Monthly Archives: May 2003

Happy Family

Why are these people smiling? For the little girl in the center, who is named Andrea, it’s because her adoption papers finally arrived yesterday, which means she has documented proof that she is, you know, in my family. For the woman on the left, whose name is My Mom (and who is holding the aforementioned documents), it’s because she gets the benefit of having a new daughter without the inconvenience of passing said daughter through her body first (and good thing: Look at the size of that kid). For the guy on the right, who is named Robert My Stepdad, it’s because he can’t wait to pay to send Andrea to college! Look at that grin! Ah ha ha ha… heh. And all of them are happy because I took out the boring white wall they had been sitting in front of and replaced it with a groovy Photoshop sky. I’m just giving that way.

Spam Names

I get upwards of 250 pieces of spam mail a day, which is enough of a representative sample that I notice certain trends: Which misspellings of Viagra are popular today, the rise of the “Deck of Weasels” playing cards coinciding with the fall of the “Iraqi’s Most Wanted” deck, and of course, whether this week it’s the wild Russian teenagers or the bored suburban housewives who crave my, um, presence more (this week: bored suburban housewives! Good for me. They’re already in the country).

However, the trend I’m noticing today involves the names the spam headers carry. As most of you know, spam often comes with someone’s name attached, to give the impression that it’s a real live person, and not a soulless spambot, who is flooding your e-mail box with offers for porn and miniature digital cameras. It used to be that the spammers would at least attempt to make the name sound reasonable, but at this late point, they’ve abandoned all pretense and are just going with crazy stuff. So now I’m treated with spam from the likes of Conley Haupert, Ignacio Cummings, Santiago Whitaker and (my favorite of the moment) Kermit Bolton. Oh, the terrifying mental images that name conjures up.

This is one area in which I find spam somewhat useful. As you may know, I’m writing a novel at the moment (just finished another chapter less than five minutes ago, actually — many high-powered politicians leveling accusations at each other. Also, sheep). One of my writing secrets is that I’m flat-out awful with giving characters names; usually I just take names of people I know and mix and match first names with last names. Which is why Agent to the Stars features partial names of people I went to sixth grade with, and Old Man’s War features the mixed names of members of the rock band Journey (the main character: John Perry). With spam, I don’t even bother mixing and matching the first and last names. I just cut and paste.

This doesn’t mean I want more spam — really, I’d rather have no spam and go back to using the names of programmers I find in the credits of the video games I play. But as long as I get spam, it’s nice to have some benefit from it. And when my next novel features the hero Ignacio Cummings battling the evil villain Kermit Bolton, you’ll know why.

Rain, Etc

Heavy rains are cutting into my ability to stay connected to the Internet through my satellite modem. Apparently it must be raining in space as well. Thereby, updates today may be sporadic if at all. Don’t blame me, blame the position of this planet in an orbit that allows for liquid water.

Enter The Matrix Kinda Blows

I bought the Enter the Matrix video game, and I have to say that aside from whatever other qualities the game might have, it combines two of my least favorite things: a third-person perspective with a really clunky camera system, and the inability to save any where, any time.

The first of these is aggravating — you start fighting in the game and all of a sudden the camera swings around by some weird dictate of the code, and you have no clue where you are or what you’re doing. Hint to game developers, since I know there’s at least one of you who reads this: Nail the friggin’ camera down during fighting. A wildly swinging camera does not help me kick my opponent’s ass, and when I die because my camera suddenly wants to give me a viewing perspective from behind a box, what that makes me want to do is hop on a plane to where your studios are and unload a couple of clips into your workstations.

Enter the Matrix does have a first-person setting, but it’s unbelievably bad — for one thing, when you’re in the first-person mode, you can move from side to side but you can’t move forward or backwards. Who is the idiot that thought this would be a good idea? Another note to game developers: Look, if you’re going to give me a first person mode, make it useful to me. Providing me with a lame-ass first-person mode just makes me think you’re a lame programmer who can’t even figure out how to move forward.

Second thing: I should be able to save my anywhere, anytime, whenever I want. Why? Because I paid 50 bucks for this argin’-fargin’ game to be entertained. And I will tell you what is not entertaining: Having to slog through a significant portion of a level over and over and over again just to get to the point in the level that is so poorly scripted that it does not allow me to complete my objective in a reasonable manner, thus causing the game to stop and me to begin at the beginning of the level again. I can accept that I am part of the problem here; perhaps at age 34, my mad sniping skillz are not what they used to be. However, bad game design is also part of the problem. If I could save at the moment just before I am required to do a very difficult task, I could probably live with it. But instead I have to start at the beginning, several minutes earlier.

Never tell me I shouldn’t be able to save when I want. It really is the simplest way to get me not to buy your game. I’m serious about this, incidentally — There have been games I have been slavering over that I’ve not bought because I’ve read a review that mentioned that the “save” function was not under the player’s control. It’s a deal breaker for me. I’m buying the game so I can play it, not so it can play me.

Aside from these two major issues, I have to say so far I’m really not impressed with Enter the Matrix all around. The other character controls are very clunky, the graphics on the PC are twitchy (I have a high-end processor and video card, so this shouldn’t be the case), the level design is bland and the textures are uninspiring. From a the PC gamer point of view, you can tell this game was initially design with the console player in mind, which is not always a blessing from the PC gamer point of view. All in all, mostly a disappointment so far.

The game does provide us with more scenes of the very tasty Jada Pinkett Smith as a reward for slogging through the levels, but at this point I’m tempted to use the “hack” tool that comes with the game just to watch those cinematic scenes and skip the rest of the game altogether. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the game.

Stubborn Kid

The picture at right serves two functions. First, for all the people who noted that I looked fairly scowly since I got the new haircut, it is proof that I am still capable of smiling, and not appearing as if I’m 12 hours in to a weekend prison furlough. Second, the picture captures a certain fundamental orneriness inherent in Athena. Also her desire to ham it up for the cameras. But mostly orneriness.

Which generally speaking (and you must never tell her this) I approve of highly. Stubbornness can be overdone, but at the same time I like the idea that my kid, even at a very early age, is confident enough of her own opinions that she’s willing to get stompy about it. I don’t like it so much when it’s bedtime and I have to keep myself from smothering the dear sweet child with a pillow because she won’t settle down. But most of the rest of the time it’s not so bad.

There’s very little doubt that Athena gets a substantial amount of her stubbornness from me, since while my level-headedness and general apathy combine for a mostly-agreeable “whatever” attitude from me on many things, I am rather notoriously stubborn about the things I decide to be stubborn about (I pick my fights carefully these days). But I’m not the only stubborn adult in the family. Krissy’s stubborn dynamic is different than mine, a righteous steamroller to my passive-aggressive stalled truck, but it’s there.

Be that as it may, last night while watching Athena stubbornly do something (or more to the point, not do something), Krissy commented that she wasn’t actually stubborn as a child — that her stubbornness only really manifested itself as an adult. Well, you know, I found that hard to believe, so I got on the phone with my mother-in-law, who laughed uproariously at the idea of Krissy not being a stubborn kid. She related a story in which the young Krissy, when told to pick up something, would drop her hand until it was about a millimeter away from the surface of the thing she was supposed to pick up, and let it hang there, as if to say, see how close I am to doing what you want? And yet, I’m NOT doing it. Nyah nyah nyah.

Which made me laugh, because that’s one of Athena’s signature moves, that and its flip-side variation of hovering her hand over something she’s been told not to touch, on the reasoning that if she’s not touching it, she can’t be punished, but she can annoy you by almost-but-not-really touching it. This typically ends badly for her, by the way, since as a four-year old her motor control is not it all it can be, and she inevitably ends up touching the thing by accident. But she keeps at it. Hope spring eternal.

