The Big Think

June 30, 2006

Current Reading

Filed under: Current Reading — jasony @ 6:19 pm

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was embarking on a rather difficult book. I said that I didn’t know anything about it other than that it was a classic. I dove into reading it with a bit of trepidation and the fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. I hate leaving books unfinished- I think deep down I consider it some kind of moral failure to leave one incomplete, and I think I’ve left less than 10 unfinished in my life (which is why I tend to be more picky in what I read, often vetting the book through reviews or trusted friends’ recommendations before picking them up). So to start a 1000+ page (645,000 words), extremely small print book with no knowledge of it made me nervous.

Well, today, three weeks after starting, I’ve finally finished the book. I said that it was titled “The Strike” and that’s true- to a point. “The Strike” was actually the original title. The author changed the title at the suggestion of her husband. The real name of the book is here.

I’m amazed that I went through college and never had contact with this work. It never came up in English class, was never the topic of discussion among professors. To the best of my recollection, I don’t even recall ever hearing the words “Atlas” and “Shrugged” in consecutive sentences at any time during college. So the fact that I was able to read the book with no preconceived ideas or knowledge about any part of it whatsoever is akin to being a member of our race nowadays and not knowing that Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker have a family resemblance (sorry if I spoiled that one for you).

There are some works (books, paintings, movies) that become so Important that they stifle under the weight of their own approbation. It becomes de rigueur to have an opinion on the work even if one has no direct knowledge of it, or only a passing familiarity. We see this often in the very public and very nasty disagreements that often precede a controversial movie (The Passion of the Christ) or book (Harry Potter). No matter where you go, you won’t have to look far to find someone who has made up their mind about it, simply because to admit to ignorance or (worse!) a lack of understanding is tantamount to wearing black socks with shorts. People just don’t want to look uncool or uninformed.

Unfortunately, just like works that get encumbered with the baggage of other people’s opinions, many books become so popular and so well known that it becomes sophomoric to admit that they have relevance to you personally, that you’ve discovered for yourself what everyone has known for so long. That something so boringly familiar to everyone else is fresh and new and relevant to you. It’s like the college professor telling the annoying student “Don’t you quote Kierkegaard to me!”. I take offense at that. I mean, at some point, Kierkegaard was new and fresh and relevant and revealed deep truths about the nature of being. Just because those truths are well known does not make them less true. Similarly, just because intellectuals have read Atlas Shrugged since it was published in 1957 and have talked about the philosophy of Objectivism for decades shouldn’t mean there is no amazement left for the uninitiated. There is still room at the table of calloused didacts for a new reader to pull up a chair and say “this is an amazing book.”

Well, this is an amazing book.

Yes, certain parts of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism disagree directly with Christianity. I’m not talking about those sections. Doubtless, Rand would disagree with the idea that someone would agree with part of her philosophy and reject the rest (most philosophers are like that, you know… and most writers? Don’t even ask). Rand believes that unmotivated selfless altruism is wrong and the Egoist with selfishness as his main goal represents the ultimate form of Man. At core this is antithetical to the concept of Christ’s guiltless, sinless, perfectly altruistic sacrifice. But the fact that Rand, an avowed atheist, was otherwise able to put together such a beautiful picture of the dignity of being alive reinforces the idea that Truth can sometimes be uncovered by any source.

I don’t want to give away any part of the story (there are some breathtaking sections if you don’t know the plot, and the suspense in several parts left me shaking). I don’t even intend to write a book review. But I will risk looking sophomoric by saying that this book really spoke to me. It reinforced much of what I believe and I found myself saying “this is me!” many times. I read online that Atlas Shrugged has been listed as the second most influential book of all time (happily still a distant second to the Bible), and that leaders of industry, normally competitors, often meet in groups whose sole requirement for admission is a familiarity with the story. As I plowed through the pages, some of the ideas were so relevant I kept wondering if Rand didn’t maybe write it yesterday:

Then his head fell back, and there was no convulsion in his face, only his mouth relaxing to a shape of serenity – but there was a brief stab of convulsion in his body, like a last cry of protest and Rearden went on slowly, not altering his pace, even though he knew that no caution was necessary any longer because what he was carrying in his arms was now that which had been the boy’s teachers’ idea of a man – a collection of chemicals.

He walked, as if this were his form of last tribute and funeral procession for the young life that had ended in his arms. He felt an anger too intense to identify except as a pressure within him: it was a desire to kill.

The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy’s body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy’s teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug’s gun – at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care.

