Friday, March 31, 2006

People Of The Lie/ The Great Divorce

M Scott Peck tells an anecdote at the beginning of People Of The Lie, in which a young man, already depressed after the suicide of his older brother, worsens. Dr. Peck discovers upon interviewing the boy that his parents have given him a gun for Christmas. Not merely a similar gun to the one his brother shot himself with, but the same gun. The parents’ reasoning was blinkered to the point of being bizarre. The gun was expensive, therefore it was still a nice gift. No other issues occurred to them.

A mother in CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce stands at the edge of heaven, refusing to come inside, demanding that her son be brought to her. What is best for the son, or even for herself, is waved aside as unimportant. She claims she loves him most, because she is the mother. This hits home at the moment, as we again try to remove a woman as guardian over her adult son, a severely undertreated schizophrenic. In her mind, only she cares for him. In my mind, because of her need for his dependence, she has stolen his life.

Criminals protesting their innocense will also attempt to seize on a single point, holding it aloft as a lone card they believe should trump all others. “They never interviewed my wife, like they’re supposed to.” Never mind that the police have the robbery on film, or found the drugs in your sock drawer, or the victim’s blood on your shoes. “They never interviewed my wife.” Anyone who deals often with criminals knows dozens of these excuses: “It wasn’t a valid search warrant because…” “They didn’t ask if I’m diabetic…” “I can prove I sold that gun to my brother…”

Arguing from a single point to the exclusion of all others is a common faux logic. Sometimes the single point is compelling: “He fired a shot at me.” More often it is true as far as it goes, but inadequate to making the case. Recent political points of this nature include “We helped Saddam in the 1980’s.” “Freedom House continues to rate Iraq and Afghanistan as non-free.” “Rep. Murtha was a marine.” Taken alone, these are merely ironic. They don’t trump anything. The avoidance of irony is not a firm basis for policy on foreign affairs, science, or hamster empowerment.

Brain Development

Interesting news in this month's Scientific American. Smarter childrens' brains continue developing longer. Makes sense.

Related posts:

Intelligence Isn't Everything
Building Better Brains

Faux Logic

Wacky Hermit over at Organic Baby Farm comments on students' lack of logic in their attempts to weasel better grades out of their professors. She links in turn to an entertaining article on the same subject. It makes a sort of intuitive sense – more logical students would probably already be doing better in math.

This is another of my many favored soapboxes. Children do not begin to use logic on their own until age 13 at the very earliest, and even then spend years practicing it before they actually become proficient. Throughout their teen years, they are mostly using this Faux Logic, this practice logic.

Not my child, you say. My 15-year old reasons quite well, better than most adults, and has been reasoning since age 8 or earlier. They’re tricky like that, giving off the aura of reasoning well before there is much substance behind it. As to reasoning better than most adults, that is perhaps true, but irrelevant to the discussion.

Children can follow a logical argument from much earlier ages. They can understand and reconstruct logic in latency. Anything abstract that they have familiarity with, such as map-reading or religious discussion, they can experiment with a bit. If this seems surprizing to those with bright children, consider how it is with your own bright self. I have learned to play bridge, but seldom actually do, neither live nor on computer. I like reading the bridge hand in the newspaper. I can nearly always follow the reasoning, but could never come up with those clever ideas on my own. If I played a great deal, I imagine I could begin to apply more than rote logic to the game.

We only tend to notice that teenagers are merely practicing being logical when they get it wrong. A 15 y/o who had bought inappropriate back-to-school clothes – with Dad’s money – shouted “I don’t tell you what to wear! Why do you tell me what to wear?” Well, that’s not really reasoning. But it’s an attempt at reasoning. It’s not just saying “no I won’t,” or “make me.” Students who actually do deserve a better grade – if for example every grade they got was a B-, but through an artifact of the scoring system only got a C+ for the semester, they would bring that forward. It would be unlikely that they were inventing some new logical reason, but just reconstructing some ideas and principles they had been taught.

This is because there aren’t many new reasons. The logical reasons for things are usually familiar. How does logic go wrong? Tune in tomorrow for the next episode…

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


We have contempt for manipulators. We sometimes have contempt for the manipulated as well, if we believe they are of the age and ability of responsibility. We dislike those who trade on cute, male or female, but we also look down on those who fall for them.
Doesn't she see that at bottom, he's just a standard jerk in a nice package?
That's our Steve, thinking from the waist down again.

We raise our children to look for a person of substance, and to be a person of substance.

Many of us have deep suspicions of religious or cultural groups which play to our emotions. If I detect that a speaker is trying to "work the crowd" according to an insincere formula, I automatically draw back, not only from the speaker, but the crowd as well. Don't these people get it? The swelling music, the slides in the background with the pictures of babies and puppies? Are they that stupid?

In the movie version of "Cabaret," a beautiful young German boy in a Hitler Youth uniform sings "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," and the crowd rises to its feet, some eagerly and some reluctantly, but all are eventually drawn in. It very succinctly explains Germany in the 1930's.

We raise our children to be alert for such things; to give ourselves
emotionally only after the intellect has given permission.

We wince at many advertisements -- not only those which rely on false energy
and repetition, but on those which make deceptive claims. And yes, we
raise our children to be wary of people trying to sell them things.
You'll notice they don't promise it actually cures your cold, just that it
"promotes your body's natural healing."
They want you to believe girls will think you're hot if you drink that

We look down on those who fall for that garbage. We can all be manipulated, of course, but we try to avoid falling for the most obvious appeals to unreason. We do think ourselves better if it takes more subtlety and style to manipulate us. At least give me Bach's Requiem instead of Shine, Jesus, Shine if you're trying to bring tears to my eyes.

It is always easier to see through what manipulates others. If you don't like country music, much of it will seem maudlin or bathetic. If you find flag-waving an overdone form of patriotic display, then ballet set to "God Bless America" with the dancers in Red, White, and Blue will seem hokey. Fine, then. But if you are quick to sneer at others, you should be hyper-alert to what pushes your own buttons, and correct for it. People who live in glass houses, and all that.

An overlooked piece of why conservatives get so irked by liberal media bias is that it is so pathetic and obvious. The inability of intelligent people to grasp even the most obvious manipulations continues to stun me. As usual, I have fresh personal evidence. My favorite psychiatrist, a brilliant woman who I would rather work with than anyone else in my 30 years experience, mentioned today - chuckling - that she saw a bumper sticker that said "Support Bush" with a noose along the side. How hard is this, doctor? If it said "Support Jesse Jackson," or "Support Jews," or "Support Hillary Clinton," you would withdraw in discomfort. More than discomfort, actually. There would be a wash of fear, a worried realization that there are dangerous, sick people in the world. It would not seem to be merely weak humor. It would be chilling.

For my second example, I sent two newspaper reports of San Francisco demonstrations to my family debate circle (David/David/Jonathan/Jonathan, and now Ben as well). Same newspaper. The Latino kids demonstrating for immigrant rights got a mildly positive, generally neutral report. The evangelical teenagers were described as fascists. My uncle missed the point entirely. The hate-speech used to describe the Christian kids went unnoticed. In fact, he made a Taliban comparison to them himself.

Rant portion: If you're going to be manipulated, at least set your standards higher, dammit! This is obvious, high-school journalism stuff. When anyone, even a glorious reporter or op-ed writer uses the word "fascist," or "Taliban," bells should go off in your head! Any attempt at moral equivalence should send up red flags! Every political cartoon should be mentally reversed, to see if you would think it were fair if it were about another group. How hard is this, people?

