A polymath rambling about virtually anything

Archive for January, 2014

Church Vestry

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 31, 2014

Last month, I was elected to my church’s vestry for 2014. I was installed at the beginning of the month. There are nine of us on the vestry and we work closely with the rector on behalf of the church. Among other things, we oversee the budget and finances of the church, the church grounds, membership, liturgy, giving, volunteerism, and much more. Today I’m going on a vestry retreat at Sewanee up in the Tennessee mountains. I’m not sure what to expect, but I hope it will be good. This will be the first time Gretchen and I have spent a night apart since we’ve been married. Next week, we go to Knoxville for the diocesian convention of East Tennessee. I’ll be going to seminars and I guess the group will be voting on things. I’m really not sure what my role will be on the vestry. You have four officers — the senior warden, junior warden, clerk, and treasurer, and the treasurer slot was already taken when we met this month. Someone volunteered to be clerk, which no one wanted to do, and we were all very relieved when she volunteered. I nominated someone for senior warden and he was elected. I voted for the person who was elected junior warden. So where does that leave me? I’m the youngest person on the vestry. I’m also on the marketing committee and am the church webmaster, so I feel involved, but since being on the vestry is essentially a leadership role, I’m unsure how to lead. I’m fairly new to the church. I’ve only been going for two years, having migrated from a different, far more conservative, denomination and I’m quite happy here. We were married here and we’ve made friends. It’s a small church, but we like it. I realize I’m rambling, but I guess I’m just hoping to find out just what my role as vestry member will be at this retreat. Cheers!

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A Review of Clarke County, Space

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 30, 2014

Clarke County, Space (Near Space, #2)Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was one of the most absolutely delightful books I’ve ever read! I love Allen Steele! What a story!

The story begins with a older, veteran writer being approached by a stranger who wants to tell him the “real” story of Clarke County, a constructed space colony which I think is near the moon. In this story, you meet the Church of Elvis and its con man mastermind, a rich girlfriend of a mobster on the run with cash and important computer disks that he’ll kill to recapture, the hit man sent after her, the Indian police chief of Clarke County, and many other interesting characters.

We first meet John Bighorn taking peyote so he can have interpretive dreams. When he wakes, he finds the wife of one of the local politicians who wants to bed him. He declines. We’re then transported to the transport bringing the girlfriend in first class, and the assassin and the church in third class, where they’re frozen “zombies” for the trip. Upon waking, the assassin talks with the Living Elvis and it’s pretty funny. The FBI is involved, if only to ask Bighorn to keep an eye out for and on the girl, which he does. He finds “the golem,” (the assassin) and warns him away, thus gaining his eternal enmity. Meanwhile, someone has distributed via the electronic bulletin boards a call for Clarke County to declare its independence from Earth and become a self sustaining nation, which elicits a great deal of controversy. In fact, this mysterious person can apparently appear in electronic form just about anywhere and while he plays some pranks at times, he’s quite useful to Bighorn throughout the book.

The Church of Elvis is onsite for a televised revival, to grab more members and fill the coffers. The girlfriend, Macy, hides out as a cultist with these people, only to be spotted on TV by the golem, who goes after her. She’s abducted by the police first to put her under protection, but there are only seven policemen for the entire colony and they don’t even have lethal firearms, just tasers. Suffice it to say there’s a great shoot out scene and a showdown between the golem and Bighorn, but the book also brings into play a nuclear warhead that’s been hanging in space for awhile and which an Elvis hacker has broken into to and sent toward Clarke County. Zounds!

The story ends in a satisfying manner and we’re taken back full circle to the beginning of the novel, where we find the two men talking. And we discover the topic of time travel. Interesting, and unexpected. If I could give this book 10 stars, I would. I just thoroughly enjoyed it and I strongly recommend it.

