Saturday, June 24, 2006

Sorry I haven't been around much

In preparation for our move, I worked on some more old papers. I have just about a full notebook done. It brought up a lot of memories. I stay on the lookout for memorable phrases.* I also look for memories where I've acquired some perspective, where the way things looked when I was going through them seem very different to me now. I see places where it was me who was in the wrong, and deficient in kindness and perspective. I sometimes wonder what would've happened if I'd changed just a little earlier.

I don't know who this book is for; maybe just me. It's funny to me how the other people who figure in my life and these scraps of it I've preserved would be shocked, or appalled, or bemused at the way I thought about them, or misrepresented them. Well, of course, I represented what was true to me in the moment, when I wrote it all down; but that's nothing like the truth of the matter. For that reason, I don't think I'm likely to write Dan Lewis: The Early Years ~~~ A Memoir from this stuff. But I suppose my papers will come pre-edited if I'm ever rich and famous (and my nag of a blog better giddy up if I'm ever to ride it to those happy, happy conditions).

I haven't kept up my furious pace of reading, but I have had a chance to read a book of short stories by Dan Simmons, Prayers to Broken Stones. They're good, mostly. They remind me of Stephen King a bit; not just because they both write horror stories, but also because they both know and write about how middle-class and ordinary and familiar evil can be.

We watched Mirrormask, a cool sort of Wizard of Oz movie by Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman. It's kind of bizarre if you're not ready for it to be bizarre, but I think it's very rewatchable. My one big complaint is that for such weird cityscapes and moving ideas, there aren't enough people in the background. You get no sense of huge machinery trundling along oblivious to you, of an alien culture only roughly glimpsed as it happens to impinge on the story, of people who don't give two figs about what Helena and her party are up to, or have an agenda that can't easily be separated into the opposing camps of the plot. Instead, you ride the train from one stop to the next. Thus, the world feels a little flat to me. But don't take that as a huge criticism; it is deviously original and emotionally fulfilling, and it has some very deep interconnections between its several parts. I still don't think I understood it all. Also, really neato, weird music.

And yes, the refereeing in the last two US World Cup matches was pure crap. The Onyewu foul leading to a game-deciding penalty kick in the Ghana game was particularly nonexistent. What now? When I have no personal stake in the teams, I tend to root for the team with one of two qualities: underdoginess, or unmatchable perfection. When I talk about perfection, I'm talking about '72 Dolphins perfection. They never lost a game. When a team finally loses (like the Colts did last NFL season), I lose interest. So this World Cup, it looks like I'm rooting for Germany, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, and the underdog.

* [I recall a passage in The Mind of the Maker that says "A rose-red city half as old as time" was the one good line by some author: "ten syllables which have sufficed to render their creator immortal, though nowhere else in the poem, nor (so far as I know) in the rest of his creation, did the worthy gentleman present to the world a single memorable phrase." The man's name was Dean Burgon.]

Friday, June 16, 2006

Best Terrorist Plot

Bruce Schneier, an expert in security decisionmaking and computer security, loves to talk about movie-plot threats: we tend to spend our homeland security budget protecting against bombs that go off when our school buses dip below 50 mph, rather than guarding against more common sense vulnerabilities, like X-raying all cargo containers. Schneier recently hosted a contest to come up with the most lurid, frightening, believable terrorist threats. He got 892 comments.

Here's the winner:

Mission: Terrorize Americans. Neutralize American economy, make America feel completely vulnerable, and all Americans unsafe.

Scene 1: A rented van drives from Spokane, WA, to a remote setting in Idaho and loads up with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers and a couple of people dressed in fatigues.

Scene 2: Terrorists dressed in "delivery man" garb take over the UPS cargo depot at the Spokane, WA, airport. A van full of explosives is unloaded at the depot.

Scene 3: Terrorists dressed in "delivery man" garb take over the UPS cargo depot at the Kamloops, BC, airport. A van full of explosives is unloaded at the depot.

Scene 4: A van with mercenaries drives through the Idaho forests en route to an unknown destination. Receives cell communiqué that locations Alpha and Bravo are secured.

