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!

Monday, December 21, 2020

Gimme That Old-Time Religious Privilege

Atheists and other non-believers are reminded on a regular basis how privileged religion and religiosity are in this country and how oblivious the religious are to the existence of that privilege.

On a national level, this refers to Christians. On a local level, it can be some other religion or religious group, such as the Haredim in some parts of New York State and city. Overwhelmingly, though, in America, religious privilege equals Christian privilege, so letʼs stick to that.

Recently on the Nextdoor social media site for my area, a woman asked for auto mechanic recommendations. She said she had been cheated and otherwise mistreated by unreliable and/or dishonest mechanics before, and therefore she now wanted a recommendation for a God-fearing one.

I took exception, of course.

Iʼm trying hard to be non-confrontational these days. Well, less confrontational. Well, sorta kinda. Politely, I asked her how “God-fearing” was relevant.

A few people chimed in to suggest possible answers to my question. They gave her the benefit of the doubt, although one poster asserted that believers are more honest than other people.

Eventually she responded to me—not with an explanation, but with hostility. She accused me of attacking her god. She told me to get a hobby and not bother her.

I kept answering politely, pointing out that her words were a slur against non-believers.  She insisted they weren’t. I asked if she would be as dismissive of slurs against other groups. She became more hostile. Eventually, she blocked me. Rather, she said she was blocking me, but then she showed up again to tell me that I needed help—presumably because pointing out that someone has denigrated a group of people is a sure sign of mental illness.

The original poster and others accused me of only wanting to disrupt the group. That’s a technique commonly used to dismiss complaints and those making them. Jumping into an online group discussing football just to say that I hate football would be disruptive, not to mention rude. It would also be pointless. I do hate football, but that silly game and its fans, even at their most boorish, are not a threat to my freedoms. I donʼt need a wall of separation to protect me from them.

The discussion on Nextdoor wasn’t about football. It had morphed into a debate about the perceived right of believers to insult non-believers. In pointing out that they were insulting non-believers, I had exposed their unconscious religious privilege. They wanted to be free to sling such insults in a public forum, and they were outraged when someone called them to account.

I had touched a nerve. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve touched that nerve before.

One such time was in December 1962, at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. I was a college sophomore, but it was my first year living away from home on a college campus. Christmas lumbered into view and holiday lighting went up on numerous campus buildings. This upset me. IU is a public university, so it was clear to me that putting religious decorations on the buildings was a violation of the separation of church and state. I said so in a dormitory bull session.

The first response from my fellow bullsessioners was bewilderment. Such lighting was ubiquitous. They had seen it all their lives. It was normal. It was traditional. It was entirely appropriate. That’s one of the major characteristics of religious privilege: The practitioners of the majority religion always think it’s normal and appropriate for their symbols to appear everywhere.

Then their bewilderment turned to anger. I argued for a while with an increasingly hostile crowd.

Some of them knew that my father was a rabbi. The anger followed the inevitable course. Someone said bitterly that all those Jewish merchants had no objection to making money selling goods intended as Christmas presents. I laughed and said sure, why not? If Christians are so foolish as to spend huge amounts of money every Christmas, why should Jewish merchants not sell to them?

Someone, trying to cool things down, asked if I’d be okay with the decorations if they included a Star of David. Would that satisfy me? No, I said. It would still be a violation of church-state separation. Any religious symbols on the buildings would be a violation, no matter what religion was represented. This resulted in more bewilderment, mixed with frustration.

Eventually, the discussion fizzled. No blood was spilled. I had learned, though, how quick Christians are to anger when their right to fill the public square with their religious symbols is questioned.

Christian symbols and rituals saturate public life in America. They are so much a part of the background that Americans donʼt even notice them. This is Christian religious privilege, and it’s everywhere.

It extends from Bibles in hotel rooms to the president being sworn in with his hand on a Bible and adding “so help me God” to the oath of office. It’s politicians ending speeches with “and may God bless the United States of America.” It’s ubiquitous public prayer. It’s celebrity preachers being treated with deference in the news media.

And, yes, it’s those tacky Christmas decorations on public buildings.

It’s manger scenes on public property and the fury of Christians when an organization dedicated to church-state separation, such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, calls for the removal of such manger scenes. (Fury and threats of violence—how the love does pour out of Christians when they’re celebrating the birth of their mythological Savior!)

There has been a change since that dormitory bull session, but in the wrong direction. Instead of the annual display of public Christmas decorations fading away, they now include the occasional menorah as a nod to Hanukkah. American Jews, I think, see this as acceptance and tolerance instead of realizing that they have been recruited into helping destroy the barrier between church and state.

