Friday, January 29, 2016

Alms

It is of course impossible to talk about this subject matter in real terms, based on one's own direct experience, instead of as an abstract theoretical concept, without risking it coming across as a backdoor brag. It's important enough that I'll risk this.

A few things I've noticed and learned:

Homeless people begging on the street for money still ask for "spare change", and in most cases, when someone offers them something, it's exactly that: some change. These days, you need quite a bit of change just to afford something as simple as a black coffee. It seems that the amount that people give to the homeless hasn't kept pace with inflation.

Giving anyone who asks you directly for a few dollars (instead of a few dimes), so that they might get something to eat, hasn't bankrupted me in the last few years. Perhaps if I lived in a larger city, like Los Angeles, then it would. But if I lived in Rome, I'd speak Italian, but that doesn't mean I speak Italian where I live.

There's a clear distinction between people who truly need the money (they tend to be older or mentally unfit) and young people who are backpacking across the country. I'll subsidize helping someone eat when they've been left with no options; I won't subsidize someone who's clearly chosen a nomadic lifestyle.

Onlookers will be critical of you for giving money to beggars. Most of the time, they don't voice their objections to you directly, but then, people usually don't have to say what they're thinking for someone else to hear it. The objections you hear are familiar ones.

Perhaps if a beggar asks me for money, and I give it to him, he takes the money and spends it on alcohol. That's his prerogative, and that's on his conscience, not mine. If a person doesn't know what's best for themselves, then I'm reasonably sure that my single act of refusing to give them anything is not going to teach them a lesson.

I'm not convinced that I've learned what's truly best for myself, and I'm not sure that all purchase decisions I make for myself are things that I should be buying. Case in point: I've spent plenty of money on alcohol in my life. Glass houses...

If I give money to 10 people, and 9 of them spend it on vices that don't help them, but only 1 buys something they truly need, it was worth it for that one. I'm sure the actual ratio is much better than this.

No one likes asking strangers for help; for most people, there's enough shame in having to do this that this is a matter of last resort. I was told in 7th grade by one of my teachers that most homeless people asking for money on the street make a killing collecting money, and at the end of the day, they walk to their Mercedes' and drive home. I've since polled people with nice cars; I've never met one who earns their keep begging. (Though I can't rule out the possibility that some of them exist someplace.)

If I'm walking down the street with leftovers from a restaurant, I've very often been asked by beggars if they can have my leftovers to eat. I never refuse those requests; I'm not sure if the risk of transferring a pathogen is high enough to make this a bad course.

There's an old children's book I used to read called If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, the moral of which is that if you give a person a little, they'll keep asking for more and more, insatiably. Most people that you give to are truly grateful. Only a small handful of them give credence to this lesson espoused in Cookie and pester you for more. Akin the manner in which the homeless choose to spend their money, this is on them, not me, and it's pretty easy for me to say "no" to any follow-up requests.

Perhaps money is better spent by giving it directly to organizations that are designed to support homeless people in a way that is more sustainable. (If you ask anyone who works at one of these organizations, they'll certainly back that up!) It's extremely difficult to generalize about this, but much of the money going to these organizations goes to support administrative costs surrounding the organization and not to the needy. Most of the organizations I've encountered really aren't doing anything to make things sustainable.

It's dubious to claim that money is wasted going directly to a person in need, but wouldn't be wasted going to one of these organizations. I know that not everyone who is in desperate need of help is on the streets asking for it; many are families who, despite living in houses, are in terrible circumstances. So these organizations are extremely necessary, but we shouldn't draw the false dichotomy where giving to people who ask directly is "bad", while giving to organizations is "good".

Whatever money I have isn't mine. Someone gave it to me, and I'm just holding onto it for a while. In one form or another, the wealth will outlive me.