This news from Krissy’s childhood made me feel more affection for both my child and my wife, if that’s possible. In many respects, physically and mentally, it’s pretty obvious that Athena is my kid. She resembles Krissy no less than she resembles me, but those resemblances tend to be more subtle; this is an example of that. But I love finding things about both of them in each other, and I love seeing how what was part of Krissy and what was part of me come together to become wholly and originally something of our daughter’s. Stubborn is a family trait, but Athena’s variation is a delight to behold.

Except when it’s not. But for those times, there’s always the pillow. And the smothering.

Contest Winner!

Thanks everyone for the many interesting entries in the contest to win The Rough Guide to the Universe. Here’s how it went:

Third Place: “The Universe is a very short poem.” Very clever. And linguistically not incorrect.

Second Place: “The Universe is ribbed for your pleasure.” This one cracks me up because, aside from comparing the universe to a condom, it’s also not entirely far from the truth: Thanks to quantum irregularities during early expansion of the universe, the universe’s matter distribution is, if not actually ribbed, certainly a little lumpy. However, it’s not likely that was done for our pleasure. Even so.

First Place: “The Universe is… the beta-test version of the biverse.” This would explain all too much about the way things are.

So, Sharon, e-mail me your address and I’ll send out a copy.

For everyone else, remember that I have at two more books coming out this year. We’ll be playing again.

Just a Reminder

Today is the last day to put in an entry to win a free, autographed copy of The Rough Guide to the Universe. Details are here. If you don’t enter, it just means someone else is guaranteed to win. And wouldn’t that be sad.

The Moon and The Matrix

I come out of Matrix Reloaded last night and head home, and as I’m driving home, I look up at the half moon that’s shining up there, and then I keep driving. Then some part of my brain says: That moon was full when you left home. For about a second I was seriously weirded out; Reloaded is a little long, but not, you know, seven days long. Then I remembered about the lunar eclipse last night, and felt two things: First, a rather embarrassed wave of relief, and second, a very small inkling of the holy terror lunar eclipses must have provided my pre-scientific ancestors, who didn’t know much but knew that the moon going through all of its phases in one night just wasn’t right.

Enough about that stupid moon, I hear you say. I can see that anytime. Tell me about Reloaded. Well, I enjoyed the hell out of it, while simultaneously agreeing with the snipes of the critics: It’s too long. Parts are w-a-a-a-y too talky. The scenes in Zion are kind of dopey. It doesn’t have the same shocking freshness of the original. However, absolutely none of that bothered me in the slightest. First, as I explained the other day, my baseline entertainment expectations are fairly manageable: I wanted Reloaded to amuse me, not tell me how to live my life. It lived up to the amusement level I require and then some.

Also, here’s the thing: Most of the (professional) critics who are slamming the film simply haven’t taken the red pill. Which is to say they’re experiencing Matrix Reloaded as just another flick rather than what it (also) is: A tour inside the Wachowski brothers’ fevered little heads. Experiencing the latter is most of the fun here — the idea that these two guys have built up a world that’s so complete that you could theoretically follow any part of it outside the context of the movie and have it keep on going.

One advantage I have over most of you is that I’ve seen the whole Animatrix DVD — the collection of animated shorts based on and in the Matrix universe — and a couple of elements in the movie are rather more deeply explored in those animated shorts. So when they pop up in the film, I knew that the rabbit hole on that particular thing went down even further. The video game Enter the Matrix likewise integrates with the current film (it features an hour of movie-quality cut scenes and effects) and fills out the character of Niobe, who is something of a side presence in the film. You won’t miss the context if you don’t have it; the film doesn’t force you to buy the Animatrix or Enter the Matrix to understand what’s going on. It’s just most film universes are as shallow as what’s on the screen; backstory is an acting trick, not a film production virtue. But it is a virtue here. Even if you’re not expecting the movie to change your life, it helps to make the experience more interesting.

I think a fair number of the professional critics who are banging on the film aren’t necessarily interested in the idea of the Matrix backstory the way someone who has watched The Matrix a number of times might be. Nothing wrong with that, of course — part of a working critic’s job is not to be a fan boy. But if you are a fan-boy, or just enjoyed the first film quite a bit, your tolerance for the film’s quirks and saggy spots, and your satisfaction level in a general sense, will both probably be higher.

I’ll be interested to see how it wears in the re-watching, since I’ll almost certainly be taking it in again (geek to the core, I went without Krissy last night, but that’s okay because she’s out with friends tonight while I’m at home. One secret to happy couples: They’re the ones who occasionally do stuff by themselves as well as the ones who do lots of stuff together). I expect I’ll continued to be amused.

One final comment: The one criticism complains that a couple of the fight scenes (particularly the “Burly Brawl” setpiece) look too computer animated. Given that these fight scenes take place inside the Matrix, I find this complaint interesting on several different levels.

Managing Expectations

Chances are fairly good that tomorrow I’ll take a geek day to go see The Matrix: Reloaded, because I’m a geek, and because I dig the first film pretty much, and because I don’t work for anyone but me, and I allow myself a rather substantial number of holidays during the year. And I never fire myself for spending too much time writing pointless crap on my Web site! Yes, I’m a fine employer. Everyone should work for me.

The reviews are starting to come in and unsurprisingly, they’re mixed. I say unsurprisingly because the first Matrix film also had mixed reviews (a most memorable line from the San Francisco Chronicle review: “It’s astonishing that so much money, talent, technical expertise and visual imagination can be put in the service of something so stupid”), and because this particular film does not have the benefit of being a relatively fresh idea. Being a film critic myself, I know about the trap of heightened expectations, and I’m working fairly assiduously to avoid them, since going in expecting a godhead experience is always going to be a let down. No matter how good a movie is, it’s still just a movie.

And it does help to keep a non-romanticized view of the previous material. I remember when The Phantom Menace came out, and people were coming out of that film slightly puzzled. “That film was, like, bad,” they said to each other, and that didn’t jibe with their memories of the first crop of Star Wars films. Well, fact is that outside of ginchy special effects, the first Star Wars film is downright awful: Bad acting, bad dialogue, fairly stupid story. It just happened to be utterly unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and that counted for a lot (Empire was pretty good. Jedi stank). Keeping the essential not-goodness in mind as I went in to Phantom, I managed to have a pretty good time. It’s a bad film, and keeps getting worse as time goes on (as does Clones, sadly), but since I kept my expectations low, I still managed to have fun with them.

I do expect more from Reloaded than I did from Phantom or Clones, but managed expectations are still in order. I do have one fortunate advantage over many people, which is that I actually possess a philosophy degree, so the freelance existential utterings of The Matrix have never struck me as particularly deep, although I appreciate the attempt. Instead, I’m pretty much focused on the action and the look, neither of which I expect to have devolved from the previous outing (I certainly hope not, given how much money they’ve spent on Reloaded and Revolutions).

I don’t expect Reloaded to provide me with a philosophical underpinning for my perception of the world, I just want cool-looking people in cool-looking clothes to spin around and fight energetically and blow stuff up real good, with state-of-the-art effects, and maybe a plot that doesn’t completely suck. Give me that, and it’s time well-spent for me.

Lone Star Stalled

AUSTIN, Texas — In an act of political subterfuge, at least 53 Democratic legislators packed their bags, disappeared from the Capitol and apparently scattered across the Southwest on Monday as Texas Rangers searched for them, bringing a divisive legislative session to an abrupt halt.

Under state law, Republicans who control the governor’s mansion, the state Senate and the state House for the first time since the 19th century need 100 of 150 legislators on the floor of the House before they can conduct the people’s business.

