Writerly Hauntings: Half an Old Novel Rises From the Grave

It has been said, perhaps  by my father, that one spends half one’s life collecting stuff, and the other half getting rid of the stuff collected. Thus, I find myself going through some stuff, filling bags and boxes with recycling, trash, and those odd border-creatures, who shift substance from things I might want to things I certainly don’t, and thus live between universes.

I came across this:

The Strand

My son says the coffee stain lends it a real touch of authenticity. I don’t remember why I printed it out, must have wanted to show it to somebody. Good thing I did – the original is on a floppy somewhere, this is probably the only copy I’ll ever have.

16 years ago, I started a Sci Fi  novel I called “The Strand”. Somewhere are some notes and outlines no doubt lost to me, but here are the first several chapters in an “authentically”  tattered and coffee-stained state.

The cleaning and purging ground to a halt while I read this for the first time in many years.

And it’s pretty good. Needs a rewrite in places (duh), but, for what it is, I kind of like it.

Now what? John C. Wright cowed, dazzled, and inspired me a while back recounting some of the notes he made for his “Count to the Eschaton” series, as told here.  So, the next step, one I had already started to take years ago but has now been lost in the intervening years, is to outline the rather complex political, religious, mythological, astronomical and geographical ideas that, half-formed, made me want to write this in the first place. Then, write the ending so I know where I’m going. That is, if I really intend to finish this. I love writing characters and dialogue, and dreaming up settings. Getting to the point – you know, actual plotting and stuff – comes less naturally. It’s like actual *work*! Imagine.

In August, 16 years ago, we had 4 children under 8. I don’t know how I ever got as far as I did. The big question: is this stuff to be saved, or stuff to be gotten rid of? We’ll see how well it sticks in my mind.

On a Lighter Note: Boodog!

Years ago, when one of my chief creative outlets was writing short, humorous articles for a defunct online humor magazine, I got tired of people assuming 9/11 was the ONLY bad thing had ever happened, so that a whole genre of ‘news’ reporting arose around the concept that *everyone’s* life had been changed *forever*.

I dunno, but my concept of ‘everyone’ includes rural Chinese, Brazilian and Indian farmers, everybody who lives in Africa, and so on. As tragic and traumatic as 9/11 was (I seriously looked into moving the family to New Zealand, figuring it would be the last place the Jihad reached), it isn’t the greatest evil ever, nor even the greatest evil to happen in the U.S. (I would put the Civil War, and the restrictions on liberty that were allowed *after* 9/11, higher on the list).

So, anyway, I wrote an article from the point of view of a reporter who is shocked to hear of someone utterly unaffected by the events of 9/11 – a Mongolian goat herder. A trifle, like almost everything I write.

Yet – to answer the ‘why am I reading this?’ question – during my 5 minutes of research on Mongolia in order to make sure I used real Mongolian names and didn’t make any other egregious factual errors, I came across recipes for the great Mongolian delicacy: boodog. Unfortunately, the utterly quaint and home-grown rah-rah page for getting people to visit Mongolia where I first encountered boodog has vanished into the ether, at least to the extent I’m willing to search for it (+/- 4 minutes). This page captures some of the features that have forever endeared Mongolia and Mongolians to me:

Boodog – Боодог

Marmot or goat, cooked with hot stones in the stomach.

Next to Khorkhog, the cuisine of Mongolia knows a second recipe that uses hot stones for cooking. Boodog uses a similar cooking method, except that the meat isn’t cut into pieces. The stones are instead filled into the stomach of the animal, which gets cooked within its own skin.


Yummy looking, or what?

Hang a marmot or a goat at the head, and cut the skin around its neck. Now it is possible to pull the skin and most of the meat down over the inner skeleton. Break the legs at the knee, so that you only need to pull out the upper leg bones. From the innards, keep the liver and kidneys, which can later be inserted again.

Turn the removed skin and meat back, so that the hair is at the outside again. Fill the resulting “sack” with the following ingredients: Some salt, one or two peeled onions, and a number of stones, that have been heated up in a fire for about an hour. The stones must have a smooth and round surface. The smaller ones go into the upper legs, the larger ones into the abdominal cavity. At the end, the neck is closed with a piece of wire.

Now you need a strong flame (e.g. a blowtorch) to burn away the fur. Then scratch the remains off together with the uppermost layer of the skin. During that process, the meat gets cooked from the inside and the outside. If the steam forming inside causes too much pressure, then you need to cut a few small holes into the skin to avoid an explosion. The meat is cooked enough when all of the skin surface leaks with fat.

