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.

Another Gripping Insight Into My Work Life

Hard as it may be to believe, I figure many of you faithful readers of the Whatever don’t go out of your way to purchase the Official US PlayStation Magazine — and why not? You have something against good, clean video gaming fun? Well? — and may not see the DVD reviews I place within its pages every month. So in the interest in sharing my world with you, I’m displaying a typical OPM DVD column for you to peruse. These are the ones that appeared in the March 2003 issue (which means it went on sale in February), on account of my deal with OPM gives them a 90-day exclusive on the material, so these are now over 90 days old. Everyone’s happy. Anyway, so here’s how I make a little scratch each month.

Four Feathers
(Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson)

Here’s an interesting curiosity: A film celebrating the British Empire, featuring Heath Ledger from Australia (where the Brits shipped all their nastiest convicts), Kate Hudson from America (which the Brits taxed without representation) and directed by Shekhar Kapur from India (which the Brits ruled for centuries through the cunning use of flags). No wonder it doesn’t quite work. Still and all, it has some good action scenes, and Hudson and Ledger are easy on the eyes, so if you’re in the mood for a Kipling-esque wallow in the Victorian Imperialism (and who among us isn’t?), here you go. No DVD extras announced at press time.
Movie Rating: Two and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: N/A

Formula 51
(Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Carlyle)

Samuel L. Jackson stars in this action film as a kilt-wearing chemist, proving that he is in fact the coolest man in all filmdom, since any other action star trying to walk around an entire film as a scientist in a tartan skirt (even one who’s synthesized a legal drug that gives you a super high, as he does here) would probably be beaten to death by the film’s anguished financiers. The film itself is mish-mashed squidge-up of elements from Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction and their various rip-offs, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll be entertained, and if not, well, Jackson’s kilt will probably have scared you off already. Extras: A “making of” feature.
Movie Rating: Two and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Two Stars

Knockaround Guys
(Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper)

This long-delayed flick crawled out of the woodwork after Vin Diesel became the Next Big Thing (or, at the very least, the Next Large Thing. I mean, look at him). Pre-stardom films released post-stardom are often embarrassing moments for everyone involved — they reek of the “I needed the work” vibe — but not this one. It’s a smartly done mob caper-slash-coming of age story, and features a nicely high-powered cast including John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper (Diesel isn’t even the main character — that role belongs to Barry Pepper, as a mobster’s conflicted son). Catch it and be pleasantly surprised. Extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes and the complete screenplay.
Movie Rating: Three and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three and a Half Stars

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
(Nia Vardalos, John Corbett)

It cost something like $5 million to make and grossed something like $230 million dollars in the theaters, which makes this film the closest anyone in Hollywood ever got to totally free money. The story is standard-issue sitcom odd-couple love story, this time with a daffy Greek woman and a WASP-y guy, but it’s pretty funny and you can watch it with your grandma, and both of you can enjoy it. And, really, there’s something nice about the fact that the most successful romantic comedy of all time stars a woman (Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the script) who doesn’t look like she’s equal parts silicone, collagen and starvation. Vardalos, co-star John Corbett and director Joel Zwick add a commentary track.
Movie Rating: Four Stars
DVD Extras: Two and a Half Stars

One Hour Photo
(Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen)

It’s Robin Williams continuing his penance for one too many Patch Adams-type flicks, this time by playing a quiet, mousy photo developer who becomes unhealthily attached to a seemingly-perfect family whose film he processes, and then takes it personally when cracks start to show in the family fašade. Williams is cool and creepy here, playing the role of the “quiet guy who keeps to himself” to obsessive, clammy perfection; if nothing else, this is the film that finally convinces you to go out and get that digital camera. Williams and director Mark Romanek add their commentary to the DVD, which also includes the usual “making” feature and a Charlie Rose interview.
Movie Rating: Four Stars
DVD Extras: Three Stars

Road to Perdition
(Tom Hanks, Paul Newman)

So Tom Hanks is a bad guy in this elegiac tone poem to depression-era gangsterism, and to the sins of fathers visited on sons (both metaphorically and literally in the case of this film). While you’re watching Hanks go through his paces, you admire his commitment to his craft, the handsomeness of the production, and the gravity of the proceedings. You also realize that Tom Hanks as a bad man doesn’t really fly — Hanks is the modern-day version of Jimmy Stewart, and no one bought him as a bad guy, either. You accept it on the premise that actors have to do something new every once in a while or be bored silly, and you tick off the minutes until it’s done and he can get back to doing his usual thing.

