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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I Pass the Jurassic Park Test! 

I've had poor vision for many years. It all started in second grade when I started screwing up my math practice problems. I could solve any single math problem placed in front of me. But confronted with a page of problems to solve, I'd get them all wrong.

It turned out that I had a weak eye muscle and my right eye tended to wander off. This meant that if I had a page of math problems, as I started to think about a particular problem, my eyes would relax. And then without my conscious mind standing guard, my right eye would dodge to the right and pull in an unrelated number from another column. I'd proudly total up the mishmash of numbers and....survey says...BUZZZZZZ! Thanks for playing.

Off I went to an eye doctor who specialized in helping patients solve this sort of problem by teaching them therapeutic eye exercises. I had to do all sorts of crazy stuff with pick-up sticks and various devices. Under my doctor's instructions, my parents installed a screw into the ceiling and hung a ball from a string. I had to stand in front of it, hold my head still and throw the ball forward so that it would arc to my other hand. As it moved, I tracked it from right to left and left to right. Another exercise consisted of a string attached to a doorknob. The string had a button threaded on it. I had to pull the string taut between the doorknob and hold the free end to the tip of my nose. Then I would push the button to the knob and pull it back, tracking the button with my eyes the whole way.

Not surprisingly, I was terribly bored, cursed mathematics as the subject that enrolled me involuntarily in this gymnasium of the eye, and desperately wanted to be playing outside on Saturday mornings. Finally, before the end of the school year, my eye muscle was strong enough to stop and Saturdays were mine again.

Third grade, my LEFT eye went AWOL. So the rehab exercises started all over again. Then as we were preparing to stop the exercises, my vision started to go. I became nearsighted. By the sixth grade, I had bifocals (always a popular choice with nerdy middle schoolers.)

The parade of shame continued. My mother was a social worker and her vision plan gave me the privilege of being able to select from the rack of the ugliest glasses at the optometrist’s office. Thick plastic frames, thick plastic lenses. Throw in some gangly legs, no physical coordination and greasy hair. I had it all.

Finally, when I turned sixteen contact lenses were an option. It was hard getting anything near my eyes after years of defending my glasses from errant various sports related objects. Basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls. I sacrificed at least one pair of glasses to each of the entire pantheon of the gym class gods. So I was determined to shed my dinner plate specs and I weaseled those lenses into my eyes after hours of effort.

Contact lenses changed my life for the better. They came at just the right time as I was shifting socially from unintentional nerdy pariah to purposely antisocial new wave/punk pariah.

Later in life, as the technology for machining lenses for glasses was radically improved and I had my own vision plan to rely on, I began to like getting cool frames. When corporate life took over and the hours piled on, I wasn't ashamed to wear them. Finally, they became an accessory, the hours peaked at 70+ per week and there was no point in putting lenses in.

And so things went on for a decade. I loved buying glasses from Hedda. But then after 9/11 and the blackout, I began to be concerned about what K. and I call the "Jurassic Park factor." What happens when you have no functional vision and you lose your glasses? The dinosaur gets you.

So I began to think again about LASIK. I'd explored it a few years back, but I really didn't like the surgeon. He was all grabby with my face and my protective instincts said, "GET AWAY FROM MY FACE, BUB." Plus, his nurse had serious glasses and had no plans to have the surgery. Not a good sign to me.

This time around, I knew where I was going to go to see if I wanted to do it. A few years back, my friend Mike had his LASIK botched out of town and had to go to someone here in The City to get fixed. Last year, this same doctor did another friend of mine and she loved him.

So off I went late last fall to see the famed Dr. Mark Speaker. (Of course, rattling around my brain was a nervous voice chattering nonsense like "Has Dr. Speaker ever been a keynote speaker?") His clinical director, Dr. Dana Morschauser immediately put me at ease.

Next thing I knew, I was scheduling a date. January 7, 2005.

So as you've realized by now, I've had the surgery. And the results are pretty amazing. Given my history and the extremity of my prescription (-9.5/-9.0), the results are stunning. I have a 20/20 left eye and a 20/30 right eye.

I'd like to dispel one myth about LASIK: you do not sit up and immediately see 20/20. When you sit up, it's like having maladjusted, smeary contact lenses. But within 2 days, you can see pretty darn well. What's really unnerving is that your eyes are healing pretty rapidly, so for the first few days every time you take a nap or wake up after a night's sleep you have to get adjusted to a new set of eyes. Each day I woke up, my vision was improved from the day before.

