Friday, December 29, 2006

Outside Popular Evangelical Culture

I have found evangelical popular culture to be generally uninteresting for most of my 30+ years under that designation. If we take the simplest view, that this subculture is descended from both the Camp Meeting and the Renewal/Jesus Freak strains of Christianity, then I suppose I was there for the early parts of that mixing in the 70's. At that time I was up on what books were coming out, what songs and musicians were popular, what conferences were springing up, and what was hot for Raising the Evangelical Child (That would be Carey Landry, Psalty, Arch Books, and Dobson, BTW). We liked some parts better than others, and would pick and choose, of course, but we were up on these things. As my children all spent at least some years in Christian schools, and we have been Covenanters most of those years (a bridge church between evangelical and mainstream), and our friends have been at decidedly evangelical and fundamentalist churches, I remain familiar with a lot of what is going on in that group. My wife and children are far more familiar with these things.

I have gradually become estranged from the cultural aspects. My theology is still evangelical in essence, though we have always had a more liturgical bent than is common. But not only do I no longer know what the new books and the new performers are, I find that when I am exposed to them I pretty much don't like them. I am increasingly concerned that style is pushing out substance. It is easy to think that when the style does not please, of course; but it is also easy to not notice that when the style does please.

The style of the mainstream denominations neither pleases nor displeases me. As their gradual abandonment of some essentials of the faith in favor of more trendy ideas does displease me, I feel no pull in that direction.

One would think that my alienation would be sharp, but I don't experience it that way. As with other things, I am more puzzled than annoyed.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

CP Snow's Two Cultures Today

Scientist and novelist CP Snow declared fifty years ago that the educated classes were becoming two cultures, literary and scientific.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.


This was controversial, not least because literary people felt put down and insulted. Criticism fell into four broad categories: Snow had overstated the case; the divide was not new; a third culture was developing even as he had spoken; and Snow had helped worsen the divide by building fences. Snow came to partially agree with all these, while retaining his original view as essentially correct.

The cultural landscape has changed in the last fifty years, but there remains a core truth in Snow’s proposition. I have been writing much about the Arts & Humanities Tribe over the last few months which bears directly on the issue. For any new readers, a quick review. I was raised in the Arts & Humanities Tribe which is now so anti-Bush, anti-conservative, anti-neocon. Many groups might criticise this administration for other reasons. There are conservative and libertarian criticisms of the current administration, but the critical groups generally consitute the Democrat coalition: government unions, African-Americans, and liberals. The A&H Tribe constitutes much of the proud-to-be-blue-state liberals. I have criticised their position as being founded on emotion and tribalism more than reason. Their criticism of Bush and the red-state voters is often ill-concealed social criticism and cultural disdain.

I am not completely satisfied with my own choice of words in designating this group as the Arts and Humanities Tribe. Those in the social sciences are overwhelmingly in this group, yet many of those have little actual knowledge of arts and letters. Their philosophies are watered-down from A&H originals, and they adopt the language and attitudes of that tribe. Flowing in the other direction, the liberal arts have become suffused with the social sciences: much of history and literature are now warmed-over sociology, anthropology, and bad economics.

Confusing the terms further is the strong grounding many conservatives have in the traditional arts and humanities of Western Intellectual thought. They read history and literature, they know art and music. To exclude William F. Buckley or Victor Davis Hanson from the A&H designation would seem to dissolve the entire construct. In knowledge of literature and history before 1900, in fact, conservatives perhaps exceed liberals.

The enormous tectonic shifts over the last fifty years, and especially the last twenty, have come from the science and technical side of the culture. Science geeks read a lot of science fiction, a much-despised genre that has provided most of the original thought of the second half of the 20th Century. Certainly, it has provided enormous amounts of crap in the form of half-baked philosophy, formulaic adventure stories with science accessories, and ill-disguised fantasies of omnipotence. But in a world in which technical marvels are increasingly invading the cultural environment and changing behavior, science fiction often provides the only examples of near-future problems even being addressed.

Early on, science fiction was also called “speculative fiction,” and I wish that name had caught on better, as it retains a good deal of what is important. It is science fiction to imagine a mechanism by which someone could read minds and create an adventure about it. It is speculative fiction to try and work through the real consequences in a culture. How would friends and family react? What balances of power would be upset? Could a human personality endure the knowledge? It is one thing to imagine what fun people would have if machines did all our work; quite another to to imagine what this would do to the human character and what we might attempt in response. It is this speculative aspect that makes science fiction important intellectually. It is the lack of this that makes alienation in chicana fiction, or irony in Queer Studies barely worth mentioning. Speculative fiction has wildly explored the alienation of sentient beings which are different life-forms from each other, and societies where there are four distinct sexes, or parthenogenesis. Modern literature and high art seem tepid and timid in comparison, which is why they have needed to rely increasingly on sexual shock, predictably leftist sentiments, and social transgression to attract any attention at all.

Science fiction is predominantly Anglospheric, especially American, as well. The Europhilic and oriental fascination of the A&H crowd derives directly from the transnational nature of their studies. This is much less evident in science fiction, or science in general.

The science and technology crowd has made another enormous inroad into the arts & letters as well. The production of art for audience has become increasingly technical. Music, film, and theater have increasingly required not only technicians, but artists who understand the technology, and technicians who understand the art. It is still possible to carve out a career in the arts with little technical knowledge, but those opportunities are increasingly local. Technology has always driven the arts, but the changes were always slow enough that a person could absorb the necessary technical aspects early on and adapt very little over a career. The changes in acoustics or piano construction over Bach’s long lifetime were incremental, but the Moog synthesizers which were gloriously cutting-edge in the 1970’s are laughable antiques now. You might think that all one has to do is get up and sing, but microphones, lights, synthesizers, monitors, and editing effects are all part of the package. If you the performer do not understand these things, then you are dependent on those who do.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bureaucracy and War

In my frustration at the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, I have often said over the last few years “Y’know, it’s amazing we got all those soldiers to Iraq with a left boot and a right boot each. Getting things done is harder than it looks.” And no, it’s not entirely the fault of systems, as management-types like to say these days. Sometimes it really is the people.

I was speaking on the phone to a repetitive woman who has become guardian over her adult daughter, and I was thinking of Iraq. Being a listener and a good communicator are supposed to be the new skills that officers are supposed to have, and that Americans in general supposedly lack, which torques off the other nations of the world. Yet I imagine being an officer listening to a pleasant but repetitive and tangential person in my military bureaucracy in Iraq. One side of my brain would be saying “we have to get everyone on board, keep morale up, not waste energy in unnecessary confrontation,” while the other half is saying “Buddy, do you not realize that people are friggin’ dying out there while you waste my valuable time? Get off the phone!”

And you know that’s happening somewhere. Someone is smoothing Pentagon or Congressional feathers, selling an idea in a manipulative, telling-em-what-they-want way, not because he’s dishonest or manipulative, but because the people he’s dealing with are idiots and wankers who can’t be leveled with. And the difference is life-or-death for somebody down the line, so you’ve got to do it.

Diplomacy is considered an artful, high-level skill that does such wonders in the world. I suppose it is better than everyone just opening fire on each other. Negotiation, I agree is a high-level and honorable skill – or can be, anyway. But diplomacy is for use on people who cannot endure the truth. You will notice that Jesus was kind, but not diplomatic.

Americans, especially conservatives, indulge in these fantasies of frankness that are not ever going to happen. “You know what we should tell those nutcases? We should tell them that they have one week to start…” Sure, I agree. I would love to give that approach a try for a year. Put up or shut up. Fish or cut bait. Yo, Egypt! These are your two choices! Even if we went back to the old way after, it would be an unspoken threat. The Roman Empire would have a dictator for a year in time of war. Having one year of Donald Trump as president might be just what the doctor ordered.

