Friday, June 23, 2017

Brain Loops

Brain Loops
(excerpt from Clark’s journal)

Recently in Sunday school class, the teacher began the lesson with a music video of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”  It was sung a cappella by a group of five young men who call themselves Home Free.  The song was beautifully sung and the video was beautifully filmed.  There was just one tiny distraction–one of the singers looked like Sirius Black (Harry Potter’s godfather.)

I could have dismissed this silly thought except another one crept in.  I remembered that Harry read an article about Sirius Black in a wizard gossip magazine called The Quibbler.  The news article claimed that Sirius Black was actually Stubby Boatman, the lead singer of a group called The Hobgoblins.  All this is going through my head while I am sitting in Sunday school watching a music video of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

This is an example of what it’s like living with my brain.  My brain has a mind of its own and insists on thinking its own thoughts.  It is so self-willed that it wakes me up during the night–when I would rather be sleeping–and wanders about, poking its nose into all sorts of things.  What does one do with an untamed brain!

The sad irony is I have made my brain this way.  I have carefully nurtured it, fed it, exposed it to life’s experiences, and have allowed it to grow up unfettered by hidebound thinking.  I could not bear to shackle its free-range curiosity and encouraged its loops around a Mobius strip.  Now I wonder…have I created a monster?

If so, I am responsible for it.  I must embrace my brain and love it for what it is and allow it to love me in its own unique way, even it that means I am inundated with strange thoughts during Sunday school or at three o’clock in the morning.

Therefore, despite my occasional grousing, I am thankful that my brain has developed into the thinker that it is.  I would not have it any other way.  And what do I get in return?  Just this:  I can sit down at any time and write; all I have to do is draw from the reservoir of ideas that my brain keeps so thoughtfully filled.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Monsters We Create

Science and technology, like all original creations of the human spirit, are unpredictable. If we had a reliable way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation. Whoever concerns himself with technology, either to push it forward or to stop it, is gambling in human lives.

Freeman Dyson ~ Disturbing the Universe

Mary Shelley warned us. So did Edith Nesbit and Kurt Vonnegut. It was certainly the main theme of Freeman Dyson’s book. Joseph Conrad called it “the horror.” Even John Grisham picked up the ball and tossed it around in his novel Jurassic Park.

We are responsible for our creations—even when they turn out to be monsters.

Many writers have recognized this and have called on the human race to be careful. The Magic City is real; our “toys” remain with us once we give them life. But I think writers must also set the example and be careful of the monsters they create.

The Saurons, the Voldemorts, and the Kurtz’ of the literary world may be essential to the plot of a novel; but I think all deserve a chance at redemption. They may all be like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster—a lonely heart in need of love. Why, even humans are like that.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Puncturing the Ego

(Or Rhino-Between-the-Lines)

Susan Calvin stared steadfastly at the floor, "He knew all of this."

Lanning looked up, "You're wrong there, Dr. Calvin. He doesn't know what went wrong. I asked him.

“What does that mean?” cried Calvin. “Only that you didn’t want him to give you the solution. It would puncture your ego to have a machine do what you couldn’t do.”

Isaac Asimov~ I, Robot  

Wilfred groaned.
“I’ll never figure this out. Euclid can take his mucky elements and shove them…”

“Wilfred!” interrupted Rhino. “No mental pictures, please.”

Wilfred ignored him and turned to Skandar.

“You’re always wanting to invent things,” he said. “Why don’t you invent a machine that solves problems? You just give the machine a problem, and it tells you the answer.”

“What?” Skandar laughed. “That’s ridiculous. Why on earth would anyone want a machine like that?”

“Oh, I might,” said Trevor. “Think of all the time it would save. If people didn’t have to solve problems, they would have more time to be creative, to devote themselves to other things, like art and music.”

 He leaned back in his chair, waving his hands.

“O Wise and Wonderful Machine,” he said, with his eyes half-closed, “Why is Wilfred so…so… Well, why is Wilfred?”


Wilfred tipped Trevor’s chair onto the floor.

“The first thing I’d ask is how to handle you!”

“And that,” said Rhino, “is why such a machine would not work. If there were a machine built solely to figure out solutions to humans’ problems, it would eventually figure out that humans are the problems. Get rid of humans, and it would solve all their problems.”

“Ah, but then the machine would have created another problem,” said Skandar. “Given that its purpose for existence is to solve problems for humans, without humans to give it problems to solve, it would cease to function.”

