Posts Tagged 'Books'



Early Warning

Over the weekend I started reading a book called Early Warning by Michael Walsh, who used to be music critic for Time magazine. (It shows – he sneaks in all sorts of musical references, like naming a character after a character in the opera Turandot or using Elgar’s Enigma Variations to introduce a discussion about cryptology). The biographical material at the back of the books says Walsh was born on the US Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, comes from a long line of American servicemen dating back to the Spanish-American War, and grew up among veterans and intelligence officers in duty stations around the world. Which grants him a degree of credibility for what he’s writing about.

Early Warning is a “Jack Bauer novel”… that is, its set-up is very much the same as that of 24 — the hero, supersecret operative “Devlin” is part of a supersecret security agency buried in the National Security Agency, a man who pretty much answers to no one but himself and has direct access to the president whenever he wishes. I’m only about a third of the way through, and the story is apparently a continuation of earlier tales, but it seems Devlin may have as traumatic a history as Bauer has ended up with. Anyway, I’ve been enjoying it.

And then on p100 I came to a part about wiretapping, which is no longer about faux telephone servicemen connecting wires in boxes, but is in fact, more like the Kraken released from its lair (we saw Clash of the Titans recently)… a many tentacled beast far beyond our ability to control. I knew we were on our way to this situation; I did not realize we were there.

Here’s what Walsh says, writing in the thoughts of one of his characters, the director of the NSA:

“The Black Widow was the in-house nickname fo the NSA’s Cray supercomputer at Fort Meade. Forget privacy — no matter what the sideshow arguments in Congress were about the FISA laws or civil liberties, the Black Widow continued to go remorselessly about her job, which was to listen in on, and read, all telephonic and written electronic communication, in any language, anywhere in the world. It was the old Clinton-era “Echelon” project writ large, able to perform trillions of calculations per second as it sifted and sorted in its never-ending quest for key words, code words, patterns…

[snip]

“…The Black Widow not only heard all and read all, she could sense all: the technology had advanced to such an extent that the Widow and other Cray supercomputers like her — including the Cray XT4, known as the Jaguar, and the MPP (Massively Parallel Processor) housed at the University of Tennessee– could read the keystrokes of a given computer through the electrical current serving the machine. And all linkable.”

Well at that point I put down the book and went Googling. I’d thought the Black Widow might have been made up but what about the Cray XT4 Jaguar?

Real. Even has its own Wiki article here.

The Massively Parallel Processor?

Also real.

And so, to my surprise, is the Black Widow. Here. And here.

Note in both of these  latter references, one of which is the Cray Press Release, there’s nothing directly said about spying, other than the fact that these highly advanced supercomputers are provided to the government… presumably for research, since that’s all that’s mentioned in the release.

I did find some references to spying in a book review in the Baltimore Sun by David Wood. Reviewing The Shadow Factory by James Bamford, Wood says,

“Most convincingly, Bamford guides the reader through the NSA’s greatest challenge: staying ahead of the explosive growth in volume and types of communications.

“Voice traffic alone increases 20 percent a year. Digital cell phones and fiber-optic cables vastly complicate the eavesdroppers’ job. Today, the NSA’s colossal Cray supercomputer, code-named the “Black Widow,” scans millions of domestic and international phone calls and e-mails every hour. That’s harder than it sounds: For purposes of speed and encryption, many of these communications are transmitted in fragments. The Black Widow, performing hundreds of trillions of calculations per second, searches through and reassembles key words and patterns, across many languages. Storing all this data, Bamford reports, is already an enormous headache for the NSA.”

Full article here.

Since this was not an article on the NSA but a review of a book about the NSA, and since it seemed these words were only here reported as having been written by Bamford in the book, which I’ve not read, I went looking for corroborating information.

