Studio Ghibli: “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”

2014 12 31 Miyazaki

I am a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind Studio Ghibli productions like:

So I’m really interested in the documentary that, by good fortune, was filmed during the period when Miyazaki deliberated on, decided, and then announced his retirement. Although it doesn’t sound like it will necessarily be fun or happy. According to this article at The Verge, Miyazaki may well qualify as the variety of genius known as tortured:

[T]he man is also marked by moments of cynicism, resentment, and self-doubt that hint at a darkness behind his creations. “I don’t ever feel happy in my daily life,” he says. “How could that be our ultimate goal? Filmmaking only brings suffering.”

That actually makes me want to see the film even more, however. I’ve often wondered at the elusive relationship between desire and happiness and creativity. It often seems like creativity has to come from a kind of intense dissatisfaction with ourselves and the world. Only the discontent, perhaps, are on fire with the urge to change and make something different than what already is. On the other hand, depression is (in my experience) no fit state for accomplishing good work. There is a razor’s edge, it seems, between happiness in the change that is coming and sadness in the state of things as they are, and an artist’s goal is to dance along the sharp blade to make something beautiful.

The real question in my heart, however, is one that this film might not address. Is it possible to live a happy life and make great art? I hope so, but the truth is I’ve already made my choice. I’d rather be happy than be great. Not necessarily for my own sake–I’m not naturally that interested in being happy, and didn’t decide it was important until one day when I was 18–but because when I’m not unhappy I’m no fun to be around. And that’s not fair for my wife and kids. So I’ve made the decision to (try to) be a sane, healthy, functioning, happy father and husband.

Does that preclude ever writing something truly great? Maybe. I hope not, but the fact that so many of my heroes seem to have been deeply unhappy people doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism on the subject. I will admit that, when I watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I’ll be keeping an eye out for clues.

The Masculine Christian

…is probably not what you expect him to look like. Some of the more obnoxious misconceptions look like this:

“Week after week, Mooneyham uses the gospel to punch back against what he perceives to be a rising tide of emasculation,” the article reads. “He’s delivered a series of Sunday talks called ‘Grow a Pair’ and ‘Band of Brothers,’ and the church offers male leadership courses with titles like ‘Spartan’ and ‘Fight Club.’ He’s performed baptisms at Ignite-sponsored tailgate parties and instructed married couples to go home and have sex every day for a week. And there’s rarely a Sunday where Mooneyham doesn’t praise a big truck, a big gun or a pair of big balls in the same breath that praises Christ.”

…a conception so silly I don’t think I need to go into theological depth to point out its issues. However, I don’t go as far as some authors to discredit the warrior as a legitimate Christian archetype. The image of the warrior permeates scripture, and I believe for good reason. That being said, we must properly answer, “Who or what are we fighting?” Scripture gives some guidance:

12 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Our true enemies are not people. They are, at very worst, servants of a darker power, and never beyond the redeeming power of God. We are fighting the power of Satan himself. And while I believe we are most definitely supposed to bring the fight to the external machinations of Satan and people or nations who would harm innocents, like I have said before I believe the internal battle is also of utmost importance and more often ignored. In that vein, I believe the masculine Christian is not a man who whoops and yells about balls of steel and guns. Rather, he is the man who brings the utmost violence upon Satan, in forgiveness, in hope, in love. He is the man who proclaims the Gospel, trusting his fears of rejection and ridicule to God, turning to peace and patience for counsel. That does not mean he cannot speak forcefully. Jesus had some choice words for the Pharisees and for Herod (“Go tell that fox [Herod]…”) . But we must measure our words carefully, ensuring we speak in righteousness rather than out of human pettiness or our own hurt feelings.

Now, even though I do not reject the warrior archetype, I do believe people are right to point out that the warrior is not the completeness of the Christian man. In particular, I like this thought:

And the simple fact is, when God created Adam he didn’t make a warrior; he made a gardener.

