Remembering Pop-pop on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is treated differently by everybody I know. Some people sleep in (that’s me), some people go to parades or cemetaries, and some people even work. I did a little of all of these today. For me, Memorial Day is quite a private matter. I remember in my youth in Connecticut often attending church functions in local cemetaries, where fife and drum would lead us to a field of crumbling gravestones. We would bow our heads and remember the lives, and deaths, of all of those Americans who came before us, all the way back even to the Revolution.

Now, I consider Memorial Day a day to remember my maternal grandfather, whom we have always simply called “Pop pop”. His death, which came suddenly and – to me, at least – without warning at the beginning of my teenage years, was one of the most formative experiences of my youth. I remember a lot about the events around the time of his death, and I find as I grow older I wonder more and more about his life.

I remember he and Nana had visited us in Connecticut only a few weeks earlier. I remember that I was very much in my Nintendo-and-guilt phase, wherein I realized I spent too much time playing video games and not enough time with my family (but somehow felt unlike changing my behavior). I remember watching “Driving Miss Daisy” on HBO while Pop-pop and Nana were visiting. I remember going into the woods with my sister, where we often played out sword-laden adventures in the swamp, and her slipping off a log and into a bog, where she cut her arm and got a bad infection in the wound. And I remember the day I stepped off the bus a few weeks later, only to be greeted by my father at the end of the driveway with the wrenching news of Pop-pop’s death. I then entered the first stage of grieving, denial, right there at the end of my driveway.

The rest is a bit of a blur. I remember taking the next day off from school. I remember getting a cold and taking Ricola cough drops for the first time for my sore throat. I remember going to Maryland, though I don’t recall how I got there (I think we drove). I remember standing in the hallway of the funderal home, terrified of seeing Pop-pop dead. I remember one of the most striking images of my youth – not the sight of my lifeless grandfather, but the sight of my own father praying on his knees silently in front of the coffin, alone in the viewing room before all the family and friends arrived. I remember the American flag that accompanied my grandfather up to his grave, that was given to my grief-torn grandmother.

Pop-pop fought in the second World War. I know very little of his career in that campaign. Actually, it seems most of us know very little. He had begun to write a memoir on his computer when he died, and in many ways I feel this is a loss that grows more painful as I grow older. I know so little of the lives of my family, in contrast to Jodi, who knows so much about hers. Somehow, we just never got around to talking about the past in our family.

Every Memorial Day, I take out that American flag, the one given to my grandmother so long ago. I don’t recall how it came to me. I don’t remember at all when I was given it, or why. But I am grateful that I have it, for it keeps in my memory and my heart the life of my grandfather.

I owe something else to Pop-pop. After he died, my sister and I got to hang out in his basement workshop whenever we wanted. In that time, I started tinkering with electronics and oscilloscopes, which Pop-pop kept down there for his work as an electrician (in his retirement!). It was thanks to that tinkering, the exposure I got from my father and my school to the great ideas of physics and chemistry, and a little kick from an old Nova episode, that got me started on the path of experimental physics. I suspect that if any one of those pieces were missing, I’d still be pursuing a career as a writer.

Stealing the internet

I realized this past week that I don’t yet have an entry in my “rant” category. Here, dear readers, is my first one.

I don’t know when you’ll see this. Why? Because my domain name registrar, “vhosting.com”:http://www.vhosting.com, cashed my check (deducted $15 from my credit card) on May 16th and then failed to renew my domain. I’m in the midst of sending escalating e-mails into the /dev/null pipe that is their support and sales e-mail accounts. I’ve also left a message with their parent company, the status of which I’ll have to check after the Memorial Day holiday.

I would register this domain with another company, but vhosting still lists it as “taken” (I’m even still listed as the owner in the public interest registry “whois” database), but my domain is on CLIENT HOLD status. That suggests it expired, but vhosting took my money so they *must* have gotten my renewal request.

**sigh**. It seems that, at last, all those hours in high school business law class are about to pay off. Can you say, “my credit card company will be asked to deny payment?”.

Why do you hate kids, plants, and Jesus?

My favorite Sunday program is a radio show called “On the Media” (“www.onthemedia.org”:http://onthemedia.org/). It’s a week-by-week look at the media and its behavior. “This week’s show takes a look at media and global warming”:http://onthemedia.org/stream/ram.py?file=otm/otm051906d.mp3. My favorite quote from this piece is a look at a media spot put together by an industry group. Paraphrased, it claims that Greenland’s icecaps are actually growing, and that scientists don’t tell you that. It also claims that carbon dioxide has been vilified by scientists, even though humans produce it as a by-product of breathing and plants need it to live. It’s a finger-wagging piece that proclaims to speak from knowledge, while demonizing scientists.