But it’s never going to happen. That fantasy is as useful as hoping that the Navy Seals develop the power of teleportation. No American president is going to act like that. But it’s good that we keep in the back of our minds that we’re avoiding being candid with other nations, not because they are sophisticated and wise and we are clumsy, but because they cannot endure the truth straight up.

Belgian Hegemony

Jonah Goldberg over at The Corner used to frequently refer to "Belgian Hegemony," which seemed ridiculous at first. Belgium is a pitifully small country, which should never have been a country at all. Jonah made his case on the basis of the cultural power that Brussels wields in the EU, plus the Belgian haughtiness of having gotten it all right that much of Europe seems to be buying into. It is the centre of that European arrogance that pretends to be tolerant, worldly-wise, calm, and combining the best of all worlds, while actually being a mess and in danger of bankruptcy were it not for the money that the rest of the EU sends in, plus the tourist trade from the US. The Flanders section of Belgium has about had it with Wallonia, which it supports with welfare payments. The recent story of the father of thirty (via three wives) is emblematic.

John O'Sullivan reviewed Paul Belien's A Throne In Brussels, which gives a sharp reminder of Belgium's actual history: corruption, treachery, and exploitation. And this, not in the distant past, as with most other western European nations, but throughout the last two centuries, up until the present day. A excerpt of the review:
If there is a scalier royal family than the Belgian branch of the Saxe-Coburgs, the news has yet to reach Debretts. They make the Borgias look like pickpockets and Richard III like a philanthropist. Leopold started the trend. He bribed leading politicians to keep them loyal. He dealt with opposition supporters of the House of Orange by having the military attack them and burn their homes. He made the Catholic Church into a virtual agent of his monarchy by affecting to be its protector. He was the secret owner of two newspapers (one conservative, one liberal) whose editorial line followed his direct instructions. He amassed a vast fortune by misusing government funds for his private interests.
Americans tend to focus their ire on France when resenting Europe. Think Belgium instead.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Inadequate Solution

The overlong post I worried about over a week ago has been resolved.

Very short version: if one side of a conflict has shown it can tolerate a certain level of anxiety, casualties, expense, stalemate, etc, then it is possible that it can keep that up indefinitely. Slight increases are not likely to change their response in the short run. A large increase in perceived cost, casualties, or projected duration is needed to demoralize that party. Not only a change in fortunes, but a perception of change can be sufficient discouragement. For example, the public’s surprize in Vietnam that the North Vietnamese could even launch something as formidable as the Tet Offensive was a discouragement, even though we won decisively. The Spanish defeated superior forces in Mesoamerica because the societies had been decimated (sometimes literally) prior to the arrival of the intimidating looking and sounding Spaniards. The Indians believed the forces of gods and nature were arrayed against them.

Nothing but duration is defeating the American effort in OIF at the moment. We hoped to be gone, we don’t like even temporary stalemates, we get discouraged. An alternative view: Baghdad is in stalemate, and there is fatal violence there. Other than that, not much is wrong in Iraq. We had hoped we could persuade the Sunni Arabs to join a coalition – they won’t. Like the Palestinians, they are insisting that they receive all they think they deserve, no compromise. They may persist in this belief until the ground changes. If we leave, the Shia will wipe them out. I hope it doesn’t come to that. (Alternatively, you could blame it on the Shia for being reasonable about everything but Al Sadr. But I suspect even if he were liquidated, the Sunnis would find some other reason not to come aboard.)

Becoming Obsolete

Before there were search engines, there were people like me. "When exactly are the Ides of March?" people would call out of the blue at work and ask. "Do you guys have anything at your house about moths that look like butterflies?" "Does Chernobyl really mean 'wormwood?'"

I should deeply resent Google for pushing me toward obsolescence. But it's people like me who really love search engines, who become addicted to them and devoted to them. How can I resent something that gives me such pleasure? The main reason that my DNA made it through to the 20th C was to keep the repository of human knowledge from being lost. There are hundreds, probably thousands of people like me across the country. In previous eras, descendants of people like me referred back to my sort with pride. My descendants, who will be able to murmur "alligator: size, age, and diet" to the chip in their head and get an immediate readout, will wonder what the fuss was about. "Wouldn't it have been better if great grandpapa had just made money instead?"

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Sadness of NPR Christmas

Year-round, NPR tends to the bittersweet, the witty rather than uproarious, the world-weary rather than the cynical, the poignant, the melancholy, the wistful. These are the attitudes of the Arts & Humanities crowd, roused to righteous anger only against those who try and rouse them to righteous anger, charmed by everything but tending to observation rather than full-bore participation. NPR has the best describers of the vignettes of daily life, of which Garrison Keillor is the archetype.

Christmas kills them. They can access faith only via nostalgia, and that well soon runs dry. Real traditions include Mom, and going to church, and immersing yourself in that whole crowd of idiot relatives. Far better to have your Christmas carols instrumental, where the mood can grip you without the trouble of the lyrics. The programs at NPR are dignified, properly appalled at the deterioration of the season into commercialism and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer;" into the violent games or garish decorations.

This works well enough for that percentage of their audience that still holds to the Christian faith. We fear no nostalgia, and deplore many of the same things about the season. Instrumental carols and lights that don't blink are fine with us. The secular audience must be okay with this approach as well. Perhaps with NPR guiding the tour they can trust that however close the bus gets to the edge of the road it will not go over into actual religious assertion. We'll get out and take pictures of the view.

I don't have the same sense in my bones for what the Jewish storytellers are experiencing, but it seems much the same. They grew up slightly alientated from the culture's holiday, but having something of their own to build nostalgia around. Now they seem alientated from that as well. And those who had little or no faith tradition - they're trying to find something worth saving in all this. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in your shoe - it's supposed to be for weddings, but they try to make a holiday out of the same sort of elements.

Emotional distance has its advantages, and these makeshift Christmases don't seem to be tragic. There is a sort of courage about them, and shafts of real joy, and the nobility of those who refuse at least to be hypocrites. But story after story in December, as these deeply artistic and sensitive people try to capture the season, carries the theme of searching, of something missing, of arranging the dried flowers as beautifully as possible because no new ones will bloom.

Those of us who are believers are tempted to throw up our hands and say "Oh for Pete's sake! Relent for just a few days a year and allow yourself to be immersed in the faith of your youth. You'll get more out of Christmas that way. It'll do you good. Why is Jesus the one thing you can't keep?" But I think it is our own inattention to the season, our own taking it for granted, that causes us to think this way. We are so aware of how many things pull us away from Christ at Christmas that we have forgotten how dangerous it is for those outside to look in. They sense, as we should know but have forgotten, that to step inside might mean never coming back. If emotional distance does not bring warmth, it at least brings memories of warmth, with no danger of burning.

Women's Tribal Christmas

It is not original to note that while it is women who do most of the complaining about how much food there is just lying around, begging to be eaten at the numerous Christmas festivities, it is also women who organize 90% of it and bring 90% of the food. Ditto the small cute objects exchanged, followed by complaints about how cluttery the house is and how out of control it feels. If women ran the world, we would spend a great deal of our time exchanging small presents and feeding each other snacks.

It's easy for men to criticise and complain, I suppose, because we don't have the instinct/training.

I think this is another one of those tribal thingies. While training and social grace are clearly part of this, the universality of it suggests some biology in the mix. Interestingly, while it occurs everywhere among women, it is not universal among women. A large percentage of women think this is how life should be, another group goes along with less joy but recognising some obligation, and a further group actively dislikes and resists the custom - especially that small gifts part.

But if you work in a situation that is predominantly staffed by women, as both my wife and I are, half your house becomes filled with plates of cookies, small decorative items, and written greetings. The other half is filled with similar items that the women of the house are preparing to go out of the house, to communicate to some other friend or family member that you, too, do matter. You are one of the tribe. My wife compared it to potlach ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest.