Now they don’t have a quorum, and with Thursday the last day legislation can be sent to the Senate, the conservative agenda they’ve effectively waited 130 years to advance could die.Outgunned, Texas Democrats Vamoose, The Los Angeles Times, 5/13/2003

Good for the Texas Democrats. Among the neat little tricks the Republican majority is trying to pull is a congressional redistricting plan that takes gerrymandering to a new extreme, creating one district that is 300 miles long and one mile wide in places. That’s crap partisanship that has nothing to do with the interests of democracy in the slightest, and if the only weapon the Texas Democrats had to keep it from happening was to hie out of town, then that’s exactly what they should have done — and did. I feel ideologically consistent on this one since if the situations were reversed and the Republicans pulled the same maneuver, I’d congratulate them as well. That the Democrats’ maneuver also keeps the Texas Republicans from slashing money for textbooks and yanking health benefits for 250,000 kids is just a nice bonus.

Texas Republicans, of course, are calling the Democrats cowards: “It’s not a disgrace to stand and fight, but it is a disgrace to run and hide,” says Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick. This is like calling someone a coward because he won’t stand in front of a steamroller and let it run him over. Staying in front of the steamroller may not be cowardly, but it is idiotic; much better to slip over to the side of the steamroller and yank out its battery. Anyway, I wouldn’t put much stock in the Republicans’ whining, since if the situations were reversed they’d be doing the same thing, and Rush Limbaugh and the conservative chorus would be praising them for their courageous stand. Let’s not pretend at this late point that Republicans stand for anything more than political expediency; if they did the Democrats wouldn’t have had to high-tail it out of Austin.

The best line of this whole fracas comes from the New Mexico attorney general, who when asked to extend the Texas Rangers the jurisdiction to compel any Texas legislatures found in that state to return to Texas, refused to do do, but then added: “I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy,” she said (she’s a Democrat).

Well, you won’t find any of those in Texas right about now. Which says most of what you need to know about Texas.

Proof I am Like This in Real Life

We enter a recent IM conversation between Bill and John shortly after John notes that he’s thinking of taking Athena to Disneyland at some point in the reasonably near future:

[12:47] bill: Excellent idea. Children should go to Disneyworld-or-land. Although you should avoid the Small World ride.
[12:48] john: Yes. Nightmares.
[12:48] bill: Yes.
[12:49] john: Although, relatively speaking to the average size of the planets in the solar system, and those we’ve discovered elsewhere, it is a small world. I mean, it’s factually correct.
[12:50] bill: Hm, well, that depends on how you average it, doesn’t it? I mean, yes, if you just average the masses and divide by nine, sure.
[12:51] john: Well, averaging diameters as well.
[12:51] bill: But on the other hand, only four of the planets are larger. The other four are smaller.
[12:51] john: Well, earth is the median, sure. But that’s not the same thing.
[12:52] bill: I don’t know. I feel certain that anything the dolls sing must be incorrect. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
[12:53] john: I would grant that their process is wildly wrong — that is to say that their rationale for concluding it’s a small world is deeply flawed. However, the conclusion is verifiable.
[12:54] john: Indeed, none of the accumulated data within the song even remotely leads to the conclusion that it’s a small world after all. At best, it concludes that it’s a world of indeterminate emotional states, rooted in a communal impulse.
[12:54] bill: (phone)
[12:54] john: Likely excuse.

Note to Creationists

Dear Creationists:

Please stop trying to hijack science to disprove evolution — or at the very least, stop writing to me trying to pass off your astoundingly poor understanding of science as “proof” evolution didn’t happen. First, by and large, I know more science than you, so your attempt to use bad science on me just doesn’t work. Second, I know how to research, so things that I don’t know, I can learn quickly, which means attempts to use slightly more complicated science won’t work either. Third, I’m not at all impressed by your “experts” and their “books” — the next time a creationist writes me to tell me I should read Darwin’s Black Box I swear I’m going to strangle a cat. When one of your people publishes something that can withstand basic peer review (which is to say, peer review by scientists in the discipline your “experts” purport to write about), get back to me.

This note is precipitated by yet another e-mail from a creationist trying to save me from the dangers of evolution by doing the typical idiot creationist thing of piling on statement after statement of scientific “fact” that merely illuminates their own incomprehension of basic science and a reliance of the usual brain-dead creationist rhetoric: They haven’t found transitional fossils! Carbon dating can’t measure living things correctly, so why should we trust it with dead things? Evolution is against the Laws of Thermodynamics! And those are LAWS! I swear to God that if I were this pan-hit ignorant I wouldn’t be e-mailing people about it, as if I were proud of my inability to process science beyond the talking points handed to me by someone else.

It’s the “evolution is against the Laws of Thermodynamics” bit that really set me off, if you want to know. The basic “argument” is that evolution tends towards increased complexity but the Laws of Thermodynamics state that everything moves towards entropy — toward lessened complexity. So evolution is contravening these laws! Someone dig up Issac Newton and have him haul Darwin off to the clink!

What the dim-bulb creationists who use this line of reasoning fail to note is that closed systems tend toward entropy, and the Earth is not a closed system: Energy is constantly being added into it in the form of the energy from the sun, and it’s that energy being added into the Earth’s “system” that rather easily allows for increased complexity. Note that the Earth is gaining energy from an entity — the sun — that is in fact tending toward entropy, since the sun is burning through its nuclear fuel at the rate of millions of tons per second, and that eventually (we’re talking trillions upon trillions of years from now) all matter in the universe will devolve into thin particulate soup. But the Laws of Thermodynamics don’t say that everything tends towards entropy, always, in every instance without exception. You can very easily have localized, short-term (astronomically speaking) increases in complexity. Just like we do here on Earth.

Either the creationists who spout off about the Laws of Thermodynamics don’t know this, which means their understanding of science behind the Laws is molecule-depth shallow, or they do know this but choose to lie to the credulous about it, which means they’re (pun intended) fundamentally dishonest. If I have to choose between people being slack-jawed ignorant or unapologetic liars, I prefer to believe they’re slack-jawed ignorant, mostly because, ironically, I want to have faith in people. But either way, I don’t want them talking to me. It insults me that these people seem to be under the impression at either I am as stone ignorant as they are, or that I’m uncomplicated enough to be fooled by rhetorical sleight of hand. Neither is the case. Unlike creationists, I don’t revel in the idea of ignorance. So I am at a distinct advantage against those who do.

And ultimately, that’s the thing that positively offends me about creationists — not only do they rely on ignorance, it’s what they aspire to. And it’s the level they’d have the rest of us exist on, all so they can be comfortable with their own charmingly simplistic understanding of what God is. I can’t imagine having the sort of intellectual incuriosity that wouldn’t celebrate the desire to understand God’s creation in all its complexity — frankly, I think it’s an insult to God, who I would suggest wants us to know Him from the height of our intellect, not from the flatlands of the same. And I can’t comprehend the cynicism required to attempt to fool people with bad science in order to sway them from better science. That shows contempt for your fellow man, and that’s certainly not what the Bible teaches.

So please, creationists, stop bugging me with your bad science. Because when you do, not only does it reveal to me you’re ignorant as a fish, it also reveals to me that you’re not a very good Christian. I know you probably don’t care about the former, but I’m sure the latter must give you some pause.

Update: In the comments thread, Brian points out the MC Hawking site, which features some dude with a Stephen Hawking-like voice synthesizer creating science-based gangsta rap. Of particular interest here is the rap “F*** the Creationists,” which is hysterically rude, and is also very likely the only rap song in the history of creation that says “This one goes out to all my homeys working in the field of evolutionary science.” NOT something creationists will enjoy, obviously (and not safe for work, as they say), but fairly amusing for the rest of us.

Job

This is a sample chapter I wrote for an as-yet-untitled book about the Devil. The book is a series of dialogues between myself and the Devil, over lunch, on a number of topics that you might chat with the Devil about, with additional non-dialogue chapters filling in the holes. In this chapter, we consider the story of Job.

Since this chapter would take place almost midway through the book, it assumes a couple of things. The most important one is this: that the Devil has told me that, rather than working against God, they’re working together, with the aim of perfecting the human race. In the course of the book, I play the skeptic while the Devil attempts to prove his assertion. There’s also the question, of course, whether this fellow is really the Devil, or just some nut.