This easy-to-follow recipe involves hanging a goat (or marmot! A recipe that works just as well for large squirrels as for goats!), carefully skinning it, gutting it, saving the liver and kidneys (you gonna eat that?), heating a bunch of round rocks, stuffing said rocks, along with the meat, kidneys, liver, a couple onions, and salt back into the skin, and finally sewing the neck opening closed with wire. Then, using your handy blowtorch, you burn off all the hair on the outside (that’s gotta smell great, even assuming you got a chance to shampoo the goat beforehand). Cautions include taking care that the sewn-up skin doesn’t explode during cooking – that could be bad, and a terrible waste of marmot.

As great as all this is, the original recipe I saw was better: it included the instruction to “first, kill the goat”, cautions against puncturing the skin during removal, the suggestion to pour in a liter of vodka (I’m now imagining exploding *flaming* goat), and an admonition to eat it all while it’s still hot, as it becomes less appetizing as the grease in the skin congeals.

Good times! I want “Throwin’ down the boodog!” to enter our language as the ultimate declaration you are partying down! Who’s with me on this?

Science! Today’s Pew Study

In today’s Science! news, a new study “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society” came out, showing, I suppose, just how ignorant and stupid we unwashed masses are, compared to the scientist members of the AAAS.

Now, the report is pages long and includes a bunch of charts and graphs, and then has as an appendix – and HUGE kudos for this! – the actual questions asked and responses given.

Why this is so important: Pew is giving us (most of) what we need to judge what, if anything, their survey tells us. I cannot stress enough how good it is of them to do this, nor how freaking unusual it is – usually, all you get is some press relation droid’s pre-digested version of what went on. Pew seems to trust their methodology and results enough to open the kimono. (A bit. Not quite enough, but good first step.)

However, the total number of pages to plow through is approaching 50, so I’ll have to take a look at this later and give a more detailed response. For now, the questions that popped first into my mind were: what, exactly, were the questions asked, and who, exactly, were the people asked?

We can actually answer that from the study and the questions! Let’s focus on the second one. Here goes:

Scientists SurveyedTwo groups of people were interviewed: Non-scientists with phones – the public –  and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – scientists. We’ll focus on the scientists. Now look at the chart to the right:

What you’ll notice is that the biggest single block here is related to medicine: 50% listed “Bio/Medical Science” as their field. Only 38% listed a hard science, math or engineering as their fields. Most concerning is that 13% listed “other” or soft- or pseudo-sciences as their fields: “Social, History, Policy”.

Aside: A plain old MD is no more a scientist than a race car driver is a mechanical engineer. His job is to take care of people by applying technologies other people invented – as admirable and necessary as that is, it doesn’t make one a scientist. So, how many of these guys are real research MDs? Inquiring minds want to know.

First observation: classifying all these people homogeneously as “Scientists” strains credulity. Certainly, I would not expect an MD and a astrophysicist to have the same understanding of any particular issue in science, let alone having the same understanding as a “policy” or “social” “scientist”. At the very least, the results should be broken down by specialty, so that we can see the views of the most qualified scientists – I’d want the Bio/Med guys to tell me about, say, the state of cancer research, but would not care too much about their opinions on, say, global warming.

And so on. Maybe this information is buried in there, someplace. I’ll check it out. [Oops Update: I missed that 35% of those surveyed are age 65+. So never mind the speculation about the 25% unemployed being students – I’ll leave it up as a reminder to myself to read more carefully and a cautionary tale to both my regular readers not to take my views on faith – as if there’s any chance of that!] On a minor note, also notice that 25% of these scientists are unemployed. The most generous interpretation is that they are students – meaning, I suppose, that they are not, strictly speaking, scientists – yet. (This is assuming we count post docs as having a job – I certainly would.) But there they are, representing a quarter of the respondents. Do we really think students, or professional scientists who can’t get a job (see: government funding advocacy issue below) should be included in a study of scientists in general?

Next, take a look at this:

AAAS Application

Here is how you get to be a member of the AAAS. First question: were the scientist selected on the basis of something other than membership in the AAAS? I would certainly hope so, since *anybody* willing to pony up the cash can be a member.

Next, the AAAS isn’t just a mutual admiration society – it’s an advocacy group. So the people in it are not just there to give or get pats on the back – there’s cash involved. That’s why (I peeked ahead) there is a section of questions on the necessity and desirability of government funding for science. Sooo – again, are we really talking representative scientist, here, or is our sample biased towards scientists who are willing to support efforts to keep the government gravy train flowing?

