You can’t hear what you’re not listening for

One way of understanding “open-mindedness” is to allow the possibility of changing your mind. And yes, it’s a good idea to leave the door open a crack, listen to your opponents, in the off chance they may be right about something. But that’s only one dimension of openness. Another is not making assumptions about what your opponents are saying.

Windmill with birds
While cell towers, cats, and skyscrapers kill many more birds, research continues to make windmills safer. Image credit: Phys.org, click to read article

Recently on a thread about clean energy, I read this:

You never hear environmentalists talking about windmills killing birds #DirtyLittleSecret

This “gotcha” happens a lot in online discussions, where someone assumes the other side ignores their own problems.  I provided several links to environmentalists doing exactly that going back more than a decade; it’s a pretty hot topic and the subject of a lot of research. And a strange thing happened: the other fellow actually read them, and thanked me for the information.

More examples:

“You never hear atheists complaining about Islam, only about Christianity!” (Yes it’s true that in the US atheists complain about the theocrats closest to them, but I’ve read a lot of atheist discussion online and Islam definitely gets its turn.)

Oct 2017 march in London against ISIS
From massive Oct 2017 anti-ISIS march in London. Image credit: Guardian, click to read article

“You never hear Muslims protesting terrorism!” (Oh man, where to start. Mass demonstrations against terrorism, Islamic leaders issuing Fatwas against terrorism, Muslim anti-terrorist op-eds, and much more.)

“You never hear liberals going after their own for sexual harassment!” (There’s too much truth in this one, but it’s changing. And not a moment too soon, given the patchy record of white male leaders in our country. And I have seen a few conservative OpEds calling for change.)

“We’re not even allowed to say Merry Christmas!” (Nobody said you can’t say Merry Christmas. That’s not a thing.)

…and so on ad nauseam.  The worst thing about the “You never hear” gotcha is it tries to find moral cover in the idea that no one really cares about anything, that only tribalism matters.

It is true that tribalism matters. Our country is a feedback loop where ideologies split so close to the center line that neither side can afford to give an inch for a moment, for any reason at all.

But what if it didn’t matter so damn much? What if we could acknowledge worthwhile thinking on the other side? The acknowledgement would an act of rebellion in itself, tossing threads of communication across the divide.

A more relevant point is that it’s a waste of social opportunity to argue against a point of view that is not real or at least which your correspondent does not hold.

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Our lives are shaped by belief in the human soul

When an airplane crashes, the FAA somberly reports that “154 souls were lost.” Most religions have some doctrine of a transcendent personal essence that survives beyond death, perhaps to enjoy the eternal presence of God, the suffering of His absence, or another round through an endless cycle of re-birth.

The soul is often held to be the substance of personhood. In the United States, a seemingly eternal battle is fought over the personhood of human zygotes. Some white nationalists assert that neither black people or Jews have souls at all. Most people in the West take their own personhood for granted, never stopping to wonder if (as Buddhism claims) the self might be an illusion.

The soul is also a foundational concept behind punishment and blame. Personal responsibility for one’s own misfortune requires that there be a self to be personal – a “person”.

So you have a self? Your likes and dislikes, your gender, your religion, your ethical holdings – these are you? Are you sure?

What would it mean for “you” to grow up in a majority Hindu or Islamic country? Or a century when women were held responsible for the sins of mankind?

What does it mean to be “masculine” or “feminine”? If the set of expectations for men and women’s behavior is handed down by culture, then how much of your gender was simply assigned at birth, and not part of your “soul”?

Hang on tight, because we’ve been on paved road this far. Now we turn the wheel out into the wilderness…

The people who did things in the past that were culturally acceptable at the time, but not now… does your belief in the self influence your opinion of them? Are you a better person than they were?

Once you strip away culture, what’s left? Do you, for instance, dislike pumpkin? Could be the expression of a genetic allele that influences the development of your taste buds.

Once you strip away culture and biology, what’s left? What’s YOU? What’s the soul in there that deserves accolade for compassionate deeds or judgment for wrong behavior?

“OK, wait a minute”, you say. “I’ve been through thousands of experiences and that shapes who I am.”

OK, fine and good. Those would be the “culture” mentioned earlier. But it means that personhood can be an emergent property of body, brain, and experience. Does it emerge all at once? When? And how much?

We have not even got to the metaphysics of transcendence yet.

NOTES:

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  • This post isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive view of any religion’s view of the soul or the self. Or even the distinction, if any, between the two. It’s about the widely-held cultural belief that there is some kind of abstraction underlying each of our visible persona. That belief affects our daily lives in countless ways.

