Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Mouse-Cat

I read a story a great many years ago which I wanted to recommend. However, I've long ago misplaced the book in which I thought I read it. Astonishingly, I haven't been able to find any direct references to this story on the Internet!  Not just the Web, mind you, but Usenet, IRC, and those places we dare not name. Nor did it show up in a search of Google Books. This is all the more astonishing in that, if a thing exists at all I can generally find it in 5 minutes or less. Not only that, but I found the book that I thought it was in, and the story's not there!!

After much consternation, vexation, investigation and search, I found it re-printed in a Malaysian newspaper from 1983. This just very recently (as in, today) popped up in a Google News search. And now having found the story, and being unsure as to how long it will remain visible this time; I am, for the purpose of preservation and scholarly critique under Fair Use in accordance with Title 17 of the US Code, going to reproduce it here in its entirety. I do not recall the original title, so I'm going with, "The Mouse-Cat".
After the unsuccessful colonial revolt, the British colonies in the New World were organized into the United States of Canada. In time, this vast and peaceful nation grew to include the entire North American continent. One of its most famous heroes was the Cisco Kid of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Strange reports were coming in from prospectors in the Yukon. A new animal had been seen, a swift, elusive beast that the miners called a mouse-cat.
What made the reports so remarkable was the news that the mouse-cat, unique among mammals, had three ears. The Cisco Kid was sent to investigate.
The Cisco Kid returned from the Yukon empty-handed. The mouse-cat had proved too shy and clever to be captured. He had, however, observed the little animals closely, and he could vouch for the fact that they had not three ears, but four!
The controversy was referred to the Science Court, and in short order they handed down a verdict in favor of bilateral symmetry. "For," said the Chief Justice, "who are we to believe, the three mouse-cat ears or the count of Mountie Cisco?"[*]
I believe the story was originally written by Isaac Asimov. If not, it was collected by him. I do not believe it would have stuck in my memory since childhood, forever associated with his name, if it had not been. And the story's status as an extended cringe-worthy pun is certainly typical of the excessively convoluted pun for which he was so well-remembered.  (UPDATE: As we now know, the story was by Rick Norwood, and did indeed appear in a collection edited by Asimov... But wait! Something interesting! The hardcover edition of this book was published in April 1984; the paperback was published in August 1985; but remember the Malaysian newspaper I linked to above? Monday, April 25th, 1983[**]. 

It is possible that I introduced some spelling errors or inaccuracies. It's also possible that the Malaysian newspaper did so. They certainly didn't feel the need to attribute this work. Feel free to leave scholarly preservationist comments below, as scholarly preservationists are wont to do. And seriously, if you know where this story first appeared... or better yet, if you have the book... please contact me.

[*] If you didn't recognize this as The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, then you need to read more. Follow the links, the books are free. 
[**] According to the "100 Great..." collection, “The Abraham Lincoln Murder Case,” “Freedom,” and “Mouse-Kitty” by Rick Norwood copyright © 1982 by TZ Publications, Inc. Originally published in Twilight Zone under the group title, “Three Timely Tales.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Are All Religions Created Equal?

This is the second of the two religious posts that I promised you in A Registry of Atheists?

This is sort of a reply to a post of nearly the same name by Jules Sherred. I say sort of a reply because I'm responding to the title alone, and am not responding so much to the content of the post, which basically boils down to a declaration of how all-inclusive her church is. I'm glad she's found a lovely group of like-minded people, but my analytical mind is obligated to point out that it cannot as inclusive as "all that".

First, if we assume that this statement, "all religions are created equally," means that they're all equally valid, or true, then the statement contains logical fallacies that make it incapable of being correct.

For one thing, many religions teach fundamentally different things. Some assert that you must accept the divinity of Christ to get into Heaven. Others say you cannot accept the very same thing, for the very same reason. Still others say there's no Heaven to get into. They simply cannot all be simultaneously correct. In fact, the only way for them all to be equal at all is for them all to be completely false. This includes, of course, the religion that asserts that all religions are created equally, for in order for it to be valid and true, this one religion must be as false as all the others, otherwise "all religions..." is incorrect.

So logically, the assertion is either just wrong, or, if correct, still wrong. It's not often you get to do that without bothering to discuss doctrine at all. A religion that asserts that all religions are false is basically atheism, so why not just save a step?

