Rick Shory

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Gibbs economics

I was asked to review the book “Solar Hydrogen Generation: Transition Metal Oxides in Water Photoelectrolysis” in regards to alternative energy production. I loved the geeky chapters because I’m a sucker for any sort of super technical chemistry gossip. But I want to offer my perspective on the gap between such information vs. practical systems. Most people realize there are “complications”, but I would like to share my ideas on how to think of these complications in a systematic way.

I will use an economics analogy to explain a thermodynamic term called “Gibbs energy” (in older publications “Gibbs free energy”). Gibbs energy is the deal-breaker (or -maker) in a physical system, to tell whether it will “go”. It’s like a bookkeeping analysis to see if a business model is viable.

This is of course way oversimplified, but: You have raw profit, and you have organization costs. If you have enough profit, you can gloss over management. If you have a slim profit margin, your system may still work if carefully managed. There are even cases where an otherwise unprofitable system will work if you “add” enough of the right kind of organization.

Gibbs energy has two terms, which I’ll simplify to “energy” and “entropy”. Energy is the basic “bang” of the system, sometimes obvious sometimes not. Entropy is the “organization” of the system. More organized means lower entropy. In the technical thermodynamics of the Gibbs equation, the energy and entropy terms are of opposite sign. This means, conceptually, “buying” organization using energy, or vice versa.

For a simple system, like an electrochemical cell, the terms are fairly straightforward to quantify. However, any system of real relevance, such as biological life or renewable energy, is much more complex, partly because it is less definite just where the boundaries of the system are. Though harder to quantify, it can be easier to conceptualize.

For example, a pure substance is more “organized” than a mixture, thus lower entropy. Picture a gold ingot sitting beside a heap of mine tailings. The gold is more “organized” than the original state, the mountain of ore. You can see that you have to “pay” energy, effort, management to get the gold. Incidentally, the whole scene, gold plus waste rock, is now less organized, higher entropy; but that’s another story.

Back to the case of the semiconductor hydrogen reactions. At the scale of the titanium dioxide (or whatever) particles, the system “goes”. Ultraviolet light hits the slurry and activates it, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. (This is not technically correct. It’s actually “electrons” and “holes”, and the chemical reactions may bypass hydrogen and oxygen. But it will serve for analogy.) So far, the practical use of such systems is to get rid of some undesirable organic pollutant. The oxygen produced “burns up” the pollutant, and a little hydrogen may bubble out.

But say you want to adapt these reactions to actually get a flow of hydrogen. Now you are faced with providing a feedstock of the organic material, as well as getting rid of the “burnt” carbon dioxide. Alternatively, you could let the slurry bubble out a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen — extremely explosive. Either way, your management costs have shot up. The larger system has to be much more “organized”. Is there still enough overall energy, enough “profit”?

Say you could magically get clean hydrogen. Hydrogen is a gas, and gases are inherently high entropy, relative to liquids and solids. The atoms are flying around more freely. To bring it to a more organized, manageable state, you can see you would have to expend effort. You could compress it into high-pressure tanks. You could liquefy it at extremely low temperature. This management “costs” energy, and cuts your overall profit.

Maybe you could chemically combine hydrogen with carbon to make a fuel that would be liquid at room temperature. That’s what gasoline is, and is why such fuels are so popular. But there is yet no practical way to do that. It would take extremely organized chemical reactions. Again, the management costs.

The closest that exists so far is the work of George Olah, which has come to fruition here. At first glance, this seems like the answer. You take carbon dioxide and water and you end up with the liquid fuel methanol. Methanol is a fair substitute for gasoline, not quite as high energy density because it contains some oxygen (it’s already part “burnt”). Poisonous, to be sure, if we drink it, and will readily kill anything it’s spilled on in any quantity. In this regard, similar to gasoline. But methanol is more readily biodegraded, once dilute enough.

But peek behind the curtain, using Gibbs energy, and you see how the Iceland plant is “cheating”. The energy is geothermal, essentially free. The carbon dioxide feedstock is volcanic gases, already concentrated; that is, lower entropy. To collect the same carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would take enormous “organization” costs of energy. Maybe someday it’ll be feasible, but not now.

