Monday, March 31, 2008

Home Schooling, As An Example

Pajamas Media has a commentary on the attempt in CA to require homeschooling parents to have a teaching credential.

Parents who homeschool stress how much better children taught at home generally do academically and socially, and how they win so many national awards. They don't mention the dark underside of significantly ill parents who keep their children isolated from all non-family contact as a control measure. Opponents of homeschooling do the opposite, dwelling on the sick outliers and failing to mention the generally superior education homeschoolers get. I see both.

The point of conflict is usually around what hoops one has to jump through to homeschool, and who gets to make the rules. Parents insist with some justification that the education of their children is their job, and the state should have no say in it. The subtext of this argument is that once the state gets to make the rules, they will add in requirements of what must be taught, and these can potentially conflict with parents' values - often the reason they pulled their kids from public school to begin with. For their side of the argument, schools, boards of education, and the whole earth catalog of educators claim that they have two main interests: preventing abuses and insuring that all society's children get a fair launch.

This provides an excellent illustration of how well-meant government supervision can get out of control. To solve the problem of really sick or neglectful parents, requiring some minimal application and supervision is exactly the right solution. People who are controlling and pathological are very likely to balk at this point, standing on the principle of government non-interference, much beloved by libertarians. This solution exactly fits this problem. But...

The first difficulty is that some others who are not pathological and controlling also balk at this permission-seeking, and deeply resent being branded as some sort of kook or sicko. The fact that evil people hide behind a good idea does not discredit the idea itself. Wolves always hide in sheep's clothing; hiding in wolves' clothing would be pointless.

The second problem ultimately cuts even deeper. It is the natural pattern for power, control, and regulation to increase. Education bureaucrats will naturally keep finding new requirements. We needn't paint this worse than it is. Most of the requirements will be fairly sensible or at worst cumbersome and innocuous. But all will have unforeseen consequences, good and bad.

Third, and deepest of all, there is a vein of pathology that runs through education bureaucracies as well, the mirror-image of the pathological parents. There are enough people who don't like boys (or girls) or religion or independence or western civilization or even children in general that it leaks over into all decisions, all regulations.

Bureaucracies solve problems by going after the low-hanging fruit, and often get that first part right. It is the reapplication of one-size-fits-all solutions to all possible problems that eventually makes them inconvenient, then cumbersome, then useless, then a problem in themselves.

When Geeks Go To Church

Pastor Earl mentioned the 70 Israelites growing to 2.6 million in Egypt. Mentioned it in passing, I should note. Steve at church immediately started doing the calculation - but he had misheard and was thinking of the forty years in the desert, so he was fooling around with 40log x = [log((2.6 * 10^6)/70)]. I was thinking of the 2-3 centuries from Joseph to Moses and thinking 4% growth is the maximum sustainable giving a doubling every 18 years 288/18 = 16 so 2^16 * 70...

Too bad Branscom wasn't there, to see what his approach would have been. I should ask Denise, our high school violist who's sort of Asperger-y what she thought, but she was likely daydreaming anyway.

I forget what the sermon was about for the next few minutes. Something about slaves.

Prayer

There are ultimately only two prayers, Please and Thank you.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Generational Change

Corresponding with my brother down at East Carolina, I commented on my relationship with our stepfather (summary: Never close; sometimes antagonistic; now refuses to speak to me). My impression had always been that I had tried hard to get along with him but my overtures were rebuffed. Recently it occurred to me that my intense focus on my own wife and children was perceived as a personal affront by him. The children's families were supposed to remain under the umbrella of our parents' family. Submerged under their family would be too strong a word; even subsumed is a bit much. My independence from it was clear, even though we bent over backwards to be accommodating to family events, even when it was inconvenient.

I regarded this as individual differences in values between us, a head-butting that resulted from our individual personalities. My brother suggested that this was as much generational as individual.

Though this was a new thought to me, it rang true immediately. When I was a boy, children were considered more appendages to their parents than they are now. The mother and father were not only the authorities of the family, they in some sense were the family. I imagine this was even stronger in earlier generations, though I don't know how one would measure such a thing. Unless one was near in age to a child in another family, one pictured the family as a mother & father plus generic children. Your aunt and uncle were important, but cousins important only if they were age-mates. The authority and status within the society at large permeated even close relationships. The parents owned the family rather than merely ran it.

Caveat: I was a child then, and saw things from that perspective. Adults then might have viewed the children of other families entirely as I do now: directed but not owned by the parents. Also, any such enormous generalization has to have many exceptions to it.

Higher Ed costs

I ran into young friend active in Chicago politics at Midway airport. I don't think we need be concerned whether I am increasingly amazed at the degree of corruption in Daleyville. We should be concerned that he is increasingly amazed. He's been doing this community organizing thing for awhile now, but every time I see him his eyebrows go up and he shakes his head you wouldn't believe how bad it is.

He asked my opinion on higher ed funding, and let me use his name if I am properly circumspect. His sample of how I might refer to him is exactly what I shall use:
Tim King is works for a young adult group called PACT in Chicago. He emailed me when they began research on higher education costs. His concern was that the prevailing wisdom of simply providing more government subsidies and loans was simply facilitating higher costs and creating a culture of debt...

My unedited reply.
I am not expert on this, but I have read a bit and have some thoughts. I entirely agree that we have oversold the idea of 4-year college to everyone. The pre-WWII model was that 4-year colleges served three purposes: initial training for the professions of law, medicine, and ministry; inculcation of
Western classical values in the elite classes who were going to run the country anyway; practical training in science, technology, or business for the brightest males. A lot of this is still left over in our expectations of what college is. It wasn't that bad a system, but it had serious limitations.

In addition to the GI Bill increasing the number of people -mostly male - going to college, the steady prosperity decade after decade since WWII also brought the numbers up - this time with females. To retain the elite status of the wealthy who were (originally) going to run the country anyway, the four-year liberal arts schools made status rules that within their confines, the inculcating values part would remain the pinnacle. But to maintain that against all those middle-class science and business students, who were picking up western civ lite, the elites had to go more obscure, and bring in non-western and anti-western values to teach. Impressionable young people from all classes gravitated toward the high social status studies, but it was primarily the wealthy and upper-middle class kids who populated the Medieval Lit, Art History, and Sociology majors. The elite schools kept insisting that this was where the highest intellectual status was at and structured their curricula accordingly.

In evolutionary biology, there is a concept that conspicuous waste is an advertisement of enormous resources and status - like peacock feathers, which state "I've got energy to burn, baby!" To be able to take cerebral, philosophical courses that wouldn't obviously result in better jobs and income is a sign of eliteness. "Those grasping business and computer majors are scrambling after mere money, but we have a higher calling."

The system is breaking down in many ways, including at least one dear to your heart. First, the world only needs so many physical anthropology and history of dance majors. Only a few can go on to have careers in those - usually only teaching the next poor group of suckers to get squeezed through the bottleneck. As a result, those few can self-select their peers according to whatever criteria they choose. They choose to bring in people who think like they do. Such fields - ethnic and gender studies, comparative or foreign literatures - have to keep upping the ante of obscure code-words and thoughts far above the great unwashed to keep the barbarians from the gates. They have become jokes, and bitterly resent their dead-end choice. Like all human beings who fail, their first strategy is to keep doing exactly the same thing, only harder, purer. Some catch on to the sucker's game and get out. Those who remain are doubly distilled intellectual elites, who need badly to know about things that others don't, like Chicana literature. They make themselves increasingly irrelevant to improving their lives or anyone else's, and their status drops every decade. This makes them even more resentful of the terribly unjust and regressive society they live in.