Got it? Groovy.

——-

I sneezed.

“Bless you,” said the Devil.

“Coming from you,” I said, “I don’t know how to take that.”

“Only the purest intentions,” he said.

“I’m sure,” I said. “Sorry. I’ve had this cold for days and I just can’t shake it. My life has been a non-stop alternation of phlegm and Kleenex.”

“I could fix that for you.”

“Pass,” I said. “Order, will you?”

We were at the same Chinese restaurant where we met.

“Let’s get some egg drop soup,” he said.

I stared at him. “Your press is 100% accurate. You are evil.”

“Boy,” the Devil said. “One cold and your sense of humor becomes immunologically suppressed.”

I shrugged.

“Anything else the problem?”

“It’s just been a bad week,” I admitted. “I’ve got this cold, which has introduced me to many new and interesting permutations of mucous, so I’m in a bad mood to begin with. I wrote a column about colds and mucous and being miserable, which I thought was pretty funny, all things considered. I get it back yesterday from Tom, my editor, who tells me to rewrite. Apparently no one’s interested in reading about my phlegm.”

“It is a rather specialized subject,” agreed the Devil.

“So anyway, I’ve got about four hours to completely rewrite the column, in addition to all the other stuff I have to write that day. So I rewrite, and it’s terrible, but there’s nothing I can do about it, so I try not to think about it. Then I come home, and Krissy tells me that the seal around the tub has eroded and leaked, so I can’t take a bath or a shower until the maintenance man can get to it. I had a sponge bath this morning. And that’s pretty much where I am at this point. Sick, depressed and only nominally clean.”

“I’m very sorry for you,” said the Devil. “But I still want the egg drop soup.”

The waiter came and took our order.

I sneezed again. “Damn,” I said. “Viruses. Your idea?”

“Virii,” the Devil corrected. “And no, they are not. I don’t do design. I do implementation.”

“I bet you like them.”

“They have their moments.”

Another sneeze. “Arrrgh,” I said. “I think I now know how Job felt.”

The Devil poured some green tea for the both of us. “How do you mean?”

“Sick. Miserable. Put-upon. Tired. Job-like.”

“That’s an interesting way of putting it.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said, taking the teacup. “It’s a fairly common expression. People like it. Being miserable is easier to deal with if you think it’s because God’s dinking with your karma.”

“No, I understand that,” the Devil said. “It’s just inaccurate.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?” I said. “Correct me if I’m wrong. Job had his livestock killed or stolen, his property squashed to the ground, all his children murdered, and was covered by a plague of boils from head to toe. Have I got it right so far?”

“Sure.”

“All with the explicit go-ahead of God.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re saying that this didn’t upset him, just a little.”

“Of course it upset him,” the Devil said, vaguely annoyed. “Upset is not the word for it. ‘Crushed’ might work. ‘Utterly destroyed’ might do it too.”

“Right,” I said. “So how is the analogy incorrect? I’ll grant that comparing a cold to a plague of boils is a little much, though it doesn’t feel like it right at the moment. Be that as it may, it’s still a valid comparison.”

“The analogy is correct, sure,” the Devil said. “But the premise is wrong. Look, obviously, the loss of Job’s family and property tried him greatly. That was the device through which his test was administered. But Job’s greatest grief was not the loss of his children or his property, but the inexplicable change in his relationship with God. Right? Here’s a guy who’s done everything he supposed to and more. He’s so pious that not only does he obey all the rules that he’s supposed to follow, but he even tries to take up the slack for his children. Every morning, he was up at dawn, making burnt offerings to God on the off chance that his kids had crossed God sometime during the night.”

“Which probably didn’t make him that popular with his herd of sheep.”

“Well, no. But that’s what sheep are for. So here’s Job, doing everything right, and then, without explanation, his world turns to shit. Everything is gone.

“Job’s swallowed by the grief of his loss, but for him, the most important question is, why? What had he done to deserve this? As far as he had always known, if you played by the rules, you’d get ahead. That’s how it was explained to him, that’s what he told his children, that’s the way it had always been. But now, without any change in his behavior, it felt distinctly as if he were being punished for something. Which is what his friends believed. You’ve read Job, I presume.”

“A long time ago.”

The Devil looked at me. “‘A long time ago’ as in ‘No, I haven’t read it, but I don’t want to admit it because it would make me look uneducated and stupid.’”

“No, I read it in college,” I said.

“But not since then.”

“Not really,” I said.

“Not really,” he snorted. “And you wonder why the Religious Right is running circles around you folks.”

The egg drop soup arrived.

“God,” I said. “That looks horrible.”

“Don’t have any,” the Devil said. “All right. Job gets hits with disaster, and he’s visited by his three friends: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They arrive, and they’re so shocked by Job’s appearance and his grief that they are knocked silent for a week. But when they do speak, what comes out of their mouth to Job is that it has to have been his fault. That being the case, he should be happy that God’s taken the interest to bring him back from the errors of his ways.

“‘Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty,’ says Eliphaz. ‘Behold, God will not cast away a perfect man,’ says Bildad. And Zophar says: ‘For thou hast said, my doctrine is pure and I am clean in thine eyes. But oh that God would speak, and open his lips against thee; know that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth.’”

“Well, that must have made Job feel a lot better,” I said.

“Don’t worry about Job,” the Devil said. “He was giving back as well as he got. ‘Ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. O that ye would altogether hold your piece! And it should be your wisdom.’ Not quite a zinger, but well put.

“But you have to remember that Job’s friends were not trying to bring Job down, they were trying to save Job’s soul. They were working on the same premise as Job had been: that God does not punish the righteous, therefore Job had to have done something heinous. From that point of view, Job’s protestations that he had done nothing wrong were only piling sin upon sin. He was digging himself further into the pit. They had no way of knowing they were blaming the victim.

“Let’s get back to Job. Job had reconciled to the idea that God had taken away everything he had here on Earth. ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither; the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ He’s not excited about it, he’s certainly not happy, but he can accept it.

“The greatest pain Job experiences, the cause for his lamentation, is his non-comprehension of the events. He desperately wants to understand, and in fact, his only wish is to have God explain what has happened. ‘Oh that I knew where I might find him!’ Job says. ‘I would order my cause before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me.’ That’s Job’s only wish.

“So, to get back to the point that started this whole thing off, unless you’re specifically bemoaning your incomprehension concerning a sudden change in your relationship with God, complaining about your problems is not Job-like at all.”

“What would you call it?”

“Whining, mostly.” The Devil slurped his soup.

“Swell. Thanks for increasing my misery.”

“It’s my job.”

“And you take pleasure in it.”

“Absolutely. And why not.”

“I can take comfort in the fact that I am not as much of a project for you as Job was, I suppose.”

“I have nothing to do with your current misery,” the Devil said. “You’re doing well enough on your own. Anyway, that’s another thing. I always get blamed for that whole Job episode.”

“Well,” I said, “you were the one who went down and destroyed his crops, flattened his house and killed his children. Not to mention the boils, which were a nice finishing touch.”

“They were, weren’t they? But if you can hark back to your college days, you’ll recall I was instructed to go down and wreak havoc on the poor man.”

“Right. Right after you bet God that you could turn Job away from his faith by piling him down with afflictions.”

“See, there it is,” the Devil said. “First off, it wasn’t a bet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it wasn’t a bet. He’s God and I’m the Devil. What are we going to bet? Money? Cattle? Large gas planets?”

“There was Job’s soul.”

“People amaze me,” the Devil said, “by persisting to think that souls are really that hard to get.”

“I don’t think I want to think about that last one,” I said.

“Trust me. It wasn’t a bet.”

“If it wasn’t a bet,” I said, “then what was it?”

“It was an assignment.”

“An assignment.”

“You sound skeptical.”

“I am.”

