Thursday, December 23, 2021

Chrismanukkah

A Heartwarming Story for the Holiday Season

© 2021, David Dvorkin. All rights reserved.

It was the morning of December 25. The sun shone down from a cloudless sky, its light sparkling on the pure white snow that covered the town. Dogs barked, children shouted, giant birds with terrible talons circled above, looking for small animals to swoop down on and tear limb from limb for food and fun. It was God’s beautiful, perfect world.

Little Timmy Goldstein made his way carefully downstairs. His eyes shone in anticipation, while he held the banister tightly with his left hand and his crutch with his right. He couldn’t wait to get down the stairs, but he didn’t want another tumble like last week’s. That would truly ruin the holiday spirit.

For today was Chrismanukkah, the name his blended family had invented for their joint celebration of his mother’s Christian and his father’s Jewish heritage. To simplify matters, and because in America Hanukkah had long ago been transformed into the Jewish Christmas, Little Timmy’s parents had agreed to limit their observance of the Jewish festival to one day and to shift it to Christmas Day.

Little Timmy didn’t really care about those details. He just liked the special foods, the lights, the music, the family togetherness, and the gifts.

And there it all was, waiting for him when he finally struggled his way to the bottom of the stairs! A Christmas tree! A Hanukkah bush! A plastic Santa lighted from within! A plastic menorah ditto (with all its candles lit)! Piles of presents! Lots of lights! Shallow holiday music! Bleary–eyed parents! Food remnants everywhere! Innumerable siblings breaking their presents and stuffing their faces! The big morning celebration was over because poor, crippled Little Timmy was always last on the scene, but he didn’t mind. At least he was here, in the bosom of his loving Americo–Judeo–Christian–traditional family.

“Hello, family!” he shouted. “I love you!”

He ignored their distracted responses. His gaze had been caught by the two paintings that loomed over the living room from opposite walls.

One was a painting of a simpering Jesus with blond hair and beard, eyes raised heavenward. Across the room from him, a fearsome armored warrior glared at the family. This man was a bit darker, a bit more Middle Eastern. It could have been a gift from his mother’s side of the family. They were conservative Republicans and seemed to think of Jesus as an armed mercenary in the employ of America’s wealthiest classes, but Little Timmy had always assumed that this painting was his father’s property and that it depicted Judas Maccabeus, ready to smite him some Greeks real good, and perhaps the wimpy, flaxen–haired Jesus across the room, too, while he was at it.

Suddenly a new and disturbing thought struck Little Timmy. He wondered why he hadn’t thought this thought before.

“Say,” he said, thinking this thought aloud, “isn’t it odd that we spend so much time and money and brain juice and emotion worshiping Jesus, who probably never even existed, and at the same time making a fuss over Judas and the rest of the Maccabees, who attacked other Jews who worshipped foreign gods such as Jesus? Anyway, it all comes down to the idea of God, which is a silly idea to begin with, right? And what’s with all the lights and stuff? When you look at them objectively, they’re really very tacky. Also, most of the music is really bad.”

Silence fell on the room.

His parents rose from the couch, and his innumerable siblings stood up, abandoning their presents and food, and all of them began to advance upon him, hands held before them, fingers curling like claws, eyes blank.

“Kill,” they said in unison.

Moving as fast as he could, which wasn’t very fast but fortunately was faster than his suddenly mindless family, Little Timmy opened the hall closet, pulled out his heavy winter coat, his gloves, hat, and boots, and exited through the front door, slamming it behind him. His family lost interest in his existence and returned to their mindless holiday doings.

Little Timmy stood irresolute for a moment. Then the cold struck him and he donned the winter garb he had fortunately taken from the house. He felt it wise to put distance between himself and what had been his home. He went carefully down the icy front steps, once again holding the railing with his left hand and his crutch with his right, and then on to the sidewalk.

Again he stood still for a moment, wondering what to do next. Had he truly just lost the only home he had ever known? Where would he go? What was he to do next? This was the worst Chrismanukkah ever!

Nearby, a rabbit screamed as something ate it alive. Apparently, God’s eye, being on the sparrow, was too busy to watch the rabbit as well. Or possibly the Lord and Creator of the Universe was answering a prayer uttered by whatever it was that was tearing the rabbit to pieces. What a conundrum! If the fox prays for a rabbit to eat and the rabbit prays that it will not be eaten by the fox, how does God decide which prayer to grant? This is one of those mysteries that are beyond the ability of the mind of Man to comprehend.

That rabbit’s having an even worse Chrismanukkah than I am, Little Timmy thought. I shouldn’t stand here feeling sorry for myself. I know! I’ll go to Georgie’s house! They’ll take me in. They won’t mind what I said about Jesus and Judas. Not that Judas. I mean the other Judas.

