Wednesday, December 31, 2008

reflections on 2008



2008 proved to be one of the most exciting years of my life, comparable in many ways to my college junior year abroad from 1989 to 1990. This year involved many things I don't normally do. Generally sedentary and often given to just talking about my aspirations as opposed to actually pursuing them, I found myself, this past year, outside my comfort zone and loving it. This is the year I began my walk across America, and though I'm temporarily stalled as the knee heals, as the coffers refill, and as the snow out west waxes and wanes, I've had a blast with the three months' walking I've done.

The year began with me still in Korea, at my English and French teaching post at Sookmyung Women's University in downtown Seoul. 2008 marked my third year at the university, doing something I loved. The job was demanding in some ways and frustrating in others, but I came away always looking forward to the next semester, a feeling I've never had while working anywhere else. I left Sookmyung on very amicable terms and hope to go back there when I'm finished with the walk. If I don't end up there, I'll be able to find decent university work elsewhere on the peninsula, I'm sure.

I came home in late April and spent a month conditioning myself with long walks, eventually adding a backpack to the walk to get a feel for that sort of hike. It wasn't long before my walks, usually every other day, were measuring over 20 miles in length. On May 26, I flew out to Vancouver, got picked up by my buddy Nathan, and was driven down to White Rock, British Columbia, where I spent the night inside a very, very pink (but well-appointed!) hotel called the Pacific Inn. On May 27, the walk began.

If you've followed this blog, you know I crossed the US/Canadian border and walked southward along the I-5 corridor. I passed through Seattle and eventually hit Portland, Oregon, where I stopped for two weeks as my knee became too painful for sustained walking-- this being the result of an injury a few weeks earlier. From Portland, I turned east and followed the Columbia River into the Columbia River Gorge, first walking the somewhat difficult Historic Highway from Troutdale before ending up on I-84 and stopping in Cascade Locks. From there until almost Umatilla, I followed I-84, which was far less hilly than any other road would have been. The knee pain worsened; I kept it at bay with painkillers prescribed in Arlington and picked up in the next city, Boardman.

I broke away from I-84 around Irrigon and Umatilla, and skipped back into Washington in order to reach Walla Walla. With cash near depletion and the pain in my knee at epic levels, I knew I'd have to stop. I ended up spending a month in Walla Walla, getting my knee diagnosed (medial collateral ligament strain), deliberating on what to do next, and finally deciding not merely to sit out the winter, but to sit it out at home in Virginia-- with family, free rent, and free food. This was possible thanks to my cousin Marie, who works for a major airline and was able to hook me up with a free "buddy pass" out of Portland and nonstop to DC. (Thanks, Chuck, for the drive from Irrigon to Portland.)

I learned a lot about the terrain and weather of several hundred miles of both Washington and Oregon, and came to the conclusion that, of all the conditions to walk in, the worst is cold and rain. Give me wind, give me sun, give me anything but that nasty, nasty combination of wetness and low temperatures. The high desert (which appears as you walk eastward, roughly past The Dalles, Oregon) was a welcome contrast to much of the southward walk from Canada, along Washington's western spine.

And while all of that was an adventure, the biggest treat was meeting so many people along the way. I can't list them all here and won't even try, but I do want to make some general remarks.

The walk's overarching purpose was and remains a personal, non-academic exploration of American religious diversity and, true to that purpose, I've met all sorts of folks from many different walks of life. I started out with Unitarians, Sikhs, Zennies, and Episcopalians, all within the first fifty or so miles of the trek. I stayed with Soka Gakkai Buddhists (in two different cities) and spent a few days at a Benedictine abbey, and even met an ex-Unitarian(!). My walk also brought me within the orbit of some Seventh Day Adventists, as well as other types of Protestants I'd never before had the chance to talk with. I met confirmed atheists and "spiritual, not religious" folks, and ended up befriending a pair of biker Christians, who are nothing like whatever stereotype I may have had of bikers before I made their acquaintance. I talked with random strangers while walking along various suburban streets, and was often offered rides by people who drove by me on highways and freeways. I met and befriended some folks at a few of the state parks where I've camped. And yes: I was even picked up twice by the police (a third "run-in" with the law led to no rides). Those turned out to be friendly encounters, too.

Coming home proved to be almost as much of an adventure as walking. With the parents' house looking tornado-ravaged because of the extensive renovations, I found myself camping out in the back yard from late September (which is when I got home after nearly a month in Walla Walla) to mid-December. I've helped the parents cart most of their worldly possessions outside and onto cargo pallets, and just recently helped move all that stuff back inside. I constructed a "tent kitchen" that was supposed to serve as Mom's headquarters, but it ultimately ended up as more storage space. (Mom preferred to remain indoors, so she converted the laundry room into a temporary kitchen.) I also did plenty of other odd jobs, from helping to make meals to helping Dad construct the new deck.

I've walked periodically while home, but my level of physical activity has dropped significantly. Periodic heavy lifting isn't the same as constant cardio, and because my current job-- proofreading/editing for a Korean company-- involves sitting in front of a computer, I'm once again gaining weight. This displeases me, but if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I can't blame my circumstances for the increased poundage. That's the easy way out. No: I just need to cut down on the food and increase my activity level.

The only other real negative this year, aside from current (but still reversible!) weight gain, has been the drain on my finances. Walking across the country is expensive if you choose to hang close to civilization. Five to eight dollars for a meal here, twenty dollars for supplies there, sixty to eighty bucks for a motel room, fifteen dollars to camp in a state or national park... it adds up. Quickly. The over $3000 spent on equipment-- even before the walk began-- didn't help matters. I'm now trying to make back some money before I continue the trip; you might say that money-making is one of my New Year's resolutions. Another resolution is to find more economical ways of hiking-- traveling lighter, eating less, camping and Couchsurfing more.

Ah, yes: I should also say something about the online aspect of this walk. This blog has turned out to be a fine forum on which interested parties have civilly expressed encouragement, disagreement, and a variety of fascinating personal insights. I want to thank all the folks who have contributed, frequently or infrequently, to this blog via comments or via emailed reactions to what transpires here. You, Dear Reader, are not just an audience: you're active participants in this adventure, and some of you may have noticed that, whatever my stubbornness, I've ended up taking some of your advice. You're often my cheering section, occasionally my Greek chorus, and many of you are people I'm proud to call friends.

The walk has taught me a lot. I'd actually like to write a full-length post on that topic, but here's a general list, in no particular order, of things learned over the course of 600 miles.

1. Rain is great when you're not walking long distances. Otherwise, it sucks.

2. Kind strangers far outnumber unkind strangers.

3. It's possible to walk long distances while in extreme pain.

4. When people talk about "peace," the talk tends to fall into two categories: "peace" in the sense of "let's leave each other alone," and "peace" in the sense of "let's actively work toward a harmonious existence." As it turns out, these two notions aren't always compatible.

5. Sunscreen is helpful until your sweat flushes it away. In my case, that means it's helpful for about an hour.

6. People look at you differently when you're wearing a huge backpack. Strangers feel they can talk with you, and the police become more interested in you, too. Especially when your backpack looks large enough to carry a body inside it.

7. Japanese Zen rituals are more complicated than the Korean Seon practice I'm familiar with.

8. The style of Sikh worship is a world apart from anything I've ever encountered in terms of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist practice. I definitely want to learn more about this religion.

9. Freeways are noisy, dusty, and gravelly. It's often better to walk on the right side, with the flow of traffic, so that your backpack shields you from the turbulence of trucks and from the gravel they kick up. Walking on the right might not be legal, and some will argue that's it's not safe, but considering how unsafe it already is to be walking on a freeway, I'd rather trade a few crumbs of safety for greater comfort.

10. If you desperately need to poop, you'll find a way to do it, even if it means pooping right next to a major freeway. (Easily my most humiliating experience.)

11. Many of you dog owners need to teach your dogs to respect boundaries. I've lost count of the number of dogs that have run, leashless, out of the open gates of their respective yards to bark at me up close. Gate your dogs, or leash them. No, they don't deserve to have free run of the neighborhood, and I say that despite my love of dogs (whether we're talking personality or taste).

12. On the positive side, no dogs have bitten me yet, which leads me to believe that even the undisciplined dogs know when they're no longer on their own territory.

13. Tax and tip make all sit-down meals expensive.

14. Washington State can freak out a person from northern Virginia: it's weird to see all those familiar names-- Arlington, Mt. Vernon, Capitol Hill-- repeated clear across the country.

15. Trekking poles are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they may prove useful when you're limping around town and need a cane for support. They also help speed you up when you feel you're slowing down.

16. Most strangers can give you decent travel advice. Some, however, have no idea what they're talking about.

17. Dubiously filtered water + heat and sunlight = stomachache.

18. When you're hiking almost daily, you learn to forgive yourself for not showering twice a day. Whether other people are capable of such forgiveness... well, that seems to vary from person to person.

19. Memorable food: Lori's hash browns, Chuck's pork chops, the Thai restaurant in downtown Bellingham, that double bacon cheeseburger from the burger stand in Cascade Locks, and lots of good home cooking from the Horns, the Rices, and others.

