Monthly Archives: April 2010

Ruminations

An observation from Harold and Maude:  Cat Stevens is the Shins of the early 70s.  Or are the Shins the Cat Stevens of the 2000s?

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Peace Corps Skill Enhancement:  Man, I hate it when prestige classes require cross-class skills!

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Types of learning curve:

New art medium = easy

New programming language = medium

New spoken language = difficult

Hamster on a new wheel = hilarious

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Image from Cute Overload.

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Review: How to Train Your Dragon

(Some spoilers to follow.)

I’ve been leery of Dreamworks Animation of late.  They have been suffering from a lot of very stock stories and a tendency to copy Pixar.  I’ve been unimpressed even with their most well-received films, such as Kung Fu Panda, which I expected to be an utterly predictable underdog kung-fu movie but was urged to see anyway, and found to be…an utterly predictable underdog kung-fu movie.  Thus, I instinctively wrote off How to Train Your Dragon. It was only after I noticed that the Rotten Tomatoes had it listed at a whopping 98% that I decided to give Dreamworks Animation another chance.  I loved it.

It isn’t that the story is so breathtakingly original.  It follows the coming-of-age and enemy-cultures-become-allies plotlines with no real departures; the only plot twist that surprised me at all was Hiccup losing his foot at the end.  For fun, try comparing the plot to Ratatouille.  The incidentals are different, but the story is essentially the same, right down to disapproving fathers and tough slap/kiss girlfriends.  Still, the story type is old because it works, and here it works particularly well.

After all, as we discovered with Avatar, originality isn’t everything.  A well-executed new take on an old story can have just as much merit as a highly innovative story, and in its execution, How to Train Your Dragon shines.  The visuals, the character design (especially of the dragons, who have the personality of cats), and the sheer heart of the whole thing add up to an immensely watchable result.  There are also several details in the way the story is carried out that make it work better than other versions of the same story type.

For instance, Hiccup the Viking and Toothless the dragon are given a long time to bond.  Toothless is caught in a valley, unable to fly, allowing Hiccup to return several times and gradually gain its trust.  There’s a montage, yes, but this part of the story could cover weeks or months.  The result is a much more natural relationship than the 10-second enemies-to-friends reversal so common in movies.  (Fridge logic sets in when Hiccup’s friends learn to ride some other dragons in a few minutes, but that’s a minor problem.)

But the best detail is Toothless’ tail.  A difficulty I have with the whole dragon-riding subgenre is the subjugation.  I don’t like the dynamic that dragons are shown to be beautiful, mighty, and as often as not intelligent and noble too, but are forced to be mounts for humans.  Why should humans get to control dragons?  The dragons seem like they don’t get anything out of the relationship and they’d be far better off on their own, free to do as they please instead of having to obey their riders*.  How to Train Your Dragon found a solution to this problem.

Dragons apparently use the fins on their tails to steer and balance.  Toothless is missing one of his fins.  He can’t fly without it.  Hiccup makes him a replacement fin out of leather, but Toothless can’t control it:  It just flaps around uselessly.  So Hiccup builds a harness that allows him to control the tail fin and, with his help, Toothless is able to fly again.

Thus, this movie becomes the only case I’ve ever seen where the relationship between dragon and rider is truly equal.  Hiccup can’t fly on his own, but neither can Toothless.  Submitting to a rider is the only way he can be free.  The end, where both dragon and rider are handicapped on the same side, is a nice addition to the symmetry.

Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders formerly worked together on one of Disney’s most original works of cel animation, Lilo and Stitch.  They’ve brought the same freshness and vivacity to How to Train Your Dragon.  Go ahead, put aside your kids’-movie qualms and enjoy it.

UPDATE:  Gordon McAlpin of the webcomic Multiplex had a similar reaction.

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*If anyone is reading a PETA-style tirade against domestic animals into this, don’t.

Image from IMDB.

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Xenia and the Sin of Sodom

Disclaimer: This post is not about homosexuality or the Bible’s position on it in general. It is about Sodom and Gomorrah in particular.

Studying classical mythology, I can’t help but be struck by the similarities to the Old Testament.  The two are fundamentally different in nature (most importantly, the Old Testament has a canon and mythology does not), but are often analogous in content.  Moses’ bronze snake (Numbers 21:4-9), for instance, could have come straight out of the Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a favorite goto for Christians condemning homosexuality.  The relevant portion:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. (Genesis 19:1-11 NIV)

By the way, if the men being struck blind reminds you of a certain other legend about a sin punishable by blindness, it isn’t related.  That honor goes to a detail of the tale of Lady Godiva, which was also the origin of the term “Peeping Tom.”