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A Review of A King of Infinite Space

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 25, 2014

A King of Infinite Space (Near Space, #5)A King of Infinite Space by Allen Steele

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a unique, enjoyable light sci fi novel. It starts with Alec Tucker, his girlfriend Erin, and his best friend Shemp going to Lollapalooza, getting wasted and dying in a car wreck. Next thing you know, Alec wakes in a white room, young, bald, naked, and with amnesia. There are others in the room too. He has to have basic things explained to him, such as how to eat, urinate properly, dress himself, etc. There’s also a computer chip in his head explaining things to him. He later names this chip, “Chip.” He’s visited by a robed man named John and he discovers that memories gradually start to return. Eventually he becomes somewhat self sufficient, and is taken out of the white room into the “castle” where he is turned into a servant, made to mop floors all day long. This is ironic because he was a rich, spoiled brat who had servants of his own growing up and who lived off of his father’s money his whole life.

Eventually, he remembers Erin and Shemp and to his surprise, finds Shemp, looking quite different, working alongside him. They find out they’re “guests” of one Mister Chicago, and later they find out 104 years have passed since their deaths, and that they were given gifts of immortality through cryogenics by their families. Essentially their heads were cut off and frozen and Mister Chicago has gotten some of these “deadheads” from the now bankrupt company. The rest were shipped off to a research university.

Alec finds that while Mister Chicago confides some things in him, he also has an evil side to him, as he witnesses him killing his top deadhead. Alec then swears to escape what he has learned he is on — an asteroid barreling through space millions of miles from Earth. He eventually escapes, with Chip’s help, is taken on by a traveling freighter and is dropped off on a world where he hoped the other deadheads are located, because he’s found out Erin was frozen too and he wants to reunite with her. Shemp, meanwhile, has taken over for John and has become a complete asshole. He, his girlfriend Anna, and a “Superior” wielding a sword track Alec down, but he escapes and makes his way to the moon, where the university is located. He gets a job as a custodian there, makes it down to a guarded level, accesses a computer with Chip’s aid, and finds where the other deadheads are stored. Then something bad happens. He can’t access Chip anymore and he hears Mister Chicago’s voice. He makes a mad dash for the deadheads, finds Erin, but she isn’t the same, and he’s confused. Then, there are explosions and the others who have been chasing him close in on him and he’s captured.

Okay. I’m going to stop there because I don’t want to give away the ending. Sorry. Or you’re welcome. Whichever. Suffice it to say that I’ve read some people thought the ending was weak, but it had what I like in endings — total surprise for me. I didn’t expect it to turn out the way it did, so that was cool. I think this is probably a four star book, but I’m giving it five because it’s so original. I mean, the asteroid was named after Jerry Garcia! It’s also a coming of age novel. We see Alec grow. That’s got to count for something. Original book, good, quick read. Recommended.

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A Review of The Outposter

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 22, 2014

The OutposterThe Outposter by Gordon R. Dickson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a great book either. Above average?

Earth is overpopulated — has been for 100 years — and has a lottery where the “winners” are turned into colonists who are shipped to Earth’s colonies around the galaxy. There they presumably lead miserable lives, all under the watch of Outposters, sort of frontier cops. One thing I didn’t understand was why entire worlds and their colonists are being protected by groups of four or five outposters…. How are so few supposed to stave off alien attacks and protect the populace (and keep the peace)? That seemed pretty weak in the story line to me.

But there are indeed aliens. We have the Meda V’dan, a predatory alien race that has been attacking the colonies, stealing various supplies and killing outposters for years. Thus we meet Mark Ten Roos, an 18-year-old outposter whose parents were killed by the Meda V’dan when he was young and whose adoptive father, an outposter, has just been crippled in a Meda V’dan attack on a colony. Mark has been studying on Earth for five years and now he’s going back out to the colonies, but he’s got big plans. He wants to rid the galaxy of the Meda V’dan and will let nothing get in his way. Along the way, he recruits various colonists who have training that will be able to help him, such as space navigation, bookkeeping (he wants to turn the colonies into self-sustaining entities, since they’re reliant on the earth for everything), a former Marine for security, etc. He’s ticked at the Navy, which has sat back and done nothing about these attacks for fear of starting a war with this alien race.

Now, one would think over a 100 year period, the colonists would have gotten to the point where they could be self sustaining, the Navy could have built up its power so that it could take on the Meda V’dan, etc., et al, but these plot weaknesses never occur to Dickson, the author. Odd.