Last week, I forgot to eat one day. At a couple points, I considered going to get something, but the prospect of seeking out food just seemed like a boring thing to do, relative to the other things I had going on in my life on that day. Mild hunger can get painful quickly. They next day, a man in front of a grocery store asked me for something to eat, and I gave him $5. While I was shopping, I saw him in the same store buying food. On my way out of the store, I ran into him again; he looked better. I offered him a bag of mandarins, but he politely turned them down, and thanked me for the meal. I'm not sure how much better $5 could've been spent by me on anything else.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Christianity, In a Nutshell, From a Nut

I resolved to spend some time in 2015 getting acquainted with religion. This was largely an intellectual undertaking. I sought to understand what I did not, and since I grew up and live in a predominantly Christian country, this is the religion that stands out, because our culture's viewpoint on it is so varied and rife with conflicts. My ideas in here are largely my own, but I sincerely doubt anything I'm about to say is new. And in a blog post, I certainly can't say everything, but to those who want to learn, I'm a fellow student, and I'd like to share some disparate thoughts.

(I'm going to play the pronoun game in this post, e.g. "and He said" merely because this feels like good grammar to me. I'm a writer with some thoughts to share, not an evangelical forcing rhetoric down anyone's throats. That said, I'm not a good writer, so I might have missed a few in here. Whoever has eyes to read...)

My understanding of Christianity has actually been quite fluid since I started. I started by reading bite-size chunks of the Bible from daily devotionals. The thoughts are simple, and usually their meaning was clear, but for many of them, I wondered about the context. Why should I care why this was written? Who wrote it? Why did they write it?

So, I expanded by starting to read other's interpretations of the events in the Bible. This served two purposes: absorb other people's opinions on the matter, and I got some context for the history in which the events of the bible took place. The Holy Bible is not a difficult book to find or read, but it is exceptionally hard to understand and interpret if you don't understand the realm in which all of it is taking place.

Let's break down the bible. There is the Old Testament, which is actually the Septuaguint, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures from the Tanakh, which is the Jewish bible. Why is the first 3/4's of the official Christian bible the contents of the Jewish bible? Simple: the scripture about Jesus tells us that his coming fulfilled a prophecy in the Jewish bible. So we need the whole thing because of a few passages?

In short, yeah, that's about the sum of it. Christians believe there's a continuity here: namely, that the one true God was the Hebrew God until Jesus came to earth, and suddenly, boom! the Hebrew God changes into the God of everyone, not just the Hebrews? I don't really know what's true, but I'm pretty sure God didn't go through any metamorphosis; rather, the imagination of man wrought this change upon Him.

There's more practical problems here: the coming Messiah, as prophesied in the Tanakh, was supposed to restore Israel to the Jewish people. It makes sense that members of the population under Roman occupation would to be very happy to hear that Jesus was possibly that man, and this likely drew people to Him. But as it stands, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Oops.

There are enough factors here that we can assume the Tanakh is not relevant to develop a direct understanding of Christianity. I've spent much time with the Tanakh, annotated by Rabbis with notes I don't fully understand. This is not to say the Jewish bible should be scrapped altogether, but we're examining Christianity here, not Judaism.

So, on to the New Testament: in it we have four Gospels, each of which recounts the story of the life of Jesus from a different perspective. Each culminates in His death. This is rather like one of those Hollywood films where you get to see the same story play out multiple times from different vantage points. They're each different enough to be interesting, but there's enough redundancy that I hope Mel Gibson doesn't make three other movies.

Next, the Book of Acts. This starts with the death of Jesus and goes on to describe the apostles dispersing through the world. History suggests that 10 of the 12 went to their deaths, martyred in the name of spreading the gospel. The exceptions: Judas killed himself, and John lived out his later days on Patmos, and gave us, among other things, the unintelligible nonsense contained in the Book of Revelations.

The apostles are more interesting to me than Jesus, because they were the critical piece of spreading Christianity throughout the world. There is a theory that no man named Jesus ever existed. Perhaps he was just a figurehead created to give a voice or credence to a new religious movement. Academia has done little validate this claim: we have enough independent historical sources confirming the existence of a man named Jesus of Nazareth crucified under Roman governor Pontius Pilate, around the time indicated in scripture.

