A Song for Actors

Posted in Old Friends and Ghosts, Reflections on September 13, 2012 by Justin S. Smith

The original intention, which I hope to yet see through, is to have three sonnets under the collective title “For Old Friends and Ghosts of Friends.” As sonnets involve considerable work in refining of meter, rhyme and language and editing to 14 lines (140 syllables,) I am presenting the first theme  in colored prose (though I’m calling it a song, because I can) in hopes that verse will follow after the three “songs” are complete.  The second song “For Singers” is written and will be published once the third song is written and being revised.

– J.S.S

For Actors

We were actors once sharing the stage. Delivering lines and hitting our marks through comedy and tragedy. When the curtain fell and the lights went out, I returned my props to the table and checked the script for the next act; your name was not there. I turned and looked, but you were gone and the stage was set again and the show must go on. I stepped out on the stage with strange faces and gave all I could muster while wondering: if I had seen the script before and known you were leaving would I have drawn out that last scene a bit longer, or changed the words to try to keep you in the play for another act?


I happened by that old theatre once. In my mind the boards of the stage we had shared were dull and worn, the curtains falling and moth eaten and cobwebs hung from the lights and rigging. But new actors were performing a new play, not unlike ours in our time, but different enough. The set looked much like it had so long ago, but the costumes had changed. The costumes and the actors, that is all. To see it in use, and so different than my imagination, was bittersweet. It seems the building should have fallen when our show ended, or at least the box office locked.


From the balcony, I have seen bits of your new play, and it pleases me that you are still on stage. I watched actors that were in our show come out and do a scene with you and I want to stand up and join in. I want to yell a line from the balcony and hope that by recognition of my voice you and they are warmed and bid me to join the cast. But I do not because I must not. This is not our show; our show is done. And though I would like to think that I could join with old cast mates to stomp across the boards again I must accept that I would only be acting with ghosts on a cinema screen.


I think now, if I had known that our show was at its end, I think I would have left the script unchanged; I think I would have delivered the lines as written and not dragged out the ending. It was right the way it was written. I would have let you go just the same, but I would have known it was time to tell you goodbye.


Posted in Uncategorized on June 6, 2012 by Justin S. Smith

I remember on my twentieth birthday, my friend Ken called and I answered the phone (land line, no caller ID, I knew it was him by the voice and what he said.) “Happy half way to 40.” <click> Now I’m halfway to 70.

The mark of time passing, annual celebration of survival, congratulations you’re not dead yet. With few exceptions, the more birthdays you have, the less they mean. Once you become conscious of your own existence, birthdays are pretty awesome, for a while. There’s some crap early on (my daughter Chloe put out the candle on her first birthday cake by grabbing it, that really sucked for her, but she won’t remember it) but pretty much from 2 or 3 until 10 you have that one day where you are a virtual monarch, if only in your head.

Then what? 11 and 12 are still good, but you’ve crossed into “double digits” already and so nothing really spectacular. 13, you’re a teenager now. 16, you can drive. 18, you can vote, join the military, and be an independent adult. 21, you can legally drink in the USA in misery while thinking about how the “great” things you could do at 18 are really not so great. 25, you can rent a car.

30 was weird for me. One of my friends turns 30 today and may soon understand. It took until 32 before I stopped answering “how old are you?” with “twenty…uh, thirty <whatever>.” Somehow in my head I was still a youth; a young man in his twenties ready to go. 30 seemed older than me.

So we celebrate our kids’ birthdays much more than our own. We see their 7 candles and think of our 7 candles so long ago. We mourn their growing up: “oh my goodness, my baby is 10 years old.” but I think we really are just freaking out because the cadence of the drums that we have trying to ignore by treating our own birthdays like just another day becomes amplified by the celebrations of our children growing up and the loud slow beating of the march toward death can not be ignored.

But you didn’t come here for a pep talk. No, I’m not twenty-something anymore. Today I cross the line of being closer to 40 than to 30 though, time being unrepentantly linear, this has been true since I crossed that threshold. I like to think that at 35 I am happier and more content with my life than when I was 30 or 25. I’m not a rock star, but I walk through my front door to wild screams and the excitement of several little people who are thrilled to see me. More celebrity than most people could handle.