Okay, I should switch to decaf a lot earlier in the day. But for liberals puzzled by conservative complaints, start at the very simplest level. Put in the intellectual energy that your junior-high social studies teacher asked of you when you had to detect bias in newspaper articles. Then would you please ask yourself why you didn't notice before?

Could the last rational liberal turn the lights out when you leave, please?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Two Demonstrations

Compare what is said about the two demonstrations. Same newspaper. I especially liked the part about "America's most tolerant and progressive city."

Here's a fun thought experiment. Pretend that last Saturday morning that you'd like to argue with a large group of people, just for excitement. You take a bullhorn and a soapbox and hop in the minivan. Where do you take your traveling show? To the protest in SF, or the one in LA? Which group is going to beat you up?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

An Opposite Is Often True

In the mental health biz, a guy who walks in wearing a BIG cross sends up red flags. Judgement is reserved, because some Christian groups encourage laity, and especially clergy, to sport dramatic jewelry. But our first thought is that this guy is either a) a child molester, b) self-taught and self-appointed clergy of a congregation with no affiliation, or c) both.

Sad women brought to the hospital for suicidality will tell us "my children are everything to me." Well, yeah, except that you spend the rent money on drugs, won't leave the boyfriend who beats them, and overdosed where they would be the most likely ones to find you. Other than that, I see that your children are very important to you.

I have occasionally made myself unpopular at Sunday school classes when people will conclude a sweeping, prejudicial generalization with a protestation they don't mean to be judgemental by interrupting "Yeah you do." (This technique is not likely to be successful, BTW)

I spoke this weekend with a young man I have known since he was a child. I have always been very fond of him. He marshalled very effectively the abstract intellectual reasons why he is now agnostic, after having been brought up in a Christian home. There were eight of us there, including his parents, and I didn't want us to gang up on him or pound on him. Intellectually, I think he could have fielded most anything we were likely to bring up. But I did worry about the aura of rejection we would give by trying to argue with him instead of discuss.

The specific points he made, or I made, are unimportant. The reasons he was giving were not the real reasons. I tried to drop in fragments of ideas which I felt might answer his real objections, but kept it mainly in the realm of the abstract intellectual discussion, as that is where he clearly wanted to return the discussion at every turn. He wants to believe that these ideas of his are driven mainly by his intellect -- a powerful, abstract, math-degree intellect -- but his real reasons keep leaking out.

He lives back-to-the-land in a yurt, in a community both physically and psychologically near the VT border, among people who have respect for Christianity only in its most dilute forms. He mentioned several times that he knows Buddhists who are wise. (Well so do I, but not many -- most of those I meet in psychology are pretty condescending and full of themselves. But I digress.) He likes these people. They are his people, his community.

He speaks as if he could be intellectually persuaded, but he demands that he be intellectually compelled to believe. God doesn't work that way. Christians often do, trying to prove God -- a sort of compulsory baptism of the intellect. But neither proof nor disproof is ever offered. My intellect was very involved in my conversion; I fancied myself an intellectually superior being, who needed better reasons than that which would satisfy the mere Common Person. But in the end, I still had reasons which would allow me to disbelieve (or nominally believe) if I chose. I had come to believe that a rather simple and orthodox Christianity was more likely to be true than anything else.

I overstated the intellectual influence then, quick to assert to others that I had, like C.S. Lewis, been convinced of the truth and then followed it. I presented first what I wished to be true: that my capacious mind had weighed the possibilities and chosen. That should have been a red flag -- perhaps it was to some wiser folk around me, but I didn't see it. What we present first is seldom our real reason. An opposite often is.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


"Rhinoceros" is not Eugene Ionesco's best work, but it is his most-performed. Ionesco himself notes wryly:
"When Rhinoceros was produced in Germany, it had fifty curtain calls. The next day the papers wrote, "Ionesco shows us how we became Nazis." But in Moscow, they wanted me to rewrite it and make sure that it dealt with Nazism and not with their kind of totalitarianism. In Buenos Aires, the military government thought it was an attack on Peronism. And in England they accused me of being a petit bourgeois."

We do seem unable to swallow its message whole. Modern commentary fastens on the idea that it is an indictment of "conformity." In San Francisco the conformists, instead of being rhinos, drive SUV's, and Berenger, the lead male character who is the last holdout against the change, is redone as an African-American lesbian. But of course. Nazis, straight society driving SUV's, same thing.

But the art theater world seems unable to just drop the thing, though they have to water it down. Though Ionesco is perhaps the purest exponent of Theater of the Absurd, it is the non-absurdist elements which continue to grip us.

"The Chairs" and "The Lesson" are better written. They are sustained examples of Ionesco's belief that life is meaningless, and his technique of illustrating meaninglessness through word-manipulation. Throughout his work, he uses nonsense syllables, grammar-book sentences, repetition, and punning to show the pointlessness of communication, and thus of existence.

But in "Rhinoceros," the mask falls. The word games are all there (Ionesco is great fun to listen to) -- the Logician patiently expounds with syllogisms, and his conversation with the Old Gentleman intertwines with the dialogue of the other characters onstage, draining meaning from them by imitation. But Ionesco clearly does care what is happening to the village. Rhinoceri are appearing, with brute destruction. Worse, they are not coming from outside the village -- the citizens are turning into rhinos, one by one. In the movie, BTW, Zero Mostel's transformation from human to rhinoceros is magnificent acting.

Ionesco's father was sympathetic to the Iron Guard, a nazi-inspired group in Romania which briefly gained power during WWII. Because of the increasing fascism in Romania in the 30's, Eugene returned to Paris, where he had grown up. Yet in Paris he found the same phenomenon, decent shopkeepers, educated professors, social-climbing housewives, and men of affairs were becoming nazis. Several close friends became enthusiastic fascists, and he moved to Marseilles until the end of the war.

The quintessential absurdist playwright does not find this absurd. Though he retreated after into his agonies of spirit as to whether life has meaning, whether God exists, whether he himself had existence, the reality of his experience breaks through his intellectual maunderings. Ionesco cannot sustain the premise that this change was meaningless. The somewhat autobiographical character of Berenger is someone we root for, and we are clearly meant to. He is not at all like the cutout figures Ionesco populates his other plays with. The playwright may not be able to identify for us exactly what meaning, humanity, and culture are, but he is quite clear that these changes are somehow evil and barbaric.

Some things really are evil, though we wish not to admit it. Some things really are true, though we deny it.

In similar vein, Picasso drew his children realistically and beautifully. He may have insisted on disjointed, cartoonish figures to represent the rest of us -- including himself -- but the truth of real meaning and real beauty forced out the theories.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Expert

The expert in any field is the one who knows when you can force something, and when you absolutely should not force it.

This is true in therapy, in sales, in management.

I can attest from bitter experience that it is true in plumbing and in comedy.

Thought-experiment tells me it is true in sports, research, and poetry.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Whimsical Media and the Pompous Media

I sent my uncle a blog article, and he wrote back rather dismissively why I would wish to waste my time reading something from the “Mudville Gazette.” One takes his point. Blogs often have whimsical names, and even serious, thoughtful sites might be called “Volokh Conspiracy,” or “No Oil For Pacifists.” At first glance, they don’t have the same gravity as “The New York Times,” or “US News and World Report.” A second look reveals that the names of MSM sources are also quite silly – just in a pompous way. Consider the original meanings of some names of respectable newspapers:
Plain Dealer
Journal & Constitution

There is a recurring theme of we-record-the-world-for-you. That seems a bit arrogant in a democratic society. But in its era, it was the type of title needed to sell fishwrap. Is there any real difference between calling a magazine New Yorker instead of SoCalPundit, except that we historically assign a reputation for sophistication to NYC, but not to abbreviated place-names? Is the geographic name Atlantic Monthly qualitatively different from

And of course there are those other elegant periodicals. Is Harper’s or Forbes a better eponymy than Roger Simon or Ann Althouse? How about Esquire, or Fortune?