And came across ECHELON : ” a term associated with a global network of computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted messages for pre-programmed keywords or fax, telex and e-mail addresses. Every word of every message in the frequencies and channels selected at a station is automatically searched. The processors in the network are known as the ECHELON Dictionaries. ECHELON connects all these computers and allows the individual stations to function as distributed elements an integrated system. An ECHELON station’s Dictionary contains not only its parent agency’s chosen keywords, but also lists for each of the other four agencies in the UKUSA system [NSA, GCHQ, DSD, GCSB and CSE]”

So it does seem to be credible. I found the above link through Elizabeth Pratt’s blog The End Time where in one post she writes about Echelon and the computers and how easy it will be for a one world dictator to force everyone to carry the mark of the beast. With GPS and satellite surveillance, with the government having the ability sift through all electronic communication…they will be — maybe already are — able to keep tabs on everyone, and I would even guess using satellite surveillance and/or infrared they could find those without the mark (since they’d show up as a warm body without the proper signal from their implanted microchip”) so they can round them up for “beheading”. Elizabeth quoted from Rev 20:4 “…And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand…”and when I read it, I thought, Does it really say beheaded? Indeed, it does.

Well, I can see how a preference for caves and paper communication might develop in such times!

In any case Ms. Pratt has a lot of interesting thoughts and information, charts, maps, etc, so if you’re interested in seeing how close we are to being able to keep track of absolutely everyone as well as everything they are saying to each other, electronically, at any rate, I recommend her post

Thankfully, all who’ve believed in Christ won’t be here for the actual Tribulation where they’ll be forcing everyone to get a Mark, but it’s amazing to see things that 50 years ago were unheard of, developing right in line with Biblical prophecy.

The Barbary Pirates

Today as I was researching embassies on Wikipedia, I came across mention of the Barbary Wars I’d just encountered mention of in The Last Patriot. Curious, I clicked on the links and read about them, or at least the first one. Seems there were some muslim North African states (called the Barbary States) — Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli — who’d been preying on the shipping traffic in the Mediterranean, capturing ships and crew and holding them for ransom, then afterward demanding tribute from whatever nation the ships were from for safe passage. At first American ships were protected by the British Navy since we were a British colony; during the revolution the French took over that job. But once we won our Independence protection of our ships was rightly deemed to be our responsibility.

Not having much of a Navy this was problematic, so Congress voted for funds to be allocated to pay the tribute to the pirates. In 1783 our Ambassadors to Britain and France (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were sent over with the money and the charge of seeking to negotiate peace treaties with the Barbary States. Unfortunately the price for a treaty was more than the tribute money Congress had approved.

 Two years later, Adams and Jefferson tried again, this time in Britain where they sought to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy to London.  When they asked him on what grounds his nation took it upon itself to attack other nations who’d done it no harm, his reply, according to Jefferson’s report to the US Secretary of Foreign Affairs, was that…

“It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.   [From “American Peace Commissioners to John Jay,” March 28, 1786, “Thomas Jefferson Papers,” Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress. LoC: March 28, 1786 ]

And I just found that fascinating. Rush says sometimes that for most people history begins the day they are born, and everything before just doesn’t exist. I can see a lot of justification for the statement. I did know that Islam began in the seventh century, that the Ottoman empire had dominated the Middle East for six centuries (1299 to 1923), a sort of Islamic version of the old Roman Empire… but that was “over there”. And we were over here. So it really surprised me to find out the United States had already had interaction with fundamentalist Islam, more or less at its birth. And now it’s back again. Which I believe is something Jefferson warned about, at least according to The Last Patriot: “Jefferson was convinced that one day Islam would return and pose an even greater threat  to America…”

And so it has.

The  painting above is of the burning frigate Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli in 1804, painted by Edward Moran in 1897.

Award Voting Starts Now

Voting for the Clive Staples Award begins today.  You may recall that last month I posted a notice that The Enclave is one of nineteen reader-nominated entries for this year’s Clive Staples Award (Clive Staples, you may or may not know, is what the “C” and the “S” stand for in “C.S. Lewis” who was something of a pioneer in Christian science fiction and fantasy)

The contest administrators have asked that I post the following regarding how to go about voting should you wish to do so:

Please read these instructions carefully, then proceed to the ballot by clicking on the link below.