“That’s because you’re still thinking with the old rules,” the Devil said. “Look, if you work from the premise that God and I are at cross- purposes, then of course it looks as if I’m daring God to break Job’s faith to little pieces. You can’t avoid it. But I say to you again, God and I do not work at cross-purposes. Our job is to refine humanity, a job at which we work together, and at which, I may add, we work harmoniously.”

“All right,” I said, “For the purposes of argument, I’ll accept the premise that you and God are working together. But that doesn’t make me feel any better, since now both of you are actively beating up on this poor guy. Harmoniously beating up on this poor guy.”

“Well, it was nothing personal against Job, you know.”

“A thought which no doubt would have comforted Job as he counted his boils.”

“Noted. Now inasmuch as God and I are working together, let’s look at the conversation that God and I had concerning Job. Most everybody points to my challenging God on Job as the most important portion of the exchange, as the words that sent poor Job into his pit of troubles. But the fact of the matter is, I didn’t bring up the topic of Job. God did.”

“So?” I said.

“Think about it,” the Devil said. “God is many things, but one thing he is not is a subtle conversationalist. He’s God, and he doesn’t have to bother with it.”

“So you’re saying that God brought up the subject of Job for a purpose.”

“Exactly. Here comes lunch.”

Lunch was kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, and ginger beef. Neither the Devil nor I had even glanced at the vegetable dishes.

“Nnnngh,” the Devil said, after a few moments. “Good ginger beef. If we did nothing else right, I think we get points for creating a universe in which Chinese food exists.”

“There’s a deep thought,” I said.

“Obviously, if that’s all that came out of it, we’d be in trouble,” the Devil said. “But as extra credit, these things add up.”

“What reason did God have to bring up Job?”

“Well, do you remember the exchange at all?”

“Vaguely.”

“Right,” the Devil said, dryly. “Let me refresh your memory. Job, chapter one, verse eight. God says to me: ‘Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?’”

“Why do you always quote the King James Bible?”

“It has a nice beat, and you can dance to it,” the Devil said. “And anyway, the gist is mostly there. The fact of the matter is, as far as Job was concerned, I hadn’t considered him at all.”

“Why not?”

“Why would I? I had no reason to. Noting sparrow’s falls are not in my job description. I was busy doing other things in other places. And inasmuch as he was not a likely candidate to come to my attention during my rounds, I hadn’t spared him much thought.

“But now God wanted me to take a closer look at him. And why? The purpose of it was in God’s words. ‘A perfect and upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil.’ Clearly, the issue was faith.

“As we’ve already said, Job’s faith was unblemished. He was, by any account, a good and pious man, who loved his God, was good to man and animal, generous and loving, well regarded and respected. A real Boy Scout. It made you kind of sick to think about it.

“I looked again and saw what God had wanted me to see: this man was pious and faithful and good, but he was also filthy stinkin’ rich. And well-regarded, and popular. What God saw was the possibility that Job’s faith was supported by the things that he had gained in the world.

“You have to understand that faith is one of humanity’s great conceptual achievements.”

It was my turn to snort.

“Oh ye of little faith,” the Devil said. “You’re prejudiced because you see faith in opposition to rational thought.”

“As would you, if you watched enough religious programming.”

“You’re taking a very narrow-minded view of the entire concept,” the Devil said. “You’re looking at a pinheaded manifestation of faith and confusing it for the whole thing. But try to imagine what sort of mental leap was required to go from looking at the world as a purely physical place to one in which there were also worlds unseen, spirits without form, causes without representation. Conceiving of faith was not just one of humanity’s important achievements, it was THE important achievement. It was what made homo sapiens human beings, and not just another cave dweller with opposable thumbs. It was humanity’s first crisis, a cusp upon which it spun and teetered thousands of years ago, as it does now on the cusp of another crisis. To mock faith is to mock that which makes you unique in the world. More beef?”

“What?” I said.

“I said, ‘more beef?’ If you don’t want any more, I’m going to take the rest. It’s very good.”

“No, go ahead,” I said. “I’m more of a sweet and sour pork person.”

“I can see that. Anyway, sorry to go off on faith. But it’s important you appreciate the mental leap it represented.”

“I understand. Sorry.”

“That’s all right. I do watch religious programming, you know. That Pat Robertson. If he only knew.

“To return to the premise. Faith, as faith, was terribly important. Job had faith, but would it be sustained if all the good things in life were taken away? That was the question to be asked. In order for faith to be true faith, it must be sustained through misfortune. Otherwise it’s possible that it was not faith at all, but simply a learned device that people use to get through life.”

“Why is that distinction important?” I asked.

“It’s important conceptually. If you see people with faith and benefiting from it, it’s entirely possible you’ll go through the same motions they do in hopes of receiving the benefits that they get, without internalizing the concept at all. It’d be like a person without the understanding of what a restaurant is seeing us eat lunch here. They see us sit down at the table, and soon enough food arrives. So they think, ‘if I go sit there, someone will give me food,’ without realizing that, in order to get the food, you have to pay for it.”

“Of course,” I said, “in this place the bill comes after you order.”

“It’s just an analogy,” the Devil said. “And in any event, you wouldn’t get away with it twice. Which actually fits the point rather well. The next time you came here to eat, you’d either starve waiting for them to serve you, or simply be kicked out. But you wouldn’t understand why.

“Now, if you know that you have to pay for what you eat, you know that you can go anywhere you want to go and eat. That’s faith.”

“Unless you don’t have any money.”

“I’m going to send you a definition of ‘analogy’ in the mail.”

“I’m just being difficult,” I said.

“Yes you are. But again, your smart-ass digression serves the analogy. It doesn’t matter if you have money. You understand the process. Having the money or not is secondary to the fact that the process works.

“Faith is a process. It’s a way of looking at the world. And regardless of your personal situation, you understand the validity of the process. What God wanted to see was whether Job, his perfect man, understood the process, or whether he was merely content to benefit from it.

“At least, this is what I surmised. So I answered the Lord: ‘Doth Job fear God for naught?

“‘Hast thou not made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.

“‘But put forth thine hand now, and touch all he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.’

“Which is exactly what God was hoping to hear.”

“You’re sure about that?” I asked.

“He wouldn’t have brought it up otherwise,” the Devil replied.

“So how come he made you do the dirty work?”

“Because it’s my job, you know,” the Devil said. “When the CEO makes a decision, he leaves it to the underlings to implement. I was the particular underling to which jobs like these go, so I got the call. But that’s why he pointed it out to me in the first place, so he would be sure that he and I were on the same page concerning the problem.”

“But you were complaining earlier that people blame the whole Job affair on you,” I said.

“‘Complaining’ is probably a bit much,” the Devil said. “I just want to make sure that credit is given where credit is due.”

“Be that as it may, you have to take responsibility for the particulars.”

“Such as?”

“The herds. The house. The children.”

“All right, it was me and not God in the details.”

“Does it bother you at all?”

“Following through? No, not really. I mean, we’re back to a fundamental question of whether it’s right for any being to do these sorts of things to other beings. It’s a valid question now, but not necessarily then.”

“I seem to recall Job asking questions very much like that,” I said.

“Yes, and he was the very first,” the Devil countered, “and it wasn’t at all clear that he would ask those questions at all. It was equally possible that he would, in the words of his wife, ‘curse God and die.’ We had to find out.”

“Why?”

“Because it was time,” the Devil said. “The concept of faith had been around long enough to get most people used to it. Now it was time to refine the message, to get people to think more critically about it. Faith is not a free lunch, you know. It’s not always a happy romp through the poppies. It’s work. We had to see whether people were ready for the next step. How else to do it except by selecting a test subject?”

“I would think omnipotence would take care of that particular need.”

“Careful,” the Devil waggled a finger. “You take that argument back far enough, you can omnipotize the universe right out of existence.”

“It’s a valid question.”

