Archive for January 2008

Mmmm . . . Beeeer . . . Sanctified!

January 31, 2008


A blessing for beer from the Rituale Romanum:

Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi: et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti, ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corporis, et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Bless, O Lord, this creature beer, that Thou hast been pleased to bring forth from the sweetness of the grain: that it might be a salutary remedy for the human race: and grant by the invocation of Thy holy name, that, whosoever drinks of it may obtain health of body and a sure safeguard for the soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hat Tips: Thomas Peters at American Papist, via D. G. D. Davidson at Sci-Fi Catholic.

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To Boldly Go Where No Pope Has Gone Before

January 30, 2008

The Curt Jester has photographs and commentary on the altar furnishings that will be used when Pope Benedict visits Washington, D.C. later this year. Here’s the design:

CJ says they look to him as if they might be appropriate for a certain 23rd-century starship captain, much beloved around these parts. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Successor of Peter, The Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, the Vicar of Christ, The Servant of the Servants of God:


His Holiness, Pope Kirk I

Commenting on the general look of the chairs and ambo, CJ asks: “Maybe IKEA is now designing liturgical furniture?”

After visiting one parish in particular, I might be inclined to think so. The altar and ambo have a distinctly minimalist butcher-block look to them. You have to use a magnifying glass to find the Stations of the Cross, and when I asked where the Tabernacle was, my guide pointed down a side hall. If I were Pope Kirk, I’d order a full spread of phasers and photon torpedoes on the place and start over.

Everything Old . . .

January 29, 2008

is new again. Yes, I’ve changed the template . . . again. Never did really like that pale blue. I guess green is more my color. But this layout is the one I used when I first started blogging way back in the Dark Ages of 2004 with a long-defunct effort called “Falling Off a Blog.” It lasted for only a few entries before I got tired of it, moved on to other things, and later came back to blogging in the Spring of 2005 with IAS. Y’know, since this is more or less a Catholic blog, I could change the color scheme every few months to reflect the liturgical season: green for Ordinary Time, purple for Lent and Advent, red for Pentecost, white for feast days . . . Nah!

OK, Now This Is Just Creepy

January 29, 2008

It’s ironic.

Just after I finish posting a piece expressing a certain ambivalence towards the science fiction genre, along comes Ray Kurzweil proposing stuff that sounds like science fiction and leading me to conclude that I have good reason to feel ambivalent about science and technology. Mr. Kurzweil invented the first text-to-speech reader for the blind, a line of high-end music synthesizers, computer hardware and software designed to enhance human creativity, and a host of other pretty cool gadgets all built around the concept of artificial intelligence, or teaching machines to do what people can do. If I remember correctly, he was also the guy who once referred to conventional libraries (y’ know, the old-fashioned kind with real books and stuff) as “museums of compressed wood pulp,” or words to that effect.

OK, so Mr. Kurzweil is apparently not a big fan of printed books and is a big booster of high technology. That’s fine. Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. We all have our likes and dislikes, right?

But now, some of the things Mr. Kurzweil is advocating, proposing, and forecasting for technological advances just give me the heebie-jeebies and bring out my inner Dr. McCoy. On the original Star Trek show, every time Mr. Spock would rhapsodize about the glories of logic and science and the supposed infallibility of the ship’s computers, McCoy would lose his patience and blurt out something like, “It’s a blasted machine, Spock! You can’t argue with a machine!” McCoy is the voice of the humanist, warning us that we risk losing a little something of our humanity and our liberty every time we allow our machines to do our thinking and acting for us.

Mr, Kurzweil, on the other hand, apparently thinks it’s just fine to let our machines think and act for us, since he says that in a few years we’ll not only make increasing use of technology, we’ll actually merge (his word) with our technology. In a few years, the machines will be as smart as we are, anyway, if not smarter. Here’s what he says in a conversation with host and interviewer Steve Curwood on the public radio show Living on Earth:

CURWOOD: But what excites him most is what he sees over the horizon now. What he calls ‘the singularity.’ And what does he mean by that?

KURZWEIL: Well, it primarily refers to our merging with our technology and greatly expanding our human potential. Literally the word refers to a profound transformation. And here we’re using it in a context of human history, in that there will be a great transformation of human society. I put it around twenty forty-five. Where we will greatly expand our capabilities by merging with our technology. And to be a little more specific, by the late twenty-twenties we’ll have both the hardware and the software to create machines that are at human levels of intelligence. We’ve already modeled and simulated twenty different regions of the brain. And we can test those simulations and they perform equivalently to human performance of those brain regions. And the hardware will be quite capable of actually being much more powerful than the human brain.

CURWOOD: So you’re saying in the next twenty-five years—

KURZWEIL: Right.

CURWOOD: The machines will be as smart as we are?

KURZWEIL: Right . . .

And the hardware will be quite capable of actually being much more powerful than the human brain.

Apparently, he thinks this will be a good thing! Is anyone else as creeped out by this idea as I am? What happens when tools become smarter and more powerful than their masters? Who then is the tool and who is the master?

