Friday, November 28, 2008

How Smart You Are

A single Indo-European root *wer has transmuted into a dozen concepts in English. The verb means “to turn or bend,” and gives us such constructions as -ward, as in toward, rightward, forward. You can notice the turn or bend in that. Through a Germanic root meaning “to become,” we get the English concept of worth. A twist of fate – the metaphor is millennia old – became wyrd, weird. Verse, version, vertebra, adverse, extrovert, subvert, universe. You can see the “turn” concept behind all of them.

I’ve hardly begun with *wer, but we can already see the metaphorical and abstract uses multiplying. Even getting your head around the general concept of what a turn is is well beyond a chimp or a dolphin (though they might get concrete examples), but this is many times more complex than even that basic idea.

Wreath, writhe, and wrath all come from a *wer descendant meaning “to twist.” Even in English there is enough similarity in the sound of the words that we have to use very precise decoding and numerous cues from context to separate them, but we do it automatically. Worry, wring, wrong, and wrangle all come from twist.


With a bit of sound-change we arrive at bracken and briar, twisted plants. Our remote ancestors called everything with a bend in it “that twisty thing” at first, but learned to shade it so subtly that with the tiniest of changes our hearers know exactly what kind of twisty thing we are talking about – whether it is an object, an emotion, or a fate that is being twisted. Even ribald, rhombus, and brusque came out of *wer, through many variations.

Rhapsody (through a verb to sew – see the turn?)

When I said a dozen concepts above, I lied, so as not to scare you away. These words all come from only one version of *wer. There are other roots strikingly similar that have nothing to do with bending - other *wer’s as it were, that mean to raise or lift, a bodily infirmity, to perceive or watch, to cover, to burn, water, a squirrel – all unrelated, and each having its own many descendants. Not to mention *were, *were, and *were, meaning broad, to find, and to speak. *were-o trustworthy, *wiro man.

Classical Values

M. Simon from Classical Values has dropped over to comment four times on a post here that has dropped off the front page, Everything and Nothing. He very strongly takes the libertarian side of the socon/libertarian argument, and some readers might find him interesting.

As background, I used to comment frequently at Classical Values until a few weeks ago. I believed my points were neither understood nor addressed, so I shifted that online time over to Tigerhawk.

We Are That Smart

Language is so universal that we take its complexity for granted. Only when we observe a child learning, or more especially, when we try to get by in an unfamiliar language, do we notice what a wonder fluency in a language is. Someone who knows only a few words in a language, butchering the endings and tenses, is painfully aware of how much they are unable to communicate. Speakers rack their brains for synonyms or analogies. We point, shrug, and exaggerate emphasis, and display a wealth of creativity trying to erect an edifice of meaning from a few building blocks. Pig. To eat. The listener, in turn, makes huge leaps and guesses at meaning from scant clues. You want to eat the pig? You want to feed the pig? The pig is good to eat? The pig is eating?

When we imagine early language, tribes of pre-humans communicating, we think of them as very much like us. If they talk, even if they have only a few hundred words, we think we might have some comradeship with them. Trying to communicate with them would sound much the same as our communication in a language we do not know.

In fact they are vastly different. The modern human has an entire language, a set of complex thoughts to draw from in guessing what we mean. If the primitive really were as smart as us, the next generation of the tribe's children would expand from a few hundred words to many thousands, complete with nuances, ironies, and humor. Children in every modern tribe make phenomenal leaps in a few years if they are merely exposed to useful language, even if not much energy is put into teaching them. A group of our children, placed at birth in a homonid band with a few hundred words, would develop complex language in a generation.

There is some huge difference between chimp or dolphin signals and human speech, and any focus on the similarities is ludicrous outside of a research context. Chimps can learn a little sign language, but left to themselves don't invent one, or expand the concept among themselves to heighten communication.

Once a prehistoric human group made that enormous leap forward in complexity in a very few generations, it might not take as much intelligence for the neighboring tribes to get the idea and follow suit. But they would have had to be darn close, with only the tweak of a gene or two separating them from the innovators. Because the learning is more automatic than the inventing, the last steps of moving from mere signaling to complex language must have taken only a few generations, a vast cascade of vocabulary, syntax, and context. The dam had burst.

Later today, I'll give you an example of how smart you are.

Tulibu Dibu Douchoo

After American Idol, eastern Europe is trying to ride that wave as well. There's Slovak Idol, Ukrainian Idol (disquieting choreography on that one) and of course there's Romanian Idol. These countries have musical histories and continuing traditions, and people still sing there. Some of the acts are quite good.

Sometimes it doesn't quite work, as in this contestant from Bulgarian Idol. As fine a butchering of the English language as you have heard. But the girl tries - she's quite earnest, and seemingly unaware how terrible she is.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cheetah Girls

My brother the lighting designer tells me there's a big deal with mother-daughter shopping and dressing up for Cheetah Girls performances. They're the newish Disney thing for preteen girls, apparently. I mentioned them at work to a friend who has a young daughter. He winced visibly, nodding that his young one had indeed become interested and was trying to get his wife to take her to a concert. I had never heard of them; it's feline-themed costuming thing. I am not particularly attracted to that leopard leotard, tight tiger spandex sort of thing. But as an older husband I felt obliged to point out to him that anytime you find something where your wife feels obligated to dress up sleazy, you have to get behind that on general principle.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Christmas Tradition

It is almost automatic among Christians to deplore how the culture has watered-down and changed the traditions of Christmas. We rail against the noise and materialism and rush that yank our focus away from the incarnation of God. My particular irritation is at the gradual replacement of Christmas Carols by various holiday songs and winter songs. We sing so seldom in our culture now, and one of the few shared musical experiences was the Christmas Carol. As they are no longer allowed in the schools, and the stores veer increasingly to "White Christmas" and "Rudolph," or worse, few Carols are part of our shared heritage anymore.

Generosity remains part of the holiday, even among entirely secular folk. Even though it is no longer connected to a Christian virtue, it's still a good thing, and I am happy we have preserved that. We are also expected to wish others well, and say so - another worthy custom. The many false gods that swirl around us all seem to have infiltrated Christmas, each biting off a piece to claim as their own. Nothing of this world can maintain purity for very long.

2008 Award

Four young men from the Concord area win the 2008 title for the wussiest criminals of the year, having held a 7-year-old boy and his wheelchair-bound grandmother at gunpoint. They got $9 and a Percoset, which isn't much split four ways, is it?

Monday, November 24, 2008

New Game

From Tigerhawk, who calls it Six Degrees of Hitler

Here is the task set before you:

1) Go to Wikipedia.
2) Click any random link on there.
3) You have five clicks to reach Hitler's article.


Varying levels of difficulty.

Easy Mode: Any links

Nightmare Mode: No Country Links

Hell Mode: No Country or Date links

My first tries, starting with my last wikipedia lookup:
Colin Renfrew, Proto-Indo-Europeans, Aryan Race, Adolph Hitler.

From today's wikipedia front page: Waitaha Penguin, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Human Biology, Freiherr von Blomberg, Adolph Hitler.

Have a go at it.

Cold Fear

I tend to be optimistic about America's future. I imagine Obama will do any number of things I disagree with, some even destructive to the country, but we'll muddle through. We survived the Civil War, FDR, and Rosie O'Donnell, after all. I have even breathed some relief at Obama's initial appointments and actions - not terrible. I thought this would be a good opportunity for those on the left to be reminded that governing is hard, and a president has to take many things into consideration, not just what you want. Each department is sure it has the key to how the country should be run, each branch is sure it should have more power, and each faction is sure it isn't being listened to. I have hoped that this would all be a gradual coming of age for the left, and for that reason feel disposed to be cautious in my judgment of Obama's decisions.

Today the cold fear struck me: what if it doesn't work out that way? Conservatives are shrugging and saying well, with solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate they'll have no one left to blame. This assumes rationality on the part of their supporters. What if that is a poor assumption? What if they blame the right anyway, despite the illogic? People can work themselves into all kinds of frenzies under pressure. It's what creates conspiracy theories - the belief that hidden forces have sabotaged what should have gone swimmingly.

It is not that I believe liberals to be inherently more stupid than all the rest of us. But illogic feeds on itself, and the messianic tinge to this campaign might increase if thwarted, rather than abate.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Don't Vote For Lawyers - Part II

There is an earlier post about why we should not vote for lawyers. Carl from No Oil For Pacifists made an intriguing comment, which I asked him to expand upon. He hasn't. However, he clearly remembered it, because he passed along this quote from Maxed Out Mama
[E]ngineers are trained to sit down and figure out how something works before busting it. Lawyers are trained to bust things efficiently for a high tab. There is a fundamental difference in world views....
I had been thinking of something similar.