20. You can practice your Korean in Walla Walla. You can also practice your French there: it's wine country, and some Frenchies have transplanted themselves to the Walla Walla Valley to help out with the viniculture.

21. The miles do get easier. Sure, there are good days and bad days-- days when walking feels more like work than something done for enjoyment and enrichment. But all in all, it becomes easier to cover long distances, and to think in larger terms. After walking 15-20 miles per day, day after day, you'll find yourself wondering about people who balk at walking three miles to get somewhere. When I do an 11-mile walk, in my mind it's "only eleven miles." It's sad to think that, once I get back to Seoul, I'll eventually lose that mindset and sink back into normalcy.

22. No matter what allergies you have, nature is nothing to be sneezed at. The frightening hugeness of Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, the gorgeous greenness and brownness of the Columbia River Valley-- these are sights I'm glad to have seen directly, as opposed to seeing them in some coffee table book.

23. Portland swings way too liberal for my politically centrist tastes, but is otherwise a fantastic city. Even its many homeless people rock. Seattle, alas, was a city encountered only in passing; it deserves a second shot. I spent only two nights in Seattle before moving on to Tacoma, which means I barely saw it at all. By contrast, I spent two weeks in Portland, learning its public transport system, visiting its colleges and universities, and making connections with the people I met while there.

24. If you're fat and on a hike, you might be surprised to discover how easy it is to go nearly three days without food. The effort of hiking often shrinks the stomach and keeps the blood in the limbs as opposed to the digestive system. The hiking does, however, make you powerfully thirsty, and if you sweat like I do, you've got to carry a lot of water. I ended up with both a 3-liter Camelbak and two Nalgene bottles.

25. NEVER leave your tent improperly weighted and anchored when you're in a windy area!

26. If someone offers to be your chase car, or to carry your backpack in their bike's trailer, have enough humility to say "yes."

27. Keep your electronics safe.

28. Any idea that you are a fully independent, autonomous being will be beaten out of you. You depend constantly-- whether you acknowledge it or not-- on the kindness of strangers, the infrastructure of society and civilization, and the elemental gifts of Mother Nature: the weather, the laws that govern your body chemistry, and all the rest. Be humble.

I could go on, but will stop here for now.

I hope your 2008 was fulfilling and not too painful, and to all who read this blog, as well as to the people I've met along the walk who don't read this blog: Happy New Year! May your 2009 prove to be full of joy and enrichment... but let me also wish you a year of work, strife, and stress. Why? Because life, at its best, contains within it a touch of the grave.


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Happy New Year to Korea!

It's 2:27PM as I write this, which means South Korea is already over four hours into the new year. People are on their mountaintops, awaiting the first sunrise of 2009. Hope it's not too cloudy, guys.

Hang on, Korea: the DC area will soon be joining you in 2009.


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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

random poesy

1.

sometimes the quickest
route to the high road involves
taking the low road

2.

the king peered in his sandwich, said,
"While I quite enjoy the bread,
are you sure this thing is dead?"

3.

i have a squirrel gun
it fires
forty squirrels a second
i use it when i'm mad
at
the neigh
bors
sometimes when people are
getting on
my
nerves more
than usual
i
switch out the
regular squirrels
and load up with
zombie squirrels

4.

bork bork
snork snork
kek kek laaa
ming ming
pook pook
thung thung saaa

chiff eh duudwee
duudwee dee
freepo freepu
qwing mik pee

bork bork
snork snork
kek kek laaa
ming ming
pook pook
thung thung saaa

("Twinkle Twinkle" as sung on Neptune)


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Oregon! what's going on with you?

What's all this about Oregon's governor advocating a mileage tax calculated and enforced by satellite?

In North Korea, people leaving one locality for another have to file papers with the local party officials and security people: all movements are tracked in minute detail, and deviations can be punished. In a sense, such tracking already happens in America, but is largely a matter of passive data collection. The measure referred to in the above-linked article goes beyond the passive approach to giving certain parties (in this case, the Oregon state government) the power not only to track people's movements but also to tax them for those movements.

This measure concerns me. It should, in fact, concern both liberals (who want to fight the power, stick it to The Man, etc.) and conservatives (who are ostensibly against expansion of governmental powers) alike.

The final report [of the governor's task force studying the feasibility of this measure] detailed the technical aspects of the program. It also stressed the issue of privacy.

“The concept requires no transmission of vehicle travel locations, either in real time or of travel history,” the report said. “Accordingly, no travel location points are stored within the vehicle or transmitted elsewhere. Thus there can be no ‘tracking’ of vehicle movements.”

You do see that is this hooey, yes? Of course there's tracking going on! How else can you calculate mileage? The device isn't hooked up to the car's odometer-- it's linked to a GPS system! Just because locations aren't being "transmitted elsewhere" doesn't mean a given car isn't being tracked.

Even if we ignore the Big Brother aspect of this proposal, doesn't it seem unfair that a person will be taxed on both the gas they buy and the miles they drive? Sure, there's a gas tax refund for the driver, but it's only 24 cents per gallon. Imagine that gas prices swing upward once again to $4 or $5 per gallon, and that Governor Kulongoski's plan to raise the gas tax by 2 cents goes through. How comforting will it be to get that whopping refund, eh? About as comforting as George W. Bush's $300 rebate was, I'll bet.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

must-see

My two must-see movies this holiday season are "Gran Torino" and "Doubt." The latter appeals to my inner theatergoer: this amazing clip over at the Apple.com trailers site convinces me that the movie-- which is based on a Pulitzer-winning stage play-- will be great fun for those who like acting for acting's sake. You may have heard about the story, which centers on the conflict between a young liberal priest and an old battleaxe of a nun: the nun suspects the priest of pedophilia, but does so with nearly zero evidence.

I've read a few reviews of the film (which is currently in wide release), and I get the feeling that a few of the reviewers, who have variously described Meryl Streep's performance as "bordering on caricature," don't know much about the variety of personalities that inhabit the Catholic infrastructure. I used to teach at a Catholic high school, and my own undergrad and graduate formation occurred in Catholic environments, and I can vouch that, as is true anywhere, the Church attracts all kinds, Streep's character's type among them. Streep's not giving us a caricature; I've known some Sister Aloysiuses in my time.

If anything, I suspect some of those critics, being of a certain political persuasion, don't want to face the realities of religious zeal: to acknowledge the possibility that people as unlikeable as Streep's character exist would be to recognize that fanatical elements in the world today are deserving of condemnation. Easier, then, to dismiss Streep's portrayal as caricature ("Come on-- no one really acts like that!") than to view it as plausible.

"Doubt" looks to be timely on several levels, but I'm less interested in the movie's political and religious implications than in the acting, which the above-linked sample scene promises to be compelling (watch the priest's hands! he's so furious he doesn't know what to do with himself). I'm a fan of both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman,* and between the two of them, much scenery will be chewed.





*I don't know whether I'm a fan of Hoffman the person. He gave one of the most boring interviews ever while a guest on "The Actor's Studio" with James Lipton. The show is meant as both broadcast and master class for the students in the audience, and I found Hoffman's behavior almost embarrassing. If you catch the episode, you'll see what I mean-- the slouched posture, the half-asleep delivery, the almost complete lack of excitement or passion, as if he didn't want to be there. Maybe it's the Korean in me, but I'd expect him to tackle "The Actor's Studio" with a bit more focus and energy, for the students' sake if not the TV public's.


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Sunday, December 28, 2008

epiphany

My brother David is a member of Netflix, and he brought over both "Tropic Thunder" and "The Dark Knight" last night. I'd seen "The Dark Knight" during my two weeks in Portland-- opening night, in fact-- but missed "Thunder," which turned out to be a hilarious study of the Hollywood megastar's fragile, overinflated ego. "Thunder" also featured Tom Cruise in what I now consider his best role ever. Unlike some critics, I don't think Cruise is a bad or at-best-mediocre actor, and the fact that Cruise is a crazy Scientologist doesn't prevent me from enjoying his performances. Get him in the right role, with a good script and his usual intense commitment, and Cruise generally delivers. If you haven't seen "Tropic Thunder," watch it just for Cruise who, bizarrely enough, makes Jack Black's turn in that same movie look tame by comparison.

Last night was only my second time viewing "The Dark Knight." I thought the film was great on first viewing, and it was just as good (not to mention more comprehensible) the second time around. While watching last night, I had an epiphany about Christian Bale's approach to Batman's voice, and I'm sharing this insight with you all because a lot of the audience members in Portland laughed at Bale's breathy, gravelly delivery; you might have, too. Bale's Batman voice does seem way over the top, and stands in contrast with Michael Keaton's more restrained version of same. (You'll recall that, in Keaton's version of the Batman, Keaton simply keeps his voice low and his sentences short à la 80s-era Schwarzenegger, but without the accent.) Bale's delivery ultimately makes sense; you just have to approach it in the right spirit.

Actors usually have to think through their parts and delve into their characters' psyches before they can "inhabit" an assigned role. One shortcut method, though, is simply to channel the delivery of another actor, and last night it occurred to me that Bale was basically doing an impression of the current Clint Eastwood-- old, gruff, gravelly, impatient with stupidity. Compare Bale's delivery to Eastwood's voice in the preview trailer for "Gran Torino" (QuickTime required for viewing; lower-quality trailer available on YouTube). The resemblance is striking.