CSA is not a popularity contest. The award has been established to recognize the work of fiction which readers designate as the previous year’s best. Consequently, voters must adhere to these basic rules.

  • You MUST have read at least two of the nominations, the complete list of which is available HERE.
  • You may vote only once for a first, second, and third choice.
  • You may not vote for the same book as your second or third option that you voted for as your first choice.
  • Your votes for second and third options may not be for the identical book.
  • You may mark the “none of these” option if you do not have a second or third choice.
  • Voting will close September 1, 2010.
  • Second and third choice options will only be considered if a clear winner is not determined by the first choice vote.

To vote, click here and answer all the questions.

Clive Staples Award Nomination

Last year a group of readers, writers and fans of Christian Speculative Fiction came together to institute an award for the best book in that genre selected by readers of Christian Speculative Fiction. 2009 saw  the inauguration of the award, with the first presentation going to Donita K. Paul for her novel Dragonlight.

This year there are nineteen nominees chosen by readers, and The Enclave is one of them. Because they do not want the award to be a popularity contest, reflective only of which author network is the largest, but rather the outcome of readers who read in the speculative genre making informed choices, the award administrators are requiring this year that voters  read at least TWO of the nominated works. To aid prospective voters in meeting this requirement, they’ve designated July “Read Christian Speculative Fiction Month.” A simple list of the nominees is here.  If you’d like more information, introductions including cover pics, plot summaries and what other readers have said, are here (arranged in reverse alphabetical order by title).  Anyone can participate in voting, but, as mentioned they must have read at least two of the nominated works.

Voting will begin in August and will be conducted as a “survey”—really, your ballot—so votes will be private as far as the public is concerned. You’ll need to check back at the site or here at Writing from the Edge to see when the voting begins so you can sign up. (Or you can sign up now at either place to receive posts by email)

They are hoping to make this award one of significance similar to the Hugo awards given out by the secular science fiction/fantasy community and decided by vote of the members (attending and supporting) of the annual WorldCon (major SF/F convention).

Cataracts, Light and Heat

I’m happy to report that my mother’s cataract surgery went very well last Wednesday! (Thanks to those of you who lifted her up in prayer for that.) Post operative treatment included three types of eye drops, each administered a different number of times per day… one four times a day, one three times a day and one two times a day. Since the three times a day drop cost nearly $80 for this teeny little bottle, and my mother had been told it held exactly the amount she would need, she had no ability to get it into her eye without wasting precious drops. In fact, at first she was afraid she’d not be able to get any drops into her eye. So I came over and did that.

Which turned out to be a lot more tiring and disruptive of my writing routine than I anticipated especially given that our temps last week had surged into the triple digits — 104, 105, 106 — even as the dew point soared from 30 something to 57 (It’s 64 tonight, which is very high for us) Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico had finally made it up here with a vengeance. And we still haven’t had a storm at our house (I have to specify “at our house” because people several streets over could well have experienced rain.) Instead it’s just been very hot and humid and our evaporative cooler, is not up to the task of bringing full relief.

I’ve always found it very tiring to run errands, though that seems an awfully insignificant thing to make one tired. Still, there’s something about getting into the car, driving, getting out, going into the store, coming out, getting into the car, driving… etc… that just leaves me blitzed. The garden tour which my mother and I used to take yearly, involved a lot of that, and by the end I could hardly wait to go home and lie down in a dark room, whereas my mother was wishing there were more gardens to visit. I felt like a total wimp!

In fact, when we came out of the surgical center, she fresh from cataract surgery, her pupil dilated as big as the hole in a piece of notebook paper, I was scrambling for my sunglasses whereas she was only reluctantly donning those flimsy sunglasses they give you at the eye doctor’s to slip behind your glasses. The next day she wore no sunglasses at all. And I’m squinting!