My mediaevalist mind goes immediately to castles. As an analogy, lawyers are trained in the attacking and defending of castles. This is not a bad thing, as defending from attack is what castles are ultimately for. To defend well, you need to think like an attacker. To attack well, you must think like a defender.

But neither skill has anything to do with building a castle, which is a separate skill. In terms of business, military, trade, and the other important skills of building, it is worth noting that lawyers know nothing about making any of those things. They can attack them and defend them. What we eventually come to is an endless round of attacking and defending castles, with no one building any new ones.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is Palin Incoherent?

The excellent Language Log has two connected posts about the popular accusation that Sarah Palin speaks incoherently. The first, Bebop Language by Mark Liberman sets out the idea that exact transcripts of even brilliant speakers make them appear to be incoherent. This is echoed and commented on by Lizardbreath at Unfogged: I Think There's Something Wrong With The Methodology Here, who relates it to court transcripts. Liberman takes it back up again in an excellent summation Speaking (in)coherently, with reference to Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns," and political speech in general. An excerpt:
4) Listeners are also variable and unreliable. The same passage may strike one person as entirely lucid and another as so incoherent as to be hardly human. This effect is especially strong for people, groups, ideas, or ways of talking that elicit strong negative emotions: a hated celebrity, pronunciations or usages associated with a despised group, conceptual pet peeves, and so on. We've discussed many examples over the years, but perhaps none has been clearer than the Plain English Campaign's 2003 Foot in Mouth award to Donald Rumsfeld for his "unknown unknowns" remark.

V-I Day

The War Is Over, and we won.

Actually, we know in retrospect that we won about a year ago, but were being (over)cautious about the announcement.

Congratulations, troops. When the bell rang, you answered.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Word Search

Jonathan called to ask what the word for two of a set of triplets is called. I'm thinking twerps would work.

Over at Volokh there was a discussion about Romanettes. Apparently that's the word for the lowercase Roman numerals in statutes and contracts. (iii) would be Romanette 3. It is used frequently in transactions and contracts. You can see why it would be a useful word to have when speaking, but would seldom need to be written.

Product Marketing

In my work email there was an announcement that the Cummings Onan emergency generator would be tested today.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hillary at State

Update: Fixed. Thanks, Ben.

I admit I find the idea of foreign baddies looking wild-eyed and saying "OK lady, put down the gun" more than amusing.

Then too, she could use a carrot with the stick to the Muslim nations. "72 virgins? I'll send Bill around. Listen to him and you can do much better than that."

The Song Of The Aged Social Worker

Buck Up, Little Soldier
(To the tune of “Wake Up, Little Susie”)

Buck up, little soldier
Buck up, little soldier
Uh, why you gotta blame your mama?
Why you gotta blame your pa?
Why you gotta blame your friends because you
Got no job?
Buck up little soldier,
Buck up little soldier.

1. My girlfriend said that she would cut me loose.
It wasn’t what you’d really call abuse.
She screamed and started to run.
I was fooling around with a gun.
It wasn’t loaded,
It just exploded
So why’d they call 9-1-1?


2. They pulled me over for excessive speed.
I don’t do drugs it’s just my daily weed.
Don’t have a license and then,
No registration again.
Hey can’t you see
That it wasn’t me?
That pipe belongs to a friend


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Paleolithic Continuity Theory

Life used to be simple. When one of my sons would ask "Daddy, where do I come from?" I would say "The Eurasian Steppes. Just like all speakers of Indo-European languages." That would usually end the conversation pretty quickly. When they read this, they may leave off reading as soon as they see Indo-European. It became my go-to conversation killer when I wanted time to myself.

(Side note: My oldest son now has a daughter of his own so presumably he learned the answer to his real question somehow. I don't know where. The streets, probably.)

I have grown less certain about that answer over the years, and all goes dark before my eyes. If you can't trust the past to stay put, what can you trust? The prevailing theory on the Indo-European homeland for decades included warriors and horses. Lots of warriors, lots of horses. Clever warriors from the Eurasian steppes domesticated horses, hitched them up to chariots, and set out in all directions to conquer everyone with this new advanced military trick. They invaded India, Iran, Turkey, Southern Europe, and Northern Europe – not all at once, but pretty darn close together. Starting in about 4000 BC they moved outward, and by 2500 BC had pretty much conquered all the lands above, installing their daughter languages (Indo-Iranian, Proto-Celtic, etc) everywhere.

Linguists, who developed this theory, waited for the archaeologists to uncover all the stuff that would prove it. They’re still waiting. The archaeologists have found lots of interesting stuff, but evidence of invasions seems to be lacking. Without invasions, there aren’t good reasons for the various peoples of Europe and India to have started speaking all these versions of Indo-European. Most people would rather just go on speaking their own language, thank you very much. So there’s some problem, some contradiction there.

The idea of a small warrior elite caught on for awhile, ruling all these places but not actually overrunning them, enforcing their languages on everyone. That fell apart too, as language enforcement over vast areas is difficult even for empires, and there weren’t even any empires then.

On the plus side, we did learn a lot about the religious and social practices of some tribe that lived on the Eurasian Steppes, who probably are connected with us somehow.

Colin Renfrew To the (Temporary) Rescue. In the late 80's Renfrew put forth his idea that this tribe of our supposed ancestors started centuries earlier, from Anatolia (Turkey), and were farmers instead. These farmers took the agricultural technology of the Middle-East - herding and grain crops - and lit out for the territories. Nasty discussions developed whether these farmers displaced the previous inhabitants - which would explain the language spread - or the new technology just gradually spread into the Balkans, Europe, and the Eurasian Steppes - which would leave no convenient explanation why the other tribes would pick up a new language along with the sheep and the barley. Hey, we admire you Indo-European farmers so much we'd like to have one of your languages, too. We'll need about a half-dozen at first.

Supporting this theory is that it gets around the problem of no invasions quite nicely. No invasions needed. Lots of skirmishes, maybe, but constant warfare with neighboring tribes is pretty much the history of human beings for thousands of years, so no loss there. If my easy acceptance of violence toward neighbors distresses you, consider this: who else would they fight with? Why go three tribes over to skirmish? What would be the point of that? Sheesh.

Renfrew's theory also works well with more recent glottochronology and recreation of probable language trees. 6,000 years doesn't look like enough time anymore. 8,000, maybe even 10,000 looks better. There's some grumbling among linguists about that - 6K seemed okay, 8K might be allowable, but 10K, no way. Language changes too quickly, they say.

But it is the new genetic evidence that has everyone in a funk. As Bryan Sykes has discovered, the genetic background of Europeans is only 15% from that wave of farmers coming up in 5000BC. 80% of Europe's genes look like they've been right there since Paleolithic times. While Paleolithic includes everything up to about 11,500 BC, the most recent wave of settlers to Europe came well before that date. 15-20,000 years ago, that 80% chunk of Europe's genetic heritage arrived. That's about 10,000 years of problem, linguistically. Hard to sweep under the rug. As I noted above, that works out if it's just the farming technology that moves from the Balkans into Europe, and the people pretty much stay where they are. But why everyone would start speaking a new language remains unanswered.

The Paleolithic Continuity Theory suggests that they were already speaking daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European when they arrived. The Celts were speaking Celtic, Slavs Slavic, Balts Baltic, etc. Very neat. Very tidy. No need to dream up some reason for them to switch languages. What happened in historical times, with Italic-speakers and Germanic-speakers pushing the Celts around in the years AD is a completely separate issue, of no interest to the Indo-Europeanists. What all those hunter-gatherers were speaking before the farming came in is their concern.

That still leaves a fairly large problem however. How did those people speak languages that hadn't been invented yet? That wouldn't be invented for 10,000 years, in fact? The Italian linguists who are behind all this have a nifty explanation: language changes much more slowly than we thought. Slower than half the speed. In their telling, Indo-European was developed during the last Ice Age, when everyone was crammed into southern Europe. As the ice receded, that tribe was the dominant one moving back into the territory. A few stragglers related to the Basques, who had survived in Europe in isolated pockets that the ice missed, were easily pushed back into corners or eliminated altogether.

This all makes the linguists openly contemptuous - which linguists do very well, BTW, even to each other. Especially to each other. They were willing to flex maybe 2000 years on the start of the language family, but not 10,000 years. Impossible. Language changes too quickly for that.