Mark “borrows” a few ships from the Navy, gets some colonists trained in how to use them, and visits the Meda V’dan city on another planet, on both a spying mission and under the guise of setting up trade with them. However, he burns for revenge, and gambles that the aliens will attack his planet after his visit. He’s not disappointed. Three Meda V’dan ships appear and attack his colony, but he’s prepared and has guns and ships ready. He takes two out while a third escapes. He then borrows more and bigger ships from the Navy and goes to attack the Meda V’dan city, hitting them where they live.

Now, I’m going to go no further because that would give away the ending and I don’t want to do that. Suffice it to say that things turn out fairly well, the colonists gain their independence from Earth, Mark disappears with an interesting love interest, and the book ends a bit anticlimactically, frankly. Partially satisfying, partly not. Still, I guess I like the ending enough to give this book four stars. There are holes in the plot and Mark’s superhuman work ethic and narrow-sighted desire for revenge make him hard to buy as a character at times, but he’s a decent protagonist, even if he is the 18-year-old savior of the galaxy, which seems unlikely. It’s a good quick read. I finished it in a day. I cautiously recommend this book to sci fi fans, and obviously to any Dickson fan who hasn’t yet read it.

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A Review of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 19, 2014

Paul: The Mind of the ApostlePaul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I FINALLY finished this book! It took me forever because it’s fairly dry and the content doesn’t interest me as much as that in some other books. Still, this was a fairly interesting book to read. The author is apparently an agnostic or atheist and ensures one understands he believed Jesus was a Jew with no intention of starting a religion, and undoubtedly not the son of God or God himself. If you’re a Christian and you can get past that, you’re good to go. This book presents Paul as THE founder of Christianity and THE individual responsible for asserting Jesus was the Messiah, gone to glory in the clouds, and returning again some day — soon. The author asserts Paul thought Jesus was returning in a matter of months or years, thus the urgency in some of his letters.

When I read nonfiction books, I don’t underline passages — I turn over page corners so I can go back and catch important portions of the text. Normally I will have turned over 10-20 pages in a typical nonfiction book. In this book, I must have turned over 50 pages or more. I often quote from these passages, but I obviously can’t do that here — I don’t have the time or inclination.

Wilson asserts that Paul was a traveling tent maker and that’s how he supported himself, along with donations. He also calls into question whether Paul was a one time Pharisee or not. He alludes to Paul’s potential homosexuality, in his nonstop efforts to force sexual morality on people and in his almost loving letters to Timothy and other men who were his followers. Yes, sacrilege, I know. Still, interesting stuff. Wilson writes,

“Old-fashioned liberal Protestants detected in the Gospels the seeds of modern feminism — Talitha cumi, Damsel arise, became the motto of Victorian Christian feminists. The Jesus of the Gospels outraged Jewish opinion by speaking to the woman at the well of Samaria, and by offering forgiveness to the prostitute who, though she had sinned much, had also loved much. Impossible, says such wisdom, to imagine the misogynist puritanical Paul extending such forgiveness, nor being so much at ease with the opposite sex.”

We also get in-depth details on Paul’s travels here and their context, which I found really helpful. You also get a history lesson on Rome, at the time, and the state of the Jews. Wilson additionally delves into other religions and gleefully admits to Paul having stolen some traditions from paganism for Christianity.

Wilson is pretty hard on Luke and his book of Acts. He asserts much of it is contradictory to Paul’s own writings and probably made up. And his arguments, which I can’t paraphrase here, are good. (I didn’t know Luke was a Gentile.) Wilson also deals with Paul’s intent focus on evangelizing and converting Gentiles, something he argues Peter and James were opposed to. Of Luke, the author writes,

“By the time Luke writes up the story, perhaps twenty years or more later, it must be obvious that the Lord has not come and that all Paul’s immediate prophesies and predictions about the nature of the world and God’s purpose for it, have been not just slightly off beam, not open to interpretation, but plumb wrong. Christianity — not a word which Paul ever used — will have to sort out the contradictions of all that. It it Luke’s dull task to smooth over the cracks and hide the glaring discrepancies in his story, and to persuade ‘dear Theophilus’, some Roman magistrate or bigwig, that the Christians are safe, good citizens. As Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem shows, he was none of these things.”