True: an actor with Bale's talent would probably never resort to merely parroting an American icon, but I still recommend viewing Bale's Batman through the Eastwooden* filter. This erases the potential laughability of Bale's delivery: you don't laugh at Clint Eastwood, do you? Also, imagining the spirit of Eastwood inhabiting the Batman isn't a stretch: Eastwood's characters often share personality traits with the Batman, not least of which is a soul-darkness that gives both Eastwood and the Batman their gravitas. If there is a major difference between Eastwood's characters and the Batman, it's in how they approach confrontations. The Batman is all about stealth and psychological warfare; he doesn't shrink from direct combat, but he'd prefer to preserve the element of surprise. Eastwood's characters, by contrast, tend to walk coolly down the middle of the main street, guns drawn, casually picking off whatever enemies bumble into range. Eastwood never hides.

Of course, the Eastwooden filter can help only so much. Eastwood's characters, unlike the Batman, will go there: they'll kill your ass deader than dead, and they'll sleep like a baby afterward. The Batman easily becomes distraught about crossing the line into murder (this was, in fact, the very cord the Joker was tweaking in his conflict with the Batman), so it's unlikely he'll be splattering anyone's brains against the wall. Superimposing the Eastwood paradigm onto Batman might produce unfulfillable expectations.

Still, it's not wrong to associate Eastwood with the Batman. Frank Miller made this possible in his graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which portrays the now 50-something Batman as a man with Clint Eastwood's chiseled head and Arnold Schwarzenegger's freakishly huge neck and body. If you've never seen this combination, trust me: it's terrifying. It's how I imagine the Batman would be if he were real: a bone-crusher very much in touch with his inner Satan, a fighter acquainted with stealth but also willing to duke it out in the open (as happens both in the conflict with Superman at the end of the graphic novel and with the Mutants' leader in the novel's second chapter). Miller's Batman also goes there, using an enemy's machine gun to perforate a gang member holding a gun to the head of a kidnapped child.

So if Bale's Batman is giving you the giggles, imagine the skeletal, demonic shade of Clint Eastwood inhabiting him-- a wicked presence somehow visible through all that body armor. That ought to suck the humor right out of your brain and leave you properly terrified.

For more and better Eastwood worship, read Skippy's review of "Gran Torino."






*You have no idea how much I racked my brains trying to come up with an adjectival form of "Eastwood" that didn't bring sexual arousal to mind. Eastwoodic? Eastwoodish? Eastwoodesque? Eastwoodalian? I eventually gave up and used "-wooden." Works well enough for "wood," after all.


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nearly 70 degrees at year's end
(with mini-rant)

While half the country has received a more-than-ample snow dump, northern Virginia remains untouched by the whiteness. It's 68 degrees right now (20 Celsius, for you more metrically-minded folks), which is nuts for December 28. Somewhere out there, a champion of man-made global warming is ignoring the freeze in half the country to crow about how climate change has heated my hometown up well above what is normal for this time of year.

That's too bad: I think what's beginning to emerge from the climate discussion (to the extent that there is a discussion) is that there are no clear, easy answers. It's as simplistic to assume that humanity is the sole cause of any warming trend as it is to claim that humanity has nothing to do with any changes. It's also simplistic to assume that a warming trend in some areas means a warming trend in all areas, a point made by scientist demigod Freeman Dyson (thanks, Malcolm). Given our inability to predict weather even beyond a 36-hour forecast, it seems rather hubristic to think we already know everything we need to know about what causes lead to what long-term effects in specific weather and general climate.


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the Marmot's Buddhist offering

The Marmot-- a.k.a. Robert Koehler, a fellow G-town grad and king of the Koreablogosphere-- is hosting an interesting post by R. Elgin about the Buddhist temple Kilsang-sa which, Elgin notes, takes a more modern approach to temple-building.

If you're not familiar with The Marmot's Hole, a blog that started off as an individual effort by Koehler but which has, in recent years, evolved into a group blog, go visit. The quality of the content is fairly consistent from writer to writer, but the quality of the writing can sometimes vary, so caveat lector. The comments threads long ago became too obnoxious for me to visit regularly, but I do dip into them on occasion. You can find good intelligent commentary in there, but you do have to sift through a lot of crap to find the corn nuggets. Stick to the posts themselves, and you're on firmer ground.


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Saturday, December 27, 2008

legs

As happened before, I got home from my walk, and about an hour later, my knees were aching pretty badly. It was actually hard to move up and down the stairs. I think what I should have done was take a painkiller. I admit I had reached a point during the last part of my walk when I was popping twice the recommended dosage to keep my right knee from screaming, but now that I've been "dry" for months, I'm thinking it might be time to try a single tablet per day-- or per walk, as I'm not walking today, and hadn't intended to.

Right now, the knees seem fine after a night's rest. Whatever the ache is from, it's not related to the ligament strain; yesterday's pain didn't have the same quality. This state of affairs probably puts a damper on my New Year's plans, alas: if eleven miles can produce a near-debilitating ache, imagine 36.6 miles.


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Friday, December 26, 2008

those horrible, horrible words

According to this Yahoo! News artice, a woman in Florida claims that her insistence upon saying "Merry Christmas" got her fired. I'm not too concerned with the particulars of the case, which seems to involve stupidity on both sides of the dispute, but I do want, once again, to talk about the question of whether the phrase "Merry Christmas" (and its cousins in other religious traditions) has any place in the public sphere.

To me, it's a no-brainer: "Merry Christmas," earnestly said, is completely inoffensive. My problem is with the people who object to the utterance of that wish on the grounds that it is somehow oppressive. To those folks I say: you obviously don't know a damn thing about oppression. Want to know what it's like to live under someone else's thumb? Ask some older black folks about life before the 1960s. Ask some older Koreans who remember the Japanese occupation, or Koreans who've recently escaped from North Korea. Talk to Holocaust survivors and to people who made it through Stalin's time. Talk to the victims of apartheid in South Africa. There are millions of people out there who, even today, actually suffer under the yoke of real oppression, and I'm pretty sure they're not too worried about the impact of a phrase like "Merry Christmas." You might say that I'm offended by the easily offended, and this PC nonsense that has turned simple religious greetings into verbal minefields bugs me to no end.

I'm not offended to hear "Seong-bul hashipshiyo" ("May you attain Buddhahood") from a monk or lay Buddhist. If a Jewish friend wants to wish me a Happy Hanukah, that's fantastic. Why should anyone of any religion feel they have to keep their religious sentiments bottled up? What would be so wrong about a public sphere in which echoed a cacophony of diverse greetings, all expressing heartfelt good intentions, varying according to culture and season?

What are your thoughts on the matter?

UPDATE: Superblogger Ann Althouse seems to agree with what I'm saying:

The majority of Americans may be Christian, but even within this majority, many prefer for the shared public forum to be secular. And most of those who want to see more Christmas displays and to hear more wishes of "Merry Christmas" are not expecting nonbelievers to celebrate the religious holiday. They may also think -- as many nonChristians also think -- that it can be happy and heartwarming to see the signs of other people's religion -- at least in a free country where no one is trying to make you do anything other than passively witness what other people choose to do.

In that same blog post, Althouse quotes a blog post by her ex-husband, a Jew, who puts things in proper perspective.

The only thing that confuses me about the above-quoted paragraph is the intrusion of the word "secular," which doesn't quite fit the point Althouse may be trying to make. To me, "secular" is the opposite of "religious," and I think what she and I are really advocating is something that might not even have a name: a neutral playing field where various religious traditions and secular positions are tolerated and granted parity in terms of how they may express themselves in public. What's wrong with humorous celebrations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or shouting a facetious-but-not-spiteful "Happy Festivus" in response to the "Merry Christmas"es of others? Open the arena to all and sundry, but don't call it "secular." There has to be a better term for that sort of forum.



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10:24AM to 1:56PM-- 11 miles, 3.11mph

Back from my walk, which started off cool and bright, warmed up a bit, then cooled down again as the clouds rolled in. When I checked the weather last night, they were predicting afternoon showers, which may account for the current gloom.

Lots of dog-walkers and joggers (and dog-joggers) on this, the day after Christmas. It was also interesting to see that the Mile 0 sign (which I always pass two miles into my walk) had been knocked partway over by someone; it looked almost as if the sign had engaged in some premature New Year's binge drinking.

I plan to do a bit of "rehab" walking this week and next, building my endurance back up, as I'm thinking about walking down to where my buddy Mike lives. It's a 36.6-mile trek, and I'm estimating that I'll need about 14 or 15 hours to do it. At an average speed of about 2.9mph (I'm sure I'll be slowing down toward the end), it'll take 12.6 hours to cross the distance nonstop, but trust me, I intend to stop a few times!

If I plan for a total of 15 hours, this will mean leaving around 5AM so that I can arrive around 8PM-- tastefully post-dinner and in time for the evening festivities which, if they're anything like what happens in our house, will include cheese, crackers, chips, soft drinks, a goofy movie, and, at midnight, crystal wine glasses filled with sparkling, non-alcoholic wine. (Actually, I'm pretty sure Mike won't be going for the kids' stuff. He's no lush, but he's also no sissy when it comes to alcohol, unlike yours truly.)

