Archive for August, 2012

Late last night (25 August 2012), I received the news that Neil Armstrong has died. My usual approach when writing these memorials is to give a brief reminder of who the person was and then to express my gratitude that such a person lived. This one will be harder to write.

For one thing, who doesn’t know the name, Neil Armstrong? For one moment in 1969, the whole world stopped to watch one man do something extraordinary. There is so much to say about the man and what he did that summary feels impossible. Here’s my attempt:

Armstrong was an iconic American. During the Korean war, twice during training for the Moon landing, and during the actual event, he found himself in situations where a panicky person would have died, but he calmly went about doing his job. He spoke little and talked about himself even less. The act for which he will always be remembered was a bold push into the vast blank space on the map whose only notation was “Here be dragons.”

His family suggests that when we go out at night and see the Moon, we remember Neil Armstrong. That’s a fine sentiment, but I propose a stronger response. It’s been almost forty years since a human being stood on that body. None of us have been to Mars. None of us have left the Solar System. The list of places where we haven’t been is infinite. The best way to remember that man is to push on beyond his footprint.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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On Twitter this morning (15 August 2012), I found the sad news that Harry Harrison has died. Harrison was the author of the Stainless Steel Rat series and of Make Room! Make Room!, the book that was the basis for the movie, Soylent Green. If you’re not familiar with his writing, you’ve missed out on a treat. (And Nick, if you’re reading this, give me back the book that I loaned you!) He shows us that the truth is often askew to the “normal” world, and we need more authors like him.

Cross posted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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About twenty years ago, a pastor that I knew recommended a book to me–The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. (Michael Deming, if you’re reading this, you were right.) It’s taken me all that time to get around to it–graduate school, relationships, jobs, many other books, and life occupied my attention–but now having read it, I give it my wholehearted endorsement.

This book was the rare kind that I couldn’t underline standout passages because I’d have to underline the entire text. Others in this category have been Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, books that give a comprehensive explanation of life.

Hoffer analyzes mass movements. His claim is that they all are essentially identical. Since the book was written in 1951, his main examples are Nazism, Communism, and Zionism as contemporary cases, and he spends a good deal of time discussing the American and French revolutions as well. He gives the rise of both Christianity and Islam for a perspective from long ago.

For a mass movement to succeed, there must be a body of frustrated people who see no way to fulfill themselves. As a result, they seek a movement that will erase their individuality, thereby relieving their disgust with self. In support of this, he observes that a true believer can easily convert from one belief to another, but does not shed fanaticism in the process. This is because the doctrines of movements are not fundamental to the psychological comfort provided by belonging. Instead, they shut down the independent voice in the believer’s mind.

I have long been suspicious of any large group of human beings. Individuals can accomplish extraordinary things. Groups of individuals who know themselves to be capable of achievement can occasionally perform great feats–see NASA for its first several decades. But mass movements just shift the rabble around.

The True Believer will show you how that happens. It will then be up to you to find fulfillment on your own.

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