I personally would not argue to a Muslim that my religion is equal to his. It's a pointless exercise, in that he'd see through such a thing immediately and point out the very fallacy I just did. By asserting that all manner of contradictory things are equal is to remove any meaning whatsoever from the concept of religion. Between you and me, I think it would be more than a little cruel to do that to someone else, and I'm not willing to do it to myself.

But I am willing to do this: I assert that I have a strong conviction that my religious beliefs are correct. However, I don't know this to be factually true. Even if I thought I knew it to be factually true, I recognize that God so highly prizes Free Will that He refuses to show himself. To do so would be proof, which negates Faith, and biases our choices. I respect that your unbiased choice is important to God, and therefore I respect your right to have whatever Faith you will... even where that Faith is at odds with mine; even where that Faith is in no god at all. I am more than just willing to do this... I'm obligated to.

In return, I demand the same consideration, even if you don't agree with my faith-based reasons. There are secular reasons that are equally compelling.  The Golden Rule ("And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." -- Luke 6:31) isn't just some superstitious religious admonition... it is the primary basis for any just and fair social contract. An atheist's attempt to silence prayer is no more "right" ... i.e., socially valid... than the forced conversions of the Inquisition. Make no mistake: The zealot who forces you to engage in his practices is a tyrant. The atheist who feigns "offense" to force you to stop your practices is likewise a tyrant. Both use excuses to force their will on others, and some even believe the outrageous lie that they do so for the good of Humanity.

Ignore them both. If you want to worship, go ahead; but don't insist that others join you. If you don't want to worship, don't; but don't insist that others stop.

This is called tolerance.

A Registry of Atheists?

I'm about to post about religion twice in a row. I promise I'll try to make them short. I'll try to make them interesting. I'll try to make you think. If you think you already think, I'm going to try to make you think harder about what you thought you thought about. (UPDATE: The second post is here.)

First up, pastor Mike Stahl recently posted that he thought a registry of atheists would be a good idea. It would be similar to the sort of registration that is imposed on sex offenders. That's his comparison, by the way... not mine. In fact, he couldn't see why anyone would be opposed to such an idea. I'll link you to this blog post by P.Z. Myers, because Meyers thought to quote it in detail. Stahl, on the other hand, locked down his blog's comments almost immediately (here's me, being unsurprised), and locked down the entire blog shortly thereafter, as you can see for yourself (UPDATE 2011-09-24: If you follow the link now you'll see that the website is open, with a couple of interesting things to note. First, the 'Registry of Atheists' post has been completely removed. While that's an improvement, actually addressing the issue instead of pretending it never happened would have been even better. Second, there's text on the sidebar: "BWAAHHHH!! DOES THIS BLOG "OFFEND"? TOUGH!!! THEN LEAVE, HEATHEN!"  Hmmm.  Jesus did not confine his preaching to the already converted and was pretty vocal about loving his enemies. Also, I can't help but notice that this is a hefty chunk of bravado from a man who denies his mistakes instead of teaching from them. I find myself wondering exactly what Pastor Mike thinks he's there for. Under other circumstances I might not care, but here I feel obligated to point out that this man has represented Christ falsely, and it neither began nor ended with this PR disaster.) Between the time he locked down the comments and withdrew the blog, I gathered his email address from his profile page and sent him this letter, to which he has not responded.
I'm writing this in email because it wasn't possible to do so on your
blog, even after subscribing. Apparently, the comments are locked down. Unfortunate for a blog that literally invites free discussion.
It bothers me that you think so little of your own right to practice the
religion of your choice that you would persecute others for
exercising their religious freedoms, including the right to have no
religion at all. After all, if you can do that to them, it's only fair
that the same be done to you. Let's finish the thought and espouse a
national registry where everyone must declare declare his religious
persuasion. Give everyone a number so there's no ambiguity about that
list. Or perhaps, you should refer back to a volume of our own
religion's scripture (namely the Revelation of St John) to see what
Christian doctrine is on such a subject.
Of course I am opposed to such a disastrously ill-conceived idea. I hope
from the previous paragraph that you, as well, can now see why anyone, even the most devout Christian, should oppose it. If it isn't clear yet, let me say that you have proved to me today that all it takes is a
momentary lack of thought to pave the way for the Antichrist, and you
don't have to be hateful to do it.
Even God himself respects an atheist's right to be wrong. So lead by
example and persuasion, not coercion. I do hope you pray about his, see
the obvious folly of it, and retract the idea publicly.
Peace to you,
Dave Leigh

Well, I can't exactly say that what Stahl has done counts as "retracting the idea". That would, of course, require him to say it's wrong. Rather, following Brave Sir Robin's lead, he has bravely run away. (The second post is here.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

REVIEW: My Dog Needs Surgery

Steve Hockensmith's dog needs surgery, but vets are expensive. Not being independently wealthy, he did what any good tradesman would do... he packaged up some of his wares and started selling. Now, this being the 21st century, we're not talking about selling pots from a horsecart. Steve Hockensmith is an author; his words are his wares; and the Internet, not the sidewalk, is his marketplace.