So, thanks for stopping by to read this meandering nonsense. A new post after so long doesn’t mean I’m back, or maybe it does, I haven’t decided yet. And thanks for all the birthday wishes. That’s another thing I had a lot less of in my twenties, but then, we didn’t have Facebook to keep our calendars for us then either. Regardless, thanks.

J. S. Smith 

On Civil Discourse: Part IV – Building Your Case, Mathematically

Posted in Politics, Religion, and Society with tags , , , , on March 17, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

Many people have no idea how to construct a good argument. I say this because I have argued with them and they lack logical skill. They aren’t stupid people, they just have trouble with the math of logic. Yes, I said math. When I was in high school (such a brief time ago(cough)) I took a logic class. Like most of my classes, I exerted the necessary energy to pass and little more, but I do recall the mathematical plotting of arguments which I enjoyed. As an electronics technician, it means even more to me now. That’s right, electronics and logical arguments are tied together with my friend, Boolean Algebra. To keep it simple, I will just talk about AND and OR equations and for this brief illustration talk about two supporting proofs only. Also, for logic, it should be noted that in building an argument, each statement/clause has only two values: True (1) or False (0) (yay binary!)

Wait, come back. I promise I’ll make this simple. AND is multiplication so if your argument is built with AND both supports must be TRUE for your hypothesis to be TRUE. So, where X and Y are supporting facts and Z is the hypothesis:

X * Y = Z. Replacing X and Y for TRUE or FALSE (0 or 1) we can see how the math bears out.

1 * 1 = 1

1 * 0 = 0

0 * 1 = 0

OR arguments are addition. I know you think the very word AND implies addition, but logically and mathematically it doesn’t work that way. So using the same variables:

X + Y = Z

1 + 1 = 1 (I know you want a 2 there, but it’s TRUE or FALSE, logic does not allow for SUPER TRUE)

1 + 0 = 1

0 + 1 = 1

The point here is that for OR arguments, every support stands on its own so that only one need be true to support the argument. OR arguments are much stronger than AND arguments because of this. If you build a nice string of OR supports, you might lose multiple points and still win the debate. A long string of ANDs gets weaker with each point because all are needed to support the case. 

There are other connections between supports other than OR and AND, but these are the most commonly used. Be careful with ANDs; they require great support for each clause and can become cumbersome. Frequently they have the appearance of being convoluted as support is pulled in from various sources to prove a point and they can be easily broken unless the tied points are common known facts.

You can also string ANDs and ORs together:

Politician X said A but did B and said C but did D and said E but did F therefore Politician X is a liar.

Now to say X lied you only need to prove one contrasting set of facts, so though you grammatically use and, logically some of them are ORs. Using the same variables:

A AND B OR C AND D OR E AND F = L (for liar) Mathematically:

(A * B) + (C * D) + (E * F) = L

Especially when you are presenting in writing, diagramming your argument mathematically can help to show you weaknesses. It is impractical to stop a verbal conversation to do so, but try working out the math of your arguments after a discussion to help with improvement.  You can also diagram your opponents argument to help you see their weaknesses. Chances are, you will jump into the same hot button issue more than once, so if you can evaluate in between those times, you can get a different view of the arguments that will likely help you the next time around.

Now don’t you wish you would have listened in school when your teacher told you that math was a part of everything? I know this went into some abstract places for some of you; when I start talking Boolean algebra with my wife, her eyes glaze over like Krispy Kreme donuts and I have to start talking about fabrics and color schemes to bring her back. Really, it’s not that hard, and if you enjoy debate, it’s worth pursuing. Note: if you start digging in to Boolean, you will find that the symbols I used were not the common symbols used in this form of logic. I did this to simplify and if you decide to dig in, you will see I really did simplify. Even the basics can be powerful though if you learn how to use them.

Jacquard, earth-tones, pink, metallic, hmmm… Let’s paint the living room. Ok you’re back. I will get back to the civility next time when I discuss presenting your argument. Can someone get me a donut? I’m suddenly hungry.

On Civil Discourse: Part III – Clarifying and Rebuttal

Posted in Politics, Religion, and Society with tags , , , , on March 8, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

After you’ve listened to your opponent, you need to make sure that you understand what they have said before you shoot into your rebuttal and on to your argument. As pointed out in comments of the last post, this is just as important, possibly more so, online as in verbal conversations. Failure to understand the position leads to poor rebuttal, and building your case without rebuttal can easily become a exercise in finding whose voice is loudest.

