Monday, January 31, 2011

Working Through the Pain

This is a sad excuse for a post, but I've got a headache and my determination to post something every day has trumped my desire for creativity and perfection. Tomorrow will be better, I hope.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Crossing the Signature Line

Online-only ("OO") relationships† are fundamentally different from real-life ("RL") relationships, even beyond the obvious differences like lack of physical contact. In both OO and RL relationships, you can limit what you reveal about yourself to just what you think will be most flattering, but in OO relationships, that's the default rather than the exception. Depending on how the parties in an OO relationship meet, details like real name, gender, age, and physical ("meatspace") location may not be obvious, or may not even come up at all. Webcams are inexpensive and easy to use these days (often built into laptops and cell phones), but not everyone has one or wishes to use one, so personality insights that would normally be provided by speech patterns, body language, and physical appearance (height, weight, and more tellingly, clothing choices, hygiene, and "decorative" touches like tats or makeup) may be absent or a limited to a few carefully chosen photographs.

Is it possible to develop genuine affection for someone you've never seen in the flesh? Is it the person you admire, or their words? Intellectually, you know that they might not have given a complete or accurate portrayal of themselves. ("On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.") Emotionally, it's not easy to resist companionship, even in electronic form. And if you do find yourself attracted in a friendly and/or romantic way to someone you've never met, at what point—if any—is it appropriate to start signing your emails, "Love..."?

† By which I mean relationships in which the parties have never met face-to-face and have no specific goal to do so. As distinguished from "long-distance relationships" in which the participants plan to meet or have already met in real life, and plan to do so again, but in the meantime, stay in touch by phone, snail-mail, and/or the Internet.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Believing What You Know Ain't So?

My capacity for religious faith is so minimal that it's effectively absent. Some religious folks would claim that I just choose not to use faith that I do indeed have, because "it takes faith to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow" and "it takes faith to assume that the ground you walk over will hold you up." True, I don't know that the sun will rise† tomorrow morning until it actually does, but it's never missed a day in my experience. I've never sunk into any piece of solid-looking ground that I crossed, so I assume that other solid-looking ground will hold my weight. Maybe this limited sort of "faith" could be called "practical" or "empirical" faith, to distinguish it from the religious kind.

Mark Twain wrote, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." That, like the "You KNOW It's a Myth" billboard sponsored by American Atheists last year, is probably an overstatement. Even those who question their religion's claims can't really be said to "know" that the claims are baseless. After all, they've got "practical faith" of their own; surely some of their prayers have come true! Who's to say that Uncle Joe's bum heart wasn't healed as a result of prayer (although the skilled surgical team and triple coronary artery bypass graft probably didn't interfere with the "divine healing" process), or that a prayer for a loved one's safe trip didn't prevent an airline disaster? Lab animals that are only occasionally rewarded with food for pressing a bar will keep pressing the bar even when food doesn't appear. Consistent reinforcement isn't necessary to learn a behavior, and hope is a powerful motivator. And we humans aren't nearly as rational as we'd like to think we are.

† Of course, the sun doesn't actually "rise" above the Earth; "sunrise" is the process of the sun becoming visible above the horizon as a result of the Earth's rotation. Me, pedantic? Never!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Playing Myour Song

We've all had "our song" with a sweetie but I'm trying to come up with a good name for pieces of music that make me think of specific people with whom I had non-romantic relationships. "Our song" doesn't really work since I never discussed the music with them; "my song" doesn't capture the sense of the relationships, and "your song" makes me think of Elton John.

Whether I come up with a catchy descriptor or not, the musical links help me keep the memories alive:
  • For the grandmother who I never really got to know because she died when I was still a self-centered teenager, it's "Memories of Green" by Vangelis, from the "Blade Runner" soundtrack. The tinkly piano sounds just like the one in the basement of the Baptist church she'd attended for decades, where we had lunch after her funeral.
  • For the other grandmother, who died when I was an adult, it's Annie Lennox's "No More I Love You's." It was popular at the time, the line "Language is leaving me" captured my sense of helplessness and my inability to express my grief verbally, and of course "No more I-love-you's" resonates when you've just lost someone who's literally stood at your side through good times and bad.
  • And a year later, Grandpa died. He'd claimed not to miss Grandma at all—they'd bickered incessantly for as long as I could remember—but he went downhill quickly when she was gone. He'd worked hard all his life, so for him, it's "Bittersweet Symphony" by The Verve: 'Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life; Trying to make ends meet; Trying to find some money then you die.
  • For another relative who is no longer a member of my family, by my choice rather than by death, it's "One" by U2:
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can't be holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt
  • For a supervisor who was also my friend, one with whom I could use my whole vocabulary without being called a "smartass" and who died unexpectedly after a brief illness, it's "In Paradisum" from Gabriel Fauré's Requiem. I'm not the tiniest bit religious (reportedly Fauré wasn't very devout either, despite setting the Catholic Mass for the Dead to music); I'm not comforted by fantasies of my friend and relatives being in some postmortem paradise. It's just a beautiful piece of music that I first encountered a few months before my boss died, and when I was mourning him, I found it comforting.