“Alright, then, the machine would keep a few humans around to create problems,” said Wilfred. “It could keep them sort of like pets.”

They all laughed.

“How many humans would it take to cause problems?” asked Trevor.

“Well,” Elbert replied, “according to the book of Genesis, it only took two, Adam and Eve.”

“Adam and Eve and a thinking machine!” Trevor mused. “All living together in Paradise.”

“That wouldn’t be my idea of Paradise,” said Rhino. “There are just some things I want to figure out on my own, even if I fail royally. If we had a machine that solved all our problems, people might forget how to think, how to take risks, and how to fail. Why, there could be people who get so addicted to always thinking they are right, they may never recognize when they are wrong.”

“Now you’re talkin’ nonsense,” said Wilfred. “I admit the idea of a problem-solving machine is a little far-fetched. But it’s pure fantasy to imagine that someone would never think that they are wrong.”

Skandar shuddered.
“That would be my idea of Hell.”

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Multiple Interpretations

Mr. Meggs thought he was smiling the sad, tender smile of a man who, knowing himself to be on the brink of the tomb, bids farewell to a faithful employee. Miss Pillenger’s view was that he was smiling like an abandoned old rip who ought to have been ashamed of himself.

 P. G. Wodehouse ~ A Sea of Troubles

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is a master of multiple interpretations. They are the basis of most of the trouble Bertie Wooster encounters in Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves novels. They can also be found in many of his short stories. In a few sentences, Wodehouse can show us more about his characters than several pages of telling us would. He uses the technique of multiple interpretations to perfection.

I think what makes this technique so effective is that we recognize it; many of us probably experienced it at one time or another. Have you, like me, ever been asked why you are angry or upset when you are not? C. S. Lewis wrote that at school he was often accused of having a “look” that invited trouble.

I recently considered the idea of multiple interpretations when Donald Trump, in an interview, said James Comey was a “showboat” and a “grandstander.” Now I have seen James Comey on television giving press conferences, making speeches, and testifying before Congress. I never would have interpreted anything about him as showboating or grandstanding. The multiple ways that people interpret the same thing is a source of amazement and amusement to me.

Donald Trump hinted in a tweet that there might be secret tapes of his conversations with James Comey. I am hoping there are videos. In the interactions between the two men, I have a picture in my mind of who would be Mr. Meggs and who would be Mrs. Pillenger. I would love to see if my particular interpretation is true.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Litmus Test

I’ve been to the edge

And there I stood and looked down.

You know I lost a lot of friends there, baby.

I got no time to mess around.

Van Halen ~ Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love

In my innocent youth, I read Lord of the Flies. I read A Handmaid’s Tale and Atlas Shrugged. I read these and other novels, safe in the assumption that I would never mistake their imaginary worlds for the real one. My assumption was valid, but the real world was not.

As I grew older, I discovered that the barrier between the real and the imaginary is not solid but porous. Vampires, zombies, and trolls started showing their faces. I began to put names to their characters. I learned that the imaginary world is no longer a temporary diversion. Sometimes it follows us home.

Now there are some things with which I sympathize most unwillingly because I’ve been to the edge and have looked down.

Note to self: If the word “natty” is out of place in a novel, then it’s probably not a safe place. Tread carefully.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Slipper Still Fits

Life is too important to be taken seriously. Oscar Wilde

Calculus is best studied wearing the appropriate uniform. Not many people know this (if they do, they hide it well.) For students of calculus, the right uniform is a sign of independence; it says to the world, “Yes, I run with irrational numbers and am proud of it.”

Even more important, the calculus uniform reminds the wearer that life is not all limits and derivatives; it’s also integrals. It is particularly valuable if one encounters an indefinite integral in an alley on a dark night. One glance at the uniform will unravel all but the most undifferentiable function. (As well it should; I mean, what is a function doing out at night past its bedtime?)

Of all the uniforms I have worn, the calculus uniform is one of my favorites. Once in a while, I take it out and put it on just to make sure it still fits. It does, like Cinderella’s glass slipper.

Oh, the world is full of zanies and fools, who don’t believe that calculus rules.
And who don’t believe what calculus people say.
But despite these daft and dewy-eyed dopes who haven’t any calculus hopes,
Calculus keeps on happening everyday.

(Rodgers and Hammerstein wore their calculus uniforms secretly. Not many people know this.)