But back to the matter at hand.  The interpretation that God punished Sodom for being gay, as demonstrated by the men of Sodom wanting to have sex with two dudes, is so standard it has its own noun.  Yet it shouldn’t be, because the Bible itself says otherwise:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  (Ezekiel 16:49-50 NIV)

You can’t get much more straightforward than that.  God, speaking directly to Ezekiel, lists the sins of Sodom and sodomy isn’t among them.  It might have been another one of the sins of Sodom, one that happened to not be on the list.  It also might have fallen under “did detestable things,” although the parallel structure of arrogant/haughty makes it more probable that the “detestable things” refer to the failure to help the poor and needy mentioned in the previous sentence.  But either way, there’s no direct mention of gay sex, or any sexual sins at all.  If that was a concern to God at all, he didn’t find it important enough to mention.

Still, the Genesis passage does mention sex and doesn’t make any mention of being overfed and unconcerned.  How to reconcile the two?

I appeal to Greek mythology.  If the story of Sodom were a myth, the sin of Sodom would be obvious, and (this being Greek) it wouldn’t have anything to do with homosexuality.  Like much of mythology, this story, viewed from a Greek perspective, revolves around xenia.

Xenia (the root of “xenophobic” and related words) may loosely be translated as “hospitality,” but it’s more than that.  It is the principle of the courteous treatment of visitors, especially those who are far from home.  It is a central virtue in mythology.  When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he enters his home disguised as a beggar.  The suitors abuse and mock him.  This is what casts them as villains and condemns them to their later deaths, even the one who regrets his behavior: by mistreating a stranger at their door, they were in violation of xenia.

So, too, are the men of Sodom from this perspective.  They are violating xenia by trying to assault the travelers, to whom they should be hospitable.  Lot’s words support this: the reason he gives is “for they have come under the protection of my roof,” not because they’re being homosexual.  Suddenly the two verses mesh perfectly well.  Violation of xenia falls under “not help[ing] the poor and needy,” because who could be poorer or needier than a wandering stranger?  Even Lot’s offering of his two daughters, the most bizarre detail of this rather bizarre story, makes sense (sort of): they are not under the protection of xenia.

I’m not putting this forth as a serious interpretation so much as a simple observation.  After all, xenia is a Greek principle, not a Hebrew one, so there’s no reason it should feature so prominently in a Hebrew story.  Nor is this interpretation helpful in determining a Biblical approach to homosexuality, other than to further emphasize the earlier point that Sodom and Gomorrah should be left out of it.  It is, however, an interesting and different light to shine on a familiar story.

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Same Team!

DM of the Rings by Shamus Young, 2007

The image is from DM of the Rings, where Aragorn accidentally sends the armies of the dead to attack the Rohirrim.  It’s what I thought of during a discussion on evangelism at care group, when someone talked about how she had evangelized a Lutheran friend by convincing her that evolution was a lie.

Sometimes only Jean-Luc Picard can express things properly.

Setting aside the evolution bit for the moment, this girl seems to think that Lutherans are not Christians.  She probably shares the opinion I’ve heard often from Mark Driscoll and similar thinkers, that there are Christians in the Catholic/Lutheran/Anglican/Episcopalian/Orthodox church, but it’s despite the teachings of the church, not because of them.

This is, at the very least, an uncharitable and uneducated thing to think.  It’s also unbiblical:

Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.  But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also.  The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have tares?’  And he said to them, ‘An enemy of mine has done this!’  The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go gather them up?’  But he said, ‘No, for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them.  Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.” ‘ ” (Matthew 12:24-30 NASB)

It’s a parable about why the righteous and the unrighteous live side by side in the world, but it’s also an admonition against trying to sort out who’s who.  If we make ourselves mediators of who is a Christian and who isn’t, we’ll do a terrible job of it.  Yet people at my church do this all the time.  They are far too ready to say “Those people call themselves Christians, but they aren’t really.”  For instance, a young man gave me this response when I expressed amusement that we’re sending missionaries to the Philippines, a far more Christian nation than our own (92.5% to 76.8%, according to the CIA World Factbook).  Certainly there are people who call themselves Christians and aren’t; there are probably a great many of them.  But you shouldn’t want to make yourself the mediator of who’s in and who’s out.  Who put you in charge?  Are you all-knowing and wise?

As far as people go, I’d say you have to just believe people.  If they say “I’m a Christian,” it’s probably better to accept that than to erect more divisive walls than necessary.  After all, you are not the judge of their hearts.