I don’t assign any left-right bias to the whimsical vs. pompous divide. They are products of the older era and the new. Until quite recently, an organization would not hesitate to take an all-encompassing name unto itself.
American Broadcasting Company
Weekly Standard
National Review
National Broadcasting Company
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of Labor

Notice that many are now known by their initials, as if backing off from the hubris of their original titles. We seem to be gaining an ability to laugh at ourselves.

Names like Crooked Timber and Pajamas Media are looking better all the time.

What War Is That Again?

Jeff Greenfield, CNN Senior Analyst, was on "Imus In The Morning" today. He started off his commentary about the Bush press conference with a sentence including the phrase "Bush's decision to declare war in Vietnam."

After that comment, on what basis does anything else he says have any credibility?

It's a slip of the tongue -- what's the problem? Except that it's exactly the slip of the tongue that conservatives suggest is the slip of mind that the MSM has been making for years. Shouldn't an intelligent person, cognizant of the Awesome Burden the press takes on Informing The American People, and Asking The Hard Questions, and Holding The President Accountable, be alert to possible bias in his speech, and what it reveals about his thought?


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Reading Aloud

I was taught in college that the two dominant factors in whether children read well are their basic intelligence and whether they were read to, and that even those are related. I don't know if that's actually true or whether I just like the idea, but it makes an intuitive sense.

We read to our children on the day they were born, launching a fanatic interaction of words, family, text, and faith that in the main defined us until we adopted two teenagers from Romania. (Life takes odd branchings, doesn't it?)

I recommend Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook as a matter of course. But the Wymans have their own curious additions to the topic.

You cannot always project what will read well aloud. I started LOTR with Jonathan before he was five, and it almost didn't take, as it was out of range. I abridged and reworded somewhat as we went at first, and gradually stretched him into it, but I recommend waiting longer. I feared Watership Down would be too descriptive and slow, but it worked well. Susan Cooper turned out to be deadly aloud.

James Thurber was a joy. King Pellinore's battle in the first part of The Once and Future King was marvelous. Tracy's yearly reading of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, complete with tears in the last chapter, will be repeated for grandchildren such as they ever exist and live near.

I just love doing voices. One of the half-dozen reasons for my permanent raspy voice now is doing long sections of Gollum every four years. And accents -- lovely accents from every corner of the British Isles. Some writers, like Brian Jaques, give you enough clues in the text to build a voice and accent (That's called "eye-dialect" in linguistics). There's nothing I'd rather do, and it's the one thing I greatly miss of the boys being younger.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company

Last in a series about British lefties.

Parodists often pride themselves on skewering both parties of a controversy. When the RSC pokes fun at liberals, they accuse them(selves) of being over-intellectual.

Ooh, I'll bet that stung.

If you go to London, going to the RSC's humorous abridgement of all of Shakespeare's plays -- 37 plays in 94 minutes -- will be one of the high points of your trip. But do not bother to see their other production on the history of America. There are genuinely funny moments. There are even genuinely funny left-slanted moments. But it is mostly an adolescent harangue, trying to correct all the false impressions of our history that Americans supposedly have. Selecting a stereotype and attacking it by pointing out that it is so stereotypical is not a recipe for humor. Or humour, either.

Did you know that some Americans once owned slaves? Had you heard that the USA has sometimes gone to war? That women did not originally have the vote? Really? You knew that? You're not shocked at the contrast between American ideals and American practice?

Of all the bits, one stood out for me even as it was being performed as revealing far more about the prejudices of the performers than they knew. To represent the 1950's, they did a send-up of "I Love Lucy," with a heavy McCarthyism theme (Oh yawn. That's the best that professional writers could do? Sure. Cf. this year's Oscar's). They did the scene in black-and-white, as best as can be in the theater. I have commented before about the odd connection of my generation between the ideas black-and-white morality and black-and-white photography. Condensed version: we attribute black-and-white morality to the people in the black-and-white pictures. We do this for two reasons. We were children then, and the rules for us were simpler. Second, we didn't like some of the rules, and sought some way of putting ourselves above them. So we prided ourselves on our great moral advance by trying to slip-stream in behind the technological one, convincing ourselves that our predecessors were simplistic and unsubtle. I cannot find an example of the phrase "black and white morality" before 1970. (If someone finds one, please let me know)

The Polaroid Swinger was the pivot point, for those of you scoring at home.

So the RSC embraces the same self-congratulatory myth that my whole generation has foisted upon the world. Surprise.

Tangent: I claim that the central idea of the RSC's abridged Shakespeare is taken from Tom Stoppard's one-act "Fifteen-minute Hamlet," especially as that jewel is actually 13-minute Hamlet followed by 2-minute Hamlet. My brother remembers seeing the prototype for RSC at Renaissance Faires in California in the 1970's, and thinks not. He is the theater professional, having made his living in this for 30 years and currently teaching at Smith, while I am a merely a pedant, so he is likely correct. Still, it would be nice to be proved right if anyone knows anything about it.

Series summary statement: The emphasis in the phrase “making the world a better place” moves easily from the word “better” to the word “making.”

Reverse The Question

In view of this link at Ray Robison, which lists discoveries from the recently-released documents from Afghanistan and Iraq, shouldn't we be reversing the question to the Bush critics? They have for years pointed out that there was no definitive proof of WMD or of a Saddam-Al Qaeda connection. There has actually been a steady drip of evidence of both, and a steady trickle of information about WMD programs and indirect connections to the jihad. And I grant, Bush and his defenders expected more than what we have seen.

But now the faucet is being turned slowly on, and the initial offerings are "more than intriguing." You critics, do you want to take this opportunity now to categorically state "There was no Iraq-Al Qaeda connection" and "There were no WMD?"

Y'see, if you have to qualify the statements, escaping into "according to the best information we now have available..." or "the relative risk, compared to..." then you aren't answering the same type of question that was before Bush, his advisors, the Senate, the House, and the various intelligence agencies in the runup to the war. You are answering an armchair question, not a safety question.

Put more bluntly, are you now prepared to answer, on the record, what was always the real question?

Monday, March 20, 2006

I'm Not That Prescient

I love saying that word, BTW: preshn’t. Even better than neshn’t.

I got lunch in the hospital cafeteria at 12:30 and went out to the car. I turned on Rush, who was semi-arguing with a caller about the supposed rage Americans feel about the war. The caller made the claim “I think the polls are an accurate reflection of how people feel about the Bush presidency.” I turned it off. I don’t like to listen to hosts arguing with callers – not sure why. But in 10-15 seconds, this caller, presumably liberal, gave evidence for my last post.

(Filler: My second-to-last post was about the brain keeping time. I didn’t see that anywhere today.)

I later flipped over to Amy Alkon,the Advice Goddess, via Pajamas Media. In her advocating for cancer screenings for poor women, she used the argument of comparing how much we spend on the war with her favored cause. Which, you will note, is my third-to-last post. Amy’s other arguments deserve consideration in the large debate about justice and mercy. But I couldn’t help but notice one more liberal giving evidence for my points.

The LATimes carries an article today about how below-the-salt Taco Bell and its patrons are. That’s not exactly what my fourth-to-last post is about, but it’s darn close. Thank you, predictable liberals, who really, really, hate the poor.