Gardening isn’t easy work. It demands great labor and—since the Fall—requires the sweat of our brow. It’s dirty and it’s tiring. It involves careful, perhaps even painful, pruning. Ultimately, it even demands recognizing that your work on its own is not enough. You need the sun to shine. You need the rain to fall. You need God to make something out of your own weak and feeble efforts.

And then I believe the gardener and the warrior imagery are beautifully tied together by the top comment on the article:

I think it’s worth pointing out that ancient Roman infantry were mostly farmers. The essence of masculinity is probably something like Farmer-who-will-be-a-Warrior-when-he-must.

The Christian man is the gardener and the reluctant warrior. Not reluctant in the sense of ‘I’ll never put my heart into fighting.’ No, if we believe we must fight a battle, then we must fight it with all our strength and conviction. But we must be reluctant in that our prime calling is not the battle. We are not made for unending strife. Rather, we are called to toil patiently for the salvation of all mankind, working to bring God’s kingdom to fruition while trusting in God to make our efforts worthwhile, and if there is any violence to be had, it is upon the powers of darkness, not our fellow human beings.

Say, where have I seen this kind of imagery before?

About deGrasse Tyson’s Christmas Tweets

2014 12 30 deGrasse Trolling

On the one hand, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Christmas day tweets are the kind of obnoxious trolling that tends to give atheists such a bad name, so I could see if they annoyed people. On the other hand, as obnoxious trolling goes, these are pretty tame. I didn’t think he was being mean-spirited. I just thought he wasn’t being as clever as he thought he was being. Besides, I wrote about his bigger problems back in September, so I was going to just let these go by without comment. But then Ro sent me this article highlighting three unintentional ironies behind Tyson’s quote, and I thought it was definitely worth sharing: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s (Unwittingly) Ironic Trolling.

The main points are:

  1. Isaac Newton Shows how Religion and Science aren’t Opposed.
  2. Newton’s Birthday Reminds us of the Church’s Role in Promoting Science.
  3. Tyson Gets Basic Historical Facts Wrong.

Check out the article for full explanations.

Hearing What They Hear

2014 12 30 Best Albums of 2014

One of my very favorite parts of the New Year’s season are all the best-of lists that start to come out and especially best albums of 2014. I’m going through the Washington Post’s top 50 albums of 2014 list right now, starting with Montevallo by Sam Hunt (which they put at #2 for the year). I was surprised to find out that I’d already heard one of those songs (“Leave the Night On”), but pop-country is very much not my usual fare so this is definitely a different album from what I usually listen to.

Which is why I like it.

Sure, one of the main reasons I go through these lists is that I’m hoping to find something new that will really speak to me. But the truth is that a lot of the time I like listening to songs that other people like, even if they don’t really speak to me in the same way, because I want to try and hear what they hear.

At one level, it’s just math. The more genres you have acquired a taste for, the more great music there is in your world. But it goes beyond that. You do yourself a favor expanding your capacity to appreciate and your potential to empathize, and in my experience you lose nothing of your own individual perspective along the way. I’m not saying every artist is equally talented or that popularity is quality. Just pointing out that there are a lot of people out there, trying to find or make something beautiful or inspiring or soothing or powerful. If you feel like your world could use a little more of those things, then try stretching out its horizons a little.

Even when you don’t find a new favorite artist, just realizing that other people are trying to bring more light or meaning or fun into the world can bring a sense of hope and optimism. Listening to new genres of music until the sounds and the lyrics start to make some sense is a way of reminding yourself how much we have in common, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

And, since I mentioned my current addiction, I’ll give you a sample. I totally didn’t get these guys at first, but now that I’m dialed in to their frequency I can’t listen to their songs without cranking the volume and, more often than not, singing / screaming along.

If the suicide theme seems dark, by the way, be sure you pay attention to the lyrics of the song towards the very end.

Relieving Existential Anxiety

Psychologists hypothesize Tylenol may relieve existential anxiety as well as physical pain.

