Category Archives: Ranting

Al Mohler and His Lying God

Al Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s very concerned about evolution, calling it one of the biggest challenges to Christianity. He knows evolution isn’t true, though, because his God is the author of one of the biggest lies ever: the Earth.

I am willing to accept the authority of science on any number of issues. I am fundamentally agnostic about a host of other scientific concerns — but not where the fundamental truth of the Gospel and the clear teachings of the Bible are at stake.

As I have stated repeatedly, I accept without hesitation the fact that the world indeed looks old. Armed with naturalistic assumptions, I would almost assuredly come to the same conclusions as BioLogos and the evolutionary establishment, or I would at least find evolutionary arguments credible. But the most basic issue is, and has always been, that of worldview and basic presuppositions. The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions. Indeed, the entire enterprise of Christianity is based on supernaturalistic, rather than merely naturalistic, assumptions. There is absolutely no reason that a Christian theologian should accept the uniformitarian assumptions of evolution.

Pause for a second and let that sink in. Al Mohler is explicitly saying that all of the physical evidence points to an Earth much older than however many thousands of years he and Bishop Usher have decided on. He concedes that point, because in the end, God can overrule natural laws, and has done so to manufacture fake fossils and to fiddle with natural processes like radioactive decay.

Think through what this means. In Al Mohler’s view, you can’t trust your lying eyes. The Earth looks old not because it is old, but because God made it look old. God is lying to you, obfuscating the truth as much as possible because…well, that’s really the question.

This portrayal of God is an interesting one. Al Mohler’s God is always testing you, telling you falsehoods to see if you’ll be able to sort them from the truth. The act that Al Mohler is so concerned about, God’s creation of the Earth, was an act of lying. Al Mohler’s God is a lying liar who seeks to mislead you.

I’ve seen this behavior is described in the Bible. Strangely enough, it’s not behavior that the Bible condones or normally associates with God. If you asked Al Mohler if his God is a liar, he’d undoubtedly say no. How strange, then,  that Al Mohler’s worldview requires a God who lies.

Here is Where My “Last Airbender” Joke Would Go if I Could Think of One

Last night, before combining The Last Airbender with Rifftrax, I made the mistake of watching it without the sarcastic commentary. Surprise! It truly earned its 6% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I was fascinated, though, with why it’s so eye-bleedingly bad.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the whitewashed casting and how it undermined the setting established by the original Nickelodeon series. I will admit that I was taken aback by seeing a Fire Nation represented by actors of Indian, Maori, and Iranian descent, not to mention a notionally Inuit group of people represented by two very white actors. But leaving aside that giant misstep, the movie did a terrible job of condensing the original source material into a movie, in large part because it’s focused on the wrong thing.

The movie is based on the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon on Nickelodeon. That series’ first season was over ten hours long. The movie runs a little over an hour and a half, yet attempts to fit all of the first season’s major plot points into that time.

The result? A whole lot of stuff happens, a giant brownie of plot with dollops of exposition ice cream and topped with a glaze of voice-overs, but there’s little meaning to the action. To fit in all of the story, they had to dispense with character development.

In the series, the main characters have time to grow and become fully-realized people. Aang comes to terms with being the Avatar; Katara learns to trust in her strength; Zuko learns who he is and what he truly values. This is the series’ core, the real story being told. In the movie they’re ciphers, blown about by the winds of plot. The Last Airbender doesn’t even bother with common movie shorthand to signpost character growth, and skips any real banter and character interaction for poorly-staged and ill-paced action sequences.

For my day job I write proposals and put presentations together to teach people about my company’s technology. A big part of my job is deciding what story I’m telling, and to whom, and what the most critical parts of that story are. Because of that I’ve gotten better at recognizing when a story is about more than the specific events of its plot. In focusing on cramming ten pounds of plot into a two-pound bag, Shyamalan lost sight of what Avatar was truly about.

I Don’t See Hair

I don’t see hair.

I mean, obviously I do see hair. It’s not like I’m blind; I’m just hair-blind. See, I don’t let someone’s hair affect my opinion of them. I don’t care if a person’s hair is black, white, or purple. It can be long or short, straight or curly or even tightly bunched.