If your opponent has built a good case, a good test for your understanding is attempting to rephrase it in your own words, possibly  in the form of a question.

“Ok so you’re saying because of varying shadow angles on photographs, you think the moon landing was faked?”

Now if your opponent’s argument is not well built or possibly just the off-handed comment that is the initiator of a conversation:

“Obama is a foreign-born, Muslim, Communist, Liberal, Nazi extremist (who kills puppies)”

You may need to do some questioning to draw out their support. Simple questions are best for this: Why? What did he do that was “Nazi” like? How do you know he was foreign-born? Have you seen him eat a puppy? But chances are, the more blatantly insane and unsupported the claim is, the more likely this will result in a shouting match to see who is the loudest and therefore the winner. Here’s a friendly tip: ask your questions; if any of them are not answered, ask again with different phrasing. If you don’t hear the support for the argument after two attempts, disengage. It is not worth your time or energy to pursue this argument. Some rabbit holes are best left unexplored; they don’t all lead to Wonderland.

A note for online: considering the frequently slow speed of online conversations, this is an even more important time saver. Arguments are frequently longer and more thorough (especially if you’re in a good discussion group) and jumping the gun and replying to an assumption instead of clarifying can lose you days online versus the minutes you may lose in a verbal conversation. Think about this before proceeding.

Once you are clear on what your opponent has meant, it’s time to rebut. Rebuttal seems to be a lost art. Like grammar, spelling, and handwriting we have neglected this ever important part of good discussion. As indicated above, this is not the presentation of your argument and, regardless of the sound of it, it is not the replacement of a mannequin’s posterior. It is the meeting head-on and attempted defeating of your opponent’s argument. This is where you start knocking down their supports.

“You say that the multiple light angles needed to produce such shadows looks like a TV studio, but look at all the lights on the lunar module. They could have easily produced such shadows.”

Don’t try to build your own building first; knock his down. This helps avoid the piling of statistics, the weighing of mountains of evidence. In short, this can prevent added length by reducing your opponents ability to repeat himself. Think of the subject as a tract of land; I build a barn and call it a farm; you put a hydro-electric generator on the stream and call it a power plant. Who’s right? One claim needs to be knocked down, otherwise you could have two people making claims that are not exclusive claiming that they are.

A few of notes before I close:

First, don’t expect that everyone you talk to has read “Uncle Justin’s Pontification on Civil Discourse.” Actually, assume they haven’t; Uncle Justin doesn’t have a very large reading base. Anyway, you may need to prompt your opponent for a rebuttal to your argument.

“I understand your case, but you haven’t responded to the evidence I have given to my contrary conclusion” (please don’t talk like this; it’s just an example.)

Second, you might need to rebut your opponents case before you can push a rebuttal from them. I must make a confession: one of the things I looked at for this series was some of the more uncivil back-and-forth comments on this blog. When a respondent did not rebut, I called the him on it but I should have also rebutted his argument. Instead what transpired was his continuing to prop up his claim and me saying he was not rebutting mine. It degraded rather quickly and was quite contrary to the civility in discourse that I aspire to and I would thank you to not bring it up again.

Lastly, assault the argument, not the speaker. Even sideways or back handed comments like “well you just don’t understand” are not beating the argument; they are just pompous, arrogant bloviating; a  slightly nicer way of saying “you’re stupid.” For the record, throwing a “bless your heart” in doesn’t help (my southern friends know what I’m talking about.) My favorite slice that I’ve received in a theological debate was “you’ve just been sold a bad bill of goods.” So I got the added bonus of not only being called stupid, but being told that those whom I had listened to and trusted were the clergy equivalent of used-car salesmen (no actual assault on the arguments was ever made in this discussion and, surprise, it went south fast.) Never good, don’t do it.

Remember, the head-on confrontation that is a rebuttal is paramount in moving conversation forward. You may go back and forth a bit on views of a particular support; that’s ok. It will still be productive, or more so than skipping this step would be anyway. If you have trouble confronting, remember that you are going after the argument not the person. This confrontation is necessary for civil discourse. Without a rebuttal, you can easily draw parallel lines of reasoning; never meeting, never crossing. I encourage you: cross those swords; be perpendicular.

On Civil Discourse: Part II- Listening

Posted in Politics, Religion, and Society with tags , , , on March 2, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

In case you missed it, Part I is here.- J.S.S.