I realize I’m beginning to sound a bit like a paranoid Luddite here. I’m not. I’m obviously using a computer to compose this blog entry. I just finished uploading some fiction to a website where anyone and his brother can read it if they so choose. I listen to podcasts almost compulsively. As I write this, I’m sitting in an electric wheelchair that gives me infinitely more freedom and mobility than I would have otherwise. I have pacemaker or cerebellar stimulator to compensate for some of the effects of my cerebral palsy. I have cable TV and a home stereo system, like most other Americans. Obviously then, I don’t hate technology on principle. It’s just that I like a little distance between my self–my soul, my being, that certain something that defines me as a unique human being created in the image and likeness of God–and any tools I use. I’m not sure I’m ready to go from this:

to this:

I’m not sure the future Mr. Kurzweil is proposing would allow me that distance, however:

So, my vision of what life will be like in the late twenty-twenties, is we will have millions of these nano-bots inside our blood stream. They’ll be keeping us healthy from inside, repairing DNA errors, removing debris, killing cancer cells, augmenting the immune system.

.

Ahem. Ray? Mr. Kurzweil, sir? Just what is a “DNA error?” Is it, say, Parkinson’s Disease or Down’s Syndrome or cystic fibrosis? Or could it be something like not having blond hair, blue eyes, and an Aryan perfect physique? Not being fast enough or strong enough or pretty enough? Just who is to decide what a “DNA error” is, and how the nano-bots are to correct it? Have you not considered the gross potential for abuse with such a technology? And what happens if one (or more) of these little nano-bot thingies goes on the blink? But everything’s going to be swell in Kurzweil-land ’cause we all know that scientists are perfect and technology never malfunctions or has unintended negative consequences, right? Hearing talk like this, I’m reminded of Mark Shea’s observation that all of history can be divided into two phases: “What can it hurt?” followed by “How was I supposed to know?”

But wait, there’s more! Coming soon to a cerebral cortex near you: Virtual Reality!

One thing it can do, for example, is provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system. So, if we want to go into virtual reality, the nanobots shut down the signals coming from your real sensors, replacing them with the signals that your brain would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment. Then your brain feels like it’s in that environment. You go to move your hand, it moves your virtual hand. Design of new virtual environments will be a new art form. But mostly it’s going to actually extend human intelligence, which arguably computers do today even if most of them are not yet inside our bodies and brains.

So this guy thinks the world of M. T. Anderson’s Feed would be a good thing, I suppose: a world of virtual zombies, occupying the same physical space, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually isolated from each other. But hey, it’s not all bad–they can still shop, shop, shop!

The last sentence of the quotation is so rich in irony, it’s almost like a punchline:

But mostly it’s going to actually extend human intelligence, which arguably computers do today

Arguably, indeed. They obviously haven’t done much for your brain power, fella.

even if most of them are not yet inside our bodies and brains.

Yes, and please God, may they remain so! Sheesh! This guy is living proof that being educated is not the same thing as being smart and being smart is not the same thing as being wise.

"Shadows of Steel" Now Available!

January 25, 2008
Fans of Old-Time Radio
Fans of Pulp Fiction
Fans of Classic Comics
Ladies and Gentlemen . . .

Your Attention Please . . .

Thrilling Tales, the online pulp magazine
and
It’s All Straw, the blog

Proudly Present . . .

Shadows of Steel: A Shadow/Superman Adventure

This is an all-new adventure in the classic style featuring two of the greatest heroes from The Golden Age of comics, pulp fiction, and old-time radio: Superman and The Shadow:

It is 1938. Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, has been kidnapped. Margo Lane appeals to her sister Lois Lane for help in finding Lamont, unaware that the old flame who has re-entered her life is at the center of the kidnap plot! Only the Man of Steel can save the Master of Darkness, and only the two heroes together can save a nation on the brink of war! Don’t miss all the action in Shadows of Steel!

I had the basic idea for this story years ago when I realized the simple, blindingly obvious fact that Superman’s girlfriend, Lois Lane, and The Shadow’s girlfriend, Margo Lane, had the same last name. What if Lois and Margo Lane were related? Would that bring the two men, the two superheroes in their lives together? Of course it would! This story was the result. I’ve been working on it over a year now, and it’s finally here! Do go read it and tell me what you think. Tell your friends, your relations, and complete strangers if necessary, about this story if you think they would like it. Since it involves two copyrighted and licensed characters, I can’t possibly publish it via conventional means without being sued down to my last nickel for copyright infringement. So, like millions of other fan fiction or “fanfic” writers, I’m putting it up on the Web absolutely free for you good people to read and, I hope, to enjoy. Please send me feedback at: “niallmor at earthlink dot net,” only replace the dot and the at as appropriate. (You know the drill). Cheerio!

Back to the Future!