Plenty of walking (and at least one run) to do between now and New Year's.


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all that remains of the deer's remains

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almost home from the stroll (11 miles)

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Mile 2.6: the Park Service has finished the new boardwalk

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Mile 0 must've been knocked over recently (yeah, I'm walkin')

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contact Kevin!

There are a few ways to get hold of me. (Revised as of April 28, 2011.)

1. Email: kevinswalk [at] gmail [dot] com

Note: write "Kevin" in the subject line, or your email will be shunted to the trash folder. I created an anti-spam filter that does this; nothing personal.

2. Twitter: send a Direct Message (DM) to me. My Twitter URL is twitter.com/kevinswalk. Many Twits in the Twitterverse will write this as "@kevinswalk."

I used to be a Facebookian, but I rapidly tired of Facebook's security issues (on the technical front) and its plethora of useless gewgaws and doodads (on the aesthetic front). I might be persuaded to rejoin Facebook purely for walk-related purposes, but the potential persuader would have to make a pretty strong argument for why I'd need a Facebook presence on top of a blog and Twitter presence. About the only advantage I see is Facebook's ease-of-use when forming groups or committees dedicated to particular tasks, topics, or events.


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Thursday, December 25, 2008

celebrate!



UPDATE:

My good friend Max writes a thoughtful, reflective post.

My good friend Charles posts a hilarious Christmas poem on Liminality.

The Party Pooper provides an interesting, not-for-kids link at Christmas.

From Skippy:

The American people have made their preference clear. They’ve voted with their noses. When 5% of the world’s population consumes 50% of the drugs, it becomes crystal clear that the United States should deal with the demand, if they absolutely insist on the childish demand that drugs remain illegal. Once that happens, the supply takes care of itself.

I'm beginning to come around to this point of view.


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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

in the Yuletide spirit

Christmas represents many things to many people, but if you see it as a time to be humble and mindful, you might enjoy this video, something of a YouTube classic after first having appeared on the now-defunct DivX site. The vid combines Carl Sagan's reading from his book, The Pale Blue Dot, with cute visuals and decent-- if occasionally overbearing-- background music.

Enjoy.

UPDATE: From the Maven comes this glorious monstrosity: the pizzagna.


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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

contrasts

One woman sees an "angel" while in the hospital, and her Christian faith is strengthened thereby.

Addofio, meanwhile, writes an interesting post on why she's not a Christian.


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question for my buddy John in En-Zed

John!

Koreans largely seem to have lost interest in studying English in New Zealand (their loss), but am I correct in thinking that Thais have been showing a great deal of interest in you Kiwis and your primitive ways? Which reminds me: is there any running water in New Zealand yet?

You're all gonna love Obama, I think: he's probably going to promote nuclear energy, which I know is something your country has desperately coveted for years.


Kevin


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Agent Smith tells Morpheus what it's all about

Here's your moment of cosmic humor this Christmas. This had me rolling.


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apologies to all

For what I hope should be obvious reasons, I'm not sending out Christmas cards or gifts to anyone this year. I'll craft an e-card and display it both here and somewhere on Facebook, but I'm afraid that's about the best I can manage. Things have been busy here, as you know: renovation continues, I'm proofreading/editing on a regular basis, and the time has come to restart the exercise program. All of this takes time. I'm also low on funds, as are the parents, who have invested very heavily in the house's renovation. We're not in much position to be as giving as we'd like.

So my apologies to all and sundry for what will be a rather barren Christmas this time around; even within our family, we're not planning on any huge gift exchanges. My brother Sean will be away for Christmas, so the remaining four of us will delay any real celebration until after Sean is back. Christmas Day might see us making some fondue, which is simple to prepare. Turkey and all the rest will have to wait until later.

Try me again next Christmas. I'll be in one of three places: (1) at home, done from the walk and preparing to jump back to Korea, (2) in Korea already, or (3) still on the road somewhere.


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not the sort of news you want at Christmas (or any time, really)

In Wisconsin: 2 men freeze to death. One was barely a mile from his home.

My hometown is in an area rated "Top 10 Most Polluted" in two out of three such top-ten lists. See here, and look for the "Baltimore, Md./Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia" area.

Seattle, one of the cities I've walked through, tries some municipal craziness.

Joe Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI, acts in a manner consistent with predictions.


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wussed

Stayed inside last night. Should've gone out. Would've been interesting. But the siren song of the comfortable mattress was too much for my already-weak will.


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Monday, December 22, 2008

the decision

I'm contemplating sleeping out in the tent tonight. I'm likely to wuss out and stay inside, but tonight-- with temps well, well below freezing-- would be a good night to see what real winter camping is all about.


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Facebook photos

Rather grudgingly, I've begun adding photos and captions to my Facebook profile. If you've been following this blog consistently, you won't see anything there to surprise you. If, on the other hand, you're more attuned to the pretty pictures and useless gizmos on Facebook, then this added visual stimulus might finally draw your attention to my profile and allow you to see that I've actually had a life in the months since I left Korea. 2008 has been an exciting year for me.

I'm one of those people who hate to repeat themselves, so it's vexing when someone who knows about the blog writes in to say, "Hey, long time! What's been going on in your life?" One of the primary purposes of the blog is to keep people caught up. Renseignez-vous before asking me that question, dang it. There are plenty of pictures and blog posts there to give you some idea what's been going on.


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"Arab" does not mean "Muslim"

Another interesting post about the way the press handles (and often bungles) ethnic and religious issues over at Get Religion.

Now, the anonymous Egyptian woman uses the term “Arabic” to describe these young women — inside a direct quotation. That needs to stand. But that makes it even more important to note that “Arab” does not mean “Muslim.”

Who cares about this?

Well, millions of non-Arab Muslims care about this issue quite a bit. Obviously, Arab Christians do, as well.

But the story marches on and on in this fashion. Clearly, no one at the Times copy desk was sensitive to this issue. Toward the end, there is even a reference to the airline trying to keep “Arab family values in mind” when working with these young women. What might this phrase mean?


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Sunday, December 21, 2008

humbling

My Dad and I looked at the path that stretches along Route 12 from Walla Walla to Missoula, Montana. Using the Google Earth ruler tool, I estimated the length of that stretch to be about 330 miles, and that's 330 miles of almost nothing. It would be a tough walk. Without Les Stroud-level survival skills, I'd almost certainly need a chase car.

I've promised to let people in on my thinking process regarding the Big Picture, but there's still a lot I haven't nailed down. One thing I do know, though, is that I'd like to finish the walk by my 40th birthday, which is August 31, 2009. If I can manage that, I'll have done the walk in nine months, just like George Martin, the ex-footballer on my sidebar (A Journey for 9/11-- scroll down to the "Inspirations" section). Setting this goal as a fundamental parameter may allow other priorities to fall into place, and will make the walk's mission more focused than it's been.

More thoughts later.


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cool preview

Kathreb, now at her new blog, has a cool post at her old blog (dated November-- sorry, Kate) in which is embedded the preview trailer of a Korean movie called "The Good, The Bad, The Weird." Very cool-looking. Check it out.


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Saturday, December 20, 2008

all the news that's fit to print

1. First rum cake order! Thank you!

2. We're done bringing all the "entarped" contents back inside the house (thanks, David)! Now we have to go through all the boxes and figure out what goes where. Not an easy task. I also need to take a look at the attic and see how it might be converted into a better storage space than it already is.

3. The renovators did a partial repair of the new, fancy Schonbeck light that hangs directly over the kitchen island. They also successfully installed the upstairs bathroom mirror and the remaining bedroom and hallway lights. Still to come: the rest of the deck.


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the tarp is a swimming pool (3)

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

the tarp is a swimming pool (2)

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the tarp is a swimming pool (1)

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challenge

The final tarpful of possessions awaits unwrapping. My brother David is here, but he's currently zonked out: the poor guy had only three hours' sleep last night after working at the nightclub (which he does after working full-time at his office job). Once David's up from a several-hour nap, he'll help me with the heavier items under the tarp. For now, he needs rest.

We're close to having the back yard back again: I have to deal with all the loose tarps, collapse the kitchen tent, and get rid of the mass of cargo skids first. We've also got to get rid of all the extra lumber from the deck work, and the renovators need to take back their circular saw and other equipment. The final step will be for me to comb the perimeter and underside of the deck to track down as many loose nails and braces and other loose bits of metal as I can.

The renovators are here today, working on trim for the kitchen island, fixing the new soap dispenser, adding more lighting, and repairing one of the new hanging lamps, which is both missing a chunk of crystal and suffering from some sort of circuit-related problem. In all, it's un samedi mouvementé. Back later when I've got time.


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'tis the season

My parents make an amazing rum cake. Want one? $30 plus shipping-- PayPal me!



You can actually see the rum mixture saturating the cake in the above picture. Too bad you can't smell the goodness.