Meanwhile, their elite status further erodes because we are increasingly a science and technology world, and business models move increasingly toward change and creative destruction. That geeks and entrepreneurs now go on to run the world is axiomatic. It has become a common movie motif and cultural expectation. Forty years ago people were only beginning to be aware of that, and everyone still expected that if you wanted to make money or even make a living at something interesting, you had to do the four-year college thing. That is less true every year. Self-learning and online learning, whether formal degree programs or just getting yourself hooked into the right network, is becoming more common. As learning now has to be ongoing, and online is the most efficient way to do that, those who can't learn online will fall further behind.

Third, education is breaking down at younger levels, especially for boys. Homeschooling and online learning will continue to increase, and public school will grow less relevant. It will be an interesting collision, as formal schooling will still be required by law, and colleges will continue to turn out education majors who will join unions and insist that they are the only ones qualified, but parents - especially parents of boys - will increasingly regard non-school learning as more important. You were very cutting edge on this, and will see your intellectual descendants have pitched battles with the educational establishment. (Note to reader: Tim did both homeschool and online study for the second half of highschool. It looks like that was a good choice) So four-year liberal arts schools will continue to turn out students we don't need and charge a high price for it. The complete collapse will probably never happen. The traditional model works very well for some students and some courses of study and will persist. But they will no longer be the only item on the menu.

I do fear that the teaching of western civilization will be more and more sporadic. The elites have moved to non- and anti-western thought, online technical training will neglect it, informal networks will teach it only accidentally. The homeschoolers and Christian schools will be the last bastion, but those curricula usually stress only those parts of the western canon that fit with their world-view.

The left believes that the current college system must be mostly preserved with a few modifications to perpetuate their values, so they want to pour money into keeping that system afloat. Conservative free-marketers have the right idea, but I'm not sure they understand the consequences either, and they may not like what they get. Letting the market decide will accelerate the decline of the current system. I think it's creative destruction and a good thing, but it has its costs. Accountability will be more elusive. Governments will try harder and harder to regulate and make sure that everyone gets a good education, and will be increasingly angry about those things out of their reach. They aren't assuring a good education now, and everyone knows it.

How this will play out for poor and minority communities could be their rescue, but the risks are high. On the internet, no one knows if you're a dog, so the automatic racial and class prejudices can be avoided. Black kids will have the opportunity to move ahead unfettered. But if they are in substandard schools and they don't get hooked up with the new methods of learning, they will be doubly screwed. A lot of kids could just be competitively destroyed before anyone has a chance to see what works for them. I don't see why a hispanic kid from even a crummy school couldn't be just as good as a suburban white kid at selling stuff on ebay or otherwise online, but who is going to get them there to even try? Educators think it is beneath them to teach such grubby skills to their students.

I see little hope that legislators at any level will see the need to risk their grant money on more adventurous programs, many of which won't work. Political people and government bureaucrats don't think like that. They would rather waste money the old-fashioned way, on things that look like they should work and do work for a limited number of people. Ebay grants, or American slogan t-shirt marketing to Southeast Asia grants, or independent market-research project grants for highschoolers, or even no-writing, all-typing/mouse/Wii instruction starting in kindergarten just isn't going to impress bureaucrats.

Related topic: I think city schools can be improved faster with safer neighborhoods than with more teachers. Overstretched police departments stress drug arrests - easier to catch - instead of labor-intensive violence prevention. The hope is that the drug arrests will catch a fair number of the violent in its net. Well, it hasn't worked. Non-violent or only incidentally violent drug users, disproportionately black, clog up the jails but don't get enough of the violent people off the streets. General Petraus needs to focus on Detroit and south Washington DC next.

Does that answer your question?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Genesis Irony

What if the Book of Genesis had been lost and only recently rediscovered? Had the canon started with Exodus, I doubt the skeptics would be any more willing to concede belief. For all their focus, partly because it is Christians' focus, on the unlikeliness of the events of Genesis, nonbelievers would simply transfer that to other miraculous or unusual events: the burning bush, the Red Sea, Elijah and Elisha. There are plenty to go around in the rest of the Bible. Despite the predominance of historically-attested places such as Egypt and Canaan, as opposed to Eden and Melchizedek's Salem, I doubt believers would be cut much slack.

Believers, both Jewish and Christian would look at the Scriptures differently. We would likely regard the Exodus - Malachi set as complete, and the scattered references to Genesis events in the rest of scripture seen by some as intentional and meaningful on God's part. We aren't meant to know...YHWH ordained that some things should remain mysterious... I don't mean to overgeneralize - there would likely be a variety of opinions on that score.

We would be the ones resisting Genesis at first. Yes, yes, it includes stories about all the Abrahams and Adams we are told should be there, but they don't act right. They do strange things. And there are lots of extra characters we didn't expect. This is clearly a book related to the biblical story, but there's no reason to think it is Holy Writ. I believe the power of God's voice would eventually force itself upon us, as believers would be unable to let the words go and would gradually come to accept them, but it might be grudging and take a century.

In that instance it might be the secular scholars who attempted to convince us to take on the new book. As with the spurious gospels we are led to believe are just as good but arbitrarily declared non-canonical by powerful and close-minded early Christians, this Genesis document would be touted by secular critics. They wouldn't credit any literalness to the individuals and specific events described, regarding them as folk heroes or composite figures. Yet the overall picture would impress them, I suspect. The Flood is there; an account of one tribe rejecting polytheism and human sacrifice shows up in the expected time and place; The conflict between planters and herders shows up in Cain & Abel, Eden turns out to be dramatically near the first places that humans domesticated animals, made shelters, and planted crops, a plausible account of famine driving Jews into Egypt would provide a likely explanation, and a wealth of customs, attitudes, and objects referred to would illuminate all other knowledge of the time and place. Most dramatically, the similarity of the order of creation to current scientific knowledge would be regarded with amazement, as it is unprecedented in the creation story of any other culture. The Francis Collins and Antony Flew style of nonbeliever seeking after truth would produce converts to the faith amazed that the ancient document got so much correct.

Nonbelievers would be pressing Genesis upon us for consideration, in contrast to the enormous energy put into disproving it now. Believers, in contrast, would be overcautious.

Conservative Party

My eldest son and I listened to Car Talk on the way to pick up some dachshunds this morning. It is Spring pledge drive at NHPR.

These people are so uncomfortable with fundraising - and so bad at it - that I usually switch it off. Yet today we were minded to revel in their misery. The forced enthusiasm, the embarrassed appeals to guilt (the only sure-fire money-getter with that crew), the lame humor - ah, lovely. The missteps were best of all: Five people have pledged already this morning, and they know their contributions weren't enough, so c'mon, let's help them out!

I think it would be a hoot for conservatives to throw a party to listen to pledge week together.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Weddings

An urban legend circulated at work yesterday - "The Groom's/Bride's Revenge," which comes in numerous iterations, and involves one of the prospective couple publicly exposing the other for sleeping with some other member of the wedding party, and calling off the wedding. This version was a particularly good one, with Clemson University and Jay Leno thrown in as convincing details, and a nice dramatic build involving compromising photographs of the offending bride and best man taped underneath the guests' seats at the reception. We like the horror of stories like this. We use these legends as previous generations used folk tales to teach which values are important. "If you do this bad thing, you will deserve this humiliating punishment" is the underlying message to many urban legends.