Georgie and his family were atheists. Georgie had often invited Little Timmy to come to his house to escape what he called all that religious stuff. “If you ever get tired of it,” he would say, “come to my place. No one at my house cares about God or any of that silly nonsense.”

Little Timmy had visited Georgie’s house more than once, but not to escape from religion. In the past, the very idea of escaping religion had seemed sinful. Now it didn’t. Now it seemed to be just what he wanted. Also, it was very cold outside.

He walked the two blocks to Georgie’s house, shivering increasingly, walking carefully because of his crutch and spots of ice, eager for a welcoming place, warmth, and the absence of all things Chrismanukkahish.

When he got to Georgie’s house, Little Timmy was surprised to see a wreath tied with a red ribbon on the door. It gave him an uneasy feeling. Nonetheless, he rang the bell.

Georgie opened the door, greeting him with cries of delight and pulling him inside.

Little Timmy said, “I had to get away from—”

That was as far as he got.

“Of course you did!” Georgie’s father said, laughing his wonderful big, booming laugh.

“You’re always welcome here, away from all of that,” Georgie’s mother said in her lovely, musical voice.

Georgie’s brother and sister chimed in with similar charming sentiments.

Little Timmy felt warm and comfortable and safe. He did have some questions, though. “I was surprised to see a Christmas wreath on your door. Why—”

“It’s not a Christmas wreath,” Georgie explained with an indulgent smile. “It’s just a holiday wreath, a decoration for the holiday season.”

Little Timmy pointed to the decorated Christmas tree in one corner. “What about that?”

“That’s just a traditional symbol of the time of year,” Georgie’s father said with a chuckle. “It’s originally a pagan symbol, you know. The Christians stole it, so we’re taking it back from them.”

“And all that music?”

“It’s cheerful,” Georgie’s mother explained with a condescending smile. “We like it. This is a family time of year, and the music helps with the mood. It’s not religious,” she said while “Adeste Fideles” played in the background.

“Axial tilt is the reason for the season,” Georgie’s brother said, looking down his nose at Little Timmy, which was easy to do because Little Timmy really was quite little. “We’re celebrating the solstice.”

“That’s pagan, too,” Georgie’s sister said, a bit impatiently. “The Christians stole that as well, and we’re reclaiming it.”

“But you’re not pagans,” Little Timmy said. “And paganism is also a system of religious belief, so it’s just as silly as the stupid stuff I’m trying to escape from. It’s all just a bunch of nonsense. If you just want to celebrate family togetherness, why are you doing it at the same time as all the religious people around you are doing it, and with the same symbols and music? I think you’re just not strong enough to truly break away and chuck all of this nonsense out the window.” He spotted a half–eaten cake on a nearby table and felt suddenly hungry. “You’re trying to have your cake and eat it, too.”

Silence fell on the room. Georgie and his parents and siblings started walking toward Little Timmy, hands reaching for him. Their faces were blank, and together they droned, “Kill.”

He fled, slamming the front door so hard behind him that the non–religious, purely holiday–season wreath jumped from the door and landed on the ground.

High above, inaudible and invisible to Little Timmy, a warplane streaked by on its way to bombing the bejesus out of some recalcitrant brown people, who would be having a very bad Chrismanukkah indeed.

Little Timmy hobbled away as quickly as he could. Where would he go now? He had no idea.

While he pondered, he was approached by a man dressed in wretched, torn clothes who limped badly. He looked like someone whose every Chrismanukkah was a rotten one.

“Could you give me a dollar or two, sir?” he asked Little Timmy. “Or three? Or fifty cents? In the holiday spirit.”

Little Timmy gritted his teeth in annoyance at the last few words, but he did reach into his pocket to see what was there. He found a few coins, took them out, and dropped them into the man’s outstretched hand.

“What happened to your leg?” he asked the man.

“I asked some guy coming out of church for money, and he kicked me.”

Little Timmy felt around in his other pocket, found a few more coins, and gave those to the man, too.

“God bless us, sir, each and every one!” the man cried in delight as he took the coins.

“And this,” Little Timmy said. “I no longer need it.” He held out his crutch, which was, after all, just a metaphor.

Little Timmy watched in satisfaction as the panhandler hobbled away, leaning heavily on the crutch.

Standing up straight on his two sound legs, no longer quite so little and no longer quite so cold, Little Timmy looked up at the cloudless blue sky. He knew that the appearance of a dome holding us in is an illusion created by the diffusion of sunlight. The sky is gas, thin and tenuous, and beyond it is the vastness of the universe: stupendous numbers of galaxies, stars, planets, and surely civilizations. The immensity of it all is incomprehensible to the human mind, but it’s all just matter and energy. There are no gods.

Probably, Little Timmy thought, there are a great number of silly religious ideas out there, just as there are here on Earth, but there must also be many sensible worlds, many intelligent species that have liberated their minds from the absurdity of religious belief and religious celebration or were perhaps never subject to any of it in the first place. How wonderful it would be to live on such a world!

