I suppose I should say that I've got a Facebook account. People can friend me if they wish. I like my blog posts to FB, too, which is why I haven't posted anything here in a while. So if you want to read my stuff - ha! I know! so vain! - you should FB me. ;)

A touch of Three Kingdoms

I just got done reading Three Kingdoms - all 2000 pages in microscopic type - and here's the short verdict: it is one of the greatest novels ever written. In terms of scope, drama and economy of language, there is probably none finer, and is populated with wonderful characters: Zhuge Liang (aka Kongming) and Cao Cao at the top of the list, but also Sima Yi, Deng Ai, Zhao Zilong, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu.

I'm afraid I didn't get the various message of the book, save in a remote intellectual sense. I could see, and it is quite clear, that the book is deeply Confucian, with the bonds of filial and fraternal piety (or lack of same, in Cao Cao's case) being the primary forces driving the action. I understand that Liu Bei is idealized as a man of virtue, which is why he's got so many cool people around him - Kongming, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Zhao Zilong, the list just goes on and on - whereas Cao Cao is more or less alone. Cao Cao, lacking Liu Bei's virtue, is unable to draw people of real talent to his cause.

Still, from my place, I didn't feel that. What I felt is that it was a group of warlords chopping up China and fighting over its remains. I don't think that Liu Bei had some particular honor or virtue, though the author repeats that he does and at great length; he stole a province from his cousin's son, he betrayed his allies to secure it, and then created himself emperor on a farcical genealogy. I don't mind any of that, but I saw it and couldn't see Liu Bei as anything other than yet another opportunistic warlord, merely one who lacked Cao Cao understanding that empires are built and maintained through force and treachery. I see Liu Bei as being as treacherous as Cao Cao - particularly in how Liu Bei acquired and secured the Riverlands - but less honest about it, which was eventually disastrous for the Riverlands.

But even more than that, the novel confirms something I've long known: emperors can't afford to lose control of the military. But it adds an addendum to my thoughts - if the emperor has lost control of the military, whomever has control of it should not stand on ceremony to depose the now useless emperor. So, the last Han Emperor lost control to Cao Cao, who held the Emperor captive and who Cao Pi removed from power - Wei was successful. The Simas held captive and removed the Caos when they had become useless, and conquered China. Kongming did not stop Liu Bei from attacking the Southlands after Guan Yu died, even though Kongming knew Liu Bei was crippling any chance of the Riverlands to unify the Empire. Jiang Wei did not depose Liu Shan and doomed the Riverlands to conquest. The sentimentality towards imperial persons shown by Kongming and Jiang Wei doomed the Riverlands to conquest; the lack of sentiment of Cao Cao and Sima Zhao towards imperial persons secured success for Wei. So my interpretation of the moral of the story is - if an emperor is weak and no longer has control of the military, the person who deposes the emperor is doing the country a great favor. Nothing is worse for an empire than a weak emperor.

Which is all very academic to me, of course. I think empire and emperors are a deeply outdated political concept. The technology of government has come a very long way since the 3rd century, shall we say. The idea that the person who deposes a weak emperor is a hero is interesting for purposes of historical analysis and fiction but doesn't have too much meaning in the modern world. Even countries that are kinna sorta empires - like the United States or, well, China - have radically different forms of government, both ideologically and in practice, than anything in The Three Kingdoms. (So, in the US, the driving agency of empire - which I take as a given is both a political and moral error - is capitalism. Removing the President from office would simply not help, he'd be replaced by someone else just like him. To stop American imperial ambitions would require changing our economy and whoever did that would be a great hero.)

Nevertheless, the novel is great. It might not be for everyone - it's nearly entirely about court intrigue and war, told from the point of view of the chief commanders and leaders - but there is a great deal to recommend it.

"I can't be blamed for how you interpret things"

This is a form of argument, almost always seen on the Internet though I have seen it used in real life, too, that really annoys me.