Enough for now. Again, I applaud the inclusion of enough detail to give an educated amateur like myself a fair shot at interpreting the study for myself – such is shockingly rare for these sorts of sociological survey studies, at least insofar as they make it into the press. No survey style study should dare raise its head in public without at least this level of detail.

Hegel Update 3: Tainted

Agent Smith
“I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.”

So, another half hour, another 3 paragraphs of the Preface which I will need to reread. As stated earlier, I’m attempting to read Phenomenology of Spirit without reference to any study guide or critiques, under the theory that 1) I might inadvertently accept an interpretation by one of the various warring camps of Hegelians and Marxists, when I want Hegel to have a chance to speak for himself; and 2) it’s the more truly scholarly and manly thing to do. When one is done reading the source materials, then of course it’s perfectly good to read commentators and partisans – you just don’t want to start there.

So far, so good. But last night, ran across the word “sublation” – normally, I’d form a good idea what the word means from context and and a guess at etymology. And so I did. However, this is Hegel, Destroyer of Naive Understandings of Words. So I risked Googling it.

You’d think you’d get a dictionary definition, but the first half dozen or so hits were to Wikipedia and various Hegelian and Marxist online resources. Where angels fear to tread. So I looked at a couple – the general sense of the word I’d arrived at was right, but the German word* translated as sublate is very rich in meaning, and…

…I got suckered in. For only a minute, until I found myself reading about the importance of judging the spiritual level of people in order to see how enlightened they are so as to understand how much truth they could stand, and…

…I got out. Nope, nope and nope, ain’t going there.

I feel, however, tainted.

* Aufheben

Hegel Update 2: What Have I Done?

After spending an hour or two reading Phenomenology of Spirit over the last couple days, on top of maybe 2-3 hours I’d already devoted to it since my last Hegel post, I noticed I gotten all the way to page 17 of Hegel’s preface. This means I’ve spent maybe 4 hours reading the table of contents and 17 pages of preface. I’ve been reading each paragraph, sometimes each sentence, sometimes each phrase, at least 2 or 3 times, trying to tease out whatever it is Hegel thinks he’s saying. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and I have picked it up: Aristotle says it is the sign of a man with a cultured mind that he can entertain ideas he does not accept. All right, game on!

On first (and second, and third) pass, much of Hegel comes off like that Time Cube dude, or maybe super-double secret Rosicrucian mysteries – you are simply told to believe certain rather esoteric things on the sole basis of Hegel having done the Hard Thinking ™ and discovered them to be true. Normally, I would assume this is just a feature of a preface, and assume he goes into detail, maybe gives examples of what he means, in the body of the work. My prior experiences reading Hegel, however, strongly suggest that won’t be the case. Nope, like Newton dismissing criticisms that his Principia was needlessly hard to understand with the statement that he didn’t want *stupid* people to understand it, Hegel assumes that his reader would know, without any hints, exactly whose philosophical positions he’s disputing – Kant’s, I would assume, except that I recognize very little Kant in Hegel’s descriptions of the issues – I doubt Kant would recognize himself in them, either. So, who is he talking about? Would it kill him to just go ahead and *say* who it is? Maybe even restate the proposition in a form its author would recognize?

There are two issues slowing me down the most: Terms of Art, and lack of examples or specificity. Hegel (or his translator, but I expect it’s Hegel) puts a number of key words and phrases italics, many of which are terms of art predating Hegel by centuries, some of which seem to be new: Substance, Subject, Absolute, Negativity, Content, Object, Concrete, Notion, and a dozen more. Standard terms of the philosopher’s art, such as Substance and Subject and Object, are used in ways that at least suggest that Hegel means something subtly or not so subtly different by them than what every philosopher up to Hegel meant. This causes the reader to constantly need to recalibrate his vocabulary: what does he mean, exactly, here?

Even more difficult, recall that in his Logic, Hegel rejects the Law of Non-contradiction for real philosophers like himself. (it’s OK as a crutch for little people.) The most immediate result of this move is that Hegel cannot make arguments in the traditional sense – you are simply invited to agree with him. How could he make arguments when he’s kicked the legs out from under any effort to construct a syllogism? But more insidious and more difficult, this rejection of the Law of Non–contradiction makes definitions themselves impossible: how would it be possible to state that “A means A and not B”? Nope, based on Hegel’s premises (there goes that pesky logic again!) it would necessarily be impossible for as much as a single word to represent one thing and definitely not represent another. Cat means cat *and* dog.

