Category Archives: Ramblings

Our Love of Narrative

So The Holmes wrote a great post that pretty much sums up how I’ve been feeling about religion lately. One of the things I’ve been struggling with is our brain’s love of narrative (I know, crazy for a writer, right?). One of the things that I’ve heard people use to justify the idea of a God (any God) and an afterlife is that pretty much everyone on earth seems to think there’s something after death.

But I just wonder if that’s because our brains are hard-wired to invent narrative. What happens in a romantic movie after the final kiss and the credits roll? Our brains tell us that these people live a wonderful life, do wonderful things. But they’re characters in a story. And unless there’s a sequel, technically nothing happens. They’re gone. No thoughts. No actions. Nothing.

Our brains have a real problem with this concept. Sure if we think about it we can wrap our heads around the idea that at the end of Jurrassic Park the survivors don’t continue living their lives. It’s just credits and black. But we like to imagine new adventures. New lives. We do it naturally without even thinking about it. My brain thinks of the characters who are still alive at the end of the story as still being alive (which is definitely bizarre if you’re talking about a silent movie from the turn of the century).

Which, coming back to religion, I just wonder if this built in need for narrative is what drives our need for religion. Because we have a real problem with death being nothing. Not nothing like a black void. But nothing, as in no continued consciousness. Not watching our children grow old. Not hanging around in robes continuing our life on earth more or less with more singing. Just the end.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it. And my brain keeps suggesting alternatives. It really doesn’t like this idea of an unresolved narrative that just abruptly ends.

And that makes me wonder about the evolutionary function of it. As a species did we get too neurotic knowing that death could be around any corner and that was the end? Does this evolutionary delusion make us more productive and more likely to take risks thus increasing our genetic mixing?

I’ve been spending way too much time thinking about this.

Trail of Lights

Went to the tail of lights on Sunday. It was pretty miserable for us due to miscommunication and illness, but I thought it was still really pretty and worth the trip.

We drove to Barton Creek Mall, parked near the lower level Sears and got on a number 30 bus. It’s a bit of a circuitous route, but they drop you off right at the entrance to the trail. It’s a great painless way to get there.

Although we’ve got to do something about people letting their dogs off leashes and not picking up. It smells horrible there. Anyone who’s run the Hike and Bike trial when it’s raining knows the smell. I think that this area due to the number of people who let their dogs off leash might be even worse, though. I understand some people have high energy dogs, but seriously , if we’re going to have places where dog’s can go off leash they probably need to not be parks. They probably need to be outdoor areas completely covered in mulch, carefully graded for runoff to go directly into the sewer system. Like a cattle yard.

How do other cities deal with this? It’s foul.

Christiantiy and the old Snip-snip

So, my friends and I talk a lot more about circumcision these days. Probably talked about it more in the past 3 years than in the previous 29 of my life. It came up at a party the other day and how parents are having to fight grandparents over not circumcising their boys, on religious grounds. These are Christian grand parents. Growing up in “bible believing” churches I was very aware of this schism. Circumcision is viewed as being done for religious reasons. Which is fine if you’re Muslim or Jewish, but there is a lot of space spent talking about Circumcision in the New Testament. A lot more than any of your hot button topics like homosexuality, abortion, or pre-marital sex. So much time is spent talking about it, that you might get the idea that Paul is obsessed with penises (just saying).

Ok, so first let’s start with Genesis 17:11:

You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.

This is where most Christians are going to begin and end their discussion of Circumcision. Of course they’ve felt free to reject a host of other “barbaric” traditions that occur in the first few books of the bible, so it’s odd they’ve kept this one. God obviously didn’t want much intermarrying and this was a great way to ensure that you were serious before you got to marry some hot jewish chick. Old testament God was pretty anti-gentile.

So in Romans 2, Paul starts talking about this. He starts off just discussing what he feels circumcision means. If one is used to born-again analogies he’s basically saying you don’t need to be crawl back inside mom and literally be born again. Just believing and changing your life will do:

25Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the<sup class="footnote" value="[c]”>[c] written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

28A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

Then in First Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 7:19

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.

Then in Galatians 2 we have fear of circumcised Christians:

12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

And here’s one that requires a lot of um… creativity to read “literally” and still advocate circumcision. Well I guess you can advocate it in Paul’s eyes as long as you go back to stoning adulterers:

2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Here again in Collossians:

11In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature,<sup class="footnote" value="[a]”>[a] not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ,

Here in Titus, pointing out again that the circumcision group were actually the Christians who didn’t really believe and were trying to destroy the church:

Titus 1:10

For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group.