It’s taken us a while, but I don’t believe anyone can deny that we live in a post-follicle world. True, in the bad old days of the 1960s or 1970s, people might yell, “Get a job, hippie!” if your hair was too long. They might even refer to young ladies as “nappy-headed hos” if their hair wasn’t properly straightened. But that was decades ago. Now people are free to do whatever they want to with their hair.

Some people, however, cling to the past. They’re the ones shoving quotas down our throats. Why, in a company I used to work for, I heard the vice president crowing over filling a marketing position, or perhaps a secretarial one. “I hired a ginger!” he said. I shuddered to think of the company VP promoting someone obviously unqualified just because of the color of her hair.

This practice is ubiquitous. The politically-correct mob has forced these kinds of hair-based quotas on everyone, from corporations to universities, to the detriment of those whom the quotas are meant to help. Growing up, before I began shaving my head, I thankfully had straight, light-brown hair. It’s so common as to be unremarkable, and I never had to wonder, “Did I get into university just because I’m brown-haired?” Imagine having kinky black hair and always having to wonder if you were only being rewarded because of your hair!

It’s true that the PC zombies cry foul. “You can’t not see hair!” they say, and call you hairist for even claiming to be hair-blind. That’s nothing more than reverse discrimination. I take comfort in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s barber: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their hair but by the content of their relaxer.”

I have taken his words to heart. I do not see hair. The truest way I know this is that, every morning, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see any hair on my head. What a privilege that is.

(Inspired in part by this.)

Lazarus May Be Starving, But Dives Feels Poor

The AP today reported that, based on the 2009 census data, the gap between rich and poor in the US has continued to widen. It’s been driven by two factors: rapidly-rising incomes of the top earners, even during the depression, and a mirrored increase in the US poverty rate. The end result is that we have more people in poverty than ever before, increasing social stratification, and an income gap that puts us near the bottom of industrialized countries.

Hm, I wonder if there’s some recent news that could throw this into stark relief.

Democrats and Republicans are locked in a game of political chicken over George W. Bush-era tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year. Democrats want to extend the tax cuts only for individuals earning less than $200,000 or couples making less than $250,000. Republicans want to extend the breaks for taxpayers in all income brackets.

Goodness. Couples making over $250,000 a year represent about 1.5% of all Americans. It’s four times the US median income, or some 17 times the amount of money a couple can make and be considered poor. Surely these couples recognize their truly privileged situation?

I, like the president before me, am a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and my wife, like the first lady before her, works at the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she is a doctor who treats children with cancer. Our combined income exceeds the $250,000 threshold for the super rich (but not by that much), and the president plans on raising my taxes. After all, we can afford it, and the world we are now living in has that familiar Marxian tone of those who need take and those who can afford it pay. The problem is, we can’t afford it….

We pay about $15,000 in property taxes, about half of which goes to fund public education in Chicago. Since we care the education of our three children, this means we also have to pay to send them to private school. My wife has school loans of nearly $250,000 and I do too, although becoming a lawyer is significantly cheaper….

Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby so we can both work outside the home. At the end of all this, we have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income.

Well, goodness. I can understand how hard it must be to make ends meet, what with private school, a lawn service, a cleaning service, and a nanny. It’s hard not to be poor when you have to pay for all of these.

Okay, this was just a Chicago law professor. I’m sure it’s an isolated–

Picture, if you will, my lawyer friend, Caitlin. She’s a mid-level finance associate at one of New York’s biggest lawyer factories. She’s been at the Big Law game long enough to be depressed on the good days and on the hunt for sturdy noose material on the bad days—which is to say most days. But, as luck would have it, after months of furtive interviews, she finally got an offer a couple of weeks ago to go in house at a media company that most people I know, including me, would kill to work for….

“It’s just…I’m just afraid…” She darted her eyes around and leaned in closer, lowering her eyes.

“I’m just afraid of what it’ll be like to feel…” she whispered, “…poor.”

The offered salary of the new in-house gig? $120,000 a year.

