The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Science news you can use

Quantum mechanics are in the news these days and not at all for the usual reason.  They are not going on strike, an announcement that comes as a surprise to anyone who has watched the airline’s troubled labor history and as a relief to anyone planning an antipodean vacation this year.  Odd as it may seem, you will not find the news about quantum mechanics in any of the places you would usually expect to find such news. No indeed. Quantum mechanics, if you can believe it, have made the headlines on the science page of every newspaper that can still afford to have a science page not dedicated to fad diets and miraculous cures for cancer.  Scientists working for an organization whose name is eluding me at the moment have determined that a key proponent of quantum mechanics, that reality does not exist until an independent entity attempts to measure it, is, in fact, true. Now, I am not sure how this can be, to be honest with you. If there is nothing until something tries to measure it, how can the something doing the measuring exist without something else trying to measure it? There’s a bit of a paradox here that brings to mind a universe of frustrated tailors packed into a small room trying to measure each other for a nice three piece suit and an extra pair of pants thrown in for half price (shoes, socks, and belts not included. Order now and avoid the Christmas rush!)  But who am I to argue with scientists?  No one.  A man who still has trouble doing long division is not a man who can argue with quantum mechanics, although I can tell when they’re padding the bill whenever I bring in my water cycle for inspection. Despite what you may have heard from certain biased sources—yes, Mom, I mean you—I do know when those guys are gouging me.

Still, the fact that reality does not exist until someone tries to measure it is, I think, one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century. For generations, dieters have fought the unwelcome tyranny of the weight scale, trying one new diet after another in a pathetic and usually futile attempt to halt and turn back the inexorable and ever upward advance of the scale. And what has been the result of all of this effort?  Depression, self-loathing, and an ever shrinking sense of self-esteem. But now, modern science finally offers the overwhelmed dieter a way off the never-ending cycle of weight loss and then more weight gain entirely. If reality does not exist until one attempts to measure it, then what could be simple than not weighing yourself and telling everyone who asks that you’ve lost weight?  Reality, after all, does not exist until you step onto the weight scale. So don’t step on it. This will make you much happier than worrying about calorie counts and weekly weight checks will, and quantum mechanics is all about making you a happier person, isn’t it?

There will be a great deal of pushback against these findings, of course. The diet industry is a billion dollar business in this country and they will not surrender those profits without a fight. The American public can expect to see the full weight of the advertising and public relations industries brought to bear in order to deny the science. Before too many more months pass, we can expect to see the full page spreads in all the major newspapers and magazines, the tendentious public service advertisements running in prime time, and the phony “scientists” operating out of allegedly independent research institutes telling credulous journalists that quantum mechanics is not really settled science, that quantum mechanics don’t allow black people to join their union, and that Werner Heisenberg, the original quantum mechanic, was a not very nice person who did not support gay marriage and liked to kick cute little puppies out of second story windows when they weren’t looking.  The journalists, whose employers will not want to upset such important advertisers, will not bother to research the claims of these “scientists” and so the public will not find out until much later that the diet industry funds these “independent research institutes.”  The fear that the diet industry will use its economic clout to harm the media is nothing for anyone to sneer at.  It is important for the true believer in quantum mechanics to know that the dieting industry, like hell and tyranny, is not easily overcome; the fight against these science deniers will be long and hard. As I mentioned above, there’s simply too much money involved to think that the dieting industry will go gently into that good night willingly.  We must educate the public that they do have choices, that the dieting industry is trying to deny established science, and that the public does not have to live with the abuse heaped upon them by these corporate bloodsuckers.

