Category Archives: Just for Fun

Posts that are not intended to be taken too seriously

Whack-A-Prof

My Ph.D. was conferred in 1992. Not by design, I’ve held several jobs since then. One thing I’ve noticed over and over is that supervisors enjoy knocking down the egghead. If you don’t know me you’ll have to take my word for the fact that I’m quiet, not self-promoting, and actually uncertain about many things most people seem to take for granted. Even in the classroom I never used my education to appear superior to students—education is about all of us learning together. At least ideally. I do know some people flaunt their doctorates. A friend told me of customers pulling into the gas station and insisting on being addressed as doctor. (It might help to know that in New Jersey you are not allowed to pump your own gas.) My friend wryly noted, then they don’t even fill the tank. I had my own similar experience working in a camera shop in a Boston suburb. A patron had “Ph.D.” printed on her checks after her name. Company policy was that the signature had to match the printed name exactly, including title. This particular customer, proud to have Ph.D. flashed before your eyes refused to sign it after her name. When the police had to be called, as per company policy, many of us stared sheepishly at our feet as she signed the cursed three initials and declared she would from then on take her custom elsewhere.

Some of us pursue advanced degrees because we have no talent for anything else. I’m a born teacher, and I have always found the classroom the most congenial environment in which to be. I have had several bosses, however, who seem to think that knocking the Ph.D. down shows just how clever they are. I don’t claim to be smart. I never have. I am a hard worker, I read a lot, and I try to make sense of what I read. Some of the smartest people I know have the least formal education. It’s rare that I don’t assume the janitor knows more than I do about any given topic. (Well, maybe Asherah is a place where I can claim some specialist knowledge.) Otherwise, I take your word for it.

Our culture, however, enjoys putting those in higher education in their place. I hear the conversations behind closed doors. While I don’t claim to know very much—in fact, the longer I’m alive the less I claim to know—I do know that America doesn’t value its educators. It’s not just the professorate. Teachers, those to whom we entrust the very future, have been perennial scapegoats for society’s ills. We don’t pay them well, and many of them have to take second jobs in the summer to make ends meet. I guess we showed them! Who’s the smart one now? I can’t claim to know much, but it seems to me that education is one of the pure goods in society. We can’t make progress without learning. Gifted teachers should be esteemed—not pampered, but appreciated. Of course, I can feel better about myself if I show that I know more than you do. The only cure for that, I suggest, is more education.

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak

Parallelism?

An article in Mother Nature Network that a friend sent me suggests that “Parallel worlds exist and interact with our world, say physicists.” The article, by Bryan Nelson, discusses quantum mechanics and the many-worlds interpretation that suggest that these worlds interact. Perhaps they explain the anomalous happenings so often reported in this world. I find the “many interacting worlds” idea compelling. We all know, whether or not we’ll admit it, that strange things sometimes happen. It may be that interacting multiverses can explain some (although I somehow doubt, all) of this. Everything I read about quantum physics suggests that it is weird and we just can’t understand how it’s possible. That’s the kind of universe I’m glad to live in. Still, I wonder.

The many interacting worlds hypothesis suggests that at every juncture, every decision, in some universe we went a different way. Should I go right or left? And as I made that left turn, some me somewhere else went right. The problem is perhaps the sheer number of variables. The many decisions I’ve made, and I’m just one person, have multiple possibilities. Each of these possibilities links and intertwines with even more possibilities. It’s not hard to believe that this universe revolves around me and my petty problems. Add to this the variables of the billions of others who share the planet and soon I start to grow dizzy. Does each and every one of these take place somewhere, somewhen? And who are we to think that we even know what two possibilities might be? What if I type an e instead of an i? What will my post say in an alternate universe? At what level of insignificance do I finally admit utter ennui and say that life in this universe I know is just too full to admit of any others? Of course, anyone looking at my bank account knows I have no experience with large numbers.

Parallel worlds have always fascinated me. I suspect that deep down I know this can’t be all that there is. In some universe my Ph.D. led to a real teaching post. I wrote all those books that are rattling around inside my head. I attained tenure and showed the world that a kid from a blue-collar family with no connections can actually make something of himself. In another world I’m the one laying in the cold on the streets of Manhattan begging quarters from the other me, looking worried as he races to and from work every day. Or maybe this whole thing is just a dream I’m solopsistically having. Of course, if you’re reading this you’re welcome to my dream. Or any other universe that you might choose. I only ask that if you allow me into yours, may I please have tenure? I’d really like that universe best of all.

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Sporting Chance

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I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?

They Might Be

Last week I mentioned that a letter-writing friend had sent me two articles from the 1868 Prescott Journal newspaper. Some time ago I did some research into the history of newspapers since many of the stories from the early days of the medium seem difficult to accept. Perhaps it was a more credulous time, or perhaps newspapers were a form of entertainment as well as information, but the occasional hoax made its way into the pages of even reputable papers. I’m always surprised how many tales involve a kind of biblical literalism, whether stated or not. The second story from the aforementioned Wisconsin newspaper has to do with a giant skeleton unearthed at the Sauk Rapids. At ten-foot-nine, this veritable Goliath was estimated to have weighed some 900 pounds when alive. This prodigy sparked some piety in the writer, who concludes by stating, “We hope ‘642’ [the article doesn’t hint at the referent here] may learn humility from this dispensation of Providence, and that a view of the ‘femur’ and ‘fibula’ of this deceased stranger, may teach him the futility of all attempts at fleshy greatness in these degenerate days.”