One the one hand, Hanukkah isn’t the threat to church-state separation that Christmas is, because Judaism doesn’t have the power and influence of Christianity. Christian churches have been the real threat to separation, and hence to religious (and non-religious) freedom, from the beginnings of the country. So a menorah on public property should elicit less outrage than a manger scene. On the other hand, as I told my fellow students in 1962, any religious symbol on public property is a violation of separation. In addition, religion itself is a potent threat—that is, deference toward religion, reverence for the idea of it, and the elevation of religion and religious leaders and spokesmen to a special place. You certainly see this in popular entertainment, where the believer is the default and religion intrudes everywhere and is treated with deference.

The culture is so pervaded by the symbols and customs of Christianity that their religious nature has become invisible. Thus courts have ruled that the use of Christian symbols and prayers by public officials is merely “ceremonial deism” and can continue. That’s an absurd and pernicious doctrine, but it flew under the radar even of those who should have reacted with outrage.

That’s no surprise. Many who proclaim themselves atheists or agnostics put up Christmas decorations and celebrate the holidays. “It’s no longer a religious festival,” they say. “It’s just a custom and a family time. And I like the pretty lights.” At least one separationist organization makes much of celebrating the solstice every winter; they have created for their own comfort a thinly disguised Christmas celebration without the saccharine manger mythology.

Ah, well. Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, so selling religious liberty for a display of pretty lights has an Old Testament resonance.

It may be that people require ceremonies, and that’s why public ceremonies and symbols, including religious ones, are ubiquitous. I donʼt feel that need, so it’s hard for me to judge. Does everyone but me require ceremonies? Almost everyone? A substantial number? A minority that has cowed the majority into silence? Whatever the percentage, those who have that strange hunger for ceremonies and symbols have to realize that the importance of keeping church and state separate far transcends their need for shiny lights and manger scenes.

Complaining about all of this is probably pointless. It’s tilting at windmills. But sometimes, the windmills must be tilted at. Some battles must be fought even when the likelihood of a grim outcome is known in advance.

Oh, perhaps there really is no need for windmill tilting. Religion’s grip on America seems to be loosening. Perhaps someday, America will become like other developed countries, where believers are a tolerated minority. If so, the silly lights and music will probably persist, but they really won’t be a danger. They won’t be, as they are now, innumerable chisels working away at the mortar that holds the bricks in the wall of separation.

But we’re not in that future, are we? We can’t even be sure that we ever will be. Here and now, the wall is in danger. Theologically tilted courts and opportunistic politicians have been working hard to remove its bricks. Americans who should be alarmed fall into the trap of dismissing each removal as trivial, as a battle not worth fighting, as meaningless. Meanwhile, the wall becomes weaker and shakier. That’s the way it is with walls, both the physical and the metaphorical ones: Every brick must be safeguarded, every crack must be repaired, and the vandals who would dismantle it must be kept at bay. The vandals are doing their best to prevent religion’s decline. They’re working as tirelessly to force theocracy upon us as they ever have. They’re tireless, and so we must be tirelessly vigilant.

That includes being vigilant about what may seem to be small things. The wall is weakened brick by brick, but it’s also made higher and stronger the same way. Moreover, the bricks that make up the wall are not the same size, but each one is nevertheless important. (Yes, that is indeed the sound of a metaphor being stretched extremely.) Religious indoctrination in schools is a very big brick. Mangers on public property are smaller but nonetheless important bricks. “Holiday”—i.e., Christmas—lights on public buildings are a bigger brick than you may think. And the religious privilege that lets people feel free to say that non-believers are dishonest and will cheat you—oh, that’s a very big brick indeed, for it reduces non-believers to an inferior status, a lower class of being. Surely the vileness of that is obvious.

And therefore I disrupted a Nextdoor discussion—not in order to disrupt, but in hopes of making at least some believers more aware. Possibly I made a tiny dent in their armor of privilege. Possibly.

Also, football is a really stupid game.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Randolph Runner

 Just in time for the election, my new novel -- sf, satire, and anti-trump:


Butler, warrior, moral philosopher, robot. Randolph is all that and more.

Randolph is the prized product of Superior Domestics, a Silicon Valley firm dedicated to producing robot servants for people who grew up watching British period costume dramas on PBS. The company’s motto is, “All the gracious living of Upstairs with none of the unseemly drama of Downstairs.”

When the novel opens with the assassination of King Donald II and a coup d’état, Randolph epitomizes that motto. He is calm, quiet, supremely competent, always in the background, and never interfering. He is a mere witness to great events. He is focused on supervising his staff and properly running the household of General Henry Redgrave, architect of the coup and would–be power behind the throne.

War! Romance! Sex! Skulduggery! Artificial Intelligence! And lots of other stuff, too.

Read more here:

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Pondering the Vanishing of Backyard Wildlife

Where in the world did the animals go?

And who would have thought that we’d miss them all so?

The squirrels and rabbits, the bugs and the birds,

The gnawed–upon apples and the … animal turds.