I want to make a nod to the supposedly “poor” efficiency of biological life, as photosynthesis. The number is usually quoted as a sad one or two percent, compared to our even crude solar cells at 10%. But look at the outputs.

Solar cells make electricity, which must be used at the same moment it is produced. By some reckoning, it has infinite entropy. The “management” term is our huge electrical infrastructure, with all its controls, including any storage. Yes, we have made it work, but it works best for steady inputs like hydropower or fuels we can burn at will. For “higher entropy” inputs that fluctuate, like solar and wind, we have to provide ever more organization.

As an aside, I saw a blurb about future cities harvesting their own energy, the skyscrapers coated in “quantum dots”. I love it! Those would presumably be molecule-sized solar cells, each feeding into the grid. What a wonderful futuristic image, compared to the clunky ones we have now: Blocky three-by-six foot panels, weighing some forty pounds, holding arrays of hand-sized solar cells. Most people don’t realize that if even one cell in the array gets shaded, the efficiency of the whole thing plummets. (This is why solar installations look so stark. There can be no shading anywhere.) This problem could be solved, but again at an “organization” cost of more complex electronics. The management of a cityscape of quantum dots would be, well, futuristic.

But, organization is clearly the way to go. Looking again at photosynthesis, the final output is a chemically stable solid, say wood or grain. It just sits there until you’re ready to use it. This is accomplished by the extreme organization of biological life. Life just “does” it for you.

Unlike transition metal oxide systems that need scarce, high-energy ultraviolet photons, plants can get by on abundant, low-energy red photons. Plants deal with the high entropy (extreme dilution) of their feedstocks without you even noticing. They scrape together enough carbon out of the fraction-of-a-percent carbon dioxide in ambient air. From this smidgen, they build huge forest trees, continents of waving grass, fields of corn. They quietly eke out their soil mineral feedstocks in a similar way. They don’t have to go halfway around the globe for strategic metals.

Each chlorophyll molecule is essentially your quantum dot. The highly organized biochemical machinery is in place to bring that energy out into a stable carbon-based compound, such as glucose, even at the cellular level. This is done with no extreme pH sulfuric acid or potassium hydroxide electrolytes, no nightmarishly high temperatures. This energy stock can be stored locally in the cell as starch, or transported. No batteries. No spinning flywheels. No explosive pressures or high voltages. When the energy stock is to be transported, the transport system is part of the package too, in the form of the plant’s vascular system, which runs on water.

We haven’t even talked about repair, recycling and replacement of defunct equipment. For built technology, these issues are routinely swept under the rug when looking at product lifecycles. Heavy metals from electronics leach into groundwater. Plastics spiral into the oceans. Even innocuous materials have be dumped and buried in landfills.

For biological life, the recycling was all worked out millions of years ago. Dead plants just rot. Before they die and rot, they live with dust, dirt, grime, muck, random weather conditions, scarcity, breakage, etc. All the things anybody who has ever tended machinery knows can be a full time job.

Again, for real-world systems, the “management” (entropy) costs are easier to conceptualize than to quantify. But when you look at all the entropy terms that living things routinely play ball with, a one or two percent overall “efficiency” is phenomenal. Biological life is the benchmark to beat.

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The gay bully

My cousin sent me a link to this. I started reading. I was about to click away with a yawn before I noticed the writer was Armistead Maupin.

How things change. I first saw Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series in the late 1980s. Each book, I couldn’t put it down! I was living on a boat, scraping by. I lived aboard friend’s small craft, parked in the marina. Rent was free, in exchange for keeping an eye on things. The tiny cabin wasn’t even big enough to stand up, so night after night, I sat long hours on the mooring slips, reading those books under the dock lights.

The couldn’t-put-it-down wasn’t from adventure, but from the steady subtext, “Gay life can be normal!” Here were these functional gay characters, in richly integrated lives. The message to me, trying to figure out this new weird gay thing, was, “You, too, can have a fun, normal life!”

The past several months, I have been leisurely going through the same series again, as audiobooks. They are delightful in how they bring back that time and place. But after all these decades, I now have my own richly integrated gay life. Literature is no longer so riveting.

I was about to click away from the current excerpt because it came across as the same-old gay story. That we are gay because of a clinging mother and a distant father. If that were true, the whole boomer generation would be gay.

