Sunday, September 24, 2017


I heard this in the 1970's, supposedly about Brother Lawrence. That is plausible, yet I suspect this did not actually happen. Consider it a parable.

An elderly monk had a reputation for wisdom, and locals requested of the abbot that they be allowed to ask his advice, which was often granted. The monk would invite them to join in whatever work he was doing at the time as they poured out their stories. His fame spread slowly and quietly, but widely.

In time a cardinal came by, traveling to see all his charges, and asked - or demanded - of the abbot to speak with the monk with the wide reputation. The abbot agreed, but rather than accompany the cardinal he merely told him the man he sought was working in the kitchen and pointed the way.

The cardinal thus came in behind the monk, who was scrubbing the floor with a brush,  and said "I have heard you are a person of great wisdom and piety.  Could you tell me what wisdom you have?"

"Certainly," said the monk, not looking up but holding a brush out behind him and upwards. "Come join me."

"I don't think that would be proper," said the cardinal with a hint of a smile.

"If you can't come down I can't explain it to you."

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Because No One Asked

1. I get irritated when presidents get themselves involved in things that are none of their business.  I didn't like it when Obama kept involving himself in local and criminal matters because of the race issue - a Beer Summit? Really? - and I don't like it when Trump tells football owners what to do.  I don't mind them occasionally getting involved in trivial events - it's a hard calling to have to be presidential 24-7 (though some have managed it).  But involving yourself in the argument is unnecessary and should be avoided.

2. People have a right to protest at public events, but when they are at work, not so much. Fans can take a knee at NFL games and no one can say them nay.  The referees, vendors, and players are in a different position. We forget this distinction because the work of an entertainer is public, so we slide over into thinking that they have the same rights as a person on their own time.  They don't.  Their employer owns that time. If you are a comedian or a writer or a musician working your own gig, you can do what you want.  But when you are in a stage comedy or playing bassoon for the Boston Pops, you don't automatically get to put up a banner for your own cause. If your employer is okay with that, fine, but you have no free speech right to it.

3. I admit that I very likely carry some extra irritation because the protestors are not fully correct in their complaint, and perhaps less than half-right. That shouldn't matter, but I want to raise my hand here because people want to talk about what I consider to be derivative issues, such as whether this is the best way of achieving your goals.They are complaining about the police, who are not the main culprits in whatever injustice African-Americans experience in the justice system. The Stanford study of Oakland PD that claimed to show that the police are twice as likely to be disrespectful to blacks actually shows they aren't that disrespectful to anyone at all. The injustice is more on the side of being given worse attorneys, harsher sentences, and less-generous parole. Plus, crime against blacks, especially murder, is not solved and consequated as well as crimes against other races. The lower arrest rates compared to the committing of crime means more black families get no answer and no justice. The focus on the police suggests something else is in play, something more personal.

Had Enough Therapy?

I don't often link to Stuart Schneiderman's blog Had Enough Therapy? Bird Dog has linked to him a couple of times recently, so I figured I should remind you I am also a fan.  Reading the comments, I know that a few of you go there already. The blog is about 50% skewering of the pop psychology and bad advice that so many of us consume.  The other 50% is varied, but usually comments on aspects of modern culture that people haven't quite thought through.

Schneiderman's history is interesting.  I met him on the Manhattan Urban Hike organised by Maggie's Farm over a year ago and we walked together a fair way.  He was trained as a psychoanalyst, but has moved over time to a type of therapy that is much more like life coaching.  It sounds like a jovial but confrontive approach, which seems about right to me.

High Holy Days

Maggie's Farm, Powerline, and City Journal have all had articles deploring the practice in many synagogues of using Rosh Hashanah to condemn others under the mask of personal repentance. Therefore, I think it's a hot topic this year and will note that I have written on this before, linking to CS Lewis's essay "The Dangers of National Repentance." The closest thing to a the full essay can be found here. Summary quote:
The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the more congenial one of bewailing–but first, of denouncing–the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately, the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Far Side

Update below.

I am in a FB group "The Best of 'The Far Side.'" I always loved the comic but didn't have all the books so about 20% are ones I have never seen before.  I may unfollow it soon, as it does produce half-a-dozen posts a day and it's getting a little repetitive. It's been a good two months.

Injecting political or social commentary is punished swiftly: instant banishment from further commenting, no second-chances. It's there to be funny. But people just seem unable to contain themselves.  They have to find hidden sermons in Gary Larsen's work, or relate the cartoon immediately to how stupid some group of people is. They insist to us what his philosophy, his politics, and even his theology must be, as revealed in the panel. It's bad enough when they do this jumping off from the main point, but sometimes it is dug out from unimportant details. People project their own opinions on to the cartoonist. I think opinion X is good.  I like Larsen. Therefore he must also think opinion X is good.  Aha! See there is evidence right here. 

It is nearly always liberals who do this, especially environmentalists.  I would have thought there was a slight tendency in that direction, but this is not slight. I traced back the last month and it's over 90% of those banned. And note, there are some God-portrayals that religious people might not like, plus some consistent rooting for the animals over the hunters that could be taken amiss by gun-rights people. I think he was just going for the irony. I'm not offended.