“It is. But we’re already halfway through our meal. You’ll have to save it for another time. For now, take my word for it. The test was essential for us. And it was essential for you, too.”

“Me?” I said.

“No, not you personally, you toad,” the Devil replied. “Second person plural. ‘You’ meaning everybody.”

“How is brutally torturing a man to test his faith important to me?”

“You really have to get away from the torture aspect of it,” the Devil said. “You’re missing the forest for the trees.”

“It’s a little hard,” I said. “I feel for the guy. His kids died to test a theory.”

“Well, yes,” the Devil said. “But he got some more. Look, I’ll agree with you on this: in this test, Job got the shaft. There’s no way around it. But you have to understand that to some extent, neither God nor I can worry too much about the implications of our actions on an individual, particularly if that action serves a higher purpose. God may note each sparrow fall, but he’s not necessarily going to do anything about it. To put it bluntly, universe- creating isn’t a touchy-feely thing. Sorry about that. Can we table it for now?”

“All right. Sorry.”

“It’s a human thing,” the Devil said. “I understand. But let’s stay on target. Testing Job served our purposes, because we now knew that humans could keep their faith even when that faith was severely tested. It meant that we could go on to introduce other complexities to the problem of faith, secure in the knowledge that the foundation was solid.

“We couldn’t try every human being in the same manner that we tried Job. That would be, to use a phrase, awfully labor-intensive. And, here’s something I’m sure you’ll be glad to note, it would be rather cruel. But one of the nice things about Job is that, in addition to everything else, he had a high enough profile that the particulars of his story went far and wide. ‘Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever!’ Job said. Well, he got his wish.”

“If what you needed was a story,” I said. “You could have just made something up and spread the story around. You wouldn’t have needed Job at all.”

“For the human end of it, that’d be right. But God still needed to make his test of faith. We were killing two birds with one stone. Two birds that could only be killed with one stone, if you want to put it that way.”

“Job was ‘a perfect man’ in more ways than one.”

“He fit rather nicely into the whole thing, it’s true. The right man at the right time.”

“You weren’t worried that he might be some sort of statistical aberration?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, scientifically speaking, using a sample that consists of just one person doesn’t make too much sense. Not that I advocate abusing others for the cause, but it could be that Job was unusually advanced for his time. His brain could have been just a little bit bigger than everyone else’s around him. You remember the words of his friends. These were not people who seemed to be ready for a great teleological leap. You might have gotten ahead of yourselves.”

“It’s possible,” the Devil said. “But it doesn’t really matter. For one thing, you need to check the stories of other cultures. There’s more than one Job. He’s just the one for this culture. Secondly, it’s almost a certainty that neither Job nor his friends grasped exactly what was going on. Even in the midst of his situation, and even as he clung to his faith, Job never made the intellectual leap of understanding that he could never go back to that previous conception of faith. And though he cried for understanding, the fact of the matter is that even if God had tried to explain it to him, Job just wouldn’t have figured it out. So, you know, God didn’t even try.”

“I always thought that God’s speech to Job was on the harsh side,” I said.

“‘Harsh’ is putting it mildly,” the Devil said. “‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in search of the depth? Shall he that contendeth with the Lord instruct Him? He that reproveth God, let him answer it.’ God scoured Job’s backside with a sand blaster in that little speech.”

“You don’t think Job would have understood why God tested him?”

“Not a bit. It’s like that phrase, ‘Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.’”

“And yet Job understood enough to cling to his faith.”

“He understood that he was blameless and that the charges his friends laid upon him were baseless. He understood that by keeping his faith, he might yet have an accounting of the events that afflicted him. And he understood that whatever his troubles, he did not stand to profit by deserting the God that had previously done so well by him. He wanted to know what had happened.”

I pointed my chopsticks at the Devil. “You know what it was. The dumb bastard was just plain stubborn.”

“Stubborn,” the Devil agreed. “Obstinate, even.”

“Pigheaded,” I replied.

“Mulish,” the Devil countered.

“Headstrong,” I offered.

“Contumacious,” the Devil suggested.

“But I don’t know that that’s the same thing as having faith,” I said.

“It’s not,” the Devil said. “But one is stubborn for a reason. In this case, it was Job’s faith that was the reason. But being stubborn about something also doesn’t mean that you’d understand why you were stubborn about it, either.”

“So who’s supposed to learn from Job if not Job?”

“You are. Second person singular.”

“Me?”

“Well, and everyone else who’s read or knows of the story. This is the other reason why we wouldn’t have been concerned if no one else at the time got the story. Since it was written down, it would be available at the time when people did have understanding. It was an investment in the future, you might say. Nowadays, the only people who think that faith means a free lunch could be charitably classified as pathologically optimistic or simply dim.”

“You know there are a lot of people who do think that,” I said.

“Sure,” the Devil said. “But they’re just not paying attention. They deserve what they get.”

“Nice.”

“‘Nice’ isn’t one of my prominent characteristics.”

The waiter started clearing away our dishes.

“Let me ask you a question,” I said.

“Shoot,” said the Devil.

“Could there be a ‘Job test’ today? Could you inflict the same spiritual grief and anguish on someone today that you visited on Job, thousands of years ago?”

“Nope,” the Devil said. “At least, not in the same manner.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for one thing,” the Devil said, “simply as a practical matter, it would be harder to get away with.”

“What do you mean?”

“All right. Let’s take the actual events in the Job case. First, we killed or had stolen all of Job’s livestock. Second, we sent a terrible wind to destroy the house of his eldest son, in which all his children were having dinner. Finally and later, we set boils on Job from head to toe. Right?”

“Right.”

“Fine. Now let’s take an equivalent person today. Say, a Texas rancher with 30 thousand head of cattle. Texans, as a rule, could use to be punished by God anyway. They need the humility. So how would you suggest I dispose of his 30 thousand head of cattle? In a single stroke, mind you.”

“A fast-moving bovine virus would work,” I suggested.

“Back to virii,” the Devil said. “Excellent. All right. So we wipe out all the cattle. Now let’s get rid of his house and his kids. Suggestions?”

“A tornado is always a good option,” I said.

“Indeed it is,” the Devil agreed. “Nothing like a 300 mph wind funnel bearing down on your home and children to put the fear of God into you. Finally, what sort of disease would you set upon the rancher?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hear that flesh-eating strep is good for a laugh.”

“You’re actually pretty good at this,” the Devil said.

“I’m doing in a work of fiction,” I reminded him. “Real folks I’ll leave to you.”

“Fair enough. Now, let’s recap. Cattle done in by a virus. House and family done in by a tornado, and our man with his extremities being eaten away by bacteria.”

“Right.”

“Well?” he asked.

“Well what?” I asked.

“Where’s God?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, where is God in this? How does he show his hand? Every event you have described has a discoverable physical root.”

“So?”

“So, if a physical root can be ascribed, then that is what will be blamed. Occam’s Razor applies: the best answer is that which is the simplest. Flesh-eating strep bacteria are not generally ascribed to God. Tornadoes are a known phenomena, and are no longer ascribed to God, either. Neither are most virii at this point.”

“I don’t see your point,” I said. “If the punishment is coming from God, what does it matter if you can discover what kind of bacterium or virus it is?”

“Because no one would attribute it to God. You know that bacteria and virii exist. No one on this planet in this day and age is going to look at a virus and say ‘Hmmmm. Must have come from God.’”

“‘AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality,’” I quoted.

“But you know it’s not true,” the Devil countered. “As do all but the most bigoted of you. And more people are likely to say that AIDS was created in a government lab than by the hand of God, anyway. My point is, in all cases that a physical cause for an event is apparent, then that’s the cause that will be claimed. God doesn’t enter into it anymore.”

“I suppose that would limit your options a bit.”

“You’re not kidding. This sort of thing was easier to pull off when people had no idea there were things such as bacteria or virii, and didn’t have weather satellites and computers. When Job boiled up, there was no doubt in his mind who was doing it to him.