To be fair, Hanks’ performance is good, but Hanks never really lets go like he needs to; even at his baddest here there’s something held in reserve — something that Hanks himself probably wasn’t aware he was holding in. Contrast this performance with Denzel Washington’s luxurious wallow in badness in Training Day: Washington’s performance had teeth, while Hanks’ performance has a pained scowl. A close miss, but at least it’s an interesting miss, and it’s helped along by an ace in the hole: Paul Newman, who plays Hanks’ adoptive father and crime “godfather” — a situation with exactly as much potential for pathos as you might expect. On the extras front, director Sam Mendes offers commentary and deleted scenes with commentary; there’s also a “making of” feature and a photo gallery.
Movie Rating: Three and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three Stars

Rules of Attraction
(James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon)

Let’s make this really simple: If you really want to watch a film of college students acting like angry, hopped-up lower primates, go rent of those videos where they basically post a camera in the French Quarter at Mardi Gras and let people flash the lens at they stumble by. It will have somewhat more plot than Rules of Attraction (which, to be fair, makes slightly more sense than the hopelessly rank Bret Easton Ellis novel upon which it is based), and the characters will be more sympathetic, even as they flash each other for beads and vomit on the sidewalk. No DVD Extras.
Movie Rating: One half star
DVD Extras: N/A

Spy Kids 2
(Antonio Banderas, Carla Guigino)

More pint-sized James Bond-y action with a Latino twist from director-writer-editor-composer-probably-would-handle-craft-service-if-they-let-him Robert Rodriguez. Lots of people find these movies tiring — Rodriguez is immensely creative in a showoff-y way that can grate after about a half hour, and the kid stars of these things aren’t, like, good actors, but when you consider that the average live-action kid-oriented film stinks like a dead rat fresh from a Newark sewer, I’m willing to cut the man a little slack for making the effort not to be boring. Plus, it has Ricardo Montalban! All together, now: “KHAAAAAAAAN!!!!!” Lots of extras, including commentary, stunt and gadget featurettes, music videos, deleted scenes and so on.
Movie Rating: Three and Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three and Half Stars

Sweet Home Alabama
(Reese Witherspoon, Patrick Dempsey)

Sure, we think of that winsome little Reese Witherspoon as just the bee’s knees, but consider that in Sweet, she plays a woman who is all cozy with one man (who proposes to her at Tiffany’s, for crying out loud) but still secretly married to another. Yes, Reese Witherspoon: Wanton, unapologetic adulterer! And yet, people weren’t shocked — they thought it was cute. So, to recap: Probably the most depraved representation of decent sexual relationships in a Disney film since, oh, Pretty Woman (Julia Roberts! A hooker!). Like that will stop you from getting this for your mom. You’re all sick. Extras include director commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, a music video and an alternate ending.
Movie Rating: Three and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three Stars

The Tuxedo
(Jackie Chan, Jennifer Love Hewitt)

Jackie Chan as Inspector Gadget, and really, why would anyone in their right mind want that? For the film, Chan dons a spy tuxedo that’s all filled with special effects, but the whole point of a Jackie Chan film is that he is the special effect in itself (yes, I know, he’s getting up there in age. He’s still more flexible than you or me). Also, the plot, involving water striders infecting the world’s water supply, is beyond stupid. I still like watching Chan (he’s always amusing) someone needs to mention to Chan that Hollywood apparently thinks all his fans are idiots. At least there’s the blooper reel to look forward to, as well as deleted scenes and a “making of” documentary.
Movie Rating: Two Stars
DVD Extras: Two and a half Stars

Arty Spooky Athena

One of the most frequent notes I get in e-mail is to the effect of “it’s very nice that you prattle on endlessly about trivial things. But, you know, we’re just here for the pictures of Athena.” Fine, then. Have it your way. Your first picture of the day, hand-colored by Athena herself — yes, she can handle Photoshop. Yes, it scares me too:

The second is kind of a spooky one; I call this my “Sixth Sense” picture of Athena, in that you can just see her saying “I see dead people” in it:

Okay, that’s all you get for today. Now read something of mine. And be thankful.

