Saturday, August 15, 2015


I'm an older guy (than Justin Bieber, and younger than Gordon Lightfoot if you want a very rough estimate of my age on the Canadian scale) so I admit I'm not always hip to the latest trends, especially when it comes to the on-line world.  Lately, I've been seeing increasing occurrences of the letters "tl;dr" during my on-line browsing, and I don't mind admitting that I hadn't the faintest idea what it means.  This was even more vexing given that I pride myself on usually being able to infer the meaning of unknown words and abbreviations from their usage or context but, in this case, I admit I was stumped.  So I turned to Google.

For those as un-hip as myself, I'm here to tell you that "tl;dr" is short for "too long; didn't read".  It's normally posted as a comment in response to long, wordy posts that the reader found too long and/or tedious to read.  Significantly, the comment normally comes from those who don't have the patience to read the original post in its entirety, but who feel compelled to comment nonetheless.  I encourage everyone to make any sort of comment, positive or negative, regarding any of the posts on this blog, but I do ask that the reader read the post in its entirety and give me a full, fair hearing before doing so.  Seems only reasonable.

Having learned the meaning of the acronym, I felt compelled to break my long blogger's silence and comment here, because this touches on an issue of some importance to me.  Along with being behind the times on some trends, I also freely admit to being verbose by nature; something which I hardly need to point out to anyone who has read more than one or two of my posts here.

I'm troubled by the trend of shrinking attention spans that I see everywhere these days, but especially on-line.  It seems to me that some people these days, especially the younger generation (at risk of making an unfair stereotypical generalization) don't have the attention span of a gnat.  It seems to me impossible to form any kind of reasonable opinion on any subject when those making any kind of argument or explanation have all of 30 seconds to make their case.  This seems even more bizarre given that this phenomenon is most often seen in on-line forums which, by their nature, tend to feature material that people browse in their spare time out of interest or for the sake of enjoyment; in other words, people who should not be in any particular hurry.

The phenomenon is by no means limited to the on-line world, however.  A few years back, I found myself unemployed and signed up for a job search seminar.  There I learned the critical importance of making the very start of ones' résumé attention-grabbing because most H.R. types just don't have the time to carefully read every résumé that crosses their desk.  So they tend to pick up each one and quickly scan it.  If they see spelling mistakes, any sort of sloppiness, a displeasing layout etc., the résumé is immediately discarded unread.  If they do begin reading it, the opening statement is of utmost importance.  If you haven't captured their attention by the end of it, they don't normally continue.

Nowadays, hard-copy résumés are increasingly rare as well, being replaced by e-mail and on-line applications.  In the case of e-mail, I learned that the average middle manager gets between 50 and 100 e-mails per day and, again, can't be bothered to read them all.  Instead, they scan the subject lines and sender ID's.  If they don't know the sender or the subject line is of no interest to them, the e-mail is set aside indefinitely or, more often, simply deleted unread.

In the working world, I can at least understand time constraints and work loads contributing to short attention spans.  It's an unfortunate side affect of an over-emphasis on multi-tasking; another subject high on my list of dislikes; but I'll save that rant for another post.  However, when reading for pleasure, I simply cannot understand peoples' impatience.  I've read the works of several renowned authors, from Tolkien to Tolstoy (including War and Peace) and, with the single exception of Herman Melville, I've enjoyed every one of their wordy, rambling works.  The reason, in fact, why their work is considered great is because they do more than simply relate a tale; they take the time to paint a story on a canvas of paper through the use of colorful words that bring to life the worlds which they describe.  That's what separates a work of art, like "War and Peace" from a straight historical account of the Napoleonic wars.

And so, I remain unapologetic about my verbose prose, just as I read most of the articles, posts and books which capture my attention slowly, carefully and in their entirety.  There's something to be said about taking in all of what the writer has to say, considering it carefully and then perhaps contributing to the conversation with one's own comments and opinions.  To those who have read this far, my thanks and admiration.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Meaning Of Life

Yes, here it is, faithful readers; the moment that you've doubtless awaited for so very long now!  Today, The Halmanator will explain the meaning of your existence.  You knew, deep down, that it had to be leading up to this, didn't you?  I'm sure that many of you have wondered why this moment has been so long in coming.