New research shows Tylenol may have the unseen psychological side-effect of easing existential dread. The findings suggest anxiety about finding meaning in life and feeling physical pain may be rooted in the same part of the brain.

“When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they’re feeling may actually be painful distress,” said study researcher Daniel Randles, a doctoral student in psychology the University of British Columbia.

“We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress,” Randles wrote in an email to LiveScience.

Previous studies have shown that acetaminophen may also ease the blow of social snubs, and some researchers have argued that both physical pain and feelings of rejection are caused by activation in the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

“We’ve suspected that this brain region also is central in managing violations of expectations and errors, and as such predicted Tylenol would have the same effect on manipulations of uncertainty or existential unease that it has on headaches or ostracism,” Randles said in an email.

Admittedly the sample sizes are small, consist of pre-existing groups (such as college students), and the methodologies are… odd, but this research raises some interesting implications. My immediate thoughts, as per usual, go to the book Brave New World, which features the omnipresent drug Soma:

In the book, soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free “holidays”. It was developed by the World State to provide these inner-directed personal experiences within a socially managed context of State-run “religious” organisations; social clubs. The hypnopaedically inculcated affinity for the State-produced drug, as a self-medicating comfort mechanism in the face of stress or discomfort, thereby eliminates the need for religion or other personal allegiances outside or beyond the World State; the book describes it as having “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, none of their defects.”

Now this is the point in my post where I flail my arms and yell “We’ve arrived in the Brave New World, just as predicted!!!”

But seriously, I think this research, if true, reveals one more aspect of the trend in society where, instead of facing problems, we ignore them in the hopes that they’ll go away. We distract, we medicate, we divert, we do anything but actually build the emotional maturity necessary to face life’s difficulties because that would require experiencing unpleasant feelings and situations. And now we have one more tool to realize that goal, at least as far as the emotional implications of our actions and beliefs.

Or maybe I’m just old and grumpy.

The Science of a Meaningful Life

greater goodThe website for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley is one I check on a regular basis. Positive psychology is a major interest of mine and overlaps fairly well with management and organizational theory (many management professors are actually psychologists by education). The site recently posted “The Top 10 Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2014,” which should be of interest to anyone seeking to understand and increase one’s well-being. Without further ado, the top 10 insights are:

1. Mindfulness can reduce racial prejudice–and possibly its effects on victims.

2. Gratitude makes us smarter in how we spend our money.

3. It’s possible to teach gratitude to young children, with lasting effects.

4. Having more variety in our emotions–positive or negative–can make us happier and healthier.

5. Natural selection favors happy people, which is why there are so many of them.

6. Activities from positive psychology don’t just make happy people happier–they can also help alleviate suffering.

7. People with a “growth mindset” are more likely to overcome barriers to empathy.

8. To get people to take action against climate change, talk to them about birds.

9. Feelings of well-being might spur extraordinary acts of altruism.

10. Extreme altruism is motivated by intuition–our compassionate instincts.

Check out the link for further details and the actual studies.

The Christmas Truce

Though we’re a couple days past Christmas, I think this message is worth carrying into the New Year. Reason highlights the soldiers who basically ended WWI for a couple weeks during Christmas 1914. It was in the midst of this truce that one solider wrote, “Never…was I so keenly aware of the insanity of war.” Implicitly recognizing the evils of the political machine in contrast to the basic decency within us all, truce participant Sir H. Kingsley Wood of the British House of Commons commented, “I…came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.” A British lieutenant wrote home about the truce, describing the German soldiers who helped the British bury their dead as “extraordinarily fine men.”

The article explains,

The truce was a series of unofficial and widespread cease-fires that extended over two weeks. The truce between mostly British and German troops centered on the Western Front, defined by lines of trenches that stretched across France from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland. The trenches were often close enough for the combatants to exchange shouted words and to smell food their adversaries were cooking.

One German soldier

reported that hymns and Christmas songs were being sung in both trenches. German troops foraged for Christmas trees that they placed in plain view on the parapets of their trenches. By the time Christmas Eve arrived, so much interaction had occurred between the British and Germans that Brigadier General G.T. Forrestier-Walker had officially forbidden fraternization.