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the short jaunts to my mother’s last week to put in the drops did the same thing to me as the garden tour did. I’d leave my darkened house (open blinds let in way too much heat) and step out into BRIGHTNESS! POUNDING HEAT! Get into the car, where the heat is worse, though the light, at least, is dimmer. Turn on the ignition, the AC starts up and and I start moving. By the time the AC’s cooled me off, I have reached my destination. So I stop and get out and HOT! BRIGHT! I go into my mother’s house … cool, dim… ten minutes later I come out… etc. And those weren’t the only places I had to go.

After the second day of that toward the middle afternoon when I had done three such runs and was laying on the couch in the cooler’s breeze, wiped out and bereft of motivation while drinking a glass of ice water, I remembered something I’d read in one of those introvert books.

“Energy creation is the most salient difference between introverts and extroverts,”said Marti Olsen Laney in The Introvert Advantage, “but there are two other primary differences: their response to stimulation and their approach to knowledge and experience. Extroverts thrive on a variety of stimuli, whereas introverts can find it too much…” (pg 20)

“Introverted bodies seem to be particularly attuned to fluctuations in temperature and to the rhythms of light and dark,” she said, on page 265. “At the same time, because they may not sweat as easily as extroverts, innies don’t function well when they are overheated. Every body movement slows to a crawl and thinking grinds to a halt.”

Well that certainly described MY experience! LOL. It was cool to be able to recognize that I wasn’t making it up, and not to have to beat myself up for being so wasted by what seemed like nothing. Instead I gave myself permission to sit on that couch in the breeze from the cooler drinking the ice water until I felt like doing something else. Unfortunately that didn’t include writing any blog posts. Or working on Sky…but it was definitely a learning experience. But really, I’m starting to feel like a mole.

On the other hand… maybe that’s why I’ve set Sky in an underground city…

A Christmas Tradition

When I was growing up, and to this day, my family had a Christmas tradition that was unusual. I say that because when asked what we did “on Christmas” there was always a degree of shock in the asker when the answer was, “we spent all day opening packages.”

Maybe people thought we had SOOO many gifts it took us all day to get through them, but that wasn’t/isn’t the case. We didn’t have a big family — mother, stepdad, sister and me — we had a ritual. A couple of them actually.

The first was Christmas eve where we had lasagne for dinner and then arranged packages around the tree. When all was in the most “artistic” arrangement, we turned off the lights except for candles and tree lights, got some egg nog and sat listening to Christmas music and looking at the beautiful tree. Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Andy Williams’s Christmas album and more recently, Narada’s Medieval type music created a delicious “Christmasy” feeling. Mostly we just looked and sipped and listened and didn’t do too much talking.

All of that, I understand now, are typically introverted pleasures. We were soaking up all the stimuli — tastes, smells, colors, lights, the glory of the tree in the darkness, each individual ornament (and most were unique), the music, the holly berry scent of the candles, maybe a warm blanket…

Next morning we came out, looked at it all and then began our second ritual. One person would be designated the package distributor and each person would receive a gift to open. Then one by one we went around the circle, each opening in turn, noting the paper, ribbon tag, carefully unwrapping the gift in almost the same order it had been wrapped and finally opening the box to reveal the gift within. At which point considerable conversation would ensue, regarding the story of acquiring the gift, or why it was wanted, or other such things, some related and some not… This was not forced on any of our parts. We liked to draw it out and drink it in. To savor and enjoy all aspects of the process.

After a couple of “rounds” we’d go make breakfast and eat it. Then back to finish up the remainder of the packages. By then it was early afternoon and time to start dinner.

Given what I’ve seen in movies as well as what seems to have been the holiday modus operandi for most people who I’ve come in contact with is to rip into the gifts in a wild frenzy all at once, the whole thing over in half an hour.

That seemed so terribly unsatisfying to us, but our way certainly did seem to be “weird.” We’ve continued a reduced version of it into adulthood, though my husband being one of those who, growing up in a family with 8 kids, came from the ripping frenzy tradition had some adjusting to do. He has been tremendously gracious in adapting and taking part in the full spirit of the thing (though at times he does grow drowsy!). Anyway, he reported similar responses from people when they asked and he told them how we did it — weird!