One of the hosts then says to her guest (with a smile on her face, it is clear) after the clip plays, “Why do you hate kids and plants?”. I was struck by this quote, and had a good chuckle. However, it also occurred to me that this kind of industry piece is the same subversive (and baseless) tactic that agencies like “The Discovery Institute” use when trying to make evolution look bad, bad enough that people just accept their own hypothesis of “intelligent design” without actual reference to research or data.

This clip from the industry group also tickled some of my Carl Sagan “baloney detectors”, a “series of guidelines”:http://www.jonathanknowles.com/balony.html to help people detect B.S. when claims about science are made. The big one that dinged was “Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses)”. That is, sure CO2 is produced when we (and kids) breathe, and sure, plants need CO2 to survive. However, as the host of “On the Media” and her guest pointed out, let’s stick to the point: in proper concentrations, CO2 is absolutely necessary for life, but humans have doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in the last century. Nobody from industry argues against the reality, because that’s backed up by multiple, independent data sources and data is what it is.

This tactic, observational selection, tries to distract the listener with reasonable statements while avoiding the unavoidable fact that humans are raising CO2 to poisonous levels. Water is also necessary for life, but nobody can dispute the fact that ingesting too much of it leads to the lethal condition hyponatremia [TAOMPH32].


.. [TAOMPH32] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/?p=867

It’s not believable for many reasons

This weekend is the opening of the film adaptation of “The Da Vinci Code”, Dan Brown’s best-selling novel. Ron Howard brings it to the screen. The book was fun, and Dan Brown’s most notable skill as a writer became clear right at the very end: every prejudice you take into the book will be used against you. Think the Catholic Church is nothing but a long-running conspiracy? You’ll feel like you’re vindicated, right until the end. Think that every member of Opus Dei is some kind of lunatic bending Catholicism to a wicked end? You’ll be the smartest and most insightful person on the planet, right until you finish the book.

The point is, the book reveals that the long chain of events that come to a head that fateful night in France was set in motion by a singular, power-hungry man who bends the devotion of a twisted member of Opus Dei to his will. Of course, while there is a well-reasoned series of clues in this work of fiction, leading to the alleged resting place of the “Holy Grail”, it’s never actually clear whether the long tale of this artifact is true, or just true enough in the mind of a Harvard professor. Ultimately, the book’s biggest virtue is that it calls you to question the basis of pure belief: belief in the absolute infallibility of the Bible, the motives of the early Christian church, and in the evidence pointing to the existence of an artifact without ever actually finding the artifact itself (in the book, the existence of the Holy Grail is only inferred through clues and the word of members of organizations, never by direct scientific observation). It’s the great IRONY of “The Da Vinci Code” that a scholar, a man of reason and maybe even science (in his own mind), accepts the clues placed in his path by fallible people, and takes the reality of those clues as evidence for the existence of the Grail itself – not very scientific. In trying to challenge belief, Dan Brown invokes pretty bad science.

What we must all remember is that while books like “Le Miserables”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, “The Fountainhead”, and, yes, even “The Da Vinci Code” contain challenging ideas, they are ultimately embedded in a fictional tale bent to meet the ideas and needs of the author. The book is a vector for these ideas, delivering them into your head. If you blindly accept them, it’s really your own fault. Ideas are not vitamin pills to be swallowed, but a rich and lusterous meal to be savored for a long, long time before they are, ultimately, digested. It’s a little silly that so many people buy into ideas wholesale, just because they challenge other long-established ideas.

What I like about “The Da Vinci Code” is that, like other works of fiction, it causes us to engage in a discussion that we might never otherwise have thought to start. Was Jesus a real person, or an allegory in Himself? If he was a martyred rebel leader, immortalized by his followers in the 200 years following his death, could he have a bloodline that lives on to this day? How did the modern Gospel come to be constructed? Nobody should fear questions like this, but rather use them as an opportunity to have a frank and insightful discussion. Jodi, for instance, has used the buzz over this book as a real chance to explore the Gnostic texts; the recent unveiling of the “Gospel of Judas”, a pretty weird text, made it even clearer that the accepted Gospel was a distillation out of many writings, some with alternate interpretations of events.

I find it a little silly, if not a little unnerving, that there has been a “call for a global boycott of the movie”:http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/05/14/MNGKLIRPU41.DTL by some members of the Catholic Church, among other organizations. Fear of ideas is the kind of thing that created the great, and ultimately hated, totalitarian states in history. One need only look back to the last century at Eastern Europe and Russia for evidence that suppressing ideas and opinions crushes, and ultimately unravels, a society. Sometimes, I wish America would learn from this.

Rather than a boycott, why not do what some pastors are doing: encourage parishioners to go and see the movie, then go out for coffee and engage in a discussion of the ideas presented in the film (or the book, if you can read). Treating a work of fiction so seriously, either by completely accepting its arguments or by completely shunning them, leads down a dark path that abandons all reason and invites the very demons of fear, uncertainty, and doubt into your society.