It may be one of those instincts by which women make sure that everyone in the tribe has something to eat, and some declaration of group acceptance is signified by making sure that no one feels left out.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wyman Family Christmas Letter 2006

“Chris Needs A Dog.”

Stories about other people’s pets and other people’s medical conditions are seldom interesting, but we are going to subject you to both. We will try to be entertaining.

Jonathan and Benjamin have been insisting for years that we get Chris a dog, to interrupt his moping every other day. Too much trouble, we said; Chris will graduate HS and leave and we’ll be stuck taking care of the dog. Jonathan eventually offered to take the dog off our hands after Chris left if he couldn’t bring it with him and we didn’t like it. Safe offer for Jonathan – he knew we’d get attached to the dog.

Digger is what you might call a special-needs dog, who grew up with goats and a mule and is afraid of people. This has indeed been therapeutic for Chris, bringing this skittish mutt up to social speed, but this much eccentricity from the dog is something of an overload. When Chris was accepted at UTI in Houston for auto tech next year, he informed Digger “You’re going to be a Texas dog!” Well, fine. Everyone’s happy. Until then we have this large black fur-farm slinking around, startling at most noises and all white objects. Update: Digger is also afraid of Christmas decorations, especially lights.

Alright Huddled Masses! Everyone Up For Volleyball!

This quote is the top banner for Ben’s blogsite, http://www.10-4goodbuddy.blogspot.com/. Mostly humorous, sometimes poignant, Ben has turned into a very clever writer. His film reviews are utterly convincing. We only have to see one movie a year now, because our filmmaker son explains everything.

We were apprehensive about his focus on film, because of the generation we come from. To Tracy and I “I want to be a filmmaker” is an equivalent statement to “I want to be unemployed much of every year.” But – he got a job making films. A real job, year-round, working for the Methodists at this wealthy enormous church north of Houston with health insurance. Last year was the Year Of Five Addresses, including working the Winter Olympics in the Italian Alps in his final semester at Asbury. Now he has another distant address.

Ah well, we had him home for the summer, which was nice.

To Nurture And Enjoy

When businesses and organizations decide to come up with Mission Statements, I head for the exits. Such expressions of corporate will should be pithy and memorable, but seldom are. I came up with a Wyman mission statement, above. It says more than the framed paragraphs we all ignore as we walk through the foyer of a building.

A Tree Grows In Goffstown

For Tracy this was a year of her parents’ medical emergencies, and one of her own. The old Chevy logged a lot of miles back and forth to Scituate. Her dad almost bled to death and had to have his colon removed, followed five months later he had more surgery to have it reconnected. In the meantime Tracy discovered she had a gallstone and couldn’t eat fat for two months until she could have her gall bladder out. Standard surgery; hopefully no problem, but producing anxiety as well as an annoying diet. Just before her surgery, while David was on the road to Texas with Ben, a windstorm blew half a pine tree onto our neighbor’s roof. More anxiety, and mental measuring of trees and where they would fall. During recovery from her surgery half of our big pine tree came down, narrowly missing all wires and valuable objects. Let’s have the other half out, do you think? More sunshine, less anxiety. Expensive, though.


On The Highway At Night, The Whole Country Looks The Same

Between driving Ben and his stuff back from KY, then down to Houston 5 months later, David thought he would get to see the country a bit. While it is true that driving at night avoids traffic, it is also true that traveling this way is mind-numbingly repetitive. The same twenty fast-food establishments are advertised in batches of six on identical blue signs. Mileage signs count their slow progress up or down. Now I know why the RV crowd gets up early – more scenery. Ben and I stayed at several and found that at 8pm, everything is quiet. By 7am, everyone’s gone. We did get to see Bucksnort, TN and Cut & Shoot, TX, neither of which we would have found in NH.

Do not, by the way, tow a car on a dolly for 2000 miles. You won’t like it. We did have adventures and meet nice people because of them.

Boundless Optimism Will Only Take You So Far

John-Adrian already had a good summer job when he got back from NGU, but he wanted a better one – one that would make him some big money. He came home from one set of interviews very pleased with himself: he was going to sell vacuum cleaners. This wonderful company was going to start him with $500 just for doing three demonstrations! We expressed, er, caution about this, but on he went. It was the expected pattern. Three demonstrations and a 4-hour training meeting; and two more meetings. And those first two demonstrations didn’t count somehow, he would have to do more. He eventually got the picture. Next he tried telemarketing. Somehow that wasn’t quite as hoped, either. J-A, who is a business major, learned the valuable TANSTAAFL lesson. Eventually, he worked two jobs and sent some money to his brother Catalin in Romania.

He is planning to transfer closer to home for the rest of college. We suspect there’s a girl in that equation somewhere, though he denies it.

Them Trolls

We have little or no troll behavior over here, but I certainly encounter them commenting on other sites. I am one who tries to reason with them, creating frustration all around.

The name troll does not originally come from the mythical monster, but from the fishing term of dragging a lure on a line behind a moving boat. (Jacques: We cannot go ice-fishing, Pierre. I didn’t bring an auger [pronounced oezher for an added joke]. Pierre: So get on the back of my skidoo- we’ll go trollin’). To go trolling online was to drag bait in the form of controversial statements in comments sections, hoping to get someone upset and start an argument.

A person who is trolling, then, came to be called a troll by back-formation, probably taking that form because troller would be a new word, and troll already existed. Enough computer geeks were also Tolkien fans or D&D players that the unattractive reputation of trolls lent itself to describing stupid and difficult commenters. This is called a folk-etymology, though it doesn’t fit the tightest definition of that term. The rural Maine practice of saying “sparrow grass” for “asparagus” would also be a folk-etymology, as would “bridegroom, adopted when “guma” (man) was no longer recognizable.

I take the bait that trolls drag by. I take people’s intentions mostly at face value, and if they are putting forth an opinion, I assume it is their real opinion, not something they have adopted for entertainment purposes. I don’t see the fun in getting people worked up for no reason, so it doesn’t tend to occur to me that a person might be having me on for that purpose. Being pigheaded and opinionated – that I understand. So I proceed with great hope, trusting that sweet reason will win the day. (More fool thou, my sons recite in unison).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Upcoming

I have a post that has gotten too long, concerning motivation, information war, the thought processes of fanatics and a bunch of other semi-related topics. It's got some good stuff in it, but I can't imagine anyone reading the whole thing, and the writing is more meandering than focussed. I'm going to rethink it. There must be a better way to say this.

That Guttmacher Study

There’s been some noise this week about the study which claims that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex by age 44, and that this percentage has been quite constant for 40 years. The Guttmacher Institute has a clear social/political agenda in all this, but let’s put that aside for the moment. People can have an agenda and still be accurate, after all.

(The immediate joke at Pajamas Media, of course, was that postmarital sex was also unchanged for the last 40 years at 5%.)

Numbers that dramatic should always raise an eyebrow. It pays to look at what is being measured, and how the data was obtained. In this instance, you will look long before you get the answer to some key questions about the data. After the phrase “surprisingly high refusal rates” popped up – in the context of my being unable to locate the actual number – I began to wonder whether this number was being downplayed, or even hidden. Perhaps not. But it’s hard to find. Refusal rates were 17%-27% for the various studies, averaging 21%. That is not an enormous number for survey studies, as many people just don’t want to do surveys about anything, let alone their sexual history, even for the $40 payment. It would be hard on researchers to expect a much better response.

But such high refusal rates, even if they are expected and common, should sound a cautionary note to researchers. If you are going to make even a tentative statement about 95% of Americans, you should be asking yourself “what about the 20% of Americans who wouldn’t answer at all?” If we could magically obtain that data, perhaps it would be similar to the four-fifths of the people who responded. Researchers do often try to equalize the demographic factors as mauch as they can.