Printing up the disproof of the legend from snopes, I browsed through the many other wedding legends and customs. Nice to have the State of NH pay me for fifteen minutes of entertainment like that. Fascinating stuff, those wedding legends. The custom of brides wearing white did not originate to advertise purity, but ostentatious display in class-conscious Victorian times. A white dress is clearly a one-use only item, so families would put their daughters in these elaborate displays to highlight their ability to waste wealth. The dresses leading up to the white gowns were increasingly elaborate, not increasingly light-colored. White has generally been used to signify joy. Practically every other wedding custom seems to be about sex, but not this one. Threshold...garter...feeding cake...veil...they're all about sex. Big surprise, eh?

Weddings are in the air around here; not in the immediate family, but among important members of the close circle. These include commenters Erin and Bethany, as well as blog-unaffiliated Lauren, all marrying this year. I think they will find the wedding legends amusing. And don't sleep with the best men, because I probably know them too, and that would be annoying to me.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

New Unquestioned Rule

I have a patient on my caseload who owns a cat, of which he is fond. Mental Health clients have pets less frequently than the general population, but not dramatically so, and they are often quite attached. People generally agree that the pets are good for them, as they are for elderly people, children, and heck, most of us.

When a person with a mental illness decompensates, getting care or rescue for the pet is sometimes a first order of business. It can help you form an alliance with the patient or can solidify an alliance they have with an outside support person; it is good practice for the patient to try and get past troubling thoughts and feelings to deal with the reality of day-to-day care for the pet; it helps the patient be less anxious; it is an act of kindness to the animal.

When the pet-rescue has all gone terribly wrong – when the patient is too paranoid or too angry to contact or allow contact with folks outside who might help – sometimes the pet is taken away from the patient permanently. Sometimes the pet dies.

When either of these unfortunate situations occur, everyone automatically assumes that the patient should no longer have a pet, because they cannot care for it. I think there is a parallel situation with elderly people – if they cannot care for the animal, the animal is taken.

Well, why? Of course it is cruel to the animal to let it suffer, and that is what we are responding to. But it’s also cruel to the mentally ill person – or elderly person – to be alone. Why is the cruelty to the human okay, the cruelty to the animal not? As a practical matter, this stark choice can sometimes be avoided. We can help the patient make advance plans for what to do with the animal in an emergency. Yet sometimes real life can’t be juggled that well, and the stark choice – definitely cruel to the human being vs. potentially cruel to the animal is the operative question.

What did we tend to do a hundred years ago? I don’t think we valued animals as highly then; did we accept the death of animals because of poor human keepers more readily then?

Observation

I notice both live and in print, progressives seem to put more energy into making their response witty (whether they are quoting, inventing, or playing to the audience) than to getting it correct. That is hardly a universal, but seems a strong tendency. I have my own guesses why that would be so, but I'd like to break out of my prism (heh) a bit and hear yours.

Links and Quotes

Just a few things I found in my travels:

Harvard Econ professor and textbook-write Greg Mankiw connects us to Robert Samuelson's Hold The Hysteria
There's a disconnect between what people see around them and what they're told is happening. The first is upsetting (rising gas prices, falling home prices, fewer jobs) but reflects the normal reverses of a $14 trillion economy. The second ("panic," "financial meltdown") suggests the onset of something catastrophic and totally outside the experience of ordinary people. The economy, said The New York Times last week, may be on "the brink of the worst recession in a generation" -- an ominous warning.
Perhaps, but so far the concrete evidence is scant.
and a review of Galbraith on the 50th Anniversary of his The Affluent Society.
Galbraith invites readers to look down on the conservatives of his day. He was one of the cadre of public intellectuals of the 1950s, like Richard Hofstadter, and intellectual politicians, like Adlai Stevenson, who offered a seemingly sophisticated alternative to Ike's military mien and prayer breakfasts.
But while "The Affluent Society" reflects American society in the 1950s, it was quite detached from postwar trends in economics, which is why Galbraith has rarely been embraced by economists.
Ouch.

Megan McArdle dispels some Myths of the Market, including
Item Three: Being on the gold standard would also not have prevented this mess
There are a lot of hucksters out there writing books and newsletters telling people that a gold standard (or some other commodity currency) is the cure for all their worries. The way they tell it, "hard" currency is a sort of broad-spectrum economic snake-oil, the ginseng of the financial markets. Only adopt their plan, they beseech, and America will no longer be plagued by exchange rate fluctuations, government profligacy, trade deficits, inflation, speculative mania, financial panics, or indigestion. This is triple-distilled balderdash.

Breath of the Beast wonders Why Good People Believe Bad Things in the context of Israel and the Middle East.

Maggie's Farm unearths an interesting observation by Orwell,
Suppose in 1940 you had taken a Gallup poll, in England, on the question ‘Will Germany win the war?’ You would have found, curiously enough, that the group answering ‘Yes’ contained a far higher percentage of intelligent people – people with IQ of over 120, shall we say – than the group answering ‘No’. The same would have held good in the middle of 1942. . .

The English intelligentsia, on the whole, were more defeatist than the mass of the people – and some of them went on being defeatist at a time when the war was quite plainly won – partly because they were better able to visualize the dreary years of warfare that lay ahead. Their morale was worse because their imaginations were stronger. The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory.

Carl over at No Oil For Pacifists deserves congratulations on a legal outcome he had much to do with.

Neco Draconis has Latin poetry for Easter. C'mon, don't be a sissy; there's a translation.

There are childish insults on both sides caught on this political video, but the conclusion is against er, progressive stereotypes.

Thomas Sowell makes an impressive generalization about argument in general which discussing Obama's Audacity.
Since all things are the same, except for the differences, and different except for the similarities, it is always possible to make things look similar verbally, however different they are in the real world.
And finally, Greg Lukianoff has some direct difficulties with bias at Wikipedia. Don't accuse honest progressives of being conservative shills, or you might hear
What makes this case somewhat different and more troubling, however, is that the critic in question is an editor on FIRE's Wikipedia page, and, therefore, has had a disproportionate effect on how FIRE is represented on the Internet. As many have lamented, the problem with Wikipedia is that it empowers the Internet-obsessive, those with personal axes to grind, and the unswervingly ideological to define e-reality. (emphasis mine).

Context Is EveryThing, Eh?

video

So, why is this funny when she does it, but if the kid on the skateboard did it we'd be infuriated?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Giddings, Texas

On the way from Houston to Austin on 290 (my son Ben details some of the problems of the trip here), we kept seeing signs for Giddings. No signs for Austin, which is the capital, after all, but signs for Brenham, Prairie View, and always Giddings. I had never heard of Giddings, and wondered why it was so important that the Texas Highway Dept needed to mention it every few miles, yet were willing to let us just hope we were on the right road to the state capital.

At the Giddings border, we were informed it has about 5,000 people - hard to see how that would impress while in the environs of Houston, eh? The road was lined with gas stations and car dealers for two miles, with blank emptiness behind them. Giddings proper was a nice little town, actually, though at 11pm it was hard to imagine it at its best. As we approached the train tracks we heard the whistle - alarmingly close, actually. I took my foot off the gas, expecting the RR lights to start flashing and the little gate to come down to stop us. Nope.