Because, in short, yes you can be blamed for the response of your words. Almost everyone uses words to provoke a particular or range of responses in their audience. If I say, "Fuck you, asshole!" I can't really get upset if they get upset - saying "fuck you, asshole" is obviously a provocation. It's idiotic to say otherwise.

The same is true with almost all other language constructs. We say something with the intention to get a certain kind of response in almost all cases.

Oh, sure, sometimes we say something and get an unexpected response. We might not be understanding the significance of our words or understand the specific context our audience has about our words. It obviously happens. But when this happens, I don't think the appropriate response is to blame the audience for some nihilistic, anti-communication freeform inability to properly interpret a given communication. Better, I think, to reassure the audience that's not what you meant and try the communication, again, with a bit more care as well as respect for the feelings of the other person. (Assuming, of course, you're not trying to piss them off!)

One of the things I hate about talking to people on the Internet, hehe. Stoopit people. ;)

Taoists are assholes

. . . in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There are some spoilers, here, FYI.

The "hero" of Three Kingdoms is Liu Bei (more for political reasons at the time that Three Kingdoms was written, about 1100 years after the events in the book than because Liu Bei was a "hero" and Cao Cao a "villain" - modern historical thought generally regards the villain better than the hero; Cao was a skilled administrator, brilliant strategist, poet and warrior who left his kingdom in better shape than he found it and established an enduring stable government . . . but in the novel, he's a bad guy, hehe) takes a while to get into the role and only does so when he gets a Taoist advisor, Zhuge Liang aka Kongming or "Sleeping Dragon".

Well, in the course of the novel, Kongming uses his knowledge of a medical condition of an enemy general to essentially assassinate the enemy general. Then, Kongming goes to the general's funeral and so successfully feigns sorry that everyone is fooled into thinking that Kongming couldn't be responsbile for the death. Afterward, he's going back to his boat and he meets an old friend, Pang Tong aka Young Phoenix, another Taoist priest, and they have a good laugh about how stupid everyone was to think that Kongming's grief was real. This is just one of my asshole things that Kongming and Pang Tong do in the course of the novel.

In short, Taoists are assholes in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

As someone who occasionally identifies as a Taoist, I mostly find this amusing, but not for the reasons most people suspect. The favored reading of Taoist texts and philosophy in the West is a real flower power love-and-peace-harmony-with-the-universe interpretation. Kind of a minimalist discarding of everything that isn't important until you're at peace with yourself and others, acting with natural benevolence towards everyone and everything. (Hey, I identify as a Taoist. I never said I was good at it. I am, no doubt, trying too hard!) This is a legitimate and ancient interpretation of philosophical Taoism.

But it ain't really representative of Taoism as practiced. Most Taoism, as practiced in China, was part of their folk religion, stuff like Laozi is in heaven and the Tao is kept in a box sort of stuff, with drunken kung-fu immortals and demons and magic. That's the most commonly practiced form of Taoism, historically speaking, and certainly Kongming and Pang Tong do Taoist magic in the course of the novel.

Philosophically, however, there's another interpretation which reads the Tao Te Ching not as a benevolent guide to finding inner peace but as a ruthless, Machiavellian guide to securing and keeping power. It's this kind of pragmatic, amoral Taoism that Kongming and Pang Tong practice, and the reason why they were so useful as advisors. They've discarded sentiment and concerned themselves with power alone.