So, we can say at least this: Jesus was a man. According to the story, He had some followers during his life that later chose to die in His name. Imagine that, when you die, you want to convince 10 other people to die after you, in horrible fashions. Simon Peter was crucified upside down, since he didn't feel worthy to die in the same manner as his God. Ostensibly, Jesus influenced those men in a way that I don't think any of us could ever pull off ourselves. If this sequence of events actually did play out (and they did, evidenced by the fact that Christianity is now everywhere), then there is power in what Jesus did, whether from man or from God.

How true are any of these stories? We have no real evidence to say for sure. I've met a few religious people who are excited about the prospect of archeology validating the historical authenticity of the events in the Gospels. I've nothing against the field of archeology investigating any particular matter, but does your faith really seek out evidence? In John 4:48, a listless, resigned Jesus tells a man asking for a miracle, "Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will never believe." (John 4:48) Discipleship does not call for intellectual verification of the premise you're asked to accept; it calls for putting these intellectual hesitancies aside. As a person who strives to be an intellectual, I find it vexing to deal with religious people who push their views but haven't learned this difference.

After the Book of Acts, the rest of the New Testament is a compilation of Christian writings, most of which are epistles attributed to the apostle Paul. Again, in evaluating Christianity, there are linkage issues with Paul and Jesus. The two never knew each other, or at least, he never was a man who followed Jesus while he was alive. These writings give insight into some of the thoughts of the early Christians, but they are distinct from the gospels in that we don't believe they are second- or third-hand accounts of the life of Jesus, but writings disseminated much later to specific audiences with specific agendas.  Like the Tanakh, these writings have their place, but I have little to say about them since they don't have relevance here.

So, as much as it feels like something of a cliché, we've essentially distilled the Holy Bible down to what really should have been its focus: on Jesus Himself. For those who might be interested in reading this story in its simplest of terms, I refer you to The Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson assembled this by curating from the gospels all of the bits of moral philosophy that Jesus taught. All the mystical stuff, like the healings and the resurrection, are omitted entirely. You could probably read the whole thing in roughly 12 minutes.

It's well-known that He was Jewish, so His disciples referred to Him as "Rabbi", which means "Teacher". I've been to enough different church services over the past year that I have to wonder how the attendees and sermons at many of these places might be different if we all called our priests "teachers".

In the time since I've started this, I've found that knowledge of scripture leads people to assume that you're religious. This makes me wonder if there ever was a time in history when a person could strive to have well-rounded knowledge about many things, accept only a few of these, and not be judged incorrectly when they happen to offer advice that's relevant to a situation but not necessarily congruous with what they've personally accepted.

So people ask me what I am. Here is my answer: I study ancient scripture of many flavors, so I am a student.

But, what would I call myself, if I called myself anything? Nothing. To the Christian believer, this is blasphemy. To deny the Teacher in the presence of others condemns me. But as I write this in the wee hours of the morning, I'd say it twice again before the cock crows. I cannot refute the claims of those who might condemn me, but only offer claims of my own. I'll offer the spiritual full disclosure clause that seems ever-present in the gospels: I make these claims of my own authority, so it's with no authority. This comes from me, not God.

From the Beatitudes:

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." -Matthew 5:6. It's also rephrased in Luke: "Woe to you who are full now, for ye shall hunger."

I mentioned this a friend who asked me what I was. She laughed and said, "Well, that's a funny way to put it, to kind of intellectually fend off people who might try to convert you."

I thought that was a funny idea, but it needs to be clarified: I don't have a way to "put it". That's the way it is. To call myself a Christian is to be filled. Is this bad? Not by itself, but risk accompanies it. If I come to believe that by accepting Christianity and adopting many of their routines that I've truly done something to connect with God, then I'm no better off than before, when I didn't call myself a Christian. (Though perhaps now I have an arguably better set of friends.) In this case, I call myself a Christian to gain favor in the eyes of other men.