It's now almost 2 weeks since I had the surgery and my vision seems to have stabilized. (It takes a full 90 days to be sure.) In any case, I'm still adapting. I reach for glasses I neither have nor need first thing every morning. Minutes later, I am startled when I see myself in the bathroom mirror. At the end of the day, when my eyes are tired, I think that I should take out my contact lenses.

I should say that my vision isn’t perfect. I have all the artifacts you read about: dry eyes, occasional blurring, and small halos around lights at night. Some of these things should go away. But even with these minor issues, thanks to the fantastic work of Dr’s Speaker and Morschauser, I now pass the Jurassic Park text. And for a former Poindexter like me, that’s something to be really grateful for!
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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Curry's Dangerous Question: Whose God is it Anyway? 

As I noted last week, Adam Curry challenged the “godcasters” to address the question of “whose god is responsible for the tsunami?” To me, Adam’s question is an exceedingly dangerous one. Not that it shouldn’t be asked. But because I believe it is a gauntlet that only too many leaders will be happy to pick up.

Where Should We Look for Meaning?
My closest affiliation to religion would be with Quakerism. I went to a Friends school and it was a terrific experience for me. So when it came time for K. and I to decide where we wanted to make a donation, I expressed a preference for donating to the American Friends Service Committee. I feel very positively about Quakers and about the fact that, I the Friends do not proselytize as they serve around the world. They simply serve. K. wanted some reassurance of this and so I set about searching the Web for appropriate references.

As I did so, I chanced into Larry Ingles’ 2001 lecture on Richard Nixon as a Quaker. It’s an interesting reflection about the difference between Eastern (East Coast) Meetings for Worship and their Western (West Coast) counterparts. Quakerism changed as settlers moved across America. Unlike some of their more dour Pennsylvania Protestant counterparts, the Religious Society of Friends allowed for ongoing influence into their faith in practice. As a result, different sects arose over time. Ingles’ holds that the Friends’ most infamous 20th century member, Richard Nixon, is an example of a member failed by a community that failed to provide strong enough guidance for him to be positively influenced enough to be able to navigate rough moral waters. (While this may be true, there is increasing evidence to suggest that Nixon was pretty crazy from a psychological perspective. I don’t think the Friends should hold themselves responsible for that.) Personally, I feel that my Quaker experience (combined with my parent’s influence) provided a pretty strong moral compass. But part of that compass tells me that in looking for meaning in the tsunami, I have to find my own meaning.

Is God Still Publishing?If So, Where Should We Subscribe?
Carl Jung’s collaborator Marie-Louise von Franz addressed this issue of finding personal meaning in one of her books that I was reading just as the tsunami hit. The book is a transcript of a series of lectures she taught. During one of these lectures, a participant sets a dialogue with her that feels straight from Plato.

The participant identifies himself as a theologian and he takes issue with an illustration she has given about a monk who is struggling with sexual feelings. Dr. von Franz suggests that the monk may as a introvert require a concrete experience to help him resolve his issue.

The theologian is clearly stunned by this suggestion and says, “…I can say dogmatically that a theologian or a priest of the Church, if he goes out….and has a relationship with a woman - that is going to be wrong.”

Dr. von Franz replies, “Yes, because you do know what God wants in each case, but we do not. We always try to ask him first from within.” At this point, von Franz expresses the heart of her point of view on relating to God. “To us the experience of God is greater and more unknown and therefore we consult Him again each time. We have not the idea that He has uttered His last word. That is the great contrast between [Jungian] psychology and theology. We think of God as a reality who can speak in our psyche.” In my reading of the text, her interlocutor becomes increasingly agitated as they continue to lock horns.

He challenges her by asking, “Are there limits to that?” She responds, “No, there are no limits, one cannot set limits for God. We have a much humbler attitude than theologians. We simply say we should wait and see what God has to say about the situation in each case. We make no assumptions as to what he is going to do, so each human life becomes a unique spiritual and religious adventure, and a unique meeting with God….You think that God has published general rules which He keeps Himself, and we think He is a living sprit appearing in man’s psyche who can always create something new.”

The theologian replies, “Within the framework of what He has already published.”

Before returning to her lecture’s topic, von Franz closes their argument remarking, “To a theologian, God is bound to His books and is incapable of further publications.”

