Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The Kiss, by Rodin
He is coming, dear brother. You know that. Defect. Leave the Naphal.

He's not here yet! He's not here! Not here! And what happens when He does come? Will the Aphar bow when he comes? He will consume them along with us because they have been selling their nephesh to us for gold or glory or sex.

They will see Him. They will recognize Him. You’ve been of that opinion for many a spring! They will see Him; despite your attempts, we have broken through and given them many signs.

You have indeed. And we have given them false signs.

They will be able to see through them.

Can they? Can one gain such vision in threescore and ten winters? How can one see without the light? They cannot see the light that flows like a flood from the Throne, and we obscure the light from each nephesh so that others cannot see it. The only light they can see is that shadow they call “the sun.” My friend, we are in an Age of Darkness. The Coming One sits no more on that terrible box of sticks and yellow metal in Zion. That awful cloud rests no more on the Earth. Where could it, without consuming the Aphar? In Zion, at least for a time, that patch of Earth and the Aphar were purified to prevent their melting away in that cloud. But no longer! Look around you, my friend. Darkness reigns! The Naphal walk about in the daytime, our servants sacrifice to us in the sight of all. We are not afraid.

After He has come, you will not be able to walk about freely as you do. If any Naphal survive His triumphal entry, you will become creatures of the night, surviving in the secret corners and dark places of the Earth. The Darkness will pass.

Will it? How can it? We have most of His precious Aphar in our grip. To separate the wheat from tares now will destroy them. If the music grows any louder, they will be consumed.

They can hear the music, even now.

Lies! Only we can hear it! That terrible, nasty noise! Ever ringing, singing! Never ceasing! Never ceasing! Oh Darkness, never ceasing! There is a cruel choir in my head, tormenting me, torturing me, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second. Now! Even now! Never silent! Not if I shout or scream or cry! Only by destroying Aphar brings relief; a distance, a separation from the Song. It reaches my ears, but it's as if it has to travel a little farther. I hate it! Hate it! If only I had ears of flesh that I could gouge out and be as deaf to it as they are!

But they are not deaf to it. They can hear it. Or at least I believe they can hear it. We hear its fullness, coming from the Cherubim before His Throne, echoing throughout Creation! But have you listened to them as they worship Him? I suppose you haven't. Naphal can't get near them when they do. And it's getting louder.

No. You are getting more deluded, as you always do this time of year! All of you do the same thing, every winter solstice. “He’s coming!” you say. But He can’t come. “It’s brighter!” you say, but the same Darkness reigns this year and every year. “They’re turning to Him!” you say. But we continue to consume them this time of year like every time of year.

Then why don't you join in these festivities as you do on every other "holy" day? Why do you relax your guard on the roads and flightways and cullamim and allow us Qodesh free passage into their homes and hearts? You rend apart their souls by prostitution in feasts of "fertility" in spring and you consume their firstfruits at harvest; you provoke them to war in the summer, and roast the flesh of their very children on your alters; why do you hide your face during the Winter Solstice?

It's too warm out. We need to sleep like any creature, saving those accursed Cherubim! We choose to do it then. What is that to you?

The temperature of their nephesh does indeed increase. And with it, the strength of their voices. They are blind and deaf; but not dumb. They can hear the Song, but only as they sing it. This season is indeed warmer. It is warmer because they sing, and they sing because it is warmer. During this season, each of them is like a branch aflame. When they huddle together in huts and houses, away from the cold outside, when they feast on their finest meats and drink their strongest, spiced wines, when they sing even their silly Aphar songs, they come together to become a roaring fire! Don’t you notice a wavering of allegiances this month?

Our servants are just resting this time of year. Like we do.

Rest? But your servants themselves are singing the Song, as loud and often louder than those who are Waiting for Him! I think they can hear the Song clearer than those who have guarded themselves from you; perhaps as you leech away their flesh by pain and vice, the more nephesh can shine through left.

And that's another thing. Don't say they're 'Waiting' for Him.

Oh but they are! They may say, 'Horace,’ 'Perseus,’ ‘Mithra,’ or ‘Krishna.’ Though most of them wouldn’t, there are many who would recognize the Coming One in a moment if they were to see Him face to face! Truly, they will recognize Him when He comes!

But it is not Him they are worshipping! Those are our stories!

Do you really believe your own propoganda? Naphal can create nothing; the Muses from His throne are barred even from whispering to you. You can only twist and pervert. Look up above at these gems, messengers of the Coming One!

Look up indeed! The Zodiac is our most successful myth! Every Aphar culture has adopted it.

The Mazzaroth is your most successful conquest. Do you remember when these were scattered by the Coming One? Every culture remembers it because the Aphar are sons of Adam. Were you not watching when He walked with Adam in the Garden?  My eyes sparkled on that night as the stars sparkle now at the thought of His coming! Was it not then that you first heard of the Virgin with the sheaf of wheat, His coming through the House of Bread, the death of the kernel and then flourishing of the Coming One? Look, there, in the east! Did He not place the three kings, those starry messengers, in line with the Eastern Star to pointing to the sunrise tomorrow as a prophecy of the Sunrise that would one day give light to all the world? Dear me! Sirius is looking bright tonight! And out of place. What is happening?

You always think things are brighter than they are. Would you rob us of all our work? Surely you must grant us Horace. If no one else, he was our invention.

Were you not fighting in that great day of battle, when the Qodesh cleared the way for Gabriel to tell the story of the Coming One to that Egyptian poet? Do you forget the celebration before the Throne when the Egyptians first saw and believed that Horace would die and be raised again?