…Some officers threatened to court-martial or even to shoot those who fraternized, but the threats were generally ignored. Other officers mingled with enemies of similar rank. The Germans reportedly led the way, coming out of their trenches and moving unarmed toward the British. Soldiers exchanged chocolates, cigars, and compared news reports. They buried the dead, some of whom had lain for months, with each side often helping the other dig graves. At its height, unofficial ceasefires were estimated to have occurred along half of the British line. As many as 100,000 British and German troops took part. On Christmas morning, the dead had been buried, the wounded retrieved and the “no man’s land” between the trenches was quiet except for the sound of Christmas carols, especially “Silent Night.”

Pressure and threats of disciplinary action from the high ranks began to diminish to fraternization until the truce finally petered out. As the article concludes,

War is against the self-interest of average people who suffer not only from its horrors but also from its political fallout. Those who benefit from both are the ones who threaten to shoot those who lay down their guns: politicians, commanders and warmongers who profit financially. But even the powerful and the elite cannot always extinguish “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” even in the midst of deadly battle.

May 2015 be a more peaceful year.

Christianity and Paganism

Merry Christmas everyone! Tis the season for comparisons of Christianity to paganism. I’ve made it a regular ritual to watch Lutheran Satire on the matter:

For years I had accepted that Christianity had probably at least borrowed the date of Christmas from pagans. Turns out that’s not even true. Christians used some interesting math to determine Christ’s birthday, but it had nothing to do with paganism:

If the birth of Jesus was not celebrated by the early church, it also was because there was not a consensus as to when it had occurred. Writing shortly after the assassination of Commodus on December 31, AD 192, Clement of Alexandria provides the earliest documented dates for the Nativity. One hundred ninety-four years, one month, and thirteen days, he says, had elapsed since then, which corresponds to a birth date of November 18 or, if the forty-nine intercalary days missing from the Alexandrian calendar are added, January 6. Moreover, “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day” (Stromata, I.21), including dates in April and May, as well as another day in January.

Hippolytus, a younger contemporary of Clement, does state that the Nativity had occurred on December 25 (Commentary on Daniel, IV.23.3). Although the statement may be a later interpolation, he reiterated several decades later (in AD 235) that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of the creation of the world, which Hippolytus believed to have been on March 25 (Chronicon, 686ff). The Nativity then would be on December 25.

In about AD 221, Julius Africanus wrote the Chronographiae, the first Christian chronology. Although he does not specifically mention the Nativity, he did believe that Jesus had been conceived on March 25. In AD 243, Cyprian is the first Christian writer to associate the birth of Jesus with the Sun: “O! The splendid and divine Providence of the Lord, that on that day, even at the very day, on which the Sun was made [March 28], Christ should be born” (De Pascha Computus, XIX). Creation itself was on March 25, the vernal equinox, and the Sun created on the fourth day, March 28. It followed, then, that the “Sun of righteousness,” in Malachi’s phrase, would be born on the same day.

And pagans might have even revived their winter solstice celebrations in response to Christianity:

Hijmans presents a critical re-evaluation of the History of Religions hypothesis and the notion that the early church incorporated the feast of Sol Invictus into its own liturgy, positing instead that the pagan festival was “‘rediscovered’ by pagan authorities in response to the appropriation of the winter solstice by Christianity.” The festival of Sol Invictus, in other words, may not have been identified with December 25 until after the first Christmas had been celebrated on that day. Nor, he argues, should the cosmic symbolism attached to the winter solstice, which may have led the church to adopt December 25 for its feast of the Nativity, be confused with a cult of Sol on that date.

The winter solstice, when the light of day finally begins to lengthen, would have a natural association with the “Sun of righteousness.” Indeed, Tertullian writes that “It is therefore due to a want of heed and reflection that many are offended by the mere fact that heresies have so much power. How much would they have if they did not exist?” (On the Prescription of Heretics, I). Here, the paradox is that the absence of heresy would confound the predictions of Scripture, as when one is admonished to “beware of false prophets” (Matthew 7:15).