That’s oversimplified. Here’s the theme in broader terms: The feminine energy is friendly, accommodating, understanding. The females themselves may be sisters, aunties, grandmothers, schoolmates; not just mothers. They are angels. The male energy is bluff, brutal, rigid. At best, it finds us baffling. The male figures, in addition to fathers, may be coaches, jocks, and especially bullies. They are demons. In its million variations, this is the sissy-victim gay story.

So, what’s this? Armistead Maupin squashing his early life into the trope of sissy-victim? It’s hard to swallow. He didn’t have it nearly bad enough. He was famous in San Francisco by his early thirties, and his work is so wonderful because it tells stories other than sissy-victim.

My personal story didn’t fit either. Both my parents were distant, my dad from his career, and my mom from four kids born within five years. I was a middle child, low expectations from the get-go.

When I was maybe 3 for 4, I got to stay up late while my mom iced my birthday cake for the next day. She looked down, tousled my head, and remarked how thick my hair was getting to be. I said no, I saw one of my hairs, and it was very thin.

From this, I might have built a whole narrative of maternal closeness. But really, besides injury-care, that is the only incident of personal attention I can remember. In adult life, my dad and I did develop a fond relationship. But from mom, as she faded into deafness and senility, that was never there.

In school, sure I was picked on, but what kid wasn’t? I had it easy. I was tallest in my class, always at the end of the picture line. When I was in first grade, there was a triad of third-graders who tormented me. Only years later did I realize. What?! One kid, age six, holding his own against three nine-year-olds? All they could ever manage was shove me, and tug at my clothes. Not much to complain about.

I was precocious. The standardized test scores are there to prove it, though it didn’t make my life a dream. It’s obvious now. The picking-on in my case was from those who always want to pull things down.

In maybe 3rd or 4th grade, a teacher took me aside and told me to stop bullying. I was taken aback. From my perspective now, I can see. I big boy, with a touch of Asperger’s. His intense, nerdy interests don’t attract many friends. He’s not much good at social cues, so it does not even occur to him he might be scaring the other kids. And, a little bit, he’s starting to like the boys. The way other boys may start pulling the girls’ pigtails.

I was shocked when the teacher scolded me. I took myself in hand and I don’t think I did it much any more. But there’s your window into the opposite gay archetype, the gay bully.

The gay bully shows up in the shadows of gay tales. He’s there as Maupin’s mean trigonometry teacher. He’s there as the thundering, in-denial, anti-gay preacher. He’s there as the snooty klatch of high-society A-gays. He’s there all too often as sissy-victim’s first sexual encounter. In the tales, he usually gets his come-uppance with poetic justice, mostly offstage. But he seldom gets a literary voice.

The gay bully is in real life. Say, J. Edgar Hoover. What kind of come-uppance is it, if he gets away with it for his whole lifetime? The usual dismissal is an arch tut-tut. But that’s like forgiving Hitler as a frustrated art student. To keep Hitler from happening again, you’ve got to understand Hitler. There’s a book in this, maybe a genre.

It reminds me of a theme from the vampire literature, something like “The law of the masquerade”. Vampires have survived by convincing general society that there is no such thing as vampires. Gay survival has had a lot do with letting general society believe that gays are all wimpy poofs, no threat. A man who wants men, and learns how to manipulate power, can stay invisible. Compared to other down trodden minorities, it’s easy. An angry young black man is obviously black, an outsider. A gay bully can stay an insider.

Gore Vidal wrote a remarkable novel “The City and the Pillar”. The first remarkable thing about it was it treated gay reality — clear back in the 1940s! The next remarkable thing was, even that far back, it broke right out of the sissy-victim party line. The sissy-victims are there, but in the corners, rather than the spotlight.

The spotlight is on Jim. In high school, he has sex with his best friend Bob, just before Bob ships out for the Merchant Marine. They are normal, masculine guys. Jim is in love, though he doesn’t quite understand it. He isn’t weepy about it, more like dogged. As his life opens up he pursues things that might lead him again to Bob. The military. Sports. When he finally does get with Bob again years later, and Bob resists him, Jim takes Bob. In the original, murder. In the 1960s revision, rape. The gay bully prevailed.

I’m not for rape and murder, but these stories need to be told. For all the gloss of gays being wan and ineffectual, and above all “sensitive”, we manage to abuse each other worse than anybody. It’s not going to stop until it gets talked about.