Well, we'll see. I remain undecided - I think a stretched version of Renfrew's Anatolian view is still possible, but PCT is certainly intriguing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Moral Reasoning

I mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s research a few months ago, and Bird Dog at Maggie’s Farm just brought it up again. Haidt claims that liberals measure morality on just two axes, fairness/reciprocity and harm/care. Conservatives, OTOH, work from a suite of five measures of morality, adding in authority/respect, purity/sanctity, ingroup/loyalty. Experimentally, conservatives accurately predict how liberals will reason about a moral issue, but liberals have a hard time guessing how conservatives reason.

My initial reaction was that the schema which comprehends the others is usually regarded as better in some sense. Dreaming/waking, insanity/sanity, uninformed/informed – we give the nod to the side that sees both. But Haidt goes through enormous contortions to show that liberal moral reasoning is actually better because the three things added in by conservatives are unnecessary, superfluous. The two measures liberals use are the Real Deal. Sigh.

Upon reflection, I took too much at face value. Haidt reported that liberals disregard three axes and I believed him. Yet looking at the three rejected measures, I see liberal archetypes more than conservative ones.

Purity/sanctity makes us think of religion, sin – sex, drugs, and rock & roll – so we leap to the conclusion that it is a conservative fave. But environmentalism has a strong, even puritanical strain, of purity/sanctity issues. Organic foods, pristine wilderness, biodegradability, offshore drilling – why should you care if there’s a hill of plastic in Montana? Heck, why should you care if there’s one in your town? You’re not affected. Your sense of purity is affected. All-natural, my Aunt Fanny. Victimology and anti-corporate rhetoric also have purity strands hanging off them.

Authority/Respect What is the bias toward academia and credentials if not an appeal to authority? That experts from the government should regulate the behavior of others? These are not the conservative stereotype of authority – parents, police, the Bible – but it is equally rigid. Liberals question authority by relying on other authorities. Maybe they are better authorities, but it’s still the same type of fence.

Ingroup/Loyalty – I have previously gone on at length about the Arts & Humanities Hive. Ingroup and loyalty issues are as strong among progressives as conservatives. As with transnationalism versus patriotism, it’s the same phenomenon with a different tribe. When feminists agonised over supporting Bill Clinton in 1998, it was a conflict between the loyalties of feminism and liberalism, but it was still much about loyalty.

If these other measures are just as much a part of liberal moral reasoning as conservative, why isn’t it showing up in Haidt’s data? My suspicion is that they are less-conscious, less rational, and so get stuffed into the other two categories. Environmentalism is not seen as a purity issue, but as a harm issue, even when there is nothing measurable. If I bury ten car batteries deep in the White Mountain National Forest no one’s ever going to notice it unless they are looking for it with sensitive measures. But liberal reasoning would say that it is wrong because there is harm, somehow. Incidentally, this is why people actually addressing environmental problems come up with very different priority lists than activists and popular opinion.

Because the authority issues are more diffuse – not much, really, but enough to make it invisible – liberals don’t see that authority is entering in to their reasoning. It’s subtle, disguised, but still present. Accepting the word of experts rather than running the data yourself is at least as common among libs.

Thus also with loyalty. Liberals don’t officially consider it a moral measure, but their behavior says it’s just as much part of the package. They are affected, but are not aware they are affected.

Related: I think this ties in strongly with the post about bias as a spiritual problem. Insight. Self-awareness.

Everything And Nothing

Most national commentators describe the battle for the soul of the Republican Party as being between traditionalists and reformers. The social conservatives and libertarians would disagree with that. We think the battle is between us. I resolve to look more closely at that traditionalist/reformer divide, to keep myself from either-or thinking on the matter. I imagine there is some overlap between the necessarily artificial distinctions.

But for the moment, let’s stay with that socon/libertarian dichotomy. The libertarians all seem to have friends who would be more sympathetic to the Republicans if it weren’t for the socons. We scare them. That word scare keeps coming up. Well, the libertarians scare a lot of middle America, I counter. Legalizing drugs, gay marriage, isolationism – these make people nervous. And of course the “unregulated free market” scares some folks as well, which is a problem that both the libertarians and the socons will have to solve for future elections.

It’s all about being scared, apparently.

What is it we are frightened of? Everything and nothing. Proponents of gay marriage often challenge the rest of society, How are you harmed, exactly? How does this measurably affect you? If you don’t like it, don’t look. Similar arguments are launched in the opposite direction about, oh, Christmas nativity scenes. How are you harmed, exactly? How does this measurably affect you? If you don’t like it, don’t look. While there often are some small measurables attached to these things, they are clearly not what everyone is getting exercised about. There is a sense that the entire society is being affected at some deep, if subtle level. A creche on public property makes some vague statement that Christianity is not just allowed, but essentially okay. A gay wedding makes some vague statement that homosexuality is not just allowed, but is okay. What is allowed to be visible (or audible) is a statement of a society’s values – and we want them to be our values.

We care very deeply about these expressions of who we are as a society, locally or nationally. Some people don’t want to see strip malls. Some don’t want to see litter. Some don’t want to see sexual advocacy in the children’s section of the public library. Zoning, historical districts, wilderness areas, nude beaches, prayers before football games, public smoking, girlie magazines at the convenience store, transvestites, mosques, loud music next door, ORV’s, communications towers, homeless people, Wal-marts…We don’t want to see it! Or we do. It says something bad/good about us as a people. We want to feel that the place is ours, that it expresses us. I don’t want to live in a society that…

People from the cities like to see variety. People from the towns want to be with the like-minded. If you don’t like it, move. No, you move. Me? But I live here. So do I. Some of us like to be as accommodating as possible to the sensibilities of others. Some of us like to be in other’s faces, because it’s good for them, dammit.

There are some few issues where there is a measurable effect on a few individuals. Those will be a distraction at the moment. Let’s stick with what we’ve got here – the place you live as an expression of you, and how that is the subterranean driving force behind all political argument.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pete Newell

One of the great figures of US basketball, Pete Newell, died today. He was best known in his later years for his yearly Big Man Camp, whose NBA Alumni list includes the premier big men of the last 30 years. O'Neal, Olajuwon, Jabbar, Walton - the list of important big men who didn't go is shorter. When you look at the 250 names on the list and realize that Newell instructed all of them, he has to be credited with making NBA frontcourt play what it is.

Making the news accounts extra-special for me were the frequent mentions of Newell in connection with Clair Bee as the most influential college basketball coaches of the 30's-50's. Bee is dear to my heart as the author of the Chip Hilton sports series of books. Comeback Cagers was my favorite.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Anything Goes

I sing this to my granddaughter. My son doesn't approve of American Musical Theater and discourages it. I just like the Cole Porter rhyming. The original book was by P.G. Wodehouse, so there you are. (That's pronounced "Woodhouse," by the way, which I never knew until about ten years ago.)

Topo Gigio

I never saw the attraction, even as a kid. But now it's part of my cultural heritage, so I have to like it.

We Want To See

When the Red Sox won in 2004, there were lots of heartwarming stories about sweet old guys who had been fans for years and finally got to see a championship. But the usual number of Sox fans died in the previous year - even the previous week - and never saw it.

The common feeling of older African-Americans right after this election is more relief and calm than joy, I am told. A line being crossed, a page being turned. There have been news stories about elderly blacks and how pleased they are to see this day. But the usual number of African-Americans died last year and never saw it.

I met a lot of Romanian Christians who had been persecuted under Ceausescu who lived to see the day of freedom to worship that they had long prayed for. But there were Christians throughout the 1980's who died having prayed their whole lives and not seen. That should be a salutary lesson to Christians who secretly believe that God is going to make all stories in your life tie up neatly before you die.

I don't think Christians are any more susceptible to that narrative fallacy, I think pretty much everyone does it. It's in our nature.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

No More Conferences

I went to a church conference today. You've seen 'em: two morning sessions, lunch, two afternoon sessions; a guy talking in front of a powerpoint screen. He did a little flip chart work at the beginning. We all had spiral notebooks with fill-in questions.

By 3pm, I was standing at the back of the sanctuary thinking This is not my learning style. And - this was after I had twice gone out to the car for naps, had had two private conversations in the foyer of about fifteen minutes each, and spent most of the rest of the time moving from place to place in the back. I really only sat through 30 minutes of the first session and 15 minutes of the third.

Here's the worst of it: the guy was a pretty good speaker. Yet I still couldn't stay with it. I used to be somewhat better at it by simply forcing myself to sit still, but I have never learned this way. It dawned on me that I was never good at this at school, either. I was always in minor trouble for unauthorized pleasure reading during class or daydreaming. Later I skipped classes when I could, and endured when I couldn't by counting to 1000 or writing letters or a dozen other time-killing strategies (I recommend geography - capital cities, rivers, whatever - as the best strategy). I was polite enough to try to please, and smart enough to pick up the gist of a lecture from fragments, but from earliest school years, sitting and listening has been painful.