But perhaps the numbers from that group are quite different. We don’t know. It would be easy to make up plausible explanations why people at extremes in any direction would avoid being questioned too closely. The study itself, in reviewing abortion data, goes out of its way to note that abortion data is generally underreported by about 50%, and to caution that people should be hesitant about basing conclusions on their data. Another pink flag.

Next we come to the question of what, exactly, is being measured? The study gives out that (round numbers) 75% of Americans have had premarital sex by age 20. From 20-44 years old, apparently, the total rises to 95%. The original 75% number seems high. But perhaps it’s true. If you are counting up everyone that has ever had sex, even only once or twice, maybe the number climbs that high. But let’s look at the second part of that equation. Of the 25% of the population who has not had premarital sex by age 20, (and note that this is quite a different population than the citizenry as a whole) four out of five of them will have premarital sex over the next 24 years? Don’t some of those people, like, get married over the next few years and stay married until age 44? To qualify as having had premarital sex, that previously chaste group of people would either have to be starting sex right away and then marrying, or having affairs. Does anyone think that is going to turn out to be true for 80% of those people?

Unlikely. So the group of people who get married and stay married are going to pull the average down a lot. Some percentage might have sex before their one marriage, or have affairs, but nothing like 80%.

And they are more than half the cohort we’re talking about. Most of those who marry, marry after 20. Those who marry later have lower divorce rates. Thus, this is more than half the remaining group.

This leaves the people who do not marry before age 44, or marry and divorce. Apparently, 110% of these people are having premarital sex. The people in wheelchairs, the developmentally disabled, the germ-phobics, all of ‘em. Seems unlikely.

Well, someone’s numbers are wrong here – perhaps mine. There’s something major missing from the data. Let’s pretend it’s my bad. Let’s give the Guttmacher Institute the benefit of all doubts here – the missing fifth of the population, the unlikely sudden behavioral change of 20 year-old-virgins, the greater-than expected number of marriages where both people are having affairs, the wheelchairs. Give ‘em all of it.

Oh, and make it retroactive for two generations.

Their goal in this, expressly stated in the study and the press releases, is to stop the government from providing abstinence-only sex education. The institute believes this is a terrible and unrealistic approach and wants to squash it. Their interest is in showing that simply everyone has premarital sex, therefore abstinence-only programs are unrealistic and even dangerous. Not so fast. The one does not follow from the other. Remember that we are counting in this population the people who have had unmarried sex even once or a few times over decades. You get counted in their data for any of it.

Unmarried 40-year olds who had sex twice in 1996 and once in 2002 do not consider themselves “sexually active.” And there is nothing to suggest anything about any type of formal sex education after age 20. No one attempts much of that or collects much data. Any data.

Plus, the original 75% that we breezed past early in the discussion – those kids who had premarital sex by age 20 – Guttmacher is counting the ones who had sex once or twice, and even the ones who had sex once or twice with their fiancee. Technically true, of course. But it’s hard to draw sexual safety conclusions at all from people having sex that infrequently. Theoretically, there’s risk every time. But there’s no actual data on what increases the sexual safety of that subgroup. The groups that we study tend to be highest-risk groups, and what works with them. (Which is fine, by the way. That’s who we should be studying. Go where the problem is. But there is nothing to indicate the results for the high-risk group bears on the general population.)

There are several good arguments for some safe-sex, rather than abstinence-only sex education. This study isn’t one of them. But this is exactly the sort of thing that will stick in the mind, and will give the impression of having proved the point.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Realist School of Foreign Policy

"If, when reading an article about the debate over Iraq, you come across the expression 'the realist school' and mentally substitute the phrase 'the American friends of the Saudi royal family,' your understanding of the situation will invariably be enhanced."
Christopher Hitchens

Why Rate The Presidents?

Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor, had a recent op-ed ranking the presidents of his lifetime. The reasons one would undertake such a project are pretty limited. Someone might ask you for such an evaluation, particularly if you are an historian or a person who comments on political events. Similarly, you might read someone else’s list and be inspired to do your own.

But most likely, you write that article because there’s someone you want to put in last place, usually the current occupant of the office or his immediate predecessor. You hate that bastard, you want everyone to know it, and this is one more chance to kick him. You cover that by rating someone else of his political party surprisingly high. This creates the illusion that you aren’t a partisan hack, and that you really think deeply about these matters. If you want to kick George Bush, you go out of your way to say what a fine fellow his father was, or how underrated Reagan was. If it’s Bill Clinton you want to slam around, it is obligatory to mention that Carter got an unfair bad rap or Lyndon Johnson will go down as one of the great presidents. You don’t have to mean that, of course, but you have to provide a smokescreen.

When average citizens make up such a list – and no one ever asks us, of course – there are some interesting patterns. Younger people seldom make such a list, which shows an admirable humility on their part. The Greatest Generation rates the presidents of their youth very high; there is a strong good-old-days component to their lists. I saw several that were very nearly a chronological list, rating Roosevelt highest, Truman next, then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson. After that it gets muddled, and partisan politics becomes evident in the later selections. Baby Boomers rank Johnson in the middle, regardless of which way their list slants. They write very ambivalent comments about him. Interestingly, they rank Nixon low but say some nice things about him. He no longer attracts much energy.

The energy attractors are the presidents of the last 30 years, except for Bush 41. The other four attract both laud and condemnation in dramatic fashion. Not shocking perhaps.

I am reminded of an interview with an elderly woman who was interviewed about her life under communism, contrasted with her life in freedom. She thought the communists had been generally bad, but thought well of Stalin. He had gotten them through the war, which was good, and she remembered that there had always been food, then. Not like now.

The woman was Ukrainian. I wonder what presidents I will rate highly when I am old.

Design Your Own Father

There is a theory which states that your image of God will be much influenced by your image of your own father. Your image of the Church, on the other hand, derives greatly from your picture of your mother. I don't know if it's true - such things are hard to measure objectively, and it's easy to squeeze the data into whatever mold you like. But it's intriguing, and I've always thought it possible.

For those of us with zero full-fathers and/or multiple partial fathers, this is of course problematic. I have always thought my situation, having 3 fathers with serious limitations all, was a spiritual obstacle. It occurred to me Sunday that I might turn the lack into an advantage: design my own father. Perhaps that's what I was starting when I wrote Gardener, below, though I wasn't thinking it at the time. Suspecting that, I don't know if I can write more of it cleanly. We'll see. I'll certainly spin it out, and see how it works.

Underground DSM-IV - Full Version

Someone at work requested that I print out the whole thing. I have done most of it in bits over the last year, but never put it all in one place. Regular readers will recognize bits as they go along.

Uses the phrase: “Head games”= Borderline PD

“Deep” depression = Dependent Personality (“very, very” is also a bad sign.

“…died in my arms.” = APD It’s amazing how often this is claimed, and how seldom it is true. Of political note: Jesse Jackson claims that MLK died in his arms. He didn’t. So now we know Jesse’s diagnosis.

The wife or mother of the violent sociopath who says “I just want him to get help” is going to take him back (See “I need therapy,” next.)

“I need (undefined) therapy.” Means I feel bad and think I will feel better if other people listen to me endlessly. Our other offerings, including group therapy, won’t be considered real therapy. Real therapy means no homework and a person of the opposite sex to say “there, there.” Other variations include “I haven’t gotten any therapy here.”

Identifying “low self-esteem” as your problem means you want someone else to fix it. Self-esteem (in the popular sense, not the older, precise sense) is entirely subjective. Self-respect is based on actions. Seeking self-esteem is seeking to feel better without doing anything, and does you no good. But no matter how far down you go, you can always do something to increase your self-respect.

If you take an antisocial male on a ride near his home community he will keep claiming to see people that he knows, or their trucks or motorcycles. (“That’s Tiny’s Harley!”)