I want to hear more from the gay bully. We’ve heard enough from sissy-victim. The two have a lot of parallels. Sissy-victim doesn’t see himself as actively being a sissy-victim, he just feels like he is the way he is, but the world is so mean. The gay bully doesn’t see himself as bullying. He just is the way he is, and circumstances fall into place before him. For sissy-victim, his personal growth is to see how he’s being complicit with his abuse, and choose to stop it. The gay bully needs to grow out of his bullying, with temperance and enlightenment. Sissy-victim is not, of course, supposed to switch and become a bully. Equally ludicrous would the bully breaking down and “getting in touch with his true sissy feminine side”.

I know all too many gay men who seem satisfied to live their entire lives in the vortex of sissy-victim. On the other hand, I don’t know that I know any gay bullies. Are there really just the few? The public figures we see when they fall? Or are there lots of them, invisible, in plain sight?


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Yes, free will

The arguments that claim “there is no free will” use experiments like this: Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the brain causes involuntary movements, such as twitching of a finger. Now, I enjoy a good non-sequitur as much as anybody:

 I took my friend Elmer out to the airport. I showed him how, by hacking into a certain relay on an airplane, I could get one of the wing flaps to lower.

 “Woah!” he said, “This makes it impossible to believe there was ever a pilot in control!”

 “Yes,” I replied, “That’s the only logical conclusion.”

 “And,” as he thought further, “There’s no such thing as flight!”

 “Quite correct,” I agreed.

 “Oh, and…” Now he was holding his head, and swaying, “So my memory. Of my vacation to Brussels, where I traveled by air… Was a complete delusion!”

 “The obvious truth,” I admitted.

 

Sorry. Yes, I know it was a failure. It falls short of funny. It’s stupid. Sorry.

But that is evidently the chain of conclusions that leads from these trivial neurological demonstrations to the sweeping philosophy “There is No Such Thing as Free Will.”

 

We find ourselves in a world built from ideas, created by decisions. Yet, there is no mechanism that turns those decisions into reality?

We find ourselves in a world where all sorts of things fly (bugs, birds, airplanes). It’s obvious they do. There are ways to stop them flying, like a flyswatter. Sometimes the wind is too strong for birds. Yes, terrorists crash planes. But it’s obvious, things fly.

The fact that a system can be sabotaged, hobbled, and hacked does not prove there’s no such thing as the system. Instead, it’s good evidence the system is the main event. The fact that flight can be thwarted doesn’t prove there’s no flight. The fact that free will has limitations is no proof it doesn’t exist.

By the Theory of Relativity, you can hold the perspective that an airplane did not fly from New York to Seattle. Rather, the craft remained stationary while the rest of the universe shifted around it. All the physics works out. But the stationary-airplane reference is useless, except for demonstrating the Theory of Relativity. For aeronautical engineering, you use a frame of reference where the plane flies.

Maybe there is another possible reference system than individual free will, such as that All That Occurs is the will of All. But still, intent creates reality.


 

We have a number of built in — I won’t call them “delusions”, rather “conveniences”. Cases where what we think our brain is processing, is different from what it actually is.

In vision, for example, our impression of smooth continuous motion. Certain people have a neurological breakdown, called “akinetopsia”, such that they lose this impression of continuity, and see only a series of snapshots. If you think about it, between normal blinking, eye-shifts, and perspective changes, that’s about all that’s coming in. So, we think our brain is processing motion, but it’s actually synthesizing it for us.

We develop a sense of familiarity about things. This goes so much without saying that we never notice until it glitches. Déjà vu, that sense of familiarity, yet somewhere we’ve never been. Or the opposite, jamais vu, loss of that sense when it should be there. What is “familiarity”? Memory, surely, but with a sense of time, memory-of-memory, a conviction that “this was this way before”. We know full well that most things were there before we saw them. But this fabricated sense-of-familiarity, in its normal working, gives us a convenient comfort that “this was this way before, for me.”

When we are enjoying a conversation, we sense it as a flow, happening in real time. We are not aware of the processing lags, both to decode speech and create it. We are not aware of processing at all, until we stray beyond a language we’re fluent in.