There isn't enough stimulation. The front of the room never changes, the voice intonation becomes repetitive even with a skilled presenter. Getting up and moving around a few times just isn't enough. Video presentations work somewhat better because the facial nuances of the speaker are noticed by the brain end keep it working in the background. Better still, videos provide other new stimuli - a change in speakers, a change in camera angle or distance, background music, more interesting graphics.

I looked over the crowd of attendees, almost all over forty and thought In forty years no one will do this. Hell, in twenty years no one will do it. I don't think black churches do this much; I'm not sure about hispanics but I'm going to guess not; Roman Catholics don't, eastern Orthodox don't. This is a white Protestant thing. I take that back - I'll bet Jews do it, too. These things are run by people who went to seminary, a lecture-heavy graduate school, after graduating from college in the humanities. This is their learning style. Even more, this is their teaching style, and conference designers often gravitate to the idea of "what info do I want to tell them" rather than "what do I want them to learn?"

Even then, the pastors cheat more than average, sitting at the back, getting up and moving around a bit, taking care of details they suddenly find important about the running of the conference. This style of learning works for some people, but I'll bet it's much less than conference organizers think. Even my wife, who does well with the note-taking lecture format, was fading by the fourth session. If you can't keep Tracy with you on these things, then it's really not working at some basic level.

I have never learned this way, and I'm not getting any better at it. No more conferences.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Truth Seeps Out

Neo-neocon has done a bit of useful research, combining news stories from the past few days that should have been released by the major news outlets, but oddly, were held until after the election. Now It Can Be Told, was posted yesterday.

The usual right blogosphere take on these stories is that the MSM is attempting to regain some credibility they lost being in the tank for Obama. That may be part of their motivation, but I think a further, probably unconscious manipulation is underway. I think they are trying to reduce the public's expectations about Obama. To themselves, they are likely rationalising it as "People need to know these things in order to have an informed perspective." They likely don't see it as covering for Obama. They're just trying to be helpful, y'know, and inject some common sense into the discussion.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Social Conservatives

In the debate over the soul of the Republican Party, or the conservative movement, the libertarian sites on the web have started to weigh in with some consistency: throw the social conservatives overboard. They (we) scare people and they cost the Republicans more votes than they produce.

Before I tell you the many reasons that is short-sighted, let me tell you two reasons why that is a reasonable response.

In coalition politics, it is always reasonable to try and discern where you are gaining and losing votes. If the GOP runs the numbers and believes that most of us would vote with them anyway, even without "pandering" to us, and they can make up for the losses by picking up more fiscal conservative/social liberal votes, then they should at least consider that approach. Secondly, it is true that there is a group drawn from among the social conservatives that makes people nervous. While the extremity and number of those folks are exaggerated, they do exist, and they are not entirely reasonable people. Like any wing of any party, we have some all-or-nothing people who come out of the socons.

There is also a semi-valid reason for pinning the blame for election losses on us. No one has done well at keeping the fiscal conservatism promises - no, not even the libertarian-leaning elected officials - and while mutual recriminations may not be entirely fair or productive, they aren't entirely undeserved either.

But there is a good deal to be said on the other side.

I have said often that if the franchise were limited to married couples who had raised more than one child into school years, the Democratic Party would cease to exist as a force in American politics. It would elect few representatives in any district. They might get on by leaning heavily on the education funding issues, but that would be it. It would be a third party nationally. And it wouldn't be the libertarians that replaced them, at least not as currently constituted.

Marrying tends to nudge people into voting more conservatively (It may also be that more conservative people are more likely to marry, but for this argument that's tangential). Having a child nudges that a bit more, as does buying a house. But it's that second child that swells the ranks of the conservative parents. Four children - don't even ask. Even if a couple did not marry until a few years after a child was born, they start right in drifting conservative. If they divorce, both parents start drifting back to the center again, until they remarry, at which point they start their rightward march again. So it is not a product of being a rules-keeper or a rigid moralist.

I can't find where the reasons why have been studied, but let me hazard some guesses. When you raise more than one child, you see very clearly that a person's choices affect their life outcomes. Your choices, their choices, their friends' choices, their friends' parents choices - this laboratory churns out experimental data for you all the time. You get to know in your bones that life is not all luck. Luck still plays a part, and good choices do not guarantee good results, but your pendulum swings over to the life-is-what-you-make-it side. The unforgiving nature of reality is ever before you as well. One can drive stupidly (or drunk) and life can change in a moment. MVA injuries do not respond to protests that it's not fair, and he's so young, and can't he have a do-over. This reality gives you some resistance against liberal wishing and removing of consequences. Consequences can be a good thing. Buck up, little soldier.

I don't want to state that too harshly. I have already mentioned once that there aren't any guarantees even if you make good choices - you might fall victim to someone else's stupid or evil act - and parents keep that in mind as well. You pray, you teach, you admonish, and you keep trying to push the odds more in your favor. Parents tend to be firm but not fanatic.

Parents develop resistance to a second set of arguments from the left. The legacy we wish to leave is not the same as theirs. We're talking about real people, they are talking about society as a whole. No matter how many times environmentalists say "our children and grandchildren," it's pretty obvious that the activists are frequently childless - maybe one child. I think having wilderness areas, clean energy, and variety of wildlife is a good thing for my children and grandchildren. Yet I am more concerned about what values they have and what their character is. Not to put too fine a point on it, if they are not perpetuating a culture which clearly descends from my own, screw 'em. They don't have to even be very much like me individually - but if they are working toward values opposite to mine, why should I care about them? Mere survival of my genetic material does not interest me.

Similarly, parents know that animals are not people and find much of PETA's rhetoric offensive on that score. Treating animals kindly - sure. That's one of the values I was referring to above. But they're animals. People with actual children get the distinction. We note with some asperity that neither PETA nor the protectors of endangered species' habitat are noticeable among the life advocates and either end of the lifespan.

Having children also affects your own ideas of honor, of humility, of endurance. It can improve you if you let it.

This group I just spent seven paragraphs describing has considerable overlap with the socons. It votes 70% Republican - even African-Americans in this category vote almost 40% Republican, though I imagine that dropped considerably in the last election. Even Massachusetts Irish Catholics in this category vote over 50% GOP. Libertarians may have the idea that by dropping social issues from the Republican brand they are only ridding themselves of a few young-earth creationists and pro-life demonstrators. They might be correct in that. We socons might hold at 70-30 no matter what. Loyalty is also a virtue we admire, after all. It would be a helluva thing to guess wrong about that, though, wouldn't it?

Libertarians and others who want to focus intensely on fiscal conservatism, jettisoning other parts of the brand appeal might also ask themselves what they expect their own legacy to be. And who will bear it forward.

Gun Purchasing

Gun owners are apparently expecting that it will be harder to make purchases of guns and ammo after Obama's proposed new measures go through, and are stocking up now.

I have wondered whether as a conservative I should feel obligated to buy a gun. Be one of the team and all that. But those who didn't grow up with guns may not have the instinctive caution we should. I shot .22's at Camp Mi-te-na in the 60's, but that was the last of it. I never hit the target* much, either, which I now know is a result of poor fine-motor skills, an unsteady hand, which shows up in many life areas.

So, unfamiliarity plus poor coordination sound like a bad firearms combination to me.

*Okay, I hit the target as such, but not so much those circles, and especially not the inner ones. Archery, same thing. I seldom put the arrows all the way over the hay bales, but only hit the standing circle about half the time.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why Orwell Matters

The windmill was in ruins.

With one accord they dashed down to the spot. Napoleon, who seldom moved out of a walk, raced ahead of them all. Yes, there it lay, the fruit of all their struggles, levelled to its foundations, the stones they had broken and carried so laboriously scattered all around. Unable at first to speak, they stood gazing mournfully at the litter of fallen stone. Napoleon paced to and fro in silence, occasionally snuffing at the ground. His tail had grown rigid and twitched sharply from side to side, a sign in him of intense mental activity. Suddenly he halted as though his mind were
made up.
"Comrades," he said quietly, "do you know who is responsible for this? Do you know the enemy who has come in the night and overthrown our windmill? SNOWBALL!" he suddenly roared in a voice of thunder. "Snowball has done this thing! In sheer malignity, thinking to set back our plans and avenge himself for his ignominious expulsion, this traitor has crept here under cover of night and destroyed our work of nearly a year. Comrades, here and now I pronounce the death sentence upon Snowball. 'Animal Hero, Second Class,' and half a bushel of apples to any animal who brings him to justice. A full bushel to anyone who captures him alive!"
Animal Farm, Chapter VI

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Holyoke: The Belle Skinner Legacy, by Jack Dunn

Reprinted from months ago. This is interesting in terms of the recent election. Can we imagine anyone finding Jack's story of Maggie acceptable now?

I was born in Holyoke, and my brother who lives in Western MA gave me this for Christmas. Just out last month. Autographed. We usually read what we give each other beforehand, but I suspect he didn't read this. He is considerably more liberal than I, and not averse to exposing me to ideas more congenial to him than to me, but he's not flipping nuts.

Holyoke is an historical novel which flicks back and forth between Maggie, a female Kerry worker despondent about the 2004 election, and Belle Skinner, an early feminist and philanthropist from Holyoke. Before getting underway, the book has a Dedication, About the Author, Acknowlegements, Author's Note, Prologue, Introduction, and Preface. Not a good sign. But at least he gets right into it in Chapter One: Maggie O'Reilly's brain is home to every treasured, paranoiac, myth about George Bush and the Republicans; so unhinged that I kept expecting a punchline, or a good laugh at herself. Or something.

I quote exactly - this is not a parody. This is not written by a highschooler.
How could Bush have been "re-elected?" Had the elections been rigged or did voters actually want him to be president? Would the world survive another four years of him?

...The excitement she had felt, expecting a new beginning in America, had ended abruptly with the Republican machinery defeating the Democrats. How they had managed it, she still didn't know...In fact, she didn't even believe the elections were valid. Reinforcing her position, she remembered that Kerry had been the clear winner in the exit polls. Again, she wondered why the Democrats had not contested the election. There were some serious questions about the legitimacy of the last two presidential elections, when Bush had been "elected" and then "re-elected." Whether or not the elections had been fixed or the number of votes fabricated, the Republicans had squeaked to victory in key states. They had used computer hardware and software of dubious reliability; and relied on talk-radio and television to increase the level of voter fear and hate, mostly of outsiders and homosexuals. To Maggie, it didn't seem that gay rights should be a main issue for voters.

Those in John Kerry's camp, who had anticipated that the Republicans would be this organized and devious, lost out to others who could not see the mind control that Bush's people were employing to get people to believe they were in imminent danger from terrorists and others...They had used God: to get elected, to get their mandate to kill, to gain more power and control and to accumulate more personal wealth. Maggie was still wondering when God had become so heavily involved in this election, and why the Bush people thought they were his chosen representatives on earth, when they were murdering innocent people for oil.

...Most of those working on the Kerry campaign needed to get the system fixed. They needed to stop the new moneyment from stealing from them and diverting their money to the ultra-wealthy, and to war. They had children to feed. With the spiral of effects, from companies cutting jobs and prices soaring, they had no savings left.

It turns out that Maggie attends Mass three times a week - yeah, those folks voted for Kerry in droves, huh? - and is handed a pamphlet by an African-American nun (of course). The nun had been crying over the dead Iraqi children, and of course the pamphlet shows how George Bush broke all the requirements for a Just War.

Knowing that George Bush and his administrators had never, and would never in the future, consider adhering to any of these conditions, Maggie nearly burst into tears too. She suspected that Bush and company did not have the ability to understand complex matter.

Today's question: What would be the evidence that one could reason with either the character Maggie, or the author Jack Dunn?

Two Modes of Warfare

Most tribal societies have frequent, low-intensity conflicts with their neighbors. Battle has a lot of posturing and noise, but can be called off if someone gets seriously hurt. It seems at first to be a sort of limit-setting behavior, much less aggressive than modern warfare. As near as we can tell, this type of tribal conflict was worldwide (though not universal) up until historic times. Those with permanent dwellings in cities behaved differently, but the outlying villages and tribes showed this pattern in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and even much of Europe. There is archaeological evidence that this pattern was common thousands of years ago as well.

Is seems safer than what occurred later with massed armies and invasions, but the death rate was actually higher. 20-30% of male skeletons show death by violence that is more likely human than animal. Intriguingly, some groups show less than half that rate of death. As less violence is a prerequisite for living in larger communities, it is perhaps these less-violent tribes that were able to form larger coalitions and settle down. Their greater numbers would have made them less-conquerable by their neighbors, further reducing the need for warfare and increasing the possibility of living in amity.

The death rate was (is) higher in these tribal groups because of frequency of battle. When you are fighting someone every week, the intensity does not have to be great for the number of dead to accumulate over time. But this was the pattern - bands of 150, fighting frequently with 2 or 3 deaths a year.

The second mode was complete extermination of another people, usually by surprise in complete disregard of the usual rules of posturing contact. After a period of escalation, one tribe would decide that the other should be simply gone. They would launch a night attack on the village and wipe them out. In historical times, anthropologists in New Guinea estimate that 30% of all tribes were exterminated by other tribes between 1850-1950. About one every few years, so you might not notice if you weren't keeping count of the whole area.

Absorbing this dual mode of warfare helps explain the conflicts between the Europeans and the Native Americans in the 17th C. The tribal peoples were used to limit-setting skirmishing, where few were hurt at any one time. The Europeans had a model more common to settled villages with armies and police forces about: in the event of trouble, suppress insurrection rapidly by making an example of a few. It is similar to the tribal view, but more intense. Fewer skirmishes, but more people die in them.

To the natives, such tactics were an escalation, carrying an immediate threat of all-out war - which was hardly what the settlers had in mind. Eventually, some tribes would massacre a small settlement, hoping to make a statement and put an end to it. To the Europeans, this was a further escalation.

Would things have gone better if we had understood them and they us? Perhaps not. At least in New England, all groups showed considerable forbearance and reluctance to go to war for the first 50 years - a remarkable run of coexistence, actually. But it doesn't take much, sometimes, for slight escalations to be seen as major changes in how people live near each other. Also, there are always people who are willing to take matters into their own hands, in defiance of leaders and agreements. The Europeans recorded the perfidies and violence of their own people, but were not privy to most of the same that was occurring in the Indian villages. As one would expect in such circumstances, their histories record that the colonists were mostly peaceful or merely defensive, with a few unfortunate bad 'uns of their own inciting violence. The natives they saw as more generally aggressive, though with many good and worthy people of their own.

The very few natives who learned to write early on do not record a mirror perspective from the originals point of view, as we might expect. It would seem natural that such a group would see the settlers as more aggressive, with their own people as more defensive, save for a few traitors and evil ones. But the literate natives record something in between - perhaps they had dual loyalties because they were perceived as traitors by their own tribes. As such, they may give the closest thing to an objective viewpoint from the era.

Yet in the long run, it certainly seems that such understanding could have been useful for all concerned.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Two By Bobby McFerrin

Effects no one else can do. That finger movement thing that he does - I have to figure it's not just for effect but part of his memory storage of the song.


And here's one with audience participation. It must have been a nice moment to be there.

Ave Maria

The Rich Getting Richer

People have been saying "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer" for almost 200 years. To illustrate the absurdity of that, recall that there were few rich people then - the Cabots and the Forbes had just started making money - and only those very few had reliable food year 'round. As for the poor, think Dickens London. Think slavery. Think frontier. Two years ago I discussed how recent generalised prosperity is.

In the short run, if you take a very limited measure, you can indeed point to rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Life is not always fair, the powerful press for advantage, and the children of the well-off in every generation have a leg up on the children of the poor. But even the poor have luxuries the rich did not just a few decades ago. My grandfather died of prostate cancer in 1967. He was comfortably upper middle class, the first CPA in NH, and treated immediately at the best hospital in the state. Everyone in America gets better medical care now.

Yet I am worried about the future. Two-parent families produce disproportionate numbers of the well-off, automation slowly eliminates jobs, and wealth may be increasing in scalability, narrowing the beneficiaries. Though most welfare recipients go on to have self-sustaining and even prosperous lives, there seems to be a slow growth in the families on permanent relief. Given the technological advances likely to keep appearing every decade, it is unlikely that the poor will be poorer in an absolute sense, but they may fall farther and farther behind the wealthy. This leads to perceived poverty and dissatisfaction.

Yes, we should all be bigger people than that, and rejoice in our own improved standard of living without regard to what happens to others, but we don't seem to be built for that. Other people getting rich often strikes us as deeply unfair. This likely intensifies as one's distance from the top of the economic heap grows.

I have some hope that the phenomenon of the Long Tail will provide at least some rescue. Amazon has kept many books in print that would have simply vanished to the remainder bin under the old system of brick-and-mortar bookstores and their limited shelf space. Many things that people make or sell can last longer with less overhead now because the universe of potential buyers has increased by several orders of magnitude. Multiple small streams of income may become more common.

Even more hopefully, things other than money may increase in the satisfaction they bring. With basic needs met, people might be increasingly willing to be pleased by the acceptance or admiration of a small group of the like-minded. We see this in hobbies already, where historical re-enactors, cellists, and dwarf-tree enthusiasts have each their own circles of familiarity and notoriety. These become like villages, and older rules of sociability may return.

For money was not the measure of all in most societies. Prosperity was always desired, but wealth was not a guarantee of admiration. Personal qualities of charm or talent were noticed, and dare we say it, virtue could be a measure of worth. Money isn't the measure of all even now, of course, but it seems to have taken a more dominant position in the early 20th C and grown in importance. Perhaps that was a consequence of increased mobility and communication across distance, making the most easily observable qualities - wealth and beauty - more important.

Multiple long tails of worth, some bringing in money, while others bring social connection, information, spiritual uplift, or status. After the Singularity, this may be the model for human satisfaction

Belief Awareness

Whose credibility is so central to your beliefs that exposing them as a fraud would upend everything? Or similarly, what fact is so central to your beliefs that it’s exposure as a fraud would upend your entire system? St. Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, states
14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
which is as good a summary of the centrality of that doctrine as can be found. If Jesus wasn’t raised, everyone go home.

CS Lewis would be pretty central for me on Christian belief. If God Himself came to me and said “Nah, don’t pay attention to Lewis. He never really got it,” my beliefs would be in shambles. This is primarily because Lewis’s goal was to express the absolute central facts of the gospel that all Christians agree on. If Lewis is out, then I would have to wonder what remained of anyone else – of Aquinas, of Luther, of Augustine, of Calvin, of Wesley. I would have no idea where to start looking for someone who reliably interpreted the Scriptures. I would completely distrust my own interpretation.

In politics, a progressive might have the same trouble if the New York Times were shown to not merely be wrong here and there, but thoroughly wrong for years. It is not so much that one newspaper is so key, but that the other sources agree with it so often. If the Times is totally unreliable, then what are we to make of the Post, or the networks, or USNews, which report the same things? In such situations, people often take whatever explanation shows up next. It is difficult for us to hold neutrality of opinion on such things. The mind seeks answers and explanations.

Diving right into the opposite belief is common. In my generation, the elementary history textbooks omitted nearly all of the unfairness with which the Indians had been treated by Europeans. As we went on in school and got more of the picture, some were disillusioned and went to the opposite extreme. It is still common among such to believe no good thing about European settlement nor any bad thing about Native Americans. Disillusionment with one’s own denomination can send a person to thorough disbelief. Ex-communists often end up well on the right of the political spectrum.

We are uncomfortable without a narrative. It takes mental energy to hold things neutral, much less energy to decide and move on. Cults depend on this, and to a lesser extent, so do all who hope to persuade others. People jostled out of one rut will slide pretty gratefully into the next one.

In politics, it is seldom a single individual or fact that is key, but a more general group or set of assumptions. (I will stay away from presidents on this, because so much is symbolically attached to them that it confuses the issue.) If God Himself emailed and told me Fred Thompson is a fraud, or wrote to my liberal brother and told him that Dennis Kucinich is a liar, neither of our belief systems would be in tatters. Individuals don’t live up to ideals, and we all know that.

Larger groups would be a greater problem. To learn that National Review had been making up facts for years would greatly undermine all of conservatism. Jesus dashing off a memo that said “individual freedom in general, and the free market in specific, is really damaging to mankind” would be devastating. Similarly, progressives would be absolutely at sea with the opposites, if the memo said “I am well-pleased with the National Review, and am angry at you guys for increasing the number of poor people with your spreading the wealth.”

So go through it, issue by issue. What would be absolutely fatal to your beliefs about gun rights, or sanctity of life issues? (Either way.) Foreign policy is complex, and it’s hard to identify single threads, but what general principles, shown irrefutably to be true, would leave all your opinions in the dust? It’s rather fun, actually. Scratch down a few things and then carry the questions with you for a bit.

So far, this is all hypothetical, because I know of no such memos from Father, Son, or Holy Spirit on these matters.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Why Media Bias/Progressive Bias Is a Spiritual Problem

The Opening Case In The Abstract

As I’m not expecting any journalists or media people to read this, and few progressives, I will keep much of it general enough that pretty much anyone might get some benefit. Otherwise I would just be talking to myself. Which I also do. Media folks are not some separate category of people who think differently than others, they spring naturally from progressive culture. Progressives, in turn, spring naturally from a certain strain of American culture. So changing the media, except in isolated and individual places, requires a change in the progressive culture which enables it.

I often narrow my eyes suspiciously when people claim that something secular is actually a spiritual problem. When Christians say that, I think immediately of aromatherapists saying you need aromatherapy, or harmonica players telling you your band needs a harmonica. It smacks too much of “what you need is me, and my wisdom.” I hope I will be properly cautious about this.

Even the nominally religious will use the concept at times, as Churchill did often in WWII, telling the British people that Europe’s crisis was more spiritual than physical. The nonreligious among you can call it a self-awareness problem and be pretty close to my meaning.

I want to bypass all the arguments and evidences whether media bias is real. Conservatives say it is, progressives say it isn’t, and everyone believes that the other side is responding with confirmation bias. Confirmation bias, the natural tendency to remember items that support your POV and disregard those things that don’t, is quite powerful, and none of us is immune to it. Therefore, it pays to intentionally attack one’s own confirmation bias from time-to-time, even if you’re right. Especially if you are right. Each of us is obligated to ask ourselves the hard questions, and I don’t see evidence that the folks in the traditional media do that. Their answers to such questions, in fact, strongly suggest evasion – a refusal to open certain doors inside.

Progressives know a lot about a lot, but they don’t seem to see themselves very clearly. This places a severe limitation on their understanding events around them, which is a shame, because they tend to know much more about the events around them than the average person.

Self-awareness is difficult to purchase, because you have to buy it from the worst parts of yourself, which will drive a punitively hard bargain. Yet as a psychologist friend humorously repeats “It’s good to keep in contact with reality. You might need it someday.”

The Opening Case Made Sequentially.

As the elections drew to a close, and my anger at unreported and unfairly reported stories occupied too many of my waking hours, I suddenly asked myself “What is it that you want to happen in media reporting?” Hmm. I don’t want newspapers to be made to be even-handed according to some government standard. I don’t want TV networks to be required to be graded on their neutrality, with some affirmative-action plan for less-popular points of view. I don’t want journalists to be made to do it right, I want them to get it. I have rejoiced in the diminishing audience of the nightly news and the major newspapers, but that is a direct consequence of their current bias. I don’t think their investigative skills are valueless or their skills of presentation contemptible. I don’t have anything against those media per se, and in fact should wish them well, as some folks prefer to get their news that way.

I also don’t want them to be instructed by conservatives about what new ideas they should be considering and which ones they should be holding at arms length. That just seems pointless, turning the dirty shirt inside-out instead of washing it. No reading lists, no required websites to check out.

But standing up in the cold winds of self-knowledge is something we should all do every decade or so, and this is a good opportunity.

All this was just an excuse to write a general comment on self-awareness.

As a semi-serious aside, Daniel Gallington has a modest proposal that all news people identify their bias in the same way that politicians do. As in Chris Matthews (D-MSNBC). I guess I would be Assistant Village Idiot (Cons - Blgs)

Media Bias

I had a VW Vanagon from 1994-97, which I loved but the rest of the family hated. It was not intended to be an off-road vehicle, but it did have a very high clearance and tight turning radius, so I brought it places I wouldn’t bring another car. One 4th of July I decided to take a back road cut-through I had been seeing on the map for two years. Just because I like back roads (when I’m driving).

I don’t know about your state, but in NH, when the sign says “Not A Town Maintained Road: Proceed At Your Own Risk,” they mean that. Even when the DeLorme map says it’s a good dirt road and goes right through, that may not be true. Old Antrim Road in Stoddard has not been maintained for years. Boulders heave up in it, potholes abound, places are moist even in midsummer, and tall grass grows right up to the edge in spots. After that, the road turns bad, especially where unnamed streams cross it.

The Vanagon ended up nose down in the far bank of the largest stream, within sight of where the road got better on the other end. To be fair there was one more even worse place in between, which I never would have made it through, but still…within sight. So I walked back the four miles in the midday sun and got my friends, lots of them, to come push me out. As we were riding in the pickup truck, retracing my route through the forest, proceeding slowly and stopping short of where I had run aground, a friend’s daughter, who was seldom talkative observed “I am trying to imagine what it would have taken to make you turn back.” Ah yes, excellent point, Amy. There are indeed repeated reminders of my bad judgment along this road, aren’t there?

This nicely symbolises what makes conservatives nervous about media bias. Wading through an opposing point of view is not so much the issue as “What would it take for you to ask the hard questions of the other guys?” How bad a scandal, of what nature, with what amount of evidence would cause them to actually investigate one of the favored ones for more than 24 hours? We got a partial answer in the 90’s with Clinton – it has to be about sex or the economy in general (not individual shenanigans) and there has to be a lot of evidence.

So what are they going to investigate now?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Eddie Izzard On Religion

He gets most of it right, actually. A bit much at the end, and a bit of profanity, but you can handle that.

NECCO Wafers

Neo-neocon has an ode to the NECCO wafer up today. A nice bit of New England history.

Secondary Prejudice

I noted a few posts ago that some people opposed to Obama believe some rumors about him that apparently influenced their votes. It bears mentioning that his race was not directly mentioned by them. For all the talk about whether Americans would overcome their prejudices and vote for a black man, the sticking point for them seems to be his Muslim heritage and connections. Granted, people may be more likely to believe those rumors because of his race, but it is worth mentioning that race has become the secondary, not primary driver of the prejudice.

I think it is an adjustment that is still strange to African-Americans. The decrease in prejudice has been quite gradual over the years, and it is easy to remain focused on that which remains. But anti-black prejudice took a major hit on 9-11. A lot of the energy transfered to anti-Islamic prejudice, and black people (without accents) were people you wanted to see waiting in your line at the airport. As much of the energy of prejudice in the southern border states had been transferring to Mexicans for two decades, the landscape changed greatly from one generation to the next. When I were a mere lad, the word prejudice referred to black-white relations as the default setting. You could move the discussion to talk about other prejudices, but that was the automatic response.

Not so now. Prejudice is now associated with confusing and contradictory images. However bad that may be, I can't help but think that diffusion is an improvement, and most especially for African-Americans.


Reading some of the back notes on Taleb's Fooled By Randomness blog, I hit this quote about halfway down. Intriguing. I had read long ago that "Elohim" is a plural, but also a unity, with a comparison for the Hebrew for "a bunch of grapes" given. Christians should be cautioned that there is nothing about tri-unity in the word, just plural unity. Whether my original knowledge or this addition by Taleb is correct or merely a misconception I cannot say. Anyone who knows more, please enlighten us. Taleb is a Lebanese Christian by background, fluent in many languages.
I had a similar experience when, in my classical period, I tried to read the old testament in the text. I knew a little bit of the Aramaic of the Northern Levant, but not Hebrew. I opened the book, started deciphering and was shocked after reading the very first sentence of the very first book, Genesis. What had been translated into “In the beginning, G**d” was not so in the original. אלהים Elohim is a plural form that could mean “the gods”. What is so monotheistic about “the gods”? And B-reshit בראשית does not necessarily mean the beginning –I see no temporal dimension. It is from “rosh”. It is more likely to mean “principally”.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Refusing To Win Wars

As Americans, we eventually knock people down when we think they deserve it, but we refuse to humiliate them. Unfortunately, military historians tell us that complete defeat of one side is necessary for complete victory of the other. Otherwise, it just sort of drags on angrily. I hate to think that’s true. I hope that past wisdom turns out to be too simple, and America can bring forth a new form of conflict that doesn’t require the humiliation of the losing side.

But I wouldn’t count on it. I would place only small bets of that number coming up at present.

Sherman’s march through Georgia may have been necessary, but it seems unamerican. We don’t do that. We don’t kick people when they’re down. Hiroshima and Dresden were similarly necessary and wise, but it still goes against our grain. There is a strong feeling in America that we want to win some other way. We like the part where we knock down the bully and say “Have you had enough?” and the bully nods and slinks off, never to cause any trouble again. Maybe he even reforms. That’s how it’s supposed to go. That’s the spirit of Frank Merriwell at Yale, of Superman, Batman, and Chip Hilton. We got it from the Brits, I suppose.

We were pleased enough with giving the Kaiser a good licking, and participated as little as possible in Germany’s subsequent humiliation. Maybe that was better. Perhaps if Europe had done the same the Germans would not have felt the need to thrust off their humiliation. But another view of the conflict considers WWII to be a mere continuation of WWI, a war incomplete until defeat was entire.

We don’t have the stomach for it. Not we, our military, but we, the civilians. Only when weariness of war compels us to act hugely to make it stop do we allow our military to go there. We won Vietnam when we repulsed the Tet Offensive, but we were unwilling to play out the hand, letting it drag on until we just got sick of it and left.

We should know that about ourselves when we go to war.

OK, I Get It

All day people were coming up to me anxiously. Was I worried about what Obama was going to do to the country? Did I think he is a secret Muslim? I heard he was sworn into the Senate on a Qu'ran. Does he have friends in Al Qaida?

Whoa. Big surprise there. I can see why liberals take the political attitude of "Y'know, why don't we just get as far as possible from that?" Is that a sophisticated, nuanced approach for progressives to take? No, but it's one that an Assistant Village Idiot can understand.

Progressives also said irritating things today, but predictably irritating, and not crazy, so I didn't mind.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Harvard Education In A Book

We still have a 20-y/o copy of the Harvard Lampoon’s A Harvard Education In A Book that I stumbled across. It fits very well into our discussion of intelligence, and especially the idea of imitating a society’s cultural markers for intelligence. In many subjects, with a few good generalizations you can erect an entire edifice. As the comedian Robert Klein noted about essay questions “Agriculture was very important to the ancient Sumerians…hey this is looking like a C+ already!” It’s that pattern-recognition thing again – you find two examples that really fit your theory, then three more than can be crammed to look like it if you squint, and voila! (A French word meant to be equivalent to Eureka, first used in the “behold” sense by Rabelais. I just made that up.)

The $7.95 paperback exaggerates for effect, of course, but the point is solid. The appearance of intellect can be imitated in America, more than in other societies. It does take some intelligence to even fake it, in the same way that it takes some money to look rich if you’re a con artist, but it can be done. Most college intro courses are about vocabulary, learning the jargon of the field and using it with facility. But it is not enough to simply learn what a hominid is, or tectonic plates, or pronounce Max Weber. Not for long, anyway. You need a cluster of terms from the same subject that you can use with facility, plus a vague familiarity with the big stuff from a few others. Then, you can flesh that out with drinking stories and dormitory names.

I’m making it sound silly, because I am talking about imitating a credential. The conventional wisdom is that if you actually have that credential, you don’t have to advertise it, and only the imposters, the parvenues, do so. Au contraire. (I never took French, but see how I just dropped education markers into the script?) Listen to how quickly people will work those little cultural signifiers into conversations with new people. Not only subject knowledge, but even more importantly, cultural attitudes are displayed, demonstrating that you not only learned the words but the music of your desired social class.

No really, it’s kind of fun. When you encounter a new person in a social situation, listen for how quickly they tell you that they are one of the ones in the know by the attitudes they hold, or the inside jokes (usually cynical or disparaging about the outsiders) you are supposed to share.

In societies highly stratified by class, it is harder to pull off that trick. There are “tells” of accent and behavior that are not always visible to other classes. The European stories we hear about imposters often involve those who were born into down-on-its-luck nobility or its servants, not figures who acquired social knowledge from scratch as adults.

It is not accidental that The Prince and the Pauper, though set in Europe, was written by an American. We tend to believe that such imitations are a good thing on a smaller scale, and part of what keeps social mobility happening. Making great “Beverly Hillbillies” leaps is humorous, but we expect anyone might – and perhaps should – try to appear slightly above their station in wealth or intellect. (Even with the Clampetts, for all Jethro’s antics and Granny’s refusal to adapt, it was pretty clear that Jed was wiser than his new neighbors as well as his old ones. Very American story.) My great aunt, daughter of Swedish immigrants, was told to speak English as much as possible. Which version of English? she wondered, as she heard so many in Manchester. Her mother advised, One of the Straw girls is in your class, – referring to the daughter of a mill owner – talk like she does.

Those who imitate intellect, breeding, wealth, or education live in constant fear of exposure, of course. It is these who have the deepest resentments against those who succeed without imitating their betters. Their own imitation is their main claim on social status, so they don’t want the brand cheapened. Regular readers will sense that I am talking about the social cues of the Arts & Humanities Hive.

The Holiness of Transnationalism - Again.

Other posts relating to the moral difficulties of transnationalism are here.

I listened to a friend expound on the need for Christians especially to identify more expansively than just their own country, expressing his sincere desire for a more transnational, world-Christian approach. I have no doubt that expanding our circle to include who we can, treating Samaritans and even Gentiles as brothers is fully consonant with Christian values. I take his point immediately that when we are patriotic we run the risk of confusing our American and our Christian values and drifting away into some less pure form of the faith.

What he does not see is that his identification with transnationalism as a secular ideal is as strong as any patriotism, and as dangerous to faith. He identifies with American and European progressives, the United Nations, the familiar A&H Clan – that is the nation he is patriotic about. From a Christian standpoint, that is neither better nor worse than the possible temptations of traditional patriotism. As a practical matter, it is worse, for the simple reason that he does not see it, and thus has no hope of repenting of it.

Loyalty to an ideal carries an additional danger. Who, exactly, is in the group can be quite flexible. There is no boundary which demands that you have to try and include this person or that. You can simply not deal with uncomfortable people – no rejection, no impoliteness, no animosity, none of that. But neither do you have to adjust yourself or your own thinking in any way. You can choose what different ideas you will expose yourself to, which reduces the number of surprises.

If anyone claims to identify with all of humanity, he deceives himself. There are no world citizens, we are not built for it. We may, by effort, expand our general boundary beyond our own tribe – and we should. We are also able to make ourselves respond as if we loved Samaritans and Gentiles in specific situations when need arises – and we should do that as well. As Christians we are called outward, to invite the unlikely in and to help those not of our own little circle. But it is hard, and the circle does not stay expanded on its own. As I said, we are not built for it. We will limit the circle of who we feel we must listen to, and deal with, and strive to include. So does my transnationalist friend, but he doesn’t see it, and so allows himself the secret pleasure of self-righteousness. When he says that expanding the circle is hard, he is encouraging you to transfer to his tribe and commiserating how hard that change will be for you. His need to change is not up for discussion, because it is not even visible.

If Life Were Fair

I was wondering what the election would look like had the reporting been entirely balanced and just. Fair, how far back? is the immediate question. I'd like to say 20 years, but then all bets would be off on predictions. So what if the MSM reporting had been scrupulously fair, not just about the candidates, but about the war, the economy, et cetera since the last presidential election?

McCain would be leading Hillary Clinton in the polls 55-45, and we would be talking about who would control both houses, not whether there would be filibuster-proof majorities. Sure, there is a possibility that neither McCain nor Clinton would be the nominee, but I think it is at least reasonable to think they might be. Obama would be the VP nominee for the Democrats, and there is a 50/50 chance Palin would be off and Pawlenty, Graham, or Lieberman would be on. So conservatives/libertarians would be in about the same place they are now, having to regroup and refine. The problem of having both a big tent and ideological consistency is ever-present in elections.

For the country as a whole, however, the picture would be very different from today.

Whoever Wins - Psalm 146

3 Do not put your trust in princes,in mortal men, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Don't Vote For Lawyers

Most of my regularly-visited sites are by lawyers: Instapundit, Volokh Conspiracy, No Oil For Pacifists, Althouse. One would think, then, that I would be much in favor of at least some lawyers running for office. To paraphrase Wally in the Dilbert strip “Those are other lawyers.” I think there is a different mindset among those who run for office. They want to use law to do things. Or something.

I might still write-in commenter Michael whenever there’s a local election where some jerk is running unopposed, but I think even that will be going away. He’s not that sort of lawyer, but maybe you become that way if you get elected. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. My friend Chuck Douglas was a congressman, but he got out and stayed out.

This isn’t a completely Republican-Democrat thing, though the Democrats do have more lawyers in the Senate and tend to nominate them for president. More than tend, actually. It’s been everyone. But the Republicans did nominate Bob Dole, and before that…Richard Nixon.

I see the natural connection between writing legislation and studying law. So what? Non-lawyers can hire attorneys. Vote ABL – Anything but lawyers. I wish I’d thought of this months ago. Is Senator Gregg an attorney? That might create a conflict for me.

Choose Your Own Myth

My brother is reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman and has passed a few sections by me that he thought I would find interesting. As he was a Lakers fan while he lived in LA in the 80’s and 90’s, and I a Celtics fan, the section on their rivalry in the Magic-Bird era was interesting. Klosterman contends that all conflicts ultimately break down to the symbolism of that conflict, as if God Himself had taken an interest in the NBA for ten years. He riffs off the usual stereotype of modern, graceful, LA versus lunchpail, racist Boston, expanding that to claim that this also symbolized the Democrats versus Republicans of the era.

For those who don’t recall, the Showtime Lakers had all elegant fastbreaking black guys playing, while the Celtics played a lot of halfcourt sometimes started three white guys. This proved to basketball fans everywhere that the Celtics appeal was racist. No matter that the Celtics had been the first NBA team to start 5 black guys or have a black head coach. No matter that Kupchak and Rambis were white, lunchpail types (and AC Green was hardly a Showtime style) while the Celtics had many fluid black players. LA even had a white coach, Boston a black one – that would seem ripe for the reverse stereotype. It made no difference to the myth. Boston as a city had to be seen as racist, thuggish, plodding. How the 80% Democratic capital of the nation’s bluest state for forty years got to be a symbol of the GOP may seem boggling, but that’s how mythologies work when people need them to be a certain way. The facts no longer matter – they can be massaged or ignored.

Were there some basketball fans in the country who liked the Celtics better because they were whiter? Sure. And people who hated them for the same reason.

It is fascinating in light of this to read Klosterman’s explanation of why there isn’t media bias: journalists are a little lazy, working under time pressure, and tend to rely on whoever calls them back first. This seems at first glance a pretty good argument that they aren’t trying to slant the story, but a second look reveals it to be evidence against his case. If you can write your story with only a few helpful facts, then it’s clear you have a schema already in place, a default narrative you are drawing on for the rest of it. The laziness of journalists is central to the conservative evidence that media bias exists. They don’t pursue stories they should, trusting the general feel of what other journalists think for their instinct of what is news. They leap to unwarranted conclusions.

Klosterman is a funny writer, by the way. I won’t take that away from him.

Sigmund Freud became the symbol of sexual license in the early 20th C. People started finding sex everywhere, believing our whole personalities were ruled by it. Sexual babies, sexual grampies. Freudian as an adjective still carries strong sexual suggestion. Freud himself is rather an unusual foundation for this myth. That association is another example of people wanting a mythology so badly that they will take whatever is at hand and make it fit. Dear Siggy did bring it on himself to a certain extent, refusing to change his terminology in calling all pleasure-energy sexual. But even when he used libidinal the popular imagination soon made that sexual in the genital sense as well. Freud didn’t believe that all pleasure was essentially genital or a disguised form of it – that idea got attached to his theories, permeated the culture, and is still taught in some schools of developmental psychology today. Freud thought that all drives for pleasure were related, but specifically denied that some were genital. All the Oedipal and Electral Crises he thought were pre-sexual, not disguised sexuality. He believed their resolution allowed adult sexuality to develop – quite a different kettle of fish. He was no libertine himself either, having no sexual relations before marriage, and none with his wife after the birth of their last child. He was immensely proper in all his dealings with women. He thought sexual license quite dangerous, and never encouraged others to step outside the bounds of the strict morality of the times.

We create our myths because we want them, then go find the best available example to shove up on the pedastal as god or goddess. We believed Margaret Mead and Kinsey because we wanted to – the details did not matter.

It makes you wonder what things that everyone just knows in our own era are only half-true, or less.


As I went upstairs armed with only a screwdriver and hope, I thought of the conservative complaint against Obama, “Hope is not a plan!” I have to admit that sometimes it is a plan. My plan, anyway. I worry that his is a major interventionist hope, as opposed to my small-government “maybe if I just clean it out and reset it…” hope, but I can’t say I’m in a good position to criticise Barack on that score.

The Guy Next Door

Roman, the guy next door, is already up, raking leaves on Saturday, while I’m still having a morning coffee and cigarette on the porch. He is an older guy, painfully slow, but he plugs away all morning. Roman is precise: brushes off the lawn mower after every use, including the blades underneath and the spark plugs – with a different brush. He has a frame that holds his leaf bag and a nifty scooping contraption so he doesn’t have to bend over. Smokes a pipe, never waves back, even though we’ve been neighbors for 20 years.

Most days he's doing something in one of the sheds, slowly, purposefully picking something up, carrying it away, bringing it back.

Once in awhile a younger man will show up and tear through whatever yard work is happening with an almost angry energy. Some younger relative, I imagine, and Roman must drive him nuts. He can’t get out of there fast enough.

A fine old Frenchman – French-Canadian actually, though New Englanders knew that’s what I meant – whose like we don’t see as much as when I was a boy.