Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cosmic Joke

I'm still waiting for the punch line. I think it has something to do with a house collapsing on my head.

So...I had a productive week last week. My brother was enormously helpful both as a fellow worker and musclebound laborer. Much of my week was spent organizing and hiring plumbers, contractors, tree removal people, lawn maintenance., etc. After my brother returned home and most of the work I had hired out was finished, I began painting the interior of my father's home.

I rented a paint sprayer and went from room to room dressed up in a hat, goggles, and a haz-mat-looking paper suit. I finished all the ceilings in about an hour.

Playing with power tools is fun!

It took me much longer to begin painting the walls the old-fashioned way---with a roller and paint brush.

I left my dad's place feeling quite pleased with myself and hopeful that things would continue in the same way, with ease and rapidity.

While I was gone DH reported that The Rationalist had accidentally knocked down a bunch of tiles in the bathroom that he and The Intuitive use. We weren't upset with him because we knew that the bathroom needed work and it was only a matter of time before we were going to have to do it.

When I arrived home and checked the shower out, I was dismayed. When our house was built, the builders did not install cement board in the bathrooms, but instead put in green board....which is basically just drywall with a special "moisture resistant" paper on the front of it. The drywall had soaked up water for God only knows how long.

I began tearing it all out, discovering it was completely infested with black mold.

what fun.

Here's what our guest bathroom looks like now:

I still have a lot more to tear out. I've armed myself with a mask, goggles and gloves and closed off the bathroom from the rest of the house as much as possible.

This is going to be a huge PITA to deal with.

Working on my dad's house has been fun in a strange way...because we have had the funds to hire people and purchase the materials needed for the house repairs.....all thanks to my dad's retirement savings.

It's not as much fun when you have to do the same things to your own home with no money to fund the project, although taking a hammer to tile and drywall does seem to have a satisfying element to it. The only good thing is that I know exactly what has to be done to fix our house and in what order.

I guess the timing is right for this unmitigated bathroom disaster, as far as having acquired the appropriate knowledge goes. I just wish the timing was equally as right financially.

Sadly, I think my blog topics in the near future are all going to be about the ensuing hilarity of me and DH fixing our bathroom and my dad's bathrooms all by ourselves.

If the stress doesn't get to us...the toxic mold probably will.

Death Star Truthers

HT: Exploring Our Matrix who gives an HT to Scotteriology

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Work I Go

I'll be spending the next week at my father's house painting and working with my older brother who is coming down to help out.

I'm sure I'll be sore and exhausted by the end of the week, but I'm looking forward to getting a lot accomplished. It will be good to see my brother again.

Poor soul....he doesn't know all the plans I have for his muscular build--manual labor, here he comes.

I'm thankful for his help, because we really needed it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sound Bite

From Assistant Village Idiot--

Whenever I encounter in a comments section someone who has a standard signoff like "Cheers," or "Regards," it is abundantly clear that they really mean "F-you." This is especially true of people who sign off "Peace." Watch for it.

Probably not coincidentally, they make the exact same lame joke about my online name. To such folks I say
And also with you.


As Homer Simpson says,"It's funny 'cause it's true!"

Tonight's Agenda

Breakfast for dinner--strawberry pancakes and scrambled eggs with cheese.

Watching a movie with the kids--Race to Witch Mountain, starring The Rock, ....one of DH's man crushes...or at least it seems that way because I don't think there's been a movie The Rock has been in that we haven't watched....at least a couple repeatedly.

Anna Karenina

I did it.

I finally plodded my way through the last 300 pages of Anna Karenina. Having raced through the first 700 pages, I found the last third of the novel dragged on a bit. There were only so many fights between Vronsky and Anna, or examples of Levin hunting or disagreeing with his intellectual peers, that I wanted to read and it began to feel a bit repetitive to me.

However...after having read through the sometimes sublime, sometimes laborious, detailed pictorials drawn by Tolstoy, I was rewarded with the last few chapters of Part 8 of the novel--Levin's mystical conversion to faith. Up until these last few chapters, I was wondering where Tolstoy was going in all this. Almost a thousand pages to tell the stories of a few intertwined families and all of the troubles they endure and cause, without any overarching theme, seemed excessive. I hadn't found the key to unlock the story yet. When I found it, I was surprised because it was just what I needed to hear:

The contrast between selfish living and unselfish living.

Anna Karenina illustrates the dangers of living selfishly in pursuit of one's own desires. She pursues her passion for Vronsky knowing it will cost her her honor, her position in society and her only son.

She's aware of her selfishness, aware that she doesn't love the daughter she had with Vronsky, aware that by preventing herself from becoming pregnant, or terminating any further pregnancies, that she is denying Vronsky the heir that he wants, aware that she manipulates him. She dismisses the reproaches of her conscience by telling herself that "It can't be helped."

Anna ends her life as selfishly as she lived it, throwing herself in front of a train with the hopes that Vronsky will suffer, knowing that he should have paid more attention to her. She has driven herself mad with jealousy and the fear of losing Vronsky's love though he has been faithful to her.

She is doomed by her own unrelenting self-interest.