As we crossed the tracks, Ben and I looked right to see how close this train was. In memories of crisis and surprise things seem more alarming, so the blinding light above the track probably wasn't actually 20 yards away, but more like 50. Still, at the 30mph I expected that a train would be running through town that would be, oh, 3 seconds away. Alarming. Clearing the tracks without incident, I looked in the rearview for the flashing lights. It was quite some time before they started and the gates came down. The train crawled through at about 5mph - ah, the locals would likely know that. Guests from NH - or Romania - would assume wrongly.

Well, no harm done, I guess. But I wondered what was so special about Giddings, to make it such a focus, for no obvious reason.

Golly, it's the county seat. Settled in the late 1800's, and Lutherans, German Lutherans, moved in pretty quickly after. It was actually Wendish Germans - the sort of odd bit of geographic and linguistic information which I keep track of - and they were Missouri Synod Lutherans - the type of odd denominational information I keep track of. The town has a Wendish festival every year. Had I only known.

It was an oil-boom town in the 1980's, which was likely when all the signs went up telling people how close they are to Giddings, but it's shrunk back down again. Hilton Smith, one of my all-time favorite Negro League pitchers, was from Giddings, though I hadn't known that until I looked it up. He is best known for helping Satchel Paige pad his victory statistics: Paige would pitch the first three innings and get credit for the victory, Smith would pitch the final six and get squat.

The Southern Pacific Railroad still goes through Giddings, though. I'm a witness.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dave Burge's Gimp

Iowahawk is running for president, and has an important message of unity.
I have to admit I had second thoughts once we arrived back in America because the gimp would soon confront this country's shameful legacy of anti-Dutch bigotry, even from my own grandmother. I remembered as a child Grandma warning me not to eat gouda and to stay away from dikes, oblivious to the fact that my mother -- her very own son's wife -- was a full-blooded Vandenbriink from Pella.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Branding

Political campaigns are about establishing your brand, I'm told. Brands are stand-ins for serious ideas. At best, they're synedoches. More usually, they're just lies. Let's have some fun with this.

Obama is definitely a Prius, right? Hillary claims to be a minivan, but is maybe a Volvo or Mercedes.

And McCain - not a Hummer...A Jeep, maybe? Or maybe he used to drive a Jeep but now a Lincoln. A restored Camaro? I'm not reading these brands as well as I'd like. Ron Paul is a 56 Chevy because you can repair the thing yourself, dammit, and you should. Mike Huckabee a "used" pickup truck that turns out to be a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 diesel. But biodiesel, and with a fish on it.

Help me out here. Have fun with it. Kucinich? Romney?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Focus of Attention

Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling makes an odd observation
"There is plenty of time for Obama to make a recovery in Pennsylvania,” said Debnam. “But he’s definitely a victim of the 24 hour news cycle right now. He needs to get the spotlight turned back on Clinton quick.”

I thought the point of campaigning was to get people to focus on you and your ideas. If the point of running for the Democratic nomination this year is to get everyone to focus on one's opponent, that seems a powerful commentary.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Gay Friends

I am posting from Texas at the moment. Should I use a larger font?
Stuff White People Like has a recent posting Having Gay Friends, the contemplation of which leads to some interesting conclusions about the types of communication I have in various settings. I doubt I am unique in my difference of emphasis in different environments, leading to different associations.

Half of my gay friends are at work, the other half online. I have no current gay friends that I know of in my lively social circle. One can draw conclusions of my personal bigotry against gay people from that if one wishes, but my narrowness is actually far worse than that. We have a fairly large sweep of people we are friendly with, but our close friends are much like us. They are Christian, somewhat close to us in age and thus with older children, above average intelligence, married (a few divorced) – I’m sure I could find more similarities if I pushed it. A second circle is our children’s friends and our friends’ children, a group only slightly more diverse. (I do consider generation-crossing to be as difficult or more than religious or racial diversity, and not to be despised in the multi-culti indices of tolerance. At work, online, and in stranger-situations, I find age a much greater barrier than racial or social divisions. I approach people of my own generation most naturally.) This is what happens to families. If we see someone socially we both have to pretty much like both of them. Any children present have interactive needs as well, and putting them repeatedly in boring or difficult situations has high emotional cost.

This is considered shameful in some Christian circles and most secular ones, a mark of close-minded uptightnesses and/or unwillingness to move out of our comfort zone. Perhaps. But we don’t even see these people anywhere near as much as we’d like. We neglect nearly all of them if one measures interest in their lives and emotional support offered. Heck, we can’t even get into our comfort zone, never mind out of it.

My gay friends at work are all close to me in age, above-average intelligence, like-minded about work issues…even my different friends are the same. As a theater major and occasional dancer, I had more gay friends in college. In college, you will note, people are about the same age as you, above-average intelligence, with common interests.

My online community, more recently developed, looks more diverse from a government checklist perspective, because it no longer matters whether spouses or children are in their comfort zones when “visiting.” Having something sensible for me to read matters much more, and the blogs I frequent written by gay people are a dead giveaway by their titles: Gay Patriot, Classical Values, Gay Conservative. I think they are mostly about my age and above-average intelligence, now that I think of it. Among the most sensible and observant people I read in a week.

Looking over the rest of my list of oft-visited sites, I have a largish category of bloggers who work in psych but are more conservative (politically or religiously) than most people in that very liberal field. They are about my age and… well, you get it.

It isn’t surprising that an assistant village idiot, focused on keeping the obvious ever before me, should find common ground with those who do not think like others in their “category.” Such people usually spend a lot of energy pointing out obvious things their fellows don’t wish to accept. They (we) spend a lot of time trying to persuade, hammering sense into people who have picked up silly thoughts from environments we are all too familiar with. We have not so much changed our minds as seen through previous errors, and we know something of the social and emotional forces that prevent one from seeing through convenient beliefs.
It takes…a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange. William James

Fools And Idiots

Though we use the terms interchangeably, fools and idiots are opposites. “Simpleton” would be a more accurate term than “idiot” in this context, but Village Simpleton doesn’t have the same history and literary resonance as Village Idiot, and I would rapidly grow tired of having to explain what I meant if my title were Assistant Village Simpleton.

Fools believe they are wise. They search for the abstruse or esoteric, whose very mention brands them as someone in the know, much like poseur ordering wine, or everyone talking about the theater. Full of themselves and impressed with their own deep thoughts, they make just enough sense to be irritating. Simpletons aren’t sure whether their comments are intelligent or not, they just go with what seems sensible. Fools order a Syrah because it’s from the Northern Rhone Valley, simpletons order the Shiraz because they had it once at someone’s house and liked it. It’s the same grape, grown in a different place. Many people claim to know the difference. I don’t know if they do or not. I don’t. I don’t remember whether I liked shiraz or not, which any idiot would do, and why I’m still only the assistant.

Children Imitating Us

If children learn all these subtle sexist and racist prejudices from adults who are trying to disguise and deny them, why don’t children pick up all those things we do want them to imitate, like sitting still and being polite?

Humorous, yes, but with a serious point. The civilizations of the west are routinely accused of perpetrating these terrible prejudices and dangerous values on the rest of humanity. But the sappy righteousness of “South Pacific” has it exactly backward. The terrible prejudices and dangerous values are the lot of all humankind, everywhere. We don’t have to be carefully taught prejudice. It comes absolutely naturally and unbidden – it is tolerance that has to be carefully taught. Occasionally we rise above the misery because of western – usually Christian – values. Even that, not so often as we’d like.

