Vincent Price in… Plea From The Saint!

No sooner did I write my blog post, “Us and Them,” on Friday — which, though it didn’t come right out and say so, was in part a screed against prejudice — than I happened to hear a much more eloquent plea about tolerance from none other than Vincent Price.

It came at the end of a radio episode of The Adventures of The Saint circa 1950, one of several that I discovered online last week.

The best Saint book

Few people know The Saint as anything other than the Roger Moore TV show from the 1960’s, or the forgettable Val Kilmer film from 1997. But the character was created in his first (and best) form in a series of pulp adventure stories by author Leslie Charteris starting in 1928. In high school and college I devoured every Saint story I could find. Although in later years The Saint became a more conventional kind of detective/spy character, in his first decade or so he was much more like Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood — battling (and often profiting from) criminals, crooked politicians, evil industrialists, war profiteers, and their ilk with a unique and hugely entertaining style. (Indeed, the radio show announcer presents The Saint as “The Robin Hood of modern crime.”) You might not have thought it possible to set a swashbuckling adventure in the streets of 1930’s London, but that’s exactly what Charteris did.

Of the radio episodes I’ve heard so far, a couple are typical murder mysteries, but one (“Death of the Saint”) retains the “gay adventurer” flavor of the early Saint stories. (How I lament the loss of the old meaning of “gay.” No other word quite captures what “gay” used to mean. There’s “carefree” and “insouciant,” but those sound so, well, gay.) Vincent Price is excellent throughout, making easy work of the wordy banter that is one of the great pleasures of Saint stories; plus it’s fun to hear the mid-20th-century state of the art of what is now an all but defunct art form.

Price arranged to deliver a public-service message at the ends of some of his shows. One was on behalf of the Red Cross’s then-fledgling blood program. The following came at the end of the episode, “Author of Murder,” about a poisoning plot. Tinged though it is with nascent red-menace language, it is still relevant, and I found it particularly remarkable. It was not sponsored by any corporation nor was it government propaganda; no standards-and-practices board mandated its inclusion. It appears just to have been what was on Vincent Price’s mind at the time. Can you imagine if today’s TV stars used their shows as platforms to discuss their own civic-minded causes?

Ladies and gentlemen, poison doesn’t always come in bottles. And it isn’t always marked with the skull and crossbones of danger. Poison can take the form of words and phrases and acts: the venom of racial and religious hatred. Here in the United States, perhaps more than ever before, we must learn to recognize the poison of prejudice and to discover the antidote to its dangerous effects. Evidences of racial and religious hatred in our country place a potent weapon in the hands of our enemies, providing them with the ammunition of criticism. Moreover, group hatred menaces the entire fabric of democratic life. As for the antidote: you can fight prejudice, first by recognizing it for what it is, and second by actively accepting or rejecting people on their individual worth, and by speaking up against prejudice and for understanding. Remember, freedom and prejudice can’t exist side by side. If you choose freedom, fight prejudice.

The way things work out

During the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, my family made a trek to the Catskills for the summer to rent a bungalow, as we’d done every summer since I was 4. As usual, we brought only as much as we could cram into the car in addition to the four of us. My sister and I were obliged to leave many beloved toys behind. I also left behind my new best friend, Jon, whose family stayed in the city for the summer.

I resolved to write Jon a letter from Monticello. But of course that good intention fell by the wayside as I got reacquainted with summer friends and day camp started. There were woods to explore, new pinball games in the “casino,” and clusters of Japanese beetles to crunch disgustingly underfoot. Now and then I’d renew my promise to write to Jon, but I never followed up.

About halfway through the summer I hit on the idea of tape-recording a voice message to Jon instead of writing to him. I persuaded my dad to bring my tape recorder to the country on his next trip from the city. (All the dads went to New York for the week to work, and came back on the weekends. All the moms stayed in the bungalows all summer and played mah jongg with each other. Life was exactly as depicted in the movie A Walk On the Moon, except I don’t remember any moms being as sexy as Diane Lane.)

Sunday night I sent a newly recorded tape back to New York with my dad, full of reports for Jon from the country, expressions of how much I missed him, reminders of our various silly in-jokes, and plans for what we’d do in the fall when we were reunited. My dad obligingly delivered the tape to Jon’s family some time during the week. I was rewarded the following week with a tape of my own from Jon, sounding delighted and bringing me up to date on his summer.

Years later I learned that it was during my absence early that summer that Jon was diagnosed with kidney disease and condemned to a lifetime of lengthy dialysis treatments multiple times per week. His parents were crushed, and Jon was so depressed that they feared more for his state of mind than his kidneys. Just when things seemed darkest, my long-procrastinated missive to Jon arrived. Just like that, Jon snapped out of his funk and resumed being a normal eight-year-old. To me the timing of the tape was an accident. To his mom it was literally a miracle.