If you have to tattoo “MOM” on yourself to remind yourself that you had one, it probably wasn’t a good relationship.

When a patient claims that the hospital doesn’t know him, and therefore has no right or foundation for evaluating him, he means that the objective evidence should be ignored in favor of his rationalizations. Related: “No one is listening to me,” means “no one is agreeing with me.”

Gazing intently slightly upward -- choosing among several things to say

Gazing at ceiling: = Choosing among a multitude of things to say, i.e. lying.

Turning back to interviewer, spinning in chair: = Antisocial PD

Fast spinning: = BPAD

Commenting that there are a lot of people in the interview room. (Thinking it or acknowledging it doesn’t count. Anyone might do that.) = Borderline PD

Shaking hands with more than one person = manic. More handshakes, more mania. Today I had someone who wanted to high-5 everyone in the room.

Substance Rehab excuses:

Meatloaf version: I would do anything for rehab (said Monday), but I won’t do that (said Tuesday.)

Goldilocks version: That Rehab is too far. That Rehab is too near. No rehab is just right.

Pts. referring to length of time they have been in hospital as an argument for privileges or discharge means they still don’t get it.


Chronic pain really can make you look like a Borderline or Dependent Personality. It’s harder than it looks.

Mania can make you look like an antisocial.


Paranoids have an uncanny ability to make their worst fears come true. Eventually, everyone is watching them and trying to keep them from (fill in the blank).

Borderlines seeking cool alternative diagnoses have an uncanny ability to locate only private therapists who can’t help them.

Manipulating staff or lying is a high-level skill indicating significant organization and readiness for discharge. Sicker patients try to manipulate staff but do it poorly. To the complaint “but she’s just telling you what you want to hear,” my response is “I’ve got a caseload full of people who would love to tell me what I want to hear, but can’t.”

Some staff consider that a patient enjoying anything is a bad sign. “She likes it here,” is synonymous with “she’s not sick, she’s malingering.”

People who have a “problem with women,” or “problem with men,” reveal behaviorally in about 24 hours that they don’t do well with the other gender either. Ditto for “problems with authority:” those folks tend to show “difficulty working independently” and “difficulty sharing responsibility.” What’s left?
Rescuing women often accept the reasoning from the violent men in their lives that they just need to “get their anger out somehow.” Actually, these guys get their anger out just fine. It’s keeping it in we want them to work on. This seems terribly unhealthy to both the violent male and his rescuing female, who are puzzled that mental health professionals do not understand this very obvious psychological need to get anger out. This particular bit of faulty reasoning is often paired with needing “therapy,” as above.

Oppositional treatment design is remarkably accurate. If you want to sleep, we want you to get up. If you want to be up, we want you to sleep. If you want meds, you probably shouldn’t have them, but if you don’t want them they are likely to be exactly what you need. If you want to leave, we make you stay. If you want to stay, we make you leave. If you’re blaming yourself, you should stop that. If you’re blaming others, you should start blaming yourself. It’s not as stupid or mean as it sounds. People usually come to the hospital because of a particular point of contention with the usual flow of life. That inability or refusal to change is usually the central difficulty getting along in the world. The patient will usually hand you the opening, though it’s wiser to use a Colombo indirect approach thatn a direct confrontation. “People say I’m getting manic, but they just don’t understand that I have a lot of energy.” That may sometimes be true for folks getting along in life, going to work, paying bills. Involuntary arrival at a psychiatric hospital is usually an indication that something has gone wrong, however.

The content of paranoia is often a function of what is floating about in the air at the time of the first breaks. In the early 70’s it was the CIA. During the era of the Godfather movies it was the mafia. Radio waves were big for a while. Now it’s computers or satellites, and implanted chips are going to have a strong run this decade. People of religious leanings might have demonic or angelic interpretations to their voices. Movies may figure prominently. Trying to tease out other meanings provides lots of exercise for ego-analytic psychologists, but no objective help to the patient.

If one staff member moves to rescue an Axis II patient, someone else will lean toward punishment to an equal degree. “You’re giving her exactly what she wants!” In large groups the mathematics of balance is more complicated but the principle is the same: the group will balance its negative feelings. Moving to the extremes just increases splitting: shift wars, team vs. line staff, community vs. hospital. The longer the staff discussion is going on, the more likely it is that this patient has Cluster B traits.

The Rorschach protocol measures the psychologist’s ability to consider alternative diagnoses.

The closer you are to the situation, the more you are convinced the other person is being bad on purpose. The more distance you have, the more you are convinced that non-elective forces are driving the behavior. Both are inaccurate. Choices are always mixed, driven by both will and external factors. This is not patient-nature, this is human-nature.

If it’s Friday afternoon and it’s a crisis, there’s a personality disorder behind it. But 50-50 it’s a staff member who’s got the Cluster B traits.

You can’t reach much of anyone on a Friday afternoon, but those you do reach are usually pretty competent. The others left them in charge and snuck out the back way.

Punching the wall is not something to be congratulated for just because you wanted to hit a person instead. You are still rehearsing violence. In fact, you are ably demonstrating how unconcerned you are with your own pain, so long as you get to show how angry you are. It’s an intimidation tactic.

Multiple personalities usually add up to less than one.

Numerous rings can indicate charming hypomania or borderline personality fragmentation. The necklaces, bracelets, and rest of the jewelry will answer that question for you. In the absence of those clues, more rings on individual fingers suggests mania; more fingers used suggests BPD. Thumb rings are worrisome. This quite clearly has some confounding cultural and generational factors, but not so much as you’d think.

New social workers want to intervene in everything at once: couples counseling, substance rehab, going on disability, finding a self-help group, etc. This is the human services equivalent of invading not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but North Korea, China, France, Mexico, and the Maldive Islands, all at once.

Addendum: If you suggest this to social workers, they won’t understand the analogy, noting irrelevantly that they were against going into Iraq.

Naming your daughter after an alcoholic beverage is a bad sign (Brandy, Margarita, Champagne, Martini). Wearing clothing with beer logos to your rehab interview suggests you aren’t serious.

In every generation there seem to be given names of children associated with a much higher proportion of pathology. No recent DCYF worker will be naming her own daughter Crystal, for example. The mechanism for this is opaque to me. Most Justins and Jasons are just regular people, but somehow an enormous number of pathological mothers decided that those were the best names for their sons. This annoys the hell out of the regular Crystals, Justins, and Jasons, who usually sense that they share their name with a lot of delinquents pretty early. The delinquents themselves never pick up on it – it’s always a surprise. “Krystl, that is like so amazing! My boyfriend last summer was like Justin, too, and he had to go to rehab!” Amber, Brandon, and Sean were problem names earlier. Cheyenne and Dakota may be on the rise.

People who work at developmental agencies are concrete and fearful of change, like their clients. We don’t know who gets it from whom.

Seeking guardianship is a measure of staff frustration.

If an experienced social worker has arranged a placement with only a small window of availability, the patient automatically becomes clinically ready to go, and you’d damn well better agree. Otherwise, the SW will bite your head off the next time you ask about discharging someone.

When line staff says, “He needs to be discharged,” they mean “I’m sick of him.”

When psychiatrists are finished with med changes, they conclude the patient is at baseline, independent of any data.

When anything changes, the psychologist will find a way to interpret it as progress.

The difficulty with being a MHW (psych tech) is the social and emotional battering they receive from both patients and ungrateful staff. Stress reduction classes make this worse. Encouragement might work, but no one’s ever tried it.

Women going through divorce at the same time bond, and take criticism of the others personally. Men around them develop numerous faults. Oh sorry, that’s staff, not patients.

Intense borderlines tend to live near the hospital and interact with each other. When any one of them dies, or especially if one commits suicide, several others will have short memorial admissions to the hospital.