Incidentally, the case of not being able to choose not to understand speech in your native tongue is thrust up as “proof” there is no free will. I’m sorry. Limitations don’t disprove free will. Free will is not the same as godlike (or diabolical) omnipotence. You don’t have the “free will” to levitate a book by telekinesis. You don’t have the “free will” to hold your breath until you die. More’s the pity.

These examples, of visual smoothing, déjà vu, and conversational speech, all bear on how our minds play with time sense, so life works better. The no-free-will pundits make hay the most from some hair-splitting experiments in a similar vein. Supposedly, your impression of when you decided to take some action, like lifting your finger, occurs up to several seconds after the internal brain waves started, which lead to the action. Ok. So? It’s one more example of how our minds masterfully play with time, so the world makes more sense. We “backdate” our impression of when we decided, but still we decide.

Professional baseball players, with the highest batting averages, go up against a women’s softball pitcher — and she strikes them out! How? It turns out, one of the strongest predictors of success in pro baseball is simply — exceptional eyesight. The pro batter, without ever realizing it, has trained himself to read the body language of the pitcher. The batter knows how the ball is going to go before it ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. Indeed, it’s easy to show that, at the speed the baseball flies, there is no time to visually process its trajectory anyway. Yet, the batter swings, and a good percentage of the time connects. At least until he’s facing a pitcher with different body language.

So, because the batter used his well-trained neurophysiology, rather than conscious thought, to hit the ball, he never “willed” to hit it?

Another irrelevancy brought into the no-free-will harangue deals with that pesky time lag. Researchers introduce a time lag between the sound and the motion in a movie. Subjects shown the movie find it very annoying, when the mismatch is even a fraction of a second, much less than the delay between the brain waves that herald a decision and the impression of having made that decision. This is supposed to prove something.

This proves nothing, except we are used to how things work. First of all, it’s unlikely audio and video actually arrive in our brains simultaneously. We conceptually stitch them together, after allowing for processing delays.

You can perform the thought experiment of watching an unsynchronized movie, and easily imaging how irritating it would be. But imagine this. You are spending a relaxing weekend at a cabin on a lake. It’s mid-morning, and you are enjoying coffee, or the libation of your choice, on the porch by the lakeshore. You casually become aware of an interesting person at another cabin across the water. For convenience, I’ll say “he”. He’s splitting firewood. His big shoulders flex, and the axe comes down. The wood splits with a satisfying crack. The knock lightly echoes off the hills. You watch, cycle after cycle, and you do not find it irritating at all.

But wait. The other cabin is 1000 feet across the water. Sound travels about 1000 feet per second. So there is nearly a one-second delay between his muscular exertions and the resultant sound. Why no annoyance? Because you know from a lifetime of experience that’s how sound works, including the echo. In fact, the time delay contributes to the languid sense of space and atmosphere in the scene.

Ok, it’s my turn to fabricate neurological theories on that time lag between brainwaves and the sense of decision. I speculate that, like sound and echo in a tranquil forest, its purpose is to give a sense of light and space in the mind, the hallmark of a comfortable decision.

“Proof” does not consist in mashing together tenuously related concepts. Déjà vu does not prove, or disprove, past lives. Akinetopsia does not prove that existence is a puppet show. Neurological time lags have nothing whatsoever to say about free will.

three-bladed wind turbines standing in the desert hills


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United we stand

Chris and I were on vacation. We were driving up the Gorge, and pulled off for lunch at the Braggs exit. It was all truck stops and travel centers, lots of tourist on their way. This wide open desert land along the Columbia River was all scoured rock and yellow grass. It had little to offer in attractions, other than convenience.

We went into a restaurant, “Gloria’s”, and sat at the counter. It was typical, good, basic road food. I got one of the breakfast-all-day offerings. Chris tried pork chops and eggs.

I had recently read a book about the founding of Astoria, the first European settlement in the Northwest, at the mouth of the Columbia. Two parties had traveled there, one by sea and the other overland. The overland route was right by here.

The ocean voyage was by sailing ship, which the author brought out in details we do not usually think of. It would have been like a bunch of people cooped up in a space not much bigger than a commercial airliner, with equally no option to go anywhere else. Literally, for months. Bad food. Low water. Personality flares. We can scarcely imagine it.

