Monday, August 28, 2006

New Semester.

I'm too sleepy to be nervous.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dear Pluto:

The Saddest Dwarf

Don't cry your icy tears, little buddy. You'll always be a real planet where it matters most: in your heart.

Remember: Vanity Causes Snakebites.

Other vices (lust, intemperance, irascibility) also get you killed in any disaster movie worth watching. You may survive, though, if your character defects are amusing/redeemable.

Yes, I've just seen "Snakes on a Plane" and I had a great time. Say what you will about the weird B-movie hype, it put us all in exactly the right mood to react to the movie. (Everybody cheered and hollered when Samuel L. Jackson delivered The Line. You'll know which one.) But, um, this film is definitely not for everyone, and arguably its value as entertainment didn't excuse its gratuitous nature, for me or for anyone. So I suppose I can't quite recommend it.

Speaking of Things I Can't Recommend:

I've been wanting to connect with more Catholics here at Berkeley, so I finally braved the bad architecture and went to the Newman Center for daily Mass (usually the best barometer of a Catholic center). It was practically empty before Mass, the ladies at the front desk (the secretary and a nun in sweats) didn't bother to acknowledge my presence, and I was one of only three or four attendees under the age of 50. You'd think a campus ministry that prides itself on being 'welcoming' would try to be more welcoming. That, and Father was fond of 'customizing' the words and gestures of the Mass (valid, fortunately; but I can't pray the Mass very well when I've got to vet the consecration for validity). Grrr.

So I think I'll be trying other ways to find the Catholic community at Cal. Newman Center seems kind of a hopeless case.

Nuns Should Have Habits And Trebuchets

This provides the segue to my minor reorganization of links. "On The Good", "On The Beautiful" and "On The True" have been joined by "Humorous", containing the webcomics that have drawn me into their orbits, and "Dormant", containing the sleeping blogs for which I still carry a torch. (Is that the wrong expression? Maybe something about tying a ribbon?) Anyway, their archives are still worth perusing. And no, I don't plan to make a pun about letting sleeping blogs lie. Oh. I'm sorry.

Also, I've removed a few links (it's not you, really; it's me) and added some new ones. I started reading dotCommonweal out of respect for Peter Nixon (whose dormant blog, Sursum Corda, is a template for any writer who wishes to address faith, spirituality and politics without abandoning humility, civility or fidelity). But I've also been impressed by the writing of Cathleen Kavenny and others, who bear out my point that there are intelligent and faithful Catholics across the political spectrum.

This isn't to deny that there are truths of the faith which do have clear political consequences; there is no liberty to believe that abortion is a human right, nor that a war of aggression is licit. In my experience, there are many Catholic progressives who have sold their birthright (love of God, faith in the Church, and all that flows from those) for a mess of pottage (a bunch of policies without reference to man as more than an economic being). And they have their counterparts on the Right, who place allegiance to a particular nation (a laudatory thing in its place) above the allegiance to moral truth. But fools and boors on both sides do not prove anything about the proper political decisions.

Uh, I'm out of ramble for the night. Time for lighter fare!

Quote Meme:

I've seen this one on Darwin Catholic and elsewhere. Go to the Random Quote Generator and go through the quotes until you've collected five that you identify with (the criterion is sort of vague).
I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don't even invite me.
Dave Barry (1947 - )

Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.
Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999)

When a man's knowledge is sufficient to attain, and his virtue is not sufficient to enable him to hold, whatever he may have gained, he will lose again.
Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC)

In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
Johann von Neumann (1903 - 1957)

Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - )

P.S. Wikipedia ruins everything.
P.P.S. Physical exercise is only tolerable if there's a competitive element to it. Doesn't matter if I'm the worst player on the field (and I often am); I love Ultimate Frisbee.

Monday, August 21, 2006

More Things That Make Me Happy:

*Philosophical discussion. Doubly so when I can get an interlocutor to concede that a relativist position on religion is really silly and more than a little intellectually dishonest.

*Beer (esp. in conjunction with the above).

*The new Woody Allen movie, Scoop. It was the most fun I've had at a new movie since I don't know when. It's clever, yes, it's brilliantly acted, but there are two things in particular that elevate it: Woody Allen's perfection in the supporting role (honestly, if he'd been willing to step aside from the main roles more often, he'd have some Best Supporting Actor awards under his belt) and the perfect tension the movie maintains throughout. The suspense of the murder-mystery plot is heightened by the fact that none of his characters ever seem to be in control of the situation.