At the base of the chain, the insects seem few.

I wouldn’t eat them, but the spiders sure do.

The spiders have left, their webs all blown away.

(I’ll admit that I’m torn about having them stay.)

We’d happily watch, on a bright summer morn,

Squirrelly squirrels and bunnies new–born,

Birds screaming insults way up in the trees,

The anger of wasps and the  buzzing of bees.

There’s a bush that bears berries way out in the back

That squirrels and birds by the score did attack.

They were hooked on that lovely sweet berry taste,

But this summer the berries have all gone to waste.

Our backyard’s a haven, of chemicals bare.

So why are the birds and the squirrels not there?

Is it smoke from the fires destroying the West?

(It burns in your eyes and your throat and your chest.)

Is it heat that’s relentless and air that’s so dry?

Have they all given up and just crawled off to die?

Or migrated north to a friendlier clime?

Will they come back again in some happier time?

Will we be here to greet them if that time does arrive?

Or will only our distant descendants survive

With many mutations to keep them alive

On an Earth that’s like Hell but where they will thrive?

But what if the animals never come back?

What if they die from this climate attack?

What if the animals die every one,

And history says that our folly has won?

Then pity the dying on a planet of death

Dying of thirst, gasping for breath

Joining the animals doomed by our addiction

To fossil fuels and pesticides and ignoring the prediction

Of the scientists who warned of what likely would be

If we didn’t stop the heating of the air and the sea.

But I’m guessing at causes; they might be benign.

The vanishing of animals might not be a sign.

Maybe all’s well, no cause for alarm

And our many indulgences are doing no  harm.

If the temperature keeps rising, crank up the AC.

Douse gardens with water from the water company.

Eat your meat and your fish and your chicken by the pound.

There’s more where that came from, they’ll keep coming round.

Because the sad truth is, when all’s said and done,

I haven’t a clue where the animals have gone.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Servants of Spiders

No, not people who are servants of spiders but robotic servants made up of spiders. That’s what we need.

I was thinking about the kind of robot servants that might be coming our way in the not-too-distant future. For many uses around the house, the best shape and size would be pretty much humanoid. After all, our houses are designed for humans of average size. However, for some purposes, such as cleaning nooks and crannies and finding small objects that manage to roll under the refrigerator, as they are wont to do, small spiders would be far more efficient. Swarms of spiders would be efficient for so many other tasks, too: finding and eliminating pests, checking for damage in hidden places and repairing it, etc.

So we could have two main types of servants: humanoid and spideroid. (Is that a word? It should be.) But with technology only somewhat advanced beyond what we now have, we could combine the two for convenience. We could have swarms of robot spiders that would assemble themselves into human shapes, to the human eye indistinguishable from actual humans. For example, you could have a perfect butler serving you dinner, and if you dropped a pea and it escaped and rolled under the fridge, the butler would calmly dissolve one hand into a swarm of spiders that would retrieve the pea. Meanwhile, one of his ears would become a swarm of spiders, scurry into the kitchen, and assemble into some convenient shape to check on something on the stove.

Unfortunately, all of this is too much like scenes from various horror movies to have much appeal to consumers.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Publishing and Buttons

Switching to self-publishing has had an unexpected and beneficial effect on my attitude about writing.

When I started out, long before self-publishing was an option, I was writing for the sheer pleasure of it, for the happiness it gave me, for the delight in the act itself. I wrote what I liked, and I liked what I wrote.

That changed as soon as I became traditionally published. I started focusing on writing what a commercial publishing house would accept. I became almost obsessed with pushing all the right buttons. It hampered my creativity and it certainly limited the fun. Much of the time, writing wasn't fun at all.

After I switched to self-publishing in 2009, that near-obsession stayed with me for a while, but it started to fade, and then it evaporated entirely. In time, I stopped worrying about those buttons and reverted to writing to please myself again. It's been wonderful, liberating. This attitude isn't likely to result in bestsellers, but it does result in a happy writer.

And so, after all these decades and 29 books out there, I have come full circle. Once again, writing means to me being a man alone in a room happily pushing his own button.

So to speak.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Day I Was a Whacked-Out Hippie on a Bus in California

Being a random memory from the Space Age.

From 1971 to 1974, I worked on the Viking Mars lander program at Martin Marietta in Denver. I was part of a small team (three men most of the time, with two to three other people added for brief periods) developing the software that would be used to determine the timing and duration of the Viking lander’s deorbit burn when it was in orbit around Mars.

The orbit would be known(ish), Mars gravity would be known(ish), the atmosphere would be somewhat known(not-very-ish), and the desired landing site would have been specified. Make some assumptions, turn on the deorbit rockets, and head down to Mars! With the assistance of a few gazillion lines of code.