Quite apart from the pious closing, the idea that giants once inhabited the earth is indeed biblical. Studies have been undertaken that speculate on why people of antiquity believed in giants, and one of the more plausible explanations has to do with the discovery of megafauna bones. Not having a conceptual world wherein dinosaurs or mammoths might fit, giant leg-bones and ribs, for example, look pretty much like those of people. Only much larger. Whatever the reason, people all over the ancient Mediterranean believed in an era of giants, and that belief made its way into the Bible as well as into Greek mythology. Only, if the Bible says it, it must be true, no? And so, finding giants in the earth is not to be unexpected.

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Interestingly enough, this craze of finding giants has not ceased. The internet keeps bogus photos of unearthed giant skeletons alive and the explanations we’re given amount to proof of the flood. After all, the Bible says giants came before the flood, and if Noah wasn’t a giant, well, they had to have been wiped out, right? But then they show up again later in the form of the Anakim or Goliath and his kin. The question of whence the giants 2.0 came is not answered, but if it’s literally true then there should be no surprise if one should turn up in Wisconsin. After all, other oddities have turned up in that same state, some of which still defy explanation in the rational world of the twenty-first century.

Ancient History

In the white heat of rhetoric, my word processor froze up. I don’t have much time for writing with my commuting schedule, so the full forty-five minutes lost between the typing of a letter “s” that apparently caused the meltdown and being able to access my text was lost in a prayer that my work hadn’t been lost. I remember the days when everyone used Microsoft Word and there was this joke going around about the Devil and Jesus being tested on their computer skills. I can’t remember the joke but I do recall the punchline: “Jesus saves!” So it was in those days that you had to hit “save” every few minutes or your work would be lost. Many laments could be loudly heard of students having lost an entire paper because they’d forgotten their prophylactic “save”s. I found that working on a Mac that such problems weren’t always so bad. But then, system upgrades became more frequent. Two programs that you needed open simultaneously, Word and Internet Explorer (called something else in those days, but I can’t remember what), were a sure recipe for mutually assured destruction. The memory required would freeze even an Apple to its core, and so the systems gurus made improvements and things got better.

Of course, those of us who’ve spend the Gross Domestic Product of a small country on Apple devices have been lulled to complacency. Over the years (since the fiasco of the original iMac) we’ve come to learn that Apple will save our work, and that crashes, while infrequent, will bring our files back onto the screen after recovery. You really don’t need to save since autosave is capable of being the messiah of all computer files. Then the gurus upgraded the system. For the past several months I can’t run a word processor and internet browser simultaneously on my computer without freezing up the system. Imagine my chagrin when, having less than an hour to write, copy, paste, and post my blog entry for the day, my word processor decides that it doesn’t recognize the letter “s.” Of course, Apple long ago stopped being compatible with Microsoft Word. Those of us who used both Macs and Word cheered when the two finally became compatible about a decade ago, but in the battle for computer supremacy, we no longer have that option. My Mac can open Word files and save documents as Word files, but it can’t run Word. Instead it runs word processors that don’t recognize that most rare of characters, the insidious “s.”

So I went to back up my files over the weekend. I keep some files on a memory stick (so called) because they take up a lot of space and I don’t use them that often. The memory stick failed in the middle of a save (doesn’t Jesus save anymore?) and I spent an entire Saturday trying to recover files that were already saved. According to some Christian traditions, once saved, always saved. You can’t be unsaved. After losing an enormous amount of work that equated to many hours of precious weekend time, I’m beginning to have my doubts about my faith. Using Pages, Apple’s version of Word, is sure to lead to a crash. This has been happening since at least September. I get systems upgrades more frequently than calls from telemarketers. I really don’t ask for much. I’ve got about an hour to get my writing done in the morning and I would really, really appreciate it if forty-five minutes of that hour weren’t taken up by Pages trying to recognize the letter “s.” After all, not even Jesus can save without it.

In the beginning was Word...

In the beginning was Word…

White Carrots

Acronyms are useful in a complex world, although they are frequently opaque to outsiders. Taking a new job you’re found constantly swimming in an alphabet soup of abbreviations that can drown you as easily as ABC. Each the church has them. As an undergrad religion major at a Presbyterian school I had to memorize TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), all of which but the last I had to reject on the grounds of sanity. As aids to memory they can serve as mnemonic devices, or they may simply be frustrating caricatures of reason. In any case, we all know them. In universities departments or divisions are known by acronyms, local businesses and landmarks may be as well. The internet has only speeded the process up, with countless abbreviations, some of which are definitely NSFW.

IMG_1889So it was that I learned an acronym that is current in the publishing industry. I always thought of the parsnip as a rather curious root vegetable, somewhat like a white carrot. As a child I severely disliked them, but I’ve come to appreciate them, roasted and glazed, as an adult. The word itself is somewhat fun to say: PARSNIP. It is also an acronym of things publishers, particularly those who publish textbooks in English as a second language, have to avoid. PARSNIP stands for, according to the popular explanation, Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork. Interestingly to me, at least four of these things have their traditional taboo status because of religions. Clearly Religion is one of those, but restrictions on Alcohol, Sex, and Pork are also based on religious rules. One could argue that Narcotics also fits into that category as well. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, religion, substances, and sex are all deeply intertwined.

One of the curious things about this is that our post-Christian society has declared that religion is not worth discussing, or even learning about. We slash religion departments from universities and then wonder why we can’t discuss things like sex and alcohol, without which our society would apparently collapse, freely in other cultures. When I was a child, reading MAD magazine, I quickly learned two things that adults didn’t discuss were religion and politics. The list has grown since that time, but apart from the fact I have no idea which Isms are to be avoided, I see PARSNIP as the white carrot of religious taboos. And politics. In this secular world, we’ve become very politically correct, although we really shouldn’t mention politics in that phrase. Now I’m wondering if maybe I should reevaluate TULIP after all. At least the first part.

Get Me Jesus on the Line

The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.

One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.

Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.

"Don't forget to look for my letter!"

“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”