January 13, 2008


I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction. I love the sense of wonder and possibility, the thrill of “exploring strange new worlds” and “seeking out new life and new civilizations” in the immortal words of Star Trek. On the other hand, I hate the dark, violent, nihilistic strain that runs through a lot of science fiction: the strain that says everything in the universe, including humanity, is just a product of mindless, soulless evolution; that says violence is the natural order of things; that says God and religion are just ignorant superstition; and that says given enough time and enough knowledge, human beings will completely understand the things of God, or in a sense, become gods themselves. This is a complex topic, and I won’t try to unpack all my thoughts on it here; but I have been listening to a lot of classic, early science fiction lately, and I’ve found plenty to both love and hate. I’m thinking of writing something that harkens back to those early pioneers of the genre, such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve learned that this deliberately retrograde style of SF has even acquired a name–“steampunk.”

I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, so tales of starships, super weapons, beautiful alien maidens, green bug-eyed monsters, and “boldly going where no man has gone before” have always had a certain appeal. The longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written was in fact a Star Wars/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine crossover story that you can find here. I’ve also written one straight Star Trek story that you can find here, and I have several other unfinished fiction projects on my hard drive that have a distinct SF flavor. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of Barsoom (as much swashbuckling romance as SF) several years ago and enjoyed them thoroughly. I listen regularly to Steve Eley’s Escape Pod and Escape Pod Classic podcasts which feature short stories by both new and established SF writers. The latter show features stories that are more “family-friendly” for parents and other listeners that are concerned about explicit violence or sexually suggestive material.

Recently, however, I had a hankering to go back to the very roots of the genre–to read or hear the stories of Burroughs, H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. I suppose this was motivated in part by the news that Pixar is developing an animated version of Burroughs’s Martian stories, and by hearing an audio version of Ann Leckie’s short story “Hesperia and Glory“, an affectionate tribute to those same Martian tales, on Escape Pod, episode 131. Since then, I’ve listened to podcast versions of Princess of Mars by Burroughs, War of the Worlds by Wells, and The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (In addition to creating Sherlock Holmes, Doyle also wrote tales of adventure, suspense, and horror fiction.) I’m also plowing through the podcast version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Seas by Jules Verne. The text for this last book is based on a new translation of Verne’s original French text by F. P. Walter of the University of Houston, that you can find, very handsomely illustrated, here.

I say I’m “plowing” through Verne because the author insists on larding his text with lots of extraneous facts and figures that do little or nothing to advance the plot: summaries of previous ocean expeditions, tediously detailed explanations of how the Nautilus works, its average depth, cruising speed, and distance traveled, Latin names of plants and animals encountered, etc. Like the nerdy kid who just can’t resist showing off every aspect of his winning science project, Verne just can’t let any of his background and technical data go to waste. Another problem with this podcast version, as with many LibriVox recordings, is that it’s read in round robin style, with different readers recording different chapters or different blocs of chapters. This is disconcerting for the listener who has to constantly adjust to different rhythms of speech, different accents, different pronunciations, and different levels of drama and expressiveness in the reading.

The reading for War of the Worlds is much better. The single reader, who choses to remain anonymous, reads the story in what I would guess is a middle class London or Surrey accent, appropriately professorial and matter-of-fact for the narrator, but able to reproduce the accents of working class people such as soldiers and tradesmen accurately. It’s easy to read The War of the Worlds as a protest against late Victorian smugness, complacency, and class consciousness, and a reader who can bring these things out in his reading is an added bonus. It also struck me when listening to this reading that Wells constantly peppers his text with place names that an American might mispronounce and which would have added an extra level of verisimilitude and made his tale even more terrifying to a British audience. Just imagine how disturbing it would be if you sat down to read a fanciful story of an alien invasion, but the invaders were moving inexorably through real towns near you.

I don’t know what will come out of all this reading and ruminating–I hope some good writing on my part–but it has been fun to travel back to the future and share with you what I’ve discovered.

Macaroni Madness

January 8, 2008

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

Last week, I reported on my efforts to make minestrone using a crock pot my sister had given me. This weekend, I made macaroni and cheese using a recipe my sister clipped from the newspaper. Here it is:

Cooking oil spray
1 1/2 cups skim milk
1 can (15 oz.) skim evaporated milk
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 cups pre-shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups (8 oz.) uncooked elbow macaroni

Spray the pot of the slow cooker with cooking oil spray. Measure the skim milk into a 4-cup or larger glass [or?] container. Add the evaporated milk, egg, salt, and pepper and mix well with a wire whisk or fork. Pour the milk mixture into the crock. Add the cheese and macaroni. Stir gently to mix.

Turn the slow cooker on low for 3 1/2-4 hours or until the custard is set in the center and the macaroni is tender. (Do not cook longer than 4 hours, or the sides will begin to dry out and burn.) Serve at once.

Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side dish.

Hat Tip to my friend Bill who purchased the ingredients.

The recipe as written seemed to call for the ingredients to be mixed “in a 4-cup or larger glass container.” I couldn’t see why the container needed to be glass; I mixed the ingredients in a large plastic bowl, and everything came out fine. I thought maybe the reference to a glass container was a typo. The salt and pepper are completely optional. I didn’t have any handy, but it still came out fine.

My sister and I collaborated on the minestrone, but the mac and cheese was my first solo effort as a cook. I know I should have provided photographic evidence of this stupendous feat, but I was having too much fun eating it. The cat tells the story. Bon appétit!