But all will come right in the end.  The richly deserved economic oblivion that awaits the dieting industry will mean the end of fat shaming in our society and the attendant psychological bullying that goes with it.  Science will move us all forward into a bright new day and quantum mechanics will go back to doing what they do best: disassemble the transmission on your water cycle and tell you that it will cost you two thousand dollars to repair the thing. You’ve noticed, no doubt, that quantum mechanics will tell you that reality doesn’t exist until someone tries to measure it, but they get to charge you an arm and a leg just to do noting but look at your transmission.  Reality and unreality run into real money, folks, whether or not you own a weight scale or a tape measure, which I find vaguely surreal, but, as in all things mechanical, that could just be me.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Letting it all hang out, sideways sort of

We live today in a tell—all—let—everything—hang—out society, a society that believes that keeping certain things to oneself is psychologically unsound for the individual and for society as well, and therefore the best thing to do when confronted with personal matters you would rather not discuss with anyone is, counterintuitively enough, to discuss then with damn near everyone you can think of. I should blame Sigmund Freud for this, but I don’t, not really. He merely theorized that discussing your innermost thoughts and emotions with a medical professional would help his patients understand why they were so miserable; he never promised anyone that spilling their guts to him would make them permanently happy—it would only relieve the misery of existence for a short time, in much the same way as a priest granting absolution after a sinner’s confession understands that the sinner will need to come back and get relief for the sins he will commit during the following week. It may not make you happy, but you will know why you’re not happy. 

No, I blame Phil Donahue and his principal acolyte, Oprah Winfrey, for the current obsession with knowing more about people that we really care to know, and, of course, I blame Philo Farnsworth for inventing television in the first place, which gave Donahue and Winfrey the platform they needed to display their emotional basket cases to an unsuspecting world. I suppose, given the popularity of the format that Donahue and Winfrey pioneered, that I am in a minority about this, but I would just as soon not know who is copulating with whom or to discuss reproductive biology, my own or someone else’s, with complete strangers. I do not inflict unwanted confidences on other people and I should like some reciprocation from them, but I know better than to expect it. I realize that this reluctance is an anachronism in this day and age, a cultural artifact of an Irish Catholic childhood that has no place in the modern world, but there’s nothing I can do about it at this point. I am what I am, said Popeye the Sailor Man, and if it’s good enough for Popeye, it’s good enough for me.

I wonder when we here in this our Great Republic began treating the most intimate aspects of our private lives as fodder for mass entertainment and the stuff of everyday conversation. You may not credit this, but once upon a time here in this our Great Republic the only people who would talk about such things in public were the mentally ill. But the mentally ill have a reason for their tell-all mania: they are, in fact, maniacal. They are nuts, clinically, psychologically, one hundred percent by a doctor who went to medical school and everything certified bonkers. The rest of us, however, don’t have that excuse. So why do we keep displaying our psychic quirks in public?  The question remains a Rosicrucian mystery to me and all the evidence points to the question staying that way. I suppose people keep doing this sort of thing because emotional caterwauling makes them happy and it makes other people happy to watch them roll around in their psychic traumas. There is something more than a little gruesome about all of this, I think, but as I appear to be the only one who thinks so, I must endure what I cannot stop. It all seems horribly unfair to me, but I don’t think anyone cares what I think of all this one way or the other. Ah well, what can you do?

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

The End is Near, and other things you don't care to read about.

I suppose this should not bother me—I’m a big boy now, after all, and on a scale of one to ten of life’s little annoyances this should not even register as a blip—but I am not sure when Christian eschatology became an appropriate subject for men’s room graffiti. I am a firm advocate of the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, but I also believe that there is a time and a place for everything, and reading that ‘THE END IS NEAR’ while I am standing in front of a urinal relieving myself is, to my mind, neither the time nor the place for such a message. At such a time, I do not want to think deep thoughts about the Day of Judgment nor do I wish to pass the time it takes to pass water contemplating my sins; I simply want to finish the business at hand and get out of the men’s room, especially the men’s room that is the star of this particular screed, which is unnecessarily noisome, even by the very low standards that most people judge rest rooms by.  If I didn’t absolutely positively no—two—ways—about—it did not need to use this rest room, I wouldn’t, but nature has its own purposes, as it is wont to do, and while I am attending to those purposes I do not wish to think about eschatology or the soteriological train of thought that inevitably arises from it.