Levin, who constantly struggles with himself, illustrates living unselfishly. He defers to his wife even at the expense of his wishes. He supports his family members in any way he can, though he fumbles through his brother's death and how to incporporate his wife's family into his life. It's never easy, but he finds a way to overcome his irritations and temper.

Anna thinks of suicide as an end of her troubles and a way to punish Vronsky. Levin considers suicide as an escape from the existential despair which overtakes him when he contemplates his lack of belief in God. After spending several months reading philosophy and trying to come to a conclusion about the moments of belief he has felt during his life, Levin is overwrought.:
All that spring he was not himself, and went through fearful moments of horror.

"Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life's impossible; and that I can't know, and so I can't live" Levin said to himself.

"In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is I."

It was an agonizing fallacy, but it was the sole logical result of ages of human thought in that direction.

This was the ultimate belief on which all the systems elaborated by human thought in almost all of their ramifications rested. It was the prevalent conviction, and of all other explanations Levin had unconsciously, not knowing when or how, chosen it as, at any rate, the clearest, and made it his own.

But it was not merely a fallacy, it was a cruel jest of some wicked, some evil, hateful power, to whom one could not submit.

He must escape from this power. And the means of escape every man had in his own hands. He had but to cut short this dependence on evil. And there was one means--death.

And Levin, a happy father and husband, in perfect health, was several times so near suicide that he hid a rope so that he might not be tempted to hang himself, and was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself.

But Levin did not shoot himself, and did not hang himself; he went on living.
I read that description of Levin's state of mind and instantly recognized it as my own, which is not to say that I've hidden ropes or pointy objects, afraid that I might take my own life.
No. But I have experienced the unnameable desperation that can overtake a person when one's "soul" is at odds with one's beliefs...or non-beliefs. How a person with so many good and happy things in life can be brought to such low and empty places internally, incongruent feelings battling for dominance, is one of the mysteries of human life and a testimony to the idea that we are more than our appetites.

Levin, during a brief conversation with a peasant, has a sudden change of heart. He realizes that although he has made no claims to belief in God, he has lived his life according to the Christian virtues he had learned as a child. Despite repudiating them in adulthood, he recognizes that his moral choices have all been made and directed by these beliefs:
He had lived,(without being aware of it) on those spiritual truths that he had sucked in with his mother's milk, but he had thought, not merely without recognition of these truths, but studiously ignoring them.

Now it was clear to him that he could live only by virtue of the beliefs in which he had been brought up.

"What would I have been, and how would I have spent my life, if I had not had these beliefs, if I had not known that I must live for God and not for my own desires? I would have robbed and lied and killed. Nothing of what makes the chief happiness of my life would have existed for me." And not in the further reaches of his imagination could he conceive the brutal creature he would have been had he not known what he was living for.
Levin's thoughts mirror exactly what happens to Anna Karenina who chased her own desires down a path of self-destruction.

Over the last few years as my beliefs have changed and morphed, I have had moments of severe doubting. I have questioned whether what I believe now is really any sort of belief at all. It's so different in character than it used to be. However much things have changed, I live no differently.

And yet....every good thing in my life, and I mean every thing can be traced back to my Christian beliefs. The power to forgive and create a life filled with hope and love, not overshadowed by the past, the power to sacrifice my own wants and desires to serve my family, the power to not let my own pride and self-satisfaction interfere in my relationships with other people, the power to bless and not curse; these are all things I never knew or believed in before I came to Christ. Attempting to live by those principles has not only given my life meaning, but has contributed to the overall satisfaction I find in my life. No amount of reason or questioning can take those principles and convictions from me.

And that is what Levin finds:
"I looked for an answer to my question. And thought could not give an answer to my question--it is incommensurable with my question. The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given because I could not have got it from anywhere.

"Where could I have got it? By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him? I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul. But who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all that hinder the satisfaction of our desires. That is the deduction of reason. But loving one's neighbor, reason could never discover, because it's unreasonable."
I'm left with one of Levin's closing thoughts:

"What am I about? To me individually, to my heart has been revealed a knowledge beyond all doubt, and unattainable by reason, and here I am obstinately trying to express that knowledge in reason and words."

Yes...I too am obstinate in trying to use reason to express the "unreasonable".

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Video Games, Economics, and Psychological Warfare

The Rationalist, like most 9 year old boys, loves to play video games. He could live his whole life without watching TV as long as he could play with his Wii. One of his favorite games is Mario Kart, a racing game which depends heavily on "power-ups" which the racers use in the midst of the game. Some power ups are offensive and can be used to injure other racers, others increase speed or make your vehicle indestructible for a short time.

Besides the strict racing portion of Mario Kart, there is also a "battle" mode. Characters accumulate coins or pop each other's balloons to earn points. The team with the most points wins. Pretty simple

In the last couple of months we have been using the Wii with our WiFi connection. Players can race real-time with other players from all around the world . This has fascinated The Rationalist. Knowing that his competitors are not simply computer-programmed characters, but are actual people who are simultaneously racing him has made his game that much more exciting. He spent the first month with WiFi racing people from Japan, Germany, Canada..etc.