And now, a couple of weeks later, I’m still not sure what’s more disturbing: the fact that this friend—a worldly, educated, smart, able person—truly thinks that a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 could feel “poor” — or that fact that she’s absolutely right.

No. Just no. It’s no fun feeling poor, but feeling poor isn’t being poor any more than feeling like I can fly makes me an airplane. Feeling poor isn’t having to choose between a doctor’s visit or food for your family. Feeling poor isn’t wondering when they’ll get around to cutting your electricity. And that’s just in comparison to the US’s genteel version of poverty.

I’m sorry that the Chicago law professor doesn’t feel rich because he’s surrounded by people making far more than he, and he only has a few hundred dollars to spend as he sees fit after investing, paying his domestic help, and putting his three kids in private school. It’s terrible that Caitlin is having an attack of the vapors over feeling poor. But you know what? If you beg for sympathy in these situations, I’m going to point and mock. They, like me, live in a society where the rich are getting far, far richer and the poor are getting far, far poorer. They can feel all they want, but it won’t change that fact.

If you would like to change that fact, find a local food bank, or consider donating to Feeding America. Do you have a woman and children’s shelter in your town? Poverty and recessions hit women and children hardest. You don’t have to donate money; donations of time are always welcome.

And who knows? Maybe focusing on others in need will change how all of us feel.

You Don’t Understand Fair Use

Fair use is one of those US legal concepts that, like the first amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, gets badly misused on the internet. Chances are you don’t understand it. That’s okay; I don’t fully understand it, either. But there are some misconceptions that you absolutely positively should rip out of your brain.

The most common and most pernicious one is that, if you only use a little bit of a song or excerpt a tiny piece of a novel, that’s fair use. Well, no. That can be a part of a fair use defense, but there’s more to it than that. Saying “I only used a bit, so it’s fair use!” is like going up to a cow in a field and saying, “Look! I made a hamburger!”

There are four things that go into fair use. Yes, length is one of them. If you use a short excerpt compared to the entire length of the work, you’ll more easily be able to claim fair use. But there are three other things you need to be doing for you to claim fair use.

What are you using the excerpt for? You need to do something transformative with it. You also need to use it to comment on or expand upon the original work. Using it for criticism about the actual work? Excellent. Using it because it would sound cool in your movie? Not so good.

What’s the nature of the work? Are you excerpting facts? Or are you taking pieces from a work of fiction?

Finally, what’s your excerpt going to do to the copyright holder’s ability to sell the original work? If you’re using the excerpt in something that will compete with the original for market share, you can’t easily claim fair use.

Those four elements are only guidelines, though. Take the restriction on length. Copying an entire TV show to watch it later? Fair use. Using just over one minute of a 72-minute Charlie Chaplin film in a new report of Chaplain’s death? Not fair use. About the only way to really know if something is fair use or not is to fight it out in court, at which point you might as well turn large piles of cash into bonfires.

Now I will sit back and wait for my lawyer friends to correct this post, because Aahz’s law doesn’t just apply to Usenet.

(And in case that last sentence doesn’t tip you off: I am not a lawyer, and this does not count as true legal advice. Consult your lawyer if fair use lasts for longer than four hours.)

Be Only What You Can Be

My uncorrected eyesight is terrible. I started wearing glasses in second grade and contacts in third grade. My optometrist had me wear rigid contacts in the mistaken hope that it would keep my eyes from continuing to degenerate. At this point I am nearsighted enough to need nearly eleven diopters of correction. Without my glasses the world looks like something Monet painted while staggeringly drunk.

In all the time I’ve been wearing glasses and contacts, no one has ever suggested that I should go without them. No one has said, “You should let your genetics have their way.” Sadly, that’s a common attitude towards mental illnesses and the like. Today’s example is fantasy author Robin Hobb, whose view is “You have to be who you genetically are.”

To be blunt, that is a stupid, damaging view. It minimizes real problems, discourages people from getting help, and adds external disapproval to an already large reservoir of internal anguish. For instance, look at the third comment on her post. “Do I panic and put my daughter on Ritalin to avoid a similar path? I am not going to do that.”