I’d like to forget it. In fact, I did forget it. No matter. We recaptured Horace. He now serves us.

You did ultimately recapture that myth. But do you know how many Waited for the Coming One because of it? And even apart from interference by the Qodesh or the Naphal, that story echoes on in a thousand songs in a thousand Aphar cultures. But lo!

What is it?

Do you hear that!?

I hear nothing. It's midnight in an open field, and we are away from our respective assignments like two spies! I’m supposed to be in Jerusalem right now! How did I let you talk me into this? I suppose it is accursed friendship that is to blame; its shackles bind me to you, unbroken by an hundred hundred winters and a civil war! Do you feel that? Is it getting warm?

There are three of them. Right there. Singing. Loudly! Did one of yours tempt them to intoxication?

No! Why would I deploy my people in a field? It’s much more efficient to tempt in cities. I do have someone stationed at the inn in this God-forsaken town working on an advanced assignment in Hypocrisy, tempting an otherwise humble innkeeper to inhospitiality. Can you not feel that heat?

Can you not hear that?

My Darkness! They are harmonizing with the Song! That's impossible! Are they... shepherds? How...?

Is that…? Yes! They’re singing Isaiah! I bet you wished you could have stopped us from delivering that message. What a Prophet!

ARGH Isaiah! How are they doing that!?

Is the Veil starting to tear? Is the Dawn finally upon us? Is He here?!

The heat! I cannot bear it! Old friend, I must fly!

Farewell! But I must see! What is this thing! They are truly harmonizing with the Song! Can it be? Has the time finally come? Louder! Louder! Louder! They are singing ever louder! That can’t be human voice! But look there, my comrades! Brother! What news?

He has come!


At last! At last! He has come! Praise the Lord, for He has come! A
cullam has dropped! One like I’ve never seen before! It will be open for one more earth-hour only! Hurry! Join us!

So the Aphar can see us?

Yes. Of course. That’s what cullam means. What, have you been stationed in Sheol? Heaven is always very near Earth, like a bridegroom is near his bride on the wedding night. We become visibility to the Aphar when Heaven kisses Earth, and they kiss in anticipation of the End; its foreplay, if you will, before the final union of Heaven and Earth.

Where are the trumpets and procession? Where are His Mighty Ones? Where, if He has come, is His commander, Michael?

Outside of Rome, along with the larger part of Qodesh. The Enemy saw this invasion coming, but thought it would come to Rome. Michael’s presence there confirmed it to him. The Coming One…I mean, the One Who Has Come, has put Gabriel in command of this mission, for its objective is not conquest but Glory.

Why wasn’t I told?

His coming was a covert op; none of us was told. You’re blessed you’re near enough to join in the Song! Don’t waste any more time! Come with me! This will not be a part of the Song you want to miss! This will be a Song that songs will be sung about! It may even be recorded in The Book! So sing, my brother! Sing with all your heart and soul and mind and strength! Let us declare Glory to God! Peace itself has taken on flesh; there will be Peace on Earth, for the Prince of Peace has come! The Shadow is passing away! Let us declare goodwill toward men! For He has come! He has come, indeed!

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
good will toward men.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Living on a Food Stamp (Part 4) - Attempt Number One

Food Stamps Diet - Attempt Number One. The above cost $22.61 (factoring out unused quinoa and beans). P.S. There is another  banana that got cut off ;)

The Diet

So, given all the above, what will be our main meal? My friend, also interested in nutrition, invented a stew which has displaced about a third of my calories over the last few months. I’ve gotten over my inborn desire for different food and have been eat this recipe for several months, and only growing in my enjoyment of it. It wasn’t designed to minimize cost, but it does a darned good job by accident. The recipe can be found here. The potential big expense which I didn’t list was the spices. DO NOT BUY THEM FROM THE GROCERY STORE. Buy in bulk online and count it as a capital expense (like a pot; try this website). It will take a long time to use up a pound of spice which can be purchased for less than one of the little ornate jars in the grocery store.

Vegetables are hard to justify by calories, but because Mom said, “Eat your vegetables,” I cannot do without them. For vegetables, DPC is a poor measure; I tried to maximize plant matter in my diet. I thought about it in terms of weight, so it’s already easy to compare dollars per pound. Tomatoes and onions are pretty good on that front.

For breakfast, I have very little time. On surgery, I started eating peanut butter with a spoon out of a jar, and washing it down with milk. Because it was high-fat and high-protein, it lasted a long time and takes zero preparation (and if you’re lazy and a bachelor like me, you can use a plastic spoon and drink from the milk jug and also have zero cleanup. Did I just write that?). Milk EC is highly dependent on jug size and fat content. Milk is pretty much one of the most fattening things in the world (i.e. lots of saturated fats, which as I said above are bad). The best value I saw at Safeway today was 2% milk at 2.0 DPC. But that was for the 2 gallons. I only need a half gallon and I don’t want to get fat arteries, so I recommend going with the 1% at the worse (but not so bad) 2.9 DPC. I was a fool and stuck to my way-too-expensive-but-oh-so-tasty coconut milk at 5.5 DPC.

The peanut butter I’m particular about. This part doesn’t come into the formal analysis, but I don’t trust hydrogenated vegetable oils (they may or may not cause cancer, which means they may cause cancer :). So I buy the expensive “natural” peanut butter. But peanut butter is so good a value, even the fancy stuff I get has an EC of 1.62 DPC.