So you’ve decided to get in the ring. The most important thing after this decision is listening to your opponent. Too many discussions go astray because one or both parties don’t take the time to hear the opposition. I have been guilty of this myself and will likely be again in the future. Without listening your arguments will be weaker and you will tend to build on one point or repeat yourself ad nauseam instead of listening and answering the arguments and rebuttals of your opponent. In online and email discussions lack of listening is a lack of reading, skimming across a message and responding to what you think they are saying. What is meant as a time saver becomes a huge time waster.

The first pitfall to avoid is in interrupting to rebut anything you might disagree with. Until they are done, you are basing your rebuttal on an assumption of where they are going, not the reality of their actual argument. I am reminded of the child that was instructed to give a sentence starting with the word “I”:

“I is” the child started and the teacher promptly interrupted, “I am, always say ‘I am’” said the teacher. “Ok” said the child “I am the ninth letter of the alphabet.”

Your opponent may not be going where you understanding predicts, let him speak. You may learn something or you might hear something so bafflingly crazy that your argument proves much easier or absolutely unnecessary. You will never know if you don’t let them finish.

Having given much thought on the matter of interruptions, I have found only two times when I see it as being permitted. The first is when your opponents rebuttal completely mischaracterizes your argument or makes it clear that they didn’t understand what you were trying to say. This interruption is ultimately for saving time by correcting a disconnect that will lead to parallel arguments. If this is necessary, you should assume that the misunderstanding is the fault of your own communication skills and not the lack of intelligence of your opponent. This humble approach should help keep emotions in check. You should also try to be quick and concise in your correction (you are, after all, on their turn,) and then turn the discussion back to them.

The second cause for interruption is if you really don’t understand what they are talking about. Perhaps they reference something foreign to you or use a word you don’t know and can’t glean the meaning of from context. This happens frequently when talking to Dennis Miller. Again, I think it is important to take responsibility for this; tell them you want to follow and understand what they are saying but they lost you when they said “x” then let them explain and continue.

The second big temptation as a listener is spending time building your own argument. Your opponent may start talking and you’re thinking about what you could have added to prop up your argument. You hear where they start and it sounds familiar so you start putting together all of the “fool proof” arguments you know against what you think they are saying but miss the nuance of what they say. You end up arguing from assumptions because you weren’t listening. You may even look like an idiot. Online this happens when you do all of your research for your next point before your opponent responds. You build your case and regardless of what they say, you run with it. Your argument will be better built to oppose their argument if you actually hear what they say. Also it helps eliminate the need for interruption exception one when it’s your turn to deliver.

The most important thing to remember is you decided to get into this conversation by either initiating or engaging the initiator. Listen. Give them time to speak and pay attention to what they’re saying. You likely will never convince anyone that they are wrong about their personal dogma, but if you hear where they are coming from you may be able to get them to think harder about their support. You may even be surprised to find out that the view you oppose might be well thought out. If you don’t listen you’ll never know.

I don’t put the full responsibility of listening on the listener. There are things that can be done on the part of the speaker to help them maintain attention. I will cover this in the next part.

On Civil Discourse: Part I- Broaching the Subject

Posted in Politics, Religion, and Society with tags , , on February 28, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

I disagree with many people on most things and all people on some things and so it is with a certain frequency that I find myself in a conversation concerning an opposing opinion. The free flow of verbal conversation not allowing for the formal rules of a proper debate, there should still be some matters of consideration in order to maintain civility. The first of these is on the initiation of the conversation or broaching the subject.

There is a large group of people who feel that they are entitled to share their opinion without having to back it up, respond to queries, or listen to opposing views. If this is you, keep your opinion to yourself. You do no good with your expression and refusal to go further. If you refuse to back it up or answer questions, you show weakness in your view. If you refuse to hear opposition, you give an air of superiority that your opinion is worth being heard but opposing views are not. If you think that you “win” by being the only person allowed to speak, you should know that you only win in your own mind. Stating your opinion is like stepping in a ring, you can’t punch your opponent and jump back out. This is especially important to remember when you know your opinion is disagreed with before you state it.