I'll take beauty wherever I can find it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Challenging the Champions

In his 1987 novel Bluebeard (a "hoax autobiography" of "the erstwhile American painter Rabo Karabekian"), Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
...simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world champions.
Perhaps that was true in 1987, but in 2011 the "world champions"—those who actually get paid for their creations—must be straining to be heard over the noise of the rabble. That'd be those of us who are only moderately (or less) gifted, and who still have to "go into some other line of work" to pay the rent, but can at least share what gifts we (think we) have via the Internet by blogging or tweeting or posting our photographs or artwork or homemade videos or whatever. I suppose we're still in "daily competition" for the attention of others,† but what we lack in quality, we more than make up for in quantity.

† I don't know whether I count myself as a "competitor" or not. I blog mainly as a way of expressing myself to myself, in much the same way that I used to keep a journal. So far as I know, nobody reads this blog except me!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sizing Up "Scholarship"

It seems that Google Scholar, which I've previously discussed, decides whether a particular document is "scholarly" based on the document's formatting. The best way to get your article to appear in Google Scholar searches is to make sure it:
  • is an HTML or searchable PDF file
  • is posted on a web site
  • can be directly accessed (no signing in, accepting disclaimers, or wading through advertisements)
  • is no larger than 5 MB in size
  • has a title (in a large font) on the first page
  • lists author(s) on a separate line right below the title
  • has a clearly-labeled bibliography section at the end
That's pretty much it. If you can type a few lines into any word-processing app that can save files in HTML or PDF format, and you have the ability to create a basic web site, Google considers you a "scholar." Yikes.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Talking Down to the Audience

I've been watching the new miniseries "Downton Abbey" on "Masterpiece" on PBS.† Like most Americans, I find many British customs, slang phrases, etc. a bit puzzling, and I appreciate screenwriters who can explain unfamiliar situations by working cultural references into conversations naturally, without resorting to stilted or out-of-place dialog. On the other hand, I get irritated with screenwriters who realize that they need to explain something to a potentially clueless audience (in this case, Americans, and probably also young Brits to whom the Victorian and Edwardian eras seem as distant as the Paleozoic), but just plop explanations in clumsily. Would the housekeeper of an English manor house in 1913 really need to tell her friends that cooks and housekeepers are always addressed as "Mrs." whether they're married or not?

The dialog is quite good in spots, though:
Lady Grantham (played by the always-awesome Dame Maggie Smith): "You are quite wonderful, the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal."
Mrs. Crawley: "I take that as a compliment."
Lady Grantham: "I must have said it wrong."
† "Masterpiece" was formerly known as "Masterpiece Theater," and that's how I still think of it. It's been merged with the "Mystery" series and contemporary dramas have been added, so depending on whether the fare is a period piece, a mystery—which might also be a period piece, like a dramatization of an Agatha Christie book—or a contemporary work, the time slot is billed as "Masterpiece Classic," "Masterpiece Mystery," or "Masterpiece Contemporary."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Doing Science...Or Not

"Creation science" is most certainly not science. Those who refuse to reconsider their positions, let alone change their minds, in the face of strong new evidence can't claim to be doing science. Anyone who states that "______ cannot be challenged and anything that contradicts ______ is wrong" isn't doing science. For a real-world example of non-scientific thought, see the Statement of Faith from Answers in Genesis ("AiG"):
By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.
So why does Google Scholar, which "helps you find relevant work across the world of scholarly research," include articles from AiG and their kindred spirits (Creation Ministries International), and (Institute for Creation Research)? Darned if I know. I also don't know who Matthew is, but he's created an online petition asking Google to remove these decidedly non-scholarly sources from Google Scholar. Good for you, Matthew, whoever you are. I've signed the petition.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sleeping With the Lights On

Is it a sign of our times that the raison d'etre of my neighborhood association is not to welcome new residents and organize block parties, but rather to offer crime prevention tips and track burglary statistics? The formerly monthly emails from the association secretary now seem to be coming weekly. Not only has the frequency of crime reports gone up, but the violence level seems to be escalating.

At least, that's the sense I get from the emails. It's hard to know if things are really getting worse, or if people are just on high alert and more sensitive than usual. Yes, I'd rather know what's going on than not; I can't address a problem I don't know about, although I knew that all was not well when my next-door neighbor's front door was kicked in on an otherwise lovely Sunday morning last summer. (He was having breakfast at a restaurant down the street at the time, and I imagine that the phone call from the police officer who wanted him to please come home and see what was missing wasn't the best digestive aid.)

I'm a techie, so my solutions to problems are often technical in nature. ("When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails.") I bought security cameras, the sort that I could monitor via the Internet and configure to email me when motion is detected around a door or window, when a car pulls into my drive, when somebody steps on my porch. It's comforting to be able to check in on the house from work or a coffee shop, but it's also made me paranoid. Is that a shadow of someone lurking on my property, or a tree branch blowing in the wind?

Finding My Balance

I believe that getting the most out of life depends on finding a balance: between professional and personal time, between splurging and saving, between working out and vegging out. There are limits to what balance can achieve, though. For example, the consumption of a large bean burrito with extra cheese does not adequately balance the consumption of 3/4 of a batch of brownie fudge pudding. I wonder whether the addition of caffeine would help?