Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Month That Was - December 2013

The Month That Was - December 2013: And we can kiss that year good-bye. Not sure how I feel about it. Had some very good times. Interestingly, at the outset of the year I lamented that I would probably not be travelling so much, and yet I did. A lot. An epic trip to the Canadian Rockies. Twice to Florida. Twice to Vegas. Twice to Mackinac. So, yeah, I got around. All the trips were good, even the latest one where I was coughing my lungs out.

I got a good deal accomplished on the house. Enough that I can sense the point where I think the place is just how I want it is in range. No disappointments there.

I'm not sure why I'm not overly sad to be rid of 2013. Perhaps it's my lingering illness. Perhaps it's my day job, that has gotten a good deal more stressful and uncertain over the past few months. Or perhaps it's the noticeable degradation in my running times other fitness markers that make me think I am on the downside of life.

Still, there is no point in pessimism at the outset of a new year. I remain hopeful that 2014 will demonstrate I have a way to go before tumbling down the mountain. But a better plan would be to live it as it comes, appreciate it for what it most certainly will be -- another year of good life.

The new book is ever so close. I find it's important to revise after you've seen the book in original form because the presentation (Kindle, in this case) can cause a change in how it's read inside your head. Still, it is absolutely in the home stretch. I'm at the point where I ache to be rid of it and move on to the next project.

The posts this month are well over to the ranty side of things. Sorry. Back to normal soon, I hope.

[Movies] Where's the Action
[Rant] Not So Much Resolutions as Guidelines
[Rant] Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God

[Movies] Where's the Action

Where's the Action: Fast 6 - is exactly what it is supposed to be. It has tremendous action sequences. It makes no sense whatsoever. I wouldn't pay to see it, but I would watch it when it comes on HBO, and would likely find myself stopping after landing on it during a channel surf years later. I don't see the loss of Paul Walker (rest in peace) as key here. None of these characters short of Vin Diesel are really all that critical. Actually, The Rock may be critical now, which says something about the importance of acting to the series. I still see the Fast series as something of an action movie throwback. The last gasp of the style of action film that dominated for so many years -- centered around a macho action hero, often a lunkhead.

Hmm. There's a time wasting idea. Let's break down the action movie eras more systematically.

The Cowboy and Soldier era. The activities of the heroes in these movies were, relative to everything that came after, realistic. That may be due partially to the limited production technology at the time. For the most part the heroes in these movies did things that exceptionally skilled, but still normal, human beings could do. This was the only era for truly human heroes. Calling out when these eras ended is certainly open to debate, but I'm going to say this one ended with the release of Dr. No (1962).

The Bond era. Bond and his ilk were highly idealized. They weren't just skilled at one thing, they could do everything well. In fact, there was no situation for which they were not prepared physically, mentally, culturally, and technologically, to overcome. This hero is the ideal man. Something we should all aspire to be, but something that can't exist in reality. A big trope in this era is the villain believing he's got the hero subdued, but the hero -- always prepared, always capable, always superior -- satisfyingly turns the tables. Note: I put both Bruce Lee and Indiana Jones in this category. My instinct is to say this era ended with Rambo and Conan, both from 1982.

The Lunkhead era. Grunts and proles became the hero. Again, the humans are shown to have superior skills, but this time there is no pretense of intellectual or cultural superiority. In fact, there is often the suggestion that brains and manners are working against the villain. Nope, with these guys it all comes down to fists and firepower. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Segal, Bruce Willis, and a host of lesser knowns -- they cranked out action flicks the way studios crank out horror flicks today. Interestingly, the vast majority that came out during the glory years sucked beyond all reason. Only in the era's waning did some of these become quality films. No, not art, but they finally got proper pacing, acting, and production values. The end of the Lunkhead era came with The Matrix (1999).

The Superhuman era. This is the world we live in today and it needs little explanation. Lord of the Rings, the various Marvel movies. It's all about being beyond human. And to do that with economic efficiency you need high-end computer effects.

Note 1: It is certainly possible to get a good action flick that is out of it's era chronologically. The Mission Impossible series is Bond era. The Fast series and the self-referential Expendables are Lunkhead. We've seen soldiers out of their era, too -- think: Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan. But Hollywood is not for risk takers. The formula and the style for the bulk of the films will always conform to the era.

Note 2: I don't know what to do about Star Wars. Chronologically it's Bond, but it's definitely not Bond. Thematically it's Cowboy and Soldier, but there is an aspect of Superhuman to The Force. Not sure where it falls. I am only speaking of the first trilogy. The abominable second trilogy is clearly Superhuman.

Note 3: The pre-Abrams Star Trek films are merely extensions of the TV shows so don't qualify for this list. The Abrams Treks have the same issue as the first Star Wars trilogy, although given all the techno-Deus ex Machina they employ I would probably lump them into Superhuman also.

Note 4: The Daniel Craig Bond films are probably still Bond but they veer well over to Lunkhead.

Note 5: I need a life.