Some pagan influences would creep in later (such as Yule), but by that time the Christian foundations of Christmas were well set, and pagan elements were a peripheral cultural attachment, not a fundamental aspect of the celebration.

Scientific Skepticism

Turns out Bill Nye isn’t entirely fond of GMOs:

I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem.

Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.

So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.

Yet even though I’m in favor of GMOs, I think he’s perfectly fine signalling caution about the difficulty of studying cause/effect within whole ecosystems and potential political/corporate interests in science. As scientists and engineers, we should always be questioning how our theories and models can be inaccurate or inadequate, and as human beings, we should always be wary of outside influences on science. Yet by Bill Nye’s own standards, he’s a denier. There are no studies to indicate environmental problems with GMOs, and if the amount of corporate and political influence in GMOs worries Bill Nye, he should be equally suspicious about climate change.

As a practicing engineer, this is what drives me bonkers about many supposed science advocates who brook no dissent on their chosen topics. You either find out that they have little known reservations about other topics where the science is “clear” (like Bill Nye), or they have zero reservations or skepticism about anything scientific consensus says, in which case they are professing the most anti-scientific belief possible (like Neil DeGrasse Tyson). The heart of science is realizing that all theories are provisional, that at best our theories can be well attested, never absolutely proven true. Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science, believed that:

Scientific theories…are not inductively inferred from experience, nor is scientific experimentation carried out with a view to verifying or finally establishing the truth of theories; rather, all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical—we can never finally prove our scientific theories, we can merely (provisionally) confirm or (conclusively) refute them; hence at any given time we have to choose between the potentially infinite number of theories which will explain the set of phenomena under investigation. Faced with this choice, we can only eliminate those theories which are demonstrably false, and rationally choose between the remaining, unfalsified theories. Hence Popper’s emphasis on the importance of the critical spirit to science—for him critical thinking is the very essence of rationality. For it is only by critical thought that we can eliminate false theories, and determine which of the remaining theories is the best available one, in the sense of possessing the highest level of explanatory force and predictive power.

I suppose people will now want to know what I believe about climate change, or conversely, if I say nothing people will probably start assuming. I know the earth is warming up. That’s not very hard to measure. I know that humans contribute to that warming. Again, not very hard to measure nor controversial. I do not know, though, to what extent humans contribute to the warming, nor to what extent reducing our greenhouse gas output a reasonable amount would actually slow this warming. That’s where the science of the matter gets difficult, because now we’re dealing with a whole ecosystem (like with GMOs), and sussing out cause and effect in a whole ecosystem is tricky. So currently, I have no strong opinion one way or the other. We could be contributing greatly to warming. Or our input could be modest. Modeling these effects and predicting warming rates is finicky to say the least.

Then when we get to the politics and economics of global warming, the situation is even messier. Will carbon taxes actually reduce greenhouse gas output in any significant amount worth the economic costs? Can we even reduce our greenhouse gas output any appreciable amount that won’t send the American public into shock? This is where global warming gets beyond my expertise.

So generally I just support measures that benefit us anyways with the side effect of combating greenhouse gas output. I support monitoring and regulating pollution output. I support continuing research into alternative energy sources, which isn’t just solar and wind for the record. We have geothermal, hydroelectric, wave energy, biomass, and more. I realize many of these methods are limited in their production capacity, location, and reliability, but they are capable of producing power amounts that aren’t insignificant.

More importantly, I support nuclear power, which has none of the above limitations. Now this is where all the talk about supporting science gets really odd. Nuclear power plants have a very good safety record (despite what the news says), and engineers are constantly working to make them better. On top of that, add the context of nuclear safety versus other sources of power. On top of that, add some perspective on radiation amounts (yes I cited XKCD). On top of that, add the oft cited dire effects of global warming. In that context, how can opposing nuclear power be anything short of anti-scientific and ridiculous, using the vocabulary abundant in discussion of global warming? And yet, people do it. Many climate scientists are jumping on board the nuclear train, but there’s still plenty of opposition. People proclaim the inviolability of scientific consensus in one context and then turn around to challenge it in a different context.

