Friday, September 21, 2012

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

            There are a lot of strong arguments to be made against bible stories that people insist are literally true, and it's gotten a bit boring.  The believers come up with all kinds of pseudo-scientific ways to validate impossible stories, and the arguments to contradict them are predictable.  So I thought I'd come up with a new one for the story of Noah's ark, specifically how there shouldn't be any dolphins (or whales, great white sharks, etc.) if the story were true.  Let's establish a couple points first. 

1) According to the bible, the ark was 300 cubits (about 450 feet) long (Gen 6:15).  We can safely assume that Noah didn't fit two 98 foot whales on the ark, and there's no mention of any onboard aquarium.

2) God says: I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made (Gen 7:4 New International Version).  In the King James Version it's: every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the Earth.

Now, I'm no stranger to semantic rationalization.  Keen observers will focus on the use of the phrase "face of the earth," and argue that it doesn't include aquatic creatures.  This leads me to point three.

3) And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under heaven, were covered.  Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. 

So all the mountains on earth were covered.  So what? you may ask.  Well, let's do some basic geometry, finding the volume of a sphere.  (Yes, I know the Earth is not perfectly spherical, but for the point I'm going to make, this will have to do.) 

The radius I'm using (in case you want to check my math) is 20,925,524.9 feet.  To find the volume we use the formula 4/3 * pi * r^3, or four-thirds times pi time radius cubed.  The number I got was 38,381,124,220,494,286,091,421.9.  So what? you're asking, more irritably this time.  I'll tell you.  We're going to calculate the volume of water from the flood.  Go back to point three.  We're going to add the height of the highest mountain (Everest at 29,029 feet) plus 15 cubits to the radius of the Earth and find the volume.  We can then subtract one from the other to find the change in volume.  The more scientific among you will note that this does not take into account the volume of naturally existing land formations, but this is negligible in relation to the scope we're dealing with.  So, if you've done the math you should have found a difference of 160,078,848,019,995,137,560.4 cubic feet.  That's 1,087,507,504 cubic miles.  The volume of the oceans currently is approximately 321,000,000 cubic miles.  So to answer the question you're probably dying to know, (i.e. what about the gosh darn fish) the simple fact is that saltwater fish can't survive in brackish water.  Even if we accept that half of the water from the flood was saltwater from "the fountainsf of the great deep" (Gen 7:11), the water would still be so diluted that any living thing that needed salt water to survive would die. 

            "But," I imagine someone saying, "if most of the water were salt water from the fountains of the great deep, then the water wouldn't be diluted enough to kill all the saltwater fish."  That's true.  It would only kill all the freshwater fish.  But, overall, it's not really about the fish.

            It's about the plants.   

            As in, Noah didn't take any with him.

            As in, they need sunlight, carbon dioxide, and fresh water.

            As in, enough sunlight for photosynthesis can't penetrate more than about 200 feet into water.

            As in, 2,400 feet of water pressure is enough to crush a modern submarine, let alone a tree.

            As in, most plants can't survive in brackish or salt water.

            As in, all the land plants would have died by the time the floods receded.

            So if you want to believe your stories, go right ahead.  But don't try to pass them off as scientific fact. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Best of All Worlds

            There was a strange old man at the campus coffee shop nearly every day, sitting on a long-legged chair next to the window, sipping his drink and watching the students pass by.  He seemed simultaneously gleeful and crestfallen, an air of resigned happiness about him, as if he were trying to force himself to see the bright side in everything and failing.  Some people avoided him; they thought he was a creep or senile or both.  A few tried to befriend him, they’d sit at his little circular table, cup of coffee steaming in their hands.  They’d talk to him, but he’d just sit there, smile politely, with that same weary joy with which he viewed everything.  This led people to guess that he was a refugee (of some massacre or genocide or other unavoidable disaster) who couldn’t speak English.  To most of us he was a fixture, as much a part of the scenery as the tables and chairs. 

            To the best of my knowledge, I am the only person he ever spoke to.  Probably because I happened to be there at the time, but maybe not.  I would like to think that there was some reason besides proximity that caused him to open up to me, but excluding my own vanity I’m drawing a blank.

            I was sitting at the table next to his, we were back to back.  Him sipping his coffee, me trying to memorize a set of equations for Statistics.  Near the door, two freshmen were having a very loud discussion.
            “I saw a poll online,” one of them, a boy with greasy black hair, said, “That asked ‘If you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler?’  And a majority said ‘No.’ Isn’t that awful?”