Morality Under Pressure. Update: Great Minds, etc.

Update: Bird Dog over at Maggie's Farm has posted on a very similar topic today, based on a marvelous essay of GK Chesterton's.


Few things tick off the non-religious more quickly than any hint of a suggestion that one can’t be moral without religious beliefs. I don’t think religious people make that accusation anywhere near as often as claimed, and it would be easy to conclude that there is some defensiveness and oversensitivity on the issue, but it is certainly true that some religious people, particularly Christians in this culture, do make that claim. Mostly, those people make the claim automatically – something they’ve heard but haven’t thought out. Dostoyevsky’s comment without God all things are permitted is often trotted out.

As with most arguments generating more heat than light, each side is speaking of something different, hence shouting.

Insofar as people are claiming that atheists or other shades of non-religious people are incapable of being generous, or kind, or honest, they are simply fools. I can’t imagine what limited powers of observation would allow a person to come to such a conclusion.

If we state it another way, however, there is something to it. Put morality under pressure and it reveals itself as either religious or empty. I have to use a broad definition of “religious” to get to such an outrageous statement, but given that, I believe it holds.
Most human beings in civilized places are trained in a mild social morality, adequate for the day-to-day interactions of waiting one’s turn, not grabbing things off the shelves and stuffing them in your pockets, greeting others pleasantly. This minimum is so expected that we are significantly annoyed when rude drivers or arrogant pricks offend against it, even in small, unimportant things.

At the other extreme is morality under extreme pressure, when we are fearful, at risk of impoverishment – when consequences are dire; or complementarily, when reward is high and risk of being caught is low.

Most of morality takes place in the great in-between. Objectivists maintain that altruism is an illusion. We get something back for our good behavior, whether in terms of goodwill from others or warm feelings about ourselves. As a result, objectivists and similar Randian types are among the most contemptuous of religion. Whatever we say is a decision based on our moral code, they will counter is based in the selfishness of that return. We like ourselves better, or others like us better, or we believe we have contributed to some overall improvement in the world that we will benefit from.

It is worthwhile for our humility to contemplate the hidden benefits of our good acts, as it prevents us from taking too much credit for what special, high-minded folks we are. But I don’t see reason for any ultimate discouragement in the face of this. Objectivism can undermine our belief in the morality of many things, but not everything. Two fairly simple points – assistant village idiot sorts of points – bring it down.

Whatever value we might place on our opinion of ourselves, we can keep inventing scenarios, increasing the rewards, increasing the consequences, reducing the risk, until we come to a place where no rational actor would say he is getting adequate recompense for his moral behavior, and only a disputant childishly unwilling to face facts would persist. But these scenarios are not just hypotheticals. However high we set the bar, some human being – many human beings – have surpassed it. I may not have proved real altruism possible with my own life, but others have.

Second, we are all aware when we are more selfish. It stands to reason that we have moments of being less selfish. We may not ever show a perfection of unselfishness, but if there is worse, there must be better, and “better” thus has some real meaning.

As pressure increases, our reasons for doing good come under stress. Financial setbacks test our generosity. Isolation tests our choice of lifestyle. Oppression tests our kindness. A virtue that has not been tested is no virtue. What keeps us going? We rely at first on “being that sort of person.” Is that obedience to our need to feel good about ourselves, or obedience to something higher? Only pressure will reveal that. As character is increasingly tested, the payback for thinking well of ourselves, or having others think well of us tops out. Beyond that we need something more or there is just no reason to keep on keepin’ on.

The idea comes to us that we must continue to do well because it’s just Right. Why it is right may be rather vague to us, connected to some obscure order of the universe – the Tao, as CS Lewis wrote, taking the term from the Buddhist idea of the fitness of certain acts. We’re not quite sure why it would be wrong to be take something from a helpless person, even if we are hungry, even if we have no danger of being caught – but we know that it is wrong. Something in the universe itself would be wounded, or all of humankind would be diminished were we to do what we know is evil.

That’s a religion. It may not be well-articulated or understood. It may not have a specific deity in mind, or seem especially like the religions of the people around you. It doesn’t have any special foods, dances, or recitations associated with it; it needn’t have any systematic theology behind it. Or going in the other direction, it may have elaborate history and commentary among the learned, so that we think of it as a philosophy rather than a religion. The major philosophies on the market today cover an enormous amount of territory, and many strive mightily to not be a religion at all. They can explain most of what happens without regard to even a vague or vestigial religion. You can go through most of your day-to-day life without ever coming up against something that isn’t covered by these philosophies. There is usually no need to resort to a religious explanation.

I expect some internal protest from readers at this point. Most people believe that their animating philosophy of life covers all important items, and are quite sure that even if they have not thought it out or researched it fully (yet), that their particular belief does have an explanation for even difficult phenomena. All bases are covered. My challenge to that, well, evasion, however well–intended, is to momentarily sidestep the lengthy discussions of whether philosophy A does indeed cover all theoretical possibilities, and direct you back to your own life as you actually live it. Are some things just right? Are there acts which are simply evil even if the provocation is enormous? Are there places where all the earthly payback (not only gratitude from others but our own satisfaction at having upheld our honor) is never going to be enough - yet we feel that a person should do the right thing anyway?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Reminder

Most of us tend to sites that serve up interesting ideas quickly. Several sites on my sidebar have less-frequent, longer pieces that are more exacting in their research and strict in their reasoning. It's a good habit to read a few of these occasionally, lest our reasoning atrophy. None of these has those overlong essays more suitable for book chapters, but No Oil For Pacifists, Neo-neocon, and Classical Values do put more care and energy into getting it right than most others do.

Victimology

The Anchoress is correct when she notes that the focus on Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons should not on racism, which seems mild, but on its victim stance, which dominates the speeches. It has been a fascinating race to the bottom for victim status in the Democratic nomination process, with Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro also weighing in on the unfairness of how Hillary has been and is being treated because she is a woman.

Eric Scheie over at Classical Values has an apropos comment, though his post is in relation to hypocrisy and the Eliot Spitzer discussion.
Acting like you're a victim comes naturally, because most of us pity ourselves anyway.
Yes, quite; and I don't doubt that at many times in their lives these Democratic worthies have been treated unfairly because of race or sex. Even more have less-fortunate women or African-Americans received some ill treatment.

But it is amusing to take a snapshot of how all these people came up and what was happening in the legendary year 1969. Hillary Clinton was graduating from Wellesley or her way to Yale Law School; Gloria Steinem, after graduating from Smith and publishing a book, was the lioness of the women's movement; Geraldine Ferraro had interrupted her law career to raise children (there may have been some actual suffering in that; she went on to found the - irony alert - Special Victims Unit); Reverend Jeremiah Wright was getting his master's degree. Barack Obama was an eight-year old stepson of an oil company executive in Indonesia. He would go on to Occidental, Columbia and Harvard.

John McCain was being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Disillusionment

I am going to Houston for a few days next week, and will spend a night in Austin. I had thought of visiting the George Washington Carver Museum, as I have often claimed that as the inventor of peanut butter, GWC was the greatest American who ever lived.

Carver didn't invent peanut butter. He used the peanut for lots of useless stuff like cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline and nitroglycerin, but not peanut butter. I am stunned and shattered. I am looking for a new hero now. Carver can still be called a great American, but not the greatest.