When a patient challenges your credentials, no credentials will be good enough. There will always be something you lack. “Oh, so you’re not a psychonutritionist.”

When a patient – and some providers – claims a “right to be angry,” there will be a sudden shift in the meaning of ordinary words. That one is entitled to ones own feelings and opinions will be made to equal “I am justified yelling at people. Or worse”

France is a glamorous borderline personality disorder – the cause? An abusive incestuous relationship with Germany. Much of European politics suddenly becomes clear if you keep this in mind. The rescuing Americans are the bad parent who didn’t rescue enough, and so get blamed more than the perpetrator, who she has now gone back to live with.

Russia tends to paranoid personality disorder, and about half of the Arab nations are narcissistic personality disorders. Societies which oppress women tend to raise entire generations of narcissistic males. It is not a healthy thing for a boy to pass his mother in cultural status, for nothing that he has earned, when he is still a complete twerp.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Iranian Science Fiction Movie

Apparently, Flash Gordon must be the inspiration for their special effects. We do better than this at Jesse Tree.

(via PJM)

Gardener

The boy was brought in October to the manor because there seemed no other place for him to go. He was an orphan, he thought. At least, there had been no parent to claim him for as long as he could remember. He had lived with an elderly farmwife – large and coarse and peasant-shrewd – who knew how to support herself with a demanding voice and a disregard for laws she found inconvenient.

He hadn’t liked her, and never less than her last few years when she was weak and wheezing and stopped cleaning herself. Nearly all the work had fallen to him then, and when she died he was glad to be rid of her, though he never spoke this aloud. He might have, if anyone had asked him, but none did.

How he had been apprenticed to a gardener he wasn’t sure. An uncle, someone said, had gotten him the position. The boy hadn’t known he had an uncle, so perhaps it wasn’t true.

Still, there he was, picked up at the train station by a man with a sign, “Jacob Alistair Wood.” He wondered if his middle name really was Alistair, or that was just something they had been told to make him sound more impressive. Alistair. He had never seen it spelled out before, and committed the letters to memory. He was bundled into an old foreign car.

The gardener himself turned out to be an odd, faintly intimidating man; grayed, but not elderly; above middle height, with an adam’s apple and the smell of some ancient aftershave long out of fashion. He considered the boy seriously, nodded and said “good to have you. This’ll be home now.” He spoke briefly to the driver: “Leave his things in the hall and send him out. We’ll see about a room later.”

When Jacob caught up with the gardener a few minutes later, the man greeted him not at all, but described the growth and cycle of the shrub he was tending. He made a few precise clips, checked the bark for disease, explaining all the while, and handed the boy the shears. “Now you.”

“Sir, I’m not sure I understood it all. Could you say it again, sir?”

“Tell me what you heard.” The man said it in that expressionless voice, serious but without anger. Jacob told as much as he remembered, fearful, stuttering, trailing off into apologies.

“That’s most of it. Check just below the branch for discoloration.” He pointed to a short stretch of identical shrubs and walked off. Jacob leaped over quickly and began clipping timidly, afraid to cut – afraid not to. He breathed deeply to calm himself, without effect. Uncertainty was worse than rejection, the thought, though not in those words. To himself, he only asked questions that had no answers. “We’ll see about a room later” – did that mean he might not stay? But “This’ll be home now.” Did he mean it that way? Was he to have a room, or a place in a corner? Or in a shed?

Every hour or so the gardener would check up on Jacob, inspecting his work, commenting on it, then leading him to another task. The commenting unnerved the boy so greatly that he seemed to hear it only at a distance, observing himself and the man as if they had nothing to do with him. A bit lightheaded and forcing himself to remember the words, he stared at the man’s vest buttons. Irrelevantly, Jacob decided he liked the buttons but not the vest.

From others he had received mostly criticism, and so learned to criticize himself. Yet he was observant enough to realize that he was capable of handling tasks that boys his age were not often given, and when in the company of adults found that they sometimes knew less than he. Jacob was secretly proud that he estimated things – a distance, a length of time, a quantity of goods – better than anyone. But either way, he was constantly evaluating, pummeling himself when wrong, deeply gratified when right.

The gardener’s evaluation was like none of this: passionless, with neither praise nor condemnation. Even the raking, which he thought of as simple labor, measured only in quantity, came up for comment. “The smaller rake for this section” and “See how this moss rips up, but this’un doesn’t.” Not until spring did the boy come to see that his mistakes had badly damaged two of the shrubs. Today is was merely “those cuts will direct the growth here, where we want it.”

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Credentials

I had an entry under my soon-to-be-indispensible Underground DSM-IV which noted that "when someone challenges your credentials, no credentials will be good enough."

I am expanding that to a general rule for life. If you are in an argument with a socialist and say "I used to be a socialist," the demand for your credentials means the discussion is over. If you are arguing about bridges and say "I have a degree in engineering," it will not be the right kind of engineering somehow. Even if it is, and you've been designing bridges all your life and won the "Best Bridge Design" award 3 years in a row.

Today's was "I work with the poor." Well, a lot of people work with the poor, at least part of the time. Merchants work with the poor. Lots of government officials work with the poor. The police and ambulance folk work with the poor. It's not that odd, really. But when someone wants to make a point about the poor - as I did on two blogs today - facts can't be allowed to get in the way.

I don't claim expertise in most of the subtopics about poverty. But sometimes people make assertions that anyone who works in the biz knows to be untrue. Experts can go wrong in many ways - usually by getting some particular set of ideas in their head and fitting everything into that box. Credentials aren't everything. But taken with proper humility, they should mean a little.

Inappropriate Use of Polls

"Do you think California will be struck by a major earthquake in the next ten years?" Why is that a poll question? You could make some argument that asking geologists who have studied this area in specific what they think the likelihood is of an earthquake. That might have have some value for what resources we devote to preparation for that. But even if 100% of the geologists said it would, or 100% said it wouldn't, that won't affect the earthquake.

"Will the earth be struck by a major asteroid in 2036?" Not really a poll question. There is a fringey sort of answer that would say if enough people think the asteroid that is coming is going to hit us, we will take steps to make sure that it doesn't. In that sense, the poll indirectly leads us to some useful information.

Is OJ guilty? Will this be a snowy winter? Is Chicago west of Detroit? Some things are just not poll questions.

I bring up these obvious errors because most of the poll questions in the major media are not much better, but we don't tend to notice that. "Do children study more or less than they did thirty years ago?" "Is there more crime than there was ten years ago, or less?"

Pick a country and a disease at random. I pick Turkey, and diabetes. What if next week Newsweek starts in with polls "Are we sending too much aid to Turkey, not enough, or the right amount?" None of us knows how much aid we send to Turkey. But who is going to say "send more?" Unless there is something about Turkey in the news that suggests we should be sending them more, such as a natural disaster, everyone is going to say either "about right" or "send less." On the other hand, who is going to say that we should spend less on diabetes research? Not that we know how much is spent now or how much is needed, but the fact that the question is even asked starts a whispering campaign for the answer that someone wants. Well, let's keep that up for a few months. Tim Russert asks Dick Cheney "Are we sending too much to Turkey?" "Are we spending enough on diabetes research?" Other magazines and newspapers start commisioning polls about it. You can eventually start to get the answer you want.

Oh yes you can. That's why disease research even has PR campaigns, isn't it? That's one of the resons that Turkey even has an embassy here, isn't it? To move opinion. The objection that Newsweek or USA Today or Tim Russert wouldn't engage in that sort of random manipulation isn't the point. Random manipulation isn't the point. The point is, do whispering campaigns work?

"Are we winning the war in Iraq?" That is not a poll question. It is in fact a question that cannot help us win, but might help us lose the war in Iraq. If enough people say "no," then politicians make noises about having to do something different. Plus, our allies wonder if they can trust us. Further, our enemies wonder if they can win by just hanging on a little longer.

