, the kinds of events that turn our stomachs and make us thirst for the blood of the wrongdoers. This is Love that can transcend the worst kind of suffering.

    If it isn't, I question its value.

    I hope that someday I'll once again be permitted and able to say the things God's given me to say, to the people God's selected for my audience. Until then I guess it's just this blog and the half-dozen people who read it.

    Posted by Tom, 12/16/2010 7:09:19 AM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    Thought for the Day

    God bless my friends, old and new,
    including the ones I'm related to.

    Posted by Tom, 12/13/2010 6:16:05 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sunday, December 12, 2010

    Thought for the Day

    Opportunities to practice Grace rarely present themselves when I'm feeling gracious.

    Posted by Tom, 12/12/2010 3:56:05 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    This looks familiar...

    A friend on Facebook posted a link to this article, which had a familiar ring to it...

    I think my favorite section is this one:

    One of Jesus' most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan... you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I'm sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine... but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.

    I think it really slides past us these days, just how shocking was the dichotomy Jesus set up in his story. I wonder if we might "get it" with some modernization in the tale. It inspired me to write the following...

    A certain main was going down from Oklahoma City to Norman, and he was carjacked by a street gang. They took his car, his wallet, his watch, and his suit, beat the crap out of him, and left him for dead, lying in the ditch alongside Telephone Road. By chance a local preacher came along later and when he saw the man, he crossed the street and passed by on the other side. Sometime after that, a megachurch preacher who coordinated charities and missions worldwide came along, and he too crossed the street and passed by.

    Sometime later, a registered sex offender came by, and when he saw the man he was moved with compassion and stopped to perform first aid. He put the man in his car and drove him to the hospital in Norman, giving them his credit card to cover whatever services the victim might require.

    Now which of these three was a neighbor to the guy who got carjacked?

    Of course, I'm no Hemingway, but surely the point is made.

    Posted by Tom, 12/12/2010 7:02:43 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    Quote of the Day

    "Day is never finished, Master got me workin', someday Master set me free..."
    -- Eric Cartman

    Posted by Tom, 12/7/2010 6:10:10 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Bah. Humbug.

    My mother has a cute story she tells occasionally, about my brother and me one Christmas morning. She got up, came to our room and found us playing quietly with our toys. She told us to come on out to the living room, because she thinks Santa Claus probably came and left us some presents. We kept playing and said "no, I don't think he did, Mom".

    That's how it is for me every year. Folks ask me, "are you excited about the holidays?" and I never know what to say. I know the expected response is either an unqualified "yes!" or that world-weary "I've got a lot of shopping to do", but nobody wants to hear that you don't really care about Christmas any more than they want to hear that you don't really care about football. Christmas is arguably the biggest holiday of the year, but I am quite literally the second guy from Romans 14:5:

    One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

    (Yes, you have seen this material before.)

    In some ways, I feel like a holiday version of Dexter Morgan... I understand that others have an emotional connection to various holidays, and I understand that I'm expected to, but the best I can manage is to fake it. It doesn't matter if it's Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving or Halloween or Mother's Day or Father's Day or Veteran's Day or Memorial Day or President's Day or Talk Like a Pirate Day, it's always the same for me:

    I. Don't. Feel. It.

    Whatever "it" is...

    So I fake it, because others expect me to join in. The problem is that faking it feels like lying. Granted, I used to be a pathological liar in my teens and early twenties, but I've been trying to fix that for a good long time now. As I've grown older, my personal integrity has come to mean a lot to me, and I'm at the point of feeling guilty over small bits of dishonesty. And so it is that every year, Christmas (and the other holidays) feels a little worse to me. I have to put on this act of caring about the holiday(s), when what I care most about is how soon they'll be over.

    According to that book about love languages, gift-giving is one of my languages, so one might think that the giftapalooza that is Christmas would be my favorite day of the year, but it's not. For me, it's a handy excuse.

    I recently bought a neato little gadget for my parents because I saw that they would be able to use it. I told them it was for Christmas, but the fact is I would have given them one in July if I had become aware of their needs back then. In some ways, it's even more disturbing to me that I feel obligated to find some excuse to give to someone -- it has to be a birthday, or anniversary, or Christmas, otherwise they get weirded out... as though gift-giving outside an established holiday or occasion is creepy or something.

    For me, the situation is almost completely inverted. I feel a little weird receiving gifts on Christmas, but feel exceptionally grateful for the gifts I receive that are not associated with any particular holiday. My father and brother have given me tools out of the blue, and I love the gifts and the givers all the more every time I pass by them in my workshop. I have a set of box wrenches that mean a lot to me just because my dad gave them to me... not on my birthday or anything, I just happened to be at his house and he said "here, you could probably use a set of these". In contrast, getting gifts on established occasions feels like I've been given a gift (at least in part) because the occasion demands it, when the giver might have needed to do something else with their money.

    Anyway, once again we're in full swing for the holidays. Mercifully, my in-laws helped the wife put up Christmas lights (a regularly-scheduled fight with the wife that I was glad to avoid). Cards arrive daily, reminding me that I need to go out and buy cards to send to others. And it's not that I don't love the people I will send cards to... it's not that I don't want to let them know they're loved and appreciated... the problem is that I feel like I'm sending cards because it's on the schedule and expected, and I feel like that cheapens the actual love and affection that I feel for those people.

    It also puts me in an awkward position every time the supposed "war on Christmas" comes up. I'm a Christian, and I happen to like Jesus, but while I have a relationship with God I don't really feel like I have a relationship with Christmas. It's just another day to me. For info on how God might feel about that, see the scripture above.

    Of course, someone will mistake this for a rant. It's not. I'm not mad at Christmas. I'm not mad at anyone who derives joy or pleasure from the holidays. Mostly, I'm just conflicted -- I want to get along with those who love the holidays, but I hate faking my own enjoyment to keep the peace. I hate feeling like I'm being dishonest. So I do what seems necessary and otherwise just sort of hide, emotionally speaking, waiting for it to be over so that everyone can return to having normal unrealistic expectations instead of holiday-inspired ones.

    Posted by Tom, 12/6/2010 7:02:40 AM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...