Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Sudoku Curve

The point at which a problem reaches such complexity, it becomes simple.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Persecuted for Righteousness' Sake

 The Bible says blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.  I know what that's like, boy-o; I get persecuted for the sake of righteousness every day just about.  Like, I just about can't turn around without someone persecuting me.  And I'm like, "This is because I'm righteous, isn't it?"

Like, take the other day.  I was in line at the grocery store and the cashier gives me a snooty look and says "Ten items or less."  And all along, I was being perfectly righteous.  Bacon, lettuce, and tomato should clearly be counted as just one item.  And anything that's zero-calorie shouldn't be counted at all.  And what about the other customer behind me, the one who gave me the stink-eye when I swerved in front of her in line?  She had a dozen eggs.  But nobody said a peep about that, oh no!  When you're righteous the way I am, that's the sort of hypocrisy you have to put up with.

Another incident, same store - as I'm concerned, they should rename that store, Persecute-R-Us - the cashier's like, "Are you going to buy that or just read it?"  This was pure-d, straight-up persecution, and I was being righteous as the day is long.  I would never buy a magazine like that, I mean, ugh, how un-righteous can you get?  But I had to read it, especially with provocative headlines like Kim Kardashian butt-implant updates.

And then, as I was leaving the store another customer persecuted me with his middle finger because I'd taken up two parking places with my Camry.  Once again, I was perfectly righteous.  I'd just gotten my car detailed and I sure didn't want some careless lout dinging it in the parking lot.  It may be only a Camry, but in my righteousness, I look after it like a Lexus.  As the Bible says, "tie up thine ox but let not the camel knoweth what thy right hand is doing."  Oxen and camels were pretty much Camrys of the Old Testament, so you can see, I pretty much know my scripture backwards and forwards.

It's all a part of being righteous.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Love and the Cambrian Explosion

When certain trilobites began developing eye-spots,
it was a game-changer.
Long, long ago, sea critters moved around aimlessly, from time to time bumping into each other.  If they bumped into something edible, they ate it, and if they bumped into something predatory, it ate them.  The situation remained pretty much unaltered for two billion years, but then about five hundred million years ago, certain trilobites developed eye spots.

This changed everything.

All of a sudden - and by "sudden" I mean twenty million years - trilobites could see where they were heading.  If they were heading to something yummy, they sped up; if they were heading toward something that would eat them, they changed course.  Naturally, this innovation put tremendous evolutionary pressure on all the other organisms to adapt.  Many of them did not - four mass extinctions occurred during the Cambrian period - but the creatures that did adapt evolved with astounding rapidity, and in the next half-billion years gave rise to the enormous profusion and diversity of life we see around us today.

The thing I want to point out is that trilobites did not "invent light."  Light had been there all along; trilobites merely learned how to see it.  Along the way, organisms developed other senses, too, but again - except in the case of hallucinations or mirages - they only sense what already exists.  When someone's baking cookies, there really are cookie molecules free floating in the air that get up in your nostrils and trigger olfactory sensors.  Your ear doesn't make music; sound-waves make a Rube-Goldberg mechanism bang together in your ear so you know when Merle Haggard sings about his mamma.  A nearby set of tubes functions like a spirit-level designed by aliens, signalling you if you're standing upright, falling over, or spinning around.  But you really are upright, toppling, or spinning whether you know it or not - the cochlea is just your body's way of letting you know.

What if it's the same with love?

What if love is something pre-existent in the universe and had been there even before the trilobites - like light or sound-waves?  Maybe all of the biological apparatus of love - the glands and hormones and autonomic responses - are elaborate sensory organs - what else could they be? - that allow us to perceive a phenomenon just as real as cookie molecules or gravity.  

A parent has a relationship to its offspring whether it knows it or not, and an organism has a relationship to its mate.  Many creatures, most even, don't perceive this relationship.  Spiders will eat their mates and offspring, too, given the chance, just as some sharks will eat their fellow sharks: but maybe this is no different than a sightless fish bumping into the walls of its underwater cave.

We all have relationships to our parents, siblings, mates, and offspring.  We have a relationship to all creatures of the same kind: ie, human beings.  We have a further relationship - because life evolved from a common ancestor - to all life: that which lived before, is living now, and has not come into being.  And because life emerged from insensate matter, we have a relationship to that, too: to the stars and distant galaxies, to quasars and quarks and muons.  

That relationship is love, and it has been there the whole time.  We've only recently begun learning to see it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Gratitude

I'll be honest with you (I always am) I don't get near enough appreciation for all the stuff I do.  Really.  I should be showered with effusive thanks twenty-four-seven by everyone around me.  I mean it.  This is not on account of all the swell stuff I've done recently - although I'm owed a pretty hefty slab of thank-yous for that, too - I'm talking about back-payments on my manifold kindnesses since childhood that have gone completely unacknowledged or at best have gotten a grudging "thanks."

And I'm not even factoring in interest.  I mean, forget about that.  If you had to pay compound interest on all the gratitude you owed me, it would be impossible just trying to calculate it.  Frankly, the debt of gratitude is so enormous in the first place, you'll never be able to pay it back, so I'm actually depreciating it.  I'm knocking the price down just to make it easier on you.  To make it manageable.