If only I could visit them, he thought. I never will, but it’s wonderful to think that they’re out there and that there are probably many other Little Timmys, alien in form but not in mind, looking up and thinking the same thing, and all of us freed from silliness.

The future would be difficult. He had no idea what lay ahead. But he did know that he was free.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Adult Animals Drink Milk

And why shouldn’t they?

I suppose we’ve all heard the supposed dictum that adult humans shouldn’t drink milk, that doing so is unnatural and bad for us, and we’re the only animals that drink milk past childhood.

Let’s start with the last part.

I read of a hunter who saw an adult male polar bear kill a lactating female polar bear, tear open her teats, and drink the milk. There’s no need to go to the far north and hunters’ tales for examples of adult animals drinking milk. Anyone who has owned dogs or cats knows how eagerly they lap the stuff up if they’re given the chance.

Ah, but adult dogs and cats don’t drink milk in the wild, do they? Putting aside the fact that dogs and cats aren’t wild animals but creatures bred by us for thousands or tens of thousands or years, and that we don’t know for sure that adult feral dogs and cats don’t drink milk, let’s ask why adult wild animals, as a general rule, don’t seem to drink milk.

The answer, of course, is that milk isn’t available in the wild except when it comes from a nursing mother. We humans have an immense production and distribution chain to procure milk, process it to make it safe to drink, transport it, store it, and sell it to us. In our homes, we have refrigeration so that we can store milk safely. When it comes to milk, all of this is what really separates us from adult wild animals, not some divine edict or mystical rule of nature.

As far as we can tell, wild animals also don’t have refrigeration or cook their food. (I think I’ve read of a few remarkable exceptions to that statement, but it’s still true for all but those few exceptions.) If we should not drink milk as adults because adult wild animals don’t drink milk, then we should also not refrigerate or cook our food. We should not live in houses or wear clothing. Goodbye to eyeglasses, hearing aids, telephones, and so on. But of course we don’t want to return to the life lived by our very ancient ancestors. The story of civilization is one of constantly inventing new ways to further distance ourselves from the natural state, that state in which life, as Thomas Hobbes said, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Think of that polar bear. Isn’t it better to get your milk from the fridge?

Let’s return to the first part of the original assertion, that drinking milk is harmful to adults. As far as I can tell from a bit of Googling, this is either completely true or utterly false. The “false” position highlights all the healthful nutrients milk contains. The “true” position counters that the same nutrients can be obtained elsewhere and milk also contains lots of saturated fat, which is known to be bad for us.

One doesn’t have to drink whole milk, though. My wife and I switched to 2% milk years ago, and when we were used to that, we took the next step and switched to 1% milk. It tastes fine in tea, coffee, and cereal. (Perhaps we’ll manage to go all the way and switch to skimmed milk, but I doubt it.)

If you think that saturated fat is sufficient reason to avoid milk entirely, then I assume you also don’t eat butter or eat cheese. You should also reject meat, especially red meat. Avoid alcohol and tobacco, limit ingestion of fried foods and snack foods, get sufficient sleep, don’t sit for too long, exercise regularly, avoid stress and pollution, drink plenty of water and never soft drinks, and never eat processed meats. And all of the other rules that most of us know quite well and try to observe, sort of, for the most part, but with occasional lapses. (We have good intentions.)

If you’re one of the rare few who actually do follow all of those rules strictly and always, congratulations. I admire you. I’ll never be you. You’re doing everything you should do at the 100% level, whereas I’m at the… I don’t know. Better than 50%, I’m sure. Perhaps I can even say 75-80%, at least on a good day. I don’t think that eliminating the moderate amount of 1% milk I drink in tea and coffee would raise my good-health-habits percentage significantly. I’m quite sure it would eliminate the pleasure I derive from those beverages.

Few of us will ever attain perfection in anything, and that’s especially true of the healthiness of our lifestyles. Perhaps it’s wiser to establish moderate habits and to aim for a high but reasonable level of healthiness. Make small improvements as you’re able to.

Don’t beat yourself up about it. Sip a bit of milk. I hear it’s calming and helps fight stress.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Knowing the Mind of God

The world is rife with people eager to tell us what God thinks about this or that—marriage, work, family, food, entertainment, the purpose of life, and just about everything else.

I always wonder how they know.

Sometimes, they refer to the Bible. That’s silly enough to begin with. The Bible was created by people to whom the universe was little more than the Middle East—or in the case of the New Testament, the Roman world—and the sky above it, which they thought of as not very high up. Their god was an unpleasant and emotionally insecure father figure who insisted that things be done his way, or else. Like any such father, the only reason he gave was “Because I say so!” To follow rules supposedly laid down by this tiny, limited god of a tiny, limited world is absurd. But let’s accept that, for the sake of argument.