Somewhere, he thought, there was this boy’s mother, who had trembled with protective concern over his groping steps, while teaching him to walk, who had measured his baby formulas with a jeweler’s caution, who had obeyed with a zealot’s fervor the latest words of science on his diet and hygiene, protecting his unhardened body from germs – then had sent him to be turned into a tortured neurotic by the men who taught him that he had no mind and must never attempt to think. Had she fed him tainted refuse, he thought, had she mixed poison into his food, it would have been more kind and less fatal.

He thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly – yet man, whose tool of survival is the mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child’s education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think.

From the first catch-phrases flung at a child to the last, it is like a series of shocks to freeze his motor, to undercut the power of his consciousness. “Don’t ask so many questions, children should be seen and not heard!” – “Who are you to think? It’s so, because I say so!” – “Don’t argue, obey!” – “Don’t try to understand, believe!” – “Don’t struggle, compromise!” – “Your heart is more important than your mind!” – “Who are you to know? Your parents know best!” – “Who are you to know? The bureaucrats know best!” – “Who are you to object? All values are relative!” – “Who are you to want to escape a thug’s bullet? That’s only a personal prejudice!”

Men would shudder, he thought, if they saw a mother bird plucking the feathers from the wings of her young, then pushing him out of the nest to struggle for survival – yet that was what they did to their children.

Armed with nothing but meaningless phrases, this boy had been thrown to fight for existence, he had hobbled and groped through a brief, doomed effort, he had screamed his indignant, bewildered protest – and had perished in his first attempt to soar on his mangled wings.

But a different breed of teachers had once existed, he thought, and had reared the men who created this country; he thought that mothers should set out on their knees to look for men like [those teachers], to find them and beg them to return.

This powerful passage had me literally crying as I read it late one night last week. Not only is it an emotional tidal wave, but it illustrates perfectly the current state of what passes for education and higher thought in many places. There was no chapter in the book where I didn’t think Yes! She gets it! That’s still true!
Atlas Shrugged was a profoundly amazing book and I feel extremely fortunate to have read it.

I’ve braved the spammers and opened up comments. I’d like to hear from those who have read the book and wish to comment.

Your Tax Dollar At Work, Explained

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 3:52 pm

So what did I get in the mail today, you ask? Well, I could sound all edumacated and tell you that I got four books on the federal reserve system that describe the intricacies of monetary policy and interest rates and you would be suitably impressed. In fact, I did. Now aren’t you impressed?

Well, I’ll go ahead and burst your bubble so you don’t think I’m gettin’ all uppity. The books are actually comic books. Yes, the New York Federal Reserve bank has published a bunch of comic books to educate the public (or lie to them, if you’re of the tinfoil hat brigade) about monetary policy. On a lark, I ordered four of them:

The Story of Inflation
The Story of the Federal Reserve System
The Story of Banks
A Penny Saved

They’re free (up to 35 copies of each!) and got here in about a week. Yes, they’re basic, and yes, they’re designed for kids (high school age or so). But can you really tell me that you know how the Federal Reserve System operates? (business majors excepted). Should be a fun, interesting, and short read. And after the book I just finished, that will be welcome.

Quoth

Filed under: Quoth — jasony @ 3:36 pm

Quote of the day:

anyone with six seconds of experience in the theater knows that it’s all just lumps of meat shouting in the dark on an empty stage without the technical people

James Lileks.

hear hear!

Fun with Electronics

Filed under: Hobbies — jasony @ 3:25 pm

As part of my “never stop adding new skills” philosophy, I want to learn to solder (better) and do some light electronics work, so I’m looking at this. Birthday idea for my Sept 10, b-day. 🙂

Reminds me, I need to get a wish list together.

June 29, 2006

I’m Back!

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 10:07 am

I think the server problems might be worked out. Fingers crossed.
Thanks, Giles!

June 22, 2006

Message In A Bottle

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 11:24 pm

Amazing, and a little bit sad.

Good News Everyone!

Filed under: Movies — jasony @ 11:11 pm

Fry is coming back! Dang, this makes me want to plug the TV back in! 🙂

And Speaking of Scale

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 4:22 pm

The relative scale of the planets (and some honkin’ big stars, too)

Pain the Head

Filed under: Science — jasony @ 4:14 pm

Good news for migraine sufferers. A new treatment.

We Are All Phantoms

Filed under: Science — jasony @ 3:48 pm

Sorry about the link list today. I just keep stumbling on cool stuff, like this. It’s an 11 mile webpage that shows the relative size and distances inside a hydrogen atom. Lots of empty space… lots.

Sing a Song

Filed under: Music — jasony @ 3:29 pm

Turns out music might make you smarter.

House of Games

Filed under: Games — jasony @ 3:08 pm

This is just so painfully true. These guys are just hilariously out of touch.