My fifth-to-last is just a link to Tigerhawk and George Shultz. It hardly counts, really.

My sixth-to-last was covered in today’s article out of the UN, via Drudge and Reuters.

I am not that prescient. It’s just that the left is that predictable. Sad, really.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Why Polls Deceive

Polls capture in either-or fashion attitudes that are more complex and mixed. Sometimes this is reasonable. In the run-up to an election, breaking the attitudes into up-down, yes-no constructs is valid, because the voter will eventually have to make an either-or choice. All shades of enthusiasm and approval will be reduced to sharply limited choices on election day. Two or three candidates will be treated with a yea or a nay, and the private reservations each voter has will be immaterial.

But between elections, an either-or poll deceives. Activists hope to show that a large percentage of the population agrees with them. Pro-choice advocates in the 70’s and 80’s would put forward numbers such as “80% of the American people believe abortion should be legal.” Yet the fundraising letters of the pro-life advocates would claim that “80% of Americans believe it is too easy to get an abortion.” If you aren’t reading closely, it is tempting for every activist to think “80% of the people pretty much agree with me.” Not so. There are 15-20% of people who are purists on one side or the other. The other 60-70% of the people believe that some abortions – perhaps many, perhaps few – should be allowed, but that there should be limitations.

In October of 2001, 85% of Americans answered that they supported George W. Bush in the War on Terror. As we hadn’t done much to that point, what they were supporting was that “America should have a firm response; Bush sounds like he’s going to be firm.” How people felt about Bush on education, or taxes, or trade hadn’t changed. What had changed was that those issues receded in importance in the face of danger.

Bill Clinton hung on gamely during the last part of his presidency by frightening his Republican critics off with the poll numbers that showed that 65% of the people didn’t want him to be removed from office. What was seldom reported was that almost half of that 65% didn’t think it would be a terrible thing if he were removed – they just preferred he not be.

Recently a lot has been made of several series of polls. The soldiers in Iraq want there to be a reduction in troops by the end of the year. This has been spun as an expression of soldiers believing “We’ve lost, it’s not worth it, this is all being mismanaged, etc.” A simpler answer would be that they hope to come home – and who wouldn’t? Similarly, much is made of the large percentage of Iraqis who want us to leave. Well who wouldn’t prefer that? You’d think it would be close to 100%, wouldn’t you? The range of Iraqi opinions is much more complicated than that. Some have hated us from the start and still hate us. Some generally like the result but resent our doing it for them. Some are cautiously optimistic but worried what the final result will be. Some think that for the little they’ve achieved, it wasn’t worth it. Some are just thrilled with us from start to finish.

Even the attempts to capture these gradations usually fail, especially in ambiguous and complicated situations such as Iraq.

Presidential approval poll numbers are especially deceiving. When Bush had 85% approval, he didn’t have 85% approval in the sense that he would garner 85% of the vote if the election were that day. It wasn’t a vote. In the same way, his 35-40% approval now doesn’t mean that’s how many votes he would get today. Because there is no vote today. It is the job of the political opposition to try and create a bandwagon mentality, giving people the idea that there is general dissatisfaction with the way things are, so why don’t you, John and Mary Public, get on the winning side with all the smart people?

It doesn’t mean we have to believe them. You would think this is obvious. But as commenters around the blogosphere know, references to Bush poll numbers frequently come up as evidence that “he’s wrong…everyone knows it…he’s not listening to the people…he’s tone deaf…only the blinkered are still supporting him…” Balderdash. Among those who disapprove of how the war is being handled, some think it should be prosecuted more forcefully. Some think it’s not going well but don’t necessarily think some other president would handle it better. Even among his supporters, much of the support is tentative. Neither the 61% who think it’s handled wrongly nor the 39% who think its handled well are solid numbers. Both disguise a variety of opinions by cramming them into an either-or option, when no such either-or option is necessary. We’re not voting for George Bush this week.

Now why would someone want to deceive us like this?

The Odd Phenomenon of Waking Times

My brain tells time automatically.

On weekdays, I hit the snooze alarm twice before arising. I find I often turn over to check the time 10-20 seconds before the alarm goes off again.

I do not reset my alarm on the weekends, even though I sleep in an hour later. I like the flexibility of perhaps getting up and doing a little something, such as putting in a load of laundry, and then going back to bed.

This morning, I hit the "off" not the "snooze," and rolled over. But I slept the exact number of snooze alarm minutes and got up, noting the time. This happens often, and is mildly curious but hardly a big deal. My brain must be reacting in some pavlovian fashion to repitition...So?

I made my coffee and stood out on the porch. I heard two beeps, softly but distinctly. Had I hit snooze by mistake? No, it stopped immediately. Did one of the neighbors have a similar alarm, and the beeps had carried across the 50-100 feet by some trick of wind or window? Extremely improbably.

I looked inside -- it was the exact time of the second snooze going off. My brain had supplied the signals to my hearing centers, even in the absence of actual sound. The brain tells time with fair accuracy.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How British Leftism Works (Plus Wombats)

Ooh, those wicked wadicals…I’m gonna get my wadical ewadicator.

The organized wings of liberal causes in the UK are fashioned much as they are here. Someone named Nigel or Fiona develops a vision of what the world should look like, or even better, what it shouldn’t look like but is sure as hell going to if the conservatives have their way. They try to get lots of other folks excited about Programme A. When the number of excited folks reaches around 20%, Fiona goes on TV, or is interviewed in The Guardian, outraged that society doesn’t want to pay for it. Meanwhile, Nigel forms an organization with a cool name. They inflate their rhetoric, fudge their facts, and start condensing their views onto bumper stickers. Programme A is in our best interest, you see. The water will be clean and no one will be poor if we just sign on.

It eventually dawns on these people that the rest of society is not going to shell out for this vision, and Nigel concocts paranoid fantasies about deep and sinister forces that are thwarting the Will of the People. It’s the bankers. It’s the oil companies. (Monsanto and Esso were especially singled out.) It’s the CIA. It’s the Religious Right in America. It’s multinational corporations. It’s the Tories. It’s “powerful special interest groups,” that wonderful catch-all.

“It wouldn’t be hard to finance…” Oh sure.

They believe there are other folks (called “businesses”) with simply bags of money, who should be made to do the right thing. Conveniently, the people in the sinister forces are also those with the supposed bags of money, so it all works out in a circle of perfect justice. The other appeal is to daily pocket change: “If we all just gave the price of one used bicycle tyre every day…” But seeing as how Fiona is not going to come around in person to collect the price of a tyre on any day, the plan is of course that the government will collect this money from us in taxes, and then be told (by Nigel) how to spend it on Good Stuff.

At this point they also get to compare their Good Stuff with Bad Stuff the government is currently spending money on. “We spend £8 billion every year on slaughtering transgendered people in Leeds. Couldn’t some of that money have been used for orphaned wombats?” In the UK they use a whole menu of Bad Stuff to contrast with the Nobler Investments. In the US the Bad Stuff always involves either of two evils: money for things military or kickbacks to big corporate fatcats. And once you’ve characterized the government in this way, Fatcats 1 trillion, Wombats 0, then you go around forever with this picture in your head: guys in suits chuckling evilly while they give money away to other guys with uniforms or other guys with cigars while baby wombats shiver at dusk in the cold at Christmas, a tin cup in front of them with a few coins. There’ll be posters of wombats with sad eyes, ragged scarves about their necks…
Admit it! Admit it! You felt bad for that wombat just then, and gave an empathic shudder, didn’t you? Get a grip. Sammy Squirrel is a story. There are no real wombats begging on the streets of Boston. Or London.