This path is not inevitable, but it is characteristic of many people who enter organized religions. Imagine that all of the Christianity, in the entire world, is composed of a house of 12 people on my block, who call themselves Christians and practice the philosophy. I doubt anyone would take issue with this. In fact, some local birdcage liner would probably feature them in a lovely cover story.

The problems come at scale. Any human institution that grows large enough tends to lead to corruption, or at least attracts those with a tendency towards corruption. The best you can hope for is that the corruption does not contaminate the original purity, but you also have to believe that avoiding this is even possible.

Jesus seemed to know this well. My favorite passage in the Bible is John 5. Go read it if you'd like to, but here's the story: Jesus heals a paralyzed man on the Sabbath, and tells him to pick up his mat and walk. He does this, but it's against Jewish law to carry your mat on the Sabbath, and he happens to be walking in an extremely public, extremely holy place. So in short order, the Jewish ruling members of the Temple (the Pharisees) floating around the large crowd see him and confront him about it. He tells them, "Uh, this guy healed me. Not sure who he was, he just disappeared into the crowd. And he told me to carry my mat."

Well, these Pharisees are the persistent types, so eventually they figure out who it was, and they confront Jesus Himself. I think Jesus' reaction, in the context of this story, isn't surprising: he had healed man who had been paralyzed his entire life. What did it matter what day of the week it was? The debate that ensues is characteristic of the debates Jesus had with those in authority: His answers tended to confound, disillusion, and in the most delightful of circumstances, render speechless those he addressed.

So what do we get from this? Jesus was some kind of superman who used his mystical powers to not only heal the infirm but to also screw with the heads of those in authority at the time. This is truly a man after my own heart.

From this particular passage, Jesus says this to the Pharisees, most of which one could say to a stave off a would-be group of aggressive missionaries:

"I do not accept glory from human beings, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?"

Even to those who don't believe in God, there's something to be said for the value of deference to something that humanity hasn't grasped. This could be scientific; even with the precise equations of quantum mechanics, ambiguity still lurks and mysteries abound as to how things really work, and scientists wonder how they could possibly be that way. Should we spend our lives acting like we're in control of what's around us?

Jesus seemed to understand that there was a difference between faith, and the mechanisms of humankind that are built surrounding that faith. To the person who wants to understand faith, this division must first be understood.

The most interesting findings in archeology over the 20th century have been the discovery of several non-canoncial gospels. These are books which were written around the same time as the gospels included in the Bible. Like those in the Bible, they recount the life and teachings of Jesus. We haven't had access to the contents of these writings since the first few centuries, since all copies were destroyed.

So why did we get some of them in the Bible, and not others?

The formation of the New Testament, and the books that were included, happened roughly 300 years after Jesus died. All of the writings that were available at the time were tossed onto a big table, and some people chose which ones got in and which didn't. This group of people was presided over by Roman Emperor Constantine; if anyone in the group disagreed with Constantine, they were kicked off the council or killed. (For those of you who've seen The Da Vinci Code, this much is true; but nothing can be concluded from evidence about Jesus having a wife or a bloodline.)

It doesn't seem that Constantine chose the writings he did to go into the Bible based on their authenticity, but simply based on the doctrines they contained. He chose to omit certain writings because they didn't serve his mission of uniting the Pagans and Christians in Rome under a single religion. Constantine himself was a pagan who converted to Christianity almost, if not literally, on his deathbed. This hardly screams a life of piety.

So this is Bible, on which Christians have their hopes set. You accept this set of writings as truth, but in doing so, you do not revere the Teacher, but instead you revere Constantine.

Aha! But you can refute my argument by saying that everything that has transpired since the death of Jesus has been the will of God. Constantine may have been a pagan heathen, but he was playing out the set of events that God had willed, much in the way He must have willed Judas. By guiding the actions of man, God gave us the book He wanted.