A note about shipping cost: much depends on how far away you are and how fast you want the cake. Assume that the cake probably won't go out the same day it's made (though that's possible). If you rush-order your cake, it might still arrive in time for Christmas (if you're in the mainland US, that is; orders from Korea will probably take longer to arrive). I would have advertised before now, if we'd had the time-- and the facilities!-- to make rum cakes, but now that we've got a functioning kitchen and are beginning to wind down with the renovation, it'd be a shame not to be cooking.

Think about it. And think big: order two rum cakes for $25 a cake. Order three or more for $20 a cake!


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and as the renovation finally begins to wind down...

It's time to begin focusing on the upcoming journey. March really isn't that far away, and I still face major cash issues before I can continue this walk. I also have to get back in shape; the weight's been creeping up ever since I got home-- there's nothing like walking for weeks on end to get your weight down; suddenly stopping all that has been a major source of frustration.

Now, however, the knee's at a point where I can no longer use it as an excuse to avoid strenuous, health-related activity. Because it's time to stop acting like a football player gone to seed, I'm going to take the rather perilous step of filming myself periodically to prove that I've met certain stated fitness goals. This promises to be a horrible, privacy-invading experience, but I'm willing to suffer for my art. So first, let's set a few modest goals, and a time limit for them:

By January 31st:

1. Weight down to 245.

2. Able to do 40 pushups, taekwondo-style.

3. Able to do 90 abdominal crunches-- 30 each in 3 different styles.

4. Able to run a mile in under 10 minutes.

5. Able to do a single, legitimate pullup.

I'm out of shape-- have been for years-- and these are modest, reachable goals, especially after the conditioning I've received while on the road. I'm not starting from absolute zero, but I am nonetheless starting from a deficit built up from years of laziness. 600 miles of walking is barely the beginning of a cure.

Assuming I make decent progress over the next 40 days, by February 28 I should be able to reach the following goals:

1. Weight down to 225.

2. Able to do 60 pushups, taekwondo-style.

3. Able to do 150 abdominal crunches-- 50 each in 3 different styles.

4. Able to run a mile in under 8 minutes.

5. Able to do at least two legitimate pullups. (My personal best, back in 1989, is seven-- starting from a full hang, palms out and spread slightly wider than shoulder-width.)

Is this possible? I think it is. It's a horrible season to be contemplate this sort of regime, but I don't have much choice if I plan to continue to walk long distances. I do need to be tougher than I've been.

To be sure, I'll be doing other exercises along the way, but I'll only film the above-listed activities. I don't want to bore you any more than I already do, after all.

Just FYI, the renovation still has a long way to go, but we're past the crescendo and moving into a calmer period. It's less about heavy lifting than about shuffling and tweaking, at this point. Possessions need to be put in their proper places; a few extra bookshelves and cabinets/closets need to be purchased to fill some of the new spaces created by all the changes; a few new pieces of furniture need to be bought; chipped paint and flawed floorboards need to be dealt with, along with other minor problems that have cropped up over the course of the last few months. None of what still needs to be done is quite as urgent as all that had gone before; we're nearing the end. Dad thinks that won't be until the end of January, which sounds about right.

In the meantime, I've got a fitness program to implement, more money to earn (just completed another assignment from BK; the boss apparently likes the job I'm doing, as I provide a page of proofreader's notes with every document), a route to plot, a laptop to repair, and transcripts to write (no, I haven't forgotten about them, but they're locked inside that malfunctioning laptop of mine).

At some point before I go back west, I might also do a "practice" walk from where I am down to where my buddy Mike lives (he lives in the city of Undisclosed Location, Virginia); I haven't cleared this with him yet, but the walking route for Google Maps (still being beta tested) shows that his house is a bit less than 37 miles away-- easily a day's walk if I start very, very early! I've walked a similar distance before with a 60-pound pack on my back; if I walk to Mike's place with little more than a coat, some snacks, and a decent water supply, I ought to be just fine.

I'll be writing later about the Big Picture-- how I've been thinking about, and re-thinking, the larger Walk.


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Friday, December 19, 2008

oh, to be a performer

My brother Sean, a professional cellist, had a chance to perform last night with a folk-rock group-- somewhere in DC, I think. Sean's heading off to Berlin for Christmas to perform there as well, much to my great, great envy. My friends know my story: while living and studying in Fribourg, Switzerland during the 1989-90 academic year, I traveled to Berlin one week after the Wall came down and simply drank in the ambience. The city will always be special for me because of that time; I remember cold air and kiosks selling mulled wine; I remember throngs of people on the western side of the Wall, and people on top of the Wall; I remember Koreans who saw hope for their own reunification, dancing with signs that read "Korea ist EINS!" on them. I remember crossing through Checkpoint Charlie into the eastern sector; I remember huge, beautiful, empty streets, imposing sculpture gardens, Ostmarks that looked like Monopoly money, and an awful fish-and-potato dish drenched in a runny cream sauce.

I told Sean to take lots of pictures and see lots of sights while in Berlin, but Sean replied that he'll be there only for that one gig (all travel expenses paid!), and thus won't have time for touring. What a shame. Berlin in the Christmas season is probably a thing of beauty (if it's anything like Switzerland or the Alsace-Lorraine region at this time of year), and I'm curious to see how much the eastern side has changed since 1989. I suppose I can satisfy my curiosity with a tour of the photos posted to Google Earth, but living vicariously through someone I know is a much better way to experience a place than staring at a stranger's photos.

Ah, the envy.


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Thursday, December 18, 2008

one... more... to go

I took down the second-to-last tarp structure today, moving all the contents back inside the house while the parents were out shopping. We're back to having huge piles of boxes in the house again, but it's nice to know that most of the folks' possessions are once again indoors, away from the alternating heat, cold, humidity, dryness, rain, frost, and even snow. I don't drink alcohol, but I do feel a pang about the torture that our supply of potables-- wine, rum, whiskey-- has gone through, having been stored outside in the kitchen tent.

That tent was emptied of all kitchen-related items a while ago, but it's still performing a vital function: tarp repository. If the tarps are dry when opened and removed, they're rolled up and stuck inside the kitchen tent. If they're wet (and the most recently handled ones are all rain-drenched), they stay unrolled and outside; they're simply too large to bring into the house.

Once the final tarp and the kitchen tent are taken down, we'll be close to having our back yard back. Not that it matters much with winter here, but an unobstructed view of our neighbors and their bark-bark-barking dogs will be a nice change. Gotta do something about those dogs, ladies. Seriously. I've seen episodes of "The Dog Whisperer" and know that it's possible to train your babies not to bark unnecessarily. Get to it!


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wise use of renewable resources

This is incredible! Go read about GluBam, strips of bamboo glued and compressed together to form beams that can support up to eight tons of weight! Amazing.


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quiche

Two pics of yesterday's foray into the world of quiche-making. Two of the quiches were made with frozen spinach; the other two were made with fresh spinach. Conclusion: go with fresh every time, but make sure the spinach is totally dry before sticking it into the pie crust. The fresh-spinach quiches turned out perfectly; the imperfectly drained frozen-spinach quiches ended up with soggy bottoms. Not tragic: a few minutes at high heat atop our new range ended up fixing the problem.

Ladies and gentlemen: quiches!





I had to substitute milk for heavy cream, which may have detracted a bit from the overall puffiness of the quiches. Wish you could smell the goodness: eggs, milk, three types of cheese, spinach, mushroom, dried onions, bacon, salt, pepper, and a tiny bit of Italian seasoning. Much butt was kicked.


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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Philip Pullman's frothy metaphysics

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) is a wild metaphysical ride-- imagine Tom Robbins for kids-- that takes the reader through multiple alternate universes, many of which appear to be variations on our own, but at least one of which features an earth on which no human life evolved (the mulefa of that world are sentient, but not human: imagine elephants on motorcycles). We encounter only an infinitesimal fraction of the universes out there; more are born every moment.

The manner in which Pullman's universes are born is boilerplate sci-fi (for a classic example, see Larry Niven's short story, "All the Myriad Ways," in his collection of the same title): as sentient beings are faced with choices, each choice results in a mitotic split by which new universes are born, each universe containing an alternate version of the sentient being who has passed beyond the moment of choice. If a certain Being X has twenty possible choices at a given moment, then twenty different universes will be born, each one instantiating one of those twenty choices. Of course, assuming the existence of libertarian free will, each sentient individual actually faces an infinity of possible actions each moment, so each individual is "producing" infinities upon infinities of universes every moment. If you think that's complicated, apply that scenario to every sentient being.

The idea that we live in an ever-burgeoning froth of universes is evocative, but is also, in my opinion, unworkable. I want to talk first about the narrative problems it poses for Pullman's plot (this will require explaining the story a bit), and later on about the philosophical problems inherent in a frothy metaphysic.

1. Narrative Problems

Pullman obviously can't lead us through every single universe; for his story to have any coherence, he must confine his narrative to just a few universes. The ones we encounter are:

1. Lyra Belacqua's world
2. Will Parry's world (which is also our world)
3. The world of Cittàgazze (characterized by the predominance of Italian culture, the presence of Coca Cola, and the general lack of adults in the big cities)
4. The world of Lord Asriel's fortress
5. The world of the mulefa, where Mary Malone constructs her amber spyglass

Beings from other universes appear in the story, but we never visit those places.