Here in the West . . . we don't like that kind of Taoism. We'd much rather that China be interested in the peace-and-love Taoism and not the ruthlessly-sweep-all-before-you Taoism. We like the Taoism of the fat and happy guy under the worthless tree, enjoying the shade, not the Taoism of pragmatic strategies without a hint of morality. Of course, the Chinese feel no particular reason to oblige our interpretations of their religion and philosophy. And because of the rule of communism in China, Taoism isn't practiced that often in China, and when it it it's often in syncretic, modern forms like Falun Gong. But the influence is, of course, there - Taoist influence is a permanent part of Chinese political thought much like Machiavelli is a constant influence in Western political thought. Tao also serves as a counterbalance to Kong. Kong teaches loyalty, the importance of responsibility up and down the chain of command, be it familial or governmental. Laozi teaches one to say, "Fuck all that. Do whatever needs to be done to accomplish your objectives." The cruel Taoism is part of the cultural heritage of China (and to some extent in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and a couple of other countries) and is part of the profound depth of their cultural toolbox.

But, again, "we Westerners" don't like to think too hard about that. The Taoism of invincible warriors and unbeatable strategists acting without morality or sentiment to gain and keep power just isn't something we want to think too hard about. And, for my part, I don't want to cast China as being full of people who are scheming manipulators, because that's a throwback to racist inscrutible Oriental stereotypes. Obviously, China is more complex than that. The peace-and-love interpretation of Taoism is alive and well in China not to mention, of course, Buddhism and the teachings of Kong. But I think that, in regards to Taoism, Westerns go another, equally racist stereotypical way - by trying to force Taoism into a tiny box because we're uncomfortable with the idea of a China of proud warriors and cunning strategists. We often want them to be the fat and happy man under the worthless tree, a jug of wine at hand - a very non-threatening image as opposed to the extremely threatening image of the ruthless Kongming emotionally manipulating people at a funeral so he can screw them again, later on. Even tho' Kongming's Taoism is a normal interpretation of Taoist philosophy.

Okay, maybe I have a little more to say about Avatar

As I've probably mentioned, good movies and bad movies - for me - have one similar point: I dwell on them. The key difference is with a good movie, I find more reasons to like it. With a bad movie? I find more reasons to dislike it. Guess which one Avatar falls in? So on this sunny Memorial Day, I will pour out my thoughts.

Warning: lots of spoilers.

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Every Friday for a month, I've gone up in weight in every exercise and done perfect sets. Today, that came to an end, though only barely. I have wondered why I've gone up so fast, but nothing really sticks. I hope to go up quite a bit from here, but if I went up at the rate I've done over the past month, that'd be +260 pounds in every exercise a year, which is crazy. Still, the sudden improvement has been gratifying.

But more to the point, I've decided I'm not happy with my weight. It's a lot. I'm a fat ass. What I decided to do a month ago is . . . increase the exercise I do until I have a physique I'm happy with. Which is why I've added bicycling into the mix. My intent, here, is to turn my bicycling-based gasping activity into the primary focus of my exercise until I'm all lean and wiry.

I'm not sure if I can do this, but I intend to try during the spring and summertime - to press it to see what happens.

I'm concerned about over-training, but I think my lifting experience has informed me to the point that I won't make noob errors and make myself so miserable that I quit. But my goal is to just increase the amount of exercise I do until I'm happy with the physique I have. I've tried moderating my food intake but . . . that hasn't worked. I like good food. Oh, well, then I need to crank up the exercise until I either burst or am happy with the physique I have.

I will not quit. I might not succeed this summer, or the next, or the next, but I will not give up. My experience has show this!

One religion better than another - fantasy stuffage

One of the most vexing things about fantasy writers is . . . a lot of them seem to think that one form of religion is better than another. This is deeply interleaved with Celtophilia and I am Celtophilephobic (tho' a fair number are also, of course, Christians slipping their religion in as "the best"), but too many fantasy writers seem to think that one religion is consistently less tyrannical and stupid than another religion. Which vexes me a little because, y'know, I think all religions are basically goofy. I don't mind it when religion is contextualized in a story, that's a different matter entirely, I just oppose to the notion that one religion is generally superior to another.