So, what general principles can we derive from this long-winded analysis? I would say people need to be able to simultaneously hold two seemingly contradictory concepts in their mind: Science is a quest for understanding the natural world, and science can never finally prove anything. With that knowledge, we should respect the explanatory power of science but also realize that science relies fundamentally on a critical spirit. We cannot crush dissent, nor should set ourselves up as arbiters of what constitutes “valid” dissent, which is really just crushing dissent by a different name. Rather, we must continually attempt to falsify our own theories, and if they survive the continuing ordeals, we can begin to call them well attested. But even then we must not close our minds, even as we defend theories we believe to be well attested. Newtonian physics reigned 300 years before general relativity showed up.

How do these principles look practically? I would say they manifest themselves in simultaneously laying down what we know while maintaining a spirit of humility. For example, I have defended evolution numerous times contra creationism. I don’t resort to telling people they’re scientifically illiterate (even though people who try to tell a chemical engineer how the 2nd law of thermodynamics “actually” works might qualify). I don’t demand they accept the consensus of science over their doubts (which would be horrifically anti-scientific). Rather, I just tell them what I know and demonstrate the explanatory power of evolution. You’d be surprised how well that works. Even if people don’t change their minds right then and there, it gets their minds thinking, and it allays their fears that I have an ulterior motive for defending evolution.

I believe these principles would serve science advocacy well. There is no contradiction between lacking absolute certainty and seeking scientific knowledge. In fact, the two work together. By realizing our own limitations, we can continually revise our understanding to better reflect what we see and what we know of the natural world. To say that we have finally and definitively figured out the answers ends the scientific quest and permanently extinguishes the scientific spirit.

Spoiling Christmas the Wright Way

In a 2012 First Things piece, theologian Peter Leithart captures brilliantly what reading N.T. Wright does for one’s understanding of the New Testament:

…N. T. Wright has spoiled every Jesus film. Once you’ve read Wright, you realize that none of the movies get Jesus right. Pharisees and scribes are reduced stock villains with caricatured Jewish features. Pilate has to make an appearance, and Herod, but we are given no sense that first-century Israel was the powder keg that it actually was.

…In the movies, Jesus is a hippy peace-child, a delicate flower of a man, a dew-eyed first-century Jewish Gandhi. Why would anyone want to hurt Him? Maybe because He’s so annoyingly precious; but that’s not the story of the gospels.

Just this year, I had another realization. N. T. Wright has spoiled Christmas too.

This spoilage comes from a contrasting of Advent and Christmas hymns:

Advent hymns, as you’d expect, are full of longing, and the language of the prophets. Advent hymns are about Israel’s desperations and hope, and specifically hope that the Christ would come in order to keep Yahweh’s promise to restore His people, and through them to restore the nationsAdvent hymns are about Israel. They are deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out. How many Christmas hymns mention Israel?

…What did Jesus come to do? Listening to Advent hymns, you’d think He comes to restore Israel, comfort Jerusalem, bring light to the nations, to do some global geo-political restructuring. Listening to Christmas hymns, you’d think He comes to do something quite different…It’s as if the whole history of Israel has been bypassed. It’s as if Jesus was born just outside Eden, immediately after Adam’s sin.

…Biblical Christmas hymns are very, very different. They are explicitly rooted in the history of Abraham, Moses, David, exile, and the longing for return. They are overtly, even uncomfortably, political.

In conclusion, Leithart says,

What [Wright] stole was a false Christmas, a de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas. But we shouldn’t have bought that Christmas in the first place, and should have been embarrassed to display it so proudly on the mantle. Good riddance, and Bah humbug.

Merry Christmas everyone.