*A new calculator. (I mean, c'mon, it's pretty awesome for a non-graphing machine...)

*Dostoyevsky. At this moment, The Idiot is distracting me from Don Quixote (sorry!).

*Paying off the smaller of my two student loans completely!

*The Incredibles, but everybody else already knew how great that was. I loved the cleverness of the action sequences, with well-thought-out escapades that were never gimmicky. Speaking of brilliant movies I'd never seen before, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was a surprisingly... um... excellent comedy. Dierdre and her family have greatly rectified my dearth of such filmic touchstones this summer. Next up: Kung Fu Hustle, or possibly Time Bandits.

*Meeting a very nice and intelligent girl at Mass in San Francisco, then realizing during our introductions that I already know her through the intarwubs and her fine blog, Basia Me, Catholica Sum. 'Tis a small blogosphere.

*Peach cobbler, pork chops, the first batch of chili for the autumn. (The first two were the doing of landlady/good friend Barbara, in order to send off another of the tenants with some great meals before he leaves for Ontario. The last was my contribution from my mother's Illinois recipe; I was pleased to have found that my housemates devoured all but two bowls of my double batch, leaving just enough for some fantastic reheated-chili lunch.)

*Laudatory adjectives, apparently. I seem to be reusing them quite a bit here. Mayhap I should go back and change some of them to words like 'scintillating' and 'frabjous'. Nah.

Friday, August 18, 2006

I walked up the lane of the street they call Straight,

Cursing myself 'cause I got there too late.

Well, I'm done with teaching for the summer. Since the professors like to enjoy their breaks, they have graduate students teaching the math classes for Berkeley Summer Sessions. Mine was Math 16A, Calculus for Non-Scientists.

As I said before, teaching is hard. Rather, teaching is great, but lesson planning is arduous and dangerous. In retrospect, I should have altered my focus for the course from understanding math to applying math. Next time I teach 16A, more word problems and 'cheat sheets' and extrinsic motivation, fewer 'come on! isn't this awesome?' moments.

My students seem to think I did all right, notwithstanding my hellish exams (to my chagrin, one student dropped immediately after the midterm, presumably because she thought she'd failed it; she earned a B on the test). More importantly, they definitely learned a great deal in a few short weeks. But there's a long way for me to go as a teacher.

Also, I figured out my taste in music: Pretentious! First, bands who mess with rhythmic/tonal weirdness are more interesting to my ear than bands whose melodic lines I can memorize quickly. If your song is about your life, or some relationship, or anything particular and common, your lyrics/arrangement/guitar solo has to be pretty good to catch my ear. But if your song is about the dehumanizing effects of technology, or time travel in the shadow of Vesuvius, or the challenge of facing God in a suffering world, or if your song sounds like it could be symbolic of something greater, you might have me hooked. It takes me a while to establish the nakedness of a particular emperor in folk/rock music.

So, um, it might be unwise to trust my taste in music. Nevertheless, I've been listening to a few albums lately that make my weird heart go pitter-pat: Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces, The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips, Illinois by Sufjan Stevens, and Castaways and Cutouts by The Decemberists (all of which account for my nonstandard post titles of late).


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I say your uncle was a crooked French Canadian

And he was gut-shot running gin.

The Book Meme has finally found me, courtesy of Zippy.

1. One book that changed your life: The Brothers Karamazov. Before I read that (on winter break of my freshman year in college), I didn't even believe that fiction had anything to say that couldn't be said better in nonfiction; I thought of novels as mere entertainment. The Brothers K. transformed me from the kid who already knew everything to the young man who wanted to understand everything for the first time.

2. One book that you've read more than once: The Republic; on the third reading, I've finally disabused myself of the illusion that I'm cleverer than Socrates. Honorable Mention to Gödel, Escher, Bach, which unfortunately has become less brilliant over time as I've grown up. Its thesis is silly when you comprehend it, but there's a lot of good material along the way and an infectious spirit of wonder that's not bad in any context.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island: Not counting Sacred Scripture? The collected poems of T.S. Eliot. Honorable Mention for any book that explains how to survive on a desert island.