Scene 5: UPS cargo plane lands in Kamloops and is met at the depot by terrorists who overtake the plane and its crew. Explosives are loaded aboard the aircraft. The same scene plays out in Spokane moments later, and that plane is loaded with explosives. Two pilots board each of the cargo planes and ask for takeoff instructions as night falls across the West.

Scene 6: Two cargo jets go airborne from two separate locations. A van with four terrorists arrives at its destination, parked on an overlook ridge just after nightfall. They use infrared glasses to scope the target. The camera pans down and away from the van, exposing the target. Grand Coulee Dam. The cell phone rings and notification comes to the leader that "Nighthawks alpha and bravo have launched."

Scene 7: Two radar operators in separate locations note with alarm that UPS cargo jets they have been tracking have dropped off the radar and may have crashed. Aboard each craft the pilots have turned off navigational radios and are flying on "manual" at low altitude. One heading South, one heading North.

Scene 8: Planes are closing in on the "target" and the rocket launcher crew goes to work. With precision they strike lookout and defense positions on the dam, then target the office structures below. As they finish, a cargo jet approaches from the North at high velocity, slamming into the back side of the dam just above the waterline and exploding, shuddering the earth. A large portion of the center-top of the dam is missing. Within seconds a cargo plane coming from the South slams into the front face of the dam, closer to the base, and explodes in a blinding flash, shuddering the earth. In moments, the dam begins to fail, and a final volley from four rocket launchers on the hill above helps break open the face of the dam. The 40-mile-long Lake Roosevelt begins to pour down the Columbia River Valley, uncontrolled. No warning is given to the dams downriver, other than the generation at G.C. is now offline.

Scene 9: Through the night, the surging wall of water roars down the Columbia waterway, overtopping dam after dam and gaining momentum (and huge amounts of water) along the way. The cities of Wenatchee and Kennewick are inundated and largely swept away. A van of renegades retreats to Northern Idaho to hide.

Scene 10: As day breaks in the West, there is no power from Seattle to Los Angeles. The Western power grid has failed. Commerce has ground to a halt west of the Rocky Mountains. Water is sweeping down the Columbia River gorge, threatening to overtop Bonneville dam and wipe out the large metro area of Portland, OR.

Scene 11: Bin Laden releases a video on Al Jazeera that claims victory over the Americans.

Scene 12: Pandemonium, as water sweeps into a panicked Portland, Oregon, washing all away in its path, and surging water well up the Willamette valley.

Scene 13: Washington situation room...little input is coming in from the West. Some military bases have emergency power and sat phones, and are reporting that the devastation of the dam infrastructure is complete. Seven major and five minor dams have been destroyed. Re-powering the West coast will take months, as connections from the Eastern grid will have to be made through the New Mexico Mountains.

Scene 14: Worst U.S. market crash in history. America's GNP drops from the top of the charts to 20th worldwide. Exports and imports cease on the West coast. Martial law fails to control mass exodus from Seattle, San Francisco, and L.A. as millions flee to the east. Gas shortages and vigilante mentality take their toll on the panicked populace. The West is "wild" once more. The East is overrun with millions seeking homes and employment.

After two posts called "The bomb" and "Best Terrorist Plot", I have to imagine that this blog has crossed the invisible line. Like the police interrogator says in Meet the Parents, you can't say bomb in an airport; can you say terrorist bomb on the internet? Only time will tell. So if you don't hear from me, please file a habeas petition.

So here's my terrorist plot: put the BBC/A&E (1995) version of Pride and Prejudice on every channel in America simultaneously. In the five hours afforded by the transfixion of the entire television-watching population, take over the country.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The bomb

I've seen three versions of Pride and Prejudice in the last few months: the Bollywood-spawn Bride and Prejudice, the Keira Knightley one that came out last year, and the A&E/BBC version that came out in 1995 with Colin Firth. Sarah didn't understand the story of the Knightley; it turns out that the A&E version is twice as long (five hours!), which among other things makes the plot comprehensible and ten times as entertaining.