I must admit that I'd never heard of Steve Hockensmith until I saw a tweet where he offered a free copy of his ebook to anyone who'd review it. I didn't know he was a critically successful author whose first novel, Holmes on the Range, was a finalist for the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony awards for best first novel. I didn't know that his short stories had been published again and again in Ellery Queen magazine. I didn't know he was the guy who wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I didn't know he had a Wikipedia page.

No, all I knew was that I will write a review of the ad copy on a cereal box if it earns me free cereal; and hey... free book!  I also knew that I liked his approach and attitude. This may be the 21st century, but since the dawn of Time a man's survival has depended upon his willingness to go out there, kill something, and drag it back to the cave. Steve Hockensmith has that. He makes no bones about it... he's writing for a living, this is how you pay the bills, and please just buy something already, so the vet can get paid. Even if it proved to be a chore I was going to read this book.

Well, it's not a chore. To give you the ending first, Columbo-style, I like the book a lot. so much so that I'm going to refer to the author as "Steve" from now on, as if he were my buddy and not some writer guy who sent some random schmuck a free book to review just because his dog needs surgery (which is all true, but beside the point).

Having not even read the blurb before diving into the book, I suppose I was expecting it to be in the Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry tradition. Not so! I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be an eclectic collection of mystery, humor, and essays. My first impression, of course, came from the very first story, "The Unfortunate Fortune", in which a diner is treated to an "explanation" of the history of the fortune cookie from his his bullshit artist friend... an explanation that involves a court case in which no less than the future of an entire industry is at stake. This is an old-school American Short Story, very much in the tradition of Mark Twain or O. Henry.

I was impressed, so I kept reading. I found the next piece to be, not another humorous short story, but a humorous essay about writing, and very good advice at that. Still impressed, I kept reading. The third was a cop story entitled "Erie's Last Day". Not humorous, but poignant and intelligent, and it hooked me. Steve is an artist with more than one emotion to share. Where there's humor, it isn't forced; where there's pathos, it isn't thrust upon you. He doesn't tell you what to feel... he puts you in his characters' shoes so you can feel it for yourself.

What we have in this book is a Whitman's Sampler of my pal Steve's work for only 99 cents from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords, easily worth eight times as much. Read this and I dare you not to go back and buy one of his other books. I'll let you in on a secret. Even though I got a copy of this one for free, I still bought it, and went back for Dear Mr. Holmes.

So what are you waiting for, you heartless bastard? The dog needs surgery!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Best TV is on the Web

There's something seriously wrong with the fact that the best SyFy channel production I've ever seen is a series of webisodes. You think MAYBE if they tried, the former SciFi channel could actually produce some decent SCIENCE FICTION that doesn't involve giant mutant animal crossbreeds. It turns out they can... it just doesn't get airtime.

the Mercury Men is set in the mid-1970s, shot in black-and-white, with 1930s technology and plot. It's astoundingly and delightfully anacronistic, with a complete disdain for real science... and that's ok. It's an amazingly cool retro look, and well worth your time.

It amazes me that this isn't on the channel proper. Apparently there's some guy at a desk with a cigar whose job it is to be clueless about what their audience really wants. Then there's somebody else making an end run 'round to the webmaster as an outlet for the fans. Be one of the fans, get your head out of the cable box, and check out the web.

Many of the very best shows are to be had on the web rather than TV. Here are some examples:
  • hosts a webisode series of Warehouse 13  called "Of Monsters and Men"
  • Trenches is outer space trench warfare with feature-film production values.
  • Star Trek Phase 2 chronicles the voyages of the original starship Enterprise, captained by James T. Kirk. As you may know, Desilu only shot 3 seasons of the original Star Trek, though the introduction always specified a "five-year mission". James Cawley and Retro Films Studio are filling us in on the missing two years.
Where do you find new web series? Well, there's And keep an eye out on not only do they host web-only series, but practically any show is a series of webisodes when streamed. What's clear is that you don't need cable TV for decent entertainment.

Do you have some favorite web-only series? Comment below.