There may be a sample bias.  The group might be 90+% liberal, so the more frequent banning isn't significant.  But I doubt it.

Upon further review:  I was interested in more precision on the environmentalist vs general liberal question, and decided it gives a different impression that way. Reflexive environmentalists are not entirely contained in the liberal circle if you did it as a Venn Diagram. I was assuming they were liberals and were counting them that way, but that's not entirely defensible.  The more exact numbers are 3 liberals, 1 conservative, 7 environmentalists.  With that 3-1 being a very small sample size, so a single addition or subtraction - or a single misinterpretation on my part - changing the impression drastically, it would be more accurate to conclude this is more of an environmentalist than general liberal issue.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Have You Forgotten? Bush v. Gore 2000

I am not going to try and sell you the idea that everything Bush and the Republicans did was noble and aboveboard while Gore and the Democrats were motivated entirely by cheap partisanship. It's all very complicated, and mixed motives are the norm, not the exception in such circumstances.  However there is a continuing narrative that still gets put forth as obvious, with repercussions down to the present day.  Attorneys reading should feel free to chime in to correct or expand, but my intent is not to give a legal summary but to challenge the received narrative.

Bush v. Gore  Please note there is an error in the Wikipedia article, which claims in paragraph 4 that while Bush would have won anyway under the type of recount Gore was advocating, Gore would have won under a full-state recount. This is not known to be true. If you read the whole thing it is difficult to see where this is anything but speculation based on "Well, what if we counted the overvotes?" Counting spoiled ballots which nonetheless showed the clear intent of the voter might indeed have resulted in more votes for Gore.  I'll refer back to this at the end.

The narrative I have read and been told many times is that five SCOTUS justices appointed by Republicans voted down four objective and honorable justices on the basis of nothing but partisanship, awarding the presidency to Bush undeservedly. It remains a shameful episode in the history of the court, and undermined the public's confidence in that institution. That Jeb Bush was governor is also mentioned darkly, that he was in on the fix, too, though exactly what he did isn't identified. Just the usual Darth Vader music in the background.

It's hard to prove a negative, so yes, perhaps, if we had a Motive-o-Meter and scanned each of the justices as they were deliberating, we would see dark stains on the souls of Rehnquist, Thomas, O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy contrasting with crystal hearts of Souter, Breyer, Stevens, and Ginsburg.

There are some facts which are usually left out of the discussion, however, which suggest that at minimum, there is another side to this which is not easily dismissed. First, the justices ruled 7-2, not 5-4 on the question of whether there had been an Equal Protection Clause violation, as Bush claimed. Five of those justices said the deadline is the deadline, we're done. Two justices joined that decision, Souter and Breyer, agreeing that there was a violation, but thought it should go back to the Florida Supreme Court to decide what to do. I don't think that's crazy, by the way.  Yes, it is possible to impute partisan motives to them, because the Florida Court had all been appointed by Democrats and had tipped its hand what it might do. Yet without mind-reading we are back at the same finger-pointing with no evidence. I am nowhere near informed enough in the law to tell you whether that is the best, or even a defensible position, but on the surface it seems reasonable the SCOTUS tell Florida to sort out its own mess, after noting there had been a finding there was a violation, contrary to that court's earlier ruling.

Let me hit that key point again:  7-2 on Equal Protection, which to me looks like the central issue.  Not 5-4.  5-4 was for "What remedy?"

The legal arguments at this point revolved around whether there should be a deadline extension for recounts, whether Kathryn Harris had the authority to shut the thing down, whether started recounts that had been shown to be not-quite-right should be resumed, abandoned, or restarted. The popular arguments were much simpler: "You're cheating!" "No, you are!" As usual, everyone was suddenly an expert on Florida election law, the intent of the Florida legislature, Article II of the US Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Who says the schools aren't doing their job in civics?  Why, we can produce millions of experts overnight, with no additional training.

Let me jump back just a moment to the Florida Supreme Court. It's not in the Wiki article, but they had ruled 7-0 that there should be statewide manual recount, according to their interpretation of the law and the intent of the legislature.  Gore had only asked for four Democratic counties to be recounted, but they thought it was better to recount everything.  Bush appealed, and the SCOTUS sent that back quickly saying "What was your reasoning there? Show your work."  At the time, I was told this was a major slap in the face, but I don't know if that's true.  However that was, when asked to produce the reasoning, three of the seven changed their mind. The court ruled 4-3 for the statewide manual recount, and Bush appealed that, claiming that the rules for what was a legal vote varied from county to county. The Gore team countered "So what?  It's the intent of the voters that matters, not whether the technical definition of a legal vote is the same."