Fiona very earnestly and with heaving bosom worries what Frankenfoods will do to children. That there is a real answer to that question (Deaths from organic foods: thousands. Deaths from Frankenfoods: zero) does not matter. A good society would not even contemplate the risks she can imagine. “What kind of country would endanger its children…” (Not that Fiona has any herself, mind you).
Also, you get to call other people barbaric, which you don’t get to do in many other places.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Out of Order

I was going to do the wombats first, but Lee Harris's article at TCSDaily moved McDonald's into the next slot.

What is it about McDonalds that draws the ire of so many? It is large and visible, which is certainly a great factor. Eurofear of the US always includes a mention of the Golden Arches® as a culturally hegemonous soul-grabber, and Americans often apologize for it when discussing international relations. “You can see why they’d be suspicious of our culture which has to date mostly exported McDonalds and navel rings to them.” There is this enormous European worry that their cultures will be unable to withstand the onslaught. Once fast food becomes available it will inexorably push out all those unique, quaint places to eat. Oh, the horror!

Picture this, then: You and the missus are taking a weekend holiday and have driven several hours from home, and as night closes in and you grow hungry you begin to search for a place to eat. You approach a small seafood restaurant with a tacky name in a bad neighborhood. Well, it might be a really find, eh? Inexpensive little out-of-the-way place with excellent mussels and no one knows about it! But you’re not going to find out, are you? Because you aren’t going to stop there. You’re going to look for Someplace Else. Theoretically, I like searching out interesting little inns and cafes when I travel. But I also like clean restrooms and wiped tables and the aura of quality control. These sets of restaurant values do not always coincide in Europe, where even in Great Britain the loo at the restaurant could be strongly reminiscent of the facilities at American gas stations. Or summer camps.

In the 1960’s my mother would almost weep with relief at seeing a Howard Johnson’s while traveling. She knew there was zero chance of discovering a quaint little out-of-the-way place she would like better.

Eurofear. McDonalds. Where was I? I don’t think McDonalds-hatred stems from anyone’s deep concern for my nutrition (though that is put forward as the reason). And though the vegetable eaters focus on McDonalds as a primary enemy, that’s not a very logically sustainable position, so that’s not it either. Then there are folks who hate it when someone else makes money -- but even that’s only a partial explanation.

There is an arrogant elitism in the disapproval. We who are wise and discerning know how to avoid all this cultural coarsening, but the great unwashed are unable to resist. Worse, McDonalds is not a secret that only those special few know about.

These American imports succeed because Europeans also choose to go there and spend their money, BTW.

A common refrain is “No one was clamoring for a McDonalds before it came. It wasn’t supply and demand.” Oh, but they were and it was. There was already a market for 1) beef sandwiches, chips and coke long before these foods were purveyed at the golden arches. There was already a desire for 2) quick, accurate service, and a preference for 3) clean tables and restrooms. There was already a market for 4) restaurants in high-traffic areas. Did I mention 5) inexpensive? What else could you possibly characterize as demand?

There are still old-style pubs of course, and bully for them. They are offering something that people actually find worth paying for. Money is not the measure of all things, or even most things, but it’s an excellent measure of what we actually do prefer, rather than what we say we prefer.

Bill Bryson gets halfway to the right answer as he bemoans the loss of disappearing Britain. Certain trains no longer run because “They don’t pay for themselves,” and Bryson correctly notes that very few things in life pay for themselves. Public libraries don’t. Parks, zoos, and museums don’t. For unknown reasons he stops his reasoning there, not proceeding to the question “Who does pay for them, and why?” Not only those things that make for local culture, and quaintness, and tradition, but public safety, public health – we agree to pay for some and not for others. We don’t buy all possible good things, so how do we choose?

Alarmists to the contrary it is not true that there are only two types of water, clean and dirty, or only two types of vehicle, safe and unsafe. How clean? How safe? Or would you rather have whatever’s behind curtain #3? If you want a McDonalds-free town there are costs, and ultimately towns find that the hidden costs are much higher than they projected. There are a thousand ways that we wish the world would be instead of the way it is. Here’s the key: you have to find someone willing to pay for it.

George Shultz Nails It --21 Years Ago

I suspect that many of my readers are already regular visitors over at Tigerhawk. But for those of you who missed it, he quotes at length from a speech of George Shultz's in 1984.

The Bearded Pig and His Rights

First in a series, in which I will eventually work in wombats, the bathrooms in McDonald's and the Reduced Shakespeare Company in London.

The Bearded Pig is persecuted by farmers. The London Zoo is quite specific in this declaration: The Bearded Pig is persecuted by farmers because of crop destruction. Those farmers likely have a different spin on what is going on in the majority of Pig/Agrarian Worker encounters, but their view is not represented at the zoo.

Nor is the pig’s view represented, come to think of it. Were we to plumb the depths of porcine thought, we would likely hear an interior monologue dedicated to food and defecation -- rather like NYC performance art. I have not studied the matter closely, but I would be surprised to learn that the legal concept of property rights has reached full development among pigs, bearded or otherwise.

The view which is represented is that of the animal caregivers, a group prone to overidentification and anthropomorphism. When we were at school, we read stories of Billy Bass and Sammy Squirrel -- typical representatives of their species -- who thought in complete sentences and had deep feelings subtly expressed. The zoo staff is that percentage of us who still believe this.

Saving species from extinction is a good thing, and we should try to do it. But all the bearded pigs who ever lived are not worth one farmer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

As We Forgive Those

We remember for decades the injury another inflicts; we forget the injuries
we have done. We barely noticed at the time, and the injured party may
have made only brief complaint. They still remember, and struggle to
forgive us. That we have forgotten we hurt them is an additional insult.

IQ Enhancement

Abstract: The study examined whether newer Task-Specific Instruction (TSI) is superior to the earlier Task-General Instruction (TGI) and earlier enhancement methods of raising IQ scores. Task-Specific Instruction was found to raise scores significantly better than earlier methods.

Subjects (N=124) were drawn from middle-school lacrosse players in Sudbury, MA, proportionally representing all on-field positions: 37 attack, 37 mids, 37 defense, 13 goalies. No attempt was made to differentiate the left/right/center field positions. Subjects were randomized according to the Count Off By Sixes method and assigned to five popular methods of IQ-enhancement, plus a control group. Methods studied included Unilateral Collaboration, in which children are taught to copy off the papers of brighter students; both teacher-directed methods – Hi-Indication Natural Tipoff Signs (HINTS) and the earlier Wee-Indication Natural Kinesthetic Signs (WINKS), in which the instructor rewards successive approximations of the correct answer (“You’re getting warmer”); Task-General Instruction, in which children review problems similar to the test questions immediately before the test; and Task-Specific Instruction, in which students review the precise questions, with answers, immediately before taking the test.

The instrument used was a Sanford-Bidet IQ Test, 1947 edition (because that was all we had), administered once mid-season, and again after enhancement training, during the playoffs.

All groups showed dramatic improvement, including the controls, many of whom spontaneously used Unilateral Collaboration, even without training. (See Chart A, Appendix). Group average improvements ranged from 16-31 points, TSI representing the highest score.

Discussion: It would appear that giving students the answers before they take the test is the current gold standard for raising IQ scores. And oh yeah, more research is needed on this subject.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Lottery Winners, Paraplegics

I have read several times recently -- and quoted it myself, that there was research into happiness that showed that lottery winners were less happy than paraplegics one year after their life-changing events. I have variously read that their happiness is "the same," and that both " rapidly tend back to their previous levels of happiness," and that the research was done by "two professors in the 1970's."