The A&E version was the bomb. Make haste to see it. I got it from the local library; maybe you can too.

[Edited to add: not really worth an extra post, but I had seen the bomb version of Pride and Prejudice when it first came out in the mid-90s, but not since. I loved it then, but it's absolute perfection now, maybe the best book adaptation I've ever seen. I just reread the first fifteen pages of the book, and the movie is practically word for word in the dialogue, although it tends to use a few quick images to show something that Austen is forced to narrate her way through.

Plus, something I never picked up from the book before (although now it looks like I'll have to read the book again) that is just hilarious in the movie. There is maybe one time that Mr Bingley's sister's husband, Mr Hurst, is shown sober. Thereafter, wherever Mrs Hurst is, Mr Hurst is shown collapsed on a couch, drunk as a skunk.]

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A passing thought

I was just rereading that ministry post and the thought occurred to me; in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus says, "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me." So, keeping in the spirit of that post, we as Christians have inflicted the Four Spiritual Laws presentation on Jesus as many times as there are stars in the heavens. The mind boggles.

How about if, instead of meandering through canned presentations, we talked about how God was alive to us and real to us, and we delighted in how God was moving in our life? In my mind's eye, I can imagine Jesus enjoying hearing about those things. I can also imagine him rolling his eyes: "Law 1? God created you to know him personally and has a plan for your life? Here we go again."

We were created delightedly and personally and we witness to God earnestly and impersonally? We are magnificent individuals with unique value to God, and we all have the same schtick? Something does not add up here.

Recent reading reviews

I finished the Ender's Shadow quadrilogy, the companion novels to Ender's Game. I was underwhelmed by the end of it. It all seemed very anticlimactic to me. I didn't buy the love story, didn't enjoy the geopolitical maneuvering (boring), didn't connect with the themes. But maybe it's just me. Anyhow, I won't be rereading these, with the outside exception of Ender's Shadow.

I read the first chapter of Anna Karenina again today, and I was surprised by how fresh and original it still seemed. I bring it up because I reread it once a year for a while, unlike these Ender books which will probably never get reread. I think I've read it four or five times, but I've had a break from it for the last couple of years. I bet I'll be sucked in again, though. As I grow up, I find it has more and more to say to me, especially as on this reading, for the first time I have a child of my own. I still haven't gotten to War and Peace, but I will one of these years.

I'm having a why-am-I-reading-this relationship with the second of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld novels. The Riverworld is sort of like the Ringworld, large enough to house billions of people, but mysterious in its purposes and origins. In the Riverworld, everyone who ever lived on Earth is resurrected along the banks of a million-mile river which lacks most animal life, and all vestiges of culture and civilization. Historical figures mix and mingle. Book 1, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, is about Sir Richard Burton, and Book 2, The Fabulous Riverboat, is about Mark Twain. The high concept is interesting, but the action is organized around tedious summaries rather than scenes. Still I read.

I read two great novels by John Scalzi. The first, Old Man's War, was up for Best First Novel and Best Novel Hugo Awards, and the second, The Ghost Brigades, was its sequel. It posits an Earth society colonizing the nearby stellar neighborhood, hanging on for dear life in an endless war against alien races trying to colonize the same valuable planets. The recruits for this endless war are 75-year-olds. How this works and why it's so cool are left as an exercise for the reader. I don't want to spoil the surprise, so I have to leave it there. The award nominations were well-deserved. The implications of the science are well thought-out, at least to the extent that the characters, given all that is happening to them, still seem true-to-life. It's military science fiction, but I'd recommend it solidly for people who are not fans of this particular sub-genre.

I finished Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. It is about the family of the trickster spider god, Anansi (last seen in human guise under the name Mr. Nancy near Miami), and what happens to them, and what they happen to, after his untimely demise. Everyone in America should read this funny, heartwarming, twisted, poignant book. I could not put it down. For what it is, it's absolutely perfect. I actually laughed out loud while I was reading it, it was just too much. Sarah asked me one of the times what was so funny. After a little thought, I came up with, "Violent flamingos."