The Bible contains many dos and don’ts supposedly written by this god, or by humans inspired by him. Some of those rules are fundamental to the conduct of a sane society and are found all over the world; the most obvious one is “Thou shalt not kill.” Those rules are old, basic, and owe nothing to the Bible; they are recorded there but didn’t originate there. They are irrelevant to this discussion.

As for the others, they are largely nonsensical but in some cases clear enough: keep the Sabbath (why?); pigs are unclean (huh?). Many of the rules, though, are tricky because they were written in a far simpler time. People who take the Bible seriously must jump through strange logical hoops to figure out how to apply those rules to modern life. For example, the Old Testament forbids lighting a fire on the Sabbath. Modern observant Jews therefore don’t turn on electric lights on Saturday, even though no fire is involved. At some point, when electricity became common enough for this to become an issue, rabbis pondered mightily and declared that turning on lights violates this biblical proposition. God knew all of the past and the future, but he neglected to write down a rule for electric lights, the mention of which would have been bewildering to the ancient Hebrews but which God knew would become a problem for them in a few thousand years. Thus human religious authorities were required to tell us what God meant but neglected to write down.

If he didn’t write it down or cause it to be written down, how do they know what he meant?

This is very common in Judaism, the religion I was immured in until I was able to leave home. Almost all of what we now consider Judaism, such as the wacky dietary laws, was invented by rabbis centuries ago. Crammed into little rooms, they argued with each for hours other about the meaning of a word or phrase in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). The records of their discussions fill immense volumes, called the Talmud, which rabbis and religious students have studied and memorised ever since. The discussions of those ancient rabbis, along with later such theological squandering of brain cells, have been codified into detailed sets of rules that dominate food preparation, dining, and much of the rest of daily life among observant Jews.

(Those rabbinical discussions weren’t limited to the written version of the Torah. They also included discussions of a number of unwritten rules and regulations supposedly transmitted to Moses by God on Mount Sinai and then passed on, without a word being changed, from one generation of priests/rabbis/theologians to the next. The number of improbabilities and assumptions one has to swallow to believe in all of this is remarkable.)

I gather that something similar applies in Catholicism, where the rules by which the devout live were deduced from holy writ by theologians arguing with each other about what God–Jesus (remember that the two are mysteriously and inexplicably the same) meant by this or that phrase or sentence. For that matter, I think this is generally the situation in religions generally, monotheistic and otherwise.

The old men spending their days debating meaningless theological minutiae while being supported by hardworking peasants or family members are imbued with the aura of divine authority. Their supposed wisdom (they pronounce nonsense with great conviction), learning (they know their religion’s fairy tales in great detail), and holiness (they have big beards and soft hands) are taken to mean that their decisions about right and wrong bear God’s stamp of approval. He is speaking through them.

(“But, God, why didn’t you just cause everything to be written down in great detail in the first place. That way, there’d be no risk of a misinterpretation?” “I was busy, okay? I had a universe to run.”)

The religions these old men represent are granted elevated status by time. The dogmas are covered by the accumulated grime of centuries, which looks like a holy patina.

Actually, that patina isn’t even required. As we know, dogmas are revered even without that layer of grime. New sects arise in a moment—especially in Protestantism—whenever a self–appointed leader appears with a new dogma, a new claim to know the mind of God. The sheep line up to hand him their money and follow his new set of rules.

This is common in religion, and it’s even more common in the world of woo–woo. In that case, it’s not the mind of God that the new leader claims to know but rather the secret workings of nature, hidden to all save that new leader. But it amounts to the same thing: “Only I can see what’s beyond the veil, what God/the universe requires of you, how to propitiate/harmonize with the divine/secret force and live happily ever after.”

Of course, much of this simply a confidence game. But there are, I think, a fair number of religious/woo–woo figures who are sincere. They delude themselves before they delude their followers. They really do think that they—and only they—know the mind of God/true nature of the universe, and they burn with the need to impart hat knowledge to the masses. And there are masses, sadly, who are eager to believe them.

That raises a very different question: Why? Why are the masses so ready to believe these people? Rabbis, priests, imams, politicians, self–appointed health experts, music experts, fashion experts, wine experts, conspiracy theorists, talk radio babblers, and on and on. Why is their self–proclaimed authority so readily accepted?

There has been research on this subject, and it seems to confirm what I’ve long thought: that the believers and followers fear uncertainty, want definite rules, want to think the universe isn’t random, want to think someone knows the answer, and want to be part of an elect group of insiders who know the truth.

However, that’s not the question I started with: Why do the people who claim to know the mind of God believe themselves?

Again, I’m not talking about the con men, the preachers with immense incomes happily fleecing the sheep. They’re despicable but no more so than con men of any other type. I’m talking about the ones who are actually sincere. They are legion. They are everywhere. Most of them aren’t even preachers; they’re simply convinced that they know the mind of God, although they may express that knowledge by saying that “the purpose of life is...” or “I believe we were put on Earth to...” Others, though, are eager to share their special knowledge with the world, to preach.