It's an interesting thought, but I think it's an urban legend. I can find many references to the idea, but I can't find any references to actual research. It also has the smell of an urban legend, fitting nicely with our baser fantasies of the Lucky Ones not really being happy, and our admiration for the plucky spirit of those who overcome hardship. It may be based on some true fragments of the misfortunes of sudden riches, and all the importuning friends and relatives that result, or of actual inspiring stories of people who have enormous obstacles. But I don't think there's a real study to back this up.

Short Stories Aloud

You won't often find a plug for NPR here, but I have been deeply gratified to listen to the short stories read aloud. In my area, it comes on late Sunday afternoon. I heard "Liberty Hall" by Ring Lardner (I cannot find a link to the text) and The Namesake by Willa Cather yesterday.

Stories are not often read aloud to adults now, nor even to children as much as they should be. Done well, they are like reader's theater, bringing you fully into the work. I read aloud well, but not with a storyteller's skill. I am an expressive reader, and was good with voices and accents in my day, but this series is something far better.

Local Elections -- Why So Boring?

Bjorn Staerk, commenting on our need for news, relates it to our attraction to narrative.

Yes, war, death and crime is relevant, but if relevancy is what matters most to us, why do we pay attention only to certain of these events, and not to others? Because they're good, familiar stories. We talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and devour all news about it because it is a good story, a continuing saga we follow from day to day like a favourite soap. We ignore African wars where the suffering is orders of magnitudes higher because they're bad stories: Confusing and unfamiliar, like a soap from a different culture in a language you can't understand.

I came across the above just as I was contemplating the local elections tomorrow. My wife has multiple votes in local elections, because any number of folks ask her who to vote for, including me. She knows more than most of us about who's running and what the issues are. I tend to be much more focussed on national and international issues. Which is silly, actually, because the thousands of dollars I pay in local taxes is of the same order of magnitude as the IRS bite, and I actually do have some control and influence over what happens nearby. If it weren't dark, I could see one of the selectmen's homes out the window.

The narrative for local politics is not as clean. We may know from personal experience that candidate X is a preening jerk, but we also know of good work he has done, and how he was so stalwart on our side on that zoning conflict five years ago. Ms. Y-Smythe may be a flaming liberal about the War in Iraq, but she's running for school board just now, and she is known to be

Oops. Lightning. Back later.

Lightning is rare in winter. Can there be thunderstorms when it is below freezing, I wonder?

...known to be the advocate for science education.

The local elections affect us more.


I recommend to your attention the wonderful site Quackwatch, which will keep you up-to-date on fraudulent therapies. There are thousands of articles, including exposes of various products-by-mail, reports on government regulation, and suspect medical devices, including my personal favorite, the Guardian Homeopathic Imprinter and Potentizer. A Potentizer, with or without a homeopathic imprinter, sounds like it should come out of Tom Swift Jr. or Flash Gordon. How old is the guy who named this thing? More darkly, a device by that name could be aimed at treating the uh, diminution of the marital impulse, as Keillor deftly described it.

And don't forget to go over and visit DrNatura, the #1 Online Colon Cleansing Resource. The testimonial from Marcia Poucher declares "We are having awesome adventures in the bathroom." Yes, quite. I commented in December what I thought all the focus on toxins is about.

If your patients insist on only having natural or herbal treatments for psychiatric problems, you can always suggest tiaga beans, or perhaps klazah beans. There actually is a study on omega-3 being used as a monotherapy to treat Borderline Personality Disorder.

If you want real information on BPD research -- no really, I just switched to serious mode -- go here or here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Democracy Is Different In NH

People have heard that most towns in NH still have town meeting, a seemingly anachronistic and quaint means of governance dating back to earliest colonial times. Everyone gets his or her chance to speak if they wish it, whether it makes any sense or not. People get irritated, even angry. Folks make impassioned speeches about taxes, or schools, or road conditions. Getting to an actual vote is more a matter of social pressure than strict Robert's Rules: we all know when we're sick of this. Folks do try to cheat that system by just stalling the vote until late in the evening, when the opposition has gone home. But you don't get away with that two years running.

We have long had this tendency to give everyone his say. It is not entirely accidental that NH has the first presidential primary. Every idealist and fringe nutcase gets his shot at running here. I recall the Hawaiian "king" who came to speak at my highschool for the 1968 primary, bringing his many wives in tow. Arthur Blessitt came through dragging his cross in 1976, and every four years there are dreamers with no hope of winning, who hope to at least get the word out about their various causes.

NH schoolchildren used to have the Great Stone Face Award, in which 3rd-6th graders voted for their favorite fiction title every year. In other states that had such awards, students would be given a ballot of four or twenty books to choose from. In NH, it was open ballot, and hundreds of books received votes. I remember it well, because my wife ran it for several years, and I remember tallying thousands of votes from around the state, wondering "Is there really a fifth grader who has Moby Dick as her favorite book?" or "Are You There God, can Judy Blume go out of fashion?" Ridiculous votes, of comic books or clear non-fiction, were duly noted and counted.

It's a messy democracy, and even we're moving away from it. The Great Stone Face Award is by nomination only now. More and more towns are moving to separate ballots for issues, or eliminating town meeting altogether.

I like free-for-all democracy -- I like going and hearing candidates live every four years to take their measure. And it's good to hear your fellow citizens try to persuade you with more passion than understanding, because it reminds you what really does motivate people. But even I am moving toward convenience, happy to avoid long meetings and just drop by the highschool gym to vote on the way to work.

I'm not sure it's a step forward.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Minimum Sanity

There are some things that are true, even if George Bush believes them. Tom Friedman, on "Imus in the Morning," 3/9/06

Sadly, there seems to be about 20% of the population whose BDS is so great that they cannot even reach this minimal level of sanity. How else to explain the knee-jerk assertion that if the White House says something is to be kept hidden for national security reasons, the NYT should tell us what it is?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Blogosphere: The League of Extraordinary Gentle…persons

The blogosphere has an enormous relative concentration of the people willing to be persuaded by superior argument. While most sites feature the highly opinionated, and comments sections are chock-a-block full of the intractable, those who wish to examine an issue from several sides have quickly learned that the internet in general, and the blogosphere in specific, is the most efficient place to go. A willingness to be persuaded requires a mind capable of holding contradictory ideas in attentive suspense, often indefinitely. This suspense is uncomfortable however, and creates its own internal pressure toward resolution. (No, I am not going to spring Hegel on you here. Hegelianism is the misinterpretation of the above phenomenon.)

The combination of public relations coups and fiascos of George W. Bush has accentuated, even fostered, this characteristic of internet debate. The complaint is often found on the center-right of the internet: “It appears that Bush may be right on this one. But why do we have to be the ones to point it out? Shouldn’t someone from the White House be making this argument?” I have read that many times over the last few years, from Tigerhawk, from Glenn Reynolds and Roger Simon, Tom Maguire and sites I can no longer recall.But the opposite is also true. The significance of Bush going to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, of keeping good relations with John Howard and sending Condi Rice to Germany and the Middle East – these were news for only a day or two in the MSM. We didn’t sign Kyoto but are ahead of its schedule... Rumsfeld’s use of the phrase “Old Europe” has vanished from the NYTRB and the Sunday morning talk shows... The blogosphere keeps discussing these, left, right, and center.