The Long View

Most places in NH, you can't see far. As it is hilly, you can usually get to a place with a view pretty readily, but any random look you take in New Hampshire is likely to be blocked by trees or hills.

On my drive through Dunbarton on the way to work every morning, I can see Mt. Washington on a clear day. (Near Ernesto's house, Beth). That's a good 80 miles, maybe 100. Unusual for us to see that far here.

Obama's Real Tribe

I make occasional observations about the two Democratic candidates. Mostly, I consider the nomination process to be an internal matter for the members of that party, which I shouldn’t necessarily weigh in on. I do give myself permission to comment when more general social issues come up in the context of the campaign.

Barack Obama is a member of the Arts & Humanities Tribe. He does not transcend race so much as embodying two of the largest Democratic tribes, the A&H and African-American (other tribes in that party would be Seniors, especially ethnic, Roosevelt types; Union members, especially government unions; Single mothers). Americans may be transcending race by seriously considering him for the presidency, but he himself does not. He has week support among Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

Despite all the hoopla about his bigoted church, I think the A&H tribal loyalty is primary for Barack, African-American secondary. There are the obvious tells of Harvard law and Michelle’s profession, but those aren’t infallible signs. What people say in unguarded moments is often a better indicator. I don’t pretend to read his heart, but a particular comment has stuck with me as significant. It got some press two weeks ago when Obama said the change he is looking for is when a little girl can go abroad and be proud to say she is an American. Let’s unpack that statement a bit. Go abroad. It doesn’t say when talking with immigrants or tourists here. It is not the phrase one uses when serving in the military, being a missionary, or building houses with Habitat. “Going abroad” are the words we use when traveling for pleasure as tourists, or living in a foreign country for work or study. We don’t mean St. Kitts or Aruba, either, or Cancun. Mostly we mean Europe, though Cairo, Jakarta, Buenos Aires, or Calcutta also qualify. One goes abroad to destinations that have a certain cachet. The wealthy go abroad.

The Obamas have little girls, don’t they?

Every person who has ever mentioned to me being embarrassed or worried about being an American in another country has been an arts & humanities liberal. My favorite irony thus far has been the psychologist who denied that the US was in much danger from Middle-eastern countries (thus, we should never have gone to Iraq), but cautioned me about looking too American – for my own safety – when traveling in Eastern Europe. Where, I will remind you, they generally like Americans. Even the paranoid traumatised older Eastern Europeans who are suspicious of everyone don’t attack Americans – just refuse to serve them in restaurants.

Most Americans who go overseas aren’t embarrassed about us. Only the ones who go abroad are. Also, I don’t recall that there is a lot of pressure from the locals that Americans be embarrassed when they go to India, Japan, or even China. Certainly the Poles and the Bulgarians don’t ask us to apologize. Heck, I don’t think there’s a general resentment against American visitors in Saudi, the Philippines, or Senegal, though each have their pockets of hatred for us.

When Malia Obama’s friends take their junior year abroad, they don’t want to have to keep apologizing for being Americans. I submit that this is more than half of what Obama meant when he made that comment. They will be visiting A&H tribe members in other countries, and don’t want the associated odor of all the other Americans clinging to them like poor country cousins visiting their city relatives. The rantings of Rev. Jeremiah Wright blaming America for 9-11 and saying “God Damn America” fit with this. It is the one common cause that the movers and shakers of these two large Democratic tribes share – they don’t have much else in common.

To sell this idea to the other Democratic tribes which are generally not anti-American, the 20% of Americans who are progressives have to package it as hope/change/a better future. It’s best to keep that vague, as the change that social workers and comp lit professors are envisioning is rather different than the one the diner waitress with two kids is thinking of. Obama is a godsend to these A&H liberals. He is one of them, but they can pretend he is a Man of The People because he’s you know, a brother. That he doesn’t actually fit that description is inconvenient, but not an insurmountable marketing problem. They have packaged him as a human Rorschach, where everyone gets to see what they want.

The Effect Of Cold Climate On Spiritual Development

Next week comes the first day of Spring. That announcement is always regarded with surprise and grim amusement in New Hampshire. The feel and appearance of the world outside has given us no hint of a vernal equinox, and a moment’s reflection reminds us that real spring is still a month out.

What effect does this have on those who grow up with this disconnect? Does it teach young Christians to keep hope despite appearances, or does it undermine their faith in truth by providing a yearly cognitive dissonance between what is technically true and what is plainly not true?

Church attendance is lower in the northern states, lower still in Canada, lowest of all in northern Europe. Hardy faiths known for expecting the worst held on a good while – Lutherans, Congregationalists (the descendants of the Puritans), Scots Presbyterians, Jews – but even those have waned in the last generation.

I don’t know how well the Catholic numbers are holding up in colder climes. They seem to be an all-weather church, but perhaps that is just an impression. It would certainly be a good ad campaign for them: Catholicism – the All-Weather Church, with pictures of people laughing, people crying, people serious; feasting, fasting, noisy, quiet. I give these great ideas away for free. The Vatican won’t use it, but individual Roman Catholic Churches or organizations might want to give it a whirl.

Baptists and Pentecostals flourish in warm climates, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Disciples of Christ in temperate ones. There are good historical reasons for those beginnings, but perhaps weather influences their ability to persevere. The cold northern faiths may have been done in by technology – improvements in heating, lighting, and transportation meant that suffering and hardship were less inevitable. Warm-weather give-it-to-me-NOW sorts of faiths were still viewed with suspicion, but the rigorous girding of the loins from the Auld Faith no longer seemed quite so necessary.

Well Pilgrim, lemme tell ya. Bad weather comes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Psychiatry Before 1900

This is not an exhaustive treatment, but interesting.
The National Library of Medicine's History of Medicine site has plumbed the various corners of American medicine for years, and this latest offering takes a look at the history of early American psychiatry through primary documents including photographs, biographies, and other items. The sections offered on the site cover early psychiatric hospitals and asylums, 19th century psychiatrists of note, and Benjamin Rush, who is known as "the father of American Psychiatry." The section on hospitals and asylums provides a timeline of important dates and activities, including the creation of the first asylum in America by Quakers in 1752. Visitors should also not miss the section on 19th century psychiatric debates as it covers debates about patient restraint and European influences on American psychiatry.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not About Race?

Instapundit has a multi-updated post on Geraldine Ferraro's comments on Obama's support deriving from his race. Great discussion, many links. Amidst the many learned comments, I offer here the necessary perspective of the Assistant Village Idiot, noticing the obvious first.

It is ludicrous to suggest that Obama's support does not derive from his race. I readily concede that his qualifications can and do exist irrespective of race, and also that he is a different style than Sharpton and Jackson (Starbucks vs. BK, perhaps). But references to his race permeate the comments of his supporters - what else can they possibly mean when they say he can bring us together, that he transcends race, that it would be good for America if we could do this, that it would be a message about America to other countries, etc?

Whether Obama is seeking this type of support is a separate issue (I believe he is - I mean, Chicago...Democrat... - but even if he isn't the point remains). He is attracting much support from people who talk like this, for whom the issue of his mixed race is an overwhelming symbol which puts other considerations in the background. All the shoulds, and what-ifs, and buts don't obscure that fact. He may or may not be qualified - but that question is clearly unimportant to many of his voters - and caucusers.