S/he Told You WHAT?
While I am partial to von Franz’s point of view, I am aware that there is a large portion of the world that wants to “go to the text” for an answer. Or as von Franz might say, to read what’s already been published.

There are many challenges in attempting to do this. Beyond the fact that the texts have already been published and therefore cannot comment directly on modern events, fundamentalists who view their religions texts as being the literal Word of God and literal documentation of historical events face some common issues. Who wrote the text? In what language? How many times was it translated? Who edited it? When? What was left out?

Although it’s common in my experience for American Christians to ignore the fact that their Bible has multiple versions with different texts and varying interpretations, after 9/11, I learned that they are not the only ones to be so poorly educated in their beliefs. I learned that many of my Muslim colleagues have no idea that there are Seven Readers of the Koran, descendents of whom transmitted the text orally for generations before the use of alphabets. They were therefore unaware that each of the seven texts differs in part because each of readings were first captured without the use of vowels, and that those vowels later had to be interpolated, all of which leads to many variances in interpretations within the “original” seven Korans.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who define themselves as religious have given over their responsibility for understanding their religion’s teaching to others. And this commonality of having mediators (e.g., mullahs, priests, rabbis) brings a real problem with it: how do you know they are transmitting the truth? Not just about the larger issues of right and wrong, but the truth textual sources that they use to reinforce their points of view. If you haven’t read the text with which your religious tribe affiliates itself, you are slave to those who claim they have. And if you don’t know the history of the text, its discovery, translation, editing and adaptation, you are entrusting your spiritual wellbeing to someone who “seems trustworthy.”

Who’s Behind the Curtain, Anway?
In the December 6th issue of The New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger wrote an interesting profile on Ole (pronounced Oh-lee) Anthony, the founder of a Christian group that (among many other things) exposes fraudulent televangelists.

If you’ve never watched a televangelist, you really should. When I was an actor, I got turned on to Robert Tilton, “The Prophet of Prosperity.” Wowza. I learned a whole heck of a lot about acting from him, boy. He was one of the ballsiest showmen I’ve ever seen, “speaking in tongues” and doing some real chewing of the scenery. His ministry was based on exhorting viewers to “sow a seed of faith” by sending him money. Tilton also used direct mail in incredibly creative ways (do a Google search and find some of his unbelievable materials).

Ultimately, Ole Anthony’s organization unmasked Tilton. And yet, he’s back in business. I guess most people just like someone else to “do the work” when it comes to interpreting the text for them.

Lessons From a Relevant History
So let’s return to the Pacific Rim and the phenomenon of the tsunami. As it happens, I had just recently read Simon Winchester’s fascinating micro-history Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883.

In the book Winchester explains that Indonesia sits in one of the most geologically active areas of the world. Several types of tectonic plates meet there and grind together. One plate is forced downwards, the other upwards.

The overall effect is one of geological recycling: one plate is forced to the hot center of the earth and new matter is churned to the surface from the earth’s core in the form of lava. Winchester noted throughout the book that the area was primed for another major shift sometime about now. As it happens, we got an earthquake and tsunami to the east of Indonesia instead of a volcanic eruption immediately to its West. (Who knows? That might still be on its way.)

Winchester treats an a broad swath of topics within the book, including how Krakatoa was the inaugural event of worldwide media reporting, launched the Hudson River School of painting, and caused global climate change. (When it comes right down to it, Krakatoa is chock-a-block with the sorts of interesting facts that data hounds like me live for.)

Amongst the sociological effects of interest is the change the explosion of Krakatoa wrought in Indonesian Islam. Prior to Krakatoa, there had been a tolerant form of Islam practiced in the islands. However, the enormous scope of the eruption was seized upon by the mullahs as an opportunity for power. They preached that Krakatoa was a sign that Allah was furious with the islanders for allowing European colonials to rule their lands. Immediately, a spate of attacks against the occupiers began in the name of Allah.

I do not question that colonial rule was not good. This history may be instructive, however, in exploring of Adam’s original question: “Whose god is responsible for the tsunami?”

The Danger is the Answer
Based on the history, it seems improbable that no one will claim their god was responsible for the tsunami. In fact, all over the world religious leaders are interpreting the tsunami for their congregants. For centuries religious leaders have interpreted geological perturbations as signs from heaven. Why would that change now?