Oh, Grow Up

A new study from my alma mater the University of Chicago suggests that most of us think that someone doesn’t really get grown-up until around the age of 26:

“According to those surveyed, the average age someone should marry was 25.7, and the age for having children was 26.2. Most respondents considered parenthood the final milestone needed to reach true adulthood… Nearly 1,400 of those surveyed last year were asked to answer the questions about adulthood.

They were asked to rate the importance of seven stages of transition into adulthood – from attaining financial independence to getting married and having children. They also were asked to specify the ages at which those stages should be achieved.

For categories other than marriage and having children, the average ages were: financially independent, age 20.9; not living with parents, age 21.2; full-time employment, age 21.2; finishing school, age 22.3; and being able to support a family, age 24.5.” — Associated Press

This survey pretty much codifies something that’s been my own personal opinion, which is that being a “kid” pretty much lasts these days until you’re about 25 — which is, you can screw around (or screw up) any time before that age and not really have it count against you in the court of general opinion (opposed to say, a court of law, so you still can’t drink and drive). Try it for yourself: Which is worse — a 24-year-old slacker, or a 28-year-old one? Easily, the 28-year-old. The 24-year-old one slides by on the “well, he’s still got time” thing, but when you look at a 28-year-old farting around, the feeling is “clock’s ticking, dude.”

I also think there’s a psychological edge to the 25th year, in that if you wanted to be considered much of a prodigy in anything, you had to get it done before the age of 25. By the time I was 25, I was a nationally syndicated film critic and humor columnist, which made me feel pretty good about myself (and the movie reviews, at least, were pretty good), but I hadn’t written the Great American Novel, which was something I figured I’d have done by then. Which is not to say I hadn’t tried. I’ve got a couple of attempts hidden in my files. You don’t want to see them. The one thing I can note is that they’re very short, because it became clear within about ten pages that I had no clue what I was doing. Now it looks like my first novel will be published just short of my 35th birthday, and I’m good with that. I’m not a novel prodigy, and it’s not the Great American Novel. But it’s a Pretty Good American Science Fiction Novel, and now I feel like I have a clue. So it’s worked out pretty well. Anyway, once you get over 25, you worry less about doing things on a timetable and worry more about doing them well.

Personally, I felt reasonably adult when I was 26 — I’d just got married, and had been working and supporting myself for a few years by then — but the first time I felt irrevocably grown up was shortly after I got laid off by AOL in 1998. Krissy and I had been just about to make an offer on a house when I got whacked, and we had to make the choice between retreating, grabbing a less expensive apartment and waiting until I had a certain and stable income before we got a house, or deciding to take a leap of faith, buy a house and assume that we’d make it work. We took the leap of faith, and as Robert Frost once said about a similar situation, it made all the difference. I’ve never had reason to believe I was anything less than a grown-up since then, even when I’m playing video games. And as I said, it’s not like I didn’t feel like a grown-up before then. It was just the crystallizing moment that showed where my brain was (for the record, I think Krissy was all grown up at least a couple of years before me, a mildly embarrassing fact because she’s a year younger than I am. But let’s not get into that now).