The Experience

Requires|Stove, large pot, spoon, knife, frying pan, Gladware, microwave, spices.

It took me about an hour to drive to Safeway and shop, and 2 hours of stew cooking (3 if you include bean soaking, which didn’t require a lot of my attention). It was also very convenient to not have to worry about dinner for a week. I could just come home, throw something in the microwave, and eat. I estimate that I saved 10-20 minutes in drive time per fast-food meal (my habit during surgery). So for me, that’s 1.5-3 saved hours. From a week time-balance perspective, even with the cook time, I may have broken even. So I don’t think I buy the “Poor people have to eat at McDonalds because they don’t have time to cook” argument.

In addition to the calories, there are a few things I enjoy and think that poor people should enjoy too. Firstly, there’s coffee. And I’m talking about good coffee. I heard about one person who took the Food Stamp challenge and was driven to use bad instant coffee. I wish that fate on no man. For this analysis, I factored in a cup of coffee a morning of Starbucks-brand Italian Roast ground coffee. If you’re fancy, you can use a French press or other gourmet option. If you’re not (i.e. me), a paper towel and/or tea infuser will give you a gritty cowboy-style cup. The cost of this? $1.47 for 5 cups.

The other thing that I have a problem with is drinking water. I just don’t enjoy it. And I usually buy Gatorade. But that’s way expensive. So I decided to substitute a couple tablespoons of lemon juice into a Gatorade bottle. I would drink about 8 cups of lemon water a day and not miss the Gatorade. It seems to nearly satisfy the craving for sweets with negligible actual sugar. This cost me $1.90 for the five days.

One more quick trick. If the stew wasn’t enough, or if you’re feeling extra hungry, add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a bowl of stew. It has an EC of 1.7 DPC, so you can replace any number of calories with this super-duper-good -for-you oil. It gives it a fruity flavor that I rather like (you can get the low-flavor olive oil if you want the good calories but don’t want the taste). Remember to stir!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Living on a Food Stamp (Part 3) - Economics

For this analysis, I’m going to invent a new unit of Energy Cost (EC). Assuredly, someone else has invented this, so if you can find out whom, I’ll cite them here. The basic unit of EC is “Dollars per 1000 Calories” or the DPCs[1]. The major concern for a low-cost diet is getting enough calories. After calories, enough protein is needed. Everything else is gravy (not literally, because gravy would be unhealthy and probably quite costly. But you get the picture).

So let’s try it! Let’s start with a Big Mac! The cost of the burger alone (in Palo Alto, with tax, according to the guy who picked up the phone and confusedly answered the person calling a McDonald’s phone number asking for prices) is $4.10. A Big-Mac contains 540 Calories. $4.10/540*1000 =  7.6 DPC. A large fry is $2.15 and has 500 Calories so its EC is 4.3 DPC, almost half. That means that, given the same amount of money, you can get twice as fat off fries as you can off burgers.

What’s my target? The average California Food Stamps[2] beneficiary gets $4.88 per day. And if we assume we want to maintain a healthy weight, 2000 Calories is as good a number as any to do it on (though I know some people voluntarily subsist on less than that). That means that our target EC will be $4.88/ 2000 C *1000 = 2.44 DPC. That’s our cutoff. Any food that exceeds that value will need to be limited and balanced by foods that are under it.

What’s the best bang for buck? What has the lowest EC? As far as I’ve found so far, the answer is: beans, beans the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you… save. Bulk black beans cost $1.45 per lb at my local Safeway. They have 341 Calories/100g dry black beans. So =1lb*1000g/2.205lb*341Cal/100g = 1546 Calories and an EC is 0.9 DPC. If most of our calories came from beans, then we’ve got lots of money to play with. We can spend the rest on spices and luxuries.

[1] WARNING: THIS FOOTNOTE IS FOR SCIENTISTS ONLY. Strictly speaking, its dollars per megacalorie, $/Mc. Food labels are listed in capital ‘C’ Calories, not little ‘c’ calories and 1000 calories = 1 Calorie. Why they confuse things like that, I don’t know. The reason I made it Mc instead of kc is because of ease of using whole numbers; the range I expect this to apply to will be single whole numbers at about this scale. Also, it’s not the inverse (Mc/$) because that leads to non-intuitive comparisons (e.g. see the raging internet debate on MPG vs GPM). If you disobeyed the “Scientists Only” warning and this confused you, for the rest of the article, just assume you never read this.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Living on a Food Stamp (Part 2) - My Abbreviated Nutrition Theory

The Updated USDA Food Pyramid: the worst cluster... of nutrition information ever produced. This article is inspired by the same desire to present an opinion on nutrition, but attempts to do it in such a way as to make sense.

I’m going to briefly tell you about how I personally think about nutrition. It represents my present opinion after several years of schooling and thinking about these things. It presently lacks thorough citations (which I hope to add later).

The biggest problem with understanding nutrition is that it is complex. We like to talk about “scientific” nutrition, but that’s mostly hooey. There are simply not enough human beings on the planet to figure out how all the multitude of nutrients really work together for long-term health. If you had a trillion trillion people, a thousand lifetimes (and no ethics) you’d make some good progress. As it is, our understanding of human nutrition is pretty rudimentary and there are few things that are rock solid. There are certainly many different things which can be gleaned from science, but we are very, very far away from understanding nutrition or even being able to confidently recommend a particular diet.

As far as I can tell, the following is a list of things I’m pretty confident are true and so will build my diet around:
1) People need to eat enough calories to survive; weight gain or loss roughly follows calorie consumption
2) People need to eat at least some protein (including all 9 essential amino acids)
3) Saturated fat is bad for you, polyunsaturated fat is OK, and monounsaturated fat is good
4) Vegetables are good for you (including their vitamins and minerals)

Here are a few more things I believe, but have not been rigorously proved true:

5) Low glycemic index foods are good for you; high glycemic index food makes you feel crappy and probably causes Metabolic syndrome (hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol).
6) Flavorful things are probably good for you. Spices, smelly vegetables (like garlic) and tea all have antioxidants (and probably a million other things that are good for you that we haven’t discovered yet). So include them.

So six guidelines for diet: 1) Calories 2) Protein 3) Good fats 4) Veggies 5) Low glycemic index 6) Spices. If that’s too many, try Michael Pollan’s three: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Notice what’s NOT on this list: low-fat diets, cholesterol, organic food, eating according to the food pyramid, Atkins, South Beach, high vitamin _____. These things all may or may not be good for us.

Now what about the million claims about “a study shows X is good for you”? This suffers from what I’ll call the Jelly Bean Effect (after this). If you do enough studies, you’re bound to get positive results. For most scientific studies of the nutrition sort, even though a study shows a link between X and Y (“scientists say X causes Y!”), it’s more likely the statement is false than true (for the statistically minded, see the JPA Ioannidis paper “Why Most Published Research Findings are False”). So we’re left with very few things which have turned up positive time and time again that we can be pretty (but not totally) confident about.

Another big thing I’m not including in my diet is variety. One thing I noticed when travelling abroad is that food variety was not something that was really valued. When I was in Kenya, every restaurant served the same ‘lunch’: boiled beef (nyama), cooked greens (sukuma wiki), and corn paste (ugali). Most families would eat this for dinner (but often sans beef, because of cost). The American objection, “But we had that last night!” was far from the Kenyan mind. My friend told me a story of his time in India when he asked a coworker, “What did you have for dinner last night?” The man responded calmly, “Dal.” He asked, “What are you planning to have for dinner tonight?” The man, used to strange American questions, responded, “Dal.” It turned out the man ate dal for dinner every night.

And why not? Is there some biological impulse which demands that we eat something different every single day of our lives? Why do we “get sick of” foods that are otherwise good? That is the topic for another blog (my guess is cultural suggestibility). But the bottom line is this: it would seem that most humans get along just fine without variety. And this is a huge relief for someone trying to re-learn how to eat. Learning enough food-stamp-compliant recipes is difficult. So I’m starting with one.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Living on a Food Stamp (Part 1) - Don't Tell Poor People "You Can't"

I recently heard about a congresswoman taking the “Food Stamps Challenge,” trying to live off the amount that an average person gets for food stamps [1]. The person described how miserable she was, drinking instant coffee instead of going to Starbucks, being hungry pretty much the whole time. Basically, she made the point that, as hard as she tried, she could not live on food stamps, despite being intelligent and capable. This is done occasionally by Congress to raise awareness about underfunding of Food Stamps. This is from the San Jose Mercury News in a 2007 version of this:
Oakland Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee's diet consisted primarily of crackers, a loaf of whole-wheat bread, tortillas, and brown rice. Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, filled up on 19-cent banana-and-peanut butter sandwiches. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said he would've killed for a candy bar or a cup of coffee.
Feeling full … is one challenge; eating nutritionally is virtually impossible. Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky's week's worth of fruits and vegetables consisted of one tomato, one potato, a head of lettuce, and five bananas.” [2]
When I heard about this, it frustrated me. My philosophical spider sense went off. Why was I frustrated by someone arguing to increase funding for food stamps? I care deeply about the poor; why was I frustrated? After reflecting on my anger for a while, I realized: they’re telling poor people they can’t do it. In an attempt to prove that being poor sucks, they accidentally discouraged healthy eating in the poor. And that pissed me off. “You can’t” is pretty much the worst thing you can tell a poor person because, if you do, they won’t. Like Henry Ford said, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.” If a congressperson can’t do it, what chance does a poor person have?

It all depends on the truth of the claim, “[On food stamps,] eating nutritionally is virtually impossible.” And that is an empirical question. The Congresspeople had agendas; they wanted to be miserable because it would help increase funding for food stamps and help poor people (a noble end in itself). But I have no such agenda. Nobody cares if I go hungry. But if I could figure out how to eat healthy with little money, then maybe I could make poor people’s miserable state a little bit less miserable.

And so I took the challenge.

[1] Food Stamps has bad PR, so they renamed it “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” (SNAP) and, because California wants people thinking about vegetables, they called the state program CalFresh. I don’t care about PR, and I don’t think anyone would understand me if I said I took the SNAP challenge, so until everyone knows these new terms, I’m calling it by its real name (i.e. the name that people use).
[2] As an aside, note what foods were chosen: no vegetables and mostly fast carbs: crackers [GI 74], a loaf of whole-wheat bread [GI 70], tortillas [GI 40], and brown rice [GI 75]. This is pretty much a fast-track to hunger and misery, or as one of my nutrition professors likes to say “pain and defeat.” These choices both betray the general American bias towards eating these foods and the misery you feel when you eat them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Great American Hero (Part 2) - George Bailey vs The Modern World

George Bailey (the guy who does his duty) vs. Potter (the guy who follows his heart). Also, check out his threads! Even if you disagree with their ethos, you must admit they had style. 