As someone who relates to von Franz’s point of view, who believes that there is no final text, and that we are all responsible for turning within to find our own answers, my concern is not that no religious leaders will answer Adam’s question. My concern is that many people will do it. (And they will probably do it via podcasts, too.) My fear is that instead of turning within to find answers, instead of reading the text ourselves, too many people will find it easier to listen to those who answer (whether or not they heard Adam’s specific challenge directly) the call. And that they will say, “My god did it. And here is why…”
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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Arrival of Podcasting 

I had the good fortune to work for Adam Curry in the mid-90's. Aside from being a genuinely nice guy, Adam has several times now been prescient when comes to predicting the next cultural wave. Currently, Adam's working on figuring out how to take his idea of iPodder to the next level, e.g., make a business out of it.

iPodder is an open source application that allows you to find audio files on the Internet, download them to your computer and then load them onto your MP3 player. The player of choice, of course, being an iPod. Lots of folks have leapt at this concept from two different and interdependent directions: software and content.

Software developers have gone out and started creating various versions of iPodder that include improvements on the original iPodder code. Content creators have begun recording audio files - "podcasts" and begun posting them for iPodder software users to download.

The evolution of podcast content will likely mirror the evolution of blog content, which is to say that to begin with we have lots of podcast content which is not "professionally produced". Right now, it's anybody with a microphone and a server posting podcasts for others to listen to. Of course, some of the folks (Adam himself being a shining example) have radio production backgrounds and their podcasts sound professional. But thus far, it's pretty touch and go as to the quality.

But that's part of the joy of the Internet, isn't it? Anyone can publish anything. And what floats my boat may very well not float yours. (I often marvel watching HBO's Real Sex series: where did the "pony play" people find each other before the Internet? How sad that there were "horse people" desiring riders and sad riders desperate for trusty steeds to ride, but neither party had a way of finding others to share their kinks!)

If you're interested in watching this emerging content (and if you're reading a blog to begin with, you might want to experience this new mutation), all you need is an MP3 player. Then you simply need to choose a freeware application to grab the 'casts you want to hear. Personally, I'm using Doppler and like the way it works. It's very simple to use. But you can choose from a number of free apps that the open source community is working on, all based on Adam's original iPodder app. Just go to iPodder.org and pick whichever strikes your fancy.

Your next task is to pick a few 'casts to subscribe to. My recommendation if you're somewhat on the geeky edge is to start with Adam's show The Daily Source Code. He is proactively scanning all of the new podcasts and tends to preview a few each show in between doing his own thing. That way you can ease into the new medium. Plus, Adam is having so much fun doing his show that it's a pretty positive vibe to start with. But if you want, you can select from the hundreds of podcasts in the iPodder.org directory or one of the many other online directories like Podcasting.net.

Your next question may be, "When would I listen to a podcast?" From my own experience, I have two places that work well for me: my daily commute to work on the subway and the gym.

I've been thinking a lot about an issue that Adam recently challenged the "godcasters" (religious podcasters) with: "Whose god is responsible for the tsunami?" That's going to take some time to pull together, so I'll save that for next week. In the meantime check out a podcast and see what you think.
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Monday, January 03, 2005

Administrivia: Subscribing to this Blog 

Hello and Happy New Year.

Most blogs end the old year and kick off the new year with all sorts of summaries of things "past" and thoughts on the year ahead. Here at The-Evangelist, we're starting with an administrative issue in response to requests from the reader community. :-)

Some kind folks have been writing to me asking how they might receive notice when there are new posts to The-Evangelist. Given that my posts are generally on the Wednesdays of each week, one answer is to check the site every week after that. But there are some weeks with multiple posts and some weeks with no posts (generally when there is a holiday, a film festival I'm attending or those weeks where my day job eats my brain.)

Here's another solution: simply send an email to the-evangelist-subscribe AT yahoogroups.com. When you join this Yahoo! group, you will automatically receive emails with the contents of each new post to the site.

One favor I'd ask of the reader community: while I very much enjoy the back channel conversations I have with individual readers of the blog (and indeed the volume of email I receive far outweighs the number of comments on the site), please consider whether or not you might like to share your thoughts with other readers in addition to me as the author. If so, then consider leaving your comment at the blog (I respond to all posts to the blog on the blog itself) vs. emailing me directly. That way other readers will have the benefit of your thinking (I get lots of thoughtful responses and recommendations emailed to me directly from readers.)

In closing, I'd like to thank all of you for reading in 2004. I've greatly enjoyed our conversations and look forward to continuing them in the year ahead.
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