If this is true, then isn't the discovery of the contents of the non-canonical gospels also the will of God? And if this is true, then shouldn't we seek them, since they do come from God? But of course, now I'm just being clever, and that only serves to annoy or confuse large groups of people at social gatherings.

I am surprised at Christians who won't even consider the contents of the non-canonical gospels. Without resorting to philosophical tricks, a simple question: revealed to us are more testimonies and details about Jesus, which were lost for almost 1600 years. What force on earth would prevent you from investigating?

When Jesus was addressing a large group of people, many of whom were skeptical of his claims, He said, "Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." (John 7:17) Take nothing on faith, then! We can approach these new gospels as a child approaches water with her toe, and see for ourselves.

The Book of Revelations is a curious affair, and one that I'd rather skirt entirely, but alas, much of the information we get bombarded with surrounding religion is about the end of the world. So our exploration inevitably leads into this territory. What is this book? It would be easy to blame all of this apocalyptic garbage we hear on Revelations, but Jesus Himself does talk about the end of the world in the gospels. To his entourage he says, "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28)

Jesus really seemed to believe that the kingdom of heaven would come to earth within a generation of His death. Naturally, as the years crept by after He was gone, His followers grew understandably disheartened that this hadn't happened yet. In an effort to give hope to the missionaries in Asia Minor, John composed the Book of Relevations.

Categorically, Revelations is actually in a specific literary genre that was popular that time, much like we have romances, mysteries, and so on. Writings in this genre were called "apocalypses". Interestingly, there were other apocalypses written (Peter and Paul both wrote one) that weren't included.

A friend of mine quipped that, if a far future civilization were given a stack of our DVDs, a player, and some Rosetta stone to understand them, it would be impossible to figure out who we were, as a people. I laughed hard at this. You can imagine people 2,000 years from now viewing your typical beat cop show. What to make of it? Well, these people clothed in this blue garb with these little silver shields that carry primitive weapons to make holes in people seem to be protectors. Then you get something like Training Day, where you have corruption of some of the protectors, but good prevails; if these descendants of ours are anything like us, this shouldn't confuse their understanding. Then you pop in something like The Naked Gun, and suddenly no one knows what to think!

Each of these detailed the return of Jesus in its own way. Revelations is a florid depiction of possible events that was intended to give inspiration to those working to spread the word of Christ. It was never intended to be taken as a prophesy of literal events that we can expect to transpire.

And yet even today, Revelations continues to inspire in ways that I don't imagine the original author would have ever envisioned. As Jesus is ascending into heaven for the last time, an Angel says to those watching, "Why do you stand here looking into the sky?" (Acts 1:11) I don't believe we can know for sure if Jesus will ever return, but until that time, it's on us. We are each of us on our own...or together. Why are you staring at the sky?

One of my favorite passages from the Bible is a simple analogy. This takes place in a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and historians believe he may have lent a hand in cutting down Jesus' corpse from the cross. But when they meet, Jesus scans him with His Jedi mind power, and decides he's cool. So He begins to teach him.

In this passage, there is the infamous John 3:16. Author and pastor John Maxwell, who I admire greatly, refers to this as Jesus' "mission statement". Jesus, Inc. is funny to imagine, but of course that's because I'm only associating mission statements with modern businesses. It makes sense to me that if you want to do something important in your life, you should probably be able to describe it in one or two sentences.

I like what follows shortly after. This was written by the author of the Book of John, who is widely believed to be John:

"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God."

Of course, assuming that the author is writing while divinely inspired, then we have to assume that this is a dramatic reduction of what God actually wants to communicate. He must put His thoughts into words, and those words must be accessible to human understanding. We must not think of literal light and dark, but instead of a concept beyond ourselves, incomprehensible by ourselves, that a being of superior intelligence would resort to using light and dark as a close analogy.

Perhaps we cannot know what the light really is, but I do believe it is every person's duty in life to seek to understand what separates the light from the dark in this world.

Go your way and sin no more.