Doc Rat

Doc Rat wrong advice
Doc Rat giving Quarrydog advice he really, really comes to regret. Click the pic to begin reading online. It’s a big story, running from 09 May to 09 December of 2014.

Picture an Australian doctor, who is also a cartoonist. His anthropomorphic comic is published often in Aussie medical journals, and also online as Doc Rat.

Most of the time it’s medical humor or awful, awful puns (this guy must be a riot at parties). But beginning in 2014 he undertook an epic series that delved deeply into cultural ethics, as one of his characters was obliged on pain of familial disgrace, to take part in a killing ritual he wanted no part of. The resulting conflict challenged the society of Doc Rat’s world, resurfacing in the comic at unexpected times. It’s great stuff.

Also in Doc Rat’s world is a full development of something our own culture has only barely grasped; the weight of an apology. This is another theme that resurfaces throughout the series.

Even though he’s busy with a medical practice, the author publishes very often so I make a point of keeping caught up. His blog is worth reading too. So far I’ve found an amazing review of Watership Down, and unexpected insights on Zootopia.

If there’s a Zootopia II, Doc Rat should be one of the characters.

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  • Even more honorable mention: I found Endtown through Doc Rat.

 

Really old stack cutter

Part of my day involved making a few adjustments to this old Triumph stack cutter. This is a machine that can cut through a whole ream of paper at once. Guessing at its age… 30 years? 40 years? Maybe 50 years since that is the age of our college.

But it’s still in use. Take a look at the front platform, where paper is loaded. It is machine-turned aluminum, which is made when a circular wire brush is machine-pressed in progressive spots down onto the metal, making a bright textured finish that never wears off. And you may notice… it’s worn off, where stacks of paper are slid into the clamp and blade assembly.

Depth ruler for stack cutter
Transparent indicator fashioned from Plexiglas and colored red with nail polish

The bolt that adjusts the alignment fence (which ensures a square cut) was rusted in place, so it took some doing to move that fence over about a sixteenth of an inch. And while I was in there, hey, let’s replace the ruler that the operator uses to set the depth of cut. I used a nice self-adhesive steel-ribbon ruler from the L.S. Starrett company.  The old ruler had literally been hand-made out of paper by someone a long time ago. Their markings were dead accurate (!) but only at one-eighth intervals and the machine operator had wanted one with finer markings.

In the past I’ve repaired the crank handle that moves the depth stop in and out, the poly cutting block, and replaced the roughly two-pound steel blade. Later I’ll get someone to help me turn it over (it’s mostly cast iron) and give its mechanicals some serious TLC. Maybe get another ten years out of it.

I just love old machines like this. The company is still in business, so I’d say there isn’t a penalty for making such high-quality machinery. When you make something right in the first place, maybe you don’t have to replace it every other year? (Of course that only applies to mature technologies like heavy machines. Not to, for instance, smart phones which are still a new product category in development.)

When I do the major service, I’ll make pictures of its impressive internal mechanism.

  • The big crank on top lowers the clamp that holds the paper in place for cutting. There is a similar crank in front that moves the depth stop in and out to set cut depth.
  • The machine is designed for safety. You can arm it with one button in the middle, but to get the blade to come down? Takes both hands, one on each side of the machine like the buttons on a pinball machine. You’d have to be really creative to hurt yourself.

Endtown

Endtown comic by Aaron Neathery
Linda’s a topsider, just hit by the mutant virus and turned into an animal form. Had to run for her life from other topsiders and has taken refuge in Endtown. To pick up that storyline, click the pic

(4/n in a series on comics and cartoons that I enjoy. If you’re tired of superhero movies that concentrate on amped-up violence with some tacked-on human-interest story, this series is for you.)

Endtown is a post-apocalyptic comic, but perhaps the strangest and most original apocalypse imaginable. Most of the Earth’s surface has been destroyed by advanced weapons, and humanity has been hit by a mutagenic virus.  The few remaining un-mutated humans live in environment suits their entire lives… hunting down and killing mutated humans. The latter have taken refuge in underground shelter communities of which Endtown is one.

In these animal forms resides so much humanity, but they are transformed by their animality as well. No one knows why one person becomes a cow, another a koala, and another a wolf. And some individuals were changed into nightmare forms scarcely capable of description.

Endtown is exhibit ‘A’ that Hollywood needs to look to web comics for new ideas. It would take many books and movies as explanatory metaphors for this series. Like maybe the Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, Mad Max, Hitchhiker’s Guide, and To Kill A Mockingbird to name a few. Yet it feels like a natural tale from the storytelling mind of Aaron Neathery, with characters that invite empathy*.