Best example yet: Dubai Ports

Contradictory leaders unintentionally inspire others to study and think on their own. In particular, contrasts of arrogance and humility inspire this intensity. While this is most obvious with religious figures, it occurs in the political leader as well. Jesus can forbid witnesses of his miracles to reveal what they have seen yet ride into Jerusalem before a cheering mob. The Baal Shem Tov and St. Francis were alarming mixtures of self-promotion and self-effacement. Their followers were known for study. Winston Churchill may have been one of the most arrogant men of British history, yet none doubt that the humility of his wartime speeches was sincere. This cannot be done as a technique – we can smell that at fifty meters and recognize it as hypocrisy. It can only spring from the tension of genuine self-confidence and humility. People read and study the contradictory Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi, whose humility was an affectation, is merely invoked.

Bill Clinton was the crowning achievement of the Old Media politician. George Bush is the rough draft of the New Media paradigm. The Clinton administration manipulated the available media in the 1990’s brilliantly, burying bad news late on Fridays, creating multiple photo-ops and good news announcements from single events, and expertly defusing potential landmines with charm and doublespeak. Clinton would have gone out to meet with Cindy Sheehan and shed a tear. Clinton would have humiliated Nagin and Blanco with effusive praise, turning Katrina into a PR victory for himself. George Bush could not have been re-elected, and probably not originally elected, in the 1990’s atmosphere. His margins of victory were too slim, so that any public relations disadvantage from his current environment would have pushed him under those waters. The development of the new media had a minor influence in 2000, and not much more in 2004, but that little was all that was needed.

Thus, Bush and the blogosphere have been a boon to each other, though neither has intended this.
The odd successes and odder failures of this administration have forced us to examine issues in a way that old-media administrations never did. Where did Clinton visit again? Normandy, and Martha’s Vineyard, and… hmm, I’m drawing a blank here.

This is the beginning of the new politics, happening in front of you.

Transylvania Roundup

News from Transylvania and the surrounding areas.

A soccer player in Arad was traded for 33 lbs of meat. That's usually a signal that your career is over. The new coach complains...

Ukraine looks like it may be going to the World Cup for the first time.

The Transdnestr border conflict in Moldova continues to affect Ukraine, Romania, and all of Europe, because it creates one of the most permeable smuggling areas. The linked article is from the Russian point of view.

A nice historical human-interest story on women during the revolution of the 19th C. This would seem like a very standard Sunday-supplement article to American eyes -- until one remembers that this is exactly the sort of history that was denied Hungarians for generations. This is not merely new to little Hungarian girls in school; it is new to their mothers and grandmothers as well. With that in mind, the story grows larger.

For those who like to keep up with the hard news, the outlook for the Romanian economy is moderately good, and they have a new security-training arrangement with Israel. That is going to be a large improvement, trust me.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

High School Teacher Rant

Michelle Malkin posts the transcript of the geography teacher's rant.

My uncle asks "Is he a menace?"

Menace? No. That would be reserved for someone who was causing some direct danger. He is an idiot, however. This class was a long rant of his, specifically teaching opinion instead of fact and inquiry. I think such things can be done legitimately, if it is understood that the teacher is intentionally taking one side of an argument and challenging the students to "give me your best shot." My guess is most HS students could not care much less and the teacher wouldn't get much action.

I don't get the impression that this is what's happening here. Context might give a different picture, but it sure seems that this teacher is putting this forward, not as a point of view, but of what is true. That's hardly legitimate. The teacher knows the subject to be discussed in advance, and can line up his data and arguments to make it look like all the facts are on one side. That's hardly teaching. If the teacher got put on a Sunday morning talk show, without being told in advance what the subject was going to be, and was then asked to go toe-to-toe with the other participants he'd get creamed -- even if he was right. There's something abusive about a teacher who wants to pummel students like this.

Reimagine this style and stacking the deck from a teacher in South Carolina in 1850 defending slavery. Y'see, it doesn't look dangerous and abusive when you sort of agree with the speaker's points, and think that getting kids to "wake up" is a good thing.

I imagine that equally stupid things, from a variety of teacher's soapboxes, are said every day in American HS classrooms. People rant, and most students pick up pretty quickly what it's about. Usually people rant within their own field, railing on about how Shakespeare isn't taught properly anymore, or the school board doesn't understand the value of band instruments. Linguists can sound like this if you bring up Ruhlen or Greenberg. Non-keynesians can pop a blood vessel over Keynesians. You expect a geography teacher to hew pretty close to geography, just as you expect the dentist to clean the kid's teeth, not teach him about local zoning laws. But teachers wander off topic a lot. There's not a lot of accountability for some things they do (and ridiculous accountability for others -- typical bureaucracy).

Jonathan's point is well taken, that the describing one student as brainwashed is engaging in the same poisoning-the-well that they complain about in Bennish.

Is this an amazingly ill-informed person, wandering off topic onto favorite soapboxes, unclear of the line between opinion and fact? Sure. So? That's what highschool pretty much is, isn't it? If we looked hard enough, we might find a conservative nutcase who runs his class the same way.

Living In Tune With Nature

Ever try to walk silently through the forest, and wonder how in the world did those Indians do it? You can't go more than a few steps without stepping on dry twigs -- that snap! that was always a dead giveaway in the Leatherstocking books.

They burned out all the underbrush every year, sometimes twice a year. After the deer and other game were fattened, the Native Americans, at least in the northeast, would set the forest undergrowth on fire. This sounds as if it should set off the whole forest, but only because we now envision forests with many small and medium-sized trees as well. When the Europeans arrived, they marvelled at the vast forests with huge trees, and often called them primeval.

Dead wrong, really. Primeval forests are much messier, with brush, fallen trees, leaves and yes, twigs. But England no longer had much in the way of forests, and my ancestors leapt to a natural, but entirely wrong, conclusion. The New England forests were more like parkland, with movable space between large trees. Large trees with scorch marks on them, actually. Great visibility for hunting. Much easier to run through. Not that hard to move in silently.

It was a brilliant technique by the Pennacooks, Micmacs, etc. It was not the living in harmony with the nature that whackjob spiritualists think it was, of leaving things untouched, taking only what was necessary, and being a Pal of the Earth. It was something much smarter than that, much more likely to provide food for families and clans.

On the maple syrup part the Indians weren't so good. It was the colonists who discovered you could get sap with just a few slashes, rather than cutting around the whole trunk and thus killing the tree. Conservation of long-term resources in that way usually only occurs in conjunction with ideas of private property.

Going Over That Bias Thing Again

I grow weary of re-explaining, but it keeps coming up.

The bias that conservatives accuse the media of is not an absolute partisanship, but a reliably leftward lean; a tendency. We don't believe that the papers and the networks never criticise liberals, only that they are much less likely to. We don't contend that the media favors people the farther left they are, but that the centerpoint they regard as neutral is actually left of center. These three sentences refute two-thirds of Eric Alterman's book.

So individual instances of making Al Gore look bad -- even unfairly bad -- or of criticising a Clinton, or reporting good news out of Iraq, do not illustrate, much less prove, a lack of media bias.

Barry Bonds

Bonds claimed in the late 1990's to be the greatest left fielder of all time. I had him still behind Ted Williams and Stan Musial at that point, roughly tied with Ricky Henderson and Joe Jackson. I grudgingly allowed over the next few years that he had caught up to, and then passed Williams and Musial (stat freaks should check out Musial's 1948 season, BTW).

We have known without knowing for years that Bonds used steroids. The photographs of him year by year gave the truth away. Two years ago, I had Barry as first place with an asterisk. Yesterday I just dropped the charade. Bonds drops back to 4th on my list, behind Ricky Henderson. He is less deserving of the Hall of Fame than Joe Jackson and Pete Rose now.