Friday, December 25, 2015

"Lost" and Repentance

Over the past several weeks, I have been re-watching the entirety of the television series "Lost". I watched most of this series as it aired, from 2005 to the end in 2010. Here's what can be said about the series: it was a rare serialized sci-fi drama that actually wasn't at all serialized. Each episode, throughout all six seasons, contains a self-contained character struggle surrounding some philosophical problem. There is a parable in each episode, which is revealed to us not through dialogue, but in how the story plays out. It is difficult to pull this kind of writing off, let alone consistently.

The ending of the series was extremely divisive amongst its audience; while many people left satisfied, others felt that the ending was a cop-out, and didn't really provide enough closure to the series.

After viewing the finale, I was in the latter camp. The ending didn't satisfy me. However, it was clear from the writing that the ending didn't provide an intellectual closure to things, but rather an aesthetic one. Think of the ending of Taxi Driver: does Travis Bickle really pick up his former flame and get some validation for what he's done? As Roger Ebert points out, the last scene of the film "completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level."

So it was with "Lost". I felt I didn't like the ending, but I also recognized that the story had not concluded, and was never meant to conclude, on a literal level. I didn't appreciate the emotional nature of the conclusion. The relevant idiom here might be "pearls before swine".

Over the last few years, since the series ended, I've come to recognize that most of my adult life has been something of a crisis of faith. With this knowledge plainly before me, I can identify with the plights of the characters. The overall storyline, and its conclusion, satisfies me greatly. I don't believe the ending of "Lost" was intended to offer its own interpretation of the truth. Instead, it should draw out the question in the viewer's mind: "What is truth?"

With that said, there was one overarching storyline through the course of the series that I'd like to chat about briefly. Suffice it to say, if you haven't seen the series and want to, stop reading here.

The mythology of "Lost" is contained on a remote island, where it's evident that both good and evil forces are at work. Much of the mystery of the series depends on the ambiguity between who is "good" and who is "bad" in the conflicts that occur. Often the needle gyrates; an action previously believed by the audience to be "evil" actually can be interpreted as "good" when the greater context of the act is later revealed.

One of the key elements in the mythology is the so-called "smoke monster", who we become aware of in the first episode, and who stalks the island killing characters. At first, the deaths are arbitrary: they seem to serve only for the monster to establish its dominance over the characters through fear.

In later seasons, some characters seek out the smoke monster to be "judged" for their past actions. The monster is able to read the minds of anyone, and learn who they are, and everything they remember. In the third season, the monster kills Mr. Eko after he refuses to admit that he has done anything wrong in his life. In the fifth season, Ben goes to the monster to atone for being responsible for the death of his daughter. He genuinely expresses sorrow for what he's done, and ostensibly, he is spared because he repented.

Towards the end of the series, we learn the origins of the smoke monster. Two boys are born on the island, in ancient times, one named Jacob, and other nameless. Jacob ends up becoming the protector of the island; his brother, unable to identify with a life spent serving the island, wants to leave the island and explore the rest of the world. Jacob forbids him to do so, and confines him to the island. Here is the source of the original conflict: Jacob's unnamed brother wants to kill Jacob and destroy the island so he can leave.

Through mystic forces, Jacob's brother is turned into the smoke monster. He is able to take his own human form, and the form of anybody who has died on the island. This explains the characters that appear just before or after the smoke monster: Eko sees his dead brother right before the monster, whose body is on the island. Ben sees his dead daughter right after the monster, and she had died on the island.

So, what appears to be "righteous" judgement from the monster, which spares those who repent and kills those who don't, isn't actually anything righteous at all. Since the monster cannot kill Jacob, and because he needs to kill Jacob in order to get what he wants, he needs to manipulate others into doing it for him.

This leads to one possible explanation for how the monster conducted his judgements. Mr. Eko refused to admit he had done anything wrong in his life; since there was no guilt in Eko, the monster didn't see him as a usable pawn in his game. Ben, however, agonizes over his guilt for killing his daughter; the monster quickly takes the form of his daughter and uses him to ultimately kill Jacob.