            The other one, a girl with shoulder-length red hair, nodded emphatically as they walked out. 
            After they left, the old man started whispering.  He was so quiet I almost didn’t realize he had spoken at all.  I caught the tail end of his statement, something about truth and labels.  I twisted around in my chair to face him.

            “Excuse me?” I said.

            The man didn’t turn but spoke a little louder.  His voice was raspy and reminded me of rust.  I cannot say with any degree of certainty if what he said was true, but I know he believed it.  I think I do, too.
            He said:  “‘The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  So I elect for neither label.’”  He sighed, took a sip of his coffee.  “A satirist wrote that, James Cabell.  He fell out of popularity in the 1930’s.  A critic at the time said that this was because ‘Cabell and Hitler did not inhabit the same universe.’  Perhaps.  Perhaps that would be different, too.  Cabell might have continued to be successful, and paved the way for a golden age of irony.”  He made a series of shallow rasping noises.  It took me a few moments to realize that he was chuckling.  “Would you do it?  If you suddenly found yourself in the past, would you kill Hitler?”

            I thought about it for a moment.  Before I could answer, he continued.

            “The fact that no time traveler has done so is, to many, proof that time travel will always remain impossible.  For how could any society capable of retroactively preventing such a dark patch in mankind’s history possibly choose not to do so?  Why, they ask, would they allow a fool who spent his time dabbling in the occult, who would send his forces on foot into Russia, a man who did many truly evil things, but nonetheless a man who did a poor job of leading an empire, why would they let him live?”  His voice got scratchy and wavered.  He took a sip of his coffee. When he spoke again, I realized he had no accent. 

            “What if I told you,” he said, still not facing me, maybe not even talking to me, “that time travel is real.  That in the future, we’re able to trace the entire history of mankind, from the cradle of life to the grave.  That we can change things, anything we want. That the universe can withstand paradoxes and logical fallacies, because the universe isn’t logical.”   He turned towards me, his face not much more than a foot away.  “What if I told you that, of every possible sequence of events, of every reality, this one, with its war and hatred and famine, this world is the best possible outcome?  What if I told you that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, and that I know that’s true?”

            I think that one of my greatest regrets will be that I said nothing then.  He stared at me for a long moment, looking for something.  Gratitude?  Condemnation?  Apology?  Whatever it was, I couldn’t give it to him, so he left.

            He wasn’t there the next day, or any day after that.  I tried to find someone who knew his name.  The cashier said he always paid cash, so she never got his name off a credit card.  No one knew anything.  A lot of them asked me what I knew, because word had gotten around that I was the last, and only, person he spoke to. 

            I don’t know if I believe him.  But about a week after he disappeared, the cashier showed me a bronze coin the old man had put it in the tip jar.  On the back was a picture of Hearst Castle.  On the front, below the number 2867, was a portrait of Mussolini.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Silly Hippie...

I managed to get an entire three weeks into the semester before it happened.  The professor asked the class for their opinions on the quality of a poem and, as if on cue, the girl sitting one seat to the front and left of me declared, “It’s impossible to really judge the quality of poetry.”  I’ll be generous and assume she thought this comment was beneficial to the class discussion, and not merely an attempt to announce her status as an ‘enlightened’ artist (or whatever they call themselves).  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there is no consistent, purely objective way to qualify poetry, and it would be difficult to look at John Keats and T. S. Eliot and say that one has better poetry than the other.  But is there any truth in saying that judging the quality is impossible?  Since derisive laughter doesn’t translate well to the written medium, allow me to explain why that statement is just silly.

Let’s start with the assumption that it is impossible to judge the quality of poetry.  If any two poems were to be compared, it would then necessarily be impossible to state that one is better than the other, because that would be a matter of judging quality.  Therefore, either all poetry is of equal quality or close enough to equal that the difference is impossible to judge.  If this is true, then the first man to walk into a bathroom and scrawl “Here I sit/broken-hearted/Tried to shit/but only farted” is as great a poet as any that ever lived.   But don’t take my word for it.  Try it yourselves.  First let’s look at a sonnet by Claude McKay, an African American writer of the Harlem Renaissance, writing about the fight that his people will have to endure to receive basic human dignity:

If We Must Die
    If we must die, let it not be like hogs
    Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
    While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
    Making their mock at our accursed lot.
    If we must die, O let us nobly die,
    So that our precious blood may not be shed
    In vain; then even the monsters we defy
    Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
    O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
    Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
    And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
    What though before us lies the open grave?
    Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
    Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

    Let’s compare this to Ogden Nash’s, Celery:

    Celery, raw
    Develops the jaw,
    But celery, stewed,
    Is more quietly chewed.