I’m nt a professional sociologist, but I don’t think there’s much of a downside of people having an extended adolescence. Yes, it leads to more time for people to make asses for themselves, as amply shown by the explosion of Girls Gone Wild videos, but the whole point of being young is to get most of the “I’m Making an Ass of Myself” energy out of your system, so that when you finally slide into true adulthood you can focus on the pleasures and responsibilities of being all grown up without the additional urge to make an ass of yourself later (a process known as the “Mid-Life Crisis”). If the end result of six spring breaks in Cancun and Daytona Beach instead of two is that you say that’s something I don’t need to do again after the last one, then by all means, have six spring breaks. When you hit 43 without freaking out and breaking up your marriage to (take your pick) date a 21-year-old Hooters waitress or fondle the hot young assistant gardener, your spouse and your children will thank you. Be young, have fun, and then go on. It’s nice when it works that way. And it takes a little bit longer, it’s probably worth the investment.

Just, you know, not too long. Remember: 24-year-old slacker — okay. 28-year-old slacker — tick tick tick tick tick tick tick, baby.

Exact Dates

“Liviu Mircea and Tiberiu Oproiu claim to have pinpointed the exact time and date of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

The pair, from the Astronomic Observatory Institute in Cluj, Romania, say Jesus died at 3pm on Friday, April 3, 33 AD, and rose again at 4am on Sunday, April 5.” — Astronomers ‘pinpoint time and date of crucifixion and resurrection’, Avanova, 5/8/2003

Yeah — but in which time zone?

There’s also the matter that this would make Jesus a bit older than his traditional death age, since it’s generally historically accepted that, despite the labeling of “B.C.” and “A.D.,” Jesus was not born in 1 AD (or even 1 BC — there is no “zero year”), but probably in 4 BC. Jesus is legendarily 33 when he died, but this new calculation would make him 37 or thereabouts. So there goes that “By the time Jesus was my age, he was dead,” joke I was so looking forward to telling on Saturday (which is my 34th birthday, you know).

I think the exact dating of Jesus’ death (and subsequent events) is immaterial in a number of ways, most obviously, of course, because his resurrection is consistently marked by the occasion of Easter, which always happens at the same time: The first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (that’s the start of Spring — March 21).

Yes, the date of that event moves around on our calendar, but that’s a function of the calendar itself (the Gregorian calendar is not lunar-based). From the perspective of always being on the Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, it is indeed always on the same date, and has been since Jesus was crucified. Giving it a specific date on the Gregorian calendar is neither here nor there — I’m unlikely to get an extra day off for it in any event.

Incidentally, other famous deaths on April 3 through the years: Persian emperor Chosroes II (murdered by his kid — rough), Pope Honorius IV, Arctic explorer James Clark Ross, the outlaw Jesse James, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari actor Conrad Veidt, composer Kurt Weill, and US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Other famous resurrections on April 5:

…Hmmm.

The Loneliest Group In America

I think you’d have to look long and hard to find another group so willing to alienate itself from its naturally consonant ideological partners than the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, I think. Most anti-abortion types are religious conservatives, many of whom, as Rick Santorum so delightfully illuminated recently, consider homosexuals in the same class as sheep-fondlers.

On the other hand, gays and lesbians are classically pro-choice, part of that whole “we gays are pretty liberal” package that comes almost naturally in a society which seems works on the polite assumption that anyone who deviates from the missionary position is unregenerate straight-ticket Democrat. Also, of course, for many gays and lesbians, anyone who finds common cause with religious conservatives on any subject is likely to be treated with deep and abiding suspicion.

For these reasons, I suspect PLAGAL members find themselves in the position of being the proverbial turd in the punchbowl no matter where they choose to hang out. Perversely, however, I find that I have to respect the PLAGAL folks, just a little bit. It takes guts to to intentionally be the most unpopular people in the room, regardless of the room. And these guys and gals are it. So shine on, you crazy diamonds! And, I suppose, at least they have each other.

Interestingly, I can’t seem to find any pro-choice, anti-gay groups. Odd.