The overland party had the benefit of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s records, from a few years before. However, hostilities with some native tribes had flared, so the Astor party branched off to look for a different route. They found what we now know as the Snake River. This flowed along westward in a promising way for some hundreds of mile, but the travelers had no way to know about Hells Canyon. After deaths, and destruction of their boats, the survivors limped down the Columbia, right by where these truck stops are now, to their destination.

The settlement struggled along for a year and some. Then a force of British ships arrived and took it over. The Americans had to make their way overland, back across the entire continent, as best they could. Again, right past where we were eating lunch.

The author speculated that many early pioneers suffered what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, explaining for example the suicide of Meriwether Lewis a few years after the expedition.

So here we were, just about two hundred years later. We can drive in air conditioned comfort through the desert. The land is prosperous with wheat and fruit and wind turbines.

three-bladed wind turbines standing in the desert hills

wind turbines

How did we get from there to here? Yes, there were horrible injustices to the native peoples, and downright stupid policies that needlessly inflamed their wrath. There is still plenty of misery in the world. But a lot is working.

Chris had taken some pictures on his phone and wanted to text them to his sister. I didn’t much do texts, so I couldn’t help. But this big fat guy sitting on the other side of Chris started showing how. The guy looked to me like a gamer nerd, someone I wouldn’t expect to care about anybody but himself. But here he was, taking the time to help out this little black guy, with the sputtery cellphone connection. He suggested, with the low bandwidth, to only text one photo at a time.

Our waitress had a careworn face, but a kindly smile. A Mexican guy sat down at the counter and started puzzling over the menu. When he began to order, our waitress raised a finger, just a moment. She went in back and returned with one of the other staff, a Hispanic woman. Through this interpreter, our waitress, went back and forth over the menu. I have just enough Spanish I could make out, “… you can get bacon, OR sausage, OR ham…” She made sure our Mexican customer got just what he wanted.

This is who we really are, I thought. We help each other out. The news is full of brutalities and shootings. Sure. But they are, really, very few. That’s why they make the news. Instead, this is who we really are. We work together. The upcoming divisive election would have us believe we’re at civil war. But this is who we really are. One people, just making it all work, together.


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Journeys to Heaven

In the past year I have tried to get through two books, “Heaven is for Real” by Colton Burpo and “My Journey to Heaven” by Marvin J. Besteman. Both books, I got so annoyed I had to put them down.

For these Christians, everything in these heavenly sojourns that matches scripture, they take it as absolute proof that the complete Bible is literally true. Anything that doesn’t match is some new revelation.

I believe there is some kind of greater reality. I have no proof. There can be no proof. This is my one point of my faith.

Now, what that greater realm is, I don’t know. I hope this analogy isn’t too insulting, because it’s insulting to me too: Humans trying to understand the higher realm are like little children trying to get a grasp of adult life. One of my favorite quips is “People arguing about religion are like two little boys on the playground, fighting over whose dad can beat up whose dad. Only — the boys are brothers.”

The evidence (though of course not proof) that a higher realm exists is that people bring back from it information that would otherwise be hard to explain. Any denizens of the higher realm are overwhelmingly beneficent. If they were inimical, they would long since have destroyed us.

To this extent, I am in agreement with the Christians. So far so good.

But the Christians seem unable to think of spiritual beings in even the most rudimentary psychological terms. There are hints of presentation, such as “I was shown this”, or “God meant me to see that”. But these Faithful gloss over the huge point that the souls, saints and angels they meet know at least as much about us as we do about them.

Heavenly journeys entail a great deal of fulfillment of expectations. Marvin meets Saint Peter, who was always one of Marvin’s most meaningful spiritual figures. Now, how is it that Peter speaks to him in Marvin’s own language, accent, and idiom? When Christians from France go to heaven, surely Peter talks to them in perfect colloquial French. Think about how hard that is. If you were a spiritual being, and you’d mastered the voice, you could do anything. From there, any garments, body, or face would be child’s play.

When Colton went to heaven, the spiritual beings knew he was a little boy from Nebraska. If he’d gone back to his Christian family talking about a bevy of houris riding around on camels, or dear elephant-headed Ganesh, he’d not only be disbelieved, he’d have been exorcised! So the spiritual beings he met were Jesus and cetera.