This was not always the case, of course. In the history of Christianity, there are any number of great theologians who have thought their greatest thoughts while attending to the necessary. The great fourth century heresiarch Arius, unless he was the great fifth century heresiarch Arius—I’m not sure if I’ve got the right dates here—first thought that Jesus was not consubstantial with the Father while sitting in the men’s room, and no, I don’t have any idea what Arius was talking about, either. Understanding the details of his theology was apparently not a requirement, as Arianism became wildly popular without anyone really knowing what Arius was going on about. Arius was sort of like the Stephen Hawking of the fourth (or fifth) century; everyone bought his books but no one really read them. But fashion rules all, as someone much smarter than me once said, and back in the day everyone who was anyone wanted to be an Arian, and so Arius started spending a lot of time in the men’s room trying to think of the next big theological thing.  This was unfortunate, because one day while Arius sat doing his business and thinking deep thoughts about the nature of the Trinity, some non-Arian Christian—I have not ascertained whether this person was Orthodox, Catholic, miaphysite, or Nestorian in his theological orientation—ventilated Arius’ guts from below with a sword. Besides being an extremely painful and more than a little embarrassing way to die, one cannot help but wonder how the assassin knew which of the rumps above his head belonged to Arius. All human faces are different, but everyone’s backside looks pretty much the same. There are differences in size and shape, of course, but the basics don’t really vary that much. Butts are butts.

Martin Luther was another habitué of the theological outhouse, a man who suffered from such severe chronic constipation that he tore Western Christendom apart trying to relieve the gastrointestinal pressure on his body and soul.  Why Luther suffered from such chronic constipation is lost now to medical science: as an Augustinian friar he may have suffered from the poor monastic diet—bread, water, and wine do not a balanced diet make, no matter how positively biblical this trinity might otherwise appear—and so it is not difficult to imagine that Luther’s guts revolted when confronted with the occasional bratwurst.  Indeed, given the vehemence of Luther’s denunciations, it is not difficult to imagine that Luther found Johann Tetzel’s selling papal get out of purgatory bubble gum cards less objectionable than Tetzel’s lack of laxatives in his peddler’s sack. Getting out of purgatory is all well and good, but it is sometimes difficult to contemplate the mysteries of the divine when your guts are in a knot. Something had to give, and in 1517, something finally did; Luther posted the 95 Theses, beginning the Protestant Reformation. Whether the Reformation did anything for Luther’s need to relieve himself is unknown.

Still, the most interesting of the plumbing theologians was, to my mind, St. Edwin of Nobbish, an English saint who wanted to be a desert hermit like Simeon Stylites, an Egyptian saint who lived on top of a pillar for forty years. This posed a bit of a problem for St. Edwin, given the lack of suitable pillars, posts, and deserts in his native England, but not one to give up easily, Edwin compensated by standing on top of a chamber pot on one foot while he contemplated the nature of free will.  St. Edwin, an otherwise orthodox Catholic theologian, held the view that God must exist simultaneously at all levels of possibility, in what happened and what did not happen, reconciling, he thought, the question of free will with the omniscience of God. The Church found his theory more than vaguely heretical, but could not come out and say so without denying the omnipotence of God, which is not vaguely heretical at all; it’s the real thing. People who know about such things tell me that while St. Edwin of Nobbish’s theory may not be entirely orthodox theology, it is fairly good string theory, and that the story that he died because he turned an ankle and fell off the chamber pot he’d stood on for fifty-two years and cracked his skull is exactly that, a story. St. Edwin died in the late 1340's, yet another victim of the Black Death that killed nearly half of the population of Europe.

It also occurs to me that the graffito ‘The End is Near’—remember ‘The End is Near’, it’s what I was complaining about before I wandered off into the tangles of Christian theological history, for which digression, I must beg your pardon; I know I shouldn’t go off-topic but sometimes I can’t help myself—that this might mean that the user’s end is near the urinal, in which case they are standing in the wrong stall. They should be sitting on the commode in the stall next to the urinal. This, though, sounds as farfetched as St. Edwin of Nobbish’s theory of simultaneous ubiquity. Why would someone who knows what a urinal is for attempt to use it while facing away from it? Even a woman compelled by necessity to use the men’s room would know better than to use a urinal in this fashion. So, whose end is near and why is this end in this particular urinal? I don’t know. What I do know is that there is a reason why tradition limits the subjects on men’s room walls to scatology, obscenity, profanity, slander, and sports, and this is it. No one wants to think about ultimate things while they are attending to the necessary. We just want to go.

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