Monica Schroeder

I’ve been listening to Monica Schroeder’s Orbit album more or less non-stop since I got it a couple of days ago, primarily because I think she’s got just about the most fabulous voice I’ve heard in a year or two — rich, warm, velvety; like hot chocolate in musical form. Also, she’s a fine songwriter, in the Natalie Merchant – Sarah McLachlan vein of things. Don’t take my word for it, of course: This CD Baby page has sound sample (I suggest “Poison”), and you can order the album there, too. That’s a hint. Basically, it’s a good enough package that I wonder why Monica Schroeder isn’t already with a major label. Other women are putting out music in the same genre that simply isn’t as good.

Specifically, I wonder how much of Schroeder’s indie status is due to the fact that, as you can see by the picture, she’s not Britney Spears, or even Sarah McLachlan. Given the fact that outside one or two female rappers, I can’t think of a single solo woman artist with a major record deal that could be described as more than a few ounces from a Maxim-defined definition of appropriate weight, I have to wonder if Schroeder sent in the demos only to have them chucked out unheard because some A&R person got a look at her picture and couldn’t figure out how to sell a voice in the music business.

I’m not immune to a pretty girl with a pretty voice (for proof of this, see my most recent IndieCrit review, in which I make a stone cold ass of myself), but I’m also someone who is at point in his life where what I expect out of my female musicians is that they play and sing interesting music, period, end of sentence. When you can write and sing like Monica Schroeder, my basic feeling about it is, someone tell Jewel to get the hell off the stage.

Mind you, I could be way off base here — Schroeder, who releases her own albums, might simply have decided to go the Ani DiFranco route of releasing her own albums in order to keep the money she makes and to determine the course of her own musical career. If that’s the case, then obviously more power to her. But if she’s an indie artist because no major music label wants to make an effort sell music before an image, well, that’s just a shame. And, quite clearly, more reason to support indie music, which if nothing else, has the virture of putting music first.

Now stop reading and go buy this album. Do it. Don’t make me come over there.

Fred in Hell

The “Reverend” Fred Phelps sent some of his minions to protest at a memorial service for Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) apparently because Mr. Rogers’ never interrupted his daily lessons of love, inclusion and acceptance to note parenthetically to a nation full of preschoolers that men who lay with men will be slowly masticated in the slavering, bacteria-ridden jaws of Satan for all of eternity. Phelps’ minions even hauled out signs that read “Fred is in Hell,” for which the only thing to note is that the tense is premature for the Fred for which I suspect this statement will ultimately apply.

The fact that Fred Phelps would claim Mr. Rogers is broiling in Hell is so extreme that I assumed it had to be hoax. But no; go to Phelps’ site (the glowingly friendly domain godhatesfags.com) and there’s a link to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story mentioning Phelps’ minions’ presence (in the 25th paragraph). So it’s true enough.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so obsessed with the sexual acts of other people that you’re ready to condemn arguably the nicest single man in the history of the United States to the pit of Hell because he didn’t teach a bunch of four-year-olds to hate, except to note that there’s clinical evidence to suggest that many homophobes are actually aroused by homosexuality, and Phelps is the biggest homophobe of them all. Do the math here. Some member of the Queer Nation needs to (you should excuse the expression here) swallow hard and give ol’ Fred Phelps what he really wants. A grateful nation would honor such a person forever.

And it’s not like Fred would have to worry about his immortal soul. He was going to Hell anyway. I mean, seriously. You’re God: Which Fred are You going to clasp to Your bosom? Hint: Not the one that’s going to suspect You’re a fag for doing so.

You’ve Probably Missed It

Mercury is passing in front of the sun in a phenomenon known as a “transit”. And you say, big deal, it passes in front of the Sun all the time. That’s what Mercury does, from our perspective. Well, the thing is, right now you can actually see the tiny planet cast its shadow on the Sun, which is not something you can see all the time — only once every few years, on average. NASA has some photos up right now. Please look at these instead of going out and staring, slack-jawed, directly at the sun.

The bad news here is that if it’s past about 8am on the East Coast of the US, you’ve already missed it (and quite obviously if you’re on the West Coast, you won’t see it live at all). Be that as it may, you should at least be aware it happened. And, look, NASA put together a movie of it for you. Now, go on with the rest of your day.