With churches and other organizations, evaluating whether something counts as Christian or not becomes easier and a bit more necessary, since it seems fair to say that ecumenicalism should extend to things that are Christian and not to things that aren’t.  Still, the tendency is to define “Christian” as “someone who agrees with me about everything,” and thus we end up with both the Orthodox position that officially states that we don’t know whether the non-Orthodox are saved or not, and things like the ironically-named conference Together for the Gospel, where a bunch of Reformed pastors get together and talk about how Reformed doctrine is right.  (All eight of the headliners are from the twenty-four, by the way.)

If a line must be drawn, I propose the Nicene Creed/Ten Commandments test.  Any church or similar organization that acknowledges the entirety of the Nicene Creed and the moral truth of the Ten Commandments and obeys the latter to the best of their ability shall be considered Christian; anyone who doesn’t will not.  If someone denies the divinity of Christ, we can draw a line there.  Believing in evolution or ordaining women, not so much.  You can still have opinions about those issues.  You can believe that others are wrong.  You can do your level best to change their minds.  But you can’t condemn them as heretics.  It’s possible they’re not Christians; it’s possible that the one issue you disagree about is the difference between saved and unsaved.  However, if the distinction needs to be made, it’s wise to stick with the creed that the church has believed for more than 1600 years and regard the issues that they saw fit to include as important and those that they didn’t bother to mention as peripheral, rather than relying on your own judgment.

Church history buffs will be pointing out that using the Nicene Creed as a criterion would introduce a filiusque problem.  Indeed, but if I were to eliminate all splits in the church except that between Catholic and Orthodox, I would already deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

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Oddity of the Week

Not odd! Just cute!

Ohio’s Akron Zoo presents: baby capybaras!

To the uninitiated, capybaras are the largest member of the rodent family. They are the size of large dogs. They’re aquatic animals, as you can see, that live in South America.

Another excellent capybara is Caplin Rous, a pet capybara who lives in Texas. Rous, of course, stands for “Rodent Of Unusual Size.”

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Terms To Avoid: Politically Correct

This “Terms to Avoid” series was inspired by the observation that subcultures tend to develop terminology that applies to things outside that group and is (or, at least, is intended to be) meaningful and noninsulting when used by the group, but outside the group either means nothing, has a drastically different connotation, or serves only to label the speaker as part of the subculture in which the term originated.  Additionally, many of these terms are effectively meaningless because they refer solely to constructs or straw positions, not to anything that exists in real life.  If the subculture has enough lingo to qualify as a dialect (ebonics, for instance), these terms are not particularly detrimental, because the speaker can code switch to standard speech when outside that group.  However, most subcultures just sprinkle a handful of new terms into otherwise ordinary speech.  Someone raised in that environment wouldn’t realize that those terms were meaningless to outsiders, including sometimes the outsiders to which the terms refer.  I experienced this from my Christian childhood and high school.

No one is at fault here.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the terms.  However, they function as a barrier to communication and should therefore be avoided.  This series will highlight several such terms, the problems with them, and why they should not be used.

There’s no better place to start than political correctness, a widespread term not tied to a particular subculture except, to some degree, the nostalgic, and particularly the faux-nostalgic who have a general feeling that things used to be much more straightforward, whether they were alive for the time to which they are alluding or not (the group is not necessarily older people).

It refers to the terms that are found to be unsuitable for public discourse and replaced with new, awkward terms that seem to have been made up out of whole cloth, which share the exact same meaning as the discarded terms but are deemed more appropriate.  The subtext is that there is a group of elites, probably politicians or academics, who vet language, removing inappropriate terms and replacing them with milder ones for the purpose of bowdlerizing or, more likely, supporting their own beliefs and whitewashing their actions.  This is a constructed narrative.  There is no committee for the evaluation of politically correct language; there is no canon list of politically correct (or politically incorrect) terms.  Therefore, the term “politically correct” is straw: it refers to something that doesn’t exist.

In cases like this, where the term is used negatively, or used neutrally to refer to something that one doesn’t personally endorse, a good way to discover if the term is straw is to ask: Does anyone ever use this term positively?  Are there people who actually promote political correctness–using that phrase–as a positive thing, or proudly consider themselves politically correct?  There aren’t.  Observe the Google autocomplete results, shown above.  Essentially since its conception, it has been used negatively, always applying to how other people expect you to talk and never to how you expect other people to talk.  This is a good sign that the term refers to something that isn’t real.