Hobb expresses a number of problematic views in her post. She buys into the romantic myth of artistic temperament including depression and bipolar behavior. She’s not comfortable with people taking drugs long-term to fix brain chemistry imbalances. As an aside, she dismisses ADHD, placing Ritalin on the level of chugging cans of Red Bull to stay awake. She’s even peddling “don’t meddle in God’s domain!” in new genetic clothes.

Mental illnesses are real, and it doesn’t help when people dismiss them by saying that they’re just fine and dandy. Being depressed is not the same as depression. Being scatter-brained is not the same as ADHD. Depending on artificial aids for the rest of your life is not a sign of failure, and to claim otherwise is to do real and lasting harm.

Consider Type I diabetes. It’s likely got a strong genetic component, and you have to monitor your blood sugar levels and administer insulin for the rest of your life. Should we expect diabetics to do without insulin, then, in order to be who they genetically are?

Look, mental illness isn’t something you can think yourself through. You can’t will yourself better any more than I can will my eyes to work normally. Just because you can’t necessarily see the effects of a mental illness doesn’t mean the illness doesn’t exist. It’s nice that Robin Hobb has been able to live with the minor mental quirks her genetics have provided to her. But shame on her for deciding that everyone else should then be able to get by without treatment.

Let’s Argue About Fanfic Like It’s 1999!

It’s spring, when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love and authors post rants about fanfic. Diana Gabaldon is the latest author to denounce fanfic and those who write it in a manner reminiscent of Anne Rice at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, many of her arguments are so shaky and problematic that a building inspector would have her entire logical edifice torn down for not meeting code.

OK, my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I _know_ it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters.

It’s fair for authors to say, “You know what, I don’t like fanfic, and I don’t want any of it written with my characters.” Most fanfic authors respect that; I believe all of them should. Diana is on shaky ground with her statement about how she knows fanfic’s illegal. She’s a US citizen writing and living in the US, so she should be familiar with the fair use doctrine in US copyright law. Mounting a fair use defense is akin to building a house on shifting sands, but nevertheless, much of fanfic is likely to reside on those sands.

That first paragraph may be reasonable, but even there you can hear the faint sound of squealing wheels as the train prepares to leap the rails. By the fourth paragraph she’s analogized fanfic writers to burglars and made the completely incorrect statement, “And you can’t use someone’s copyrighted characters for your own purposes, no matter what those purposes are,” which means my making up Phineas and Ferb stories for Eli is right out.

But wait! She’s just getting started! She compares fanfic writers to someone trying to seduce her husband, and later analogizes fanfic writers to a stalkerish middle-aged man who tells a mom how he fantasizes about having sex with her twenty-one-year-old daughter. She manages to conflate real-world stalking with people writing porn about imaginary people.

Then she goes a step further, giving a blanket condemnation of fanfic because so much of it is terrible, and a lot of it is porn. “A terrible lot of fan-fic is outright cringe-worthy and ought to be suppressed on purely aesthetic grounds,” she says, later claiming that the amount of pornographic fanfic “constitutes an aesthetic argument” against all fanfic. Is a type of artistic expression only allowed if the majority of it is good? It puts the fanfic author in the place of Abraham, asking Gabaldon, “Suppose you find fifty good examples of fanfic. Will you really sweep it all away then? What about forty-five? Or forty?”

A lot of people have pointed out that Gabaldon’s house is entirely made of glass. She has admitted that the hero of her Outlander series was inspired by a character from Doctor Who. Later books in the series feature plenty of sex, some of it with real historical people — at one point, the King of France rapes one of Gabaldon’s characters. Given that, the saddle of her high horse is resting on the floor.

I find fanfic and other transformative works fascinating. People are not passive consumers of entertainment. We are not empty glasses waiting to be filled. We are active in a dialog among fans and creators, taking creative works and riffing on them. From the kid making up stories about adventures with the Transformers to the Doctor Who fan imagining what it would be like to travel with the Doctor, we weave these stories into our own imaginative play. Authors and creators can opt out of that, asking that there be no public expression of this imaginative play, but I believe that doing so makes our overall cultural experience poorer. It is their right, and I support them exercising that right, but I’d rather they not.