Fast-forward three decades or so. I routinely exchange pleasantries with a checkout clerk named Lora at my local supermarket. We ask after each other’s families, she watches my kids grow up, etc. On one visit she mentions that she used to be a flight attendant — furloughed after 9/11, natch — and hopes to be one again. I think to myself that I should give her my copy of Plane Crazy, a musical comedy about flight attendants in the 1960’s. Via Boing Boing I learned of the musical and joined the mailing list of its creator, Suzy Conn; that’s how I scored a free DVD of a performance of the show.

Weeks go by. Either I forget to bring my DVD to the supermarket when I shop, or Lora isn’t on duty when I’m there. Finally a few days ago she, I, and the disc are all in the same place at the same time, and I present it to her. Her gratitude is out of proportion to my gesture — until I learn that her elderly mother had died only a few days earlier and she was in need of something to cheer her up. Any earlier or later and the gift would not have done nearly as much good.

Funny how these things work out. The universe gives you what you need, even through such unreliable agents as I.

The nature of reality, part 1: God

This is the first in a planned series of posts about the nature of reality.

Several months ago when creationism vs. evolution was in the news a lot, I got into an e-mail debate with a creationist. For this first post in the series I will reproduce part of a message I wrote in that debate.

Why can’t you accept the fact that there was an Intelligent Designer of the Earth, since it is so so very intricate and works so so very well?

[Because] we can explain most of the observable world without invoking God. Those things that we can’t presently explain seem no different in kind from other mysteries that science manages to solve sooner or later.

When I say we don’t need God to explain the observable world, I’m talking about the kind of God that I think most westerners conceive of: an omnipotent, anthropomorphic superbeing guiding the growth of every flower and the design of every perfect snowflake. Well, I understand water crystallization and plant metabolism well enough that I believe they can run perfectly well on “automatic.”

It is at the extreme lower end of our understanding of reality — the level of quarks, leptons, and bosons — that I begin to admit the possibility of a creator. Here’s why.

Once upon a time, humans knew about many, many substances. Eventually they learned that that multitude of substances arises from a somewhat smaller multitude of molecules. Then it was discovered that the many, many molecules that exist can all be explained by a mere few dozen different atoms. Why a few dozen? Turns out it’s all due to just three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — combining in a few dozen ways. Simplicity giving rise to complexity.

Go deeper than that and the picture gets more complicated again. Quarks, mesons, photons, gluons, etc., etc., and their many crazy interactions. It’s a huge mess — complexity giving rise to simplicity giving rise to complexity? — but it’s still all very mechanistic, requiring no divine intervention to operate.

Sure there are parts we still don’t understand, which technically does leave room for the Hand of God to be at work, but eventually I think we’ll explain everything we can observe, and I think we’ll again see great simplicity as the basis of the design of the universe. My money is on the ideas in Loop Quantum Gravity: that all of reality — space, time, matter, energy, and the laws that govern them — arises out of pure geometry. Topological loops and tangles on the sub-Planck scale. That’s nothing more than a guess on my part.

But whether or not LQG is right, or string theory is, or some other theory that comes along, it still seems that there can never be a “bottom” to the explanation of reality. If spacetime is nothing but mathematical foam, or minuscule vibrating strings, or turtles all the way down — in short, if we can answer “what is the universe” — then there will still be the question “why is the universe?” Sooner or later we’ll tame the particle zoo of the standard model of physics, I’m sure, but it seems unlikely we can ever uncover the root cause of reality. When we finally have in our hands the mathematical equations describing it all, we still won’t know: why did those equations manifest into something we can experience?

It’s as if I decided to write an elaborate computer program to simulate a universe, complete with its own laws of nature and its own intelligent life. In time those beings might figure out all the rules of their universe, but what chance would they ever have of guessing what I’m like, or the nature of the computing hardware in which they are abstractions? The copper and silicon and tiny electrical charges of which they’re really composed would appear nowhere at all inside the simulation. The rules by which their universe operates would bear no resemblance to the rules of the programming language in which I expressed them.

Yes, I know I’m starting to sound stoned. Maybe I’m way past “starting.” My point is this: I do not think science can answer the big “why.” Philosophy — or, if you prefer, theology (at this level they’re both the same) — can, perhaps. There is room for God here, and it’s not the “God of the gaps,” the one who’s required to explain mysterious phenomena (lightning, flowers, snowflakes) temporarily until we understand them better, and who’s constantly getting demoted by science. It’s not the human-centric God who sculpts a landscape or cares whether I watch my neighbor undress or obliterates entire villages by fiat because of some unknowable plan. The God I have in mind may have designed the very topology of cosmic spin-foam (or whatever), setting in motion an entire automatic universe, not a mere flower. This God really is unknowable, not to mention impossibly remote, completely abstract, irrelevant to ordinary human affairs — but also vastly more grand in a cosmic sense than the great-and-terrible-Oz version of God.

Keep it in perspective

pale blue dotCarl Sagan taught us to look at the Earth as a pale blue dot, which is how it looked to the Voyager 1 spacecraft in a picture it sent back years ago as it raced to the edge of the solar system.

…every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam […] Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

But with all respect to the late, beloved Dr. Sagan, for really putting things in perspective he can’t compete with this blog post by Dick Hardt.