And that’s not even all of the mentions. It’s incessant. So please, next time you’re talking to a Christian who’s planning on getting their kid circumcised for relgious reasons, point them towards the Bible. Let them come up with a more valid reason, like germaphobia, or making it more unpleasant to masturbate.

And I know some people are going to come up with the extremely creative answer that they want to show their fealty to God in the bodies of their Children, and Paul was just referring to adult males not needing to get circumcised to be Christians, but please – you’re just making stuff up to justify your beliefs.

Oh and don’t try the “it prevents AIDS” defense, unless you already have an appointment to get your daughter the HPV vaccine. Remember abstinence is the answer.

On Ticket Prices

So, I don’t mention this enough on this blog, but currently in addition to writing plays and running a theater company I have a small internet startup called BuyPlayTix. One of the things I’m really trying to do with the software is start to build a way to analyze your audience and budget the way a for-profit business would. Granted, I’m no where near where I want to be with this, but the small amount I’ve built has provided some useful results.

The one thing that works is our BoxOffice software and Box Office reports. You enter all you ticket sales into the Box Office and you can look at some aggregate statistics in the report. I know this sounds ridiculously basic, but I would contend that most theater companies in Austin do not know what their average audience size is, or what percentage of tickets they sell at what price points.

On our last show, like many companies, we needed to come up with a ticket price. We’d already created a budget, which is based on historical averages and what we know things cost. Julie does a fantastic job with this and we’re never off by more than 10%. But when it came time to decide on a ticket price we just said $15. I guess because that seems fair? Or something. Market rate? Out of curiosity I decided to go back and look at our average size. I took our average paid tickets multipled by 15 and realized we couldn’t pay our rent if we charged $15 per seat. So we went with $18. And we had our standard house size, so we didn’t loose large numbers of our audience due to the cost increase. And we made our money back.

Which brings me to my main point. One of the main things that I’ve been reading are people complaining about not being able to make a living off of the arts. But how exactly are we supposed to do that if we’re just making up ticket prices that seem fair? How do we arrive at fair? The large regional theaters in town charge $30/ticket. Which is double what we think is fair. And you know what the kicker is? They’re heavily subsidized. So you’re really competing with a company that should be charging $60-100 per ticket. No wonder we’re having trouble competing. We’re pretending we can do the same amount of work for 1/4 of the pay.

I think we need to start committing to fair ticket prices, and knowing what that is. In version 4.0 of BuyPlayTix I’m going to have the ability to manually enter BoxOffice data for people who still take tickets the traditional way. I think it’ll be really interesting to see what ticket prices do if companies actually know what they have to charge to make money.

I think Pay-What-You can nights can provide for people who can’t afford high ticket prices, and we’re not doing anyone a favor by offering ridiculously cheap tickets to people who can afford to see touring musicals.

Google Wave

I’m looking at google wave, and wondering if it’s ability to record changes to a document and comments on it over time, might not be a great way to write a play with constant dramaturgy.

The editor seems a bit rudimentary, but I’ve already customized mediawiki to make playwrighting easy, so this might be doable.

Deer. Seriously.

So, we crested the hill near our house and were shocked to see this in our front yard:

Uh, yeah. Two deer. Just hanging out. Julie was pretty freaked out. I often turn a corner while running and happen upon a deer, so I’m a bit more used to them. But these were pretty big ones for the city:

Sorry for the dark pictures, but it was night.

Goodbye Affordable Housing in Austin

Check out the newest provision in the FHA guidelines. You know, the loans that make it easy for first time home buyers to buy affordable houses with little to no down payment. Julie and I bought our first house with one.

– Because of noise worries, FHA insurance will be unavailable when properties are within 1,000 feet of a highway, freeway, or heavily traveled road; 3,000 feet of a railroad; one mile of an airport; or five miles of a military airfield. Projects must take action to avoid or mitigate such conditions before completing the loan review process.

What does that leave? There are million dollar homes in Austin less than 3000′ from a railroad. Most of the affordable housing in Austin is that close. Have you looked at the affordable developments in South Austin? The ones that pretty much run along the tracks?

The major flaw in "No Child Left Behind"

So we went to a meeting about Becker, an elementary school in our neighborhood last night. We’re considering sending Stella there, due to the extreme overcrowding at our local elementary (> 120%, highest in AISD). Plus a lot of our friends are in the neighborhood. There was talk of a daul-language program, which was interesting, but one thing that struck me was their academically unacceptable rating and their small class size. Linder (the overcrowded school in our neighborhood) has been academically acceptable since the creation of “No Child Left Behind”. That seemed a bit odd to me. But first a word about averages.