I also have Gaiman's Stardust to get to; it's beautifully illustrated by comics artist Charles Vess, who also worked on some of the phenomenal Sandman comics by Gaiman. I recently reread that 10-book (80 or so issues) postmodern meta-story graphic novel collection, and I recommend it highly, for adults only. Consider this a nudity, violence, language, disturbing image, and adult theme warning; this might also eliminate some of you adults out there. But I hope not. I don't want to scare anyone away. It's a profound and deeply affecting story, creative in the extreme, with amazing writing and art. One of the issues won a World Fantasy Award, and the next day they changed the rules so comics couldn't win the World Fantasy Award.

Gaiman also wrote a Marvel comics series called 1602 that took some of the iconic characters in the Marvel universe (the X-Men, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, etc.) and transplanted them into late-Elizabethan Europe, with arresting results. I just finished it, along with the X-Men Ultimates books (vols. 1-5). If you like underwear pervert comics (did you hear that Marvel and DC are trying to trademark the word "Superhero"?), you'll like these. The Gaiman series is a bit deeper than the others and has more to chew on, but you might not like it much if you aren't familiar with the source material.

Just a side note; I seem to be reading and seeing a lot of fiction lately about the replacement of the human race by the next step in human evolution. The X-Men books are quite properly suffused with the theme, but it also came up in the Ender series, the Scalzi books, and the season premiere of The 4400 this evening.

And there's still Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy to get to. But 3000 pages worth of hardback is a daunting swallow when I can just snap up all these little fish instead.

God knows I need a book group.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Ministry without a message

I've posted before about how Christians end up doing thankless services for the poor, sick, and dying. My dad told me once about the sandwich-wrapped-in-a-tract philosophy of evangelism. He never said it, but in so many words it goes something like "Can't talk. Eating.", or "Interesting religion. Are you going to finish that?"

There is a brashness continuum in talking to people about religion, from "You're my best friend, so let me tell you something that means the world to me," to "You're my friend, so hold still while I talk into your ear," to "You're a perfect stranger, but you may have already won eternal life in heaven with God." Sandwich-in-a-tract has a pretty low Brashness Factor, but as a church we can go further. Why not just give the dude his sandwich and leave it at that? We could have ministries without a message, without any evangelism at all.

Now, I think this is probably nothing new. Don't Christian churches already host public programs (like the financial health seminar Sarah and I did this winter (laced, however, with Biblical teaching on money and wealth)) and do good deeds in the community (like rake old ladies' yards, and stock the soup kitchen) without any religious slant or proselytizing involved? I'm sure.

But I think it's useful to give it a name. It's useful to think that ministering to the world involves nothing more than easing lives that are too hard, and loving people who are unlovable. Our ministries should be freely given, without the implied quid pro quo where we trade in our investment of friendship or labor or sandwich fixings for X minutes of Jesus pitch. They should be graceful, without expectation of heavenly returns. I suppose this flies in the face of the shrewd manager parable, at least on first appearances, but then it is also more in line with the sheep and goats parable. A major point of the latter, after all, is that it was a surprise for the sheep that they had been tending to their shepherd all along.

Maybe we could do relationship seminars without religion (even for gasp! gay people). Maybe we could offer public services anonymously, or at least a-churchymously. We could delight in doing kindness without public acclaim. Individuals do this already, as my old post says, but why not churches?

Doesn't the world need more love-shuriken-wielding Christian kindness ninjas doing good like smoke, then vanishing into the shadow?

Monday, June 05, 2006

A little out of it

On the dark side, I haven't been trolling the Internet much or looking at friends' blogs much either. Mostly because I've been working in Linux without my gigantic bookmark list.

On the bright side, I've been using my Linux desktop (Fedora Core 4; I'm actually behind by a version now) for about two weeks with no apparent decrease in my productivity or inability to use my computer.

Nickel Creek has a one-hour show up from this year's Merlefest here. The only bad news is that it's one huge track. But their Britney Spears cover (here's a great video of it) is on there, plus "The Weight" and "Short People". It's pretty sweet.