All the parallel/alternate universes are connected, however, by the existence of Dust, which is particles of consciousness. When matter evolves to the point where sentience appears, there Dust is found. The universes are also connected to the Abyss: interdimensional explosions that rip the fabric of space-time can create holes in many alternate worlds at once, and the Dust from those worlds will begin to drain into that singular Abyss.

It is possible that the universes are also connected "at the top": the idea that all the universes are the products of a single creator God is alluded to in the books, although God is never actually seen, and God's existence is never confirmed. Much of the story focuses instead on The Authority, the first and greatest angel to be formed from the coalescence of Dust. The Authority crowned himself God and told all who followed that he was the creator.

Angels can pass easily between alternate universes without disturbing the overall frothy structure of the Great Metaphysic (my term for the sum total of all universes, not Pullman's). It seems that angels, despite being the most highly sentient of sentient beings, do not produce new universes with their choices. Pullman never directly addresses this issue. Humans, too, can pass from one universe to another; in fact, many doors between worlds remain open because the humans who created them have forgotten to reclose them.

If I've read Pullman correctly, the human ability to travel between worlds began about three hundred years ago in the world of Cittàgazze, where someone or a group of someones created a tool called the "subtle knife." The blade is of modest size and two-edged; one edge cuts through any material (reminiscent of a lightsaber); the other edge, when the proper owner of the knife achieves the correct state of mind, cuts through the fabric of one's universe and, depending on the direction of one's concentration, can slice a window or hole into an alternate world. Shifts in cuts and concentration are what allow the knife wielder to open doors to different worlds. A conscientious user of the knife can step through the threshold and reseal the tear, if he so wishes.

But over the course of three centuries, the various users of the subtle knife have secretly entered different universes, pilfering items and technologies found in them, often leaving the doors between worlds open. Each tear allows a little of the Abyss to peek through, and soul-eating Specters, the children of the Abyss, are created every time a cut with the subtle knife is made. As a result, a good part of the trilogy is devoted to the question of how to repair the open doors, stanch the flow of Dust into the Abyss, and stop the spread of the Specters.

It's all quite complicated, and I'm afraid it's also unworkable from a narrative point of view. The problem is this: if there's one Cittàgazze world, there are many-- an infinity of them, in fact. The moment the subtle knife was created, there wouldn't have been only one such knife, as Pullman's story implies: there would have been an infinity of them, too, with an infinity of people doing an infinite amount of damage to the Great Metaphysic. The plot of the trilogy wraps itself up far too neatly (and happily), and this is problematic because Pullman obviously wants to write a smart story for smart kids, a story that works on many levels. Astute young readers will catch on to the same problems I'm talking about here, and will have the same doubts about the conclusion of Pullman's trilogy.

With a blossoming infinity of subtle knives out there, a simple resolution is quite impossible. How would you track down and stop the wielders when each wielder is producing an infinity of new wielders at every moment? I conclude that Pullman bit off more than he could chew when he decided on such a freewheeling many-worlds scenario for his story. He could have avoided the chaos by hewing to a more modest alternate-universe paradigm, such as can be found in CS Lewis's Narnia series, where God's anteroom is a forest filled with still pools of water, each pool a gateway to a self-contained universe, with little to no interpenetration between universes except whatever God allows. Pullman could also have gone for an even more restricted scenario, such as the one in Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, which deals with only one alternate world created by a being who, in our world, appears to be a Hindu monk. In terms of narrative, neatness counts, and the more I think about Pullman's story, the less I like this aspect of it. What a contrast with that other well-known series, the Harry Potter heptalogy! JK Rowling offers us only one world, one with quite enough action to keep us occupied, thank you very much. When put next to Pullman's trilogy, Rowling's series looks relentlessly linear.

2. Philosophical Problems

Now let's turn to the matter of the frothy metaphysic itself.

I'm a big fan of Occam's Razor, which states that we should "not multiply entities beyond necessity." This is normally interpreted to mean "the simplest, most elegant explanation for a given state of affairs is probably the correct one," but in the case of Pullman's Great Metaphysic, there's no need to reinterpret Occam: Pullman's story quite literally multiplies entities beyond necessity!

But let's think for a moment in terms of simple, elegant explanations. Which explanation for the current state of affairs strikes you as simpler and more elegant?

1. There is only one universe.

2. There is an infinity of universes, with new ones being created all the time as sentient beings make choices.

The idea that this one reality (and there can only ever be one reality, as I explained back in this post) contains one universe strikes me intuitively as correct. Parallel universes seem to me to feed an anthropocentric need to spread our egos as far and wide as possible: what a nice fantasy to think that somewhere out there is an alternate Kevin who is at this very moment sipping Mai Tais and surrounded by gorgeous women!

So the froth model seems to fail the test of Occam's Razor, a truly subtle knife if ever there was one. I also think the notion of a frothing reality presents us with a problem only vaguely alluded to earlier: the problem of freedom.

Freedom, conventionally defined, is the ability to do otherwise than what one has done. This suggests that, at a given choice-moment, there is the actual choice made and, potentially, an infinity of counterfactuals, the ghosts of alternatives unexplored. In the froth model, however, there are no counterfactuals: all possibilities are actualized! Stepping back to the God's-eye view, we can see that this means there is no freedom, no shadowy "otherwise." Those "otherwises" actually exist in-- as-- other worlds.

Let's simplify the situation and pretend that at moment M, when Kevin makes a choice, reality suddenly switches to the froth model, and that only Kevin is the generator of universes. What this means, from the God's-eye perspective, is that Kevin is a being whose true shape spreads across a multiverse and resembles a great, branching structure. That structure contains no potentiality, because every single one of Kevin's choices is actualized in some universe somewhere. The shape of this structure is therefore fixed: the branch-Kevin, taken as a whole, is not free. If we follow Kevin along only one world-line, we can see how he might think of himself as free-- how, from his limited perspective, he might come to regret the would-haves and could-haves in his life. But Kevin in his entirety, the infinitely ramified Kevin, isn't free at all: his plural existences cover all possibilities, leaving no counterfactuals.

I somehow doubt that reality is this complicated. I may be wrong, but Occam's Razor is quite persuasive: it's more fruitful to think we all inhabit a single, non-frothing reality, and that counterfactuals, whatever they are and whatever their ontological status, drop away as we pass through each moment of choice.* It also makes little sense, thermodynamically speaking, to say that we, or that our decisions, somehow create whole universes. Easier to adopt the creaturely view that we arise out of a universal matrix, retain some coherence for a time, and then slough back into the cosmic churning-- scattered and dissipated, and never to return exactly as we were.

In conclusion, then: while I found Pullman's trilogy to be a great read, it may have failed in the exploration of one of its most central ideas-- the notion of a ramifying multiverse. The neat conclusion of the trilogy did not take the metaphysic seriously enough, and as a result, the conclusion rang false.





*The same could be said for quantum-level fluctuations in the structure of abiotic matter. Why should sentience be the sole producer of universes?


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not a real man

I plan on making quiche for lunch. We'll see how that goes. I've got eggs, cheese, bacon, spinach, mushrooms, and onions (or in my case, dried onions, because I'm not a huge fan of onions in my food), and premade pie crusts. Gotta find a decent online recipe for quiche now.


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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Buddhist-Christian cooperation
...a thousand years ago

A very interesting post on ancient collaboration between Buddhists and Christians over at a blog called Letters from the Road by a guy based in Singapore who goes by the moniker Yueheng (real name?).

Letters from the Road is a very thoughtful, intelligent blog that covers a variety of religious and cultural issues; I've created a new category on my sidebar called "Trouvailles" for blogs that don't fit into the "People Met Along the Way" category (because I haven't actually met them), or the "Old Haunts" category (because these blogs aren't imports from my old blogroll), or the "Reach Out" category (which includes links also imported from the old blogroll). LFTR is the first blog in the "Trouvailles" category.

Welcome aboard!


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whoa

Woke up super-late today. I think I've been sick since Sunday night-- the normal "immune system slump" that my body goes through after I get through a period of tension and stress. Last weekend was such a period, what with renovation duties, emceeing, and the large, do-this-NOW proofreading project all demanding my attention. After I finished the proofing yesterday around dinnertime, I pretty much let myself go, mentally speaking. Dad went off to get Popeye's fried chicken for the family, and I spent the evening flipping through movie channels that we don't normally have: Verizon was holding a promo for HBO and Cinemax, so I got to see bits of "Courage Under Fire," "Star Trek: Generations," and, later, the horror movie "The Ruins," a story about heedless twentysomethings in Mexico who blunder into an ancient Mayan temple and are attacked by vicious sentient vines. I ended up cheering the vines. Those twentysomethings were annoying.

Now I'm up. It's the afternoon, and I've got a tarp city to dismantle.


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Monday, December 15, 2008

life imitates art

Have you ever read Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full? If so, you may recall entrepreneur Charlie Croker's plantation, a monument to conspicuous consumption that features a domicile equipped with both a massive hearth and massive air conditioning. Here's the rub: the house is in Georgia and, especially in the summer, just doesn't need a fireplace that big. So how does Croker justify using the fireplace at all? He turns on that air conditioning!