Then, a few weeks ago I opened a book call Introvert Power by Laurie Helgoe, the same day I’d received it from Amazon to read this in the Introduction:

“I was number nine out of ten bright, creative, and mostly LOUD kids. My dad, an eccentric genius, had wall-sized speakers in the living room that blared out classical music. When the family sang together, we sang five-part harmonies of the uncompromising Handel’s Messiah. On Christmas Eve, we had a talent show and family service, and later tore into our presents all at once, paper and ribbons flying everywhere and voices crisscrossing the room shouting out “thank you!” and “just what I wanted!” These are happy memories, because there was a part for each of us. But instead of ripping paper and shouting, I sat in my corner with my pile of gifts and handled each as a treasure, slowly and carefully opening them, preserving the paper and lingering in the delight of discovery…..”

Whoa! I was absolutely astounded. There it was. Just what we did, without all the flying paper and yelling!

She went on…

“However, when there were no gifts to open and everyone was competing for airtime, I felt invisible and became overstimulated and anxious. My anxiety was not about the pressure to socialize; there were more than enough bodies to take care of that. I became anxious because I couldn’t think, and, without my own mind, I felt like I was disintegrating. My solution was to retreat to my room and write. In my solitude I could regain contact with myself and become solid again.”

Thankfully I didn’t grow up with nine siblings, but I have certainly felt this sense of being unable to think, especially recently where I’ve had so many things demanding my attention. But the retreating to my room to write and imagine stories… Yes! I couldn’t wait to get home from school and do that. She goes on to say she wrote science fiction (ditto) and developed secret codes (ditto) to share with her sister (I shared with a friend)… the entire introduction continued in this vein, highlighting things about myself I knew existed but had never really recognized as part of introversion. Nor had it ever occurred to me that there were reasons why I was always exhausted after social interactions, even those I enjoyed,  and that it wasn’t because I was bad, or defective or just plain ornery, but part of how God made me to be.

I have been so excited to read both this book and the other one I ordered, The Introvert Advantage, and I hope to share a bit of what I’ve learned from them both this week. The challenge will be to distill the most important bits from the wealth of things I could say about it all.

He Will Bless those Who Bless the Jews

As I said in my Sunday post, I recently read a book called Why are Jews Liberals?  by former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. I found it fascinating and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this area. I found it particularly fascinating where politics and religion intersect.

There were several things that prompted thought for me. As I said, Podhoretz briefly traces the history of the Jews throughout the church age — the time when the franchise for bringing God’s word to the world was shifted from the nation of Israel to the (mostly) Gentile Body of Christ. Instead of a particular nation that was tied to physical ancestry, the truth of Salvation is now disseminated through various gentile “client” nations where enough freedom exists for the gospel to be preached, and for people to believe freely and be able to gather together to study God’s word and grow in grace as believers. The church age is a time when, as Romans says, there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all (Believers) have equal privilege and opportunity as members of the Body of Christ.

The first client nation was the Roman Empire, where the early church flourished and eventually got distorted into a state religion. That religion dominated the middle ages and much of Western History thereafter and unfortunately some of its leaders had what I consider to be very odd ideas. Whereas the muslims were commanded in their koran to kill the Jews, and drive them out (if they could) Christians were not. But that didn’t mean they were to treat them well.

Indeed, according to Podhoretz, it was from St. Augustine that the notion of the Jews as a “witness people” began (though this is not obvious from a quick investigation through Google) (he did cite his reference but I didn’t make a note of it when I had the book). That is, the Jews were destined “to live as testimony to both evil and Christian truth, but were not to be killed, for like Cain they bore a sign.(14) ‘Let them live among us, but let them suffer and be continually humiliated’. In obedience to this concept, then, the Catholic Christians of Western Europe gathered Jews into “ghettos”, not to kill them, but not to give them any opportunities either. Unless he converted to Christianity, the Jew had to wear specific types of clothing, was not allowed to attend school or hold any job but money lending. Their misery was said to be the proof that Christianity was true.

Eeerch! Say WHAT?!!