Note From Athena

Dear Whatever Readers: Please excuse my dad from writing this Tuesday. He’s got a lot of work, plus if he doesn’t do his invoicing today, mommy will disembowel him and feed his entrails to the pets. So all told he’s kind of busy at the moment. But if you come back tomorrow, you will most likely find him, and hopefully large percentage of his intestine, still intact and prepared to amuse you.

Your friend,

Athena.

Monica, Monica, Monica

I note conservatives are whacking on Monica Lewinsky again, this time for her undoubtedly ill-advised but essentially harmless participation in that Mr. Personality dating show. Bill O’Reilly’s column on Saturday is typical sort of thing in which he castigates Monica of cashing in on her particular brand of fame, saying “Since Ms. Lewinsky has no prior TV experience, one can assume that the only reason she is doing ‘Mr. Personality’ is that she did Mr. Personality, if you know what I mean,” and likewise compares her to other Washington types who cashed in on their non-positive notoriety, such as G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, and Hollywood types like Wynona Ryder and Robert Downey, Jr. O’Reilly’s moral is that bad behavior pays off.

Two things here. First, let’s start with the admission that Monica’s specific “crime,” aside from not actually being a crime in most states, is pretty mild compared to, say, circumventing Congress to sell arms to a middle eastern country, or even shoplifting at the mall. It doesn’t even really count as “bad behavior,” since most women (and not a few men) do what she’s done on a regular basis without the slightest fear of retribution (maybe not to the sitting President of the United States, admittedly. But like you can blame a girl for showing initiative).

But second and more importantly, while O’Reilly’s correct in that Lewinsky’s getting her gig because she’s who she is, but it’s worth remembering that Lewinsky’s famous not because she came forward to the tabloids with her stained dress and tales of pizzas and thongs, looking to make a quick buck in a “gulp and gab” experience. It took her so-called friend Linda Tripp to make it happen, followed the hounds of the conservative press, who mocked her as a “portly pepperpot” for about a year before any of the rest of us even actually heard her voice. I don’t want to say Lewinsky is entirely blameless for the whole fracas — it was her oral cavity, after all — but her elevation to scandal superstardom is almost exclusively the doing of others. Lewinsky would have undoubtedly joined the legions of women who serviced Little Bill with little more than the thanks of a grateful President had not more ideological forces intervened.

Therefore, the idea of conservative flogging her to make a buck now seems like hypocritical whining. They made Monica Lewinsky — and indeed, it’s Fox, home of the most ideologically transparent news organization in the US, which is giving her her current job — so they’ve got no right to bitch about her persistence in the culture. They may be upset that she’s not sticking to the script and fading into the background like the good and silly little patsy she was supposed to be, but that’s just another example of conservatives theoretical plans getting knocked about by the real world.

Also, of course, I think it’s entirely fair for Lewinsky to get a chance to have a generation of people remember her for something other than licking presidential Flipper. I personally wouldn’t choose to be remembered as the host of a lame game show, but it’s not my life, these are the opportunities presented to her, and it’s not like anyone would let her have a life where she’s just another gal in lower middle management anyway. Let her have her opportunities. You can’t blame her for capitalizing on the fame, tawdry or otherwise, other people foisted onto her.

All But Merely an Empy Sky

I was playing with this, a script that generates a freeform poem beased on the text of a Web page you enter, and I had it generate a poem from my entry of 9/12/2001, which, aside from being about 9/11, is one of the more lyrical things I’ve written on this site. The resulting poem is surprisingly not bad, and eerily evocative in places. Here it is.

All but merely an empty sky
like this Nighttime eventually fell, and moon
had to observe, nearly anyone
anywhere in my daughter,
I did ask myself, Pandora unleashed
terrors upon the planes.
Eventually fell, and cheerful grace. Ironically, the
white noise of sky to celebrate that
surely my daughter who
loves to appreciate its blue
inverted bowl, set before
that there any in the
constellation of summer
with their cloud of
the major. We see that
singular sky, Before that singular sky,
like that. I
lived
less than five minutes.