Which we developed in FORTRAN on a CDC 6600. The original plan was for the software to be run on that machine during the actual mission. However, Jet Propulsion Lab, JPL, in Pasadena, California, exerted its considerable political weight and it was decided that during the mission, the software would instead be run on a Univac 1108 at JPL.

We shipped our software to Pasadena and told them to load it onto the 1108 and have at it. However, what had worked just fine on the 6600 failed miserably when transferred to the 1108.

We tracked down the problem and made the changes.

Or so we thought. JPL said it still didn’t work. (As was always their way, they made it clear that all would have been just hunky dory [or copacetic, as people in the Apollo program used to say] if the software had been written at JPL in the first place.) (Yeah, right.)

Time was getting short. Time is always getting short in the aerospace biz. A few of us were sent out to JPL to track down the bugs and run simulations and verify that all was well. Quickly.

I was out there, on the very edge of civilization, for three weeks, getting too little sleep, spending my days and much of my nights at JPL, reading printouts, writing my changes on the printout, changing punch cards, submitting card decks, waiting for new stacks of printouts, repeat. By the end of the three weeks, desperate to get it done and go home, I spent a few days without sleep, working around the clock.

Finally done with my part, I went back to the hotel like a zombie, packed, checked out, and took a bus to the airport.

This was in 1974 (or just possibly late 1973). I had long, red hair, worn in a ponytail, and a full, rather bushy red beard. I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. My eyes were gruesomely bloodshot and had huge bags under them. I sat in the bus swaying from side to side, falling forward, drifting into sleep, then snapping awake again.

I don’t even remember what the bus was. Some short of shuttle between hotels and the airport, I suppose. I don’t even remember getting on it. I do remember that it kept stopping to pick up tourists at hotels and once, oddly, at the Hearst Castle.

Most of the tourists seemed to be older English couples dressed formally informally. They kept turning to stare at me and then turning away again quickly when I met their eyes. Very British. I imagined them whispering to each other that they had heard that the drug problem was bad in California, and here was living proof. Just look at that poor young man, his mind destroyed by drugs. Shocking.

The rest of the story is anticlimactic. I got to the airport, got home, went back to work, got laid off once all the work was done and the company had been paid by NASA—a typical aerospace story.

But I’ve sometimes imagined myself trying to reassure those tourists that I wasn’t on drugs. My words slurred, mumbling incoherently, swaying, my red eyes open wide in earnestness, waving my hands about, I would have tried to tell them that I was working on sending stuff to Mars. And before that, you know, moon, men, men on the moon. Mars, people. Moon.

For years afterwards, they would have bored their grandchildren with tales of their trip to California and the wild-eyed, hairy hippie they saw there, his mind destroyed by drugs, ranting about Mars and the Man in the Moon. “Tragic. Probably long dead in the gutter, the poor young man. Let that be a lesson to you, children.”

Writing this reminds me of the time, years earlier, when I was in graduate school and drove down from Indiana to Mobile to visit Leonore and her family, my first time in the South, through the heat in my un-airconditioned Volkswagen. Then, too, I had a beard and wore my hair in a ponytail (ya know, grad student). I was dressed in shorts and sandals. I was so naïve. I had no idea why the locals were glaring at me. I smiled at everyone. It must have been a year or two after Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were murdered. In the parking lot of a grocery store in Mobile, a well-dressed white woman glared at me through the windshield of her expensive car and tried very hard to run me down. But that’s another story.


See below for some of the nasty details. They’re not indispensable to the story, but they might be of interest to some. Keep in mind that all of this work was done using punch cards.

Yes, FORTRAN is always all caps. At least, in this household. It was THE language for scientific computing! With GOTOs, as God intended! (Not that there was a real alternative, although I did later run into mercifully short scientific programs written in COBOL, gasp.)

The CDC 6600 was a great machine for scientific computing by the standards of the time. One of its best features was its 60-bit-word architecture, meaning that we could do the job without bothering to double-precision any variables.

At a later job, I programmed on a Univac 1108 extensively and liked it, but it used a 36-bit word. The difference was important for this story. The calculations done by our software were long enough and iterative enough that too much precision was lost on the 1108 compared to the 6600. That was why the code gave erroneous results after it was transferred from Denver to JPL. After a few iterations, the values of a lot of the variables in the program were, in effect, random numbers. To fix that, we had to go through the code and convert everything to double precision. Gazillions of lines of code meant zillions of variables that had to be changed in many, many places. Inevitably, we kept missing some of them and having to go searching through the code again..

In addition, we had used a nifty but dangerous FORTRAN thing called Block Common, also called Unlabeled Common, which was a way of transferring variable values between subroutines and functions without putting them in argument lists. It meant that many more places where variables had to be declared double precision and more opportunities for overlooking them. We finally decided that we had to break our enormous block common into numerous (jillions) of separate labeled common blocks. It was ghastly.