“And of course, let’s not forget that any modern rancher with 30 thousand head of cattle is going to be insured up the wazoo.”

“Would that matter?” I asked.

“Of course it would matter,” the Devil replied. “Why kill perfectly good cattle if they’re just going to be replaced? Not to mention that offing the cattle might not ruin him anyway. These days, a smart rancher would almost certainly have a stock portfolio diversified beyond mortal comprehension. The only way to bring down a modern-day Job would be to hope he’s invested heavily in derivatives, or tear down a good chunk of the world getting at him. And that would be missing the point.”

“So folks today are immune from God,” I said.

“Hardly,” the Devil replied. “You’re just safe from a plague of boils, courtesy of the Big Guy.”

“But we’re just talking about obvious examples,” I said. “It’s entirely possible that God could recreate the Job test using an entirely different set of objects or events.”

“How would He do that?” the Devil asked.

“I have no idea,” I said. “I’m not God.”

“Clearly not,” the Devil said. “But the fact that you can’t conceive of the new set of criteria that God might use speaks volumes. That’s as it supposed to be, since God isn’t going to do anything as grossly transparent as that anyway. God’s gotten past the obvious and has moved into the sublime.”

“And why is that?”

“Because that’s where humans are. Which is the other reason why you won’t be seeing a repeat of the Job scenario. It’s too simple.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “People are still arguing over it.”

“Arguing is one thing. Being able to conceive of Job’s dilemma is another thing entirely. You have to understand, Job and his pals weren’t exactly rocket scientists. They didn’t go home at night and fiddle around with Fermat’s Last Theorem or the principals of atonality. They were, at best, a couple of steps above hitting rocks together to make sparks. Humans today are at least another step up.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“It’s a short stairway,” the Devil assured me.

“You sure know how to make a guy feel good about his species.”

“Sorry. The point is, you don’t teach people what they already know. You already understand most of the lessons of Job, so why go over them again? Tell me, have you ever considered God’s speech to Job?”

“In what sense?” I asked.

“Listen to the things that God asks Job: Were you there when I created the Earth? Have you entered the springs of the sea, or have you walked in search of its depths? Know you the laws of Heaven?

“Job’s answer, had he truly bothered to answer instead of throwing himself into the dirt and groveling like a dog, would have had to have been ‘no.’ Which was basically the right answer. Job didn’t know much of anything. If a sixth grader today knew as little as Job did as an adult, people would look at her like she was just a step up from a trained monkey.

“But the same questions that God asked of Job would be answered differently by his counterpart today. Do you know what Planck’s Time is?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the point in time after the Big Bang at which the laws of physics kicked in. We can start theorizing about the universe from that point forward.”

“Very good,” said the Devil. “You get a gold star.”

“I’m thrilled,” I said.

“Planck’s Time occurs at ten to the negative forty-third seconds after the Big Bang; zero point 42 more zeros and a one. It’s a slice of time unimaginably close to the moment of creation that men can conceptualize and theorize about. In effect, man is there at the moment of creation, and understands, in a basic way, the laws of heaven.

“Have you entered the seas and searched its depths? In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Donald Walsh took a submersible down into the Marianas Trench to the depth of nearly six miles. You have been there. Many of the particulars of God’s speech to Job are not only accessible, a great deal of them are old news.

“So how does God answer man’s questions now? What test must the modern day Job undergo? What responses will God have when He confronts his questioner, as he did with Job? It still will not be a meeting of equals, mind you, but the gulf which separates creator and created is now able to be peered across.

“Look, here come the fortune cookies.”

The fortune cookies arrived. The Devil took his, cracked it open, and set the fortune, unread, down on the table.

“Aren’t you going to read your fortune?”

“Oh, no,” said the Devil. “It would be pointless. I already know what’s going to happen to me. But I love the cookies.”

“Tell me,” I said, “If the lessons of Job are already learned, what does that mean for faith?”

“What do you mean?”

“You have said over the course of our lunch today that the faith of Job is too simplistic for humanity today, and that many of the questions that God asked of Job, to accentuate the distance between them, have been answered or can be answered by men today. It seems like faith is superfluous.”

“Job’s faith, yes,” the Devil said. “Well, no. Not superfluous. Simply to be taken for granted. You’ve drunk in naturally through living in your world the lessons that Job never could learn or would learn, even as he lived them. Let me ask you, do you believe in God?”

“If I accept the fact that you’re the Devil, then that would seem to be the case.”

“But you still don’t think I’m really the Devil, do you.”

“You talk a good game,” I admitted.

“But that’s not a ‘yes.’”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you are. More likely you’re a loon with an astounding educational background and the wherewithal to buy me lunch once a week.”

“Which puts God right back into the ‘maybe he exists, maybe he doesn’t’ category.”

“I guess so.”

“What I tell you now would be true whether I was the Devil or not,” the Devil said. “If you had lived in Job’s time, you wouldn’t doubt the existence of God. You’d see Him all around you. Frankly, you couldn’t get rid of Him. He would be everywhere. That’s because, at the time, God needed to here. Truly, physically here, to help open humanity’s mind to the world outside his hut, his tribe, the next day. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

“But God has had to hide Himself again. And do you want to know why?”

“Yes. And it had better be good.”

“It is. It’s because basically people are lazy.”

“Come again?”

“Humans are lazy,” the Devil repeated. “Sloths, all of you. Given your druthers, you’d hang upside-down from trees and catch insects with your own drool.”

“Great visual image,” I said.

“Don’t blame me. If I had made humanity, you’d all be much quicker learners. And speed freaks. You’d probably all have 12-year life spans, but it’d all work out the same in the end.”

“I like it the way it is,” I said.

“Well, you would,” the Devil said. “Humans are lazy. God gave you these big fat brains, and spent the time to pop their tops so you could use them as they were designed. But as long as God was obviously around, you were content to let him do the heavy lifting. Which is not what you were designed for.

“So He went away, and the history of your progression in the world is a history of your trying to locate Him again. Ironically, the more you discover about the world, the harder you make it for Him to reappear to you in the way He used to.”

“But it doesn’t sound like He’d planned to come back that way anyway,” I said.

The Devil brightened noticeably. “He was right. You guys can be taught.”

“You had your doubts?”

“Not on the ability, just on the speed,” he said. “You’re absolutely right, however. If you’re waiting around for God to show himself, it’ll be a long wait. He wants you to come looking for Him.”

“Will we find Him?” I asked.

“You could. You have the capability. That’s part of the reason I’m here now,” the Devil said. “It’s getting near time we found out. You were asking earlier if God was planning another Job test. The fact is, God doesn’t repeat Himself.

“But your test will be *like* Job’s test. It’s going to be a test of faith. Job’s test of faith was in his God. It was whether he could maintain his faith in the face of all that was thrown at him.

“Your test is: do you have the faith to find God again? And on God’s terms? Expecting God as He appeared thousands of years ago will do you no good. You’ll be like Job’s friends, sticking to an old way of thinking even as the new one peers you right in the face. No, you’ll have to find God again by seeking Him out in the world as it is today, using all the knowledge that you have at your disposal. It’s a harder task than Job had, but you’re not the same sort of people that Job was. Not anymore.

“So,” the Devil said. “What does your fortune say?”

I cracked opened the cookie. “‘You will feel better soon.’”

“I’d say you feel better now,” the Devil said. “You haven’t sneezed in the last half hour.”

“The virii are merely sleeping,” I said. “They’ll be back. Do you mind if I read your fortune?”

“Not at all,” he slid it over to me.

It read: Prepare for a test.

“It’s not my fortune anyway,” said the Devil, nonchalantly. “I really think it was meant for you.”