This state of no definitions leads inexorably to Babel. Yet, yanking myself back to a state of cultured mind, it could be said that perhaps the difficulty here is precisely that language is a poor or flawed medium for the expression of the truths Hegel want to point out. Perhaps as we move from the concrete individual cat to the universal absolute Cat we shall see that it both is and is not, in itself, also Dog. Hegel does in fact assert that the plebeian scientist studying cats is ultimately delayed or deceived by the multitude of concrete individual cats from seeing the unity of truth in which all individual subjects are suspended in an absolute unity of Spirit knowing Itself in and for Itself. Within that suspension, cats can truly be said to be dogs while at the same time recognized as cats in each cat’s concrete individuality.

Ya know?

There has been exactly 2 times so far that he has deigned to give examples of what he’s talking about, and both those examples are wrong, in that they don’t show what he thinks they show, but rather contradict it. He mentions, as evidence that all knowledge gained by an individual is a participation in the Spirit’s knowing Itself in and for Itself, the philosophical equivalent of embryonic recapitulation: that one can see the history of the progress of the Spirit’s developing self-consciousness in the way children learn culture. Any culture or child in particular? He also mentions zoology as being parallel, somehow, with the Spirit’s developing self-consciousness – I’ll take that one up later.

So, here’s the deal: properly dealing with this work, so that I am both fair and thorough, would require a 500+ page work.

I may not live that long. Further, while I’m pretty much a stone master of Kant’s Prolegomena, (as much as a dude with no German can be) I admit to giving short shrift to his other works (mostly because I’m lazy, but also because the Prolegomena is so  hopelessly wrong that I despaired of anything of value being built upon it). Fichte and the minor German philosophers contemporary with Hegel I know hardly at all, with the exception of Fichte’s Addresses to the German People. Clearly, then, insofar as Hegel is discussing issues that crowd raises, I’m likely to miss it.

However, I refuse to read the summaries and textbooks. Given the history of Hegel’s followers, who quickly fell into utterly antagonistic camps, it strikes me as unlikely that they would be of much help.

So, where are we? I will continue to read this work over the rest of 2015 – it will clearly take that long – and try as much as possible to fill in the holes in my knowledge of the other German philosophers. I’m trying to give Hegel a fair reading, but I’m not going to pretend things that are wrong or stupid are not wrong or stupid. Politics and religion serve as cautionary tales against thinking that having lots of enthusiastic followers, even really smart followers, means the ideas themselves are not wrong or stupid.

I’ll post updates as warranted.


Today at the West Coast Walk for Life

A big crows as usual for the Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral:

In addition to the bad lighting, there’s just no way to get more than a fraction of the crowd into any one shot from the ground. It was packed.

I counted 11 Bishop’s miters processing by, and a suitable number of priest, deacons and acolytes. Flocks of nuns and brothers graced the celebration.

Then we gathered at Civic Plaza:

A small fraction of the crowd.

Estimates ran from 50,000 to 60,000 people. It’s hard to guess from the ground. Maybe the best idea of the size can be gotten from how long it took us to move that crowd out of the plaza and onto Market Street – a good half-hour just to get us on the march.

More counter-protesters this year than the past. I think it’s a good sign, as the previous tactic was to pretend we didn’t exist. This year, we got a full complement of raving, incoherent loonies proposing insightful, tightly-reasoned courses of action such as killing all the babies to save the planet, as well as the standard issue Marxist style protesters indigenous to the region assuming moral and intellectual superiority and yelling a lot.

For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion

Have mercy on us and on the whole world!

Weekend Plans: West Coast Walk for Life Tomorrow; Walter Hoye Tonight


Rev. Walter Hoye is a very good man. His life story is crazy, and his wife’s is crazier – just amazing people. He was arrested once at a 40 Days for Life event here in Oakland – next door to Berkeley and about as insane. Then Bishop Cordileone visited him in prison, and they struck it off. Now, the pro life work here in the Bay Area is the most ecumenical, interracial thing I’ve ever seen, with Rev Hoye setting up contact with all sorts of fiery black preachers, men and women with great stories to tell and great heart.

We attended the Conversations4Life Benefit Dinner. I spent most of it choked up – the stories the guests told were gripping and moving.

Tomorrow, three of us will do the Walk (the teenagers are taking the SAT that morning – I despise those tests, but the schools the want to get in require them).

I’ll get some pictures of the couple hundred thousand invisible people attending, and post.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us!