No doubt a fair number of such preachers are bonkers. Perhaps the most famous example is Joan of Arc, who saw visions. I have the impression, though, that most of them are sane. They’re not hearing voices, let alone the voice of God telling them what he wants. They don’ t claim to have a literal direct line to Heaven. In a way, that would make a kind of crazy sense. What’s even stranger is that they seem to think that they have an extraordinary ability to simply know what God wants and what verses in the Bible really mean.

Perhaps in some cases, they never grow out of being nineteen–year–olds. That’s the stage at which people tend to think they know everything about everything. (In my case, that happened around seventeen, and by nineteen, I had begun to realize how incomplete my knowledge of everything was.) Maybe the people I’m talking about simply don’t progress past that point.

But surely that only explains a minority of them. Few people retain the ignorant certitude of nineteen well into adulthood. I have to assume that the people I’m talking about realize how little they know about other areas of life. So why do they continue to think that they know the mind of God? What is the nature of that part of their self–image?

I’m mystified.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

The Material Atheist

Years ago, when I was commuting by bus to work in downtown Denver, I used the time to read. There were people who preferred to spend the ride making small talk with the stranger sitting next to them. My reading time has always been precious to me, and I resented people interrupting it with pointless babble. Usually, answering them grunts while keeping my eyes glued in the book made the point, and they’d turn their attention elsewhere or even change seats.

Except for a smiling young man who sat down next to me and asked me what I was reading.

“A book.”

“What’s it about?”

“Mumble.”

“Oh.” Pause. “Do you know what I like to read?”

I looked at his smiling face and realized what was coming. “The Bible?” I asked.

He seemed  disappointed that I had seen through him, but he persisted, jabbering about Jesus—witnessing, I suppose, that annoying word Christians use to mean interrupting the precious reading time of someone who hasn’t intruded on them, is trying to ignore them, and is hoping to be ignored by them.

Finally I told him to stop talking to me and that nothing he said would affect me. I was an atheist and thus fully immunized.

He looked nonplussed for a moment and then asked me to define “atheism” for him.

I told him that in my opinion it was essentially materialism. I thought that would put an end to it.

He pondered and then said something like, “Have you ever thought that maybe there’s more to life than the accumulation of worldly possessions?”

I realized that he only knew that use of “materialism,” so I told him that I was using it in the other sense, the philosophical one, that the universe consists of matter and nothing else.

He digested that for a while and then finally left to find another victim, mouthing platitudes about blessings and praying for me as he went.

Recently, I’ve been trying to remember the process by which I became an atheist. At the time it was happening, I wasn’t looking at myself from the outside. I was concerned with what to believe or not believe, but I wasn’t analyzing myself. Now that all of that’s in the distant past and I’m an old fart who’s toying with writing his autobiography (because why not?), I’m trying to look at that period in my life objectively and analytically. When I remembered the incident of the twit on the bus, I realized that I was always a materialist by nature. It just took me a few years of intellectual and emotional struggle to cast off parental conditioning and become my true self—a materialist, which is to say, an atheist.

When I was a child, I believed what my parents believed. The mythology in the Old Testament, the existence of God, the inherent rightness of the wackadoodle Jewish dietary laws, and so on—that was how the Universe was. At the same time, I really wanted to understand how the Universe worked. I read science books written for children and absorbed their contents, which I placed on the same level of truthfulness as the religious nonsense fed to me by my parents. It was all equally true and equally important to understanding everything. My parents were pleased by the religious part of the preceding and assumed that I’d follow path of religious self–brainwashing everyone in their families had followed, which they thought was the right and proper path for a Jew, especially a male Jew. I was very good at parroting religious rubbish. One of my sisters once called me the little rabbi.

An important difference, though, was that science was exciting and satisfying. It appealed to me emotionally as well as intellectually. Judaism was just there. It was true (as I still thought) but increasingly uninteresting. The rituals and seemingly endless time spent in the synagogue were annoying and oppressive. That was time I could have used to read science books (and science fiction and comics).

As far as I can remember, it was that emotional disconnect that moved me steadily away from religion and toward science as a way to understand the Universe. Well before increasing understanding of science showed me the absurdity of the creation story in the book of Genesis, this lack of a need for a religion, and therefore a lack of interest in it, made me a Jew in name only. God and religious belief disappeared from my life.

Not so with outward religious display and observance. As the rabbi’s son, I had to keep going through the motions. That would last until I left home for college. At the same time, I was struggling with what to call myself. I think I had arrived at “atheist” by the time I left home.