Back to the SCOTUS just for a moment, and then we're nearly done. In the 5-4 decision of "What remedy should there be for this violation of the Equal Protection," three justices (Scalia, Rehnquist, Thomas) really wanted to sock it to the Florida Supreme Court that they had acted contrary to the will of the legislature, while two (Kennedy, O'Connor) said, "No, we wouldn't go that far" and didn't sign on.  The four dissenting justices (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer) said the opposite, that the Florida Supremes had jolly well not acted contrary to the legislature, they had gotten it right the first time. I can see some sense in all the sides here. The rulings of the justices sort of break down 3-2-2-2, depending on what question is being asked. Rather like arguing the Crusades, which popular imagination pictures as having two sides, when really there were at least four.

The irony piece.  Had the Gore team dared to take a long-term political risk, they likely would have won.  Spoiled ballots are three times more common in black districts. They could have tried to sell that idea as black voters being undercounted (there's that thing about overvotes, which I don't believe are counted anywhere) thereby, and had they won that, broadening the standard for what constituted a legal vote, Gore would very likely have gotten more votes. But to bring that up would be insulting to black voters, which might have cost them in the long run.  I don't think it would have, myself, but I am notoriously bad at this sort of horse-race analysis in politics.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

American Inventors

There is sudden irritation, perhaps even outrage at Google because the search term "American Inventors*" shows mostly black inventors, which people are interpreting as propaganda on the part of that search engine. I think that is unlikely.

First, I think Google is capable of skewing the results of things, but they are more clever than that.  They aren't going to do obvious stuff.

Secondly, Bing and Duckduckgo return similar results, perhaps not so bad. It is therefore unlikely that any of them are intentionally skewing the results. What is likely happening is that people do not often search for "American Inventors" as a category, they search for an individual inventor. But people do search for "Black American Inventors," as they are looking for these lists for school papers, self-esteem based programs, whatever. Except for George Washington Carver, those names are not going to come to mind very quickly, unlike Thomas Edison, or Alexander Graham Bell. Those search results will be included the general pile of "American inventors" because the algorithm will see them as a near relative. It's not a put-up job by Google or the others, it is a natural result from a data base where there actually aren't that many black inventors, but people want to find some.

Caveat: As the job of the Assistant Village Idiot is to notice the obvious when everyone else is making things too complicated, I am treading into territory that is not my assigned task.  Adjust your estimate of my credibility on this accordingly. 

*There's something about screwy results for "white couple" and some similar things, but I haven't checked that out and didn't do any of those searches. I'm guessing something similar is occurring.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Coins of Worth - Again

I discussed the various attributes that were valued by earlier cultures, and which are valued now, in The Gold Coin of Worth. It later occurred to me that the ability to keep a clear head under stress, or even in an emergency is also highly valued in our culture. I imagine it has been valued at least somewhat in all cultures, yet I think it has elevated higher in ours, because of our fast pace and time-awareness. That would place its ascent from one of the many virtues to one of the top virtues at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, say 1700. It was certainly recognised in Kipling's time
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

It is a quality that is mentioned often among people who are actually doing a particular job, but I don't think it is much in the national conversation of what we should teach children or "what skills employers are looking for."  It is as if we forget about it when discussing abilities in theory, but have face-palm moments when we suddenly need it in practice. We very much admire it in others.

I have heard that it is a military saying that "You will not rise to the occasion; you will revert to the level of your training."  That is very much true in dealing with acute psychiatric crises. While it is true that some people seemed to be better wired for calm and others for panic, training, rehearsal, and forethought are not optional.

As our pace increases, I expect the importance of this quality will likewise grow.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


As children, we have heroes.  As young adults, we learn they have flaws. They all have flaws. Sometimes we then reject them, sometimes we keep them in more complicated fashion. Over the years they drift one way or the other in our minds.  We decide that their flaws are too great to ignore and move them to the rejection pile (though we might continue to admire a particular aspect), or we decide that their flaws are not that important in the long run and we continue our admiration. We also acquire people to admire who we never thought we would. This can only occur when we have had to face the disillusionment of our childhood heroes. From those wounded figures we learn to look beyond to core character, in a real context.  This is a cultural cliche in how we later look at teachers or parents, gaining a respect for them that we did not believe they deserved when we were young.

Years and years ago, shortly after I had children of my own, I read something about black actors in the movies and in vaudeville, who played stereotypical and demeaning roles and were now coming under criticism from younger African-Americans for their lack of standards.  The author - I think it was a book, though it may have just been a long magazine article - had become much more sympathetic and forgiving. As I recall it (which may be wildly divergent at this point from what was written) he quoted an older black actor who spoke with some heat "I had a family to feed.  None of you know what it was like." Working in a low-status, poorly-paid job at the time, with two young sons, I got it immediately.  Some heroes come in by the back door but they settle down to live in your house and become family.

By that point, we don't really need heroes to get on with our lives.

Yet we did need them once. I worry very much about the rage* to unmask heroes to children.  It seems to draw a lot of energy from those who are young enough to be disillusioned themselves but not old enough to have made their peace with an ambiguous world.  Sophomores teaching freshmen is dangerous.

*I just noticed in proofreading that there is a second meaning to rage, and it is likely not accidental.  "All the rage" is a positive, though a bit condescending.  Rage in its other meaning is not.