Now we have an example of life imitating art: the upcoming refrigerated beach. I had to laugh when I read the article: the refrigeration system is essentially an anti-ondol. For those who don't know: Korean dwellings are often equipped with ondol floors-- that is, floors atop a system of pipes through which heated air or water can pass, thereby heating the floor during the winter.

Good luck to the beach-coolers.


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survived

The Christmas party went well. My thanks to the ladies of the Washington Korean Women's Society for having invited me to emcee for them. I was happy to hear that people were entertained, and was doubly glad that we had great speeches from everyone. Special props to the Consul General of the Korean Embassy, who deftly riffed off my Konglish jokes to hilarious effect.

Now I'm home, and I've got until 3AM to proof a 9-page, single-spaced document that arrived while the party was going on (oh, yes: I turned on the BlackBerry during a lull in the proceedings... CrackBerry, indeed). Nine pages in three hours? Who're we kidding? No way that's gonna happen. I've already emailed my BK contact to say that I'll work as fast as I can, but I won't make a 5PM (Seoul time) deadline.

So-- back to the grind! Gotta do as much as I can.

UPDATE: It's 3AM, and this is just insane. The 9-page document is riddled with errors. I'm crawling through it, and after three hours, I'm barely halfway through page 2. I'm also getting cross-eyed and am calling it a night; I've informed my Seoul contact of this. If this gets me fired, so be it. It's ridiculous to expect a person to work through the night after having spent six hours emceeing. You'd need guru-like stamina and powers of concentration. Not this tar baby.


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Sunday, December 14, 2008

stand or fall

Sure enough, I got a second editing/proofing assignment from BK, but the file was sent in the HWP format. Dad doesn't have the Hangeul word processing program on his computer-- why would he? his keyboard doesn't have Hangeul on it! My contact in Seoul, quickly realizing that HWP probably wasn't the best format, immediately sent me a second email saying that an MS Word version of the file was attached. Only... no attachment. She also said the job needed to be done by Monday morning, Seoul time, but that's obviously not gonna happen today. I wrote my contact and explained that I'd be emceeing until about midnight, DC time, and wouldn't be home until close to 1AM, i.e., 3PM on Monday, Seoul time. I told her that I might be able to get the job done before close of business (approx. 5PM), but couldn't guarantee that. She's in for a surprise when she wakes up and opens my email.

Meantime, I'm gearing up for tonight's Christmas party, writing my script, looking over the details, formulating any questions I might have. I'm being asked to do less tonight than I've done in the past, which is relaxing for me. I won't feel any real stress until right before I arrive, but I'm very comfortable with this group, so whatever stress I feel will quickly disappear. Having done my share of public speaking, I'm hoping the evening will pass smoothly. Who knows... we might even have photos later, if I remember to bring my camera.


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cool

I'm done with the six-pager, and now there's more work coming my way from BK (not Burger King, dammit!). Too bad I'll be asleep when the assignment arrives in my in-box. I already sent off an email explaining the situmication; I can only pray the Seoul office (damn, they're working full tilt on Sunday) understands that this hairy monkey needs his shut-eye.


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Saturday, December 13, 2008

where to go when you're not reading this blog

Hell, this humble blog is probably just an afterthought for most of you, but if you're looking for something to chew on while you wait for me to vomit up my post on multiple universes, here are two links for your perusal:

1. A wittily sarcastic review of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" by Roger Ebert.

2. The first part of Addofio's critique of Malcolm Gladwell's article, cited in a previous post of mine. Addofio has written a thoughtful, excellent post; be sure to read it, and here's hoping that Part II arrives soon.


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milestone

I've washed my first set of dishes in our new kitchen. YES!

Cue Ewok orgy. Rippling fur hiding passionate muscles; thick, gooey ropes of olive oil flying everywhere; a tantalizing glimpse of Princess Leia gettin' it on with Han Solo in the crotch of an ancient tree.

We all know what "Yubb-nubb" really refers to.


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sadness

"Survivorman" is coming to an end, which leaves us with... Bear Grylls.


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how we know Kevin's home

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Murphy's Law is alive and well

Today, I have to dismantle at least two major tarp structures and bring their contents inside. I also have to work on my emcee agenda (tomorrow's the Christmas party), which promises to take a bit of time. And just as I suspected, a large editing job* arrived in my BlackBerry while I was outside in my tent last night; it has to be done by noon on Sunday, Seoul time, which is 10PM on Saturday, Washington, DC time. That means tonight, y'all.

Reality expresses itself in clumps, so it should be no surprise that in one's life there are periods with nothing to do, and sudden moments where disparate events come crashing together. Today is, as they say, one of those days.





*I have two jobs: one that I secured with the kind help of my buddy Charles, another I found through the online classifieds thanks to my friend Lara, who's also based in Seoul, and who pointed me to the ad that led to my employment with a company I'll call BK (not Burger King, dammit). Both are proofing/editing jobs; today's assignment, a six-pager from BK, promises to take many hours.


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reminder about comments

Please read my comments policy before commenting (see sidebar for link)! Over the past week, I've had to reject two comments because they were anonymous, and as my policy says, I don't accept anonymous comments. Even if you provide a screen name that reveals nothing about who you really are, that's better than commenting anonymously. At the very least, a screen name establishes a consistent presence and allow me to become familiar with a person's comments and general style of commenting.

The two comments I deleted were both civil and informative-- in other words, they were perfectly good comments, except that they were anonymous. My apologies to those commenters for not having displayed their insights; I hope they'll re-post "nymously" this time around! No hard feelings, I hope.


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morning in my tent

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Friday, December 12, 2008

much accomplished

It takes a lot of time to shuffle furniture around on a hardwood floor, especially when you're short-handed. Luckily, my brother Sean showed up to collect his dog Maqz, and he consented (Sean, that is, not Maqz) to help us move some major pieces of furniture-- two dressers-- out of the new dining room and back into one of the bedrooms, then slap felt protectors on the dressers' feet and push those behemoths into place. With the major pieces out of the way, Dad and I were able to wrestle a box spring from the dining room to the downstairs, and I cleared out most of the living room. The dining room currently stands empty; the living room is empty except for a large, extremely heavy TV.

The second half of today's labor involved emptying out the kitchen tent outside, bringing in all the cooking-related items and placing them in the kitchen for Mom to sort out. That took several hours. Mom hasn't gone through any of the boxes yet, but she will in the morning, when the renovation crew makes its appearance.

That's right: the renovation crew will be back tomorrow; Dad will be working with them on finishing up the deck, and the crew will be installing more bedroom lights. We also hope they'll be connecting the plumbing to the kitchen units, i.e., the sink/garbage disposal, the sink's soap dispenser, the dishwasher, and the fridge, which has both a water dispenser and icemaking unit. That would effectively reactivate the kitchen. It still needs its backsplash tile, but otherwise, it's done, and I have to admit it's quite a sight, especially at night.

Unfortunately, all is not bliss. The dishwasher presents us with an interesting conundrum, one not of our making. The Mongolian guys who brought in our new countertops did a superb job of measuring, cutting, and fitting, but they seem to have forgotten that the dishwasher's controls are located on the very top of its door, where they stare straight up at the ceiling. The new countertop for the island hangs over juuust enough to cover those controls, making them both invisible and inaccessible to questing fingers. I'm a bit pissed off about this because the crew had a chance to look at the dishwasher when they made their measurements; they should have cut away enough stone to allow our eyes and fingers clear access to the dishwasher's controls.

We're contemplating several ways to get around this, none of which should involve our paying anything. The way I see it, the countertop team is at fault and should correct their mistake. One possibility: drag the dishwasher forward to allow the controls to peek out from under the countertop. The problem, though, is that we can only go forward about an inch before the dishwasher's corner blocks a set of drawers to its left. If the dishwasher is pulled out too far, the drawers won't open.

Second possibility: cut an indentation that's approximately the width of the dishwasher into the countertop. Done sleekly enough, it might not present much of an aesthetic problem, though I can imagine Mom not being happy with that solution. Looks aside, the indentation would provide us the access we require.

Third possibility: cut the same indentation, but on a bias so that we create what will be, in effect, a recess. The surface area of the countertop won't be affected, but we'll have the requisite eye and finger room. The controls won't be visible if one is staring straight down at them, but if one takes a step back, they ought to be visible from a 45-degree angle.

Dad plans to put the problem to Mr. Jeong tomorrow to see if our resourceful Korean renovator can come up with a simpler, more elegant countertop solution than any of the alternatives we've dreamed up.

Tomorrow, I continue the deconstruction of Tarp City. I've also got a finalized Christmas party program, so I can set about writing up my emcee script in the evening. The Korean women's society president is hoping I'll be speaking a good bit of Korean. I'll try, for her sake, but I'll also be spending most of my time in my safe zone, speaking English. I'm not sure the crowd will appreciate too much broken Korean.