Journaliers

One of the most interesting things about the Jayson Blair/NYT journalism scandal is one of the things that I think is being least commented upon, which is how much work Jayson Blair put into his journalistic inaccuracies. Blair put in a fair amount of research time in order to create the illusion that he was going places and observing things, and also worked fairly diligently to cover his tracks. It’s not accurate to suggest he worked just as hard to cover his tracks as he would have if he’d just gone out and did the damn work, but it’s probably accurate to say that he worked hard enough at lying that the extra effort required to actually report would not have been much more onerous.

It’s a replay of the Stephen Glass thing from a few years back (Glass, who in one of those cosmic coincidences, has resurfaced with a largely autobiographical novel called The Fabulist); Glass’ fabrications required him to create fake press releases and Web sites in order to fool his fact checkers and editors. Glass made up stuff, it seems, primarily because he thought reality was too boring (it’s not, it just requires a lot of intensive research. Glass thought it was easier to make stuff up first and then create the background details later; I doubt it.). It doesn’t seem like Blair was motivated by the same impulse; he just looks like a neophyte reporter who lacked the skills he required to do his job correctly, and someone more interesting in being a reporter than he was interested in the process involved in reporting.

Another irony here is that while it’s clear that Blair has shown himself to be be a pretty bad reporter, he shows ample skills to have been a rewrite man — one of the guys who takes information from reporters in the field, augments it with research from other sources, and bangs out an article based on that. The fly in that ointment is Blair’s distressing tendency to make things up, like quotes and details that he wasn’t able to find in stories. That one’s a little difficult to get around no matter what.

Blair had a lot of problems from very early on, and many people are wondering why the New York Times kept someone who was so very troubled. A number of people are pointing to the affirmative-action thing (Blair is black), but I think that not really a direct-line thing, since quite obviously it would not have been difficult to replace Blair with any number of qualified minority reporters; it’s not as if the NYT has to scrape the gutters looking for people who want to work there.

I think it’s more a matter of institutional pride, the idea that for whatever reason, they made Blair a Times man, and by God, they were going to make him live up to the title one way or another. And Blair indeed did the work. He just did in mostly the utterly wrong way.

The final irony is that Blair may find a way of making it work for himself after all. Stephen Glass, who planted fake stories in a number of magazines and precipitated a scandal of his own because of it, has turned the experience into a novel that’s ranked No. 156 on the Amazon rankings, and which was promoted by articles from the chattering classes and by a segment on last Sunday’s 60 Minutes. Name another debut novelist in the last 20 years who has had his work so slavishly followed by the press. And imagine how the story of the man who spoofed the New York Times would sell.

The Universe, in Handy Book Form

Today is the official release date for The Rough Guide to the Universe. That’s in the US, mind you; in the UK, it’s already been out for a month, and I’m mildly confused as to why every single Briton has not gone to purchase their own copy. Well, it’s early yet.

Here in the US, of course, I whole-heartedly suggest that each and every one of you to mob your local bookstore and demand several copies — or, should you be far distant from a local bookstore, to purchase it online — say, here, or here, or even here. (Or, should you like to like to shop online, yet still support local business, here – there’s a couple of extra steps required, like entering my name and then entering your zip code. Still.)

Because I’m the author of the book, I got sent a number of author copies, most of which will be going to family and immediate friends, but to celebrate the release of the book, I thought it would be fun to have a little contest. So here it is: I will give one FREE, autographed copy of The Rough Guide to the Universe to the person who best completes this sentence:

“The Universe is…”

My personal answer to this is “The Universe is where I keep all my stuff,” but I’m sure you have your own personal insights on the matter.

To provide your answer, just drop a line in the comments thread for this entry. Enter as many times as you like BUT the cut-off for entries is 11:59 pm EST Friday, May 16. I will pick the response I find the most interesting and announce the winner on May 19. At which point the winner can contact me by e-mail and then I’ll send out the book.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t rush out and buy the book right this very instant. Far from it — when and if you win, you can surely gift your previously-purchased copy to a friend, or family member, or local library. Everyone wins!

Incidentally: In totally serious mode, you might actually think about buying a copy of this book (or, honestly, any book you like) for your local library. As you may or may not know, library funds are getting slashed left and right around the country; they’d appreciate the book, and your community would appreciate having books that weren’t incredibly old on the shelves. I of course donated the book to my local library as soon as it came in, and also donated all the books I bought and used for research and fact checking. It’s a worthy cause.

Haircuts and Our Weekend

In case you’re wondering, yes, the shaved head look is a new one for me. Well, not entirely new — when I was five I was sent to live with my aunt for about a year (my mother had had an operation which required a long convalescence) and my uncle Vern, who lived up to every rural stereotype attached to a name like “Vern,” went and had my head buzzed because he thought I looked like a girl (which was probably true — early pictures of me show me to look disturbingly like my own daughter). I believe they sent a school picture to my mother shortly thereafter and that she cried. I didn’t mind; at least they didn’t beat me up in school (well, not for looking like a hippie, in any case).

However, it’s the first time in my adult life my hair’s been this short, and the direct cause of it is frustration with the fact that the more hair you lose, the less the hair you have left wants to do anything. It’s like it gets depressed, like an assembly line worker in a factory that’s chronically laying people off. Oh, look, another fifty follicles shut down. I don’t even see why I bother. Point is, it’s difficult to make what’s left look good, and I’m not one of those people who would choose to spend a great amount of time on it anyway. So off I went to the barber — not the hair stylist. When you go to get your head shaved, you want a barber, damn it.

Who, incidentally, approved of my desire to crop my head close. She told me about the men who came in with less hair than me but with a greater sense of self-denial, demanding she do something with their heads that implied they were still carrying around the hirsute wealth of Fabio. This struck her as sad. You work with what you have, and don’t make what you have work to be more than it is. Good salt of the earth wisdom that you can only get in small-town barbershops. And for only nine bucks, to boot. Most psychological counseling sessions are far more expensive, and don’t include a trim as a throw-in.

I think the barber did a fine job with the haircut, but to be honest I don’t know if the buzzed look is really me. A friend of mine sent me an e-mail after he saw the picture I put up on Friday, saying that it makes me look like a bad-ass. And I’d agree, but I can’t decide if it’s the “Sullen mysterious man that all the chicks crave” sort of bad-ass look, which would be good, or the “Straight outta the Aryan Brotherhood at San Quentin” sort of bad-ass look, which, needless to say, would be kind of bad. Today’s picture is somewhere in the middle of this; I call it my “I’m the new bassist for Metallica, and the publicist told me to scowl like I was unhappy about it” look. Incidentally, I’m not the new bassist for Metallica.

My birthday was swell; I got birthday wishes from friends, had dinner with the in-laws, and then Krissy and I went off to see X2: X-Men United, which I thought was fine. I’m not a big Marvel Comics guy, to be entirely honest with you; it’s like the AL of comic book publishers (DC is the NL, obviously), and as such all its characters feel about ten degrees skewed (and in case you’re wondering, Marvel’s DH is clearly The Hulk — “Hulk Smash!” Yes, Hulk. That’s what we want you to do). But as far Marvel comics movies go, X2 is probably the best one out there, and it’s nice to see that Patrick Stewart still has a viable gig now that the Star Trek movies have imploded around him.

Mother’s Day was likewise very nice and low-key; Krissy spent most of the day with her mother, with Athena in tow, while I stayed at home and banged out a chapter in the new novel. People have been asking me what the new novel is about, and I am of course fairly mysterious about it, except to note that it involves sheep. People think i’m joking about that. I’m not, people. The particular chapter I wrapped up also involves panda steaks, a cult that worships Ted Nugent, and a major diplomatic incident precipitated by a few pungent insults. I can’t believe I get paid for this.

There’s your weekend wrap-up around the Scalzi Household. I didn’t mention the constant 25 mph winds that’s been blowing more or less constantly since Saturday morning or the thunderstorms that have been swinging through on a regular 6-hour basis, because I assume most of you out there have been experiencing this over the weekend as well. Let us never speak of it again.