[Rant] Not So Much Resolutions as Guidelines

Not So Much Resolutions as Guidelines: I don't make resolutions. I make organic goals that will evolve going forward. It's a more holistic approach. Resolutions are so binding, don't cha think? Kind of Fascist in a way. Well, I stand against New Year's Nazis. In the words of the great philosopher Captain Jack Sparrow, "They're more like guidelines." For 2014 there are three categories:

Travel: Again, I suspect there will be no great foreign adventure. Mostly my hopes this year are of getting back to places I want to go again. (Like everything else, I wonder what this says about my state of life. I really need to get over that.) I would like to get back to Maine at some point -- maybe Spring, before the high season starts. I would like to get back to Sanibel Island and continue my explorations into a Gulf Coast vacation/retirement home. I would like to spend time in Utah; get back to Moab and/or Zion to hike The Narrows. I would like to get out to the OC to see Miss Anna. Hawaii, if I have a big expensive trip this year I think I would like it to be back to Maui and Kauai. Alaska has been on the list for so long I no longer even mention it.

Of course there will be Vegas Thanksgiving, Mackinac in September, a Chicago long weekend; all the usual suspects. But for the most part I think travel is going to be opportunistic; it's going to be a matter of what works once the requirements of the 2014 calendar begin to form. I suspect a lot of my travel will coincide with running, which brings me to…

Fitness: First the planned races. Ann Arbor Half Marathon is on 3/30 (this is new, not sure how I got roped into it). The Road Ends trail run in Pinckney is 4/27. The Gnaw Bone 10K in Indiana is 5/10. The Helluva Ride through Chelsea and Grass Lake is 7/12. The Mackinac 8-Miler is (probably) 9/6. The Holiday Hustle is (probably) 12/7.

I need to do more swimming. I was doing a mile pretty regularly in 2012 and I slipped in 2013. So I need to kick it back up with an eye towards doing a triathlon in the summer.

I need to do more yoga. I don't particularly enjoy yoga -- I get bored -- but I do need to keep up maintenance on my joints and flexibility, which I have been slacking on.

I would like to bike a metric century at some point (62 miles). I would like to do one of the big name obstacle runs, either Tough Mudder or Spartan.

I'm a little scared posting all this, since I am now obligated to follow up with results at the end of the year.

House: Big thing is to get the master bath redone. It's going to be a big job, and I honestly don't know if it's even possible to finish it before the year is out. First, I have to figure out specifically what I want to do, then I have to find a contractor, then the work can start. I really need to get on the stick of figuring this out.

Continue to work on the front gardens, the tulip experiment seems to have been a failure, thanks to bunnies and deer and whatever voracious creatures inhabit the surrounding area. I need to get things sorted and I need to mulch.

Paint the guest bedrooms and outfit them -- this I hope to coincide with a switch to DirectTV.


Overall, I'd guess I'll get about half this done.

And there are always, always more words to be written.

[Rant] Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God

Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God: I am not a particularly spiritual person. Be it formal religion or new agey, the force of motivation from some intangible entity has never really hit me. Many people I know and respect draw a lot strength from prayer or meditation. I just never have. This is probably my loss. I have come to think of spirituality as an congenital ability; you are born inclined to it or not, although I have no sort of objective reason for believing that other than my own experience (sample size=1).

On the other hand, many young people I know of are fairly solidly atheist. At least they think they are -- young people (late teens, early twenties) don't know what they don't know yet. They speak of believers in that snarky, groundlessly arrogant way the young people speak (I know I did). They sneer at Creationists who worship a Old White-Haired Man in The Sky and giggle equating God to a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Anyway, all this has caused me to try to crystallize my own thoughts on the topic. So here we go.

The first question is always, What you mean by “God"? This is where the kiddies get confused. They don't differentiate between religion and God. That's because they are not actually trying to advance an argument but position their self and public images. For those of us seeking understanding, we have to get the basics down first. I would state it as follows. God is an a priori moral force. Religion is a codification of a method to reconcile with that force.

Let's start with Religion. You don't pick a religion, it picks you. Or so the saying goes. The belief in a certain religious creed is not generally the result of step by step logical analysis from a neutral starting point. What typically happens is that you are exposed to a certain dogma and you “see the truth in it". That is to say, it strikes you as self-evident. It is a matter of faith. A thing you know in your heart. This has never happened to me. No such creed has affected me that way. I do not discount the possibility or deny its validity. Too many people throughout history have experienced it, and too many people I know and respect are religious, for me to dismiss it. Also, how foolish would I have to be to think that because I haven't experienced something it cannot exist. Not only that, it may yet happen to me.

It's probably appropriate to talk about the special case of Christianity at this point. Beyond the resistance to religion in general, the kiddies often single out Christianity for special derision. One reason for that is that it's easy. Nobody gets punished for criticizing Christianity and no one issues a Fatwa or stages a riot. To the kiddies, one suspects, this is just another form of rebellion for the sake of image position. As post facto justification they often trumpet the idea that Christianity has caused little more than suffering throughout history. Well, all ideas have can cause suffering in the hands of mere humans. My response would be that politics probably caused more death and suffering the 20th century alone than Christianity has in a more than a millenium, yet they don't seem to be down on taking political stands. I would also point out the long, long history of Catholic scientific inquiry, the Puritan/Protestant work ethic whose economic effect underlies much of our prosperity, and the notions of forgiveness and redemption that pervade our culture.