As opposition, if the subject is broached, you are entitled to respond if you choose. Most people know this. What most people don’t recognize is their right to not respond. You have the right, after someone has stated his/her viewpoint, to plainly state that you disagree but do not wish to engage. I do see it is good to state that you disagree even if you do not wish to engage because to not say so is to give tacit approval to the preceding statement. Depending on how strongly you disagree or the implications that could be drawn from your tacit approval, this may be unnecessary.  The importance for the second party is recognizing the choice point of engagement. If you don’t want to don’t. If you do, you should realize that you are subject to the same rules as the initial speaker; prepare to back yourself up, respond to questions and entertain counterpoints. Again, imagine the subject broached is a ring, you don’t have to step in, but the moment you do you are open to everything permissible in the ring and will have to weather the blows of your opponent.

We can learn a lot by having in depth discussions with people of varying viewpoints, but not everyone is cut out for doing so while keeping their emotions in check. Also, there are times and places when such discourse may be inappropriate. If you don’t have the time or endurance or the venue is wrong, don’t engage.  If you choose to engage, whether by initiating or responding, be prepared to engage fully. No one likes sucker-punch conversationalists. Get in there and duke it out. If your opinion is worth stating, it’s worth defending. If it’s not worth defending, you should probably keep it to yourself.

Identity Confusion

Posted in Reflections with tags , , , on February 23, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

The first time I recall seeing the name Justin Smith in reference to someone other than me was at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA. Somewhere there exists a photograph of a teenage me posing next to the marker. My mother refused to take said picture as it would invoke some bad juju or other such nonsense. My father, on the other hand, had no such reservations as he is a primary contributor to my own warped humor.

Before seeing this, I had no illusions about the commonality of my name. Statistically Justin has been in the top 30 most popular names since I was born and I don’t think anyone has questions concerning the abundance of Smiths in the world. I started using my middle initial fairly early, though not knowing other Justin Smiths, in order to separate myself. Justin S. Smith is only slightly less common, but still better. I still end up using numbers on email addresses online account names because justinssmith is always already taken (see address bar.)

When I was working at Blockbuster video in Jackson, TN we would frequently make call-in orders for lunch to nearby restaurants. They would always ask for last name and first initial. J. Smith usually got a sarcastic “yeah, right” response from the other end. So I started using aliases. B. Buster was a favorite and never got any questions even after arriving to pick up wearing a Blockbuster shirt. They actually preferred to be lied to, but that’s a topic for another time. It seems with the ubiquity of J. Smiths in the world, believing that you are talking to one would not be difficult.

When I hired on with my current employer, I was assigned an alias for my email. There standard is first initial + last name + numbers (if necessary.) Currently the number is near 150. To make matters worse, they recently removed location markers from the email addresses which helped you determine whether you were sending to Houston or Africa. Because of all of this, I have received emails for at least 3 other Justin Smiths in the company. My favorite three:

3. Request for release of a purchase order from a different division in Australia. I replied by telling them that I had no access to that BORG, they might want to check their address book and try again.

2. PDFs of needed forms to acquire a work visa for Ecuador. I replied by saying that I had no intention of going to Ecuador and had doubts about my manager releasing me for a field trip. I got the response saying that if I ever changed my mind, the sender was the one to talk to about paper work.

1. Flight schedule for a helicopter going out to a drilling rig off the Gold Coast; apparently I was to be on said helicopter at 6 AM in two days. I replied saying my attendance would not be possible because of my lack of qualifications for offshore work and the fact that I was in west Texas.

I do get the occasional humorous response, like the one from my Ecuadorian travel agent, but usually it is just a quick apology before promptly forgetting the lesson and needing to relearn in two weeks time.

But now things have gotten more strange. I recently made an online purchase and after days of tracking realized that I had mistyped my address. I contacted the seller and the post office and we still weren’t sure what was going to become of the package sent to an undeliverable address 200 higher than where my street ends. The post office said that the carrier would probably see the error and match the name and I would receive the package a day or so late. Then I got a bizarre email from someone saying the had received the package by error. they were able to contact me using the cart number on the invoice and google checkout forwarded the message to me. I called the number that they had sent and found the post office had corrected and sent to the Justin Smith closest to the address provided (numerically closest not logically.) The other Justin Smith lives less than 300 feet from me.

I am convinced that if I ever had to go into hiding as a fugitive, I could do so without changing my name. If I ever had to relocate with witness protection, the agent would probably look at my name and say “yeah that’s good enough.” At least my parents didn’t name me John…or Jason.