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full Friday ahead

Tomorrow's list of things to do:

1. wake up (always a victory when it happens)
2. start bringing in boxes and furniture from under the blue tarps (yes: the collapse of Tarp City begins!)
3. move major furniture back into the appropriate rooms
4. write up script for Sunday's event (I haven't received the finalized agenda yet, but have to have an outline written out; I can make any needed changes very quickly and print out the final script right before I leave for the event; no stress)

Mom seems to have insisted on buying me a new suit for the occasion, after we had agreed on my using one of my brother Sean's old suits; Mom's chosen a cool, gangsterish pinstripe affair. Alas, the jacket she bought was a bit too large; she'll have to exchange it. Shopping for suits is always a pain for me because I have a huge torso and short arms. This anatomical fact earned me the uncharitable nickname "T. Rex" from my brother David; he also calls me "Bird" for the way my hair resembles a bird's nest when I wake up.

What all this means for you, Reader, is that the metaphysical stuff might have to wait until Monday or beyond, when I can better concentrate on what I'm doing. As Alex, Your Humble Narrator, would say: Apple polly loggies.


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Thursday, December 11, 2008

a warm-up post

One version of the many-worlds hypothesis says that, every time a sentient being makes one of several possible choices, a new universe is generated in which that choice is lived out. The other "unchosen" possibilities, meanwhile, are instantiated in different universes. Being itself is therefore a froth of worlds.

Either today or tomorrow, I hope to write that promised post about the metaphysics of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials realm, in which worlds are constantly appearing. In the meantime, I'd love to read your comments on the above version of the many-worlds hypothesis, or on the general question of whether other, parallel universes exist.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

well, shaazbaat

A college buddy of mine told me that he and a group of friends would be hitting a showing of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (Keanu Reeves again in bland messiah mode and Jennifer Connelly reprising her "Hulk" role as second fiddle to freakish protag), and asked whether I'd be interested coming along. I said yes, of course, but have just realized that the movie debuts this weekend-- the same weekend I'll be emceeing.

Might have to take a rain check, folks. Besides, now that I've seen the trailer for "Earth," I think I'd rather watch "Gran Torino."


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Camille Paglia's take on gay marriage

Camille Paglia's perspective on gay marriage is somewhat different from mine:

I may be an atheist, but I respect religion and certainly find it far more philosophically expansive and culturally sustaining than the me-me-me sense of foot-stamping entitlement projected by too many gay activists in the unlamented past. My position has always been (as in "No Law in the Arena" in my 1994 book, "Vamps & Tramps") that government should get out of the marriage business. Marriage is a religious concept that should be defined and administered only by churches. The government, a secular entity, must institute and guarantee civil unions, open to both straight and gay couples and conferring full legal rights and benefits. Liberal heterosexuals who profess support for gay rights should be urged to publicly shun marriage and join gays in the civil union movement.

Those unfamiliar with Paglia and her writing would do well to note that she's not heterosexual. This might or might not change how you read the above paragraph.


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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

why be a good teacher?

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker (with thanks to Justin Yoshida)

I admit the above paragraph gives me pause. My own experience, as a fresh-faced high school French teacher in 1992-era northern Virginia, was that I didn't seem to have much effect on students one way or the other: unmotivated students never stopped drooling and grumbling "This is stupid!" throughout the school year; meanwhile, the energetic overachievers remained as perky and driven at the end as they had been at the beginning. I didn't feel I'd accomplished much, and ultimately left high school teaching because I'd come to realize I was wrong for that age group. I don't have the requisite patience for adolescent bullshit.

Teaching students of college age and above in Korea was a radically different experience. I had never been thanked so often for the simple act of teaching, even when, in 1994, I was doing a mediocre job of it. Now, several years on, I think I've learned from my many mistakes and have picked up a few tricks of the trade, and while I hope that my teaching has inspired some students, I still feel that what I do is an uphill battle. What sort of effect have I had on people's lives?

The above article is a reminder that those of us engaged in pedagogical endeavors carry enormous responsibility, and we'd do well to leave the profession if we're not committed to it. Teaching isn't a good activity in which to be mentally or spiritually elsewhere; of all the professions, it's arguably the one requiring the most presence.

Justin Yoshida's blog post title is "What makes a good teacher?" I don't have a comprehensive answer to that question, but I think the foundation for good teaching-- and good teachering-- can be written as a one-word imperative:

Care.


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do you Get Religion?

Get Religion, to which I've linked on several occasions, is a metablog: it's about writing about religion. GR covers religious journalism and offers its own commentary about how the media handle religious issues and events. Sometimes, it seems to serve not merely as an observer but also as an ombudsman, holding journalists' feet to the fire when the writers at GR see them as remiss. This GR post is a good case in point: it takes on no less than Newsweek Magazine's recent cover article in favor of gay marriage.

Full disclosure: I support gay marriage, and would even go so far as to say that the right of any two consenting adults to marry should be explicitly enshrined in the Constitution. Barring that, a federalist solution-- where the legality of such marriage is determined state by state via legislatures and not courts-- will do just fine. I do not, however, believe that religious institutions can or should be forced to marry homosexuals. I appreciate those institutions that do allow such marriages to take place, but harbor no resentment toward those that don't. An enterprising gay couple will have little trouble, in this day and age, finding a place that will marry them (if they insist on a religious ceremony, that is).

I see the marriage issue as divided into at least two distinct fields: legal/civil and religious. This follows from the separation of church and state: a state might determine that it is legal for homosexuals to marry within its borders, but certain churches in that state would be within their rights not to permit a gay wedding on their grounds. It is important to keep this division in mind in order not to confuse the many issues that arise when gay marriage is discussed.

Arguments for and against the legalization of gay marriage abound; I won't rehash them here (though you're free to leave comments, of course). Whether the Newsweek article has gone off the deep end, as the GR post writer seems to think, is something I'll have to determine on my own. And so will you. Happy reading.


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the whole truth

There's been an interesting discussion about the "What is truth?" question over at the other post, and a school of thought has appeared in the comment threads that deserves to be addressed: is truth simply binary, not admitting of degrees? Commentor Bob Koepp puts it this way:

"2+2=4" is true. "2+2=4 and 2+3=5" is also true, but not more true, or true to a greater degree than the former. There's an important difference between 'more truths' and 'more true.'

BTW, I think that people preparing to testify in court should agree to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth -- leaving the whole truth to the gods.

Later, he writes:

..."partial truths" are not "partly true"; they're "wholly true", but not the "whole truth".

Malcolm adds, riffing off my "light as wave/particle/wavicle" example:

"Light acts as a particle" is true. "Light acts as a wave" is also true. "Light acts as a wavicle" might pick out some finer-grained properties of light, and be a more informative description, but it isn't "truer".

So let's once again set out the three propositions:

P1: Light acts like a wave.
P2: Light acts like a particle.
P3: Light acts like a wavicle.

If we define "truth" degreelessly, i.e., as a binary of yes/no or true/not-true, it becomes impossible to distinguish which of the above three propositions comes closest to describing what light actually is. The only conclusion we can draw is that all three claims about light are equally true. This problem crops up in other areas as well. A person who testifies in court might make nothing but true statements in response to a lawyer's questions, but still manage to avoid telling the whole truth (or, if not the whole truth, at least as much truth as is relevant to the case). It does us no good to think of the deceitful witness as 100% truthful (which, according to the simple binary way of thinking, he is); without some notion of degree, we are unable tell liars from the sincere.

So while I can understand how

2+2=4

and

2+3=5

might be called "equally true" according to a certain view of truth, I think that truth, if we take it to be the relationship between propositions about reality and reality itself, has to admit of degrees.

If I insist on defining truth this way, however, one uncomfortable implication may be that the above equations shouldn't necessarily be thought of as "true," per se, except as descriptors of something tangibly real. As long as the equations aren't referring to anything in the real world, they aren't true: they're correct. Think about the difference between valid and sound arguments in syllogistic logic:

All borogoves are mome raths.
Mimsy the Tentacled Hamster is a borogove.
Therefore, Mimsy is a mome rath.

The above syllogism points to nothing real; it can be called "valid" or "correct"... but is it true?

The equation 2+2=4, then, isn't true except as a descriptor for something real, such as when we add apples together. Truth must be relentlessly linked back to reality, or we aren't talking about truth.

Addofio added something interesting to the discussion. In my first draft of the original "truth" post, I'd actually mentioned something similar to what she wrote about, then I deleted what I'd written. Later on, Addofio apparently read my mind:

Truth as simply a property of language? Or even of ideas and concepts, which aren't always entirely captured by language? Somehow, that always seems to lack a level of profundity that "truth" ought, at least, to have. At the very least, it leaves out "Truth is Beauty, and Beauty Truth"; beauty is definitely not always a matter of language.

The passage I had written and deleted dealt with the idea of "nondiscursive propositions" such as, say, a work of art. There's a sense in which art "speaks" to us and says something about reality. What the message is might not be discursively available, and yet we feel its resonance, as when a poet describes a "black whiteness" or a "round square." These are ideas that might be logically incoherent, yet might nevertheless orient our sensibilities toward something valuable, something about reality that can't be captured in words. I would hate to think that all reality can be rendered as text; this would strike me as too much of a concession to the paleo-Derridean school of differential postmodernism.

Anyway, for the moment at least, I remain unconvinced that it's useful to speak of truth as a simple binary. It's not enough to point out whether there is or isn't a correspondence to reality; it's also important to realize that greater and lesser degrees of correspondence are possible. Not to do the latter is to have an unnuanced view of truth, and that, in turn, opens the door to needless relativism.


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