On an emotional level, the Universe was a material thing to me. But what a wonderful thing! As a teenager, I devoured books on astronomy. The astonishing size and age of the Universe and the variety and strangeness of the objects and energies that filled it delighted me. I wanted to know everything I could about it. I wanted to understand it. Clearly, religion was not a path to that understanding; it was only a path to fantasy—boring fantasy. I could see that science was the path to understanding. It wasn’t that science led me to atheism. Rather, it was materialism that led me to science.

Space and astronomy fascinated me, but so did books about the opposite end of nature, what we see through the microscope and what we learn from particle accelerators. There is another stunningly wonderful Universe below us in size.

LaPlace told Napoleon that God wasn’t mentioned in his book explaining the workings of the Solar System because “I had no need of that hypothesis.” For me, in our vast and wonderful Universe, there is no room for that hypothesis. How trivial, shallow, and silly the idea of God is compared to immense reality. To an ancient people who thought of a small part of the Middle East as the entirety of existence, the concept of a god who had made all of it might not have been so absurd. Expand that view to the entire world, with all of its natural diversity and wildly different human cultures, and already you have to strain to believe in such a supreme being. With what we now know of the Universe—and knowing that we can only observe a tiny part of it—you have to willfully restrict your conception of reality to something cramped and simplistic in order to still believe in a god of any kind.

One of the reasons I want to be immortal is so that I will live to learn about further scientific discoveries on both the microscopic and telescopic levels. What wonders we’ll uncover! Who needs childish fairy tales?

Monday, July 19, 2021

Dusty Docs out the Airlocks

I got an e–mail from someone who was searching for information about the onboard computers on the Viking Mars landers, those brave little robots of beloved memory. He had found my resume online (http://dvorkin.com/dresume.php) and saw that I was part of the team that developed the deorbit burn targeting software for the landers. He assumed that that software was loaded into the onboard computers and therefore I would be able to answer his questions about those computers’ architecture.

Alas, I had to tell him that I knew nothing about the onboard computers. The Viking software I worked on was developed on a ground–based computer, a CDC 6600, a stupendously powerful scientific/engineering computer for its time. During the missions, the software ran on another ground–based computer, a less stupendously powerful but still pretty nifty Univac 1108.

He told me he had been searching online for documentation about the onboard computers but had found little. I commiserated, saying that I have sometimes tried to find documents about my work on Apollo at NASA, including documents I myself wrote, but with no luck.

When I was working there, I saw thick notebooks filled with details about computer architecture, hardware specifications, and mission minutiae. NASA was fanatical about having everything written down to the finest level of detail. That applied both to work done inside NASA and to work performed at contractor sites, such as the Viking software development I was later involved with at Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin). I’m sure all of that paperwork still exists, but unfortunately, it hasn’t been digitized.

By the way, the process to produce it was tedious and painstaking.

We engineers wrote our documents by hand. Yes, children, by hand! Any needed charts or illustrations were also done by hand, sometimes by the engineers, sometimes by graphic artists. In my case, I cut and pasted tables from computer printout onto sheets of paper and inserted them into the handwritten document. All of this was then typed by clerical workers in the approved format. The engineer proofread the typed document, made any needed changes, had pages retyped if necessary, and sent the document to the editing department, which did its damage (e.g., insisting on approved NASA spelling, such as “alinement” instead of “alignment). The edited document was then retyped as necessary. Finally, copies were made and sent to those who needed to see the document, and a copy was sent to an archive, a library of some sort.

I think the people who did all the typing had some sort of very primitive word processor—in effect, an electric typewriter with memory. Still, it was all very primitive, and quite a contrast to the cutting–edge technology that was taking men to the moon.

Some years later, I wrote a simple document formatting program in FORTRAN. I hoped to use it to print out short stories and novels in the proper format for submission to magazines and publishers. Still later, when I had a desktop computer, I tried writing a word processor in C. It was fun, but it soon became pointless as commercial word processors made their appearance. How we would have loved those back in my Apollo days!

Some random bits and pieces of NASA documents have been put online, often by people outside the government. It’s peripheral material, not the important stuff.

For example, someone on a social network challenged me to prove that I had worked on Apollo. Foolishly, I didn’t put the twat on permanent Ignore and instead went looking online for old Apollo documents of mine, feeling sure that I would find them. I didn’t. I did find a site with digitized versions of attendance lists of some meetings held at NASA/Houston during Apollo. There were a lot of those meetings, and I was in quite a few of them. There I was, listed as an attendee at some.

It was enough to stifle the twat. It also made me realize how little of the immense storehouse of data, vital to historians of technology, is still only available in original, hardcopy form.

This is potentially tragic. How many hard copies of those documents exist? How widely separated are they? How well protected from fire and flood? How close are we to losing a huge part of the history of Man’s greatest technological achievement?