I couldn't simply start a blog as an unknown and launch right into the eternal verities, expecting to be taken at all seriously.  No, I first had to establish credibility and trust.  To convince you that I have a true understanding of the Grand Design, I first had to enlighten you by ruminating on such diverse topics as song lyrics, patriotism, problem solving, the work ethic, loss, religion, childhood, healthy eating, communing with nature, poetry, simple pleasures, positive reinforcement, spirituality, interior decorating, the legal system, enjoyment, money, home repair, charity, technology, rationalism, music, time travel, transportation, bio-technology, silence and envy, to name but a few.  Having now undoubtedly convinced you of my keen understanding of the human condition, I can safely expound on its foundations in the secure knowledge that all potential detractors have long since been silenced.

For as long as human beings have been sentient, we have pondered our place in the Cosmos.  From whence did we come?  How did we come to be?  How are we different from the other creatures that inhabit our world?  How are we similar?  Are there others like us out there on other worlds?  And, most significantly, Why?  What is our purpose, both as a species and as individuals?

Most of those who have posited answers to these questions have done so in the context of either religion or philosophy or, sometimes, a mixture of both.  The religious faithful generally believe that we are the creation of a divine being or God, who is much bigger, smarter and more hygienic than we.  This, of course, still leaves the question of why God created us.  What is His purpose for us?  Some suggest a profound love, which is fine now that we're here, but still doesn't explain why He made us in the first place.  Did He love us before He even made us?  Some suggest that our purpose is to serve and worship God in order to increase His glory, like some kind of cosmic cheer-leading squad.  Some simply shrug their shoulders and suggest that the divine Mind of God is beyond our feeble understanding which, quite honestly, seems like a melodramatic way of saying "Who knows?"

Not everyone looks to a divine being to explain our existence, however.  Even atheists have rubbed their chins over the aforementioned questions.  The only difference is that they don't ascribe it to an omnipresent deity.  Such people tend to turn more toward philosophy for the answers.  Let's briefly examine a few:

Idealists suggest that what`s important is what goes on in our own minds.  The physical universe that surrounds us is incidental.  This philosophy doesn`t serve one particularly well when in the path of an on-coming train.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Realism, which argues that the physical universe is all that we can be sure of and that our minds are prone to playing tricks on us, so we can`t trust them.  This philosophy is best summed up by the premise that reality is that which doesn`t go away after you stop believing in it.

Neo-Thomism is a religion-based philosophy that seeks to understand God through a combination of faith and reason.  This philosophy argues that the complexity of the universe itself and everything in it implies a controlling higher intelligence.  To put forth an analogy, Neo-Thomism argues that, if one walks through a forest and finds a neatly-stacked pile of logs, one doesn`t think `My, what a coincidence!  A bunch of random pieces of wood happened to fall into this neat pile that I see before me!` Rather, one assumes that the pile of wood was placed there by someone.

Switching to the opposite end of the spectrum once more, we have Existentialism, which posits that there is no purpose or meaning to the universe.  This philosophy argues that the only authority that matters to ourselves is ourselves.  Everything is subjective.  "It's all about me".

Pragmatism relies on experiment and experience to explain the universe.  This philosophy holds that truth is not absolute, but determined by consequences.  For example, we see the sun rise in the east and set in the west, day after day, without exception.  For a long time, people concluded, quite reasonably, that the sun moved around the Earth.  That was the accepted truth, until some people began noticing the motions of the planets, which didn't fit the theory.  Further investigation was done and we discovered that the Earth moves around the sun.  The truth changed as our experience and knowledge changed.  (My counter-argument here is that the truth never changed, only our perception of it did).

When examining the aforementioned philosophies, it strikes me that they often concern themselves with answering the "what" and the "how", but not always the "why".  Those who question the meaning of life are often asking "Why?"

If one looks at the Big Picture, it's frighteningly tempting to conclude that our lives have no meaning in the grand scheme of things.  Think of the greatest, most powerful, most renowned people that you've ever heard of; Socrates, Tutankhamen, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Cleopatra ... you get the idea.  All of them were renowned, not only in their own times but for ages after they died.  Yet all of them died and the world continued to turn without them.  As great as they were, what was the ultimate point to their existence?  They're gone now, as are all of their works.  Even the Pyramids are slowly crumbling.

You may argue that they shaped history and therefore the world that we live in today, but even that world itself must one day come to an end, and then what?  On the scale of eternity, how did they or anything that they did ultimately matter?  And, if one concludes that they didn't, then what are we multitudes who are not as great and as powerful and as renowned as they to think?  What about the vast majority of us who live more ordinary lives and who likely won't be remembered outside of their immediate family or close circle of friends after their deaths, and probably not for more than a generation or two even in those circles?  What is the point of our being here?

Here are my thoughts, and they are only my thoughts.  I'm no authority, I claim no special insight, and I may well be wrong.