In reality, language changes, and words mean different things to different people.  As old terms become inappropriate, people who are used to using them are understandably resentful at what appears to be the arbitrary, unnecessary loss of a perfectly good word and at having a new term forced on them.  But that’s just the way language works.  The words “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” were all noninsulting terms used in psychiatry during the nineteenth century.  Attempting to use those terms in a noninsulting way today by appealing to their history would make you, well, an idiot.  Nobody specifically went in and labeled those words “politically incorrect;” they just gained new connotations such that people find them offensive, insulting, or just plain mean.

Even people who chafe under the idea of political correctness understand the damage of hurtful language.  Sarah Palin, who whined about censorship (specifically using the term “politically correct”) when people condemned her for violent language, nevertheless condemned Rahm Emanuel for using the term “retarded.”  Palin discovered that, when you’re on the receiving end of such language, it doesn’t feel like a constraining set of arbitrary rules put in place by some liberal elite.  It feels like common courtesy.

A tension arises when people have different ideas about what sort of language is acceptable.  One person’s ordinary word could be another person’s offensive slur.  Oftentimes the word used to be perfectly fine, but has attained new connotations, as “Oriental” for “Asian.”  For people who were used to using the old term, the change seems unnecessary.  It’s easy to imagine that some political correctness committee is policing language, but they’re not.  Common courtesy is just changing.

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A Nonneutral Internet Is No Better Than Nothing

Charter, our already lackluster internet provider, was behaving in an extra erratic manner yesterday. Our usual spotty service, which goes out now and then for a minute or two at a time, was replaced with service that was consistently able to access some websites and unable to access others.

In other words, for a hopefully brief and anomalous period of time, we’ve been experiencing an internet without net neutrality.

It’s changed my perspective a bit. Before, I objected to net neutrality on the grounds of my beloved populism: The Internet is the one place right now where anyone can say anything and be heard by anyone, and without net neutrality, it would become just another corporate-controlled source of information. However, I’m now realizing that it’s worse than that. Without net neutrality, the internet simply wouldn’t work, period. It might as well not exist.

Talking about different sites loading at different speeds doesn’t sound so bad. It conjures up the image of some websites loading instantly and others taking five or ten seconds. But that’s not how it would happen. Instead, there would be sites that load and sites that time out. Even without timeouts, a long wait is often as bad as not loading at all: imagine if every Google search took a full minute to load.

There’s a reason a net is such a good metaphor: its interconnected nature is a fundamental part of the internet. It isn’t arranged in any order (indeed, asking how it’s organized is a meaningless question) and the links aren’t necessarily between sites that are affiliated with each other. In a blog post, I might link to a news article, two or three other blog posts, a couple of YouTube videos, a Wikipedia article, and an IMDB page. Without neutrality, the net would have holes in it: Some of the pages I linked to would work and some would not. Browsing would become an exercise in frustration. You might be able to read my blog post, but not the blog post I was responding to; a web search would be booby-trapped with inaccessible results, and there would be no way to know which were which without trying them all.

This description may evoke the 90s, when the internet was young and irregular service was a fact of life. One was constantly prepared to not visit a particular site on a particular day because it was down. However, this was acceptable at the time because the internet simply wasn’t that important. Most people were still not online. Before the dot-com boom, online business was of little importance: where it existed, it was an alternative to offline methods of shopping or communication. For the most part, the internet served frivolous purposes, like USENET forums. It could afford to be unreliable, because nobody needed anything on the internet very badly.

Now, the internet–in its present, highly interconnected form–is central to our culture. Even if the lack of coverage was systematic (say, all Yahoo sites were excluded, or all Google sites), the internet would still be essentially unusable. Your friend wouldn’t necessarily know that she had to post pictures of her new baby on Shutterfly because you couldn’t access Flickr, and that’s a best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, different ISPs might provide access to different sets of websites, effectively breaking the internet into disconnected pieces, such that WordPress bloggers couldn’t view Blogspot blogs and vice versa, or Yahoo users were disconnected from Google users (that would end very badly for one side)–or, as shown in the graphic, provide essentially no access to start with and then nickel-and-dime users for access to the things they actually want.

In a contemporary setting, an Internet with those kinds of limitations is really no use at all, and users would lose out on more than just entertainment and convenience.  One inaccessible blog engine or online store might be replaced with another, but think of all the things that can’t be replaced with another equivalent website.  Online applications for jobs, colleges, and internships, for instance.  Work and school webmail, necessary for official communications.  School websites used to check grades and submit assignments.  Any number of online forms and information sites.  If you have to go to the internet cafe to see if your teacher has sent you your assignment, you might as well not have internet at all.

Our information-age culture has grown up organically around an internet where everything is equally accessible.  Remove that central concept and our culture would be seriously handicapped.

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Felicia Day linked to the picture on Twitter. I don’t know the original source.

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