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Category: Culture

Evil
Some people think of evil as an independent force operating in the universe, like gravity or nuclear fission. To them, it is a calculating menace abroad in our lives, actively plotting to ruin us by making bad things happen.

I don’t think so. I don’t think we need to look any further than right in front of our noses for an explanation for badness. Bad choices, bad attitudes, bad luck — these are the causes of our troubles, and nothing more.

Evil, I would suggest, is like coldness. Cold is not a force in and of itself, but simply the absence of heat. When all heat has gone, you’re down to absolute zero, and you can’t get any lower. Heat, on the other hand, essentially has no upper limit. Similarly, evil is nothing more than the absence of good, and there’s plenty of good to be had in the world.

So evil is not a dark, mysterious entity to be battled, but rather a condition (like freezing temperatures) to be avoided. To make the badness go away, try to make good choices, focus on having a good attitude, and be ready for good luck.

If you want to defeat Satan, in other words, try putting on a sweater.
Capitol Crime
I was sitting in the U.S. Senate the other day, and I couldn’t help noticing the décor.

One of the reasons I couldn’t help it was that Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley was reading a long, impassioned speech into the public record. If you’ve ever heard Grassley speak, you’ll know that I had to focus on something, anything, to keep from nodding off.

But back to my thesis: the U.S. Senate, for all its magnificence, is a nightmare of tackiness. Now, before you start getting huffy about lack of respect for treasured national icons, let me just say, “U.-S.-A.! U.-S.-A.!” So I’m a patriot, okay? I am simply suggesting that the upper house needs a visit from “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

First of all, nothing matches. The wallpaper, the carpet, the furniture, the hair plugs — there’s just no consistent theme. While there is nothing inherently wrong with contrasting patterns, the Senate chamber has become a blizzard of clashing elements, styles, and colors, including a shade of green I would name “Twilight Nausea.”

I advise the 113th Congress to take it on the road, spend 2013 and 2014 lawmaking in the Hollywood Bowl, and let a team of interior designers create something to match the eminence of this august body.

Come to think of it, all of official Washington, D.C. needs a radical re-do. Is anybody else tired of the classical style of architecture? It worked for the Greeks, then the Romans overdid it, but now we’re into sloppy thirds, and this burg resembles nothing less than a field of Transformer droppings.

I’d keep all the monuments, the White House, and the Supreme Court, but the rest of these architectural blots should be hauled away to the landfill. I’d probably keep the huge, hulking Capitol itself, as well. It is, after all, the mother of all statehouses. On the other hand, it would be tempting to start from scratch, go modern, and get all Gehry with it.

Or how about a log-home look for some of the office buildings? You know, to honor Honest Abe? An all-Lego version of the Library of Congress might be interesting, too. The whole idea would be to have fun with it — maybe with a giant roller coaster spanning the Potomac!

Also, while we’re at it, how about team uniforms? Republicans in red, Democrats in blue, perhaps with some details picking up the design themes of the new décor … tiny brushed nickel eagles on the epelets, say, or modest satin sashes draped over the shoulder (slashing left for the men and right for the women, if you like).

Anything to jazz it up a bit. On the day I visited the Senate, Oregon’s Democratic Senator Ron Wyden was the acting President of the Senate and the only other lawmaker in the room besides Grassley. Imagine the exciting contrapuntal splash of color he could have added to set off the Kansan’s attire. Maybe that would have kept us awake in the gallery.

Again, this is not meant as an attack on the institution itself. I only wish that we provide the best possible working environment for our leaders. Is it too much to ask for a little style from my government? It’s not as if I’m complaining about content.

Mirror, Mirror
Of all the plot devices in all the Star Trek episodes and movies, none persists in my memory like the Tantalus Field. It appeared in “Mirror, Mirror,” an installment in which Captain Kirk is accidentally switched with his alter ego in another universe.