It’s possible that the important stuff is still classified, as it was at the time. The wasn’t because we were working on secret military projects, but because we were using data with military relevance. Specifically, mission dates were classified because the Evil Adversary (i.e., the Soviet Union) could use those to extrapolate the geographical positions of a big part of America’s military resources, especially naval resources, for the duration of the mission and for many days before launch.

Of course none of that should matter now, decades later. However, as I vaguely remember, such classification lasts for a very long time, perhaps forever. I believe the classification can be removed at any time by presidential order. Surely this is the time to do that and to allocate funds to digitize everything, to make copies and backups of the digitized documents, and to make all of them available free online.

Yes, it would be cool on a personal level. I’d love to be able to download copies of everything I wrote back then, although it would probably depress me to see how little of it I could now understand. (I’m pretty sure I understood it when I wrote it.) But such documents are of greater importance than the personal. Our understanding of history is built on such little details—on the innumerable minor deeds of innumerable minor people—and not just on the grand actions of great men.

I don’t think we can afford to lose those immense stacks of paper, and I suspect we’re in danger of doing so.

Space, the Final Etc.

The familiar phrase “space, the final frontier” is from the opening narration of the original Star Trek television show (i.e., the real Star Trek). It’s a catchy image, designed to appeal to America’s romantic if historically questionable idea of the Western frontier.

I prefer John F. Kennedy’s metaphor of space as a new ocean, one we must sail upon.

This is part of a speech he gave at Rice University in 1962: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.”

You can read the speech, and see and hear it, here:

https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Spicy Is a Type of Bland

I grew up with bland food—limited ingredients, limited variety, limited seasonings, and everything overcooked. Little taste and texture remained, and what did remain was unpleasant to me. That I was a fat child was a result of inactivity and mealtime parental intimidation and not due to the appeal of my mother’s cooking. When I got to college, I liked dorm food. The variety was refreshing. Pork was a delight, partly because of the taste, but mostly because it was non-kosher, but that’s another story. I also shed a lot of fat, about thirty pounds during my first year on campus, but that’s yet another story.

Later, when I was in graduate school, earning money as a Teaching Assistant and dating Leonore (who is now my wife of almost 53 years, but that’s still yet another story), we used to occasionally splurge on dinner at a Chinese restaurant. That was my first experience with Chinese food (the very idea of which horrified my parents, but that’s another etc.). In those days, that meant Cantonese food, which nowadays is looked down upon by many as bland and boring. To me, the new tastes and textures were wonderful.

Perhaps I would now find the food at that restaurant a bit plain, and probably I’d find the dorm food bland, boring, and possibly as unpleasant as my friends in the dorm professed to find it. Back then, American food had the reputation of being bland and boring. I never agreed with that, at least not as a general statement to all American food.

Times have changed. Capsaicin is—ho, ho—hot. The spicy bite is in, and the spicier the better. Perhaps this is due to changing demographics and the growing popularity of various ethnic cuisines that favor the use of hot peppers. In addition, there’s a segment of blindingly white Anglos (I’m allowed to say that because I’m one of them) who see the spiciness level of one’s food as a moral and cultural issue instead of a matter of food preference. Those who don’t like spicy food, we are told, are narrow minded, unadventurous, unappreciative of flavorful foods, provincial, and probably racist stooges of running-dog capitalism. (Yes, I exaggerate.) (Slightly.)

For me, the opposite is true.

There’s probably a lot of variation between individuals. Perhaps there are people for whom the addition of hot chili peppers to a dish makes the flavors of the other ingredients all the more detectable. For me, however, spiciness masks those other flavors. Everything else is overwhelmed by the heat. If the spiciness level is high (by my standards; others might consider it low), I become unaware of anything but the spiciness. Even different textures disappear. Nothing is left but the unpleasant bite. I disliked my mother’s cooking because of the lack of taste and texture; it was like chewing tasteless dough. Spicy food is even worse—just as tasteless and textureless as that childhood nastiness, but in addition eating away at me all the way from my lips down to my stomach and beyond.

That’s why I say that spicy is a type of bland. Blandness implies a lack of anything strong, noteworthy, outstanding. Spicy food does have one strong element, but that one element wipes out everything else. In both cases, there might as well be no individual ingredients, and there’s no interesting mouth feel or aftertaste, nothing left to appeal to a variety of senses. It’s all the same.

You might want to stop reading now. (That’s assuming you’ve read this far. If you haven’t, then you aren’t reading these words, and therefore...Well, never mind.) The rest of this essay deals with a subject that’s quite distasteful. Unpleasant, even. In fact, it stinks.

There’s a good reason that many people should avoid spicy food, and that is the dreadful effect it can have on one’s breath.