(Spelling corrected. Thanks, Glenn).

Not Mary Ann!


Dawn Wells has been busted for marijuana possession.

TV Commercial

Check out Ben's TV commercial at riseeaster.com

Town Articles

On the way down to Massachusetts, I saw a hand-lettered sign in the back window of a car: PELHAM - VOTE NO ON EVERYTHING.

I have some sympathy with this attitude. However, most of our town warrants in Goffstown are just language changes, bringing definitions up-to-date or clarifying in response to recent litigation. I'm a grouchy guy, and am tempted to vote no on everything. But I voted "Yes" on 18 of the 25 articles. Something like that.

Take a breath, people.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Listen Up, Heretics!

The last time I walked out of church was 20 years ago. On that occasion, a pastor-of-the-week was preaching at Camp Calumet Lutheran. He wandered, but that is hardly remarkable for Lutherans. The problem was that he preached a different gospel, the Gospel of Nice. The Gospel of Good Stuff. He multiplied examples of nice things people had done, and he gradually clarified that this was his point. This was the whole deal, being nice. When he got to the story about the mailman who was going to run in the Moscow marathon, delivering written greetings to the children of Russia, we expected he was finally going to tie it in with some Christian message. Nothing. He remarked how Jesus might have done something like that – a perfect lead-in to an actual sermon about what our Lord might have said in such notes – and then wandered off again. We wandered out.

I walked out of my own church this Sunday. After the offending section, which I will describe below, I tried to stay and just get over it. But I could not remain in worship with the people who had spoken. It was too jarring. I went over to Home Depot and got some aspen trim.

It has a good ending. By the time I got back the sermon was in full swing, and Earl’s lesson hit exactly on my point of objection, but subtly and with balance. He had not written the sermon with the visiting speakers in mind, but the Holy Spirit was on top of that. If they could hear it, the corrective was there. Better still, it was on target enough that I could see where it provided corrective to me as well.


There are many good things which are not the Gospel of Christ, and we confuse them with the gospel at great peril. The demon Screwtape, in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters encourages junior demon Wormwood to get his “patient” interested in "Christianity And."
What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.


Every age has its own fashions, many of which are quite good things in themselves, worthy to be encouraged by Christians. But it is these fashionable good things that are more of a danger to our faith. What we regard as greatly important is far more likely to be confused with the Faith As Taught than lesser goods. We recognize safe driving as a good thing, but we are unlikely to regard it as Christian doctrine. We think carpentry an honorable profession and useful skill, but we are unlikely to incorporate a demonstration into weekly worship. (Though I personally would find that more uplifting than liturgical dance.)

This era of the church has a serious problem confusing health and food issues with Christianity. If you have any temptation to think of healthy eating as part of a Christian lifestyle, or whole foods as part of God’s plan, or physical health as anything other than a worldly good, you are already well within its grasp.

“But AVI! The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, and in point of strict fact, I very seldom sleep with temple prostitutes, and even less often have I married anyone who worships other gods. That is the intent of that verse, and adding our own cultural values in to it is quite simply…heresy.

The opposite attitude, of eating for joy instead of health, is neither better nor worse. There is some chance that it might be spiritually safer, however, as we are less likely to believe it is a god. The church has never had anything against health. But it has regarded an attitude of being focused on staying healthy as being equivalent to being focused on good horsemanship. More Christians have found encouragement from Scripture to neglect the body than to cherish it.

The conflation of healthy eating with spiritual advancement is quite recent in Christian history. It is another of those odd ideas that we picked up in the 19th C. Prior to that, Christians were far more likely to err in the direction of punishing the body, fasting or denying themselves to point of danger or even death. We are the oddity; our era. It is we who all other eras of the church, and most other geographical areas of the church today would furrow their brows at and ask “What are those people thinking of? What on earth does that have to do with Jesus?” Health is a form of wealth, like beauty or education, and we do well to keep thinking of it in those terms.

The speakers this Sunday came from another denomination, one that is known for its focus on healthy eating. The woman speaking is the health officer of her church. Well, why not a Good Sex officer, then? Don’t we want marriages to be joyful? Why not a church cosmetologist, or an insurance officer? Do we hate beauty and security? No, but in those instances we recognize them for what they are: temptations that bind us into this world; potential rivals to God. This health heresy arises at precisely that point in history when we start living longer, and has increased in pace with longer life. We who are wealthiest in length of life are the most careful to protect (should I say hoard?) it.


When I got back to service, Earl was preaching on Romans 8: 5-11, and was at that point on verses 6-8:
6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Our guests, I suspect, heard that more in terms of “eating sausages is giving in to the flesh and unholy; eating lentils is more disciplined and righteous.” No matter. The truth was there if they wanted to hear it. Earl was hot on the trail of the many ways we can seek after the things of this world, and though he didn’t specify being a food fanatic, it was in there for such as I who needed to hear it. The Holy Spirit comes through again, eh?

I imagine most Christians in America let some sort of similar idea sneak in when they think about being “in the flesh.” It is dangerous precisely because it so permeates parts of our culture, and is thus so easily incorporated into unofficial doctrine. I seldom mention it, because it would tick so many people off, and comity in Christian community is also a good thing. People mention it all the time – moms especially because their special charge to instruct in good habits – good studying, good driving, good eating, good organization – makes them susceptible. I nearly always give it a pass when people get that slightly obsessive food thing going in a Christian context. I suspect they would be granolas even if they weren’t Christians, and just don’t stop to think about separating things out clearly.

But when it gets this over-the-top, when the speaker is framed by loaves on the Lord’s Table and is talking about cholesterol, I willingly risk offense.

ABBA Update


I knew you were waiting for it.

You will be pleased to note that ABBA stars Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson have settled their copyright dispute. But even better, there is going to be an ABBA museum (named ABBA The Museum) opening in 2009!

Everyone Is Asking Me...

...if William and Mary has a chance against George Mason tonight in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game.

Actually, no one is asking me. I'll tell you anyway.

William & Mary is a middling defensive team - better on team defense than individual defense. On offense they rely heavily on outside shooting. They have what we used to call "gunners" (I imagine they are called something else now) in Laimis Kisielius*, David Schneider, and Danny Sumner. If their shots drop, they have a chance against a generally better team. W&M also passes quite well, which they will need. GMU has - I just learned, I haven't paid the slightest attention to them - Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell, who will probably be more than W&M can handle.

Realistically, they have no chance. But they had no chance against Virginia Commonwealth either and won. As the conference champion gets an automatic NCAA bid, it would indeed be cool for The College to get in with a 17-15 record. Prediction: George Mason 61-47. Update: GMU up 27-26 at the half. Kisielius is hitting his shots, the others are not. Watch for George Mason to pull away immediately. Update: Final George Mason 68-59. Not bad for us.

Both W&M and GMU have Romanian players, BTW. Vali Lazarescu and Vlad Moldoveanu, respectively

*Kisielius is a Lithuanian who was on his country's "B" team last year, but I can't find if he is this year.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sidebar Update

And terri. Of course I should add terri's blog, Wheat Among Tares, to my sidebar.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Jonah and Human Shields

In adult Sunday School last week, the friend teaching the class mentioned in reference to Jonah that there is an equivalence to how we look at our enemies, and that if God is willing to receive them, we should not draw back from praying that the Lord bless them. Someone present mentioned the adopt-a-terrorist program, in which Christians pray for a terrorist. Somewhat tangentially, the teacher wondered out loud whether the US would have been better served spending the Iraq war money on going in and building schools and hospitals. This is exactly the sort of thing I don't let pass, and demurred briefly, noting that such strategy had been tried by the US without success.