More recently he has become obsessed with "battling" people and it has been an interesting thing to watch......or, more accurately, hear.

Not long after starting to "battle" his anger level started to rise and there would be explosive shouts and howls of frustration.

Why?

Because playing humans is much harder than playing a computer. Computers are indifferent and while programmed to be competitive are also fair.

The Rationalist has incredible skill in Mario Kart. In battles he accumulates points rapidly, quickly leading the pack. As a result, he becomes a target for the other players. Certain battles have a limited amount of coins. After they have all been accumulated, the only way to earn more is to attack other players, causing them to drop their coins, making them available for other players to swoop in and get.

This is war, folks. Limited resources with a high value which can only be taken by force. Anger at those who have the most resources. Grudges towards players who are better than most at accumulating those resources.

The Rationalist soon learned that being one of the best brings negative consequences. Some players would continue to target him even after he had lost his coins, simply out of spite, or to prevent his meteoric rise to champion coin collector again.

The game was no longer "fair" in the sense that it was even-handed towards every player. Instead the game had incorporated vendettas, economics, and the perception of an acceptable amount of "success" into a chaotic free-for-all.....which was quite fun but also more challenging than The Rationalist was used to.

The only way for The Rationalist to win was to continue to be one of the better players.....and to continue to hone his skills in fighting off the players who wanted to take him down.

There is a corollary somewhere in all that to the way society really works in a "grown-up" world.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Ultimatum Game

Several years ago scientists conducted a study, using the ultimatum game, in which human subjects were involved in negotiating, through computer messaging, with other people about various ways to divide up a certain sum of money. $20 dollars could be split up evenly, or an offer could be made to split it into two sums of $19 or $1. The subjects could accept or decline offers made by the other person involved in the "game". They had no way to discuss or negotiate terms with the other player. The subjects would receive any actual money they accepted in the game when it was over. Neither player would receive any money if an offer was declined.

The catch was that the human subjects were playing with a computer. There were pre-determined offers the computer would make, none of which were altered by the choices the subjects made.

Inevitably, the computer would make an offer that would seem unbalanced and unfair to the person playing the game. It might offer to give the subject $2 and keep $18 for itself. Most people would react with irritation and refuse offers so extremely biased in favor of the other player. Despite the knowledge that any money they accepted would be theirs, subjects would repeatedly decline to accept such low offers.

Ultimately, the subjects who refused unfair offers would end the study having earned less money than subjects who simply accepted any offer which came their way.

The lesson drawn from this experiment? Sometimes humans act in ways that do not directly benefit them.

There are valid reasons to act in such ways. If you believe you're dealing with a person who is taking advantage of you, teaching them that you won't be pushed around and that their actions will ultimately harm themselves can be worth taking a certain amount of harm upon yourself. You're hoping to sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term respect.

The tricky part is in discerning the tipping point which carries us from wise refusals to outright stubbornness which is detrimental to ourselves.

This experiment has been on my mind frequently as I have been dealing with my father's house, its extensive repairs, and the contractor I have been working with. All in all, things have gone smoothly and I am happy with the repairs. However, there have been a few hiccups along the way. Being presented with charges which were a little more than what I had agreed to, I found myself calculating the risk benefit of making a big deal about it. In one instance, the amount seemed reasonable and I knew that the repairs had been more extensive in one area than we had anticipated. In another instance, although the amount was not large--about$200--it seemed superfluous. The contractor wanted to be paid for extra time for moving an electrical outlet a couple of feet. I thought that was stretching it because all of the walls already were exposed, making it a relatively easy task, and moving it out of the way so that they could do the repairs seemed like a normal part of the work for which I was already paying.

I discussed this with the contractor, confronting him in a reasonable way about whether I was paying him by the job, or hourly. He said "hourly". I pointed out that I doubted he was going to reimburse me if they happened to get things done earlier than they had anticipated, to which he had no reply.

Not wanting to injure the relationship, I told him I would pay for the extra time, but that from now on I would want a detailed breakdown on any future projects of time and materials in order for me to have a better handle on what he was expecting. He got his money, but I felt as if I had sent a message that I was paying attention and he couldn't expect me to simply hand over money in the future without being questioned about it.

This week he came to me with an offer to do the bathrooms which was about $1500 higher than what we had previously discussed. I told him I would need to think about. I called him back a couple of days later and asked if he was willing to come down on his price, closer to what we had talked about on numerous occasions. He told me he wasn't willing to change his pricing.

If this had been the first disagreement, I would have accepted his offer. If he had come down even a little as a sign of good faith, I would have accepted his offer. Instead I felt as if we were involved in a game of "chicken". Who was going to blink first in this battle of wills?

Not me.

I thanked him for all the work he had done so far, paid him what I owed him, and said that we simply couldn't afford the extra $1500 he had tacked onto his pricing. We would do some of the work ourselves.

Never mind the fact that we have never tiled anything in our lives! We do know how to install a toilet, though..and replacing the vanity doesn't seem too hard.

Now I am wondering if I have taken too much harm onto myself in order to establish the principle that I will not be pushed around.

Time will tell.