To Diana’s credit, she’s listening to the angry conversations stirred up by her post. This evening she posted that she’s reassessing her take on fanfic writers’ motivations. She evidently had never considered that fanfic writers might be doing it out of love for the original work. I hope she also reconsiders her position on fanfic, or at least is willing not to conflate its writers with stalkers and burglars.

The Video Game Marketplace Explained in One Short Scene

INT. GENERIC GAMESTOP – DAY

STEPHEN and his six-year-old son ELI enter. ELI is instantly captivated by Super Mario Brothers Wi-hee! on the Wii next to the door.

STEPHEN
Hey, Eli, are you going to stay here by the Wii?

ELI
Look, I’m moving Mario all around the map!

STEPHEN
I’ll take that as a yes.

STEPHEN wanders over to the Xbox games. He sees that Assassin’s Creed II is on sale for half-off. He dithers for a bit before picking it up and taking it to the counter to buy it.

Behind the counter, GAMESTOP GUY eyes the Assassin’s Creed II box and nods. He’s in his early 20s, with slightly scruffy hair and the standard Gamestop polo shirt.

GAMESTOP GUY
Hey, good choice. That game’s great.

STEPHEN
Oh? Excellent. So it’s awesome?

GAMESTOP GUY
Well, there’s a bit of side-boob at the beginning, but after that it’s all killing.

STEPHEN
Oh, uh. (beat) I guess that’s plenty of awesome, then.

STEPHEN pays for the game and shuffles away. He manages to get ELI to stop playing Super Mario Brothers Wi-hee! and they exeunt, pursued by a bear.

The Dollhouse Finale Wasn’t Very Good At All

Huh. So that’s how Dollhouse ended: with a jumbled, unfocused episode that epitomized many of the show’s shortcomings.

It didn’t help that Misty and I watched Epitaph One right before the finale. Epitaph One was the first season episode that only showed up on the DVD release, at least in the US. It was set ten years after Dollhouse’s main timeline, at a point where the mindwipe and imprinting technology had become widespread and readily abused. People could be erased remotely and have new personalities imprinted on them. Everyone was paranoid, and with good reason. How did you know that you were still you? What was to keep someone from wiping you and hijacking your body? How do you live in a world where one nation can phone the citizens of another, wipe them, and turn them into an instant fifth column? Epitaph One reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s stories where people’s identities were fluid and no one was sure who they were any more. It was smart, it was engaging, and it hinted at a show that I very much would have enjoyed watching.

Epitaph Two, the series finale, failed to live up to Epitaph One’s promise. A lot of that is probably due to how rushed the show was. Credit Whedon and his writing team for wrapping everything up, but the lack of time meant that there was no time to build the sense of dread that the show really needed. Here’s this world-changing technology that in the end brings down civilization, and instead of seeing it happen, we get a “meanwhile, ten years later”. It was a classic case of story events being far too exciting to be shown.

Character beats were rushed, making the finale feel like someone’s fanfic, as if someone said, “Hey, what if it were ten years later?” and immediately fired up their copy of Wordpad. Alpha reappears, only now he’s a good guy and is about as dangerous as Bertie Wooster! Anthony loves that the technology lets him pick up new skills instantly, while Priya hates the technology! They’ve split; I wonder if they’ll get back together! Will Paul and Caroline get back together? Only time and cliché tropes will tell!

There was no time to establish how the characters moved from point A to point Ten Years Later, so their choices in Epitaph Two had very little emotional impact. Topher’s crazy, see, because he’s destroyed the world, but it’s okay, because he’ll get redemption. He’s going to push a giant reset button that would make the Simpsons proud, and it’ll kill him in the process. Meanwhile Adelle gets to wring her hands in the background because she now loves Topher. Underlying it all is a weird cavalier attitude to killing off people’s copies, even by the copies themselves. Caroline’s personality ends up in a young girl, and that splinter of Caroline is quite happy to be erased at the end? Really? Even though that’s effectively the death of an individual? Would you be willing to die if you knew a copy made of you several years ago was going to go on living? We’re who we are in part because of our continuous memories. Cut that thread, and the person made up of those memories is gone. They’ve bobbled something that even a forty-year-old Star Trek novel got right.