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  • *How do you know when you’re a Fan? When you start to care what happens to the characters of a story. (Also when you buy the author’s work or send them some $$ on Patreon)
  • Of the three modern anthropomorphic comics I will review in this series, Endtown is the grimmest but by far the most creatively wide-ranging. I sometimes think that Endtown is 200 years before Doc Rat, which is another 200 years before Zootopia.
  • Seriously, tinsel town, back a dump truck full of money up to Aaron Neathery’s driveway and see if you can’t work something out. (And if you screw it up, the topsiders are coming for you!)

 

Steven Universe

Some of the enormous cast of Steven Universe
Some of the enormous cast of Steven Universe – click to embiggen

(This is third in a series on comics and cartoons that I enjoy. They’re not in any particular order except that some of them will be harder to write about so I’m leaving those toward the end. If you’re tired of superhero movies that concentrate on amped-up violence with some tacked-on human-interest story, this series is for you.)

The back-story is that Steven is an irrepressible kid whose mother and father were an alien and a human. His mother was the leader of a rebel remnant group that came to Earth some thousands of years ago, and became the planet’s adoptive protectors. Three of that group remain; Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl, and together with his human father Greg Universe they are raising Steven. His mother Rose Quartz, having taken human form, had to choose between her own existence and Steven’s. This becomes an  important plot point later.

For a show with such simple (if beautiful) animation, it has deeply imagined characters and mythology. All of the characters have complex needs and flaws, and perhaps because of that complexity you will see none of the stereotype of bumbling fatherhood or zany antics for their own sake. The show does one thing really well; it imagines how an actual loving family might work against insurmountable odds. Even if three of them had taken human form as a comforting illusion to the others.

You could almost pick a character at random to illustrate this point, but their leader Garnet will suffice. She is immensely powerful, but quiet and reserved. And yet it is obvious how deeply she loves Steven and how that love is returned. Imagine if your mother were a hyper-intelligent pile driver with a deadpan sense of humor.

OK one more example: Pearl was literally built for entertainment, as a singer and dancer. After four thousand years of combat she is kind and sweet and still looks gracile and delicate but her body count would fill a stadium. The scene where she teaches Steven’s girlfriend Connie how to fight with a sword is lovely and chilling.

Much of the conflict in the show comes from the fact that the rebels’ home world has not forgotten and does not forgive. But they are not a monolithic evil either. One of my favorite characters (see if you can figure out why) is Peridot, an exiled technician whose growing appreciation for Earth has put her at odds with Homeworld and all its sadistic and lethal power.

Much has been written by others about SU’s dissolution of formal gender concepts, and this is one of the most refreshing things about the show. Until you take in a story where gender doesn’t define much of anything, it’s difficult to appreciate just how in our world it defines far too much.

Like another cartoon that I will write about later, SU has inspired tons of fan fiction and some truly awesome art and music. And thinking about it, inspiration may be a good measure of the cultural value of a franchise. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s very little Bugs Bunny fan fiction, fan art, or fan music.

There’s a whole lot more and I could go on for hours, but Steven Universe is a splendid cartoon that I cannot recommend too highly.

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  • To reiterate, LET YOUR KIDS WATCH STEVEN UNIVERSE. Watch it with them.
  • Greg Universe looks like Homer Simpson if Homer had magnificent hair, but two humans could not be more different.
  • Video: “What’s Up With Steven Universe” describes the characters and cartoon style.

Dumbing Of Age

Becky's dad comes to campus with a gun
Click to visit the beginning of this story line

(Second in a series on comics and cartoons that I enjoy)

One of my daily reads is Dumbing Of Age, an ensemble cast comic about college freshmen. DOA is a long-running comic by David Willis, one of the most accomplished web comic artists out there. He maintains something like a three-month buffer of completed comics – and this isn’t his only strip.

DOA is a web comic about redemption, as the characters try to get past the fears they’ve learned and the pain they’ve caused and experienced themselves. The main character, Joyce, is autobiographical to the artist and reflects his upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian environment.

Being an ensemble cast the story lines jump around a bit, interweaving through many connections. But in spite of the famously glacial pace of the main timeline, there’s plenty of action. One of the characters is a college-age superhero, another an ex-juvenile delinquent. A journalism major who takes herself too seriously, a maybe-autistic student, and…

The strip isn’t called “Dumbing Of Age” for nothing. None of the characters is unusually wise or mature, making personal and interpersonal mistakes while reflecting the mistakes their parents made bringing them up.

The artist David Willis does meticulous research on everything that appears in the strip, from actual locations in Bloomington, Indiana to the authentic issues of various characters. And it shows in the strip. But the comment section offers as much as the strip itself, having become a forum for gender issues, neuroatypicality, religion, suicide prevention, academic integrity, and… much more. It’s practically tailor-made to many of my own interests. So I rate it A+, highly recommended.