Archive for December, 2008

All the Best Freaks are Here

Friday, December 26th, 2008

As humans we tend toward caution in a lot of things, particularly in appearances. Just about everybody wants to “fit in,” to not stand out too much from the group. Now that still allows for a lot of diversity, thankfully, because we have a lot of groups. It’s a common phrase to “let your freak flag fly,” but since we’re all freaks from someone’s point of view we can often find other people with similar flags to fly with.

The Hell’s Angels are just a group of like minded individuals flying their freak flags together. So are born again christians. So are people that go to Scrabble┬« tournaments. But even in groups we tend to shy away from being just out right silly, from allowing our freak flags to appear less than serious for more than a few moments at a time. God sent me to Disneyland this week. She told me to go and look at hats.

Disney has managed to carve out a place where it’s okay to appear silly. It started with simple black caps with two black circles representing cartoon mouse ears. And when it started with that there were enough people willing to wear them that it was able to hang in there, in that space between crass corporatism and silly individualism, and slowly take root and branch out. Now there’s a huge number of silly hats on sale at the park. Silly birthday hats, shaped like cakes. Silly sorcerer hats. Silly princess hats. And you see the occasional person willing to wear one of these within the safe confines of the Disney parks.

Then comes Christmas.

There are Disney Christmas hats, all variations on the classic Santa hat, for a wide variety of Disney characters. There’s the classic mouse ears. There’s color and ear variations for Tigger, Stitch, Goofy, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, and Jack Skellington. And there’s more than the odd, isolated individual wearing them. You can’t turn around with out seeing one of them and occasionally, if you look out over the crowd, they’ll seem almost as pervasive as polka dots.

So salute your silly side, people, and know that you’re not alone. And maybe someday we’ll learn that it’s okay to be silly all the year long and wherever we are. Or at least that we can let some of our freak out without having to clump together in groups and without having to be too serious about it.

We Have to Talk

Friday, December 19th, 2008

In and amongst my Christmas shopping I managed to see the film Milk this week. Aside from it being a brilliant piece of work it did a good job of reminding me about the Briggs Initiative, also known as Proposition 6, which was the first Gay Rights battle that I was aware of while it was happening.

Prop 6 was designed to make it expressly legal to fire teachers, and other public school workers, for being gay or even for being overtly supportive of homosexual rights. In a lot of ways the fight over Prop 6 was very similar to the fight over the recently passed Prop 8. So why did 6 fail but thirty years later 8 passed? Did we really go back, as a people, in our support for Queers over the last three decades? Of course not.

God and I talked about it for a little bit and if I got it right, it’s the difference between reward and punishment. Society is comfortable enough with homosexuality that it’s willing to let us be, but it’s not so comfortable, yet, that it is willing to reward us, and somehow, people see firing us from our jobs as punishment, but allowing us legal recognition of our relationships as a reward.

So apparently, and God didn’t actually tell me this, but I think I could read it in between the lines of what he did say, the trick to fighting for equal marriage rights for Gay and Lesbian couples is not to show that we’re loving, caring, couples in committed relationships. The trick is to show that our relationships are just as flawed and screwed up as everyone else’s.

Holy Days

Friday, December 12th, 2008

So it’s holiday season. But then, when isn’t?

Well, summer.

Oh sure summer has Independence Day and Labor Day, but there are no big summer “holy days,” no Christian holidays. I mean, fall has Halloween, and winter has Christmas, and spring has Easter, but what gives with summer?

So I asked God what the deal was. He told me that summers are a great time and when times are going good people don’t feel as much need to get on his good side. See, fall comes and the weather starts to turn, the leaves begin to die and the fields all go fallow. There’s a real sense that without some help the food could run out but times are still good enough that we can laugh at death, so we trot out our skeletons and tell each other ghost stories. Then winter settles in. Enough food has been put away (or, these days, flown in from New Zealand) but there’s still some trepidation that the snow may never go away, that the days may never get longer, and that maybe this time spring won’t come. So we celebrate a famous birth and we pray for renewal and we ask our wise men to tell us it’s all alright. Then spring does come around and suddenly things do seem alright again, so we celebrate the rebirth of everything and trot out all the fertility symbols we can find to express how glad we are.