    I don't think I am wrong to believe that McKay's poem is better than Nash's.  While I agree that there is always uncertainty when evaluating the quality of subjective art forms, that does not mean that there is no difference in quality at all.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Literary Conspiracy

            I take my job as an amateur internet writer very seriously, which means I’ll take any interview that will score me a lot of hits.  Even, as was the case yesterday, if most of those hits are self-inflicted kicks to the skull.  I was loitering in the halls of an upscale hotel near LAX, minding my own business, when I noticed a line of people in suits carrying notepads and tape recorders was forming outside one of the suites.  With nothing better to do, I got in line. 

            I was the last person in line, and after about forty-five  minutes I found out that this was a press junket for Stephenie Meyer, talking about life after Twilight.  If my years on the internet hadn’t taught me how to control my gag reflex, this article would have had a very different ending.  I sat down in a plush leather armchair across from Meyer, the spacious suite suspiciously lacking any bodyguards, personal assistants, or anyone else for that matter.  Something seemed off.

            “So,” I said, after an awkward silence, “What’s next for an author of your stature?”

            “I’d like to do some high-concept avant-garde work.”

            “I see.”  I made a mental note to make sure ‘stature’ means what I think it does.  I was about to say something else, but then I noticed that Meyer’s head was twitching violently back and forth.  “Are you okay?” 

            A few things tipped me off that she was not okay.  The first is that she started repeating the same word over and over again.  The second is that that word was ‘Error.’  By the time sparks started flying out of her ears, I was pretty sure something was amiss.  When the sparks had stopped for long enough that I was confident she wouldn’t catch fire or explode or spawn Meyer-nano-bots, I opened the suitcase sitting next to her seat.  (It’s perfectly legal to look through someone’s stuff if you’re there when they died; it says so in the sixth amendment.)   What I found was evidence of a conspiracy so complex and far-reaching that it is almost too stupid to believe. 

            The suitcase contained all the information on ‘Literary Contingency Plan Theta.’  Which, the cover sheet informed me, was designed to ‘inspire book sales in the otherwise illiterate in a manner that will anger the more literary among the populace, prompting them to buy quality books.’  It appeared that a number of authors all wrote their own version of Twilight, and those versions were then compiled and distilled into a garbled mess, i.e., a bestseller.  I was able to retrieve brief excerpts of the various versions of the story before the Meyer-bot self-destructed.  This conspiracy goes back longer than I would have dared to imagine, and could completely rewrite literary history.  The authors mentioned hereafter will, undoubtedly, deny any involvement.

Cormac McCarthy:

            See the girl.  She sat in the back of an old car.  Thunderheads galloped through the sky above, below the fog-muted greens of the treetops rattled in the cold seawind from the west, carrying the salt laden air inland. An alien world unlike the interminable expanse of orange and gold that was Arizona.  The girl stirs.  When will we get there?  she asks.  There is a man driving, he does not turn to her when he speaks.  Another hour, or so.

            That long?

            It’s the weather.

            The hill crests before them, at the peak they can see the town under siege from the rain that has sprung up out of nowhere.

Michael Cricthon:

            “So the enzyme in your saliva is responsible,” Bella asked.

            “Exactly,” Dr. Cullen explained.  “Once in the bloodstream, the enzyme enters the DNA of the individual cells, much in the same fashion of the naturally occurring thyroid hormone, tri-iodothyronine.  The enzyme rewrites the DNA to, first of all, produce more of the enzyme.  Then it prevents the shortening of telomeres, which halts the aging process.  However, it inhibits erythropoiesis, the production or erythrocytes, better known as red blood cells.”

            “But what about your super strength?”

            “If we look at the muscle fibers we –

Thomas Pynchon:

            He held her, pressed up against an eldernly oak.  She turned her head, could see an eroded etching in the bark, made out that it said ‘Ron + Jenny Always.’  They had put that there in 1952.  Ronald Hopefalls was a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Mishap, which had anchored safely in Seattle after six months off the coast of Thailand.  Ronald had bartered for a ride south from Seattle, he traded a sterling silver pendant that he had stolen from a drunk in Bangkok.  The pendant appeared to be a meaningless series of criss-crossing metal mesh, but when a light shone through it, it cast shadows depicting various methods of fellatio depending on the angle and intensity of the light.