Wilson deals with Paul’s end, which we don’t know, and for that he takes umbrage. He asserts that Paul could have been acquitted by Nero or some other Roman official, he could have been made a martyr, as many people believe, or — this is Wilson’s own belief — he could have been let go and traveled to Spain, starting churches, but dying in oblivion.

I’m going to end my review with Wilson’s final (and long) paragraph in the book, because I think it’s a good synthesis of what he is trying to accomplish in writing this book.

“It could be seen, then, that the essence of the Gospels, the thing which makes them so distinctive, and such powerful spiritual texts, namely the notion of a spiritual savior, at odds with his own kind and his own people, but whose death on the cross was a sacrifice for sin, is a wholly Pauline creation. The strange contrarieties which make the Jesus of the Gospels such a memorable figure — named his insistence on peace and kindness in all his more notably plausible of ‘authentic’ sayings, and his virulent abuse of Pharisees, his Mother, and the temple authorities on the other — could point less to a split personality in the actual historical Jesus, and more to the distinctive nature of Paul’s spiritual preoccupations a generation later. Even in this respect, therefore, Paul seems a more dominant figure in the New Testament tradition than Jesus himself. The Jesus of the Gospels, if not the creation of Paul, is in some sense the result of Paul. We can therefore say that if Paul had not existed it is very unlikely that we should have had any of the Gospels in their present form. The very word ‘gospel’, like the phrase ‘the New Testament’ itself, are ones which we first read in Paul’s writings. And though, as this book has shown, there were many individuals involved in the evolution of Christianity, the aspects which distinguish it from Judaism, and indeed make it incompatible with Judaism, are Paul’s unique contribution. It is for this reason that we can say that Paul, and not Jesus — was — if any one was — the ‘Founder of Christianity’.”

Interesting, thought provoking book. Recommended.

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A Review of The Man Who Japed

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 18, 2014

The Man Who JapedThe Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As Philip K Dick’s third novel, this is a pretty solid effort. More linear than later works, it’s about Allen and Janet Purcell, who live in Newer York in 2114. It’s been 130 years since a nuclear war has destroyed much of the world, and thanks to a Major Streiter of years past, society now lives under Morec (Moral Reclamation), a prim and proper, puritanical society where one can’t curse, get drunk, engage in pre or extramarital sex — even neon lights are banned!

Allen is the head of his own smallish agency that produces “packets” (which are really ads) for Telemedia, the government’s communications arm. One day he wakes up and discovers what looks like blood on his clothes, as well as “real” grass (there’s not much left on Earth). Apparently, overnight, someone “japed” or desecrated a statue of Major Streiter in the park, covering it in red paint and cutting its head off. Allen thinks he did it, but doesn’t know why. Meanwhile, the head of Telemedia is retiring and he is offered the job of replacing him. I have no idea why they didn’t offer the job to one of the four “giant” agency heads, but it is what it is. Meanwhile, there are “juveniles,” smallish centipede-like robots that spy on people, and Allen has to go before an apartment block hearing because one of these caught him coming home drunk one night. Women in flowery dresses dominate these block hearings. In fact, women have a lot of power in this novel, which I don’t think is typical of Dick. By the way, apartment leases are willed and one can lose their lease in an instant if the block leaders think you’ve done wrong.

Allen gets talked into visiting a psychologist by a pretty girl he meets in the park. This psychologist is wacky and conducts numerous tests on Allen, leading to a bizarre alternate reality-type of world that is so prevalent in Dick’s later works. It’s pretty awesome. When he escapes, he goes on to find out his new job as head of Telemedia is in jeopardy, that people are out to get him, and the situation turns from bad to worse. This leads to the book’s climax — the ultimate jape!

This book is surprisingly humorous and the main couple is a dysfunctional “good” couple the reader will like. Usually, Dick’s female characters get treated pretty roughly, but I guess he hadn’t been ruined by his five marriages when this book was published in 1956. This book does display later Dick characteristics, such as a focus on shoddy psychoanalysis, nuclear wars, fascism, propaganda, and drugs. I guess he’s introducing these elements to his new readers. This isn’t his strongest book, but I think it’s pretty solid and worthy of four stars, at least. Recommended.

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