Then summer comes and we’re too busy enjoying life and living large to turn our thoughts to God. He says we’re kind of the opposite of fair weather friends, but he doesn’t mind, he knows he’ll get us back when winter comes storming in.

The Same Thing All Over Again

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Today God and I had one of those long rambling talks that seems to go all over the place with no particular rhyme or reason. We touched on computer programming, the economy, and poker among other things and then God managed to wrap it all up so it all belonged together after all. I’m going to try and distill just enough of the essence here to bring it back to God’s final point.

In programming there’s a technique called recursion that is very powerful but very easy to get wrong. When you write programs you’re quite often writing a bunch of functions that use other functions to do parts of what they need to get done. In recursion one function uses itself as a component of itself. For a really bad example, say you wanted to know the Fibonacci Sequence, which is a sequence of numbers beginning with zero and one, where each succeeding number is the sum of the two previous numbers. You could write a function that takes the two numbers that you give it adds, them together, and prints out the result. It then takes that result and the second of the two numbers it was given and calls itself with those two numbers. This works. To a point. Because of the way computers work each successive call uses up a little memory and that memory stays in use until the function ends, but since the function doesn’t end until all the functions that it has called have ended, the memory in this very simple example stays in use forever and eventually the computer runs out of memory and crashes. I’m ignoring a lot of things we do in computer programming here, but they’re generally things that we learned to do by making naive mistakes like what I’ve just described.

In poker there’s the notion that when you’re good at the game you’re not just playing your cards, you’re playing the other guy’s cards. It’s not just what do I have but what do you have. And then it’s not just what do you have but what do I think that you think that I have. And then it’s how can I make you think that what I have is not what I have but what I want you to think that I have. And this can go back and forth like this for a long time with each player trying to fool the other player but trying to fool the other player while the other player knows that you’re trying to fool them. It’s a lot like the recursion example above, as it turns out, and pushing it too far can keep you from ever making a decision.

So then we got around to the economy. There was the whole question of what will the sagging economy do to the poker scene, but that pretty quickly moved on to how did the economy get to be so sagging in the first place. One of the main things was the unfettered use of derivatives. We’ve all heard how the bursting of the housing bubble has led to a collapse on Wall Street and those of us who have been paying a lot of attention have heard that derivatives were probably the main mechanism by which that happened. I’m no specialist on this so my understanding isn’t perfect but I can give, I think, a pretty good lay explanation. The idea behind derivatives in the housing market is that a bunch of banks and mortgage companies all loan money to people to buy houses. Then, in order to have more money to make more loans, they sell the loans they’ve already made to someone “upstream.” That upstream buyer then puts all the loans they buy together and sells pieces of the collected group of them to people. This is much the same way that people buy pieces of a company by buying shares of that company’s stock. Well, Wall Street wanted to keep playing this game of buying up the pieces of the collected loans through new funds that in turn were sold in pieces, in a very recursive fashion. The idea of this is that it spreads out the risk, because if a single loan goes bad, well, you only own a piece of a piece of a piece of that loan. The big problem with that was that some lenders figured that if the risk was already gone from them by the time the loan went bad, they didn’t have to work so hard to make sure the loans they gave out were good loans. To a certain extent what the derivatives did was spread the risk too thin. Of course there was also an element of a pyramid scheme where everybody was thinking more about the spreading out of the risk on the loans than they were that they were also spreading out the profit on those loans.

So the thing that God told me that tied all of this together that I’ve already partially included for the sake of brevity is that all of these things are tied together by their use of recursion. The use of recursion can be good or it can be bad. The difference, the key to using recursion well, is knowing when to stop. In computers, you need to stop before you use too much memory. In poker you need to stop before you’ve taken so much time that nobody wants to play with you any more. For the economy, you need to stop while you can still see where you started.

So take this as a lesson for life. Whatever you’re doing, make sure that you know when to stop.