I think most of us would agree that a person should work to be aware of their own shortcomings, acknowledge their mistakes, and improve themselves. We see this as a character strength. Ben seemed to be following this course more than Eko, by admitting his mistake freely, so we might conclude that Ben was stronger than Eko.

But the monster did not use Ben's strength against him; it used his guilt. Being aware of your own weaknesses and past mistakes is the start of healthy self-evaluation, but we must bear in mind that carrying feelings of guilt makes us susceptible.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Merry Materialism

The debate surrounding the commercialization of the Christmas holiday is a study in apparent contradictions. Since Christian scripture (and the Hebrew scripture piggybacked onto it in the Bible) espouses the value of a lifestyle that de-emphasizes the importance of material things, it's a little odd that in a country where many people who practice this scripture, there is a massive spike in consumer spending while people are preparing to celebrate its largest holiday. That there is a causal relationship here, I think few people would argue.

But, Christian scripture also says that all human beings are flawed. If you accept this stance, you'd expect there always to be an element of greed that will prevail in different segments of the population. Therefore, commercialization of anything should be expected as an emergent property of any system composed of many people.

This leads us to a more interesting train of thought: if commercialization can be seen as inevitable in these cases, then we should not judge the system because it has been commercialized, but judge it based on the merits of what it represents. In the case of Christmas, it helps to remember that people are usually not buying gifts for themselves. The baseline consumer spending level for spending on self is, presumably, represented in the lower levels of spending in the early months of the year. We see the spike only when we get to a holiday where we are encouraged to think of people other than ourselves.

Hypothetically, I have no problem with going to my neighbor, who produces coffee mugs, spending my money on one, and giving it to another friend of mine who needs a coffee mug. In its purest form, I don't see any part of this process where anyone loses. At scale, however, there are economic drawbacks that emerge. If Marx was right, then as the system grows, the man selling me the mug will eventually diverge from the man who is making the mug, and the seller will exploit the maker to profit from our transaction.

Perhaps it is a subtle variant of the Golden Rule that should guide us. For example, imagine that one day I decide for myself that there is no true comfort in any material things whatsoever. (For the record, I have not actually learned this lesson for myself yet.) The Golden Rule would lead me to stop giving material things to others as gifts, since I probably don't want to receive them from others myself. Even this fails the true Golden standard: we should do unto others as they wish to be done to. A better rephrasing might be: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you if you were them."

In this case, it's not my place to insist that everyone else around me abandon material things. Even if I have abandoned non-essential luxury goods in my own life, I can still appreciate that many people around me will get joy from things that I give them as gifts. It stands to reason that some portion of consumer spending around the holidays is from people who give gifts to others, with consideration for the desires of the recipients, while having little or no desire to receive gifts themselves.

So, that Christmas has been commercialized is relatively clear. How it reflects on the character and ethics of the population of our country as a whole, however, is a much more difficult question to pinpoint.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Why Learn Math?

Jesus must have been a difficult fellow with whom to have a conversation. In the gospels' accounts of Him, He responds to questions with parables about goats and vineyards and bridegrooms. I can only imagine the circuitous answer I might get from Him if He were the concierge at a hotel and I was urgently looking for the bathroom. Blessed is he who wets his pants waiting for the Lord to get to the point.

His disciples asked him why he spoke in riddles to people. In His own defense, Jesus said this about why he spoke in parables: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not hear." (Luke 8:10)

Galileo wrote about 1500 years later: "Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe."

And yet many of us still ask why Nature has chosen to reveal herself to us in the confounding and convoluted language of mathematics.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Next Generation

A few weeks ago, I had a chat with a young lady from Brazil about how technology will affect the behaviors of kids just being born now. She argued quite strongly that screens and digital content would almost completely supplant more traditional mediums.

I agree with her. I don't honestly think people will be purchasing DVDs in 20 year's time. I give the movie industry that much time to get it together on the digital front, and for the inertia of ingrained technologies to erode.

The one small point we differed on was books. Now, this girl was about 10 years younger than me, in her early twenties. She felt that a child of age 5 now would never feel inclined to buy a book once they became an adult, in favor of a computer or e-reader. I asked her if she was aware of the glacial pace at which new technologies proliferate into our public education system.

"How do you feel about physical, printed books?" I asked her.

"I love them," she said. "I must have books. But the children now, they won't have any books. It will change a lot."

What I had trouble explaining to her (I don't speak Portuguese) was that about 5 years ago, when she was still in high school, people my age were having conversations about how kids in high school don't read books anymore.

She's absolutely right that technology will change the future, but I'm not worried about the loss of physical books. The very reason I try to read books is to keep my mind agile. If, in the distant future, books have been completely outmoded, I hope to be too busy trying to learn something off of whatever replaced books to be moping around coffee shops complaining to the young people about the death of books.

In truth, I'm more concerned about social forces that might lead to the outlawing of books. There was a trove of information in Alexandria's library that was completed eradicated. The Mayans had several thousand books, and the Spanish priests did a pretty good job of destroying all but three of them. My hope is, books or not, that the body of knowledge we've amassed as a species over the past few hundred years is preserved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Culture Change

I have little say about the details surrounding the Climate Change debate that's ongoing in the public sphere. I'm not undecided on the issue, but to borrow from Homer Simpson: "Facts are meaningless, you can use facts to prove anything that's remotely true!"

What rouses my curiosity is the nature of the stances people take. On either side of the debate, at the extremes, are people who seem to believe in one conspiracy or another; it's either the oil companies trying to cover something up, or the environmentalists pumping up a non-issue for glory and money. So many people have an opinion which, by the very necessity of its own design, stands in direct opposition to the conspiracy theory to which they've subscribed.

On its own, this poses a problem; our opinions on these matters should be informed by reason, and not swayed by a group of people in irrational opposition with whom you feel you identify. But my concern rises when this gives way to finality. It's fair for a person to express their opinion and say, "I don't believe climate change is an issue we need to address"; the qualification this statement needs is "right now". Perhaps climate change is not an issue that needs addressing; perhaps the opportunity cost of addressing climate change, in favor of other global problems, is too high; perhaps there's something else.

But to assert that you have the final answer, to say of the issue, "This is the way the issue is, so let's close the books entirely on this one", that kind of statement is predicated on an assumption that isn't true in the world: staticity. I've learned to mistrust the small amount of information I've consciously retained from grade school. Hesitancy to trust one's memory is a good rule of thumb, but moreover, much of this information has changed radically since I learned it.

More importantly, this glosses over the fact that this is a complicated issue. Which part of the "climate change conspiracy" do you disagree with? How it will affect the oceans? How it will affect agriculture? How will the agricultural effects be different in Brazil compared to Nepal, given different crops and methods of farming? How will it affect the atmosphere? And so on. The issue is nuanced, and it is dangerous to be dismissive of the whole, when any one of the parts might need serious consideration.

It is of course also fair to assert your opinion the other way, but the same danger still holds: that you fall back mostly on what you learned yesterday, and don't update your path forward based on present new information. We should be cautious about the infrastructure we invest in to deal with climate change, and careful to invest in ways that maximize human well-being. I've come to feel that it is an issue we as a civilization should be addressing, but like any layman, I have no idea wherehow, or how much

Hubris is a universal constant in human nature, but it's been my observation the average scientist tends to be much more adept at considering and incorporating new information than the average climate change "denier". In terms of climate change, this alone is evidence of nothing, except that I respect a culture of people willing to periodically question their own ideas over one that doesn't. This is of immeasurable utility: even when the issue is too technical for me to understand, I can use the proportions of these cultures on each side of the debate, as a proxy, to assess the likely quality of their conclusions.