You're welcome.

See, that's the kind of selfless thing I do all the time, and for which I get no recognition.

"Thank you."

Is that so hard to say?  And that's all I really want.  For a sincere, heartfelt, "Thank you," repeated over and over - with unflagging sincerity and heartfeltness - until I'm satisfied you've paid me back in gratitude from the bottom of your heart for whatever kind or typically unselfish thing I've done.

And then the next morning, I want you to think about what a nice person I am, and I want you to thank me all over again just for being me.

Is that so much to ask?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Marshmallows and Self-Discipline

In a university study, children were presented with a dilemma: given a great big marshmallow on a plate, would they choose to eat it now, or would they be willing to wait and get two marshmallows in five minutes.  Only a few children were able to wait, most ate the marshmallow right away.  In the follow-up study, all the kids who ate the marshmallow right away ended up working for the kids who waited.

Not only were the wait-to-eat types financially more successful, they had better marriages, better health, and were happier than the eat-right-aways.  Self-discipline is clearly a valuable resource, and, thankfully, other studies show you can develop it even if by inclination, you're an eat-the-marshmallow-now type.

I think self-discipline does more for us than train us to be able to defer gratification - although this is very important.  You get a lot more satisfaction from something that was earned than something that was received.  Two marshmallows gained as a reward for waiting taste a lot better than one marshmallow that was just there on the plate.  In other words, not only are the payoffs bigger for self-discipline, we enjoy them more.  There's also a matter of contrast; if life is just a succession of one yummy marshmallow after another, our joy will begin to pale.  It's only by knowing we can't always have a marshmallow - even if it's by our own choice - that lets us savor the marshmallow when it finally comes around.

In Ancient Sparta, boys were taken from their parents at an early age, given one garment a year, and deliberately underfed.  I would never suggest raising children this way, but at least you can be sure grown Spartans were not inclined to bellyache about having to wait in line or being cut off in traffic.  They might slice you from nave to chaps, but they wouldn't waste time complaining about it.  Complaining is for people who've decided to be unhappy about something but lack the resources to do anything about it.

This is what strikes me troubling about 21st Century culture: it gives us no built-in opportunities to develop self-discipline, just the opposite.  If you're bored waiting for the next marshmallow, whip out the iphone and amuse yourself.  If you want something, get on the computer - chances are, you're on it right now anyway - and order it with a mouse-click.  It'll be there tomorrow.  Soon, thanks to Amazon drones, it'll be there even faster.  (Amazon calls its delivery service, "fulfillment."  Am I the only one who finds this disturbing?)  If real-life struggles are too tough, too complex, or too long-lasting to bother with, retreat into a video game, and you can conquer earth five times in an afternoon.

In short, we live in a world that promises instant gratification.  This observation is nothing new, but there's something really creepy about the way mass culture markets it.  In an early smart-phone commercial a desultory man sits moping on a rooftop as the announcer talks about life's lessons in disappointment.  In the background we see imaginative animated characters - such as a goofy blue-skinned critter with long eye-stalks - vanish one by one, symbolizing, I suppose, the death of our childhood dreams.  But then the grown-up is presented with a smartphone and a big smile replaces his expression of dissatisfaction as he begins surfing the internet or whatever he's doing.  The soundtrack strikes up "The Candyman" and two blue eye-stalks peep over the rooftop to watch.

The commercial is promising us, essentially, not just that the phone will make our lives better, but that it will transform the rest of our lives into candy: according to the song, one of the Candyman's recipes is taking a sunrise and "covering it in chocolate."  Eww.

Don't misunderstand, I love my iPhone, but there's something insidious about it, it and the rest of the our wonderful material comforts.  The world can be marshmallow, marshmallow, marshmallow if we let it, without the toughening experiences that are not merely part of life but an essential part of happiness.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Play in One Scene

CREW MEMBER ONE: Don't look now, but I think we're being followed by a big whale.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Actually, I think that's just a great fish.

CREW MEMBER TWO: No, that's definitely a whale.  Look at the size of it.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Fish get pretty big, too.  Especially if it's a great fish.  What do you think, Jonah?  Is that a fish or a whale?

JONAH: (Coughs nervously) I don't see anything.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It doesn't matter if it's a whale or a fish.  It's twice the size of our boat, and it's following us!

CREW MEMBER TWO: It's definitely a great fish.

CREW MEMBER ONE: We've got to do something.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Someone call the captain.

CAPTAIN: Avast ye, did someone call me?

CREW MEMBER ONE: The ship is being followed by a whale.

CAPTAIN: Are you sure that be a whale?  It look like a great fish to me.  Arr.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Told you.

CREW MEMBER ONE: The question is, what are we going to do about it?

CREW MEMBER THREE: Maybe we should throw all the luggage overboard.

JONAH: I really think you're all making a big deal out of nothing.  I'm sure if we just ignore it, it'll go away.

CAPTAIN: And why would we throw out the luggage for?  Arr?

CREW MEMBER TWO: If it eats it, it'll prove it's a fish because whales can't eat luggage.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Actually, I was thinking it would make us go faster.  Lighten the ballast and all that.  That's what you call it, right?  Ballast?