Steve Crossland of the excellent Crossland Blog has often spoke about how useless averages are in real estate (and really in much of life). When someone asks you what the average home price is in Austin, you don’t actually tell them the average. You tell them the median. Thanks to the million dollar homes the average home price is probably around half a million. The median is probably in the high 100k’s. When we say average we generally mean median. And when we see averages we generally extrapolate them to the median in our head. When I was in school, if I saw an average grade of 75% in one of my classes, I would assume pretty much everyone got a C. Yet, depending on the size of the class it could have been 2 unprepared lunkheads who got no answers right, and the rest of the class aced the test. Averages tell you very little about individual performance.

With that in mind I decided to look at test scores in town. I decided to compare against 3rd grade, but the numbers are pretty consistent. Here’s Becker (all numbers are number of kids who failed the test):


Grade Average Class Size Reading Math Writing Science
3 12.8 4.1 4.22 3.2 3.07

I was shocked. So academically unacceptable in this case means that 3-4 kids failed the test in each class? That’s not so bad. And when you consider averages are at play here it’s possible that there are a few bad teachers dragging the rest down. So I decided to see what academically exemplary means. This is a school that does not have a lot of english profeciency problems, economic disadvantage, or section 8 housing:


Grade Average Class Size Reading Math Writing Science
3 21 0.21 0.42 0.21 1.05

So the difference is 2-3 kids per class? Not as much difference as you would expect from the terms “exemplary” and “unacceptable”. I finally decided to look at Linder to see how it stacked up:


Grade Average Class Size Reading Math Writing Science
3 22.4 4.93 6.5 2.46 7.39

So, Linder, which is an academically “acceptable” school actually has more kids failing per class than Becker which is “unacceptable”. The law of averages at work. So this means that school districts are rewarded for having over-crowded schools. It explains why suburbs that can’t seem to build enough schools to keep up with demand don’t seem to have the same problems their inner-city counter parts do. And it shows me that realistically most of the schools in Austin are quite good and after meeting some teachers last night, I have to say they’re really dedicated to voluntarily go to meetings until 7pm on a work night. I’m looking forward to sending Stella.

Here’s my spreadsheet if you want to check my work.

Now I’ve Got To See It

Just finished this article on Salon about Inglorious Basterds, Quinten Tarrantino’s new movie. It has some really fascinating statements. About this movie:

Pitt and Roth’s characters “behave like butt-ugly sadists,” Wells writes, while the German soldier, despite cursing out his tormentors as “Jew dogs,” behaves like “a man of honor,” accepting a brutal and painful death rather than ratting out his comrades. In Sammel’s brief performance, Wells says, he depicts the German as “a man of intelligence and perception” with “a certain regular-Joe decency,” while Raine and Donowitz come off as unhinged horror-movie villains.

This is fascinating because it seems taboo to say. But yet. There are Jews who behaved horribly. And German’s who behaved decently. And both Jews and Germans who behaved like angels after behaving like monsters. We like to frame the Holocaust in these expressionistic black-and-white terms, but human beings are never black and white.

Hollywood scholar Neal Gabler to ask why Tarantino “conventionalizes Jews, puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else.” Doesn’t that risk creating audience sympathy for their Nazi victims? (One should of course say “German victims”; it’s intellectually lazy and historically inaccurate to assume that German soldiers are all Nazis, but that level of ambiguity does not register in the Tarantino universe.)

How fascinating that anyone would assume that Jews could somehow avoid conventional revenge narratives. Why? Because there’s a certain threshold where revenge becomes acceptable? A really good read unrelated to the movie. I think it lays bare a lot of attitudes, and explains why for some people the phrase “never again” does not apply to say Rawanda or Srebernica.

Twittering Boredom

waiting for the meeting

So there’s this aquaintance I follow on Twitter. Actually I’m not completely sure I’ve ever met her. But that’s beside the point. She likes to tweet incredibly boring status updates. Like “waiting for meeting to start”, “meeting ended”, “driving to meeting”. And I’ve realized that it’s somewhat contagious.

Much like that good friend you have, whose stories of drunken debauchery makes you feel like your own life is somehow less boring. Reading these tweets makes me feel like my life is somehow more boring. Does anyone else have this problem?