Bret Easton Ellis:

            I am wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch black polyester-blend tee-shirt, Hot Topic tattered denim blue jeans and black and gray Converse sneakers with white laces.   I’m trying to get to English class when I see Mike coming towards me.  I don’t want to deal with him.

            “You look really nice today,” he says.

            Please go away.


            He shuffles his feet like a moron and I know what he’s going to ask.  It’s embarrassing to watch.

            “Do you want to go to prom with me?”

            I’d rather slit open my abdomen and eat whatever comes out.

            “I’m not going.”

            He looks broken and walks away.  I should suggest a girl for him to take out, just so I won’t have to deal with how pitiful he looks.  Half the guys here have asked me out, like they think that just because I’m the new girl, I’ll drop my panties for the first nice guy that comes along.  Why not?  There’s nothing else to do in this shitstain of a town.

Ernest Hemingway:

            They thought the man had been torn apart by wild dogs.  The carcass was ragged with teethmarks.  I listened to my father relate the investigation.  They found a second body.  Now they think a man did this.  He is going to search the woods for the killer.  He told me he loves me and left.  I poured myself a drink.

Geoffrey Chaucer:

And eek sporte hadde he,

But condiciouns ther neede be.

The shoures soote  loved hem alle,

For thanne koulde folks playen balle.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book Review: House of Leaves

            Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is proof that there are still unexplored avenues in horror and experimental literature.  Danielewski takes the old mantra of “show, don’t tell” to its extreme, sculpting the layout of the pages to show the characters’ mental states and even, occasionally, their physical location.  Alternating between agoraphobic (a single paragraph at the bottom of a page) and labyrinthine (footnotes running through the text in multiple directions), House of Leaves is an exercise in form as an integral part of story-telling. 

            It was no coincidence that I used the term labyrinthine in the previous paragraph.  Both the story and the form it takes are like a labyrinth (an analogy the author (but not the narrator) of the novel within the novel also makes); getting lost in the branching corridors of the lives of Will Navidson, Zampanó, and Johnny Truant is easy, but you will be greatly rewarded if you can find the right path. 

            If you have not read House of Leaves, you’re probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about with novels within novels and sideways footnotes.  There are three main stories in House of Leaves.  That of Johnny Truant, who found a manuscript among the belongings of the deceased blind man known only as Zampanó, the story within the novel itself, and the story of Zampanó.  The bulk of House of Leaves is comprised of Zampanó’s novel, The Navidson Record, which is written to look like a non-fiction exegesis on a fictional documentary of the same name.  It follows the story of an acclaimed photojournalist, Will Navidson, his children, and their mother, as they move into a house in Virginia and try to settle down (Navidson was never around, always documenting wars or disasters).  Navidson got grant money to make a documentary about putting down roots and becoming close as a family.  Things take a turn for the strange as they discover that the house is slightly larger on the inside than on the outside.  Then things become downright spooky as rooms start appearing including mile-long hallways and below-freezing chambers. 

In some editions, the dust-jacket is smaller than the book.

            Because The Navidson Record has taken the form of a scholarly pursuit, footnotes abound.  While not a typical manner of comedic relief (although House of Leaves is anything but typical), the criticism of film (and perhaps literary) criticism is clever, albeit a bit repetitive.  Consider the idea that scholars wrote hundreds, or even thousands, of books and articles were about the physics, symbolism, and nature of the House on Ash Tree Lane, but were either unable or unwilling to go to the house itself.  (If it seems like I’m reaching, Karen, the love of Will Navidson’s life, gets opinions on a clip from the documentary from a number of real-life authors, filmmakers, architects, critics, etc., including Derrida, the father of deconstructionism.  While all the people asked provide different answers, only Derrida is portrayed as spouting incomprehensible nonsense.)

            Among the footnotes Johnny Truant will occasionally interrupt, his life having descended, slowly, gradually, into madness.  His history and his present are mirrored and affected by The Navidson Record and those acquainted with the enigmatic Zampanó. 

            Zampanó doesn’t have his own story, so much as he informs the other stories.  We learn about him through his acquaintances, through the information Johnny digs up, and through what he puts in his novel, or more importantly, what he tries to leaves out.   Sections of crossed out material (including the previously mentioned labyrinth analogy) that Johnny included in his transcription of the novel tell us about its author.  In this way, the book examines the relationship between the author and his work. 

            The way all the storylines interact with each other can be confusing, but creates something greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s not an easy read, but House of Leaves is worth the effort.