4. One book that made you laugh: There's no topping the the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, folks. Thanks for playing. If I had to choose one of the series, I'd go with Life, the Universe and Everything, just for the joy of the Agrajag interlude.

5. One book that made you cry: Uh, shucks. Cry? I don't tend to express my sadness by crying. One book that left me shattered, though, was The Trial, which I would like to never read again, thank you very much.

6. One book that you wish had been written: OK, I Admit That Algebraic Geometry Is A Hoax, by Robin Hartshorne.

7. One book that you wish had never been written: Hey, I don't want to let go of my Nietzsche; let's go instead with something ridiculous, vapid and embarrassingly bad. My predecessors in this meme have already covered The Da Vinci Code, so I'll select the Left Behind series.

8. One book you're currently reading: Just one? OK, Confessions, which I ought to have read long ago. Also Don Quixote and Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, among others.

9. One book you've been meaning to read: Might as well admit it again, I haven't read Lord of the Rings yet. Please don't excommunicate me!

OK, not enough invitations to go around. Three just won't do. I'm confident that Dierdre, Geoff, Vanessa, Andy, Kelsey, Alice, and Nick can do a better job on this than I did.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Theodicy: Not "Tales of Brave Ulysses"

I was reading a post by my friend Cory a few weeks ago, on the occasion of Kenneth Lay's sudden death. Cory noted that because of this, there could be no reparations forced from Lay's widow and family. Ken Lay himself 'avoided' the prison time that he deserved for his crimes. It would be an entirely unjust outcome if our earthly lives were the end, and as such it posed a problem for atheists: could they live with a cosmos that is fundamentally unfair? It is not enough that the just are rewarded and the unjust punished most of the time, were even that true. Without reparations after death, it is an unthinkable universe.

I've been dissatisfied with this line of argument for two reasons. First, it already takes an assumption that external goods are the only ones worth the name. Atheists are as capable as we are of adopting an Aristotelian theory of virtue, for example; in such a scheme there is not the same unfairness, since a person who becomes wealthy through theft ruins in the process his very soul, his capacity of being truly happy. True, the good still suffer without recompense, but for some reason the misfortune of the innocent has never offended human sensibilities so much as the prosperity of the wicked.

But more importantly, it glosses over a particular problem of theodicy posed by Christian theology: Ken Lay, as much as any of his victims, was capable of turning to the mercy which we believe God extends to all. If we really believe that those who have done great evil should pay for it in the next life, we must then acknowledge that the Lord may not agree with us. If the original problem of theodicy was understanding the existence of evil in a cosmos created by an omnipotent and good God, this specifically Christian problem is that of how He chooses to deal with it.

Let's take an extreme example: Suppose that God, in His infinite compassion, appears to Osama bin Laden in a vision tomorrow, and commands him to reject the folly of Islam, repent of his wicked deeds, and have himself baptized into the Catholic Church. He does so, remarkably; and just after the waters of baptism pour over him, the American troops finally find his location and drop a 2-ton bomb on him. Osama bin Laden would find himself a guest in the Beatific Vision after all1.

That's not impossible, any more than the conversion of Saul was. What's more, we Catholics should hope that he is (in this or another way) saved from the pains of Hell, along with all those who make us their enemy. We cannot and should not wish pure justice without mercy as the law in the Cosmos, since this is not what God Himself has chosen for it.

This is one thing, though, that's presently troubling me about the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament: that the Psalmist is seeking to rejoice over the suffering and destruction of the wicked. Why did God wait so long in human history to reveal that part of Himself that wills all to come to the truth (even though He will not force it from us)?

1. Of course, there is a factor which mitigates this picture a little: Purgatory. Mr. bin Laden might well have much suffering to endure for the sins of his past life, before he could attain to the Heavenly Banquet. But, from reading the sentiments of many Catholics, there are those for whom that would never be enough to meet the demands of justice. I mean, I'd forgive him, but then I'm always looking to believe people less culpable than they seem. I hold everyone to a high moral standard, but when they fail I'm loath to hold them responsible.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated.

Reports of my foolishness, though, were right on target.

So, after going to the Residency Office in a panic, I found out that I had made CA residency after all, but they hadn't updated Bear Facts yet, so my check online had told me that I was a non-resident (after they sent me an e-mail saying that I should check Bear Facts, where my residency status would be updated based on their decision).