Contrasting Conceptions of Virtue - The Greatest Generation vs. Generation Y

George Bailey is a powerful opponent of the modern ethos. I think the modern ethos has best been celebrated by the “Secular Prophet” Steve Jobs. In his lauded commencement speech he says:
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Follow your heart, your individual heart, uninfluenced by others. If George took Steve’s advice, he’d have been gone travelling and to college at his high school graduation, or one of the other hundred turning points in the movie. What is secondary to Jobs is primary to Bailey: one’s duty to others.

Another recent movie makes a point similar to Jobs’. “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011) describes a world where angels make sure people are on the ‘right path’ (apparently angels have again become permissible fictional creatures). The concluding line is this:

Most people live life on the path we [angels] set for them, too afraid to explore any other. But once in a while people like you come along and knock down all the obstacles we put in your way, people who realize free will is a gift you'll never know how to use until you fight for it. I think that's The Chairman's [God’s] real plan. And maybe, one day, we won't write the plan. You will.
It’s about “freewill,” not accepting the conditions life seems to give you. It’s about knocking over obstacles that keep you from doing what you really want. It’s not about patiently enduring a heavy load; it’s about throwing it off. It’s not about going along the path set for you with fortitude, it’s about setting your own path. George Bailey’s path was set for him to run the Building and Loan, and though he had a hundred chances, he never took any of them because of duty.

It seems that the modern ethos lacks an understanding of duty or any importance of sacrifice. The striking thing to me is that it is assumed that ‘individualism’ of the type promoted by Steve Jobs and The Adjustment Bureau is believed to be “American.” It is thought that the American thing is to be your own man, and so if people reject this idea, they believe they are rejecting “American values.” “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a spectacular example of this American virtue at its finest: sacrificial love. Americans, if we can do nothing else, can sacrifice for others.

The French observer Alec de Toqueville said in 1840, “I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good and a hundred times I have noticed that, when needs be, they almost always gave each other faithful support.” We often veer from this, but our finest moments are moments of sacrifice. Our history is defined by these moments, these little promises: the pledge of “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” at the end of the Declaration of Independence (a pledge that was redeemed by the British in most of their cases); the sacrifice of 300,000 Union soldiers for freedom and unity in the Civil War; a nation uniting to give up luxuries, gasoline and a generation of its youth to fight Fascism. Our heroes are suffering heroes: Washington freezing with his troops at Valley Forge; Lincoln pacing the White House with the Confederates within a day’s march torn inside by his country’s fortune; FDR ever standing in painful iron braces, speaking boldly so that Americans, too, might stand despite their pain. And let us not forget, George Bailey, a man who suffered day by day so that his family, his friends, his community might be strong.

Three cheers for George Bailey, a man who expresses the most American of virtues: sacrificial love!

Part 1 - Who is George Bailey
Part 2 - George Bailey vs The Modern World

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Great American Hero (Part 1) - Who Is George Bailey?

A Review of “It’s A Wonderful Life”

This is the first time I watched the movie as an adult, understanding much about banking, psychology and history. And boy is that a rich movie! Every scene taught something about the values of the era in which it was made (1946)! And it is striking how different their values are from our own.

If you’ve been living in the Soviet Union the past seventy years and have not seen this movie, go see it (Amazon sells it Instant Streaming for $10). If you must, the plot is summarized at some length on Wikipedia, but I’ll briefly describe it here. The movie is about George Bailey, a man who is presented with numerous dilemmas between his own desire and duty, and he continually chooses duty. He saves his brother, but at the cost of hearing in one ear. He prevents an accidental poisoning, but takes a beating for it. When his father dies suddenly, he saves his business (“Bailey Building and Loan,” sort of a credit union), but has to give up travelling (his heart’s desire). He saves it again after a few months, but has to delay college for four years, giving his college money to his brother (who will return to run the business). After four years, his brother returns but has a better job offer; he stays running the business to allow his brother to follow his dreams. Then he gets married, and on the way to finally travel for the first time with his new wife on their honeymoon, he sees a run on the bank. He saves his business by giving away all the money he saved for his honeymoon. Finally, after he has some success in his business, he’s offered a job that will make him wealthy but close the business and thus hurt his friends; he refuses it. Finally, after his uncle loses a large amount of money, the bank is going to close and he’s going to go to jail for fraud. He considers suicide so that his life insurance policy would keep his business running and his family secure, but then an angel intervenes and shows him how important his life has been to so many people.

The striking thing about the story is that George Bailey never gets what he wants. He wants to travel. But he never gets to, not even in the happy ending. The miraculous ending is that his friends come to his rescue, donating enough money to him to keep him doing his job. Every step of this man’s life is a sacrifice, choosing duty and sacrifice to others over selfish desires. He suffers, and suffers and suffers. The only reward he ever gets is in relationship with friends and family. And the message of the movie is that friendship is enough. You don’t need money, or fun, or even a job you like. In fact, you should be willing to give up all those things.

There are a number of other things that George Bailey does which are unheard of in modern movies and TV. After having the worst day of his life, he gets frustrated and yells at his kids. After he realizes what he’s done, he immediately apologizes. Who does that? What modern movie shows such a man with the courage and humility to immediately admit he was wrong and apologize? When there was the run on the bank, they are handing out cash to people without paperwork; they expect the people will remember and honestly report how much they took at a later time. What kind of world does that kind of relationship exist between a business and its customers? And who can put that kind of trust in others? When his uncle loses the money, takes responsibility for it:

Bailey: No, there’s no discrepancy in the books. I've just misplaced $8000. I can't find it anywhere.
Potter: You misplaced $8000?
Bailey: [meekly] Yes sir.