Kitchen timer

Kitchen timers are curious expensive. But since I needed a stop-watch, well, I got one of those, instead, and am using it as a kitchen time (as well as a stop watch, to be fair, so I can more precisely time workouts) and . . . a twenty-five dollar stop watch is about the same cost as a fairly cheap kitchen time, except it does more and is water resistant down to 100 feet. The stop watch is also of higher general quality, unsurprisingly. The last electronic kitchen timer I got broke down within about a month because it was so flimsy. The stop watch? I could hit it with a hammer and it'd keep going.

Most kitchen gadgets are over-priced! Lesson, here. If you can get something from anywhere other than a kitchen supplies store, do that. It'll be much cheaper and usually quite a bit better.

Also not letting it go: there are differences between radical atheists and Christian fundamentalists

As an atheist, one of the most confusing things about being an atheist is the hostility of people who . . . basically agree with atheism.

American atheists, as a group, are secular humanist, progressive, well-educated with a strong belief that human reason will lead to a better world. Our "militant" faction is guys like Richard Dawkins (tho' not an American), Daniel Dennett and P.Z. Myers. Okay, these guys are the radical faction. Sure, there are some crazies crawling around the woodwork, but these are the Pat Robertsons and Oral Robertses of atheism.

They are . . . kind of progressive guys. I don't really agree with them, directly, about too much - I am more radical then they are, but maybe I am one of the crazy minority faction - but . . . they never say anything idiotic about how, y'know, Hurricane Katrina is some god punishing people, or that AIDs is some god's punishment for something or the other. They don't think that it's immoral for same sex couples to marry. They don't deny the truth of anthropogenic climate change. They don't want to cripple science education in schools. We don't elect idiot Presidents who start "crusader" wars in the Middle East. I mean, the big thing that atheist organizations are doing, right now, is fighting for the right to have atheist billboards! That's the hideous atheist agenda - the right to have atheist billboards.

And I chose the example of Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts with a bit of care. Like the atheists, there are people with far more radical positions than Robertson or Roberts. And, of course, Robertson's followers (Roberts is dead) dwarf Dawkins', Dennett's or Myer's followers - none of them have TV networks that broadcast their positions.

I find the discussion very aggravating, however, when someone who has a progressive secular humanist standpoint attacks "atheist fundamentalists" - who believe almost everything they believe! Except the "atheist fundamentalists" refuse to play nice with religious people. And then these humanist agnostics freely lump us in with the people who bomb abortion clinics, who say that natural disasters are god's punishment towards homosexuals, who fight to get rid of abortion, stunt science education in schools, who support absolutely reactionary political and social agenda.

It's like . . . what you believe is irrelevant. "Atheists fundamentalists", people like Daniel Dennett who represent the public face of American atheism, are no different in word and deed than Pat fuckin' Robertson.

Then I googled two terms: "daniel dennett quotes" and then "pat robertson quotes". I will like the first one in each search:

Daniel Dennett quotes.

Pat Robertson quotes.

I will . . . look for the most risible Dennett quotation. It's hard . . . most of them seem pretty lightweight. This is the most risible I found, feel free to disagree: "After Darwin, God's role changes from being the designer of all creatures, great and small, to being the designer of the laws of nature, from which natural selection can unfold, to being just perhaps the chooser of the laws."

The most risible Robertson quotation from the page above: "(T)he feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." Likewise, if you can find a more risible quotation . . . please, tell me.

Of course, there is a universe of difference between Robertson and Dennett. Which is my point, of course. That the most aggressive popular proponent of American atheism - Daniel Dennett - is a total pussycat compared to an aggressive proponent of American fundamentalism. This difference, the difference between Dennett's kindly humanism and Robert's reactionary fundamentalism counts. It's not an illusion. It's not some chimera. Radical American atheists are pussycats compared to radical American Christian fundamentalists. And this matters. To say otherwise is simply ignorant discrimination.

Quite frankly, atheist "fundamentalists" are not very much, at all, like Christian fundamentalists. To say otherwise is simply to ignore the actual facts. Which count a LOT more to atheists than Christians.