Marvin sees babies in heaven. Lots of babies, from newborns on down to little nubbins of fetus. I just about put the book down at that point, permanently. His heaven would be my hell. I can see how, for the many parents who have lost an unborn child, this would be a numinous blessing. The idea that their little lost one were somehow held and loved, and its dear existence had gone on to fulfillment and grace. Me, though; that quarter of heaven was a miasmic vision of the Undead. All eternity, rubbing elbows with the likes of tadpoles — or slugs! This must be part of that new revelation. There’s no mention of “embryo” in the Bible.

But what finally got to me was the aridity of it all. The idea of a journey to the greater realm, an eyewitness account, holds such promise. And there are tantalizing hints, but buried in slag-heaps of wish fulfillment. I mean, this is eternity. You meet loved ones. What then? You hear heavenly choirs, see celestial colors. What next? After the first day, week, millennium; how could any of that be enjoyable, or even tolerable? Or do we become bliss-ninnies and don’t know how dead bored we are? If we’re “drugged” into happiness, what kind of heaven is that?

Can you ever feel productive in heaven? Can you develop new expertise? Do you ever get the fulfillment of feeling useful? Can you ever find new love?

It’s harrowing, the idea that all these good people, Christians, have a vision of paradise that goes no further than comfort. Call it what you will. Peace. Happiness. Bliss. However you slice it, they are revealed as hedonists, sybarites, only looking to their eternal pleasure. I hope I am wrong about this. It’s too awful. The churches full of only the basest souls.

The next time some of them come to my door clutching their bibles, I want to shake them by their lapels and demand, “Weren’t you ever born for anything?!?” Or is life to you so horrible you only want to get it over?


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Five thousand dollars, just for the asking

Nice little house.  Not big by any standards, but three times the square footage my cottage in Colorado was.

Built in the 50s.  Present owner grew up there. Inherited it a few years ago.

House is basically clean and in good shape, but cluttered by six decades of memories. In the basement there are travel mementos, an ancient dishwasher, old toys.

Original asking price: $184,890

My offer 2011-12-05: $165,000. Outrageous! $20,000 less.  But I’ve got to stake out some bargaining room. The standard statement: “Seller to remove all personal possessions”.

Seller’s counteroffer the next day: $174,987.  Looks like he picked up a calculator and split the difference.

When the realtor told me that evening, I thought, I could go for this.  But I told him I wanted to sleep on it. See if I thought of anything else.

The next morning I woke up with a sentence of exact phraseology going through my head.

The ingredients were:

  • The seller grew up there, but it was his folks’ house, a past chapter in his life. His current address is a local post office box.
  • The house is costing him, every month he holds on to it:  Heating, security, aggravation.
  • The seller set the asking price based on “comparables”, similar houses that sold recently. Whatever his parents paid for it is now miniscule. Whatever he gets for it is like pure profit.
  • The house has obviously been picked over.  All the good stuff is gone, even the appliances. Those will cost some thousands of dollars to replace — though the shopping will be fun!
  • The house is far from a “fixer upper”, but there will lots to fix:  The weird old wallpaper, drapes, etc. How much of that goes with the seller? How much do we wrangle?
  • I’ll be there anyway, messing with it to make it my own. I’ll be bringing in appliances, painting some rooms, rearranging the space. Compared to that, clearing out the 50’s kitsch in the basement would be minor. But for the owner, maybe quite a blast from the past.
  • There are various things around that evidently “fit” the house, such as painting scaffolds, garden paraphernalia, workbenches. No monetary value, but the owner would have a major job to find storage for it all.  Then, I would have a major job to replace it.

In the morning I wrote the realtor an email.  My counter-offer: $170,000; five thousand dollars below the seller’s.  Fifteen thousand total below the original asking price, a mere two days previous. What nerve!

I knew the following sentence was a weird thing to say in such formal negotiations, but I stated this exact wording:

After seller takes all possessions he wants from the house, buyer will deal with cleaning up the rest.

A couple hours later, the realtor called me. “You have great intuition!” he said, “It’s accepted! The seller’s rep put a smiley face on her note. You’ve got a house!”

Five thousand dollars, just for asking the right way.  That buys all the new appliances!

I do feel shrewd. But if there’s anything to be proud of, it’s coming up with something so win-win.