He covers for his uncle. He is a man who takes the blame due to another, even when it will here cost him dearly. He suffers here when it would be easy for him to throw his idiot uncle under the bus. Who is manly enough today to do such a thing?

I entirely agree with the celebration of George Bailey and his character. But I must also note that the philosophy underlying the praise is still largely secular (which is not consistent with my caricature of 1940s America). Common disbelief in angels is a theme that is played upon, but angels in “It’s a Wonderful Life” are more like fairies than Christian angels: silly things with limited power trying to put humans on the right path. The movie’s message was summarized by the Clarence the angel, “No man is a failure who has friends.” Though I think it a far better approximation of Truth than modern movies that might say, “No man is a failure who has money/a hot wife/success,” or “No man is a failure who lives his own life.” God (or the angelic order) shows George that his life is meaningful because he has lots of friends; God is not a relevant factor in determining a man’s purpose in life.

Part 1 - Who is George Bailey
Part 2 - George Bailey vs The Modern World

Friday, December 9, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers (Part 3) - Onward!

10/25 can be our battle of Sterling. It was the day when the unstoppable was stopped. Dawkins, who has been the pillar of public Atheism, has crumbled. We Theists can look around and realize: We have won the battles. Then without knowing it, we have seen that our intellectual foes’ numbers in science have dwindled (or we realized we overestimated). We have regained that ground that has been ours most years since the Apostle Paul’s sermon at Athens, namely the rational high ground. But we must remember, William Wallace’s war wasn’t over after Sterling. It has just begun.

So, fellow Theists, draw your swords! Take up your lances! Let us continue to fight! Let us be bold when we ask questions or write articles or speak in public (or even in private). Let us not hide the fact that we go to church, that we believe in miracles, that there is an objective right and wrong. Let us continue to contend for our ideas. But, in so doing, let us be knightly about it. We should be proud of our victories and praise those who worked so hard to win them. But we ought not gloat over our fallen foes. For without worthy foes, from whom can we win honor? Let us encourage our foe to bandage his rational wounds and, if he will not join us, get back on the steed of his worldview and try again. God willing, when that day comes, we will not have grown lazy in our thinking and fat in our reasoning, that we may be worthy foes and that Atheists, too, may gain honor by us.

I hope that this is the dawn of  an era of wonderful warfare! I hope that there are noble and epic debates that are talked about for years to come. And I think it has already begun. The best debate I think I have ever heard occurred on October 24, 2011. Peter Millican and William Lane Craig debated on the existence of God. They showed mutual respect. They both presented strong cases. They responded to one another's points. Both gained honor by the exchange. And though he knew Craig to be a more experienced debater, Millican demonstrated astounding courage in facing him. This is modern chivalry! And I pray that we may see ever more of it!

I’ll end with a story, a verse, and a poem. I’ve heard it repeated like a post-modern mantra that debate never changes people’s minds. But it does. And this particular debate has. There is a person who has been following this debate for some. And the episode with Dawkins accounted in Part 1 was so outrageous to this person that it delivered him from Atheism back to the faith. In his words, he was “brought to God via the New Atheism's God-awful philosophy.” He recounts his view of this matter in a video he edited here). For bringing him back to God, he concludes his video sincerely with, “God bless you, Professor Dawkins.” In response to the video, another reader tells a similar story, “God Bless Richard Dawkins…If It was not for his book 'The God Delusion' I would have never discovered arguments for and against God.” For challenging us to rise to the task of rational defense, and for bringing this question to the forefront of the Western mind, I think I agree. God bless you, Professor Dawkins.

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
– Jesus (Matt 5:44-45)

Great God, that bowest sky and star,
Bow down our towering thoughts to thee,
And grant us in a faltering war
The firm feet of humility.
- GK Chesterton, “Hymn for the Church Militant." (I'll confess that I was excited about the title of this poem, thinking it'd be totally about how awesome winning is. When I found out it was about being humble and stuff, I was disappointed, but decided that this was probably an appropriate rebuff to my pride.)

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Theism in Philosophy and Science
Part 3 - Onward!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers (Part 2) - Theism in Philosophy and Science

Stanford Memorial Church at the dead center of campus (the symbolism of which Daniel Dennett complained about when he was here a few years ago). Inside are inscribed Jane Stanford's words: "There is no narrowing so deadly as the narrowing of man’s horizon of spiritual things. No worse evil could befall him on his course on earth than to lose sight of Heaven; no widening of science, no possession of abstract truths can indemnify for an enfeebled hold on the highest and central truths of humanity."

In the field of Philosophy, there has been a revolution. The best description of it is by Atheist philosopher Quentin Smith. He writes in the professional journal Philo an Atheist call-to-arms and describes the “problem”:

The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of [Alvin] Plantinga’s influential book, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists… theists in other fields tend to compartmentalize their theistic beliefs from their scholarly work; they rarely assume and never argue for theism in their scholarly work. If they did, they would be committing academic suicide or, more exactly, their articles would quickly be rejected. . . . But in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, “academically respectable” to argue for theism… God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments [1]

Smith estimates up to half of the thinkers in philosophy are theistic. Though, in William Lane Craig’s opinion, this may be the “Gideon effect” (Bible story about Gideon and Craig article about it in Philosophy) of startling an unsuspecting enemy into overestimation, it shows considerable advancement of theistic ideas in philosophy. And philosophy is the foundation of every discipline, be it science or math. Of all the disciplines to win, philosophy is the most strategic. Indeed, Craig describes it as a “beachhead” for Theists to be able to enter other fields as well.