Their misery would be proof that Christianity is true? What a concept! I would think that the proof that Christianity is true lies with the Bible. And only that. The idea that the God of all grace would need to deliberately use someone’s misery to prove the truth of His word just strikes me as … wrong. 

And what about Genesis 12:3 “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The fulfillment of that promise is played out starkly in Podhoretz’s narrative. And I’m happy to say that it was the United States that ultimately provided the greatest freedom — and prosperity — the Jews experienced in all their history since the fall of Jerusalem. It’s amazing the number of European Jewish immigrants who came here virtually penniless, were quickly employed — often self-employed — worked their butts off and ended up some of the wealthiest people in our country.

Just think: Levi’s began with a Jew (Levi Strauss). Sears, Levy’s Department Store, Goldwater’s, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, Goldman-Sachs, Calvin Klein, Costco, Starbucks … okay so some of those are current. It’s amazing how many of them are in Hollywood… amazing how many things we take for granted, that are pleasures and blessings of life that have come from Jews in this country.

But then, the greatest blessing of all comes from a Jew as well, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who, of course was the one mostly being pointed to in God’s promise that in or through Abraham all the families of the earth should be blessed.

Attention Kindle Owners

In all the craziness of last week, I forgot to make this very important announcement. If you’ve got a Kindle or know someone who does, you can download a copy of The Light of Eidon, the first book in my Legends of the Guardian King series for free. Yes, for free. $00.00

It’s a new marketing strategy from BHP to see if they can stimulate interest, and get readers to buy the remaining three volumes, all of which are also available on Kindle now, for $9.99 each. Or you can purchase the hard copies (still) if you prefer for a dollar or so more. I spoke to my editor about the whole “out of print” thing and I guess the way it works is they just continue to sell the books they’ve already printed and when they finally run out, that’s the end. As it stands, they apparently haven’t run out yet since hard copies are still available at Amazon.

So far, The Light of Eidon has picked up three new reviews thanks to the Kindle promotion, though one of them I could do without. 🙂 

Go here to order/download.

Day of Mourning

Recently my publisher, Bethany House, sent me notification of the sad news that because The Shadow Within (Book 2 of the Legends of the Guardian King series) and Return of the Guardian King (Book 4 of the series) have not been selling sufficiently they have decided not to keep them on their list of active publications. That’s a bunch of words to say they’ve been declared out of print and BHP will be producing no more copies of them. I’ve asked to have the rights revert to me.  

So if any of you are still waiting to get the Legends Series, or specifically the final book in that series, I suggest you act now before they vanish forever, like What-a-Burger’s A-1 Thick and Hearty burger. (Though I seriously doubt the A-1 is really going to vanish forever.) ((I’ve clearly seen that ad WAAAAY too many times…)  The books are still available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online sites as of today, and I would guess you can still order through local stores, though the strange setups independent booksellers have with distributors makes that literally a guess.  

Books 1 and 3 (The Light of Eidon and Shadow Over Kiriath) apparently continue to sell well enough that they’ve decided to keep publishing them.  

I knew this day would come and suspected it would be sooner rather than later, particularly given our current economy. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Shall we accept good from Him and not adversity as well? He knows what He’s doing and I don’t, and whether the books are in print or not is no obstacle to Him getting them into the hands of those for whom they are written. Maybe they don’t even matter any more and have served whatever purpose He had for them.  

If I step back I still have to marvel that the entire series actually made it to print at all, since there was considerable doubt the initial books would sell well enough to justify putting out the rest. And seeing as Eidon came out in 2003, Shadow Within in 2004… that’s about five years of shelf life in a very transitory and unforgiving industry. Have to be happy about that.  

Plus this last fall, a German publisher contracted to publish all four of the GK books. So it’ll still be out there, even if I won’t be able to read any of the books. 🙂  

In any case, I still have another book to write, which, believe it or not, starting last week I’ve finally the time to get back to. Or maybe I should say, I have another proposal to prepare, since at this point, that’s all I’ve got the go-ahead to do.  