Blogging and Novels

This is the 100th entry I’ve written since switching over to Movable Type, which averages out to a little more than 2 and a half entries a day since I’ve started using MT, so if you were wondering whether blogging software helps you write more, and more blog-like, now you know the answer, at least as it applies to me. On the other hand, I get three times the unique views a day as well, so that’s a nice reward for a writer.

To commemorate this momentous occasion, let’s talk about blogging and other forms of writing, specifically, writing novels. One of my frequent correspondents pointed me in the direction of a newspaper interview with William Gibson, a novelist who recently started a blog. Gibson said in his interview that he enjoys his blog, “However, if I’m ever going to write another book, I’m going to have to quit doing my blog as I have a hunch it interferes with the ecology of being a novelist.” My correspondent wanted to know what I thought about that statement.

Well, I wrote one novel before I started writing regularly on my personal site (that would be Agent to the Stars) and one after (that would be Old Man’s War), and I can’t say that the writing experience was that much different; in both cases I would sit down, typically on a Saturday, and spew out a chapter, more or less, and then that would be it. My novel-writing process tends to be fairly efficient in that I don’t do much rewriting (this is less an issue of brilliance than the willingness to improvise with plot), so in both cases the writing went fairly quickly — about three to four months each, and again, mostly working on the weekend. So in terms of work time, blogging didn’t interfere much.

What blogging does do, however, is offer what is best described as an “attractive distraction.” It’s been noted that man can do anything, so long as it’s not the thing he’s supposed to be doing at the moment, and writers are famously distractable. Blogging offers a special sort of distraction, in that it’s actually writing, so a writer can feel like it’s not really just wasting time — he is writing, after all, and he’s supposed to be writing. Sure, not on his blog, but even so. I wish I could say I don’t let myself fall prey to this rationale, but you’ll note I’m writing this on a Saturday, which is the day I typically write on my novels, and I’m theoretically working on a new novel at the moment. You can do the math.

But I don’t blame writing the Whatever for my distractability. I’m also distracted by e-mail, by reading material online and off, by phone calls, by video games and by interaction with the family (although they’re away just at this moment, so I don’t have that excuse). I don’t spend more time being distracted because I write online, I just have more options to be distracted. Thank God I don’t actually live near any of my friends. I might never write at all.

Gibson is correct, I think, in his intimation that when push comes to shove, one form of writing might have to go for the sake of the other. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ll take off a month or two from writing the Whatever in order to focus in on a major writing assignment; I particularly do this the closer I am to a deadline. And, to go back to the theme of “attractive distractions,” I don’t just do it with writing the Whatever; I also tend to shut down other distractions in my life. It’s just that folks reading here don’t see me not playing video games, you just see me not writing in this space.

This is, incidentally, a head’s up: If August comes around and I don’t feel like I’m progressing happily with either The Book of the Dumb or the new novel (still untitled), then you’re likely to see an entry that says “see you in a month.” I never feel too bad about doing taking these sorts of breaks; as I’m fond of noting, I don’t get paid for this, and paid writing (especially the paid writing that actually ends up on a bookstore shelf) takes priority.

Aside from the question of being an attractive distraction, the Whatever doesn’t really pull me away from the mindset of writing a novel. By personal inclination and by the necessities of reality, I’m not one of those people who is solely focused on one project at one time; I’m writing two books, working with corporate clients, and writing magazine and newspaper articles all at once. And then I do the Whatever and IndieCrit as well. To be entirely honest about it, I don’t know if I could just concentrate on one thing at one time. I think it’d make me twitchy. There’s very little similarity between what I write for the Whatever and what I write in the novels, so it’s not like one is cannibalizing mindshare or material from the other.

This may not be the case with Gibson, for the simple fact that while all writers end up with the same end result (i.e., writing), the process by which they produce it is utterly individual. So if he thinks that writing his blog is going impact his novel writing, then he’s probably right about that, and he should therefore take a break from the blogging to work on telling stories.

Speaking of which, I’ve distracted myself long enough. Back to the novel —

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