Perhaps the “north campus” [2] “fuzzies” in the non-sciences are falling into the silliness of Theism. But what about the hard sciences? My impression after spending my entire adult life listening to lecturers was that all (or at least a vast majority) of my professors were Atheists. I knew only three of my professors who said or did anything even vaguely religious: a Jewish professor once had a guest lecturer “because of Rosh Hashanah,” and two others I discovered outside of class attended a local church. I must have had on the order of 200 professors and lecturers over the course of my schooling, and I only ever knew about 3 who did anything religious. Over almost a decade of schooling, that’s it. And that is generally the experience of most of my peers. The only problem with this experience is that it is an illusion.

According to the only data on the subject for since about when we landed on the moon (this hasn’t been a terribly well-researched question), among research scientists in the physical and social sciences, only a meager 34% do not believe in God [3]. That’s it. Of course this is much higher than the national average (2%). But it’s far lower than the perception that it is something like 99%. Furthermore, of all scientists pipetting early Monday mornings (or, as the case may be, writing grants to keep other people pipetting), one in five was at church the morning before [4].To my professional lecture-sitter-through-er ears, those numbers are absolutely astonishing.

It seems that a revolution has occurred in philosophy that is abrupt and apparent. But, assuming scientists were ever majority Atheist, there has been a quiet revolution in the sciences. And though Theism is not yet a valid framework for scientific hypotheses as it is for philosophic ones, it seems that there is an invisible majority.

So be heartened, my brothers in the Academy[5]! For though you feel alone, you are not!

[1] Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism”  Philo 4/2(2001):  3-4
[3] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/blackwhiteandgray/2011/11/moving-forward-the-science-religion-debate/
[4]… or synagogue the day before, or mosque the day before that. And it’s not just biotech scientists. Come on, people! It's a metaphor!! :). Fine. Here it is in concrete terms: 18% of scientists attend weekly religious services.
[5] Yup. Another metaphor for "higher education" ;) Though I must admit, I had to Google what it was called: metonym.

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Theism in Philosophy and Science
Part 3 - Onward!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Psychiatry is Awesome

A butterfly, the source of the Greek root "psyche"

I love psychiatry. I’m on it now and have a week to go. But I really really love it. There are several reasons why, and I’m going to list them. In no particular order:

1) Patient Relationship
I love psychiatry because it, above all other fields, requires and encourages relationship with patients. There are no physical diagnostic tools in Psychiatry. There are no objective measures, “signs” of depression. It is perhaps the purest field of medicine because there is no technology to aid or hinder the psychiatrist in diagnosis. It is one mind evaluating another. To get to the diagnosis, a psychiatrist must know a patient. In therapy, a psychiatrist uses his mind as a surgeon uses his knife.

I love getting to know my patients, and I love Psychiatry because this is both encouraged and required.

2) Philosophy
I have many interest, and it is always my goal to integrate them as much as possible. I have a long and sustained interest in philosophy, and I had previously given up any serious integration with medicine and philosophy. But when I started considering Psychiatry, I realize that it, perhaps alone among medical subspecialties, has profound philosophical implications. Of course ethics and a general philosophy of medicine might apply everywhere. But seriously, what other field gets to play with Ontology (what actually exists)?

Cardiology is pretty clear: the heart (cardia) is a pump, and we should keep it pumping. But what is soul (psyche) that soul-doctors (psyche-iatros) are trying to fix? Does it exist, or is it a useful fiction? How can it get diseased? What is the best way to heal it? It may well be that practice in psychiatry will yield insight into these questions, or that philosophical insight on these question will suggest changes to psychiatric practice.

3) Interesting Problems
The patients in Psychiatry are downright interesting. This is in contrast to most medical specialties where it is largely the diseases that are interesting. An unusual tumor is interesting, but the patient may be anyone. In psychiatry, there is a relatively limited number of disorders, but an infinite difference in the patient. The disease of schizophrenia may include delusions, but the patient will always have a different and intriguing story. One may think it’s the CIA that is out to get them, another may think it’s the County of Santa Clara. Perhaps it is because of an invention they have, or out of vengeance. What makes a mind do this?

Then there is the who “somatiform” cluster. People go blind, get migraines, feel pain, lose the ability to urinate, get paralyzed from the waist down, all by the power of their mind. As in the Matrix, “Your brain makes it real.” Emotional pain transformed into the physical world. How does that happen?

I love stories and there’s one thing psych patients have it’s stories. For depressed patients, all of them have a different trail of tears, a different Shakespearian tragedy that led them to the psychiatrist.  It is an intriguing thing to get into the mind of a patient, empathizing with a tragic tale (in depression) or suspending disbelief on an assumption or two (in schizophrenia).

4) “New” Field (Lots Left To Do)
There is nothing psychiatrists like to do more than talk about how Psychiatry is a new field. A century or so ago (i.e. when it really was new), Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) launched it as an experimental science at about the same time as many physical sciences. But, as Daniel Robinson in “An Intellectual History of Psychology” Modern psychology is in a state of perpetual youth because there hasn’t been dramatic progress like we’ve seen in biology or physics.