We never have any direct evidence for God's forgiveness. We pray for things, and they sometimes occur. (Note to nonbelievers reading: I acknowledge that we do not have unambiguous evidence. But we do have evidence for many things in the faith.) One can contemplate origins or design and see evidence that suggests a maker. The Scriptures predict that humankind will act a certain way, and it does. But for forgiveness we have only the testimony of Scripture. The doctrine accords with other parts of the faith and is consistent with the life and death of Jesus. But even more than prayer, or existence, or explanatory power, we must take forgiveness on faith.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

That Was Quick

Well, that was some civil war over in Iraq, wasn't it?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Sunday, March 05, 2006

When Christian and Nutritional Myths Coincide

Things like this just make me crazy. A quote from The Maker's Diet, by Jordan S. Rubin.
History reveals that the healthiest people in the world were generally the most primitive people as well! Our ancestors rarely died from the diet-and lifestyle-related illnesses that kill most modern people before their time, mainly because they ate more healthfully and had more active lifestyles. (p. 32)

I don't know anything about the value of Rubin's subsequent advise on diet. And I'm not going to find out either, because this is so amazingly stupid that I won't trust a single thing I read from this point forward.

They died young. Their "lifestyle" consisted of brutal labor and frequent malnutrition. Before 1700, life expectancies were in the 30's worldwide. As recently as 1900, the life expectancy in America was 46 -- and that was the highest in the world. Certainly the many deaths in childhood, and the many deaths in childbirth cut down the average, but do the math. A life expectancy of 35 means way less than half are living to age 70.

The biblical span is mentioned as "threescore years and ten." We should not interpret that as usual, but as "the most you could reasonably hope for." The few who lived to be 80 were considered unusually blessed with long life. The myth that our ancestors, once they had survived childhood diseases, frequently lived lives of health into their 80's and 90's is simply false. Some few lived long. Visit an old cemetery once in awhile, willya?

In this book we have the nutritional myth of the benefits of the primitive lifestyle intersecting with the Christian myth that scriptural statements about food are based on our current idolatry of worshipping our own bodies. I have deep suspiciousness of the unconscious equivalence of the concepts of natural, healthful, and holy. In our current age, these are a far more dangerous heresy, because they draw us into self-centeredness and the life of the world than their opposite sins. (Yes, it is possible to err on the other side, but there isn't much spiritual danger to that in our current era.)

Update: Welcome to visitors from Dr. Sanity and Dr. Helen, two of the sites on my daily to-visit list. If you browse here, you will find that I favor short post on uh, a variety of topics.

Our Lady Of The Cedars

We visited the Melkite Catholic Church this morning. We usually have to wait until there is a week with no Sunday School at our own church before we can visit elsewhere, as one of is usually teaching. A friend from long ago is the priest there. After a career in the police force, he studied for the priesthood, and is now, I believe the only Catholic priest in the area who is married with children.

The Melkites are a Middle-Eastern church -- this particular congregation is historically Lebanese -- which is something of a bridge between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. In the first millenium of the Church, they disagreed with some doctrine and practice from Constantinople, and thus did not formally sever ties with the Roman church. But living under Muslim domination, with only Orthodox churches around them, they developed in a less-western fashion. Those interested can learn more here.

I am much more Catholic and Orthodox in sympathy than most Protestants, so I had been meaning to visit for some months now. I did worry whether the quantity of incense would be beyond my tolerance, but I was looking forward to the chanted liturgy and the icons.

It was more different than I could adjust to. The incense was very heavy -- I worried for my wife, who gets headaches from such things -- and after 20-30 minutes, the chanting became too repetitive for me. I imagine that I could adjust somewhat over time, but there would be a very long way to go. Switching into occasional Greek and Arabic threw me for a loop as well. Chris was with us, and the incense did not trouble his Romanian nose, but he did find it tedious.

But it was nice to notice some emphases that are less-frequent in other churches. "Be attentive!" and "Wisdom!" announced at the reading of the Scriptures. The prayers were for living in peace, though the possibility of war and of nations which delight in war, were interwoven throughout.

I saw much from my childhood in this city in the names of the bulletin: Baroody, Daghir, Ashooh. But I don't see how I could make the adjustment unless God insisted.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Politics Made Simple

Michael J. Totten's heartbreaking account of his visit to the genocide museum is worth reading. Totten's writing is much better than mine, but his description reminded me of my visit to the Museum of Terror in Budapest last summer.

I have a simple proposal for politics. We get people as far away from that as possible.

Justice, Legality, Wisdom

Twelve Muslims have attempted to kidnap the daughter of one of the Danish cartoonists.

Update: See comments for the actual, milder story.

If a person were armed and nearby, and absolutely certain what was happening – say, if the person were the girl’s father and had yesterday been threatened with her kidnapping – it would be just if he shot all twelve on the spot. Yes. Yes it would.

Before you leap to the conclusion that I am advocating vigilanteism, read on. Societies entrust certain members with the administration of justice, according to common rules. They do so because experience teaches that trained persons acting according to rules will get justice wrong far less often than individuals acting on their own. Having an enforcement arm turns out to be wiser, because there is less jumping to conclusion, less emotional bias, less disproportionate response, than every-man-for-himself.

But the kidnapping of a child in the context of death threats to the parent is incompatible with attempts of human beings to live in a society together. It is so debased, so antithetical to human interaction, that the summary execution is not unjust. The perpetrators’ legal rights might have been violated in our hypothetical. Their moral rights would not have been violated.

(A policeman in this position has a different equation. His job is not only to prevent the crime, but to represent society’s overall interest in order and rule of law. The policeman must use the minimum force necessary to prevent the crime and bring the others into custody. The policeman would be committing an injustice if he shot more of them than was strictly necessary. But he would not be committing an injustice against those he shot – we have already established that all twelve can be reasonably expected to pose a lethal danger to a little girl. The officer would be committing an injustice against society, which has a right to expect that the accusation against its members be examined and verified before the state takes any action.)

Our proposed bystander might decide that it is wiser not to shoot everyone. He might hope that some of them might know useful information, the discovery of which would add to his daughter’s safety. He might believe he is surrounded by other armed men, who will shoot him and the daughter immediately. He may be a gentle sort who believes that even deeply evil men can be reasoned with. But these are questions of wisdom, not justice.

By the way, if 12 people attempted this crime, then 100 others know or can reasonably guess who they are. Bosses, family, neighbors – any of them might be aware that person X was not where he was expected to be at the time in question.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Quote Of The Day

I might disagree with some -- maybe most of this. But somehow I think I could get along with this party. I recognise a few phrases from elsewhere, but I've seen it collected like this.

I imagine it will undergo changes if it spreads...

“I believe in gay families with closets full of guns, capitalism so unrestricted that we can execute cheaters in good conscience, automatic citizenship for those clever enough to get across our booby-trapped borders, and mandatory migrant labor until age 25 for those with no school or job. I want a military with no ground troops, but several times a year destroys 100 square miles of some country that irritates us. I call it the “Just Don’t Piss Me Off” party.
“I’ve got other plans as well. Congressmen will be paid $1,000,000/yr but not allowed to talk or have their pictures taken. They can have text-only web sites. Boys and girls will not only have separate schools but completely separate public areas until age 18. Did I mention that the ungrateful, lazy bastards will be spending a year studying in one of those poor countries that keeps beating us on those tests? And wait ‘til you see my crime bill…”

I'm sorta curious what he wants to do about healthcare...