   

 RIP

Graveyard photo by Qole Pejorian

Walk by Faith, not Sight

Continuing my thoughts stimulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan  on the validity of human-acquired wisdom, information, predictions, etc. 

In Chapter 5, entitled “Confirmation Shmonfirmation” Taleb observes, “…a series of corroborative facts is not necessarily evidence [of something]. Seeing white swans does not confirm the nonexistence of black swans…” However, seeing a single black swan will  prove that not all swans are white. In the same way finding a malignant tumor proves you have cancer, whereas not finding one doesn’t prove you don’t. [As the doctor said recently to my mother, the cancer cells migrated from the first location to the second and logic says they took up residence elsewhere besides in her leg bone. Hence they opt for another round of chemotherapy. How can we know that the chemo is needed, that it will kill the cells we are hoping it will? We can’t.]

Taleb calls this “negative empiricism” and contends that negative instances (like cancer, like a black swan) can bring us closer to the truth than verifying instances. “It is misleading,” says he, “to build a general rule from observed facts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our body of knowledge does not increase from a series of confirmatory observations.”

That’s one of those sentences that makes you stop and ponder. It seems that the more we see of something, the more certain we can be of the truth, but the reality is, we just don’t have a large enough sample size. Or, put another way, we simply don’t know the big picture.

This recalls to mind God’s command that His children live by faith in His word and character and not by what they see. Sight would involve confirmatory observations, and we crave confirmation of the things that we believe. Yet as we grow God increasingly asks us to put that desire for confirmation aside.  Noah had never seen rain, had not one convert in his 120 years of preaching to the antedeluvian world, yet he kept on.

Abraham spent his entire life waiting for a city without foundations and is still waiting. Moses spent his adult life traveling toward the promised land and never got to enter it. The church has waited 2000 years for the return of our Lord with no confirmatory evidence for the most part. (Though lately that’s been less true than in the past!)

And then there was Job, who was actually being shown off by God to Satan and the world. “Have you noticed my servant Job?” he asked of Satan. “There is none like him in all the world.’

Job was a mature believer with whom God was well pleased. And what did He do with His mature believer, one who had been faithful for many long years? He drew Satan’s attention to him and allowed him to take all that he had without cause. And after Job lost all his children, all his livestock and houses and servants, and even his health, there wasn’t a lot of confirmatory evidence to bolster the notion that God loved him, and that He was a just God who had all under control.

Nevertheless, Job’s initial response was to affirm that very viewpoint: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Even after his wife came advising him to curse God and die, he said, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” and did not sin with his lips. It was only when those three so-called friends arrived to sit with him silently for seven days before urging him to confess his sins because it had to be his fault that all this had befallen him — which was not at all the situation! — only then did he start to fail the test. Why? Because he had only the word of God to rest in and the lack of confirmatory evidence had gotten to him, especially when the “friends” used that very lack against him.

Our Lord also did not seem to be in the Father’s plan when He was tried, convicted and marched up to the hill of Golgotha to be crucified. There His enemies mocked Him, demanding, once again, confirmatory evidence: “Why don’t you come down from there if you’re the son of God? Where is He? Why doesn’t He deliver you if you’re really who you say you are??”

Of course the evidence did arrive eventually, but it’s in those dark hours that we most want it and don’t have it and the fact that we don’t is by God’s design.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a philosopher, concerned with human viewpoint, and the limitations of man’s perceptions. He doesn’t touch at all on divine viewpoint — at least not directly, but what I like is how he highlights many of the tendencies we have as humans that make having faith in someone we’ve never seen, having faith in the words of men long dead, as all the while the exact opposite is apparently staring us in the face and “everyone” is telling us how things “really” are, and they aren’t like how the Bible says.

 It also shows the myriad ways in which the cosmic system deceives. With such tendencies in us, it’s not all that hard. Especially when you combine it with our lack of brainpower to process all the details that surround us and our resulting need to summarize. And then there is our almost hard-wired inclination to make stories out of everything, regardless of the amount of actual facts we have. But those are subjects for future posts.


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