It’s a wide open field. On the physical side, we are just beginning to be able to watch a functioning brain with fMRI and PET scans; we have psychoactive drugs that can actually change brain processes that are more recent than antibiotics. On the cognitive side, we have new treatments and paradigms that, for the first time in history (thanks to modern experimental design, statistics, and computing power), can be experimentally verified. From the faith perspective, I know of no one who has successfully wrestled with these concepts and figured out how to fully understand them as a Christian.

Young or old, there’s lots of work to be done. I like the pioneer narrative, and so an ‘unexplored’ field like Psychiatry fits in nicely with the story I’m trying to tell (that is, my life).

5) Lifestyle
One of the totally awesome things about Psychiatry is that you can be a Psychiatrist and you can be other things too. This is not true for surgeons. I suppose some of them sometimes do things outside of surgery. But thanks to Halstead, going into surgery residency is pretty much like going into a monastery. Psychiatrists, on the other hand, seem to have lives. They are married, and make dinner (yes, dinner) plans with their spouses. Surgeons tend not to be able to do this.

And if there’s one thing I have it’s other interests. Research, reading, religion. Global health, philosophy, history. Photography, music, walking. There are a million things that I like to do that are not “my job” and I’d prefer a field where I could continue to do them. Psychiatry seems like it’s chill with all this.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers - The God Debate (Part 1)

Soldier, from Arc de Triomphe

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
-"ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS" by Sabine Baring-Gould,

It is a wonderful thing to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. There are, of course, many different sides to it and it never quite looks the way you’d expect. It’s better than that. But I’ve recently been thrilled by a series of recent Christian and Theist victories in the battlefield of ideas. It is at times like this that the church can truly be seen “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” [1]. The old Catholic phrase “The Church Militant,” technically describing the Christians alive today, seems to be an apropos metaphor.

Now before we begin, I’ll need to take care of another bit of metaphor housekeeping. I will be using martial metaphors throughout this essay. I think that when it comes to ideas, we are all in a battle (and if you disagree with me on this point, I’ll fight you :). Thought it is a battle, I think it ought to be a knightly battle, where both sides gain honor when they fight nobly. My celebration of Christian victories does not mean that I hate Atheists any more than my celebrating a Dodgers’ victory means I actually hate the Giants. I love a good game, or as the case is here, a good debate. Of course, I think these matters more serious than ballgames, but the mutual respect of ballplayers for each other captures a bit of the chivalry that I think we need to bring to all our differences of opinion, trivial or grave.

There have been a number of developments recently that bode well for Theists and Christians in the field of ideas. Over the next few posts, I’d like to explore a few of them. I hope you’ll join me! The first part is the story of a debate.

The Showdown
Recently, the world’s leading Atheist champion was challenged by the world’s leading Christian champion to a debate at Oxford, the Atheist’s home institution. A battle to end all battles! I wish I could describe their meeting. I wish I had the words to tell a modern day epic, one that would be remembered for decades or centuries to come. I wish I had the wisdom to understand and discuss it with theist and atheist alike, and to present my opinions here on this blog. But I can do none of these things. I cannot tell you what happened, because the Atheist never showed up. Citing the immorality of the otherwise well-respected Christian, he declined. A chair was left empty for him should he change his mind. But he never did. The Christian dismantled the Atheist’s written arguments with efficiency, and spent a few minutes discussing how groundless the accusations of his immorality were [lecture video].

Over the past few years, the self-titled “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennot and Christopher Hitchens) had been gaining fame by beating some of the smartest Theists, pastors, scientists and philosophers. They believed that Atheism was more rational, and so accepted debates with most anyone in the spirit of free thinking. Their books were New York Times bestsellers (most notably “The God Delusion” by Dawkins ~2.5 million copies and “God is not Great” by Hitchens). And then a Christian champion arose, William Lane Craig [2]. He debated dozens of atheists before getting noticed by the Four Horsemen. Of them, he first he challenged Hitchens to debate in 2009. And, though there’s no official judge in these debates, it is clear that he won (Hitchens conceded his closing statement; debate video). Then he challenged Harris and won (rarely are you ever able to show that your opponent’s view is not just wrong in its premises, but is logically false; debate video). Most recently, he planned a trip to Oxford, and everybody was waiting with nervous anticipation: how would he do against Dawkins? But the question was never answered. On October 25, 2011, Richard Dawkins refused to debate William Lane Craig. On October 25, 2011, we entered a new phase of the debate on God’s existence. Up until that day, there was some question as to which side was winning.

If Dawkins showed up and lost, I would say that it was just one debate. The question as to “who’s winning?” would still be open. Both Atheism and Theism are contending valiantly in the arena of ideas, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. But Dawkins didn’t lose. He fled [3]. And, to be sure, many other brave Atheists in Britain did debate Craig, showing that the debate has not been finally settled. But their leader left the field. And so we enter a new era where Atheists now have to explain to Theists that, unlike their leader, they really are intellectually serious.

This is one battle in the war of ideas. It is important in itself, but in part is part of a larger movement in higher thought back to God. Next post, I'll talk about the most important discipline and it's return to God.

[1] Lewis, CS. “The Screwtape Letters”

[2] Technically, he’s been “arising” for a few decades. But he really started to get notoriety more recently.
[3] Of course, he has plenty of reasons why he wasn’t there, ranging from “I’m busy” to “This Christian 'philosopher' is an apologist for genocide.” In his UK Guardian article he writes, “Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn't, and I won't.” By one count, Dawkins has given 12 different excuses as to why he won't debate with Craig. 

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Theism in Philosophy and Science
Part 3 - Onward!