And it's been a day of things that make me smile: a column about grandfathering in the Chronicle, a girl wearing a Dinosaur Comics cephalopod T-shirt, a miniature bulldozer driving through the door to the library. And those are just the things that don't affect my life. What a difference a day makes.

Still, I have to admit that my level of (I have to say it) angst over the last few weeks has been entirely disproportionate to its putative external causes (and the other phases have been semi-manic). Something's awry with me, and I don't know what.

There are days when reality all makes sense again, God's in His heaven, and I see so much beauty in the world that I want to rip it apart and find the truth at the core. And there have been days where I'm sure I'm just a collection of molecules with grandiose delusions. It's not that I have any new ideas that push me between these extremes; my moods lead me to obsess on one set or the other. I just can't recall it ever being this bad before.

On the plus side, if it's true that I'm just a 22-year-old kid, this might just be adolescence upon me. It's about time; I can't wait to be able to grow a beard.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Will the fight for our sanity be the fight of our lives?

Now that we've lost all the reasons that we thought that we had...

Oh man, I didn't get California residency after all that rigamarole. I was a few days late, I didn't save a copy of my Illinois part-year tax return to give them, and maybe I forgot something else I don't know about. Now I've got to find out whether the math department is still going to fund me (otherwise, goodbye grad school, hello job market, goodbye soul), and reapply for residency next year (which means, once again, only 6 weeks total out of the state). Hooray for me.

Honestly, detailed requirements like that process just freak me out. I was a few days late with my application because I went into panic-induced paralysis. Everybody has their thing, I guess. I don't get this sort of anxiety over tests, assignments, public speaking, whatever- just over details I'm not sure about. The part of grad school applications that bothered me the most was filling in all those minor details, not writing the essays (though I'll admit to serious procrastination there); if I felt like my situation didn't exactly match one of the acceptable responses, my instinct was to abandon the whole thing. I don't know why I'm like this, folks. (And don't even ask about tax forms.)

And of course that's one aspect of my delay in growing up; I'm hapless (and I feel it's my fault, instead of a stereotypical mathematician's ineptitude at daily life). I just don't feel like I can make it in the modern world; I want to be able to do my thing without worrying about details, and that just isn't feasible for most people. I'm a hard worker, I'm OK with doing all sorts of unpleasant tasks, but the worrying really disturbs me. That's one reason I stayed in the dorms in Chicago all four years, so I wouldn't have to take charge of my life outside of a small sphere.

I would rather be a sous-chef than cook for myself. I would rather be told to do a chore than decide on my own initiative. I would rather that everything except the life of the mind be reduced to routine and directives from outside. I mean, that impulse is horribly immature, but it seems that so am I. I don't want to be a self-directed adult; I want the life I had at 12 years old.

By all rights, this should be the part where I regain my composure and resolution, and continue the Flaming Lips quote with, "Still the last volunteer battles on...". But I don't feel that way. Some part of me is hoping that I get kicked out of grad school for this (which is pretty unlikely), just so I don't have to go through the residency process again, just so I can walk away from everything I love because it worries me.

My entire blog has been more about whining than about ideas recently. I just don't feel I have anything to say, because I don't know anything at all outside of math; I just spout off pretentiously worded opinions. I can't promise my blogging will improve or even continue in the future, really. Please pray for me.

Reason #7 Why It's Good To Be An Academic:

It's 7:45 AM, and the math building is deserted. Education means never having to wake up early.

If you're wondering what I'm doing here, it's not just my usual Thursday bout of sleep madness; I woke up to drive my landlady Barbara to the airport, and now I'm killing time until the carwash opens and I can find out again what color the Corsica is.

Oh, and I decided that ONB hasn't become frivolous enough yet to contain a webcomics rant, but I've started using my LJ account (which otherwise exists for the sole purpose of reading friends' LJs) for that. Of course, now my rant is a day out of date.

AS WE SPEAK Oh snap, people are arriving and it's only 7:50! Well, glad I nixed the "blogging nude in the Math Department computer lounge" idea.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Meaningful Universe:

The only thing worth going crazy for.

Current crisis has something to do with my delay in growing up, methinks. A religious order and a woman might have something to do with it, too.

Is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics compatible with sound Catholic theology? My instinctive reaction is "heck no", but I haven't pondered it thoroughly and I'm willing to entertain arguments to the contrary.

God's mercy presents another problem of theodicy. Force me to elaborate.