My initial objection was on those practical grounds, and if pressed I would likely have made the argument that whatever Christian principle was involved in being generous to enemies, something seemed to go awry when governments tried it.

Upon reflection, I have a better reason. Jonah did not go to Nineveh and say "Here, this is all my money. I want to do good works among you because God loves you." Jonah told them to repent. He was quite harsh, actually, which was why he was afraid to go in the first place. Jonah might have been annoyed if God had told him to go to Nineveh and build schools, but he wouldn't have been afraid. He knew that after hearing his message, they might kill him.

They did repent, and God blessed them. This gives a whole different spin as to what we mean when we ask God to "bless" our enemies. We are told to pray for them, but I don't recall much specificity about what, exactly, we should pray for them. There seems some rather large leaps from the idea of praying for enemies, asking for blessing for them, and praying that their lives be okay, as if the three were fairly obviously equivalent. I don't think they're equivalent.

When we have people we love going wrong and we pray for them, we don't tend to just pray that they get good jobs and have good health (though I think those are worthy items to pray for), we pray that they return to God. That they see the light. That they recognise the error of their ways and turn around. That is a prayer for people that we love - for siblings or old friends or children who are moving away from God in some way.

When the Christian human shields went to Iraq, hoping to shame or stop the US from going to war, I think they left out that part of telling the Iraqi people (or the government) to repent. I might have admired that a bit more.

No false dichotomies here. I am not advocating a freedom of hatred or permission to rationalise any attitude or action we might think fit for our enemies. The command to pray for them remains: bless those who curse you. I simply note that there is an oversimplified - and ultimately unloving - use of this concept in current Christian discussion.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Primaries Vs. Caucuses

Looking over the electoral map, Obama has built his lead in states that have caucuses. Hillary has a delegate lead if you only look at the states that have primaries. I don't know what it means, I just think it's interesting.

Acting Lesson

I'm 99% sure this is a joke. Darn convincing, though.


To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee "That's not an acting lesson; This is an acting lesson."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Sidebar Changes

I have added Classical Values and Neco Draconis, which I should have done long ago. I moved some others into new categories. Some of the "Blogs with great names" are inactive, but I couldn't bear to delete them. There are a few recent commenters whose sites I did not yet add, but I will.

"Stuff" Sites

Those regulars here who aren't also regulars at my son Ben's site should check out the post about his new favorite site.

Stuff White People Like currently has 81 entries, including the excellent newest one, Graduate School. The site skews a little younger and more liberal than I am, and seems to focus on the Bobo, coastal, upper-middle style of white person, but do not be deceived. For every entry which allowed me to snicker at the sort of white person I dislike, there was another which was painfully accurate.

That site led in turn to Stuff Educated Black People Like, which leads further to other "stuff" sites: stuff film critics like, stuff educated black people hate - Wordpress seems to have a salmon run on these at present.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Homeland Security

Megan McArdle, in her Atlantic Magazine column "Asymmetrical Information" observes:
Homeland security is the conservative version of the national healthcare plans I keep reading.
Precisely. This is what governments do. They accomplish some of the job they are assigned, because many of the workers are well-meaning, somewhat competent folk. But when all the cards have been played, there was a lot of hoopla without much improvement, and it cost five times more (and rising) than expected. How useful did orange alerts turn out to be? Did we get anything back for our increased inconvenience at airports?

Read the whole thing.

Democrat Predictions

Political parties are always concerned about electability, but much of this is speculative. I read in comments sections that the Republicans want Obama to win, because they know they can beat him - so vote Hillary. I have read people assert with equal vehemence the contrary notion, that the GOP would rather face Sen. Clinton in the general.

This is need for narrative and false belief in a controllable universe at work. People making these assertions usually seize upon one (or even two!) ideas and try to ride that all the way home. McCain will look old next to Obama...Hillary will carry the Latino vote in key states... Yawn. Very few people have the knowledge of what really does turn elections, those few will tell you it is chancey and complicated, and even they shy away from predicting this far out. The rest of you, you don't know.

One thing we can predict, however, is that if the Democrats lose in November, there will be enormous I-told-you-so's from one faction or the other, sure that their candidate would have beaten McCain, if only the others had listened.

Problems With Top Down Management

Maintenance is arguing amongst themselves what they should do about the snow and thick ice on the (flat) roof of our hospital. There is neither a policy nor a work order to remove it. My thought is that when roofs in town are collapsing, you should act as if God has sent a work order. Or a new policy. Whichever you like.

There is also a new money-saving government idea in NH that all vacated positions must be left open for 12 weeks before someone can be hired into them. 3 months, regardless of how backed up your department is. It is exactly the sort of top-down decision that will be successful in places where you've got unnecessary people - which is your real problem, but no one wants to tackle that - and miserable in places where you don't have enough people. One-size-fits-all bureaucracy.

Acquiring New Habits

My alarm woke me in the middle of a dream a few mornings ago. The mind seeks narrative, seeks to close gaps and complete a story, as I have noted before. In my dim, half-awake state, I desired to know how the dream turned out (once awake, we see that they were as random as every other dream, but at the first moment, we are sure there is much meaning) - yet I could feel the story slipping into the mist.

This time, I had a solution: If I can just remember a few words, I can google it. Search engines are already an automatic response to the unknown to me.

For Conservatives To Consider

Much of the "Boycott McCain" rhetoric from the Right contains a good deal of prediction what will happen if they sit this one out. The assumption is that this will duly chastise the Republican Party and things will swing back our way in 2010 and 2012 and straight on 'til morning.

A British conservative offers a cautionary tale, describing what happened when this way tried by the Tory Party in the UK. The right became less relevant, not more.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thoughts On Record Snowfall

Today's storm makes this year nearly tied for snowiest in my lifetime. It won't take much of a March (or April - shudder) to make 2007/8 the snowiest in 150 years. That has everyone around here agog, of course, with a new focus for our complaining/bragging.

Looking over the list, the other record years cluster in two areas.
1. 122.0 INCHES 1873/74
2. 115.0 INCHES 1872/73
3. 112.4 INCHES 1995/96
4. 111.0 INCHES 1886/87
5. 111.0 INCHES 1887/88
6. 103.2 INCHES 1898/99
7. 103.0 INCHES 1874/75
8. 102.2 INCHES 2007/08 (before today's storm)
9. 100.0 INCHES 1875/76
10. 100.0 INCHES 1971/72

From 1872-76, we (they) had four straight high-snow winters. 1886-88 had two more.

Ponder this: their ability to remove snow was far, far less than ours. Bringing out a team of horses and a heavy drag to pack down the road was more common than trying to shovel anything out. Shovels, by the way, were heavier and clumsier than now. No snowplows. For one big storm or two you could just stay home and take your time about getting everything opened out, but you couldn't do that for an entire winter. Most people lived in the rural areas. Long roads from your house to the next. Tough to be old, or sick, or injured.

Living like that is getting well into Poor Bastards range. If you were born in the 1860's, you grew up thinking 100 inches was a fairly normal winter, and you'd shoveled a lot of snow by the time your reached adulthood. That generation was the one which actually did have the justification to complain "Why, when I was your age..."