Years ago, I developed an awful case of halitosis. The was unbearable—for others. I couldn’t smell it, but I could see how others shrank away from me. It depressed me terribly. I had no control over the problem. I couldn’t make it go away. I had no idea why this had happened to me. My health was good. My teeth, a common cause of bad breath, were also fine. Finally, my dentist told me that the source of the problem was my sinuses; he had encountered this before. My doctor later said the same and told me to take an over-the-counter medication. It worked to a degree, but not entirely, and it had side effects, such as disrupted sleep.

I consulted Dr. WorldWideWeb and learned that my problem was common in dry climates, such as Denver, where I live, and was commonly triggered by an allergy, often a food allergy. The advice was to drink lots of water, take a garlic oil supplement, and identify the allergen and eliminate it. The first two were easy. I tried cutting out the various foods mentioned as possible allergens, but none of them did the trick. The trigger wasn’t a food. I continued taking the garlic oil supplement and drinking lots of water, but I felt hopeless. It was time to grit my teeth, avoid human contact whenever possible (on the bright side, I’m an introvert), and carry on with life.

I had been in the habit of a weekly lunch with a friend at Casa de Manuel, a great Mexican restaurant in downtown Denver, where I always had a pork burrito smothered with green chili (along with a side order of menudo and a cheese enchilada, all of which were also really great there, but that’s still yet again another story). The green chili was spicy but not extremely so; perhaps the heat was somehow toned down for the mostly Anglo lunchtime crowd.

Because of various circumstances, I skipped that lunch for a period of a few months, and suddenly my breath became normal. Children and small dogs no longer scattered at my approach. Bingo! I experimented by eating something with green chili again. The dreadful dragon breath returned. That was the last time I knowingly ate green chili. I also generally avoid the red kind, just to be safe. It was hard not ordering the smothered burrito when I returned to Casa de Manuel, but not as hard as dealing with the alternative. (Later, I left that job and stopped working downtown, and Casa de Manuel lost their lease and moved to a distant location, but of course that’s another story, because there are almost a million stories in the Mile High City.)

I say “knowingly” because a few years later, at a lunch with coworkers, I ordered something that wasn’t labeled spicy, and it wasn’t spicy, but it had the distinctive taste of green chili. After lunch, I noticed people keeping their distance from me. It was confirmation of my great scientific discovery, at any rate.

Of course, I could be the only person in the world with this particular allergy to spicy food and this particular reaction to it. I don’t think I am, however. It seems highly unlikely. Beyond that, I sometimes notice that distinctive and awful smell of sinus problems when I’m in a Mexican restaurant. That’s surely not a coincidence.

If you have the same breath problem and can’t get rid of it, try avoiding spicy foods for a while, along with taking a garlic oil supplement and drinking lots of water. You might also consider using a neti pot; if you do, read up on safety precautions first. Don’t worry that food will be tasteless and bland. On the contrary, you might well discover a whole universe of subtle tastes and textures that the spiciness was masking. You might even come to feel that spiciness is a type of bland.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Fulsome Fendik!

What’s an atheist to do?

When people say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” to me, I know they mean well, and I don’t want to be rude. Many atheists simply reply with the same greeting. It’s no big deal, they say. Well, it is to me. It violates my principles to use any religious phrase other than “God damn,” “Jesus Christ!” and that sort of thing.

So I decided to make up a holiday and an associated greeting that I can use to reply to the Merry Christmases, etc.

Of course, all holidays are made up, whether they celebrate mythical events—e.g., Passover, Christmas, Easter—or historical events that have been utterly distorted in the retelling and have had a religious gloss laid upon a bloody event—e.g., Hanukkah. Either way, the religious elements in all of them make them objectionable to me.

Then there’s Festivus, a tongue-in-cheek holiday invented for a TV comedy series. The problem with that one is that it’s taken on real attributes. It has a symbol associated with it, the Festivus Pole, that people are actually erecting. It has rituals and even miracles. (The miracles are also tongue–in–cheek, but nonetheless they’re there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in time, some people start to take them, and the rest of the holiday, seriously.)

Those problems don’t apply to Fendik.

Fendik doesn’t celebrate anything real, but it can if you want it to: your birthday, your marriage, your divorce, the death of your greatest enemy, or nothing at all. It has no religious element. It can fall on any date and last for as many days as you like. It can occur numerous times in one year. It can even occur numerous times in one day, lasting, say, for 15 minutes at a time. It might never occur at all, as will be the case for most people, probably all people.

There are no prescribed rituals or modes of observance. Any decorations are acceptable, as is the absence of all decorations. No one can accuse you of celebrating Fendik incorrectly, or of using the wrong decorations, or of putting them up or taking them down too early or too late.

Send cards or don’t send cards. Put anything on the cards that takes your fancy. Just be sure to include “Fulsome Fendik” somewhere.

The only rules are the name, which cannot be changed; the greeting, “Fulsome Fendik,” which likewise cannot be changed; and the lack of any religious element, which must never be added.

Other than that, you’re free to make Fendik your own.

And a Fulsome Fendik to you!