So. I don't have religion, but I'm not a disbeliever (and I admire Christians and Christianity). What about God? Well one way to approach this question is to look at the landscape minus god. I can think of 3 possibilities approaches to morality absent God:

1) Nihilism. There is no morality. Good and bad are meaningless. This is a terrible thing to contemplate because it turns out that nothing matters. We live, suffer and exult as we might, then die, with no point to it. We are just minor blips of probability that popped up in the course of existence. Whether you lived well or poorly, selfishly or generously, long or short -- it didn't matter. You could even argue that in this case only the present moment matters so feel free to compound nihilism with narcissism. We have no hard evidence that this is not the case -- no scientific proof whatsoever. Apart from repulsion at these conclusions, to accept this as definitive is to again, say that until something is proven to exist, it doesn't. That strikes me as arrogant, for reasons that I will explain shortly. I see no reason to be confident that what I can't prove doesn't exist.

(Besides, Nihilists are known to cavort with nine-toed women. But if you are a nihilist, here's your toothpaste.)

2) Secular humanism. This is the one I'm least clear on, but it seems there is a philosophical school that was able to generate some sort of moral impetus that emerged from within the human mind. Or something? I can't figure it. Naive people such as me often hear concepts like “the greatest good for the greatest number" or similar principle as descriptions of humanist morality, but we are still left with good and bad as arbitrary rules of humanity with no absolute basis. There may be more to this that I don't know about, but it seems like a flowery covering over a tautology: “What we say is good is good."

3) Evo-psych. This is comparatively newish, but it supposes that morality, instead of being a priori, is a product of evolution. For whatever reason, a moral instinct has given homo sapiens a comparative advantage for the survival of the species. At first glance this seems like a good one. And it accounts for the varying influence of morality across people, races, and cultures -- the way physical characteristics vary. “What helps the species to survive is good." This idea probably has legs and will be with us for the duration. But the implications are troubling. a) What about activities that have no bearing on the good of the species. Do they have no right or wrong associated with them? That is to say, this may work in aggregate but for any given individual, most actions will not be connect to survival of the species and thus, amoral. Pushed further, how do you know if your actions are pluses or minus for species survival. Even if the evo-psych concept is true (who knows), it is, for practical purposes, pretty much useless as a guide to behavior.

So what about an a priori God. Well, a priori itself is not a concept that sits well in the mind. You can always ask “What came before that?" on to infinity. I won't say God was born in the Big Bang because “What came before the Big Bang?" is a popular question to ask in theoretical physics these days. If something came before it, it is not a priori. To me a priori would mean God is simultaneous and interwoven with existence itself. So am I saying that a big white-haired man in the sky has been there forever and ever? (That's what the kiddies would ask.) If I believed in an a priori God my answer would be yes. Obviously not a big white-haired man, but I would be saying the nature of existence carries a moral force. I know. It sounds absurd.

But is it really absurd? Is it so difficult to imagine that the various fields and forces of existence are arranged in such a way that encourages certain forms of actions or behaviors. To me that is no less absurd than spooky action at a distance or dark energy or the Uncertainty Principle. So no I cannot dismiss that idea of God, a priori, even without film at eleven.

My current belief is that we cannot know. Not that we simply haven't discover proof or disproof, but we cannot discover it. It is beyond our ability to see. It is like Infinity itself, a concept we made up because our minds are insufficient to comprehend it. Presenting us with evidence of a moral force, or lack thereof, would be like an reading Hamlet to an ant. I think the exact term for such a belief is Mysterianism. Sounds cool. I'll take it. But again, no help on question of how to live.

But if we can't know the nature of God, how do you know how to live? I base my philosophy on a form of Pascal's Wager. If there really is no God -- if one of those three godless realities is the truth -- then it doesn't matter if I'm good or evil. I'll live whatever life and die pointlessly. Otherwise, in an existence with an a priori God, there is value to being Good. So probably indicates the smart way to live is to be Good. Now it's just a question of figuring out what is Good.

Answers to the question of what is Good, or what does God want, are the province of religion, of which I have none. So I have come up with something makeshift. The only thing I can think of that can possibly matter past your life is affecting the lives of others for the better. That is my working definition of Good. Determining what affects people for the better -- what is Good -- is not a simple task. It is probably the most complex task imaginable. It is not what is shallowly described by the simple cliches and sentimentality of day-to-day life. It would require an essay in itself to describe even the basic ideas behind it (maybe that's next). But as far as I can determine it is the only way to make your life have value.

So that's where I'm at with respect to God. You'll note that, unlike the atheist kiddies, I am not only uncertain in my conclusion, I am uncertain in my uncertainty. That's why nobody pays me for my opinions.