Most people in America haven't the faintest idea whether we are losing or winning, but most of them have an opinion anyway. At the moment, most people think it's a stalemate, with smaller percentages saying "we're winning," or "we're losing." To try and improve the quality of the polls, sometimes they will ask people who look like they might know more than the rest of us. History professors. Retired State Dept. officials. Think about it. They don't know more than we do. And we don't know anything. Experts in related fields by necessity have to look at these questions from data which they know which is only part of the story. "Well, the Sunni tribes came to Anbar province later than the Shia..." So what? Even if it's true and the historian is right on the money, it's 2% of the picture.

I have folks who I correspond with who would at this point claim I was advocating suppression of speech critical of the Administration. Really. In fact if you scurry around the comments sections of the blog sites, and the postings of the big leftie blogs like Kos and HuffPo, you can find a lot of people who say that. I work every day with people who believe that. They don't say it every day, but they have said exactly that in the past year. Some people, by which they think they mean someone other than me, want to cut off debate about the war altogether. They don't want to allow anyone to criticise the president. It's scary.

No, it's scary that people believe that.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Fun At Bob's

I had forgotten how much fun it is over at One Cosmos with Gagdad Bob and Petey (see sidebar). Because only about half of his articles interest me, I forget how very powerful that half is. An article today on The Unthinkable Goodness of America.

There is great esprit de corps in his comments sections as well.

The God Who Is Never In The Middle

The biblical account of God's relation to Man tends to two extremes - the God who is close and intimate, sort of the God Next Door, and the God who is impossibly far, huge, and powerful - the Sky-god. We miss some of them in our reading because we don't see things from the perspective of the human characters, but from our own perspective, reading the book and knowing the whole story.

When we picture Adam in the garden, we have just come from the story of this mysterious huge thing that created worlds and lights and oceans, and we miss what Eve saw. Adam & Eve don't seem to have much awareness that Whoever it is they are talking to is in charge of much more that just Eden, some animals, and them. He is a very intimate god and quite local. If He is more powerful than they are, He doesn't seem to be so intimidating that they don't dare disobey. A traveling snake-oil salesman is enough to get them to disregard the one they call Lord. This seems to be a Lord of the Manor, or Lord of the Waterfall, not the creator of the universe.

The theme continues throughout the OT. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a pretty local guy. Only occasionally does He remind that He has a side to him that they keep forgetting about. David, Moses, and the Prophets all have some fairly chummy conversations with the Almighty. Yet even they - God's pals - are shown glimpses of His hugeness that stagger them.

Jesus's arrival is very much of the intimate sort, visiting shepherds, walking around telling stories, going to wedding receptions. But even in this homey story there are sword-strokes and fiery darts - sudden comments by Good Old Jesus that open out onto bottomless chasms, reminding them they He walks in worlds they cannot imagine. These are reported often enough that one gets the impression that they were frequent. But as they always seem to surprize His friends, they can't have poured from Him uninterruptedly. The Christ, the Messiah, spends most of the time praying and teaching, but they were used to people like that. Then once a day He does or says something that drains the blood from their faces or confuses them so completely that they are reduced to asking questions that now look dumb (Easy for us to say. We wouldn't likely have done better in their sandals).

Jesus comes back and eats some fish, then ascends in one of those sky-opening, hide-your-face deals that reassure his followers He Is. Really. In John's letters, which we were studying recently, the apostle keeps calling his hearers children, not to belittle them, but to remind them of their intimacy with him, and with God. Children inherit. Children get hugged. John had another aim, drop-kicking the Gnostics who were claiming that they were the real inheritors because they had learned all the secret code-words. He was stressing that it was the regular humble Christians who were God's children, not the toffs. But he could have gotten that idea across without that level of intimacy. Choosing that image was no accident.

A few pages later, Jesus is coming on a cloud in one of those freeze-the-flesh-off-you moments where hordes of folks die and mountains get thrown around like pebbles. All in preparation for his settling down and being king on a throne, where everyone can drop by and see Him.

Never in the middle. God never seems to be medium-big, or medium close. He is either so close and chummy that we drop our guard and forget who He really is, or so huge and dangerous that we draw back in fear. Or both together, interwoven in an impossible braid. But never medium-size, medium distance.

Confession

I am reading a children's book my wife thought I might like, Friday's Tunnel by John Verney. It came out in 1959, and is that sort of book in which boring old Daddy turns out to be a spy, or a famous adventurer. I suppose that is a good deal better than today, when secrets about boring old Dad turn out to be that he always wanted to be Queen of the May, and he's moving out tonight.

My problem with books of this premise is that it is boring old Dad who is writing them, from the perspective of his admiring children. This Walter Mitty-ish exposure seems perilously close to admitting what a schlemiel you really are. Have some pride, man, and keep your heroic fantasies secret like the rest of us.

So it is with great annoyance that I confess to my children that Daddy is not secretly a spy or world adventurer. I might have made a good codebreaker in the days before computers, and suppose I could have passed as any number of northern European nationalities if I had been remotely good at languages.

I do promise you, however, that if I ever develop the power of time travel or invisibility that spying is exactly is exactly what I will take up, and will make every effort to tell you on my deathbed. But don't tell your mother, because she would worry.

Civil Discourse

The level of insult in blog discussions is quite alarming. People write things they would never say face-to-face, or even over the phone. That is perhaps not very different from pamphleteering and broadsides in earlier eras, which certainly were vicious and vulgar at times. As online posting is closer to actual conversation, the deterioration is more noticeable, I suppose.

Different categories of insult strike me differently. It is unsavory on many levels to call someone a moron, or idiotic, or stupid. But that sort of attack, though directed against the person instead of the idea, is less objectionable than other insults. It would be better, of course, for disputants to say "that idea is foolish" instead of "you are a fool." But the criticism is at least in category. An idea is being discussed, and questions of stupidity and cleverness are to the point. Even such characterizations as "paranoid" or "smug" can at least be derived from word-choices, tone, and reasoning within the discussion.

It is a greater deterioration to level attacks such as fascist, coward, warmonger, thieves, and the like. These are frequently applied to a group that advocates a particular idea or course of action. While it may at times be justified - there are actual human beings who fit those descriptors - I can't think of a recent use in the public discourse that was reasonable. These hyperbolic statements are generally drawn from no data, and are used merely to show how really, really upset the writer is at these others who are really, really bad'uns. It is a method of exaggerating to attract attention, a verbal screaming. It is rather like those folks who write in ALL CAPS BECAUSE YOU JUST DON'T GET IT!

In my post "Not Their Tribe," I suggested there was some alternative motive which partly explains why the A & H Tribe is not supporting OIF. They might be loyal only to their own tribe, and not America as a whole, perhaps. I don't leap from this to say that they are traitors, or cowards, or selfish. Each of those, while possible, would require high levels of evidence. An actual traitor might well hide behind the principle of freedom to criticize the government. A real coward might adopt religious pacifism as a cover. But this does not mean that all who criticize the government are traitors, nor that all religious pacifists are cowards.

Note: the opposite argument (or is it the contrapositive?), that all accusations of disloyalty are just covers to suppress dissent, has become equally common, and I think from the same people. That is, those who are first to call others "fascist" are also those who are first to claim that whatever they say can't possibly be treasonous, because that's just a ploy to suppress dissent. I do wonder why such people need to make their enemies so large and vile, beyond all reason.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Celtics Update

Celtics fans are getting to the point where they don't want to make definitive statements about players, for fear of jinxing them and watching the whole thing blow up in their face. At least, years of following the Red Sox and Patriots taught us to do that, though the Celtics were exempt. Now the Sox and Patriots have won, and we don't know what superstitions to try anymore.