That episode is perhaps most famous for its depiction of a parallel, goateed Mr. Spock looking like Mandrake the Magician with Vulcan bangs. I think the makeover was meant to make him look badass, because this particular parallel universe is a very badass (albeit more stylish) place. He, like everyone else in his world, is so ambitious that torture and murder are seen as savvy career choices. What better way to get ahead than to kill your rival? No effort is made to assess the effect of such cutthroat competition on Starfleet morale, but hey, this is Star Trek.

It is in this dangerous culture of ruthlessness that our Captain Kirk suddenly finds himself. Fortunately for him, his twin possesses the perfect weapon for these circumstances: the Tantalus Field. Let’s not worry about how it works (Gene Roddenberry didn’t); it looks like a small TV with an array of knobs and buttons. Somehow, the user can summon a live video feed of a potential victim; then, by simply pressing one of the buttons, make that person disappear — forever.

This is what I find provocative. Here is a machine that allows you to get rid of people instantly and without fear of ever being held responsible. No muss, no fuss, no collateral damage, and no one to answer to other than your own conscience. What if such a device really existed? What if I had one? Would I use it?

I can certainly imagine using it. There are some cruel and murderous people in the world whom we would all be better off without. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is on my list, as are Than Shwe of Burma and Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan. Kim Jong Il also comes to mind, but he kakked before I could get my Tantalus up and running.

But could I push the button? And if I did, could I set the Tantalus Field aside and never use it again? If killing evildoers were that easy, wouldn’t I be tempted to keep using it? And why stop with evildoers? What would prevent me from disappearing people just because I didn’t like the cuts of their jibs?

I do not have satisfactory answers for these questions. I’d like to think I would do the right thing if such an absolute power were placed in my hands, but that is by no means certain.

Kirk himself never used it, even though doing so might have made his situation easier. But he didn’t destroy it, either. In the end, he decides to give it to the parallel Spock. He trusts that Spock will find the wisdom to use the Tantalus Field in a way that will serve the greater good.

I wouldn’t be so sure, Jimbo.

Rooting Posture
“Root, root, root for the home team
If they don’t win, it’s a shame…”

The Philadelphia Phillies are a fine team. They have a proud tradition, and their rivalry with my San Francisco Giants is spirited without being unfriendly. My problem is with their fans.

Phillies fans, like fans from many East Coast cities, often get credit for being “knowledgeable.” That is code, of course, for “abusive.” They regularly booed the greatest player in Philly history, hometown boy and first ballot Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. That is only the most famous example of their scoliotic rooting posture.

As a sports fan, there’s not a whole lot you can do to affect the outcome on the field. Scream, cheer, stamp your feet, boo, pray. You want to think it will help your team, but it would be hard to prove that any of that makes a difference. Very rarely do players pay attention to anyone in the stands; they are rightly focused on the ball, their own execution, and the actions of other players.

If you are at home, your connection to the action is even more remote, and your participation in the web of causality even more imaginary. Often, no one can see you, much less hear your shouts and moans. It would only be natural to feel that your rooting counts for nothing and that you are powerless to help your team.

I reject this notion of helplessness. In doing so, I rely on no less an authority than the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. For our purposes, that principle holds that mere observation of phenomena, no matter from what distance, can affect it.

On a quantum level we are not only at the game, but we are actively participating in it in a meaningful way just by paying attention to it. In fact, we are members of the quantum team we root for.

I’ll admit that, under the Heisenberg Principle, we are also members of the other team, a face in the crowd at the game, part of the umpiring crew, and also intimately connected to every blade of grass on the field. Even so, I think we are bound to have the greatest effect on the things we pay the closest attention to: the play on the field, and particularly, the thoughts and actions of our (quantum) teammates.

It is important, therefore, for us to be good teammates by adopting an appropriate rooting posture — a positive one. A team riven by backbiting, finger pointing, and dissension is not a team but a collection of losers. I’m talking to you, Phillies fans.

But no hard feelings, Phillies — whatever your quantum status. Bottom line, it’s hard to bear ill will against a team that the Giants regularly thump with such gusto in the playoffs.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee