Saturday, May 31, 2008

Just Checking

Commenter Larry (see the penultimate Minimum Wage comment) has been having a blogspot/spam problem of some sort. My reply:
Whoa, Larry. I thought my email was posted on my profile. I went back and fixed that. Thanks.

You're talking over my head on the spamming from a blogspot site. I haven't had that problem. It's not something that's happening intentionally from here. If it's one of those unintentional things where someone makes my site unsafe I'll get on it.
Anyone having a similar problem?

Public Death as Art

Jerub-baal has posted interesting comments about the German artist who wants to put a dying person out in a museum as installation art. He has asked for my comments, and at the moment, I don't have any. I will, though. But you knew that.

The post discusses both the morality of the display and the artist's reasoning why this should be allowed.

Friday, May 30, 2008


We had read about ferret-legging when searching out things to do on our first trip to the UK in 1997. Let me correct that impression: we weren't going to do it ourselves, we wanted to watch someone else do it. Yorkshire was the home base of this "sport," which involves stuffing two ferrets into your pants and seeing how long you can endure their biting, fighting, and scrambling around. Competitions tended to last 20 or 30 seconds - I don't find that surprising - and were held in semi-secret, as the sport is illegal.

Participants are not allowed to wear underwear, by the way.

I'm all for not unduly distressing animals for human sport, but it's hard to see how the primary worry in this is how hard it is on the ferrets. Especially as ferrets are evil.

70-year-old Reg Mellor thought the world record of forty seconds was shamefully wimpy, and shortly after taking up the sport set a new record of over four hours.
"The ferrets must have a full mouth o' teeth," Reg Mellor said as he fiddled with his belt. "No filing of the teeth; no clipping. No dope for you or the ferrets. You must be sober, and the ferrets must be hungry-though any ferret'll eat yer eyes out even if he isn't hungry."
An excerpt of Donald Katz's story about the king of the ferret-leggers is here. Reg is certainly a colorful guy.

A fragment of an unrelated second story about a voyeur follows, but can be ignored.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Minimum Wage

The hospital has a work-training program for patients. Some jobs are vaguely comparable to competitive employment - washing dishes, operating a cash register - but most are much simpler and require few skills. Our rehab department is teaching generic job skills, such as showing up on time, taking breaks when scheduled, not losing your temper when things go wrong.

As currently constituted, none of the jobs are worth minimum wage, if we define worth as something an actual employer would pay you to do. They weren't worth the old minimum wage, either. But if patients do paid work, they must be paid the minimum wage, to prevent exploitation.

When the minimum wage went up, the program had to cut back hours across the board. It still ran out of money, however, and for the months of May and June, no one will get paid to work anywhere. This is in miniature what opponents of the minimum wage have always foretold would happen on the larger economic scale.

Minimum wage laws were originally an attempt to solve a problem. Some employers took advantage of workers, sometimes in small ways, sometimes across entire industries. It would be too difficult for the government to evaluate every position and employee to determine if he was being paid market value for his labor. It is much simpler to decree that everyone who works must be paid x. This solution is only partially related to the original problem, however. Requiring a minimum wage does solve a number of abuses without having to resort to lengthy studies and calculations. But it does not directly address the problem of abuses. How could it? It sets a bottom to the level of abuse an employer can inflict.

In setting that lower limit other ideas crept in. How much is enough to live on? This is a fine and noble question, but it completely sidesteps the question of what a particular type of labor is worth.

Just because a job exists doesn't mean it is worth $7/hour. Just because a car exists doesn't mean it is worth $1000, even though that is what it likely needs to be worth to sell it and buy another car. It might take a great deal of skill and labor to grow cold-weather yams on an Aleutian island and ship them to market in Juneau. That effort may be "worth" a great deal in some cosmic sense. But if no one buys the yams, the effort isn't worth it. So if you are a yam farmer and aren't making any money, but you hire your brother-in-law because he needs a job, how does that job suddenly become worth $7/hour just because someone is doing it?

The idea of a living wage is an extension of this minimum wage reasoning. Everyone agrees that people should be able to obtain food and shelter. But to get there by decreeing that any job they might happen to pick up is automatically worth that amount of money doesn't follow.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Too Good

Mythusmage, commenting on Major Tammes' injury at Miserable Donuts, is perhaps not quite sympathetic about the broken finger, even though it was incurred in Iraq.

A hurt finger. Oh you poor child. How you do suffer for your country.

Try hurting your foot and see what you say then. Typing with a bad finger aint nothing compared to hobbling around on a cane. I swear, you kids are spoiled these days.

Why, when I was a youngin' we had to do our own amputations, hand deliver nukes, and pass the driving test while the Iowa did landscaping with those 16 inchers somewhere in a 50 yard radius of our car. When we took on the Italian Fascists in Tashkent during the Quasi War they hadn't invented limbs yet. Had to wield our weapons with tongue and pecker. And you're bitching about a dinged digit.

What a wuss.

You sure you're not a Harvard freshman?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Smells Suspicious

I am giving a presentation tomorrow about a narrow area of mental health law in NH. I am not an attorney, but the nature of my job means that I know this area as well as anyone. What I am going to say has been vetted by the one person who knows more about this than I do. It is going to be controversial, and resisted, but I know it is correct.

People heavily involved in the issue are very encouraging, telling me that this training and change in the way we do things is ten years overdue. I am going to tell people they have to change what they are doing, but I have no power of enforcement, only persuasion.

The people who have actual power of enforcement have stated they will back me up. But they don't know the law that well, and when challenged, are going to be emailing me emergency questions asking whether we really do have to do it this way.

Most (or all) of the powerful, important people who are telling me I'm right will back down on about 50% of what I'm saying when the challenge comes.

I have seen this before - I am about to be hung out to twist in the wind. I just figured that out today.

Not this time. Not again. I am not an astute political player at work - I still think that when people ask for my analysis they really want it - but this time I'll, I'll...

No, I'm cornered. I'm pretty much screwed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Human Rorschach

I have mentioned once before that Obama is a human Rorschach test - people see what they want - but the blog Stubborn Facts has taken this one artistic step farther.

Comparative Myths

If you are a creationist, you believe that we are descended from 2+ people in SW Asia about 6,000 years ago.
If you are an evolutionist, you believe that we are descended from 150 people who crossed from Africa into SW Asia about 60,000 years ago, and our culture descended from an area very near the creationist’s Eden about 10,000 years ago.

Think for a few moments how much that difference affects day-to-day life in America.

Not much, actually.

In contrast, some US Senators believe that the oil companies are manipulating prices to elect Republicans, and are hiding competing technologies. This is insane. The 10,000 members of a serious presidential candidate’s church (plus who knows how many others nationwide) believe the CIA created AIDS to keep black people down. This is insane. A good chunk of our fellow citizens believe in 9/11 conspiracies or that Bush stole the election. These are also insane.

Think for a few moments how much those beliefs affect day-to-day life in America.

Quite a bit, actually.

I’m an evolutionist, in the main, but fail to see why that particular belief is supposed to be the acid test in whether one believes in faith or science. If you were going to start this morning as an intelligent person looking to validate one set of beliefs or another with information you could verify yourself, which would be easier to disprove?

The difference in myths is a cultural marker, not an objective one. Anti-creationists are irritated by creationists not because of science – else they would be more upset at the myths that actually have some effect – but because the creationists’ beliefs scream We are not one of you! We do not acknowledge your culture as superior! They are not the right sort of person, who accepts the right priorities the culture should be run by.


Hey-Bama, O-Bama, Bama, Bama-O,
Bama-Hey Bama-O Bahmah.
Hey BaREE, BaREE, won't you fight for me?
Bama-O, Bama-hey, Superstar!

Monday, May 19, 2008

More NCLB Controversy

Charles Murray is always controversial. He is also very difficult to argue with. His recent article in New Criterion discusses "educational romanticism."
And so, beginning with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the federal government embarked on a series of major efforts to improve education for disadvantaged children that culminated in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Act. Surveying that history, an analogy occurred to me that I offer as a speculative proposition: America’s federal education policy as of 2008 is at about the same place that the Soviet Union’s economic policy was in 1990.

HT: Maggie's Farm

Tar Baby

The term tar baby has gone off-limits. Old guys like me might still get away with using it, because we grew up in an era where the term had not the slightest racial connotation. Tar baby referred to the mute human mock-up made of tar in the Uncle Remus stories. Br'er Rabbit got angry at its insolence and hit it, getting stuck. The more he hit it, the more stuck he got. The point was that he had gotten himself into difficulty of his own accord, and was now in a problem he could not get rid of.

The irony, of course, is that Joel Chandler Harris likely reworked an image that he had learned from a black storyteller. The tar baby was black because it was an image of a human in an African-American context. In the same way that Crayola and Johnson & Johnson decided that "flesh tone" was a light tan years ago, neglecting to note that it was not the color of the flesh of a good many of their customers, a black storyteller, when describing a mock human, would of course make him black.

When I looked it up, I found isolated incidents that might have been racial slurs in the use of "tar baby" over the years, but it was a brand-new idea to me just a few years ago. Either someone used it racially to insult a black person, or some black person thought it was a racial slur, and the whole thing snowballed. The most likely explanation is that there were elements of all three - people known to be prejudiced used the term about individual black people with the primary intent of merely describing them as difficult; a hint of racism under it was not wholly imaginary.

It is no good saying that "tar baby" is not racist because it "really" means an inextricable problem in its historical context. Words change, and this is exactly how they change. Legitimately or not, the phrase has acquired a racist connotation. Individuals unaware of this might still use it in innocence for many years to come if they never run across any whisper that it has changed. Mitt Romney was called on the carpet about its use in 1999, I think ridiculously. The papers were full of people claiming that it was an obvious racial slur, as if this were something generally known. Rubbish. I am pretty alert to words and their connotations and I had never heard this before. He was using the term entirely in its older meaning, and some folks were just looking to be offended.

Once these things get started, however, they make themselves true. I would no longer use the term on the chance that someone would take it as racially charged. It's a pity, for we lose a vivid image in our common culture - one that African-Americans gave us, likely. But it now has that connotation, just as gay now means something other than happy, and atoms are known to be divisible, even though the word's origin means uncut or indivisible. It is no good saying that gay "really" means happy anymore than it would make sense to deny the existence of electrons because the word atom means indivisible.

Laughing At Oneself

The ability to laugh at himself is the best short-cut method to knowing if a guy is balanced, confident, mature. I think this applies to women as well, but it is less a part of women's culture, so its absence may be less of a bad sign.

To laugh at yourself you need (some) insight, perspective, grounding in reality, self-honesty, confidence. It's not an infallible sign either way, as people can be able to laugh at themselves in some areas but not in others; there must also be well-balanced people who don't laugh at themselves, though none are coming to mind at the moment. I can imagine a type of person who is well but does not laugh at him or herself, but I can't think of specifics. Laughing at yourself is a sign of health. People who cannot are often brittle, easily offended by even the mildest criticism, self-important.

John McCain has some ability to laugh at himself; George Bush has a great deal. Hillary Clinton sometimes sounds forced when doing it, but I think at least some is genuine. Does anyone know of Barack Obama laughing comfortably at himself? I'm not picturing it, but I haven't seen a lot of him informally. It may be a very telling sign of his character.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

No Child Left Behind

I don't generally hear good things about NCLB. Many teachers find it a useless intrusion that eats up time. Greg Forster at pajamasmedia writes on the benefits of NCLB.
The official justification — that NCLB would make 100% of students proficient — doesn’t pass the laugh test. But the arguments that it harms education, though they seem much more plausible, are also misplaced. And a federal mandate for testing produces important benefits that are well worth the costs.
The advantages he lists are likely less-visible to classroom teachers. For example, districts get money, and the budget-creators would likely make teachers ride unicycles if there were significant federal dollars attached to it.

Well, it's another side of the story.

Brief Thoughts on a Shaving Mug

I use a shaving mug and brush because it reminds me of my grandfathers. The odd part of that is I never saw either of them use one or saw one in their houses. By the time I was old enough to notice such things, Gillette Foamy was on the market, and both my grandfathers switched quickly to the easier form, as most men did. They were neither sentimental nor hidebound about such things. They must have used a mug and a brush earlier, but before my time.

So I am reminded of them for false reasons, but the act has repeated so many times its origin is superfluous. Shaving mug = grandfathers. We do not remember events directly - we remember the last time we remembered - and thus bend memories over time. Reminiscing with others, photos, and old documents can correct our slippage somewhat.

For the record, I do not use a double-edged razor, and certainly not a straight razor. I am quite clumsy, and don't want to associate my grandfathers with bleeding and disfiguring myself.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Post 1300 - Tom Stoppard and Sophistry

I have been rereading my Tom Stoppard, one of the few writers who can cause me to both think and laugh out loud. Today it was "The Real Thing," which came out in 1984 with Glenn Close in the Broadway cast. A section early in the second act caught me. Briefly: Henry, a playwright, is attempting to rewrite a terrible script by a jailed protester, Brodie. He has been put up to this by his activist wife, Annie. The playwright explains why it is not merely bad writing by Brodie, but bad thinking that prevents Henry from fixing it up.
Because it's balls. Announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific - war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft...It's all here: pages and pages of it. It's like being run over very slowly by a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the india rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea... I can't help someone who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable speech is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech. Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent...

And now to our real subject: Henry later tells his 17 y/o daughter Sophistry is a phrase so neat you can't see the loose end that would unravel it. It's flawless but wrong.

I thought of two quick examples of phrases which sound so very wise but are in fact rubbish. You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. Well, of course you can, you ninny. Every country in the world does it all the time, except perhaps Sweden. Or how about The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth. The nonsentient rock has a natural right of ownership over people, frogs, and paramecia for what reason, exactly?

The reader is encouraged to provide more examples.

Celtics Update

I don't really feel up to it, but tomorrow will be too late.

Cleveland's main chance is if LeTravel gets the benefit of calls in both directions. With one exception, in both of the Cavaliers' playoff series, if LBJ doesn't go to the foul line a lot, they lose. If the stripes call him tight for traveling, he is hampered.

In the first two games, the Celtics contained LeBron. In the third and fourth games, they contained him somewhat. Games five and six, he is back to LeBron James Standard. This is not lack of focus and intensity on Boston's part. James is a great player, and has adjusted to what they have thrown at him. If the C's can continue to keep him out of LBJ Outrageous range, they should be able to get a lead.

I thought during the season that I would be eating my words about Ray Allen being on the quick downside of his career, but in the playoffs he is proving me right, dammit. Garnett has had consistent great games. Paul Pierce has had consistent Very Good games (his defense has been better than expected). If Allen cannot step up from Mediocre to Good, then either Pierce or Garnett will have to take it to another level. There is some hope that players in the 4-8 can step into that slot and put the Celts over the top, but it will have to be two of them, because on average, one of those five will have an excellent game ond one a bad game. Things to worry about: Perkins and/or Davis pick up early fouls (see paragraph 2); Cassell and/or Allen take ill-advised shots.

Prediction - Celtics 88-81. LeBron doesn't get enough benefit of calls, and someone gets hot enough to matter.

Halftime update: LeBron has already been to the line 11 times, suggesting that he will keep getting charity in the second half. He has one rebound and one assist, however, suggesting that he is trying to do it all. Pierce is great thus far.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Road More Traveled

I just finished Balaker and Staley's The Road More Traveled.
1. Congestion costs us more than we think, in money, time, rearranging our lives, people dying in ambulances, lack of dates, and irritation.
2. We're worried that it's inevitable, so we don't do anything much about it.
3. The solutions that get the most attention are of little or no help.
A: That would be light rail and
B: Getting people to drive less.
4. No, really, those are terrible solutions. A: Railroads cost billions, but only start becoming effective at densities of 5,000 people per square mile. Basically, they work in Manhattan. We see all those people in railroad cars and think how great it is that they're not on the road. We forget that a train is essentially a one-lane highway with intermittent large packets of people. They are a disaster for most disabled people. They only attract people within a quarter-mile of a station - on both ends. Everyone else has to drive and change over. B: People don't want to drive less. They want other people to drive less. Because when you're on the highway, all those other people seem to be going to useless and annoying things that aren't as important as what you're doing.
5. We are told that you can't build your way out of congestion, but yeah, you can. It's been done, but you have to keep up with growth. We would rather that other solutions worked instead, solutions like A: light rail and B: other people driving less.
6. There are also technological solutions for managing traffic, like actual software that co-ordinates stoplights, and quick-response teams to get rid of breakdowns and accidents, and better designed feeder roads, and HOT lanes, which we are just starting to find interesting. Once we get these light rail and rideshare programs through the legislature. Mixed used zoning and telecommuting also work.
7. Some of our most important metropolitan traffic congestion managers think congestion is a good thing, because it encourages people to like A: and B:
8. Private toll roads, especially variably-priced toll roads, irritate people who think only rich people use them. But everyone uses them once in a while, and they work great at reducing congestion. So get over your class resentment.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

LaTravel's Line

You have to figure he'll look much better in Cleveland. I expect at least one lights-out performance from him. But LeBron James's line for the first two games against the Celtics looks like one good one: 33-14-15.
And 17 turnovers.

Wellness Goes Green

Wellness and Green, the two near-religions of our workplace, joined forces today and took over the lobby. Because nothing is more important in psychiatric emergencies than reducing your carbon footprint. Healthy snacks, and chair massages for the people - well, you know, not the floor nurses but the nursing administrators - plus Reiki and booths with emphatic diagrams, made the whole thing look as if the sixth-grade science fair was being held concurrently with Wholistic Workshoppe.

Actually, that is what it was. Oh yes, and prize drawings for things I don't want and no one needs, such as Celebrating Wellness T-shirts. You enter by answering Green Awareness or Rideshare questions on a sheet of paper and putting it into a decorated box - so I guess I should specify that the 6th-grade was also having Valentine's Day, though without sugar, Montessori Valentines/Earth Day/Science Fair, with massage.

The day before, the Rewards and Recognition program was giving itself rewards and recognition for having existed for ten years.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Empty Nest - Round Three

Ten years ago we would chat easily with our friends about the impending empty nest. We would be the first in our little circle to have all the children move out. Eight years ago, when Ben was a junior in high school, this new, unusual life appeared on the horizon. We knew that a boy's senior year was often spent out of the house as much as possible, and we wondered what we would do, and what we would talk about. We even had a little money put aside.

Well a dog would have been too much trouble, so we adopted two teenagers from Romania instead in 2001. J-A left for college almost 3 years ago, and Chris graduated highschool and headed off for Texas in 2007. We acquired two dogs that year as well, but no problem, right? One was to be temporary and the other was going to Texas with the youngest. Before he quite accomplished leaving, however, John-Adrian moved back home to attend college online and work, and find a girlfriend - though he said he came home because he was worried we'd be lonely.

Apparently, the absence of a dog was a burden on one of us - so we got two. Now Chris is moving back from Houston (it's a good thing. He needed another year here after high school but was unwilling to consider it then), and we will have two boys and two dogs for at least another year.

Life changes. It doesn't go where you expect it to.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


New York Magazine's Kurt Andersen, in an article about how much he supports Obama:
Contrary to the vast-left-wing-conspiracy visions of the right, much of the press never really loved the Clintons - they just feared and loathed their enemies more.
Well, it's nice to see what conservatives insisted then finally being admitted. Interesting that what could not be acknowledged in the 90's is now framed as you-never-knew-you-poor-fools. The ability of journalists to rewrite history - not for calculating political reasons but for pathetic personal ones - continues unimpeded.

That is a continuing mistake conservatives make in their evaluation of progressives, I suspect. What the fire-breathers of the Right suspect are intentional attempts to skew the information delivered to the people are more often merely evasions of painful realities.

Americans Overseas

Not only is the article in Commentary good, the comments are amusing as well. It touches a nerve when Americans are criticised by folks from other countries - especially among those Americans who have actually lived in other countries. From the article:
The third impression I came away with is the widespread view in Europe, as well as among some Americans, that the U.S. has suffered a huge, almost incalculable, loss of “moral authority” (its worth recalling that we heard much the same thing during the Reagan years). The evidence cited is always the same: Guantanamo Bay, rendition and secret prisons, and waterboarding. They are invoked like an incantation. The effect of this is that you would think that the United States is among the leading violators of human rights in the world.
From the comments:
I currently work with a Canadian with whom it is impossible to have an extended conversation on any subject, whether it be medicine or rock music, as he invariably finds a way to insert some anti-US remark — when confronted on this after some months of enduring it, he said indignantly and evidently seriously that “You have to to expect this”. He spends much of the day complaining about the U.S. to other members of staff, none of whom are American. They may not initiate the conversations, but they rarely disagree. Most of it is childish: he doesn’t have any new ideas or insights, and he isn’t trying to engage me in a serious, thought-out, view-changing way: it’s just “jingoism, baby killers, too bad Reagan didn’t die, shoot Bush” etc. merely the equivalent of “Yo mama wears combat boots” over and over.
The next time Europeans do something moral on behalf of someone else will be the first.
My particular favorite are those residents of other countries who think it is a particularly significant point that Americans should ask themselves why they are hated - as if the idea has never occurred to us before.

No, and no again. Americans worry about such things obsessively, to my great irritation. For those who do not belief we should submit to the correction of our betters in Europe and Canada, we are not usually unaware of what your criticisms are. We have considered them and found them childish. That is apparently even more unendurable in Davos than our initial disagreement.

The shoe is on the other foot. Americans have considered your criticisms. Will you consider ours?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Musing on Samson and Hillary

I can actually picture that if Hillary does not get the nomination, she could pull the whole structure down around her and endorse McCain. I don't think it's likely, but it is interesting that I can even imagine it. I can't imagine a similar scenario even being possible in my lifetime.

The Cain and Abel Group

The stretch of time from Adam’s sons to Abraham is more than 1500 years, but Genesis lists only 18 (or so) generations for the period, the first half in a few whirlwind verses of Chapter 5, the second half in another bare list in Chapter 11. Nor is that the worst of the age problems. Methuselah lives to be 969, and even then doesn’t seem to die of natural causes, but goes down in the flood associated with his grandson Noah. All this fathering of children at a hundred and eighty and guys living to be seven hundred years old is simply a great obstacle in a literalist reading.

Oh me of little faith, eh? I don’t have a problem with the idea that God could do it. After making a universe, stretching out a person’s lifespan doesn’t seem like much of a big deal, frankly. But what is the evidence that he did? That Genesis gives names that could possibly be people-names (though in other places, such as the sons of Canaan in Chapter 10, they are tribal names) seems rather slender. There is nothing personal, human or identifying about this list that would demand they be individuals. And rather than seeing this increased longevity as a test of belief (Ha, ha, ye faithless modern generation, did ye doubt that YWHW could do this?), I see it as a neon sign that something strange is up in this section.

So what if Moses, when he wrote the words down – or more likely, had them written down in one of those Charlemagne, Alfred The Great deals, because ruling a large group of people doesn’t leave much free time for arduous scribing – thought that these inherited names were individuals? I don’t care what Moses thought, I care what God wants me to see.

That the names are dynasties makes much more sense, especially among a people who were much more group-defined than we hyperindividualistic Americans. Plantagenet and Tudor kings, the Bourbons in France, the Ming Dynasty, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the House of Saud. Pharaoh, a name for nearby rulers, means “Great House.” So is that an individual name or a group name? Both. Neither.

I don’t think you get to be a good fundamentalist if you merely gloss over stuff that doesn’t fit your simple literal picture. The tribal names in Chapter 10, the second creation account, where Cain’s wife came from – I think we non-literalist evangelicals actually face those issues more squarely. From fundamentalists – mostly contortions.

We get something nice back if we look at early Genesis this way. The Genesis chronology extends back farther than the Egyptian, or indeed any other history, even if we count the murky god-Pharaohs of uncertain date. Pretty good for an illiterate people, I think. Tracing back just past Seth, we get the cultural conflict of settled agriculture versus herding – the story of Cain and Abel – at pretty near the point that archaeology says we should find it in that region. Again, pretty darn good for a people who didn’t have archaeology, or even records.

The War of the Roses

Admitting for the sake of argument that the use of “tribe” has unfortunate negative connotations when discussing the competing American groups, I propose “houses” instead: House of Lancaster, House of York, as in the War of the Roses; House of Ravenclaw, House of Gryffindor. It has a nice set of historical and collegiate associations that the Arts & Humanites folks might like, and the rest of us won’t mind anyway.

The A & H House (and perhaps every house) believes that it is the rightful ruler, considering the others usurpers, pretenders, and cadet branches. When out of power, their energy is devoted to getting back in; their representatives considered more deserving regardless of qualification; their personal honor tied up with the fortunes of their House.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Not Jumping To Conclusions

This Stephen Bainbridge article is an excellent exercise in not jumping to conclusions. There is a piece of federal legislation under consideration, and the link that sent me hinted that Attorney Bainbridge is against it. Barack Obama is one of the sponsors, and the legislation is described with paragraphs directly from the Obama campaign.

I read those paragraphs, and the bill made eminent sense to me - it seemed a no-brainer, and I figured that Bainbridge had it wrong this time. Then I read his reasons why he thinks it is very bad legislation. I was embarrassed that I had overlooked some of the points that now seem obvious to me.

Things are usually more obvious after someone explains them, aren't they? Fancy that. It pays to check out both sides.

Disney Princesses

They seem to be everywhere, and I don't even have daughters. I am guessing that like the American Girl dolls, which princess you pick - or force/encourage your daughter to pick - is an expression of some value. Belle is a reader, and so is the compromise choice for those mothers who would rather have a princess-free zone but are tired of fighting. Pocahontas likely serves the same function for green mothers. I don't know if Mulan is actually more popular among Asian mothers/daughters, but there is apparently going to be a 9th, African-American princess based on The Princess and the Frog coming out in 2009, and the olive-skinned Jasmine is likely more tolerable among the anti-blonde crowd. There are three retro, traditional princesses. I'll bet they wanted to work in Tinkerbell, the Britney Spears of Disney girls, but couldn't find even a bad excuse to call her a princess. The Little Mermaid will have to stand in for the trollop demographic, I suppose.

The Heart of the Matter

Come to this sacred table, not because you must, but because you may;
Come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Jesus Christ, and desire to be his true disciple;
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak;
Come not because you have any claim on heaven's rewards, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of heaven's mercy and help;
Come not to express an opinion, but to seek a Presence and pray for a Spirit.

This a part of the liturgy for the communion table in many churches, and was in ours this morning. I have heard it attributed to an Anglican Bishop John Hunter, but admit I don't know its origin. Well, yeah, I guess I do - the Holy Spirit.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Simple Answers

It is not merely that the answers are simple, so simple that everyone knows it will work. The odd thing is that everyone also finds the ideas radical, impossible - the territory of nuts and cranks. The obvious has become so politically impossible, for very bad reasons, that the following will meet with eye-rolling in many quarters. Yeah, the Assistant Village Idiot just doesn't get it. They're right. I don't.

Build 100 nuclear power plants, as Jerry Pournelle suggests.

Drill for the oil we know is there, as Samuelson at the Washington Post suggests.

Yes, yes, I know it's ridiculous. But why is it ridiculous? Energy problems solved until the year 2100. We can move on to other things. Technologies we have within a decade of feasibility right now - do we think that none of them will work? We have an idea that it's all ungreen, unenvironmental somehow. Compared to...

Confine yourself to reality, please.

Oh, That Liberal Media

The AP carries a story about a blogger criticising Al Franken. The lead paragraph:
EAGAN, Minn. - Senate candidate Al Franken wants to talk about jobs, health care and global warming. Republican blogger Michael Brodkorb wants to talk about Franken's failure to pay all his income taxes on time.
No, Brodkorb wants to talk about Al Franken's failure to pay his income taxes until a court made him. That paragraph would be the expected spin coming out of the Franken campaign - we expect spin like that from the candidate himself. Not from the AP.

Next, we have the LATimes commenting on the Boston Globe's criticism of Hillary Clinton. The money quote:
"If Clinton ends up the Democratic nominee, will the leading journalistic voice in one of the nation's most liberal states endorse Republican John McCain?"
Wait, wait - I thought the Boston Globe was an example of unbiased reporting of the news, like the LATimes itself! You mean the Times thinks the Globe has a slant?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Taking Our Temperature

Gary, a co-worker, complained about the length of the election season today. This is common in NH, because along with Iowa, we get started on presidential elections about two full years before the new president takes office. We are swamped with polls and the whole horse race aspect of elections. Gary looks wistfully at the British system of announcing that a new election is going to take place in six weeks. Surprise! We're having an election! Americans never get to know that joy.

It's easy to see why that would look attractive to him. But it will never happen here. These lengthy election seasons happen because really, Americans like it. We must like it because, however much we complain, we don't fix it. Heck, we don't even threaten to improve it. This is how we do democracy here, by constantly taking our own temperature. I will give you a moment to contemplate the unfortunate images that anyone older than forty has about that, with reflections on how appropriate that is to what I'm saying. But you will refrain from mentioning it in the comments, right? No matter how apt the analogy is.

We do these polls; these constant discussions about how racist/sexist/colonialist/greedy/ignorant we are; this navel-gazing about how all our generations - Greatest, Boomer, X, Millennial are doing; this obsession with taking our own temperature. It is not merely that we have more sociologists per square meter than everyone else, but that all of us play at amateur sociology as well. We love this stuff, and we love to complain about how everyone else is obsessed with it.

Other countries don't do this. Even the Brits, Australians, and Canadians, who could be expected to be most like us, don't come near us in this. They are admittedly more self-absorbed than other nations on this score, but this obsession is supreme in America.

America is the farthest left among the conservative nations, and farthest right among the progressive nations, precisely because of this. We're like an overcautious driver stuck in a car going 100 mph, panicked at the consequences of going too far left or right for even a moment, hyperalert and screaming at the passengers.

We should hate this about ourselves and try to change it I suppose, but when you think about it, it's kind of fun. We cover more territory than anyone else, all of us certain that disaster is about to descend on us. And I guess it would if we didn't keep constant attention on each other. Far left or far right extremism probably would happen if we weren't all grabbing for the wheel and arguing about the map. Screw the passengers; we're having an adventure here.

Everyone Orders Off The Menu

There are topics which attract unoriginal comments delivered in overconfident declaratives, as if the author has learned important secret information you might not have heard before. Discussions of the existence of God invariably bring out guys who just have to tell you that religious belief is a result of people being afraid to face reality. Oh goodness, no one’s ever had to confront that opinion before, eh? Golly, we never thought of it that way – if Augustine and Luther had had to deal with that argument the whole faith would have just fallen apart, y’know? I guess we’ll all have to go back to the drawing board now.

I was at an outdoor medieval event years ago, all the participants in costume. A car with several young men drove by, and one leaned out to yell “F – You!” Gee, do you write your own material? drew a laugh, though the car was out of range.

Politics brings out equivalent bromides: You can’t legislate morality. The oil companies had record profits last quarter. All those jobs are going overseas. A lot of rich people don’t pay any taxes. If you talk about education, someone has just got to compare things to their own school days, which were much better. Someone else has to bring up that just learning facts isn’t education, kids need to be taught to think about what it means. Sports: You know they don’t call traveling anymore? Those guys take an extra step…

Cliches have their value; they wouldn’t have become cliches if there weren’t some truth in them. It is the speaker’s determination to share these profundities with all present that gets under my skin. Folks are convinced that these are fairly original thoughts that they thought up themselves or learned from unconventional sources. A lot our holiday customs have pagan origins. No, really? You sure? A lot of wars have been started because of religion. Yeah, Western European Christians did attack back for fifty years out of the 1000-year Islamic Crusades, that’s true. And Western Europe did have a century-plus of religious wars 400-500 years ago. And this is particularly relevant today because…? Irritating.

Intelligent people, or those who consider themselves so, often think that they haven’t ordered off the menu for their beliefs. They went back into the kitchen themselves and made up their own dish. Well that’s great, Gustave. It looks a lot like a ham sandwich, but I’ll take your word for it that you made it up yourself. My, my, Selena, what a great idea to dip chicken into egg and flour and then fry it.

Twenty years ago when I was in the Prometheus Society a lot of guys were writing interminable essays of what they thought about God, reality, and the meaning of life. At one level these were original. The writers had thought through many issues without consciously imitating other thinkers. This does take considerable brain power and perhaps deserves some credit. They hadn’t looked at a cookbook. They had, however, taken materials from the bins that were there. They used flour, eggs, and sugar – they hadn’t discovered them. They arrived at a vaguely cakey substance which they brought out triumphantly, expecting applause. They deeply resented being told they had discovered cake, and not a particularly good one. What you’ve described is a lot like logical positivism, Herb. You might want to read up on that and save yourself further trouble…Yeah, that’s the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Fancy that.

I suppose there’s some comfort in knowing that if you are making this error, you are at least making the same error that many people with high IQ’s make. Clever foolishness is still foolishness, though.

There are deeper and deeper levels of this, with genuinely intelligent and curious people working through issues on their own, which I suppose is a good thing. They want to show that they can cook for themselves and not just take what’s plunked down in front of them like any old Baptist or Presbyterian. Yeah, fine. So you made it all the way to inventing the cheeseburger on your own, but you don’t call it a cheeseburger because it’s got a new spice or sauce combination. Yes, look! You sliced your new peanut paste and preserved fruit on bread on the diagonal. You’re going to call it “sorbet?” Great. No chance you may have run across that idea somewhere before?

Actual original chefs learned from other chefs, and their creations are expert recombinations of previous ideas. They didn’t start from the beginning, wondering if rocks are edible.

I thought of picking on atheist/agnostic/whatevers in particular today, but I’m feeling expansive. Political guys, social critics, you’re all in there. You guys all ordered off the menu just as much as those you criticise. The buffet, the salad bar…that’s all on the menu. The self-congratulation is just not warranted.