June 20, 2006

You Lite Up My Life

Filed under: Games — jasony @ 5:45 pm

Last week I went out and bought a new Nintendo DS Lite. What can I say? Erin had been talking about wanting to play the new Brain Age game, so I had no choice. I had to get it. Did I mention that I’m a great husband?

Erin is playing Brain Age downstairs right now. Her brain is a svelte 28 years old, while mine is a decrepit old 48. Now get off my lawn and turn that music down!

We really like the DS Lite. The old version always felt a bit plasticy and cheap to me. The new one looks like it was designed by Johnathan Ive. Beautiful Apple-white lines and clean controls. And the touch screen is very sensitive.

I got the game during opening week since it came with Brain Age and an accessory kit. It’s easy to slip the thing into your pocket for some mobile gaming, and the battery life is extreme. I’ve only charged the thing once in five days.

I bought a couple of other games (Ridge Racer and Tiger Woods PGA Tour). Both are fun and the graphics are great. At least as good as the PS1 and probably as good as some of the less graphically intense PS2s games. I’m really happy with it.

The next game I’d like to get: Mario Kart DS. I downloaded the demo from the Nintendo wireless station at GameStop the other day and Erin and I played the first level over and over (the download disappears when you power off). Those Nintendo guys are geniuses for letting you grab a demo this way. Totally hooked on Mario Kart and now I have to get it. Hmm… birthday is coming up in three months. Can I possibly wait that long?

Raise Up a Black and Tan

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 2:00 pm

And toast Giles‘ Happy Birthday.

Happy B-day to ya, bud.

June 18, 2006

Now He’s 64

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 12:09 pm

So it’s finally happened. Paul McCartney has turned 64. So what happens to the song now? Do we (ahem) retire it? Will it be like Prince’s “1999” and be played to death for awhile, and then disappear because it’s served its purpose? Ah well, it’s fun to think about it. I remember wondering what would happen when this date came back when I was a little kid and first realized that the guy singing the song would one day reach 64. But 60 is the new 40 (or so I’m told), and most folks who get to 60-something now are far better off than members of previous generations. Life marches on!

Personally, I don’t plan on having a mid-life crisis until I’m 70. You think I’m joking…

June 17, 2006

But Which is Which?

Filed under: Humor and Fun — jasony @ 8:54 am

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Gotta love Brewster Rockit

June 16, 2006

Paintball Pandemonium

Filed under: Games — jasony @ 10:14 am

This looks awesome, but I would truly hate to be on the receiving end of that. I’ve been hit with one paintball before and it hurts like crazy. I can’t imagine 80 paintballs per second. Oh. The. Humanity.

Cool Optical Illusions

Filed under: Humor and Fun — jasony @ 9:15 am

3D Rooms
Moving Dot
Nonexistent Colors (this one is really neat)

Thanks to my bro Ross for pointing these out.

June 14, 2006

Current Reading

Filed under: Current Reading — jasony @ 12:55 am

I finally screwed up the courage to read something Good For Me. After seeing The Strike on bookshelves for years, and knowing that it was one of those seminal books that everyone says is Important (but that few actually read), I picked up a copy at the library and decided to wade through the 1000+ pages of teeny tiny print.

I had no idea what the book was about, and decided to avoid reading anything about it at all- no reviews, no Amazon synopsis. I even decided to forgo the jacket notes. Instead, I plowed into the tome with no idea of where it was heading. Usually, a book this big is split into several books (ala Lord of the Rings), but this thing has no fear of being a brick. It is not ashamed of its tomedom; its 6 point type mocks other books and it wastes no pity on the weak of forearm. It says: You think you’re man enough to read me? I dare you. For normal books I can usually dash off 150-200 pages at a sitting, but I count my ration taken if I can get through 50 pages of The Strike per night- not because it’s dull, but because it’s dense. Next to the Bible, it’ll be the biggest single-bound book I’ve ever read, and I confess to some intimidation when I started it. I wondered if I could finish it, or if it would be good enough to hold my attention. Or- more frightening- if I would be smart enough to let it be good, without falling into the false pretensions of pretending to understand a Great Work just because I’d feel dumb confessing that I didn’t get it.

But darn it if this thing hasn’t grabbed my attention and held on tight. I’m actually enjoying the story that rushes along like a speeding train. There are probably secondary and tertiary Deep Aspects to it that I’m missing, but I find myself drawn to the characters and philosophies. The author threshes out competing world views that are at war with each other today just as much as they were back in 1957 when it was written. I’m less than a third of the way through and just finished the first act, but I’m finally confident that I’ll complete it.

It’s nice to rediscover that something Good For Me can also be, you know, good. Even the cover is quality. I wonder if the artist designs backdrops?

Creeeepy

Filed under: Humor and Fun — jasony @ 12:26 am

Thanks a lot James. Now this is going to give me bad dreams.

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