The finale also relied heavily on Whedon’s established narrative kinks. You’d think Whedon would develop new ones, or at least outgrow his old tricks, but no. It’s like seeing a forty-year-old man dressed in his childhood sailor suit. Paul is killed surprisingly and unexpectedly because that’s how Whedon likes to generate pathos. Much of the population is insane after being mind-wiped and imprinted and are called Butchers because Reavers had already been taken.

In the end, the series really was Rapehouse. Caroline, the strong woman who was the series’ center, realizes she loves Paul the stalker only after he’s dead, so she puts his personality in her brain. I cannot summon enough words to explain how creepy that is.

Once upon a time, Joss Whedon did some truly amazing, ground-breaking work. Maybe he’ll go back to doing that again now that Dollhouse has been put out of its misery.

Finding the Boundaries of Greed

Yesterday on NPR, Robert Siegel spoke to Steven Hall, Managing Director of an executive compensation company, about how the investment banks Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase are giving its employees some $47 billion in bonuses.

SIEGEL: Well, it’s reported that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase have combined, that is, have set aside $47 billion for bonuses. They know how unpopular these bonuses are with the public. Why so much pay in bonuses?

Mr. HALL: Well, first of all, I guess I have difficulty understanding a number like $47 billion. All of those zeros get me a little cock-eyed in terms of thinking about it. The way in which that total number is derived, though, is based on a sharing of the profits that the employees generate for shareholders.

You know, I sometimes help people think about big numbers. Let’s see what we can do with this one. That $47 billion is about $150 for every man, woman, and child in the US, or enough for three weeks’ worth of groceries. Gosh, when you put it like that, it’s peanuts!

Or maybe we should look at it per employee of those three companies. They’ve got some 300,000 people among them, so that works out to be $160,000 per employee, a mere four times the US per capita income in 2008!

Another way of looking at $47 billion is that it’s close to the TARP funds the three banks accepted in the last year or so. Why, no wonder Steven can’t comprehend such a large number!

But he feels the pain of those poor executives who are having to take a lot of their bonus in the form of company stock.

SIEGEL: Well, the banks, evidently, will pay more of the bonuses in stock -that’s obliging some pressure from the government. How much of a difference should it make if somebody who’s getting a million or two in a bonus this month gets it in the form of stock as opposed to cash?

Mr. HALL: Well, I think for some people – were they to get a bonus and if they were expecting the cash in order to be able to live on it, pay schooling for children, pay for that second home, pay other expenses that they have – finding that you’re not going to get the cash could be a little bit of a surprise.

Every once in a while, Misty and I will realize that we’re complaining about problems that 99% of the world’s population would love to have. When we do, we say, “Ohmygosh, my latte is too foamy!” to recognize that we’re being douches and should stop. I think I may replace that phrase with, “How will we pay for our second home?”

Mr. HALL: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of interesting to think about. And, again, I feel for the problems that are going on here. But if [the banks] decided not to pay a banker as much money, how does that help someone on Main Street?

C’mon, people, what else could they do with that money? It’s not like they could invest it back into small businesses, or offer others the same low rates that the Fed has offered them! It’s either bonuses or they have to put that money in mattresses in all of their offices, and do you know how many mattresses you’d have to buy to stash $47 billion? There’s no other option!

Right, right, I’m being overly frothy. There’s no need for me to start handing out torches and pitchforks, even if I do like my nifty portable pitchtorch — it’s fire plus stabby in one handy package! After all, I’m sure the people involved can see why people are upset —

Mr. HALL: I wish people would understand that it is a very difficult world that we’re all going through right now, and I don’t make the rules. But I do try and report honestly on what I see going on out there.

You know what, never mind. Mr. Hall, I have a pitchtorch right here with your name on it.