It's a good place to be, because all our old superstitions didn't work, so we're learning to be experimental up here. The Celtics have won four straight, which they have not done in several years. They are arriving. There! I've said it, the spell is broken. They are not yet a good team, but there are only 5 or 6 good teams in the league, so that may not be a problem.

Al Jefferson, a personal favorite of mine, has arrived. Since coming back from his injury his game has been wonderful. Tony Allen - Tony Allen! - had a great night. He is considered a defensive player, and worth having on the floor to limit the effectiveness of opposing guards, but scored a bunch o' points tonight. That is not likely to happen often, but if he can play good defense and have occasional offensive spurts that will be fine. If Wally Szerbiak can accept being 6th man, he belongs there. Stay tuned. There are rumors he's complaining about it.

I don't like to see Green get his minutes reduced again. He needs to play more. Telfair is getting a chance to develop into the starting PG, and Rondo is sitting down because of it. I'm not sure I like that. I think I'd go the other way on that. More Powe, Green, and Rondo. Less Scal, a little less Wally. I love Gomes.

This team is actually - gulp - getting good.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ofen and Often

The "t" sound is coming back to often after being away for 300 years. When I was younger, I don't think anyone used the pronunciation of often-with-the-t. I noticed it a few years ago and researched it to try and understand what was happening. I wondered at first if my pronunciation ofen was more of a New England pronunciation, gradually vanishing as it was exposed to a national tendency to keep the t. This did not turn out to be true.

Pronouncing the "t" is an overcorrection, used by frequent readers who suddenly worried about 20 years ago whether they had been saying it wrongly all their lives. They hadn't. Ofen was the only correct pronunciation until recently. But the reemergence of the "t" has been explosive, and at least 25% of the population uses it now. I will hazard a guess that it is people who have more exposure to the archaic word oft that are leading the change.

Urban Legends

One of my favorite stories, up in smoke. The idea that Ring Around The Rosie is actually about the plague – “all fall down” meaning falling over dead? It’s completely untrue. The first written versions of Ring Around Roses show up in the late 1800’s, some with posies and falling down, some not. But the Great Plague was in 1346, and later plagues didn’t have the sneezing part. It is not credible that a little poem would be passed down orally, unchanged for 500 years, then suddenly break into half-a-dozen versions that all get written down for the first time.

Darn.

We believe so many untrue things, and learned texts have been written to try and understand what types of legends we wish to believe. The wet poodle in the microwave (or worse, the baby)? No evidence it ever happened. The rumor that more women get beaten on Super Bowl Sunday? Unh-unh. Why do we want to think so?

Political figures often come up in the rumors. I won’t encourage their spread by even giving examples, but they usually take the form of a president’s secret. Did you know that Bill Clinton hired a special agent whose only job was to…There was a room in the Nixon White House…George Bush has a secret plan to… Please. If it were that much of a secret, how did it filter down to you and me? The political legends should give us insight into countries without a free press, however. In Romania, where the only alternative to the government press was rumor, wild urban legends were news, and are still believed years later. American soldiers in Iraq are frequently told the most amazing news by locals. “Not here, but in Mosul… in Basra… My cousin saw it himself.” What experience do they have with real news?

We should not hold their credulity in contempt. Even though there are no recorded cases of anyone ever poisoning Halloween candy, every year warnings go out, hospitals make their x-rays available, and parents confiscate everything that does not come pre-wrapped. Even though there are no incidents of fires in elementary schools stemming from paper decorations on the walls, policy persists in limiting the amount of paper and how it is to be secured.

We have a peculiar fascination with legends about food. Kentucky Fried Rat, thumbs in the deli sandwiches, pop rocks exploding in your stomach – seldom even partly true. Food that comes from unknown places or strange hands has frightened us for centuries, if Sleeping Beauty is any clue. Perhaps this is behind much of the current furor about genetically modified foods. Rumors about dire plots being hatched in large, faceless corporations also have a long shelf life. Proctor and Gamble has been fighting baseless accusations of satanic involvement for twenty years, and people still believe Nieman-Marcus charged $250 for a cookie recipe.

The internet has given rise to a whole new family of urban legends. Lists of the origin of phrases circulate from time-to-time, usually identified to the 1500’s, or “Shakespeare’s time” or “the Middle Ages.” Supposed explanations of sleep tight, wet your whistle, and raining cats and dogs are often on that list. They are almost all bogus. Only the disputed origin of mind your p’s and q’s is true. (Typeset letters versus pints and quarts. Unknown). We are also entranced by things which, if true, could adversely affect many people. The LSD tatoos, the gang initiation of killing those who flash their lights, the strange viruses we should warn our mailing list about… we know they are probably untrue, but what if it is? Think how many people would be affected. Why take a chance?

Take a chance. Microsoft is not going to give you money, and there is no dying child in England collecting postcards. Distraught parents of missing children start with the police, not the internet; you can check if it’s true through legitimate channels.

To check if something is an urban legend, the best site is www.snopes.com. But I am going to be really bummed if that story about the secret formula for Coke isn’t true.

Evolutionary Psychology - A Disclaimer

In my posts over the last two months discussing American tribes, trust cues, and human behaviors which were designed for the Pleistocene era but persist today, I may have given the impression that I believe these constructs provide a fairly thorough explanation for much of what we do. I don’t.

I do think that we overrate our own rationality, and are subject to primitive schema which we don’t acknowledge. I give things a tribal description because it provides a way of looking at ourselves and each other that is often illuminating. But behavior is multideterminate, and we are not trapped in a narrow range of behaviors. We have predilictions, predispositions, and tendencies, but we are often able to override one desire and replace it with another.

Example: in predator-prey relationships, the potential prey will sometimes display a behavior that puts it at a temporary disadvantage and wastes enormous energy. This seems counterintuitive until one considers a specific case. The stotting behavior of pursued gazelles is frequently used as a dramatic illustration. Gazelles have this pattern of slowing down, then leaping very high as the predator gets closer. This allows the predator to get closer still, and would seem to be to the gazelle’s disadvantage. But the wasteful leap also sends the message “I have energy to burn. You will use much more energy pursuing me than another gazelle.” And as only fit gazelles have the spare energy for the leap, thre strategy seems to work. The predators, not by reasoning but by instinct, gravitate toward the non-leapers, which will cost them less to catch.

Human beings engage in something similar in dangerous situations - sometimes consciously, usually not. People walking through tough neighborhoods adopt a confidence, posture, and speed that says “You may want to mess with somebody, but it’s not me.” The communication “I have energy to burn” also works for the predator, in intimidating those around him. “I have so much anger and fear pain so little that I can hit this wall. Hitting you would be no problem.”

Wastefulness can also be useful in obtaining status resources and attracting mates. (Sorry if you don’t like to look at yourself as being a tribal resource. I kind of like it myself.) Teenage boys leaping onto cars or throwing each other around are communicating “I have such an abundance of physical resources that I can just waste them profligately. I can risk danger because of my skill” This is also true for females, though less so. Old guys don’t go around wasting resources – we conserve them. And now you know why sixth-grade boys do dumb stuff around girls even when they don’t think they like them. They aren’t programmed to have to do that – they can sit back and watch TV instead if they choose – but the behavior is on disc, ready to roll, and if something doesn’t overrule it, it will come out.

Conspicuous displays of wealth may send the same message. “If I can obtain this many bracelets and feathers, which are inedible, you just know I’ve got enough to keep you in mammoth chops, baby.” Self-deprecating humor can also be considered conspicuous waste: “I have so much stability and confidence that I can give it away and not feel the pinch.” Most display behaviors – birdsong, plumage, sports, dancing – are personally expensive and useless in the short run.

But the point is that this wastefulness can be overruled by other parts of the personality – in fact, it frequently is. We don’t have to engage in conspicous consumption. We can decide for a dozen different reasons to conserve resources instead. Understanding the tribal background may give us insight into why we feel a certain way, or why the folks in our lives act a certain way.