CAPTAIN: Aye, matey, that be a good idea.  Avast with the luggage!

JONAH: I don't think that's a good --

CAPTAIN: Here goes the American Touristor.  Over ye go!

(SPLASH)

CREW MEMBER THREE: Good Lord!  It ate the suitcase!

CREW MEMBER TWO: That definitely proves it's a fish.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It's not necessarily a baleen whale.  You didn't think of that, did you?

CAPTAIN: Here goes the Samsonite!  Arr!

(SPLASH)

JONAH: Stop.

CREW MEMBER THREE: It ate that, too!

CAPTAIN: I'll grab another suitcase!  Arr.  Where be that Travelpro?

JONAH: Stop.  This isn't necessary.

(SPLASH)

CAPTAIN: That was me overnight case.

CREW MEMBER THREE: It ate that, too!  And it's not slowing down!  It's gaining on us!

CREW MEMBER ONE: We're going to be eaten by a whale!

CREW MEMBER TWO: We're going to be eaten by a great fish!

CAPTAIN: Step lively, me hearties!  Get the Eagle Creek, Tumi, and Delsey!  Over the side with 'em!

(SPLASH, SPLASH, SPLASH)

JONAH: Stop, stop!  Everyone just stop for a second!

CAPTAIN: We be in the midst of a nautical emergency, me hearty.  We don't have time for any landlubber prattle.

JONAH: The whale's after me.

CREW MEMBER THREE: What?

CREW MEMBER TWO: What?

CAPTAIN: Arr.  What?

CREW MEMBER TWO: I'm pretty sure it's a great fish.

JONAH: The fact is, I'm on the run from God Almighty.  Clearly he's the one who sent that whale or whatever it is.  The only way to get it off our tails is for me to go over the side myself.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Wait - Don't -

(SPLASH)

CREW MEMBER: What a brave act of self-sacrifice.

CAPTAIN: There he goes, to the bottom of the sea.  Arr.

CREW MEMBER TWO: The fish didn't eat him.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It was a whale.

WHALE OR POSSIBLY GREAT FISH: Please don't throw any more people at me.  I'm only following you boat because I like the taste of luggage.  Do you have any more Samsonite?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Constructive Criticism for God

You Start Throwing in Chickens and It Just Makes
The Whole Thing Silly
Dear Lord,

I know trials and travails are sent to strengthen us, and I want to start by saying thanks loads.  You've certainly been a busy beaver in the strengthening department, a regular gym teacher, and I appreciate it.  Really.  Kudos.

However, if you wouldn't mind a little constructive criticism, meant in the kindest and most respectful way possible, it seems to me you sometimes overdo it a little bit.  It's not so much a matter of quantity as quality.  I don't want to sound harsh, but I think you're capable of better.

Take for example the night a car turned left out of a fast-food restaurant and smashed into me.  I was on my way to see my father-in-law who was in the hospital for congestive heart disease.  He'd already been there nine days because before they did anything for him, they wanted to figure out why his hemoglobin kept dropping below acceptable levels.  (They never did find the reason, and he was discharged, weak as a kitten.  Nancy took him back to Macon, where she could look after him and my mother-in-law who is entering her seventh year of Alzheimers.)  (Lest I forget to mention: that very weekend, I was also heading out of town, to Pensacola, to my uncle who also is facing end-of-life issues, and whose wife also has Alzheimers.)

Needless to say, Nancy and I are grateful for what we're sure is very helpful spiritual strength-training.  But the car wreck.  Was that really necessary?  It's not that I object to the wreck per se, it's just out of keeping with the general tone I think you ought to be striving for.  The day of the wreck, I had also learned that my wife had to sequester that chickens in the utility room again, because she'd caught a possum in the coop trying to get one.  You see what I'm talking about?  The high drama of heart disease and Alzheimers is spoiled when you go throwing in chickens and car wrecks.  Frankly, the chickens and car wrecks make the whole thing kind of silly.  I'm not complaining about the moral strengthening; bring it on, I say.  It's a matter of style.

If you can permit me another example.  Over Christmas, Nancy's dad was again in the hospital, again for congestive heart disease.  Meanwhile, one of the caregivers who looks after Nancy's mother had the flu.  Nancy's sister Donna, who is a stalwart, and to whom the lion's share of care-giving had fallen, also had the flu.  Both had to be quarantined.  Coping with Nancy's mother and sick father in these circumstances was wonderfully strengthening, and having it occur over Christmas was a master-touch.  But then - in the middle of that same hellish chaos - we discovered that the dog was deaf.

I hope you see what I'm driving at.  You have these weighty, serious, literally life-and-death issues, and you toss in canine deafness, and the whole thing falls flat.  It's not that you're overdoing it, but the dog's hearing loss could have been saved for another time when it wouldn't have made the entire ordeal seem ridiculous.

Again, I'm not complaining about the trials and tribulations themselves.  But I'm sure we would all get a lot more satisfaction from them if you'd refrain from tossing in irrelevant side-shows involving dogs, chickens, and car wrecks.  

It's all a question of style.