With regard to our nature, or what we are, I'm partial to an explanation offered by the late Dr. Carl Sagan who said "We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself".  In other words, we are a part of creation but, significantly, we are a sentient part.  You might say that we're the mind of the Cosmos or, at least, part of the mind.  There may be other sentient beings out there like us, or unlike us.

As for our purpose, I sometimes feel that we attach too much importance to the question.  It's human nature to look for the "why" behind everything.  In fact, as far as any of us knows, this need for explanation is unique to homo sapiens.  All other living organisms on this planet, including those that are at least self-aware, seem to simply exist, doing what they were made to do and being what they were made to be, without worrying too much about the why or the wherefore.  Look at your dog or your cat or your goldfish.  Do they lose a lot of sleep over their purpose here?  Not in my experience.  On the other hand, my cat seems to have a perfect understanding of my purpose; to feed and shelter her, not to mention providing the occasional belly-rub.

But seriously, perhaps there is no "why".  Perhaps things simply are because they are.

Early one recent morning, I stood on the front driveway of my home and looked around.  It was very still and my gaze rested on the magnolia tree that grows on my front lawn.  As I regarded it, standing quiet and motionless, I considered that it had been standing there in that very spot for many years now, day and night, in fair weather and foul, through all four seasons.  It too is a living organism, though not like myself.  Unlike myself, the magnolia isn't concerned with its purpose.  It has no goals or aspirations.  It simply is.  And yet, it does serve a purpose.  Like most plants, it converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen for us non-plants.  Its leaves fall and decay, adding nutrients to the soil so that it and other plants may grow.  In the springtime, it sprouts attractive pink blossoms which adds beauty to the world and instills a sense of well-being to those who regard them. The magnolia tree doesn't need to strive to achieve its purpose, it just needs to be as it was made to be.

I thought about the well-known line from the Desiderata; "You are a child of the universe.  No less than the trees and the stars, you have the right to be here."  Maybe that simple answer is the best answer of all.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Islam vs. the West

We live in strange times.  Since Al-Qaeada managed to destroy the World Trade Center in New York City back in 2001, tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims have gradually escalated.  Although Al-Qaeada still exists, a seemingly even more radical collection of Islamic fanatics who call themselves ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), also known as ISIS (presumably because adopting an acronym that sounds like the Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and wisdom sounds cooler) seems for the time being to have eclipsed even the aforementioned terrorist organization in terms of notoriety.  Though Al-Qaeada doubtless still holds the lead in terms of innocents murdered (after all, roughly 3,000 casualties from the World Trade Center attack alone gave them a good head-start), the broadcast be-headings and live imolations recently carried out by ISIS, while smaller in number, just seem more personal and brutal somehow, though I will grant that this is probably largely a matter of perception.

The danger, in my humble opinion, is in overreaction by the West.  Suddenly every radical nut-case who walks about shooting innocent bystanders, such as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who shot Canadian Corporal Nathan Cirillo, is seen as a representative of a terrorist organization and an entire religious community is held responsible for his crime.  When western governments then retaliate against Muslim nations or western citizens harass anyone of the Muslim faith, including those who have never harmed anyone, it only makes them look like the aggressors and generates sympathy for the radical jihadists that they profess to oppose.

Provoking Islamic enmity by mocking their Prophet is likewise counter-productive.  While I certainly don't agree that the cartoons poking fun at the Prophet merited the recent deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, I do agree with Pope Francis, when he proclaimed that freedom of speech does not include the right to insult the deeply-held beliefs of others.  Those Christians who have trouble understanding the rage that certain Muslims felt over the affair should ask themselves how they might feel if other faiths were to publicly mock Jesus.  The western media's incensed response after Sinéad O'Connor tore up Pope John Paul II's picture on Saturday Night Live back in 1992 shows that Muslims aren't alone in being sensitive about their faith.

I exchange "joke" e-mails on a regular basis with a group of friends and acquaintances.  Sometimes, I receive jokes that stereotype Muslims as terrorists or make fun of their faith.  I usually make it a point not to forward joke e-mails of this type, not because I believe in political correctness but because I choose not to perpetuate these stereotypes nor to contribute to the deepening of the rift between Muslims and other faiths.  Still, I did receive a joke e-mail once that presented the following picture of a talking Muslim doll:

It went on to say that nobody knew what she says, because nobody had ever had the guts to pull her cord.

I chuckled in spite of myself.  I admit it.  I'm prone to human foibles, just like everybody else, and the essence of humor is that it provokes a gut reaction over which we have little control.  But wouldn't it be ironic if someone finally did get up the courage to pull the doll's cord and all she said was "The peace of Allah be with you, my brother"?